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:

The System in the Box:


In today’s post, I am looking at the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The Beetle in the Box” analogy.

Wittgenstein rose to fame with his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he proposed the idea of a picture theory for words. Very loosely put, words correspond to objects in the real world, and any statement should be a picture of these objects in relation to one another. For example, “the cat is on the mat.” However, in his later years Wittgenstein turned away from his ideas. He came to see the meaning of words in how they are used. The meaning is in its use by the public. He came to realize that private language is not possible. To provide a simple explanation, we need an external reference to calibrate meanings to our words. If you are experiencing pain, all you can say is that you experience pain. While the experience of pain is private, all we have is a public language to explain it in. For example, if we experience a severe pain on Monday and decided to call it “X”. A week from that day, if you have some pain and you decide to call it “Y”, one cannot be sure if “X” was the same as “Y”.

The beetle in the box analogy is detailed in his second book released posthumously, Philosophical Investigations:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

The beetle in the box is a thought experiment to show that private language is not possible. The beetle in my box is visible to only me, and I cannot see the beetle in anybody else’s box. All I can see is the box. The way that I understand the beetle or the word “beetle” is by interacting with others. I learn about the meaning only through the use of the word in conversations with others and how others use that word. This is true, even if they cannot see my beetle or if I cannot see their beetle. I can never experience and thus know their pain or any other private sensations. But we all use the same words to explain how each of us experience the world. The word beetle becomes whatever is in the box, even if the beetles are of different colors, sizes, types etc. Sometimes, the beetles could even be absent. The box in this case is the public language we use to explain the beetle which is the private experience. The meaning of the word beetle then is not what it refers to, but the meaning is determined by how it is used by all of us. It is an emergent phenomenon. And sometimes, the meaning itself changes over time. There is no way for me to know what your beetle looks like. The box comes to represent the beetle.

I love this thought experiment because we all assume that we can tell what others feel like. We talk as if we are all talking about the same world. We talk about the beetle as if everybody has the same beetle in their boxes. Everyone’s world is different, and their worlds are constructed based on their worldviews, mental models, schemas, biases etc. The construction is a dynamic and ongoing process. The construction is a recursive process in the sense, our construction influences how we interact in the world, which in turn influences the ongoing construction of the world. From this standpoint, we can see that reality is multidimensional and that there are as many realities as the number of participants. There is no one reality, and we cannot assume that our reality is the correct one. What exists is a cocreated reality with others, and this co-constructing activity is on a delicate balance. Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something. Nobody has access to a true reality. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see it as it is, it is as we see it.

We all talk about systems as if we all know what they mean. We say that we need to think about the purpose of the system or that it is the system, not the people. Systems are mental constructs we create based on our worldviews to make sense of phenomena around us. Most of the time when we talk about systems, we are speaking about a “part”. For example, when we talk about the “transportation system”, we are actually meaning the bus that is running late. Similar to the beetle in the box, my system is not the same as your system. My view of the healthcare system changes when I become sick versus when I am healthy. The same system has a different meaning and purpose if you are a healthcare worker versus if you are on the board of the hospital. We cannot stipulate a purpose for the system because systems do not have an ontological status. We cannot also stipulate a purpose for a co-creator. To do so will be to assume that we can see the beetle in their box. The great Systems Thinker West Churchman said that systems approach starts when one sees the world through another person’s eyes. Wittgenstein would say that this is impossible. But I think what Churchman was getting at is to realize that our “system” is not the only system. What we need is to seek understanding. With this view, Churchman also said that, there are no experts in the systems approach. Werner Ulrich, who built upon the ideas of Churchman said the following:

The systems idea, provided we take it seriously, urges us to recognize our constant failure to think and act rationally in a comprehensive sense. Mainstream systems literature somehow always manages to have us forget the fact that a lack of comprehensive rationality is inevitably part of the conditio humana. Most authors seek to demonstrate how and why their systems approaches extend the bounds of rational explanation or design accepted in their fields. West Churchman never does. To him, the systems idea poses a challenge to critical self-reflection. It compels him to raise fundamental epistemological and ethical issues concerning the systems planner’s claim to rationality. He never pretends to have the answers; instead, he asks himself and his readers a lot of thoroughly puzzling questions.

Even though systems are not real, we still use the word to further explain our thoughts and ideas. Ulrich continues:

What matters is ultimately not that we achieve comprehensive knowledge about the system in question (an impossible feat) but rather, that we understand the reasons and implications of our inevitable lack of comprehensive knowledge.

 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’.”

 A book on morals is not moral. We cannot assume full access to the real world and stipulate purposes for our fellow cocreators. The purpose of language is to not expose our thoughts, but to make them presentable. In today’s world where complexity is ever increasing due to increasing connections, the beetle in the box analogy is important to remember.

 Similar to the famous credit card ad, I ask, “What is in your box?

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Map at the Gemba: