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').

Efficient / Inefficient

Efficient               -          Inefficient
Engineer              -          Artist
Specialist             -          Generalist
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

Related posts:

Old / New

New                         -                     Old
Top Down                -                     Bottom Up
Nurture                    -                      Nature
Constructivist           -                     Essentialist

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

Related posts:

Part / Whole

Part                            -                       Whole

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. 

[…] 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