Digging Deeper for Ideas (2)–Playing with Syncretism

For people who believe their current perspective is sufficient, there is no incentive to dig deeper. Their ideas remain static. However, new ideas and insights are always arising. The simplest approach, especially when the new ideas have opposing elements to the current perspective, is to ignore the ideas or push them aside. However, something is lost and, ultimately, success will be limited.

There are several methods that use opposing ideas in order to achieve more innovative results. One is the Dialectic Method (Thesis –> Antithesis–> Synthesis), which was previously discussed (see Digging Deeper for Ideas—Stealing from Hegel).

Syncretism is another antidote to simplistic solutions. Syncretism is the attempted reconciliation of contradictory ideas or principles. The result may preserve the differences, using opposing elements as appropriate. Thus, the resolution may not be an unambiguous statement, but a fragile system that simply works better than the ones that served as the foundation.

The process holds fewer certainties, but more opportunity for innovation. Syncretic solutions are not merely looking for compromise on the common elements, but using the opposing elements and building bridges to them. Internal contradictions are permitted.

In references, the syncretic process is usually described for large issues that evolve historically over time. As a consequence, the underlying principles are not often considered for resolving conflicting ideas at work or at home.

Below, two examples of global scale syncretic issues are briefly described in order to give a flavor the applications. Then, a method to use the concepts of the syncretic approach to analyze everyday problems is outlined.

Two Classic Examples

(1) In the area of world political systems, a static idea is that the American model of democracy is the best system to be exported to other countries. This transition is “accomplished” by sending experts to teach the people about democracy and hold elections. The results of this naive belief are obvious.

The static approach neglects the fact that people in these countries have lived for centuries in different cultural conditions opposed to democracy. A new government must also reconcile the opposing elements of the cultural heritage with the principles of freedom. For example, India has a participatory democracy, but the political process is different from America since the major parties represent traditional religious faiths. It works in its own way.

(2) There are syncretic possibilities for the practice of medicine on the global scale. Western and Chinese medicine each have demonstrated strengths. However, there are significant differences. Their descriptions of the functions of the body are in non-reconcilable concepts. Also, Western medicines are relatively recent, developed in the laboratory, and evaluated in defined clinical studies. Chinese treatments, such as acupuncture and herbs, evolved over centuries by observation and experience.

Currently, the two disciplines are practiced separately. However, the current approach to medicine will change as information and expertise in both disciplines becomes more common. What form will medicine will take, particularly in developing countries, remains to be seen. From a static view, the western standards could be retroactively enforced on the Chinese methods. However a syncretic approach, which allows contradictions and preserves the differences of the two disciplines, seems to hold most benefit for patients.

Playing With Syncretism—Application to Everyday Problems

The principles can be applied to problems which routinely arise and can lead to better solutions.

One method to take advantage of these differences is to analyze the opposing ideas with a set of questions based on sycretism.

—-Why does each approach have merit?

—-What do the two approaches have in common?

—-What are the specific non-reconcilable elements of each approach?

—-Under what circumstances does each opposing element provide an advantage?

—-How can the advantages of both opposing elements be preserved, even in a fragile structure?

—-Do the new proposals preserve the advantages ?


Such questions are rarely asked since there is a bias to force a solution.

Working with these questions requires both a re-examination of one’s preferred approach as well as considering the problem using a different framework. However, without really much use of time or energy, a different, perhaps better, result can be obtained.


One Response to Digging Deeper for Ideas (2)–Playing with Syncretism

  1. […] more recent post  Digging Deeper for Ideas (2)–Playing with Syncretism outlines another method for using conflicting ideas to get better […]

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