Turning systems

The aggregation of complex systems in contemporary networked applications means that no single person ever sees the whole picture.
— Bridle, James. New Dark Age (p. 43). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
The trouble … is that we are terrifyingly ignorant. The most learned of us are ignorant.… The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance— almost is the revelation of ignorance. Our knowledge of the world instructs us first of all that the world is greater than our knowledge of it.
— Wendell Berry, writer and Kentucky farmer, as quoted by Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (p. 86). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

We denizens of the World Wide Web have access to more information than ever. The trouble is that we often try to read it faster, hoping to take in more of it, or worrying that the next thing could be more worthy of our attention than what we’re reading now, so we should get through it as fast as possible. It takes a conscious effort to slow down and give the symbols a chance to connect with the time you’re living. But i think the effort also increases the humbling awareness that the world is greater than our knowledge of it.

I’ve noticed this especially while returning my attention to the early chapters of Turning Signs. It’s been over five years since i first published it, long enough to enable me to read it again for the first time (to steal a phrase from Marcus Borg). I’ve forgotten my authorial intentions well enough to be surprised by it, for instance by how much it’s perfused with systems thinking, which i consider crucial to the transition we are living in 2021. But i’m also surprised at the number of changes (improvements, i hope) that seem to be called for. (I’ve learned a few things since 2015 and have a better sense of how ignorant i am.) I’ve now revised the first four chapters. I might have to call it a second edition, or Turning Signs 2.0.

The online chapers are always up to date, of course, but it’s also occurred to me that some people might prefer to read TS offline. I’ve made it possible now to download the whole thing as a Zip file (a little over 3 MB) which you can extract to a folder on your computer or tablet and read with your browser, regardless of platform. You’ll find the download link near the top of the Table of Contents page. I’ll have to periodically update that Zip file on my site as revision continues, but it will always be the whole book, Obverse, Reverse, Universe and all. If anyone reading this wants to try it out, let me know (by comment or email) how well it works. Especially if you run into any problems.

Common sensing

In Peircean terminology, Turning Signs could be described as a hybrid of cenoscopy and synthetic philosophy. Cenoscopy, as opposed to the idioscopic or specialized sciences such as physics and psychology, investigates

phenomena that are perfectly familiar to all mankind. Because these are founded on common observation, Bentham gave them the collective designation Cenoscopy, which I adopt as expressive of my own opinion of the basis on which these sciences, which are otherwise called Philosophy, rest.
— Peirce, MS 601 (c. 1906)

Cenoscopy then ‘embraces all that positive science which rests upon familiar experience and does not search out occult or rare phenomena’; for Peirce this, rather than metaphysics, is the real “first philosophy,” or at least ‘is better entitled (except by usage) to being distinguished as philosophia prima than ontology’ (EP2:372). Synthetic philosophy, on the other hand, ‘has been called philosophia ultima’ because it ‘embraces all that truth which is derivable by collating the results of different special sciences, but which is too broad to be established by any one of them’ (EP2:372).

In other words, the philosophical inquiry reflected in Turning Signs aims at both the primary (or primal?) and the ultimate – the alpha and the omega. This makes it doubly useful in these apocalyptic or transitional times. Actually only the cenoscopic part should be called “inquiry,” or heuretic science as Peirce called it. He placed synthetic philosophy ‘at the head of the Retrospective Sciences’ (EP2:373), i.e. those which find new connections among observations previously made rather than making new observations of their own. But the reliance of cenoscopic inquiry on ‘familiar experience’ does not make it easier to practice, because it requires critical common sense.

The method of cenoscopic research presents a certain difficulty. In commencing it we are confronted with the fact that we already believe a great many things. These beliefs, or at least the more general of them, ought to be reconsidered with deliberation. This implies that it should be conducted according to a deliberate plan adopted only after the severest criticism. Indeed, nothing in cenoscopy should be embraced without criticism. Each criticism should wait to be planned, and each plan should wait for criticism. Clearly, if we are to get on at all, we must put up with imperfect procedure.
— Peirce, EP2:373

This is roughly equivalent to Merleau-Ponty’s observation about phenomenology: ‘The most important lesson of the reduction is the impossibility of a complete reduction.’

Perennial Turning

It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on resilience.org. One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)

The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:

Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.

The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.

The Determinator

The early Wittgenstein wrote that ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ (Tractatus 5.6). But the deeper limiting factor is the limits of experience due to the mind’s embodiment, which enables even the wildest imagination. This includes one’s conception of the Creator of the universe. Peirce as a pragmaticist held
that man is so completely hemmed in by the bounds of his possible practical experience, his mind is so restricted to being the instrument of his needs, that he cannot, in the least, mean anything that transcends those limits. The strict consequence of this is, that it is all nonsense to tell him that he must not think in this or that way because to do so would be to transcend the limits of a possible experience. For let him try ever so hard to think anything about what is beyond that limit, it simply cannot be done. You might as well pass a law that no man shall jump over the moon; it wouldn’t forbid him to jump just as high as he possibly could.
For much the same reason, I do not believe that man can have the idea of any cause or agency so stupendous that there is any more adequate way of conceiving it than as vaguely like a man. Therefore, whoever cannot look at the starry heaven without thinking that all this universe must have had an adequate cause, can in my opinion not otherwise think of that cause half so justly than by thinking it is God.
CP 5.536, c. 1905
Unfortunately, for many believers the conception of “God” has not been anywhere near vague enough, as they imagine the ‘stupendous agency’ to be something like a dominating alpha male, rather than a Mind whose only embodiment is the lived and living universe of experience. Surely the Creator and Determinator of whatever happens cannot be as determinate as any willful or existing Self. There is no Dominus but the dominance of reality itself, and we poor creatures can only determine what that is within the limits of our own embodiment.

What Peirce called ‘the scientific method’ in his ‘Fixation of Belief’ essay, he later called ‘the method of experience’ – emphasizing the wild reality of experience and the humility of the method.
Changes of opinion are brought about by events beyond human control. All mankind were so firmly of opinion that heavy bodies must fall faster than light ones, that any other view was scouted as absurd, eccentric, and probably insincere. Yet as soon as some of the absurd and eccentric men could succeed in inducing some of the adherents of common sense to look at their experiments – no easy task – it became apparent that nature would not follow human opinion, however unanimous. So there was nothing for it but human opinion must move to nature’s position. That was a lesson in humility. A few men, the small band of laboratory men, began to see that they had to abandon the pride of an opinion assumed absolutely final in any respect, and to use all their endeavors to yield as unresistingly as possible to the overwhelming tide of experience, which must master them at last, and to listen to what nature seems to be telling us. The trial of this method of experience in natural science for these three centuries – though bitterly detested by the majority of men – encourages us to hope that we are approaching nearer and nearer to an opinion which is not destined to be broken down – though we cannot expect ever quite to reach that ideal goal.
from How to Reason, 1893 (R 407: 20–21, CP 5.384fn)
Over a century later, is ‘the trial of this method of experience’ still encouraging us? Or is it proceeding like Kafka’s Process?