I don’t necessarily know who you are dear reader, who may be about to read this dialogue. I don’t know how familiar you are with the work of Henri Bortoft, with hermeneutics, with phenomenology, and with the emerging discipline of hermeneutic biology. These things may mean nothing to you. So why am I publishing this dialogue?
Well what I teach is the transition of consciousness to business students. I have not waiting until I have finished my own personal transition of consciousness. In fact, this blog has very much charted quite a change in my own thinking and understanding, even from when it first began not that long ago.
In this dialogue, you will see a true dialogue, an exploration of ideas, as I attempt to explore with Philip how I can take insights from “hermeneutical biology” and see if these can provide insights and new ways of thinking in business. You will see in this dialogue an attempt by myself to help change and then fine tune my own limited mental models, in my search for a more dynamic and organic way of thinking, seeing and knowing. I call this a dialogue in David Bohm’s sense of the word, in that it is not a discussion about differing points of view, but a true exploration of meaning in different realms of life, business and biology. The aim is not to convince another, but to arrive at a deeper shared meaning.
Philip has been instrumental in developing what he and his colleagues call “Process and Pilgrimage“. At the heart of this project is the notion that perhaps the essence of pilgrimage, the notion of throwing off old mental models, restricting frameworks and paradigms, and with no particular destination in mind, can in fact be a valid way of exploring the new sciences of complexity, where the focus is not on material things, solids, but on dynamic processes, the continual “coming-into-being” dimensions of dynamic organic processes.
Take what you will from this dialogue. I hope it is of interest to some of you.
Process and Pilgrimage: A Dialogue on Wholeness with Philip Franses
PF Science is always a living thing. There is no such thing as an external project, including the science. It is really an inner motion of who we are and how we are in the world. There is no such thing as we are trying to explain the world in a kind of outside of ourselves. It’s always inside ourselves.
SR This inner dimension is always missed in many systems books.
PF Definitely. There is always that dynamic that the part expresses itself. That is misses in systems theory. You lose the part in systems theory. Rather than having the tension between the part and the whole which is always creative.
SR How would this translate into a business context?
PF The main way it would translate is that in a reductive way you build up a system from its elements. You are always looking at something closed. So you measure it in terms of profit or how well it is doing on the stock exchange, or productivity, and there is no relation from that closed system to its place in the world. And you see this everywhere. The customer has become completely irrelevant. It is not relating to, not seeing that it has any responsibility for the context in which it is operating and how its behaviour is affecting the world.
This relates to the question you asked me yesterday about the immune system. The immune system is classically seen as this molecular machinery which has a kind of defence role to keep at bay the attackers of the viruses and the very wording which is used of repelling invaders and defence strategy which you have to boost like a fortress of the body. The very language you use completely prejudices the picture you build up of how its working and how you can maintain health. So what Graham Jones and Irun Cohen did was to turn that around and say that you can look at the immune system as something cognisant of its environment. It is not acting by repelling an alien threat. It is working by being aware of where it is in its environment and what are the creative moves it needs to make at a local level in order to keep that right relationship to its environment. Irun Cohen then identified 300 proteins which he said could give a signature of this relationship with its environment.
SR How do the proteins do that?
PF These are the 300 proteins that the baby has from birth. He is just saying that lets assume the immune system is something in the world that is responding to its environment and then lets look for patterns in healthy and sick people in these proteins. So the immune system is incredibly responsive. At every moment of the day these proteins have been cerated in order to keep the system in balance. So he is saying that it’s not like it is operating simply locally, that a threat comes in and there is this programme which causes this to be made. That idea isn’t borne out by modern research where you have so many cytochromes carrying messages between the cells. So something like several thousand.
SR So when you have this view you don’t look for a kind of mechanistic response. Would it be right to say you look at the information and signalling, and the relationship between the parts and what the relationship between the parts is, we can call some kind of awareness, a cognition of its own state, in order to then be able to respond?
