Feature Article: Integral Leadership as Supporting Epistemic Sophistication in Knowledge-Building Communities

Tom Murray

Tom MurrayIntroduction

In a general sense leaders “lead, inspire, and/or organize” people to form beliefs or take actions and theories of leadership cover a wide range of concerns, including management, organizational transformation, character development and psycho-social motivation. For this article I take a particular meaning or slice within the numerous goals and skill sets entailed by “leadership,” i.e., leadership as supporting knowledge-building, new mental models and meaning generation. These three facets of leadership are closely intertwined.

Leaders advocate particular models of, and ways to think about, the world. They may do this explicitly by articulating a model or implicitly through the unspoken assumptions that underlie their influential behaviors and requests. They also encourage the collaborative creation of new knowledge. In advocating and educating for a particular model leaders scaffold the meaning making of others by providing conceptual frameworks that help others make sense of complex situations. In supporting active knowledge building, leaders allow others to develop models based on the other’s own experiences and insights, thus ensuring that the knowledge generated is imbued with a deep sense of meaning. (For simplicity I will usually speak as if leadership were exercised by specific individuals–however it can also be shared or rotated. Implementing the principles outlined in this article in any community will necessarily involve the proactive and conscious participation of many.)

Consider the types of models put forth by integral thought-leaders, i.e. those who integrate scientific/rational/objective perspectives with ethical/moral/spiritual perspectives.  In the following three paragraphs I mention three such models, as I affirm my support of their basic tenets:

  1. Humanity needs a new cosmological “universe story,” an interpretation of our purpose and place in the universe that is compatible with scientific fact and scientific method, yet transcends materialism and reductionism to preserve the sense of awe, reverence and hope that were once found through traditional religions and myths. (Swimme and Berry 1992; Matthews 2002.)
  2. Society can benefit from a perennial philosophy, culled from the enduring truths of religious traditions, that maintains those threads of wisdom that teach about self, emphasize caring relationships and provide vital clues about the spiritual, transcendent, and absolute, while culling out dogmatic beliefs that separate and isolate (Smith 1992; Huxley 1945; Merton 1959).
  3. We need integral and integrative theories, paradigms and meta-frameworks that allow our understanding of the life-world to embrace body, mind and spirit (or, alternatively: nature, self and culture; the true, the good and the beautiful; or the cultural value spheres of science, morals and art). (Wilber 2000, 2006; Aurobindo 1949; Gebser; Laszlo 2004).

However, cosmological stories, perennial philosophies and integral theories are models. They are, as their authors will readily admit, imperfect maps of a complex reality as seen through particular lines of inquiry. Leaders from many corners of contemporary thought advise us to take a multi-perspectival approach and to have the cognitive sophistication to “not confuse the map for the territory”—but how does one do this? What does it look or feel like? It turns out to be quite difficult in practice and, for the most part, we lack tools, methods, norms and instructive examples for doing so. Gaining this distance from our beliefs can involve deep cognitive, emotional and even ethical/spiritual challenges. But as we will see recent research and scholarship have produced significant results related to this end in terms of the workings of the individual mind/brain and in terms of collective thought and behavior.

I will argue that while humanity unquestionably needs more adequate models, it is a deeper understanding of models and the modeling mind that is essential to cognitive/ethical/spiritual evolutionary development.  In the post-modern (or more accurately the post-post-modern or post-metaphysical) context it is incumbent on leaders to facilitate the learning of not only specific models but of flexible and reflective ways to think about, use and evolve models.

A leader is a guide, mentor, tutor or facilitator in the individual and collective search for meaning, which—as we will see—includes the search for what is true, what is right and what is useful. A critical function of leadership is to help participants—we use “participants” as a general term for workers, readers, citizens, students, colleagues, etc., depending on the leadership context—develop “epistemic sophistication” or “epistemic awareness.” (The words “epistemology” and “epistemic” refer to knowledge: what it is, how it is validated, what its limitations are, how it is created, how it is transferred.) It is about helping people think and dialog about “I don’t know,” “I’m absolutely sure,” “I disagree” and “prove it!” in productive and respectful ways.

In the succeeding sections I will: argue for the importance of supporting epistemic sophistication in knowledge building communities; relate this need to integral theory; describe some contemporary psychological, sociological, and philosophical theories that shed light on the issue; explore the problem of epistemic indeterminacy; and finally, offer some suggestions for what leadership supporting epistemic sophistication might look like.

On Meaning, Models, Perspectives, Indeterminacy, and Leadership

Awareness of thought and knowledge. The physicist-philosopher David Bohm, noting how we seem so adrift in the calamity of humanity’s dangerous and destructive trends, suggests that “underneath it there’s something we don’t understand about how thought works” (Bohm, 1996). Bohm describes several properties of thought which contribute to contemporary problems and suggests that what is needed is a “very deep” and “very subtle” awareness of thought itself. According to Bohm, properties of thought that have become problematic include: (1) fragmented forms of thinking that “break things up which are not really separate;” (2) the ways that our tacit cognitive biases, filters or maps affect how we perceive and think; (3) the relationship between emotions and thoughts; and (4) the collective or socially-determined aspects of thought and the power of collective myths, images and desires (“we have to question [whether] our thought is our own individual thought”). (This is my summary and simplification—Bohm does not describe it in terms of exactly four problems.)

