History–Time & Mind

Historical Reflections

~~~~~~Preface: Laws of History, Time, Mind & the Dynamics of Change

The first law of history is that time passes, things change. You could say that’s not so much a law of history as a fundamental aspect of time itself, which is equivalent to change. History may start by being about events, experience, characters, conditions, relations & dynamic aspects at play in time, but soon extends across time, & culture to question the nature of history itself, including its relationship to social organization.     

The first realization drawn from historical reflection presumably ought to be how QUICKLY time passes. However long or without end their time may have seemed to those living history in time, they’re now long gone on the historical scale. Their time seems to have passed as if in the blink of an eye, much faster than most of us realize or expect. One minute you’re a green kid wet behind the ears, the next you’re a doddering old fool on the way out. And soon enough, you’re ancient history, if remembered by anyone at all. 

The next law might be that history has no laws of its own, but borrows its laws from more fundamental aspects of existence responsive to elemental forces at every level–physical, biological, psychological, sociological, structural, organizational.
What it does have of its own, are patterns, dynamics, big data, and plenty of examples to sample fromDynamic systems, otherwise varied, may exhibit certain shared characteristics, for example, patterns of feedback-based self-correction, reversal &/or inversion, ways in which things may change & stay the same across time, responding to shifting conditions.  

A river’s meander may illustrate, considered not as a static length but as a dynamic movement across space & time, during which the curves themselves flow along the length while also spreading in & out over the flood-plain, as affected by topographical, geological, gravitational, biological, meteorological, managerial & other conditional factors.

Just as there are definable characteristics to physical waves, so, too, we may learn to recognize related phenomena in various dimensions, e.g., economic,  ecological & even meteorological activities. 
The business news last night reported that the initial joy of corn farmers over the first bumper crop in years had begun turning to fear of losses as prices plunged in response to the surge in supply! The dynamics have their own non-linear logic, in other words, in this case relating markets, land-production & weather in coherent ways that can at first glance seem counter-intuitive.     

The 3rd law might be that no time is only itself. Things are what they are not just partly from the past, but with elements & impacts of the past still actively present. Likewise, a good bit of the present is actually future-oriented, at multiple scales–from the next second, next phrase, whatever comes next through the day, project, lifetime. We’re almost always thinking at least a bit out ahead.

The fabric of historical time is multiply-looped, with countless simultaneous threads, within which the present mind’s inquisitive reflection may seek some meaningful coherence, recognition of patterns, decipherment of dynamics, one forward-tendi8ng moment after another….

Nor is there only one history, let alone level, dimension or scale of observation, examination or reflection. At the national scale for a moment (though possibly applicable to a varying degree on the personal scale, too) history may take many forms, with overlapped margins–MYTHIC, ACADEMIC, DIDACTIC, etc.   Shared myths help make a people a nation. Academic history seeks to clarify the record of the actual, including where the actual itself includes the imagined, projected & even delusional. By trying to shed light on things as they actually were, scholars may plumb any level of detail or dynamics. Didactic history may present myth as fact to teach a lesson, its real end, &  beginning, or it may become propaganda, an attempt to influence by deception.

~~~~~~Introduction: Yesterday, Today & the Timeless

[yesterday & today; particulars & patterns; theory of mind, types within stages; situational responsiveness; scaling in time & society, the larger mind across time]

Historical reflections may start with either today, what’s happening now, or some past period called yesterday, what happened then (along with who, how & why). Usually today & yesterday are both involved–using the past to understand the present, using the accumulated knowledge of the present to better understand the past.

On the first level of what happened, historical content is concrete, specific and particular, whether considering events, agents, or instruments. As soon as we try to understand the dynamics, the how & why of things, however, patterns & connections emerge–from particulars, but without replacing them. The most notable of these  general factors tend to involve the mind-sets, attitudes & approaches of historical participants.

One of the most basic kinds of awareness we have is sometimes called “theory of mind,” meaning the ability to apprehend what others are thinking & feeling, as well as how they are likely to react to situations &/or particular actions. Predator & prey each use a version of this capacity with the other. It’s also the soul of all games that depend on anticipating moves & efforts to out-smart, from tic-tac-toe to chess, team sports to war games.

