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3 The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant: natural systems and autonomous individuals

3 The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant: natural systems and autonomous individuals

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Chapter 3  The origins of systems thinking in the Age of Reason   53

know reality itself does not mean that all our knowledge is purely relative, simply

the result of habits of association. Instead, the mind consists of innate categories

which impose order on the phenomenal.

In this way he agreed with the radical sceptics in holding that we could not know

reality directly but also agreed with the scientific realists in holding that there were

innate ideas that imposed order on experience so that knowledge and truth were not

simply relative. Examples of the innate categories of mind are time, space, causal

links and what Kant called ‘regulative ideas’. Regulative ideas are to be distinguished

from constitutive ideas. A constitutive idea, or hypothesis, is a statement of what

actually happens in reality. For example, if we say that an organisation actually is a

system operating to fulfil some real purpose, then we are putting forward a constitutive idea. We are saying that the organisation really exists and it is really fulfilling

some real purpose. However, if we put forward an hypothesis in which we are thinking about an organisation ‘as if’ it were a system operating ‘as if’ it had a purpose,

then we are thinking in terms of regulative ideas. Obviously Kant would not talk

about constitutive ideas, because he held that we could never know reality in itself.

The activity of the scientist then becomes clear in Kant’s scheme of things. The scientist has a mind consisting of categories of time, space, causal links and the capacity

for forming ‘as if’ hypotheses, which enables him or her to formulate hypotheses

about the appearances of reality and then test them.

Scientists, such as Newton and Leibniz, had understood nature in mechanistic

terms and Kant was able to explain why this understanding was neither purely relative nor directly revealing of the reality of nature. He resolved the contradiction

between realist and relative knowledge by taking aspects from each argument and

holding them together in the ‘both ... and’ way of a dualism. Knowledge of appearances was real and reliable while knowledge of reality itself was indeed impossible. In a sense both the scientific realists and the radical sceptics had a point and

the contradictions between them could be eliminated by locating their conflicting

explanations in different realms. This is typical of Kant’s dualistic thinking in which

paradoxes are eliminated, so satisfying the rule of Aristotelian logic according to

which paradox, the simultaneous existence of two contradictory ideas, is a sign of

faulty thinking. We want to stress this key aspect of Kantian thinking because it

has become very widespread in the West. The ideas of figure and ground in Gestalt

psychology, of different lenses through which to understand the world, and different

levels of existence such as the individual at one level and the organisation at another,

are examples of this.

Kant, then, developed transcendental idealism as an alternative to realism, on the

one hand, and to scepticism, on the other. His thinking can be labelled as ‘idealism’

because he held that we know reality through the capacities of the mind, and it is

transcendental because the categories through which we know are already given

outside our direct experience. In this way, Kant provided a sophisticated justification

for the scientific method.

Self-organising systems

However, Kant went further than providing a philosophical justification of the

mechanistic understanding of nature provided by scientists. He argued that, while

it was useful to understand inanimate nature in this way, it was not adequate for

54  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

an understanding of living organisms. He suggested that organisms could be more

usefully understood as self-organising systems, which are very different from mechanisms.

A mechanism consists of parts that form a functional unity. The parts derive their

function as parts from the functioning of the whole. For example, a clock consists

of a number of parts, such as cogs, dials and hands, and these are assembled into a

clock, which has the function of recording the passing of time. The parts are only

parts of the clock insofar as they are required for the functioning of the whole, the

clock. Therefore, a finished notion of the whole is required before the parts can have

any function and the parts must be designed and assembled to play their particular

role, without which there cannot be the whole clock. Before the clock functions, the

parts must be designed and before they can be designed, the notion of the clock must

be formulated.

