Epistemic Status: Framing
Let me tell you about two words. The words are “relip” and “thamagar”1. I’ve found that they’re actually very helpful words to have, and there really don’t seem to be any good alternatives for their meaning, so I thought I would share them more broadly.
I’ll define them for you in a moment, but first I want to tell you how they are used.
They’re adjectives, and more or less opposed – something that is more relip is generally less thamagar, and vice versa. It’s entirely possible for something to be neither relip or thamagar, and the same thing can be both relip and thamagar in different ways.
A thamagar viewpoint can’t see the wood for the trees. A relip one can’t see the leaves for the tree. When you work in your area of expertise, your viewpoint is thamagar. When you explain it to someone unfamiliar with it, you try to give them a relip view.
The way you look at the ingroup is usually thamagar, and the way you look at the outgroup is usually relip. Combinatorics is thamagar, category theory is relip. Writing a poem requires you to be thamagar, teaching someone requires you to be relip.
When you view something as intrinsically complex, you are being thamagar in your view, when you view it as intrinsically simple you are being relip.
Property-based tests are relip, example-based tests are thamagar.
A relip viewpoint abstracts, a thamagar viewpoint treats everything as unique.
Telling a joke is thamagar, telling a story is relip.
Importantly, there is no moral component to these words. Both relip and thamagar are good, and everyone adopts viewpoints of each type all the time, even towards a single subject. Some people will have a strong preference for one or the other (I’m very much a relip sort of person), but it is impossible to get anything done without both.
The usage is genuinely more important than the definition, but to attempt a definition:
A view or an approach is relip if it unifies many things together based on a small set of features, abstracting and simplifying them based on common patterns.
A view or an approach is thamagar if it is deeply concerned with its context and connections, focusing heavily on how it fits in and interacts with everything around it.
You could call them “abstracted” and “situated” viewpoints if you liked, though I think that would be a bit too relip of you and I’d prefer to be more thamagar in this instance.
Even when you know a subject very well, it can be very helpful to take a step back and adopt a relip approach to it. Even when you are learning a subject for the first time, it can be helpful to imagine what a thamagar view of it might be like and to think of yourself as moving towards it. Getting yourself stuck in one or the other view is usually less effective than switching between the two.
One useful thing to do when you get stuck (which you should be doing) is to ask yourself whether you’re currently being too thamagar (in which you take a step back and try to abstract the problem, understanding its key features) or too relip (in which case you focus on the actual problem without its broader context and ask if you are trying to solve a harder more general problem than you need to). Often the viewpoint switch will be enough to unlock the problem for you
This is a large part of why I find having these words useful: It allows me to be more explicit about that process. Which, in case you were wondering, is an extremely relip way of going about it.
- If you’re wondering about the etymology, there isn’t one. They come from the teapot dialogues, a largely abandoned writing project of mine, and were deliberately created to illustrate the point that you can just make up new words by smushing sounds together if you want to.
“Nomothetic” and “idiographic” seem like approximate analogues of these terms in ordinary English, though not perfect ones.
Plausibly, although given that I’ve not encountered either of these terms before and have a reasonably large vocabulary, I think you might be overestimating how ordinary the English they are a part of is!