Complexity in practice: a plea for pedagogical plurality

What would it look like if our scholarly practice was actually informed by our shiny new theories of complexity? Below the fold is one possible answer, a draft review article by absential-in-chief Chuck Dyke (Temple University) covering neologism, “ecologies of practice” and theoretical propagation in Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson and others. The introductory section is here below the fold; the whole piece (pdf, with notes) is linked at the end:

Two recent books, Isabel Stengers’ Cosmopolitics and Terry Deacon’s Incomplete Nature introduce daunting arrays of terminology, some neologisms and some adapted from sources that may not be generally familiar. Specimens from Stengers include “factishes” (from Bruno Latour), and “singularities” (from Deleuze and Guattari); Deacon provides us with “absentials” and “ententions” (self-imposed), along with many other terminological prodigies. Cosmopolitics invites us to take a new look at some traditional issues in the philosophy of science, and reframe them. Incomplete Nature sets about a systematic (thermodynamic) framework designed eventually to account for the evolution of consciousness in humans. To understand either book is to make peace (perhaps a critical peace) with the terminological demands the authors make.

In what follows I want to urge such a peace – though perhaps not perpetual peace. The working premise will be that, whatever else it may be, science is a process of mutual learning. So the dominant line of persuasion will be that mutual learning is best served by a tolerant and receptive attitude toward neologism once an initial prima facie credibility is established – as it is with both Deacon and Stengers, both of whom have a solid track record. Authority legitimates candidates, but surely doesn’t guarantee success.

The strategy will be to set out some basic features of Stengers’ rubric, with the terminology that goes with it, then use that to present some of the key features of Deacon’s project. The attempt will be to provide a useful pedagogical perspective on Deacon without any serious modification of his theory. This is especially possible since his work is rooted in thermodynamics, and Stengers was famously closely associated with Prigogine and his thermodynamics. The works of Alicia Juarrero and Evan Thompson, two others who have earned their candidacy, will be used to create a more contentious contrast space. The point isn’t to dwell on contention, but to illuminate Deacon’s project by understanding some fundamental contrasts.

As fundamental contextualization we have to acknowledge that neologisms are ubiquitous in the history of Western scientific practice. In fact, with the possible exception of quantification and mathematization, nothing is more characteristic within that history. “Mass” may well be the most conspicuous example, but only one among millions, ending up, say, with “Higgs boson,” or “chaperonens,” or the dozens that will be invented this week. A large part of what historians of science do is explain the rise and robust establishment of neologisms and the theoretical and experimental frameworks in which they figure. So to some degree we’re dealing with the obvious here, except that particular case by particular case it’s important to account for the risings and the robust establishments. We’ll be doing that in a specific context: the one occupied by Deacon and other theorists as they try to increase our understanding of human consciousness as a scientific “object.”

Charles E. Dyke, Temple University. Draft; all rights reserved; NOT for reposting. Full version (pdf): TOLERANCE OF TERMINOLOGICAL TRICKERY.



  1. I wanted to mention that I read the linked paper before writing my previous post on McGinn. Dyke’s paper is a much more fruitful way of looking at the issue than the cutesy blog conceit of “CDCD”. He’s looking at neologism in particular, which I think is apt — almost every philosopher reviewing Deacon complains about the neologisms.

    Also, the “pedagogical perspective” is a very useful thing that I didn’t touch on at all.

    More later.

  2. A mild “Whoops!” Anyone who attributes “singularities” to Guattari and Deleuze is way, way out of it. Heard of Raymond Kurzweil or Vernor Vinge? Or Rudy Rucker, for that matter. This term has been familiar to SF readers for a long, long time.

    n., pl., -ties.
    The quality or condition of being singular.
    A trait marking one as distinct from others; a peculiarity.
    Something uncommon or unusual.
    Astrophysics. A point in space-time at which gravitational forces cause matter to have infinite density and infinitesimal volume, and space and time to become infinitely distorted.
    Mathematics. A point at which the derivative does not exist for a given function but every neighborhood of which contains points for which the derivative exists. Also called singular point.

  3. I found the paper wordy, wandering, almost unreadable, and I have a high tolerance level for ornate and twisted prose. Took an awful long time to get to the message that people use and make up words for different purposes in different contexts—which, if you pay attention, can sometimes stimulate your thinking. Duh.

  4. Dead Voles to the rescue! We have (at least) two posts on reader response to such texts, Asher’s quite excellent recent one on this very material, and my much older one from the early days of the blog when I was still paying attention to certain philosophers. These may at the very least be taken as evidence that when Asher and I like something, it’s not because we’re stupid and we’ve missed the screamingly obvious.