By contrast, the parts of a living organism are not first designed and then assembled into the unity of the organism. Rather, they arise as the result of interactions

within the developing organism. For example, a plant has roots, stems, leaves

and flowers that interact with each other to form the plant. The parts emerge, as

parts, not by prior design but as a result of internal interactions within the plant

itself in a self-generating, self-organising dynamic in a particular environmental

context. The parts do not come before the whole but emerge in the interaction of

spontaneously generated differences that give rise to the parts within the unity of

the whole (­Goodwin, 1994; Webster and Goodwin, 1996). The parts, however,

have to be necessary for the production of the whole, otherwise they have no

relevance as parts. The parts have to serve the whole; it is just that the whole is

not designed first but comes into being with the parts. Organisms develop from a

simple initial form, such as a fertilised egg, into a mature adult form, all as part of

an inner coherence expressed in the dynamic unity of the parts. An organism thus

expresses a nature with no purpose other than the unfolding of its own mature

form. The organism’s development unfolds what was already enfolded in it from

the beginning.

Kant described this unfolding as ‘purposive’ because, although an organism is

not goal oriented in the sense of moving towards an external result, it is thought of

as moving to a mature form of itself. The development to the mature form, and the

mature form itself, will have some unique features due to the particular context in

which it develops, but the organism can only ever unfold the general form already

enfolded in it. In talking about development being purposive, Kant introduced his

notion of organism developing according to a ‘regulative idea’. Since he held that we

could not know reality, it followed that we could not say that an organism actually

was following a particular idea. In other words, we cannot make the claim of a

constitutive idea in relation to the organism. Instead, as observing scientists, we can

claim that it is helpful to understand an organism ‘as if’ it were moving according to

a particular purpose: namely, the regulative idea of realising a mature form of itself,

that is, its true nature or true self.

For Kant, the parts of an organism exist because of, and in order to sustain, the

whole as an emergent property (Kauffman, 1995). Organisms are self-­producing

and therefore self-organising wholes, where the whole is maintained by the parts

and the whole orders the parts in such a way that it is maintained. In suggesting

that we think in terms of systems, Kant was introducing a causality that was

Chapter 3  The origins of systems thinking in the Age of Reason   55

t­eleological (i.e. tending towards an end) and formative rather than the simple,

linear, efficient (if ... then) causality assumed in the mechanistic way of understanding nature. In systems terms, causality is formative in that it is in the self-­

organising interaction of the parts that those parts and the whole emerge. It is

‘as if’ the system, the whole, has a purpose: namely, to move towards a final

state that is already given at its origin as a mature form of itself. In other words,

nature is unfolding already enfolded forms and causality might be referred to

as formative (Stacey et al., 2000) in which the dominant form of causality is

the formative process of development from an embryonic to a mature form. It

follows that emergence has a particular meaning in Kant’s thought. In Kant’s

systemic thinking, self-organisation means interaction between parts, and what

emerges in this interaction is the developmental pattern of the whole. Since the

system is unfolding what is already enfolded in it, this emergent developmental

pattern is  not unknown or unpredictable. The system does not move towards

that which is unknown. What is unknown, however, is reality itself so the system

hypothesis cannot be a claim that reality itself moves towards the known.

Note how this understanding of nature as system is quite consistent with the

scientific method in that it is the human objective observer who identifies and

isolates causality in natural systems and then tests hypotheses (‘as if’ or regulative

ideas) about the purposive movement of those systems. It is not that organisms

actually are systems or that they actually are unfolding a particular pattern in

movement to a mature form. It is the scientist who finds it useful to think ‘as if’

they are. It is not that the laws are actually in nature but that the scientist is giving

the laws to nature.

A very important point follows from this way of thinking about organisms,

namely that it is a way of thinking that cannot explain novelty – that is, how

any new form could come into existence. In thinking of an organism as unfolding an already enfolded form, Kant’s systems thinking can explain the developmental cycle from birth to death but cannot explain how any new form

emerges: that is, how evolution takes place. This is obviously a serious problem if what one wants to understand is creativity, innovation or novelty. The

key point is that in Kant’s systems thinking, causality is formative rather than


Also, Kant argued that the systemic explanation of how nature functioned could

never be applied to humans, because humans are autonomous and have a soul.

Humans have some freedom to choose and so the deterministic laws of nature cannot be applied to rational human action.

