Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

Humberto Maturana is one of my favorite authors who has helped me further my learning of cybernetics. Sadly, he passed away recently. In today’s post, I am inspired by Maturana’s ideas. One of Maturana’s famous ideas is “autopoiesis.” I have written about this here. A closely related idea from Maturana is the difference between objectivity without parentheses and objectivity in parentheses. He explains this as follows:

There are two distinct attitudes, two paths of thinking and explaining. The first path I call objectivity without parentheses It takes for granted the observer-independent existence of objects that – it is claimed – can be known; it believes in the possibility of an external validation of statements. Such a validation would lend authority and unconditional legitimacy to what is claimed and would, therefore, aim at subjection. It entails the negation of all those who are not prepared to agree with the “objective” facts. One does not want to listen to them or try to understand them. The fundamental emotion reigning here is powered by the authority of universally valid knowledge. One lives in the domain of mutually exclusive transcendental ontologies: each ontology supposedly grasps objective reality; what exists seems independent from one’s personality and one’s actions.

The other attitude I call objectivity in parentheses; its emotional basis is the enjoyment of the company of other human beings. The question of the observer is accepted fully, and every attempt is made to answer it. The distinction between objects and the experience of existence is, according to this path, not denied but the reference to objects is not the basis of explanations, it is the coherence of experiences with other experiences that constitutes the foundation of all explanation. In this view, the observer becomes the origin of all realities; all realities are created through the observer’s operations of distinction. We have entered the domain of constitutive ontologies: all Being is constituted through the Doing of observers. If we follow this path of explanation, we become aware that we can in no way claim to be in possession of the truth but that there are numerous possible realities. Each of them is fully legitimate and valid although, of course, not equally desirable. If we follow this path of explanation, we cannot demand the subjection of our fellow human beings but will listen to them, seek cooperation and communication, and will try to find out under what circumstances we would consider to be valid what they are saying. Consequently, some claim will be true if it satisfies the criteria of validation of the relevant domain of reality.

Maturana is a proponent of objectivity in parentheses. Maturana teaches us that it is impossible to establish an observer-independent point of reference. Everything said is said by an observer. He agrees that there seem to be objects independent of us. The use of parentheses is to acknowledge this – to signal a certain state of awareness. In other words, we do not discover reality, but we invent a reality. We construct an experiential version of reality that is accessible to our interpretative framework. This is a version that is built through a circular causal loop between us and our environment in which we are embedded in. We are embodied minds embedded in our world, and not bodies with minds separated from the world. The latter view represents objectivity without parentheses.

Our version of reality becomes stable from our history of interactions with our environment. The environment contains everything outside our closed interpretative framework. This includes other beings also. The history of interactions provides us an opportunity to generate correlations that we can assign meanings to. For example, as a child, we learn that crying generally leads to situations where we can find comfort in the form of food, attention etc. However, as we grow older, most of us have to relearn that crying does not lead to comfort. We have to try other means to get what we need – learning to speak a common language. There is an error correction that goes on in the social realm where we can find commonalities in the realities that we construct. However, this can also lead to clans and tribes, where as a group we isolate from other clans and tribes with opposing ideas. An important point to be made at this juncture is that the success of the constructed reality is based simply on viability of the construction. If the constructed reality continues to stay viable over time, then it has merit. There is no external point of reference utilized here. There is no external authority who decrees what is right and wrong, or what is moral or immoral. The only way we would be willing to change the construction is if we realize that it is no longer viable based on either an internal reference point or when something happens in our environment that challenges our survival altogether. The first case is where we have to change our internal structure. This could be based on a perturbation from outside such as conversing with a person with an opposing view or reading a book that presents a powerful argument that challenges our paradigm. The second case is where our organization itself gets changed, and we cease to exist.

Systems in Quotes:

The more I have learned about cybernetics, especially second order cybernetics and the works of thinkers such as Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana, the more I start to question the use of “systems”. The word “system” is used in many ways to represent many things. Sometimes it could be the biological system (our body); sometimes it could be the education system; sometimes it could be the network system; on and on. To use a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, “This word has been so stretched and has taken on so broad a meaning that it no longer means anything at all.” Sartre was talking about existentialism. But I think it is quite suitable here. My statement might come across as quite irrational to some of the readers. Please bear with me as I try to explain my view. There is after all nothing rational about the complexity of what we try to represent with the word “system”. The “system” could mean different things to different people. It all depends on who is doing the description. Let’s take the example of an organization. It is quite common for management consultants to say we need to learn to change the “system” or fix the “system”. Or we should not blame the “system”. The emphasis here is that the “system” is something that we can change or it is something real that we can fix. As I have pointed out often here on the blog, my view is that “systems” are mental constructs used to make sense of the world around us. It is a construction of the observer, and they decide what all parts go within the boundary, and where the boundary of the “system” is drawn. There is nothing objective about a “system”. “Systems” are part of the experiential reality of the observer. Since we are informationally closed, we cannot share this experiential reality.

