The Cybernetics of the Two Wittgensteins:

In today’s post, I am looking at Wittgenstein and parallels between his ideas and Cybernetics. Wittgenstein is often regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. His famous works include Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (referred to as TLP in this article) and Philosophical Investigations (referred to as PI in this article). TLP is one of the most intriguing books I have read and reread in philosophy. His style of writing is poetic and the body of the book is split into sections and sub-sections. Wittgenstein is one of the few philosophers who has written two influential books that held opposing views in linguistic philosophy.

The Early Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein was very much influenced by Bertrand Russel’s logical representation of mathematics. Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that language also resides in a logical space. He realized that the problems in philosophy are due to a lack of understanding how language works. He opens TLP with the succinct declaration – “The world is all that is the case.” He followed this up with – “What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.

Wittgenstein is saying that the world is not made up of things, but that the world is the totality of facts. For example, if we take the example of a house, we cannot simply point to the table, the chairs, the rooms and identify a house from the different things. Instead, we have to say that there is a brown dining table in the dining room, and there are six chairs around it. This statement is a representation of a fact. The fact contains objects depicted in a relation between them. The objects by themselves lack the complexity to denote the world. The statement is a state of affairs between the objects, and the state of affairs is a combination of objects in a specific configuration.

Let’s bring up the famous idea of “picture theory” here. The story goes that Wittgenstein read about a judiciary proceeding in France where a road accident was depicted using a model of the road with the cars, buildings, pedestrians etc. This gave him the idea of the picture theory. The picture theory is simply a model or a representation of a state of affairs that corresponds to the specific configuration of the objects in the world. The picture is a model of reality. If we say that there is a cat on the mat, then we can picture this as a cat being on the mat. There are other possible configurations possible such as the cat being on the side of the mat or the mat being on top of the cat. However, in this particular case, the picture of the cat on the mat depicts to the reality of the object “cat” being on top of the object “mat”. The relationship between the two objects is that the cat is on top of the mat. What we talk about using language can be represented by the model with the different objects in the statement having a specific relation between the objects.

Wittgenstein’s main idea was that the use of language is to represent the states of affairs in the world. We can make propositions or statements in language that are pictures of reality. These statements are true if and only if the pictures map onto a corresponding reality in the world. Whatever we can speak of using language are senseful only if they talk about states of affairs in the world. If we talk about supernatural things, then they are not depicting a state of affairs in the real world, and thus are senseless or nonsense. Wittgenstein then used this approach with thoughts by seeing a logical picture of facts as a thought. A thought thus becomes a proposition with sense. With this approach, Wittgenstein showed that the problems of philosophy arise from a poor understanding of knowing how language works. We can solve these problems only when we understand the logic of language. Wittgenstein said that everything that can be thought can be thought clearly, and everything that can be put into words can be put clearly. Everything else is nonsense. Wittgenstein famously stated that the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Wittgenstein ended TLP with the following – What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The Later Wittgenstein:

In PI, Wittgenstein came to the realization that his earlier views were dogmatic. Instead of using the idea of picture theory where language corresponded to the world, the later Wittgenstein concluded that the meaning of a word is in its use. He realized that we should not provide definitions of words, but instead provide descriptions of use. Instead of picture theory, Wittgenstein introduced the idea of language games. We are all engaged in language games when we interact with one another. Wittgenstein never gave a definition for language games but, he gave several examples. Loosely put, we engage in a language game when we converse with each other. We follow certain rules; we act and counteract based on these rules. Things make sense only when we follow these rules. Wittgenstein viewed language as a tool box with all kinds of different tools, and each tool has multiple uses depending on the context. Let’s take the example of a surgeon performing a surgery. The surgeon at times might say “scalpel” or at times simply gesture. The assisting nurse or doctor understands exactly what the surgeon is asking for without the surgeon making a clear statement about the state of affairs. They are all engaged in a language game where the word “scalpel” or the simple gesture of an open hand has a specific meaning unique to that context. If the surgeon is in a restaurant and gestures with an open hand, he might be given a breadstick instead of a scalpel.

