Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

The lateral dilettante

I used to derive some comfort from Edward De Bono’s work on “Lateral thinking”. He claimed that his new approach contrasted with vertical, logical, thinking.


Edward de Bono – Photo Commons Wikimedia

Steve Latham


To explain the difference, he used the example digging holes. Conventional intellectual endeavour, he said, was like digging a single hole.

This was the preserve of the expert, who would dig his, or her, hole, deep and round, making the walls smooth, and turning it into a lovely hole.

The expert thus knew everything there was to know, about their chosen area of knowledge. But it soon stopped being creative.

Nothing essentially ‘new’ was discovered, after the initial choice of where to dig. Instead, therefore, De Bono suggested another approach, that of Lateral thinking.

Instead of specialising and perfecting a single hole, the lateral thinker would dig lots of holes, all over the place, wherever seemed most interesting.

Some of them would prove worthless, turning up nothing useful. Others, however, might reveal an entirely fresh area for research.

The lateral thinker would, of course, rarely finish anything, or go very deeply into a subject, because they would always move on to the next interesting project.

They would, also, inevitably leave a lot of mess lying around, for someone else, the expert, to clear up after them. But only in this way could understanding ever increase.

Such an idea held obvious appeal for me, as a young man, averse to hard work, and wanting the thrill of discovery, without the effort or discipline needed for genuine academic work.

What I had, however, was a butterfly mind, unable to settle on anything for very long, flitting between books and articles, subjects and issues, wherever my fancy took me.

De Bono may have been right, but, in my case, his model served merely as justification for the mental existence of a dilletante, instead of the life of a genuine originator.

This also reflects the state of academia today. The ideal of the Renaissance Man, who held all realms of knowledge inside his head, is no longer capable of realisation.

The cost of intellectual advancement has been academic specialisation. Instead of generalisation, over many spheres, we now know more and more about less and less.

This is essential for progress in science and medicine, for example. But also, in the humanities, detailed research is needed to overturn ossified orthodoxies.

But is there not a price to pay? Have we not lost the vision of the totality, of universal Truth, in favour of particularised, localised truths?

While we admit, reluctantly, that there may be no Meaning to Life, there are still the myriad, individual ‘meanings’ which we give to our own personal goals.

In the absence of a Divine revelation, all we possess are hints and clues, to nudge in the ‘right direction’, or at least a direction we kind of like.

We neglect the turgid tomes of yesteryear, in favour of the short and digestible (chicken) nuggets of intuitive insight, from the blogosphere, and online columns (like this one).

(Fotos: Pixabay)

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