« ON COMPLEXITY »
Présentation par Alfonso Montuori. Traduction en anglais par Robin Postel
par MORIN Edgar
Ed Hampton Press, Inc., Creskill, New Jersey, USA, 2008,ISBN 978 1 57273 801 0, 127 pages
L’événement mérite attention : notre ami Alfonso MONTUORI, a su convaincre un éditeur américain de faire traduire en anglais sous le titre ‘On Complexity’ de nombreuses pages judicieusement choisies dans les principaux ouvrages d’Edgar Morin consacrées à la formation et au développement du Paradigme de la Complexité et de la Pensée Complexe.
Une réponse bienvenue à tous ceux qui regrettent le trop petit nombre d’ouvrages d’Edgar Morin traduit en anglais.
La riche préface (40 pages) qu’Alfredo Montuori a consacrés à cette sorte d’anthologie de l’œuvre Morinienne retiendra aussi l’attention des lecteurs francophones : elle témoigne des thèmes qui semblent aujourd’hui plus immédiatement ‘sensibles’ dans la culture américaine anglophone.
Rappelons aussi les liens avec les autres publications d’A. Montuori que nous avons repérées ces dernières années : outre l’ouvrage collectif qu’il a animé en 2004, « Edgar MORIN and the CHALLENGE of COMPLEXITY » (voir aussi la note de lecture ) et sa traduction en anglais du ‘Journal de Californie’. On trouvera traces des autres travaux d’Alfredo Montuori à http://www.ciis.edu/faculty/montuori.html
Ndlr : On trouvera ci-dessous le texte de l’INTRODUCTION rédigée pour ce volume par son ‘editor’, Alfonso Montuori (Introduction qui complète la Préface qu’il a rédigée sous le titre ‘EDGAR MORIN’S PATH OF COMPLEXITY’. Les lecteurs de langue française auront ainsi accès aisément à une présentation de l’œuvre d’Edgar Morin dans les cultures anglo saxonne. Nous remercions A Montuori et l’éditeur de nous parmettre de reprendre ici ce texte
INTRODUCTION: ON COMPLEXITY
This short volume contains some key essays by French thinker Edgar Morin on the subject of complexity, and specifically on what Morin calls complex thought. The earliest essay, Complex Pattern and Design, was written in 1976, and the other essays date back to the 1980s and 1990s. One might seriously wonder what such a collection of essays has to offer beyond an interesting historical document of a thinker who was considerably ahead of his time. The last 15 years or so have seen a tremendous outpouring of books and articles on complexity. When Morin wrote these pages, the term complexity was not popular. It wasn’t an intellectual trend, there was no Santa Fe Institute, there were no popularizing works explaining the relevance of complexity theory to business, health care, or group process. So why, when complexity is all the rage and we are overwhelmed with information, new books, new perspectives, new ideas, on complexity, go back to these essays, some of which were written more than 20 years ago?
One of the patterns that connects Morin’s considerable contributions in such varied fields as biology and cinema, sociology and ecology, is a particularly generative way of approaching the subject matter. It’s not a methodology, in the sense of a new research methodology like action research. The issue is pre-methodological. It is an issue of what Morin calls method, understood in the broadest sense of the word, as a “way” or “path laid down in walking.” As the noted Italian family systems therapist Mara Selvini Palazzoli wrote (Selvini Palazzoli, 1990),
As Edgar Morin has put it so shrewdly, “the method emerges from the research.” Originally, he points out, the word method meant path; it is only in traveling that the right method appears. (p.xiv)
How do we engage in inquiry? How do we think about the world, and more specifically, how do we approach research? Above all, how do we organize knowledge? How can we live and think in a pluralistic universe, with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity? Iain Chambers, who has written extensively on the subject of cultural complexity, writes (Chambers, 1993):
The idea of both lived and intellectual complexity, of Edgar Morin’s ‘la pensée complexe’, introduces us to a social ecology of being and knowledge. Here both thought and everyday activities move in the realm of uncertainty. Linear argument and certainty break down as we find ourselves orbiting in a perpetual paradox around the wheel of being: we bestow sense, yet we can never be certain in our proclamations. The idea od cultural complexity, most sharply on display in the arabesque patterns of the modern metropolis – and that includes Lagos as well as London, Beijing, and Buenos Aires – weakens earlier schemata and paradigms; it destabilizes and decenters previous theories and sociologies. Here the narrow arrow of linear progress is replaced by the open spiral of hybrid cultures, contaminations, and what Edward Said recently referred to as ‘atonal ensembles’. The city suggests creative disorder, an instructive confusion, an interpolating space in which the imagination carries you in every direction, even towards the previously unthought. (p.189)
In the tradition of such writers as Bachelard, Bateson and others, Morin’s work is a sustained epistemological reflection on the implications of the scientific and cultural revolution of the 20th century for our organization of, and relationship with, knowledge (Bachelard, 2002; Bateson, 2002; Capra, 1996; Taylor, 2003).
