[This essay is about explication, the notion of making things specific. I give some examples involving Next Actions and systematization. This might also just be obvious to many people. Part of it is also a rehash of Act Into Uncertainty. Ultimately, explication is about changing yourself.]
I’ve been reading Mark Lippmann’s Folding lately, and one thing that he mentions early on is the idea of “felt meaning”. While I’d heard the related term of “felt sense” in the context of Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing before, I never really got a good definition.
In Folding, Mark gives several examples which I found to give me a much clearer understanding of felt meaning:
(Emphasis is in the original text.)
“When you say something, and it doesn’t come out right, you try again. Where your mind goes before you try again, that’s felt meaning.
When someone says, can you explain that in different words? Your mind goes back to that, in other words, felt meaning.
When you remember what you were saying, the what is felt meaning.”
In other words, there’s some sort of wordless impulse, a general notion of “meaning” which we then try to put into words. Moreover, language and the meaning we wish to encode using them are two distinct concepts.
Thinkers like Wittgenstein have already explored this relationship between language and meaning in detail, and today’s essay isn’t intended to try and add anything new to this philosophical discussion.
Rather, I want to talk about the actual act of explication, the process by which we make something specific.
In Focusing, explication plays the key role of trying to fit words to your felt sense, in an effort to try and accurately pinpoint how you feel, which can be therapeutic. In other areas, I think explication also helps out in combatting the confusion and disarray when we are confronted by vagueness.
Like I mentioned in Act into Uncertainty, I think vagueness or uncertainty can feel comfortable because, in a way, it’s protecting us. Explicating and being specific opens up our plans and hypotheses to falsification; it leaves them vulnerable to being affected by evidence. On the other hand, remaining uncertain means we can’t be shifted either way because we never made a strong statement in the first place.
But much like the false impartiality of King Solomon who suggested cutting a baby in half to compromise both sides, trying to stay superior by refusing to take a stance is itself a stance—and a poor one at that.
We want our plans to fall in the face of contrary evidence. We want goals that are actually realistic. A vague goal means that we don’t aren’t required to specify what we actually want to get done, which clearly makes it harder to make progress on them. Plus, vague goals give you more excuses to wiggle out of your own promises:
In my own case, there’s a secret part of me that is aversive to explicating; it wants to stay in the vagueness. On some level, I think that if I just underspecify what I’ll get done for today, then that leaves open the possibility that I’ll be able to somehow get all my work done.
Clearly, things don’t work that way. It’s important to try and decouple wishes from predictions.
My short-term memory is not very good. When trying to solve a coding problem, for instance, I often need to go several layers deep, and I often end up forgetting why I started in the first place:
For example, say I first start off trying to figure out how to reverse a list in some language. I look it up, and I find out that it requires importing a library. I look up exactly what this library does. I click the first three links on Google. Someone online has written an engaging introduction to the library as a whole.
By the time I finish the introduction, I’ve forgotten why I started in the first place.
It’s not just this difficulty remembering several layers that’s hard. There’s also the question of what to do after having received such an info-dump. “What am I supposed to be doing now?” is what I’ll often ask myself.
For these sorts of situations, having a short-term Next Actions list is very important for me. This is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a list of what to do next. As I proceed down each layer, I write down exactly what I hope to accomplish at each step.
I think most people are merely tracking what they need to do next implicitly at the back of their mind. In my CS classes, most people seemed to start on coding problems without making extensive use of whiteboards, drawings, or other supplementary tools that help with explication. It seemed like their next action was in the form of felt meaning, an implicit wordless feeling of how to proceed.
This is reasonable. I think there’s a strong argument that our brains handles ontological concepts better than mechanistic ones. Thus, when I’m, say, solving a problem, it can be more comfortable to tell myself I’m “doing programming” and let my brain internally handle the actual steps of what to be doing.
However, as we’ve seen from people who try to build sustainable habits, it’s the atomic, mechanistic actions which lead to things getting acted on. The real world runs on mechanisms—reality always has a Next Action. Thus, when we explicate the felt meaning behind what to do next, we’re also converting the nebulous feeling into a format that’s more workable in reality.
I also think it’s reasonable to think that well-structured explications are easier to understand. By translating your felt meaning into words, it’s also easier to evaluate. I think this part of the reason why explication on your own thoughts (which, from perspective you should already be aware of) can help you learn new things about yourself.
As you feed your felt meaning back into yourself, in a more comprehensible format, you gain more insight.
Explication isn’t just about changing the format to make things clearer—it’s also about changing yourself.