Thirty years ago, Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Actions reminded us of the limits of our ability to control outcomes by careful, thoughtful planning. She analyzed the utter failure of early “smart” photocopiers to help people make copies. The designers and programmers of these “smart” machines assumed that formal, decision-tree descriptions of copy-making were sufficient for teaching and guiding action. If you want to produce two-sided copies, press button one; if you want to copy one-sided from a bound book, press button two. There was a mismatch between the orderly, step-by-step procedures of the engineers and computer programmers and the hard-to-formalize skills by which actual people navigate tasks. Consequently, smart copiers often confused and annoyed those who tried to use them.

Suchman’s remarkable analysis offers many examples of how we actually tackle complex tasks. Her clearest is a description of what a canoer does in white water:

In planning to run a series of rapids in a canoe, one is very likely to sit for a while above the falls and plan one’s descent. The plan might go something like “I’ll get as far over to the left as possible, try to make it between those two large rocks, then backferry hard to the right to make it around that next bunch.” A great deal of deliberation, discussion, simulation, and reconstruction may go into such a plan. But, however detailed, the plan stops short of the actual business of getting your canoe through the falls. When it really comes down to the details of responding to currents and handling a canoe, you effectively abandon the plan and fall back on whatever embodied skills are available to you.

The actual running of the river Suchman calls “situated action.” Situated action relies on “embodied” skills: intuitive reactions, ways of “feeling” your way through the river, a knack for reading the current and responding to surprises. The skills for success in situated action develop through the experience of doing similar actions; although an expert guide is a valuable trainer, he knows that the best teacher is time spent on white water.

Embodied skill comes into play in most complex human tasks, and it goes by many names. Chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi called it “tacit knowledge” (in his book, The Tacit Dimension), finding it present in even the most systematic natural sciences. Political scientist and anthropologist James Scott, in Seeing Like a State, calls it “metis,” the localized, context-sensitive knowledge so often ignored or suppressed by government and corporate planning. Economist Friedrich Hayek, in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, called it “evolutionary rationalism,” the localized norms and flexible practices whose “intelligence” was invisible to state planners. Embodied skill-in-doing appears in accounts which range across communication theory, public policy, and natural science, and which span the political spectrum. This attests to the ubiquity and importance of the gap between formal accounts of action and action itself.

The presence of the gap between good planning and successful completion of tasks does not mean that we ought to abandon planning and rely on embodied skill alone. Plans and embodied skill are integrally related. Before we begin a skilled activity, we use plans to organize our thoughts about how to succeed. After we have completed a task, we turn again to the language of plans to organize our reflections about our successes and failures in order to learn and improve.

Suchman’s expert canoer does not forego planning. Before he enters the rapids, he will analyze the river and describe his approach in abstractions—diagrams on paper or in his head—although he knows that his plan is not enough to get him through. Even when he comes out of the rapids, the schematics of planning reappear in his description of what he just did: “When I realized that I could not make it between those two rocks, I abandoned the plan to keep left, and paddled like mad to the right without backferrying.” Explicit planning provides the vocabulary for us to think about our improvisations and integrate them into future plans.

If it is a mistake to proceed into the rapids without a plan, it is worse to plan as if the embodied skills so necessary to success on the water do not exist. When a canoer draws up a strategy to attack the rapids, he knows well that he will need more than a mental map and diagrammatic arrows to get through in one piece. A good plan will rely on embodied skills, even though embodied skills cannot be articulated in the plan. The purpose of the plan is to place him in the best position to allow those skills to take over. The mastery of the canoer—his ability to bring white water skills to bear on new and unexpected challenges—is found in the ongoing interplay of plans that respect the need for embodied skills and embodied skills shaped by the reasonableness of plans.

In a technocratic culture such as ours, formal plans dominate the discourse of public policy and corporate management. It is easy to lose sight of embodied skill. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott documents the damage done by technocratic planners when they ignore embodied skills and local knowledge. High modernist urban planners like Le Corbusier proposed elegant plans for cities. Square-footage calculations and tidy functional zones overlooked the tacit abilities of human beings to order their communal lives in spontaneous ways. The result of these over-theorized urban plans was inhuman wastelands—Scott’s example is center-city Brasilia—surrounded by chaotic “unplanned” communities in which people actually live. Scott tells similar stories about plans for the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union and Tanzania, and the rationalization of production in business enterprises in both capitalist and communist countries.

Friedrich Hayek repeatedly contrasted the mentality of planners, confident in their ability to collect and manipulate all of the information relevant to complex interaction, with the private knowledge and unseen efforts of individuals. Much of the information that guides and motivates economic activity can only be discovered through the efforts of individuals, who have access to that information at the local level, and whose activities and incentives do not appear in the measurements and goals of planners. To plan as if the collection and utilization of local information by millions of individuals can be taken for granted is a recipe for economic stagnation, according to Hayek. Economic activity is more like shooting rapids than doing calculations, which is why maintaining a substantial scope for market freedom produces better results than heavy-handed planning.

The wide-ranging body of research on the gap between articulated knowing and inarticulate doing focuses on skilled activities like canoeing and farming and on the development and adjustment of fine-grained local knowledge and institutions. The insights of this literature—that plans are least effective when they ignore embodied skill, and are most effective when they make space for activities and abilities which cannot be formally articulated—apply equally to those most general of all embodied skills, the virtues.

Virtue philosophers going back to Aristotle make much of the analogy between the skills embodied in practical expertise and the virtues embodied in the successful project of a life well led. Philosopher Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue, builds her analysis of virtue on the analogy: “Exercising a virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind that can illuminatingly be compared to the kind of reasoning we find in someone exercising a practical skill.” Aristotle compares the virtues to the proficiency of the doctor, the navigator, and the musician. The virtues reveal that there is a gap between our descriptions of a good life and our capacity for living a good life.

Aristotle’s articulation of the virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics is itself a formal account of human action. He begins by admitting that his description falls short as a complete practical guide: “But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely . . . as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.” Imprecision in guidance for good living is a result of contingency: “Matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health.” Aristotle observes, “The agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion.” A good outline of life well lived is certainly better than a bad outline, but it is up to the acting person to discern in the circumstances that confront him which human goods are achievable and how best to secure them. When we move from reflection on the good life to actually living it, the virtues fill in the outline. They are the “embodied skills” for life considered as a whole.

A manual of good living will never be sufficient for living well, in the same way that a manual for white water canoeing will not get you through the rapids. To live a good life, you need more: formation in the virtues under a skilled, experienced person who already embodies in his habits and intelligence the virtues and experience of living. What the practically wise mentor imparts is not formal knowledge or detailed orders to be followed uncritically; his goal and yours is that you develop the embodied virtues that enable you to live well on your own.

To complain that virtue theories are deficient because they do not give enough specific guidance is akin to complaining that a diagram for navigating the rapids is not enough to get through safely, or that a by-the-numbers guide to playing the violin is insufficient for making beautiful violin music. “It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits,” Aristotle reminds us. We should not offer detailed guidance when embodied skills and virtues are needed. If you want to learn the violin, you must put yourself under the authority of someone who can already play, by whose direction, example, and exhortation you might be able to play yourself. In the same way, if you want to learn to live well, you need the guidance of someone who lives well. It helps if your parents can play that role. Under their guidance and formation, you develop the virtues necessary to live well, too.

What is true for the good life is true for the good society. A technocratic approach to public policy is by its nature abstract. Public policy analysis creates a working map of society and assumes a set of rules by which society functions. For example, the analysis of poverty begins with measurements of household size, of income, health, and material need. These households, indexed by measurable characteristics, are embedded in an equally abstract environment, indexed by measures of economic opportunity, housing availability, and educational resources. Researchers employ another set of abstractions to describe how households translate the resources and opportunities available to them into outcome measures (child health, domestic violence, employment, nutrition, and so forth). This dynamic, abstract map of society allows planners to evaluate the predicted effects of various policy interventions: income supports, community economic development, better educational resources, and other policy “treatments.”

Much good has come from social science modeling of this sort. Models of human behavior in circumscribed social environments allow us to discern both desirable and undesirable incentives and the effects of institutional structure. They help us order our thoughts about policy. The machinery of social measurement has enabled us to understand the spread of diseases, the impact of welfare programs, and the sources of economic growth. I would not advise that we abandon public policy modeling any more than I would advise a kayaker to enter the rapids without scouting the river and sketching out a plan.

