What can systems thinking contribute to political philosophy?

by Callum Watts

At the 100th anniversary of John Rawls’ birth back in February, some of the most generous op-eds, whilst celebrating the brilliance of his thought, lamented the torpor of his impact. ‘Rawls studies’ are by no means the totality of political philosophy, but they are one of its most significant strands, and his approach has been dominant for the past 50 years. I’m an admirer of political philosophy, having happily spent much time and energy studying it, specifically looking at theories of deliberative democracy, an area with important connections to Rawls’ thought. That political philosophy does not have much to say that is of direct practical concern does not bother me, the sense that it is not just uninfluential, but is disconnected from the reality of the present moment does though.

Although I’ve been out of academia for 5 years or so, my work in large organisations focussed on change programmes and innovation has meant that deep questions about how people work together, and how we understand the purpose and ontology of collective action, have never really left my mind. When you are trying to encourage and inspire new behaviours in organisations of hundreds of thousands of people, it’s almost impossible not to ask about the fundamentals. Specialists in this field have elaborate theoretical apparatuses of varying rigour explaining different models of change, different accounts of human motivation, and ultimately, normative accounts of what is desirable. Even though much of this has developed in the business literature, it cannot help but stray into the broader social realm as the outsized impact of businesses that are often more powerful than states become impossible to ignore. One particular area of interest is in the idea of systems thinking.

Systems thinking is a collection of approaches to thinking about the behaviour of complex systems. It emerged out of ecology and chaos theory. It is a varied set of ideas and concepts that range from mathematical modelling of networks of components to esoteric considerations about the nature of spirituality. This strand of thinking has been influential in a number of areas, including engineering, biology, sociology, and business. It has also had influence on activist in the environmental and ecological movement, and has even had traction in politics and policy. In fact, during Allende’s government in Chile, there was an attempt to implement a systems approach to managing a whole economy. This mode of thought is seen as a paradigm shift in how we approach human society by some of its advocates. Capra and Luisi go so far as to argue that it gives us a comprehensive view of life write large, ranging from the behaviour of the unicellular organisms up to the broad trends of human society and the planetary ecosystem.

One of the reasons it has proved so attractive to a diverse range of thinkers and practitioners is that it suggests the possibility of a framework within which a diversity of phenomena can be accounted for, and which range from the scale of the individual to macrostructures, and which can account for their interactions. At a time of volatility and ambiguity, this feels especially attractive. Yet it has seen little influence in the field of political philosophy. This seems like a missed opportunity. If we take political philosophy to be the methodological examination of the deepest and most interesting problems on power and how we should live together, then it seems like systems thinking might be provide interesting insights around contemporary problems, and provide a direction for the exploration of new boundaries. It has features which make it both thematically and methodologically interesting.

There are several features of ‘systems’ approaches which should be familiar to philosophers such as the relationship between parts and wholes, debates around emergence and reductionism (systems thinkers align heavily against reductionism), and evolutionary thinking about how institutions develop. There is also a general effort to create integrated theories of different levels of phenomena into a more or less coherent whole, a familiar philosophical instinct. There are also some promising lines of thought which are as of yet underexploited in philosophy. A handful stand out most obviously: the relationship between environment and society, and the study of non-linear phenomenon and feedback loops.

If we look to the first of these, and take Rawlsian political theory, we see it has very little to say about the relationship of a person to their ecosystem. In fact, the space of idealised agents seems to separate us entirely from our environment dependant selves. Behind Rawls veil of ignorance, we not only are asked to think of ourselves as lacking any particular cultural attachments, values, or identities, we are also left curiously bereft of the natural ecosystem in which we have made our niche. Our starting point is not just the rational human de-cultured, but also de-natured. If we look back to foundational figures like Hobbes, we see that although a state of nature is posited as foundational, the starting point is clearly, again, one of rational actors deprived of their particular cultural and ecological attachments. At a time of ecological crisis, this seems like a pretty serious oversight. In contrast systems thinkers encourage us from the get go to start from a position of actors imbedded in complex networks of dependencies which go beyond other agents, to the natural and animal world.

A second space where systems thinking might be of interest is in its obsession with nonlinearity and feedback loops. Again, taking just the two cases above, both Rawls and Hobbes seek to use a single contracting moment to explicate all manner of social phenomena. And although both of these contracting moments can be read as idealised, and not an attempt to suggest actual historical events, they still rely on a rather simplistic view of social causation whereby things like rational agreement (self-interested or otherwise) pan out in predictable institutional and social outcomes. Systems thinkers would probably ask if such models, even if they are idealisations, really do justice to how social phenomena really come about? Social contract theories have powerful intuitive appeal because they are linear narratives that are easily understandable, but they might also be concealing a more complex reality rather than clarifying it for us.

Finally, much political philosophy has taken the state as its primary point of study. These philosophies could be crudely characterised as dividing the world up into political institutions (which are the locus of key concepts like legitimacy, law, and sovereignty) and everything else. But with the advent of powerful transnational corporations and international organisations, we might look to a more pluralistic political philosophy with a wider range of entities to be studied. Systems thinking’s curiosity about the interactions between different elements can offer some inspiration for how contemporary political philosophy might attempt to have a broader ontology of objects of fundamental study.

Systems thinking as it stands is more of a philosophy in the popular sense than in the rigorous analytical sense. In fact, much of the literature on systems thinking, whilst being wide ranging and exciting, does not have the sort of analytical rigour or depth of reference which would bring it to the level of contemporary academic philosophy. However, many of its animating ideas could provide inspiration for addressing some of the gaps in political philosophy as it stands today. Furthermore, some of its leading practitioners have a methodological approach which I think could be deeply beneficial to philosophers. Their bent towards multidisciplinarity and seeking to draw from scientific as well as folk accounts of phenomena is laudable, this is apparent in their readiness to reference indigenous and non-western thinkers. This approach drives profound insights and provides a connectedness to their thinking which traditional political philosophy could learn from, and probably sorely needs.