It wasn’t so long ago that complexity thinking was synonymous with bottom-up computer simulation. However, in the past 5-10 years we have seen other threads emerge from this mathematically focused starting point that acknowledge the profound philosophical implications of complexity.
I’m basically interested in intervention. The key question for me is: how can you intervene more systemically? Systems approaches make the assumption that things are interconnected. That’s the fundamental starting point. However, we don’t have the privilege of a God’s eye view of that interconnectedness, so there are inevitable limits to understanding, and it is those limits that we call boundaries. So systemic intervention, for me, at a fundamental level, is how to explore those boundaries, and how to take account of the inevitable lack of comprehensiveness and begin to deal with that.
When I started out, I believed that there were very distinct systems paradigms, and there was a need to choose and defend yours against other people’s paradigms. Today I prefer to see a systems perspective as something that you develop over a lifetime. It’s like building a house that evolves: you can redecorate it, even build an extension.
Critical systems thinkers like Midgley identify three waves of systems thinking over the last 50 years or so. Early systems theorists (e.g. Bertalanffy) described systems in physical terms, resorting to metaphors from electronic computation or biology. This 'hard systems' tradition still has its advocates and practitioners... Subsequently the limits of the physical metaphor... were reached, and the second wave of systems thinking developed. This 'soft systems thinking' employed social metaphors to develop appropriate systems approaches for human systems. The move to a more phenomenological, interpretative understanding of human systems, where meaning is central and is negotiated intersubjectively, parallels the new paradigm / crisis of social psychology of the 1970s. The Third wave, or critical systems school, in which Midgley locates himself, has drawn on the critical theory of Habermas, particularly in relation to theories of knowledge and of communicative rationality, and on the work of Foucault and followers on the nature of power.