Groundlessness, Compassion and Ethics in Management and Design

Joseph A Goguen
Dept of Computer Science and Engineering
University of California at San Diego


Although design and management typically address quite different domains, they share some important qualities. Both are uncertain, creative, challenging, and rewarding. Moreover, both prominently involve ethical issues, and both have seen significant problems reduced to calculation, which is then handed off to computers.

This article first describes some tendencies to reduce issues in design and management to purely technical problems, and some difficulties with such approaches. It then suggests that, although extreme reductionism remains sterile, semi-formal approaches that take account of social processes can be valuable. As an example, a design method called algebraic semiotics is sketched, combining ideas from sociology and computer science. This article also argues against extreme relativism, which claims that all social phenomena and human values are equally valid. However, it is not claimed that merely denying both absolutism and relativism solves any hard problems in design or management. Instead, this middle way suggests that there are no definite foundations for either management or design. This in turn leads us to explore groundlessness, the lack of any definite foundation, and to the discovery that groundlessness can inspire compassion and ethics, an insight that could, I hope, promote some significant progress.

Reductionist Design and Management

Much of the literature in both design and management seeks well founded, replicable methods for solving problems, in the style of mathematics, physics, or (at least) engineering. However, the rapid evolution of fads and buzzwords, and the ubiquity of spectacular failures (e.g., Enron and Windows1, to take just one example from each area) attest to the lack of significant progress. Two often cited obstacles are: giving precise formulations of real problems; and giving realistic metrics for the adequacy of solutions. I suggest that in general, these obstacles cannot be overcome, and that instead of seeking reductionist solutions, managers and designers should learn to live in the groundless world entailed by social reality, rather than the stable, grounded world that appears to be promised by reductionist science. Although many specific problems can be reduced to predictable routine methods, management and design operate in open social environments, so that the larger and more important problems are not reducible. Philosophers like Heidegger and Nishitani have developed deep insights into the groundlessness of the human condition, and how to live with it, as discussed later in this article.

If reduction to formalism is rejected, there is still a strong tendency to ground practices like design and management in less formal concepts that are somehow considered more fundamental, such as individual, group, medium, interaction, coherence, or value, as discussed further in (Goguen, 2002). But none of these are natural pre-given categories; each arises from particular ways of categorizing experience, achieved through collective work. I believe that extreme reductionist tendencies are harmful, because they raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled, thus leading to disappointment, and fueling further cycles of hope and fear. Designers seem to have done a better job of resisting such theories than managers, so that managers may be able to learn from them in this respect.

Semiotic Grounds for Design

It is widely accepted that certain aspects of design and management can be formalized. Although I have many years experience managing small research groups, I will concentrate on design, because my experience in user interface design within computer science seems more relevant. The problem here is to design a display that presents some given information and action affordances in a more or less "optimal" way.

Communication is always mediated by signs, which always occur in structured systems of related signs (Saussure, 1976). This insight is formalized in (Goguen, 1999) with the notion of "semiotic system," which is an axiomatic theory for a system of signs, including hierarchical "constructors" for signs, and measures of their relative importance within the sign system. Context, including the setting of a given sign, can be at least as important for meaning as the sign itself. In an extreme example, the sentence "Yes" can mean almost anything, given an appropriate context. This corresponds to an important insight of (Peirce, 1965), that meaning is relational, not just denotational (i.e., functional); this is part of the point of his famous semiotic triangle2. In algebraic semiotics, certain aspects of context dependence can be handled by constructors that place signs within larger signs, so that the original signs become contextualized subsigns. However, human interpretation is still needed for signs to have meaning in any human sense. Moreover, human interpretation is needed in deploying the formalism of algebraic semiotics, since it is intended to be used flexibly, in much the same manner as musical notation is used in musical performance.

In design, it is often important to view some signs as transformations or representations of other signs. Therefore it is valuable to study representation in a systematic way, and in particular, to consider what makes some representations better than others. Although transformations are fundamental in many areas of mathematics and its applications (e.g., linear transformations, i.e., matrices), such questions of representation seem not to have been previously studied in semiotics; however, they can be addressed by "semiotic morphisms" (Goguen, 1999). Just as semiotic systems are theories rather than models, so their morphisms translate from the language of one semiotic system to the language of another, instead of just translating the concrete signs in a model. This may seem indirect, but it has important advantages over more common approaches based on set theoretic models, in that it is open, in allowing multiple models, as well as in permitting new structure to be added at later times.

