Week 4: An Interview

Emily Roberts, flutist and music therapist
Emily Roberts, flutist and music therapist

In a first-ever interview, accomplished flutist Emily Roberts asks how sense making relates to real life. We discuss how I came to wonder about sense making through my learning curve with interdisciplinary research, and then how Emily is making sense of her two roles as a flutist and music therapist. With some insights from professor Cal DeWitt and from storytelling, we stumble upon the theme of serving others as an Aha! moment for Emily. Being stuck can feel awful, but stuck-ness is essential to making sense of difficulties in the process of deciding how to act and staying sane in dissonant world. Sense making tools can help us along the way until we receive the gift of insight with humility.

How do you see sense making showing up in your life?

What tools do you know about that help with sense making?


12 thoughts on “Week 4: An Interview

  1. I have sometimes told my students that learning philosophy is a lot like walking in on a movie that is about halfway through. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the story is. Except that philosophy is a really long movie. Fortunately, there are episodes in the philosophy movie that consist mainly of people getting sick of trying to figure out what this story is about and deciding to start all over again. So sometimes you don’t really have to go all the way back to Plato, though it is generally fun to do so. Then you encounter movies like Howard Hawks’ version of “The Big Sleep.” It’s a great movie, but it does not make sense. You should watch it, or maybe read Raymond Chandler’s novel (which I have not done).

  2. I enjoyed the interview! Thanks, Bethany.

    I like how Emily comes to recognize that there is a common thread that connects her two separate pursuits, viz., people. This establishes them as integrated by virtue of sharing an important element in common. If they were different and unconnected, that would contribute to a sense of personal fragmentation; however, in addition to music, the additional tie binding them together creates a sense of personal coherence. This reveals something important about integration — you can speak of integration without requiring that the integrated elements losing their own distinctive character.

    This leaves me with a question: are all sense-making activities (i.e., all activities that move you from being “stuck” to being “unstuck”) integrative activities?

    1. That’s a good question, Michael. I think yes, all sense making activities are integrative activities. I think SM is taking a new piece of information and integrating it with your existing frame of reference. Is this how you think of integration, i.e. is SM synonymous with integration? OR, is SM a type of integration, or an application of integration?

      And you were noticing that Emily achieved some integration by virtue of two activities sharing a common element, viz., serving people. Does all integration work this way–sharing a common element? I tend to think yes. (There is a lot of preamble work that goes into transforming the inputs so they eventually do share a common element). So maybe SM is integration, and integration is SM.

  3. It seems possible to me that someone might make sense out of a situation by removing things from consideration — removing noise to get at the signal, so to speak. If this is correct, than it seems that some sense might be disintegrative, at least insofar as you are pulling things apart or taking things away in order to make sense out of the situation. So sense-making would not imply integration. And on the flip side, I think you can integrate things while remaining completely in the dark about what’s going on. (Alternatively, I think you can integrate things in a situation where you are completely in the know about the situation, so there is no sense to be made.) If so, then integration would not imply sense-making. If this is all correct, then neither sense-making nor integration is contained within the other.

    And I think that you can integrate by transforming the inputs into something else. For example, when you create green by combining yellow and blue, there is no common element (at least perceptually) between the inputs and the output. Or at least no common element in the same sense as “serving people” was for Emily.

    So I think the situation is more complicated than this. But I am not close to figuring it out!

    1. Michael, you raise important points that I have not considered. But now that I’m considering them, I think I am definitely making more sense of sense making. I think sense making is indeed a type of integration. Here’s why:

      I agree that a first step in sense making might be disintegrating–removing noise to get at the signal. However, just finding the signal doesn’t prompt one to say, “Ah! Now it makes sense!” The natural next question is, “But what does the signal mean about this system?” And that discovery/creation of meaning requires integration. Something about the pattern, either the pattern itself or inferences about its causes (not sure)–is made to fit, logically and culturally and many other ways, with one’s frame of reference/mental model/worldview/whatever you call it. (The fit might require changing the frame; one way to make a square peg go through a round hole is to square the hole.) The fit is what we generally call “understanding” or “meaning.” (Feel free to pull out Grice on me; I probably need him!) So disintegration isn’t sense making; it merely prepares the way for sense making, which is integration into a mental model or belief system.

      But you mentioned that integration seems to occur without sense making (at least sometimes): one might integrate things but have no clue what’s going on, no gain in understanding. I think I need to consider a couple of real-ish examples, because I really can’t imagine what integration without understanding would consist of. Although maybe my ball project is the perfect example! Seems there’s a lot of integration going on there, but I really have very little idea what it means yet. But my intuition tells me that is because I haven’t actually integrated the parts yet. So, I am starting to believe sense making is a specific application of integration to meaning making or understanding. Sense making seems to be the integration of reasons into an argument to believe what something means. Maybe you are talking about integrating things that are not reasons? Like yellow & blue? Or human races? Or parts of a machine? If sense making is a microcosm of all integration, maybe integration is the creation of interdependence between pieces.