One of the other ideas that Wittgenstein brought up in PI that requires our attention is that of private language. Wittgenstein concluded that a private language is not possible. Language has to be public. 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”. Wittgenstein used the example of a beetle in the box to explain this.

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.

With these introductions, I will now try to draw parallels between Wittgenstein’s ideas and Cybernetics.

First Order Cybernetics and Early Wittgenstein:

When I look at the ideas of early Wittgenstein, I am seeing a lot of parallels to first order cybernetics. First order cybernetics is described of study of observed systems. Here the observer is independent of the observed system, and can make a model of how the observed system works and try to control it. The observer creates a model by looking at how the system works. Here the “system” refers to a selection of variables of interest with relation to a phenomenon chosen by the observer. One can see how this corresponds to the picture theory, where the picture is a model of reality depicting relations between objects.

Additionally for Wittgenstein, the logical space contains all possible combinations of the objects. Wittgenstein noted:

If all objects are given, then at the same time all possible states of affairs are also given.

Each thing is, as it were, in a space of possible states of affairs. This space I can imagine empty, but I cannot imagine the thing without the space.

In Cybernetics, this set of all possible combinations is viewed as the variety of the system. ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’ is a statement about my variety. ‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence’ is Wittgenstein’s advice to cut down on the extraneous variety. This can be viewed as the application of Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety”. Ashby explained this law as – only variety can absorb variety. The external variety is always greater than our internal variety. Therefore, to manage external variety thrown at us, we have to cut down the external variety coming our way so that we can focus and manage our abilities to cope with the world. For example, our brains have evolved so that we do not pay attention to every minute detail of the world around us.

We manage the world around us by making models of the world, and by interacting with the world through these models. We are able to sustain our viability by managing variety.

Second Order Cybernetics and Later Wittgenstein:

With the later ideas, I am seeing correlations to the ideas in Second order cybernetics. Second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems. Here the observer is not seen as independent of the observed system, rather the observer is part of the observed system. The idea of meaning as use brings in the need to look at the context. The context of an observed system is the observer doing the observation. The observer is doing the observation with a specific purpose in mind. We cannot remove the observer out of the observation. To be aware of our biases and preconceived notions is important. We need to also be mindful about the other observers in the social realm. We need to see how they view the system. A second order cybernetician is aware of the potential blind spots in our observations.

The second idea that resonated with me is the idea of language games. Language games imply that there is more than one player. We are in a social realm and our reality is a stable representation derived from the ongoing interactions with other participants in the social realm. The reality is formed from the specific rules of the game we engage in. Language games require practice just like any other game.

Third Order Cybernetics?

Wittgenstein viewed philosophy as therapy and I welcome Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as a therapy. To me, it is a second-order activity. I make sense of the world by describing it and therefore the limits of my understanding are based on the limits of my language. This viewpoint is liberating. When I view philosophy as second order cybernetics, I can conclude that there is no need for third order cybernetics. There is no need for a philosophy of philosophy. Wittgenstein talked about whether second order philosophy is needed:

One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word “philosophy” there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word “orthography” among others without then being second-order.

Final words:

Wittgenstein saw philosophy as a process for coming up with descriptions instead of explanations. When we try to come up with explanations of things, most often we fall prey to the philosophical problems that Wittgenstein exposed. We come into the realm of nonsense and we try to make sense of things by providing explanations where none can suffice. Wittgenstein said – Don’t think but look. Cybernetics teaches us to look how the system behaves rather than trying to understand what the system is. We need to look at descriptions rather than explanations. I will finish with a great explanation from Marie McGinn:

