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3 The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant: natural systems and autonomous individuals
Chapter 3 The origins of systems thinking in the Age of Reason 53
know reality itself does not mean that all our knowledge is purely relative, simply
the result of habits of association. Instead, the mind consists of innate categories
which impose order on the phenomenal.
In this way he agreed with the radical sceptics in holding that we could not know
reality directly but also agreed with the scientific realists in holding that there were
innate ideas that imposed order on experience so that knowledge and truth were not
simply relative. Examples of the innate categories of mind are time, space, causal
links and what Kant called ‘regulative ideas’. Regulative ideas are to be distinguished
from constitutive ideas. A constitutive idea, or hypothesis, is a statement of what
actually happens in reality. For example, if we say that an organisation actually is a
system operating to fulfil some real purpose, then we are putting forward a constitutive idea. We are saying that the organisation really exists and it is really fulfilling
some real purpose. However, if we put forward an hypothesis in which we are thinking about an organisation ‘as if’ it were a system operating ‘as if’ it had a purpose,
then we are thinking in terms of regulative ideas. Obviously Kant would not talk
about constitutive ideas, because he held that we could never know reality in itself.
The activity of the scientist then becomes clear in Kant’s scheme of things. The scientist has a mind consisting of categories of time, space, causal links and the capacity
for forming ‘as if’ hypotheses, which enables him or her to formulate hypotheses
about the appearances of reality and then test them.
Scientists, such as Newton and Leibniz, had understood nature in mechanistic
terms and Kant was able to explain why this understanding was neither purely relative nor directly revealing of the reality of nature. He resolved the contradiction
between realist and relative knowledge by taking aspects from each argument and
holding them together in the ‘both ... and’ way of a dualism. Knowledge of appearances was real and reliable while knowledge of reality itself was indeed impossible. In a sense both the scientific realists and the radical sceptics had a point and
the contradictions between them could be eliminated by locating their conflicting
explanations in different realms. This is typical of Kant’s dualistic thinking in which
paradoxes are eliminated, so satisfying the rule of Aristotelian logic according to
which paradox, the simultaneous existence of two contradictory ideas, is a sign of
faulty thinking. We want to stress this key aspect of Kantian thinking because it
has become very widespread in the West. The ideas of figure and ground in Gestalt
psychology, of different lenses through which to understand the world, and different
levels of existence such as the individual at one level and the organisation at another,
are examples of this.
Kant, then, developed transcendental idealism as an alternative to realism, on the
one hand, and to scepticism, on the other. His thinking can be labelled as ‘idealism’
because he held that we know reality through the capacities of the mind, and it is
transcendental because the categories through which we know are already given
outside our direct experience. In this way, Kant provided a sophisticated justification
for the scientific method.
However, Kant went further than providing a philosophical justification of the
mechanistic understanding of nature provided by scientists. He argued that, while
it was useful to understand inanimate nature in this way, it was not adequate for
54 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
an understanding of living organisms. He suggested that organisms could be more
usefully understood as self-organising systems, which are very different from mechanisms.
