Chapter 5. Heretical Texts

In the book On Leadership, James March and Theirry Weil explore characters past and present, real and fictitious, such as those in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan of Arc and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la mancha. Their literary criticism of these texts sifts out the various kinds of logic based on which these characters operate, some of which they then propose as a more attractive alternative to currently dominant thinking.

Consider for instance his use of Don Quixote. March draws attention to the way Don Quixote thinks in terms of his identity as a Knight, and thus acts based on what is expected of Knighthood. Don Quixote’s logic, March says, is one of ‘appropriateness’(or a kind of dutiful, deontological rule-following, as philosophers might say), rather than one that is based on ‘consequentialist’ projection of benefits.

Cold, calculative, consequentialism instrumentalizes everything, and invites us to instrumentalize ourselves, including our sense of who we are and what we should be, for a future common or greater good. We make ourselves into what we are with reference to a future benefit, but nevertheless sacrifice our own personal, conflicting ideals and aspirations. Yet captured in Don Quixote’s seeming foolishness is: an appreciation of the need to construct and realise one’s sense of self, and of who one is, based on an ideal principle, irregardless of some other future benefit for the greater other. Such fulfillment of a moral principle, or a moral ideal, seems also to me an important aspect of human well-being, but is often displaced in the logic of business and institutional policy making. An invitation to entertain this latter logic is the point of March’s work.

This is an interesting way to develop a new perspective to challenge policy framing and decision making. What is essentially happening is the development of an interpretation of a text or of (a) character(s) in a text, and that interpretation is then used in turn to develop a critical evaluation of some social reality or some social theory. March asks if the logic of appropriateness might be relevant for challenging currently dominant forms of thinking, such as, for instance, consequentialism. Now the point is not whether March has read Don Quixote well. Even if he has misread the text, that is besides the point. The purpose of such (mis)readings of these literary works is to find in them a creative stimulus for new or different ideas. What is welcome therefore, is the study of the seemingly strange, distant and alien, which may offer that which is perchance surprisingly insightful to challenge the conventional.

What may be happening here is some form of “abduction”. The term ‘abduction’ was coined by Charles Sanders Peirce, who was struggling to bring into view a particular form of logic besides the other two more traditionally recognized forms, viz. deduction and induction. In deduction one draws necessary conclusions from premises, and in induction—at least in the sense Karl Popper means it—one corroborates or tests a probable general conclusion against a collection of instances. Abduction, however, develops a coherent explanatory reading of a collection of ideas. The explanation does not necessarily follow from the collection of ideas, and therefore it is not “deduction” at work. Nor do we, in explaining, test the explanation with reference to the collection of ideas; rather we do that which is needed to be done before we corroborate the explanation; we generate the explanation, or as Peirce says, in abduction, we develop the explanatory hypothesis. As with all explanations, they are always creative, since they introduce more than the facts or ideas of themselves strictly allow.

Another way to characterize this abductive process is to see it as a kind of semiosis. Semiosis is the term logicians use to refer to the action of signs. Signs are entities that basically refer to something other than themselves. Thus a road sign points not to itself but to the road. Just as well, the characters or words on a page refer the reader not to these words themselves, but to the meaning they represent, and so are signs. Typically there are three parts to the signing act. There is firstly what logicians call the “sign-vehicle” or the signifier. In the case of a text, this is the physical print of characters. Then there is the “signification”, or that which the sign-vehicle refers to. This is the signified “meaning” of the physical print. Finally there is the “interpretant”, that is to say, that which allows the signifier to refer specifically to such and such a signified, guiding, as it were, the referencing. In our example, it would be the education that we have all received as we learnt to read, and our beliefs about how to do literary criticism. Abduction may be analyzed in terms of the representation of a signified-idea by a sign-vehicle by way of an interpretant, with the interpretant determining what the sign-vehicle means or where it points to.

March (and Weil) developed this way of searching for new ideas to change the professionals’ way of thinking. In effect what their reading of literary texts does for them is that it stimulates the kind of infinite semiosis that leads, ultimately, to ethically relevant ideas. The reflective thinking about the signification of these literary signs, and the derivation of ethical ideas may be characterized as a kind of semio-ethics.

Not all texts might have the same semio-ethical effect, I suspect. Choosing a text or a character like Don Quixote, who has a very different point of view, is important, lest being too conservative, nothing new is introduced. The textual-sign for inspiring new ways of looking and thinking needs to be unorthodox. At the least it should invite heresy. It needs to disturb our sense of decency, and trouble our notions of ‘rationality’.

Just as well, not all such heretical ‘texts’ need to be written words. Any sign that could inspire similar semiosis could just be as useful for a semio-ethical exercise. If there is the heretical word that has become incarnate, then such a word-made-flesh would just as well be a relevant sign of contradiction. In the end our place still is where Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ of strong will would be judged ‘well’.

Photography that captures the foolish and unworldly, the simple and misguided, the meek and defeated, the long suffering and forgiving…records signs for deviant contemplation.


Jude Chua Soo Meng, “The Las Casas Report: Neoliberal and Evidence Based Policy Discourse” , Journal of Markets and Morality, (forthcoming)

Jude Chua Soo Meng, “In Praise of Folly: Seriously Playful Curriculum Design” in Education Today, Vol. 54.8, 2008, pp. 18-23.

Also revised and shortened as “Heretical Texts: Photographing the Unusual and Unconventional” in, powered by Focal Press.


Francis and Clare