Problem Solving and Its Enemies

I have a problem. I cannot go across the street from where I live where there is an open grass-covered block of land and plant some edible plants, or erect a fenced-in chicken coop for a supply of daily eggs. Instead, I have to get these from a grocery store by paying money — which I may be short of, or may not have.

Why can’t I use that empty lot across the street? Because if I try, someone will complain to some government official and a policeman will come telling me that what I am doing is illegal, to stop and desist on the threat of arrest. And if I ignore him, he will arrest me. And I will be in a jail, where they will then feed me some vegetables and eggs, and even give me a chicken breast. In other words, they will give me (in exchange for a deprivation of my freedom to roam) the very things which I was trying to procure by my own efforts.

A bit paradoxical, don’t you think?

To explain this conundrum requires getting some knowledge of the culture of my vicinity. And as with all work — including the getting of information and knowledge — there is a division of labor. Knowledge is obtained by research and study, and the results are published in all sorts of places — mostly in scholarly journals and books. And these are stored, mostly in libraries, and now also on computers.

How does this relate to my problem of trying to understand why if I try to furnish my own food supply on the empty lot, I could wind up receiving food in jail, where I would rather not be?

How and where do I get an answer to this problem? If I go to a library, I am sure that someone there will figure out that this is a legal problem and point to the section housing the law books. And if I tell the librarian that I want a wider cultural and historical perspective, I will most likely be taken to a section on sociology and economics, and then to a section on history. And if I ask the librarian if there are any normative studies as to what should be the case, I will likely be taken to some section on political philosophy or political science (so-called).

You get the picture!

And if you pick up any of these “scholarly” writings, you will be bombarded with a nightmare of references and footnotes. Why? To prove to some decider (like an editor of some publication, or a chairman or a dean in some school who decides whether to hire the scholar), as well as to the reading public that the scholar did a whole lot of “research.”

So, what is literary “research”? It is the scrutiny of the work of others as to how they tried to solve some problem, and referencing the work of authors; so that others — if they so desire — can verify the references for accuracy and plausability of interpretation.

What would happen if we removed from a piece of scholarship all the footnotes and references?

The result would be some sort of alternative proposals for a solution. Let’s call the listing of proposed solutions — a librarian’s list.

But, although a listing of alternatives is good, what I really want is a solution — and if not a solution, at least the best alternative.

Now, I do not mean to single out the book by Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin (1946), but it does serve as an example of what I want to stress. I have consulted it as a book about socialism, and have found the scholarship very helpful — I mean it is full of names, references, and footnotes — all very helpful for further research for a solution to my original problem.

It has led me to look at the work of Anton Menger and the uncovering of the early English writers on socialism, which present more alternatives.

However, the book also endeavors to provide us with the abstracted alternatives gleaned from all this scholarship, and to adjudicate between them.

Here, I believe, it fails. Not all the plausible alternatives are presented for consideration. There are too many conceptual blunders, and too many emotive disparagements.

In a broad sense of speaking, too much concentration on scholarship distracts and prolongs the finding of a solution to a problem, and is thus, in this sense, its enemy.

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