When I talk about “systems”, in the spirit of Maturana, I am differentiating between Systems in quotes, and systems without quotes. If we replace the word “objectivity” with “system”, and “parentheses” with “quotes” in Maturana’s explanation, perhaps my position would become clearer. My concern with not using quotes is that we are removing the observer from the observation; the describer from the description. To put it in other words – a cat doesn’t know that it is a cat. The distinguishing characteristics come from the distinguisher than the distinguished. In the case of an organization, if we are going to blame the “system”, where will we start? The assumption is that we all know what we mean by the “system” here. The first step in systems thinking is to try to view the world from the other person’s viewpoint. This is part of understanding the boundaries and how the other person views the world. In other words, we are looking for actively perturbing our closed interpretative framework. We are looking to actively engage to change our minds. How often do we do this? Is this what the consultants look to do when they talk about fixing the “system”? Maturana follows up on his objectivity in parentheses idea that I find is quite apt here:

They might – possibly – follow the path of objectivity in parentheses and, therefore, be capable of reflection: They would respect differences, would not claim to be the sole possessors of truth, and would enjoy the company of others. In the process of living together, they would produce different cultures. Consequently, the number of possible realities may seem potentially infinite but their diversity is constrained by communal living, by cultures and histories created together, by shared interests and predilections. Every human being is certainly different but not entirely different.

When we hear of the word “system” being thrown around, our first reaction should be – can you please elaborate on what do you mean by “system”?

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Being-In-the-Ohno-Circle:

8 thoughts on “Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

  1. A classic mistake to mix up concepts, with methods and tools. I genuinely believe many things are objectively real like the cup sat on the desk next to me, holding my morning brew. No matter who you are, most people would have the same “objective” experience of the cup. They may call it something different, a mug, but we’d all pretty much agree on what it is to the point that any leftovers would be, as Whitehead put it: endless wrangling over minor questions. My point is, that I experience the powermad, unlistening, validity mongers in the “Objectivity” camp and the half-arsed poorly thought out gum-flapping in the Objectivity camp. That’s because I’m probably some kind of Aesthetic Empiricist – you know that horrible type in between who don’t take anything at face value, until we’ve had a play with it and talked to other people who’ve played with it and then agree that “this is a good cup of tea” as opposed to a bad one. Let’s not go there with Thinking or “Thinking”. But come on, some things are simple enough to agree conceptually that Systems are real: like the infusion in my cup; how we come to understand them needs a method called modelling; which is a tool the human brain has done instinctively for about 250000 years; otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I think the only difference is “scale” we do meso really well, but as all systems are nested the “objectivity” is an inevitable part of “the” system when it’s macro, or micro. Lovely article again. Thanks 😘


    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. The realness of the cup is explained as stable correlations in constructivism. Based on phylogeny, we would have similar framework to generate these correlations, from that standpoint we may experience the cup similarly and agree on the realness of the cup. For me, I am more interested in the experiential reality than just mere reality of things. I am more focused on how you experience the cup. The observer is the king of the queen. 🙂

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      • I think what you’re really talking about is the “infusion” not the cup, we can’t start everything at the atom, so accepting some real things means we can focus on the interesting bit that we cannot directly experience, ergo we model.


  2. Thanks. I’ve always preferred to use the word system to refer to human made “systems”, like information systems. Or machines and computers. If one can decompose it and put the parts back an it functions again, it’s a system. If it doesn’t function again, don’t call it a system.

    So animals, human beings, organizations, societies and climate shouldn’t be called “systems”. They’re “living”, “beings” or, – even better – “becoming”. Use in stead “organizing”, “socializing” and “climatizing” (it does sound weird, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what changing one’s thinking includes: it’s unfamiliar.) By the way, I like your “-ing” construction; we don’t have it in Dutch and German. We have to use “in the process of …”. I’ll need this later.

    I noticed that when somebody doesn’t understand something, (s)he tends to call it “a system”. I then asked, to explain it without using the word “system”.

    Regarding systems thinking, I use the word as an adjective: as in systematic thinking. (I do the same with Learning Organisations: organizational learning). As one is thinking systematically, one decomposes – off course. So when somebody then says “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”, I usually say: “who started partitioning?”.