The “awareness of thought” that Bohm is talking about includes awareness of both one’s own thought and how thought operates intersubjectively in the world. In a sense, Bohm is laying the foundation for a curriculum of self-understanding that includes (a) knowing “how the mind works” in a general sense and (b) a reflective capacity on one’s own thinking and knowledge. Bohm’s analysis implies that a deeper awareness or understanding of mind and knowledge is an essential ingredient in resolving human problems across a wide spectrum of concerns. These include the mundane dilemmas of everyday work and relationships, academic and business efforts to collectively build and apply knowledge and the global problems of hunger, poverty, war and environmental degradation. One can argue that at the root of many of humanity’s problems is not the wrong model but the cognitive and emotional challenges to stepping outside of one’s dominating mental frameworks.

Meaning making and reflecting on models. Meaning making is at the center of human activity and is thus a central concern for leadership. As developmental psychologist Robert Kegan says, “It is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that the activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making…the most fundamental thing we do with what happens to us is organize it. We literally make sense.” (Kegan 1982, pg 11). The human mind understands the world by perceiving patterns and imposing cognitive models or conceptual frameworks (maps) upon experience. As Peter Senge puts it, mental models “affect how we see […] what we measure [and…] shape how we act.” He goes on to note that “the problems with mental models lie not in whether they are right or wrong—by definition, all models are simplifications. The problems with mental models arise when the models are tacit—when they exist below the level of awareness.” (Senge 1990, pg 175, 176).

Because suspending and reflecting upon our metal models requires a certain degree of reflective skill, epistemological understanding and creative willpower, people need support in doing so. And this is a key role of leadership. Senge claims that “A leader’s worth is measured by their contribution to other’s mental models.” (Senge 1990, pg. 190 in summarizing the “credo” from Hanover Inc.’s leadership philosophy). We could add in resonance with other suggestions in Senge’s book that a leader’s worth is also measured by how well they support others’ reflecting on and inquiring about their mental models.

Here we step aside briefly to make a useful differentiation between “mental models” and “explicit models.” Explicit models are the ones we communicate through language, diagrams, etc. They describe theories or frameworks of how we think things are or think things should be. Mental models embody the patterns in how we actually think, act and interpret the world. They are unconscious or tacit though we can work to illuminate them and describe them verbally (Anderson 1993; Argyris 1995). There is an ongoing interplay between explicit models and mental models, as we try to “program” our thinking (our mental models) to conform with explicit models that we think are beneficial (i.e., learning) and as we try to uncover and articulate the assumptions and patterns behind our acting and thinking (i.e., reflection). Leadership is concerned with explicit models, mental models and with their interaction in learning and reflection. (The distinction between explicit models and mental models is similar to that made in cognitive science between declarative and procedural memory [Anderson, 1993]. The distinction is also is similar, but not identical, to the distinction made by Chris Argyris between “espoused theories” and “theories in use” [Argyris 1985].)

Because all models incorporate assumptions, are developed to address specific purposes and can be interpreted and used in multiple ways, we can ask: what would it look like if all explicit models were presented along with descriptions of their assumptions and limitations, with an acknowledgement of alternatives, and without losing sight of their true nature as mental constructs? Many scholars give a nod in this general direction, but embracing it more explicitly and intentionally in the way scholars (or citizens) dialog and build knowledge will require moving through territory that is relatively unexplored for the vast majority. But, as explained below, integral theory provides an ideal context for doing so.

Next we explore two important aspects of models and knowledge-building: multiple perspectives (methodological pluralism), and epistemic indeterminacy (knowledge uncertainty).

Integral theory, multiple perspectives, and knowledge-building communities. As the work of integral and integrative theorists widens and cross-pollinates the field evolves progressively from the brilliant work of isolated individuals toward the co-creative efforts of a knowledge-building community. (I use “community” loosely to refer to a number of overlapping and ill-defined sub-communities. The term “knowledge-building community,” as articulated by Scardamalia & Bereiter (1994), is similar to “learning community,” as articulated by Senge (1990), and “community of practice,” as articulated by Wenger (1998), though each term emphasizes a different aspect.) One of the roles of leadership in knowledge-building communities is in taking a birds-eye interest in the progress, process and quality of the collective knowledge-building efforts of the community (any participant can demonstrate leadership in this way). This involves, as indicated above, an understanding of how knowledge is created, communicated and used, including the inherent uncertainties and limitations. A key element is multiple perspectives.

The most recent iteration of Ken Wilber’s integral theory emphasizes multiple perspectives (“primordial perspectives”) and multiple knowledge-building methodologies (“methodological pluralism”) (Wilber 2006). This represents an important and necessary turn in the evolution of integral theories, which heretofore have primarily focused on the task of articulating meta-models or “orienting generalizations” describing what is (or what seems to be the case), toward an exploration and articulation of method itself—how we (can) know what is. This turn constitutes a greater emphasis on epistemology vs. ontology—i.e., on the nature of knowledge vs. the nature of “reality” (though integral theory has always concerned itself with both).

According to Wilber the integral method (methodological pluralism) is an approach that, “in the presence of apparently incompatible, conflicting, or unrelated data, tries to make a productive, creative synthesis of the divergent elements” with a “gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.” It is not simply a relativist or non-rigorous belief that “everyone is right,” but rather an understanding that if there are differing ideas they probably come from different perspectives, and all sufficiently informed and sincere perspectives have validity, rather than that every idea is right.