What we are concerned with when we ask questions of the form ‘What is time?’, ‘What is meaning?’, ‘What is thought?’ is the nature of the phenomena which constitute our world. These phenomena constitute the form of the world which we inhabit, and in asking these questions we express a desire to understand them more clearly. Yet in the very act of framing these questions, we are tempted to adopt an attitude towards these phenomena which, Wittgenstein believes, makes us approach them in the wrong way, in a way which assumes that we have to uncover or explain something. When we ask ourselves these questions, we take up a stance towards these phenomena in which they seem suddenly bewilderingly mysterious, for as soon as we try to catch hold of them in the way that our questions seem to require, we find we cannot do it; we find that we ‘no longer know’. This leads us deeper and deeper into a state of frustration and philosophical confusion. We think that the fault lies in our explanations and that we need to construct ever more subtle and surprising accounts. Thus, we ‘go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties, which in turn we are after all quite unable to describe with the means at our disposal. We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers’. The real fault, Wittgenstein believes, is not in our explanations, but in the very idea that the puzzlement we feel can be removed by means of a discovery. What we really need is to turn our whole enquiry round and concern ourselves, not with explanation or theory construction, but with description. The nature of the phenomena which constitute our world is not something that we discover by ‘digging’, but is something that is revealed in ‘the kind of statement we make about phenomena’, by the distinctive forms of linguistic usage which characterize the different regions of our language. The method we really need is one that ‘simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. —Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain’. It is by attending to the characteristic structures of what already lies open to view in our use of language that we will overcome our sense of philosophical perplexity and achieve the understanding we seek; the difficulty lies only in the fact that we are so unwilling to undertake, and so unprepared for, this task of description: ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)’

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 Reality of Informationally Closed Entities:

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

Wittgenstein and Autopoiesis:

In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote the following:

“The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.”

He also noted that, if a lion could talk, we would not understand him.

As a person very interested in cybernetics, I am looking at what Wittgenstein said in the light of autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is the brainchild of mainly two Chilean biologist cyberneticians Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela. Autopoiesis was put forth as the joining of two Greek words, “auto” meaning self, and “poiesis” meaning creating. I have talked about autopoiesis here.  I am most interested in the autopoiesis’ idea of “organizational closure” for this post. An entity is organizationally closed when it is informationally tight. In other words, autopoietic entities maintain their identities by remaining informationally closed to their surroundings. We, human beings are autopoietic entities. We cannot take in information as a commodity. We generate meaning within ourselves based on experiencing external perturbations. Information does not enter from outside into our brain.

Let’s take the example of me looking at a blue light bulb. I interpret the presence of the blue light as being blue when my eyes are hit with the light. The light does not inform my brain, but rather my brain interprets the light as blue based on all my previous similar interactions I have had. There is no qualitative information coming to my brain saying that it is a blue light, but rather my brain interprets it as a blue light. It is “informative” rather than being a commodity piece of information. As cybernetician Bernard Scott noted:

…an organism does not receive “information” as something transmitted to it, rather, as a circularly organized system it interprets perturbations as being informative.

All of my previous interactions/perturbations with the light, and others explaining those interactions as being “blue light” generated a structural coupling so that my brain perceives a new similar perturbation as being “blue light”. This also brings up another interesting idea from Wittgenstein. We cannot have a private language. One person alone cannot invent a private language. All we have is public language, one that is reinterpreted and reinforced with repeat interactions. The sensation that we call “blue light” is a unique experience that is 100% unique to me as the interpreter. This supports the concept of autopoiesis as well. We cannot “open” ourselves to others so that they can see what is going on inside our head/mind.

Our interpretive framework, which we use to make sense of perturbations hitting us, is a result of all our past experiences and reinforcements. Our interpretive framework is unique to us homo sapiens. We share a similar interpretive framework, but the actual results from our interpretive framework is unique to each one of us. It is because of this that even if a lion could talk to us, we would not be able to understand it, at least not at the start. We lack the interpretive framework to understand it. The uniqueness of our interpretive framework is also the reason we feel differently regarding the same experiences. This is the reason, as a happy person, we cannot understand the world of a sad person, and vice versa.

