The Contingency and Irony of Systems and Cybernetics Thinking:

In today’s post, I am using the ideas of the great American pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty. Rorty’s most famous work is Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Rorty as a pragmatist follows the idea of an anti-essentialist. This basically means that there is no intrinsic essence to a phenomenon. Take for example, the idea of “Truth”. The general notion of Truth is that it can be found independent of human cognition. Rorty points out that this idea is not at all useful.

Rorty states:

Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true of false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.

The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own.

A key idea that Rorty brings up is the contingency of language. We may see language as this wonderful thing that enables us to communicate. Rorty describes language as contingent. This means that language is actually something we invented rather than discovered. And that language is really a tool we use to describe what is around us and our ideas. It is contingent because it is historically and geographically based. It is also contingent because we are engaged in language games, and meaning is an emergent phenomenon from our language games. This idea of language games is inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. If we see language as contingent, then we can prepare ourselves to not fall prey to the idea that truth is out there in the world, and that it is something that we can find. When we realize that language is contingent, we stop believing in dogmas and doctrines stipulated to us. We stop asking questions such as “What is it to be a human being?” Instead we ask, “What is it to inhabit a twenty first century democratic society?”

The idea of contingency slowly reveals us that sentences are no longer important. We should focus on vocabularies. Rorty explains that vocabularies allow us describe and re-describe the world. It is a holistic notion. When the notion of a “description of the world” is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language games to language games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense. It becomes hard to think that, that vocabulary is somehow already out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it. Languages are made rather than found, and truth is a property of linguistic entities (sentences).

As a pragmatist, Rorty’s view is that language, and in turn vocabulary, is a tool that is useful in a particular context. It does not have an intrinsic nature on its own because it is contingent on us, the users. Rorty wonderfully explains this as – the fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian.

Another idea that Rorty proposes is that of the final vocabulary. Rorty says that we all have final vocabularies. All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise for our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes… It is “final” in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to a force. A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as “true,” “good,” “right,” and “beautiful. ” The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, “Christ,” “England,” “professional standards,” “decency,” “kindness,” “the Revolution,” “the Church,” “progressive,” “rigorous,” “creative.” The more parochial terms do most of the work.

Let’s look at what we have discussed so far and look at systems thinking. Pragmatism is not foreign to systems thinking. The pioneer of soft systems approach, C. West. Churchman was a pragmatist. He advised us that systems approach starts when we view the world through the eyes of another. The general commonsense view of systems is that they are real, and everyone sees the “system” objectively which helps to address the problem. The “system” can be drawn and described accurately. The system can be optimized to achieve maximum performance. This is the “hard systems” approach which utilizes a mechanistic view. However, as we start applying the pragmatist ideas we have looked at, we start to challenge this. “Systems” are not real entities but mental constructs by an observer to aid in understanding of a phenomenon of interest. “Systems” no longer become a necessity, but become contingent on the observer constructing it. When one says that the “healthcare system” is broken, we no longer look at the sentence in isolation, but rather we start looking at the vocabularies. The idea of contingency brings the non-objective nature of reality into the front. How one sees or experiences something depends on his or her contingency and their final vocabulary. From this standpoint, a system has nothing that the observer does not put into it. The intrinsic nature of a system is actually the properties assigned by the observer and contingent on his or her final vocabulary.

Similar ideas are present in Cybernetics and Systems Thinking:

We exist in language using language for our explanations- Humberto Maturana 

The environment as we perceive it is our invention. – Heinz von Foerster

If contingency of language is an issue, then how does one do systems thinking then? Here I will introduce another idea from Rorty. This is the idea of an “ironist”. Rorty said:

I shall define an “ironist” as someone who fulfills three conditions : ( 1 ) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts ; (3 ) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.

Rorty adds:

The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being. But she cannot give a criterion of wrongness. So, the more she is driven to articulate her situation in philosophical terms, the more she reminds herself of her rootlessness by constantly using terms like “Weltanschauung,” “perspective,” “dialectic,” “conceptual framework, “historical epoch,” “language game,” “redescription,” “vocabulary,” and “irony.”

From a second order Cybernetics standpoint, the idea of an ironist is self-referential. The observer is aware of their final vocabulary. Moreover, they are aware that their final vocabulary is perhaps incomplete or incorrect. They are historicist in the sense they understand that their language is contingent based on the time, place and society they were born into. They are also aware that others do not share their vocabulary. From this standpoint, what they can do is to seek understanding and ask leading questions to expose others to their contingencies of their vocabulary. They understand that truth is a function of agreement within language games. They don’t look at sentences in isolation, but at vocabularies in a holistic fashion. They realize that ideas are dynamic and do not have a fixed essence because vocabularies themselves are dynamic. They are open to changing their vocabularies without the fear of going against ideas they once held on to. They understand in a pragmatist sense that all models are wrong but the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful. (George Box)

I will finish with a quote from Fredrich Nietzsche:

“Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetic Explanation, Purpose and AI:

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