“Agile vs. Waterfall” Started with “Aristotle vs. Plato”

“The School of Athens’ by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

The interest in Dead White Male Philosophers is limited to a tiny slice of the population, I realize. Especially in my home country; as far back as the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.” I have studied philosophers of various cultures, genders and ethnicities, but I can’t resist a post about my recent dive back into DWMPs that brought a striking revelation: The argument over “Agile vs. Waterfall” is an extension of a 2,400-year debate over “Aristotle vs. Plato.”

In The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, author Arthur Herman does not mention management techniques. He is a history professor, after all. Herman takes a detailed walk through the development of Western philosophy and its impacts on disciplines like religion, politics, business, and the arts. He argues rather convincingly that most of the major Western thinkers fell into one of the two camps, or knowingly tried to combine the two. He anchors the argument on Raphael’s mural masterpiece in the Vatican, The School of Athens, which I have been privileged to gawk at in person. Raphael recognized the divide by placing Plato and Aristotle at its center, and surrounding them with philosophers on their appropriate halves of the wall. I was struck over and over how the arguments aligned with current debates over the progressive management practices I lump together as “Agile.”

The book’s title refers to Plato’s description of reality, so timeless my “odd-daughter”[1] Gina Makaroff sent it to me as an Internet meme. Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher (ca. 428–347 BCE), asks us to imagine prisoners chained in a cave facing one wall. Fires are lit behind them, and the jailers parade shapes in front of those fires such that their shadows appear on the wall. The prisoners assume the shapes they are seeing are real objects. Only when one breaks free and turns around do they realize they were seeing imperfect copies of the actual shapes.

Everything we know, Plato asserted, is a bad copy of these “ideal forms.” My incomparable college philosophy teacher Rick Miller, a Columbia Univ. Ph.D. who somehow ended up at a performing arts school in North Carolina, demonstrated this by putting his chair atop his desk. “This,” he declared “is the essence of chair-ness.” That is, were that the perfect form of a chair, chair makers would instinctively perceive, but never perfectly reproduce, that form.

The forms were real, Plato said, though I don’t recall him specifying exactly where they resided. And they extended to moral principles and political theory and leadership qualities. In each case, there was a universally mandated perfect idea that we should strive to match as closely as possible in our lives and societies, he said.

His student Aristotle (384–322 BCE), took a very different view. Herman explains Aristotle insisted on the pre-eminence of reason “linked to the power of observation. Reason steps in after, not before, experience; it sorts our observations into meaningful patterns and arrives at a knowledge as certain and exact as anything in Plato’s Forms.”

The Latin translation of the Greek term Aristotle used, epistēmē, is the root for our word science. “Aristotle is the true father of science and scientific method, by which we still mean a methodical process of observation, classification, and discovery,” Herman says. However, Aristotle also believed there were underlying principles that fit together as a system. Herman says the modern term “ecosystem” captures his intent.

From the long list of thinkers Herman covers, I’ll draw on William James (1842–1910) to illustrate the divide. Brother of novelist Henry, Jr., James reworded the categories as “The Tender-Minded” Platonists and “The Tough-Minded” Aristotelians. Among other traits, the former he described as “going by principles,” “Idealistic,” “Optimistic,” and “Dogmatical.” The tough-minded he contrasted as “going by facts,” “Materialistic,” “Irreligious,” “Pessimistic,” and “Skeptical.” Like Herman, James argued this divide has existed down the ages, and that each side disparages the others. “‘The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads,'” Herman quotes James as writing. “”The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal.'”

Herman says James called for “an intellectual creed tender-minded enough to show us our connection to something outside ourselves’ but also tough enough to deal with robust reality…” James called his version “Pragmatism.” In it, Truth arises from the consequences of our choices. Were we to calculate the launch vectors for a rocket based on the idea the earth stands still and the sun and planets move around it—the belief Medieval Platonists tried to impose—the launch would fail. Hence Truth is always emerging, James might say, as new trials and consequences discover new truths (much like Scrum iterations!). However, discovering them requires intuition about the right way to go as a starting point, a strength of the Platonists.

Furthermore, James valued moral principles, merely arguing that they arise from their pragmatic value. Whether you think the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments were handed down by God or were written by humans, their value can be seen in the results. What would happen to any society where everybody killed and stole without remorse?

Pragmatism draws us closer to the business world. Self-interest is at the heart of a commercial society, Scottish historian William Robertson (1721–1793) wrote. He described this type as “‘a society of human beings bound together by one of the strongest of all ties, the desire of supplying their mutual needs.'” This is a stage beyond the agrarian, feudal society of the Middle Ages, Robertson said.

However, that binding fails when it becomes too strong, because a tightly controlled society like Plato extolled in his Republic loses the ability to supply people’s perceived “needs.” Austrian economist Freidrich von Hayek wrote in the 1920s that advocates of centrally planned economies, like the overly controlling U.S. Federal Reserve Board and Soviet Communist planners of that time, were bound to fail. Their Platonic view ignored “how real people behaved, and why they bought and sold things in the first place,” as Herman describes it. I have said for many years that the chief failing of communism is its failure to account for human greed.

The Berlin Wall fell when Hayek was 90, failing, and rarely able to talk. But Hayek’s son reported that watching that event on TV, his father smiled, turned to his son, and said, “‘I told you so.'”

Herman adds, “So had Aristotle.”

It was James’ list of traits that led me to make the Agile vs. Waterfall connection, though I think you would have to reverse the labels of tender- and tough-minded. Platonic executives hew to the dogma of traditional management methods. They insist idealistically that people can predict the future and should be “held accountable” if they don’t, and thus are seen as brutal by Agilists. Those tough-minded Platonists, in turn, seem to see Agilists as too tender-hearted toward workers, with all our guff about empowerment and trusting people to do their jobs.

Most executives ignore reams of data and their own direct experiences proving it impossible to make plans that hold up to the vagaries of life, and instead keep making underlings create rosy pictures of the future that will fail to reflect reality. They also believe they can control people using universal laws they consider themselves especially adept at leveraging, in the role of Plato’s “philosopher-king” who rises because he alone knows what is best for the country (or in this case, company).

We Agilists are more Aristotelian, demanding that managers recognize how humans actually operate, base decisions on evidence and data, and embrace instead of fight constant change. The executive who operates as a king does not, we argue, have the mutual interests of all citizens (shareholders, workers, customers) at heart. Instead they are sure to succumb to the human drive for individual social power if you don’t put in place the checks and balances of broad empowerment.

I will argue, however, that Agilists are really Pragmatists. Like James, we point to the results from traditional practices—reduced shareholder value, worker and customer satisfaction, and so on—and say those practices clearly aren’t working. Allowing workers to come up with creative solutions for connecting with those outside the company has proven the more practical approach.

We can hope this particular debate does not last another 2,400 years. My pragmatic view, however, is pessimistic.


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Source: Herman, Arthur (2013), The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. Random House: New York.

[1] Technically I am her godfather, but we both prefer the more fitting term “Oddfather Jim!”

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