University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Challenge: Epistemological crisis of governance

Metaphor Project


Sustainable development is usually conceived as a problem of instrumentality - namely deploying the available organizational and conceptual resources to achieve what seems appropriate. An earlier paper (Anthony Judge, Comprehension of Appropriateness, 1986) argues that this approach fails completely to recognize the inherent difficulties in comprehending the instrumental design which is appropriate - and of communicating that comprehension, with all its nuances through the processes of governance.

1. Questionable assumptions of governance

The following hidden assumptions concerning any advocated new mode of governance were listed to illustrate this failure:

(a) New mode as an absolute improvement: That the mode is inherently better in some absolute sense and that, conversely, the old mode must necessarily be permanently abandoned as historically outmoded; the defects in the new mode will not eventually prove to be as significant as those under the old mode.

(b) New mode as universally appropriate: That the new mode is equally appropriate to all societies and to all sub-cultures within those societies, especially if adapted to local contexts and requirements.

(c) Requisite complexity of comprehensible new mode: That, if it can be comprehended, represented and discussed within one frame of reference, the mode can nevertheless be of sufficient complexity to respond to the concerns perceived by constituencies preferring other frames of reference.

(d) Completely articulatible new mode: That an appropriate new mode can be readily articulated in its entirety, rather than necessarily provoking a set of partial comprehensions which people, of whatever level of competence, experience considerable difficulty in integrating/reconciling, even if they are motivated to do so.

(e) Implementability of new mode through pre-planned actions: That an appropriate mode can be readily implemented by a consistent pattern of actions, rather than requiring set of seemingly inconsistent and incompatible actions, each favoured or condemned by some different configuration of constituencies.

(f) Hierarchically-derived integrity of new mode: That the coherence and integrity of an appropriate mode derives from a hierarchical relationship between its components, as opposed to other possibilities with characteristics such as:

(g) Recognition of hard realities implied by new mode: That credible articulations of a seemingly attractive approach do not effectively obscure hard realities to which the advocating group may be insensitive (or anxious to avoid discussing in order to further some hidden agenda).

(h) Non-provocation and non-evocation of counter-initiatives: That any readily devised approach will not necessarily provoke counter-strategies or strategies which exploit the situation created by the implementation of the new approach, undermining it and eventually rendering it ineffective.

(i) Avoidance of polarized assessments of the new mode: That, during the implementation of the appropriate new mode, it is possible for any given constituency to avoid being trapped into recognizing any necessary practical strategy in either a "positive" of a "negative" light, and consequently to be entrained to further or oppose that partial strategy, without consideration of whether such effort is excessive in the light of the contextual mode to which it contributes.

(j) Avoidance of ambiguity in the new mode: That the essence of being human, and of human development, involves processes free from ambiguity, paradox and counter-intuitive phases, permitting an appropriate new mode to be articulated in an manner free of such non-rational characteristics.

2. Epistemological landscapes

The remainder of that paper considered the probability that the appropriate global socio-economic mode of organization is necessarily more complex than can be recognized or comprehended within any particular frame of reference - whether conceptual or organizational. The question here is how to describe and handle this epistemological challenge for governance.

The question has been helpfully highlighted by the recent study prepared by Development Alternatives (New Delhi) on "A transcultural view of sustainable development; the landscape of design" as a contribution to the final deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development (A Transcultural View of Sustainable Development, 1986). The study outlines "transform grammar of design" based on a "phase space" model using a n-dimensional space to show the evolution of a system (where n is the number of degrees of freedom, or independent variables, needed to describe the system at the level of recursion or aggregation of the model under study). The work draws on recent theoretical advances, including those of Shannon (1962), Ashby (1956), Beer (1979), Prigogine (1985), Zadeh (1965) and de Laet (1985).

It is apparently necessary to "freeze" any such "epistemological landscape" into a well-defined model in order to navigate over the landscape. And within the short time scales (and electoral periods) characteristic of the majority of the problems of governance (and the budgetary periods of international organizations) such a landscape may legitimately be considered to be unchanging. Governance can then endeavour to move the social system over the landscape.

3. Competing epistemological landscapes

The epistemological problem lies in the fact that different constituencies are sensitive to different dimensions of the "n-dimensional phase space" out of which the model is extracted or abstracted. Consequently the epistemological landscape perceived by one group may be very different from that which is meaningful to another - such that each may be the basis for the strategies and programmes of a different intergovernmental agency. This has the further consequence between agencies of reinforcing incompatibilities, contradictions, competition for resources and even the undermining of one strategy by another - as has been noted on many occasions, and recently by Maurice Bertrand (Some Reflections on Reform of the United Nations, 1985).

It is therefore less fruitful to focus initially on any particular way of viewing the n-dimensional phase space. Rather it would seem more appropriate to consider the epistemological challenge of how to open up any "window of comprehension" onto such complexity - and how to perceive the relationship between such windows, whether used simultaneously (by different groups) or consecutively.

4. Navigating through complexity

Before taking the argument further it is necessary to avoid the trap of using the phase space notion itself as a fundamental window. It is a powerful tool but not necessarily convenient for all. "Complexity" has itself recently attracted attention in its own right (United Nations University, Complexity). "Chaos" is now a key descriptor for some interesting breakthroughs in mathematics (H O Peitgen and P H Richter, The Beauty of Fractals, 1986 and B B Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, 1983). Although it would be incompatible with the theme of this section to favour any one such description, it is important to recognize the range of attempts to indicate the epistemological attributes at this level of abstraction.

