View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

I was introduced to the drawing above through Douglas Harding who wrote the Zen book, “The Headless Way.” The drawing was drawn by Ernst Mach, the 19th Century Austrian physicist. He called the drawing, “the view from the left eye.” What is beautiful about the drawing is that it is sort of a self-portrait. This is the view we all see when we look around (without using a mirror or other reflective surfaces). If we could draw what we see of ourselves, this would be the most accurate picture. This brings me to the point about the different modes of observing.

Right now, you are most likely reading this on a screen of some sort or perhaps you are listening to this as a podcast. You were not paying attention to the phone or computer screen – until I pointed it out to you. You were not paying attention to how your shoes or socks or clothes feel on your body – until I pointed them out to you. This is mostly how we are in the world. We are just being in the world most of the time. Everything that we interact with is invisible to us. They just flow along the affordances we can afford. The keyboard clacks away when we hit on the keys, the door knobs turn when we turn them, etc. We do not see them until we have to see them. The 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger called this ready-to-handedness. Everything is connected to everything else. We interact with the objects in order to achieve something. We open the door to go inside a building to do something else. We get in the car to get to a place. We use a hammer to hammer a nail in order to build something. Heidegger called these things equipment, and he called the interconnectedness, the totality of the equipment. The items are in the background to us. We do not pay attention to them. This is how we generally see the world by simply being in the world.

Now let’s say that the general flow of things breaks down for some reason. We picked up the hammer, and it is heavier than we thought and we pay attention to the hammer. We look at the hammer as a subject looking at an object. We start seeing that it has a red handle and a steel head. The hammer is not ready-to-hand anymore. The hammer has become an object and in the foreground. Heidegger called this as present-at-hand. When we really look at something, we realize that we, the subjects, are looking at something, the object. We no longer have the affordances to interact with it in a nonchalant manner. We have to pay attention in order to engage with the object, if needed.

With this background, I turn to observing again. In my view(no pun intended), there are three modes of observing:

  1. No self – similar to ready-to-hand, you just “are” in the world, enacting in the world. You just see things without any thought to self. There is no distinction of self in what you observe. Perhaps, we can refer to this as the zero person or zero order view.
  2. Seeing self – you make a distinction with this. You draw a line between you the subject, and the world out there. The world is out there and you are separate from the world. This is similar to present-at-hand. The world is out there. This is also the first order in First Order Cybernetics.
  3. Seeing self through self/others – Here you are able to see yourself through self or others. You are able to observe yourself observing. This is the second order in Second Order Cybernetics. In this case, the world is in here, within you, as a constructed stable reality.

In the first mode, you are being in the world. Heidegger would call this as “dasein.” In the second mode, you see the world as being outside. And in the third mode, you see the world as being inside. There are no hierarchies here. Each mode is simply just a mode of observing. In the second and third modes, you become aware of others who are like you in the world. In the third mode, you will also start to see how the others view the world since you are looking through others’ eyes. You realize that just as you construct a world, they too construct a world. Just like you have a perspective, they too have a perspective. The different modes of observing lead to a stable reality for us based on our interpretative framework. We cognize a reality by constructing it based on the stable correlations we infer from our being in the world. Sharing this with others lead to a stable societal realm through our communication with others. A community is formed when we share and something common emerges. It is no accident that the word “community” stems from the root word “common.”

When we observe a system, we also automatically stipulate a purpose for it. Systems are not real-world entities, but a means for the observer to make sense of something. We may call a collection of automobiles on the road as the transportation system just so that we can explain the congestion in the traffic. The same transportation system might be entirely different for the construction worker working on the pavement.

We have to go through the different modes of observation to help further our understanding. Seeing through the eyes of others is a practice for empathy. And this is something that we have to continuously practice to get better at. Empathy requires continuous practice.

I will finish with Ernst Mach’s explanation for his drawing:

Thus, I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye. In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with its environment. My body differs from other human bodies beyond the fact that every intense motor idea is immediately expressed by a movement of it, and that, if it is touched, more striking changes are determined than if other bodies are touched by the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head

It was about 1870 that the idea of this drawing was suggested to me by an amusing chance. A certain Mr L., now long dead, whose many eccentricities were redeemed by his truly amiable character, compelled me to read one of C. F. Krause’s writings, in which the following occurs:

“Problem : To carry out the self-inspection of the Ego.

Solution : It is carried out immediately.”

In order to illustrate in a humorous manner this philosophical “much ado about nothing,” and at the same time to shew how the self-inspection of the Ego could be really “carried out,” I embarked on the above drawing. Mr L.’s society was most instructive and stimulating to me, owing to the naivety with which he gave utterance to philosophical notions that are apt to be carefully passed over in silence or involved in obscurity.

This post is also available as a podcast episode – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/View-from-the-Left-Eye–Modes-of-Observing-e1297um

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 Stories We Live By:

The Stories We Live By:

In today’s post, I am inspired by the idea of Metanarratives from the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard’s most famous work is The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He presented the term “postmodern” in this book. He defined postmodern as:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.

A metanarrative or a grand narrative is a larger scale narrative that a group of people hold on to, to make sense of how the world is progressing around them. There is a teleological aspect to it such that the “progression” of the society can be explained. Leotard viewed this as a grand narrative of modernity, one where the society is progressing towards a future where all our problems are solved and where we all live happily ever after. The postmodern view distrusts any such grand narratives. The grand narrative is how we find meaning in the world around us.

The New World Encyclopedia defines metanarratives as follows:

Metanarrative or grand narrative or mater narrative is a term developed by Jean-François Lyotard to mean a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values. In this context, the narrative is a story that functions to legitimize power, authority, and social customs. A grand narrative or metanarrative is one that claims to explain various events in history, gives meaning by connecting disperse events and phenomena by appealing to some kind of universal knowledge or schema. The term grand narratives can be applied to a wide range of thoughts which includes Marxism, religious doctrines, belief in progress, universal reason, and others.

Perhaps, it is because the world has grown closer together and more exposed to the different cultures that the postmodernists believe that we have lost faith in the grand narratives. Instead of grand narratives, what we have are localized small narratives that are often intertwined. Lyotard uses the Wittgenstein’s language games to explain this. Wittgenstein noted that the meaning of a word is in how we use the word. The words themselves are invariant; their meanings are not. The words are not fixed labels of things, but something we come together to agree upon while engaged in language games. As Simon Malpas notes:

 Like normal games, there are a variety of language games that may not always have rules in common. For example, in chess there are rules that allow us to move the pieces in certain ways, set out our objectives for victory and make certain moves illegal. In the same way, in science certain types of statement can be made about the world and certain aims and rules are involved in scientific enquiry and experimentation. The success or failure of a given statement is thus determined by how well it works within the rules of the language game in which it occurs.

Located in a multiplicity of language games that no longer follow a single metanarrative, an individual’s identity becomes dispersed… As language games are linked to identity, Lyotard argues that the wider range of different language games that are considered legitimate within society, the more open and pluralist that society can become. The main threat facing postmodern society is the reduction of knowledge to a single system whose only criterion is efficiency… Once the grand narratives have fallen away, we are left only with the diverse range of language games, and the aim of postmodern criticism should be to do justice to them by allowing them to be heard in their own terms.

It is easy to be mesmerized by a grand narrative. This could be a political slogan about making a country great again. It could also be the belief that the whole is always greater than sum of its parts. We might be told that we should be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the whole. These grand narratives often lack the variety to sustain itself. The idea of the whole being greater than some of its parts is often taught in Systems Thinking. This posits the view that there is indeed an objective whole. As David M. Boje notes, a system is a fiction of the whole. The most important piece that is often ignored is the question – to whom? All systems are mental constructs that an observer or a group of observer constructs. The keyword here is the observer. The grand narrative that “the whole is greater” is based on an observer. This does not mean that another observer will see the system identically. To a patient, the healthcare system has specific needs such as affordable healthcare and this may be entirely different than the CEO managing a hospital. If we are able to answer the following questions, then we might be able to better understand the “whole” – who does the summation? From whose perspective is the whole and parts determined? For whose purpose?

Lyotard noted that no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.

The social subject itself seems to dissolve in the dissemination of language games. The social bond is linguistic, but is not woven with a single thread. It is a fabric formed by the intersection of at least two (and in reality an indeterminate number) of language games, obeying different rules.

One single grand narrative cannot explain away the multitude of human experiences. Our role as a systems thinker is to welcome the multiple local narratives and engage in the different language games. We should challenge the rules that govern images and narratives. We should understand that the different language games may not always work together. We should welcome pluralism – the idea that multiple perspectives may be equally meaningful and valid.

It may be difficult at first to digest the postmodernist ideas. The realization that there is no singular objective reality may not be easy to accept. This realization however makes us more acceptable to welcome other perspectives of the world, the social realm. Socrates was declared wise by the oracle of Delphi because one thing Socrates knew was that he did not know anything. This type of self-reflection is possible when we give upon the metanarrative of an objective knowledge.

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

A podcast version of this post is available here – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Stories-We-Live-By-e11uctl

In case you missed it, my last post was Hermeneutics in Systems Thinking:

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:

The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at the Being-question from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger is a philosopher I put off studying mainly because he was a Nazi sympathizer. His ideas are said to be of utmost importance for the twentieth century and he influenced many of the post-modern philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty etc. Heidegger’s main philosophical work is “Being and Time”.

At that time, the prevalent view about how we view the world was based on the distinction between the subject and the object. The subject, let’s say an observer, is able to stand outside and observe the world. The world is independent of the observer. The observer is able to study the world and using their rational mind to come to meaningful conclusions. This view was made famous by the French philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes emphasized the difference between the subject and the object. The observer themselves are not part of the observation. What is observed (the object) is part of an objective reality that is readily accessible to everyone. From this standpoint, we come to see systems as physical entities of the world that is waiting there to be objectively observed and understood by everyone.

Heidegger wanted to turn this view upside down. He viewed the idea of trying to prove an objective reality as a scandalous activity. He did not deny the subject and the object. However, he viewed the subject as being a part of the world; an embedded being in the world. Heidegger thought that the question of “what exists?” is a useless activity. He realized that the question – “what does it mean to be existing?” was more meaningful.

Michael Gelven, who authored one of the most accessible books on Heidegger notes:

Descartes not only asks whether such a thing as material substance exists, he actually tells us what it means for such a thing to exist: if it takes up space it is a material thing that exists. Heidegger, however, argues there is an even more fundamental question that can be asked: What does it mean to exist at all?  The question is not whether something does exist or how to characterize the existence of particular kinds of things, like material things or mental things, but simply to ask about the very meaning of Being.

To ask what it means to exist or simply to be is to engage in the most fundamental kind of questioning possible. Heidegger calls this die Frage nach den Sinn von Sein, “to question what it means to be,” or simply, “the Being-question.”

Here the word “Being” is capitalized to reflect how it was written by Heidegger and it does not stand for a Supreme Being. The Being is basically us in the world interacting with the world.

Gelven gives a great example to further the idea of the “Being-question”:

Suppose I ask “What is a jail? ” You answer, “The jail is that red-brick building down the street with bars on the windows and locks on the cells. ” In this case, the question is about an entity, and the answer provides one with characteristics that describe or identify the entity. Suppose I ask, “What does it mean to be in jail? ” In response, you say, “To be in jail is to be guilty of a crime and to be punished for it by suffering the loss of liberty. To be in jail thus is to be punished, to feel reprimanded, to suffer, possibly to be afraid, to be lonely, to feel outcast, etc. ” The second question is answered by reference to what it means to exist in various ways, such as being guilty or being unfree. The question What is a jail? is answered by the description of other entities, bars in the windows, locks, unsavory patrons; but the question of the meaning of anything is answered by reference to other meanings. In this we simply recognize there must be a parallel between the kind of question asked and the kind of answers given.

