Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon

In this second review of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, I would like to explore a few themes a little deeper, and also show how the unifying framework detailed in their book relates to the work of Maria and myself in Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, which Fritjof described as “A powerful antidote to today’s dominate culture”. Before reading this article, you may wish to read Part One first – Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part One – An Exploration of Themes.

The Systems View of Life and Holonomics

In Part I, Fritjof and Pier trace the development of science throughout history, in order that we can arrive at an understanding of how modern thinking, and of nature, came to be dominated by the mechanistic paradigm. Examining the contributions of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton, we see how the scientific world view was one in which “the world was believed to be a mechanical system that could be described objectively, without ever mentioning the human observer.”

After then exploring the limitations of the Newtonian model, through the conception of fields in electromagnetism, and the concepts of energy and entropy in thermodynamics, the authors note that “there existed alternative, holistic views of reality during that era, those of the Renaissance and the Romantic movement being perhaps the most powerful ones.” The holistic vision of the Romantic movement, and particularly that of Goethe is where Holonomics derives the ‘holos’ from in our conception of wholeness, a dynamic understanding of wholeness which can also be found in the twentieth century movements of phenomenology and also hermeneutics. The Systems View of Life arrives at the same point, via the conception of embodied cognition, highlighting the work of Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch (The Embodied Mind, 1991), a work heavily inspired by the phenomenological works of Heidegger, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.

Holonomic Thinking

In Part One of my review of The Systems View of Life I mentioned this conceptualisation of what Maria and I call ‘holonomic thinking’. This figure above should not be understood in a linear manner, where you start with mechanistic thinking, and then move through systems thinking to holonomic thinking. In solving complex problems, we do not lose mechanistic thinking, and neither do we “demote” systems thinking. We absolutely need systemic thinking to solve our global issues, but in order to do so, we need a higher level of consciousness in which to comprehend systems as authentic wholes. In our diagram we have a line which represents a point of liminality. This is the conceptual change of perspective which some systems thinkers are not able to make. Hence the criticism that some conceptions of systems are in fact “counterfeit”, i.e. only a mechanistic mindset is being used in the construction of systems models.

So whereas in Holonomics Maria and I are emphasising the dynamic way of seeing systems, The Systems View of Life focusses more on the construction of systemic models and the framework which unifies systemic thinking in the biological, cognitive, social and ecological domains. There is a really interesting example of this in The Systems View of Life, in chapter 12 which looks at the new systemic understanding of mind and consciousness.

Gregory Bateson introduced his new concept of mental processes for the first time in 1969 in Hawaii … Bateson’s whole thinking was in terms of patterns and relationships. Bateson developed his criteria of mental processes intuitively from his keen observation of the living world. When he looked at the living world, he saw its organizing activity as being essentially mental. It was clear to him that the phenomenon of mind was inseparably connected with the phenomenon of life. p253

The Systems View of Life does not lay out the new conceptualisation of cognition in a self-contained part. This new conception emerges as you read through the book as a whole, for this is a vastly expanded conceptualisation of cognition that takes us into the biological domain in a manner which cognitive psychology does not. Cognitive psychology aims to understanding the ways in which we humans (and other animals) process information by developing information processing models. The Systems View of Life counters this paradigm by exploring the nature of conscious experience, noting that “in addition to complexity theory, scientists will need to accept another new paradigm: the recognition that the analysis of lived experience – that is, of subjective phenomena – has to be an integral part of any science of consciousness.”

As I mentioned in Part One of this review, phenomenology and the pioneering school of neurophenomenology are highlighted as being integral to the new systemic conception of consciousness, including an examination of the role of language:

The phenomenon of language does not occur in the brain but in a continual flow of coordinations of behaviour. As human, we exist in language and we continually weave the linguistic web in which we are embedded. We coordinate our behaviour in language, and together in language we bring fourth our world. “The world everyone sees,” write Maturana and Varela (1980) “is not the world but a world, which we bring forth with others”. p271

In Holonomics, we represent this shift in perspective in the following figure:

Expanding our seeing and thinking.

Expanding our seeing and thinking.

The Systems View of Life provides a fascinating insight into the systematic observations of nature of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), insights which Fritjof has written about in two books: The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance (2008) and Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius (2014). The science of another great artist and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) does get a brief mention, with the authors noting that Goethe:

Was among the first to use the term “morphology” for the study of biological form from a dynamic, developmental point of view. He conceived of form as a pattern of relationships within an organised whole – a conception which is at the forefront of systems thinking today. p9

This is where we meet the natural intersection of The Systems View of Life and Holonomics. We coined the word ‘holonomics’ to mean the combination of ‘the whole’ (holos’ and ‘economics’). Our dynamic conception of wholeness comes from the phenomenological scientific method pioneered by Goethe, in which the whole can be seen as being expressed in the parts. Half of Holonomics (Part One: The Dynamics of Seeing) was written to take readers into this phenomenological way of encountering wholeness in systems.

We cover systems theory and complexity science in the two chapters of Part Two (The Dynamics of Nature) – feedback, autopoiesis, emergence, bifurcation, evolution, self-organisation and Gaia Theory. So for readers of The Systems View of Life who wish to then dive into a phenomenological way of understanding complexity, one which is focussed on lived experience and the coming-into-being of the meaning of phenomena, our book would make a good first destination. Likewise, for those readers of Holonomics who wish to then take a deep dive into systems thinking, The Systems View of Life is by far one of the very best places to start.

The Holonomic operating System

The Holonomic operating System

Two great teachers who have influenced me greatly were Henri Bortoft, who started his career as a physicist, studying the problem of wholeness in quantum physics as a post-graduate student under David Bohm, and also systems thinker and ecologist Stephan Harding. Both teachers played a huge role in the development of Holistic Science, the ground-breaking masters degree at Schumacher College in the UK where Fritjof serves on the faculty and which features in The Systems View of Life. I had the great honour of being one of the last students of Henri, before he passed away in 2012, and our classes were I would say the most insightful I have ever attended, especially with Stephan, the course director of Holistic Science, engaging in deeply insightful dialogue with Henri on the nature of modelling systems, especially Gaia of which Stephan developed in detail in partnership with James Lovelock.

Stephan is one of the guest essay writers in The Systems View of Life, of which there are a number, writing about Gaia Theory. One of his greatest contributions to systems theory has been to introduce what he calls ‘Jung’s mandala’ to the discipline, a framework which Maria and I call the holonomic operating system. (We introduce the holonomic operating system in our Harvard Business review article Holonomic Thinking, and have done this for two reasons. One is to make it comprehensible to a business audience, and we have also reversed ‘sensing’ with ‘intuition’ as our work emphases the dynamics of seeing).

Henri became a philosopher of phenomenology and hermeneutics, one of the world’s most respected authors on Goethe’s way of science, and also he was a teacher of the history of science. Understanding the evolution of science, the way  it progressed not just in a linear manner, but the ways in which the various schools of thought evolved, and the way in which for example mathematics and science were explicitly understood in terms of understanding the mind of God, has been a huge part of my own personal development, whereby I feel I have achieved a form of philosophical and scientific mindfulness (as opposed to meditative mindfulness). This mindfulness is an awareness of the thinking processes behind scientific discoveries, innovation, creativity and intuitive conceptualisation of phenomena can be explained using the framework of the Jungian mandala, and an example has already been given in this article, in the previous quote from Bateson. The key sentence is this:

Bateson developed his criteria of mental processes intuitively from his keen observation of the living world.

What Bateson is doing is concentrating his awareness in the sensory world, and not allowing his mind to be overcome with a logical – rational – symbolic and incomplete representation of what he thinks nature should be. From these sensory observations, he then moves to his intuition (a higher level of cognition to the intellectual mind), whereby he understands the meaning of the dynamic systems he is observing.

Charles Darwin's sketches of barnacles

Charles Darwin’s sketches of barnacles

We see this same great skill in Charles Darwin, who came to his realisation that change in nature was continuous only after eight years studying barnacles. The quote below comes from Henri which we republish in Holonomics:

Before he did his work with barnacles, Darwin had believed that variation is the exception in nature, occurring only in times of crisis. His barnacle work changed that. Here he found that there are no unvarying forms, and that barnacle species are, as he put it, ‘eminently variable’. What made the work of classification so difficult was that ‘Every part “of every species” was prone to change; the closer he looked, the more stability seemed an illusion’. Barnacles, he told Hooker, are infinitely variable; and in the context of his theory of what he called ‘the transmutation of species’, he went further to see variations as incipient species.

There is a switch in gestalt here, like the reversing cube: in one perspective the phenomenon appears as the variations of a species, whereas in another perspective the very same phenomenon appears as the initial stages of new species. Goethe and Darwin both encountered the organism’s ‘potency to be otherwise’ which is the self-differencing dynamic of life. But whereas Goethe saw this unceasing variation phenomenologically, so that he understood it as the expression of life itself, Darwin wanted to explain it (in this regard he thought more like a physicist). He eventually ‘found’ an explanation in the key to the success of Victorian capitalism: the division of labour.

(Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, 2012)

When you study the history of science (and The Systems View of Life provides an excellent overview), you begin to realise that things are not so black and white. You have to contend with people’s misconceptions about scientists, and also the fact that science could have evolved in quite different ways, had the science of Leonardo and Goethe been understood and appreciated in their lifetimes. But through a study of the dynamic way of seeing as described in Holonomics, Maria and I hope that we will lead readers across the point of liminality (as previously discussed), into an intuitive understanding and appreciation of systems. Once this line is crossed, it then becomes possible to read The Systems View of Life with new eyes, and a higher level of consciousness. It is this higher level of consciousness where the ethics and spirituality of systems thinking are comprehended, as Fritjof and Pier write about, and this level of cognition can only be achieved without ego, where there is a letting go of an attachment to seeing mechanistically, seeing reality only as consisting of separation and fragmented finished-objects.

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision is a quite remarkable book, and represents an important advance in the conception, articulation and teaching of systems thinking. What I hope I have shown in this article is just how profound many of the insights are, how broad and wide-ranging the book is, and also how it is complementary to the dynamic conception of wholeness we articulate in Holonomics.

Related Articles

Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part One – An Exploration of Themes

Guest Article: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Fritjof Capra discusses the Systems View of Life

Holonomic Thinking, Harvard Business Review, April 2014, (Portuguese)

11 responses to “Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon

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