PF Maturana and Varela talked about that, cognition, that it is a cognisant system in which just like Henri talks about reading a text, you need the knowledge of the whole to understand the part, it is much more, not just these molecular parts responding to these threats in a robotic way. There is a kind of whole or aggregation of knowledge about where it is as a being in the world and this translates into a type of language in which the parts have a context so that the whole language of interaction with other cells, so it’s like reading a book or reading a text, an actual text about its place in the world.
To understand what that cognition means is to understand the dynamic relation where its purpose is acting as a whole thing, but it is doing it through the parts being empowered to do their particular thing within a whole framework that gives meaning to those individual interactions.
SR So would you say that this is a move to a hermeneutics of biology?
PF You could say that. The promise would be, and it hasn’t happened yet, is that you could begin to find some of those patterns. This has proved quite illusive.
SR When you say “pattern” what does that look like?
PF You’d look at healthy and unhealthy organisation and then you’d say “what are the archetypal signs of a healthy and unhealthy organisation”. So with the immune system you might look at 100 patients with depression say, and then ask what is that language of the whole immune system when the person is depressed? And can we find a kind of signature which is indicative of depression? If you look at genes as well it is incredible that have these 30,000 genes active at a particular time when you’re in a particular state, but you have to work out how that state is affecting those genes. Except for a few very simple examples mostly the attempt to discover what that language is has completely eluded us.
SR So it is all in the act of seeing and having a hermeneutic approach rather than a mechanistic approach? So would we therefore need a hermeneutics of organisations rather than having financial statistics where we think “this is the health of the organisation?” How would this translate into seeing and measuring in a business context?
PF Well I think first it is important that the act of having a meaning in a language is often completely underrated in an organisation. So in a restructuring for example it completely overlooks the fact that someone who may seem to be completely inconsequential in the official structure, they are not a manager not somebody with an obvious responsibility, they may carry an enormous meaning in the job they do. Similarly in genetics you try to find the genes which cause a particular disease when actually the meaningful genes that is allowing a meaning to be created in that it is marking something that takes on a meaning in the dynamics of the existence of the organism.
So often in organisations the people who are bringing meaning to the organisation are not valued because they are not obviously seen.
SR But they have a huge impact on the overall health of the organisation.
PF Yes and it is often because they are open individuals. They are not stamping a particular “this is what I do” something obvious in the organisation. They are very open and so they are able to kind of interpret the organisation to their customer or their client or their participant in a very alive kind of way. They allow for that meaning to come into being dynamically. So it is not a fixed text by which the organism is understanding itself or the organisation. It is something which emerges in the daily interaction.
SR So this is like the holographic view, where the organisation is expressed in the parts.
PF This is what Henri always says. He would interview everyone in the organisation before you implemented the program or even had worked out how to do it. And then I would often find, I was working for the courts in Holland, there was an incredibly complex organisation with loads of parts, and the different law bits. There were two people in the cellar whose job it was to allocate the rooms to the various hearings. It so happened that they were the only ones with an overview of the whole thing which was happening. They were incredibly crucial and completely underpaid and not seen. And yet they were providing and holding how the whole organisation got translated into a particular structure of sittings. All the big bosses with their thousand pound a week salaries and their very obvious functions were completely dependent on these two who were unsupported. If they left then everything would fall apart.
SR I think this is a crucial point. Senior management not being able to value critical people. It is only when you lose them that you realise you have lost a critical part.
PF It is that thing of the dynamic. The way the whole gets translated into the parts is a dynamical thing. Often it is the people who do not have a formal or functional place in the static structure who are carrying out that role. It looks like they are doing nothing because when you reduce it there is nothing there.
It is like that with genes. All our effort has gone into understanding what gene does what. But the really important genes don’t do anything. They are very flexible and adaptable and they are interpreting their context by changing what happens around them. They are always creating
SR A dynamic. It is not like it is a static function.
PF Often genetics is trying to find the static function for a gene so it completely misses the important ones.
SR So this is it. When you have a dynamical view of systems, which is missing in a lot of chaos and complexity texts, you miss so much.
New business models inspired by systems thinking.
What I am doing is teaching people to go into the act of seeing, and teaching people to see dynamically, before they can begin to appreciate systems thinking.
PF This is what Peter Senge talks about, with his three layers of thinking. The iceberg model.
