In this account I will focus on only one theme that manifests both in texts of Wittgenstein and complexity research: ontology and subject/ I / agent. It will be pondered upon whether ontology is the way that Wittgenstein paved in his Tractatus and texts before it, but backed off from, in his later writings. The peculiar ‘limit’ of language was approached from the inside by Ludwig Wittgenstein and from the outside by Ilya Prigogine. It is claimed that it is possible to combine thoughts of both — or more correctly: keep limits of world separate from limits of language.

The importance of language is not down-played but balanced within ontology. Do living agents use language for their own purposes or does it go the other way around so that dominant discourses harness agents? As postmodernists (e.g., Deetz, 1996: 194) claim the distinction between the subjective and objective is not an interesting rhetorical move and I would say it is even nonsensical and irrelevant: things derive from agency. The definition of agent is the same as in normal use of language: one who moves in self-ruling ways and sets things in motion. It seems that in social sciences many researchers deny ‘agent’, and in complexity research, models are rule-based, not agent-based and stochastic.

When prominent scholars like Nicos Mouzelis explicitly eschew ontology of humans it makes me curious. Mouzelis (1995: 9) has considered it wise “to keep clear of the type of theorizing” as to “the ontological nature of the social”, and Hosking (1999: 118) warns ontology-oriented researchers that “they risk becoming lousy philosophers and seriously dubious social scientists”. Is there in the social sciences an area that researchers should avoid? Why? The answer is: confusion as to understanding of ontology by philosophers and, thereupon, by social scientists. The answer was easy to find but here it is more interesting to follow the track to its origin. It seems that the origin is in Wittgenstein (TLP 5.6): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” However, use of words (propositions) was no problem to Wittgenstein. But in the Metaphysics Aristotle creates definite universals that constitute real entities: this is the origin of the linguistic turn, a topic that is fully explained in a forth-coming dissertation (Muhonen, 2008).

The ontological peculiarity of language was manifest already in the sentence of Wittgenstein: he does not say that the limits of my language are the limits of my world, but they mean them. Mixing meanings that people produce with existence is the core issue of ontology. Obviously anticipating problems deriving from this statement he opened a backdoor in his last paragraph (TLP 6.54): “throw away the ladder … to see the world aright”! With the ladder he meant his own propositions. It is possible to throw away the ‘ladder’ if ontology is taken as the starting point and the ladder is considered to be language itself, instead of creating new epistemological discourses — discourses that can be considered the source of fragmentation and dualisms in many research traditions (Pfeffer, 1993; Fairhurst, 2001).

The typical claims of our postmodernist and social-constructionist epoch are that language ‘is core to the process of constituting objects’ (Deetz, 1996: 192) and that ‘we are in language’ (Maturana & Varela, 1998: 210). These are typical universal claims comparable with universal laws of positivism. One can ask whether belief in God, the universal ‘laws of nature’, and universal claims about the ‘social world’ are an innate quality of humans? Alas, pondering upon this extremely interesting question would lead us to a sidetrack from ontology but Boulton and Allen (2007, 262) try to corner God. However, according to Wittgenstein (TLP 6.432) “God does not reveal himself in the world” and thus it is a mission impossible.

If one asks what then forms the “limits of my world” it is claimed that language does not set these limits, but the capability of human individuals to understand does; a conclusion that converges later thoughts of Wittgenstein (Glock, 2001: 18-19). In addition when we study human agents we cannot avoid the theme of rule following (Wittgenstein) and dissipative structures (Prigogine) because agents are free to do anything they like. This topic of constraints is only tackled to the appropriate extent but the question of volition is set aside here.

If Ludwig Wittgenstein succeeds in revealing a facet of human nature — predilection for language – Ilya Prigogine can help us see our place in the everlasting wooing dance of the universe: as agents accelerating diversity. Instead, unity, i.e., social order or dissipative structures, i.e., spatio-temporal organizations (Prigogine, 1997: 66), calls for lots of effort and energy but this too is another topic – it is contemplated at general level by Collier (2007, 88).

Not false but nonsensical

There are propositions in Tractatus that have been applicable both for logical positivists (Vienna Circle) and postmodernists which blurs the picture. Comments on nonsensical and metaphysical problems commended themselves to the former and comments on world blended in language and the non-existence of subject to the latter. However, Wittgenstein stated that “most of the questions in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical” (TLP 4.003; emphasis added). And he continues the reason being that “most of the questions arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language”. But because Wittgenstein had keen interest in logic, and not in ontology, he could never figure his way out from language, the way he had, however, paved in Tractatus – von Wright (1998: 277) wonders why Wittgenstein looked at every philosophical topic through language. Instead he devoted his life to clarify the diversity of language games that I call here ‘rungs of the ladder’ or ‘the Sea of Signs’. Due to the strong research traditions along the ‘linguistic turn’2 (Pearce, 1992; Deetz, 2003), many researchers who favor postmodernism are still locked in language.

Today, also in complexity research there are many concepts (‘rungs of the ladder’) that partly overlap and blur the picture: dissipative structures, self-organization, emergence; initial conditions, mental scripts / schemata; fitness landscapes, energy injections; path-dependence, locality, attractors; search; tags. Most researchers are inclined to focus on some of them and build their theory on that basis. According to Anderson (1999: 219) there is no universally accepted paradigm for describing complex adaptive systems (CAS). As Stengers (2004: 97) stresses “physics is no universal key, that nothing can take the place of the process of creation of relevant questions in each field” [emphasis added].

