Deconstructing Systems – There is Nothing Outside the Text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Deconstructing Systems:

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

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

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

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

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

I will finish with wise words from Richard Rorty:

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

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

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

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

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: