Participative Epistemology

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The following does not exhaust the topic, but is just a first approach to the new participative epistemologies resulting from distributed information environments.


Contributions by John Heron

John Heron: A Participative Worldview

The inquiry paradigm of mechanistic objectivism is breaking down because it cannot do justice, in an integrative way, to the full range of human experience in so many fields: medical research, the other academic human sciences, consciousness research, subatomic physics, systems research, ecology, and so on.

An emerging alternative inquiry paradigm is that of participative reality. This holds that there is a given cosmos in which the mind creatively participates, and which it can only know in terms of its constructs, whether experiential, imaginal, conceptual or practical. We know through this active participation of mind that we are in touch with what is other, but only as articulated by all our mental sensibilities. Reality is always subjective-objective: our own constructs clothe a felt participation in what is present. Worlds and people are what we meet, but the meeting is shaped by our own terms of reference. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Bateson, 1979; Reason and Rowan, 1981; Spretnak, 1991; Tarnas, 1991; Heron, 1992, 1996, 1998; Varela et al, 1993; Skolimowski, 1994; Reason, 1994a).

The participatory paradigm asserts that we cannot have any final or absolute experience of what there is: in the relation of knowing by face-to-face acquaintance, the experiential knower shapes perceptually what is there. And this is still so when the perceiving mind is relatively free of conceptual labels imposed upon its imaging of reality. However, the point about experiential knowing is that the very process of perceiving is also a meeting, a transaction, with what there is. To touch, see or hear something or someone does not tell us either about our self all on its own, nor about a being out there all on its own. It tells us about a being in a state of interrelation and co-presence with us.

When I hold your hand, my tactual imaging both subjectively shapes you and objectively meets you. To encounter being or a being is both to image it in my way and to know that it is there. Knowing a world is in this felt relation at the formative interface between a subject and what is met. To experience anything is to participate in it, and to participate is both to mould and to encounter. In the relation of meeting, my subjectivity becomes a perspectival window that frames and is filled with a world which also transcends it.

Hence experiential reality is always subjective-objective. It is subjective because it is only known through the form the mind, perceptually and conceptually, gives it; and it is objective because the mind interpenetrates the given cosmos which is shapes. There is an analogue here with Rahner’s modern theology of revelation, in which he speaks paradoxically of ‘mediated-immediacy’: we experience divine presence always in mediated form (Kelly, 1993).

Merleau-Ponty shows how perception itself is participatory so that

"... in so far as my hand knows hardness and softeness, and my gaze knows the moon's light, It is as a certain way of linking up the the phenomena and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollection not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses, certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting the invasion." (Merleau-Ponty, 1964:317)

As Abram has it, this means that there is "underneath our literate abstractions, a deeply participatory relation to things and to the earth, a felt reciprocity...." (Abram, 1996:124).

Or as Skolimowski puts it

"Things become what our consciousness makes of them through the active participation of our mind" (1994: 27-28).

"The cosmos or the universe is a primordial ontological datum, while the 'world' is an epistemological construct, a form of our understanding." (1994: 100)

Bateson makes the point that between the extremes of solipsism, in which 'I make it all up', and a purely external reality, in which I cease to exist, there is

"... a region where you are partly blown by the winds of reality and partly an artist creating a composite out of inner and outer events." (in Brockman, 1977: 245)

From all this it follows that what can be known about the given cosmos is that it is always known as a subjectively articulated world, whose objectivity is relative to how it is shaped by the knower. But this is not all: its objectivity is also relative to how it is intersubjectively shaped. For there is the important if obvious point that knowers can only be knowers when known by other knowers: knowing presupposes mutual participative awareness. It presupposes participation, through meeting and dialogue, in a culture of shared art and shared language, shared values, norms and beliefs. And, deeper still, agreement about the rules of language, about how to use it, presupposes a tacit mutual experiential knowing and understanding between people that is the primary ground of all explicit forms of knowing (Heron, 1996). So any subjective-objective reality articulated by any one person is done so within an intersubjective field, a context of shared meanings - at one level linguistic-cultural and, at a deeper level, experiential.


Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Pantheon.

Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton.

Brockman, J. (ed) (1977) About Bateson. New York: Dutton.

Heron, J. (1992) Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key. London: Sage.

Heron, J. (1996) Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London: Sage.

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Kelly, G.B. (1993)Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Graced Search for Meaning. Edinburgh: Clark.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Reason, P. (1994a) (ed.) Participation in Human Inquiry. London: Sage.

Reason, P. and Rowan, J. (1981) (eds) Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research. Chichester: Wiley.

Skolimowski, H. (1994) The Participatory Mind. London: Arkana.

Spretnak, C. (1991) States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. New York: Harper Collins.

Tarnas, R. (1991) The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.