With this turn to more deeply epistemological concerns, communities aligned with integral theory are called to reflect more deeply upon the forms, processes and styles that they use to articulate, communicate and evolve knowledge. Might uniquely “integral” forms or styles emerge and be developed by these communities—forms and styles that would serve as exemplars and models for the rest of humanity? The inspiring work found in most integrally informed publications is primarily in their content, i.e., in the concepts and models articulated, while the forms and methods used to co-create and communicate these transformative ideas remains largely traditional. The seeds of new forms and methods have been visible all along as it is impossible to develop a post-modern or post-post-modern framework without a critical reflection upon process as well as product. But on the whole these seeds have yet to take root to produce in-depth and in-use integrally informed approaches to knowledge-building (Murray 2006).

Considering multiple perspectives can involve transcending and including many theories, as Wilber’s AQAL meta-theory does so sublimely. Adopting multiple perspectives can also have more mundane but equally important manifestations in dialog, collaborative knowledge creation and conflict resolution in contexts from interpersonal relationships to organizational knowledge-building to international diplomacy. In all of these contexts, even in the rarified realm of academic debate, opening to and working with multiple perspectives has emotional, ethical as well as cognitive challenges, as we discuss later.

Integrative thinking, adopting multi-perspectives and reflecting critically upon one’s models and assumptions all contribute to more adequate and flexible thinking, but they also challenge us by increasing our exposure to knowledge that is uncertain and indeterminate.

Indeterminacy in the post-modern context, and epistemic sophistication. The post-modern perspective is characterized by, among other things, a deeper appreciation of the uncertainties, complexities, ambiguities, unpredictabilities and paradoxes of the life-world. As contemporary citizens we have left the epistemological Garden of Eden in which we could believe that truth was fixed, external and knowable and we have progressively come to understand to our frustration that knowledge is fuzzy, elusive, constructed idiosyncratically by each individual, socially negotiated, determined by historical context and forever subject to revision. This post-modern understanding of “epistemic indeterminacy” (Murray 2006) and the limits of knowledge has led many to varying degrees of relativism, narcissism, cynicism or despair as the full curse of complexity, unpredictability or uncontrollability is unveiled. In the face of this complexity some have retreated into fundamentalist belief systems while hoping for safety and simplicity by avoiding multiple perspectives. Others, unprepared for the onslaught of perspectives, wander in a haze of relativism. Lacking the tools to navigate the waters of indeterminacy these options can seem like the only choices available.

But, in what has been called a post-post-modern or post-metaphysical turn, perspectives have become available that build knowledge (rather than only deconstruct it) with an attitude of humility and caution appropriate to the times. Such epistemic sophistication and epistemic flexibility is likely to be a key factor determining whether society moves toward a synergistic “collective intelligence” or towards a destructive lowest-common-denominator “collective stupidity” (Altee 2003; Surowiecki 2004; Berreby 2005). The insights of epistemic sophistication have been deepening and spreading for several decades, mostly as applied by individuals in local situations. The time seems ripe for these insights to be more systematically, reflectively and intentionally incorporated into the practices of groups engaged in collective learning, knowledge-building and integrative action.

Applying reflective epistemic sophistication at a practical level involves adopting new ways of addressing questions such as:

How do we process and integrate knowledge and information that is inherently uncertain or ambiguous?
How do we proceed when scholars, leaders, theories or groups differ—when they view phenomena from different perspectives? Can members of a knowledge-building community structure their ideas to support the efficient critique, appreciation, revision, integration and evolution of ideas?
How do we validate ideas and models that are not based strictly on empirical data and the scientific method? In what sense is a statement, model or perspective true vs. useful or meaningful?

As these questions indicate, perennial philosophical questions concerning mind, truth, meaning and knowledge are becoming more germane and salient in all scholarly dialog and even in much of contemporary culture. Fortunately, cognitive psychologists, philosophers and sociologists are discovering new models of knowledge and thought that could prove exceedingly useful in the systematic development of epistemic sophistication. We will explore some of these theories next (for a more complete treatment, see Murray 2006). But keep in mind that the epistemic sophistication that is needed is not about abstract philosophical or scientific theories. It is made up of basic intuitions about knowledge and mind that allow one to reflect upon the limits of and assumptions behind one’s beliefs, sense the emotional and social constituents of thought, open to the perspectives of others and deal creatively with uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox.

Some Contemporary Theories of Knowledge and Thought

In this section we will introduce a few of the many contemporary theories from psychology, sociology and philosophy that shed light on epistemic indeterminacy and knowledge-building. Leaders may or may not want to introduce participants to these theories, or to any explicit framework. Participants can be guided in developing tacit skills in contemplative openness, self reflection, bias checking, cognitive empathy, etc., that open awareness to new elements of situations without a need to introduce models of mind or knowledge.  However, to some extent, epistemic sophistication involves how one interprets or frames what they are aware of, so some type of theory formation in participants may be desired, even if it is an informal versions of scholarly theories.

The theories mentioned below are of two types. The first are from cognitive and brain science findings about how the individual mind creates knowledge and meaning. The second are from sociological and philosophical work on how people collectively generate knowledge and meaning. Both perspectives (what Wilber would call upper-left and lower-left perspectives) are essential elements of epistemic awareness.

On the nature of concepts, models and rationality. Consider what cognitive science and philosophy have discovered about the nature of concepts. When teenagers squabble over whether a new song fits into the “heavy metal” genre or some alternative, when philosophers debate over whether emotions have intentionality and when political pundits wrangle over whether welfare reform contributes to responsible parenting, though widely different levels of intellectual skill may be involved, there is a shared tacit issue concerning the meaning and nature of the concepts used. Individuals so readily engage in dialog without calibrating the meaning of their terms and, most importantly, without making sufficient effort to first enter into the perspective of the other. Most dialog, even in scholarly contexts, incorporates untenable or unexamined epistemological assumptions about the fixed meaning of concepts and about how truths are arrived at and justified.

Cognitive psychologists including Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff have demonstrated that concepts have fuzzy or graded boundaries that create an unavoidable indeterminacy in the communicative process (Lakoff 1987; Lakoff & Johnson 1999; Rosch & Mervis 1975). Similarly, statements or propositions are often “graded” and even though it may seem that they are either true or false the situation is more fuzzy and indeterminate. Philosophers have shown how meaning is idiosyncratic, socially constructed and deviates among different groups. Thus a new understanding of the limits of conceptual categories and the indeterminacies in the meaning of statements is evolving, though it is only slowly making its way into application through modes of discourse.

Research into so-called “bounded rationality” (Kahneman et al. 1982), is shedding light on cognitive biases commonly found in individuals regardless of occupation or intelligence. Researchers have classified dozens of ubiquitous reasoning patterns used in evaluating everyday situations that lead to conclusions counter to standard logical methods (and see the Wikipedia entry on Bounded Rationality). New understandings about the limitations of logical thought and the role of emotional and intuitive elements of thought could become invaluable to more effective knowledge-building and problem solving (Myers 2002; Gladwell 2002; Elster 1999).

On ethics, emotion, and knowledge-building. Jurgen Habermas claims that for dialog to move us in the direction of more adequate (if still approximate) truths it must have certain properties that are fundamentally ethical (Habermas 1993). These properties include: that sufficient mutual understanding regarding key concepts and assumptions is established; that all important or relevant points are heard; that dissenting opinion is not suppressed; that speech is honest and without hidden agenda; that the power dynamics of the situation are reflected upon; and that participants actively engage in opening up to the sometimes unsettling world views of others. Problems in any of these areas can result in systematic bias or distortion in outcomes of knowledge-building. Thus, moral constructs such as freedom, equality, empathy, sincerity, inclusivity, reciprocity, integrity and mutual regard are exquisitely entangled with the knowledge-building processes of discovering ever more adequate truths. Along similar lines Kegan (1982) shows how one’s meaning-making, one’s concept of self and one’s interpretation of morality are intimately (and developmentally) linked.

Reflecting on one’s mental models and assumptions, opening to multiple perspectives, and dealing productively with indeterminacy involves emotional as well as cognitive challenges. In addition to the intellectual sophistication needed to transcend and include a psychological (or spiritual) sophistication is also needed to set aside one’s cherished beliefs and open to the sometimes disquieting perspective of the other (even if only temporarily or hypothetically). The notion that “every perspective is valid,” when applied to real situations, includes considering that I might be wrong and that my opponent (or “that idiot”) might be right.

Research in emotional and social intelligence has gained considerable momentum in recent decades and its findings are strikingly applicable to collaborative knowledge-building and problem solving. A plethora of recent books (Goleman 1995, 2006; Damasio 1999, 2003; Matthews et al. 2002) use findings in neuroscience to highlight the essential role that the emotional brain (and the non-conscious mind) plays in rational thinking and the roles that basic capacities such as empathy, self control, awareness of ones emotional state and reciprocal role taking, have in successful social interaction. One significant implication is that dealing with emotional realities and psychological baggage must be incorporated into group decision making and knowledge-building processes. This does not necessarily mean that participants need to express or dialog about emotional realities, but simply that emotional dynamics and feeling states can not be overlooked in designing group processes.

People harbor various types of resistances to opening to other perspectives. Contemporary developments in transpersonal psychology and organizational theory can help individuals and groups reflect upon and integrate debilitating “shadow” patterns and other systemic unconscious or tacit forces (for examples of specific approaches (Kegan & Lahey 2001; Mindell 1995, 2002).

Epistemological indeterminacy and our imperfect attempts to compensate for it opens up new horizons of awkwardness and social vulnerability for the speaker (or author). Increased levels of ambiguity, self-reflection and openness in dialog, in increasing vulnerability in turn call for compensating increases in generosity or mutual regard if the social fabric is to remain robust. Truly integral modes of dialog and knowledge-building must balance critical rigor, reflective self disclosure, radical openness to the perspectives of others and an authentic reflection on power and privilege. Here again we see how knowledge-building is tightly bound with both emotional and ethical concerns. Habermas says that:

…morality is a safety device compensating for a vulnerability built into the sociocultural form of life [in which people are] individuated only through socialization…[This] profound vulnerability calls for some guarantee of mutual consideration. This considerateness has a twofold objective of defending the integrity of the individual and of preserving the vital fabric of ties of mutual recognition through which individuals reciprocally stabilize their fragile identities…To these two complimentary aspects correspond the principles of justice and solidarity respectively [that is, respect for the dignity of each individual and protection of the web of social relationships]. (Habermas 1999, p. 199).

In practical terms this means that certain conditions must be in place for optimal knowledge-building in complex and uncertain contexts. High levels of vulnerability and indeterminacy can be compensated for by high levels of trust within a group (which must be built) and/or high levels of courage within individuals (to “speak one’s truth”) (Flores & Solomon 2001). In addition, as indicated earlier certain cognitive skills are required. One such skill (or set of skills) is “negative capability,” which we discuss next.

Negative capability and related skills. To deal with the above -mentioned limitations of thought and knowledge individuals must develop an awareness of and tolerance for indeterminacy, including ambiguity, uncertainty and disagreement. Some indeterminacy can be reduced or modified and it should be when possible, but some indeterminacy is inherent and unavoidable.

Research and theory efforts that focus on a number of related constructs, including metacognition, reflecting on mental models, epistemological knowledge, critical thinking, personal “theories of mind,” reflective inquiry and multiple perspectives are converging on a common set of principles of thought and a common set of important mental skills. Key among these are skills for dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty and disagreement. This skill set has gone by various names, including: negative capability (Keats), dialectical thinking (Basseches 1984, 2005), proprioception of thought (Bohm), the believing game (Elbow 2005), reflective judgment (King & Kitchener 1994), cognitive empathy (Vetlsen 1994), and self-distanciation (Kögler 1992) (See Murray 2006 for a discussion of each). Otto Scharmer(in publication) speaks of “letting go, letting be, and letting come.” The more one can release the importance of one’s own perspective and enter into the perspective of another (usually through dialog, as arm-chair perspective taking will not do for many situations) the more complete and the less distorted will be the synthesis that emerges. (Note that these principles apply to situations where the goals include communication or knowledge-building. It is not advised to apply this set of skills universally and it is acknowledged that some conditions of conflict or disagreement may warrant less open, vulnerable, or unpredictable strategies.) These skills are found in many individuals, but the challenge of the day is to discover frameworks, methods and tools that support systematic and community-level development and application of these skills.

Once one has “let go” and “let be” in the face of complexity and indeterminacy, one has an expanded capacity to “let come” and engage in the collective knowledge-building efforts. Collectively finding the true, the right and the useful often requires additional skills, as discussed next.

Finding truth. Contemporary philosophers and sociologists have made important discoveries about the nature of truth and the processes by which groups arrive at truth or agreement (Kirkham 1992). In most discourse—both scholarly and informal—truth is ascribed through not one but a number of (usually) tacit criteria. Truth is validated through what George Lakoff calls a “metaphorical pluralism” of criteria, including correspondence with objective reality, coherence with other things that are believed, the consensus of experts or group members practical utility and the authority, legitimacy or reliability of antecedent information sources (Lakoff & Johnson 1999; and see Edwards & Volckmann 2006 on evaluation criteria for good theories and models.) It has also been shown that the process of arriving at more adequate truths has procedural, communal, dialectic and perspectival elements operating simultaneously (Murray 2006).

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1999) elegantly describes the intimate relationships between how we validate truth, how we establish meaning and the ethical/moral considerations of how we treat each other. Habermas (and colleagues including Hans Kogler)(1992) believes that iterative authentic dialog is necessary to determining what is true or right for any group, particularly in the post-modern context of rapid change, decentralization and increased individual autonomy. The scientific inquiry process for empirically validating objective truths and the democratic process for arriving at social policies are examples of such discourse-oriented methods.

In many contexts it is important that participants (and especially leaders) have some insight into the various ways that truth and meaning are validated. Differentiating these ways can lead to more effective knowledge-building.

Flavors of meaning-making: truth, rightness, usefulness. The general human search for meaning has several flavors. People want to know what is true (what is objectively the case), what is ethically, morally or normatively right (for me or us), and what has the most practical value or probability of meeting needs and goals. People also search for understanding, which in this context means that we need cognitive coherence and deep connections among our separate beliefs. Models and frameworks help us find what is true, right, useful and what makes sense, but they do so in different ways for each flavor of meaning-making. For example, the most adequate methods for determining what is true differ from those for determining what is morally right or practically useful.

In moving from the personal search for truth and meaning to a group’s collective inquiry, i.e., knowledge-building, finding agreement among individual’s ideas becomes important. Thus to support dialog, knowledge-building must include concerns for what criteria and methods are used to evaluate the truth, rightness, practicality, etc. of an idea. For example, returning to the types of models mentioned in the introduction, cosmological stories give us models to understand what the universe is made of and what makes it tick, while Perennial Philosophies give us models to help determine what is right (from an ethical or spiritual perspective). Integral Theories don’t tell us what is objectively true or what is morally/normatively right. They are tools for seeing new connections and patterns among ideas. Thus, while all three types of models provide new levels of meaning to those who adopt them, it is not productive to use the same criterion to argue about the validity of the statements each one makes. The validity of cosmological stories is strongly influenced by objective scientific evidence. The validity of Perennial Philosophies is strongly influenced by whether their recommendations hold up to shared intuitions about what is right in practical situations. The value of Integral Theories is strongly influenced by how many ideas they successfully coordinate (“transcend and include”) for how many people. (Habermas 1981; Wilber 2001 & 2006; Murray 2006.) Many models turn out to be more about “sense making” and “deep meaning” than about what is true (or normatively right). We need to develop approaches to discussing such models that validates their meaning-generation capacity while limiting “truth” conclusions to those supported by valid methods.

Levels of development.  The suggestion that a key role of leadership is to support epistemic sophistication raises obvious concerns about whether most participants or most leaders for that matter are capable of engaging in thought and dialog of the types I am suggesting. Psychological research in recent decades has confirmed that human capacities in many areas (called “lines” in integral theory), including cognitive intelligence, emotional/social intelligence, ethical thinking, self-understanding (ego development) and epistemological understanding, are acquired in developmental sequences. (For example see Perry 1970; Loevenger 1976; Kohlberg 1978; Basseches 1984; Kegan 1994; Schommer-Aikins 2002; and a comparison of most of these in Wilber 2000.) The skill set for epistemic sophistication falls on the advanced end of such developmental sequences (terms such as “post-formal,” “post-conventional,” “second tier,” and “integral-aperspectival” are used for the more advanced levels of skill in various theories). (I have introduced the construct of “epistemic sophistication” to unify a set of skills, attitudes, and knowledge, because they are closely intertwined. As used here epistemic sophistication is not as a precise aptitude that can be measured or calibrated against developmental models.)

