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August 04, 2005

In Memorium

Aron J. Katsenelinboigen
Professor of OPIM and Systems Sciences
The Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania

1 August 2005
Wladimir M. Sachs


In my life filled with extraordinary characters Aron holds a special place.

I first met him at Wharton, in the Fall of 1978 I think, just after he came from the
Soviet Union. We frequently shared a long conversation (they could not possibly be short, because with Aron one got into the deep of things, whatever the subject). He gave me a peek into two worlds of which I was only dimly aware: the incredibly rich and daunting intellectual life of Soviet intelligentsia, which deprived of “normal” working conditions developed through an endless conversation about life, society, philosophy, … a conversation that meandered through the most unusual territory in ways that were totally strange to someone like me; and I like to think a modern continuation of the long Jewish tradition of Talmudic thought, in which anything and everything was fair game for rational and dialectic analysis. The conversations were never boring, and stimulated the most unusual associations … I can’t even start enumerating everything that I owe intellectually to Aron, because his contributions were seldom explicit or in any way directly related to what I was working on. But I was attracted to him and I owe him to have explored thoughts and ideas that I would not have been exposed to if I followed the typical goal-oriented structured path of a young aspiring academic.

One idea that emerged in a series of conversations and that I still use frequently is Aron’s distinction between pluralism and democracy. He argued – and he was right of course – that the two concepts are theoretically independent, and while certain kinds of democracy produce plurality of views, you can have democracy with no pluralism and you can achieve pluralism without democracy. I observe the discussions permeating France where I now live which deplore “la pensée unique” so characteristic of this country’s elite and I think: where is Aron in this debate? And I look at the success of some corporations in constantly including pluralities of views and experimenting with novel approaches and I think: these are certainly not democracies.

Sometimes it was funny: at some point I was in charge of easing Aron into concrete work with our corporate clients. I asked him to give a brief presentation to a group of Midwestern executives on precisely this point. Instead, Aron launched into a long exposé on the similitude between Stalinism and corporate governance. It was brilliant and I was spellbound, before I noticed that this subject was not sitting well with the executives. It took some fancy footwork to save the project … so I owe it in part to Aron becoming a decent consultant.

Once he brought in a couple of his fellow Russian émigrés, prominent scientists, and they got hold of Russ Ackoff, Tom Cowan and me to tell us about their grand theory of (what else) Stalinism, and about lessons to be drawn about human nature. They interrupted each other in Russian, got very excited, got a bit tangled in translation into English and Latin, asked me for help, but my Russian is very poor, and ended by presenting a taxonomy of human nature with categories such as Homo Sapiens Veritas, Homo Pseudo-Sapiens and Homo Sexual.  Tom and I could not help but roar with laughter and I think we may have hurt some feelings. And then there was the joy of life. He and Zhenia appreciated their new life in America so much! I remember with tenderness the excitement of acquiring their house in Swathmore, the car … and the refrain: “this is incredible, we came from so far …” Aron brought his home-made food to research seminars. And he ate it like a man who lived through hunger and deprivation … He never noticed (he was too involved with eating), but I always watched him with envy: he got to eat Zhenia’s wonderful food and I was having a hoagie; and he got to enjoy what he ate in ways that somebody like me will never experience. And the parties at their house in Swarthmore: the table braking under the weight of “zakuski,” the variety of drinks, the most interesting people at Penn, and the look of ultimate bliss in Aron’s face: he recreated his Moscow kitchen … the conversations were Russian, flowing deep from the soul. Aron’s face was that of a child, especially when he was happy.

He understood America better than anybody I know … he knew the contrast. He could have been the Twentieth Century Alexis de Toqueville. And it is a great tribute to America and to Penn to have had the foresight to give Aron and his family a home for the last twenty-some years of his incredible life.

I last saw Aron and Zhenia a few years ago, when they visited with the elder son Reims, in the Champagne country, where I then lived. We had an appointment in front of the Cathedral, and I have carefully planned a lunch to have them discover some French food that I thought they’d like and that they probably never tasted before. I arrived to learn that Aleks just had a heart attack, and we dealt with that crisis… We now will never share the food I planned.

Aron’s life was hell, by any objective standard. And yet, like Voltaire’s Candide, he drew strength and wisdom from what he lived through. He found the travails of his country and his People interesting. I wonder what Aron’s paradise is like.


Wladimir M. Sachs, Ph.D.

[email protected]



Thanks very much for the link to Aron's paper on 'predispositioning'.  http://www.trismegistos.com/IconicityInLanguage/Articles/Katsenelinboigen/KATS1.HTM

I was very glad to see that Aron continued to worry about the concept of potential. Just to keep an important problem alive is a valuable contribution, quite apart from the progress one makes in solving it. Aron didn't seem to be making a lot of progress lately -- that is confirmed by his lengthy quotation from my dissertation! But whose job is it to make progress, anyway? His students, of course.

I can report that, after 25 years of worring about potential, I have inched along, and have occasionally been able to enlighten others. This research program has become so habitual that I sometimes don't realize that I'm pursuing it. In the past few months I have developed survey-based measures of inter-organizational or 'network-centric' alignment. When I read Aron's article, I suddenly realized that this current study is a direct continuation of our work together. The project first came up when I was presenting a study plan to the Navy. One of the bright lights in the audience said that, while I was faithfully following the Navy’s instructions, the results weren't going to be useful at all. Instead, a method for measuring external alignment would be very useful. I said, "I completely agree. This study is wrong and I'll stop here. You put your finger on the right issue, so let's discuss it. In fact, I've spent 20 years looking for somebody who wanted to work on this question, and I have despaired of every finding someone." The audience was astonished, especially the questioner.  Nobody ever changes course in this business, and certainly not on the spot and without permission. But the admiral liked my moxie and approved the new direction. Nobody else had a clue what to do next, but my ever-present 'positional factors' guided me to produce a very extensive survey and an elaborate set of scores. After seeing some test results, the rest of the team is now very enthusiastic and recognizes that we can offer a fresh perspective with useful observations.

Aron never fully understood the direction I was taking, nor did I fully understand his direction, but neither of us were concerned. We gave each other provocations to more thought, plus personal encouragement. This was a good learning relationship, and it made a big difference in my life. 

Kent Myers

[email protected]


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