On-record / Off-record

On-record                           -                      Off-record
Formal                                -                      Informal
Official                               -                      Unofficial
Narrow                               -                      Wide
Expert                                -                      Amateur
Limited                               -                      Unlimited
Solid                                   -                      Liquid
Safe                                    -                      Dangerous
Sterile                                 -                      Fertile
Centre                                 -                      Periphery

We need to understand what’s going on, and you can only understand a complex system by understanding the small particular parts of day-to-day interaction.

For humans those are the anecdotal data of the school gate, the street stories, the beer after work; not the grand narratives of workshops but the day-to-day anecdotes of people’s existence.

[Dave Snowden]
Complexity, citizen engagement in a Post-Social Media time | David Snowden | TEDxUniversityofNicosia

I know that I would not like to be held scientifically responsible for many loose spoken sentences that I have uttered in conversation with scientific colleagues.

But I also know that if another person had the task of studying my ways of thought, he would do well to study my loosely spoken words rather than my writing.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry'), p.230

On-record is the official line; it is certified. Certification gains its significance, in part at least, from reputations. And when the reputation of the speaker, or institution, is at stake, risks are less likely to be taken. Thus, certified knowledge - and on-record talk - has a certain stiffness to it. It is a museum of sorts, a place where formerly loose and lively things go to die - i.e. categorised (fit in to a wider system), viewed, and referenced.

The zone of off-record, on the other hand, is a sort of playground - a creative space where ideas and concepts are treated loosely, roughly - are tinkered with and explored. We can loosen up in off-record, and needn't act as responsibly (needn't 'act' at all). Accordingly, it can also be a dangerous space, and is not for the fainthearted.

On-record is found in books and respectable publications, in the output of venerable institutions. Off-record is found in comments sections, forums, subreddits, and informal conversations ‘around the water-cooler’ (do these still happen?). When you put a suit on you become on-record; when you discard your tie and undo your top-button you go off-record.

Identity is important in the zone of on-record; passports are thoroughly checked by border security, and you best hope you have the right credentials. Having a friend from inside write a letter of recommendation can also help with admission. Off-record is often pseudonymous or anonymous - here it is what is said that is important, not who is saying it.

The more strict are the border protocols of on-record, the more information is likely to be rebuffed. This information falls through the cracks and becomes ‘lost’ or liminal knowledge. It takes the form of bodges, hacks, and folk remedies.

The more restrictive, or ossified the zone of officialdom becomes, the more relevant off-record becomes. When on-record is corrupted (or gamed) then off-record may become a more reliable source of truth. Instead of looking to the centre, we begin to search the periphery. But there are dangers at the edges; we expose ourselves to uncertified material, outlandish theories.

On-record information comes ready-packaged - we don't need to check facts and references because we can safely assume this has been done for us. This is the whole point of on-record, after all. When handling off-record material we need to be more cautious - discernment is crucial in this zone.

Most information aspires to be on-record, but some makes a virtue of being off-record ('underground', 'edgy', 'esoteric').

Related posts:
Centre / Periphery
Taking the Rough with the Smooth

Efficient / Redundant

Efficient               -          Redundant
Engineer              -          Artist
Specialist             -          Generalist
Work                   -           Play
Truth                   -           Myth
Narrow base        -          Wide base
Closed                 -          Open
Unconscious        -          Self-aware
Order                   -          Chaos

Complex situations/interactions cannot be standardised. Standardisation implies known territory. In complex circumstances, an abstracted/wide view is more advantageous than a concrete/narrow view.

Modern football bought efficiency at the price of character. When pundits say that the modern game is "better" what they really mean is that it is more efficient. 

A strong mechanical metaphor characterizes [process engineering] approaches. The focus is on efficiency, stripping away all superfluous functions in order to ensure repeatability and consistency.

The engineering process takes place in a specific context and once achieved, shifts in that context require the engineering design process to be repeated to some degree before efficiency can be achieved again. Radical shifts in context may make the entire approach redundant or lead to catastrophic failure.

Manufacturing plant, payment systems in a bank and the like are all closed systems that can be structured and standardized without any major issue. We can in effect define best practice. However when we apply the same techniques to systems with higher levels of ambiguity, for example customer interactions, sales processes and the like we encounter more difficulties.

[Some of these] arise from the impossibility of anticipating all possible situations and shifting context. In these cases we need a different focus, one of effectiveness in which we leave in place a degree of inefficiency to ensure that the system has adaptive capacity and can therefore rapidly evolve to meet the new circumstances. 

Examples would include apprentice schemes of knowledge transfer, maintaining mavericks or misfits, allowing people to take training in subjects with no apparent relevance to their current jobs and providing more delegated authority.

There is nothing wrong with an engineering approach; there are many things that need high degrees of order and control. However taken to excess, and it has nearly always been so taken, it sacrifices human effectiveness, innovation and curiosity on the altar of mechanical efficiency .

[Dave Snowden]
'Multi-ontology sense making: a new simplicity in decision making'

The exact opposite of redundancy is naive optimisation.

I tell everyone to avoid attending (orthodox) economics classes and say that economics will fail us and blow us up […] The reason is the following: It is largely based on notions of naive optimisation, mathematised (poorly) […] and this mathematics contributed massively to the construction of an error-prone society.

An economist would find it inefficient to maintain two lungs and two kidneys: consider the costs involved in transporting these heavy items across the savannah. Such optimisation would, eventually, kill you, after the first accident, the first “outlier.”

Also consider that if we gave Mother Nature to economists, it would dispense with individual kidneys: since we do not need them all the time, it would be more “efficient” if we sold ours and used a central kidney on a time-share basis.

Almost every major idea in conventional economics […] fails under the modification of some assumption, or what is called ‘perturbation,” when you change one parameter, or take a parameter heretofore assumed by the theory to be fixed and stable, and make it random.

For instance, if a model used for risk assumes that the type of randomness under consideration is from Mediocristan, it will ignore large deviations and encourage the building of a lot of risk that ignores large deviations; accordingly, risk management will be faulty.

For another example of egregious model error, take the notion of comparative advantage […] behind the wheels of globalisation. The idea is that countries should focus, as a consultant would say, on “what they do best” (more exactly, on where they are missing the smallest number of opportunities); so one country should specialise in wine and the other in clothes, although one of them might be better at both. But do some perturbations and alternative scenarios: consider what would happen to the country specialising in wine if the price of wine fluctuated

Mother Nature does not like overspecialisation, as it limits evolution and weakens the animals.