  5. Ok but it should be obvious that Deacon is writing philosophy. There is no empirical evidence cited, nothing to be potentially proven false, nothing that would make it Popperian “science”. So we have an anthropologist attempting to deal with philosophical questions. When Guattari and Deleuze do the reverse we have philosophers attempting to make use of “science” while presumably doing philosophy. In the latter case the word choices are out of place and often “wrong” relative to the “science” definitions and the philosophers then get the opportunity to “play” with the differences (which is to most readers nothing but highly annoying). In the former case we get a claim of “privilege” and an attempt to not approach philosophy as philosophy (which appeals to the ‘scientists’ both professional and amateur who tended to not take philosophy classes but who enjoy gathering “supporting evidence” for their beliefs and annoys those is who actually do study philosophy and prefer rigorous argumentation).

    No one said any of you were/are stupid. We just are dealing with authors who have some communication and or bibliographical issues.

  6. Michael, with all due respect your answer is pedantic and boundary-defending in a way that indicates you’ve missed or rejected the point, and makes you a mere antagonist for this entire discussion. And since you are an entrepreneur of complexity, that is frankly weird. Making complexity practice and not just talk involves putting pressure on the disciplinary sinks that have sequestered parts of the resources we need to understand how things work. This is obviously unsettling and violates all the comfortable doxic familiarities that give us leverage to say Authoritative Things, and it means we don’t have a fully-disciplined set of rules for vetting good versions from bad or right practices from wrong. But this is in fact how the evolutionary dynamics of complex systems work, so if you’re going to be in this game you’re going to have to embrace that, or at least stop kvetching at people who have.

  7. It follows from this, and Dyke the Elder makes this point explicitly, that it is not authors in this trans-field who have communication and bibliographical issues, but readers. The question of how far back those authors should reach into readers’ narrowness and ignorance to enable communication of course has ethical, pragmatic and pedagogical dimensions mirrored exactly for readers. Again this is thematized in the paper (so far not) under discussion.

  8. So we have a text that is:
    1. Perhaps read from the perspective of a particular discipline
    2. Perhaps reviewed with an eye to what it has to offer a particular discipline, and how it could/should be bridged.
    3. Perhaps taught within a discipline to people working on building a foundation for work

    And that text is:
    1. Attempting to map out new ground that borders on several established disciplines
    2. Attempting to make itself a “singularity” (perhaps establish a discipline?)
    3. Attempting to do all this without severing itself from the theories/models without which it is essentially a castle in the air.

    So how do you read/review/teach the text? How do you determine whether the “new ground” is really new? What sorts of tolerance do (or can) we have for novel formulations? What risks do authors take when formulating novel ideas using terms and concepts likely to cause incorrect implications to be carried from those to the new ground? These are the questions we are thinking about.

    I don’t think you can read Dyke the Elder’s paper and say something like “it’s clear Deacon is doing philosophy”. Or science, for that matter. What you *can* do is try to figure out what assumptions are being made (for example, I’m still trying to figure out if Deacon is a physicalist), how they connect to the ideas they’re connected to, what value they have, whether a “singularity” is warranted, etc., etc.

    At this stage, I’m of the opinion that Deacon’s work teeters a bit when looked at from the Isle of Philosophy. Pedagogically, I suspect there’s a way to prop it up.

  9. Also – it’s an interesting contrast to look at the “borrowing” of D&G versus the neologisms of Deacon. There is a cognitive (pedagogical) reason for using one approach over the other.

    I really have no patience for the crankiness with neologisms. If a neologism ends up being unnecessary or useless, so be it. But some of the reactions just sound reactive and grumpy to me. Evaluate the fricking neologism — ask yourself what the author is trying to do. In Deacon’s case, he spends time directly explaining why he feels the need. Argue against *that*.

  10. Asher, I like the way you phrase the problem, but note a missing option.

    1. The reader is comfortable reading across multiple disciplines
    2. The reader cannot make out where this new ground is supposed to be
    3. The reader regards the fundamental point, that given the intersection of language and disciplinary boundaries we often encounter people using the same word in fundamentally different senses, which makes it important as well as interesting to work out how the word came to mean what it does in some particular contest, as an important and teachable one, but
    4. finds the way in which the point is made meandering and overblown.

    Perhaps his friends could lend a hand by pointing out where they see the new ground and value added to the fundamental point.