Varela, F., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. (1993) The Embodied Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

John Heron on the Epistemology and Axiology of Participation

- John Heron on 'Participatory Reality'

"Co-operative inquiry rests on an inquiry paradigm of participative reality. This holds that there is a given cosmos in which the mind creatively participates, and which it can only know in terms of its constructs, whether affective, imaginal, conceptual or practical. We know through this active participation of mind that we are in touch with what is other, but only as articulated by all our mental sensibilities. Reality is always subjective-objective: our own constructs clothe a felt participation in what is present. Worlds and people are what we meet, but the meeting is shaped by our own terms of reference. In meeting people, there is the possibility of reciprocal participative knowing, and unless this is truly mutual, we don't properly know the other. The reality of the other is found in the fulness of our open relation when we each engage in our mutual participation. Hence the importance of co-operative inquiry with other persons involving dialogue, parity and reciprocity in all its phases.

This participative paradigm has two wings, the epistemic introduced above, and the political.

The epistemic wing, concerned with truth-values, is formed by:

- An ontology that affirms a mind-shaped reality which is subjective-objective: it is subjective because it is only known through the form the mind gives it; and it is objective because the mind interpenetrates the given cosmos which it shapes.

- An epistemology that asserts the participative relation between the knower and the known, and, where the known is also a knower, between knower and knower. Knower and known are not separate in this interactive relation. They also transcend it, the degree of participation being partial and open to change. Participative knowing is bipolar: empathic communion with the inward experience of a being; and enactment of its form of appearing through the imaging and shaping process of perceiving it

- A methodology that commends the validation of outcomes through the congruence of practical, conceptual, imaginal and empathic forms of knowing among co-operative knowers, and the cultivation of skills that deepen these forms. It sees inquiry as an intersubjective space, a common culture, in which the use of language is grounded in a deep context of nonlinguistic meanings, the lifeworld of shared experience, necessarily presupposed by agreement about the use of language itself

The political wing of the participative paradigm, concerned with being-values, is formed by an axiology, a theory of value which holds that:

- Human flourishing is intrinsically worthwhile: it is valuable as an end in itself. It is construed as a process of social participation in which there is a mutually enabling balance, within and between people, of autonomy, co-operation and hierarchy. It is conceived as interdependent with the flourishing of the planetary ecosystem.

- What is valuable as a means to this end is participative decision-making, which enables people to be involved in the making of decisions, in every social context, which affect their flourishing in any way. And through which people speak on behalf of the wider ecosystem of which they are part.

Co-operative inquiry seeks to integrate these two wings by using participative decision-making to implement the methodology. Also by acknowledging that the quest for validity in terms of well-grounded truth-values, is interdependent with another process which transcends it. This is the celebration of being-values in terms of flourishing human practice."

(Source: from a personal communication and attachment by John Heron, April 2005. "Copied from Chapter 1 of Heron's book Co-operative Inquiry (1996). The key sections on Foundations are The fifth paradigm and especially Precursors of the participative paradigm. Some parts of this Chapter - but not the all-important Precursors section - are online at , click on Exploring the context.")

John Heron on Persons and Participation

An extract from "Spiritual inquiry as divine becoming", published in ReVision, Vol 24 No 2, 2001, pp 32-41.

1. A person is a distinct spiritual presence in, and nonseparable from, the given cosmos, participating through immediate present experience - the very process of being in a world - in the presence of the divine.

2. As such, a person is not to be reduced to, or confused with, an illusory, separate, contracted and egoic self with which personhood can become temporarily identified.

I find that my everyday self is always and inalienably immersed in divinity simply by virtue of its way of being in a world. The process of my perceiving - visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic imaging - is relational, interactive, interdependent and correlative. There is no gap, no separation between I the imager, the imaging, and the imaged. This unitive process enacts a local world with infinite, unlimited horizons without, and emerges from a generative infinitude within. The enactment is tacitly continuous with these dipolar infinities.

Moreover, my perceiving is not only imaging, it is at the same time a felt mutual resonance with what is being imaged. This tells us that we, the entities present, in the totality of our reciprocal relations, constitute the sheer vibrant presence of Being here and now. I call this, simply, immediate present experience. This is already a religious experience: the communion of self and world within the embrace of Being.

Without this going on all the time, there is no world for the everyday self. At the same time my self can get dissociated and distracted from its necessary participatory nature. It can get constricted in the illusory separateness of an alienated ego structure: by childhood wounding; by the exigencies of survival and social life; by the way the concepts that come with language separate subject from object, imager from imaged, bury the participatory transaction of imaging, and distract attention from felt resonance (Heron, 1992).

However, by paying attention to these three factors, and by learning how to disperse their constricting impact, I can uncover what has been going on all the time - interactive imaging and resonance within the presence of Being here and now. This uncovering and coming to my senses reveals a real person in relation with other centres of reference. As such

•I am unique by having a standpoint and viewpoint, an enactive perspective. Whereas the self as contracted ego has to do with illusory separateness, the self as emergent person has to do with a distinct perspective within real unity.

•I am constituted by mutual engagement with others in a world, participating reciprocally in the presence of other beings, human and non-human, within the presence of Being.

•I image their forms of appearing, make discriminatory judgments about their status and significance, and choose to act in relation to them.

