LO's and Metanoia - First Notes on Metanoia LO27224

From: Artur F. Silva (artsilva@mail.eunet.pt)
Date: 09/05/01

Linked to LO25939

Dear Lo-learners

Please see below my next post of the series on "LOs and Metanoia"



A Search for LO's and Metanoia

Part III The Metanoia Concept

III.1.1 First Notes on Metanoia

As we have seen in a previous post, in "The Fifth Discipline" Peter Senge
introduces the Greek word metanoia that means a "shift of mind". He
explains that for the Greeks it "meant a fundamental shift or change or,
more literally, transcendence ("meta") of mind ("noia"). In the earlier
(gnostic) Christian tradition it took on a special meaning of awaking
shared intuition." Senge also relates the word metanoia with "being part
of a great team". He also says that in the Catholic corpus the word
metanoia was eventually translated as "repent". I don't know if this is
exact. But "repent" comes from the Latin "repoenitere" (meaning pity or
sorry), and I would expect the word metanoia to be translated in the
Christian tradition as "conversion", as the more known historic event that
has been described with the word is the conversion of Paul, and Paul
himself used the word many times with the same meaning.

Senge also says: "To grasp the meaning of "metanoia" is to grasp the
deeper meaning of "learning" for learning also involves a fundamental
shift or movement of mind." He then confronts the "everyday use of
learning" as "taking in information" with "generative learning" and says
"real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through
learning we recreate ourselves. Through learning we reperceive the world
and our relationship to it".

In my opinion, through the concept of generative learning and metanoia
Senge is referring to a conception of "Learning as Transformation" (to
quote the title of an interesting article from Harrison Owen, at

1 Indeed the word "metanoia" always refers to a sudden change of mind.
What is changed is the "mental model" or the paradigm through which we see
reality or a certain part of reality: before the change we saw a certain
reality (for instance and continuing with Paul's example): "Christians are
a danger for the Roman Empire and I am a Roman citizen"; after the change
we see a different reality ("Christianity is the salvation for humanity
and I am an human being"). This change can eventually be under preparation
during a long time and being the result of a process but the change takes
place suddenly, at a certain moment (in the road conducting to Damasc it
is said).

Through metanoia, as Senge says "we recreate ourselves, we reperceive the
world and our relationship to it". In some cases this "change of mind" is
preceded and prepared by a discipline (of mind, of life) like in the Zen
tradition, in some other cases it is prepared by other life experiences
(unless we say that persecuting Christians was Paul's "discipline"...).
But what is important, in my opinion, is that some conditions have been
previously created that allow for that shift of mind to suddenly occur.

2 The Italian sociologist Alberoni has studied the metanoia process in two
very special situations: one at an individual level; the other at a social
or community level. I wonder if we can use some of his insights to better
understand the metanoia process at the organization level, mainly in LO's.
I will review Alberoni's analyses in the next post. Before that, I will
concentrate on four different perspectives, where, as far as I know, the
word metanoia has not been referred but where similar concepts were in

3 Piaget's "Genetic Psychology"

As you all know, Piaget studied the development of intelligence in
children and described the different stages (indeed different "mental
models") of the development of intelligence.

One of his most interesting clarification respects the two different ways
children (people) learn. First, children can learn through "assimilation".
This is obtained any time a new fact can be "assimilated" as an extension
of a previous model. A different type of learning is needed when a new
fact can't be assimilated to a previous model or explanation, as indeed it
contraries the model. In this situation the child needs to "accommodate"
his model to a new reality, really he needs to change his model. The
"accommodation" process is needed when there is a "cognitive dissonance"
(as Festinger would say) between the existing mental model and reality.

In a very interesting book (L' Equilibre des Structures Cognitives, 1977),
Piaget explained the evolution of thinking in children, through the
different stages, as a successive "reequilibration" (reorganization) of
"cognitive structures" (or mental models), through accommodation. Piaget
gives an explanation for the cognitive evolution of intelligence in
childhood, from birth until the domain of "formal" intelligence by the end
of adolescence -- his theory has been called "cognitive constructivism".

