The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “purposeful” versus “purposive” in Systems Thinking. The two words are based on “purpose”. “Purposeful” means that the entity is autonomous and has freedom of choice. The entity is free to make their own rules, as the term “auto-nomous” means. “Purposive” on the other hand implies that the entity’s purpose is chosen by somebody else, and they do not have the freedom to make choices. I am very interested in the differences between purposeful and purposive, and very fascinated by the implication of purposeful entities in a “system”. If the purposeful entities are able to be autonomous, then the traditional viewpoints of systems thinking must be reevaluated. By “traditional systems thinking”, I am referring to the hard systems approach. This is the notion that there are real systems out there in the world that can be objectively modeled or designed where a specific purpose for the system can be achieved. Moreover, if the system is not functioning as expected, it can easily be changed or fixed. This would be the notion that the entities in the “system” are purposive, where they all work together for a common purpose, one that is prescribed by the designer or the leader of the “system”. A typical example is an organization where the leader has prescribed what everybody shall be doing. In this case, purposive entities are viewed as merely tools or a means to an end or cogs in the machine.

My take on purposefulness is based on the ideas of the great Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we are rational beings, and we should treat each other with respect. He stated this as a categorical imperative and had different versions of the categorical imperative, of which I am looking at the second one:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

He called this a categorical imperative because this imperative was applicable in all circumstances. Kant is not saying that we should not use others as a means. For example, if I am going to the store, I am using the storekeeper as a means (to get the things I want). Kant is okay with this. His point is that I should not treat the storekeeper simply as a means. This would be the case, if I go into the store, and take whatever I want and then leave without paying or trick the storekeeper to give me whatever I want for free. Kant emphasized that each one of us are autonomous beings. The storekeeper and I can choose to do certain things, and come into an agreement (as a social contract) on how we will treat each other as means. I will get the things I want, in return for money that I will give to the storekeeper. We have both entered into this voluntarily, and we both still have the freedom to make choices. I can leave the store without buying anything, and the storekeeper can choose to stop being a storekeeper.

From the Kantian viewpoint, treating others as “purposive” is immoral. Kant goes one step further and says that we are duty-bound to not treat others simply as a means. For example, if I have the intent to trick the storekeeper, but I am not doing it because I am afraid that I would get caught, Kant would say that I am being immoral even if I abide by the social contracts. For Kant, it is the intent of my behavior that matters the most. Kant believed that the reason to do good is for the sake of the goodwill. He believed this to be an objective truth. He viewed goodwill as that which will shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself. As a constructivist, I differ from Kant at this point. I do not assume that there is an objective truth outside of us. I will discuss this further later on.

Kant viewed freedom to choose as the opposite of necessity. If I drop an apple, it has to fall to the ground. The apple has no choice but to do that. This is a necessity. On other hand, if I drop a bird, it may or may not fall to the ground. It is able to make choices. There is no necessity here. Similarly, in organizations, people are purposeful rather than purposive. Even though, people may come and work at an organization, it does not mean that they are cogs in the machine, where they will do exactly as told. Trying to coerce them or force them is immoral. There is a tendency for a leader to expect the employees to behave exactly as told. This will be viewing them as mere robots, used only for their hands. This is a hard systems approach. From the soft systems approach, the employees are seen as purposeful, where they are autonomous and have the freedom to choose. They are not seen merely as a means to an end. This goes both ways – it would be immoral for the employee to come to work just for a paycheck. Unfortunately, sometimes when the leader treats the employees as a means to an end, the employees in return will treat the employer as a means to an end too.

From the soft systems standpoint, we should try to view the “system” through the others’ eyes. This would mean that we will try to understand what all purposes are being prescribed to the “system”. In addition, we should also look at ways to expand the capabilities of people to make choices for themselves. From this standpoint, we will not be able to value the whole as being more important than the part. The reason is because the “system” is a construction of an observer. Therefore, the prescribed whole is also a construction of the observer. Moreover, assuming what is the whole, what is the purpose, and what is “good” for the whole are also dependent on the observer. It would be immoral to view that the whole is indeed greater than the parts. The value of the part is as important as the value of the whole. This view goes against the hard systems thinking. We need to start looking at “systems” differently. All “systems” are human “systems” because they are constructed by us humans, as an as-if representation of reality. This is to make sense of what is going on around us. This systems thinking is observer based and ethics based.

