101015 4 min

From Epistemology to Action

Congrès de l'UES, Paris, 19-22 Septembre 2005

Proposition de communication pour l'Atelier
"Epistémologie Systémique"
From Epistemology to Action
Eric Schwarz

Autogenesis - Centre d'étude des systèmes autonomes
Université de Neuchâtel, CH-2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
e-mail: Eric.Schwarz@unine.ch

It is becoming evident, even for the most convinced admirers of progress through technology and market economy – and more generally of the Newtonian mechanist paradigm, the Cartesian dualist reductionist approach and the Aristotelian binary logic – that we have been living, in the last few decades, a growing accumulation of unexpected events and problems, mainly at the interface between economy, politics, sociology and environment. These developments raise questions about the adequacy of our worldview.

Broadly speaking, three types of reactions to this situation are observed:

  1. the liberal interpretation (in the american meaning of the word), according to which the socio-economical system of which we are a part is basically just; the negative points are mere unintended consequences of an otherwise beneficent machinery. A little reform here, a little money there should solve the problems.
  2. the so-called radicals believe that the system is the problem; the inequities between have and have-not people are inherent to this profit-based system and in fact required by it, in order to function.
  3. conservatives and integrists are nostalgic of the old models of society: agrarian organizations based on religious beliefs, hierarchical social classes and self-evident nationalistic or ethnic identities. 


In our contribution, we would like to go beyond the usual interpretations based on economical, political, sociological or psychological conceptual frameworks; we are looking for other indications that could be deduced from an more intergrated, i.e. systemic, interpretation and could help us to better manage society.

Human societies, on one hand, belong to the long continuous terrestrial evolution that is characterized by the general complexification of physical, chemical, biological, organic and societal entities. In that respect, these systems share common features like thermodynamical principles, physico-chemical reaction dynamics, non linear dynamics, cybernetical organizational constraints and potentialities, etc.

But, on the other hand, on their way to increased complexity, systems acquire new properties through the phenomenon of emergence. Self-organization, self-production – autopoiesis, the logic of life – autonomization, self-reference – which may be the root of consciousness - are features that appear only beyond some threshold of complexity and are therefore not understandable by the usual natural sciences.

Such deep metamorphosis of science require not only new theories and new formal tools (chaos theory, fractals, cellular automata, etc.), but also, in our opinion, a new questioning of the usual epistemological and ontological presuppositions.

It seems to us that no substantial improvement of our capacity to manage society can be reached without revising our understanding of the dynamics of complex autonomous systems. Eventually, we should also change the language used to interpret nature (i.e. our epistemology) and even our beliefs about the nature of the universe (our ontology).

In our contribution, we will describe an alternative metamodel where reality is not reduced to matter, like in the mechanist worldview, but includes relations on an equal footing. We will try to show how a third primordial category, existence or whole, emerges from objects and relations.

We will then initiate a discussion about the practical consequences of this holistic paradigm.

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