Piaget didn't study the "emotional evolution" that could explain a
different aspect of the evolution of psychological structures. But he
referred at least once to the "cognitive unconscious" and its relationship
with the "emotional psycology " in a Conference at the American
Association of Psychoanalysis, in 1971 (in "Problèmes de Psychologie
Génétique", 1972), in a way similar to Polanyi's concept of "tacit

In that Conference Piaget sustained that a "general theory" relating the
cognitive psychology with the emotional one (namely, psychoanalysis) was
in need. He stated that the cognitive process are similar to emotional
ones as in the first ones there is also "a relative consciousness of the
results and an almost totally unconsciousness of the internal mechanisms
that conducted to those results" (pg. 43). He continues saying that "the
thought of an individual is guided by structures that he ignores and that
determine not only what he is able to do, but also what he is obliged to
do". In another part he refers that those models even condition what one
is able to see. "The cognitive unconscious is a set of structures and
rules of functioning ignored by the subject, except by their results..."
and "What I am telling here is not specific of children thinking, it can
be found in all adults, but even in the development of scientific thought"
(real mental models, won't you agree?).

Piaget was especially interested in the phenomenon of catharsis, where
simultaneously emotional conflicts come to consciousness and a
reorganization of cognitive structures takes place. He says: "Catharsis is
not only an enlightenment... it is a reintegration of conflicts through a
new organization" and "the emotional present is determined, as Freud
showed, by the past of the individual, but the past itself is continuously
restructured by the present."

I think these quotations can be compared with the revision of the
scientific past history that Khun suggested that always happens after any
scientific revolution. And maybe they can also contribute to our
understanding of the unconscious dimension of all "mental models".

4 Leo Apostel's "post-formal" stage hypothesis

The evolution of cognitive structures that Piaget studied ends at the
formal stage, by the end of adolescence. In a course on "Future Directions
of Genetic Epistemology", in Lisbon, in the 70's, the late Leo Apostel,
one of the followers of Piaget, stated his opinion that there exists a
stage after the "formal stage" that some people were able to attain (and
others not) that he called provisionally the "dialogic stage" (to avoid
the expression "dialectic"). This is in line with what other cognitive
psychologists call a "post-formal" or "post-conventional" stage.

In the formal stage a person can make "formal deductions" but cannot avoid
to be caught sometimes in the trap of generalizations, nor can the formal
stage explain why some people are more able then others to change their
paradigms (or mental models) in adulthood. In the "dialogic stage" people
can compare different formal models and allow their thinking and models to
evolve. This hypothesis could be useful to better understand individual
lifelong learning capabilities, as well as the organizational learning
through profound changes of shared mental models that would be useful to
explain the longer living companies of the Shell Study, already

5 Watzlawick's First Order and Second Order Changes

Piaget and Apostel have both studied the evolution of cognitive structures
that one can directly or indirectly correlate with learning. Watzlawick
(a member of the Palo Alto school of thought) has mainly concentrate on
change or transformation -- indeed a synonymous of true learning as we
have seen before. In his main book on Change ("Change Principles of
Problem Formation and Problem Resolution") he refers to changes at a
personal, inter-personal and social level.

Watzlawick makes a clear distinction between what he considers two
completely different types of change (please see my note at the end as I
am using a Spanish version of the referred book): First Order Changes are
incremental changes made within the system (the rules of the prevailing
system are not changed nor questioned). These changes represent "more of
the same". On the contrary, Second Order Changes are qualitative or even
"paradoxical" changes; the rules of the system are subverted and changed.
They are no longer changes within the system, but changes of the system

Watzlawick claims that frequently one is unable to change the personal,
inter-personal or social systems because the "change agent" also accepts
the rules of the system, and tries to enhance it. Or, on the contrary,
opposes it but accepting the unwritten and frequently unconscious rules
that underlie (and sustain) the prevailing system.

Every time we conclude that a system must undergo a "profound change" we
can also conclude that doing more of what we have always done will not do
it (like more training, for instance). A fundamental change, a second
order change is what is needed in such cases. Watzlawick gives many
examples that I will not repeat here -- reading or rereading the book is

In a future post I will compare Watzlawick's distinction between first and
second order changes with Argyris and Schon's distinction between
single-loop and double-loop learning.

6 Kuhn's "Scientific Revolutions"

Even if the word metanoia is not used by Kuhn, the concept of shift of
mind ("paradigm shift") is critical in his "The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions" (SSR).

