Leadership and the Limitations of Knowing

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2013 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Behind the ideological conflicts that characterize today's political discourse are, roughly speaking, two different visions of human intelligence. The one sees a clear and distinct separation between intelligence and sense perception, a vision that has its roots in Descartes, who saw man as essentially a "thinking thing" (not a rational animal). Descartes' epistemological idealism, which always begins with ideas in the mind in order to determine what the world outside the mind is really like, has led to a failure to take seriously the limitations that sense perception imposes upon human intelligence. His idealism comes to complete fruition in the Idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who in turn sees his own philosophy as one that encompasses every thinker in the history of thought. It is no coincidence that Hegel's thought is at the root of modern totalitarianism. It is intellectual elites who enjoy a kind of specialized knowledge, one that is universal and all embracing; whatever the common man knows is already included in the larger intellectual apprehension of the intellectual elite. Hence, the relationship between the specialized knowledge of the elites and the ordinary or mundane knowledge of everyone else is comparable to a large circle containing a number of smaller circles that represent this non specialized and common knowledge. Finally, since knowledge is concentrated in the minds of a few, political power ought also to be concentrated in the hands of a few; elites see themselves as surrogate decision makers.

Contrast this with the view that sees human intelligence as limited by its intimate connection with sense perception. As Aristotle said, "Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses". We only know things from a particular angle. Indeed, ideas are universal, for the object of the intellect is the nature of things, but contrary to Plato, we only come to know the natures of things gradually, through observing their activity.

Moreover, the desire for knowledge is revealed in the question. To question is to "pose", as one would pose for a photograph (to pose a question). To pose is to position oneself and thus face a particular direction; to question is to position oneself for a quest or voyage. A question opens up a line of inquiry or avenue to be explored. An avenue cannot be understood except as something limited and spatial; a line is not an indefinite and all encompassing surface. One always asks specific questions within the particular environment in which one finds oneself, questions that arise in an attempt to understand particular aspects of that environment, either for its own sake or for the sake of some practical purpose. Such a line of questioning opens up a definite but limited area to be understood.

Although some have specialized knowledge (i.e., philosophy, psychology, chemistry, etc), that specialized knowledge is nonetheless limited; there is much the specialist does not know both within and outside his field of expertise that is nonetheless highly consequential. Contrary to the first view, the relationship between the specialized knowledge of an expert and the mundane knowledge of the non specialist majority is comparable to a large circle next to a myriad of smaller circles (that represent this non specialized and mundane knowledge). Compared per capita, this specialized knowledge might be vast, but in comparison to the total weight of the ordinary and non-specialized knowledge, an individual's specialized knowledge is very tiny.

To verify this, just reflect upon the things we have had to learn over the years and consider the length of time it took to learn them, as well as how much more there is to learn about what it is we already know. Consider the shape of the typical learning curve that makes visual the slow and gradual ascendency towards proficiency in the skills we worked hard to master. We get a new job and undergo training, but we soon discover that we are not as proficient as someone else who learns quickly, who might be more mechanically inclined, or who possibly has better interpersonal skills, who understands human beings better than we do, or vice versa. Perhaps we are able to relate to people very well, but lack a mind for details; perhaps we are poor administrators, but have greater creativity and imagination than others, or vice versa, etc.

The fact is we are profoundly limited, and thus our knowledge of the world is profoundly limited. Even our knowledge of our own area of expertise is limited and incomplete. I have been studying philosophy for over 30 years, but the history of philosophy is over 2000 years old. Moreover, there are many branches of philosophy, i.e., metaphysics, ethics, logic, political philosophy, epistemology, modern philosophy, empiricism, rationalism, mediaeval philosophy, Greek philosophy, philosophical psychology, philosophy of biology, philosophy of mathematics, contemporary philosophy, idealism, pragmatism, etc. After being introduced to all these areas, a philosophy major will specialize in only one or two of them, such as ethics and the philosophy of human nature.

Nevertheless, having a specialized knowledge in ethics will not allow a person to pronounce on the best means of actually raising a country's standard of living; that takes another science, namely the science of economics, which may dovetail with philosophy in some respects, but is a science unto itself. Moreover, there is a history of economics, and that too has to be studied, which takes time. And knowing the fundamentals of the philosophy of psychology will go a long way in keeping a person from making some serious errors regarding the nature of the human person - depending on the philosophy of human nature one embraces -, but philosophical psychology will not allow one to treat a mental illness or an anxiety neurosis, or help a person overcome the anger he has towards a parent, for example. Conversely, the science of psychology as such will not enable one to know whether certain behaviors are morally right or not, such as divorce, non-marital intercourse, or war. Sociology, for example, will study the effects of divorce on children, from a statistical and sociological point of view; but the sociologist cannot determine whether divorce is morally permissible, nor can the sociologist treat kids hurt by divorce.

Every area has its specific method and limited focus. All deal in universal concepts, for there is no science of particulars; but the universal concepts are, despite their universality, limited. The sociologist studies the family from a limited point of view, that is, from a limited angle; the philosopher of the family studies the family from a more abstract and normative point of view; psychology asks questions about the family that can only be answered empirically, such as whether or not the cause of anxiety neurosis originates in a certain kind of family dysfunction, etc. Each one can benefit from what the other discovers and has to offer; for each one enlarges the perspective of the other.

So far, however, we've only referred to academic disciplines. An ordinary parent has knowledge that the academic, such as the philosopher, or the sociologist, or psychologist, might not have, especially if the latter are not parents. A parent who has raised 5 or 6 children has a vast amount of mundane knowledge, much of it pre-conscious, implicit, and unarticulated, that is highly consequential. So too, a prison guard who works with prisoners will likely know something about criminals that the rest of us do not, for we are too far removed. A teacher knows things about the young that many politicians do not know; a school administrator sees things that most teachers are not exposed to, and, young people see and know things that are no longer within reach of the adult world. Moreover, a young student raised in Central America will see things about this country and culture that young people raised in Canada tend not to see, such as the amount of food we waste on a daily basis, and vice versa.

There are aspects of reality that are too large for a single person or collection of persons to understand, which is why inductive reasoning (i.e., induction by enumeration and statistical reasoning) is employed. Induction by enumeration, for example, begins with knowledge of the parts in order to move towards conclusions about the entire aggregate. Similarly, we may understand something of the whole, but understanding the parts of the whole often exceeds our capacity to grasp, and so we employ statistical reasoning. For example, 81% of polled A are F; therefore, 81% of all A are F; moreover, 81% of all A are F, M is A, therefore M is F. Inductive arguments have only a probability of being true, but the degree to which the conclusion is probably true depends on the size of the sample chosen, and whether the sample was representative of all things sampled (i.e., voters, or eggs, or people, etc).

The point is that both inductive and statistical arguments presuppose order in the whole and order in the parts of the whole, an order that is too large and complex for us to know in all its details. An order is assumed to exist, that the sample is a miniature of the whole (i.e., our sample is made up of a large and wide representative of voters, 35% of whom plan to vote conservative, 23% of whom will vote liberal, and 12% of whom will vote NDP, etc.). The pollster assumes an order in the whole and knows that the order of the sample must remain unchanged during the period for testing the forecast (i.e., the time between the forecast and the election). If the order sampled does not remain constant, the prediction will fail. In short, without order, inductive arguments would be impossible.

Now, order does not mean absolute fixity; for we live in a universe that moves. Order means regularity or uniformity. This is obvious, and it is a pre-scientific datum of our knowledge that is the condition for the possibility of all science. For example, physical things do not do what they please; apples do not turn red some years, orange other years, and apple seeds do not become oak trees some years and orange trees the next, but always apple trees, etc. Stars do not move randomly through space. If prices rise, less will be purchased and production will decrease; if prices drop, more will be purchased and there will soon be a shortage. The cycle of seasons is regular (we expect the winter to come after the fall, and the spring to come after the winter); heavy bodies fall to the earth, and smoke rises, etc. Dogs give birth to puppies, not kittens one year, humans another, and giraffes the next, etc. Plants and animals are taken care of in nature and for the most part reach some measure of maturation or perfection. Hydrogen is not free to be combustible today, but not tomorrow under the very same conditions and circumstances. If anything could do anything, then anything could be anything, and thus we wouldn't be living in a cosmos, but a chaos, and the principle of identity would not stand: Each being is what it is. Rather, each being would be what it is and what it is not the very next instant.

The universe is a cosmos, not a chaos; it is ordered. So too, many aspects of human society possess an order that is not determined by any one individual person or bureaucracy. For example, human language evolves; it is not the product of a conscious effort, by any individual, to construct a means of communication, and its laws (i.e., grammar) are studied and articulated only after the fact. So too a people's civil laws; the legislature does not determine those laws, but explicitly formulates general rules that are intended to maintain that existing order of fairness and the rules that are known by everyone pre-consciously, and which have evolved over the centuries. F. A Hayek writes: "Thus, although rules of just conduct, like the order of actions they make possible, will in the first instance be the product of spontaneous growth, their gradual perfection will require the deliberate efforts of judges (or others learned in the law) who will improve the existing system by laying down new rules. Indeed, law as we know it could never have fully developed without such efforts of judges, or even the occasional intervention of a legislator to extricate it from the dead ends into which the gradual evolution may lead it, or to deal with altogether new problems. Yet it remains still true that the system of rules as a whole does not owe its structure to the design of either judges or legislators. It is the outcome of a process of evolution in the course of which spontaneous growth of customs and deliberate improvements of the particulars of an existing system have constantly interacted. Each of these two factors has had to operate, within the conditions the other has contributed, to assist in the formation of a factual order of actions, the particular content of which will always depend also on circumstances other than the rules of law. No system of law has ever been designed as a whole, and even the various attempts at codification could do no more than systematize an existing body of law and in doing so supplement it or eliminate inconsistencies." See Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy: "The Aim of Jurisdiction is the Maintenance of an Ongoing Order of Actions". Routledge: London and New York, 1973.

