Hermeneutics in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am carrying on some of the ideas from Heidegger. See the last post for more details. I have written about Hermeneutics before here.  Heidegger was a student of the great German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. Husserl pioneered the school of phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of how things appear to us experientially. The objects we experience are the phenomena. As Susan Laverty notes:

Phenomenology is essentially the study of lived experience or the life world (van Manen, 1997). Its emphasis is on the world as lived by a person, not the world or reality as something separate from the person (Valle et al., 1989). This inquiry asks “What is this experience like?” as it attempts to unfold meanings as they are lived in everyday existence. Polkinghorne (1983) identified this focus as trying to understand or comprehend meanings of human experience as it is lived. The ‘life world’ is understood as what we experience pre-reflectively, without resorting to categorization or conceptualization, and quite often includes what is taken for granted or those things that are common sense (Husserl, 1970). The study of these phenomena intends to return and re-examine these taken for granted experiences and perhaps uncover new and/or forgotten meanings.

Husserl taught that to understand things around us, we have to go back to the things themselves. He gave a detailed methodology to make phenomenology happen. He wanted a structured approach just like in science or mathematics. Husserl believed that how we experience things can be affected by our biases about things. So, he proposed that we “bracket” our presuppositions, biases etc. and approach the thing at hand. This suspension of our presuppositions is a phenomenological reduction. It is said that Husserl would spend days with his class analyzing a trivial object such as a mailbox. His version of phenomenology was free of social, cultural and historical “grasps” on the object. The object was a standalone entity waiting to be experienced, and through this experience an understanding of the entity was possible. He suggested with his method, we are able to come to a descriptive presentation of the phenomena.

Heidegger, as Husserl’s student was very taken by the idea of phenomenology. However, Heidegger realized that we cannot be separated from our presuppositions. We can understand existence only through our existing; the way we are. Heidegger realized that the experience of a phenomenon is a personal activity, and therefore we may come up with multiple descriptions of the phenomenon. Most importantly, the process of coming up with a description is an interpretive process. We make sense of the phenomenon as an interpretive process. Heidegger’s version of phenomenology is thus termed as “hermeneutic phenomenology”, whereas Husserl’s version is termed as “transcendental phenomenology”. Heidegger realized that the knowledge we achieve at any point in time is incomplete, and is contingent on our existence at that point in time. Our relationship to the phenomenon is affected by who we are, where we are, when we are and how we are experiencing the phenomenon.

A key point in hermeneutics is the hermeneutic circle. This circle is actually a recursion. Hermeneutics is generally associated with interpreting a text. Generally, when we start to read a part of the text, we get an idea of what the whole of the text stands for. As we get more into the text, we get a better understanding of the part, which helps with a better understanding of the whole text, and so on. This can be viewed as a recursive function. The uniqueness of our worldview comes from the recursive nature of our experiential living. We keep updating our worldview based on the current worldview which is impacted by our past worldview. And round and round we go.

Heidegger’s view that we cannot assume freedom from our presuppositions is an important thing to keep in mind in Systems Thinking. This reaffirms the idea that we are not able to experience a singularly objective reality. Reality is multidimensional, and have many variations contingent on many social factors. The circularity of hermeneutics is explained well by M. N. Babu:

The most important consequence of the circularity of understanding for hermeneutics that there is no pure starting point for understanding because every act of understanding takes place within a finite historically conditioned horizon, within an already understood frame of reference. It is no longer a question of how we are to enter the hermeneutical circle, because human consciousness is always already in it. We understand only by constant reference to what we have already understood, namely, our past and anticipated experience. The experiencing and reflecting subject is never a tabula rasa upon which the understanding of raw experience inscribes its objective character, rather, all experience and reflection are the result of a confrontation between one’s pre-understanding or even prejudice and new or perhaps strange objects. The inevitable presence of pre-understanding or prejudice is not necessarily the distortion of the meaning of an object by an arbitrary subject, rather, it is the very condition for any understanding of all. Heidegger, however, contends that presuppositions are the very condition for any reception of the object whatsoever. His notions of the ontological character of understanding and the primordial connection of subject and object in their pre- understanding and the primordial connection of subject and object in their pre-reflective relational whole provides the foundation for this contention. For him, all interpretation is a derivative form of a prior understanding, in which the prior relationship between subject and object is brought to explication.

How does one proceed when we realize that we cannot be free of our presuppositions? Heidegger advises that we need to get into the circle in the right way. Hans-Georg Gadamer provides clarity on this. As Jean Grondin notes:

Gadamer takes up Heidegger’s suggestion that the important thing is to get into the circle in the right way, but for him this mainly means that the “prejudiced” nature of our understanding should be recognized as that which makes understanding possible in the first place. This is what he calls the “ontological” and positive aspect of the hermeneutical circle. He emphasizes the ontological nature of the circle to fight against the false ideal of a presupposition‐less type of knowledge which would have been imposed upon the humanities by the objectivity requirement of exact science. His aim in highlighting the hermeneutical circle is to liberate the humanities from this alienating model. But does this mean that all presuppositions, prejudices, and anticipations are valid? Obviously not, since this would call into question the very idea of truth, which a book entitled Truth and Method surely wants to defend. Gadamer does maintain the distinction between adequate and inadequate anticipations. According to his best account of this key critical difference, it is through temporal distance and the work of history that we are able to make this distinction.