From a constructivist viewpoint, I do not believe that objective truths are valid. Instead, as entities in a social realm, we come to certain stable states where some viewpoints are assigned a value in the social realm. This is ongoing and requires interactions in the social realm. There is a reflexive nature to this. If we look at all cultures, we would see similarities in how they were structured, and what value systems were common to all. These are the stable states that result from ongoing interactions. If we say that the value of an individual is as important as the value of the entire community they are a part of, then this introduces reflexivity in the equation. The individual is part of the community, and the value of the community is being viewed as the same as the individual who is also part of the community. This is a second order approach. I have written about this a lot. A seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals.

From this viewpoint, we should realize that there are no objective “systems” out there waiting to be fixed or changed or manipulated. As Kant would say, we should do the right things for the right reasons. And in this case, it would be to try to first understand one another, and to respect the humanity in us. We should try to increase the capacity for others to act autonomously and increase their freedom to make choices. The stability of value systems should not come from high above, but from the ongoing interactions with each other. In other words, the purposes of purposeful entities should not be given via commandments, but viewed as being emergent from the ongoing interactions with each other in the social realm, and this also requires continuous self-reflection and openness for error-correction.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was HvF’s Ethical Imperative:

A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID:

POSIWID or “Purpose Of a System Is What It Does” is a famous dictum in Cybernetics. This is attributed to the Management Cybernetician Stafford Beer. Beer noted:

A good observer will impute the purpose of the system from its actions and thus from the resultant state.

Hence the key aphorism:

The purpose of a system is what it does.

There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do.

I have written about this before here – https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/purpose-of-a-system-in-light-of-vsm/ and here – https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2020/06/14/hegel-dialectics-and-posiwid/

In cybernetics, the emphasis is on what a “system” does, and not especially what a “system” is, or what the designer or management of the “system” claims what the “system” is doing. Thus, we can see that POSIWID has a special place in every cybernetician’s mind. A “system” is a collection of variables that an observer purposefully selects to make sense of the world around them. The boundaries, parts etc. of the “system” vary according to who is doing the observing, and the purpose also is assigned by the observer. Beer explains this clearly:

The point that I find that I am most anxious to add is that this System has a PURPOSE. The trouble is: WHO SAYS SO?

So where does the idea that Systems in general have a purpose come from? IT COMES FROM YOU!

 It is you the observer of the System who recognizes its purpose. Come to think of it, then, is it not just YOU — the observer — who recognizes that there is a System in the first place?

Another key point to mention is that an observer may impute several purposes for the “system”. Beer continues:

Consider the System called a tiger…

The purpose of a tiger is:

  • to be itself
  • to be its own part of the Jungle System
  • to be a link in animal evolution
  • to eat whatever it eats, for Ecology’s sake
  • to provide tiger-skins
  • to perpetuate the genes of which it is the host

For the moment, I am prepared to say that the purpose of a tiger is to demonstrate that the recognition of a System and of its purpose is a highly subjective affair.

Understanding the purpose of a “system” helps us in understanding how we construct the “systems” themselves:

All of this turns out to mean that we simply cannot attribute purposes, or even boundaries, to systems as if these were objective facts of nature. The facts about the system are in the eye of the beholder. This sounds like an unproductive conclusion, but we can make something of it. It means that both the nature and the purpose of a System are recognized by an observer within his perception of WHAT THE SYSTEM DOES.

