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The College of Mentats: Mentat Naivety

This article was originally written for The College of Mentats - a special-interest group within the IOT Pact.

The College of Mentats concept is directly inspired by the figure of the Mentat - the 'human computer' - from Frank Herbert's "Dune" series. Herbert mentions several aspects of Mentat functioning, one such being "Mentat Naivety." Over the last two years or so, I have taken up this concept and attempted to discover if it has any practical application in magical and magic-related situations.

The idea here is that when approaching a problem, we tend to be constrained by what we already "know" about it. The Mentat applies his skills to deal with other people's problems and, as such, this technique seems to work very well when you are working with another person. In any type of problem-solving for another person, the Mentat is limited by what that person tells them. The Mentat needs data to function, so by assuming a position of naivety, the Mentat questions the other person, in order to gain as much information as possible about the subject under discussion.

For example, I was asked by Fra. N to come up with some ideas that would help him to structure a day-workshop on Runic Magic. So my first act, from a position of naivety was to ask him what people need to be able to do to practice Runic Magic. The results were on the lines of:

  1. Need to know what the runes are
  2. Recognise/Memorise shapes and attributions
  3. Need to be able to visualise
  4. to chant
  5. use postures
  6. formulate Statement of Intent
  7. Use appropriate Runes for SI
  8. Create bind-runes, etc

Once we had broken the subject into discrete areas - elements of theory, technique and application, it was relatively easy to structure a day-workshop sequence. One suggestion for example was a period where attendants split up into sub-groups, formulated a Statement of Intent, and designed an appropriate bind-rune for it. This would have been preceded by information on how to formulate a SI, and how to use bind-runes.

Naivety questioning is particularly suited for getting to grips with large subjects or problems, particularly when one is unsure about from which point to approach them. It is also useful when attempting to examine areas where the information is "implicit" rather than "explicit" - i.e. where it is assumed that both parties "know" what needs to be discussed, but that that information has not been clearly defined. A practical example in this respect might be in attempting to structure magical training programmes, where we might assume that people implicitly "know" what 'makes a good magician,' but without finding out specifically what these criteria are, the planning discussion might end up going round in circles, as conflicts due to different (unstated) opinions arise.

An example of Mentat Naivety directly related to practical magic would be of a person approaching you for magical assistance with getting a job. In such a case, I would ask the querent what factors are required to realise this desire - and suggest a series of linked workings to begin the process at an appropriate level. For example, if the person lacks confidence in social situations, then confidence-building work would be an appropriate point to begin work from.

Naivety Questioning circumvents a problem area in intervention - which is that when trying to suggest possible courses of action to deal with another person's problem, one is limited in one's understanding of the problem. So solutions suggested are often negated by the other person - "That won't work." This tends to irritate the person making the suggestions, so that he is reluctant to make further suggestions. This happens because the person with the problem has all the information, and the other person is limited to what they have been told. Also, the person who has the problem is likely to have exhausted all the 'easy' answers.
Naivety questioning avoids this loop behaviour by drawing out as much possible information as possible, allowing the problem to be solved by both parties. This latter point is particularly important, as it avoids the situation where one person is "rescuing" another from their problem. Mutual competency is stressed when dealing with the problem, as the Mentat cannot suggest strategies without the expertise and information from the other person.

This technique has multiple applications - from deciding appropriate strategies for magical action to project management. It can be used to develop vague ideas into discrete steps which can be easily actioned or evaluated. It can also be used in conjunction with techniques such as Brainstorming or Stream-Of-Consciousness Lists.