Before proceeding, some readers may feel irresistible temptation to jump to the end of this text and find out first what ontology is about. Please feel free to do so, but if you want to be puzzled first, keep reading further. Be careful of not stumbling on ‘rungs of the ladder’ that lie all over.

Language and universe: The place of language

A relevant question in all sciences and philosophy is the place of language. This is the peculiar limit that neither Wittgenstein nor Prigogine crossed. In contemporary scientific texts language is located in nominalism. For example, in a very basic book meant to clarify the philosophical debates, Czarniawska (2003: 135) argues that “in a nominalist spirit, the pre-moderns believed that giving names to objects, people, or phenomena they created new existences”. Elementary books of philosophy tell that the place of language is in realism, the other extreme of ontology (Niiniluoto, 1997: 124). Contemporary philosophers oppose realism and idealism (Philström, 2000). Puzzling? It is because obviously the face value of realism is irresistible.

The debate of ontology is an excellent example of the inadequacy of words and the idiosyncratic meanings they contain. Actually the debate of ontology was once settled during the history of humankind and is known as Ockham’s razor3 (Niiniluoto, 2005; von Wright, 1998: 313). Which means, that we should use no more explanatory concepts than is necessary. As Wittgenstein (TLP 4.064) argues “every proposition must already have a sense: it cannot be given a sense by affirmation”. Logical propositions always have sense. But the nonsensical use of signs is typical to human individuals because “existential propositions about reality can first occur unasserted to convey an insight” (Geach, 1976: 54-55). Insight is only a vague idea of how things may stand.

For Wittgenstein language was a kind of obsession (von Wright, 1998: 277) but Prigogine was cautious of moving his vocabulary (‘rungs of the ladder’) to social sciences. Nevertheless, Prigogine’s voice comes out loud and clear in the report of the Gulbenkian Commission (1996: 76):

“The second issue is how to reinsert time and space as internal variables constitutive of our analyses and not merely unchanging physical realities within which the social universe exists… To the extent that we succeed in this, the outdated distinction between idiographic and nomothetic epistemologies will lose whatever cognitive meaning it still has. However, this is easier said than done” [emphasis added].

It becomes easier if ontology is taken as the starting point. When ontology is understood properly, time and space are the limits of the world — due to the unidirectional time (Prigogine, 1997) the Earth is like a bus in the universe, a bus which carries us to the future; a universe which we cannot escape. Therefore the sentence in the previous paragraph needs to be corrected. From the standpoint of nominalism the interpretation of ‘universe’ says explicitly that there exists no ‘social universe’ within the physical universe. There is only one universe within which individual humans exist, move and interact.

There are still some philosophical speculations on whether humans have access to reality (e.g., Potter, 2000), that is, whether we can trust that our observations are about reality. In spite of one’s doubts reality has access to each and everyone. This is easy to show with a little test that I call the Tellus—test. Actually it is used every day all over the world. And the result is always the same. Therefore, there are thousands of doubters less. The test is presented at the end of this text.

An ontological way of reading Tractatus

Recognizing all the transformations that Wittgenstein’s thought underwent between 1929 and 1933 (Glock: 2001, 12-17), Tractatus still has the same basic message. As Glock (ibid.: 13) reminds, it is right to insist on the pictorial nature of propositions [emphasis added]. Wittgenstein talks about the clothing of things and their outward form (TLP 4.002). If Tractatus is read from this standpoint the basic message becomes clearer and some obscurity will be dispelled.

An interesting question remains: did Wittgenstein have his tongue in cheek when he uttered the puckish lie and encouraged us to “climb out through my propositions … and throw away the ladder” (TLP 6.54)? Then we would be on the other side of language and world which is logically impossible according to him! What is the way out of this cul-de-sac? Actually he tips us off in several places of Tractatus. The main argument for this reading is in 4.002 where he says:

“Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes” [emphasis added].

Can it be said any clearer? Language is like clothing we dress over our thoughts. If the only purpose or use of language would be of conveying our thoughts honestly and precisely, we would follow the strict rules of logic that were the main interest of Wittgenstein in Tractatus. However, Wittgenstein points out that we can use language to disguise our real thoughts and interests. According to him it is a matter of psychology to figure out the reasons why those kinds of occasions take place – philosophy can only show the possibilities. Therefore, “all philosophy is a ‘critique of language’ (TLP 4.0031)”. This criticalness can be considered the core of the suggestion of throwing the ladder away in 6.54: and doubt my propositions, too! There is one researcher who has explicitly thrown away his ladder. Silverman (1994: 3), a prominent qualitative methodologist, admits that his previous theory of organizations ”stresses, time and time again, that what we should look at are actors’ meanings”. Then he aptly asks how then do you get at an actor’s meaning? In other words, do we have access to the minds of other people?