But suppose I press this distinction and ask Which question is prior? A moment’s reflection will assure us that what it means to be in jail is the reason or the ground for the jail being built the way it is. In other words, what it means to be in jail is prior to what kind of thing a jail is, for the meaning determines the entity. If I understand what it means to be in jail, I will know what is required to make a jail. So, in the formal sense of what explains what, meaning precedes entity. The inquiry into what it means to be in jail is not only different from the question about what kind of thing is a jail, it is also prior to it, for the meaning ultimately explains the entity.

The problem with believing that there is an objective reality ready for everyone to access is that we take others for granted and also view them as part of the “objective” reality. We don’t realize that most of what we see and believe are contingent on our past experiences, biases, worldviews etc. These are not necessities. It would be a categorical error to assume that the conditions of contingencies are actually conditions of necessities. An easy way to explain the difference between contingency and necessity is to think of a red triangle. The color “red” is contingent on the direction I gave you. I could have said blue instead of red or any other color for that matter. However, it is necessary that you have three sides to the triangle. You cannot have two sides or four sides for the triangle since then it ceases to be a triangle.

When we assume that systems are physical entities of the world, we fall into the categorical error. We bring in our biases and worldviews and impose them on others. Similar to the jail example above, if we simply ask “what is a hospital and how can we improve the hospital?”, we get answers that go nowhere. If instead, we try to ask the question – “what is it like to be a patient in the hospital?”, and try to see this from another person’s viewpoint, we might be able to make some headway. The world as we see it, is our construction of our being in the world. We are in a social realm, and we cope with the world by being part of it, rather than being apart from it.

Gelven also gives another example:

I ask: What is the mind? This question is the traditional metaphysical one; it asks for classification and identification. I also ask: Do I have a mind that is anything more than the physical brain? Here the question is one of whether something exists. Let us now re-ask this all-important question in terms of Heidegger’s revolution. What kind of question could we ask? What does it mean to think? Notice what happens when we rephrase the question in this way. By asking What does it mean to think? I avoid completely the metaphysical questions of whether something exists or what kind of thing it is. Yet, at the same time, the question probes just as deeply into what I want to know.

How we are in the world depends on our affordances to be in this world. As the great Cybernetician/Enactivist Francesco Varela pointed out – Our cognition is directed toward the world in a certain way: it is directed toward the world as we experience it. For example, we perceive the world to be three/ dimensional, macroscopic, colored, etc.: we do not perceive it as composed of subatomic particles. To this, I will also add Cybernetician Bruce Clarke’s quote- We still have a hard time taking for real that all knowledge of the environment depends upon the specific realities of the systems that observe it. The systemic reality of the environment is to be both the precondition and the product of an observing system.

The next time when someone asks you to improve the system, remember to use the Being-question. I will finish with a quote from Heidegger:

In order to be who we are, we human beings remain committed to and within the being of language, and can never step out of it and look at it from somewhere else. Thus, we always see the nature of language only to the extent to which language itself has us in view, has appropriated us to itself. That we cannot know the nature of language—know it according to the traditional concept of knowledge defined in terms of cognition as representation—is not a defect, however, but rather an advantage by which we are favored with a special realm, that realm where we, who are needed and used to speak language, dwell as mortals.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Round and Round We Go:

Deconstructing Systems – There is Nothing Outside the Text:

In today’s post, I am looking at ideas of the famous Algerian-French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Derrida is often described as a post-structuralist philosopher. His most famous idea is deconstruction. Deconstruction is often associated with analyzing literary works. The basic notion of deconstruction can be loosely explained as when a text is produced, the author dies, and the reader is born. A text is presented as a coherent whole with a basic idea in the center. The language in the text is all about the idea in the center. The assumption is that the central idea has a fixed meaning. The point of deconstruction is then to disturb this coherent whole, and challenge the hierarchy of the coherent whole. The intent of deconstruction is discovery; the discovery of what is hidden behind the elaborate plot to stage the central idea. It is an attempt to subvert the dominant theme.

Deconstruction is taking the text apart to understand the structure of the text as it is written, and to determine the meaning in several different ways by challenging the hierarchy put in focus by the author. Derrida believed that in language we always prefer hierarchies. We prefer good over bad, or day over night etc. Most often this behavior of focusing on hierarchies results in believing them to be the ultimate truth. We tend to think in terms of false dichotomies. It has to be “this” or “that”. If I don’t do “this”, I am “bad”. Deconstruction always pushes us to look at it from another side or perspective. Deconstruction challenges the notion that language is a closed system – that the meaning is fixed. Derrida viewed language to be an open system, where meaning is not fixed and can depend on the context, the culture and the social realm in which it was constructed. Every perspective is an attempt to focus on certain ideas. But in the act of doing this, we are forced to ignore certain other ideas. The act of deconstruction is an attempt to look at the ideas that lay concealed in the text.

Another important idea that Derrida put forward was differance. Derrida came up with this as a play on words. Derrida is putting two different ideas together into one word. The two different ideas are that of difference (how one word get its meaning by being different to another), and deference (how the meaning of a word is provided in terms of yet more words). The idea of differance is that the complete meaning is always deferred (postponed) and is also differential. The dictionary is a great example to explain differance. The meaning of a word is given in terms of other words. The meaning of those words is given in terms of yet another set of words, and so on.

Derrida’s most famous quotation is – Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. This is often translated as “There is nothing outside the text.” This idea is misrepresented as all ideas are contained in language and that you cannot go outside the language. Derrida was not saying this. A better translation is – There is no outside-text. Here the outside-text refers to an inset in a book, something that is provided in a book as a supplement to provide clarity. We can see this as an outside authority trying to shed light on the book. Derrida is saying that there is no such thing. The meaning is not fixed, and what is presented as a closed system is actually an open system. We have to understand the historicity and context of the text to gain better understanding. Derrida is inviting us to feel the texture of text. As Alex Callinicos explained it:

Derrida wasn’t, like some ultra-idealist, reducing everything to language (in the French original he actually wrote ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ – ‘There is no outside-text’). Rather he was saying that once you see language as a constant movement of differences in which there is no stable resting point, you can no longer appeal to reality as a refuge independent of language. Everything acquires the instability and ambiguity that Derrida claimed to be inherent in language.