•I am capable of extensive and intensive unfoldment by virtue of an inherent opening onto an infinite actuality without and beyond, and an infinite potential within. I can creatively transform my world, and be a catalyst to transfigure myself.

This immediate present experience, this being one of the here and now Many-in-relation-in-the-One, is the locus and foundation of personhood. It is not prepersonal, not prior to verbal and conceptual mastery. I have called it post-linguistic and post-conceptual (Heron, 1992, 1996), to mean simply that it follows from deconstructing the subject-object split that language-use imposes on the process of perceiving. It is a person participating intentionally in local, temporal divine presence, and poised at the interface between transcendent spiritual consciousness and immanent spiritual life. From this here and now, the ongoing spiritual process is one of rhythmic expansion, increasing the present wholeness through a spiraling inclusion of hitherto immanent and transcendent spirit, with various intermittent phases of consolidation and reactive contraction.

A person on my view, then, is an embodied spiritual presence, one of the real Many within the divine One, whose distinctness of being within the unity of the whole is more fundamental than any of her or his temporary and illusory states of egoic alienation and separateness. This distinctness of a person has to do with him or her being one unique focus, among many, of the whole web of interbeing relations. Personal autonomy is grounded in this unique presence, participating resonantly in an unitive field of interconnected beings, within the presence of Being. It is manifest as the individual perspective necessarily involved in imaging a world, as the individual judgment inalienably required to make relevant distinctions and evaluations according to appropriate standards, and as individual responsibility in choosing to act.

This is not the personal autonomy of the Cartesian ego, an isolated, self-reflexive consciousness independent of any context - what Charlene Spretnak calls the Lone Cowboy sense of autonomy. It is, rather,

"The ecological/cosmological sense of uniqueness coupled with intersubjectivity and interbeing…One can accurately speak of the ‘autonomy’ of an individual only by incorporating a sense of the dynamic web of relationships that are constitutive for that being at a given moment." (Spretnak, 1995: 5)

This web or context has two layers. There is the superficial linguistic, cultural context within which autonomy is exercised and by which it is socially defined. And there is the deeper primary, extralinguistic and extracultural, context of conscious mutual participation with other presences in given Being, within which autonomy can also be intentionally exercised and by which it is, so to say, divinely defined.


Heron, J. (1992) Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key. London: Sage Publications.

Heron, J. (1996) Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London: Sage Publications.

Spretnak, C. (1995) ‘Embodied, embedded philosophy’, Open Eye, California Institute for Integral Studies, 12(1): 4-5.

Extending Epistemology within a Co-operative Inquiry

A brief extract from a paper with this title, by John Heron and Peter Reason, to be published in P.Reason and H.Bradbury (eds), Handbook of Action Research, second edition, Sage, London, 2007.

Co-operative inquiry is a form of action research in which all participants work together in an inquiry group as co-researchers and as co-subjects. Everyone is engaged in the design and management of the inquiry; everyone gets into the experience and action that is being explored; everyone is involved in making sense and drawing conclusions; thus everyone involved can take initiative and exert influence on the process. This is not research on people or about people, but research with people.

The inquiry group members work together through cycles of action and reflection developing their understanding and practice by engaging in what we have called an ‘extended epistemology’ of experiential, presentational, propositional and practical ways of knowing. While the extended epistemology is foundational to co-operative inquiry, it is clearly not limited to it. It can be applied to everyday knowing and all forms of action research practice.

Overview of the four ways of knowing

The radical epistemology discussed here is a theory of how we know which is extended beyond the ways of knowing of positivist oriented academia. These we see as based primarily on abstract propositional knowledge and a narrow empiricism.

The four ways of knowing can be briefly defined as follows both in terms of process and outcome. Experiential knowing is by being present with, by direct face-to-face encounter with, person, place or thing. It is knowing through the immediacy of perceiving, through participative imaging, empathy and resonance. Its product is the quality of the relationship in which it participates, including the quality of being of those in the relationship.

Presentational knowing emerges from the encounters of experiential knowing, by intuiting significant form and process in that which is met. Its product reveals this significance through the expressive imagery of movement, dance, sound, music, drawing, painting, sculpture, poetry, story and drama.

Propositional knowing ‘about’ something is intellectual knowing of ideas and theories. Its product is the informative spoken or written statement.

Practical knowing is knowing how-to do something. Its product is a skill, knack or competence—interpersonal, manual, political, technical, transpersonal, and more—supported by a community of practice

Everyone naturally employs these four ways of knowing and tacitly interweaves them in all sorts of ways in everyday life. In co-operative inquiry they become intentional, and we say that knowing will be more valid if the four ways are congruent with each other: if our knowing is grounded in our experience, expressed through our images and stories, understood through theories which make sense to us, and expressed in worthwhile action in our lives. We also think of the intentional use of the ways in terms of a virtuous circle: skilled action leads into enriched encounter, thence into wider imaginal portrayal of the pattern of events, thence into more comprehensive conceptual models, thence into more developed practice, and so on.

For a fuller account see Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London: Sage.