Theory of mind, our sense of the other’s point of view, is as basic to cooperation as to competition. No matter how distinct the forms, it turns out to be fundamental to pair-bonding, the team-work of the hunting band, the organization of tribal defense, most social relations, as well as understanding of human nature, evolution, the nature of existence & our place in it, the operation of parts within wholes.

At the heart of history, we encounter the two central element of time & mind(s) operating in time, both fundamental mysteries intimately related. Although we may generalize about them, noting patterns & attributes, neither is primarily an abstraction, each being central to personal experience when searching for understanding.

Each individual is unique and, to some extent, processes situational information uniquely. On the other hand, some aspects of our nature are essentially common to all, while others vary in  characteristic ways according to describable types & categories. No two people act & respond in exactly the same way, yet with sufficiently functional data & processing, we can nevertheless tease useful, predictive similarities applicable to situations otherwise unique. What works best with respect to certain persons & situations, however, can be totally counter-productive in response to others.

The idea of types may derive meaning from different sources, some ultimately more broadly functional than others. Generally, the more static such ideas are, the less truly functional they turn out to be. Since individuals & larger systems change through time, learning from doing, descriptions of “types” may apply more to the stage of doing than to the persons developing across stages, to characteristic forms of thinking still be in the process of becoming, in other words.

Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard used to emphasize this in describing the development of ethical reasoning & its measurement. He was not measuring the person’s level of ethical behavior, nor making a value judgment about the person, simply describing the forms of thought caught in snapshots. He was most interested in how to encourage stage development (by stimulating exercise, it turns out).  The old-timer who reasons at stage 4, for example, isn’t necessarily more ethically advanced than a youngster just discovering the primitive reciprocities of stage 2 or teen with kinship views of Stage 3.

Nor does stage of thought in itself determine appropriate action or best response in a particular situation, as aspect of ethical reasoning often insufficiently appreciated, particularly by those who naively criticize “situational ethics.” Stages in the development of thought, like the evolution of the systems by which we process related information (lizard brain to cortex, for example), are progressive by addition, not by replacement. Someone able to think at a stage 5 level, in Kohlberg’s system, has more options in response to actual situations, including actions suggested by reasoning at stages 1-4.

The best response to a situation at hand inevitably involves a sense of what’s possible & what’s not. What will work in one situation with certain participants won’t in another, with those operating on different frequencies. It may be that only a stage one response (“punishment-reward”) or stage two (negotiating primitive reciprocity) has meaning to  other key actors involved. In other situations, kinship affinities of us/them may make a difference. The fact that one can reason on the basis of universal principles can be quite irrelevant to an effective response to a given situation.

In the real world, all the stages co-exist in almost any society, yet these same societies can vary tremendously according to how the various kinds of reasoning influence the community more generally, not necessarily subject to easy quantitative analysis. Many factors go into the meta-data equations, therefore, including influence of particular individuals & of the organizational structure, for example. Even  court proceedings must “take the temperature” of the particular situation.

Natural histories & demographics aside, both of which tend to be pattern-oriented & built- around types, most history tends to be situation specific, focused on the particulars of individuals & their actions in context, whether acting individually or as parts of larger systems in response to social & cultural forces. On the other hand, the effort to understand the meaning of events takes us quickly past the particulars of “first this happened & then that” into deeper & more general realms concerning the persons & forces at play.

Mind(s) & time go on overlapping within & across their categories, as  minds in one time consider other minds active in other times, for example. However much the historian may seem to disappear in the historical reporting, description, & analysis, that inquiring mind brings its own current orientations, limitations, & potential for insight to the table. Such limitations can be field-specific, shaped by the jargon of a profession & its conventions.

In my case, despite a quarter century as interpreter of historical figures, I was never a professional historian. Like those who discover they’ve been speaking prose all their lives, some of us may just live long enough to become historians without special training,  simply from having noticed so much history, at whatever distance. Just trying to report on & understand our own time–& to pass along whatever’s gleaned while still able to do so–makes us historians.