The term “organization of knowledge” may suggest a particularly abstruse and arcane endeavor of relevance only to specialists, and of absolutely no relevance for the way human beings lead their lives. But the organization of knowledge has enormously far-reaching consequences. The implications are obvious in the way we lead our daily lives (Kegan, 1998), the history and development of social science (Fay, 1996) and in the most pressing political and religious issues we are facing today (Bernstein, 2005). Despite the apparent resistance to this process of “thinking about thinking,” and the contribution of the above-mentioned authors, Morin’s contribution in this area is of great importance. The question is not just what we know, but how we know, and how we organize our knowledge.
The key elements of the organization of knowledge in the West go far back in history. The work of Aristotle and Descartes is central. Aristotle developed a “logic,” providing us with concepts such as the law of identity and the excluded middle. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes (Descartes, 1954) explored the basic laws of thinking, and fashioned them into the foundations for inquiry. Descartes spoke of a method, and of Rules for the direction of the mind. In other words, Descartes was providing us with an orientation for the way we think, a focus on reduction, simplification, and clarity. What Descartes proposed as rules for the direction of mind has, coupled with Aristotle’s logic, become the foundation for “good thinking,” and institutionalized in the organization of universities. There we find the same the increasing specialization in departments, literally the splitting up into smallest possible parts, and the creation of strong boundaries based on three axioms of classical logic (Nicolescu, 2002).
The limitations of this kind of thinking are becoming increasingly apparent. None of the sciences offer us a way to integrate all the tremendous quantities of information and knowledge generated in the various disciplines and sub-disciplines. This is extremely problematic for at least two reasons. First of all, with increasing specialization, the “big questions” are simply not asked and addressed anymore. Secondly, action in the world cannot be confined to knowledge drawn from one discipline. For example, the future of “developing countries” cannot be viewed exclusively from the neatly quantifiable perspective of economics. As Morin states, such a concept of development is underdeveloped. Another example is the fact that innovation in industry cannot be reduced to one individual having a bright idea. There are any number of extremely bright and creative individuals in organizations with good ideas—and organizational bureaucracies are notorious for squashing new ideas. So the process of organizational innovation is multidimensional—it has individual psychological (personality, cognitive) dimensions, but also group and organizational dimensions, not to mention an economic dimension. The implication is that fostering creativity and innovation in organizations cannot simply be confined to giving individuals “creativity tools.” The process needs to be systemic, and more than cross-disciplinary, it should be transdisciplinary, in order to, among other things, include the inquirer in the inquiry, the innovator in the innovation (Purser & Montuori, 1999). Real understanding and effective action therefore require an approach that is not dictated by disciplinary boundaries, but that emerges from the needs of the inquiry.
As I have argued elsewhere (Montuori, 2005a), drawing on Morin’s work, transdisciplinarity can be summarized as requiring:
1) A focus that is inquiry-driven rather than discipline driven. This in no way involves a rejection of disciplinary knowledge, but the development of knowledge that is pertinent to the inquiry for the purposes of action in the world.
2) A stress on the construction of knowledge through an appreciation of the meta-paradigmatic dimension—in other words, the underlying assumptions that form the paradigm through which disciplines and perspectives construct knowledge, Disciplinary knowledge generally does not question its paradigmatic assumptions.