Our brain makes sense based on the sensory perturbation and the interpretive framework it already has. A good example to think about this is the images that fall on our retina. The images are upside down, but we are able to “see” right side up. This is possible due to our structural coupling. What happens if there is a new sensory perturbation? We can only make sense of what we know. If we face a brand-new perturbation, we can make sense of it only in terms of what we know. The more we know, the more we are further able to know. As we face the same perturbation repeatedly, we are able to “better” experience it, and describe it to ourselves in a richer manner. With enough repeat interactions, we are finally able to experience it in our own unique manner. From this standpoint, there is no mind-body separation. The “mind” and “body” are both part of the same interpretive framework.

I will leave with another thought experiment to spark these ideas in the reader’s mind. There has always been talk about aliens. From what Wittgenstein taught us, when we meet the aliens, will we be able to understand each other?

I recommend the following posts to the reader expand upon this post:

If a Lion Could Talk:

The System in the Box:

A Study of “Organizational Closure” and Autopoiesis:

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was When is a Model Not a Model?

The System in the Box:

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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:

Wittgenstein’s Ladder at the Gemba:

ladder

In today’s post, I am looking at Wittgenstein’s ladder at the gemba. Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the most profound philosophers of the 20th century. His first book was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he came up with the picture theory of language. He defined how language and reality relate to each other, and how limits of language corresponded to limits of knowledge to some extent.

Loosely put, the Tractatus explained how language can be used to directly depict reality. Language should mirror exactly the arrangement of objects, and their relationships to each other in the real world. Wittgenstein proposed that what can be said about the world makes sense only if there is a correspondence to the real world out there. Everything else is nonsense. This idea puts limits to how we use language. The real use of language is to describe reality. Anthony Quinton, the late British philosopher, explained the main concepts of Tractatus as:

Tractatus is a theory of declarative sentences, a theory of what can be put in a proposition and what cannot. Anything that can be said can be said clearly or not at all.

The world is all that is the case. The state of affairs around us, the simple facts, are the world for us. Wittgenstein is talking about what we can and cannot sensibly  talk about.

The world consists of facts. Facts are arrangement of objects. Objects must be simple. These ideas appear as dogmatic assertions. Language has to have a definite sense and it can have a definite sense only if it is of a certain structure. And therefore the world must be of that certain structure in order to be capable of being represented in the language.

One of the metaphors, Wittgenstein used in the Tractatus is the idea of a ladder. This has come to be known as “Wittgenstein’s Ladder.”

Wittgenstein said:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.   

This is a fascinating idea because Wittgenstein is cautioning against doctrines as the eternal rules to abide by. If the concepts that Wittgenstein explained in the Tractatus are true, then the assertion of his ideas being true would contradict the ideas themselves. Wittgenstein uses the metaphor of a ladder to have the reader climb to a higher level of understanding and then asks the reader to kick the ladder away.

Let’s see how Wittgenstein’s ladder relates to Lean/Toyota Production System. Taiichi Ohno developed TPS as a production system through decades of trial and error methods. The solutions Ohno came up with were specific to the problems Toyota had at that time. We should learn about these different tools and understand the problems they are trying to solve. We should not exactly copy the tools that Toyota uses just because Toyota is using them. Even within Toyota, each plant is unique and doesn’t use a specific set of tools. As one Toyota veteran put it, Toyota Production System and Toyota’s Production System are different. What each plant does is unique and based on the complexity of problems it has.

There are several doctrines that are set forth by the experts. Let’s look at two examples – zero inventories and one-piece flow. Taiichi Ohno himself tried to correct these two misrepresentations/misunderstandings.

Ohno called the Zero Inventory idea nonsense:

To be sure, if we completely eliminate inventories, we will have shortages of goods and other problems. In fact, reducing inventories to zero is nonsense.