Contributions by Henryk Skolimowski and David Skrbina

Henry Skolimowski: towards a fifth participatory age

From Separation to Participation, a history of modes of thought and consciousness: Mythos, Logos, Theos, Mechanos

Peter Reason summarizes the ideas of Henryk Skolimowski, on the evolution of western thought:

"Henryk Skolimowski, in his book The Participatory Mind (Arkana, 1994), sketches out what he describes as the four great cycles of Western mind, each of which provided us with experience of a different world. If we go back to ancient Greece the experience of people was defined by a worldview we can call Mythos: people saw in the stories of their lives the visible presence of the gods, intervening from Mount Olympus. Around C6 BCE there was a radical transformation as classical Greek Logos emerged: the search for the coherent and harmonious order of the Universe. The fusion of Greek Logos with Roman power provided the hegemony of the Roman Empire. However, it seems that no worldview can persist, the seeds of decay set in, leading to the Dark Ages. Out of this came Theos, the Medieval worldview in which all thought and action was inspired by and dedicated to the glory of a transcendent divinity, which emphasised the transient nature of physical reality and earthly existence. Theos led to the glories of Chartres, but disintegrated with the rise of a mercantile middle class and the increasingly corrupt power of the Church. Skolimowski argues that the Renaissance which followed the disintegration of Theos was an exuberant outburst and period of liberation that did not lead to a complete and lasting new worldview, and we had to wait for Bacon, Galileo, Descartes and Newton to define the new and powerful worldview that is Mechanos.Mechanos has been the worldview of modern times: it is based on the frighteningly simple yet powerful metaphor of the clockwork universe. In this perspective, there is a real world made up of real things we can identify, operating according to natural causal laws which govern their behaviour—laws which we can deduce by analysing the operation of the component parts. Mind and reality are separate: the rational human, drawing on analytical thought and experimental methods, can come to know the objective world. So the objective world spawns the objective mind, which becomes detached, analytical and thus in the end uncaring and cold. Human progress is dependent on the processes of science, the purpose of which is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. In the late twentieth century Mechanos is no longer a guide to wise action. The ecological, political, social, and personal crises we confront at this time need no rehearsing here. Fundamental to all these crises is the way we think and how the way we think separates us from our experience, from each other, and from the rhythms and patterns of the natural world." ( )

Henryk Skolimowsky on the Participatory Mind

"The astrophysicist John Archibald Wheeler may have been the first to announce, in an articulate way (in the early 1970s), the idea of the Participatory Universe. He wrote, "The universe does not exist 'out there' independent of us. We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening. We are participators. In some strange sense this is a Participatory Universe."

In the early 1980s, drawing from the insights of Wheeler, on the one hand ("In some strange sense this is a participatory universe"), and building on the insights of Teilhard de Chardin ("We are evolution conscious of itself"), I have developed the theory of the Participatory Mind. This theory, on the one hand, attempts to vindicate the claims of the New Physics about the participatory nature of the universe; and, on the other hand, attempts to fill the missing dimension in Teilhard's opus — which wonderfully describes the unfoldment of evolution but misses the role of the mind in the whole process. Consciousness is one of the key terms in Teilhard's story. But strangely, it is consciousness as if there were no minds. The theory of the Participatory mind provides an epistemological foundation to Teilhard's cosmology. The participatory theory of mind maintains that our world is the creation of our mind. But not in a solipsistic manner a la Berkeley (esse-percipi), but in a participatory manner: we have become aware that we can elicit from reality only that much as our mind is capable of conceiving. This is precisely the sense in which we say that we dwell in a participatory universe.

We elicit what is potentially 'out there' in continuous acts of participation. Participation is of the essence not only in our cognitive acts but also in our social activities and political endeavors. Tell me what you participate in and I will tell you who you are; and what the meaning of your life is.

We become that in which we participate. As we participate so we become. If we participate all the time in trivial matters, we become trivial persons." (

David Skrbina on the Participatory Mind

The Participatory Mind, as defined by David Skrbina in his PhD thesis:

"As I conceive it, the concept of 'participation' is fundamentally a mental phenomenon, and therefore a key aspect of the Participatory Worldview is the idea of 'participatory mind'. In the Mechanistic Worldview mind is a mysterious entity, attributed only to humans and perhaps higher mammals. In the Participatory Worldview mind is a naturalistic, holistic, and universal phenomenon. Human mind is then seen as a particular manifestation of this universal nature. Philosophical systems in which mind is present in all things are considered versions of panpsychism, and hence I argue for a system that I call 'participatory panpsychism'. My particular articulation of participatory panpsychism is based on ideas from chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics, and is called 'hylonoism'. In support of my theory I draw from an extensive historical analysis, both philosophical and scientific. I explore the notion of participation in its historical context, from its beginnings in Platonic philosophy through modern-day usages. I also show that panpsychism has deep intellectual roots, and I demonstrate that many notable philosophers and scientists either endorsed or were sympathetic to it. Significantly, these panpsychist views often coexist and correspond quite closely to various aspects of participatory philosophy. Human society is viewed as an important instance of a dynamic physical system exhibiting properties of mind. These properties, based on the idea of participatory exchange of matter and energy, are argued to be universal properties of physical systems. They provide an articulation of the universal presence of participatory mind. Therefore I conclude that participation is the central ontological fact, and may be seen as the core of a new conception of nature and reality." (

Thesis Title: Participation, Organization, and Mind: Toward a Participatory Worldview.