 Derrida says that every text deconstructs themselves. Every text has contradictions, and the author has written the text in a forceful manner to stay away from the internal contradictions. Derrida is inviting us to challenge the coherence of text by pulling on the central idea and supplementing it to distort the balance. Paul Ricoeur wonderfully explained deconstruction as an act that uncovers the question behind the answers already provided in the text. The answers are already there, and our job then is to find the questions. We cannot assume that we have understood the entire meaning of the text. We have to undo what we have learned and try to feel the texture of the relations of the words to each other in the text.

Derrida was influenced by the ideas of Ferdinand de Sassure, who was a pioneer of a movement called Structuralism. Structuralism presents language as a self-enclosed system in which the important relationships are not those between words and the real objects to which they refer, but rather those internal to language and consisting in the interrelations of signifiers. Ferdinand de Sassure stated that in language, there are only differences. Derrida went a step further this. He challenged the idea of the continuous movement of differences and postponement of meaning that came as a result of structuralism. Callinicos explained this beautifully:

There is no stable halting point in language, but only what Derrida called ‘infinite play’, the endless slippages through which meaning is sought but never found. The only way to stop this play of difference would be if there were what Derrida called a ‘transcendental signified’ – a meaning that exists outside language and that therefore isn’t liable to this constant process of subversion inherent in signification. But the transcendental signified is nothing but an illusion, sustained by the ‘metaphysics of presence’, the belief at the heart of the western philosophical tradition that we can gain direct access to the world independently of the different ways in which we talk about and act on it…

He (Derrida) believed that it was impossible to escape the metaphysics of presence. Meaning in the shape of the ‘transcendental signified’ may be an illusion, but it is a necessary illusion. Derrida summed this tension up by inventing the word ‘differance’, which combines the meanings of ‘differ’ and ‘defer’. Language is a play of differences in which meaning is endlessly deferred, but constantly posed. The idea of differance informed Derrida’s particular practice of philosophy, which he called deconstruction. The idea was to scrutinize texts – particularly philosophical classics – to expose both how they participated in the metaphysics of presence and also the flaws and tensions through which the limitations of this way of thinking were revealed. As a result, these texts would end up very different from how they had seemed when Derrida started on them: they would have been dismantled – deconstructed.

 Deconstructing Systems:

At this point, I will look at deconstructing Systems. The idea of a System is very much aligned to the ideas of Structuralism. A system is viewed as a whole with interconnected parts working together. The focus is on the benefit of the whole. The whole is the central idea of Systems Thinking. The whole is said to be more than the sum of its parts. The parts must be sub-servient to the whole.

When we approach systems with the ideas of deconstruction, we realize that every system is contingent on who is observing the system. There is no system without an observer. This makes all systems to be human systems. We have to consider the role of the observer and the impossibility of an objective world. As the famous Cybernetician, Klaus Krippendorff said – whatever is outside our nervous system is accessible only through our nervous system, and cannot be observed directly and separated from how that nervous system operates. We may refer to and talk about the same “system.” However, what constitutes the system, its complexity and what we desire its purpose to be all depend upon the observer. All systems are constructed in a social realm. After all, meaning is assigned in the social realm, where we bring forth the world together through “languaging.” What the whole is and whether a part should be subservient to the whole depends upon who constructs the system as a mental construct to make sense of the world. If you consider the healthcare system, what it means and what it should do depends on who you talk to. If you talk to the healthcare provider or the insurance company or the patient, you would get different answers as to what the healthcare system means and what it should be doing. There is no one objective healthcare system. We can all identify the parts, but what the “system” means cannot be objectively identified. We must look at this from different perspectives to challenge the metanarratives. We should welcome multiple perspectives. Every perspective reveals certain attributes that were hidden before; the process of which knowingly or unknowingly requires hiding certain other attributes. From the discussion, we might say that – The center does not hold in systems.

There are many similarities between the hard systems approach of Systems Thinking and Structuralism. We talk of systems as if they are real and that everyone can objectively view and understand it. Gavin. P. Hendricks sheds some light on this:

Structuralism argues that the structure of language itself produces ‘reality’. That homo sapiens (humans) can think only through language and, therefore, our perceptions of reality are determined by the structure of language. The source of meaning is not an individual’s experiences or being but signs and grammar that govern language. Rather than seeing the individual as the center of meaning, structuralism places the structure at the center. It is the structure that originates or produces meaning, not the individual self. Meaning does not come from individuals but from the socially constructed system that governs what any individual can do.

Derrida’s ideas obviously rejected the notions put forth by Structuralism. Derrida’s ideas support pluralism. There is no outside-text doesn’t mean that there is no text for us to process. It means that the text can be interpreted in multiple meaningful ways. And of course, this does not mean that all of them valid. This would be the idea of relativism.  As Derrida said, meaning is made possible by relations of words to other words within the network of structures that language is. The different meanings generated through deconstruction (pluralism) are meaningful to those who generated them. This idea is something that we need to bring back into “the front” of Systems Thinking. Derrida invites us to dissolve the hierarchy of the whole in the system that you have created, and look at the part that you have marginalized in your system. When we view the part from another perspective, we suddenly realize that the center of our system does not align with the center of the new different view.

I will finish with wise words from Richard Rorty:

There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves.

The corollary of course is- there is nothing out there giving us meaning or purpose, except that which we have constructed ourselves.

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

In case you missed it, my last post was When a Machine Breaks…:

Pluralism and Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of pluralism, something that is important to hold in Systems Thinking. I am relying on the ideas of the British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin is most famous for his ideas on freedom. He coined the terms negative and positive freedom. Loosely put, negative freedom is the freedom from constraints or interference from others. And positive freedom is the freedom to act upon one’s own desires and ambitions.

