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Heinrich Dorfmann

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Hello everyone.

First of all let me say that I have a deep familiarity with Objectivism. I have read all Rand’s fiction and most of her non fiction.

I have been thinking a lot about methods of thinking and how to really learn a subject (or a concept or an idea). I always read books and try to learn new things but the material seems to fade away with a few weeks or months. 

With that in mind I started researching how to actually learn and retain concepts; how to, in fact, make it your own knowledge. I ended up buying and listening to Peikoff’s lectures “Understanding Objectivism”, “Objectivism Through Induction” and also Barbara Branden’s lecture “Principles of Efficient Thinking”. 

From those, I learned that our mind has a very specific nature and way of learning. Its not enough to read the material, but a specific method is necessary to really grasp the concepts. Peikoff calls this method “chewing”. Basically it consists of a few steps one has to go through to guide one’s thinking (defining the concept in question, identifying other concepts present in the definition, concretizing and condensing each concept, and finally integrating it with the rest of your knowledge). 

I found this idea very interesting and wondered how other Objectivists approach the issue when learning new material or thinking about concepts that are still not clear. How do you do it? What do you do to make an idea clear in your mind just as a percept would be? How do you think? 

I appreciate in advance.

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A great deal of learning requires Automatization.  The specific mechanics of how we "automate" knowledge is not, primarily, an issue that falls under the scope of philosophy.  It falls more truly under such disciplines as developmental psychology and the neurosciences.  Rand does, correctly, touch on the importance of automatization in ITOE - mainly in opposition to such epistemic positions as Divine Revelation, Aristotelian Metaphysical Realism, Skepticism, Kantian Categories, Nominalism, etc.

The capacity to draw on long-term, stored memories regarding a complex topic (such as Private Property) does require "chewing" or a degree of repetition and rote memorization.  So too does learning such complex ideas such as mathematics, physics, engineering, etc.  Think of how you first learn addition and subtraction, then the multiplication tables, geometry, algebra, trig, analytical geometry, physics, mechanics, etc.  This typically takes 20 + years of study.

There are no short-cuts to learning.  It takes effort.

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8 hours ago, Heinrich Dorfmann said:

What do you do to make an idea clear in your mind just as a percept would be? How do you think? 

Integration -- if there's one word to point the direction, it is "integration". There's a certain amount of knowledge in your head and organized in some manner. When learning new things, you need to plug the new stuff into the old stuff... integrating it. Something you may need to reorganize the way you think about a topic, to better integrate the new stuff.

That's pretty abstract, but I find it helps to keep that thought in mind. Meanwhile, the concrete things I do:

If a topic is important, highlight or make notes. This could be a couple of sentences you write down about each chapter. I like Kindle books because they make it simple to highlight text and share the highlights across all my access points. After reading a book I often go back over the highlights I have made. Often, I'll come back when I'm reading a similar book.

I don't always do this. Sometimes, I'll pick up a book out of curiosity about a topic, knowing I don't to pursue it more than that open book. In that case, I'll simply read and make notes only if I find them relevant to other topics of closer interest. On the other hand, I sometimes go beyond highlights and simple notes. I might diagram something -- or I might draw a time-line -- if I want to get a better grasp on the material.

You need to make things concrete and you also need to abstract. Authors vary in their styles. Some present a high diet of concretes and one needs to spend time drawing out the abstractions. Others write abstractly and one needs to visualize concretes.

Something you can try asking (a trick I learnt from Peikoff's "Understanding Objectivism" lecture) is to ask: what other writer make a very similar point to this person? Once you have a similar author identified, ask: what is special and different about what this person is saying, compared to that other writer.

Those are just a few top-of-mind things. Will post more if I remember.

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9 hours ago, New Buddha said:

A great deal of learning requires Automatization.  The specific mechanics of how we "automate" knowledge is not, primarily, an issue that falls under the scope of philosophy.  It falls more truly under such disciplines as developmental psychology and the neurosciences.  Rand does, correctly, touch on the importance of automatization in ITOE - mainly in opposition to such epistemic positions as Divine Revelation, Aristotelian Metaphysical Realism, Skepticism, Kantian Categories, Nominalism, etc.