A mechanism consists of parts that form a functional unity. The parts derive their
function as parts from the functioning of the whole. For example, a clock consists
of a number of parts, such as cogs, dials and hands, and these are assembled into a
clock, which has the function of recording the passing of time. The parts are only
parts of the clock insofar as they are required for the functioning of the whole, the
clock. Therefore, a finished notion of the whole is required before the parts can have
any function and the parts must be designed and assembled to play their particular
role, without which there cannot be the whole clock. Before the clock functions, the
parts must be designed and before they can be designed, the notion of the clock must
By contrast, the parts of a living organism are not first designed and then assembled into the unity of the organism. Rather, they arise as the result of interactions
within the developing organism. For example, a plant has roots, stems, leaves
and flowers that interact with each other to form the plant. The parts emerge, as
parts, not by prior design but as a result of internal interactions within the plant
itself in a self-generating, self-organising dynamic in a particular environmental
context. The parts do not come before the whole but emerge in the interaction of
spontaneously generated differences that give rise to the parts within the unity of
the whole (Goodwin, 1994; Webster and Goodwin, 1996). The parts, however,
have to be necessary for the production of the whole, otherwise they have no
relevance as parts. The parts have to serve the whole; it is just that the whole is
not designed first but comes into being with the parts. Organisms develop from a
simple initial form, such as a fertilised egg, into a mature adult form, all as part of
an inner coherence expressed in the dynamic unity of the parts. An organism thus
expresses a nature with no purpose other than the unfolding of its own mature
form. The organism’s development unfolds what was already enfolded in it from
Kant described this unfolding as ‘purposive’ because, although an organism is
not goal oriented in the sense of moving towards an external result, it is thought of
as moving to a mature form of itself. The development to the mature form, and the
mature form itself, will have some unique features due to the particular context in
which it develops, but the organism can only ever unfold the general form already
enfolded in it. In talking about development being purposive, Kant introduced his
notion of organism developing according to a ‘regulative idea’. Since he held that we
could not know reality, it followed that we could not say that an organism actually
was following a particular idea. In other words, we cannot make the claim of a
constitutive idea in relation to the organism. Instead, as observing scientists, we can
claim that it is helpful to understand an organism ‘as if’ it were moving according to
a particular purpose: namely, the regulative idea of realising a mature form of itself,
that is, its true nature or true self.
For Kant, the parts of an organism exist because of, and in order to sustain, the
whole as an emergent property (Kauffman, 1995). Organisms are self-producing
and therefore self-organising wholes, where the whole is maintained by the parts
and the whole orders the parts in such a way that it is maintained. In suggesting
that we think in terms of systems, Kant was introducing a causality that was
Chapter 3 The origins of systems thinking in the Age of Reason 55
teleological (i.e. tending towards an end) and formative rather than the simple,
linear, efficient (if ... then) causality assumed in the mechanistic way of understanding nature. In systems terms, causality is formative in that it is in the self-
organising interaction of the parts that those parts and the whole emerge. It is
‘as if’ the system, the whole, has a purpose: namely, to move towards a final
state that is already given at its origin as a mature form of itself. In other words,
nature is unfolding already enfolded forms and causality might be referred to
as formative (Stacey et al., 2000) in which the dominant form of causality is
the formative process of development from an embryonic to a mature form. It
follows that emergence has a particular meaning in Kant’s thought. In Kant’s
systemic thinking, self-organisation means interaction between parts, and what
emerges in this interaction is the developmental pattern of the whole. Since the
system is unfolding what is already enfolded in it, this emergent developmental
pattern is not unknown or unpredictable. The system does not move towards
that which is unknown. What is unknown, however, is reality itself so the system
hypothesis cannot be a claim that reality itself moves towards the known.
Note how this understanding of nature as system is quite consistent with the
scientific method in that it is the human objective observer who identifies and
isolates causality in natural systems and then tests hypotheses (‘as if’ or regulative
ideas) about the purposive movement of those systems. It is not that organisms
actually are systems or that they actually are unfolding a particular pattern in
movement to a mature form. It is the scientist who finds it useful to think ‘as if’
they are. It is not that the laws are actually in nature but that the scientist is giving
the laws to nature.
A very important point follows from this way of thinking about organisms,
namely that it is a way of thinking that cannot explain novelty – that is, how
any new form could come into existence. In thinking of an organism as unfolding an already enfolded form, Kant’s systems thinking can explain the developmental cycle from birth to death but cannot explain how any new form
emerges: that is, how evolution takes place. This is obviously a serious problem if what one wants to understand is creativity, innovation or novelty. The
key point is that in Kant’s systems thinking, causality is formative rather than
Also, Kant argued that the systemic explanation of how nature functioned could
never be applied to humans, because humans are autonomous and have a soul.
Humans have some freedom to choose and so the deterministic laws of nature cannot be applied to rational human action.