Instead of picking certain propositions from Tractatus for making interpretations – Wallgren (2006, the 5th chapter) has a full coverage of these – it can also be read as an attempt to say something about language. The core section about language (TLP 4.1 with its sub-readings) is tricky because there Wittgenstein tries to say what can be said and what cannot be said! It becomes more puzzling when he claims that there is something that “finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent” (TLP 4.121). This something is the logical form of language that is mirrored in propositions. It can be shown but it cannot be said. That what can be shown he tackles shortly at the end of the book (TLP 6.53), and I will come to it later (see the title Backdoor). Meanwhile he encapsulates each human in language in the spirit of solipsism (TLP 5.632): “The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world”. What is the way out of this ‘Sea of Signs’? Do we need a ladder to go ashore?

In addition, when he talks about “unessential psychological investigations” by philosophers (TLP 4.1121) he admits that “with my method too there is an analogous risk”. Obviously this risk turned real in his analyses of subject and will which is exemplified next.

Nature of the human agent: ‘I’ without extension?

Wittgenstein (TLP 5.6 with its sub-claims) displays a peculiar conception of subject observing the world. His further comment about solipsism is even poetic when he describes how the “fully developed idea of solipsism coincides with pure realism: the self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it.” Natural sciences hardly know ‘a point without extension’ and, therefore, this comment can be seen as one of the rare nonsensical speculations Wittgenstein utters in Tractatus. Bakhurst (2001: 237) reminds that later Wittgenstein abandoned solipsism but continued to resist the idea that the self or subject is an entity.

As to a subject observing the world Wittgenstein categorically states that “there is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas” (TLP 5.631). He clarifies later on that what brings the self into philosophy is the fact that ‘the world is my world’ (TLP 5.641) and he continues there:

“The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world — not a part of it” [emphasis added].

One can only wonder what is this mystical observer or thinker who uses language to blend in the limits of one’s world? If the limits of language are the limits of world then, logically, the observer (philosophical self) is language itself which comprises the whole world. Wittgenstein’s conclusion (TLP 5.63) leaves no doubt: “I am my world. (The microcosm.)” These kinds of regressive explanations, i.e., explaining a thing by ‘meta-language’, have been shown useless by logicians (Woozley, 1967: 196; von Wright, 1998: 303).

All this said Wittgenstein seems to be the origin of the typical claim of postmodernists: Deetz (2003: 422) is “de-centering the human subject as the center or origin of perspective”; Callon (1999: 185), a creator of Actor-Network theory, argues that “agents contain their world; agents are actor-worlds”; and Potter (2000: 108) concludes that “you’ve got your reality, I’ve got mine”. In accordance with Derrida, whom Cilliers (1998: 43) quotes, the metaphysics of presence is denied but in the spirit of Tractatus he states that “we cannot separate language from the world it describes”. By diluting the agent to ‘the point without extension’ even complexity researchers go for ‘process-concepts’ like self-organization, emergence, relating, or constructing. However, Prigogine (1997: 155) states that “The laws of nature, which no longer deal with certitudes but possibilities, overrules the age-old dichotomy between being and becoming”.

What is not known is what Wittgenstein means by ‘pure realism’ (above 5.62). Is it the same as extreme concept realism? If so, in that extreme of ontology there are all kinds of existential instantiations (Hintikka, 1989) that may have no ‘real’ existence or extension. Hintikka (ibid.: 37) announces a cut-throat remark: “speaking of ‘arbitrary objects’ may be heuristically suggestive but it will not yield philosophically viable understanding of the situation”.

From the standpoint of nominalism and logic, it is essential to ponder what kind of agents humans are. Hintikka (1989: 37-8) carefully explains the difference between making deductive moves and interrogative moves. Both produce existential instantiations but the former yields up free variables, sometimes called ‘dummy names’, while the latter introduces individual elements of the world in relation to what an interrogative game takes place. Hintikka explains how interrogative questions are needed to bring in substantially new information, and then deductions are needed both for the purpose of spelling out the consequences of such information and, more importantly, for the purpose of paving way for new questions by establishing their presuppositions. He refers to Charles S. Peirce’s distinction on how theorematic inferences are the ones which introduce a new individual into the argument, whereas corollarial inferences merely traffic in the individuals who have already been considered in their premises (ibid: 29-30). Hintikka (ibid.: 40) stresses that “it is precisely existential instantiations that introduce new individuals into deductive reasoning and thereby make the total arguments theorematic (non-trivial)” [emphasis added]. The art and science of good reasoning does not rest on ‘dummy names’ or ‘informal logic’ but nesting quantifiers, that is, the increase in the number of individuals considered (ibid.: 43), make logical arguments theorematic and relevant. Human agents in a complex adaptive system (e.g., business organization), therefore, have idiosyncratic importance. Hintikka claims that human mind finds it difficult to operate with nested quantifiers.

The backdoor

Did Wittgenstein also have a backdoor for the ‘philosophical self’ that is blended in language and limits of world? Although it seems that he never came to a conclusion on how ‘self’, ‘I’ or ‘will’ should be understood, there are some comments in Tractatus that reveal that this mysterious and transcendental philosophical ‘observer’ has to have access to reality.

Candlish (2001: 157-9) carefully displays all the correctives that Wittgenstein made to the concept of ‘will’ in his earlier and later writings. In accordance with nominalism would be Wittgenstein’s note he made before writing Tractatus: “The act of will is not the cause of the action but rather the action itself” (ibid.: 157). If so, why not call ‘the act of will’ right away the act of agent? Candlish points out that if Wittgenstein had included it in Tractatus it would have been incompatible with the entire [transcendental] metaphysics of Tractatus.