In many real world examples, not everything can or should be preserved, so that semiotic morphisms must be partial. For example, the table of contents of a book preserves structure and the names of major parts, but completely fails to preserve content (which is what makes it useful). The extent of preservation gives a way to compare the quality of semiotic morphisms (Goguen, 1999). It is notable that semiotic spaces and semiotic morphisms are qualitative rather than quantitative, in that they concern structure, and their quality measures are partial orderings, rather than linear numerical scales. In addition, various qualitative design rules can be justified, e.g., that it is better to preserve structure than content, if something must be sacrificed (Goguen, 1999). Design is the problem of massaging a source space, a target space, and a morphism, to achieve suitable quality, subject to constraints. This formulation applies just as well to managing an organization as it does to designing a website.

Harvey Sacks' notion of "category system" (Sacks, 1972) in ethnomethodology3 (Garfinkel, 1967; Sacks, 1992) is related to semiotic systems, though it is less formal. Previous work on the social nature of information (Goguen, 1998) also uses ideas from ethnomethodology, and can be seen as providing a philosophical and methodological foundation for algebraic semiotics which avoids the trap of Platonism. George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and others have studied the structure of metaphor in detail, creating the flourishing new field called cognitive linguistics (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Turner, 1997). Gilles Fauconnier introduced the notion of conceptual space for representing the systems of related concepts involved in metaphors, and with Mark Turner, argues that the "blending" of conceptual spaces is key to understanding metaphor, as well as in many other areas of human thought (Fauconnier and Turner, 1998). Here metaphor is seen as an emergent structure resulting from integrating several (usually at least three) conceptual spaces, as opposed to classical theories that posit a mapping from one conceptual space to another4. It seems likely that these ideas will be useful in management and design, since both require the careful blending of numerous, often very complex, conceptual spaces. Moreover, they can be formalized to a great extent within algebraic semiotics (Goguen, 1999).

Groundlessness and Coemergent Arising

There appears to be a conflict between grounding design in a mathematical formalism like algebraic semiotics, and in claiming that design is groundless. This appearance arises from an implicitly assumed Platonism for mathematical modeling in general, and semiotics in particular, instead of positioning them in social reality, which is groundless due to its being constantly reconstructed through the work of its members. This ongoing reconstruction is an instance of the Buddhist notion of pratityasamutpada, which in Sanskrit is literally "dependent arising," often translated as codependence or coemergence. Found in the earliest teachings of the Buddha, and developed further by Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu and others, coemergence is the notion that nothing exists by itself, but instead, everything is interdependent, or more precisely, everything arises together with other things. It is similar to the Western notion of "hermeneutic circle," which has ancient origins in classical Greece and various mystical traditions, but has been especially developed in more recent times, e.g., by Schleiermacher and Heidegger.

Coemergence has the important consequence that no ground can be found for phenomena. The groundlessness of the human condition is discussed in depth by (Nishitani, 1982), who points out (following his teacher Heidegger) that much of the recent history of Western thought can be seen as a progressively refined questioning of absolutes. Among the responses to this questioning, two extremes are identified: nihilism, which is absolute relativity, the denial of any meaning; and absolutism, which is the denial of the questioning. Such absolutism may take the form of dogmatism, fundamentalism, or extreme reductionism. Moreover, there tends to be an unstable oscillation between these two extremes, a condition which Nishitani calls5 the "field of nihility," and which appears similar to the oscillations in organizational communications noticed by Alex Citurs (Citurs, 2002; Boland, 2002), which perhaps also result from an ongoing fruitless search for a stable ground.

It should not be thought that groundlessness is a stable, fixed state; indeed, it makes even less sense to reify groundlessness than other things. Nor is it passive. All living systems are dynamic, constantly rebalancing their state in order to achieve equilibrium within their environment. A suggestive analogy is walking, which uses motion to compensate for a constant unbalance, always taking account of changes and irregularities in the environment; it seems that some form of oscillation is typical of healthy systems as well as unhealthy systems. Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana have developed notions of autopoeisis and structural coupling to facilitate discussing such issues for biological systems (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991), but these ideas also seem relevant to the management of organizations, which must also reconstruct themselves in order to survive.

Based on experience with Zen meditation, Nishitani says there is a "middle way" which avoids the extremes of both nihilism and absolutism, as well as the unstable oscillation between them, by accepting groundlessness as a basis for being. The experience of groundlessness, and a path based upon it, have been described in many religious traditions, using phrases such as "dark night of the soul" and "cloud of unknowing." Results of practicing this middle way are said to include openness, compassion, and harmony with nature; joy, strength, and peace are also said to result. This is advocated in (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991) as a fruitful approach to cognitive science. Here, I suggest it also makes sense as an approach to design and management, dwelling in neither relativism nor reductionism, and drawing energy and inspiration from silence. This relates to the "planetary thinking" advocated in (Heidegger, 1958), in that it involves a re-examination of the Western worldview, drawing on Eastern ideas, in order to achieve a worldview that is planetary in scope, takes better account of human nature, and overcomes some negative effects of our instrumental, technological, consumption oriented culture6.