The autonomous individual
For Kant, the human body could be thought of as a system because it is an organism. As such, it is subject to the laws of nature and, when human action is driven
by the passions of the body, then it too is subject to the laws of nature and so not
free. However, when acting rationally, humans could not be thought of as parts of
a system because then they would exist because of, and in order to maintain, the
whole. A part of a system is only a part because it is interacting with other parts in
order that they can all realise themselves in the purposive movement of the emergent
whole, and the emergence of that whole is the unfolding of what is already enfolded,
56 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
so excluding any fundamental spontaneity or novelty. If a part is not doing this
then it is irrelevant to the system and so is not a part acting to produce the whole.
However, a part in this sense cannot be free: that is, it cannot follow its own autonomously chosen goals because then it would be acting for itself and not as a part.
Furthermore, as parts of a whole that is unfolding an already enfolded final state,
neither whole nor parts can display spontaneity or novelty. There can be nothing
creative or transformative about such a system. This way of thinking, therefore,
cannot explain how the new arises.
It follows that rational human action has to be understood in a different way.
Kant held that human individuals are autonomous and so can choose the goals of
their actions, and they can choose the actions required to realise them using reason. The predominant form of causality here is teleological: namely, that of autonomously chosen ends made possible because of the human capacity for reason. The
principal concern then becomes how autonomously chosen goals and actions mesh
together in a coherent way that makes it possible for humans to live together. This
is a question of ethics, and Kant understood ethical choice in terms of universals:
namely, those choices that could be followed by all people. We may call this rationalist causality (Stacey et al., 2000).
So, Kant developed a systems theory with a theory of formative causality to
explain how organisms in nature developed, arguing that this could not be applied
to human action, and he also developed another kind of explanation for human
action, involving rationalist causality. It is particularly important to note these
points because, when later forms of systems thinking were developed in the middle
of the twentieth century, they were directly applied to human action, and individuals
came to be thought of as parts in a system called a group, organisation or society. It
immediately follows that any such explanation cannot encompass individual human
freedom. Nor can a systemic explanation encompass the origins of spontaneity or
novelty. To explain these phenomena within systems thinking, we have to rely on
the autonomous individual standing outside the system. In other words, change of
a transformative kind cannot be explained in systemic terms – that is, in terms of
interactions between parts of the system – with one important exception: complex
adaptive systems with heterogeneous agents that we will come to in Chapter 10. Any
transformative change can then only be explained in terms of the mental functioning
of the individual.
There are two other points to be borne in mind about Kant’s systems thinking. It is essentially dualistic: that is, it takes a ‘both ... and’ form that eliminates paradox (Griffin, 2002) by locating contradictions in different spaces or
time periods. So, with regard to knowing, there is both the known relating to
phenomena and the unknown relating to noumena. With regard to the paradox
of determinism and freedom, there is both the determinism of mechanism and
organism in nature and the freedom of rational human action. Emergence is
located in nature and intention in human individuals. Linked to this there is the
essentially spatial metaphor underlying all systems thinking. A system is a whole
separated by a boundary from other systems, or wholes. In other words, there
is an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’. For example, one thinks of what is happening
inside an organisation or outside in the environment. Or one thinks of the mind
inside a person and reality outside it. The key concepts in Kantian thinking are
summarised in Box 3.1.
Chapter 3 The origins of systems thinking in the Age of Reason 57
Key concepts in Kantian thinking
• Organisms in nature can be thought about ‘as if’ they are systems.
• Systems are wholes consisting of parts interacting with each other in a self-generating, selforganising way and it is in this interaction that both parts and whole emerge without prior design.
• However, systems are ‘purposive’ in that they move according to a developmental pattern from an
embryonic to a mature form of themselves.
• Causality may then be described as ‘formative’ in that it is the process of interaction between the
parts that is forming the developmental path, unfolding that which was already enfolded from the
• Humans are autonomous rational individuals who are able to choose their own goals and the actions
required to realise them.
• When humans choose their own goals then causality may then be described as rationalist.
• Kantian thinking is fundamentally dualistic in that one kind of causality applies to an organism and
another to a human individual.
3.4 Systems thinking in the twentieth century: the notion
of human systems
Kant’s thinking provoked many controversies and has continued to have a major
impact on the evolution of Western thought up to the present time. This impact
is evident in the major development of systems thinking in the twentieth century.