Globalisation might give the appearance e of efficiency, but the operating leverage and the degrees of interaction between parts will cause small cracks in one spot to percolate through the entire system. The result would be like a brain experiencing an epileptic seizure from too many cells firing at the same time. Consider that our brain, a well-functioning complex system, is not “globalised,” or, at least, not naively “globalised.”

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 312-3

A typical strategy of companies and corporations is to eliminate redundancies and degeneracies in the name of minimizing costs.

This is the major reason why almost all companies have great difficulty adapting to change, and eventually disappear. Just as biological systems pay a cost for robustness and evolvability foregoing efficiency for long-term persistence, so too should we demand this of our institutions.

[David Krakauer & Geoffrey West]
'The Damage We’re Not Attending To'

This is hint to a central problem of the world today, that of the misunderstanding of nonlinear response by those involved in creating “efficiencies” and “optimisation” of systems.

For instance, European airports and railroads are stretched, seeming overly efficient. They operate at close to maximal capacity, with minimal redundancies and idle capacity, hence acceptable costs; but a small increase in congestion, say 5 percent more planes in the sky owing to a tiny backlog, can give rise to chaos […]

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 274

[Economics] appeals to a very rigid mind. If you build everything around homoeconomicus, which is this model that clearly doesn’t represent how human beings actually are in the world, you tend to select for very rigid thinkers who have a particular penchant for finding […] lies that people tell themselves and each other. 

So famously a professor of economics suggested that no-one should give gifts because its much more efficient to give cash. 

And that’s what economists have historically liked to do […] relentlessly and unflinchingly they apply tools of utility-maximisation […] and try to turn humans into robots and make the robots maximally efficient. 

[Eric Weinstein]
‘Eric Weinstein: WTF Happened in 1971: An INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Birthday Extravaganza 🎉 !’

The most typical example is that of Protestantism, in which simplification takes the form both of an almost complete suppression of rites, together with an attribution of predominance to morality over doctrine; and the doctrine itself becomes more and more simplified and diminished so that it is reduced to almost nothing, or at most to a few rudimentary formulas that anyone can interpret in any way that suits him. 

Moreover, Protestantism in its many forms is the only religious production of the modern spirit, and it arose at a time when that spirit had not yet come to the point of rejecting all religion, but was on the way toward doing so by virtue of the anti-traditional tendencies which are inherent in it and which really make it what it is. 

At the endpoint of this 'evolution' (as it would be called today), religion is replaced by 'religiosity', that is to say by a vague sentimentality having no real significance; it is this that is acclaimed as 'progress', and it shows clearly how all normal relations are reversed in the modern mentality, for people try to see in it a 'spiritualization' of religion, as if the ‘spirit' were a mere empty frame or an 'ideal' as nebulous as it is insignificant. 

This is what some of our contemporaries call a ‘purified religion', but it is so only insofar as it is emptied of all positive content and has no longer any connection with any reality whatsoever.

[René Guénon]
The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p. 77-8

“I knew a man who used to lecture frequently, on subjects requiring much thought […] He told me that he would become aware of himself perhaps once or twice during the lecture, and at the end of it, as he sat down, he would find himself surprised that it was he who had given the lecture. Yet he fully remembered everything.”

This is a very good description of a man acting like a programmed machine, implementing a programme devised some time ago.

He, the programmer, is no longer needed; he can mentally absent himself. If the machine is implementing a good programme it gives a good lecture; if the programme is bad, the lecture is bad. We are all very familiar with the possibility of implementing ‘programmes', e.g. when driving a car and engaging in an interesting conversation at the same time.

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.81

Unlike Bellamy, for whom military discipline implied an intricate division of labor and the efficiency provided by complete regimentation, Sorel believed that war nourished a "passionate individualism."

In the wars of the French revolution - his favorite example, next to Homeric Greece, of military life at its best - "each soldier considered himself as an individual having something of importance to do in the battle, instead of looking upon himself as simply one part of the military mechanism committed to the supreme direction of the leader."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.310

Today, thanks to the spectroscope and other tools of the analytical laboratory, they can analyze these medicinal herbs and isolate their active medical ingredient. In so doing, scientists believe that they have accounted, in a scientific way, for folk remedies - they are biologically active chemicals adulterated by a variety of other substances.

How much better, therefore, to administer a 100 percent pure drug that has been synthesized in the laboratory than an unpleasant concoction of herbs and roots. Scientific knowledge has advanced beyond the superstition of folk medicine.

Again, what is really happening is not the perfection of knowledge or the replacement of myths by objective knowledge, but really an encounter of two worldviews.

To approach medicine herbs only in terms of biologically active molecules is to see them in only one dimension. Within the dimensions of chemical analysis this may be correct, but it leaves out the other dimensions of spirit, energy, and relationship.

The nature of Native medicine lies both in the plant and the ceremony, in the way that plant was picked, the exchanges and relationships that were entered into that would lead to its use, and in the relationship between that plant and other people in the circle and the relationship to the sick person.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.120, 132-3

The sacred seriousness of play has entirely given way to the profane seriousness of work and production […]

Without Eros, the steps of thinking degenerate into the steps of a calculation, that is, the steps of work to be performed. Calculation is naked, pornographic. Thinking dresses itself in figures. It is often squiggly. Calculations, by contrast, follow a linear path.

Thinking has the character of play. Under the compulsion of work and production, it becomes alienated from its essence […] Along the way from myth to dataism, thinking loses the element of play altogether. It comes close to calculation.

But the steps in thinking are not the steps of a calculation which simply repeat the same operation over and over again. Rather, they are moves in a game, or dancing steps, which create something totally different, introduce an altogether different order among things […]

Life subordinated to the dictates of health, optimization and performance comes to resemble mere survival. It lacks splendour, sovereignty, intensity.

The Roman satirist Juvenal expressed this well when he spoke of 'losing the reasons to live for the sake of staying alive' (propter vitam vivendi perdere causas).

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.55, 83

The sophists are seen as mere travelling showmen who are occupied solely with the playful. But play has now to give way to the work of uncovering the truth.

Huizinga is probably to be credited with having taught us about the playful character of human action in archaic cultures. But he turns play into something absolute, and he therefore misses the decisive paradigm shift within knowledge transfer in the history of the Occident, namely the transition from myth to truth, which coincides with the transition from play to work.

Along the path towards work, thinking gradually distances itself from its origin in play.

