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“Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality”
Because of our inherent uniqueness, it stands to reason that our world views may also be unique. This, in turn, introduces the possibility of ambiguity, as conflicting perceptions collide.
But for this to be true, surely there must be evidence of it throughout history?
Western thinking approaches are strongly influenced by the work of the ancient Greeks, who contemplated their philosophical position in areas such as truth and logic. Attributed to Plato, the Principle of the Excluded Middle states that “any judgment that anything is or is not states either what is true or what is false.”[i] In other words, for every proposition, either its positive or negative form must be true. Plato is also credited with the Principle of Non-Contradiction, which means nothing can be simultaneously true AND false. Aristotle later wrote that he believed these laws to be a part of the “foundation of thought”[ii] . And we can certainly see evidence of this way of thinking in modern approaches to philosophy, and science… and even in the (comparatively) new areas of business management and leadership. Even so, there have been discussions around the ambiguities in theories and philosophies throughout history – in particular, how the more stringent tenets might fit into reality.
Many of the western philosophers and scientists developed approaches that, when viewed side-by-side, may seem directly at odds with each other. Consider the social contract theorists John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. In 1651, Hobbes theorised that man’s natural state was one of perpetual war, based on innate qualities of greed and selfishness, and thus required a single source of power greater than the two to maintain order[iii] . Locke, in 1689, revisited this concept and theorised that man possessed an innate sense of community that would always be stronger than their individual senses of greed and self-interest [iv]. If we were to consider these approaches against the context of business today, we can imagine different circumstances in which each of these theories might be the most applicable. For example, in times of great risk to life, extremely short timeframes or even significant financial risk, acting in alignment with Hobbes’ single source of power might seem appropriate (perhaps implementing directive or traditional leadership). However, when seeking to build team resilience or engage creativity, Locke’s approach would allow a different set of options (such as e.g. servant, transformational or perhaps ethical leadership), by tapping into the team’s sense of community.
In addition, the tenets of Ethics have similar examples. Take for example Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism (in which the end will justify the means taken) [v] , which differs greatly from that of Kantian ethics (in both formulations of his Categorical Imperative, it is the intention that determines morality) [vi]. They are effectively opposites – Kant is only concerned with the act itself, while utilitarianism only with the result of that act. In the context of leadership and business, it is (again) easy to recall different situations that might better suit each approach. For example, one might be more inclined to apply Kantian ethics to situations when dealing with the management of staff members (where the means may be of superior importance), yet apply a more utilitarianism approach when dealing with competitors in the market place (where the benefits of competitive advantage suggest the ends may actually be superior).
But what about the philosophies of the East? Interestingly, civilisations who had less influence from the Greeks appear to have more appetite for contradiction. In fact, it is acknowledged that between the ancient Sanskrit texts there is an accepted “certain ambiguity ”[vii].
We might consider Eastern logical tradition of catuskoti, which is “a fourfold method of argumentation typical in Indian culture”[viii] . In this approach, we find an interpretation of truth that is wider that what has been generally defines by the West. While catuskoti contains the Western logic of (i) TRUE, or (ii) FALSE, it also contains two additional functions: (iii) BOTH true AND false, and; (iv) NEITHER true NOR false. Catuskoti is evident in the Dharmic [ix] and Buddhist[x] traditions, in the same way that the teachings of Plato and Aristotle may be seen in the Western and Middle Eastern religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Interestingly, there also appear to be differences in the language of truth between the East (Indian, Buddhist and Japanese) and the West that may help explain differences in cultural and logical processes. They appear largely at 3 levels, at how East and West: performs their cognitive processes; conceives reality; and the mechanisms in which they then create meaning[xi] .
Evidence of Eastern traditions in the West.
Interestingly, western science appears to also have recognised a version of catuskoti. Stretching back as far as the fourth century B.C., when Pyrrho of Elis founded the school of sceptical philosophy. His philosophy was expanded by other ancient Greek philosophers, who held three arguments that were based within (i) the judgement of the subject; (ii) the object that is judged, or; (iii) BOTH the subject who judges AND the object that is judged. [xii] Interestingly, it is generally believed that Pyrrho “picked up ideas in India while in the train of Alexander the Great”. Even more astounding, his teachings were later purported to return to influence Chinese thought [xiii] – suggesting, in turn, strong parallels between Pyrrhonian scepticism of the West and Madhyamaka Buddhism [xiv] in the East.
Synergies between East and West are also evident through the study of logic. The 19th century mathematician Augustus De Morgan formulated mathematical laws that held possibilities beyond the limitations of the Aristotle’s foundation of thought concepts (i.e. those of TRUE and FALSE). They would later characterise logician Nuel Belnap’s theories [xv] – which provided rules (such as Belnap’s First-Degree Entailment) that can, in certain situations, “falsify logical laws or verify contradictions” [xvi].
We will, however, leave for another discussion further exploration of approaches outside binary outcomes, including Schrodinger’s cat, and quantum experiments such as Young’s double slit experiments from the 19th century. For our purposes, it enough to note that the quantum realm also does not seem to adhere to the strict principles of Excluded Middle and Non-Contradiction.
Leadership decisions are rarely binary.
Despite being largely influenced by the early Greek philosophers, there are still approaches that consider possible outcomes to be more than “true” or “false” situations. This is important to remember, because as business leaders we must be comfortable operating in ambiguity.
Modern approaches that may assist us in addressing contradictory or incomplete information include Belnpa’s use of De Morgan’s laws, mimicking the ancient Eastern tradition of catuskoti. They all effectively give four possible outcomes:
- BOTH true and false.
- NEITHER true NOR false.
But as a business leader, how do we interpret this?
Consider the above four options in a scenario in which we have to operate without complete information to deliver against a strategic goal:
- Our results may be perfect, therefore all possible benefits may flow to the business (TRUE);
- Our results may fail in every way, and deliver us nothing (FALSE);
- (Most likely) as we execute the strategy, we may see results that have a combination of both good (TRUE) and bad (FALSE) outcome (BOTH); and
- Poor leaders may simply choose to abdicate their responsibilities completely, and take no action, which may result in no benefits or costs being created (NEITHER).
In truth, with the complexities of the business world as it is today, our choices should never be considered as binary.
[i] Jairo Jose Da Silva, “On the Principle of Excluded Middle: 346
[ii] Ragnar Bergem,”Transgressions: Erich Przywara, G. W. F. Hegel, and the Principle of Non-Contradiction”: 13
[iii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or, the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil
[iv] Locke, John. An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government
[v] Gustafsson, Johan E. “Bentham’s Binary Form of Maximizing Utilitarianism.”: 88
[vi] William Shaw, Moral Issues in Business: 65
[vii] Purushottama Bilimoria, “Thinking Negation in Early Hinduism and Classical Indian Philosophy.”: 14.
[viii] Wanjoong Kim. “The Limitation of Language and an Ambiguous Way of Knowing: A Comparative Theological Study of Cyril of Alexandria and Nagarjuna.”: 148
[ix] John Schroeder,”Nagarjuna and the Doctrine of “Skillful Means”.”: 566
[x] Rafal K. Stepien, “Orienting Reason: A Religious Critique of Philosophizing Nāgārjuna.”: 1073
[xi] Jordi Vallverdú, “Brains, Language and the Argumentative Mind in Western and Eastern Societies. The Fertile Differences between Western-Eastern Argumentative Traditions.”: 429
[xii] Jacques Brunschwig,”Pyrrhonism.”: 471
[xiii] Peter Burke, Luke Clossey, and Felipe Fernández-Armesto. “The Global Renaissance.”: 10.
[xiv] Brons, Robin. “Life without Belief: A Madhyamaka Defense of the Livability of Pyrrhonism.”: 345-346.
[xv] Alexej P. Pynko, “Characterizing Belnap’s Logic Via De Morgan’s Laws.”: 442-54.
[xvi] Yaroslav Shramko, Dmitry Zaitsev, and Alexander Belikov. “First-Degree Entailment and Its Relatives.”: 1292-1293.
Bergem, Ragnar M. “Transgressions: Erich Przywara, G. W. F. Hegel, and the Principle of Non-Contradiction.” Forum Philosophicum 21, no. 1 (2016): 11-27.
Bilimoria, Purushottama. “Thinking Negation in Early Hinduism and Classical Indian Philosophy.” Logica Universalis 11, no. 1 (March 01 2017): 13-33.
Brons, Robin. “Life without Belief: A Madhyamaka Defense of the Livability of Pyrrhonism.” Philosophy East and West 68, no. 2 (2018): 329-51.
Brunschwig, Jacques. “Pyrrhonism.” Wiley, 2006.
Burke, Peter, Luke Clossey, and Felipe Fernández-Armesto. “The Global Renaissance.” Journal of World History 28, no. 1 (2017): 1-30.
Gustafsson, Johan E. “Bentham’s Binary Form of Maximizing Utilitarianism.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 26, no. 1 (2018/01/02 2018): 87-109.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or, the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. 2nd edition.. ed.: London : George Routledge and Sons, 1886.
Kim, Wanjoong. “The Limitation of Language and an Ambiguous Way of Knowing: A Comparative Theological Study of Cyril of Alexandria and Nāgārjuna.” Buddhist – Christian Studies 37 (2017): 145-55.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government. London: Amen-Corner, 1689.
Pynko, Alexej P. “Characterizing Belnap’s Logic Via De Morgan’s Laws.” Mathematical Logic Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1995): 442-54.
Schroeder, John. “NäGäRjuna and the Doctrine of “Skillful Means”.” Philosophy East and West 50, no. 4 (2000): 559-83.
Shaw, William. Moral Issues in Business. Edited by Vincent author Barry, Theodora author Issa, Donata author Muntean, William H. author Shaw and body ProQuest issuing. 3rd edition. ed.: Melbourne : Cengage Australia, 2016.
Shramko, Yaroslav, Dmitry Zaitsev, and Alexander Belikov. “First-Degree Entailment and Its Relatives.” Studia Logica 105, no. 6 (December 01 2017): 1291-317.
Silva, Jairo Jose Da. “On the Principle of Excluded Middle.” Principia: an international journal of epistemology 15, no. 2 (2011): 333-47.
Stepien, Rafal K. “Orienting Reason: A Religious Critique of Philosophizing Nāgārjuna.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86, no. 4 (2018): 1072-106.
Vallverdú, Jordi. “Brains, Language and the Argumentative Mind in Western and Eastern Societies. The Fertile Differences between Western-Eastern Argumentative Traditions.” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 131 (2017): 424-31.