My favorite lesson from Berlin is pluralism – his take on anti-monism. Monism is the idea that there is only one true answer to questions. As J. Cherniss explains:

Berlin’s development and definition of pluralism both began negatively, with the identification of the opposing position, which he usually referred to as ‘monism’, and sometimes as ‘the Ionian fallacy’ or ‘the Platonic ideal’. His definition of monism may be summarized as follows:

  1. All genuine questions must have a true answer, and one only; all other responses are errors.
  2. There must be a dependable path to discovering the true answer to a question, which is in principle knowable, even if currently unknown.
  3. The true answers, when found, will be compatible with one another, forming a single whole; for one truth cannot be incompatible with another. (This, in turn, is based on the assumption that the universe is harmonious and coherent.)

Berlin’s view on pluralism is that we create multiple value systems, even if they may appear to contradict each other. These value systems are incommensurable, that is, we cannot measure one against the other on the same scale. To paraphrase Berlin’s friend and biographer, Henry Hardy:

Berlin’s essential starting point is that ultimate human values – those values we adhere to for our own sakes, not as means to an end – are plural. That is to say, there are many of them, all perfectly genuine, and their distinctness – their plurality – is irreducible: they cannot be redefined or translated in such a way that they all turn out to be different manifestations of one super-value such as happiness or utility or obedience to some alleged supernatural dispensation.

I think that the idea of pluralism is most important when it comes to systems thinking. I have written about the ideas of Alfred Korzybski before. His famous quote is that the word is not the thing. Perhaps, the greatest idea to lead from this is that language itself is a metaphor. As I have noted many times on my blog, all we have are abstractions. Our language is very limited in that it lacks the variety to encapsulate the complexity of the external world, what we call as “reality.” In a similar fashion, our language also lacks the variety to encapsulate the complexity of our internal concepts. We sometimes struggle with our inability to properly explain why something is moral or just to others. This neatly aligns with Michael Polanyi’s idea that we know more than what we can tell. Language itself is contingent as I discussed in my last post. Meaning is an emergent property from the various language games we play.

The greatest struggle when it comes to human systems is that we are forced to view humans as parts while at the same time recognizing that they are autonomous and purposeful. We sometimes fail to recognize that we construct systems to make sense of a phenomenon, and we assign or stipulate purposes to the parts in order to neatly draw out a system as a jigsaw puzzle. By doing this, we may not remember that the parts themselves are constructing systems as we are with their own purposes in mind. A healthcare system can mean many things and can have many functions or purposes depending on who you talk to. Reality becomes multidimensional when we consider our coparticipants of the social realm. A really good way to understand this is to consider the idea of pluralism. Our perspectives are always going to be imperfect given that our language and self are both contingent. This was very well described by J. Cherniss – The idea of a perfect whole or ultimate solution is not only unattainable in practice, but also conceptually incoherent. We believe that we reached our belief system through a rational process. Others have done the same and have reached varying and sometimes opposing belief systems. We don’t have access to the single truth. This would be the idea of monism. A false dichotomy presents itself when we fall into the traps of monism – we might say things like “you are either with us or against us.”

Berlin adds:

The enemy of pluralism is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism — to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.

Pluralism offers a view that our belief systems are contingent, and thus incomplete. In a Cybernetic Explanatory way, we are trying to be less wrong; not more right. The main criticism that one might face as a pluralist is the wrong label of relativist. Loosely put, a relativist tends to agree that everything is relative, and thus everything is true in a relative manner. Any cruel and unjust act might be explained away with this approach. Pluralism is not relativism. Pluralism does not agree that all belief systems are equally valid. In a cybernetic explanatory manner, a pluralist believes that what is more important is to be less wrong. At the same time, the pluralist is open to seeking understanding other people’s belief systems. This does not cause an issue since he or she is not a monist. If one is a monist, they believe that they have access to the only true reality, and thus there is no need to seek understanding.

Berlin responds strongly against the criticism of relativism:

I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference it makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding… If pluralism is a valid view, and respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow, as they do not either from monism (only one set of values is true, all the others are false) or from relativism (my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right).

In his work, Four Essays of Liberty, Berlin quoted Joseph Schumpeter, – ”To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” To this Berlin added – To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

I will finish first with a quote from Berlin and then a quote from Bruce Lee:

“Someone once remarked that in the old days men and women were brought as sacrifices to a variety of gods; for these, the modern age has substituted the new idols: isms. To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit but for an ism — socialism, nationalism, fascism, communism, fanatically held religious belief, or progress, or the fulfillment of the laws of history — then they are in order. Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain an omelette. Eggs are certainly broken — never more violently than in our times — but the omelette is far to seek, it recedes into an infinite distance. That is one of the corollaries of unbridled monism, as I call it — some call it fanaticism, but monism is at the root of every extremism.”

“Many people are still bound by tradition; when the elder generation says ‘no’ to something, then these other people will strongly disapprove of it as well. If the elders say that something is wrong, then they will believe that it is wrong. They seldom use their mind to find out the truth and seldom express sincerely their real feeling. The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism and traditions, which are nothing more than a ‘formula’ laid down by these elder people’s experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula.”

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The Contingency and Irony of Systems and Cybernetics Thinking:

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:

Complexity – Only When You Realize You Are Blind, Can You See:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of complexity from a second order Cybernetics standpoint. The phrase “only when you realize you are blind, can you see”, is a paraphrase of a statement from the great Heinz von Foerster. I have talked about von Foerster in many of my posts, and he is one of my heroes in Cybernetics. There is no one universally accepted definition for complexity. Haridimos Tsoukas and Mary Jo Hatch wrote a very insightful paper called “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice”. In the paper, they try to address how to explain complexity. They refer to the works of John Casti and C. H. Waddington to further their ideas:

Waddington notes that complexity has something to do with the number of components of a system as well as with the number of ways in which they can be related… Casti defines complexity as being ‘directly proportional to the length of the shortest possible description of [a system]’.