One may ask, why? Why bother, when there’s no career to foster, no book to sell, no prospect of any direct return for the effort? That touches, I believe, on something fundamental to who & what we are in  relation to time & mind, each of which infuses the other with meaning while crossing orders of magnitude. Time extends beyond the moment alone, in other words, to encompass multiple scales of historical duration, from days in sequence to cyclical repetitions of lunar & solar cycles, social eras, even the rise & fall of civilizations.

At these larger scales, mind ceases to be bound by the individual. Like neurons in a brain responding to network-shared stimuli, our personal minds function primarily through a continual exchange–what’s received, processed in some way, & passed along. This exchange happens in the human conversation that takes place both contemporaneously & across lifetimes, becoming a fundamental, mind-boggling fact of history, art, philosophy, and science.

Although all creatures seem to converse, & some even across time (e.g., by scent tracks), nothing is more distinctly human than our  lifetime-crossing conversations. From cave paintings to writing to the cloud, the cumulatively expanded range of our communication makes us what we are, individually & as a species.

On the one hand, this expanded range provides the basis for scientific progress, the testing & refinement of hypotheses & technologies across centuries. On the other, it  makes available age-transcending treasures of insight, feeling, perception & experience to countless recipients, vastly expanding the mind & capacity of the human community.



[a. domains; scales; nested orders of mind, time & history; b. Entanglement & multi-generational transformation loops; c. Functional understanding of what happens…is happening…happened]

a. domains; scales; nested orders of mind, time & history

One may claim history is never TIMELESS, being a version of “first this happened, then that,” the unfolding of things & events through time. The haiku, painting, or photograph may be called timeless in the sense of being still moments taken from & out of time, yet even these reflect the time they’re snapped in: pop! The observed &/or experienced moment, whether snapped in words, light-registering image, or paints on a canvas, transmits something of its time, medium, form, point-of-view & personal instrument of expression.

Borders are porous between domains, as between scales & orders of magnitude, with no place to cut ourselves apart–atoms from molecules, tissues from systems (circulatory, digestive, respirational, etc.) that are themselves inter-related. As Aldo Leopold noted about ecological systems, actions in one area can produce effects in others seemingly far removed. Systems have internal dynamics as well as interactions with related systems, with indirect effects that may seem counter-intuitive absent a more complete understanding.

Our personal moments bleed into the broader social and natural histories, while the historical mind extends beyond images to include a sense of events in sequence. The meaning is no longer in the go-stone itselfbut in the dynamics of many stones played in sequence in relation to others within a changing situation. The photographic moment may be like the number in mathematics–having some meaning in itself, standing alone, but deriving most from its relations, how it’s arranged & used in particular whole applications.

The historical mind can be applied to & within various domains: personal (interior & exterior), social (cultural & artistic, along with economic & political), natural (life, land, environment, circumstances & conditions). If journalism is, as alleged, the first draft of social history, for example, then personal experience with attentive observation (noticing what is on any level) provides a first draft of personal history. Thoreau’s personal history included observations of the natural history around him, however, details with dates & times, so his record goes on shedding light on changing conditions now. His insights on seeds, too, go on reproducing across time.

We derive present understanding from past findings in diverse fields: archeology, anthropology, astrophysics, meteorology, geology, ecology just a sampling from the natural histories; literature, writing, public speaking, travel, music, art & wildlife from personal or cultural histories. History is not mainly about the past, in other words, but about present understanding. Just as geology includes the rocks we stand on now, as well as shaping forces still in motion, what was thought before shows up in what & how people think & act now.

The past, even the historical past, is not a two-dimensional linear progression any more than geology is. Both have their buckling, kneading, layering, & molten eruptions within complex global dynamics. Whatever domain examined, point, line & plane become inadequate for mapping the fleshed out choreography that takes place through time in an existence with many dimensions. Even in the case of physical dance, the primary map includes elements in changing relationships, not just in relation to physical space–e.g., as with the psycho-emotional topography of its music.

