Difference, Identity, and Complexity

By Cilliers, Paul | Philosophy Today, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Difference, Identity, and Complexity


Cilliers, Paul, Philosophy Today


If the world we lived in, or more specifically, if the organizations we work in and with, were mostly symmetrical and homogenous, there would be a number of advantages. They would be stable and their behavior would be predictable. It would also be possible to model them accurately, and thus to understand them fundamentally. "Knowing" them would lead to the possibility of controlling them. The problem is, such a world or such organizations could only be very uninteresting. Living things and complex social systems are by their nature heterogeneous and asymmetrical. Complex systems are made up of a multitude of non-linear interactions that cannot be simplified.1 They are unpredictable and full of surprises. There are serious difficulties involved in understanding, let alone modeling, them.

But perhaps the complex behavior of such systems is only epiphenomenal. Perhaps, underneath the multifaceted surface, there are general principles to which the seemingly contingent behavior could be reduced. This would allow us to model the essential behavior of these systems, and not be distracted by the contingencies. Finding these internal regularities was the hope of what could generically be called Modernism.2 This strategy was governed by the ideal to find universal, ahistorical, and non-contingent principles that would describe complex systems accurately and thus allow for prediction and control.

If such an ideal was the guiding principle, diversity would be a problem. It would complicate our understanding and interfere with our planning. It would confront us with the surface of things, not with their essence. It would force us to deal with a countless number of factors, too many to handle. I shall argue, however, that such an understanding of diversity is not only misguided, but dangerous. Diversity is not a problem to be solved; it is the precondition for the existence of any interesting behavior.

The notion of "diversity" is used here in the context of post-structural theories of meaning and of the characteristics of complex systems. These contexts will be unpacked in more detail later, but my general argument is that in a poststructural understanding of language, meaning results from the differences between all the signs in the system. Sameness does not generate meaning. The richness of the system is a function of the differences it contains. Similarly, complex systems are made up of the nonlinear interactions amongst large amounts of elements which are not necessarily complex in themselves. These interactions produce the "emergent" properties of the system, the higher order properties that make the system what it is. A good example is the way in which consciousness emerges from the interaction between neurons in the brain. For this to take place, there must be a large number of neurons which are non-linearly and asymmetrically connected. A small amount of homogenous neurons will just not do it.3

This "necessity" of diversity can also be explained by looking at an organization. To be able to fulfill its role and to cope with a challenging and changing environment, an organization needs diverse resources. The functions of the different components of the organization are not simply interchangeable. The crane operator cannot do the job of the financial manager and vice versa. The more complex the role of the organization is, the more diversity is required to perform it.

The problem to be addressed should now begin to emerge. For an organization to have vital and dynamic properties, it needs a lot of diversity. If, however, we want to describe, understand, control, or manage such an organization, the diversity becomes a problem. We cannot reduce rich, nonlinear difference to simple descriptions, but we need descriptions nonetheless. It was the hope of Modernism that such simplified descriptions - descriptions which are accurate and contain the essence of the matter - could be found. The poststructural argument and the argument from a critical understanding of complexity is that such reductive strategies are seriously flawed. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Difference, Identity, and Complexity
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.