I’ve just been reading a book that draws on the work of Wittgenstein to state:
“He [Wittgenstein] maintained that there are two main kinds of problem: problems of ignorance (there are things existing that we do not know enough about and therefore we require more information), and problems of confusion (we have the information but we do not understand what it amounts to).”
Hart (1998, page 141)
This got me thinking…
Problems of ignorance seem to govern a lot of how we (people in public sector) spend our time. We are either giving information or asking for it continually. Whether it is information about ‘need’, information about policy, information about ‘what works’, information about what we are actually currently doing and achieving. Problems of ignorance require time and skills to research, aggregate, present and disseminate information – mostly quantitative, sometimes qualitative. They are skills we have and a lot of a ‘policy officers’ time is spent doing this sort of work.
Problems of confusion, on the other hand, are not only given very little time – they are also rarely acknowledged. They are in short – the elephant in the room.
Resolving problems of confusion requires mental activity – i.e. thinking. Problems of confusion don’t get resolved by a ‘two page brief’ or a ’10 minute presentation’ – but they can begin to be unraveled through a humble attitude and a learning, inquiring orientation. It is about reading for learning, reading for inspiration, analysis, synthesis, discussing with others and learning from their perspectives, dialogue and social learning. However, because confusion isn’t acknowledged, we think it is ignorance – we ask for more information, more briefs, more presentations. (Hence absorbing even more of policy officers’ time)
But I’d like to add a third ‘problem’ to Wittgenstein’s list – which I call problems of confidence. It doesn’t matter how much we act to reduce ignorance and confusion, in a complex, dynamic world, there will always be ambiguity and uncertainty (they are the elephants in the world of policy!). By the time we understand something, it will have changed. If we seek ‘perfect information and understanding’ before we act, we will never act. So ultimately, we also need to be able to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity and do what makes sense or feels right – including what feels morally or ethically right – even if we are not certain of what impact that action will have. In my experience, confidence comes most of all when you are working with others – if you’ve been through the experience of reducing ignorance and reducing confusion together – the shared understanding and ‘checks’ from different perspectives are the foundation you have to act from.
Hart, C. (1998), Doing a literature review: releasing the social science research imagination, London: Sage Publications.