From Beer’s writing, it is clear that the POSIWID is dependent upon the observer. This is also the basis of constructivism. In constructivism, the observer is the king or queen. The “system” is a selection of variables chosen by the observer to improve their understanding of a phenomenon. The boundaries drawn by the observer are entirely arbitrary and contingent on the mood of the observer. A “system” is thus a mental construct of the observer. For example, an educational “system” may have physical artifacts in the world such as buildings, books, chalk boards etc. However, depending upon the observer, what the “system” entails will change. For a student, it is “system” for education, or it is a “system” to get away from their hometown. For a teacher, it is a “system” to provide meaning to their lives or it is a “system” to spend time while doing another job on the side. There can be as many “systems” involving the same collection of parts as the number of the observers. Beer continues:

The definition of the purpose of a System as being what it does lays the onus not on ‘nature’ but on the particular observer concerned. It immediately accounts for UNRESOLVABLE disagreements about systems too. For two people may well disagree about anything at all, and never become reconciled. They say that they will be convinced, and give way, if the FACTS show that they were mistaken. But the facts about the nature and purpose of a System are not objective realities. Once you have declared, as an observer, what the facts are, the nature and purpose of the System observed are ENTAILED.

As a constructivist, this is an important concept to grasp. If there are two observers and each is constructing the “system”, they each will come up with their own “systems” and varying POSIWIDs. Our first step in Systems Thinking then is to understand how the other participants view the “system” as, their assigned purposes, and how they see the POSIWIDs as. Even if they assign a purpose for the “system”, the outcome that they perceive may not match what they expect. I have come to take away some important points from our discussion so far:

  1. There are always multiple participants in the social realm. It is very important to understand what the “system” means for each stakeholder. This includes the parts, the whole, the assigned purposes and the POSIWIDs. There is no POSIWID(s) without an observer.
  2. It is important to understand that there is always a gap between what we believe the purpose(s) of a “system” should be, and what it actually is doing. It is tempting to assign an objective reality to the “IT” here. We should resist this temptation and understand that the “IT” or the “system” is an “as-if” model or abstraction that we employ to make sense.
  3. To carry on from the previous point, in order to understand the gap, we need good comparators in place to allow us to measure what the gap between the expected and actual is. POSIWIDs are entirely dependent upon the variety of the observer to distinguish what is happening. A good example to point this out further will be to take the cliché fictional example of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade. Holmes, the master observer, is able to distinguish much more attributes than Inspector Lestrade, which would correlate to more POSIWIDs.
  4. On a similar note, what we perceive as the “system” is doing could be faulty. This means that we need an ongoing error correction step to improve our ability to manage the “system”. We need to interact with the “system” as much as possible, and also welcome input from other participants and their perspectives. We cannot manage a “system” unless we are a part of the “system”. We should embrace and own our epistemic humility.
  5. The POSIWID(s) should be reinterpreted as often as possible, with input from others. They help us understand the dynamics of the various parts and how they interact with each other.
  6. We should focus on only a few POSIWIDs at a time. Since we lack the variety to manage all the external variety thrown at us, we should attenuate and filter out the unwanted POSIWIDs.
  7. We cannot predict what the POSIWID(s) will be beforehand. Due to complexity of connections between the parts, and the nonlinear relations between them, POSIWIDs are more likely to be unpredictable. This is another reason we should resist the temptation to treat “systems” as objective realities in the world.

One of the main struggles I had when I started my journey into constructivism is how we can manage a “system” if it is entirely “subjective”? I have put the term subjective in quotes because there is no subject/object distinction in constructivism. I will write more on this later. For the moment, I will carry on with the use of the term “subjective”. Beer explained this well:

‘How is it that systems are subjective, while some of them can be singled out and declared to be viable?’

‘Once you have defined them, you can tell whether they are viable or not.’

‘And those criteria are suddenly supposed to be objective?’

‘Well, it’s all about necessity and sufficiency within a stated frame of reference.’

if systems are subjective phenomena, then we are going to have trouble in determining a measure. The whole idea of measures is to be objective… Yet the problem we face is not unique. In fact, the measures that we are accustomed to call objective work only because we accept a set of conventions about how they are to be employed. For example, if we quote the height of Mount Everest, we do not mean that this is the distance you would travel from the base camp to climb it; nor do we mean that if we look at Mount Everest while holding a ruler at arm’s length, we can read off its height. We might have agreed on either of these conventions: they would both work, given certain other stateable conditions. It seems that objective measures, like objective systems, exist only as conventional crystallizations of one out of a virtually infinite number of subjective possibilities.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