The autonomous individual

For Kant, the human body could be thought of as a system because it is an organism. As such, it is subject to the laws of nature and, when human action is driven

by the passions of the body, then it too is subject to the laws of nature and so not

free. However, when acting rationally, humans could not be thought of as parts of

a system because then they would exist because of, and in order to maintain, the

whole. A part of a system is only a part because it is interacting with other parts in

order that they can all realise themselves in the purposive movement of the emergent

whole, and the emergence of that whole is the unfolding of what is already enfolded,

56  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

so excluding any fundamental spontaneity or novelty. If a part is not doing this

then it is irrelevant to the system and so is not a part acting to produce the whole.

However, a part in this sense cannot be free: that is, it cannot follow its own autonomously chosen goals because then it would be acting for itself and not as a part.

Furthermore, as parts of a whole that is unfolding an already enfolded final state,

neither whole nor parts can display spontaneity or novelty. There can be nothing

creative or transformative about such a system. This way of thinking, therefore,

cannot explain how the new arises.

It follows that rational human action has to be understood in a different way.

Kant held that human individuals are autonomous and so can choose the goals of

their actions, and they can choose the actions required to realise them using reason. The predominant form of causality here is teleological: namely, that of autonomously chosen ends made possible because of the human capacity for reason. The

principal concern then becomes how autonomously chosen goals and actions mesh

together in a coherent way that makes it possible for humans to live together. This

is a question of ethics, and Kant understood ethical choice in terms of universals:

namely, those choices that could be followed by all people. We may call this rationalist causality (Stacey et al., 2000).

So, Kant developed a systems theory with a theory of formative causality to

explain how organisms in nature developed, arguing that this could not be applied

to human action, and he also developed another kind of explanation for human

action, involving rationalist causality. It is particularly important to note these

points because, when later forms of systems thinking were developed in the middle

of the twentieth century, they were directly applied to human action, and individuals

came to be thought of as parts in a system called a group, organisation or society. It

immediately follows that any such explanation cannot encompass individual human

freedom. Nor can a systemic explanation encompass the origins of spontaneity or

novelty. To explain these phenomena within systems thinking, we have to rely on

the autonomous individual standing outside the system. In other words, change of

a transformative kind cannot be explained in systemic terms – that is, in terms of

interactions between parts of the system – with one important exception: complex

adaptive systems with heterogeneous agents that we will come to in Chapter 10. Any

transformative change can then only be explained in terms of the mental functioning

of the individual.

There are two other points to be borne in mind about Kant’s systems thinking. It is essentially dualistic: that is, it takes a ‘both ... and’ form that eliminates paradox (Griffin, 2002) by locating contradictions in different spaces or

time periods. So, with regard to knowing, there is both the known relating to

phenomena and the unknown relating to noumena. With regard to the paradox

of determinism and freedom, there is both the determinism of mechanism and

organism in nature and the freedom of rational human action. Emergence is

located in nature and intention in human individuals. Linked to this there is the

essentially spatial metaphor underlying all systems thinking. A system is a whole

separated by a boundary from other systems, or wholes. In other words, there

is an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’. For example, one thinks of what is happening

inside an organisation or outside in the environment. Or one thinks of the mind

inside a person and reality outside it. The key concepts in Kantian thinking are

summarised in Box 3.1.

Chapter 3  The origins of systems thinking in the Age of Reason   57

Box 3.1

Key concepts in Kantian thinking

• Organisms in nature can be thought about ‘as if’ they are systems.

• Systems are wholes consisting of parts interacting with each other in a self-generating, selforganising way and it is in this interaction that both parts and whole emerge without prior design.

• However, systems are ‘purposive’ in that they move according to a developmental pattern from an

embryonic to a mature form of themselves.

• Causality may then be described as ‘formative’ in that it is the process of interaction between the

parts that is forming the developmental path, unfolding that which was already enfolded from the


• Humans are autonomous rational individuals who are able to choose their own goals and the actions

required to realise them.

• When humans choose their own goals then causality may then be described as rationalist.

• Kantian thinking is fundamentally dualistic in that one kind of causality applies to an organism and

another to a human individual.

3.4 Systems thinking in the twentieth century: the notion

of human systems

Kant’s thinking provoked many controversies and has continued to have a major

impact on the evolution of Western thought up to the present time. This impact

is evident in the major development of systems thinking in the twentieth century.