The free market possesses an order that is also not the result of a conscious determination by any one individual person or bureaucracy. Consider the quantity, diversity and proportion of food in a typical supermarket; consider then what it would mean to coordinate this for an entire city. This is not something that can be coordinated by the decisions of a group of people in a board room far removed; for there is simply too much to know, i.e., how many tomatoes, and how many grapefruits, and how much bread to make, how many cans of beans should be stocked, etc. All this is coordinated by prices, which in turn are determined by the law of supply and demand; the result is an order that exceeds the capacity of a single person or bureaucracy to bring about.

It is possible to disrupt that order, to intervene in an attempt to shape it so as to bring about specific solutions to specific problems. Doing so, however, has repercussions. In other words, the "solutions" are not really solutions, only trade-offs. Judicial activism is one such example in the area of law. One result is that the law becomes precarious, and future decisions cannot be anticipated. This in turn has economic repercussions; it will affect investors' incentives to invest. So too, price controls and other interventions affect the order of the market, creating shortages in some places and causing an inefficient allocation of resources. Behind such interventions is a knowledge issue, that is, a vision of human knowledge. This often involves an implicit assumption that what I do not know is inconsequential and that the solutions I envision have no negative long term repercussions. A provincial government decides that students in school are going to eat healthy, and it decides what foods and beverages companies can and cannot sell to students, and this will be the solution to improving the health of the young. That the companies serving high school cafeterias will experience a decrease in sales and revenue, and will be forced to lay off employees (thus increasing unemployment), and that students will just start bringing their own soda pop and other foods they like to eat for lunch to school, does not occur to those who proposed the idea in the first place, and if it does not occur to them, it is of no consequence.

For those who fail to appreciate the limitations of human knowledge and regard their own specialized knowledge as all embracing, the concentration of power makes much more sense than a wide dispersion of power (the philosopher king governs in an ideal state, not the people, who in Plato's scheme of things are compared to the concupiscible appetite that needs to be governed by the "reason" of the state; Plato saw democracy as the worst form of government). For those who recognize the limitations of human intelligence and the relatively small weight of specialized knowledge in comparison to the sum total of non-specialized, mundane but highly consequential knowledge of ordinary human beings, democracy is the best form of government, for power is best spread out as widely as possible.

Effective leadership is not authoritarian, for authoritarianism is rooted in the former view of human knowing, and this view is not true to the facts. The human person is a psychosomatic unity; human intelligence participates in the limitations of sense perception. Thus, good leadership is not about control, but about freeing others to do what they can do better than I, because others understand aspects of reality that I simply do not. The result is an order that is not the product of any one man or small group, but the result of a systemic process that exceeds the capacity of an individual or select group of individuals to bring about through their own engineering. A good school principal, for example, who exercises authority in a non authoritarian way readily sees this: the good that results exceeds his or her expectations, for it is much larger than anything he or she could have envisioned or brought about on his/her own initiative, or under his or her total control.

Leadership is about willing a common good, one that is much larger than the self, and that is why a good and effective leader willingly "takes a back seat", so to speak, like a good player who has a long record of assists because he passes the puck or soccer ball so as to maximize scoring chances, thus maximizing the chances of victory for the team. The egotist is more interested in his private scoring record than he is the common good of the whole. He stifles the emergence of that order because he (or a government) misunderstands his place within the larger scheme of things, thus perverting the order of goods, for he regards the team as smaller than himself, because his record is, per capita, better than everyone else's. But relative to the entire team, his skills are relatively weak. He fails to see this, however; the others have become a means to his end, and his end is a private good (for others are merely extensions of himself), which he mistakenly regards as "the good". The tragic element in authoritarian style leadership is that the surpassing good that could be achieved is not; the result is mediocrity (or a high unemployment rate, or a relatively unpredictable judiciary, etc.). If others are regarded by the leader as mere extensions of himself and if he suffers from an inordinate need to control the order of things (for whatever reason), the good that is achieved in the end can be no larger than the individual capacity of the leader. The common good is thus reduced to a private good, which is never as large and impressive as a common good.

Such leadership ( i.e., a government, a principal, a university president, a professor, a teacher, etc) needlessly stifles and limits, and ironically it is rooted in the leader's failure to appreciate his or her own limitations, in particular the limitations of human intelligence.