Historical mapping must therefore extend far beyond the straight chronological line–this happened, then that–to consider influences, forces, & dynamics; or roots, relations & implications. Along the way, we see  that past, present & future are not as separate as imagined, but that each is looped in with the others. We operate today not just on the basis of how we processed what happened in the past, but also in terms of how we see & try to affect the future. Past & future are always in some sense with us, implied in our current focus & attention.

In an artistic representation, the time of creation has effects even where the work has content from &/or focus on other times. Even the still photo of a tree shows something of its growth to that moment, however much the next blast of wind or lightning may change the portrait. The snapshot in & of one time contains elements from others.

A novel or historical account may take such “nesting” of times far beyond “layering,” beyond a matter of planes with adjacent surfaces. “Nesting” gives us  orders of magnitude with “mutual involvement,” though this, too, falls far short of the degree of entanglement found in the relationship between historical time & human consciousness.

The symbol of the tao suggests the changing orders of magnitude implied in fractal nesting, with yin & yang not only dancing the wave where the two hemispheres meet, but each also represented as a nested egg (or expanding eye) in the other, so each side eventually turns into its complement (containing a nested egg of what that side will eventually become again.)

“The Blind Man’s Hat” offers an even clearer example, in the form of  a classic logic puzzle based on nested thought-processes. The blind man knows what color his hat is by reasoning from the implied observation & reasoning of a second man, who didn’t know his own hat color, despite his observation & implied reasoning based on the fact a first man also couldn’t figure his hat color on the basis of what he could see. If this & that, then such & such; if such & such & a further such & such, then the conclusion is obvious, without needing to see for oneself. A blind man can figure it out.

“The Bind Man’s Hat” illustrates not just a pure logic based on the combination of observation & inference (in which inference ultimately extends its reach beyond observation). It also offers a two-step version of what’s called “theory of mind,” by which individual minds take other minds into account.

Reality may be more complicated than logic puzzles, with more variables & actors, feelings & forms or levels of reasoning, accidental & deliberate misinformation, known & unknown unknowns, deep fallacies, complex probability waves that make rare events common, the singularity of all particular experience, “personal chemistry,” that je ne sais quoi that makes so much surprising difference, etc.  Still, the ability to interpret nested minds is basic to dealing with it. In human communication, this includes the ability to distinguish between fact & fiction, honesty & deception, the real action & the misdirection.

The old saw “Hindsight is 20/20” is a fallacy, in any case. “Foresight may be worth its weight in gold,” where markets are concerned, but even that is not always clear, even in retrospect, where good luck may trump sloppy judgment, & vice versa. It may be that “good hindsight” is just as rare as good foresight. We tend to develop what we exercise, after all, and, historians aside, most of us spend more time, effort & attention looking forward than in the rear-view mirror.

Nor do “results,” powerful as they are as inescapable facts, necessarily provide the last word on methods, approaches or conclusions, lest winning the lottery  be taken as “proof” that lottery tickets represent the best possible  investment. As the father of Total Quality Management, W. Edwards Deming, pointed out, results count; they’re not to be shrugged off or taken lightly. But to understand them requires distinguishing between individual causes & factors built into the system. The fact that one might successfully catch an inside straight once in awhile doesn’t make it a wise business strategy.

We draw on our sense of the past going forward, learning not just from particular results, but also from systemically valid feedback, yet, even then, we do so mainly with a mind to look ahead, to inform our play in the next situation. This even applies to most historians, who see the past as a present legacy, as well as a future asset–whether expressed in evocative old buildings, treasured artifacts, cultural values, sense of connection across time, or more informed decision-making.

“The past is very much with us,” as even in the language we use has  history embedded in words, idioms, & ideas, the concepts & ways of looking we bring to the table. Countless histories are kneaded, mixed & distributed within the present (even the present sentence) more  than we imagine, ultimately beyond measure, even if not beyond conception. Each sentence, photo & physical entity examined closely enough at different scales or orders of magnitude reflects multiple times & influences beyond the “complex moment” of its fabrication.

We may more or less date a “draft” (revisions aside), publication or printing, even a stage of development or evolution, but not the component elements out of which these are formed. Similarly, the physical entity is composed of atoms & molecules with diverse histories & sources, just as the words used here & now come from many times & places. Every fork & branching has forks & branches before & after, in a fractal world at multiple scales.

