Aspects of Complexity Theory in Liberal Political Thought

By Bittick, R. M. | Emergence: Complexity and Organization, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Complexity Theory in Liberal Political Thought


Bittick, R. M., Emergence: Complexity and Organization


Complexity theory is founded on post-positivist thinking. However, aspects of complexity theory are found in the writings of Liberal political philosophers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant. This paper focuses on one aspect of Liberal political philosophy: how liberal social-political orders emerge from the interactions of individuals. The author argues that while complexity theory and Liberal political philosophy are compatible concerning emergent orders, they differ on scientific method and foundational norms. This is this important because Liberal political philosophy is a significant part of the foundation of the United States political order and impacts how public administrators implement public policies.

Introduction

Complexity theory is founded on postpositivist thinking. However, aspects of complexity theory can be found in the writings of early Liberal political philosophers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant. This paper focuses on one such aspect of Liberal political philosophy: how liberal social-political polities emerge from the interactions of individuals. As such, this paper identifies compatible aspects of complexity theory that overlap with aspects of Liberal political philosophy. Focusing on the writings of Locke and Kant, the paper argues that while these philosophers wrote in the Newtonian tradition, certain aspects of their thinking are compatible with complexity theory.

This is important because Liberal political philosophy is a significant part of the foundation of the United States political order and impacts how public administrators implement public policies. Furthermore, an important element of Liberal political philosophy is rational thinking because it was originally rooted in the Newtonian/Empirical approach to science. However, complexity theory shows that much of existence cannot be understood through a linear, deterministic approach to science. This raises a related question: Is complexity theory compatible with Liberal political philosophy? This paper argues that while they are compatible concerning the idea of emerging political orders, they differ on scientific method and on foundational norms.

The approach taken in this paper is theoretical and exploratory. The following sections begin by exploring complexity theory, then examining Liberal political philosophy according to Locke and Kant, and then compare these to each other. Finally, implications for public administrators are examined.

What is Complexity Theory?

Complexity theory is a recent approach to research stemming from the biological and physical sciences. Some describe it as a postmodern approach to science (Cilliers, 2000; Abraham, 2001), while others argue that while it has similarities with postmodern thinking, it is best described as a post-positivist approach rooted in science (Price, 1997; Byrne, 1998; Morcol, 2001; Phelan, 2001). I take the latter approach to complexity in this study.

Kurt Richardson and Paul Cilliers (2001) note that there is not a firm definition of complexity theory (p. 8). However, they argue that there are three themes in complexity theory:

1. "Reductionistic Complexity Science" which strives for a "theory of everything" that explains the existence of everything (p. 5-6);

2. "Soft Complexity Science" focusing on language and meaning in the social world, which makes it distinct from the natural world (p. 6-7); and,

3. "Complexity Thinking," focusing on the limits of human knowledge, especially in social systems (pp. 7-8).

Neil E. Harrison (2006) defines a system as, "a portion of the universe within a defined boundary, outside of which lies an environment" (p. 2). He notes that some systems are simple, while others are complex. What makes a system complex is "diversity and decentralization" (p. 3).

In this paper, "complexity theory" concerns the study of complex adaptive systems, or CAS. John H. Holland (1995) describes a complex adaptive system as "systems composed of interacting agents described in terms of rules" (p. …

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