Linguistic aporia

January 11, 2021

Kyle glenn gcw WWu uBQ unsplashMy post of the day before yesterday expressed concern about the general dumbing down of discourse and I explicitly linked the desire for simple recipes and undemanding explanations in the sphere of management to the growth of unthinking populism in the political sphere.  I ended it with three simple things to do if you don’t at first understand something (ones I follow myself daily) each of which ended with the phrase then think again which is also the theme of today’s opening picture.

Now the trigger for that post was someone asking for a translation of my summary reference to the aporetic liminal aspect of the central domain of Cynefin, something elaborated in the last Cynefin update in five posts starting on the 1st March last year.  We are currently developing a body of methods and approaches to this critical aspect of Cynefin and there is a new Masterclass on this taught by myself and Zhen which I would encourage anyone with basic training in Cynefin to attend.  As a part of developing the methods and associated practices, I have been working on three classes of aporia namely linguistic, aesthetic, and physical.  And I plan to explore all three in this and two subsequent posts.

I’m starting with language because it is so important to humans. How we talk about things and how we describe them changes the nature of our perception and new language creates the space for new thinking.  I think it was about a decade ago that I first used the quote below from Martin Heidegger but it is still relevant.

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

Anyone who has done basic sales training will tell you this.  One of the things you are taught is to introduce keywords and phrases that are novel to your target and see when they are fed back to you.  That means the target has assimilated the proposition and it is what is known as a buying signal.  Key phrases can acquire meaning very quickly.  Think about The UK Cabinet Secretary struggling to justify a clear lie at the time of the Spycatcher trial.  He first talks about a misleading impression and then moves onto say that he might have been economical with the truth.  Anything to avoid admitting a downright lie.  For the last four years, I have been reading Trump’s tweets every morning, and am now suffering withdrawal symptoms.  He is the master of using key phrases or words that then trigger or catalyse tropes.  That word itself is powerful and to make a point I often say that people should think of tropes, not memes, and then go onto explain what that means.  If I just used the idea of memes and tried to build on the familiar then people would simply stay with the way they were already thinking.  Making a difference between Complex and Complicated forces people to think differently.

So what are the ways that we can use language to create an aporetic state?  Remember that the purpose of creating aporia is to create a sense of deliberative confusion, a realisation that you have to think differently.   Well here is a list:

  1. Neologisms
    Examples would include Gould’s creation of Exaptation to contrast with Adaptation along with Weick’s creation of sensemaking without a hyphen.  Used well these combine the familiar with an unfamiliar twist.
  2. Foreign words
    Everyone in philosophy uses Weltanschauung, a german compound noun that means so much more than the literal translation world view.  Nonaka’s use of BA, mine of the Cynefin.  Use a word from another language and you can tell the story of its meaning
  3. Paradox
    Think of Zeno, or the liars paradox I always lie which means I just lied so I am telling the truth and so on.  Paradoxical statements mean that you cannot resolve the question in a conventional way so you have to think about the problem differently
  4. Metaphor
    Has always been powerful.  I recently used mycorrhiza to illustrate the role of informal networks in organisations.  The Children’s Party story is still the best teaching story I have ever created and it makes the point about the nature of a complex adaptive system clear in a way that anyone can relate to.
  5. Counterfactuals
    A narrative form but powerful, it takes a situation that everyone knows and suggests an alternative.  If Llywelyn ap Gruffudd had committed his troops to support Simon de Montfort at the battle of Evesham Wales might well still be independent. Something that of course,  any educated person would know.  A more obscure example would be if Wolfe hadn’t used Highland troops to scale the cliffs then he would not have won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and as a result, the threat of French Invasion would have meant the American War of Independence would now have happened.  If Lee had not had to reorganise his battle command structure following the death of Jackson, he would have won Gettysburg and so on.  Sorry, I like this technique too much so have given more than one historical example, but it also works within organisations, and our Future Backwards method is based on this idea.
  6. Use poetry
    One of the great human capabilities, Poetry creates space by playing with words that create different ways of thinking. I have used Frost’s Mending Walls many a time along with R.S.Thomas and others.  I’m exploring the magical realist’s poets at the moment so expect some posts on that.
  7. Quotations
    Probably one of the most popular approaches.  I used Heidegger above, and I often use Lincoln’s As the times are anew, so we must think anew, act anew.  There are many, many others.  The authority of the person quoted, the formulation of the words can all achieve change.

Now there are almost certainly more but I tend to stop when I hit seven anyway.  All of the above will be familiar to most people and we all use them to varying degrees.  It is important not to fetishise any of the approaches.  The obsession with Japanese words in Lean for example when the whole thing comes from Denning in the first place.  But used deliberatively they are all-powerful.

Tomorrow I will move on to aesthetics, and also semiotics.


The opening picture is by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

The banner picture continues the theme of the earlier post with a picture of one of the bookshelves in my study.  This is the section for Welsh (and honorary Welsh) poetry and there are other books in the Living Room which I need to start sorting and cataloging this week



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Aesthetic aporia

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This is the second post in my three-part series on creating aporia and I will ...

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