  11. John, I kind of hope you’re joking, because if you’ve been following DV for the last month or so you’ve seen Asher and me struggling with great patience but mounting frustration against insistently narrow, superficial, cranky and dismissively condescending readings of dead voles we think are quite richly stinky, as I obviously think this one is. And as Asher just said really nicely, all we really want is an elementary generosity of reception where readers get over themselves and “ask [themselves] what the author is trying to do.”

    But OK, you read the piece and after puzzling out that ‘singularity’ was going to be carefully used in a way quite different than the conclusion you jumped to, you dug in deeply and on the first page found the familiar chestnut about language communities and word use. And by fiat elevated it to “fundamental point” status, transforming all of the things the paper is actually about, with logos as the helpfully familiar and accessible linking thread, into so much epiphenomenal “meandering.” See? I really don’t even know where to start, man. If you’re busy and can’t be bothered that’s totally fine. Just don’t kill the thread with offhand dismissals and bar-lowering demands, please.

  12. Pingback: Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading | Dead Voles

  13. EGOR – elementary generosity of reception. Live it. Love it.

    We haven’t really talked about it (because it gets into issues of personal motivation that we like to avoid in polite discussion), but it’s possible that some of the dismissiveness we’re seeing is the result of raw nerves being struck.

    I personally have a lot of raw nerves, which I strive mightily to counteract. I’m defensive about the “amateur” thing. I’m dismissive of armchair metaphysics. I’m dismissive of the arguments of people who are nasty in their delivery. It’s *my* responsibility to own up to these things (privately, at least), step back, and try to evaluate reasonably.

    John M – We might be misunderstanding each other. The “new ground” I’m talking about is Deacon, not Dyke. Dyke’s discussion is basically a meta-discussion about “new ground” theories.

  14. Just a quick response to Michael’s claim that Deacon is not proposing a falsifiable theory, IN proposes at least one:

    The autogen is possible to create, in principle in vitro, and that it can be tested for teleodynamic attributes such as, but not limited to: co-constraints of morpho- and teleodynamic processes, reduction in the rate of entropy export to surroundings, self-replication, acquisition of ententional ‘cell’ wall receptors with potential to engage ambient (absential) ligands able to provide potential for increased fitness.

  15. All theoretical claims and a bunch of meaningless words. Tell us how one creates the autogen and how it can be tested rather than merely asserting such. Assertions do not falsifiability make. I can assert that there is “something on the other side of black holes” and tell you it is falsifiable by merely examining the same. It would be for now at least an empty assertion. So too with autogens and absentials. Its assertions conjectures and proto-theory but it is NOT science.

  16. Re: Augustus: “Just a quick response to Michael’s claim that Deacon is not proposing a falsifiable theory, IN proposes at least one”

    I would add another – towards the end, Deacon treats bloodflow as a way of ramping up activity within a neural network: adding the requisite noise for a network to take on self-organizing (morphodynamic) properties. Most folks working in fMRI treat bloodflow as a way to feed oxygen-starved cells after they’ve fired (the hemodynamic response function, which functional imaging measures, is assumed to be an after-the-fact correlate to neurons actually firing). Deacon’s interpretation isn’t incompatible with our current data, at least as far as I know, but it’s definitely different from the standard interpretation… and certainly falsifiable, given the right test. I.e. do neurons within a network fire more often when blood is being fed to that area? Any functional imaging folks reading, please jump in to correct me here.

    Re: Michael: “All theoretical claims and a bunch of meaningless words. Tell us how one creates the autogen and how it can be tested rather than merely asserting such.”

    Really? This seems pretty clearly testable. Find an autocatalytic set that creates byproducts which self-assemble; see if you can get that system to produce life-like properties. If I’ve included a bunch of meaningless words in that sentence, please point them out – but I think that’s more or less a clear idea to any physicist (even if difficult to test or accomplish), and I’m pretty sure that’s what the autogen model is. It might be presented in theoretical form, but so was Schrodinger’s work in What Is Life? – a book that few would consider overly theoretical or “not science,” especially given the folks who read it and cashed it out in the lab.

    This not-science/science dichotomy is precisely part of the problem that needs to be overcome. It’s exactly the kind of mentality that makes most working scientists completely ignore philosophy, to their detriment (and to philosophy’s). It’s a childish appeal to scientific authority – something you’ve lamented several times on this blog, Michael. I find it puzzling that you find the need to emphasize it in this case.

