A Dialectical Approach To KnowledgeAcquisition

In the 1980ies and 1990ies, I attended several seminars by  Rupert Lay, where I learned the “ars construendi vexilla“. In various groups consisting of (not exclusively) directors of medium-sized enterprises and top managers of international concerns, I learned – together with my fellow seminarians – how this tool can generate a huge amount of additional insight. I also experienced how you can actually deduce necessary actions and behaviour for reaching your goal.

In wikipedia, the method of “ars construendi vexilla“ is also described. The relevant  article  is limited to a concise description of this dialectical approach. However, it does not inform you of the practical application and the usefulness of this method. Consequently, I now want to tell you what it was that impressed me so much about it and what my personal experience using it amounts to.

You gain insight wherever  people gather in order to share their cognition and experience.

The foundation stone of our western philosophy was laid in Ancient Greece. Dialectics (Dialektik) was the “technological tool“ of the philosophers. They worked using conversations, such as a discourse or a debate. The “ars construendi vexilla“ was originally a strictly formalized dialectical method for coming to a rational consensus in groups.

The term “vexilla“ was used because the requirements mutually agreed on were to be added up and become a list that should be as homogeneous and coherent as possible: the so-called homogeneous requirement list. Lists of this kind were called flags in Ancient Roman dialectics.

I always imagined a cord strung between two posts, where the requirements thus found were hanging like little flags in the wind of cognition.

Creating this kind of “flag“ necessitates a lot of discipline within the group, along with a precise (philosophical) educational background of all attendants with respect to the meaning of language and terminology. Since, today, this can no longer be assumed in most cases, a strict moderator is needed for a successful “ars contruendi vexilla“. He must supply this quality for all the seminarians, leading them through the workshop.

I attended several seminars on the “ars construendi vexilla“. It was always our goal to understand an actual problem of one participant and, where possible, to solve it.

Here are a few examples:

  • The poor reputation of a discount shop;
  • A travel agency looking for new types of vacations;
  • A well-established but negative company culture in a medium-sized metal processing firm;
  • Problems among the leading personnel of a huge pharmaceutic concern;

and more of the same.

Our first step in a seminar is always to formulate the problem in such a precise way that all participants have a clear understanding of it. Achieving this is already a first, huge step in the right direction. More often than not, something surprising happens as early as this – the owner of the problem discovers that the problem he has and wants to solve is actually totally different from what he still assumed it was a moment ago.

After the problem is formulated halfway decently, you will try to find a syllogism  to describe it. This syllogism will be under strict scrutiny as far as “truth“ is concerned, both with respect to terminology, content and formal correctness.  That sounds quite easy. However, it is not at all trivial to come up with a syllogism that is correct both in content and form.
As a general rule, the syllogism will be significantly modified during this process of scrutiny. It happens frequently that the final result of the work has little in common with what you started out with.

Through permanent control, you get lists of requirements relevant for getting your desired result.
During this process, it helps if you formulate requirements:

Yes, this requirement is correct, but only if…

Now you want to see if these requirements are actually necessary or perhaps just useful. As a result, you will get summaries, re-structuring and modifications. …

When you execute these formalized and linguistically controlled mental processes, you will always end up with a surprising gain of insight. And the more progress you make, the better the individual members of the group will understand each other. It is a process often enhanced miraculously, thus causing quite a few “ah“ effects.

I experienced a magic moment in a few seminars. You get those when the necessary and useful requirements suddenly are no longer all that important, because a suitable requirement is found for the solution of the problem.

After that, it suddenly gets a lot easier to find measures and ways to solve the problem. And you will leave the seminar stronger than you were before and wilth a full haert, knowing what you have to do next. Basically, it mostly worked out well in the end. Our results were particularly good if the team that had worked on the problem solving process had been mixed (young/old, male/femal) and inter-disciplinary.

But for the “ars construendi vexilla“, the same holds true as for many other things: the journey is the reward. To be sure, the journey may be strenuous, but the gain in knowledge and the results are well worth the effort.

(Translated by EG)

We will have exactly this kind of workshop at 10 o’clock in the morning of January, 26th, the day after Klaus-Jürgen will have given his presentation at the IF Forum, in our office building at Unterhaching.

It will be about:
How can we give the IF-AGORA.de some momentum? How can we win enough knowledge providers and generate enough turnover, so that some persons working for the IF Agora can actually make a living through it?

Here is my example for a sufficient requirement:
The problem is/was myself feeling dissatisfied. How can I enhance my degree of satisfaction?
I found my sufficient requirement:
I will be content as soon as the sum of my basic needs is a little fulfilled and I am willing and capable of extending both my life and that of some other humans in various dimensions.

At Amazon, you can buy a book by Rupert Lay quite cheaply. Its title is “Dialektik für Manager”. In it, you will find a lot more about dialectics, syllogisms and the “ars construendi vexilla“.

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