Aldo Matteucci   07 Jun 2013   Looking Sideways

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The French police stopped the Swiss Ambassador to OECD, the other day, on suspicion of driving under the influence. Charges were placed against him. The Swiss government lifted the ambassador’s diplomatic immunity but did not recall him – a move which would have effectively shielded him from prosecution by giving him safe conduit out of the country. The Swiss MFA enjoined him to cooperate fully with the French police. The ambassador faces the rigor of justice just as any other person in the same circumstances would.

The story is trivial. What are not trivial, in my view, are the deeper circumstances leading to the contingent event.

Humankind internalizes experiences and social rules by linking them to emotions. Building on basic predispositions – empathy for instance, “folk psychology”[1], or a sense of justice – from infancy we slowly acquire such habits and practices from the social environment. Disgust and fear have genetic roots (some of us recoil from snakes even without direct experience of them), but they also are an acquired trait with both personal and cultural components. Disambiguation is futile.

The human brain consists of two “parts”: type I is reflexive and fast, albeit unconscious; Type II is reflective and slow and involves consciousness. It can only deal with a few elements of the context at a time: the order of magnitude is that every second we register over 10 million sensations from the surroundings. Consciousness only registers a few.

All along the socialization process, essentially we link socially acceptable behavior to the Type I brain, which then reacts instinctively and emotionally. Living in a complex society presupposes such ability: we navigate implicitly 99% of the enormous complexity of social reality. This linking process is undirected – an enabling capacity rather than an instruction. This makes sense. Any abstract rule must be applicable to many and ever changing contexts: 2 + 2 should apply both to apples and persons. Only experience and practice teaches us when and where the rule is applicable.

This is the purpose of education. William CORY, a famous Eton schoolmaster, formulated is this way:

At school you are nor engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism… A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed, with average faculties, acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spend on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits: for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice, a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. And above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.”[2]

To put it bluntly: it takes us a minute to understand what a hammer does – hit nails. That is essentially what a teacher can convey to the pupil. The rest is up to the student. Only long practice enables us, at one stroke, anywhere, anytime, without fail, to drive a nail in “just right”. “Embedding” the instruction takes place by trial and error. The desired outcome is a practice that resonates – like a well-tuned violin “sings” no matter how the bow hits it.


Nowadays, we see the process of acquiring habits and practices as “boring” – everything should be “goal-oriented” or “effective” – and fast. Habits stifle spontaneity – we opine (we are oblivious to the fact that what we call “spontaneity” builds on long practice of internalization). The long period of apprenticeship, however, is meant to guide us fast and safely to the goal and past a situation of stress, where the conscious mind risks being overwhelmed by the context. This is why soldiers drill for battle.

The Swiss ambassador had been told the limits of diplomatic immunity – I’m sure of this. I’m sure we’d find appropriate detailed instructions to accompany his letter of appointment. What was missing, I suspect, was the long process of internalization anchoring failsafe behavior. Was the ambassador drilled on what to do when one is caught with one’s pants down? Only experience, or simulated experience, can teach this. May be this is why his instincts failed him. The Type II brain had been “briefed”. The Type I brain, however, had not had the opportunity to “internalize” the desirable behavior and supply the instincts appropriate to the situation.

OAKSHOTT would have differentiated between “technical knowledge” (that can be made explicit and formalized) and “practical” knowledge – in fact a set of sensibilities, dispositions, aptness, recognitions, judgments etc. – which cannot be taught by formula.[3]

Finally, the Master of Eton spoke of “self-knowledge”. The rhetoric intimates “quality” – Platonic advancement toward “truth as the crow flies”. Far from it. “Self-knowledge” simply means experience about one’s behavior in as many situations as possible. A “school” is meant to provide opportunities for experimentation, as well as protection from the consequences of inevitable (and instructive) failures.

[1]           The jargon calls this predisposition “theory of mind”. It is our instinctive ability to understand the intentionality of another person, and to cooperate with his/her intentions, or manipulate the person to do what we want. Without “theory of mind” a baby would not be able to seduce the mother into raising her. We never lose this ability, we add to it through experience. See: Daniel C. DENNETT (2013): Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking. Norton, New York.

[2]           Quoted in: Jesse NORMAN (1993) (Ed.): the achievement of Michael OAKSHOTT. Duckworth, London. Pg. 50-51.

[3]           Kenneth MINOGUE (1993): Modes and modesty. In Jesse NORMAN op. cit. Pg. 52.



  • Anonymous (not verified), 08/15/2020 - 19:42

    Dear Aldo,
    Thanks for this well articulated piece about "real" learning and knowing. Unfortuately most of us did not have the opportunity to be schooled at the more enlightened institutions. Instead, we went to sausage factories and were expected to conform to the preset criteria. It is a rather daunting task trying to hit the reset button and become once again self-aware and self-knowing.

    Any suggestion as to how to start this process?


  • Profile picture for user Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci, 08/15/2020 - 19:42

    $dear Lichia,

    one is to start from the basic point of view, that we only know from experience. A long experience, which pays attention to the context, rather than abstract thought. It is a very modest point of departure, certainly not an elitist one. Now, for more insights into this: SENNETT would do wonders, and also OAKSHOTT.

  • Profile picture for user Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone, 08/15/2020 - 19:42

    Dear Aldo, i really enjoyed this post. The comments you make are important - in the context of education in general as well as the education of the diplomat. How about a blog post precisely on that: how should the education (of the diplomat) look like given these observations? Are dipomatic schools starting fall into teh same traps?

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