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An Unlikely Leadership Framework

Giving Aristotle his Due


To my surprise, in two books that I have read recently, the authors went out of their way to denigrate Aristotle and to do so with almost puerile glee. In both cases, Aristotle was "the Man" to be overthrown and the teacher at whom we can thumb our noses while we run from the classroom. It strikes me as odd because Aristotle, we must remind ourselves, has been dead for 2330 years.

The impulse to denigrate Aristotle of course has a long pedigree. With the rediscovery of many of Aristotle's works in Spain in the 12th century, thanks to the care and commentary of Islamic scholars, he came to be known simply as "the Philosopher". Aristotle's surviving works can rightly be said to have revolutionized western thinking and laid the foundations for, among other things, what we now call science. And in this way did Aristotle very much become "the Man".

Among the things that really distinguishes Aristotle is the fact that he very much was a practicing "scientist" given to compiling endless details on observed phenomena. So unlike many in the field of philosophy, then and now, he was engaged in the practical business of building knowledge. Seeing how long ago his work was carried out, and the state of art that existed at the time, it is less surprising that his scientific works exhibit errors than the fact that in many regards they started the ball rolling in the first place.

To encounter authors in the 21st century who delight in pointing out mistakes in Aristotle's work and celebrating their superiority therewith strikes me as mean-spirited and ungrateful. In at least one case, quite entertainingly, the celebrations were premature because upon closer inspection the Philosopher remained firmly on top.

Once again I am reminded of the Third Voyage in Gulliver's Travels, where Swift summons up the ghost of Aristotle to face his inquisitors:

I then desired the governor to call up Descartes and Gassendi, with whom I prevailed to explain their systems to Aristotle. This great philosopher freely acknowledged his own mistakes in natural philosophy, because he proceeded in many things upon conjecture, as all men must do; and he found that Gassendi, who had made the doctrine of Epicurus as palatable as he could, and the vortices of Descartes, were equally to be exploded. He predicted the same fate to attraction, whereof the present learned are such zealous asserters. He said, "that new systems of nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every age; and even those, who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles, would flourish but a short period of time, and be out of vogue when that was determined."

Jonathan Swift was solid in his knowledge of Aristotle and, I would argue, the words he gives to the Philosopher sound completely appropriate for a seasoned practitioner in the business of applying and refining knowledge.

So we consider the case of the 21st century author who declares triumphantly that Aristotle has, once again, been proven wrong and this time in an area where he had otherwise been universally respected. Aristotle, we learn, argued that knowledge was a categorization system ultimately resting on definitional assertions. Reality, and our psychological perceptions thereof, are intrinsically messy and undermine all attempts at definition. Aristotle, a study of pattern recognition amongst children proves, is wrong in advancing categorization schemes, definitions, logical reasoning and so on as the basis of knowledge. Knowledge it turns out is more slippery than that. And there is a manifest joy exhibited by this author in now being free from the artificial constraint of definitions, from the interference of "experts", and specifically from "the Man".

This is patent nonsense and ironically, but with some justice, the problem is one of definitions. If, as Aristotle would, we define knowledge explicitly as what we formalize and then endeavour to test and refine, the argument that reality itself does not body forth definitions is met with patient agreement. The response that one could imagine Aristotle making, were we to summon him up again, would be "And this is news to you?" And Aristotle would probably continue with something like "Just try to build one of those flying machines without definitions."

If we define knowledge in terms drawn from, and with recourse to our evolving understanding of, the psychology of perception then it would be caught in the ebb and flow of our daily discoveries and debates. On the other hand, if we define knowledge as a more general, and therefore more abstract, artifact, then the usefulness of the term, and discussions around it, will persist and evolve in parallel with our other endeavours. The latter seems the more prudent, and less frustrating, path.

Some discussions of "knowledge", which are a popular adjunct to studies of organizational design and knowledge management, prefer to define knowledge in a way that makes it as prone to definitional turbulence as possible. This way every new paper published can carry a stirring title such as "the new knowledge" or "the death of knowledge". But they are like the weather reporter who choses to define "weather" as a particular type of precipitation. When a sunny day is forecast, this reporter must soberly inform the audience that everything we knew about weather is about to change.

As an example of someone who, perhaps more successfully than anyone before or since, straddled the domains of both knowledge and judgment, Aristotle remains unparalleled. Declarations of his overthrow are very much premature. And in the light of his accomplishments, the mean-spirited efforts of some of this latter day critics looks all the more ridiculous and their motivations all the more questionable.


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