I have been looking at a few of my unpublished work going back to the 90’s The task is complicated because many of the files cannot be opened in the original format, but I can recover the text and try to reconstruct the papers. Today’s post is an extract from a working paper written in 1992. It is taken out of context of the whole piece, which was about design and human action, but seems to be pretty self-contained. I can see, even back then, where the impetus for my books and other work since then arose. The main difference is that, now, I have a solid foundation, based on the divided brain model to built upon. The key idea here, as it is in my last book, is that we must change the way we hold the world if we are going to rid ourselves of the persistent problems that plague (sic) us.
Back then, I was coming from the work of Humberto Maturana and his two dichotomous ontologies. This is how he states his case:
There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary exclusive explanatory paths that I call the path of objectivity-without-parenthesis, or the path of transcendental objectivity, and the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, or the path of constituted objectivity. (My emphasis)
This was published in 1988. In 2010, McGilchrist published The Master and his Emissary and gave us his divided-brain theory of human cognition and behavior. The way the two sides of the brain work correspond precisely to Maturana’s two ontologies, that is, ways of describing the world we live within. This extract from my working paper was informed by Maturana’s two ways of seeing/interpreting/explaining the world. If I had only . . .
Permanent institutions like companies, families, or governments develop and adopt strategies to provide control over changing conditions and to unexpected outcomes of intentional activities. These strategies are a type of rule structure designed to guide the organization’s or individual’s efforts to maintain the transparency of action, that is, to maintain movement towards a declared or implicit set of intentional destinations. In this sense, they are transformations of the goals, based on experience (or theory), into a set of rules or principles to guide the “design” process and, perhaps, a set of lesser, more embodied responses to break-downs. The choice of organizational framework is a critical part of the strategic design of systems that will be able to be effective in a changing context. The whole focus on lean production, organizational learning, quality, and so on are such consequences. But there is no magic in organization. The choices of technologies and competence are equally important in building institutions that maintain their effectiveness in the face of change and surprise.
The ability to design, that is, to recognize what is missing and what it is that is to be satisfied, is tied to the fundamental way by which the players look out at the world. Our historical emphasis on objective rationality and a Cartesian sense of reality produces one kind of individual and shapes the way that an individual will perform as a designer. I believe that this ontology — a belief in the way things, including humans, are — blinds us to the world as it really is and limits our ability to design and satisfy our most fundamental human concerns. But in order to transcend that limitation, we will have to educate ourselves beyond adding more technical competence; we must also change the very way we see the world, in essence, perform an ontological design that changes the fundamental belief structures on top of which humans build their interpretation and understanding of the world and act accordingly. It is not enough, in spite of our tendencies to seek answers in a technical sense to every unfulfilled concern or problem, to build ever larger systems of analysis based on a positivistic model of the world. That approach always omits the contextual, historic, linguistic basis of human action, and is destined to produce failure, disappointment, and both human and environmental suffering.
Further, as the end note briefly indicates, the design process is critical to the production of satisfaction. If the designers and those who direct the designers are mistaken about the concerns they should satisfy, then the results will not produce any permanent movement towards the worlds being sought. If the producers of goods in the market sense and the government as the producer of other forms of social satisfaction (that the market cannot provide) fail to perform over extended periods, the society will experience deep, pervasive breakdowns, as we observe today in the East and West, North and South. These break-downs suggest that the designers have missed the point of their work; they fail to think critically about what is missing. And they have become too deeply embedded in institutions that have developed their own sets of concerns to satisfy that no longer reflect the historical purposes of those institutions.
The failure to see design as part of the overall process of fulfilling people’s concerns is at the center of many breakdowns in our present society. The economic model of satisfaction at the margin omits the contextual character of human activities. What we do is always attached to the satisfaction of some concern, but not as an abstract utility or formless pleasure. It always is part of an ongoing conversation that relates to our experience, both past and recent. If the designers of material goods, of organizational forms, or of human competence (education as constituted here) are consciously or implicitly aware of that context, then what they produce may be effective. If they ignore or are blind to the context and merely seek to satisfy some formless or abstract need, then we are likely to see a continued deterioration of the human condition and the well-being of the world in which we live.
The marketplace developed to satisfy human beings that experienced break-downs; they could not complete their activities to their satisfaction and sought out others that could. Money was invented to mediate this process. I believe that money is as much a technological artifact in this sense as a car, although we see it in a meta-context because it enters into so many of our attempts to satisfy our various concerns. Producers, later as firms, responded to the requests of those experiencing break-downs, and, presumably, acted to design and make promises coherent with those requests. Fundamentally, the market served to fulfill requests which, because they are communicative and contextual, carried that context to the providers of goods and services.
In our modern, materialist society that purpose of the market and of the firm has become corrupted. Rather than respond to requests, as even economists would say is the purpose of the market, firms make offers of new goods and services without considering the contextual concerns of the potential customers. In a purely classic economic system based on the marginal satisfaction of needs of the consumer and of the producer, there is no ontological distinction between a request and an offer. The market serves to match the two sides depending on the marginal utility of the resources possessed by either party. If we look at the role of the firm as providing the technological resources to act transparently towards human satisfaction, including concerns about the environmental world in which we live, then the apparent symmetry disappears, unless the offerer and the requester happen to have the same world in front of them. Increasingly, asymmetry seems to be the case. Our major institutions, companies and government, seem to know less and less about the world they shape through their designing. They seem far removed from those they serve with respect to understanding the basic concerns left unsatisfied in a materialist, rapidly changing society. Without considering the interpretive, contextual, linguistically-constituted way that human construct their worlds, the seemingly endless and wonderful offerings of companies and the most enlightened of government policy are doomed to leave our collective strivings for a sustainable, peaceful, and dignified world with an empty stomach.
The highlighted sentences capture the intent of all three of my books. The big difference is that now McGilchrist affords a concrete way to realize the vision laid out in this short extract of many years ago. The underlying critique of modernity and the call to action is even more relevant now.
(Image: Dali, The Persistence of Memory)