Limits must be set to the imagination's urge to play so that play can serve the purposes of the understanding, namely the production of knowledge. Play is subordinated to work and production.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.79-80

Networks are the way in which things are connected, like sequences - the way an airline is connected, or the way the internet is connected, or the way neurons are connected; functional connectivity. There's three basic kinds of networks.

There's a regular network, where all the connections are just one step away, node to node. And then there's a random network, where you can have long distance connections - very long distance connections. I don't have to fly from Savannah to Atlanta to Toronto - I can just fly directly from Savannah to Toronto.

The regular network is highly inefficient. The way you measure efficiency is called mean path distance. You take all the distance from all possible combinations - how many steps do I have to go from this point to that point? - and you average them together and get the mean path distance - the average path distance between any two points.

In a regular network, it's very, very high because you have to go through a lot of steps. They're all local connections. When you look at it, it looks beautiful. It’s highly ordered because all the lines are the same length, but it's highly inefficient. The random network is highly efficient because you have a lot of these long distance connections that collapse your path.

But the brain doesn't go for either one of those, because there's a trade-off relationship. As I make the network more random to make it more efficient - which sounds like a contradiction in terms - I lose robustness in the system.

When you have a lot of little connections there's lots of redundancy, and so I can lose a lot of stuff - I get graceful degradation - but I only get a small reduction in functionality. In a random network, I can take out one link and entire nodes can become isolated from each other.

That's the danger of efficiency versus redundancy. The brain does what's called a small world network, which is mostly regular and then one or two long distance connections.

If you give somebody a Propofol and take them into unconsciousness, the brain will go from being a global, small world network and it'll break up into small, local regular networks. And then as you bring them back into consciousness, it will go from local regular networks back into a comprehensive small-world networks.

[John Vervaeke]
‘A Conversation So Intense It Might Transcend Time and Space | John Vervaeke | EP 321, Jordan B. Peterson, YouTube

We only see one side of it. We see that we’re being smart and saving effort, but we don’t see that […] there’s a corresponding loss of capability.

Because I don’t programme an assembly any more, I no longer am able to programme an assembly. If I use languages that are too high level […] I don’t know how my variables live in memory or how big they are and I certainly don’t know what the CPU is doing in response to the code I’ve written.

The rhetoric that we have is, “I’m being smart, I shouldn’t have to do the low-level stuff”, but part of the reality is the loss of capability that corresponds to those choices.

[Jonathan Blow]
‘Jonathan Blow - Preventing the Collapse of Civilization (English only)’, YouTube

Related posts:

Old / New

New                   -         Old
Future                -         Past
Rationalism       -         Tradition
Top Down         -         Bottom Up
Nurture              -         Nature
Constructivist    -         Essentialist

Tradition is anchored in the past, via a foundational myth that remains accessible in the present. Rationalism is anchored in the future, via the quest for ‘Truth’, a progress towards the One True Path.

Reason allows a way out of tradition because it subverts the originary will of the founder. It births critique.

Revolution attempts a clean break with the past, but must always subsequently work to prevent the past from re-emerging - via doctoring, censorship, and various other forms of denial.    

The left is characterized by a preference for change and reform, a commitment to liberty and equality, an orientation toward progress and the future, while the right is the party of order and tradition, hierarchy, and a disposition to valorize the past.

Whether described as left vs. right, blue vs. red, or liberal vs. conservative, this basic division seems to capture a permanent divide between two fundamental human dispositions, as well as two worldviews that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of political options.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.43


The modern political divide of the past three centuries has essentially boiled down to these two camps: whether the past is a source of wisdom or an era of horrors; whether culture and tradition were fortifications against decline or barriers to progress; whether politics was the means to preservation of imperfect decencies and virtues, or a tool of human perfectibility.

[Patrick J. Deneen]

Things that have worked for a long time are preferable - they are more likely to have reached their ergodic states. At the worst we don't know how long they'll last.

Remember that the burden of proof lies on someone disturbing a complex system, not on the person protecting the status quo.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 371

We have polluted for years, causing much damage to the environment, while the scientists currently making these complicated forecasting models were not sticking their necks out and trying to stop us from building these risks […] - these are the scientists trying to impose the solutions on us.

But the skepticism about models that I propose does not lead to the conclusions endorsed by anti-environmentalists and pro-market fundamentalists. Quite the contrary: we need to be hyper-conservationists ecologically, since we do not know what we are harming with now.

That’s the sound policy under conditions of ignorance and epistemic opacity. 

To those who say “We have no proof that we are harming nature,”  a sound response is “We have no proof that we are not harming nature, either”; the burden of proof is not on the ecological conservationist, but on someone disrupting an old system.

Furthermore we should not “try to correct” the harm done, as we may be creating another problem we do not know much about currently.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 316

So the reader can see how the ancients saw naive rationalism: by impoverishing - rather than enhancing - thought, it introduces fragility. They knew that incompleteness - half knowledge - is always dangerous.

Many other people than the ancients have been involved in defending - and inviting us to respect - this different type of knowledge. First Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and political philosopher, who also countered the French Revolution for disrupting the “collected reasons of the ages.” He believed that large social variations can expose us to unseen effects and thus advocated the notion of small trial-and-error experiments (in effect, context tinkering) in social systems, coupled with respect for the complex heuristics of tradition.

Also Michael Oakeshot, the twentieth-century conservative political philosopher and philosopher of history who believed that traditions provide an aggregate of filtered collective knowledge. 

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 257-8

In Greek legend, there were two Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus means “fore-thinker” while Epimetheus means “after-thinker,” equivalent to someone who falls for the retrospective distortion of fitting theories to past events in an ex post narrative manner.

Optionality is Promethean, narratives are Epimethean - one has reversible and benign mistakes, the other symbolises the gravity and irreversibility of the consequences of opening Pandora’s box.

You make forays into the future by opportunism and optionality […] It is a way - the only way - to domesticate uncertainty, to work rationally without understanding the future, while reliance on narratives is the exact opposite: one is domesticated by uncertainty, and ironically set back. You cannot look at the future by naive projection of the past.

All this does not mean that tinkering and trial and error are devoid of narrative: they are just not overly dependent on the narrative being true - the narrative is not epistemological but instrumental. For instance, religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks.

English parents controlled children with the false narrative that if they didn’t behave or eat their dinner, Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte) or some wild animal might come and take them away. Religions often use the equivalent method to help adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt. But intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous.

Consider the role of the heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations - what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.

Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 211-13, 215

It isn't always the future that people want; they are often, as it were rather ambivalent about the Promised Land. Indeed, it isn't the future they most want, it is the past.