SR Can you explain Process and Pilgrimage?
PF This began with a conversation between Satish and me. Basil Hiley had been at the college, and he had been working with David Bohm, who was working on seeing everything dynamically. Approaching quantum theory not as static particles but getting rid of that whole static description altogether, and just having everything as a process. There is a beginning point, an end point and a journey.
I was telling this to Satish, who was writing his book Earth Pilgrim. He said that on a pilgrimage, you have to let go of who you are, where you are going, and be open to be changed on the way. And so I said well why don’t we start something called Process and Pilgrimage?
So our first event was in Birkbeck. Henri came, and Basil showed all the mathematics. Brian was there. We talked about the need to bring experience into science and have a bridge.
The second event we did was a walk along the Dart. It seemed like that walk epitomised what we were trying to do. We started at the source, where the Dart is just a trickle, coming out from the ground, and then gradually the landscape is such that tributaries join and the river slowly becomes a channel then a bit of a stream. It has been like this with Process and Pilgrimage. people have joined this series of events and taken it in own direction. It is not a momentum we planned.
At the start the river is dependent on the landscape. At a given moment there was this waterfall, about six hours walking. It was very dramatic and the water just dropped into the valley below. At that point the river took on its own identity. It suddenly becomes something in its own right. That feels like where we are now with Process and Pilgrimage. It has gained its own momentum with all the current projects and events.
There is a Journey School idea, which is about being in the openness and the not-knowing as a form enquiry.
SR I was thinking what is Process and Pilgrimage in an organisation? It is a classic thing. It is very static. You are placed in a box, and career progression is quite proscribed. But what organisations could do is to develop a more Process and Pilgrimage aspect to career development. Obviously people will still need courses on using applications etc etc but then they don’t have this space for that ambiguity and creativity to come in.
PF That’s it. It joins up with what we were discussing earlier. When you have got that box of career development you know everything about the system, about the company, that it is like a machine and everyone has their cog part in it. But what you are trying to do, and this is what we were saying earlier, is to make it something living in the world. And to do that you need to have this open enquiry in which everyone can say “what does this company mean to me? And what do I feel my duty or service is to the customer or client? When you have that type of enquiry or open dialogue you are connecting with what is its place in the world. What is its real identity? That is the job of a business coming together.
SR Less than 10% of solutions in companies come from the top. The majority come from the bottom. But because of society maybe, the top management feel that they ought to have all of the solutions, and these guys are playing along with the charade, they flatter their managers, but over coffee they will say what they really think to their colleagues. We need to get away from the triangle hierarchical symbol of organisations, and find a new symbol for organisations in pilgrimage.
PF So what did you mean by Process and Pilgrimage of business?
SR When you are in a big big organisation it is like career progression and climbing a ladder. But there is none of this more creative openness about what do things really mean. It is much more about predicting the future, being in the next step of what is already there. So you have a very reductionist view. There are always far fewer opportunities to you when you go up the hierarchy in an organisation. And there are very few opportunities at the very top.
But with Process and Pilgrimage, one of the key words that you inspired me with was “momentum”. The leaders are always trying to think how they can maintain momentum of their organisation? But in fact maybe what they are doing is restricting? They are not letting things widen out like the river does going from the source to bigger and bigger. Management almost restrict with organisations being seen as closed systems and a ladder. It is restricting people’s creativity.
About Philip Franses
In September 2009 Philip joined the MSc in Holistic Science Faculty at Schumacher College as teacher of complexity.
Born in 1958 in England, Philip studied mathematics at New College Oxford from 1976 to 1980. Academia’s dull explanation of the world inspired Philip on a counter-journey into the depths of experience, travelling and a re-sensitisation to quality. In 2005, after a fifteen-year career designing intelligent software, culminating in a programme now used in The Netherlands by all Dutch courts, Philip had a chance encounter with Satish Kumar and was moved to come to Schumacher as an MSc student. Philip began and edits the Holistic Science Journal.
The scientific studies by Graham Jones and Irun Cohen can be read in Holistic Science Journal, Issue 1, No. 4.