But a public policy planner should not plan as if embodied skills and virtues were unnecessary to the functioning of a healthy society. Even though virtues are invisible in the formal descriptions of policy planners, they are crucial to the success of any plan. Governments can provide material resources to a poor neighborhood, but those resources can be turned into human flourishing only through human agency, and human agency is governed by virtue. Even generous resources and opportunities can be squandered if the virtues are lacking, and meager resources and opportunities can generate great gains when the virtues are present.

This is not to argue against government generosity, nor does it entail blaming the poor. The virtues are crucial to policy success, even though their genesis and operation find no place in technocratic models. Social scientists are becoming more aware of this. Even when they are not identified as prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, the classic list, the virtues are finding a more prominent place in public policy discussions. Social workers speak of teaching clients to make “good life choices”; economists are drawing attention to the crucial importance of “non-cognitive skills,” such as the ability to postpone gratification and to cooperate with others. It is widely recognized that healthy, intact families produce children with skills and attitudes that are crucial to well-being. These virtues transform opportunity into steady work. They maintain flourishing families and neighborhoods, and sustain the private institutions of civil society.

The technocrat who acknowledges a role for virtue faces an intriguing challenge. How do you draw up a plan for action when the virtues crucial to the success of the plan cannot be included explicitly in its formal structures and measured components?

The literature on embodied skills and planning offers guidance:

1. Acknowledge the blindness of plans. Formal, abstract plans can be powerful tools, and should not be abandoned, but they must be seen for what they are: crucially incomplete. Having limited vision is most dangerous when you refuse to acknowledge your blind spots.

2. Be humble about the goals of planning. The variety of challenges facing any individual or community and the range of resources available to meet those challenges cannot be comprehensively described in the planning process. Particular challenges must be addressed by virtuous people who are on-site—by parents, neighbors, friends, teachers, and local leaders. Healthy communities of virtuous people adapt to surprises and local contingencies, but only if they are allowed to.

3. Take small steps. Planners cannot anticipate all the challenges faced by those on the ground, nor can they fully anticipate the creative adjustments of virtuous people. They should leave room in their plans for adjustment and backtracking. Scope for free action is a necessary part of any well-formulated plan.

4. Leave space for virtue. Virtues develop through practice and reflection. They decay when they are not used. The virtues are most fully employed when people have responsibility for themselves in their communal life; they wither when responsibility is taken away, or when creative initiative is treated like a threat to the plan. Empowerment is much championed these days. It is to be encouraged here, but doing so requires a role for responsibility, which means “planned” freedom for unplanned actions.

The good news is that it is possible for a plan to take into account skills and knowledge that cannot be included in its formal structure. In a recent, updated edition of her study, Suchman describes how programming has changed in light of our improved understanding of how humans learn and employ new technologies. Today a computer programmer is less likely to design an app (or any other kind of program) under the assumption that he knows exactly how it will be used and to what ends it will be put. A good programmer designs flexible platforms that can be adapted and employed in creative ways by the end user.

Something similar has happened in corporate mentoring programs. They pair experienced employees with new hires in the hope that the skills and knowledge of the new employee will develop under the personal guidance of someone with experience. The inarticulate “skill transfer” from one employee to another—through friendship, example, encouragement, authoritative advice—cannot be fully articulated in a corporate strategy document, but a smart employer recognizes its existence and importance.

The recognition that embodied skills play an important role in society changes the relationship between abstract planners and those they plan for: the community of app users, the skilled workforce, and more. Similarly, the recognition that virtue is fundamental to healthy human community ought to change the object of public policy planning. Society is more than a reified abstraction, an engineering problem to be manipulated by experts. It is a polity whose life is dynamic, full of the promise and perils of personal agency and virtue. The planner is the servant, not the master, of the community employing him. Although his abstractions and measurements are useful, they do not contain all relevant knowledge for good policy. They are but outlines of a richer reality that can be described only imprecisely. The planner is a partner, not a technocratic overlord. Policy itself becomes more like politics in the classic sense: a deliberation about the good life and the place of the virtues in it, in which modern technocratic method is not the whole game.

Andrew M. Yuengert is Blanche E. Seaver Chair of Social Science and professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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