Psychoanalysis, like education [...] is an attempt to lure people into the future, to tempt them to grow up.

What the analyst and the teacher and the political revolutionary come up against is people's refusal to sacrifice an apparently known pleasure for an apparently unknown one. Better the devil you know, because if you know him he can't be the devil.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('Learning to Live'), p.152, 154

Societies, like animals, evolve.

The ones that survive spawn memetic descendants – for example, the success of Britan allowed it to spin off Canada, Australia, the US, et cetera. Thus, we expect societies that exist to be somewhat optimized for stability and prosperity. I think this is one of the strongest conservative arguments.

Just as a random change to a letter in the human genome will probably be deleterious rather than beneficial since humans are a complicated fine-tuned system whose genome has been pre-optimized for survival – so most changes to our cultural DNA will disrupt some institution that evolved to help Anglo-American (or whatever) society outcompete its real and hypothetical rivals.

[Scott Alexander]
'Meditations on Moloch'

Changes in the formula, if they are not to destroy the society, must be gradual, not abrupt. The formula is indispensable for holding the social structure together. A widespread skepticism about the formula will in time corrode and disintegrate the social order. 

It is perhaps for this reason, half-consciously understood, that all strong and long-lived societies have cherished their “traditions,” even when, as is usually the case, these traditions have little relation to fact, and even after they can hardly be believed literally by educated men. 

Rome, Japan, Venice, all such long-enduring states, have been very slow to change the old formulas, the time-honored ways and stories and rituals; and they have been harsh against rationalists who debunk them. 

This, after all, was the crime for which Athens put Socrates to death. From the point of view of survival, she was probably right in doing so.

[James Burnham]
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, p. 90

In all these writings, what interests us is not the routine polemics, the case against the abomination of mob rule and Jacobin slogans, but rather the counterrevolutionary argument in principle. This is invariably the rejection of the idea that law and the state could result from the methodical activity of individual human beings.

All important state institutions, and especially the constitutions that were altered so frequently during the French Revolution, are said to result automatically and in the course of time from prevailing circumstances and the nature of things. These institutions are the rational expression of such circumstances, and not their creator. Therefore, it would be absurd to propose to force things to conform to an abstract scheme.

The nation and society are not overnight products of doctrinaire "fabrication.” On the contrary, they are formed over long periods of time, in such a way that the individual persons involved could not survey them or even make an estimate of them.

On this point, Burke – in general phrases that are often powerfully rhetorical and emotional – stresses the growth of the national community that spans generations. De Maistre still sees the individual entirely from the perspective of the theological ideas of the classical age: in his insignificance in the presence of the transcendent providential power that governs us and in whose hands the active heroes of the Revolution appear to de Maistre as automatons.

Finally, as early as 1797, Bonald, a great systematic thinker, explains what is at stake with splendid precision: the opposition between liberal individualism and social solidarity. According to Bonald, the bearer of historical activity is not the individual person or the mass of individuals. It is instead society, which lives in history and constitutes itself according to definite laws, and which really constitutes the individual person as such.

All three - in a vehement rejection of the metaphysicians and the philosophers, Rousseau in particular - agree that the activity of the individual, based on rationalistic maxims, can create nothing. It can only delay, destroy, and abrogate the natural course of things; but it cannot produce anything of permanence.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 110

The historical situations in which romanticism and romantics can arise are epochs in which an antiquated culture confronts a new one […] At such watersheds of world history, persons in whom feeling and imagination outweigh clear thinking, spirits of more warmth than light, always turn backward, to what is old.

From the unbelief and prose that they see gaining ground around them, they will long for the world of the old faith and ancestral customs, a world that is agreeable and rich in forms; and they will attempt to restore this world for its own sake and, wherever possible, beyond itself as well.

But as children of their time, they too are dominated more than they know by the new principle that is repugnant to them. 

That is why the old ways as they are reproduced in and through them are no longer the pure and primordial old ways. On the contrary, they are blended in many respects with what is new, and in this way they reveal the new in advance.

[David Friedrich Strauss]
Julian the Apostate: The Romantic on the Throne of the Caesars

Social facts, then, are entirely continuous with biological facts. They are part of life. This shows how misleading the metaphor of 'social construction' is if it is taken in its strong sense as meaning that we are omnipotent in inventing social practices.

Customs are not just an arbitrary product of our whim. Searle's central target is indeed the sense of artificiality and exaggerated power that this excessive constructivism suggests - the impression that it gives of human decisions taking place in a vacuum and dictating terms at will to the rest of the cosmos. He points out that human beings are not a separate entity detached from the natural world.

Different academic disciplines, therefore, should not behave as if they each owned their own private universe. Physics, literary criticism, political theory, geology and ethics should all notice that they share a world.

‘The traditional opposition that we tend to make between biology and culture is as misguided as the traditional opposition between body and mind … Culture is the form that biology takes.’

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.192-3

Echoing Giambattista Vico, an early critic of the deracinated rationalism of Descartes and Hobbes, [Wendell] Berry defends what Vico named the sensus communis.

Such “common knowledge” is the result of the practice and experience, the accumulated store of wisdom born of trials and corrections of people who have lived, suffered, and flourished in local settings. Rules and practices based on a preconceived notion of right cannot be imposed absent prudential consideration and respect toward common sense.

This is not to suggest that traditions cannot be changed or altered, but, as Burke argued, they must be given the presumptive allowance to change internally, with the understanding and assent of people who have developed lives and communities based upon those practices.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.81

For that reason a real knowledge of the past, in Brandt's words, “requires something more than knowing how people used to make candles or what kind of bed they slept in. It requires a sense of the persistence of the past: the manifold ways in which it penetrates our lives.”

This persistence, of course, is what the nostalgic attitude denies.

Nostalgia evokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history's hold over the present. Those who mourn the death of the past and those who acclaim it both take for granted that our age has outgrown its childhood. Both find it difficult to believe that history still haunts our enlightened, disillusioned maturity.

Both are governed, in their attitude toward the past, by the prevailing disbelief in ghosts.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.118

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we (English) are generally men of untaught feelings: that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree; and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Instead of “exploding general prejudices,” philosophers would "better employ their sagacity,” Burke thought, “to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them.” Prejudices guided conduct more reliably than reason, by making a "man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.129

In the conservative sociological tradition, the tenacity of custom was seen as a useful check against innovation.

