Posts Tagged ‘Abduction’

Here’s a challenge. Isn’t “sustainable growth”, one of those ideas that gets bandied about by economic specialists as well as by mission statement writers, an oxymoron? In a finite world where ever-increasing growth consumes ever-decreasing non-renewable resources how can growth be a sustainable concept? It makes no sense on a global scale, and little sense (other than in the very short and greedy term) at the level of the firm. And yet the government would have Higher Education adopt this sort of thinking in its own thinking.

I do wonder what definition of sustainable, for example, the UK government has in mind when it comes out with policies that are meant to influence what goes on in Higher Education. One example comes via the Dept for Business and Innovation & Skills (see, here for an example connected with Higher Education, but there are others). I’m guessing that they mean sustainable simply as a qualifier for “growth”.  This must seem logical to the legislators, but it also means that their policy is – logically – doomed. Or am I missing something?

Perhaps the problem lies with our way of thinking.

When people are figuring things out in a learning space, it has become generally accepted over the last 100 years that there are three methods that may be used, whether the learners know it or not, to reach explanation. The three methods are induction, deduction and abduction (retroduction).

Learning without knowledge of the form of inference that is being presupposed (and one must assume that this may be very commonly the case, even among humans) is probably only possible with either induction and abduction. But even if the learners are made aware of the logic of their thinking mechanisms, is there any guarantee that it would change the outcome?

It’s an interesting side question as to whether we can learn something without being aware that we are learning it but without much doubt I’d say that when we are aware that we are learning, it is in the deductive form of thinking where we spend most of our time. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Deductive thinking has been at the heart of the scientific method for two hundred years, and has served as a useful short-cut in the natural sciences to a system of the ‘eternal verities’ or laws of physics, mathematics etc. and it is therefore deduction that we now consider to be the higher form of sense-making. A deduction is a logical prediction or inference, based on the necessary truth of a general covering rule, about a specific case in point.   It relies, usually, for its utility on there being enough general agreement about the covering rule for us to take its premises for granted (otherwise it would be a rather tedious process of inductive trial and error every time to establish each time the general rule – which, in any case, we could never do since induction proves nothing about future cases).

Deduction rules the roost, and has been adopted just as rigorously (unless you subscribe to an extreme form of inductive method, such as Grounded Theory) in Social Science. But…. deduction begins to come apart as a useful way of explaining things  if either the grounds for the covering rule or the case in question have not been established in accordance with reality. The logic of deduction will operate and compute in either case –  we’re just no better off than we were before. In fact, we may be much worse off since it may hurt…

The other day I was in a medium-size Tesco, located near a ring-road of a medium-size English city. I know that the company has invested a lot in its image as an environmentally concerned business, eager to cut its impact in terms of how it carries out its ever-increasing) business activities. Their web site has several clearly worded statements about this sort of thing and I must leave aside for a moment whether the drive for perpetual growth is must eventually end up destroy the environment since, for all I know, they may well be genuine in this desire to be able to compete in the “green business” space. That green space has a whole set of rules of its own, and none of the players in that space are either completely independent or completely aware of what those rules are.

However, what struck me walking around the store, was the emphasis Tesco had placed in just about all their choices on offers for consumer products that either encouraged waste (i.e. buying more than you would need because, well, you’d be stupid not to at those prices) or targeted foodstuffs that represented comparatively poor nutrition  choices, the effects of which our health service will eventually end up paying for years down the line. It seems to me that the logic of “All tactics that encourage profit-making and growth are positive and ethical”, followed by “All other things being equal, consumers will tend to buy more foodstuffs that are convenient to consume, high in sugar, or high in salt.

Well, I’m not sure how I got from one topic to another in this posting, but sometimes it’s healthy to rant. Somewhere in here is a suspicion of whatever logic it is we are using to justify the unquestioning approach to size in business. If you can find it.


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Here we are at the final post in this series and the last of my grand list of six principles, and thus we are also at the concluding thought on the topic.

The question is, “what’s a metaphor?”