I see. Thank you. But you haven't commented on how you personally do it. What exactly is the conscious process one has to go through to automatize knowledge? 

 

1 hour ago, softwareNerd said:

Integration -- if there's one word to point the direction, it is "integration". There's a certain amount of knowledge in your head and organized in some manner. When learning new things, you need to plug the new stuff into the old stuff... integrating it. Something you may need to reorganize the way you think about a topic, to better integrate the new stuff.

Thank you softwareNerd

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That reminded me of A Guide to Effective Study, also written by Locke, but it appears to be out of print. Echoing softwareNerd's point, "integration", i.e., relating what you are studying to what you already know, is the theme of this this volume.

Taking the book I am currently reading, "The God of the Machine", by Isabelle Patterson, it is remarkable the number of parallels I've noticed can be drawn to "Atlas Shrugged". From John Galt's motor, the idea of converting atmospheric energy to kinetic energy, Patterson's theme of relating so many things to energy systems, loads, resistances, etc, albeit of the architecture built from a social blueprint. I've not had the chance to compare Patterson's chapter on "Why Real Money is Indispensable" to Francisco's money speech. The ideas of free trade are not new, but echo's of Rand's trader principle resonate from Patterson's work as well. Even Patterson's view on language is telling of aspects that helped esteem her so highly in Rand's view. Consider this passage from "Why Real Money is Indispensable":

The verbal language of a high civilization is also a precision instrument. When words are used without exact definition, there can be no communication above the primitive level. If those who are supposed to express or influence "public opinion," the writers, economists, social theorists, and pedagogues, think in the concepts of savagery, what can be the outcome?

or the start of another sentence in "The Function of Government":

Persons unaccustomed to attach exact meanings to words will say . . .

Blunt? Yes. Very condensed as well. Isabelle Patterson, Ayn Rand, the reference in ITOE to the conversation with a Jesuit in the 1940's. Contrast it with much of the wishy-washy use of language that sounds like it is coming from the "Board of Directors" meeting that murdered John Galt prevalent today.

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On 3/5/2017 at 10:05 PM, Heinrich Dorfmann said:

Peikoff calls this method “chewing”. Basically it consists of a few steps one has to go through to guide one’s thinking (defining the concept in question, identifying other concepts present in the definition, concretizing and condensing each concept, and finally integrating it with the rest of your knowledge).

Chewing is a term really just used as "thinking over". I don't exactly do it this way, as people sometimes define a concept wrong, so I'm careful. The details of what I do depends on the subject. Still, I start by wondering what people refer to when they use a concept. I'll also look into how another set of people use the same concept. I do this by wikipedia searches to see the different angles of approach connected concepts as well. If I am questioning a concept I use, I'll look for concepts in my definition. In either case, I'll keep reading to get a variety of examples of the concept in history, as well as how it's used today.

After that, I'll tell people about it, or unique for me, I think about plot lines, themes, or characters for stories. Even if I never use it. I'm a writer a lot of the time, so for me, this works well. It also helps that my curiosity is insatiable. I feel a strong drive to see how what I learn has applications to other ideas.

Playing devil's advocate is often fun for me, I'll do that in my head, or on this forum.

Altogether, this automatizes my knowledge.

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There are different purposes for "thinking", or exerting mental effort (or "focusing" one's mind) such as:

1. to learn knowledge others shared with you (you specifically, or with a group you're a part of)

2. to apply that knowledge in creative ways (to create new knowledge)

3. to communicate with others effectively

I think there are enough qualitative differences among those three activities, that they should be discussed separately...as evidenced by the fact that a person can excel at one or two, and be really bad at the other one or two.

Since the subject you seem to be most interested in is learning, I'd love to take a crack at a partial answer to that. Partial, because it's a big subject, and I don't think anyone understands it as well as we should (compared to other fields of research).