Scholars in many different areas were working from the 1920s to the 1940s to

develop systemic ways of thinking about physiology, biology, psychology, sociology, engineering and communication. This work culminated in the publication of

a number of very important papers around 1950. These papers covered systems

of control, the development of computer language, theories of communication

(Shannon and Weaver, 1949) and the development of a new science of mind in

reaction to behaviourism, namely, cognitivism (Gardner, 1985; McCulloch and

Pitts, 1943). These ways of thinking amounted to a new paradigm: namely, a shift

from mechanistic, reductionist science in which the whole phenomenon of interest

was understood to be the sum of its parts, requiring attention to be focused on the

nature of the part rather than the interactions between them. In the new paradigm

of systems thinking, the whole phenomenon was thought of as a system and the

parts as subsystems within it. A system in turn was thought to be part of a larger

supra-system, its environment. The parts were now not simply additive in that they

affected each other. The whole came to be understood as more than the sum of the

parts. The focus of attention shifted from understanding the parts, or entities, of

which the whole was composed, to the interaction of subsystems to form a system

and of systems to form a supra-system. An essential aspect of this way of thinking

is the different levels of existence it ascribes to phenomena. For example, individual minds are thought of as subsystems forming groups, which are thought of as

systems forming an organisation, which is thought of as a supra-system. Here each

level is a different kind of phenomenon to be understood in a different way.

58  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

The new systems theories developed along three pathways over much the same

period of time:

• General systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968; Boulding, 1956) developed by

biologists and economists. The central concept here is that of homeostasis, which

means that systems have a strong, self-regulating tendency to move towards a

state of order and stability, or adapted equilibrium. They can only do this if they

have permeable boundaries that are open to interactions with other systems. This

strand in systems thinking will be explored in Chapter 6.

• Cybernetic systems (Ashby, 1945, 1952, 1956; Beer, 1979, 1981; Wiener, 1948)

developed by engineers. Cybernetic systems are self-regulating, goal-directed systems adapting to their environment – one simple example being the central heating system in a building. Here, the resident of a room sets a target temperature,

and a regulator at the boundary of the heating system detects a gap between that

target and the actual temperature. This gap triggers the heating system to switch

on or off, so maintaining the chosen target through a process of negative feedback

operation. The impact of this strand of thinking on strategic management will be

explored in Chapter 4.

• Systems dynamics (Forrester, 1958, 1961, 1969; Goodwin, 1951; Philips,

1950; Tustin, 1953) developed largely by engineers who turned their attention to economics and industrial management problems. In systems dynamics,

mathematical models are constructed of how the system changes states over

time. One important difference from the other two systems theories is the recognition that the system may not move to equilibrium. The system is then

no longer self-regulating but it is self-influencing: it may be self-sustaining or

self-destructive. The impact of this strand of systems thinking will be explored

in Chapter 5.

These three strands of systems thinking began to attract a great deal of attention

in many disciplines from around 1950, as did the new cognitivist psychology, and of

course, computers. Engineers, bringing with them their notion of control, took the

lead in developing the theories of cybernetic systems and systems dynamics, while

biologists, concerned with biological control mechanisms, developed general systems

theory. This systems movement, particularly in the form of cybernetics, has come to

form the foundation of today’s dominant management discourse, so importing the

engineer’s notion of control into understanding human activity. The development

of systems thinking amounted to the rediscovery of formative causality. The move

from mechanistic thinking about parts and wholes to systems thinking, therefore,

amounted to a move from a theory of causality couched entirely in efficient terms (if

... then) to one of both efficient causal links and formative causal process as found

in Kant’s philosophy.

It is important to note that in applying systems thinking to human action, all

of the strands of systems thinking indicated above did exactly what Kant had

argued against. They postulated that human action could be understood in terms

of systems. Some of the systems thinkers at this time did explore the difficulties

created by the fact that the observer of a system was also a participant in it in

what is called ‘second-order’ systems thinking. This perspective will be considered

in Chapter 9.

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