Wholes and parts in unaccustomed partnership

It’s hard to make a mass movement out of working with others you didn’t invite to share your environment,
but it’s a mass happening on earth these days.

The famous “tragedy of the commons” is about partners in using a common environment who let their self-interests destroy it, for not knowing how to see or work toward their common interests.   As people keep pressing the limits of the earth, nature is setting up the same challenge for us, asking us to work with accustomed partners, and learn how to work toward common interests, to not destroy the environments we share on earth.

These accustomed partners seem ‘odd’, both in seeming 1) to need the same ecological space we might feel is our own, and 2) each appearing to speak different languages. It turns out that needing to learn unfamiliar languages is the real reason “perfectly nice people” create tragedies in their commons.  If you can’t learn enough to “get along”, it lets self-interests amplify till a commons is destroyed.

Everyone listens in a different language too

The following emails discuss some of the very interesting details of the human ecology that would enable “the commons approach” to work.  Nature is already challenging us to learn how to get along with strange partners… like new kinds of global development demanding the same resources as others have used, and rapidly changing local communities in many cases too.   So this discussion would also help you recognize where people are already learning to focus on common interests in getting along with different kinds of partners.

It came up in discussing how to communicate, in my response to Barry’s observations on a lack of response on a forum had asked about.

JLH 3/8/13


Thanks, your response seems particularly helpful, and to add to a discussion on the same subject with Helene in the Commons Action group, extending the thinking we found talking with you and others in Systems Thinking World.   The subject of learning styles has come up as we try to understand how to communicate the idea of what commons are and how to make them work.

One interest is in the five “modes of hearing” described in the work of social scientist Barrett Brown as well as similar concepts of others including Carl Jung.   Brown has a table in that article describing five types of ecological self-awareness ethos, roughly: romantic, heroic, manager, strategist & idealist.  It’s not clear, but I think Gordon Parks’ observations you bring up, that people are either receptive to ‘serialist’ and ‘holist’ learning, may apply to all of Brown’s categories to different degrees.   What is clear is that we can identify personality types that greatly influence what sorts of messages are “music to your ears”.

In any public forum it’s a tall order to include messages that are “music to the ears” for all listeners, but that is what the Commons Action discussion is looking for a way to do.    For years I’ve also studied less universal “personality types”, ones that also determine what people will and won’t “want to hear”.  Every social network develops its own way of validating what is and is not relevant to the group, and by formalizing their “group think” they create “silos” of local “dialect” defining their local “reality”.

Those cognitive silos often develop seemingly impenetrable walls of separation, as we see between professions and “schools of thought” that insist on treating the same subjects in entirely different terms, such as physics, ecology and economics, for example, that seem likely to all vehemently disagree if they found out what each other were talking about!   ;-)  There are numerous other kinds of cultural units that are intolerant and ignorant of each other at the same time too, which helps add to the sense of the ridiculous in how people define reality as well.

The most fascinating thing I found,  was how often it’s quite easy for people to jump from one silo of thinking and its form of awareness to another, like from speaking English to Greek or Urdu, without a hitch…   Most everyone can jump from their world view of  “the office” to the one of “the classroom”, to the one only recognized by “you and your mom” and by “you and your close personal friends”, all without a hitch, and also tolerate quite a lot of contradiction on common subjects.   So… that convinces me people have lots of untapped abilities to understand each other.

Regarding the question I asked, though, about my not being responded to in commenting on the STW thread you started, I might myself observe: Why would I expect not to run into these barriers to communication?    I’d already studied how pervasive a problem it presents, if you don’t “cross over” and speak in a familiar dialect to the people you’re speaking to!    With that post I was just jumping into a discussion without really “joining in” first, offering a new summary of my view on just that subject, which I’d accumulated in 30+ years of quite careful study of it.    I had already had plenty of experience, too, with the difficulty of sharing it, on other STW threads and with many of the very same people.

I guess I just felt really impatient, and maybe also wished I was back with old friends, with whom I could at least assume if I wasn’t understood I’d at least get challenged!!   I was maybe just hoping I was well enough known in the group that someone would find something to say about it, anyway.     Recently on the thread I’ve done more of what I should have started with, which is to establish contact first, start small and build up conversations with individuals, rather than just blurting out a series of unexpected views to a whole group.

I’m really delighted, though, that it ended in bringing up your remarks on Gordon Parks’ view of serialist v. holist thinkers, though.   That seems to be a particularly good dichotomy to bring up, one that the Commons Action group should definitely add to what we look out for in communicating the commons approach.   It’s especially interesting to me as I also see it as a “structural” or “ontological” observation, corresponding fairly directly to how natural systems are themselves organized, being apparently reflected in styles of human thought.  Natural systems are organized both as wholes and as serial relations between parts, so people can look at them either way, and perhaps develop a preference.  Nature probably does NOT have a preference, though, so to understand natural systems “inside and out” it seem one would need to look at them both ways.

For discussing environmental systems there’s an added structural complication, that most natural systems are “nested” within others, and also have others “nested’ within them.    So… every point of view of “the commons” involves both the observer world’s serial connections within a larger whole, and the holistic awareness of their own world’s organization of its serially connected parts.  An individual human observer may well prefer to look at this nesting of relationships either bottom up or top down (“up-nest” or “down-nest”) by preference!   It’s “cool” how nature does that, but for nearly everyone it’s kind of “confusing” both intuitively and conceptually… too.

I think it means that despite the difficulty, for the commons view to work people do need to learn to discuss the opposite view to the one they prefer.    We’d need people to become at least aware of and now and then comfortable enough with to go back and forth between them like switching languages.    For “serialist” thinkers it would mean learning to understand the “alien world of wholes” from their “more familiar world of parts”, and for “holists” the reverse, as a basic task of “learning to get along” with others in such a naturally complex environment as we seem to have.

What’s as valuable about it is that it also leads toward getting our human languages of “conceptual wholes and parts” to correspond with nature’s languages of “experiential wholes and parts”.   That’s what I see as needed  so what we’re attempting to “get along with” includes “actual serial and whole relationships” in our environment (as well as the ones in our minds)!    That might further add to the difficulty, or sometimes greatly simplify things to have it straight.    But it would alter our experience, perhaps leading “conceptualists” to overcome their tendency to deny experiential reality, and “experientialists” to be so absorbed “in the flow” of experience to not notice what concrete reality is flowing bye…  (hope I said that right..)

There was a wonderful insight I gained at a conference on multi-stakeholder partnerships (see ref’s) a few years ago, about what’s important for such gatherings of stakeholders to work, being thrown together as they are by common dilemmas and finding they all “think differently”.   It’s to discover “boundary spanning individuals” in their midst, who have authentic abilities to make connections across and switch between speaking, to link the several languages that people in the group need to hear to understand things.

Anyway, I hate it when responding to good observations both helps pull things together and also makes the emails so very long…, and this was only responding to “Part I” of your email!     At least your “Part II” and conclusion were easy to understand and I quite agree with, so I need not say much at all but, Yes indeed!

All the best to you as well,



From: Barry Clemson Sent: Thursday, March 07 To: Jessie Henshaw

Subject: Belated reply


This is a belated reply to your question “why did no one respond to my quite well informed response to the whole problem?”

I have wondered the same thing about some of your posts … and I am not sure, but will ramble on for a minute …

Let me begin with my personal reactions to your posts.  Quite often your posts set off all kinds of good explosions in my head … lots of interesting insights. So, the question is why is that not happening for others?


let me detour here to talk about work Gordon Pask did on learning styles. Gordon investigated what he called serialists and holists. A serialist learned a new topic by assembling bits and pieces and eventually reached a full picture … sort of like a bricklayer beginning a building by simply laying bricks and seeing where that took him without bothering about a plan ahead of time. The serialist brick layer would not know what he was building until it was almost complete.

The holist begins with the big picture and then fills in details. A holist bricklayer would insist on an artists rendering first, then blueprints, and only then would she begin laying bricks.

Gordon invented both serialist and holist materials on Martian flora. Then he mixed and matched learner styles and materials and gave all four groups the same final exam. The groups whose materials matched their styles all did very well. The groups whose materials did not match their styles did terribly. The differences were so great that the scores for the mis-matched and the matched did not even overlap.

Gordon claimed that a holistic could, with great difficulty, master serialist material. Serialists on the other hand tended to be totally defeated by holist material. My personal experience in trying to understand the serialist material was agonizing.  To complicate things, Gordon thought that a person could be a holist in one area and a serialist in another. It seems to me that I am a holist in almost everything …

As i reflect on my own teaching experience, I suspect some of the students who had trouble in my classes were probably strongly serialist.


Most of the folks within STW are either managers or consultants to managers … [-]

I think a lot of things that are second nature and utterly obvious to you are not so at all to this group … I think lots of the points in your posts go right over their heads.


Well, I don’t know … the foregoing may help explain why people aren’t getting it … the solution of course is to put things in terms that people can understand … actually doing this is another matter entirely.  For instance, I currently have one of the STWJ staff members beating on me to make my “Dashboard” paper easier to understand … and of course I have already agonized over making it understandable.

I am still intending to do a whole series of papers on translating Jessie Henshaw for public consumption … in the meantime I don’t have much help to offer.



ed. note

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