Book: David Skrbina. Panpsychism in the West. MIT Press, 2005

Henryk Skolimowski on designing policies 'with nature'

Towards an Ecocracy/Cosmocracy, the point of view of Ecophilosophy

"We are beginning to accept the idea of designing with nature rather than against nature. The acceptance of this idea leads to reverence for natural systems. Now the idea of reverence for natural systems, translated into the language of political science means ECO-CRACY. Ecocracy means recognizing the power of nature and of life itself, means observing the limits of nature, designing with nature, not against it, creating ecologically sustainable systems, reverence for the planet — not its continuous plundering. Let us put it succinctly. Technocracy and Ecocracy aim at fundamentally different goals. Technocracy aims at efficiency, control, manipulation and (so often) 'profit now'. Ecocracy aims at sustainable systems which can support and bring well being to human species and other species in the millennia to come. In this interconnected and co-dependent world of ours, the notion of Democracy must take on a new meaning. Democracy can no longer be limited to the city-state (the polis); it can no longer be limited to one nation. Democracy must be so conceived that its execution in one nation does not harm (if only indirectly) other nations and does not harm Nature itself. Let us put it in positive terms: Democracy in our times must be conceived as such a form of government that benefits all nations in the long run, and which at the same time, respects and enhances natural systems. This inter-nation and inter-species Democracy, I call Ecocracy or Eco-democracy. When we think how global and interconnected our problems are nowadays, this notion of Democracy impresses itself on us as almost obvious. Moreover, a system which I describe as Ecodemocracy, or a very similar one, is a necessity for our survival. (

Contributions by Steve Talbott

Steve Talbott on the Insuffiency of Reductionist Systems Approaches

Why a systems approach is not enough, by Steve Talbott of the Nature Institute

The following are interspersed excerpts only:

Reductionism. The claim by some complexity researchers to have moved "beyond reductionism" is not justified by the facts. The decisive and damaging act of reduction within conventional science has always been the reduction, in thought, of the qualitative world of phenomena to abstract, machine-like models devoid of qualities. Complexity theorists seem at least as committed to this reduction as any other scientists.

Holism. There can be no holism without the qualities that complexity researchers strip from the world. It is the nature of qualities to interpenetrate one another, and only through such mutual interpenetration can a whole express itself through each of its parts. Without qualities, there are featureless "particles" side by side in changing arrangements, but nothing to make an integral unity of them—nothing to give the assemblage the sort of distinctive, expressive character enabling us to recognize a whole.

Emergence. When your scientific work repeatedly brings you up against vaguely conceived "emergent" phenomena—phenomena that seem to arise from out of nowhere—you might reasonably wonder whether your models and explanatory mechanisms have omitted something important. While most complexity theorists seem undisturbed by this thought, I have been suggesting above that the omission has in fact been as radical as it could possibly be: what the models tend to leave out is the phenomenal world as such, with all its contingencies and with all its causal, or generative, powers. What the situation requires is a fundamental reconsideration of method. Most importantly, this means a reconsideration of the founding decision within science to ignore qualities, since it turns out that to ignore qualities is to ignore the world. There is no way to get from the sheer abstractions of complexity theory back to the world of phenomena, except by re-introducing qualities "through the back door" when no one is looking—and then exclaiming about the "emergent" wonders that arise. It would be much more sound scientifically to face qualities up front, wrestling through to an understanding of their proper place in the scientific enterprise." ( )

The Nature Institute on the limitations of reductionism:

“We can discover the coherence of our five reductionist propositions by recognizing in them the operation of a single gesture of the cognizing mind. The gesture itself is not pathological; rather, its singleness -- its operation in conjunction with a *suppression* of the necessary counterbalancing gesture -- is alone what renders it and its reductionist results pathological. Reductionism, at root, is not so much a body of concepts as it is a way of exercising (and not exercising) our cognitive faculties.

The cognitive gesture I'm alluding to here is the inner act of isolating something so as to grasp it more easily and precisely and gain power overit. We want to be able to say, "I have exactly this -- not that and not the other thing, but *this*". The ideal of truth at work here is a yes-or-no ideal. No ambiguity, no fuzziness, no uncertainty, no essential penetration of one thing by another, but rather precisely defined interactions between separate and precisely defined things. We wantthings we can isolate, immobilize, nail down and hold onto.

How do we avoid ambiguity and approach nailed-down, yes-or-no certainty? Part of the answer is: by drawing on one of our highest achievements, which is our ever finer power of distinguishing and cleaving. Whatever looks complex and of diverse nature must be analyzed into distinct, Simple parts with clearly spelled-out relations. Such analysis and clarification is the function of logic, a discipline we have carried to extraordinary levels of sophistication.

