Wittgenstein Jnr by Lars Iyer isn’t Sophie’s World 2. Or is it?

October 22, 2014

Wittgenstein jnrBook Review

It is quite appropriate that I obtained a copy of Wittgenstein Jnr under the mistaken impression that the book is a follow-up to Jostein Gaarder’s classic Sophie’s World. It isn’t. Written by that Norwegian philosopher. But by the English one with a Norwegian name. Who writes campus philosophy books among which Dogma is my favourite.

My false premise

My false premise was at least in keeping with one of the themes both of Sophie’s World and Wittgenstein Jnr: the nature of reality (of course). Gaardner charms us into an overview of Western philosophy through a story of young Sophie and her journey of discovery through a world of the imagination. Iyer draws us into the world of undergraduate Peters, and his journey of discovery through a world of the imagination, set in the context of the simulacrum Cambridge (about as real as the Oxford in the Morse stories, which come to think of it is very real for a generation of admirers of the TV versions of the stories of Colin Dexter).

Wittgenstein Mark 2?

The central character of Wittgenstein Jnr is a philosophy lecturer who is referred to by his students as a latter-day Wittgenstein. This Wittgenstein Mark 2 indeed resembles the character portrayed by Monk in his biography of Ludwig the first.

The obsessive search for philosophic closure through symbolic logic or its destruction is here. The larger than life student characters of earlier work are here, but reworked away from hapless but cheerful inhabitants of a philosophic underworld to an equally hapless and cheerful bunch of privileged inhabitants of Camalot / Cambridge.

Ludwig is here, although Ludwig the second is even more clinically depressed and doomed than Ludwig the first

Highly readable in a creative slippery literary way

There is much to enjoy about the book. It is highly readable, and stylistically creative in a subtle slippery literary way. Lyer has honed his prose into a tight personal style. It works, like many works of art, by concealing the labour that goes into final text. when I tried extracting an example, it became clear to me just how crafty the writing is.

Crafty writing

Here’s an example chosen selected almost at randomm, a scene in which EDE, one of students announces his split with his girlfriend Phaedra. Lyer sets the scene in two one-line paragraphs. It might have been four or five lines of poetry.

Saturday Night. Ede texts. You up? I split with Fee.

Ede, in the communal kitchen, emptying a tub of mushrooms onto the counter.

Readable?

A cautious endorsement. I enjoyed it. When I tried explaining it to a friend, my description left him unconvinced. Which suggests the test might follow a visit to one of those old fashioned pre-Amazon  book vendors,  and a quick scan of the book’s contents.


All in the same boat: Teamwork theory in the 153rd boat race

April 6, 2007

_41514288_cambridgesad203.jpg_41514106_oxford2203.jpgOdds-on favorites Cambridge University lost last year’s boat race against ancient rivals Oxford. This year, the light-blues have been advised to follow Business School theories for coping with the heady mix of individual ambitions and team spirit. We assess whether the ideas hold water.

Last year Cambridge lost the annual varsity bragging rights on the Thames. Defeat sometimes sharpens the appetite for new ideas. According to this week’s Economist, Cambridge Coach Duncan Holland has been assisted by Mark de Rond from Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

Mark is an American strategy theorist who is tipping his toe into more behavioral waters here (I can’t get away from aquatic imagery at the moment). The article goes on to mention a recent idea on how members of organizational work teams relate to one another.

Competent Jerks and loveable fools

The basic idea, by Casciano and Lobo, originated in the prestigious Harvard Business Review last June. Their work examines the relationships between managers with differing levels of competence and of likeability. Details of the work can be found in a summary by AsiaOne Business:

The authors studied four organisations – one which is profit-motivated, one non-profit, another large and the fourth, small. No matter which organisation they studied, they found that everybody wanted to work with a lovable star and nobody wanted to work with an incompetent jerk. They say things got more interesting when people faced the choice between competent jerks and lovable fools … surprise, surprise, the two researchers found out that the reverse was true in the four companies they analysed.

“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships – not friendships at work, but job-oriented friendships – than is commonly acknowledged, even more important than evaluations of competence.”
The competent jerks represent an opportunity for the organisation because so much of their expertise is discounted.

Evaluation of the research: The popularity of the ‘two-by-two matrix’

The research study is presented in the form of the two-by-two matrix. As a teaching and diagnostic tool the two-by-two is among the most popular ways of helping people escape the ‘either-or’ trap and think in more dimensions. After a while the experienced management trainer becomes adept at turning any relationship between two variables into a two-by-two format for teaching purposes. (Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me).

For example, in the famous management matrix by Blake and Mouton we can explore more deeply the interplay between task-oriented and supportive preferences of leaders.

This new two-by-two contrasts high and low likeability and high and low competence. As with the Blake and Mouton matrix, this immediately makes sense to many people. The four boxes are nicely labeled. The simple idea simply expressed has another nice wrinkle. It gets to the trade-offs and dilemmas when people have to chose between workmates they believe to be one or two dimensions short of being a likeable and competent star.

Will the model stand the test of time?

Casciano and Lobo have got their idea off to a good start. It has every chance of being a fashionable concept which works its way into Organizational Behavior (and Organisational behaviour) textbooks. After which there is a mimetic force at work. Does the theory extend or challenge sound organizational theory? Not really, but that is to be ungracious. At least, it has several features of earlier successful ‘thought leadership’ stories. The publication in the prestigious Harvard Business Review will do its prospects no harm.

Will it help Cambridge win the boat race?

I can’t quite see it. In the boat race, the rowers have all already have been selected as highly competent. There’s no rowing incompetent among the candidates for the top boat. Actually, the article implied that there was, mentioning one rower who is a not the technically most-gifted and yet who is much liked and a motivational character. I’m not sure how the Cambridge business coach got that message across (unless, of course he is himself a highly competent and likeable star; neither a competent jerk nor a likeable fool).