For developmentally structured skills you can’t skip steps, i.e., you can’t bring someone from A to D without helping them fully experience B and C. A corollary to this is that there are certain kinds of tasks, thinking or perspectives that are not accessible at each developmental stage (but are accessible at higher stages). Development through stages is a gradual process of personal construction that cannot be forced but can be supported. One reason that it is important to consider developmental issues is that a person will interpret a state or experience according to the stage (technically “structure stage”) that they are at (Wilber 2006, p. 115).

Though developmental research has discovered important principles about human behavior in general, caution must be taken not to pigeonhole or limit people when applying these theories to individuals. Research shows several reasons why such level labeling is too simplistic. First, each developmental “line” is composed of a number of constituent capacities that may develop semi-independently. For example, Schommer-Aikins’s(2002) has discovered that there are at least five semi-independent factors in “epistemological understanding” (a subset of epistemic sophistication), each of which can evolve at a different rate.

Second, individuals do not maintain one average level of intellectual or epistemological skill, but rather show different levels of skill in different contexts. For example, in a church context one may believe that knowledge is given and stable while at work one may believe that knowledge is dynamic and tentative. At school one may believe that learning is self-driven and controllable while at home in terms of interpersonal skills one may believe that “people basically don’t change.” As another example, it is widely documented that students who successfully learn to apply basic physics concepts about forces and motion to classroom problems often fail to transfer this understanding to situations outside the classroom (Bransford et al 1999). Kurt Fischer states, that “the skill level that a person displays…cannot be considered independently of the context in which that skill is assessed” (Fischer & Farrar 1987, pg. 647).

Thus, though developmental studies indicate that the skill set of epistemic sophistication is achieved and employed relatively rarely and that for the population on average achieving epistemic sophistication will be a long time coming, there is still plenty of room for optimism that in groups with sufficient interest and leadership, epistemic sophistication can be fostered in individuals.

Here I will offer an untested, but I think reasonable, hypothesis: even though the skills involved in epistemic sophistication are advanced, the average adult already has most of the necessary skill set, albeit these skills are used in very limited contexts (by “average adult” here I mean those who participate nominally in modern society, having at least eight years of education, watching television, reading and engaging in substantive discussions with friends). If this is true, leaders can get a lot of mileage from extending the range of application of existing skills into new contexts, as well as supporting the development of new skills. This is not easy to do, but, as illustrated below, the barriers may sometimes be more emotional/social than cognitive.

Consider the following statements, which exemplify knowledge, skills and attitudes associated with low epistemic sophistication in most contexts:

“There is only one correct answer. The truth is the truth.”
“I only believe what I see. Reality is what we can see with our own eyes.”
“That is true because [some authority] says it is true. Case closed.”
“It is all a matter of opinion and nobody’s is any better than anyone else’s. There is no use trying to find the best answer.”
“I have no feelings about this matter; I have no biases in the matter; my thinking is completely logical.”
“I am not really responsible for my values, my beliefs or my reactions.”

The example statements listed above are not only observed in people at moderate-to-low (or “conventional” or formal-operational) developmental levels, we all take (regress to) these perspectives from time to time and more so under certain contexts, such as when feeling defensive, under pressure or otherwise emotionally charged. If one accepts the hypothesis above, then it is also true that for “average adults” who, on the whole, exhibit low epistemic sophistication we can find simple and non-threatening scenarios for which they would reflect beliefs such as the following, which exemplified high epistemic sophistication:

“There are many answers to such questions, it’s not a black and white thing.”
“A bunch of people can look at something and see really different things.”
“You can’t rely on one source of expertise in that situation, it’s more complex than that.”
“My anger yesterday led me to think that about you, but I don’t really believe it.”
“The meaning of that term varies from one place to another; there is no exact definition of it.”
“Those people can’t just take on the values and beliefs handed to them; they have to think for themselves.”
“There are different ways to interpret that event and I am free to choose my perspective.”

It is not that everyone has the ability or desire to think at abstract philosophical levels about “the nature of knowledge” or “how the mind works” but that epistemically sophisticated insights are available to most people in concrete practical contexts, assuming (and this is a large assumption) they have the emotional and attentional resources and perhaps with a little guidance.

What keeps us from applying these basic insights to more areas of our lives? Even though I agree that epistemic sophistication is acquired developmentally, I propose that the issue is sometimes more one of un-learning and of letting go than of learning. One reason people don’t apply sophisticated epistemic insights to more contexts is that they have not practiced learning and using them in that context. But one could ask, why is that? Partly, it is because these skills are not modeled and supported in more contexts. But what I want to propose here is that it is often because, mostly unconsciously, we hold tightly onto less sophisticated ways of reasoning in particular contexts; these beliefs meet some need or serve some purpose for us. People may have the capacity, the mental competence, for epistemic sophistication, but it does not always translate into performance largely because, at some level, they don’t want it to—to do so would be difficult, frustrating, uncomfortable or create cognitive dissonance, because it would involve relinquishing some closely held beliefs about the world, our associates or ourselves.

To the extent that this is the case, there is some hope that the sort of guidance involved in leadership and coaching can help people develop robust skills of epistemic sophistication in the contexts in which they build knowledge together. Leaders can help create social environments that provide the appropriate balance of support and challenge (or cognitive dissonance) for transferring existing competences to broader contexts of performance.