Source: The Heart of Enterprise (Stafford Beer, 1979)

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:

The Open Concept of Systems:

In today’s post, I am looking at the famous American philosopher Morris Weitz’s Closed and Open Concepts. Weitz studied aesthetics, the branch of philosophy interested in beauty and taste. He looked at the simple or not so simple question of “how do you define art?” This might seem to be a simple question at first. As we try to answer this, we will soon find that this is not so easy to answer. This might remind you of Socrates and the Socratic method of asking questions. Socrates would ask questions such as what is virtue? For any answer he got, he would find a contradiction that would push the other person further and further into a corner. Weitz came out against this approach and said that the question “what is art?” is itself the wrong question. Instead, he said that you should ask “what sort of concept is art?” The general tendency amongst theorists is to use strict definitions about the essence of something. Weitz called this approach a “closed concept”. Weitz said:

If necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a concept can be stated, the concept is a closed one. But this can happen only in logic or mathematics where concepts are constructed and completely defined. It cannot occur with empirically-descriptive and normative concepts unless we arbitrarily close them by stipulating the ranges of their uses.

In this fashion, Weitz noted that – Art, as the logic of the concept shows, has no set of necessary and sufficient properties, hence a theory of it is logically impossible and not merely factually difficult.

To contrast the closed concept with the open concept, Weitz stated:

A concept is open if its conditions of application are emendable and corrigible; i.e., if a situation or case can be imagined or secured which would call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover this, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case and its new property.

Weitz had strong words against the theorists of Aesthetics wanting to confine the subject into a box:

 Aesthetic theory is a logically vain attempt to define what cannot be defined, to state the necessary and sufficient properties of that which has no necessary and sufficient properties, to conceive the concept of art as closed when it’s very use reveals and demands its openness.

Weitz was a fan of Wittgenstein and seems to have been influenced by his idea of “what a game is?” In his posthumous book, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein talked about how a concept such as a game can be defined. There are so many different games that you would be able to identify a game when you engage in it. They all have similarities but it is very hard to properly define a game in a closed concept sense. You know that Chess and Soccer (Football) are games, but also very different. Similarly, skating and polo are games, again of very different nature. They have family resemblances! Wittgenstein’s main point is that the meaning of a word is in its use. Weitz noted:

In his new work, Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein raises as an illustrative question, What is a game? The traditional philosophical, theoretical answer would be in terms of some exhaustive set of properties common to an games. To this Wittgenstein says, let us consider what we call “games”: “I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: ‘there must be something common, or they would not be called “games'” but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. … ” Card games are like board games in some respects but not in others. Not all games are amusing, nor is there always winning or losing or competition. Some games resemble others in some respects—that is all. What we find are no necessary and sufficient properties, only “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing,” such that we can say of games that they form a family with family resemblances and no common trait. If one asks what a game is, we pick out sample games, describe these, and add, “This and similar things are called ‘games.’ ” This is all we need to say and indeed all any of us knows about games. Knowing what a game is, is not knowing some real definition or theory but being able to recognize and explain games and to decide which among imaginary and new examples would or would not be called “games.”

In other words, a “game” is an open concept. How you define a game is specifically up to how you, as the observer, view the actual functioning of the concept. Weitz does note that it is possible to “close” an “open” concept in certain cases. The example he gives is that of “tragedy” and “Greek tragedy”. Tragedy is an open concept, whereas Greek tragedy is a closed concept. He notes:

Of course, there are legitimate and serviceable closed concepts in art. But these are always those whose boundaries of conditions have been drawn for a special purpose. Consider the difference, for example, between “tragedy” and “Greek tragedy. ” The first is open and must remain so to allow for the possibility of new conditions, e.g., a play in which the hero is not noble or fallen or in which there is no hero but other elements that are like those of plays we already call “tragedy.” The second is closed. The plays it can be applied to, the conditions under which it can be correctly used are all in, once the boundary, “Greek,” is drawn. Here the critic can work out a theory or real definition in which he lists the common properties at least of the extant Greek tragedies.

