“Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
What is ultimately a project? To gain insight into this question, we tap into the wisdom of the Allegory of the Cave, written by one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Plato (427–347 BCE) in his famous book, The Republic. Its fictional dialogue between Plato’s teacher Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon is well known and full of insights for this article.
For project management, Plato’s allegory teaches us two important things: (1) that there are different ways of seeing or not seeing a project, in other words, the contrast between Metaphysical Worldviews of Being Versus Becoming; and (2) that the project consists of both the physical or material elements and the eternal or immaterial elements that Plato calls “forms” (Solomon & Higgins, 2010), in other words, the contrast of Ancient Materialism Versus Ancient Immaterialism.
Project practitioners may focus on the physical or material elements of the project that are experienced through the senses: inputs such as money, time, and resources; project artifacts such as charter, scope statement, and plan; and outputs such as car, phone, or skyscraper. In so doing, they spend much of their time in the ordinary material world, the world of “shadows,” what Heraclitus (536–470 BCE) calls the world of “becoming” and Bertrand Russell (1912/1997) calls the “world of existence”: “The world of existence is fleeting, vague, without sharp boundaries, without any clear plan or arrangement, but it contains all thoughts and feelings, all the data of sense, and all physical objects, everything that can do either good or harm, everything that makes any difference to the value of life and the world” (p. 100).
Things in this world tend to emerge, change, die, or disappear. That’s the case of inputs that turn into outputs throughout the project. To illustrate this point, we make an analogy between the project plan and hand-drawing a triangle in an attempt to prove a theorem of Euclidian geometry about triangles: Much like one cannot draw a true triangle with straight exact lines and angles, project practitioners cannot mistake the plan for the true project. As Plato contends, the perfect project, if there is one, does not exist anywhere in the material world. Indeed, in such a diachronic world, project practitioners deal only with images of the project, never with the reality that lies behind it.
Project management practitioners may wonder where the “perfect” project exists. Plato would say that it is found in another world that is more real than the material world; it is a world that is pure, eternal, and immaterial, and can only be known through reason, not through experience. Parmenides (539–492BCE) would call it a “being,” permanent, synchronic, and unchanging world. “The world of being is unchangeable, rigid, exact, delightful to the mathematician, the logician, the builder of metaphysical systems, and all who love perfection more than life” (Russell, 1912/1997, p. 100). Which of the two worlds do today’s project practitioners prefer?
According to our temperaments, we shall prefer the contemplation of one or of the other. The one we do not prefer will probably seem to us a pale shadow of the one we prefer, and hardly worthy to be regarded as in any sense real. But the truth is that both have the same claim on our impartial attention, both are real, and both are important to the metaphysician. (Russell, 1912/1997, p. 100)
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave brilliantly and creatively ties together the Greek and pre-Socratic views of both ancient materialism that sees the project as consisting of purely stable, physical, or material elements (e.g., Thales, 624–546 BCE; Democritus, 460–371 BCE), and ancient immaterialism that sees the project as nothing more than numbers, minds, or spirits (e.g., Pythagoras, 571–497 BCE; Parmenides 539–492 BCE; Heraclitus 536–470 BCE). Like Pythagoras, who considers numbers more important than trees and tables, Plato gives primacy to eternal principles. Like Parmenides, Plato purports that things in our day-to-day experience are not truly real (for example, the project plan), and yet like Heraclitus, he appreciates the notion of constant change and its underlying logic, which Plato captures in what he calls “form” (Solomon & Higgins, 2010).
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave also illustrates the difference between what the project appears to be and what the project really is; this is what Russell (1912/1997) sees as “one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy.” (p. 9) In this context, the more real project (if it is real at all) is not the project plan, nor is it something practitioners can sense. Rather, with experience, project practitioners can construct and shape a project from the elements they can see, including an artifact like the project plan.
Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause the most trouble in philosophy—the distinction between “appearance” and “reality”, between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are. (Russell, 1912/1997, p. 9)
Plato’s Universals: Implications for Projects and Project Management
We can take away another lesson from Plato’s “theory of ideas,”1 which contends that particulars such as red roses, pens, and shirts can have things in common—like “redness” (Quine, 1948), or that there is a “chairiness” in the idea of a pure and universal form of a chair (Whitty, 2013). For project management, this suggests that projects can share some characteristic—let’s call it “project-ness” (Quine, 1948). This project-ness includes properties, characteristics, or “predicates” (as philosophers call them), such as having needs, objectives, scope, constraints, deliverables, milestones, budget, time-duration, resources, risks, organization structures, roles and responsibilities for project stakeholders, schedules, and tracking measures. Moreover, “the more real or perfect project” is also a universal, a form.
Because project-ness and the more real project—to name but a few universals—are not particulars, they cannot exist in our day-to-day world (“the world of existence”); “they are things other than particular things, which particular things partake of and have characteristics of” (Russell, 1912/1997, pp. 92–93). The Platonic universals are very influential in project management.
There is much Platonic thinking in the world of project management. Most if not all drawings of project management processes in project management journals and textbooks such as the PMBOK Guide are of universal forms. . . . Perhaps like Plato, we feel that if we identify the universal forms that comprise projects and project management, we will in some way come to know more about the reality of project and project management. (Whitty, 2013, pp. 99–100)
Aristotle: The Everyday Project World Is the Real One
Common-sense thinker Aristotle (384–322 BCE) does not reject the all-important distinction between appearances and reality, but he strongly disagrees with his teacher Plato’s two-worldview and, in a sense, brings Plato down to earth. From the Aristotelian perspective, the everyday project world is the real one and there is no other. He believed that “formal principles or universals that form things into what they are could be found in the substance of the thing itself and not apart from it” (Whitty, 2013, p. 100). Taking this viewpoint, the project plan is just a small part of the project, yet it is the real thing—“the substance or a thing that exists in its own right.”
An early, extremely influential view about reality seen in its most general light is that it consists of things and their properties—individual things, often called particulars, and properties, often called universals that can belong to many such individuals. . . . Very closely allied to this notion of an individual is the concept of substance, that in which properties “inhere.” (van Inwagen & Sullivan, 2015, p. 16)
However, just because we understand that small part does not necessarily mean that we grasp the whole project—“the essence.” Much of project management today is grounded in Aristotelian thinking.
Project management processes and practices (the essential cause of a project) give the project its identifiable “life-cycle” form. So the essence of the project, that is to say those features that make an experience a project, are inextricable from the practices and process that are recognizable as project management. A point to take from this line of reasoning is that we do not apply project management to projects, but rather a body of work is identifiable as a project because project management is applied to it. It is project management, the implementation of particular practices and processes that cause the form of work to be identifiable as a project. (Whitty, 2013, p. 103)
In this light, there are two starting points to explore the question about what a project ultimately is. Project practitioners may espouse Plato’s view that the project is something other than the day-to-day project things, or they may accept Aristotle’s view that the project really is what they can see as a substance of the daily life of it, such as the project plan (Solomon & Higgins, 2010). But do these two post-Socratic metaphysical views tell the whole story?”
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