The Power of Fingerspitzengefühl

An e-mail appeared a few weeks ago asking an interesting question about Fingerspitzengefühl:

I am particularly interested in the concept of Fingerspitzengefühl, which I interpret as an intuitive understanding of a situation. This concept sounds something like what my wife described to me about her work. She’s a surgeon who talks about being able to “see with her fingertips” during an operation. This sounds a lot like “Fingerspitzengefühl”. What do you think?

I think he’s right. We sometimes regard Fingerspitzengefühl as the simple component of Boyd’s organizational climate, EBFAS (for an explanation, please see my paper and accompanying presentation, “All By Ourselves,” available for free download from the Articles page.) But Boyd certainly did not. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to conclude that it lies at the core of his philosophy — simply put, if you don’t have Fingerspitzengefühl for some capability, then you don’t have the capability in any meaningful sense.

Here’s what Boyd wrote about tactics, for example (Strategic Game, Chart 45):

We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.

If we can do this, we will be able to surface new repertoires and (hopefully) develop a Fingerspitzengefühl for folding our adversaries back inside themselves, morally-mentally-physically—so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s happening—without suffering the same fate ourselves.

[All of Boyd’s unclassified works are also available for free download from the Articles page.]

With that in mind, I asked Chuck Spinney if we were on the right track. Here’s what he wrote back to me and to the author of the original e-mail:

You are correct about Fingerspitzengefühl being a reference to an intuitive understanding of a situation. Boyd (and I) first became of aware of its importance during some debriefing sessions a group of us had with Col. Hans Rudel, the famous German Stuka pilot in WWII in the late 70s. [CR Note: For more detail on Rudel see his autobiography, Stuka Pilot and the transcripts of the Rudel interviews at this link.] Rudel used the term repeatedly and very casually, and we were not entirely sure what he meant, but it became obvious that Rudel thought it was important. That captured Boyd’s attention, and Pierre Sprey, Boyd’s close colleague, who was present at these meeting and speaks fluent German, was able to explain the term to the rest of us. It took a while for all of us to appreciate the import of what Rudel meant when he used the expression. And in fact, the German military attaché, Col. Hasso von Uslar {sp?} helped Boyd develop this idea.

Fingerspitzengefühl is one of those delightful German mashed-word expressions that, once understood, conveys a far richer meaning that the words themselves, which literally (I think) mean something like finger tip touch. I remember particularly one discussion a small group of us had when Rudel was talking about returning to a battlefield after being away from it for a few days. He said that was when the battlefield was most dangerous because his Fingerspitzengefühl was not up to date (my words). Essentially, as I came to understand it (or at least the way Boyd understood it and explained to me), the word conveys a general summing of a fluid situation by continually probing and testing the environment. It is a synthesis (as opposed to an analysis) of the situation, if you will, and it becomes implicit or buried in one’s Orientation to that situation. It enables one to intuitively and quickly understand the flow of Observations flowing into and subtly changing the Orientation — in that sense Fingerspitzengefühl is at the heart of the functioning of the OODA loop in a competitive or time sensitive situation requiring quick decisions and actions.

I find your wife’s impressions extremely interesting in this regard. Her “little voice” is, I think, a variation of what Rudel was referring to. What is most fascinating is that her experience is quite literal, in that she is actually seeing with her fingertips during a procedure. Of course Rudel could not do this literally, but his actions, including spending time with troops on the ground and doing reconnaissance before he led his squadron on missions, was a constant probing and testing to evolve an intuitive feel for the unfolding situation — which is what I suspect your wife is doing, whether consciously or not.

Incidentally, Sun Tzu emphasized a continuous projection into and testing of the environment, as did Napoleon and the Mongols. One sees hints of this in Grant’s memoirs in the way he learned from mistakes. I believe they would immediately understand Rudel’s intuitive feel for the battlefield and perhaps even what your wife is talking about. Clausewitiz, on the hand, might throw Fingerspitzengefühl into the intellectual black box he called “genius” — he knew something was there, but he did not understand it. Boyd’s OODA Loop, for better or worse, is one man’s attempt to get inside and understand that black box.