For Lynd, "folkways" meant "cultural lag." Habits and "values" failed to keep pace with economic and technological change. Americans retained the mental habits of pioneers even though their habits were now governed by elaborate organisations and complicated technologies.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.427

For this reason, Brownson opposed any theory of progress that implied a rejection of past. 

Having sided in his early writings with "efforts for progress," he proceeded to take his readers "aback by telling them they must not run away from the past." The future could no more be dissociated from the past than the spirit could be dissociated from the body.

"It is idle to war against the past. No man can be a reformer who has no tradition. Divest us of all tradition, of all that we have derived from the past... and we were mere naked savages." Brownson's unwillingness to choose between reform and conservatism or to equate political radicalism with a repudiation of the past was typical of the populist tradition.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.194

History has to have a happy ending.

“Are there no calamities in history?" Brownson asked in 1843. "Nothing tragic? May we never weep over the defeated? ... Must we always desert the cause as soon as fortune forsakes it, and bind ourselves to the cause which is in the ascendant, and hurrah in the crowd that throw up their caps in honor of the conqueror?"

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.221

The relationship of a plant or animal to the general ecology of its region is incredibly complicated.

It may be possible to make a computer model of, say, the introduction of a new bean hybrid upon a particular environment. But, as mathematicians would say, models are highly nonlinear, containing many feedback loops. Predictable behavior can suddenly change in abrupt ways, from gradual trends to wild oscillations or even chaos. It is beyond Western science to fully understand the impact that various aspects of genetic engineering could have upon the environment and our future.

Indigenous science, if we are to believe its metaphysics and its claims, moves in a slower way. 

It is based upon generations of painstaking observations and upon a perception that looks into the heart of things, upon knowledge that is given by the plants and animals to the two-legged. Thus, when changes take place they do so from within an acknowledged web of relationship.

Moreover, the power of the trickster is always acknowledged, for the People know that all human plans are subject to the forces of chance and transformation.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.183

Others are destined to find their own way; to rebel against the traditions which have been transmitted to them; to suffer anxiety and the fear which attends separation from the parents; and, finally, to win their way to a new individual point of view.

Such men are those whose genetic endowment makes it impossible for them to preserve the integrity of their own personalities and, at the same time, preserve the parental attitudes which they have introjected. They are compelled to fight their way to freedom; to find their own individual way of life; and to discard the traditions in which they have been reared.

For such people self-realization consists partly in becoming conscious of, and subsequently discarding, introjected parental attitudes: and the earlier some degree of emotional security is attained, the sooner will this discarding take place.

Emotional security is more likely to be attained in a household in which the parents are secure enough to be able to tolerate difference from themselves, and mature enough to make relationships with children who are not just little models of themselves, but individuals in their own right.

Part of the process of self-realization consists, therefore, in discarding introjected beliefs and attitudes which prove to be foreign to the developing personality: and this may be attended by considerable anxiety and depression.

Becoming free of identification with others is never completed; and most of us remain to some extent prisoners of our family background, of our social class, or of our nationality. The club, the old boys' reunion, the perpetuation of hierarchical social structure, are mechanisms of reassurance […] The sense of mutual support which men gain from such gatherings is matched by the loss of their individual characteristics, and the subtleties of personality disappear in the simplicities of the crowd.

[Anthony Storr]
The Integrity of the Personality, p.84-6

The neoliberal regime deploys emotions as resources in order to bring about heightened productivity and achievement.

Starting at a certain level of production, rationality - which is the medium of disciplinary society - hits a limit. Henceforth, it is experienced as a constraint, an inhibition. Suddenly, it seems rigid and inflexible. At this point, emotionality takes its place, which is attended by the feeling of liberty - the free unfolding of personality. After all, being free means giving free rein to emotions.

Rationality is defined by objectivity, generality and steadiness. As such, it stands opposed to emotionality, which is subjective, situative and volatile.

Emotions arise, above all, when circumstances change - and perception shifts. Rationality entails duration, consistency and regularity. It prefers stable conditions.

The neoliberal economy, increasingly dismantling continuity and progressively integrating instability in order to in order to enhance productivity, is pushing the emotionalization of the productive process forward. Accelerated communication also promotes its emotionalization.

Rationality is slower than emotionality; it has no speed, as it were. Thus, the pressure of acceleration now is leading to a dictatorship of emotion.

[Byung-Chul Han]
Psychopolitics, p.46

Since we are in the midst of this process of change, a clear description of what is happening is not easy, but the heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories.

We are capable of doing things that we do not understand. We can perform gene-splicing without fully understanding how genes interact.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.1

The social fabric is not 'designed' by means of some transcendental principle, but develops as a result of the way in which it responds to contingent information in a dynamic fashion.

The process is a complex one involving many individuals with complex, non-linear relationships between them, including feedback relations. Individuals co-operate to form clusters, but also compete for resources in the network. The system is therefore not, and can never be, symmetrical.

The history of the system is vitally important for the way in which meaning is generated in any part of it. The evolution of structures in the social fabric, causing continuous alterations, is an integral part of its dynamics.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.117

Traditional interpretations of the temporal nature of a system […] privilege the present.

The immense gain of the notion of différence is that it reminds us that not only the past has to be considered when we try to establish the meaning of (say) an event, but that since we cannot fully predict the effects of this event, the future has to be considered as well, despite the fact that we have no idea what this future might be.

Now, instead of throwing up his hands, and declaring that in such a case it is impossible to talk about meaning, and that therefore anything goes, Derrida insists that we should take responsibility for this unknowable future. In the case of ethical decisions, this leads to an aporia: we have to take responsibility for the future effects of our decisions, but we cannot know those effects, nor can we wait to see what they are. We have to make the decision now. How do we deal with this aporia?

To fall back on universal principles is to deny the complexity of the social system we live in, and can therefore never be just. To allow everything is to evade our responsibility. The first approach to the system is too rigid, the second too fluid.

Cornell’s suggestion (following Derrida, and reformulated in my terminology) is to take present ethical (and legal) principles seriously—to resist change—but to be keenly aware of when they should not be applied, or have to be discarded. We therefore do follow principles as if they were universal rules (Cornell and Derrida use the term ‘quasi-transcendental’), but we have to remotivate the legitimacy of the rule each time we use it.

To behave ethically means not to follow rules blindly—to merely calculate—but to follow them responsibly, which may imply that the rules must be broken.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.139

Rituals are characterized by repetition. Repetition differs from routine in its capacity to create intensity.

What is the origin of the intensity that characterizes repetition and protects it against becoming routine? For Kierkegaard, repetition and recollection represent the same movement but in opposite directions, 'because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards'.