Materialism, mechanism, and reductionism: their presuppositions and tendencies are all of a piece, because they are all expressions of a single cognitive gesture. The aim of this gesture is to lay hold of a simple, fixed, precise, unambiguous, manipulable reality divested of the inner life and qualities that might make uncomfortable demands on us. We anesthetize the world in order to possess and control it like a thing. But despite this singleness of purpose -- or, rather, because such a single-minded gesture becomes sterile without the life and movement of a counterbalancing gesture -- the presuppositions of the Reduction Complex betray a striking incoherence.

They offer us:

    • Materialism without any recognizable material.
    • Mechanism that must ignore actual machines, occupying itself instead with the determinate and immaterial clarity of machine algorithms.
    • Reductionism that produces ever more precise formulations about an evermore impoverished reality.
    • A one-sided method of analysis that never stops to tell us about anything in its own terms, but forever diverts our attention to something else.
    • A refusal to reckon with qualities despite the fact that we have no shred of a world to talk about or understand except by grace of qualities.
    • Cause wrenched apart from effect; all becoming -- that is, all active be-ing -- frozen into stasis.
    • Bottom-up explanation that tries to explain a fuller reality by means of a less substantial reality, ignores the bi-directional flow of causation between all contexts, and naively takes the smallest parts

of the world-mechanism as most fundamental for explaining it.

    • Finally, a denial of mind as an irreducible and fundamental aspect of the universe -- this while scientists increasingly describe the world as driven by, and consisting essentially of, little more than collections of mental abstractions -- mathematical formulae, rules,information, and algorithms.

This entire body of dogma defines the reductionist ideology, not science itself. However, the dogma has tremendous power to distort the practice of science, a distortion evident on all sides. At the same time, there is reason to hope that in our day the dogma will finally collapse in upon its own absurdities. If this happens, it will not be because particular discoveries "disprove" the reductionist position, but rather because --much like during the earlier break with medieval thought -- more and more people simply find it impossible to look upon the world in the old way." (

Steve Talbott on the Need for a Qualitative Science

The Nature Institute on qualitative science:

"We develop ways of thinking and perception that integrate self-reflective and critical thought, imagination, and careful, detailed observation of the phenomena. The Nature Institute promotes a truly ecological understanding of the living world. We study the internal ecology of plants and animals, elucidating how structures and functions interrelate in forming the creature as a whole. Our interdisciplinary approach integrates anatomy, physiology, behavior, development, genetics, and evolution. We investigate the whole organism as part of the larger web of life. By creating life history stories of plants and animals, we open up a new understanding of our fellow creatures as dynamic and integrated beings.

Through this approach, the organism teaches us about itself, revealing its characteristics and its interconnectedness with the world that sustains it. This way of doing science enhances our sense of responsibility for nature. No one who has read, for example, Craig Holdrege's paper on the sloth, thereby coming to appreciate this animal as a unique, focused expression of its entire forest habitat, will be able to tolerate the thought of losing either the sloth or its habitat. As Goethe so beautifully expresses it, all of nature's individual aspects are interconnected and interdependent: We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect." (

Peter Reason and B.C. Goodwin on a Science of Qualities


Source: From the article in print, Reason, P., & Goodwin, B. C. (1999). Toward a Science of Qualities in Organizations: lessons from complexity theory and postmodern biology. Concepts and Transformations, 4(3), 281-317.

Such a science of qualities would be centered around the six principles that describe the essence of this approach to the dynamics of complex processes and their emergent properties.

1. Rich interconnections

Complex systems are defined in terms of rich patterns of interconnections between diverse components (Kauffman, 1993). We can contrast this with simple systems which can have many components, but they themselves, and their interconnections are simple and uniform. A gas, for example, can be made of billions of molecules but they are all the same and act in the same way. Hence the order that gases express, such as is described by the gas laws and transition to the liquid state at particular temperature and pressure, is well defined and their behaviour is predictable. However, in complex systems a knowledge of the properties of the components is not sufficient to allow one to predict the novel order that will emerge. There are two reasons for this. First, as mentioned above, knowing the present state does not allow one to predict future behaviour, as in the weather; and second, the whole system has self-organising properties that transcend the properties of its parts, a feature that arises from nonlinearity. This is why reductionism fails in complex systems (Cohen and Stewart, 1995).

2. Iteration

Complexity theory describes novel, emergent form and behaviour as arising through cycles of iteration in which a pattern of activity, defined by rules or regularities (constraints), is repeated over and over again, giving rise to coherent order. The order arises as a rich network of interacting elements is built up through the iterative process and the consequences of the process emerge.

A well-known example is the Mandelbrot set, a complex spatial pattern in which complex order emerges from an iteration procedure on a simple mathematical equation (Mandelbrot, 1982). The iteration involves using the result of each calculation on a simple mathematical equation as the initial value for the next calculation. This gives rise to a sequence of points that define an unfolding spatial pattern. The complex potential of simple rules emerges through iteration. Instead of focussing on solutions which converge on a particular state, which are the classical attractors of dynamical systems, computers facilitate the exploration of convergent and divergent states at the same time and map them systematically in relation to each other. This results in the identification and characterisation of fractal patterns and the visualisation of strange attractors, such as the Lorentz attractor (Lorentz, 1963), which simultaneously describe convergent and divergent motion.