It is somewhat ironic that the earlier Greek philosophers made use of the Greek term "hyle" (matter) and viewed such matter as fundamentally alive, either in itself or by its participation in the operation of a world soul or some similar principle. Characteristically they did not distinguish between kinds of matter, forces and qualities nor between physical and emotional qualities, making any such distinction with an important degree of ambiguity.

The contemporary epistemological challenge remains one of dealing with a form of "conceptual hyle" or "mindstuff" within which the variety of possible models and concepts is implicit and from which they may be explicated, as described by David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980). This is not to suggest that the "hyle" is purely conceptual. As contemporary studies of this intimate relationship between consciousness and fundamental understanding in physics are clarifying, there is a matter-consciousness continuum of perhaps greater significance than the space-time continuum. Relevant insights from Eastern philosophies are also increasingly (G Zukav, The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, 1979 and Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1975) noted. The comprehension of features explicated from the "hyle" is as much constrained by the realities dear to materialists as it is by individual (or collective) ability to formulate appropriate models of requisite variety and to communicate them.

The challenge of governance is to enable society to navigate through the "hyle", avoiding catastrophic disasters in a manner such as to sustain a process of "development" over the long-term - whatever "development" is understood to mean in the short-term under different circumstances, within different cultures and at different stages of that process. But since governance is above all constrained by daily practicalities, there is a dramatic problem of ensuring some kind of meaningful epistemological bridge between the multi-dimensional fluidity or ambiguity of the "hyle" - with all the innovative potential that implies - and the concrete socio-political realities to which it must respond effectively or be called into question.

5. Schizophrenic practices

As noted above, extensive use of metaphor is made by politicians and statesmen in endeavouring to communicate policy options and positions. It is a characteristic of political discourse. However, metaphor is seldom if ever consciously used in policy documents and in the documents of experts legitimating such policies. Such documents are characterized by bureaucratic jargon and the supposedly metaphor-free language of experts appropriate to the objective discussion of scenarios and theoretical models.

It is not the purpose here to query these two modes of discourse. Rather it is to question the epistemological nature of the "conceptual bridge" which integrates them. What in fact is the current link between these two functions ? In practice, if the policy model emerges first, then public relations consultants are engaged to discover means of "packaging" it for communication to wider constituencies. If the concept emerges as a politicians insight from the cut-and-thrust of the political arena, then experts are called upon to dust off some model which can give theoretical credibility to it. Those associated with each mode of discourse have little respect for the contributions of the other. No scholar has any appreciation of the constraints of public relations, just as no media consultant has any respect for the niceties of scholarly methods. Policy-makers navigate in an essentially schizophrenic domain of discourse.

In a very real sense governance essentially takes place in an epistemological "war zone" where the battle between metaphoric and modelling modes takes place.

The challenge is to move beyond the limitations of a discussion in which either (a) metaphors are claimed to be purely figurative and of no cognitive significance, or (b) models are claimed to be fundamentally metaphoric in nature. There is presumably some truth and some exaggeration to both claims. The question is how this epistemological battle affects the problem of governance in any effort to pursue future policies of "sustainable development".

6. Metaphor/model hybrids: an epistemological quest

It is important to stress that the focus on the metaphoric dimensions does not in any way deny the importance of the modelling function when conceived non-metaphorically as a purely conceptual device (e.g. as in econometrics, global modelling, etc.) The point is rather that in order to present and explain such models successfully to those preoccupied with the many dimensions of governance, they must anyway be imbued with metaphoric dimensions - however distasteful this may be to modelling purists. But for those concerned with governance, it is precisely through imbuing the models with metaphoric dimensions that they become meaningful and can be related, through the political insight and experience of the governors to concrete realities which models, as abstractions, do not fully take into account. It is the ability of the governors to project themselves into the metaphor that enables them to find ways of fitting the model to the decision-making realities of the world they are dealing with and to the mindsets of the governed. Both model and metaphor are epistemological crutches - one facilitating left-hemisphere information processing and the other right-hemisphere processing. As Jeremy Cambell says: "Another kind of context supplied by the right brain comes from its superior grasp of metaphor" (Grammatical Man, 1982)

Expressed in these terms, it becomes clearer that many of the inadequacies of modelling for governance are precisely due to the lack of attention to the need to imbue them with metaphoric dimensions. Equally many of the inadequacies of metaphors for governance are due to the lack of attention to the need to imbue them with modelling dimensions. In metaphorical terms, the former furnish clothes of appropriate strength, but which are so uncomfortable and ugly, that nobody is inclined to try them on or be seen wearing them. Whereas the latter furnish clothes which are a delight to try on, but cannot be taken more seriously than fancy dress, because they are not appropriate to the varieties of weather conditions which they must withstand. This is a problem of design.

7. Donning and doffing metaphors

For both the governors and the governed it is a question of the extent to which they are able to "get into" the "metaphor-model". In relation to this question of "getting into", Anne Buttimer notes the most profound transformation in twentieth century knowledge as being the movement from observation (of reality) to participation (in reality) (Musing on Helicon, 1982 and Mirrors, Masks and Diverse Milieux, 1983) - a theme explored by Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge). What degrees of "epistemological participation" does a "metaphor-model" offer? Are there more powerful forms of participation, or at least forms more powerful in different circumstances? These need not be trivial questions for governance, because in a sense epistemological participation can be more powerfully attractive than participation limited to political processes, which it effectively underlies.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Anthony Judge
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.