Systematic vs. Encyclopedic Thinking

TwoStylesThoughtQuantum CloudHave you ever met someone who, when discussing an issue, can throw out lots of names, dates or terms but who doesn’t seem to have them organized well in their mind?  Indeed, those folks often succeed in so intimidating others with their encyclopedic memory that their lack of connectedness in their knowledge is not exposed.

Imagine someone talking about quantum mechanics who can create a cloud of impressive terms, names of famous scientists and dates of discovery but who on questioning shows they don’t understand quantum mechanics 1/10 as much as their bravado implies.

Traffic-Light-GreyHeck, you might even see that you yourself do this, or at least do this in some areas of knowledge.  In my post called “Traffic Light Epistemology” I make another simple model to fight the dichotomous on-off belief model and replace it with a way of seeing our beliefs as having different valences (green= accept, yellow=doubt, red=reject, grey=not being evaluated).

In my post, “Depth and Complexity Deception” I discuss how we can fool ourselves about our real knowledge just by collecting books, phrases or other unconnected information.  As my diagram above shows, the encyclopedic mind has weak connections (dotted lines) but far more pieces of information than the systematic mind because it does not value connections or weighing of data as much as the systematic mind.

Again, we all have both these habits of mind–keeping with my many mind model, we may do it differently in different areas of our lives. These are models of methods, more than just models of actual people’s minds.

Besides Systematic vs. Encyclopedic, I also thought of related categories of Producer vs Consumer, and Creator vs Collector.  What do you think?

Question for readers:  Do you find this model useful?




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

3 responses to “Systematic vs. Encyclopedic Thinking

  1. Your diagram says “systematic” but your title says “systemic”. Probably a typo.

    I often criticize “knowledge = justified true belief” (as often said by philosophers). And my main objection is that it defines knowledge as what is required for “encyclopedic thinking”, instead of as what is required for “systematic thinking”.

    I’m not sure about your terminology, but I agree with the main idea behind your post.

  2. Chris

    I like the distinction. I think the two systems are nicely complementary. How do you work on systematizing your experience without pondering things that don’t fit? Sensemaking starts with an unsorted shoebox of clues.

  3. @Neil
    Thanx, fixed it.

    I agree that being comfortable with “unknown” and having lots of yellow dots is very valuable. And keeping one’s connection lines flexible is important. But fooling oneself that encyclopedic knowledge is systematic has its pitfalls.

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