Christopher Paparone has written extensively about the conceptual relationships between alternative philosophies of science and the new military planning process called Operational Design (this is his first post that got my attention, and the four that comprise his current discussion on Design). He uses the philosophical work of Parmenides and Heraclitus to illustrate different beliefs about ontology (what is the nature of reality?) and epistemology (what is the nature of our knowledge of reality?) in military organizations. Paparone illustrates that classic military planning is based on the Parmenidian tradition, which accepts the existence of a stable objective reality and posits the formation of scientific, accurate knowledge that provides ‘truth’ about the real world. Both Parmenidian philosophy and conventional military science are consistent with the modern positivist scientific tradition borne out of the Enlightenment and guided by human reason.

Paparone argues that Operational Design rejects a positivist Parmenidian philosophy of science. Instead, Design is consistent with the pre-Socratic philosophy of Heraclitus, who emphasizes that the existence of the world is constantly in flux and that our knowledge of it is only transitory and can never be complete. Modern-day postpositivist followers of the Heraclitian tradition argue that the progress offered by Enlightenment science is impossible and that human reason can never reach an objective perspective of the entire world.

On this basis, Paparone suggests that the discussion of Operational Design in FM 5-0 is incorrect because it posits a Parmenidian goal similar to Enlightenment science. FM 5-0 and scholars at the School of Advanced Military Studies repeatedly state that ‘understanding’ is the purpose of Design.[1] However, Paparone argues that ‘understanding’ is the wrong way to think about Design because it violates Heraclitean assumptions about the nature of reality and our knowledge of it. ‘Understanding’ a complex reality is impossible in the Heraclitean tradition because it implies that we can overcome the perceptual limitations of subjectivity. He makes his objections most clear in a footnote in his latest SWJ piece:

Design makes no such assertion that [understanding] is even remotely possible when facing wicked, high VUCA situations. Hence, the designer may expose the fallacy of this assertion, for example, by asking complexity scientists or chaos theorists to enter the conversation in order to poke ontological and epistemological holes into the doctrinal assertion. (Paparone, p. 7, fn. 25)

Thus, Paparone is challenging the SAMS-based conception of Design by suggesting it falsely seeks a modern, positivist form of knowledge (epistemology) that is inconsistent with a postmodern and postpositivist view of reality (ontology). In philosophy of science terms, Paparone is critiquing Design for its inconsistent commitments to the Parmenidian tradition and ‘positivist’ philosophy of science. Instead, Design ought to fully embrace Heraclitian ‘postpositivist’ positions that recognize the limitations of human knowledge.

However, I want to argue that ‘understanding’ is actually consistent with Heraclitus and a postpositivist epistemology. In social science, ‘understanding’ is often contrasted with ‘explanation’, the scientific goal of positivist Enlightenment science. In striving for explanation, scholars seek to discover law-like generalizations that apply to all phenomenon. Deriving explanatory relationships between independent and dependent variables has been the hallmark of behavioralism in American social science, and was especially prevalent in American political science up until the 1980s. Thus, behavioralists assume that all human action is an unmediated response to external stimuli – scientific explanations identify which stimuli universally cause responses by human beings.

However, other scholars have rejected the behavioralist explanatory model of science in favor of interpretivism, which posits that social actors react differently to external observations depending on how they subjectively assign meaning to them. Because social actors interpret observations differently, they do not respond to external stimuli similarly. This means that the law-like generalizations of behavioralism and Enlightenment positivism are impossible to make about social behavior. Instead, interpretivists seek an understanding (verstehen) of the subjective perceptions of social actors that lead them to take intended actions. As a scientific purpose, understanding was pursued first by German sociologists such as Max Weber and Georg Simmel, who rejected positivist modernism’s faith in its ability to ‘objectively explain’ the real world. Thus, interpretivists begin from the assumption that their own knowledge is limited and cannot be complete – social scientific knowledge can only inform us as to how other actors interpret events around them.

If interpretivism is an idea of science that privileges ‘understanding’, then there is no reason why it cannot be the basis for critical thinking and reflective learning. Although Paparone says that ‘understanding’ lies in the Parmenidian tradition, its use by German sociologists who reject modern positivist science suggests its approach to knowledge and epistemology compatible with Heraclitus. Thus, when Paparone argues that commanders should foster a critical dialogue to appreciate reality, developing this ‘appropriate’ perception requires interaction with every other relevant operational actor to understand their perception of reality. Understanding is epistemologically consistent with appreciation, and both derive from a realization of the incompleteness of subjective human knowledge.

However, this does not mean that the Parmenidian tradition has no place in Design methodology. Military organizations still have to plan detailed actions to implement a concept of operations. Thus, there may still be a place for mission analysis in the later stages of the military planning process. And, military organizations must still recognize that there is an objective ‘real world’ separate from its corporate existence. In counterinsurgency, this refers to the population, its perceptions, and the coercive capabilities of local combatants. Therefore, Operational Design should not embrace a postpositivist ontology that assumes that existence itself is completely subjective, and that no objective reality exists outside our perceptions. Although perceptions of reality and the material objects within it may exist in constant flux, they still exist ‘outside’ of us when they are shared by many people. Perceptions can be an objective social fact, although one that can change rapidly with new events that radically alter relationships in a complex society.

On this basis, Operational Design adopts a mix of philosophy science assumptions. It begins with a positivist, Parmenidian ontology that recognizes the existence of ‘real’ things external to ourselves, things like ideas, perceptions, material objects, coercive force. We ‘positively’ have to interact with those things to change them to some desired outcome. However, we do not necessarily know the relationship between those things. We can never objectively see all of them and the totality to which they each contribute, preventing us from knowing how to precisely cause a desired outcome. Instead, we can only learn to view reality from the subjective perspectives of actors in those relationships through critical dialogue with them and act with those perspectives and the expectations held by other relevant actors in the world. This type of Design model represents a Heraclitian, or postpositivist epistemology, that accepts the limits of our knowledge and the need to reflexively and critically learn about the perspectives of others to improve it. We appreciate the world only by understanding different perspectives of it by others who live in it. And, because random events may alter the interpretive process of other actors, the commander must constantly learn about how the emergence of new events (including his own actions against them) alter and create new perceptions of reality. Thus, critical reflexivity functions as the concept that unites a positive ontology and a postpositivist epistemology and mediates our knowledge of the world and our actions within it.

Paparone’s four-part series is an excellent illustration of the philosophical basis of Operational Design, and he presciently holds much promise for a reinvigorated military profession that investigates the philosophical considerations of warfighting. But his criticism displays a postpositivist overreliance on Heraclitus and leaves no room for any sort of Parminidian recognition of reality, our social relationship to it, and our ability to continuously learn and adapt to it. A sociologically informed approach to Operational Art does incorporate Parmenides through ontology, and combined with Herclitian epistemology, it suggests all action into the world must be mediated through a critically reflexive of learning from those actions to make better future ones.

[1]Understanding is also prevalent in other military organizations such as Human Terrain System, whose mission statement is “[t]o provide deployed commanders with the relevant socio-cultural understanding necessary to meet their operational requirements.”