3. Emergence.

The order that emerges in a complex system is not predictable from the characteristics of the interconnected components and can be discovered only by operating the iterative cycle, despite the fact that the emergent whole is in some sense contained within the dynamic relationships of the generating parts. A simple example of this is the emergence of a rhythmic cycle of activity-inactivity in ant colonies from chaotic individuals. Experimental studies (Cole, 1991) revealed that individual ants of the genus Leptothorax have a chaotic pattern in their transitions from activity (movement) to inactivity (no observed movement). However, when there are enough individuals within a confined space (i.e. a high enough density), the whole group develops a rhythmic pattern with a cycling time of about 25 minutes from activity to inactivity and back, as is observed in the brood chambers of species of these ants ( Franks and Bryant, 1987). From the observation of individual behaviour it is clearly not possible to predict that a colony could have a rhythmic pattern, even if one adds the observation that an active individual stimulates an inactive one into movement. To show that chaotic individuals plus excitation can generate a rhythm, it is necessary to model the process, as was done by Miramontes et al (1993). The model colonies showed the same behaviour as the real ants, with a rhythmic cycle of activity-inactivity emerging over the colony as a whole at a critical density of the population. The whole system was governed by simple rules defining the chaotic behaviour of individuals and their interaction, and the process is iterated to find out what patterns emerge.

4. Holism.

Emergent order is holistic in the sense that it is a consequence of the interactions between the component elements of the system and is not coded in or determined by the properties of a privileged set of components. A familiar example that comes from biology is the use of cuttings to propagate plants. These can be taken from shoots or roots—any part that is growing has the potential to develop into a whole plant. We see that there is no privileged part of the organism that has the instructions to make a whole from a part. What has this power is the dynamic relationships that characterise the living being, which has the potential for emergent order. This is a condition of dynamic organisation; it is not a set of preordained instructions. The order that emerges can have different degrees of stability, or robustness. In biology there are certain patterns that are extremely stable and have persisted for many millions of years despite continuous extinctions of species that manifest these patterns. Plants again provide a striking example. Although there are currently some 250,000 species of flowering plant, there are only three ways in which the leaves are arranged up the stem. They either have a spiral pattern (the majority), as in ivy; or a whorl of two or more leaves at a node whose position rotates up the stem so that leaves at successive nodes are located over the gaps between leaves in the previous whorl, as in fuschia; or, finally, single leaves that are located on opposite sides as they ascend the stem, as in maize. These are very robust patterns with some fascinating mathematical features describing them, and there are many other examples in biology (see Goodwin, 1994). However there are also less robust patterns such as the forms of many fungi and lichens, which are very responsive to environmental conditions and so do not have any stable shapes, rather like clouds .

5. Fluctuations.

Complex systems in their chaotic state have a distinctive pattern to the fluctuations in the variables. However, this pattern changes as order begins to emerge from chaos. Considering again the case of the ant colony, when there is a low density of ants and they are behaving chaotically, most of the fluctuations in activity involve few ants. However, as the critical density for the emergence of order is approached, transient patterns of activity arise that involve many ants and the fluctuations extend over the whole space of the colony. This is a sign that the collection of chaotic individuals is beginning to become a higher-order unit, a ‘superorganism’. As the density increases further, these large-scale transient fluctuations become organised into rhythmic activity patterns with waves that propagate throughout the colony.

Of course the transition can equally well go the other way, from order to chaos, as density decreases in the colony. Then the pattern is from initial organisation over the whole colony, which breaks down through large-scale fluctuations to chaotic patterns of individuals, with pockets of local order in small groups.

6. Edge of chaos.

Emergent processes occur in a region of dynamic space described as the ‘edge of chaos’ at which there is a mixture of nascent order and chaos, as described above. This region of the dynamic spectrum has a rich and distinctive pattern of fluctuations which can be seen as transient manifestations of the pattern that emerges when parameters (such as the density of ants, above) change such that there is a transition to relatively stable expression of the order. If the system moves far into the ordered regime, particular dynamic patterns may become firmly established and there is a loss of capacity to respond flexibly to an unpredictably changing environment. Detailed studies of the behaviour of the human heart as recorded in electrocardiograms have revealed that, within the stable mean heart rate of a healthy subject, there is a complex pattern of variability between heartbeats with a signature similar to that of chaos (Peng et al 1995, Ivanov et al, 1996). Individuals with cardiac disorders such as arrhythmias often have an ordered pattern of variation between heartbeats. This somewhat paradoxical phenomenon of disease manifesting dynamically as ‘too much order’ is interpreted as a loss of capacity in the heart to respond flexibly to the unpredictable demands of the body. Senescence is also accompanied by reduced intrinsic variability or flexibility of physiological variables (Lipsitz, 1995). It is recognised that too much chaos or disorder is equally malfunctional in complex systems.