Repetition, as a form of recognition, is therefore a form of completion. Past and present are brought together into a living present. As a form of completion, repetition founds duration and intensity. It ensures that time lingers.

Kierkegaard takes repetition to be opposed to hope as well as to recollection:

Hope is new attire, stiff and starched and splendid. Still, since it has not yet been tried on, one does not know whether it will suit one, or whether it will fit. Recollection is discarded clothing which, however lovely it might be, no longer suits one because one has outgrown it. Repetition is clothing that never becomes worn, that fits snugly and comfortably, that neither pulls nor hangs too loosely.

It is, Kierkegaard writes, 'only the new of which one tires. One never tires of the old.' The old is 'the daily bread that satisfies through blessing'. It brings happiness: 'and only a person who does not delude himself that repetition ought to be something new, for then he tires of it, is genuinely happy'.

Chasing new stimuli, excitement and experience, we lose the capacity for repetition.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.9

The Bolshevik project which the Soviet system embodied throughout its history was that of imposing a western modernity on Russia, but without capitalism.

Like the Utopia envisaged by Lenin, the global free market aims to bring into being a state of affairs that has never hitherto existed in human society - and which goes far beyond the mid-Victorian English free market and the liberal international economic order that existed until 1914.

Global laissez-faire and the communist project that animated the former Soviet Union have many of the same enemies. They are hostile to national and cultural differences in economic life and to the inheritances of tradition and history. They resent the backwardness of peasants and village life. They are intolerant of the unruly individualism of the bourgeoisie and the refractoriness of working people.

The chief victims of the global free market, as of War Communism and the Soviet system, are peasants and - to a lesser but still notable extent - urban industrial workers and the professional middle classes.

[...] Peasant traditional beliefs had been under siege since the communist victory in 1949, but it was in the Great Leap forward, and then the Cultural Revolution, that they were finally almost destroyed: ‘Everything connected with traditional beliefs was smashed up in the Great Leap Forward.’

The attack on traditional China was resumed in the Great Proleterian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The ‘four olds’ - old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking, as embodied in books, money, documents and antique art treasures - were assaulted in one of history’s greatest convulsions.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.140-1, 180

The global economy deskills people and organisations. It does so by making the environments in which they live and work unrecognisable to them. It thereby renders their stock of local and tacit knowledge less and less serviceable to them.

A major problem that has not been solved by business organisations - except partially Japanese companies - is that of combining the institutional continuity needed, if the local knowledge of employees is to be harnessed, with the capacity for organisational innovation required to make the most of new technologies.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.76

In his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) Burke supplemented the authority of precedent by that of wisdom and experience, and reverence for the Constitution by reverence for tradition - that "partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born".

Radical reformers "are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature”. “By their violent haste and their defiance of the process of nature, they are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchymist and empiric."


"I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controuled, and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead."

Burke wished to "consign over the rights of posterity for ever, on the authority of a mouldy parchment", while Paine asserted that each successive generation was competent to define its rights and form of government anew.

[E.P. Thompson]
The Making of the English Working Class, p.97, 99

Related posts:

Part / Whole

Part                      -       Whole
Closed                  -       Open
State                     -       Process
Nodes                   -       Connections
Independent         -       Dependent
Free                      -       Constrained

Juarrero points out how the quantum level - those things that "go without saying" - affects the everyday level. For the most part we can ignore it, especially within a cohesive culture in which everyone shares "the same historical background and contextual setting." 

But when humans seek to explain each other, neither comes context free. Each brings their own case history, their own biases, prejudices, etc. 

The world of Heidegger's 'present at hand' - the abstracted world of the left-hemisphere - proceeds from the complex, interconnected world of the 'ready to hand', the right hemisphere. Left is contained by right, the masculine by the feminine.

Context implies connections, relatedness. Connections work like tethers, constraining the freedom of the individual. Freedom is another way of saying 'context independent.' The Free Space of science is freedom from context.

[…] absolutism of conduct can be secured only by means of an absolutism of doctrine, by means of the doctrine that good and evil traits and actions are inherently distinct from one another and that their character does not depends on the character of those who manifest and engage in them on each particular occasion.

[…] this approach creates the view that “there are actions that are good and bad in themselves,” whereas in reality, according to Nietzsche, “an action in itself is perfectly devoid of value: it depends on who performs it,” for what reason and with what effect.

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 213-14

[General systems theory’s] fundamental claim is that when living things are embedded in an orderly context, properties emerge that are not present when the things exist as isolated individuals. 

Picking up where Darwin left off, systems theory continued the revival of relational or secondary properties by reminding us that context matters.

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.108

[…] Zeleny (1980, 20) suggests that the lesson to be learned from the theory of autopoiesis is precisely "the lesson of holism." 

Far from being an inert epiphenomenon, the dynamics of the autopoietic whole serve as the orderly context that structures the behavioral characteristics and activities of the parts, a clear formulation of one of Bunge's (1979, 39) characteristics of a holistic point of view: the dynamics of the global level control the functioning of components at the lower level. 

The whole as whole most assuredly acts on its parts: self-cause - but not, as some would have it, qua other - one part forcefully impressing itself on another. Instead, complex adaptive systems exhibit true self-cause: parts interact to produce novel, emergent wholes; in turn, these distributed wholes as wholes regulate and constrain the parts that make them up. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.130

I propose that explaining complex systems, including human beings and their actions, must […] proceed hermeneutically, not deductively. 

In textual interpretation "the anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes explicit understanding in that the parts, that are determined by the whole, themselves also determine this whole" (Gadamer 1985, 259). Interpreters must move back and forth: the whole text guides the understanding of individual passages; yet the whole can be understood only by understanding the individual passages. 

This interlevel recursiveness, characteristic of hermeneutics, is thus "a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way as to bring both into view simultaneously" (Geertz 1979, 239). The interlevel tacking of the hermeneutic "circle” reproduces the self-organization of complex dynamical processes. By showing the dynamics of complex adaptive systems, hermeneutical narratives are uniquely suited as the logic of explanation of these strange-loop phenomena.

The logic of explanation of hermeneutics is therefore appropriate for explananda whose very nature is a product of that strange circle of whole and part. 

In contrast to covering laws and algorithms and deductions therefrom, that is, interpretation or hermeneutics reproduces the very logic of nature's open, adaptive dynamics. Like intentional actions, interpretations are characterized by strange-loop, interlevel relations and are, in consequence, essentially contextual and historical. Interpretations therefore explain by showing those nonlinear, interlevel processes at work. 

