McNamara, Aristotle, and the Limits of Analytic Thinking

The most stunning fact I discovered in the many obituaries written this week about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was that he'd studied philosophy as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Stunning because it means that underneath the number-driven economic theory and modeling he learned and practiced after that, he actually had the knowledge that could have saved him the tragic and flawed miscalculations for which he is best remembered, and least forgiven.

How so? Because no philosophy student could have avoided the study of Aristotle. And the elements of McNamara's tragedy--both his fatally flawed thinking, and the antidote that could have countered it--stemmed directly from Aristotle's work.

In McNamara's defense, I'm not sure I'd have seen the connection so quickly, even though I, too, studied Aristotle in college, if I hadn't gotten a refresher course on the subject a couple of weeks ago. My refresher was courtesy of Tony Golsby-Smith, a teacher, Aristotelian scholar, and CEO of the 2nd Road training and consulting company, who electrified a Design Management Institute conference last month with his ideas about redesigning business thinking. Golsby-Smith argued that the reason many businesses don't do better at innovation or effective strategic thinking is because they focus too much on analysis, and too little on rhetoric--both subjects that Aristotle explored at length.

"The western world bought the wrong thinking system from Aristotle," Golsby-Smith argues. "Aristotle conceived two thinking systems, not one. We made the mistake of just buying one, and then allowing it to monopolize the whole territory of thought. We should have bought both and used them as partners." The first thinking system, which laid the foundation for western scientific thought, is what we generally refer to as deductive reasoning, analysis, or "logic." (If a=b, and b=c, then a=c.) The second thinking system Aristotle discussed was a more open-ended process of supposition, hypothesis generation, and argument, which he called "rhetoric."

Analytic logic--the rational, numbers-based analysis that McNamara prized and clung to so fiercely--has a lot of appeal, Golsby-Smith points out, because it holds "the promise of certainty and control." And it has an important place in the world. "The logic road underpinned the era of science, the era of science delivered us technologies, and technologies made the industrial revolution possible," Golsby-Smith says. "The industrial revolution delivered us untold wealth and capitalism, and sitting at the end of this beneficial trail lays modern management and its strategic processes, deeply indebted to the logic road."

The analytic method worked well for McNamara in terms of making Ford Motor Company processes and the Defense Department more efficient, which undoubtedly reinforced his belief in the approach. Unfortunately, as McNamara and many businesses have discovered, the logic road has its limits. The control and certainty it promises do not always materialize. But that, Aristotle would say, is because the analytic method is only the best way to truth in domains where things "cannot be other than they are" (e.g. natural science). There is only one answer, for example, to why a leaf is green. So a deductive, analytic approach to discovering that answer makes sense.

When it comes to planning for the future, or making decisions in domains where things can be "other than they are," Aristotle believed rhetoric was far more useful than analysis. "Humans have never predicted the future by analyzing it," Golsby-Smith says. Designing effective strategies for the future--especially in areas involving potentially irrational human actions and reactions--requires imagining various scenarios and perspectives on the truth, and then making judgments based on the persuasiveness of each one.

Of course, imagining valid alternate futures, from different perspectives, also requires an ability to see things from a point of view other than your own ... culturally and psychologically.     Which is something humans are notoriously poor at doing, especially across international boundaries. But it appears that McNamara never even made the attempt. Part of the reason might have been his previous analytic successes. But he was also a product of his time. The analytic, scientific approach was coming into full bloom in the early 1960s. The space and computer ages were beginning, technology was giving "efficiency" a new level of importance,  and science was the new frontier--even in business. (In 1959, the Ford Foundation released an influential study advocating a more "scientific" approach to business education.) And yet there were others, even at the time, who saw what McNamara failed to see.

There's no lack of lessons to be drawn from the tragedy of McNamara and Vietnam. But certainly one of them ... a lesson Golsby-Smith is intent on conveying to as large a segment of the business world as possible ... is the importance of both of Aristotle's roads to truth. As Einstein himself once said, imagination can sometimes be even more important than knowledge.