In this way, multiple scales of both time & mind are present wherever we look, nested in each other at various orders of magnitude. This  “entanglement,” in turn, may provide the basis for what the historian interprets as influences & dynamics, whether examining particular events or describing patterns.

b. Entanglement & multi-generational transformation loops

Pardon the loopiness of that phrase, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far for what seems to be a universal principle associated with the relationship between time & development, more or less analogous to its cousin, the fractal. Where the fractal manifests as a branching & forking that crosses orders of magnitude, the transformation loop shows up as return, re-integration & re-emergence in a changed form. (Fractal fanciers will recognize the feedback loop in the formula for the Mandlebrot set.)

Even the most basic physical aspects of existence display this trans-historical process by which an evolving present continuously ingests, mixes, changes & re-distributes its diverse elements from past to future forms. The countless atoms in our bodies may have started out in countless stars, for example, that residue of the past present in us now. The visible universe seen right now can itself be considered the ghost of what was, a physical presence extending back through time, where the light from multiple scales of light-years past reaches us at once, even that semi-theoretical “background radiation” attributed to  the big bang picked up from all directions.

There is no place, in other words, where right now ends & all these other simultaneously manifest times surrounding & composing us begin. We are simultaneous with all–& more or less out-of-synch with all, separated by a transparent, quirky & borderless time-delay.

Chaos theory may shed light on the kneading, rising & baking of bread, but may still be in its infancy where historical applications are concerned. On the other hand, useful understanding of the dynamics doesn’t require a detailed map of individual kneads, molecules or atoms. There are approximately 10 trillion cells in the individual human body, some presumably coming & going all the time, within the complexity of membranes, fluids, ion-exchanges, protein & enzymes, hormones, immune systems, etc. A functional biography doesn’t require tracking them all. The same may be said for a functional knowledge of bread-kneading dynamics–or sausage making in congress.

It is considered a pre-historical given & presumed evolutionary fact that single-celled organisms played a significant role in the development of life, including creatures like us. The ten trillion  differentiated cells that compose an individual are presumably each just as fully alive, yet connected within larger systems all the way to–voila!–the person that has emerged. Where did you come from? (Never mind Disconnectady.)

Relations between person & parts aren’t well understood. Parts compose person, but the person may determine, shape & inform the parts, even cut them off or exercise & develop them. The substance composing the parts is almost entirely drawn from the environment, essentially every atom & molecule, however transformed. Yet the person isn’t definable by their sum. Who knows how many of the ten trillion cells we might do without in a pinch, or be better off without? The person is one thing, in other words, however changing & multi-faceted; the parts are another, even more or less collectively, yet there’s no clear border between them.

We find the same kind of porous border all the more pronounced in the other direction, from the individual person to the person in context, whether social or ecological. Our first context is within the body of the mother, the given forms & substances in a dream-time stage. A sense of identity starts to take shape within the child’s context, family, environment, groups, cultures with languages & conceptual perspectives.

Various kinds of bonds form (paying interest, defaulting), but at the heart, the deepest entangle identities. My life may be worth less to me in a pinch than my partner’s, my offspring’s, my comrade’s, my community, my principles, my lack of principles, my future readers, or simply less than an alternative made more attractive when life really stinks. Judging from the countless examples we know about, this individual life is not the full story, the be-all & end-all of existence, whatever death may do to the sense of “identity.”

Borders between self & others, as between scales of self are ultra-transparent. Sure, I more or less know where my nose ends & yours begins (never mind our fists), but not where the shared air we breathe begins & ends, or has recently been. Or where our thoughts begin & end, being in their very nature a shared medium of exchange.

Already, it seems, some very profound things are happening in the social consciousness within which a threshold network may have been reached in the development of a more trustworthy larger identity than are found in most historical accounts. Not that enlightenment in such matters is yet widely evident, but the groundwork may be there, with its infrastructure.

