by Marc Piane
I’ve never been good at New Year’s resolutions. Actually, my mind always overthinks stuff to the point that the calendar becomes a human construct and any day could be the first day of the year. At least that is how I rationalize being bad at keeping resolutions. What I’ve found much more constructive is to think of a concept to ponder for the year. In the past, things like ‘clarity’ and ‘balance’ have been ponder themes. This year I decided on ‘reductionism.’ This theme was brought to mind by a book that I read by Eric Kandel called Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. If a concept like reductionism could be applied to ideas as diverse as art and neuroscience, it could be applied to anything, right? It turns out this is not an original idea and has been applied by thinkers throughout history.
The first stop in my research was Google to find out a little bit about the history and application of the concept. Anytime I pick one of these words, I like to start by consulting the dictionary. There is a belief in this society that if an idea can’t be articulated in words it isn’t valid. In reality, I believe that all words are metaphors and that our individual experience fills in the blanks. But, I digress. The first definition that shows up relates to science. It is “the theory that every complex phenomenon, especially in biology or psychology, can be explained by analyzing the simplest, most basic operations that are in the system.” Let’s sit with this one for a minute. This definition is meant to be specific to science but can easily be applied more broadly. Philosophers have.
I’m not a scientist. I am a musician that thinks too hard about stuff. At first I found the idea of thinking too hard about stuff ran counter to the whole concept of simplifying or reducing. I’ve found, so far, that it actually takes a ton of thinking to think less. Huh? To wrap my head around this idea, I put it in my own language. As a musician the best example of reductive thinking I could find was in Schenkerian analysis. Basically Schenkerian analysis, or at least one aspect of it, is a music theory nerd technique of looking at the fundamental structure of a larger score. In order to be able to identify the fundamental structure though, you have know what all, or at least most of, those little black dots mean in the printed music. I look at being reductive of any idea as much the same thing. You need to understand most of the little dots before you can know what can be stripped away to get to the fundamental structure.
So step 1 of reductionism, as I apply it, is homework. Shit. See what I mean. Think more to think less. Where’s the aspirin? Why do I make my life harder?
As I dug deeper I found that lots have people have thought really hard about this concept already. Maybe I picked a concept that had already been over thought. But then I thought that the point is to apply the concept to my life. I feel that any philosopher can think real hard about stuff, and even write or lecture about it, but in the end they can only really talk about how an idea or concept relates to their experience. No universal truth and all that. Of course that is even up for philosophical debate, but this is my column and I am giving you a peek into my reality tunnel.
The concept of reductionism, as it resides in my head currently, is about learning enough about an idea that it can be distilled into what I feel are the most essential parts for me at that time. That doesn’t mean my goal is to become more rigid in my thinking. I actually think reducing an idea to core concepts makes it possible to be more flexible, because being informed allows you to see an idea from different angles.
I don’t want to turn this into a political rant. I will say that I feel reflective thinking seems to be missing right now. I ran across a quote that has been attributed to all kinds of people. “No one washes a rental car.” I’m sure anyone that has rented an apartment knows that you get annoyed with your neighbors for leaving their laundry in the driers, or for the pile of junk mail and newspaper circulars accumulating in the foyer, or for the dog poop in the yard. Once you buy a house your attitude changes. Thinking too hard about stuff is a way of taking ownership of your ideas. If you own them, you wash them, you mow the lawn, prune the bushes, maybe plant new stuff or get a paint job, pick up the accumulation of newspaper circulars, and clean up the poop. If you take ownership of your ideas, you feel compelled to care for them and update them.
I’ll keep pondering reductionism as it applies to my thinking and my life. It could be that if we run into each other and talk about this, my mind will be in a totally different place. That is the thing I find cool about thinking too hard about stuff, it keeps the mind moving.