      If you tell me “Sarah is standing on the stairs,” when I can hear her voice in the kitchen, I reply to you, “That doesn’t make sense, because I have strong reasons to believe she is in the kitchen.” Your belief doesn’t fit with my worldview. To understand what you’re saying, either I change my worldview or I reject your belief as false. But say I’m in a new house and I didn’t know there are stairs off the kitchen, suddenly my worldview got larger and there is now room for both our beliefs in it. This seems to be an example of integration that transforms two things that don’t necessarily have something in common with each other, but each has something in common with a third thing. Maybe “in common” is too narrow of a relationship. I want to say “some kind of dependence relationship.” In fact, this is actually what happened with Emily. If we watch again carefully, it wasn’t the statement “People are the common thread,” that made her exclaim, “Now it makes sense!” It was a third aspect: service. Flute performance and music therapy make sense because they are both integrated with her larger frame of service.

      Integration with a frame seems to be one degree of sense making, but integration with a frame plus integration between the other beliefs in the frame is a higher degree of integration. It’s much more satisfying. So, if Emily can make her flute performance and music therapy depend on each other, she will be more satisfied with her personal coherence.

      Man, too bad we weren’t having a beer over this discussion :) I strongly felt the need to draw on a napkin.

      1. from Paul:

        I think integration can be achieved without sense making, at least as I understand these two concepts. I understand integration in this sense as a form of functional integrity among actors within a system. None of them may have the foggiest idea about how the system works, or even that their individual activities are contributing to some form of integrated activity or behavior. Nevertheless, their actions may be coordinated in a manner that achieves overall system goals (here I don’t mean ‘goal’ in the sense of something actually conceptualized consciously). I wrote about this long ago with respect to sustainability and it’s a key idea in my book The Agrarian Vision.

        It’s not really such a new or radical idea, however. It’s the idea behind Adam Smith’s invisible hand and Hegel’s Geist (not that I’m endorsing the particulars of either). You, Bethany, seem to have the idea that sense must be made within the confines of some individual’s conscious thought, that only this ontology could deliver truth. Taking social epistemology seriously demands a more charitable notion of integration, however.

        1. Paul, your analysis seems to support my notion that sense making is a type of integration, i.e., that there can be integration without sense making, but no sense making without integration. Am I understanding you and Michael correctly?

      2. Thanks for the reply, Bethany! A few thoughts:

        (1) Integration as “the creation of interdependence between pieces” comes close to capturing how I understand it. This operates at many levels and with many different kinds of pieces, in my view. I think Paul is correct in noting that you can have integration, understood in this way, without any impact on cognition or consciousness, and so integration does not imply sense-making.

        (2) I like the idea that integration admits of degrees, although this is one place where the sands under my feet start to shift when I think about this concept. Consider two different situations. First, imagine the integration of two different disciplines, A and B. This integration could be shallower or deeper, depending on the degree to which A and B are “washed out” in combination — that is, depending on the degree to which they retain their independence in combination. Second, take the example you suggest involving (i) integration of an idea with a frame and (ii) integration of an idea with a frame plus other beliefs. The result of (ii) is that the idea being integrated is more integrally connected with you — it becomes more intimately bound-up with who you are as a person. But these two situations are importantly different: the first involves a change in the nature of the integration relation without a change in inputs, while the second involves a change in inputs (along with a change in the corresponding integration relationships, perhaps). So perhaps there are multiple dimensions along which integration varies by degree.

        (3) Your first long paragraph presses the idea that sense-making implies integration. I’m open to that, for sure, given that I think integration is ubiquitous. But the account you give seems to suggest that a disintegration process serves up a piece that is then in a subsequent move integrated into some sort of frame; all of this could be seen as sense-making, but sense-making isn’t complete without the last move. Is that correct? This would be perhaps exemplified by sifting through the puzzle pieces on the side of the emerging puzzle and finding the piece you need, which you then integrate into the emerging puzzle — puzzle-building is not complete without the last move. I wonder, though, if it might not be possible to have the frame be part of what guides one’s search in a more direct way, making it possible for the disintegration step to yield a meaningful result without a subsequent step. A detective may go to a crime scene with knowledge of previous, similar crimes, hoping to make sense out of the new one, and then after analyzing (i.e., disintegrating) the evidence, finds the clue that ties it to the previous crimes; at that point, the new crime “makes sense” but there is no additional integrating move — the way the detective was “seeing” the new crime scene already involved the previous crime scenes as part of the frame. I like the idea of “fit” here, BTW.

        Hope these thoughts help!

        Take care,

        1. I would add this thought. When we talk about integrating disciplinary perspectives or approaches (or findings that are derived from those perspectives) we should not forget that all disciplines are in fact highly integrated already, just not in ways that encourage (or perhaps even permit) a form of sense making that blends them together. We might even say that the problem consists in the fact that they are all too well integrated, at least from the sense that you are talking about, Bethany, in terms of facilitating sense-making.

        2. (1) Yes.
          (2) Great point. I agree.
          (3) Ah, yes, integration is ubiquitous even in your detective example. The detective “finds the clue that ties [the new crime] to the previous crimes.” This is integration with the existing frame (we might call it confirmation rather than discovery).

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