More & less enlightened examples of people acting in the context of larger identities are found in every field & tradition. The scientist’s search may yet bear fruit over the longer term, for example, even humble contributions contributing to the field as a whole across time. A poet may speak more powerfully to readers who come later than to contemporaries, being part of a communication network that crosses time, space & cultural circumstance, even languages.

The active presence of a larger identity connected to others is seen in countless examples of individual human compassion, as well as in the exercise of countless forms of active collaboration & cooperation in response to shared situations, so both practiced team & ad hoc collection of individuals may function as a more or less effective unit. We differentiate & make contributions according to perceived situation, circumstances, skills, & relationships, acting in various degrees as parts of wholes larger than ourselves. On various levels in the process, we self-organize.

We do so by a combination of self-direction (seeing a gap & filling it, feeling a need or opportunity & responding) & information from others (with or without guidance or direction). Except at the extremes (catatonia & mania on one side, slavery & highly conditioned discipline on the other), there is always some combination of inner & outer direction, the individual responding according to its nature & situation, orientation & capacity, context & limitations.

We hardly know anything when we start out, but learn by testing & being tested, trying this & then that, in the feedback-looped overlap zone between ourselves & the world. As in the fractal, the same input can produce results in opposite directions in different contexts at different times, or even at the same time. Being directed from outside, for example, may dramatically improve individual performance, effectiveness & teamwork with others; it may also be a colossal pain, a barely tolerable oppression & fan the flames of discord & rebellion.

Related polarities may also be found in self-direction, where the full range of possibilities presumably contains highest & lowest of personal expression, from the possessed & demonic, twisted, hurtful & destructive, to the most liberated & compassionate, at one with all, muse inspired sage or bodhisattva who seeks the enlightenment & liberation of all sentient beings en route to taking the final step on that journey of freeing oneself.

It seems important not to confuse two intersecting dimensions with each other. In one, there is a spectrum across what we might call “good & bad.” The other is “inner & outer” or “self-directed & system-directed,” where there may ultimately be no actual separation between the two. Despite the illusions & plenty of aberrant examples from either extreme, there is no finally cut-able border between outer & inner, the self & its larger systems.

Where good & bad enter the equation starts with the recognition that there are more & less healthy ways for the self & systems to relate. Because the self can’t exist without the system to support it, it may seem that the self generally does most of the adapting to find its best relations. But it also works with other selves to adapt the systems for mutual benefit.

New dynamics emerge in & out of the change in scale, totally independent of the good-bad equation. On one level, there seems to be something inherently good & productive in mutuality & working together, measurable as synergy, that aspect of the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The group can have power beyond the sum of its parts, as even two people with a log, pole or table can illustrate.

One may note two aspects of the larger group or whole capable of generating added capacity–the diversity of parts & coordination between them. The diversity of parts is analogous to “the space between them” in the case of two or three people & a large item being carried. Similarly, given coordination, the group benefits from its differences, its variations, capacities, perspectives, ways of approaching a problem, challenge or situation. The more diversity in the system, the more resilient it is, adaptable as situations change & vary.

Nature favors diversity, thrives on it. Human groups which have ignored this have suffered from the artificially imposed conformity sooner or later, there being an inherent vulnerability in monoculture, whether agricultural or socio-cultural. Part of the longer term cost for the temporary increase in perceived productivity is a loss of resilience, flexibility & adaptability.

This reminds us how critical the “coordination of parts” ultimately is, including the ability to work together. Take the same parts & put them at each other’s throat, and what might have been increased productivity not only disappears, but turns into its opposite, destructivity. The character of the coordination can be critical in determining the spirit of the group, and vice versa, the spirit of the group in defining its different roles.

Despite what was just said above, there is nothing inherently “good” about the group, or its aims, in particular how it uses its increased power–whether for protection or to damage (or both). The violence of groups–gangs, clans, tribes, factions, & other  partisan identities–creates a need for other groups & higher orders of coordination.

Just as there can be a spectrum of less to more enlightened individuals, individuals may (or may not) develop perspective & understanding through time. There are clearly stages in the forms of thought & feeling individuals may develop, as Lawrence Kohlberg showed in ethical reasoning & Piaget in cognitive processing. Such differences show up in groups, too, reflecting in a non-linear way the mixed levels, ways & forms of their members.

