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Modern society is organized around Vertical thinking, a condition implicitly understood as far back in time as Adam Smith ,in his Wealth of Nations, where he took note of the emergence of specialization and division of labor in manufacturing. Society is completely dependent upon highly specialized experts, spending their time working within relatively narrow domains, to run a technocratic state and create products and services for an advanced information age economy.

Howard Gardner has written about two types of “ extraordinairy minds” that he calls ” Masters” and ” Makers”. Masters are the Vertical thinking experts, they keep the system running and try to advance the knowledge base of their specialty. We literally have armies of them and though some are more adept than others, all are heads and shoulders above the average layman in terms of their command of information. Makers by contrast are relatively rare. They are the Horizontal thinking visionaries – Gardner uses Freud as his archetype – who create new fields of endeavor and new paradigms with which to view the world.

Young children by default, as anyone who has listened to a pre-schooler describe a sudden realization knows, are natural Horizontal thinkers. For most of us, this capacity falls into disuse during years of formal schooling as we train our brains to organize and manipulate knowledge in terms of categories of vertical hierarchies. While virtually anyone can re-learn Horizontal thinking skills, some of us retain and develop Horizontal thinking to an unusual degree and become the great creative intellects of history. Such people, like Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein often either become accomplished in multiple fields or tend to revolutionize those in which they concentrate.

It is the true world-shaking,Horizontal thinking, visionaries who benefit most from the assistance of top level, Vertical thinking, experts. The Visionary sees lines of connection – a pattern or perhaps an overarching principle – across domains that not only eludes most experts but goes far beyond the Visionary’s own disciplinary competence . Almost all great visionaries are also experts at something in particular – it is hard to have superior vision while operating without any reference points. They may not even be at the absolute top of their field – Einstein had his critics who condemned him on technical grounds, such as Schrodinger – but they see far beyond the normal constraints of their discipline.

The Vertical thinking experts measure the validity of the Horizontal thinker’s conceptual vision by either testing it empirically or extrapolating or interpolating the concept to see if it
” fits” harmoniously within the existing Rule-set of the expert’s field. If it does fit, the Vertical thinker usually can correct any mistaken aspects and take the concept far beyond what the Horizontal thinker had even realized to be possible.

It is this cognitive partnership that is driving human progress.

In Part III. we examine evidence that the combination of Horizontal and Vertical thinking is the catalyst of human insight.

4 Responses to “”

  1. Stuart Berman Says:

    Very nice – keep it coming!

    It brings to mind some questions:

    Is the term Renaissance Man a good synonym for horizontal thinker? (Visionary seems a bit more broad)

    In order to think horizontally must one be relatively free from the strong bonds of ‘group think’? (You seem to risk ruffling the feathers of orthodoxy and losing status within a group.)

    How would you rate Velikovsky? (Mark – with your training as a historian this may cause stomach upset – since it seems that the field banished him – but that may also be a hallmark of horizontal thinkers.)

  2. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Great articles!

    I particularly like the Boyd analogy in the last post. The “horizontal” exchange between thoughts on vertical/horizontal thinking and fourth generation struggles are pretty interesting!

    I was reading an article from Dissent that claimed part of the left’s failures in recent years were a lack of “general intellectuals.” I have some thoughts on how v/h thinking, 4GW, and politics work together, but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  3. Chris Meserole Says:

    I’d buy that, although I’d use the term associative cognition instead of horizontal thinking. What you’re really talking about is a conceptual process which invents new vocabularies (typically linguistic but occasionally numerical, like Einstein) by drawing from older ones. That process is inherently associative insofar as it relates past cognitive forms to a newly created conceptual space.

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