Kurt A. Richardson
With a field so broad in both breadth and depth as is complexity thinking it is nigh on impossible to cover all our bases in the development of well argued, robust and relevant understanding. In the current issue of E:CO we have decided to include a Classical Papers section to help address some of the difficulties confronting not only complexity thinkers but any thinker in modern times. These difficulties include:
Chinese Whispers: As past writings move even further into the past the author’s ideas tend to be retranslated into the language of the time in which they are read. Often the intellectual landscape has evolved considerably; the political landscape has undoubtedly evolved, both of which prevent a true reading of the author’s original text. Given the vastness of the material available out there it is no surprise that many of us only know the works of previous authors through short quotations used by modern writers to support a particular point of view. The Chinese Whisper problem arises because quotes are always taken out of context in order to support the current author’s position. If another author has only had access to the original author through quotations made by more recent authors it is no surprise that over time the meaning originally intended by the original author slowly shifts—sometimes to the point of not even being reconcilable with the original text. In politics this is often done maliciously, but in science it is an unfortunate by-product of managing the overwhelming complexity of past thoughts and writings (though of course it does also have a positive creative dimension). If you really want to know what a long gone author said on a particular subject then you really need to explore their original texts. Even then your modern cultural biases will prevent you from obtaining the original senses (researching the history surrounding the author often allows for a more genuine interpretation—though who has the time to perform such deep research into every author they take an interest in?)—you will at least remove the layers of reinterpretation and reframing imposed by many intermediate interpreters.
Reinventing the Wheel: With all that has gone before it is no surprise whatsoever that the wheel gets reinvented time and time again. Moving in and out of favor is part of the normal evolution of any idea, though each reinvention often changes the previous incarnation in subtle ways, sometimes not. My particular interest is philosophy, and the more I read the writings of past philosophers the more modern ideas I uncover that are supposedly original. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if one could put together a modern text on complexity thinking using only Ancient Greek texts! With the best will in the world, and a never-ending budget we can never take everything that has gone before into account. Very few new ideas are really original. Exploring past texts can reduce the effort expended in searching for novel solutions, but it can also drive the wheel of reinvention too. Claims of originality in the modern world where there is no basis for such claims seems to be an integral part of the Market driven economy. However, originality is not as important as one might think—which is rather fortunate given it’s rareness. An old idea brought to a new audience can be more valuable than a truly original idea. In absolute terms an old idea reframed for modern consumption really is a new idea and so the notion of reinvention (like all notions) is problematic.
Empire Building: The development of any school of thought is often associated with a rush to differentiate itself from other schools of thought. This often means highlighting differences and subduing similarities. Empire building in science often leads to an ‘ism’, i.e. a collection of coherent thoughts and theories that seem self-contained and quite distinguishable from other ‘isms’. Many complexity writers begin their treatises by expounding the shortcomings of so-called Newtonian thinking and developing
a new way, Complexity thinking, built upon corrections to those prior limitations. The education theorist John Dewey noted exactly the same process in the development of progressive educational methods from traditional methods. Progressivism emerged in response to the perceived shortcomings of ‘traditionalism’, rather than the perceived needs of Education itself. Dewey says:
“For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ’ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ’isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead ofby a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” (Dewey, 1938: 6).
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read that “linear thinking is dead—long live nonlinear thinking”—a rather pertinent illustration of reactionary-based theory development, which severely limits the possibility of realizing the full implications and extent of complexity.
An example of a literature that seems to have been arbitrarily (not necessarily intentionally) sidelined by the complexity community is that of soft systems thinking which evolved from the mathematically- based general systems theory. Offspring literatures include critical systems heuristics, critical systems thinking, and boundary critique to name but a few. Through these different fields GST moved from the abstract world of mathematics (and some might say, un-appliable) to the concrete, though vague, world of useful application. Complexity thinking has only just taken the first steps in the direction towards application. However, I think that in the effort to distinguish complexity thinking from general systems theory and it’s many outgrowths, complexity thinkers are severely limiting their subject’s potential.
Of course Empire Building, like all seemingly negative concepts, has it’s more positive flip-side—it helps a community keep some degree of focus. This is essential if solutions to emerging problems/issues are to be found. The trick of course is to not reify one’s Empire’s boundaries in a politically motivated effort to differentiate and marginalize.
Historicity: Not all papers are created equal. Even though the obscurest of papers will have had some direct influence on the evolution of thought (although complexity places profound limitations on our ability to judge such influence objectively), some papers really do deserve the honor of being called seminal. Sometimes entire fields of endeavour can be traced back to a single paper (although many less known papers probably inspired the seminal one). Understanding the appearance and development of one’s field of interest undoubtedly leads to a richer understanding of that particular field, which can open up avenues of exploration that might not have previously seemed legitimate.
In future issues of E:CO we aim to reprint one Classical Paper per issue (as the current issue is a double issue we have included two). Each paper will be chosen to exemplify at least one if not all of the issues briefly discussed above and will be briefly introduced by whomever chose the paper. We also aim to present the papers in their original formatting, rather than re-typesetting them. As such, the printing quality will not be up to our usual standards, but we think it is important to do so. We invite E:CO’s readership to participate in the Classical Paper selection. If you would like to see a particular classic paper (which we define loosely as a relevant paper originally published some 50+ years ago) included and you are prepared to justify your choice in a short introduction then please send your ideas along to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education, New York: Touchstone, ISBN 0684838281.