    Brass tax: the history of scientific discovery is littered with these kinds of thought experiments. Most don’t pan out, and a few do. Don’t try to degrade a thought experiment as being “non-science,” because some of our best science emerges from these kinds of digressions. Plenty of dead-ends too. But it’s how our science is done, for better or worse.

  17. Is it how science is “done” yes. is it SCIENCE in a manner which somehow means that it gets privilege while attempting to answer philosophical questions NO. When SCIENCE is done and it answers SCIENCE questions it gets privilege

    when self proclaimed “science” is asserted as privileged in answering questions which are not properly part of SCIENCE it gets no privilege

    there is nothing privileged about the word token “science” even if Deacon (and way too many physicists) want there to be

    one should not confuse the use of words to provide interpretation as the statement of SCIENCE there is little SCIENCE in What is Life lots of interpretation and philosophy — it was NOT that book which was taken to the lab it was his many PHYSICS PAPERS

  18. “when self proclaimed “science” is asserted as privileged in answering questions which are not properly part of SCIENCE it gets no privilege”

    [slams head against desk]

    “there is little SCIENCE in What is Life lots of interpretation and philosophy — it was NOT that book which was taken to the lab it was his many PHYSICS PAPERS”

    Tell that to Watson and Crick.

  19. when self proclaimed “science” is asserted as privileged in answering questions which are not properly part of SCIENCE it gets no privilege

    The *starting* point of this discussion is that we are no longer dealing with things that are “properly part of” science *or* philosophy. Deacon is standing at a basin boundary, with a foot in both worlds.

    I sense a lot of anger or indignation when you mention privilege. But I can’t understand where it’s coming from. You’re the only one using that word here. And you say that Deacon himself is claiming some sort of privilege — where does he do that?

  20. Asher go back reread McGinn reread Fodor reread some of Deacon’s posts and emails on my terry deacon site. Read his own summary of the book. And how is Terry either a philosopher or a scientist in this endeavor? I agree he puts himself at a basin but then plays (sorry I know this word bothers you) amateur theorist. His “science” is actually from Salthe and Rosen, his philosophy from Kant and Peirce, and his reading list (as discussed here to no end already) woefully inadequate. A scientist would NOT publish without checking to see what the latest findings from others was. Instead Deacon basically stopped reading in 2005 and then by his own admission sees no reason to get caught up once he finished his writing. Wolfram did not get away with that and neither will Deacon (Wolfram’s hubris is widely acknowledged, Deacon’s is getting there). The privilege is that of claiming expertise which does not require justification for the word choices you make and again that privilege is only proper WITHIN a field and (as Chuck points out) when the readers can afford (by virtue of habitus) to grant you that privilege. When you stray from within a field or when you appeal to readers of a different habitus the privilege goes away. Chuck then wants to put the burden on the reader. Nonsense. the very point of communication is to be understood. The burden is shared by writer and reader. When the writer fails to address reader from the reader’s perspective that is an assertion of “privilege”

    No anger just frustration at those who wish to grant Deacon a higher status than in my opinion he deserves. To me he is a sloppy academic who commits idea plagiarism (including it seems against me in 2004) with reckless disregard and I would prefer to rely on the sources he borrows from without attribution. His attributed syntheses are fine but they are all too few to justify the effort to visit IN more than once.

  21. Carl, sorry if I seemed dismissive. As someone who has been advocating generous reading for at least a couple of decades I heartily approve, in principle, of EGOR. If I am missing something important, please just show me what it is.

    Asher, I agree. You have been focused on Deacon. I was responding to the elder Dyke. Confusion ensued. Re Deacon, I can only say that I have the book on my iPad. Chances of reading it seriously this side of August 15 are low. I am currently preoccupied with reviewing a book for possible publication by a university press—a delicate task in any case, rendered more so by the project it describes being, in my view, fundamentally flawed; preparing for a choral concert at Tokyo’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall on July 18; and committed to delivering a chapter for a book on Business Anthropology by August 15, for which I have a mountain of source material in Japanese to read. And a bunch of new business has dropped into the inbox, in the middle of rainy season in Japan, with my sinuses kicking up.

  22. Wow John, that’s quite a dance card! Congratulations / my sympathies. Re: guidance on reading Dyke the Elder’s piece, I’ve made some suggestions throughout this thread and commentary, then thinking about what you said I wrote the next post (on which you commented and DtE replied). Since you’re in project construction / assessment mode there may actually be food for thought there for you, or perhaps just distraction. Take a look if you get a minute, don’t sweat it if not.

  23. Pingback: Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for | Dead Voles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s