    I treat my self as an observer in the same way: I’m observing. Use it as an adjective. Everything observed is observed by me (the same holds for you). In language one can make a fictitious (!) distinction between observer and observed, in observing one cannot.

    It’s the same with making a distinction between “me” and “you” or “us” and “them”. One needs language to sustain the difference. I would even say that this is why dogs bark at strangers (normally wolves don’t bark when hunting, its scares away their prey): they have been taught to make a difference, a difference which only exists inside language.

    You might now “see” our paradoxical use of language: we need a common a language to distinguish between each other. The paradox is beautifully sung by 10CC: “agree to disagree, but disagree to part” in “the things we do for love”.

    Paul Watzlawick remarked that one can say “not”, but cannot do “not”. Thanks to language, we can make a distinction that’s “not”. I you see what I mean. Interestingly, people act as-if they can do “not”, or is it “cannot do”. One can’t.

    The paradoxes arises from this: “objective” opposes analogously “subjective”. Subjective is the alternative of objective. The digital denial of “objective” is “not objective”. Off course, “subjective is “not objective”. But, being “not subjective” doesn’t give you “objectivity”. “Alternative facts” – subjective – cannot be facts – objective. Yet in our use of language one acts as-if this can be.

    An objective observer subjects objects. In language, objects can be treated as subjects, and the subjects can be subjected by language.

    All concepts are fictitious, made-up, invented, ideas, unreal, real paradoxes, as one uses language tacitly to subject subjects. Even facts, as the word says, are made-up. If one wants to belong here, one has to conform. (I might have told that in Dutch the word “to belong” is “behoren” or “in the process of hearing”: one has to listen (“horen”) in order to belong). En-culturing cultivates subordinates.

    We’ve been educated, trained in using the “container (or conduit) metaphor” – words “carry” meaning – in communicating meaning, because this enables one to dominate conversations and others. In communication theory, “meaning” has been excluded from the transfer of messages. Because it’s subjective.

    Our use of language was adequate in the 19th century, when inventing machines, systems, control, cybernetics. In the 21-st century we need to communicate using the “toolmaker metaphor” (see: ), inventing meaning as we’re in the process of communication.

    In dealing with real reality, one uses two metaphors at the same time: from sensing one induces a metaphor-in-use and from one’s culture one invokes a metaphor-espoused. The first is objective – as one uses chair as a chair -, the second one is subjective, as a chair can be a stoel, Stuhl, chair or (used as a) table or ladder.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment as always. I enjoyed the reference to the wolves not barking. Never realized it before. 🙂

      I see some similarities in our thinking and some differences too. I hope to write more on this (as much as my language allows) 🙂


      • You’re welcome. I think all our thinking is similar, just our uses of thinking – judging a situation – differ. I’ve always used thinking differently, to confuse, to create ambiguity.

        In my way of thinking the questions are more important then the answer. I prefer the wrong answer on the right question over a good answer on the wrong question. And a right question has the answer “I don’t know”. Thinking, for me, is like groping in the dark.

        I do think we think alike in metaphors: in moving around one needs a map, model to mind oneself in a situation. We differ in the use of language in thinking.

        Thinking is the ability to use the situation as a map. That way, one doesn’t have to “draw” actual maps and remember them. Thinking constructs maps, models (and metaphors) in one’s “mind”. This explain why brains (and hearths, guts, limbs,…) are “structurally coupled” to bodies and a body to its domain ( a set of coherent situation). A fish doesn’t survive a desert for long and a camel is not an actual ship.

        Language – this is what I think – used to be a tool in toolmaking. One makes tools out of objects. An object – as the word suggests to me – was originally used to throw (Latin: iacere) at towards (“ob”) a subject, subjecting by objecting. Which we’re still doing in courts and wars. (In Dutch we use the word “voorwerp” where voor means towards (or in fromt of) and werpen means to throw).

        This used the ability to pro-ject, as in projectile, one’s “inner” on “outer”, which thinking already needed. Remember that any map is and has a “projection”, depending on its use. The awareness of objects in situation, changed thinking. looking became (fore)seeing. the next step was to adapt unfit stone for throwing into “fit for use”, developing “arms”. In making tools, one has to instruct and using sounds worked. Inventing language.

        I assume other animals also already used sounds to recognize family members – seems sound. So language became both a tool for toolmaking and a tool for recognizing family, tribes, gangs, groups, … organisations.

        We used to have a language and gradually language began to dominate thinking. And now “language has us”. We become subjects (ambiguity intentional) through language. That’s what I resist. I won’t let my thinking be dominated by language.


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