The idea of the group working together clearly has deep evolutionary roots, “the us., them territory.” If we follow it back further, the us may be no more than a group of cells organized to work as an organism & them means our prey & source of nourishment. Expand the scope to the hunting band, the clan, the tribe, the alliance, the network, at each level of which new kinds of coordination may (or may not) emerge to make the larger system all the more productive (or destructive).

Where groups demand more ideological, cultural, or ethnic homogeneity, the beef over “membership,” whether you’re one of “us” or not, can lower its resiliency, as well as its collaborative range & potential for synergy, for becoming a greater whole. The effect ostensibly sought, protection from outside influence, can deprive the group of range, limit its capacity to learn new ways of seeing & doing, &, arguably worst of all, contribute to its own oppression.

To externalize others means sacrificing the sense of sharing a larger identity, being part of a larger we. “Whoever they think they are, they shouldn’t think they’re part of us.” If you do that to an extreme,  eventually there’s no us left at all, just the psychopath who lives in a gated community of one, however skilled at appearing otherwise.

The purge mentality of the purist, fanatic or autocrat always finds new reasons to find & act on differences, so even close cronies & fellow travelers become victims &/or adversaries eventually. “With friends like that, you won’t ever lack enemies.”  Despite initial illusions of unity in the imposed appearance, such systems contain their own limitations, if not seeds of their own destruction. They do not compete well with more natural systems which more fully develop & exploit their capacity for niche discovery & greater wholes enriched by their expressed diversities.

The main point is that there are no clear boundaries between individual and society, with various sub-categories in between (family, gang, team, band; church, community, state, country; ideological & interest groups, from the most fanatic & exclusive to the most  committed to cooperation, reason, moderation, fair compromise; movements for social progress, & for traditional values, etc.), within all of which exist potentially competing individuals, factions, views,  ways of acting & relating.

As in judicial proceedings, each strategic situation requires its own analysis, though we can also identify apparently meaningful patterns & differences in more general dynamics, too. The meaning, spirit or even identity of a network, for example, may be less readily defined than more conventionally bounded entities, yet be just as real, & ultimately as describable. Similarly, levels or stages of “cooperation” in groups & organizations may be to some extent measured, changed, developed, tweaked, or even corrupted.

It is no accident that the legislative process has been compared to sausage-making. In actual practice, policy formulation has similar characteristics within the institutional dynamics. Ways of working, giving & following instructions, making & executing decisions, etc. tend to get embedded in organizational & other culturally shaped relations, as reflected in infrastructure, language, & legal system on the one hand, & in the arts, attitudes & sense of participant identity on the other.

That hardly catches the scope of how intermingled the sense of who we are may be, let alone its changes with time & quality of attention. We have that sense of larger being even in solitude, in other words, if not most. So the craftsperson disappears in the craft, hands & heart at one with clay, wheel, models, teachers, children & patrons to come, along with his or her troubles. So farmers may identify with their families, neighbors, livestock & land. So, too, young warriors may compete for the glory of their teams, schools, towns, & sports, cooperating one way with teammates, cooperating in another way with worthy adversaries (the worthier the better, the better you are or hope to be).

Even when defining identities in terms of conflict with an adversary, the participants may find more benefits in partnership (defining the conflict in mutually useful ways) than in the mutual infliction of damage, where the “winner,” if there were one, would be the one that lost less & survived longest. This is most clear in the case of sports, where worthy adversaries (& their games) gain in many dimensions from their rivalries, as expressed in the excitement & suspense of the controlled conflict that maximizes skill & effort in pursuit of both victory & excellence.

