Natural Systems.. meet many worlds of Cultural Reality

I got a strong “like” from Mark Stahlman to my comment on Real-World Economic Review issue no. 65that led to A great longer discussion on the Cultural Anthropology of Knowledge on Open Anthropology .   We start a series of excerpts, mostly my writings, with my comment to the economics review journal.    J.L. Henshaw (@shoudaknown) commented in response to Edward Fullbrook’s “New Paradigm Economics” :

Culture was always what defined our realities, till we had to deal with multiple cultures, and found our selves confused.


1. JLH Comment to Ed Fullerbrook 10/6/13: – 

A Solution that leaves out much of the problem

Edward, Regarding your new paradigm. I’m a natural systems scientist who has spent a lot of time on the puzzle of how economics became so detached…

I certainly applaud your effort to describe a new paradigm for economics, and see your approach as having the right intent and to be quite elegant in how you construct it. It still overlooks why natural systems will invariably depart from even the most faithful effort to describe them mathematically.

It’s that 1) natural systems change how they’re organized, and so how they behave, ALL the time, 2) all natural systems originate from a growth process in which they change how they work ever faster, to then change form, and 3) by ignoring #2 the present paradigm is to manage a world of systems that all expand and become ever more unmanageable over time.   It’s “impractical”.

What I think this exposes is a very basic flaw in our conception of nature. It seem to be coming directly from our attempts to define nature conceptually (treating nature as rules that we control), rather than using the rules we find to help us learn about it. What we have is an ever changing world, full of complex living natural and cultural systems we need to interact with, that are inventing new behavior all the time and fundamentally out of our control. From there I’m not sure what would help you understand my approach, as my terminology is likely to ‘sound funny’.

In general, if investors understood their choices as the leading edge of the advancing form of the economy, steering it in its future directions, and if they were intent on steering it toward being more profitable as a whole, you’d get a self-regulating financial system optimizing its use of the earth, not decimating it. It might take decades of rethinking what we do…, but it would become a pursuit of “sustainable development” as “home making” for the earth, in the interests of all. It’d stop being led by people maximizing the inequity between competitors.

My blog is a good place to browse, old posts as well as new.

It’s a collection of short subjects on ways to understand the new systems physics I developed to better understand the organization and workings of individually behaving systems.          jlh

2. Mark Stahlman replied 10/7/13: (cut) –

Question of Causation

Excellent comment!  I don’t know if you saw my only one (which I think was the first on this issue), in which I asked Edward what sort of *causality* he implied by his NPE “based” on emergence.

to then suggest Aristotle’s “MATERIAL” and “EFFICIENT” concepts drew a line between the two approaches and recommending some of the origins of modern systems thinking as being valuable for it:

I notice that there are two of the most important people/books who have contributed to this investigation who are not your lists — Norbert Wiener’s 1950 “The Human Use of Human Beings” (my “godfather,” the other one being Giorgio Desantillana, and who was the modern-day Leibniz, courtesy of his father) and Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 “Understanding Media” (perhaps the deepest thinker on these topics, nominated by Kenneth Boulding to be “dean” of his “Invisible College” and friend/neighbor to Jane Jacobs, with whom I also had some fascinating conversations.)

3. JL Henshaw – 10/8/13: (cut+[eds])

The real roots of in natural v. conceptual causation

[Yes} Fullbrook on his “New paradigm economics”, [is] clearly not solving the great problem of the old paradigm. He leaves economics as a design for managing an ever expanding and ever more unmanageable system. The interest is partly in just how glaring a material omission that is, and how it’s invariably omitted from how the problem of economics is discussed.

That kind of amazing oversight is part of what attracted my interest. It’s like the same kind of blind spot seen in the wide consensus that the economy’s ever doubling resource demands are a “supply problem”…. It’s like our brains work no better than fish bowls, with or without fish!

So, indeed, has any one of the fine minds who noticed “something wrong”, from Malthus on, ever really “had a clue” as to what sort of delusion is afoot?  From my short list the ones who I think actually went a few steps deeper into it than others seem to be J.M. Keynes (who saw well beyond what others took from him), Jane Jacobs, Joe Tainter, George Orwell, and an ecologist I seem to have left off, John Livingston [+Pat Thompson’s split culture view too].

They each took giant steps further than others, displaying their deep interest in the question at least, and in understanding “how/why this is all happening”. My own short answer to that “why/how” question first points to our economic system being an accumulation of technical fixes for the original model of the Roman economy; “growth at any cost”[that can be traced to earlier societies too, and comes to cost EVRYTHING].

From a cultural view, it seems completely natural for a society organized around its growth driven parts to lose its cultural sense of direction, as “growth at any cost” becomes too costly.    I’ve been “fishing around” for some way to interest the intellectual world in these strangely large blind spots, as that seems to be among the better pieces of hard evidence. From that I can tell the blind spots I find cluster around communities who see the world in terms of their own theories and abstractions, defining their words in relation to words rather than experiences.

For those ‘silos of thinking’ any feature of nature they don’t include in their definitions is then just “missing” from their ‘sur-reality’. I think I can even trace those cultures back historically, and find it generally seemingly pointing right back to the birth of science, defining nature as made of deterministic rules lacking any living things!

So you might say it looks as if our great cultural blinders came from the intellectual world believing Aristotle! He and the small group of Greek natural philosophers of his generation [seem to] mark the turning point from experiential [knowledge] to conceptual knowledge.

In my view they also unwittingly introduced mankind to the tremendously seductive notion that nature is composed of human ideals, which if believed then ties one’s beliefs to other beliefs to become self-referential, what I see as the “cool-aid” the modern world apparently drank as it got started.

Modern culture, [really ANY culture] however, is led by the [segments] that become dominant by growing the fastest, all devoted to following the most productive rules for maximizing their own growth. Before we learned quite how to perfect [] it, that practice might possibly have first been adopted by people being domesticated to be willing servants of authoritarian cultures, which modern culture seems to have come from even deeper in the past.

So between the 1) raw seductiveness of thinking the universe is centered on our minds [existing as our definitions], and 2) the promise seeming fulfilled by the economic paradigm of piling up limitless piles of money, and 3)  our both ancient and modern social acculturation to being “good helpers” for teams ordered to do perform those tasks… the whole mess does seem quite unstoppable.  It will stop, of course, as there seems much stronger evidence that nature will stop anything headed for infinity!

My alternative for that, or “better cool-aid” has not marketed very well, as it doesn’t at first look like a scheme for making money, I guess…[It’s] based on a switch from “conquest” to “home making” as a paradigm.   If considered, though, it [ultimately] seem better to use our ideals to help us better understand and [] experience [] the things we don’t define or control, [so we can] relate to a living rather than a conceptual world.

It ends up more profitable [too], partly just by offering a world with more to enjoy.  Dropping our self-invented blinders would also make it easier to see what needs to be taken care of to keep it profitable [as well]. Looking at the world more like a “home-maker” than a “rule-maker” [imposing rules our world can’t follow..] is [for] someone out to “enjoy the day” rather than out to “prevail for another day”[, though].

Some of the intuition for it I get [] direct from Boulding, actually, a family friend. Once I got going on my own he pointed me to how Keynes had conceptually solved the systemic financial problem of economics associated with all this. His readers weren’t at all impressed, completely horrified really, and much too busy using his equations for piling up money instead of for being curious about the world. So his thinking on it was lost culturally.

What he pointed out is in his parable of “the widow’s cup” and in Ch 16 of the General Theory(1,2) [] is simply that when investors run out of profitable ways to expand the economy it’d be better for them to use their profits to take care it!  Again, that’s a “home-making” viewpoint. It’s also where “systems ecology” inevitably seems to take you, *IF* you permit the idea that the systems of the world are made of living systems, that behave by themselves and not by our own rules. Abstract thinkers don’t allow that, however.

[] I never quite caught onto McLuhan, as if he somehow dazzled, but [] not making it “plural”, as a study of the “messages of the mediums” [left out too much]. [One] of the other messages I found to be important was how “the medium” we have [began] breaking language into ever more cells.   [It’s] giving us a great multiplication of cultural and professional languages, as “silos” that don’t connect much. There’s also how changing ever faster is blocking the inheritance of culture, with what parents have learned unrelated to what kids need to invent, cutting the continuity for human culture, our “roots”. I wonder what you see in all that.

A new voice with a wonderful fresh view of the cultural evolution in particular is Pat Thompson, a completely ignored first rate thinker who wrote her “Hestian Trilogy” ten years ago. She seems to do a quite credible job of deconstructing the revisionist histories of modern authoritarian cultures, to expose how the family centered culture of early Greece was successively marginalized and subjugated, by the ever more dominant rule making business and political cultures that took over the public sphere.

Hestia [and Hermes, the archetypes of “the home” (as sacred center of life) and “the public” (as connecting with the world), were apparently worshiped as both the architypical design principles of nature and of human society.   That Hestia is associated with the great circular hearth that is an essential feature of the original form of Greek/Minoan temple, and also with the similar feature of household hearth design, as a principle if nature, suggest she and Hermes may have been the first gods] of the earliest Greek [and Minoan] pantheon.   [One of them was essentially silenced by the ever growing dominance of the other, as social organizations of the public sphere accumulated swith growth as an insessant purpose, and took over.]  Restoring that history she unveils the shift from a culture centered on “preserving the flame” of the family sphere to becoming centered on “[growing] control” as the dominant paradigm of the cultures of the public sphere.       JLH

 4. JL Henshaw – 10/11/13 –

To Open Anthro – Natural worlds v. Hypothetical worlds

Greetings, I’m checking back in after a couple years, reminded of these discussions by a comment from Mark.

I think we always have a choice between discussing cultures as living things, like organisms, or as categories of theory, as abstract subjects.  Discussed as “organic” things, cultures are self-defining objects of nature, viewed subjectively, and discussed in “abstraction” they are “hypothetical” worlds invented subjectively, a very big difference.

It becomes tricky to not confuse oneself or one’s readers/listeners, though, due to those viewpoints alternating between ontologically different subjects, with big changes in word meanings and use, almost totally different languages differently using the same words.  I find scientists don’t yet have a comfortable way to signal a switch between those viewpoints.

We do all seem to casually switch between back and forth between those ontological viewpoints, many times a day, though.   For example, at breakfast we use word meanings associated with self-defining objects of nature, like “toast” defined by pointing to the physical thing.   At the office “toast” can also refer to the organic experience of defeat in the battles of the business world.

More often the language of the office is defined abstractly, in terms of the “rules of the boss” and “the rules of the trade” it is in, with every boss and trade having different rules for the business to create a culture around and work with.   We go from one form of “socially defined reality” to another each time we switch between relating to someone’s “private sphere” (and its private language) and the “public sphere” (and its many abstract languages) where larger scale cultures and organizations dominate.

So that influences my response to what Lee describes as the kernel of his argument:

“Society is set up to organize a population of ordinary individuals who display predictable, and not particularly extreme differences.   Society is not set up to fit extraordinary individuals into an organization designed to slot ordinary people into its framework. “

I tend to see “Society” from the organic view first, as a “culture of cultures” on multiple scales, [somewhat ecologically] to then struggle with perceptions [of them]… and how differently people in each culture will perceive the world around them[].   The whole “culture of cultures” as an organic system would appear to have evolved over time, as [] sub-cultures emerged and organized around their separate ways of thinking and living.   [I]nteracting more or less ecologically [they] arrive at more or less set arrangements with each other, as if species relying on coordinated niches.

So, I come to agree with Lee on the first statement, on the whole of society seeming to be organized around roles for people that many people find comfortable, naturally reinforced by the productive relationships between its subcultures [].   But people still do create new roles all the time too, and the facts of evolution also seem to say societal roles all came from innovations and are always in flux, the opposite of his second assertion.  That says much the same thing as Margaret Mead’s famous remark, on the subject:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

If there’s an error I think it’s suggesting that change requires “committed citizens”, as “commitment” in social circles may as often reflect true blindness as far reaching insight... (my prejudice?) so perhaps “innovative” [rather than ‘committed’] might be the better word there.   But it still expresses the “change comes from people making new paths” idea, which is what’s at once both an insight into the organic nature of cultures, and an expression of what I see as the best of our broadest common culture.


5. John McCreery – 10/11/13 –  

“Things” may be harder to define than “conversations” 

You see culture in two ways, as an organism or an abstract subject. In both these conceptions culture becomes what Dan Foss calls a “thingie” and, I would add, an example of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness ( I have found it more useful to think of culture as conversation. Conversation implies a number of things.

  • At least two people involved in a social encounter, taking into account what they perceive the other as thinking or feeling.
  • Some common ground. Only some, complete agreement is not required.
  • Some common language. Again, only some. Perfect mutual comprehension is not required.

An important question, raised by all thingies, is why people take them as given, as what Durkheim calls “social facts.” One reasonable answer begins with W. I. Thomas’ famous theorem (,   If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

But we know that not all situations are equally real to all people. How does that come about? A reasonable, if still rough, explanation is provided by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality. ( In the short form in which I remember it, reification, the process by which ideas come to be taken as facts, is a process with three moments:

  • Externalization: Someone in a group has an idea and offers it to other members of the group.
  • Objectification: Others in the group accept the idea and act as if it were true.
  • Socialization: New members of the group are taught that “This is the way things are.”

Note that after an idea is offered to the group and accepted by some of its members, its existence no longer depends on the  originator. The originator may die or change her mind, but the idea lives on. [and JLH would say the same for the systems of nature that anyone can independently identify and learn ever more about] Note, too, that socialization is normally most effective when everyone in the group shares the idea and no member of the group denies that “This is the way things are.” That this is the usual situation for most of what we call culture is, however, far from certain. Children rebel against what their parents tell them. Newcomers to an organisation may encounter others who are critical of the official line and offer alternative views of “This is the way things really are.”

This culture as conversation model is, like all models, incomplete. It is, for example, in the language I have used, clearly too biased toward a linguistic/literary/textual view of culture. An “idea” can be a new dance step, a new musical beat, a new way of cooking squid, a preference for light instead of dark liquor. It can be communicated non-verbally. That said, however, the process of externalization, objectification and socialization still applies. [but still recognizable from its continuity over time as “something real” and independent of the mind of the beholder, so CULTURE and natural ‘thingie’, a phenomenon independent of our definitions]

This simple, three-step model may, however, be too simple. Like Copernicus’s model of the solar system with the Earth moving in a perfect circle around the Sun, it may get some big things right but require refinement in detail The psychology involved in coming up with new ideas and presenting them in ways that maximize the chances of their being accepted is, for example, the defining problem of the whole academic field of consumer psychology and marketing research. [but is the “thingie” changing as you change what you think of it, or just what you think?]

Even so, I like this conversational model. If nothing else it frees us from the pensée sauvage that posits a binary opposition between organism and concept and then goes round in circles forever, diverting attention from the social processes by which ideas are generated, conflicts erupt and may or may not be resolved, and a consensus emerges among the survivors that “This is the way things are.” Until that is, children or other strangers enter their lives. [or until they find consensus is persistently forming around “the way things aren’t”]

6. Mark Stahlman – 10/12/13 –

All that’s “missing” is the environment and ‘reality’

Jessie/Kate/John:    What is typically “left out” of the various accounts of the “social construction of reality” is *reality* or, if you prefer, the “environment” in which we all live.

In particular, there is always an “environment” in which cultures operate, which is real and, while certainly culturally interpreted, nonetheless is causal in how that culture “behaves.”  Formally (or, if you prefer, “structurally”) caused.

We seem to be comfortable calling that environment “nature” but we are quite uncomfortable recognizing that the [principal] reality we all live in which is independent of our culture (and its interpretations) is actually “technology,” or as some have called it “2nd Nature.”  Arguably, the “first” environmental technology was language.

You could say that much of the social theorizing over the past 40+ years is really about the “social construction of fantasy,” which, in turn is a result of a *technological environment* that “causes” such a fantastic approach to social construction.   [clip 566]

 7. JL Henshaw – 10/11/13 –

Is language Open to What We Don’t Define?

@Mark, I tend to agree that it’s a question of how to not lose sight of the “reality” in absolute, somehow.  See if I express it as well as you did.

@John,   Yes, I distinguish between cultures referred to as different kinds of “thingies”, as you quote Dan Foss.  I use that device to anchor the discussion to how nature observably develops forms of organization in the natural world, as “thingies”, of which we are one, and that we are quite surrounded by.   It’s a way of establishing a common reference to independently observable, but still “full bodied” real subjects, so that the “meta-world” of “meta-subjects” that lots of people prefer to discuss (whether anyone else can follow along or not) remains somewhat grounded.

If you or others think it as a “fallacy” to have a way to refer to the realities of our world we don’t define, it then seems to be in preference for grounding discussions on common subjects the discussants define.   Isn’t that fair to say?  [They themselves, as “discussions” of “group definition” could be seen as “thingies” of nature still, it seems.] How they connect with the subjects we don’t define, is then the question.

I prefer not to leave that unanswered, for the one main reason that I get confused.   It seems to lead me to relying on my own meanings for the words I hear others speaking, and having to ignore the meanings they are or might be trying to associate with their words.   That becomes a “guessing game” of interpolating different realities… that I’m kind of bad at, and think everyone seems bad at too, unless they reduce their conversations to strictly deterministic terms and subjects, like being restricted to thinking with rules as simple as a computer’s.  That presents at least three choices,

  1.    having a way to refer to the realities (“thingies”) of nature that our thoughts don’t define
  2.    referring to realities in the minds of others you’ll never quite know, so social convention becomes the common reality
  3.    following rules so narrow you can’t say anything not pre-determined, so reductionism becomes the common reality

What I’ve found is that using the social definitions of reality, expressed in your observation that

“Note that after an idea is offered to the group and accepted by some of its members, its existence no longer depends on the  originator.”

leads most social groups into just believing their own theories.  In their hands it generates the kind of self-perpetuating myths that are also self-justifying.   For rare social networks that have BOTH the ability and interest in free form discussion while also keeping discussion grounded in realities they don’t invent, it can indeed be quite creative.

For the great majority of social networks, believing their own theories seems to just hopelessly confuse their conversations with any other social network, that is almost certain to have picked an different invented reality to live by… It fails to acknowledge what seems to be an independent reality, that “consensus is the enemy if it wouldn’t check out”, like I pointed out in my Tweet this AM

“50 years saving the earth, expanding our scale and complexity, saying it’s the solution when clearly always the problem, should’a known.”

What I prefer is a mix of 1, 2 & 3, kept from spinning out of control in the ways each can by itself, by everyone maintaining their ability to shift from one to another, to keep the thinking free and honest.    In practicing that, my way of identifying common subjects of interest to refer to as “thingies”, in the recognizable forms and behaviors of natural systems we don’t define, went far beyond interpreting “facts”.   My big step was actually to discover that “facts” were most often mistakenly disassociated from their context before being called upon for supporting theories.

Facts tend to lose their meaning when rearranged in theories detached from their context, and I found a partial “fix” for that.   If you start with “continuities” (rather than “facts”) it’s very much harder to detach one’s hard evidence from the context, and helps assure one’s theories produce truthful questions about the context, what I end up seeing as the object of “theory”.    Like any other new approach to things, one doesn’t get far by ruling it out, though that’s a common temptation.   It’s by “kicking it around” to see where it fits that seems to stimulate new thinking and lead to the interesting uses and new places.


JLH – there are many more like these, another 100 in the series, of which 1/3 or more may be publishable, getting to the bottom of things!    But it takes finding the time to review and clean them up, so if you’re studying these subjects you might write for more to look at…

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