The most important thing in the process of making sense of a phenomenon is to understand the context. If the context is not understood, we fall into the trap of relativism. Relativism is the idea that all views are equally valid. A better nuanced version of this is pluralism. Pluralism is the idea that there are multiple views of a phenomenon that are different but equally valid. The difference between pluralism and relativism is in understanding the context. As we have been discussing, this understanding requires hermeneutical phenomenology. When we are aware that our understanding is always incomplete and imperfect, we are more open to going through the self-correcting hermeneutic cycle. We are open to challenge what we think we know, and we welcome scrutiny of our ideas. We put our assumptions open for all to see. Rather than being stuck with the realization that our views are imperfect and incomplete, we learn to cope with the world.

The great Systems Thinker, C. West Churchman said that the systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.

We can only know things in terms of things we already know. From this standpoint, when we are looking at a new phenomenon, we have to look at it in terms of things we already know. If we are looking at a social “system”, then we have to always start from things that are common. The basis of all that is common in a social realm is the humanity in us all, and that is a good place to start. This is my takeaway from Churchman’s advice.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

4 thoughts on “Hermeneutics in Systems Thinking:

  1. I don’t know.
    “I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell. — Michael Polanyi”.

    Explicit knowledge I can tell you, I can tell you; knowledge I cannot tell remains “tacit”. Riding a bike or writing is “tacit”. This tacit knowledge is “incorporated” and I cannot share it, not like sharing my bike.

    You acquired the tacit dimension(s) through your senses while using an object. Your body “formed” an “inner image” of it. (This is why I like the word “informing”, I guess). Polanyi called this body feeling near or “proximal” while sensing – feeling, seeing, hearing – is “distal”- at a distance. In transferring from distal to proximal and vice versa you “translate” an object-out-there into an object-in-here. This is what I would call “Hermeneutics”. (You will know that the demi-god Hermes brings the dreams (messages) from the gods – distal – to the men – proximal. And vice versa. He protects the salesmen (and the thief). You’ll see him often in The Netherlands…)

    Proximal and tacit thinking work almost completely “subconscious”. You don’t know how you know what you know. (you do know what you know, and what you don’t know).

    When you perceive an object, you “see” it’s tacit dimensions: you “know” how it feels, it sounds, its shape and most importantly, “know” how to use it. You “recreate” an experience “in your mind” (not an actual space) and “project” these on the “object” in an “actual space”. This is like a “Gestalt”, an “image”. I call this “metaphor-in-use”. Also because the transfer between proximal and distal inducing the metaphor.

    To make your knowledge explicit you can share, show and tell. Showing “how to use this” is best, but takes time; explaining using language can be fast, and you can just refer to the manual.
    I suspect, most of my thinking goes on tacitly, implicitly, internally, “behind the scenes”. I don’t know what I’m thinking, until I start explaining. (This is also why I write).

    Only with thinking in language I can make thinking thoughts explicit. Tacitly I transfer images, metaphors into a sentence. I adopt a metaphor to express myself, or a metaphor-espoused. (Yep, borrowed from Chris Argyris).

    We use language as a tool for explicit thinking, while using language tacitly. Like a carpenter who knows how to use its tools tacitly to make a chair, we “know” tacitly how to speak and write the word “chair”. But unlike the explicit (“distal”) products of a carpenter, our products are explicit expressions who’s uses remain implicit (“proximal”). You can sit on a chair, but not on the word or concept of chair. You imagine this tacitly. “As if” there exists a real chair.

    So words (concepts) – I concur from Vaihinger’s Philosophy As If – are fictions, tools used for (explicit) thinking while thinking (implicit). Like the explicit tools hammer, chisel and saw of a carpenter, we configure our implicit tools – words – tacitly. And – very funny – we can use these tools to think about thinking. Imagine a mind,

    We think as if the words we use are true, because when they “work” we get real – true – results. But being useful and being true are two different concepts. Something can be true and useful; thoughts can be fictions and useful. True fictions both contradict reality and themselves. They disappear from the results. You don’t know what (tacit) thoughts made you think and achieve (explicit) results. Like you don’t know how the carpenter used its tools to make your chair.

    So thinking about systems in systems thinking can be useful, true, but it doesn’t mean systems are real. “System” is just another word for “I don’t know”. I used to say – and still do – “when I don’t how something works, I just call it system. I usually get away with it”.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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