Some Ideas For Application

As many have said, the sharing and creation of knowledge and information (as opposed to the production and consumption of material goods) are increasingly important in the post-modern context. We have argued that an important function of leadership is to support an epistemic sophistication (or awareness) that allows knowledge building to be more flexible and robust in light of the contemporary understanding of the nature and limitations of knowledge, its creation, communication and validation. To synopsize, we can say that epistemic sophistication/awareness involves thinking about thinking, knowledge about knowledge and dialog about dialog. (Current theories show that the nature thought processes, the nature of knowledge, and the nature of communication are all highly interrelated). Epistemic sophistication involves an interrelated set of skills, knowledge and attitudes, as alluded to above. What remains is to give some hints of concrete practices and tools that leaders can apply in supporting epistemic sophistication.

Doing so in a deep and sustainable way requires a multifaceted approach. Leaders can support thinking skills by modeling them, by asking the right questions, by offering prescriptive models and by providing opportunities for practice with feedback. They can impart knowledge, usually in the form of descriptive models of mind, knowledge, knowledge-building processes or decision-making processes (such as the models and theories described in this paper). They can support attitudes and values that motivate people to learn the skills and knowledge of epistemic awareness and support the collective trust and individual courage that strengthen knowledge building in complex and indeterminate contexts.

Dialog and reflection take time and effort that might have been spent working directly on a group’s more concrete goals. Excessive thinking about thinking, dialoging about dialog and theorizing about theories can sabotage any collective enterprise (so-called ” analysis paralysis”). Clearly, in each situation a balance must be found that takes into account such factors as time and resource pressures, trust and commitment levels and developmental factors.

Examples of supporting epistemic sophistication include promoting the practices of discussing evaluation criteria before discussing solutions and thinking about how one’s personal bias affects a conclusion. Support can be provided passively through modeling the desired behaviors and thought processes (explaining one’s thought processes), or actively through instructional sessions and written guidelines. Specific communication structures and information structures can be put in place that reify (make objective or concrete) the skills, knowledge and values of epistemic sophistication. Such “cognitive tools” include templates and embedded reminders. They can be paper-based procedural forms or can be embedded into online collaboration tools.

Following are several specific approaches discussed in more detail in a prior publication (Murray 2006).

Leadership in differentiating types of meaning-generation. A leader is a guide or mentor in the search for what is true, what is right, what is useful and what makes sense. One component of this leadership is helping others understand the differences among different types of validity claims and meaning-generation methods. Though one can profitably study the philosophical theories in this area, in practice all that is needed to make a contribution to others are some basic epistemic intuitions. One can ask, “What type of outcome are we trying to create here–a fact, a value, a hypothesis, a metaphor…?” and “What methods of inquiry and dialog best suit it?” For example, under certain situations it is best to lead people toward looking for objective data, experiential confirmation and/or statistical validity. Under other situations it is best to steer a process toward dialog that prioritizes a mutual understanding of the values and needs of others (of all stakeholders) affected by a proposed action. At other times it may be advisable to help participants see that to continue to argue about what is true or right in general is not as productive as sharing authentically what meets one’s own needs, and why. Also, in group decision making and knowledge-building leaders can help participants dialog about the criteria for evaluating solutions before dialoging about specific solution strategies.

Prudence with integrating models. Though integral theory speaks of “differentiation and integration,” from cognitive theories we can distinguish three basic ways of relating ideas: differentiation, generalization and integration (Anderson 1983; Newel 1990; Johnson-Laird 1983). Differentiation (or discrimination or specialization) involves seeing things that were once considered the same as being in some new way different; generalization (or abstraction) involves seeing things that were once considered as different as being in some new way the same; and integration (including composition) involves a structural coordination of ideas and their relationships into a larger idea. (Theories also mention metaphor/analogy/semantic linking as another way that knowledge is formed.) Though models can be powerful integrations of ideas, they carry more cognitive “baggage” and require more cognitive investment than differentiations and generalizations, which are more elementary, singular and “portable.” Models have a top-down quality: they encourage us to look at a chunk of reality in a certain way—they define how many things are connected. Differentiations and generalizations have a more bottom-up quality, atomic elements ready to be re-used in many contexts. They draw attention to new features of a situation. Paradoxically models, though they seem to simplify by tying things together, can increase epistemic indeterminacy, especially to the extent that they provide a unified lens or framework for interpreting reality—each move to “tidy things up” results in more indeterminacy as parts of reality spill outside of the model. Models are extremely useful but our point here is that in some situations a set (a la carte) of semi-independent differentiations and/or generalizations may suffice without the need to commit to an integrated and monolithic model. (And see [Gruber 1995] on the principle of “least ontological commitment”—a kind of Occam’s Razor for knowledge-building.)

When models are used the following three items can help: anchoring with examples, indeterminacy analysis and differential analysis.

Anchor abstractions with examples. Definitions of concepts and models are abstract and thus open to various types of interpretation indeterminacy. Including examples is an important part of anchoring how abstractions are interpreted. It will usually be important to include a variety of positive exemplars, negative ones and “boundary case” examples. In knowledge building there is a dynamic interplay between examples, definitions and claims. Definitions are modified and claims refined in light of new types of examples that previously escaped consideration. As Imre Lakatos forcefully illustrates (1976), this dynamic indeterminacy exists even in mathematics, the domain that probably has the least degree of epistemic indeterminacy.

