Context vs Combinatorics

I had a good friend in college who was a math major. Mostly I had no idea what his courses were about, but one I remember was “Combinatorics.” I still have no idea what Combinatorics is exactly, in the mathematical sense, but I take it that the working assumption behind saving highlights to atomic notes, which can then be mixed and matched in pursuit of creativity in knowledge management, is entirely about recombination.

One collects and re-configures and re-connects bits and snippets in the pursuit of the novel, the serendipitous, the original, the new.

Romantic Combinatorics

There’s a serious debate to be had about the value of the always-new. The romantic notion that what’s original is “genius,” while anything old, traditional, or handed down is unduly constraining, if not primitive, backward, and certainly biased in all the bad ways (for example, by race, gender, class, religion, or imperialistic origin) is worryingly naive.

It could be that a bias (and it is a bias) towards the new is no better than the concerted effort to build constructively upon the wisdom of the old. What has come down to us has at least withstood the test of time.

If one prefers a less historical mode of reception and borrowing for the sake of building upon a foundation, the “imitation of nature” affords another sort of wisdom that’s also (arguably) preferable to the new.

There’s also a developmental point. How can an artist build skill in the first place? By apprenticing to a master, by studying great works already in existence, by careful observation of the wide world around.

Creativity, then, is not primarily about coming up with the new per se.

Recycling vs Patterning

But arguably, by recombination, a creator isn’t in fact going for something entirely from scratch. The base elements are all pre-existing, after all. What’s new in a recombinant production is the order, the connections. What if a knowledge worker uses old material and creatively reworks it? Recycles it, as it were?

Inherited wisdoms, whether historical or natural, tend to come as whole systems or structures in their own right, and arguably it is less their elemental composition that gives them longevity and heft, than it is their system or structure, their own original order and connectedness. What’s most worth attending to in source works may be less their components than the weave of the fabric as a whole.

Breaking things up, taking them apart, then engaging in piecemeal combinatorics is surely possible, but it may be to throw out the form, the art, in favor of the raw matter. Singular threads, patches, and cloth fragments might be harmlessly — even advisedly or necessarily — replaced. It’s the pattern as a whole that bears weight.

So all those snippets and highlights, all those atomic notes lifted from their sources… it doesn’t mean you don’t build on them; it doesn’t mean you don’t create; it doesn’t mean you don’t push boundaries; it’s doesn’t mean you must be stuck in the past.

It does mean not re-combining willy nilly, or going for the doubtful genius of making up new connections and structures entirely. The real wisdom or art may have been in the “weave” of the original whole, and this is what, most of all, should not be disregarded.

As precisely it is in a highlighting approach to reading and writing.

~ * ~ * ~

The Missing Weave

What is this metaphorical “weave” that’s so worth preserving? What exactly goes missing when highlights are extracted on their own?

First, context. Another friend once shared with me a paragraph taken from a famous writer. When I went to the source, though, I found that the author was in fact paraphrasing an opponent to dispute with him! In no way did this excerpt represent the writer’s own views. Pulling highlights out of context is dangerous and potentially misleading in the extreme.

(Getting a grip on who the opponents are is by no means a bad way to figure out what an author is up to! One might very well pull out such a paragraph — but it wouldn’t be easily attributable as to whose views it actually captures.)

Second, rhetorical purpose. Knowing how a sentence or paragraph fits into context gives an essential clue about the author’s larger rhetorical purpose. Any given piece of content is working towards a good writer’s overall purpose for writing.

If we take a paragraph, say, as a base unit of rhetorical analysis, any given one could function in one of a hundred ways:

Without knowing how a piece of content is functioning in context — the clues are left behind whenever a “highlight” is pulled out and disconnected from rhetorical purpose — the reader will be operating at a distinct loss in attempting to construct not only an old meaning, but any new meaning.

(There are deep matters of hermeneutics here, the art or science of interpretation. A balanced view of the “meaning” of any given text will give weight to both author and reader, what was originally meant and how the work comes to be “taken” or received later. It takes two to tango.)

Third, place within the structure of the whole. There’s no way to figure out the rhetorical purpose of any given paragraph without knowing how it fits not only into its immediate context, but into larger structures such as the section, chapter, part, or overall Table of Contents, i.e. the structure of the whole.

The greatest struggle, for me, in reading electronic books is to keep track of where things fit in the book’s total “geography.” Where is any given paragraph to be found amongst all the pages, sections, chapters, parts, or whole? The Introduction? Conclusion? Part II? Penultimate chapter? Third section of chapter 3? One needs a sense of the outline (map) of the territory of the work as a whole to understand how the parts are working, how they fit together.

A good hermeneutic principle is that the parts help make sense of the whole, while the whole helps make sense of the parts. This is sometimes called the hermeneutic circle.

What’s to be done?

The challenges I’m describing are certainly not unknown. There are even “new” tools for reading and analyzing and interpreting whole texts, apps like LiquidText or MarginNote. Connections between multiple sources and extracted notes, as well as new ideas, observations, and insights are supposedly maintained as part of a whole project.

PKM platforms are similarly moving toward mind mapping, canvases, and whiteboards in attempt to impose visual order on notes without reducing them to generic “nodes” displayed in quantity together with sheer numbers of connections as “graphs.” Other cutting edge PKM experiments like Tana or Capacities aim to “strongly type” the kinds of blocks or notes there can be.

Still… as long as notes are kept at the atomic level, by their very nature they tend to come from anywhere and nowhere.

Keeping the sequence, function, context, purpose, and place of many connected notes all coming from a single complex source — a source itself related to many other complex sources as authors engage with each other in Great Conversations over time — will turn out to be a nightmare task if it can only be done using the existing tools at hand via a manual process.

The Real Unit Worth Saving?

What use then are highlights after all?

First, pithy one-liner quotes are, to be sure, always welcome if they represent the original thinker’s unique wisdom and voice.

Paragraphs, on the other hand, will be subject to all the criticisms leveled above.

It could be that longer, multi-paragraph passages are the minimum length required to maintain the integrity, the “weave” of a received wisdom, upon which something even better can be built.

A passage could be defined as a sequence of connected paragraph-length highlights taken as a set — with the original geography of the work (at even larger scales) kept intact. Whole passages should be traceable to their place within a source’s many sections, chapters, parts, and structural whole (Table of Contents).