Repetitive Patterns of Communication: Thought Collectives and Thought Styles

There seems to me to be an interesting pattern in the comments on many of the blogs on this site, a pattern that I frequently encounter in many other discussions in organizations too. The pattern takes the following form.

On this site, and in most of our work encounters, colleagues and I are seeking to present a way of thinking about organizational life which departs radically from the mainstream or dominant discourse. We want to do this because we take the view that dominant ways of understanding organizations have failed to account for the glaringly obvious inability of leaders and managers to determine their futures, which the dominant discourse argues is what they are there for. The alternative way of thinking we are trying to articulate involves moving completely away from thinking of human interaction as constituting, or as if constituting, a system of any kind which it is then the role of leaders and managers to control. Any/every form of systems thinking is conducted in terms of spatial metaphors with parts forming wholes within boundaries. We argue against this way of thinking about human interaction / organizations because the spatial metaphor of systems abstracts from direct experience by positing an entity outside our relationships with each which is then easily reified and anthropomorphised. Systemic ways of thinking lead to separation in thought of individual and group and locates them at different levels, another spatial metaphor. We are articulating an alternative way of thinking which avoids abstracting completely from our experience and focuses our attention on the temporal responsive processes of our in interacting with each other as we deal with uncertainty and our inability to control. We argue that this complex responsive processes way of thinking is incompatible with systems thinking because in the former we are seeking to understand our experience from within our participation in that experience and in the latter people are seeking to observe and manipulate something outside of themselves. Moving from one of these ways of thinking to the other has important implications for what we do and how we think about what we do to deal with not knowing and it is this that we are seeking to inquire into.

One common response to the position we take is for a commenter to welcome what we are saying but then they go on to agree that some forms of systems thinking exhibit the drawbacks we identify (for example, first order systems) but that there are other forms (for example, second order  systems) that do not display these drawbacks. While agreeing then, the commenters present their own brand of system thinking as an exception, usually without explaining why it is an exception. The commenter may then proceed to talk about people drawing boundaries around their experience. In other words the commenter simply proceeds to rearticulate the dominant discourse without acknowledging any of our arguments against it.

Another commenter may then return to the message of the blog and point out that defining the boundaries of an organization involves us thinking of an organization as some kind of system that exists outside of us and that when we do this we are moving more and from our own actual experience of what is happening around us in the conversations we are engaged in. In other words the second commenter repeats the argument being presented in the blog.

The first commenter may then reply that the ability to see multiple, non-contradictory boundaries, or containers, is essential to making meaning and taking action; useful boundaries can be created and transcended at will. Here then, we are into the second repetition of a reply which simply repeats once again the basic tenets of the dominant discourse without engaging the argument.

And so the ‘ping pong’ goes on. The pattern is one of a commenter presenting the argument of the responsive processes view which elicits a rearticulating of the dominant discourse of systems thinking which calls forth another comment now simply repeating the responsive processes position which evokes a comment simply repeating the systems position. We are together co-creating repetitive patterns which are rather stuck and which block inquiring into the argument. This is a pattern which I frequently encounter in other forums too and I notice that leaders and managers in organizations  also often get stuck in repetitive patterns of this kind. So how are we to make sense of this kind of pattern that we so often co-create in which we each make claims about reality and the facts but do not really argue them through? I think a very useful way of understanding what we are getting into together is provided by an important book called Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck which was published in 1935.

In the years leading up to the publication of his book, Fleck, a bacteriologist approaching the age of 40, had acquired a considerable reputation as a scientist for his research in the areas of the serology of typhus, syphilis and a variety of pathogenic microorganisms. Fleck starts his book with a question: What is a fact? In answering this question, he goes on to say:

A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. … Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable … [this] is inherently naïve … [as a consequence] we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality”.[i]