Indeterminacy analysis. When concepts, propositions or models are introduced, include information about the most important points of uncertainty, ambiguity or fuzziness. For propositions it is useful to discuss how the validity of claims degrades for unusual or boundary examples of the key concepts. Propositions using graded concepts are themselves graded claims, true only to the extent that the elements of a situation match the central exemplars of the proposition’s component concepts. (E.g., the proposition that “emotions are intentional” applies to the extent that the elements of the situation in question match the representative examples of the concepts “emotion” and “intention” and its truth degrades with examples far from the central definition of these concepts.)

Differential analysis. When evaluating a model or comparing models, one can “disassemble” their constituents and lay out the components for clearer analysis. Rather than initially responding to an argument or a model “full on,” one can first step back or drop to a deeper level (or look “beneath” or “behind” the idea). Deconstructing the elements of an argument allows us to evaluate them individually and identify which elements are problematic or controversial, as well as ground a discussion in what elements are in agreement. In a differential analysis one can identify these constituents: (a) basic concepts, ontological dimensions, foundational elements and principles; (b) key assumptions about “what is true”; and (c) pivotal differentiations, generalizations and integrations.

Online cognitive tools. The use of online collaboration tools such as discussion forums, electronic voting and surveys and various tools for “content management” and “decision support” is increasing. These tools can be modified to support epistemic sophistication. For example, software tools can support having various types of examples to anchor abstract concepts and models. They can make it easy to have ideas link out to “alternative perspectives,” “pros and cons,” “limitations and assumptions” or even “constituent differentiations and generalizations.” Discussion forms can include buttons to mark postings as a “fact,” “opinion,” “value,” “hypothesis,” “question,” etc. to support this simple but important reflective step. Online deliberation or conflict resolution processes can organize communication to go through certain steps, such as identifying evaluation criteria or shared values at the start. Secure and facilitated discussion areas can be set up to support trust and the levels of vulnerability sometimes necessary to deal with thorny disagreements.

Such technology does not guarantee productive knowledge building, self-awareness, or ethical behavior. It merely supports and encourages it by building certain values or principles into the communication medium. Adequate leadership, facilitation, instruction and participant buy-in to the underlying principles are critical prerequisites to any group adopting such tools (Murray 2005; Murray & Benander 2005) .


Current and emerging leadership theories focus on issues closely related to epistemic sophistication (Wheatley1999; Argyris 1985, Bennis 2003; Torbert 2004; Senge 1990). They suggest, for example, that leaders help people and organizations:

  1. Respond to the complex, dynamic and chaotic nature of natural and social systems (using “agile methods” and “change agency,” creating “learning organizations,” etc.);
  2. Organize people, power structures and information flow to allow for dynamic flexibility, self-organization, evolution and growth;
  3. Steer with ethical, values-based, or “multiple bottom line” goals and missions;
  4. Engage and empower all stakeholders in decision-making, design, and planning (“early and often”); address the diverse set of needs and perspectives of management, employees, customers, suppliers, the community, the environment, etc.

These concerns, appropriate and essential in the post-modern context, must be taken up:

  1. Without loosing sight of the traditional goals of efficiency, productivity, character building, and motivation.

Trying to follow these prescriptions leads participants into situations and perspectives that magnify epistemic indeterminacy (create more of it or make that which exists more salient and important) and call for more epistemic sophistication.  We have focused on epistemic sophistication in knowledge building activities, but, in a general sense, knowledge building includes most of the collaborative meaning-generation efforts that a group engages in.

In this article I have showed how “epistemic indeterminacy” is inherent and significant in much of communication and collaboration, described the overarching skill set comprising “epistemic sophistication,” argued that these skills are essential for responding productively and ethically to the social and organizational challenges facing us today, and suggested that supporting epistemic sophistication is an important element of leadership. What simple steps can leaders take?

In general learning and cognitive transformation happen as a result of a need that can not be met with the current type of thinking. Some pressure from the environment creates a cognitive dissonance that requires new ways of thinking to establish a new equilibrium. As pointed out by Vygotsky (1978), learning is more efficient when the environment provides a proper balance of challenge and support (the “zone of proximal development”).

In the previous section I mentioned several very specific methods for dealing with epistemological indeterminacy in collaborative knowledge building, but in a more general sense, supporting the skills of epistemic sophistication can be as simple as asking the right questions–questions that lead participants to reflect on their biases, be curious about the world views of others, question the limitations of models, monitor the quality of the current social process, and look systematically for missing perspectives. These questions, which can be asked in any moment but can also be embedded into organizational processes, raise the level of awareness and provide a challenge. The challenge must be complemented by social environments that are safe for uncertainty, authenticity, vulnerability, truth-telling, and change–to allow what needs to emerge along the path to transformation to do so. Such challenging questions posed in a supportive environment will uncover new layers of information and options, and from there lead naturally to co-creative problem solving. Because such questions force refection on the very nature of thinking, knowing, and communicating, and because dialog opens participants up to the collective wisdom of the group, epistemic sophistication will develop organically in the context of solving real problems.

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Tom Murray has been researching, publishing, consulting and leading workshops in the areas of Cognitive Tools, Adaptive Educational Software and Knowledge Engineering since 1985. Recent interests branch into areas of applied philosophy related to “epistemological indeterminacy” and online cognitive tools supporting metacognition and ethics-oriented reflective dialog.  Dr. Murray has degrees in educational technology (EdD, MEd), computer science (MS) and physics (BS), has directed a number of projects in both industry and university research contexts and is on the editorial review boards of two international journals (Integral Review and the International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education).  Murray is currently working as an independent consultant.

Email Tom at – –>