I'll start with my personal experience. My main two areas of focus are language learning (I do it for enjoyment, been doing it almost every day, since the day I was born) and programming (that's my profession), and I have basically the same approach to both. I learn in two ways:

1. I immerse myself into an environment where the knowledge I'm trying to learn is being used/put into practice by people who are better at it than me. In language learning, that can mean a wide variety of things, including watching TV or hanging out with friends who speak the language. So it's really easy to do, especially in the Internet age. Probably why I do it regularly.

In programming, it's a little more tricky, because, in this field, information tends to be presented in the form of courses or books written for the purposes of teaching beginners or entry level programmers, most often in an extremely oversimplified manner. That doesn't work for me. Never has, never will. I will use them if I must, but I prefer immersion. So I look for places where the knowledge is actually being put into practice, on a level that is the same or close to what a professional programmer would do. I don't want someone holding my hand through the process, I want to be thrown into the thick of things. There are people who will open up a youtube channel or blog, and just start DOING programming on it. Not teaching, not "Hello, world" exercises, actual projects. There are also books like that, where professional programmers don't try to teach, they just present knowledge to their peers. There are also collaborative projects, etc. That's what I'm looking for.

2. I practice what I learn. Sometimes, if I must, I rely on "exercises" (in programming, not in language learning...in natural language learning, I just dive into using the language in whatever way I can, with the small exception of learning pronunciation...that area benefits greatly from structured exercises), but, in general, I prefer to do actual, professional level projects from the start. Also, this second "step" doesn't come AFTER the first step is over. It's in parallel.

The most important things to note, about my process, are that a. it doesn't involve and conscious decision making, once the immersion begins...I don't "think", or "make decisions" about learning (I don't take mental notes along the lines of "oh, this is an important bit", or "oh, this is related to this other thing, I better make a conscious connection here"), it just happens incidentally, and b. ideally, there is a degree of difficulty involved: keeping up with what's going on is a challenge, it requires effort, and forces you to think in a way you wouldn't in a more easily accessible environment (my theory on why this difficulty helps is that, by forcing you to focus on trying to process what's happening, it prevents you from trying to focus on "learning", meaning "memorizing" or "remembering" discrete items of information).

That's what works for me, and for many others I talk to about this subject. Structured classes, teachers, memorization techniques, etc., don't work as well.

Finally, just to back the above up with some research, I've come across some very interesting research recently, involving memorization and learning: https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research/

It's a lot of information, covering a variety of topics related to learning, but here's an especially relevant quote, on what they call "desirable difficulties":

 

Quote

 

Introduction to Desirable Difficulties

Imagine a scenario in which a teacher has students practice different examples of a single type of math problem for an hour in class. By the end of the hour, it may seem—both to the teacher and to the students—that this type of math problem has been mastered. On a test two weeks later, however, the benefit may not be evident. In fact, much to the dismay of the teacher and the students, performance during training is not always representative of long-term learning.

In contrast to the story told above, in which an easy training method was followed by poor performance later, imagine that the teacher had interleaved many different types of problems during in-class training drills. Recent research reveals that difficult training of this type produces higher scores on the test than the easier version described above (Rohrer & Taylor, 2007), and this is the kind of training that the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab believes enhances long-term learning.

There are, in fact, certain training conditions that are difficult and appear to impede performance during training but that yield greater long-term benefits than their easier training counterparts. R. A. Bjork (1994) dubbed these difficult but effective training conditions desirable difficulties. Other examples of desirable difficulties (explained in greater detail in later portions of this webpage) include spacing rather than massing repetitions of to-be-learned information (R. A. Bjork & Allen, 1970; for review, see Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, & Rohrer, 2006), testing rather than re-studying information (Halamish & R. A. Bjork, 2011; for review, see Roediger & Karpicke, 2006), and varying the conditions of practice instead of keeping them constant. Along with investigating these and other desirable difficulties in isolation, we are currently working to understand the complex interactions amongst these variables (see Appleton-Knapp, R. A. Bjork, & Wickens, 2005).

 

 

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