3) An understanding of the organization of knowledge, isomorphic at the cognitive and the institutional level, the history of reduction and disjunction (what Morin calls “simple thought”) and the importance of contextualization and connection (or “complex thought”).
4) The integration of the knower in the process of inquiry, which means that rather than attempting to eliminate the knower, the effort becomes one of acknowledging and making transparent the knower’s assumptions and the process through which s/he constructs knowledge. As Morin writes (Morin, 1981):
The observer should not just practice a method that permits her to shift from one perspective to another…She also needs a method to access a meta-point of view on the diverse points of view, including her own point of view. (p. 179)
Morin, and many other thinkers incuding Fay, Code, and Collins, have shown how at the sociological level, dichotomies have marked the history of Western thought in the form of opposing movements such as atomism and holism (Code, 1991; Collins, 1998; Fay, 1996). The history of ideas reflects ways of thinking that are in turn also reflected in the disciplinary nature of academia and research. The organization of knowledge of knowledge is isomorphic at the level of thought, the history of ideas, and disciplines. There is an isomorphism between what Morin calls the reductive/disjunctive ‘simple thought’ that has characterized much of Western history, and the organization of knowledge in universities, where knowledge is broken down in ever smaller disciplines and sub-disciplines and specializations, with increasingly impermeable borders. One finds a disjunctive logic that places a scholar either in one discipline or another—but never in both. With some exceptions, one can usually not be both A and B, both a psychologist and a sociologist, for instance. Wilshire’s disturbing research has illustrated the dynamics of “purity” and “pollution” associated with university disciplines (Montuori & Purser, 1999; Wilshire, 1990). Morin is pointing in a new direction, proposing his en-cyclo-pedic method that circulates knowledge between disciplines, and proposes the paradigm of complexity not as a panacea, not as a solution to the problem, but as a way of approaching the organization of our thinking and thinking about organization.
One recurring theme in the more sophisticated recent discussions of complexity, whether in the sciences, management and organizational theory, or the social sciences in general, is that reductive/analytic approaches to issues are unable to account for, and give an adequate understanding of, complex, interconnected phenomena. Reductive approaches isolate phenomena from their environment and operate with a disjunctive logic of either/or. I have suggested this kind of thinking can be found writ large in the organization of knowledge in universities, with departments focusing studies in ever greater hyper-specialization. Sadly there is little or no effort to connect the knowledge gathered in the different departments, or to elaborate how the knowledge gained in different disciplines might be integrated in practical applications in the world. Many popular (pseudo-)holistic approaches that define themselves in opposition to reductionism and reject “parts” in favor of “wholes,” “analysis” in favor of “synthesis,” and “control” in favor of “emergence” almost inevitably end up being vague and ineffectual feel-good New Age nostrums rather than serious efforts to address complexity, wholeness, and interconnectedness (Montuori, 2006). Morin’s trenchant critique of this form of holism –which is the direct opposite of reductionism and itself a product of disjunctive thinking--is one of the ways his work makes such an important contribution to the development of a new way of thinking and a new approach to inquiry (Morin, 2007a).
Another key dimensions of Morin’s work is that it recognizes the ambiguity and uncertainty that is the hallmark of 20th century science and of human experience. Complex Thought leads us to a way of thinking—and being in the world—that recognizes the inescapable dimension of uncertainty, and views it as an opportunity for creativity and the development of new perspectives, rather than primarily a source of anxiety.
Order and Disorder: Chaosmos
In his masterpiece Method, Morin introduces a key element to his thinking: the dethroning of King Order. In the first volume (Morin, 1992a), he addresses this through an extensive discussion of scientific developments in the last centuries. Scientists today are in agreement that we are in the middle of a scientific revolution. In the words of theoretical physicist Paul Davies (Davies, 1989):
For three centuries, science has been dominated by the Newtonian and thermodynamic paradigms, which present the universe as either a sterile machine, or in a state of degeneration and decay. Now there is the paradigm of the creative universe, which recognizes the progressive, innovative character of physical processes. The new paradigm emphasizes the collective, cooperative, and organizational aspects of nature; its perspective is synthetic and holistic rather than analytic and reductionistic. (p.2)
The paradigm of the creative universe. It is not just a different understanding of the universe, but the need for a different way of thinking about, and inquiring into, the universe that emerges. As Davies makes very clear, we are looking at a new perspective on the world, one that is “is synthetic and holistic rather than analytic and reductionist,” and recognizes “the collective, cooperative, and organizational aspects of nature.” Davies is describing a move away from the Classical Scientific worldview towards a view that points to Morin’s articulation of complexity. The phenomena science is exploring require a different way of thinking. Indeed, in his works spanning such traditional disciplines as sociology, biology, political science, ecology, and psychology, Morin has shown how we can fruitfully apply a new way of thinking to human life as a whole.
True scientific revolutions amount to more than new discoveries: they alter the concepts on which science and our whole view of the world is based. Historians will distinguish three levels of enquiry in the study of matter. The first is Newtonian mechanics—the triumph of necessity. The second is equilibrium thermodynamics—the triumph of chance. Now there is a third level, emerging from the study of far-from-equilibrium systems. (Davies, 1989, p.83)
The Newtonian revolution represented the first real coherent triumph of what we now call science. With his Principia, published in 1687, Newton presented in the form of mathematical equations the three laws that govern the motion of material bodies. Newton’s work was particularly important because it presented Universal Laws of Nature. These Laws seemed to give a window into the functioning and nature of Nature itself. Particularly powerful in Newton’s work was its focus on prediction, order, and determinism. In the words of Davies (1989, p. 11), with Newton “the entire cosmos is reduced to a gigantic clockwork mechanism, with each component slavishly and unfailingly executing its preprogrammed instructions to mathematical precision.”
The laws and principles created the foundation for general theories and predictions that could be tested through experiments. These experiments conducted following the scientific method, consisted of breaking systems down to their simplest components, a method now referred to as reductionism. This reflected an assumption that the world was made of basic building blocks called atoms. The underlying assumption was that these atoms exist in isolation from their environment, and that knowledge of the behavior of the atoms could be used to predict the future of the system as a whole.
Two fundamental things make up the Newtonian world: matter and energy. Matter and energy exist in the emptiness of absolute space and time—the “sterile machine” Davies mentions. Matter is composed of atoms and even subatomic particles such as electrons and protons. Knowing the location, mass, and velocity of all the particles in the universe, it would be possible to predict the future. With progressive improvement in scientific knowledge, in other words, it was believed that eventually it would be possible to predict every event. The Newtonian world was therefore deterministic. Every event had to happen by necessity. Once set in motion, the universe unfolds following precise laws. The assumption was that fundamentally, the Universe is governed by simplicity and simple rules. There is an unquestionable order to the universe, and anything we consider disorder or complexity was simply a function of our limited knowledge. Simplicity, predictability, and determinism were central to the Newtonian worldview.
The Newtonian world was also “reversible.” This means that “time exists merely as a parameter for gauging the interval between events. Past and future have no real significance. Nothing actually happens” (Davies, 1989, p. 14). This is a particularly interesting feature that defies common sense, but made perfect sense in the Newtonian world. The Newtonian world is therefore a “clean machine,” like a clockwork. Interestingly, it reflects the same static view of the world before Newton, which was considered a perfect, pre-ordained, God-given hierarchical order: nothing actually happens, because the Laws of Nature are the Laws of God, and these Laws are perfect, therefore no change occurs, is necessary, or even possible.
The Newtonian worldview had very clear implications for our thinking. The power of prediction and control that the scientific method provided was staggering. The technology driving the Industrial Revolution was the result of the application of the new scientific method. Who, in the middle of this explosion of human power, could argue with it? The social sciences and the management sciences wanted to import the scientific method, in order to enjoy the same legitimacy as real sciences. Being a real science was defined largely by the capacity for prediction and control. The scientific method led to technology and industry, which in turn led to Progress.
The notion of progress became central to Modernity. The belief was that the scientific method offered a way to get at truth in a way that was empirical, testable, and gave the user power. It’s important to understand that before the scientific method was applied, people simply did not think this way. Before the scientific method, what was considered the “highest” or most evolved form of thinking on a social level was a mixture of Aristotle, the encyclopedic Greek philosopher, who had written about everything from Logic to Biology, and the writings of St. Thomas which informed Theology, drawn from the Bible. In this Pre-modern view, Aristotle and the Bible were seen as unquestionable sources of wisdom. The concept of experiment that would give empirical proof as to whether a particular hypothesis was, or was not the case, was unheard of.
The scientific method led to a shift from a more passive reception of already given knowledge to the active acquisition of new knowledge. This led to a focus on several key areas, which can be represented in the following oppositions, the latter term indicating what the new method rejected:
• Objective knowledge of objects in the exterior world, rather than Subjective knowledge of interior moods, opinions, experiences, and so on;
• Quantification, and therefore “objective” data that could be measured as opposed to Qualitative data that is “subjective” and cannot be measured;
• Reductionism, or a focus on parts rather than wholes (Holism);
• Determinism–or finding laws of cause and effect that determine events as opposed to chance events that cannot be predicted by laws (Contingency);
• Certainty, rather than uncertainty;
• Absolute, rather than “relative” knowledge;
• Universal knowledge (applicable anywhere and everywhere) rather than particular, local knowledge (applicable only to certain specific settings);
• One right way of looking at a situation, rather than a multiplicity of perspectives, and the search for that one right way;
The Decaying Machine
Organization without disorder leads to a sterile, homogenous system where no change and innovation is possible. Complete Disorder without Order precludes Organization. Only with the interaction of Order and Disorder, is an organization possible that remains open to change, growth, and possibilities (Morin, 2007b).
One of the key differences is that entropy applies to closed systems, but life on earth is not a closed system. In an open system, there are processes that actually create order. The concept of “open system” is vital to understanding the shift to the creative universe. The first volume of Morin’s Method introduces in some considerable depth the implications of this shift. Rather than assuming that there is a pre-established Order—whether God-given or somehow intrinsic to Nature, Morin explores in great depth the importance of the generative, emergent relationship between Order and Disorder.
Order, Disorder, and Self-organization
In the traditional Newtonian scientific paradigm, order was King, privileged above disorder, chaos, and ‘noise’ (Morin, 1992a). Our understanding of the relationship between order and disorder was in terms of a binary opposition, and indeed a hierarchical binary opposition. Disorder was viewed as a function of human ignorance, something that would, eventually, with better knowledge, be integrated in the larger master-plan.
One of the most interesting shifts in recent scientific thinking, in particular because of the sciences of chaos and complexity, has been a deeper understanding of the mutually constitutive relationship between order and disorder, information and noise. This shift also reflects a transition from a fundamentally static view of the world to one that is process oriented. Rather than seeing order as fundamental and unchanging, we are now seeing an ongoing process of order-disorder-interaction-organization that is the hallmark of self-organization (Morin, 2007b). As Taylor (2001, p. 121) writes, “disorder does not simply destroy order, structure, and organization, but is also a condition of their formation and reformation.” The interaction of order and disorder can be generative of new forms of organization, and any order is the result of an ongoing process, not of pre-established forms.
Self-organization has been defined variously as making meaning out of randomness (Atlan, 1986), or the spontaneous emergence of a coordinated and collective behavior in a population of elements (Gandolfi, 1999). One of the key aspects of self-organization is the creation of order out of chaos, the integration of elements perceived as disorder into a larger, more encompassing organization. We might think of paradigms in science as an analogy. What is inside the paradigm is considered order, what is outside is disorder. Anomalies on the edge of the paradigm, what the paradigm cannot account for, may initially seem like noise, disorderly phenomena that cannot be accounted for. Indeed, the history of chaos theory itself (Gleick, 1987) shows how turbulent phenomena such as water flowing from a faucet were rejected out of hand as subjects of study for the longest time because they seemed simply inexplicable. Yet it is the study of these anomalies led to the development of the new science of dynamical systems, also known as chaos theory. In this sense, chaos theory as a field of study was itself a self-organizing process, the spontaneous emergence of a coordinated and collective behavior in a population of elements (researchers), making meaning out of (apparent) randomness.
