John Boyd writes about fingerspitzengefuhl. When you see the term in writing, the author says, “This word is hard to translate.” Then the author says it means “fingertip touch.” That’s not a bad description, since in a sense it refers to interaction between fingers and the brain. It also refers to interaction between any part of the body and brain, and most broadly, interaction between you as a thinking entity and how you act.

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John Boyd

Here are some examples of fingerspitzengefuhl that stay pretty close to the literal meaning:

  • Improvisation or performance of a complicated piece on the piano
  • A similar performance on any musical instrument
  • Mountain biking, skiing, trail running
  • Pinball, video games
  • Soaring, hang gliding
  • Chess
  • Military operations in war time
  • Dogfighting
  • Sword fighting
  • Football, baseball, hockey, basketball
  • Seduction
  • Negotiation

You have the idea now. A general definition that fits all these examples would be fine sensitivity, sure instinct or great situational awareness.

John Boyd tied this idea to the so-called OODA loop. The letters in this acronym stand for:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

Think of the OODA loop as a process, one that applies especially well to situations of conflict. For people who are good in these kinds of activities, the loop unfolds rapidly. We can discuss the OODA loop in greater detail later, especially in connection with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings.

Ten years ago, I bought Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd for my dad, who like Boyd was a fighter pilot. My dad fought in World War II; Boyd fought in the Korean War. If you like to read biographies of leaders, pick up Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. If you hear an echo of Sun Tzu in that title, that’s not an accident.

Boyd developed a theory of warfare – and of conflict more generally – that emphasizes psychological elements of conflict. Since this post can’t briefly summarize his adaptation of ancient theories of war to modern conflicts, download this well edited version of his comprehensive slide deck, Patterns of Conflict. It is worth your time.

Appendix: Current Conflict

I’ve wanted to think about how fingerspitzengefuhl and the OODA loop might apply to civil conflict. For a long time I have advocated planned, non-violent resistance to our government. I suggested this resistance come from the states. Interestingly, after November 2016, groups formed around the country, openly calling themselves the Resistance. Locally organized groups are the political actors best equipped to secure freedom. Citizens acting together within their own states have the best chance of success.

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We also need ways to share what works well for groups with these aims, and what does not. These practical questions are tied to larger questions that attract philosophers of history. How do republics fail or decline? How do governments that husband republics lose their authority and effectiveness? Lastly, why do some leaders fail so spectacularly, and others succeed? We want to keep these questions in the background as we consider effective means to save ourselves.

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