A metaphor is most commonly defined in terms of a literary device, a figure of speech whereby one thing stands in for another. The connection between those two things is deliberately not literal, as meaning is drawn by a comparison and by an underlying truth usefully is conveyed in the juxtaposition. Metaphors are also often thought of as optional, a way of adding colour to conversation. They are a routine device (part and parcel, in fact) in poetry, literature and instances where rhetoric is used to evoke emotion or call to action.  It doesn’t take too much effort to realise that we use analogy, simile and metaphor very frequently (just listen to any news broadcast, for example, and begin counting). In their book “Metaphors we live by” Lakoff and Johnson investigate the ways in which metaphor plays a very large part in our everyday language. Metaphors dominate and shape our discourse on business and management.

One could stop there, at words, but Lakoff and Johnson go on to note that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Bateson would perhaps agree to a point, but Metaphor is a paradoxical form of communication found not just in human communication. For example, any instance of “play”, whether among  humans or animals, relies on an intricate, convoluted (to describe) relational series of messages and meta-messages (messages about messages), signals as signals. It would not be play if it only had literal meaning. This is so embedded in communication that we have to tend to miss that para-language, the non-verbal elements of communication such as body language, timing and intonation, is at a higher level to the words we use. The facial expression and intonation of one person as they say the words “I’m going to kill you” to their best mate is what lets the other know whether to laugh or run, and is no different a pattern to the meta-message of the wagging tail on a dog as it bites another and says (so to speak) “let’s play”. Behaviorists have a problem here, as metaphors are not acts or actions. “management”, therefore, is not an action or a behaviour. it is the meaning ascribed to a set of actions and we commit a fallacy if we equate the name with the thing it names. “This is management” (or, if you prefer, “this is leadership”) and  also “this is reflection” are both names for sets of actions, not actions themselves.  “This is reflection” is a mental frame and it is one with almost infinite meta-levels of regress, endless loops of (mostly unconscious!) context-markers. This is brilliantly demonstrated in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Shakespeare’s play-within-the-play is carried at least two further levels down, causing both humour and existential distress for the main characters, for whom reality is a shaky concept.

Framing and reframing might be another way of describing this, and these are now familiar concepts used – often in a flattened, simplified way – in cognitive  and spoken therapy, counselling (NLP being one well-known example) and coaching.   Metaphor is easy to spot and impossible to define, except perhaps in contrast with what it stands against; the literal and the prosaic

The principle in the title is not “use metaphor” but “use the logic of metaphor, so we need to establish what is meant here by the ‘logic’ of metaphor. Bateson used  the term “abduction” to explain this, a form of reasoning originally coined by the American Pragmatist philosopher C. S. Peirce at the turn of the last century. Peirce used abduction as a sort of reasonable inference of predicates in reaching a practical conclusion, which may then be further explored via another form of reasoning. In Bateson’s writings, abductive logic was contrasted with inductive and deductive forms using the three syllogisms below.

"Men are Grass"

Induction, deduction and abduction

The syllogism on the left represents induction – a weak prediction based on regularity of past and present observation, true only until contrary case is found. The centre syllogism is a deduction – the formal, logical necessity of “if X, and if Y, then Z must be so. This form of logic encourages linear hypothesis building and testing and has been very successful in the natural sciences, and occasionally useful in the social ones. The third syllogism is Bateson’s “Men are Grass” and is an abduction, where the agreement is of the predicates (in this case “die”). As with induction, abduction is meant to explore using prediction, but in a non-linear, poetic way. The more predicates one can find (analogies or cases that look similar) the better the pattern and the closer one is to an insight into the pattern of patterns.

This whole question could usefully and playfully be re-phrased (as Gregory Bateson suggested) “what’s a meta for?” If the essence of a metaphor is the playing around with messages from different domains and different levels, is this of any importance or use in management practice? I think it is. Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Mary, in Angels Fear provides one clue how when she writes “one can use an imagined identification with another person to enhance one’s own understanding of an idea or event by asking, how would so-and-so see this?” This is the essence of using dialogue as a way of seeing, as a kind of logic of metaphor in order to gain better self-awareness. In some way, reflection must be about this – a bewildering and dazzling set of possbilites between the internal and the external.

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