The term self-organization refers to a spontaneous emergence of collaborative behavior among elements in a system. The whole idea of what we might call Newtonian organization, or the Machine Metaphor of organization was that the existing order that had been created was perfect, and workers were there to implement it. In Tayloristic (Newtonian) organizations, spontaneity at all costs, since it involved a breakdown in the established order. Self-organization, on the other hand, involves the emergence of order out of spontaneous interactions in response to disorder. It is interesting to note that Taylor insisted on making sure individual workers did not communicate, and did not form into groups. Their whole purpose was to perform their pre-established isolated assembly-line function. Spontaneous interactions were precisely what Taylor wanted to avoid, and the workers were organized from the outside, never self-organized.
Morin has argued that a more accurate and inclusive way to describe the process of self-organization in open, dynamical systems is as “self-eco-re-organizing systems” (Morin, 1990, 2005c, 2007a) A system does not merely organize itself, independently of its environment. The environment is in the system, which is in the environment. A family is in society, and society is in the family (culturally, economically, through the media, and so on). But a system does not merely self-eco-organize. It self-eco-re-organizes, as we shall see below (Morin, 2005c).
The order out of disorder that emerges in an open system’s interaction with its environment is subject to fluctuation. When certain levels of fluctuation are created by increasing complexity, a critical or bifurcation point is reached. At that point the system can move in any one of several directions until a new and more complex order may be established after a period of turbulence. If a higher order of organization does not emerge, the system returns to a previous, lower level of organization. Many developmental psychologists report a similar pattern for evolutionary transformation (Guidano, 1987; Kegan, 1982). We might therefore think of evolutionary transformation as an ongoing process of self-eco-re-organization.
Re-: The importance of Time, History, and Process
While the Newtonian view was “reversible,” where time did not play a role, in the new scientific view time, history, and process play a key role. As the Italian philosophers of science Bocchi and Ceruti write, this century science has come to recognize that organisms are, to a large extent, their history (Bocchi & Ceruti, 2002). An organization today is the result of its history—of the choices, decisions, and events that have occurred in its lifespan. To say that one is one’s history does not mean, on the other hand, that one is determined by that history on some inexorable future. On the contrary. Whereas the traditional scientific view was deterministic, the new one is much more focused on creativity, as Morin’s Re- suggests. And history is where creativity happened, in the form of contingencies, of surprises, of the unforeseen. Unforeseen events can shape our lives in ways we never expected. This was Morin’s focus in his early sociological work, of course: not the universal laws, but the inclusion of contingency, chance, of events. Inquiry therefore has to be able to address uncertainty and ambiguity, but not simply as demonstrations of our lack of knowledge. In this view, contingency, the out of the ordinary, and ambiguity are sources of change, of a creative process.
Every system, whether and individual or a corporation, is also an organization. But an organization is not static. And organization is always re-organization. Organization therefore is always a process, not something that is fixed and once and for all. In fact, Morin has even coined the neologism “organiz-action” to stress this (Morin, 1992a). Any organization that is completely unchangeable is unable to adapt to changes in the environment, and unable to create anything new. The prefix “re-“ is therefore a key indicator that organization is not static, but a process of constant, ongoing, self-eco-re-organization.
At the same time, just as the world around us is increasingly confronting us with the unexpected, we can also generate the unexpected ourselves. Creativity involves those acts that are unexpected and therefore produce something defined as new, original, and unusual that is also considered valuable and, to a greater or lesser extent, of lasting value. For Morin the unexpected is indeed a source of hope. History is replete with the unexpected. Who could have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance? Morin is urging us to befriend the unexpected and inviting us to learn how to live in a world that is not ruled by one overarching order, but where freedom, spontaneity, surprise, and the unexpected are the order of the day. Classical science assumed all systems were fundamentally stable and in equilibrium, and chaotic systems, far from equilibrium were the exception. The new sciences of chaos and complexity theories show us that equilibrium systems are in fact the exception. The world is full of ambiguity and uncertainty, and Morin is pointing us to ways of thinking through and living with that ambiguity.
The need for a new way of thinking
How can we best approach a world that is full of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity? Are we prepared for this tremendous challenge? How can we address the uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the “planetary era,” in which our remarkable interconnectedness has led us to face a world we can barely recognize? Alvin Toffler spoke of Future Shock 30 years ago, and it seems we are now in the middle of it (Toffler, 1984). My colleague Dan Crowe recently told me that the students in his graduate course on leadership at a university in Georgia balked at the suggestion that they should read The Economist and familiarize themselves with global economics. Noticing their reluctance to take on this assignment, my colleague pointed out to them that global events, no matter how remote they may seem, do have profound repercussions in the daily lives of his students. In fact, the closure of a factory in the Atlanta area had recently cost thousands of jobs that have all gone to Mexico. We are now, as Morin would say, planetary citizens. But it’s clear that our educational systems have not prepared us for this condition. And what’s more, it’s far from clear that there is a sense of urgency about understanding our planetary context. We are simply not prepared for the full implications of a global, interconnected, uncertain world. In fact, it’s increasingly obvious that it’s painfully difficult to even figure out how to begin to think about this world we’re living in.
Unraveling the complexities of global economics and its social impact is an enormous challenge. The world is full of uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen to our job, to our neighborhood and our city, our country. Change is so rapid, and technology in particular is playing such a dramatic role in this acceleration, that we can’t in good faith expect things to stay the same for very long. Whereas in previous ages life was arguably relatively simple, predictable, and unambiguous, we are now faced with a different world. But are we equipped to deal with it? Increasingly, the answer is no.
Disturbingly, in times of transition, complexity, uncertainty, faced with potential or even actual chaos, there is a tendency to seek out absolute foundations, certainty, simplicity, and a framework that will make sense of the world and reduce our anxiety. These frameworks are informed by reductionistic and dualistic thinking that drastically reduce the complexity of the world. What this means in practice is that in times of great anxiety, human beings often need to reduce the complexity by finding one source to blame for their anxiety and attribute to it all that is wrong (scapegoating). This is accompanied by thinking in dualistic terms: they are bad, we are good. If you’re not for us, you’re against us. “They” are the capitalist running dogs, the evil empire, the witches, the Jews, the polluting industries, and so on (Bernstein, 2005; Montuori, 2005b).
Gerald Holton spoke of the “themata,” the major recurring themes in the work of creative scientists (Holton, 1988). One of the central themata running through Morin’s work is a critique of this kind of simplistic thinking, or “simple thought,” in the direct translation from the French. The problems with simple thought are legion. Dualistic thinking creates a classic problem. If I assume that you are evil and I am good, then in the heat of the mission to “defeat evil,” anything I do is by definition legitimate and good, and anything you do is bad. But if I am so unwaveringly convinced that I am good—in an “essentialist” way, in the same way that I see you as “essentially” evil—then all my actions become, to some extent beyond reproach in my battle against the forces of evil. This leads to the phenomenon that Jung called enantiodromia whereby we literally become what we hate (Jung, 1976). Examples abound. In order for my democratic country to fight my totalitarian enemy, I must take all precautions, including surveillance of citizens, and the gradual erosion of civil rights, including the right to protest or even disagree with my policies. Anybody who disagrees with me is viewed as aiding and abetting the enemy. In the process of fighting my enemy, I have taken such a drastic stance that the very democracy I am trying to defend is lost in the process, through my own policies, not the actions of the enemy.
Particularly in his more autobiographical accounts, Morin expresses his personal dismay at the way that a certain way of thinking can lead us to demonize “the other,” whether communist, capitalist, German, and so on. The other is reduced to the crimes committed, and a clean, dualistic separation is made between “us and them.” Here we are already in the thick of complexity. It is tempting to say that not reducing Germans after World War 2 to the Nazi horror is fundamentally excusing them, letting them off the hook. The complex perspective recognizes both the horror and the grandeur and humanity of a people who have, after all, made enormous contributions to Western civilization. It’s much easier to say they are somehow evil, and leave it at that. It’s much harder to see that during a specific period of time, preceded by desperate economic hardship and national humiliation, under the influence of masters of propaganda, and much, much more, Germany fell into an abyss of horror. And that the punitive measures of Versailles themselves contributed to the chaos that led to WW2, a lesson that was learnt and led to the Marshall Plan, the remarkable recovery of Germany, Italy, and Japan after the war, and the close bonds with those countries that have lasted to this day.
The example of Germany after WW2 is interesting because now very few people if any would take this demonizing, dualistic view of Germany. But at the same time, we see that discussions of Islam in the West very often take on a very similar character. The image of the West and particularly the United States and Israel proposed in some Islamic fundamentalist circles is even more appallingly demonizing.
Reductionism is, in such situations, coupled with disjunction, the “us and them” approach. This adds to the simplicity. We do not have to deal with the complexity of the German people, of Islam, of the West. We can simply say they are fundamentally evil, and forget about their humanity and their contributions to humanity. And we can also avoid looking into the complexity of our own humanness. We can then avoid addressing our shared humanity, and the very real possibility that we ourselves may be capable of equally horrific behaviors. Indeed, Morin’s work on simple thought has clear connections to the classic research on the authoritarian personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1982; Montuori, 2005b). Characteristics such as black and white, dualistic thinking, anti-introspection (unwillingness to look within and explore the full extent of one’s humanness, particularly one’s weaknesses), and pseudo-conservatism, which involves the tendency to be so extreme and unreflective about preserving what one has that one is willing to actually destroy it in the process. In other words, the first principles are lost, and one is caught up in the frenzy of attack and defense.
What becomes clear very soon is that Morin’s quest for complex thought is not merely some dry logical exercise. It is all about the way we organize our experience, how we make meaning of the world, how we live our lives, and how we can choice between lives that aspire to wisdom and compassion, and the dangers of disjunctive, demonizing terror. And in the process, imagination and emotions play an absolutely crucial role, as Morin explores in detail in works like L’identité humaine (Morin, 2003). Much of the impetus behind simple thought is the emotions evoked by the perception of threat, the need for clarity, the assumption that anything other than a “strong stance,” a powerful “position” is wishy-washy, and reflects weakness and a willingness to “give in” to the aggressor. There is a whole sociology and psychology of knowledge at play here, which Morin has masterfully discussed in Method, particularly volumes 3 and 4 (Morin, 1986, 1991).
Particularly relevant here is the introduction of the knower into the process of inquiry. The tradition of reductive, dualistic thought eliminates the knower from the process of knowing. With Morin we find the knower taking center stage, and becoming a subject of inquiry, self-reflection and self-analysis (Morin, 1971). This opens up an entirely different understanding of the nature of inquiry, deepening the complexity and forcing the inquirer to take responsibility for his or her own process. Not unlike the process of training required for psychoanalysts, Morinian inquiry involves a recognition that all inquiry is engaged by a human being, not an objective lens with no emotions, stressors, political and social constraints, and so on. Inquiry therefore requires a process of self-inquiry.
Morin’s introduction of the knower is not a fall into ‘absolute’ subjectivism—far from it. It is rather a call for a discipline of thinking, of inquiry, and of being. If knowing is always performed by somebody, then that somebody can be viewed as an instrument, an instrument that has to be tuned, studied, practiced. Limitations and blind spots have to be assessed and brought into consciousness.
In an age of fundamentalisms and black and white, dualistic thinking, Morin’s work is more timely than ever. In his political works he has applied complex thought to the nature of the USSR, the future of Europe, and the conflict in the Middle East. In these works, Morin outlines a complex perspective on these issues that provides us with an alternative to the simple thought of both fundamentalist and liberal thinkers. Morin’s oeuvre opens up a world of possibilities and presents us with the tools to address the enormous complexity of today’s world. Morin challenges us to explore the meaning of inquiry—and show us how this seemingly esoteric question lies at the heart of the challenge for the 21st century. One can only hope that his Method will be widely studied and applied to address our global challenges, and prepare us to do this with creativity, wisdom and compassion.
California Institute of Integral Studies
San Francisco, California, USA