Casti’s views on complexity are particularly interesting because complexity is not viewed as being intrinsic to the phenomenon. This is a common idea in Cybernetics, mainly second order cybernetics. There are two ‘classifications’ of cybernetics – first order and second order cybernetics. As von Foerster explained it, first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, where the basic assumption is that the system is objectively knowable. The second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems, where the basic assumption is that the observer is included in the act of observing, and thus the observer is part of the observed system. This leads to second order thinking such as understanding understanding or observing observing. It is interesting because, as I am typing, Microsoft Word is telling me that “understanding understanding” is syntactically incorrect. This obviously would be a first order viewpoint. The second order cybernetics is a meta discipline and one that generates wisdom.

When we take the observer into consideration, we realize that complexity is in the eyes of the beholder. Complexity is observer-dependent; that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. If the observer is able to make more varying distinctions in their description, we can say that the phenomenon or the system is being interpreted as complex. In their paper, Tsoukas and Jo Hatch brings up the ideas of language in describing and thus interpreting complexity. They note that:

Chaos and complexity are metaphors that posit new connections, draw our attention to new phenomena, and help us see what we could not see before (Rorty).

This is quite interesting. When we learn the language of complexity, we are able to understand complexity better, and we become better at describing it, in a reflexive manner.

What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as non-linearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence (etc.)

From this standpoint, we can say that complexity lies in the interactions we have with the system, and depending on our perspectives (vantage point) and the interaction we can come away with a different interpretation for complexity.

Heinz von Foerster remarked that complexity is not in the world but rather in the language we use to describe the world. Paraphrasing von Foerster, cognition is computation of descriptions of reality. Managing complexity then becomes a cognitive task. How well you can interact or manage interactions depends on how effective your description is and how well it aligns with others’ descriptions. The complexity of a system lies in the description of that system, which entirely rests on the observer/sensemaker. The idea that complexity is in the eyes of beholder is to point out the importance of second order cybernetics/thinking. The world is as it is, it gets meaning only when we assign meaning to it through how we describe/interpret it. To put differently, “the logic of the world is the logic of the descriptions of the world” (Heinz von Foerster)

The idea of complexity not being intrinsic to a system is also echoed by one of the pioneers of cybernetics, Ross Ashby. He noted – “a system’s complexity is purely relative to a given observer; I reject the attempt to measure an absolute, or intrinsic, complexity; but this acceptance of complexity as something in the eye of the beholder is, in my opinion, the only workable way of measuring complexity”.

The ideas of second order cybernetics emphasize the importance of observers. The “system” is a mental construct by an observer to make sense of a phenomenon. The observer based on their needs draw boundaries to separate a “system” from its environment. This allows the observer to understand the system in the context of its environment. At the same time, the observer has to understand that there are other observers in the same social realm who may draw different boundaries and come out with different understandings based on their own needs, biases, perspectives etc.

A phenomenon can have multiple identities or meanings depending on who is describing the desired phenomenon. Let’s use the Covid 19 pandemic as an example. For some people, this has become a problem of economics rather than a healthcare problem, while for some others it has become a problem of freedom or ethics. If we are to attempt tackling the complexity of such an issue, the worst thing we can do is to attempt first order thinking- the idea that the phenomenon can be observed objectively. Issues requiring second order approach get worse by the application of first order methodologies. The danger in this is that we can fall prey to our own narrative being the whole Truth.

As the pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty points out:

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that.

If we are to understand complexity of a phenomenon, we need to start with realizing that our version of complexity is only one of the many.  Our ability to understand complexity depends on our ability to describe it. We lack the ability to completely describe a phenomenon. The different descriptions that come about from the different participants may be contradictory and can point out apparent paradoxes in our social realm.

In complexity, if we are to tackle it, we need to have coherence of multiple interpretations. As Karl Weick points out, we need to complicate ourselves. By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage. In complexity, coherence – the idea of connecting ideas together, is important since it helps to create a clearer picture and affords avoiding blind spots. This co-construted description itself is an emergent phenomenon.

In second order Cybernetics, there are two statements that might shed more light on everything we have discussed so far:

Anything said is said BY an observer. (Maturana)

Anything said is said TO an observer. (von Foerster)

A lot can be said between these two statements. The first points out that the importance of the observer, and the second points out that there are other observers, and we coconstruct our social reality.

Our descriptions are abstractions since we are limited by our languages. All our biases, fears, misunderstandings, ignorance etc. lie hidden in the “systems” we construct. We get into trouble when we assume that these abstractions are real things. This is the first order approach, where we are not aware that we do not see due to our cognitive blind spots. When we realize that all we have are abstractions, we get to the second order approach. We include ourselves in our observation and we start looking at how we make these abstractions. We also become aware of other autonomous participants of our social reality engaging in similar constructions of narratives. As we seek their understanding, we become aware of our cognitive blind spots. We realize that everything is on a spectrum, and our thinking of “either/or” is actually a false dichotomy.

At this point, Heinz von Foerster would say that we start to see when we realize that we are blind.

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

In case you missed it, my last post was Causality and Purpose in Systems:

Causality and Purpose in Systems:

In today’s post, I am pursuing the ideas from my last two posts. I am going to look at purposiveness and purposefulness in systems, and I am going to discuss ideas inspired by Aristotle and Werner Ulrich. Aristotle was Plato’s student, and a polymath. He was the first Western philosopher to provide a framework for causality. Aristotle noted that things are always changing or are in motion. He proposed that matter (things) exists as forms. Matter moves through forms, from simple to complex, similar to an evolutionary process, until it meets its final form. Thus, for Aristotle change is not meaningless. This is the teleological view where every thing is moving towards its higher purpose. He explained this in terms of potentiality and actuality. The current state of the matter represents the potentiality. Once the current state is transformed so that it is in a new form and the desired purpose is achieved, the matter has achieved actuality.

