Stop thinking in blocks and arrows, or parts and wholes — think mutual learning and interrelation

marcus jenal
Dec 17, 2018 · 5 min read

I am totally blown away by a number of texts I have read recently by Nora Bateson. In particular, the two concepts of ‘symmathesy’ and ‘warm data’ are very much in line with my understanding of complexity.

Yet, I would never be able to formulate these ideas in such eloquent and deep ways — which is why I want to use this post to collect and share some quotes by Nora Bateson’s text titled “SYMMATHESY — A WORD IN PROGRESS: PROPOSING A NEW WORD THAT REFERS TO LIVING SYSTEMS” (read it here on her blog). What Nora is proposing is a new word, or concept that replaces the term ‘system’ when we talk about the living world. A term that better represents that living systems mainly exist in the interrelations rather than in the elements. Her motivation can be found in the following quote:

The discourse with which we discuss and study the living world should be representative of the living world, and should cautiously avoid connotations that imply or are derived from engineering. (…) The notion of systems as being an arrangement of parts and wholes has become a distraction from the new systemic vision, which we are trying to encourage, that sees life as relational mutual learning contexts. As studies ranging from cognitive science to epigenetics, social science, ecology and evolutionary theory, are increasingly showing, evolution emerges in interrelationality, not in arrangement. Therefore the need is acute to create a differentiation between living systems and other systems. (…) Interaction is what creates and vitalizes the integrity of the living world. Over time the ongoing survival of the organisms in their environments requires that there be learning, and learning to learn, together.

The thought is similar to Dave Snowden’s quest to establish the field of what he calls ‘anthro-complexity’. A part of complexity science that specifically looks at human interactions and recognises that humans are not ants or bees and that the systems humans are part of are different from beehives or ants nests.

Bateson defines the new term ‘symmathesy’ like this:

Symmathesy (Noun): An entity composed by contextual mutual learning through interaction. This process of interaction and mutual learning takes place in living entities at larger or smaller scales of symmathesy.

Symmathesy (Verb): The process of interaction, in its multiple variables, that produces a mutual learning context.

What I find most fascinating — and which clearly goes beyond the boundaries of my current understanding, is Bateson’s claim that “the tendency to think in terms of functioning parts and wholes is misleading for our future inquiry of living, co-evolving systems.

The way in which we have culturally been trained to explain and study our world is laced with habits of thinking in terms of parts and wholes and the way they “work” together. The connotations of this systemic functional arrangement are mechanistic; which does not lend itself to an understanding of the messy contextual and mutual learning/evolution of the living world.

Reductionism lurks around every corner; mocking the complexity of the living world we are part of.

And further down:

… the “parts” in a living entity are also learning from each other within the context of interrelationship with the external environment. As such they are hardly distinguishable as “parts”. (…) The paradox of looking at the context or ‘whole’ as produced by its components or ‘parts’ is confusing since not only the outline of the context is scalable, but the idea of parts is blurred. (…) Often our drawing of these boundaries is based upon arbitrary lines that are convenient for our description. (…) If we perceive that the functions of living ecologies are the effect of processes taking place between parts and wholes we become prone to assigning agency to “parts”. We divide the ecology in order to label it and specify the “functions” of the processes that give the ecology life. The drawback with this approach is that the focus centers on the bits and their ‘roles’ while losing sight of the contextual integrity. Agency infers that parts can be separated from wholes and exert individuated action. In symmathesic thinking, the notion of agency does not apply. This is because the formation of the ecology in question is necessarily evolving within its context, not its parts.

The context is not inside any of the parts but is created in the interaction.

Boundaries can still be useful, as this is, for Bateson, where interaction and learning actually happens.

The outlines we draw are useful to us as arbitrary separations that conveniently contain our study within limits we can manage. However, these outlines more aptly serve as indications of areas of interaction, transmission and reception of information. (…) The boundaries are in that sense vital interfaces for communication and learning.

And when it comes to models and illustrations, Bateson articulates a feeling that I have been having for a long time:

But, from the ‘symmathesy’ perspective we see that there are dire errors which are made whenever we diagram living systems with the usual boxes and arrows textbook illustrations. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is no model or diagram that can effectively illustrate the learning within the context. (…) In a push against the cultural inclination to utilize these engineering diagrams to discuss complexity of life, symmathesy must remain illustrated through either life itself, or through symbolic representation that communicates at multiple levels (e.g. art). (…) Art may be the only way to truly describe living complexity. Why? Because living entities exist in interaction over time. They are learning, and this frames direct communication as freeze frame in time and space.

And so, Bateson goes on describing symmathesy and her motivation to create the concept. And I stand in awe with a mix of deep knowing that this is true, while also still grappling with its implications and with how much more I need to learn from people like Bateson. This is another milestone on my journey to understanding.

marcus jenal

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I am an explorer of the field of complexity and its application in social-economic and social-ecological change. Find more of my writing on