Restrictions on Meaning

You might think that because many different interpretations of each of Sun Tzu's lines are possible, you can make up your own interpretation and it would be just as valid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sun Tzu's concepts have broad applications, but they are bound by Sun Tzu's very specific meanings for each term.

Sun Tzu carefully defines the many dimensions to his variables. Those definitions are rigorous. They aren't a rubber bag into which you can stuff any meaning you desire. You have to study and know those definitions to speak intelligently about Sun Tzu's methods.

For example, over the years I have had several casual students of Sun Tzu write to me about how they interpret these lines:

Know the enemy and know yourself.
Your victory will be painless.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War 10:5.15-16

Many think they mean that all wars could be be eliminated if only we worked harder to understand our enemies. While Sun Tzu definitely teaches "winning without conflict," he would laugh at the idea that "understanding" alone eliminates hostility and that the real victory is always finding a win-win solution. Sun Tzu was, above all, realistic and pragmatic about the nature of contests.

While this interpretation can seem reasonable to those who have not studied Sun Tzu, it flies in the face of several important elements of his classical strategy.

At a basic level, Sun Tzu taught that all real "war"-level contests are based on underlying philosophies, not miscommunication. These differences in thinking can only be resolved by testing ideas in a contest. Winning this contest means discovering which ideas work best and which work less well. While occasionally both ideas will work and can work together, this is usually not the case.

Ideas have consequences. Some ideas are simply more correct than others. Humans can only discover which ideas are better in the crucible of competition. Victory is real because it returns real rewards from competition. Logically contradictory and competing ideas can both win rewards, but most are not complementary. This means that they don't return more rewards when used together. In most situations, one set of ideas is more rewarding than another.

To put this question in very practical, easy-to-understand terms, how can we determine whose ideas about how to make and sell a given product are superior? Can we sit down and negotiate or analyze to determine which product ideas are best? Can competitors agree on which customers are better served by their competing products? We can try, but such negotiations are, by their nature, a plot against consumers. In the end, the only real test of which products serve consumers best is in the marketplace.

When we make and sell two products competitively, one may win and the other lose, or both may lose, or both may win. However, all customers are free to make their own choices about which product is best for them. If they are dissatisfied, they are free to make another choice in the future. Eventually, if they keep searching, they will identify the best choice. In the end, customers will find the best products for them. The products that serve the broadest customer base will dominate their market. The other products will tend to follow. The worst approaches will fail entirely and be eliminated. The truth is found in the contest.

Of course, not all ideas can be tested in the marketplace, which is why we have elections, wars, and other forms of competition. Often, the contest is not about philosophy alone, but the other key elements of competition: climate, ground, character, or methods. The very richness of the contest is what makes strategic cognition so interesting and valuable.