Systems:

I was fascinated with the idea of open and closed concepts. I think this has use in Systems Thinking. Often, systems are depicted as real entities in the world that one can change or fix. This is to me, the use of a closed concept in systems thinking. Systems, similar to art, should be viewed as an open concept. A system is entirely dependent upon who does the observation. If we have three observers, then there are at least three systems of the same phenomenon. To paraphrase Dominik Jarczewski, the question whether something is a system is not a factual problem. It is a decision problem. How you define your system is entirely contingent upon your worldview, your biases and your experiential realities. The knowledge of what is a system is not theoretical but practical. You can replace the word “art” in the previous section with “system”, and there will be no meaning lost.

Peter Checkland, the eminent Systems Thinker provides more light on this. He noted that there will be an observer who gives an account of the world, or part of it, in systems terms; the principle which makes them coherent entities; the means and mechanism by which they tend to maintain their integrity; their boundaries, inputs, outputs, and components; their structure. Finally their behavior may be described in terms of inputs and outputs via state descriptions.

If you are trying to understand a system, you must not view it as a closed concept. You must view it as an open concept, and this means that you have to try to understand where the other person is coming from, and how it is constructed by that person. In other words, how does the functioning of the coherent whole affect that person. It is easy to fall into the mindset that systems can be viewed as closed concepts, where the purpose, the whole, etc. are definable and understandable by everybody. You might be tempted to say that the whole is more important than the parts, as if your whole is accepted by everybody. You might think that holism is the way to do systems thinking, and that reductionism is a terrible idea. When you embrace systems as an open concept, you realize that holism can be as bad as reductionism and reductionism can be as good as holism. All you have are abstractions. Even the holism you look at, is a form of reductionism.

I will finish with some more food-for-thought idea from Weitz that systems thinking is a meta-discipline (replacing “art” with “system”):

If I may paraphrase Wittgenstein, we must not ask, What is the nature of any system x?, or even, according to the semanticist, What does “x” mean?, a transformation that leads to the disastrous interpretation of “system” as a name for some specifiable class of objects; but rather, What is the use or employment of “x”? What does “x” do in the language? This, I take it, is the initial question, the begin-all if not the end-all of any philosophical problem and solution. Thus, … our first problem is the elucidation of the actual employment of the concept of a system, to give a logical description of the actual functioning of the concept, including a description of the conditions under which we correctly use it or its correlates.

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

In case you missed it, my last post was Direct and Indirect Constraints:

[1] Art by Annie Jose

The Ghost in the System:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of ‘category mistake’ by the eminent British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle was an ardent opponent of Rene Descartes’ view of mind-body dualism. Ryle also came up with the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’ to mock the idea of dualism. Cartesian dualism is the idea that mind and body are two separate entities. Descartes was perhaps influenced by his religious beliefs. Our bodies are physical entities that will wither away when we die. But our minds, Descartes concluded are immaterial and can “live on” after we die. Descartes noted:

There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.

Ryle called this idea the official doctrine:

The official doctrine, which hails chiefly from Descartes, is something like this. With the doubtful exceptions of idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind. Some would prefer to say that every human being is both a body and a mind. His body and his mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may continue to exist and function.

Ryle referred to the idea of Cartesian dualism as the dogma of the ghost in the machine – the physical body being the machine, and the mind being the ghost. Ryle pointed out that Descartes was engaging in a category mistake by saying that mind and body are separate things. A category mistake happens when we operate with an idea as if it belongs to a particular category. Loosely put, it is like comparing apples to oranges, or even better, comparing apples to hammers. The two items do not belong to the same category and hence, a comparison between the two is a futile and incorrect attempt. The mind is not separate from the body. In fact, the two are interconnected and influence each other in a profound manner. Ryle talked about the idea of dualism as the absurdity of the official doctrine:

I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category-mistake. It represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or range of types or categories), when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.

Ryle explained the category mistake with some examples. One of the examples was that of a foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your ‘University’. It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if ‘the University’ stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong.