Scholars in many different areas were working from the 1920s to the 1940s to
develop systemic ways of thinking about physiology, biology, psychology, sociology, engineering and communication. This work culminated in the publication of
a number of very important papers around 1950. These papers covered systems
of control, the development of computer language, theories of communication
(Shannon and Weaver, 1949) and the development of a new science of mind in
reaction to behaviourism, namely, cognitivism (Gardner, 1985; McCulloch and
Pitts, 1943). These ways of thinking amounted to a new paradigm: namely, a shift
from mechanistic, reductionist science in which the whole phenomenon of interest
was understood to be the sum of its parts, requiring attention to be focused on the
nature of the part rather than the interactions between them. In the new paradigm
of systems thinking, the whole phenomenon was thought of as a system and the
parts as subsystems within it. A system in turn was thought to be part of a larger
supra-system, its environment. The parts were now not simply additive in that they
affected each other. The whole came to be understood as more than the sum of the
parts. The focus of attention shifted from understanding the parts, or entities, of
which the whole was composed, to the interaction of subsystems to form a system
and of systems to form a supra-system. An essential aspect of this way of thinking
is the different levels of existence it ascribes to phenomena. For example, individual minds are thought of as subsystems forming groups, which are thought of as
systems forming an organisation, which is thought of as a supra-system. Here each
level is a different kind of phenomenon to be understood in a different way.
58 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
The new systems theories developed along three pathways over much the same
period of time:
• General systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968; Boulding, 1956) developed by
biologists and economists. The central concept here is that of homeostasis, which
means that systems have a strong, self-regulating tendency to move towards a
state of order and stability, or adapted equilibrium. They can only do this if they
have permeable boundaries that are open to interactions with other systems. This
strand in systems thinking will be explored in Chapter 6.
• Cybernetic systems (Ashby, 1945, 1952, 1956; Beer, 1979, 1981; Wiener, 1948)
developed by engineers. Cybernetic systems are self-regulating, goal-directed systems adapting to their environment – one simple example being the central heating system in a building. Here, the resident of a room sets a target temperature,
and a regulator at the boundary of the heating system detects a gap between that
target and the actual temperature. This gap triggers the heating system to switch
on or off, so maintaining the chosen target through a process of negative feedback
operation. The impact of this strand of thinking on strategic management will be
explored in Chapter 4.
• Systems dynamics (Forrester, 1958, 1961, 1969; Goodwin, 1951; Philips,
1950; Tustin, 1953) developed largely by engineers who turned their attention to economics and industrial management problems. In systems dynamics,
mathematical models are constructed of how the system changes states over
time. One important difference from the other two systems theories is the recognition that the system may not move to equilibrium. The system is then
no longer self-regulating but it is self-influencing: it may be self-sustaining or
self-destructive. The impact of this strand of systems thinking will be explored
in Chapter 5.
These three strands of systems thinking began to attract a great deal of attention
in many disciplines from around 1950, as did the new cognitivist psychology, and of
course, computers. Engineers, bringing with them their notion of control, took the
lead in developing the theories of cybernetic systems and systems dynamics, while
biologists, concerned with biological control mechanisms, developed general systems
theory. This systems movement, particularly in the form of cybernetics, has come to
form the foundation of today’s dominant management discourse, so importing the
engineer’s notion of control into understanding human activity. The development
of systems thinking amounted to the rediscovery of formative causality. The move
from mechanistic thinking about parts and wholes to systems thinking, therefore,
amounted to a move from a theory of causality couched entirely in efficient terms (if
... then) to one of both efficient causal links and formative causal process as found
in Kant’s philosophy.
It is important to note that in applying systems thinking to human action, all
of the strands of systems thinking indicated above did exactly what Kant had
argued against. They postulated that human action could be understood in terms
of systems. Some of the systems thinkers at this time did explore the difficulties
created by the fact that the observer of a system was also a participant in it in
what is called ‘second-order’ systems thinking. This perspective will be considered
in Chapter 9.