Based on his double education in Science (Physics) and History, Khun
criticizes the "continuist conception" of scientific evolution. Normally,
historians of science tend to describe new discoveries in science has if
they were continuous, hence, simple "assimilation" of new facts or domains
to an existing theory. On the contrary, he thinks that a new theory
generally contradicts crucial aspects of previous theories, and can only
be explained as a paradigm "revolution". In what concerns what is a
paradigm, Khun himself gave many definitions. I find this one useful:
"(Paradigms are) universally recognized scientific achievements that for
some time provide model problems and solutions to a community of
practitioners" (Khun, SSR, Preface, pg. viii). In other point he refers to
paradigms as "world views" and the title of one chapter of the book is
"Revolutions as changes of worldview". From the two quotations one can
conclude that Kuhn is talking about "changing the shared mental models"
(my words) of a scientific community.

For instance, what is normally described as "the discovery of oxygen" is
indeed a revolution from a conception of combustion based on the
phlogiston theory to an understanding of combustion as a combination with
oxygen. And the main believers of the phlogiston hypothesis (Priestly,
namely) could never accept the existence of oxygen, as they could not
change their previous paradigm (or model).

Khun describes the evolution of Science as a succession of "paradigm
shifts", each one completely rearranging the mental models of the
community of practitioners of a certain Science.

Kuhn makes a clear distinction between what he calls "normal science",
where scientists only "solve puzzles" enlarging the old theory to apply it
to new facts or new areas (and talks with a clear disdain about this
"normal science") and what he calls "scientific revolutions" where a
scientist (or a group of scientists) creates a completely new explanation
for a certain number of phenomena -- and if one believes that the new
paradigm is correct, one must say that the old one is wrong (or is, at
least, a more limited explanation).

For me, "normal science" works through "assimilation" (of new facts to old
theories) using a "formal stage" of thinking; and scientific revolutions
imply an "accommodation" a creation of new theories to explain the facts
(and sometimes only some of them) using a "dialogic" way of thinking.
Every paradigm shift or scientific revolution involves a process of
metanoia that begins with a scientist or small group of scientists and
then disseminates to the all community, creating a new "shared mental
model" within that community.

It is interesting to note that Kuhn theory involves two different levels:
 - at a social level, the community of scientists of a certain branch of
knowledge do change overtime their conceptions;
 - at an individual level, some scientist do change their theories
("paradigm shift") but the majority of them will never be able to change
paradigm and understand the new theory.

Khun quotes the Physician Max Planck who said in his "Scientific
Autobiography": "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its
opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents
eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it"
(SSR, pg.15).

Indeed, the fact that the majority of scientists will never make the
change is not a problem for science. They will eventually die and the new
community will be educated in the new theory. And really, personal
"conversion" (from the old to the new theory) seems to be a matter of
"faith" more than fact. But in the long term more solid theories become
accepted. And for the scientists themselves that fact is not also a big
problem they will "deny" the new theory and will continue to do "normal
science" with the old paradigm, and will continue to be paid (in Europe,
normally by public money) until they will eventually retire or die.

When we talk about learning organizations the same trends are in place, I
believe -- individual members will have to change their mental models (or
eventually die), new shared values and models will emerge, and some
companies will change, adapt and survive. Some others will not. But the
problem that a company dies is of particular importance for the humans
that work for that company, as normally they cannot continue to do the
"normal practice" and being paid for it until they die.

For companies and for people who work for companies, the problem of
profound organizational learning and company longevity are crucial
questions -- very different from what it means to scientists or scholars
(that can always use the "experience" to write a new paper).

Kuhn's model (or a very similar one) has, by the way, been applied to
organizations, back in 1972, by Larry Greiner, in an HBR article:
"Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow".



Piaget, Jean Problèmes de Psycologie Génétique, 1972, Ed Gonthier, Paris

Piaget, Jean L'Equilibration des Structures Cognitives", 1977, Ed. PUF, Paris

Khun, Thomas The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR), 1962, Univ.
Chicago Press, London (2nd edition, 1970)

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline -- The Art and Practice of the Learning
Organization (FD), 1990 (UK edition, Century Business, 1993)

Watzlawick, Paul, Weakland, J. and Fisch, R. Change: Principles of
Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, 1974 (Spanish translation,
Cambio: Formation y solucion de los problemas humanos, 4 ed., 1985, Ed.
Herder, Barcelona)

NB: All quotations from Piaget and Apostel have been translated from
French to English by myself :-(( Unfortunately, I have not read in English
the book from Watzlawick that I have quoted, but in Spanish, and I had to
translate back to English. I am not sure if I have used exactly the same
expressions that the Authors used. Sorry about that...


"Artur F. Silva" <artsilva@mail.eunet.pt>

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