The goal of Toyota Production System is to level the flows of production and goods… In every plant and retail outlet, we strive to have the needed goods arrive in the needed quantities in the needed time. In no way is the Toyota Production System a zero-inventory system.

Similarly, Ohno also cautioned about implementing one-piece flow without thinking and looking at your production system.

The essence of Toyota Production System is found in the saying, “Can we realistically reduce one more?” and then after that “one more?”

The removal of parts or operators is about identifying waste and ways to improve human capital through problem solving. The idea is to develop people and not think only about developing parts. Kaizen is a philosophy of personal improvement (improving oneself) through process improvements. Kaizen begets more kaizen.

Final Words:

The problem with doctrines is that we build a religion out of them. 

Ask yourself – What is the problem that I am trying to solve? Toyota’s solutions work for Toyota’s problems. We should climb the TPS/Lean ladder (understand the ideas) and then throw away the ladder of doctrines. We should solve our problems using solutions that match our problems.

Always keep on learning…

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

If a Lion Could Talk:

EPSON MFP image

In today’s post, I am continuing with the theme of being inspired by philosophy. This post is inspired by the famous Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1]. In his posthumously published book “Philosophical Investigations” [2], Wittgenstein wrote;

If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.

One of the interpretations of this statement is that a lion has a totally different worldview than us, thus his values would be entirely different. Even though, we may have a common language, the intentions and interpretations would be completely different. A lion does not share a common frame of reference with us. The mutual understanding also depends upon whether we are interested in actively listening. Another aspect to think about is the non-verbal communication. The majority of human communication is non-verbal so simply talking does not convey the entire meaning. The meaning of a word depends upon the use of it within the context of a shared understanding.

When I was pondering about this, I started wondering whether we would understand if our process or gemba is “talking” to us. In some regards, they do talk to us through the visual controls we have in place. The visual controls lets us know how the process is going – but do we understand it?

The purpose of a visual control is to immediately make any abnormality, waste, or deviation visible so that we can immediately take action. Notice that I used “immediately” twice. This is how we should understand it. This sets the tone for how gemba talks to us. There are several ways that we fail to understand what the gemba is saying to us. A great resource for Visual controls is a collection of articles compiled from NKS Factory Management Journal, available in the form of the book “Visual Control Systems.” [3] Some of the ways Visual Controls can fail are;

1) A failure to understand what the visual controls are for:

One of the examples given of inadequate implementation of visual controls is to treat visual controls as a mere extension of 5S. The purpose of visual controls is, as noted above, to make abnormalities immediately visible. Additionally, action must be taken to address the problem.

2) Low problem consciousness among the employees:

If the employee is failing to make the abnormality visible, or if the supervisor / group leader or management is failing to take action immediately, the purpose of visual controls is being defeated. This leads to “business-as-usual” thinking.

3) Inadequate Visual Control Tools:

If there is no daily production board used, then any metric tracked is going to lead only to a delayed response. No timely action that can be taken. In a similar note, if the daily production board is located in a place that is not easy to see, the operators will not use it because of the inconvenience.

4) Lack of established standards for the visual controls:

In order to have the visual controls operate successfully, the establishment and dissemination of the rules of the visual controls must be performed. Everybody should know how to understand the visual control – what is the norm, what is good versus bad, signs something is abnormal etc.

I will finish off with a great Zen story that relates to the lack of understanding.

Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on. In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye. A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. “Go and request the dialogue in silence,” he cautioned.

So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down. Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: “Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me.”
“Relate the dialogue to me,” said the elder one.
“Well,” explained the traveler, “first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here.” With this, the traveler left.

“Where is that fellow?” asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
“I understand you won the debate.”
“Won nothing. I’m going to beat him up.”
“Tell me the subject of the debate,” asked the elder one.
“Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and got ready to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Ehipassiko – Come and See:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Investigations-Ludwig-Wittgenstein/dp/1405159286

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Control-Systems-Innovations-Advanced-Companie/dp/1563271435

[4] Lion drawing by Audrey Jose