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Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving systems: having gotten started (PG)

What struck me particularly about our first meetings was the strong interest in ... our group itself and how it would function, and the lesser attention paid to any of the larger "intellectual" issues set out in our overview and background.     There was a clear sense of academic life as not having a place for certain kinds of interpersonal interactions and of a wish to rectify that, but also a noteworthy uncertainty about exactly what is being sought and how to achieve it.

Under some circumstances, one might be pessimistic about the likely future of a group that has no sharply defined sense of an intellectual mission, and is uncertain even about how to constitute itself as an interpersonal community.  In the evolving systems context, however, the prognosis seems to me quite different.  A drive (conscious or unconscious) to create something new  is one essential element of an evolving system, and dissatisfaction with existing things is as good a source of such a drive as any.  Dissatisfaction with existing things also adds some degree of directional "selection pressure," the second key ingredient of an evolving system.  Without knowing exactly what the new things are, one at least knows to move away from where one is. That there is some commonality in the dissatisfactions, despite different ways of getting to them, makes it more likely that existing different understandings ("adaptations") can be used in symbiotic ways to open new possibilities (a third key element of evolution).  In short, evolving systems succeed in going places without a sharply defined sense of where they are going, and our group seems to have the wherewithal to achieve that.

There is, it seems to me, also substantial promise in the group's inclination to insist that intellectual issues cannot be satisfactorily addressed independently of interpersonal and personal ones.  This is very much not the typical "academic" posture and so is, I think, already pointing in a new, potentially "less wrong" direction, one consistent with a number of different lines of contemporary thought emphasizing the "embodied" character of knowledge/understanding.  Along this path of exploration, there are as yet to be fully appreciated implications for how we should be doing intellectual work but there is also the additional possibility that new directions of intellectual work could in turn suggest new directions for interpersonal and personal evolution.  

Maybe the intersection of intellectual, interpersonal, and personal realms could be generative for all three?  Its a thought that I've played with on and off in the past (cf "the personal and the political are the same thing"  and Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond: The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization), and look forward to sharing thoughts/developing new stories about in our conversations.

The other direction our first conversations made me want to pursue further is the issue of "methodology," and, in particular, the question of whether there is or is not a characterizeable methodology appropriate for, perhaps unique to?, the kind of work we are trying to do.  Is it enough to challenge existing methodologies or does one need to go beyond that and develop new ones?  A year and a half ago, I gave a couple of talks called "Inquiry as Emergence"  and "Empirical Inquiry: Limitations and Possibilities" about "empirical non-foundationalism" as a transdisciplinary approach.  Several methodological principles from those talks may be relevant here

  • Encourage the development of new stories
  • Compare/contrast conflicting stories without quickly dismissing any
  • Notice patterns across the stories of different disciplines/forms of exploration
  • Conceive stories as yet unconceived and test those

To which I might now add, as per the illustration to the right (thanks to my daughter Rachel)

  • Find the fixed points/basic principles of any understanding, including one's own, and see what happens if you change it (the development of non-Euclidean geometry is a good example)

I'm curious to hear what additions or deletions others might have for the list.  And what peoples' feelings are about whether we have a present or future responsibility to make concrete a new methodology. And about the extent to which such a methodology might be useful not only for some intellectual work but for new thinking about interpersonal organization and personal development as well. 

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