Slobodkin’s Simplicity

October 22, 2006

Here’s a good book: Simplicity and Complexity in the Games of Intellect. However, there is only about 4 pages of written material that would benefit someone studying the philosophy of simplicty (like me). 90% of the book is laborious and overly florid exposition about numerous examples of simplicity. But what Slobodkin truly argues and what he writes in the introduction and conclusion are truly noteworthy and noble insights.

That’s not to say that his examples are unecessary though. They are great examples and there are many of them. They are imperative to an understanding of simplicity but the extend to which he describes and outlines them is unnecessary. Instead of focusing on defending insight Slobodkin is determined to make sure that his examples are pertinent to simplicity or complexity or intellectual life.

The book isn’t deceptive either. Well, maybe the introduction is a little deceptive but the conclusion admits only too late in the reading that a development of a general theory of simplicity was not accomplished. The book only provides the reader with an abundance of examples which aid in understanding extremely vague and undetermined concepts. The title is accurate – the book is really about simplicity and complexity (or rather more accurately “simplistic things and complex things”) in the “games of intellect” (ie. science, art, mathematics, and oddly enough, dinner).

For me, the book uncovers a few paradoxes in the study of simplicity. In one sense, there is an arbitrariness to simplicity. Aesthetically it relies on subjective perspectives – only certain things appear simple to certain people. Is simplicity just a qualitative description of something? A qualitative description that could apply to virtually anything? Is it just an adjective that can be used to describe an object just as easily as the word “green” can be used (his example)? Or is simplicity a symptom?

In the conclusion he says (but doesn’t backup) that it’s imortant to recognize that simplicity can be dysfunctional. Which is true. There can be simplistic things that are themselves uncessary, devoid of purpose or function. I see this as being a great methodological problem. If someone wants to create a universally applicable philosophy of simplcity they must be able to distinguish functional simplicity and simplistic things that aren’t functional. Functionalism, as understood in sociology, had a big slippery slope problem in that it defended everything because everything could have a function. Non-functionalists would get pissed off with functionalists because functionalists would argue how rape, crime, and poverty helped social stability. It was only later when Robert Merton introduced manifest and latent functions and dysfuntions. Now poverty could be examples as helping and destorying society purposfully and unpredictably.

Simplicity might suffer the same fate. If anything can be described as simplistic – or worse yet, everything as a threshold of simplicity (meaning: there is a certain level or value of simplicity that everything has) – under current understandings of simplicity there must be developed a way of suggesting how something can’t be simplistic or ‘shouldn’t’ be.

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