The threat of relativism lurking in the hermeneutic circle has often encouraged philosophers to reject it.

By drawing the explainer and the explanation into its strange loop, hermeneutics appears to forestall the possibility of any claim to truth and certainty. If we live in a dynamical universe, the novelty and creativity such complex systems display do indeed signal the end of eternal, unchanging, and universal certainty. 

Unlike modern science, however, dynamical systems theory provides an understanding of both the construction and integrity of wholes that does not dissolve their unity at that level. According to Gadamer (1985), the resolution to the circularity of hermeneutics is found in Heidegger's recognition that “the circle of the whole and the part is not dissolved in perfect understanding but on the contrary, is most fully realized"

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.223

Nineteenth-century hermeneuties failed to take into account that the explainer, as much as the phenomenon explained, is embedded in time and space. Twentieth-century students of hermeneutics, in contrast, have finally come to appreciate that interpretation is doubly historical. 

The phenomenon being explained has a history, and so must be understood within that history; but interpreters, too, are situated within history, within a tradition, which their interpretation both reflects and influences. 

This double historicity affects the pragmatics of explanation. When the subject is planetary orbits and billiard balls, that is, when interactions can be ignored, the role of interpreter recedes in importance; not so when the subject is either quantum processes or human actions. Dynamical systems have therefore brought the interpreter back into the pragmatics of explaining action (if not into the metaphysics of explanation, as quantum processes have).

In dynamical terms, the tradition in which interpreters are situated is itself an attractor. As social beings, interpreters are embedded in its dynamics. As Gadamer (1985, 216) notes, "[t]he anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the communality that binds us to the tradition." Jurors as well as the rest of us are located within a tradition, which frames our interpretation. This fact, which even the popular media harp on, need not lead either to paralysis or to the deconstructionist's conclusion that any interpretation is as good as any other. As Umberto Eco (1990, 21) insists and our discussion of top-down constraints has shown, context constrains the range of plausible interpretations. "A text is a place where the irreducible polysemy of symbols is in fact reduced because in a text symbols are anchored in their context."

Following Eco's lead, I submit that two contexts provide an action's "literal" meaning: the historical background and contextual setting in which the action was performed, and the context established by the "small world" of the action itself. Two contexts likewise frame the meaning of a hermeneutical explanation: the historical background and contextual setting in which the interpretation is offered, and the context established by the "small world" of the interpretation itself. 

When both the explainer and the agent whose action is being explained share the same historical background and contextual setting, interpretation usually proceeds smoothly. Not so in a society whose members bring with them radically different backgrounds and perspectives. 

If explainers are as much situated in a context (a tradition) as the phenomenon they are trying to explain, bringing this background-that-goes-without-saying to the foreground is a valuable contribution to the pragmatics of explanation: it helps determine how much the explanatory context itself has contributed to the explanation. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p. 237

The individual organism [...] is not fundamental to life, but something that emerges when genes, which at the beginning of evolution were separate, warring entities, gang together in cooperative groups, as 'selfish co-operators'.

The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But it is a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring agents.

Perhaps the subjective ‘I’, the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion ... The subjective feeling of 'somebody in there' may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analogous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes.

[Richard Dawkins]
Unweaving the Rainbow, 308-9

[…] atomistic doctrines rest on the idea that competition between separate units is the ultimate law of life.

[They] ignore the obviously equal importance of co-operation between organisms - and between the parts of organisms - at all levels. [They] therefore depend on a rather odd piece of metaphysics, namely the 'reductive' assumption that certain parts are, in some sense, always more real and significant than the whole they belong to.

What can it actually mean to suggest that the things that we directly deal with are in some sense less real than certain selected parts – or alleged parts - of them?

This mysterious point is seldom spelt out but it appears to centre on causality. The suggestion is that only these special parts are causally active. They are spontaneous, self-moving movers, while the wholes that they compose are mere passive outcomes of their activity.

Dawkins' wording here suggests that this is a historical truth - that these parts actually existed on their own before these wholes and gave rise to them. But this is not literal fact; it is a piece of symbolism. Memes, if they can be said to exist at all, certainly do so only as emergent aspects of human social life. Even their most fervent supporters have not suggested that they pre-existed as spiritual beings who originally produced that life.

'Reality' turns out to contain many different kinds of pattern at different levels. No one of these discoveries therefore should be expressed in the dramatic metaphysical language of reality and illusion.

Different ways of thinking co-exist and are appropriate on different scales. No one of them dominates or invalidates the others.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p. 4, 5, 8

The Pintupi are dominated by immediacy. Nothing seems settled unconditionally.

Thus, a man who deeply desired that a particular girl be married to him could, through intimidation, force her relatives to break a promise of bestowal to another.

A similar context-dependence may underlie their relations with outsiders.

[Fred R. Myers]
Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, p.17

Heidegger introduces a distinction between two ways of approaching the world: the present-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) and the ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit).

Present-at-hand refers to our theoretical apprehension of a world made up of objects. It is the conception of the world from which science begins. The ready-to-hand describes our practical relation to things that are handy or useful.

Heidegger's basic claim is that practice precedes theory, and that the ready-to-hand is prior to the present-at-hand.

The problem with most philosophy after Descartes is that it conceives of the world theoretically and thus imagines, like Descartes, that I can doubt the existence of the external world and even the reality of the persons that fill it – who knows, they might be robots! For Heidegger, by contrast, who we are as human beings is inextricably bound up and bound together with the complex web of social practices that make up my world. The world is part of who I am.

For Heidegger, to cut oneself off from the world, like Descartes, is to miss the point entirely: the fabric of our openedness to the world is one piece. And that piece should not be cut up.

[Simon Critchley]
'Being and Time, part 3: Being-in-the-world', The Guardian

The behaviour of a system is not determined primarily by the properties of individual components of the system, but is the result of complex patterns of interaction.

The structure of the system is not the result of an a priori design, nor is it determined directly by external conditions. It is a result of interaction between the system and its environment.

Self-organisation is an emergent property of a system as a whole (or of large enough sub-systems). The system's individual components only operate on local information and general principles.

The macroscopic behaviour emerges from microscopic interactions that by themselves have a very meagre information content (only traces).

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.91-2

The theory of evolution attempts to explain how biological systems, from generation to generation, develop certain capabilities that enhance their survivability. This theory largely explains the predetermined side of biological systems' behaviour, and does not really say anything about the adaptive behaviour of any specific organism.