A simple example is that of a stone. The stone has potentiality, and once it becomes a statue, as the artist intended, it meets its actuality. We can imagine matter going through a series of forms. Matter represents possibility (potentiality) and form represents reality (actuality). The change continues until change itself is unnecessary. This also sheds light on purpose. The purpose of a thing is to fulfill its potential. The potentiality represents its purpose. For an organism, the purpose is the realization of its form. For example, the purpose for a seed is to grow into a tree. This also can be viewed as a constraint in the sense that the seed has no other choice but to become a tree. Here the causality is to unfold what is already enfolded.

We may take these ideas for granted, but these were the groundbreaking ideas on which we built the foundations of science on. When we look at the ideas of Aristotle, we see that he didn’t include an observer in the mix. His view is that of an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge is possible from experiencing the real world. For him, knowledge is derived from an objective reality. Let’s take the example of a stone and a sculptor. The purpose of the stone was provided by the sculptor, since it was him who provided “information” to form the statue. The change happened because of the sculptor. We can state that the change was the actualization of potential through the information provided by the sculptor. This is an important example to bear in mind as we proceed further into this post.

We cannot help but draw similarities between the sculptor and a designer of a human system such as an organization. The sculptor provided the information for the stone to change into a beautiful statue. The designer can be viewed as providing a blue print for the organization to form into an adaptive and agile organization. This viewpoint would be true if we were talking about purposive systems. Purposiveness, as explained by Ulrich, refers to the effectiveness and efficiency of means or tools: in other words, cogs in the machines. This is the mechanistic framework, where the designer is the expert who assigns purposes for each part of the system. However, when we look at social systems or human systems, we need to consider purposefulness. Ulrich viewed purposefulness as the critical awareness of self-reflective humans with regard to ends or purposes and their normative implications for all of those who might be affected by their consequences. Ulrich succinctly summarized the idea of purposive human systems in the statement – all design of tools represents somebody’s solution to somebody’s problems. Purposefulness aligns with intrinsic motivation compared to an extrinsic motivation provided by the designer. Humans are purposeful, and although we are able to follow orders, we will not be able to actualize our self-potential. At some point, we may decide to not follow orders anymore. We should be able to provide purpose for ourselves and actualize the potential the way we deem fit. When we consider using a mechanistic framework on human systems, it is good to remind ourselves of Geert Hofstede’s quote: “as soon as people are part of the process, the effects of interventions are not known.”

Another point to consider with treating organizations as purposive systems is that the designer lacks the variety to deal with all of the variety the environment might impose on the organization. Thus, if the designer had a form in mind to tackle a particular need to be met, the structure has to follow the form that it is constrained to. For example, if the designer planned for the organization to produce only black cars, and suddenly there is a need for ventilators, theoretically the purposive system will not be able to meet that need. The structure of the organization is constrained to produce only black cars. The designer has to then intervene to change the form again, to use Aristotle’s idea, so that the organization can now produce ventilators. This approach gets messy and murky fast when the number of demands increase and the designer is not able to match the variety needed. Ideally, the recursions should have enough autonomy at their levels to meet the requisite variety needed.

We cannot help but fall into the trap of anthropomorphism when it comes to talking about organizations. We may talk about the organizations having goals or that organization can self-organize or be agile. We are forgetting that organizations do not have goals; some people in the organizations do. There is no one mind or self-conscious entity having a purpose of its own or moving towards the goal of self-actualization. It is actually a fairly delicate balance. The idea of causality does not apply to human systems. We should stop thinking in terms of causality, rules etc., and instead think in terms of constraints, dispositions etc.

Geoffrey Vickers, an eminent British Systems Thinker, talks about resisting our urge to view organizations/social systems in terms of “systems”. One underlying theme in Systems Thinking is that the whole is more important than the parts. This brings into question – who is defining the whole? Systems are theoretical constructs rather than real entities in the world. This is the idea that the systematicity is not in the real world, but in how we view the world. Vickers realized that the very word “systems” had become dehumanized. As Peter Checkland notes (with some paraphrasing):

He (Vickers) rejected the goal-seeking model of human life (the core of management science) and then the cybernetic model because in it, the course to which the steersman steers is a given from the outside the system; whereas in human affairs the course being followed is continuously generated and regenerated from inside the system. This led him to his notion of appreciation in which, both individually and in groups, we all do the following: selectively perceive our world; make judgements about it, judgments of both fact (what is the case?) and value (is this good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable?); envisage acceptable forms of the many relationships we have to maintain over time; and to act to balance those relationships in line with our judgments.

Another good quote to further this idea comes from Espejo and Harnden:

A model is a convention – a way of talking about something in a manner that is understandable and useful in a community of observers. It is not a description of reality, but a tool in terms of which a group of observers in a society handle the reality they find themselves interacting with.

The idea that humans are purposeful and yet they belong to a purposeful system posits the importance of continuous self-reflection and self-correction from the part of a manager. This also needs a second-order approach to improve our understanding. We have to evaluate how we are part of the system we observe. In the wise words of Heinz von Foerster, we have to decide if we are apart from the system we are looking at or if we are a part of the system we are looking at. We must be aware of the blind spots we have, or as Ulrich refers to them – all conceivable sources of possible deception.

Another important point to keep in mind with social systems is the interconnectedness (which also points toward the complexity of social systems). As West Churchman, Ulrich’s mentor and teacher, points out – “in any specific problem one finds the connectedness to all the other problems”. Ulrich points out that the overwhelming connectedness of problems forces systems designers, no less than any other planners, to content themselves with partial solutions that consider only a limited number of whole systems implications – usually those of interest to the involved decision-makers. That’s always the rub. Everything is connected with everything else and yet we try to make sense by cutting off the majority of the connections and we don’t see ourselves being a part of the phenomenon we are looking at. This is also why objective reality is not a good viewpoint to hold. It forces mechanistic frameworks and reductionist ideas that are not suitable for social systems. The crucial issue, then, is no longer “What do we know?” but rather “How do we deal with the fact that we don’t know enough?” In particular, uncertainty about the whole systems implications of our actions does not dispense us from moral responsibility; hence, “the problem of systems improvement is the problem of the ‘ethics of the whole system’.”