He is arguing that in taking the common sense view of what a fact is we lose sight of our own role, collectively and historically, in constructing a fact and developing a fact and this leads us to regarding a fact as simply something we have no alternative but to accept: it cannot be questioned. The purpose of Fleck’s book is to take a particular medical fact, namely syphilis, and explore how such an empirical fact originated, how it has evolved and what it consists of. He shows how before the end of the 15th century syphilis was not differentiated from other skin diseases such as scabies. It was not an independent fact. Around the end of the 15th century syphilis was identified as a new disease, labelled ‘carnal scourge’, which had arisen because of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter under the sign of Scorpio which rules the genitals. Added to the astrological explanation was the religious one that the disease was god’s punishment of sinful lust. Syphilis was now the fact of carnal scourge. Fleck argues that any explanation of a phenomenon, including this one, can only survive and develop if it is ‘stylized in conformity with the prevailing thought style’[ii] and that it took centuries before developments in other sciences led to different ways of thinking about the disease. He concludes that:

Such entrenchment of thought proves that it was not the so-called empirical observations that led to the construction and fixation of the idea. Instead, special factors of deep psychological and traditional significance greatly contributed to it.[iii]

The special factors he is referring to have to do with the interaction of this idea of syphilis with other ideas arising in different social strata. It is through cooperation and opposition of ideas that modern ideas of syphilis have emerged. Another special factor had to do with developments in medical practice in which syphilis cam to be distinguished by the ‘fact’ that it could be treated with mercury. The fact of syphilis was moving from carnal scourge to medical condition. Others doubted this kind of differentiation and in the late 19th century one researcher published a paper denying the existence of syphilis as it had come to be defined as a medical condition and arguing that the better explanation was the earlier one of a carnal scourge. Fleck argues that scientists are not as free to choose between one explanation and another as we might assume. Perhaps the most powerful factor conditioning such ‘choices’ is their dependence on cultural-historical conditioning which constrains us from choosing between concepts. For Fleck this conditioning constitutes a thought style and those reflecting a particular thought style constitute a thought collective. Challenges to thought styles lead to fierce arguments and the potential for exclusion from a thought collective.

It seems to me to be helpful in understanding the repetitive pattern I have described earlier to think of this pattern as arising in an encounter between two very different thought styles and thought collectives, both of which have a long history.

In coming to understand how thought collectives and their styles evolve, Fleck points to the difference between experiment and experience and argues that experience has an important impact on thought style evolution. An experiment can be interpreted in terms of a simple question and a simple answer but experience ‘must be understood as a complex state of intellectual training based upon the interaction between the knower, that which he already knows, and that which he has yet to learn’.[iv] The complexity of such experience cannot be regulated by logic. The history of a concept, of a fact, emerges in the rather messy interaction of developing strands of thought which are afterwards simplified into idealised accounts of a main line of development, constituting a “structurally complete and closed system”.[v] Is this, perhaps, what systems thinking has evolved to? Could the same be said of the theory of complex responsive processes?

Fleck then goes on to explore the tenacity of thought styles:

Once a structurally complete and closed system of opinions consisting of many details and relations has been formed, it offers enduring resistance to anything that contradicts it.[vi]

He argues that this resistance is not simple passivity or mistrust of new ideas but an active process which can be divided into several stages:

  • At first, contradictions of the prevailing though style are unthinkable;
  • So, what does not fit into the style is not seen;
  • Or if it is noticed, it is kept secret;
  • Or laborious efforts are made to explain an exception in terms that do not contradict the thought style;
  • Then despite the legitimate claims of contradictory views, there is a tendency to see only that which corroborates current views and therefore gives them substance.

Thought styles spontaneously emerge but then become preserved as enduring, rigid structures in a kind of harmony of illusions. It is these that constitute thought styles. For  Fleck, cognition, recognition, thinking and knowledge are social activities and therefore thought styles are particular to particular communities, which he calls ‘thought collectives’ and a thought collective is

a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction … it also provides the special “carrier” for the historical development of any field of thought, as well as for the given stock of knowledge and level of culture. This we have designated thought style.[vii]

The thought collective, not the autonomous individual, is the carrier of thought styles and we as individuals express those styles in our interactions with each other. We are not objective observers outside thought styles able to operate on or manipulate them. Instead, in our interactions we iterate and so both sustain and potentially change those styles, but always from within our participation.

