The Specific Use of Terminology

Competitive Arenas: 

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

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War 10:5.15-16

The two lines above appear rather late in Sun Tzu's work, the tenth chapter out of thirteen. At this point in the book, every term in these lines has a very specific definition. To understand these lines, you must first be familiar with the concepts "to know," "enemy," "victory," and "pain."

In addition to these specific terms, the book has defined an array of relationships among these concepts. The Chinese tradition taught—as modern science does—that key concepts are beyond words. They are best expressed in formal relationships, which we know as formulas. The formula E=MC2, for example, defines the formal relationship between matter and energy.

"To know" is one of the nine major concepts of the work and is expressed in more than 150 formulas. To give you an idea of how different Sun Tzu's concept of "knowledge" is from the casual use of the term, by his definition all knowledge is a matter of probabilities rather than certainties. Absolute values are not as meaningful as the relative comparisons. Knowledge factors in the likelihood of self-deception, intentional misdirection, and motivation.

Even a simple idea is very different from what we expect. To Sun Tzu, an "enemy" means someone to whom you must compare your capabilities and your goals. Because "to know" requires comparisons, your enemy's characteristics are needed to define your own.

This brings us to "victory." "Victory" does not mean winning battles or defeating enemies. Its simplest definition is securing a position that cannot be challenged easily by the opponent and which offers many benefits or resources.

Finally, we have "painless." "Pain" means the cost of conflict. Cost has three specific dimensions, so pain shares those dimensions. "Painless" means limiting these costs to the degree that they are not felt.

You might want to read our section on the value of warrior skills to understand more about Sun Tzu's focus. If you already realize that you need to learn more, we recommend that you start on the path to mastering strategy with any of our books or audios or one of our on-line strategy courses.