When we are talking about social systems, we need to realize that we cannot simply view the humans as “parts”. This forces us to immediately consider the ethical viewpoints. As Ulrich points out, any systems concept that does not include the intrinsic purposefulness ultimately falls back upon a machine model of social systems. Tools have purposes and are purposive. People are not tools, and nor are they purposive. The purposiveness of tools depends on the purposefulness of people using the tools. Purpose only makes sense when you talk about yourself.

I will finish with Ralph Stacey’s wise words:

When one moves away from thinking that one has to manage the whole system, one pays attention to one’s own participation in one’s own local situation in the living present. Perhaps this humbler kind of “management” is what the “knowledge society” requires.

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

In case you missed it, my last post was The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems:

The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems:

In my previous post, I talked about the idea of the Copernican revolution in philosophy by Immanuel Kant. In today’s post, I am expanding upon the ideas originated by Kant, especially autonomy and how it poses challenges in how we view human systems. I am also heavily relying on the ideas of Ralph Stacey. Kant had a lot to say about human autonomy. Autonomy stands for the ability to set laws for oneself or the ability to perform actions that are not directed by someone else. Kant viewed humanity as an end in itself and not a means to an end. Humans should not be used simply as a means to get something done. Humans, Kant noted, have the power to act according to their own conception of laws.

Kant was one of the pioneers of systems thinking. He understood the idea of circular causality and self-organization. Kant proposed that all living beings can be viewed as self-organizing systems rather than mechanisms such as a clock. The idea of a self-organizing system meant that the idea of feedback is important. However, Kant made an important distinction when it came to human beings. He proposed that humans cannot be understood as merely being a part of the “system” of nature. For this he used some ideas from Aristotle. Kant noted that all other living beings follow a formative causality, where the structure determines the unfolding of the living being itself. For example, a tree follows the unfolding of their lifecycle from a seed. The same formative causality is applicable to the human body; however, this is not applicable to the human being as a whole who has autonomy. This is beautifully explained by Ralph Stacey:

Humans are part of nature but if nature is governed by fixed mechanistic and systemic laws, then they cannot have any freedom to make their own choices… the body is subject to the fixed laws of nature but the mind is governed by the laws of reason, rationalist causality, and it is reason that makes us free. Kant was here formulating the theory of autonomous, rational individual who chooses goals and actions required to achieve them on the basis of reason. Kant then stressed that autonomous individuals could not be understood as parts of a whole because then they would be subject to the whole and so lose their autonomy. The notion of a system could, therefore, not be applied to reasoning individuals and it would not be valid to regard society as a system whose parts were individuals.

The idea of structure determining the outcome is a prevalent theme in many schools of Organizational Management. However, the idea of humans as being rule-following parts of the “system” should be challenged. In the light of the understanding that we are autonomous individuals with many self-imposed purposes and needs, the mechanistic view of an organization system based on structure falls apart. The “human body” may be viewed as a system, however a human being cannot be viewed as a system or being a part of a system.

The notion of Systems Thinking as being a study of real systems that can be observed objectively is still prevalent. This view suggests ideas such as learning organization or complex adaptive systems. Stacey again provides wisdom in this aspect:

For me, the claim that organizations learn amounts to both reification and anthropomorphism. I argue that organizations are not things because no one can point to where an organization is –all one can point to is the artefacts used by members of organizations in their work together. In our experience, the organization qua organization arises as the patterning of our interactions with each other… Since an organization is neither inanimate thing nor living body, in anything other than rather fanciful metaphorical terms, it follows that an organization can neither think nor learn.

The conundrum of autonomy also brings the important point that objective reality is not possible. The idea that a manager can objectively view the organization by being outside the organization must be reevaluated. This notion implies that the manager can use scientific thinking and identify rules to implement to optimize the organization. But this again utilize the idea that humans can be viewed as mere parts of a system. Stacey cautions us against this:

Management science equates the manager with the scientist and the organization with the mechanistic phenomenon that the scientist is concerned with. The manager’s main concern is with getting the right “if-then” causal rules. There is a quite explicit assumption that there is some set of rules that are optimal, that is, that produce the most efficient global outcome of the actions of the parts, or members, of the organization. There is an important difference between the scientist concerned with nature and the analogous manager concerned with an organization. The scientist discovers the laws of nature while the manager, in the theory of management science, chooses rules driving the behavior of organization’s members. In this way, there is rationalist causality, but it applies only to the manager who exercises the freedom of autonomous choice in the act of choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow in order to achieve the goals. Those members are assumed to be rule-following entities. The organizational reality, of course, is that members of an organization are not rule-following entities and they all do choose their own goals and actions to some extent.

Final Words:

Edgar Morin wonderfully noted that the autonomy of a system is less than the sum of autonomies of all the individual parts of a system. The idea that humans should not be viewed as being parts of a system should challenge your current view points on systems thinking. Kant proposed that we are using an as-if metaphor to construct reality since we do not have access to the external reality. From this standpoint, we can notate that systems are not real entities in the real world. Humans are autonomous and this means that we cannot stipulate purposes for other people. The freedom of the employee puts a constraint on the organization, and the freedom of the organization puts a constraint on the employee. This requires an ongoing reinterpretation and adjustment of intentions and values at all levels of recursions in an organization. This is not a conundrum to be solved. It is a creative tension that should be reinterpreted as often as possible.

I will finish with a Zen story:

A man is riding on top of a horse that is galloping by frantically, as if he has to be somewhere important, as soon as possible. A bystander sees this and asks the man, “Where are you going?

“I don’t know,” the rider replies, “ask the horse!

Wear a mask, stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking: