Problems and Solutions, Difficulties and Progress

I received the following email on Thursday, September 22, 2011 from Lee Devin, retired Professor of English and Theater at Swarthmore College:

"Hi Lucy
Reading your latest, I somehow got the idea to introduce you to T. D. Weldon's little book on The Vocabulary of Politics, first published by Penguin in 1953. He makes a distinction I've found very useful and I bet you will too.

Between problem and difficulty. I'm giving you the short version--the original is more interesting, but not so direct.

Problems have solutions; solve them and problems go away.
Difficulties don't have solutions; they require continual address.

A big pothole is causing a problem on 1st Street. Fill the pothole and solve the problem. Move on.

The nation's secondary schools aren't good enough. This is not a problem, it will never be solved. Some identifiable problems might be solved, but the system as a whole requires constant attention. The school system will get better, but will never not need your attention.

We like to simplify by naming difficulties and treating them as problems. "The War on Terror." This is not a problem, it's a difficulty, a part of contemporary life. It will not be "won" or otherwise go away. It will be addressed continually and ways may be found to diminish its impact on daily life.

And so on.

Struck me while reading you that philanthropy could do well to think of addressing difficulties and get over the idea of solving problems. Certainly that would be a boon to theatres, if the dreamers up of grants and initiatives could have that view.


I love this letter for several reasons. First, it introduced me to new ideas - those of T.D. Weldon and those of his critics in political philosophy.

Second, it introduced me to an interesting person I didn't know, Lee Devin. I immediately emailed Lee back and asked if I could post this letter. Then I searched for information about him. Read what I could find. Exchanged a few more emails. I would like to meet Lee in person.

Third, it demonstrated, yet again, how we can connect now - finding new ideas and people, creating new conversations, learning and sharing.

Fourth, the content hits directly on a real challenge of philanthropy - one that I first encountered in my dissertation research - the whole concept of "problem definition." At the time I was interested in this in terms of the power dynamics - "He who gets to define the problem generally gets to define his preferred solution." Of course, Lee is asking me (us?) to consider the feasibility of actually solving problems - in terms of resources and time horizons and the philanthropic reality versus rhetoric of  metrics this has real implications.

Thanks Lee!


Allyson Hewitt said...

Lucy, this was helpful and reminds me of the complicated (building a rocket ship) versus complex (raising children) discussion that is outlined in "Getting to Maybe".

Perek said...

I've been introduced through my work at the University of Minnesota's Center for Integrative Leadership to a similar concept in distinguishing "paradoxes to be balanced" and "problems to be managed." (I, unfortunately, don't know where that comes from) It also reminds me of Dr. Ron Heifetz's adaptive vs. technical framework as well as the concept of simple, complicated, complex problems that you mention, Allyson. All helpful ways to frame the decision of how to approach issues. Semantics definitely shape our effectiveness as changemakers or problem solvers Thanks for sharing, Lee and Lucy!

Daniel Chavez Moran said...

Perek's absolutely accurate about the role semantics (and semiotics) play in meaning-making. Umberto Eco's written persuasively and at length about these topics. It may sound silly to some to make quibbles over differentiation (see the flak "political correctness" gets), but, at the end of the day, words matter.