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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Criteria: Assumptions

World Problems Project


It is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of a problem is held in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. The question as to whether problems "exist", and the nature of that existence is not understood in the same way in different contexts. At one extreme, as noted above, problems may be considered as artifacts of concerned minds, and possibly only of western minds. In the West the supposition of "problematicalness", with its attendant implications for reason, for principles, and for history, is so deeply ingrained in western consciousness that its denial can only seem absurd.

In the light of other cultures or philosophical systems, notably that of Chuang Tzu (Kuang-min Wu, 1982), to conceive of life as presenting problems to be solved is a misconception of life. With a problem-oriented vision it is possible to speak of the rise and fall of civilizations, of a dialectic of progress or devolution, and of the importance of roles in history in relation to problems. But if it is not necessary to understand life as presenting problems, or to understand life in relation to problems, then these features of historical consciousness are not as important as they presently seem. Alternative views are then also possible and may be more appropriate.

It is useful to attempt to identify alternative ways in which problems can be perceived, as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints on providing any satisfactory definition. This will also make evident the difficulty of attracting any consensus on the global problematique. Whilst it is possible to discuss these perceptual modes as models, a broader and more insightful discussion results from treating such models as part of a set of metaphors.

The following are therefore discussed as metaphors of the problematique:

1. Ordered array

Problems can be viewed as constituting an ordered array, like atoms in a complex molecule, or like an opposing array of military units. This view would tend to be favoured by those who are used to defining their environment in an orderly manner (cf Descartes, Hegel, Hume, Toynbee, Spengler, Marx), in terms which favour management and control, whatever the degree of simplification necessary. To deal with obstacles they must be named and placed, preferably so that the hierarchies of importance are evident. (To be contrasted with...)

2. Disorder and chaos

Problems can be viewed as synonymous with chaos and disorder. This view would tend to be favoured by those who have lost control over their environment, realize that they are subject to more forces than they originally assumed, or simply prefer the challenge of the disorderly (cf William James, Bergson, Schopenhauer, Rousseau). Problems are then too confusing to present any stable or orderly features.

3. Static structure

Problems can be viewed as forming a static, semi-permanent configuration of elements, especially by those opposed to political change. This view would tend to be favoured by government agencies mandated to respond to particular problems over an extended period of time. The view is reinforced by legislation and regulatory procedures. The problems are seen to be unchanging or to change quite slowly. (To be contrasted with...)

4. Dynamic structure

Problems can be viewed as constituting a dynamic, in which the problems arise in the dynamic relations between non-problematique, static elements. As such the problems cannot be readily located and named. They only exist as dynamic relationships changing continuously (cf Comte, Hegel, Marx, Whitehead, Bergson). This view would tend to be favoured by those whose survival depends on very short-term considerations, such as in politics, public relations and certain forms of commercial trading.

5. Discrete phenomena

Problems can be viewed as distinct phenomena with some form of boundaries separating them (cf Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Burke, Malinowski). This view would tend to be favoured by those who need to distinguish or allocate mandates, and divisions of responsibility, as well as by those in bureaucracies that resist any attempt to establish any continuity between the problem they are concerned with and those of other departments or agencies. (To be contrasted with...)

6. Continuous phenomena

Problems can be viewed as forming a continuous, possibly "seamless", field of tensions (cf Plotinus, Augustine, Spinoza, Locke, Durkheim). This view might be held by those favouring single-factor explanations in terms of pervasive conspiracy, subversion or evil forces. It would also be held by those favouring field theories in which problems might emerge as interference effects.

7. External relationship to phenomena

Problems can be viewed as externalities, as objects of experience to be perceived from without (cf Descartes, F W Taylor). As such they have an existence independent of any particular observer. This view would be favoured by those with either a rationalist or an empiricist orientation. It is basic to the strategic assumptions in many international programmes designed to "deal with" problems. (To be contrasted with...)

8. Identification with phenomena

Problems can be held to be only genuinely comprehensible through an intuitive identification with the experience they constitute, experienced by the observer as he experiences himself (cf Bergson, Hegel, Beatrice Webb, Mayo) This view would be favoured by those whose views have been strongly formed by the personal experience of suffering in themselves or in others, and who identify strongly with others in a condition of suffering.

9. Sharply defined phenomena

Problems can be viewed as being directly experienceable (cf Descartes, Hume, Russell). This view would tend to be favoured by those concerned with the concrete reality of such problems as destitution, torture and disease. For them, any other kinds of problem are unreal abstractions of no significance, other than as distractions from the concrete reality of human suffering. (To be contrasted with...)

10. Implicitly defined phenomena

Problems can be viewed as implying levels of significance greater than that immediately present (cf Hegel, Whitehead, Niebuhr, Proust). This view would tend to be favoured by those who detect more fundamental problems in conditions which may not themselves be experienced as problematique. This might include the catastrophic long-term implications of seemingly innocent phenomena.

11. Inherently comprehensible phenomena

Problems can be viewed as comprehensible in terms of existing paradigms or through their natural evolution (cf Hobbes, Machiavelli, Gibbon). This view would tend to be favoured by pragmatists and those with a scientific orientation for whom a satisfactory explanation in terms of known factors must eventually be possible. (To be contrasted with...)

12. Inherently incomprehensible phenomena

Problems can be viewed as calling for explanation in terms of other frames of reference, which may not necessarily be accessible to man (cf Plato, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Plotinus, Niebuhr, Toynbee). This view would tend to be favoured by certain religious groups and in cultures sympathetic to belief in other levels of being or realms of existence.

13. Phenomena in a context of due process

Problems can be viewed as subject to known laws as a part of definable processes (cf Marx). This view would tend to be favoured by those endeavouring to model such processes as in econometrics and related disciplines. (To be contrasted with...)

14. Spontaneous phenomena

Problems can be viewed as totally spontaneous events, happenings or catastrophes unconnected to each other (cf H A L Fisher). This view could tend to be favoured by those who perceive chance and accident to be prime explanatory factors, as in the insurance industry, or important to the way they work, as with the media. It is also natural to those in the political arena for whom events may be of more significance than the multitude of interpretations placed upon them.


Clearly these different views are not mutually exclusive and overlap in complex ways in the case of any group or discipline. The 14 views have in fact been elaborated on the basis of work by W T Jones (The Romantic Syndrome; towards a new methodology in the history of ideas. Martinus Nijhof, 1961), who developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized.

The 14 views above form 7 pairs of extremes corresponding to the extreme positions on such axes. Jones showed how any individual had a profile of pre-logical preferences based on the degree of inclination towards one or other extreme of each pair. The scholars named in each case are those given by Jones as examples.

In this project, although the information may derive from individuals or groups holding any combination of the above biases, the assumption made is that there is value in collecting, ordering and presenting the information as though problems did take the form of an ordered array (even if it is only "partially ordered").

The bias, in terms of the above checklist, is therefore towards understanding problems as:

This is not to deny that a radically different set of biases does offer valuable insights and is more appropriate under certain circumstances. In fact many of the problems are only articulated by people having those other biases. It is quite probable that the design of appropriate, sustainable solutions also calls for another pattern of biases. But those emphasized here are valuable in creating a framework to permit insights arising from those other biases to be bought more effectively into play on the problematique as a whole.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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