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New notes from Stellenbosch




Call me irrational, but I can’t help feeling that, at the 3rd International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy, our attempts to apply complexity thinking to philosophy began to grow up. At the first two workshops, participants seemed to be in the human equivalent of phase transition, experimenting with a variety of only tenuously connected approaches and directions. In the most recent workshop, however, a deepened sense of what complexity thinking means for social systems seemed to emerge, creating a sense of coherence as gratifying as it was surprising.

This feeling that the conference had moved from phase transition into the early stages of a stable state was especially evident in a series of presentations on the issues of learning, ethics, and history. In each of these presentations, the issue of interconnection dominated, emphasizing a Post-Modernist recognition that complexity in human affairs demanded we transcend the Modernist focus on entities as analytically distinct and its search for the one right answer. Rather, each suggested we would do better to focus, not only on our interconnections, but also on learning to tolerate, if not embrace, the differences that have so often divided people.

Perhaps I misperceived what was going on, but, for me, this workshop felt as if many of the presenters were now speaking from the experience of complexity, rather than merely from thoughts about it.

Consider, for example, Aliki Nicolaides’ presentation on the epistemology of learning. Her focus was an examination of what we mean by learning “in the context of intensifying complex reality.” From a complexity point of view, learning becomes a dynamic process that demands the learner maintain relationship amid diversity. Such an attitude, she emphasized, is a far cry form the “show me the skill” approach in much of current, Modernist adult learning theory. Rather, complexity learning is, first and foremost, about discovering the “emerging model that defines the boundaries of action...” (Richardson & Cilliers, 2007). In this way, complexity learning generates self-reinforcing feedback loops in which one must discover emerging models in order to learn about the world coded in them.

As a result, rather than the objectivity demanded by Modernist learning, with its focus on the instrumental and technical, complexity learning requires a more relational connection in the learner. In this model of learning, one must focus on “embracing a multiple analytical and interpretive frame for creating meaning.” Complexity learning is thus much more demanding than Modernist learning. For, rather than standing outside the subject of learning, Nicolaides continued, the learner must be in relationship to it. And that, in turn, requires a decree of openness, of mutuality and intimacy, that Modernist learning dismisses as “merely” subjective. It also requires the ability to hold different, even opposed positions. In many ways, Nicolaides appeared to be describing the same conditions that Stacey describes as necessary for creativity in Complexity and creativity in organizations (1996).

What made Nicolaides’s presentation representative of the common position I perceived at the workshop was that it called, not merely for thinking differently, but for living differently. The two presentations on ethics and my own on history, all pointed to this need to transform ourselves and the way we live that a serious commitment to the principles of complexity thinking makes inescapable.

Even the more technical presentations enriched this sense that we were reaching deeper into what complexity meant for social systems. For example, anthropologist Dmitri Bondarenko offered a powerful framework for understanding the way social hierarchies function. After emphasizing that all societies are collections of hierarchies reflecting a variety of institutions—family, government, religion, education, etc.—he made a distinction between the two extremes on the continuum of hierarchy systems. On one hand are systems that are homoarchic—that is, one of the society’s hierarchies is dominant, and its members’ position in other hierarchies are largely dictated by their positions in the dominant hierarchy. Think for instance of Maoist China, where one’s position in relation to the Communist Party hierarchy dominated his or her position in any other, as many of the most distinguished university professors learned during the Cultural Revolution. On the other are heterarchic systems, where no one hierarchy dominates. In American society, for instance, a person can be CEO, at the top of the hierarchy, of a major corporation, and, at the same time, a comparatively powerless person in the legal hierarchy.

This distinction, it seems to me, is much more illuminating than the distinction usually drawn between hierarchic and flat organizations. As we continue to learn, all complex systems are hierarchic. What distinguishes human societies is the simultaneous existence of many hierarchies. Bondarenko’s presentation offered a powerful way to think about those human systems, reflecting their full complexity.

My sense that our discussions of human complexity were deepening was also reflected in the conversations provoked by the presentations. Bondarenko’s, for instance, generated a discussion about whether organizations almost inevitably evolve from early stages where they are heterarchic to later stages where they become homoarchic. There was also a substantial amount of conversation about whether it was time for us to move beyond our use of the technical language of complexity science. This is a particularly important issue for me. For even though I have used the term “attractor” to describe such human phenomena as personality, culture, and episteme, I have become increasingly aware that such terms may create more problems than they resolve.

If you’re interested in exploring any of these issues, the papers are available in the recently published collection Explorations in complexity thinking, edited by Kurt Richardson and Paul Cilliers. And if that whets your appetite, a fourth workshop may well be in the cards for 2009. Of course, the only way I’ll be able to be sure my sense of the third workshop was accurate is to wait and see if the fourth continues moving in that direction. After all, the quickest way to figure out what a complex system will do is ... but we all know how that sentence ends.



Richardson, K. A. and Cilliers, P. (eds.) (2007). Explorations in Complexity Thinking: Pre-proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy, ISBN 9780979168819.


Stacey, R. D. (1996). Complexity and Creativity in Organizations, ISBN 9781881052890.

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