Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Defining the "Real World"

Part 10 of Prisoners of the Real

"The great tradition of the nineteenth century was that science pursues the true nature of the real, pushing back the decimal places of its measurement."

-- C. West Churchman

"Man himself may be controlled by his environment, but it is an environment which is almost wholly of his own making."

-- B.F. Skinner

Consistent with the scientific approach, most leaders see their primary task as making values “operational,” using their analytical powers to help maintain a reasonable world. Loyal to the god of concrete knowledge, they avoid idealism and utopian visions, fleeing from pure thought in a quest for refined practice. Science holds out a seductive promise – objectivity, the ability to see the unvarnished facts. This affection for facts, along with the desire for a rational world order, is rooted linguistically in the 17th century definition of man as a rational being with a rational soul.

Once the term “rational” became part of common English usage, it also began to serve as the basis for a dangerous distinction between humans and other animals. St. Thomas Aquinas had opened the door for this dichotomy four centuries earlier, arguing that while most animals possessed only a "sensitive soul" – otherwise known as instinct, a "rational soul" was divinely implanted in the human fetus. Therefore, he concluded, the behavior of humans – at least human males – depended on reason. Descartes eventually took the idea even farther, celebrating man the “reasoner” while simultaneously insisting that all other living creatures were no more than flesh and blood machines.

By 1750 humanity's unique status – rational rather than "merely animal" – had been combined with the notion of a "rational sovereignty of soul" by groups such as the Rational Christians Society. Before long faith was defined as a rational asset. Aristotle was re-examined and found to suggest that "our rational faculty is the gift of God." According to the emerging wisdom, humans had the capacity to be naturally rational beings, sound in judgment, sane and sensible, and surely not foolish, absurd or extravagant. However, this essentially theological definition implied that possession of a soul wasn't enough. The right of salvation had to be earned through reason – that is, by differentiating between good and evil. Difficult as this might be, the person of “regular life and rational mind” would not despair.

In the 18th and 19th centuries considerable stress was placed on forming opinions through pure or a priori reasoning. Even religion and revelation became matters of sensible evidence or intellectual demonstration. Rational theologians regarded reason as the chief or only guide in matters religious, and explained the apparently supernatural in a manner agreeable to the new standard.

Metaphysicians opposed empiricism and sensationalism, claiming that reason rather than sense was the foundation of certainty in knowledge. This assumption allowed physician-lexicographer Peter Mark Roget to make reason a synonym for consciousness, and to ban intuition as a hollow form of evasion.

In the 1852 edition of his Theosaurus of English Words and Phrases, Roget equated reason with understanding, reflection, meditation and wisdom. Its supposed opposite, intuition, was given synonyms such as chicanery, evasion, perversion, mystification, speciousness, nonsense, hairsplitting and quibbling; in short, it was defined as the absence of reason. Roget's linguistic encyclopedia etched this conceptual error in the language grooves of the Western world.

More recent psychological research has been used to overthrow of the dichotomy of rational vs. instinctive behavior, and the rational nature of human beings has become a social standard that threatens to completely eclipse the idea of a spontaneous or inner nature. Many geneticists predict that the concept of instinct as unlearned behavior is destined to disappear, once scientists fully define the relationships between genes and behavior and determine the specific factors that control the form of various responses. The objective of their systematic analysis of response patterns is to replace instinct with scientifically valid explanations. The theory is that instinct consists of a motivating impulse, the signal or stimulus that releases the behavior, and the sequence of activities that carries it out. It is frequently argued that all three aspects may be learned.

B.F. Skinner welcomed the intention to eliminate the concept of instinct, which he called the notion of autonomous man with his inner agent. Yet he felt that research that was directed inward, seeking physiological correlates of mental activities, simply diverted attention from the external environment. "Evolutionary and environmental histories change an organism, but they are not stored within it," he argued. "Anatomists and physiologists will not find an ape, or a bull, or for that matter instincts (concealed in man's inner self). They will find anatomical and physiological features which are the product of an evolutionary history." All instincts, are merely habits, he argued, and the self is a repertoire of behaviors within our grasp.

In A Guide to Rational Living, an early pop psychology self-help book, psychoanalysts Elbert Ellis and Robert Harper described a method of self-control that fit well with the Skinnerian view. Avoiding completely the idea of instinct, they focused instead on a thought vs. emotion dichotomy. But emotions – defined as physiological responses to stimulus situations and the behaviors that express them – were actually considered forms of thought, the type that could only exist briefly, in extreme situations, without being bolstered by some type of thinking. The task of each human being, they suggested, is to select the appropriate mode of thought and practice its use.

In this way, they resolved the dichotomy. What is usually labeled thinking is "calm and dispassionate appraisal." Emotion, on the other hand, is thinking that is slanted or biased by some past perception or experience. The process of emoting is "semi-logical, fixated, prejudiced or bigoted thought," they wrote. Arguing that it is simply "illogical, stupid and ignorant" not to live rationally, they defined the term as "not foolish or silly; sensible; leading to efficient results, producing desired effects with a minimum of expense."

Humans are happiest, they argued, when they discipline their thoughts. The way to do this is by using observation and analysis for the self-regulation of emotions, since biological tendencies lead human beings to act in "ridiculous, prejudiced, amazingly asinine ways." Such views are entirely consistent with the 17th century interpretation of madness as the loss of rational truth.

For Ellis and Harper, as for renaissance men, the norm was reason and any divergence was irrational. Though they stopped short of calling for disciplinary action in cases where someone failed to live rationally, they strongly urged that this is the only mature choice. And if one was "too emotionally blocked" to benefit from their approach, they simply suggested "working, working and (yes, everlastingly) working at it." Thus, rational living was linked directly to discipline and work. For these psychoanalysts and many of their self-help successors, work means dedication to scientific self-analysis, and idleness is submission to biased thought.

Although this simplistic approach to rationalism distorts the Platonic concept of truth as a synthesis of intuition and analysis, it nonetheless owes much to Plato's philosophy. Any study of rationalism will eventually lead to the chronicler of Socrates, since Plato's assumptions concerning the individual and society served as a main springboard for European thought over the following 2400 years. Rationalists such as Descartes, Hobbes, Diderot and Hegel enlarged upon and further refined many of the principles articulated in Plato's Meno, The Republic, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, and other dialogues.

Pythagoras, who coined the term philosophy, felt it had a mystical as well as an intellectual basis. And like Pythagoras, Plato often transcended the clear boundaries of reason, constructing a philosophy of organism that paired the temporal and the eternal, the actual and the potential, the operational and the ideal. Nevertheless, Plato's legacy has been an extended philosophical excursion within the arbitrary boundaries of rational thought, a vain search for the "true nature of the real."

Next: Questions of Knowledge


The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

Anatomy of Insecurity

Managers and Their Tools

The Corporate Way of Life

The Dictatorship of Time

Rules for Rationals

The Age of Adaptability

Living with Rational Management

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