Learning is the Opposite of Healing

I was trying to analyze the difference between various ways of learning-by-doing, and came up with a 2×2 that captures an idea that is in hindsight very obvious: learning is the opposite of healing. Learning is an activity with a high failure rate, and therefore high probability of damage and injury. Which means the opposite is an activity that heals. I got to the idea by taking what I consider the three basic kinds of learning (goal-directed or project-based, habit-directed or play-based, and recipe-directed or rote-based, corresponding to the three ethical orientations), classifying them by certainty in means versus certainty of ends, and realizing that you could complete a 2×2 like so.


Moral of the story: always complete a triad into a 2×2. You don’t know what obvious-in-hindsight idea you might be missing. By performance in the diagram, I mean an activity that is expected to result in the generation of value in the external world, through some sort of means-ends reasoning. By this definition, ritual that is informed by sincere and literal belief in religious ideas is not actually ritualistic. It belongs in one of the other three quadrants (usually recipe-directed), even though it is based on unproven or false causation models.

This 2×2 suggests that there is or ought to be a distinct ethics associated with ritual-directed behavior, similar to deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics informing the first 3 quadrants. I think it is ironic ethics. To do something in a genuinely ritualistic way is to do it ironically. This is why the anti-performance label works.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This “always complete a triad to 2×2” rubric is a familiar construction in mathematics, called a “pullback diagram” or “fiber product”. If you have two functions f: A->X and g:B->X, the pullback is the set of pairs {(a,b)} where a is in A and b is in B, that map the same place in X, i.e. f(x)=g(x). Two extreme cases: if A and B are subsets of X, then this computes the intersection; whereas if X is a point {x} (so both maps are stupid, everything goes to the same x), then this is the ordinary product.

    It’s not quite the same thought process as yours, because you generally don’t have a function from the NE corner to the SE corner, etc.

  2. It seems like you could flip this in terms of teaching, and line up different teaching methods with perceived learning states. It also seems to bring up an environment vs genetics debate when looking at movement between states.

  3. Not only do you find new ideas, but I always find at least one element of comedy gold in these 2x2s. In this case: Know What To Do, Don’t Know What You Want: Ritual-Directed.

  4. Marc Hamann says

    A candidate for ritual based morality is Confucianism. Confucius had a strong sense that playing predefined roles and performing rites was essential to a well functioning society, even if the roles are somewhat arbitrary or rites have no other practical effects.

  5. I’m not following how the NE corner is “habit directed”. I think of habits as something one does automatically but perhaps without purpose, really closer to what you’re describing as ritual directed.

    • A habit in my mind is a functional behavior that is normally on autopilot but easily accessible to introspection and scrutiny for change.

      A ritual is the same, except it is either non-functional or has a function unknown to the individual (or the individual understands it in a somewhat mystical way), and is protected from change by having a sacred status.

  6. Is comedy ritual? I struggle to grasp the concept. The phrase “destructive innovation” defines this era of my life though.