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Paul Monk

In recent decades, Western business strategists have been urged to read Sun-tzu’s The Art of War. There is something to be said for this. The Art of War has the advantage of being short. It’s therefore fairly easy to read and re-read. It contains some insights that are worth taking to heart. It is not, however, an adequate substitute for the insights cognitive science has generated in the recent decades. These insights should be taken to heart at least as commonly as those of Sun-tzu.

What are some of the best known insights or maxims of Sun-tzu? Here are five of his most famous:

  • “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analysed.”
  • “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements. One who does not know the enemy, but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat. One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.”
  • “Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, inferred from phenomena, or projected from the measures of Heaven, but must be gained from men for it is the knowledge of the enemy’s true situation.”
  • “One who is free from errors directs his measures toward certain victory, conquering those who are already defeated.”
  • “Unless someone has the wisdom of a sage, he cannot use spies; unless he is benevolent and righteous, he cannot employ spies; unless he is subtle and perspicacious, he cannot perceive the substance in intelligence reports. It is subtle, subtle!”

As a former intelligence officer, I especially like the last one. All of them, however, are pithy and memorable. They date back about 2,500 years, but embody a depth of insight that still seems impressive. They derive from the experiences of countless princes in the China of the Warring States and earlier, distilled down by an ancient Chinese Machiavelli. They are likely to remain relevant as long as human beings struggle against one another in any form of high stakes competition, be it war, business or poker.

One of the reasons such maxims still seem relevant is that they are pitched at a high level of generality. Where Sun-tzu writes about the specifics of iron age warfare - the use of chariots and horses and the defence of walled cities, for example - he is much more likely to seem dated. The facts on which his insights were based are now the stuff of archaeology, but the insights themselves are sufficiently powerful that we can often substitute contemporary facts and still find that the insights are valid.

Yet Sun-tzu was writing specifically about war, not business, so that even his best insights at the general level can only be used as a rough analogy, in application to present-day challenges. Moreover, Sun-tzu exhorted us to know ourselves and our enemies, to analyse things carefully, to avoid errors, but he didn’t know very much about why we make the kinds of errors we do.

What most classic wisdom has in common is that it is based on accumulated observation of human folly, but not on closer analysis of the roots of human perception and inference. Getting behind the patterns of human folly to their root causes has been a more exacting exercise than anything Sun-tzu even conceived of undertaking. Doing that work has occupied a legion of cognitive scientists in recent decades. It has generated a vast body of work which, unlike The Art of War, is not short or easy to read and re-read. Yet its key findings, the insights of cognitive science, are every bit as powerful and interesting as anything in Sun-tzu.

Here are five maxims based on that work to set beside the above five maxims of Sun-tzu:

  • Metacognition (thinking about thinking itself) is the greatest affair of the human mind, the basis of learning and mastery, the Way (Tao) to enlightenment or folly. Your ways of thinking should be thoroughly pondered and analysed.”
  • “Know that your brain is neither a mirror to reality nor a computer. It is an evolved organ with astonishing strengths and remarkable weaknesses, in both perception and inference. If you play to its strengths and adjust for its weaknesses, you will cope much better with complex intellectual challenges than others do.”
  • “Your brain prefers the visual to the abstract, but reason is abstract, so do your reasoning visuo-graphically (diagram it) and your brain will work both more economically and more effectively.”
  • “Your brain has severe information processing constraints and therefore will always want to leap to a conclusion. This is called satisficing. It is a great source of your capacity to make intuitive judgments and act quickly. It is also the root cause of countless superstitions, biases, prejudices and strategic errors. If your judgment counts, get it critically tested.”
  • “To cope with complexity, your brain depends on mind-sets or sets of assumptions which you simply take for granted. If you do not engage a coach to draw these out and test them, they entrap you. It is subtle, subtle!”

Exploring these sorts of issues is endlessly fascinating in itself, but they have all manner of practical applications. Sun-tzu said: “Think! Know yourself! Avoid errors!” Doing these things well, though, requires that we take on board the insights of cognitive science.