The reality is that none of us are islands, but all are in this atmospheric stew together, breathing the shared air, our bodies composed of the same atoms & molecules, shaped by the same systems (emotional, educational, economic, ecological), connected by the same languages, ways of thinking & feeling, networks & web. Just as such connections may now reach as easily to niches across the globe as to houses next door, the same may be said with respect to time, with communication nourished from countless sources, passed freely along even to the likes of us–& beyond.

c. Functional understanding of what happens…is happening…happened

If I didn’t lose you in the loop (or even if I did), there’s what happened, and there’s what was really going on. Although what happened tends to happen repeatedly in altered forms, it may be also be said that it rarely, if ever, repeats itself very exactly, situations & elements being so variable. On the other hand, what was really going on is very probably still going on, however different the composition. In their particular form, they are constantly unique, in their general form influences, forces & dynamics may be considered as relatively timeless & consistent.

Historical outcomes will vary according to many circumstantial factors, one of which is the quality of “instrumental understanding,” i.e., how well particular parties understand & play their parts. We might also call this “functional understanding,” as it involves the ability to apply strategic appreciation of relatively timeless factors to the time-bound, tactical particulars of the new situation. Faced with a situation open to various alternatives, we seek the better rather than the worse  outcomes in formulating & choosing responses. As in markets, what is better to one player may or may not be worse to another.

In the deeper sense, recognition of influences, forces & dynamics can only come from having some sense of human nature & situational dynamics–how people & other elements respond. These “other elements” may be natural systems or emergent systems with a  social aspect, as in markets & economies which reflect human nature, yet have their own dynamics.

Sometimes, the range for individual influence may narrow to less than the width of an eyebrow; other times the fate of large numbers may depend on the precise play of certain individuals within a complex situation (e.g., the Cuban Missile Crisis). The choreography of strategic decision-making can be considered in its time-involved particulars & also as standing apart from the time it reflects. Nowhere is there a clearer or more dramatic example of both aspects than when the world came within a hair’s breadth from a nuclear holocaust in October 1962.

The transcripts of many key discussions & testimonies of participants from all sides have become available, along with official Strategic Options Memos, so the various kinds of thinking & forms of reasoning are right there, from countless points on the multi-dimensional map, from tactical & operational (e.g., leaders of Soviet sub & missile battery, plus American reconnaissance flights & White House operations team) to the top levels of policy formulation (as on the transcripts & memos, fleshed out by memoirs & later revelations).

One can see the whole picture, including how close things came to spiraling out of control at various points. One can also see where the “functional understanding” of key players made the difference, most notably the President himself, navigating the vast ship of state  through unmapped & most dangerous shoals, including the choppy waters of the domestic “apparatus,” with forceful heads of powerful hierarchical agencies (all far senior to himself in both age & prior rank) who brought  their “reasoning,” weight & pressure to the table.

We can look at the whole situation with unusual transparency in some detail (& do, when looking back at the Sixties), but we can also compare ways of processing qualities or levels of reasoning beyond that context, transcending the particular players & situations.

Not that there are magic formulas that can insure success for all occasions–whether in poker, chess, or international relations. The success or failure of a player or approach in one situation does not assure success or failure in another–as the prior Bay of Pigs & subsequent assassination stand witness. No one wins every hand, or wants to, yet, for better & worse, significant differences distinguish levels & qualities of strategic thinking.

We know the examples from their embodiments in particular time & context, but we may come to recognize the levels & qualities apart from their past expressions. What we learn from the past becomes part of the present, though variously so for different times, places & persons. The process of learning goes on in loops & cycles, along with the developmental process in its various domains. The most obvious example of this looping is the consistent individual direction from birth through stages of aging to death, while at any given time there are people at all the various stages. As a group, we keep on learning some of the same old things, therefore, even while learning new things at the margins.

Other examples of the same “loopiness” between scales may be found in the tendency of ontogeny to recapitulate phylogeny, the multi-stage generation of complex elements, & the fractal, with similar patterns emerging across multiple changing scales. On the other hand, the relationship between orders of magnitude can cut horizontally or at an angle, as  between a wave & a direction. The wave seems “loopy,” with crests & troughs propagating through a medium that remains behind as the wave heads on in its own direction, whether spreading & breaking along a coast or radiating outward from a central pulse or splash.

In the case of history, the relevant point is that past, present & future are not as separate as generally imagined in so far as each is looped in with the others. We operate today not just on the basis of how we process what happened in the past, in other words, but also in terms of how we see & want to affect the future….