Beside that all philosophy is a ‘critique of language’ (TLP 4.0031) — although mainly in language – Wittgenstein also postulates that ‘philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity’ (TLP 4.112). Now the backdoor opens. As a result from this activity ‘a proposition must restrict reality to two alternatives: yes or no’ (TLP 4.023). Then one can say “this is how things stand” which is “the general form of a proposition” (TLP 4.5). And finally he nullifies philosophy by saying that “the correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e., propositions of natural science” (6.53).

What will be left? Some logic truths that are tautological and exclude nothing in reality. This is the point when we can leave ‘the Sea of Signs’ (the ladder) and go ashore. This is the point where it behoves Ilya Prigogine to step in and show ‘how things stand’. Wittgenstein knows this explicitly: “The general propositional form is a variable” (TLP 4.53).

Diversity and agent

There are already a large variety of complexity researches. In order to compare them let us pose an interrogative question: what is the core proposition a research tradition is based on? First, there are those researchers who propel rule-based (simulation) models (e.g., Holland, 1995; Lissack & Roos, 2000). Another group of researchers prefer living-system models where swarm intelligence and self-organizing are the key concepts (e.g., de Geus, 1997; Cilliers, 1998; Pascale et al., 2000; Bonabeau, 2001, 2002). Both these groups frankly admit that they are disciples of Stuart Kauffman, Murray Gell-Mann and Brian Arthur (Pascale, 2004) who have their home base in the Santa Fe Institute. Third, there are researchers who talk about decentered agency where reality is constructed in a participative manner (e.g., Stacey; 2003; Griffin, 2002; Shaw, 2002). Social constructionism has a firm grip on them today (Stacey, 2003, 360). Their home base is in Great Britain. And fourth, there are some scientists who try to follow Prigogine’s thoughts attentively (e.g. Foster, 1997, 2000; Byrne, 1998). The purpose of this conceptual analysis is to show how Prigogine applied the concepts of dissipative structure/ self-organization/ emergence.

Pascale (1999: 84) has presented the following claim, as the first test for the existence of CAS, that “there are many agents acting parallel and they are not hierarchically controlled”. This leads easily to a claim of homogeneity that may be a derivative of some references Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 175-6; 206) have made as to human endeavors. The homogeneity assumption may have its origin in “what is presupposed is that each member of a given population can be taken as the equivalent of any of the others” (ibid.: 204). But if this statement is separated from the logistic equations of population growth it will be misleading. On the other hand, the origin of control redundancy might be in the basic experiments of self-organization in chemistry and physics. The experiments relate to liquids that are heated in a beaker (e.g., Prigogine and Stengers, 1984: 142-3). Although molecules are only affected by the neighboring molecules they start to move in an organized way: moving up in the center and coming down along the sides.

How plausible are the assumptions of human agents’ homogeneity and redundancy of control?

Can human agents be considered similar entities as ingredients in chemical reactions?

Prigogine and Stengers (ibid.: 144-5) made a very important notion, that is, how we outline a thing in our mind and how it actually happens in nature. They explain that normally humans’ mental image of chemical reactions corresponds to molecules speeding through space, colliding at random in a chaotic way. And they remark that such an image leaves no space for self-organization [emphasis added]. Therefore, the self-organization and homogeneity assumptions are harder to maintain if the question is given the following form:

Are human agents rather like ‘molecules colliding at random in a chaotic way’ than chemical ingredients in a container?

Although molecules of liquids in far-from-equilibrium situations look like individuals of human crowds, humans are not in a beaker (a kind of constraint) or have valences (the strong forces of nature) as atoms have. The beaker as a limit has, however, some relevance if it is compared with rules that humans are expected to follow. As post-modernists have shown, culture, habits, regulations etc. leave individuals more freedom than ever before. If the answer to the latter question above is yes, then it suggests the introduction of the ‘self-ruling and freely-moving agent’ instead of self-organization. It does not, however, imply that they are not dependent: socialized, conditioned, or coerced. But it certainly implies that individuals are socialized, conditioned and coerced by other individuals locally, not by social institutions. Social order is always local and temporary.

Depending on what analogy is preferred it has far reaching consequences on how we conceive humans as agents. Due to Tractatus — for example, “there is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas” (TLP 5.631) — post-modernists have developed theories of what determines the actions of humans instead of humans themselves (e.g. Deetz, 2003). It is always important to bear in mind Wittgenstein’s warning about nonsensical questions and wordings. For example, Stacey (2003: 360) applies ideas from social constructionism and states that “the self-organizing entities are not individual human beings but the symbols.” The ‘Sea of Signs’ has swallowed Stacey, too. Boulton and Allen (2007, 272) almost fall into this paradoxical trap of “de-emphasizing the agency of the individual” but maintain accountability of human individuals by “placing responsibility on each of us for our actions”.


One can hardly be satisfied with calling human beings ‘particles’ or anything like ‘atoms’ or ‘molecules’. However, there is much confusion when vocabularies used to describe chemical reactions or population ecology are transferred to describe human interaction as Foster (1997, 2000) and Stengers (2004) warn. Presumingly, due to the self-ruling nature of human agents no ‘grand discourse’ of complexity research has occurred or will occur.