Of valuable experiments Fleck says:

 They are all of them uncertain. And when experiments become certain, precise, and reproducible at any time, they no longer are necessary for research purposes proper but function only for demonstration or ad hoc determinations.[viii]

Experiments are based on assumptions already incorporated in the choice of the object of investigation – there can be no observations without assumptions. Since an observation cannot encompass all characteristics of a phenomenon there has to be a focus of attention and this reflects the thought styles of the thought collective the observer is a member of. New discoveries cannot be made following the mechanistic rules of experiment. Instead, the new emerges in vague, unstylized perceptions, confused partial themes and rivalry between fields of thought so that nothing is factual or fixed.

This is how a fact arises. At first there is a signal of resistance in the chaotic initial thinking, then a definite thought constraint, and finally a form to be directly perceived. A fact always occurs in the history of thought and is always the result of a definite thought style.[ix]

A fact provides a resistance to free, arbitrary thinking and facts are related to thought collectives in that they are consistent with the intellectual interests of the thought collective. A fact conditions how members of the collective may think and it is expressed in the thought style of the collective.

It seems to me that when leaders, managers and others in organizations claim to be presenting the facts to back what they want to do, they simply expressing the thought style of their thought collective and if there is no reflection on this process they are highly likely to become trapped in repetitive patterns of stuck communication.

[i] Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pxxvii

[ii] Ibid. p2

[iii] Ibid. p3

[iv] Ibid. p10

[v] Ibid p27

[vi] Ibid p27

[vii] Ibid p39

[viii] Ibid p85

[ix] Ibid p95


4 thoughts on “Repetitive Patterns of Communication: Thought Collectives and Thought Styles

  1. Fascinating. I think it is a function of our brains to co-create reality in order to glue our social relationships together. Fleck’s work ‘explains’ why experts can be the most conservative thinkers you might find; why the social institutions we create guard our co-created reality so zealously (and at times punitively); why child abuser Jimmy Savile was not ‘outed’ before his death; and why organisations, institutions, states and empires fail – their reality is no longer sticky enough to withstand a new reality.

  2. There’s a somewhat paradoxical consequence to Ralph’s insight, following Fleck, that people try to sustain their identities by means of avoiding to think through unfamiliar thought styles: while we try to complexify our own identity we im-possibilize the process of coming to a potentially ever more realistic understanding of who we are because this inevitably involves the enervating experience of having our sense of identity being shattered, which we naturally tend to avoid.

    Still, if this process is one way of how we as humans make progress in terms of how we understand who we are and why we do what we do this insight might make us aware of our obligation to engage those with a history in a different thought collective in a form of exchange which is bearable for all involved. An important aspect in this exchange is that those who try to disarticulate a dominant discourse will find themselves in the position of the dominated. It’s not an easy position to argue form, obviously, because in order to finding their novel views being taken seriously they’ll face all kinds of different defence mechanisms and at once must not become defensive themself, but rather try to enquire further into what the other is bringing and believing.

    I think one way of working into this dynamic and potentially superseding a stuck pattern is to make us aware that Fleck’s insights also mean that novel views, however revolutionary they may be, are subject to the same dynamic. They’ll undoubtedly meet the same fate as the currently dominat discourse, and be disarticulated one day, too. With this attitude we might find ways to sustain ourself, and feel encouraged to risk failure and not demand a particular result; not despite but because of the ambiguity and uncertainty we experience in our quest for a richer understanding of who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

  3. Pingback: Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and within institutions « Reflexivepractice

  4. Thanks for the insights, I have often wondered why the complexity management crowd are not making much of an impact on the dominant rule of King Schedule in Cubicle City.

    Complexity theory can be tough going, there are plenty of complex models to understand complexity, it takes effort to learn a new academic language and practice new ideas in a rigid world. A deep dive into the Sea of Complexity, from a specialist domain is difficult, there is so much to learn and a lot of debate about the finer points.

    This is the weakness in complexity management theory. The other hindrance is that old-style training in rigid academic methods has inoculated many against complexity science. Work experience in command and control land gives them a regular booster shot, and now they have lifetime immunity to new ideas.

    Back to complexity thinking. Thanks to this article I have now learned that systems thinking versus complex responsive process is the debate that keeps us swirling in disagreement. How are we ever going to influence command and control land if we have such deep divisions on our own ‘side’ 🙂

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