Compassion and Ethics

Groundlessness is completely different from nihilism and nihility; it opens a field of freedom and creativity, within which one can discover the true potential of situations. The inner possibilities of groundlessness have been discussed in numerous traditions. A recent book (Dalai Lama, 1999), which reached number one on the New York Times best selling business list, draws on Tibetan Buddhism, but its approach is not so different from that of Meister Eckhardt, Maimonides, Rumi, Lao Tzu, and many others. A major argument of (Dalai Lama, 1999) is that everyone wants to be happy and content, and that an important way to achieve this is to live ethically, for example, to avoid harming others. Fortunately, everyone has an innate capacity for compassion, for feeling the condition of others, and this makes it possible to act in a humane way. This capacity may have a neural basis in the recently discovered mirror neurons (Rizozolatti et al, 1996), which for primates, are known to respond to specific gestures in others, and which might well be further developed in humans. In any case, it is clear that empathy and compassion are inhibited by preconceptions and prejudices, but arise naturally out of an authentically groundless state.

Empathy and compassion provide a solid ground for ethical behavior, which is completely different from pity, busy do-gooding, and righteous rule following. Arguments against rule based approaches to ethics are well known, e.g. (Johnson, 1993); they are similar to arguments against reductionist approaches to other areas, e.g., management and design. Rules can never anticipate the complexities of the human condition, and in any case require interpretation, and second order rules (such as Kant's categorical imperative) require even more interpretation than first order rules (like "Thou shallt not kill"). Although rules can certainly be very valuable as guidelines, as argued above with respect to design, the usual philosophical problems of reductionism arise when they are elevated to universal principles. A perhaps surprising result of buddhist meditation experience is that rules are not necessary for ethical behavior; human nature is sufficient, once it has been sufficiently refined. Groundlessness is then the ground for authentic behavior, including genuine ethics, as well as effective and creative design and management; indeed, from this perspective, effective management and design cannot be separated from genuine ethical behavior.


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Richard Boland. Position Paper. In Advance Papers, Second Workshop on Distributed Collective Practice. University of California at San Diego, 2002.
(Citurs, 2002)
Alex Citurs. Changes in Team Communication Patterns: Learning during Project Problem/Crisis Resolution Phases - An Interpretative Perspective. PhD thesis. Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, 2002.
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Joseph Goguen. An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Applications to User Interface Design. In Chrystopher Nehaniv, editor, Computation for Metaphors, Analogy and Agents. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, Volume 1562, pages 242-291. Springer, 1999. See also the online papers Information Visualization and Semiotic Morphisms and Semiotic Morphisms, and the UC San Diego Semiotic Zoo, all of which are linked from the page
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  1. Although Windows is certainly a commercial success, most professional computer scientists consider it a technical design failure, due to its many bugs, its poor user interface, its bad security, and its greed-driven development philosophy.
  2. Whereas Saussure defined a sign to consist of a signifier and a signified, Peirce has a third element, called an interpretant, which relates the other two. Interpretants are often taken to include the social context, and the person doing the interpretation.
  3. Ethnomethodology is a perspective on sociology that is notoriously resistant to definition, but very briefly, one might say that ethnomethodology is concerned with the methods and concepts that members use to make sense of their interactions. Ethnomethodology denies that there is any pre-existing ground of social or cultural reality that determines social interaction. Although founded by Harold Garfinkel, much recent work has taken different directions from those of (Garfinkel, 1967), such as detailed analyses of the construction of conversation (Sacks, 1992).
  4. Max Black, building on work of Ivor Richards, moved beyond Aristotle in considering metaphor a complex and emergent non-directional relation between two domains, rather than a simple fixed mapping (Black, 1962). Although he was right about the complex and emergent character of metaphor, he appears to have been wrong about non-directionality, and his work also lacks the precision needed to put it in the same league as modern cognitive linguistic theories.
  5. Actually, this phrase was chosen by the translator Jan Van Bragt; a better English translation of the underlying Buddhist notion would be "relative emptiness," as opposed to the deeper and more familiar notion of (absolute) emptiness (sunyata in Sanskrit), for which this article has used the term "groundlessness".
  6. (Heidegger, 1977) gives a powerful and very influential discussion of the dark side of technology, and (Thompson, 1986) gives a thoughtful discussion of the philosophical context of planetary thinking in (Heidegger, 1958) and its relation to (Nishitani, 1982).

This was written for the Managing as Design Workshop, held 14-15 June 2002 at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. Many other contributions can be found on the workshop website, including those by Richard Boland (the organizer), Geoffrey Bowker, Yjro Engestrom, Frank Gehry (the architect of the building where it was held), Leigh Star, Lucy Suchman, and Ina Wagner.