Capra (2002: 71) reminds that Maturana and Varela, both biologists, originally proposed that the concept of autopoiesis (literally ’self-making’, which is close to self-organizing) should be restricted to the description of cellular networks, and the broader concept of ’organization closure’, which does not specify production processes, should be applied to all other living systems. Therefore, one can say that if the term ‘structural coupling’ is applied to humans it must be recognized as extremely loose. And organization closure implies nothing more than the traditional ‘social order’.

Although Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 12-13) emphasize the constructive role of dissipative processes in the formation of ‘dissipative structures’ (p. 12) and a mechanism of ‘communication’ among molecules (p. 13), they also remark that nothing takes place in a vacuum — limits, constraining forces, or a beaker are always needed:

“The type of dissipative structure depends critically on the conditions in which the structure is formed. External fields such as the gravitational field of earth, as well as the magnetic field, may play an essential role in the selection mechanism of self-organization” (p. 14; emphases added).

What is important to notice is that self-organizing takes place quite rapidly after the bifurcation point and a new structure stabilizes itself. During the transition phase the system fluctuates between several possible paths until one will strengthen. However, similar critique as to ‘the paradigm of optimization’ (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984: 207) applies to the use of ‘self-organization’ as a ‘property of a complex system’ as for example Cilliers (1998: 90) defines. Prigogine and Stengers explain: “… [optimization] as the key to understand how individuals survive is to risk confusing causes with effects.” Self-organization is a synonym for the formation of a dissipative structure, nothing more. As a concept, self-organization is illustrative but has no substance as such. It is no piece of tool to originate something. The Ockham’s razor works cuttingly here.

Although Prigogine and his disciples willingly had dialogue with social scientists they have always been cautious to give answers (Stengers, 2004). Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 195) posed a clear warning about “the organization of internally differentiated populations”:

“Clear distinctions are absolutely necessary if we are to avoid confusion. In populations where individuals are not interchangeable and where each, with its own memory, character, and experience, is called to play a singular role, the relevance of the logistic equation and, more generally, of any simple Darwinian reasoning becomes quite relative” (emphases added).

They also aptly point out that as to the models derived from the ‘logistic equation’ of evolution, the assumed structural stability of models “imply drastic simplification of a situation … in an environment where only a limited amount of the needed resources exist” (ibid.: 192). Therefore, they recommend that we should make “the ‘carrying capacity’ [’K’] of a system a function of the way it is exploited instead of taking it as given” (ibid.: 196). Also in human societies innovations transform the conditions in which they appear and enable their own multiplication. This conclusion is also affirmed by Foster (1997: 441): “The physio-chemical self-organization process is inadequate to understand evolutionary behavior at higher levels of natural complexity”. Historicalness or path-dependence is not deterministic because living agents challenge the prevailing regime and avalanche-like revolutions take place.

Freely moving agents

Due to the nature of the human agent it is not easy to find the best way to describe joint efforts or encounters of humans. What Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 175-6) emphasize is that in the context of the physics of irreversible processes, the results of biology obviously have a different meaning and different implications. They clarify this by saying that in biological, ecological, or social evolution we cannot take as given either a definite set of interacting units or a definite set of transformations of these units (ibid: 189). Thus the problem of structural stability concerns the reaction of a given system to the introduction of new units. An example is that when a new employee enters the business organization it is a new organization thereafter. A more drastic avalanche takes place when one of the most talented members leaves the business organization and moves to a competitor. That is to say that the organization loses a lot of energy to the other company.

When Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 62) refer to Aristotle, who was fully aware of the qualitative multiplicity of change in nature, they state that the only type of change surviving in dynamics from the age of Aristotle is motion. Moving is the culmination point of evolution (D in the Figure 1). From the standpoint of nominalism and agency, moves that a person makes are dependent on one’s will. In spite of dependence (e.g., Poincaré’s resonance, history or culture), living agents have freedom to do something. One can also try to have some effect on what moves other humans make. Otherwise one could say that the path-dependence of history (initial conditions) or grand discourses is elevated to a position that only certain scholars can resist: only ordinary humans and old-fashioned scholars “are ‘cultural dopes’, who need a social scientist to dispel their illusions” as Silverman (2001: 235) needles. Besides human agents being able to move themselves they have learned to set things in motion: spears, arrows, sailing vessels, airplanes, spaceships, etc.

The assumption that will be followed in my nominalistic program is that individual humans have free will, “capable of internal adaptation and learning” (Gulbenkian Commission: 1996, 63). At every moment they can decide what they can or cannot do. Reasons and interests behind deeds of individuals can vary, and be based on emotions, careful analyses, impulses, friendly advice, coercion, socialization etc. They can be insane or relevant but in any way manifestations of free will. Then the issues of moral, ethics, and responsibility become logical and relevant. Otherwise, for example, terrorists could get away with a religion or culture that their teachers give permission to. Superficially indicative sentences are needed for conveying insights of ethics, aesthetics, and religion (Geach, 1976: 56, 70). But, as already Wittgenstein claimed, for these kinds of insights there are no tests that would logically yield a ‘yes-or-no’ answer (Geach, 1976: 70). Tragically, the only way for human agents to find out the ‘right’ answer seems to be physical combat – as wars at present attest. Secular interests and divine insights intermingle.

While moves of human beings are manifests of diversity in the universe, an interesting question is how the other tendency, unity, can have any manifest amongst humans? If the main phenomenon among freely moving and self-ruling agents is fluctuations between order and disorder (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984: 176) there must be ways to get people to commit and align themselves. As for example, Giddens (1996: 100), Cilliers (1998: 98), and Monge and Contractor (2003: 87) state, rules, limits, and constraints are essential tools of many theories – and they serve as a beaker, container or context.

As to self-ruling agents, only stochastic theories or models can be applied to them, and therefore, all rule-based simulation models, highly temporary and local, tell more about the rule-structure than about the human agents. As to modeling, Stengers (2004: 96) stresses that models only tell ”what they [scientists] know about it”. The message was the same even earlier (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984: 204): “Not only each state of a system but also the very definition of the system as modelized is generally unstable, or at least metastable.”

In conclusion one can say that their original idea of ‘order through fluctuations’ seems to fit better in joint efforts of humans as agents than the attractive idea of self-organization. If Berger and Luckmann’s (1966: 137) terminology is applied, human agents join ‘competing coteries’ like business organizations or political parties to advance things they have interests in. The fluctuation between ordered and disordered movement of organizations depend on the human agents involved. Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 191) notice this when they state that one of the most important problems in evolutionary theory is the eventual feedback between macroscopic structures and microscopic events. However, from the standpoint of nominalism ‘macroscopic structure’ is only an abbreviation to talk about temporary order amongst the human agents involved. It has no effect on human agents but negotiated rules have. Self-ruling agents try constantly to re-define rules and propagate their own understanding of their necessity and applicability. When we describe order among living human agents it has no ‘macroscopic structure’ – or no ontological status as Berger and Luckmann (1966: 135) reminded.


What Geach (1976: 55) calls ‘semantic ascent’ from reality to language and what Hintikka (1989: 37) calls existential instantiation of ‘arbitrary objects’ is the core of Ockham’s razor and the warning of Tractatus. It is possible to oppose reality with any kind of metaphysical or transcendental ‘entities’. But if one holds to the traditional definition of ontology of what are opposed they are nominalism (reality) and concept realism (language).

To the ontological question (‘what does exist?’) there are three basic answers. According to (Niiniluoto, 1997: 124-8) the basic distinction is about the existence of ’single beings’ vs. ‘general concepts’, often called universals, too. Nominalists deny the existence of universals (like ’red’ or ’bird’), and argue that only individuals exist while concept realists accept the existence of general concepts independent of the single beings they refer to. In between, there are conceptualists who claim that general concepts exist at least in humans’ minds. However, it hardly makes the concepts or ‘entities’ any more real if they exist in the human mind, or does it? Therefore, postmodernists have a point when they claim that all interpretations are made by individual humans. However, they can be nonsensical and untestable.

If the basic dilemma of ontology, nominalism vs. concept realism, is considered a choice that a researcher has to make in the beginning of a research, there is an earth-shaking question to be posed:

Where are all the nominalistic researchers?

The answer can be simple if Wittgenstein’s main message in Tractatus is contemplated at the level of ontology, that is, not in language but about language. When no scientist wants to deny reality — obviously because it leads easily to solipsism – this is indisputable proof for nominalism! Mixing nominalism and realism is common — even Burrell and Morgan (1979: 3) seem to have reversed them in their chart. However, it is fully comprehensible if the interpretative paradigm (ibid.: 260-278) they explain is strictly followed as they state it (Muhonen, 2008). They aptly state that human individual is not a disinterested bystander but a toolsmith using the concept of organization [or any other concept] in a certain relatively specific way and for certain variable reasons (ibid.: 262).

As von Wright (1998: 312) has remarked, one should not consider nominalism as a doctrine but a program. If it is followed it is possible to claim that there is only one nested order of things in our universe (see Figure 1). Could everything be expressed with language that talks about single entities and their qualities is the question that von Wright poses. He explains that he would like to say that a nominalistic expression is ‘right’ and a realistic expression is its ‘abbreviation’. His conclusion is that “the simpler and clearer the ontology of language is, the easier it is to steer clear of hidden rocks of philosophy to which thoughts tend to stick while navigating in the world filled with eclectic entities”. When we talk about human beings and their encounters it seems logical to define these ‘single entities’ as agents with some free will to enhance diversity and unity.

I fully recognize that scientists will have difficulties in replacing causal theories and simulation models, predictions in general, by stochastic (probabilistic) theories dealing with the idiosyncrasy of individual human beings. The applicability of the Popperian claim of falsification to stochastic theories is difficult because exceptions and alterations are actually expected to occur but no one knows beforehand when and why. Afterwards it is sometimes possible to reason what initial conditions and what individual actions of certain humans caused the collapse of an order and the emergence of a new one. Nonlinearity and irreversibility are not just academic conceptualizations but relate to individual humans whose life or pay-off sources can suddenly be terminated.

In order to describe attractiveness of concept realism an expressive simile was coined, the “Sea of Signs”, signs we love to play with and swim within (Muhonen, 2008). It conveys the same message that the initiators of social constructionism, Berger and Luckmann (1966: 146), had — viz. “all symbolic universes … are human products; their existence has … no empirical status apart from lives” [of concrete individuals; emphasis added]. They have been exceptional researchers in the sense that the ontological presuppositions they explicitly display follow the philosophical traditions with logical rigor. As they prophesied, many have misread them: “it will be largely extra-theoretical interests [emphasis added] that will decide the outcome of the rivalry” (ibid.: 137-8). Their purpose (ibid.: 30) was to reconcile, not deconstruct, thoughts of Weber and Durkheim — typically considered opposite to each other — and called human beings definers of reality (ibid: 135). Instead of recognizing humans as agents, typical themes of contemporary social constructionists have been domination, asymmetry, relations, or rhetoric (e.g., Gergen, 1997; Hosking, 1999; Deetz, 2003).

A generally accepted and unquestioned presupposition is to say that people are embedded in the social world. If nominalism is taken as the starting point it is the other way around. As to the relations between the human agents, the ‘social world’, and our universe the nested

Fig. 1: Figure 1

Nested order of things from the standpoint of nominalism

order of things is displayed in the next picture (Figure 1) in two parallel ways.

The message of this interpretation is unequivocal: human agents are carriers of the ‘social world’ that is embedded in them. The crucial question is independence vs. dependence; voluntarism vs. determinism. Prigogine’s (1997: 155) answer is also unequivocal: “The more we know about our universe, the more difficult it becomes to believe in determinism”. In the debate about human nature the other choice is voluntarism/ volition of some degree (Burrell & Morgan, 1979: 5). Every human being can choose between being a contributor to ‘social order’ and challenging it. In many social 2×2 matrixes this is the other basic dimension that Burrell and Morgan (1979: 22) called originally ‘regulation vs. radical change’. Prigogine and Stengers (1984) termed it fluctuation between order and disorder. Naturally, freedom is not costless, and it is not freedom from something but freedom to do something, that is, freedom to decide on one’s moves. I like to say, if time is unidirectional then substance has memory. Therefore, Poincaré’s resonance hits back abruptly amongst humans, too.

Whenever human agents succeed to build and maintain some ‘social order’ its nature is always local and temporary. Its success depends totally on the human individuals involved. As living, freely moving, and self-ruling agents/ definers everything depends on how well interests of the members of a ‘social order’ are satisfied. If leaders do not take care that everyone gets a fair share of the cake, the social order will collapse, sooner or later — even alpha-males among chimps have this predisposition (de Waal, 1996: 152). Therefore, a joint effort of human agents always forms a local social order where every member contributes their ‘energy’ to enhance the common good of those involved. It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep it running and everyone happy. The achievements of the ‘engineering approach’ (Sen, 1987: 6) have been magnificent but as von Wright (1998: 276) aptly states “philosophy [and I would like say humankind, too] is getting nowhere and keeps on talking about the same questions for centuries, and sometimes even for thousands of years.”

The Tellus-test

First it seemed difficult to create a good demonstration of how the physical world and human thoughts can meet. I solved this by creating a test that goes to the core of the problem. I call it the ‘Tellus-test’ according to the goddess of our planet, Tellus. However, because this is the first version of a demonstration on how the Earth encounters an individual human it is a kind of β-version, ‘Telluβ-test’. ‘Telluβ’ is a tiny piece of our universe, hard and tangible. Let us suppose that I can create a mechanism with which I can force a ‘Telluβ’ to pierce your forehead and go into the middle of your thoughts, make them meet. What would happen? Apparently, it would cause the dissipative structure of your brain to collapse, and you would not be here much longer to continue this dialogue. The analysis is essential: what does this demonstration prove? It proves the existence of the nested order of ontology. In the physical world, tangible pieces of reality prevail. At the utmost, humans are inclined to settle their disputes with ‘Telluβs’. In this sense global politics may be a more brutal arena of irreversible actions than the business world. Human agents tend to remember and revenge.

What the test shows in the Wittgensteinian sense is that we have no access to the minds of other human agents until one can manage telepathy. Therefore we cannot know what meanings they attach to different things and on what basis. “Philosophy [and I would like to say, all interpreting and understanding] is not a body of doctrine but an activity” (TLP 4.112). Candlish (2001: 158) makes a remark that in his later texts Wittgenstein rejected one of Schopenhauer’s key ideas: “My actions provide me with an awareness of my body … as an objective manifestation of this underlying reality”. Access to reality is this easy.


The request of Cilliers (1998: 141) for stimulating transdisciplinary discussion is also a good start for my discussion. Although we approach complexity research from the opposite directions of ontology, the conclusion under our belts is the same: the general descriptions of ours are “sparse ones and claim very little” (ibid.: 142). In the preface of Tractatus, Wittgenstein made the same conclusion about the results as we have, although he believed that he had found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems: “If I am not mistaken in this belief, then … it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.” However, no consensus on the message of Tractatus prevails.

My main question was whether philosophers, and scholars in general, understand what ontology is about. Cilliers (ibid.: 142) seems to have an intuitive understanding of the oxymoron of universals when he acknowledges “the performative fallacy … in trying to develop a theory that insists on radical contingency, yet claims to be generally valid”. There is, however, some solid ground to have real dialogue when he openly says that only ‘traces’ hold together Derrida’s language model and that only ‘local interactions’ hold together complex systems. According to Cilliers (ibid.: 43) Derrida refuses to define ‘trace’ and therefore to my mind it fuses together with language itself. On the other hand, so that ‘interactions’ can take place, there must be interacting agents. Both ends of ontology are covered once again, and the only question to be settled can be posed by phrasing Berger and Luckmann (1966: 78): Is it so that “the social world does thereby acquire no ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it” [emphasis added]? Agency peeps up in their famous question ‘Says who?’ but the ‘who’ is denied by most social constructionists (e.g., Gergen, 1997; Hosking, 1999; Deetz, 2003).

If the ‘Sea of Signs’ (language, ladder, ‘trace’, etc.) is located in human agents, we can draw a comparison between musicians and scientists as producing ’sounds’ and ‘signs’. Masters of the violin can produce beautiful textures of tunes that sound divine and that few can reproduce. We do not imagine that those tunes help us make sense of the universe we are living in. On the other hand, there are masters of words like Saussure, Derrida, Foucault and Agamben who can produce textures of words that sound prudent, elegant and sage. One can ask whether those conceptions help us make sense of either human beings or the universe. Both sounds and signs can carry insight and be heuristically suggestive but they stay nonsensical if they cannot be ‘traced’. Phrasing Wittgenstein, language is like clothing we put on our insights but few of us are good and trustworthy tailors.

The two basic trends of the universe, diversity and unity, might be useful concepts if they are applied to human beings as nominalistic and idiosyncratic agents. The debate of free will vs. determinism becomes irrelevant if the moves of humans are seen as probabilistic/ stochastic: moves are irreversible and initial conditions preceding them undetectable. Idiosyncratic moves — whatever their reasons are — are all unique. On the other hand, often most humans align for different reasons: obedience to the law, convenience, loyalty, coercion etc. How much of each move is ‘conditioned’, ‘coerced’, or ‘deliberate’ seems an irrelevant question. A tiny bit of volition in a human agent may have enormous effects in the long run — especially if all other humans believe to be ‘dopes of culture or history’. As Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 206) aptly have stated: “In bifurcation regions an individual, an idea, or a new behavior can upset the global state”. However, between bifurcation points, rules prevail and perturbations (revolutions) are dampened.

Is it time to make the next turn in the Hegelian spiral, heading back to nominalism? If the nested order of ontology will be recognized the next stage of social sciences is to define the human agent (nature of human) — once again — and thereafter, study how it is possible that there exists successful local joint efforts as manifestations of social order, e.g., successful business organizations (Collins, 2001) or peaceful nations (Switzerland). Do leaders make some difference, not as heroes, but as ‘collective virtuosos’ (Hintikka, 1999: 1)? Idiosyncrasy and power asymmetry are then the starting points. Theories about freely moving and self-ruling human agents can only be tautological in the Wittgensteinian sense and temporary and local in the Prigoginean stochastic and non-linear sense. And there is no need for new concepts because “a proposition must use old expressions to communicate a new sense” (TLP 4.03).

To my surprise the idea of a ‘flat network of society’ (Cilliers, 1998: 129) echoes nominalism and agency: “It is not supported from below by some foundation, nor held together from above through general abstractions.” When Cilliers (1998: 23) suggests that “approaching a complex system playfully allows for different avenues of advance …” he literally confirms the very nature of humans to bulldoze new bifurcated paths and have followers. Like Wittgenstein’s ladder we can throw away many nonsensical conceptions like self-organization (emergence) or social world as Ockham’s razor tells and stick to for example, rule negotiations in a respective spirit (Isaacs, 1999).

It is no longer about positivism but agency (nominalism) if the idiosyncrasy of humans is fully acknowledged. In addition, reckless use of the existence quantifier or ‘overdressing’ (the universal quantifier) is wise to minimize in accordance with Ockham’s razor. Also in science we will always find mares’ nests and eggs in them.


* This is a revised version of the article for the Complexity and Philosophy Workshop held in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The title is the same as it was in the book Explorations in Complexity Thinking. Pre-Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy edited by Richardson and Cilliers (2007). I greatly appreciate this opportunity to clarify my train of thought and sharpen my argumentation. Some alterations in the order of paragraphs are made for upgrading readability. Due to the progress in my own thinking some arguments are added for enriching the topic of ontology. For example, Wittgenstein is not the source of confusion – on the contrary, he is only misinterpreted – but the source is Aristotle’s book Metaphysics. In addition, some references to the members’ writings of the workshop are included to show the importance of ontology. Ontology is a concept that should not be used vaguely and cautiously — ontologies do not exist, only the universe we still know so little of today.

1. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000: Nominalism (Latin nominalis, “of pertaining to names”), in medieval scholastic philosophy, doctrine stating that abstractions, known as universals, are without essential or substantive reality, and that only individual objects have real existence. These universals, such as “animal”, “nation”, “beauty”, and “circle”, were held to be mere names, hence the term “nominalism”. For example, the name “circle” is applied to things that are round and is thus a general designation; but no concrete identity with a separate essence of roundness exists corresponding to the name. The nominalistic doctrine is opposed to the philosophical theory called extreme realism, according to which universals have a real and independent existence prior to and apart from particular objects.

2. Private conversations with Thomas Wallgren (2006) clarified the history of the linguistic turn the origin of which is already in writings of Frege and Russell. The role of Wittgenstein was to intensify its growth although his intention was opposite.

3. The principle of Occam’s Razor states that entities are not to be multiplied without necessity — Non est ponenda pluralitas sine necessitate.