The foreigner committed the category mistake by assuming that the university is a material entity just like different buildings he saw. He could not understand that the university is a collective whole made up of the different buildings, the students, the staff etc. I will discuss one more example that Ryle gave:

The same mistake would be made by a child witnessing the march-past of a division, who, having had pointed out to him such and such battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc., asked when the division was going to appear. He would be supposing that a division was a counterpart to the units already seen, partly similar to them and partly unlike them. He would be shown his mistake by being told that in watching the battalions, batteries and squadrons marching past he had been watching the division marching past. The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.

Similar to the foreigner, the child was looking for a separate entity called “the division”. He could not understand that the division is what he is seeing. It was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.

Ryle also gave another example of a visitor who was getting an explanation of the game of Cricket. He saw and understood the different players in the field such as the batsman, the bowler, the fielder etc. After he looked at each one of the players, he asked who is in charge of the team spirit. “But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit. I see who does the bowling, the batting and the wicket-keeping; but I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps.” Ryles explained:

Once more, it would have to be explained that he was looking for the wrong type of thing. Team-spirit is not another cricketing-operation supplementary to all of the other special tasks. It is, roughly, the keenness with which each of the special tasks is performed, and performing a task keenly is not performing two tasks. Certainly exhibiting team-spirit is not the same thing as bowling or catching, but nor is it a third thing such that we can say that the bowler first bowls and then exhibits team-spirit or that a fielder is at a given moment either catching or displaying esprit de corps.

The reader would have noticed that I titled the post – The Ghost in the System. I am alluding to the category mistakes we make in systems thinking. Most often we commit the category mistake of assuming that the system is a standalone objective entity. This is an ontological error. We talk of a hospital system or a transportation system as if it is a physical entity that is visible for everyone to see and understand. We talk about optimizing the system or changing the system as if it is a machine that we can repair by changing out a faulty part with another. In actuality, the system we refer to is a mental construct of how we imagine the different chosen components interact with each other producing specific outcomes we are interested. When we talk of the issues haunting the hospital system, we might be meaning the long waits we have to endure, or the expensive tests that we had to go through. Each one of us construct a version of a “system” and yet we use the same term “system” to talk about different aspects. It is a category mistake to assume that we know what the others are saying. Coming back to the example of the hospital system, when we speak of a hospital system, we point to the hospital buildings, the equipment in the hospitals, the waiting rooms, the doctors, the staff, or the patients. But that is not a hospital system, not really because a system is mental construct that is entirely dependent on who is doing the observing. The observer has a specific thing in mind when they use that word. It is a category mistake to assume that you know what was said. The artifacts are not the system. 

Ryle viewed category mistakes occurring due to problems in vocabulary. He wrote:

These illustrations of category-mistakes have a common feature which must be noticed. The mistakes were made by people who did not know how to wield the concepts University, division and team-spirit. Their puzzles arose from inability to use certain items in the English vocabulary.

Wittgenstein famously wrote – The limits of language are the limits of my world. Our use of language limits what we can know or tell about the world. To go further with this idea, I am looking at the idea of systems from West Churchman’s viewpoint. Churchman advised us that a systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. We live in a social realm and by social realm, I mean that we live in a world where “reality” is co-constructed with the other inhabitants of the realm. We define and redefine reality on an ongoing basis through continual interactions with the other cocreators. We should have a model or an image of what we are trying to manage. But if social realm is cocreated, we need to be aware of others in the realm and treat it as a cocreation rather than an objective reality that we have access to. Systems do not have an objective existence. Each one of us view and construct systems from our viewpoint. Thus, how we define a system is entirely dependent on us, the observers. What we have to do is to seek understanding before we rush in to change or optimize a system. The first step is to be aware of the others in the realm. The next step is to seek understanding and see how each one of them views the world. We have to better our vocabulary so that we can speak their language.

There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine.

I will finish with a wonderful reflexive nugget from Ryle:

In searching for the self, one cannot be the hunter and the hunted.

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 Cybernetics of Complexity:

This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Ghost-in-the-System-e169men

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 are dependent on 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 are 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…: