Finding Solutions to Insoluble Problems

Finding Solutions to Insoluble Problems

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Cooperative Wisdom describes five principles, social virtues if you will, that are highly effective in finding solutions for problems that seem insoluble.

One of the earliest demonstrations of the power of these virtues in my own life occurred when I was a philosophy graduate student. I had finished my coursework and was ready to take the exam required before I could start my dissertation. When I went to register, the registrar told me it couldn’t be done. Even though I’d spent two years on campus, I hadn’t met the two-year residency rule because my year as a Graduate Assistant counted as ¾ of a year.

The exam was given only once a year. I knew I couldn’t afford to spend a year waiting for it to come round again.  So I hustled across campus to the Philosophy Department where the faculty was having its final meeting of the academic year.  I told my tale of woe to the department secretary, and she disappeared into the meeting.  A minute later, Max Black stepped out of the room.  Dr. Black was an eminent philosopher who later became president of the American Philosophical Association.  I assumed he would tell me we all have to live by rules so I would have to wait a year to take the exam. That’s not what happened.

Instead, Dr. Black listened to a description of my predicament and then he said: “Next week, we will offer the comprehensive philosophy exam. You will be in the room. You will write answers to the questions. We will look at what you write and we will make a judgment. If this person were eligible, would we pass him? We won’t decide whether you have passed because you’re not yet eligible to take the test. We will evaluate whether you would have passed if you were eligible. Next fall, after you have met the residence requirements, we will call you in and ask whether you remember what you wrote in May.  If you say ‘Yes,’ we will say, ‘That’s your exam.  You passed.’ In the meantime, we will advise you on how to develop a dissertation topic–as if you were eligible. As soon as you pass the exam, we’ll approve that topic.” I mumbled “Thank you.”  Dr. Black disappeared back into his meeting.

While I was very relieved, I was more impressed by the way Dr. Black created new possibilities when I was feeling sure that my limited possibilities would undo me. Before he stepped in, the university’s residency rule seemed like an impossible impediment to my goals.  If I waited the extra year, I would be impoverished. If I didn’t wait, I would have to give up on my dreams for a PhD in philosophy.

Dr. Black did not have the power to waive the university’s rule.  Instead, his solution accepted  the university’s requirements. It affirmed the department’s interest in supporting qualified graduate students and students’ need to get pursue their degrees without interruptions to their work. He solved what appeared to be an insoluble problem—without compromising any party’s substantive interests.

That experience made a deep impression on me. When you face what seem to be impossible problems, don’t look for compromises or loopholes. Instead, think about why things are organized as they are. And then reorganize them so the essential values are preserved but the assumptions that make the problem “insoluble” simply fall away. That way multiple values are honored, and everyone benefits.

All of this may sound mysterious, but during my career, I’ve identified specific practices that enable people to do for each other what Dr. Black did for me.  Those practices are described in depth in Cooperative Wisdom. If they help you untangle a problem that seems insoluble, I hope you’ll let us know.  Pay it forward!


Don Scherer

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