Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel got many things wrong, but one of his central themes rings true: Learning moves in cycles of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hegel’s theory, outlined (and illustrated) below, suggests not only why people often disagree about how to end a debate but also details the five basic end points they advocate.

1. A thesis is an idea.

2. An antithesis is an opposing idea.

3. A synthesis is the reconciling of the thesis and the antithesis through a new idea, which becomes the new thesis.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


1. Thesis: Give employees instructions as explicitly as possible, or they’ll make mistakes.

2. Antithesis: But empower employees to generate their own instructions, or they won’t be motivated.

3. Synthesis: Empower high-level employees who have earned your confidence, and give explicit instructions to low-level employees.

4. New Thesis: High-level employees are those who have been around for three years or more. Empower them.

5. New Antithesis: But some of our three-year employees can’t be trusted with empowerment.

And so on. Every pairing of thesis and antithesis is a source of tension, ambiguity, ambivalence, or doubt. Every synthesis is a relief. Like a skinny snake swallowing a string of very large beads, we stretch ourselves to ingest each divergence of thesis and antithesis. And we relax with relief when, through synthesis, the divergence narrows into a convergence — but only temporarily on its way to new tension.

Because each of us has limited appetite for doubt, each of us can tolerate only so much debate and each of us has intuition about where a debate should stop. The stopping points we advocate fall in five locations, identified with letters in the diagram below and illustrated with these quotes from the debate in 2003 over whether to attack Saddam Hussein.

A: Let’s end with the last synthesis: “Look, I don’t want to hear about Saddam. We dealt with the Iraq-Kuwait conflict. Enough already.”

B: Let’s end after the thesis, and before the antithesis: “We know Saddam is evil and dangerous. End of story. Don’t go raising counterarguments about how we must honor Iraq’s sovereignty, or avoid another Vietnam. The war is right. Any counterargument is not even worth considering.”

C: Let’s end after the thesis and antitheses but before the synthesis: “Some say go after Saddam; some say don’t. Leave it at that. Agree to disagree. You can’t solve everything.”

D. We should have ended with a synthesis way back before: “If we hadn’t supported Kuwait against Saddam in the last war, we wouldn’t even be debating whether to go to war this time.”

E. We should work through to the next synthesis: “Saddam is evil. And war is hell. We have to balance our respect for international law against our interest in getting him out. We should keep deliberating until we come to a resolution.”

It’s interesting to note that people who support working toward synthesis tend to be those with more capacity to think. And those who advocate stopping short of synthesis tend to be either those who have a lot of power and therefore little need to think, or those with very little power and, therefore, very little time to think.

Because none of us have infinite amounts of time to think, all our thinking and research comes to a rest somewhere. We all say, “Good enough” at some point to end exploration; we just say it in different places. The basic pattern of Hegeling helps us identify the logical resting points, the various basins we segregate into on any given issue. They could be thought of as the particulate or quanta of opinion. Between them, there’s no resting places; within any one of them, there’s a strong argument to stay put.