One thing I am quite positive about is that Rudel’s discussion of Fingerspitzengefühl had an enormous impact on Boyd’s thinking with regard to the intuitive character of the OODA loop. I saw it when it happened and we talked about it tens if not hundreds of times afterward. Boyd was probably fascinated in part because he saw something of himself in it. He used his intuitive side when he was a fighter pilot and later when he evolved the revolutionary Energy-Maneuverability theory of basic Newtonian physics. As Chet can tell you better than I, Boyd was a mathematical genius (i.e., he had an amazing, really eery, Fingerspitzengefühl for evolving original mathematical ideas — an he was entirely self taught as a mathematician!) If you have not done so, you might want to look at this briefing about the intellectual foundations of the OODA loop — particularly the sections about implicit guidance and control toward the end of it. Those ideas were definitely a reflection of the impact Rudel had on the evolution of Boyd’s ideas.

I hope this helps — remember it is just one person’s Orientation.

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10 thoughts on “The Power of Fingerspitzengefühl

  1. I’ve equated it to “coup d’oeil”, visual rather than tactile metaphor. “Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement”, William Duggan, loc650-52: Armed with our knowledge of modern neuroscience we can look back on the coup d’oeil of von Clausewitz and see that it is the same basic idea of a flash of insight from intelligent memory. Thomas Kuhn applied it to scientific advance, Gary Klein applied it to experts in action, and von Clausewitz applied it to strategy.

    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks. I think it’s a little different than a sudden flash of insight. As Rudel and Boyd used it, it seems to owe more to Zen (as explained in Cleary’s The Japanese Art of War, another favorite of Boyd’s) than to Clausewitz.


      • rather than “flash” … this description closer to ZEN, “On War” (Carl von Clausewitz) pg40/loc1167-68: From the coup d’oeil and resolution we are naturally to speak of its kindred quality, PRESENCE OF MIND, which in a region of the unexpected like War must act a great part, for it is indeed nothing but a great conquest over the unexpected.

      • well then … “Panzer Leader: (Heinz Guderian), loc90-93: It is clear, too, that he possessed most of the qualities that distinguished the ‘Great Captains’ of history—coup d’œil, a blend of acute observation with swift-sure intuition; the ability to create surprise and throw the opponent off balance; the speed of thought and action that allows the opponent no chance of recovery; the combination of strategic and tactical sense; the power to win the devotion of troops and get the utmost out of them.

      • Lynn,

        Interesting line of inquiry, many thanks! I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but the idea that a flash of insight / coup d’oeil would affect orientation (“presence of mind”) certainly seems reasonable. But I can see a few problems equating the concept of coup d’oeil with Fingerspitengefühl in the sense that Rudel and Boyd used it. For one thing, what if you don’t happen to have one when you need it? This is not something the samurai, drawing on Zen, were willing to risk. Nor Boyd as a fighter pilot. Yet the concept of Fingerspitengefühl fits well with how they both operated. Another is that such a “flash of genius” tends to lock orientation (it’s a flash of “genius” after all).

        But a more fundamental problem is that a flash of insight is really just a hypothesis, a guess. As Chuck pointed out, it has to be tested, and you have to learn from the results. Worse, in a deception operation, you’re counting on your opponent having a coup d’oeil that fits well with both his previous orientation and with the unfolding situation. As Sun Tzu put it, you want to “accord deceptively with the intentions of the enemy.” (Cleary trans., p. 161) The enemy’s mental picture is logical and compelling. Just wrong. The longer it locks his orientation, the better. In business, as I’m sure you well remember, the boss’s flashes of genius can cause no end of problems.

        I’m certainly not arguing that people don’t have such epiphanies and that (as Clausewitz suggested) they affect orientation. But it might be more useful from a strategic sense to focus on building mental models that make accurate predictions — itself a definition of “orientation” — and on acquiring repertoires that flow from these models. Boyd summarizes this approach in The Essence of Winning and Losing. If you have a “coup d’oeil” along the way, great, assuming of course that it’s effective. And that you continue to probe and test the environment and learn from the results.


  2. Gents,

    I just want to amplify and clarify something that Chuck alluded to. In German “Fingerspitzengefühl” can mean both an intuitive knowledge of how to do something through dint of training and mental preparation, but it also means having a sense of knowing when to do it in terms of the environment. For example, a good diplomat knowing when and how to make his points effectively without insulting an adversary would be said to be using “Fingerspitzengefühl” as well. It is knowing both how to do something as well as when and in the best manner to do it, and there is always a flavor of dealing with the external environment associated with it. German is a complicated language, and many of its idioms resist simple translation. There is an entire, almost three dimensional, aspect to this term, which is why Boyd probably liked it so much.

    So there is my two-cents, or as we say in German, “meine senf dazu”.

    Dean Lenane

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