These observations are generalised to mean that complex adaptive systems perform best when their order is not far from the transition to chaos so that their dynamic patterns are both robust and flexibly responsive to context. Furthermore, in evolving systems it is necessary for inappropriate order to be dissolved and replaced by more adaptive behaviour as circumstances change. System behaviour located not far from the transition to chaos is then seen as the ‘best’ place to be in an uncertain and unpredictably changing world (Kauffman, 1995).

Other Contributions

Owen Barfield on Participation

"Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena."

The world as immediately given to us is a mixture of sense perception and thought. While the two may not be separable in our experience, we can nevertheless distinguish the two. When we do, we find that the perceptual alone gives us no coherence, no unities, no "things" at all. We could not even note a patch of red, or distinguish it from a neighboring patch of green, without aid of the concepts given by thinking. In the absence of the conceptual, we would experience (in William James' words) only "a blooming, buzzing confusion." (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

"The familiar world -- as opposed to the largely notional world of "particles" which the physicist aspires to describe -- is the product of a perceptual given (which is meaningless by itself) and an activity of our own, which we might call "figuration." Figuration is a largely subconscious, imaginative activity through which we participate in producing ("figuring") the phenomena of the familiar world. (A simple analogy -- but only an analogy -- is found in the way a rainbow is produced by the cooperation of sun, raindrops, and observer.) How we choose to regard the particles is one thing, but when we refer to the workaday world -- the world of "things" -- we must accept that our thinking is as much out there in the world as in our heads. In actual fact, we find it nearly impossible to hold onto this truth. In our critical thinking as physicists or philosophers, we imagine ourselves set over against an objective world consisting of particles, in which we do not participate at all. In contrast, the phenomenal, or familiar, world is said to be riddled with our subjectivity. In our daily, uncritical thinking, on the other hand, we take for granted the solid, objective reality of the familiar world, assume an objective, lawful manifestation of its qualities such as color, sound, and solidity, and even write natural scientific treatises about the history of its phenomena -- all while ignoring the human consciousness that (by our own, critical account) determines these phenomena from the inside in a continually changing way". (Worlds Apart; Saving the Appearances)

"Our language and meanings today put the idea of participation almost out of reach, whereas the reality of participation (if not the idea) was simply given in earlier eras. For example, we cannot conceive of thoughts except as things in our heads, "rather like cigarettes inside a cigarette box called the brain." By contrast, during the medieval era it would have been impossible to think of mental activity, or intelligence, as the product of a physical organ. Then, as now, the prevailing view was supported by the unexamined meanings of the only words with which one could talk about the matter." (Excerpts collated at; More about Barfield at

Information Sciences Approach

On the Interconnectedness of information and participative knowledge

“La connexion des différents réseaux d'information entraînent une rupture radicale des repères cognitifs antérieurs causée par la mise en circulation accélérée des informations. L'organisation de cet espace échappe à tout contrôle centralisé. Par contre l'individu se trouve au centre d'un dispositif virtuel dont il n'a ni maîtrise, ni perception globales. Les processus sociaux et les échanges en cours introduisent une forme d'organisation venant de l'intérieur. L'environnement et le réseau constituent un espace de travail intellectuel collectif où les êtres, les signes, les choses trouvent une “ dynamique de participation mutuelle et échappent aux séparations des territoires."

La mémoire de la connaissance collective se crée à travers tous les acteurs et le réseau des communications interpersonnelles. L'enchevêtrement des structures organisationnelles et des diverses techniques rend difficile la distinction entre connaissances individuelles et connaissances collectives au regard de l'inscription, de la répétition, du transport de l'information. Ces alliances complexes reflètent de nombreuses communautés de pensée, des traces intellectuelles en train de se construire qui nous rappelle qu'il s'agit de l'invention de l'homme, de sa création dont il est question ici. Mais “ la différentiation du cortex est déterminé par l'outil autant que l'outil est déterminé par l'homme." ( )

The author then sites the distributed cognition theory of Hutchins :

« La cognition et les connaissances n'existent pas dans la "tête" des individus mais sont situées au niveau des interactions entre les membres d'une communauté d'agents qui doivent effectuer une tâche ou interagir dans un environnement donné. Pour lui, la communication n'est pas un simple processus de transfert de connaissance d'un agent à un agent, mais renvoie à la création d'une nouvelle connaissance collective qui n'est pas forcement intégrée en totalité par chacun des membres du groupe… Le sens se construit et se transmet par ces interactions. » ( )

Book : Hutchins E. (1995). - Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge (MA) : MIT Press.

Concluding Discussion

In view of the above, how could we call a coming age of participation? Philippe Van Nedervelde suggests two possible names, also drawn from classical Greek:

1) Synergos, from "sun/syn" = together; "ergos" = work

2) Metechos, denotes sharing/participating

Key Books to Read

Heron, J. (1992) Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key. London: Sage.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge (MA) : MIT Press.

Skolimowski, H. (1994). The Participatory Mind. London: Arkana.

Skrbina, D. (2005). Panpsychism in the West. MIT Press.

Tarnas, R. (1991) The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.