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Revolutions In Opposites: Using a 19th Century Philosopher's Model to Better Understand What's Happening in The World

Contributor: Management Matters
Posted: August 6, 2017

Editor's Note:

The concept of opposites is well known to historians, fiction writers and savvy marketers.

But it's not well known to many best described as “long on schooling but short on education.”

Said Harvard's Ted Levitt: "The prevalence of competing opposites is a persistent theme in the history of mankind; Othello had Iago, Jefferson had Hamilton, Lenin had Stalin, the id has its ego, the straight culture of the 50s and early 60s had the counterculture of the mid-60s and 70s…"

Today, we have Conservatives vs. Progressives; climate change advocates vs. climate change deniers; self-supporting members of the middle class vs. the growing ranks of welfare recipients; Trump vs. the media.

Still further, where there is affluence and optimism, there is poverty and dismay.

Our point? History shows there has always been simultaneous eruptions of opposing forces.

That's the way the world works. Powerful forces are always met with competing or opposite forces.

Using Hegel's Model To See Not Just Look

Looking vs. seeing. Many look but don't see. Our existing mindset serves as an unconscious filter that predetermines what we see and how we see it.

The more we learn and the more experiences we have determines our perceptions. Said Peter F. Drucker: "When a change in perception takes place, the facts do not change. Their meaning does."

Friedrich Hegel, a 19th-century philosopher, sketched out the following simple (but extremely insightful) model for interpreting history:

Thesis → Antithesis → Synthesis

In a long-out-of-print book, Ted Levitt popularized the “go-reverse” principle, which is every time there is a strong movement in one direction of tastes, values, attitudes and activities, another movement emerges that’s almost the complete opposite.

Thesis

The thesis can be thought of as a strong, established movement in one direction. For example, capitalism characterized the accepted norm in the United States.

In its varying forms, capitalism is the belief in self-reliance and creation of competencies rather than dependencies; it values Free Markets unencumbered by government control, regulation and intervention.

Bernie Sanders in his quest for the presidency represented a near-opposite of capitalism. That is, he believed Democracy was in decline and should be replaced by a centrist (i.e., near-government controlled), entitlement-rich economic system.

Simply put, in Hegelian terms, Sanders' agenda represented the complete opposite of capitalism or the antithesis of capitalism (i.e., socialism).

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “The inherent flaw in capitalism is that it produces an unequal sharing of the blessings; while the inherent flaw in socialism is that it produces an equal sharing of the misery.”

However, Churchill's insight has not stopped a significant percentage of today's Millennial generation from believing (not necessarily knowing) they are opposed to capitalism and prefer a state-controlled economy.

More On Antithesis

Times change. People don't. There's always going to be an opposite movement (or an antithesis) to challenge an existing system of any kind.

Specifically, Levitt wrote:

“In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Hegel enunciated in elaborate detail his dialectical conception of history.

According to Hegel, successful historical forces or ideas inevitably generate their opposite—what he called the "antithesis.”

The Inevitable Synthesis

The resulting struggle between the thesis and antithesis leads each opposing force to ingest some features of the force it opposes.

In the process, there emerges a synthesis of the two. In time, this synthesis becomes a distinct new force in itself (i.e., a new thesis which in turn generates a new antithesis to repeat the cycle.

Said Levitt: “Hegel thus viewed historical development as a continuous evolution of thesis, antithesis and synthesis….”

Some claim President Trump, for instance, is adopting some of the ideas of the Progressives/Liberals (e.g., providing free child care) and should stay true to the core principles of conservatism.

But, another view, could simply reinterpret this in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, that is, President-Trump is “ingesting some features” of the Democratic Party's platform he particularly likes, and in the process, is creating a new synthesis.

Applying Hegel’s Model To The World Of Business

Levitt, for example, brilliantly showed how to apply the Hegelian principle of opposites to projecting what lies ahead for many businesses.

“When there develops in any area of activity or taste or values a strong thrust in one direction,” noted Levitt, “we may expect in its wake a strongly opposite thrust.”

Consider this: the growth in pre-packaged convenience foods is paralleled by an equal growth in gourmet and organic cuisine, and the explosive sales of cookbooks, herbs and exotic condiments.

The great boom in one-stop-shop retail stores and e-commerce websites like Walmart and Amazon are paralleled by an enormous increase in small specialty outfits.

For example, the growth of companies successfully specializing in one specific product such as eyewear (Warby Parker) or razor blades (Dollar Shave Club).

Another Example: Hegel On Training Trends

The Hegelian model helps us understand what appears to be opposite phenomena in training today: the growth in live instructor-led training programs and the growth of online training courses.

Predictions regarding the imminent commercial annihilation of live instructor-led training courses are already contradicted by a new growth in niche market live instructor-led seminars.

Live instructor training when coupled with performance consulting and performance support enables practicing professionals to immediately put into practice what is learned.

In terms of on-site (i.e., in-house) training, the need for live instruction from a true expert has proven itself time and again.

For example, take a subject like statistical process control (SPC). An online program can teach the basics of quality prevention and quality control. No doubt about it!

A lecture course, for example, might be extremely well received. With participants claiming "we really learned a lot."

The lecture method is a valid technique in the hands of skilled practitioners, but at the very best it's only a preparation for learning and not learning itself.

Many good teacher-lecturers are usually brilliant synthesizers capable of organizing a complex subject into a meaningful pattern; they are able to engross their audience with dramatic wit and sparkling examples.

But what has proven itself is: the best way for SPC to be taught (and more importantly put into immediate practice) is to use an organization's actual processes to demonstrate the value and implementation specifics.

Simply put, the lecture method is no substitute for "learning by doing." And for being certain the right things are being done.

Like many others, we think online training will soon become a major growth industry. But we also believe it must be supplemented with performance support, performance consulting, coaching and mentoring.

In short, a synthesis between online programs and live instructor programs enable students to apply methodologies taught to their particular situation.

Related Reading: The Difference Between Training and Education -- Rediscovering Fundamentals From Pocket Billiards

Summary & Conclusions

The Hegelian prediction of opposites always exists. Where there is thesis, there is antithesis.

For example, our educational system, from its very beginning, encouraged critical thinking. In other words, people were taught “how to think.”

Yet many believe our educational system has been under attack by an opposite movement designed to teach students “what to think.” In short, for promoting ideology as opposed to critical thinking.

In the final analysis, we believe understanding Hegel's thesis, antithesis, synthesis model helps us understand the inevitable revolutions of opposites and why antithesis in some fashion is likely to get some of its way.