To ensure its survival, an organism must not only learn to cope with its changing environment, but it must do so within its own lifetime, in what is known as 'somatic time'.

If we can link the notion of self-organisation to that of evolution, i.e. if we can develop a more general understanding of the notion of selection, it would be possible to argue that the distinction between predetermined and adaptive behaviour is not rigid.

How can a system respond to its environment? Changeaux et al. (1984) mention two mechanisms similar to those referred to above:

An instructive mechanism where the environment imposes order directly on the structure of the system.

A selective (Darwinian) mechanism where the increase in order is a result of an interaction between the system and the environment. The environment does not determine the structure of the system, but influences the development, as well as the transformation, reinforcement and stabilisation of patterns in the system.

In neural network terminology, the above distinction can be made in terms of supervised and unsupervised learning. The meaning of these terms will become clear in the process of analysing why both Changeaux and Edelman reject the first option.

The rejection results from a denial of the idea that the world is pre-arranged in an informational fashion, i.e. of the idea that things are categorised in an a priori fashion, and that these categories can be known objectively.

It is thus a rejection of that family of ideas that includes Platonism and logical positivism - the same family that forms the theoretical framework for classical AI.

One of the fundamental tasks of the nervous system is to carry on adaptive perceptual categorisation in an ‘unlabelled’ world - one in which the macroscopic order and arrangement of objects and events (and even their definition or discrimination) cannot be prefigured for an organism, despite the fact that such objects and events obey the laws of physics (Edelman 1987: 7)

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.100-1

Garfinkel (1987: 202-203) discusses the relationships between parts and whole in a biological context:

We have seen that modeling aggregation requires us to transcend the level of the individual cells to describe the system by holistic variables. But in classical reductionism, the behavior of holistic entities must ultimately be explained by reference to the nature of their constituents, because those entities 'are just' collections of the lower-level objects with their interactions.

Although it may be true in some sense that systems ‘are just’ collections of their elements, it does not follow that we can explain the system's behaviour by reference to its parts, together with a theory of their connections.

In particular, in dealing with systems of large numbers of similar components, we must make recourse to holistic concepts that refer to the behavior of the system as a whole. We have seen here, for example, concepts such as entrainment, global attractors, waves of aggregation, and so on.


[Blackwell (1976)] emphasises that a structure is ‘a system of transformations, rather than a system of parts or elements.’ The self-maintenance (read self-organisation) of the system is aimed at maintaining the dynamic structure and not the existence of any specific element.

In developing scientific theories, one should not fall for the temptation of identifying basic elements and then ask how they are combined to form a theory. ‘This is precisely the wrong approach and, in our opinion, is the main reason for the failure of contemporary philosophy of science to formulate an adequate account of theories.’

According to his ‘mid-stream principle’, theories have no ultimate elements, only intermediate ones. One should focus not on the elements, but on the system. Theories are hereby ‘designated as processes, not as static, logical formalisms.’

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.106, 131

Well, there's a whole number of reasons, but the simplest starting point is something called human exceptionalism. There's a kind of philosophical underpinning to the whole of […] mainstream techno industrial society. It goes way, way back, several hundred years, but flourished in the enlightenment and scientific revolution, that kept humans separate from nature.

We are not like the other species. We are in denial of our animal nature. And so this isolation or separation of humans from the rest of the nature is why ecologists don't study human beings. And economists in setting up the economy, don't consider it as part of the natural environment.

Another problem about human beings we can talk about later, something called the social construction of reality. That is we develop mental models of how things are […] based on our beliefs, values, assumptions, and experience in some cases.

We articulate these models, we discuss them, and they become formal theories. People buy into them [and] we start to live out of these models as if they were real.

So if we look at economics, we start from the position that humans aren't part of nature. It's called the exchange value model, where you have firms and households - the households spend money on products produced by firms, but then the firms pay the household salary and dividends so that money comes back to the households.

And so it's a circular self-perpetuating circular flow of exchange value. But the basic models in every single economics textbook, that we're still teaching in class, […] make no connection to anything outside themselves. We have the economy operating in complete isolation from the environment as a separate discreet, non-dependent system.

Attached to it [is] the notion that human ingenuity is our most important natural resource, [and] that technology will help us out of any kinky situation we might get into with respect to the natural environment.

The two beliefs - that we're separate from nature and that technology can handle any residual problems - are all you need as a mental construct, a social construct to develop a whole world economy based on the idea that there's no limits to growth that technology can't resolve.

And so we have now underpinned our belief in human exceptionalism. It's now moving forward on a foundation of economic thinking that completely ignores the natural environment. We have an economy and a set of economic paradigms, and laws and strategies and so on, that sees us separate from nature; when any material flows analysis of the kind we've done in my work shows that humans are the single most important and major species in terms of material flows through every ecosystem on the planet.

How can you possibly imagine governing a planet where we are the single largest component of every ecosystem using models that don't even consider us to be connected?

[...] every growth of the economy, every growth in income increases the human demand on the shrinking biocapacity of Earth. It's a perfect example of how the mental models from which we live often have no correlate in the natural world upon which we are living.

So the new paradigm, the new vision, the new cultural narrative has to be one which sees human beings as an integral component of the ecosystems upon which we literally [depend]. Currently, we're parasitic, but we now have to become commensalist.

[William Rees]
‘William E. Rees: "The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot" | The Great Simplification #53’, Nate Hagens, YouTube

Empiricists, such as Locke or Hume, tried to give an account of personal identity solely in terms of psychological states or events. Analytical philosophers, in so many ways their heirs as well as their critics, have wrestled with the connection between those states and events and strict identity understood in terms of Leibniz's Law.

Both have failed to see that a background has been omitted, the lack of which makes the problems insoluble. That background is provided by the concept of a story and of that kind of unity of character which a story requires.

Just as a history is not a sequence of actions, but the concept of an action is that of a moment in an actual or possible history abstracted for some purpose from that history, so the characters in a history are not a collection of persons, but the concept of a person is that of a character abstracted from a history.

The concepts of narrative, intelligibility and accountability presuppose the applicability of the concept of personal identity, just as it presupposes their applicability and just as indeed each of these three presupposes the applicability of the two others. The relationship is one of mutual presupposition.

It does follow of course that all attempts to elucidate the notion of personal identity independently of and in isolation from the notions of narrative, intelligibility and accountability are bound to fail. As all such attempts have.

[...] any specific account of the virtues presupposes an equally specific account of the narrative structure and unity of a human life and vice versa.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.251-3, 282