AGENDA OF PRAXIS
ZVI LANIR AND GAD SNEH
Praxis, is a company dedicated to the research, development and applications of Systemic Re-framing Thinking in individual, organizational and social settings.
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This publication is the outcome of the Praxis team’s effort in research, development and application of Systemic Re-Framing Thinking. We would like to convey our gratitude to our colleagues – Doron Raz, Boaz Israeli, Daniel Medicks and Dr. Idan Yaron, for their contributions and support.
The New Agenda of Praxis
Beyond Post-Modern De-Construction 4
Systemic Thinking and Complementary Divergence 19
Beyond Post-Modern De-Construction
Knowledge encompasses some of the most puzzling and persistent issues that have engaged philosophers since ancient times. Our intellectual odyssey begins with a frustration with the modern program, set against the background of the pre-modern worldview. It proceeds with great expectations for a breakthrough resulting from the insights of the postmodern stance. Next comes the realization of the strengths as well as the severe limitations of this stance. Our odyssey eventually arrives at acknowledging the need for the reconstruction of a new theory and method adequate to the intricacies of post-postmodern existence, and unfolds the fundamental starting points for a new agenda of Praxis.
We contend that following the modern emphasis on the construction of strict disciplinary knowledge with its inhibitory and degenerative tendencies, and the postmodern insistence on the deconstruction of knowledge with its devastating effects, there is an urgent need nowadays for the reconstruction of our epistemology.
The need for reconstruction is apparent, for instance, in the confusion between knowledge and information. Baddeley (1997, p. 233) notes that "there is nothing more frustrating than looking up a word in the dictionary only to find it referred to another word, which in turn is defined in terms of the first word." Indeed, the entry information in The Oxford English Dictionary reads, among other definitions, "the sum of what is known;" the entry knowledge reads "a person's range of information." This circular definition resembles the following conversation found in Joseph Heller's Catch 22: "'What does the fish remind you of?' 'Other fish.' 'And what other fish remind you of?' 'Other fish.'"
This symptom is also apparent in the professional literature. Thus, for instance, in a book titled Organizing Knowledge: An Introduction to Information Retrieval, the author explains that "the organization of knowledge is concerned with establishing systems for organizing documents and information so that they can be retrieved by the user as required" (Rowley, 1992, p. xviii). According to Laura Empson (Financial Times, October 4, 1999), "most of what consultants are selling as knowledge management… is simply re-branding of information management… Most IT based 'knowledge management systems' are merely sophisticated and efficient mechanisms for filing and disseminating information."
The determination that we live in an information age rather than in a knowledge age is not trivial. It is rooted in the confusion left by postmodern thought. When there is no test of functionality or pragmatism, "nobody ever knows anything about anything" (Unger, 1974); when we cannot endow data with both coherence and relevance, even the determination of an information age, not to speak of a knowledge age, is questionable.
Postmodern thought lacks an elaborate methodology and appropriate mechanisms to devise new knowledge constructs, after the shattering of the old foundations. It is therefore difficult for its followers to propose a new agenda for a knowledge age.
Our first station on the way to Praxis is the ancient world of Greek philosophy; for here are found the roots of the modern program and the way it has conceived the nature of scientific understanding and practical knowledge.
We may say that early pre-modern epistemology was based on the revelation of a Divine Plan, the related dualistic notions of the pure forms in God's mind, the imperfect approximation in human behavior in the material world, and the superiority of the ideal over the real.
Plato was the first Western philosopher to consider in some detail the nature of knowledge and the way in which it is obtained. Plato saw true knowledge as lying in the forms - abstract, generic (universal), unchanging (eternal), non-physical realities. This approach is known as the "traditional" analysis of knowledge.
The Socratic method is essential for Platonic philosophy, and is still predominant in Western scientific endeavors. To Socrates, truth was absolute, abstract, generic and context-free. In contrast to the Sophists, Socratic skepticism was tentative and provisional; Socrates' doubt and assumed ignorance were an indispensable first step in the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates believed that there are truths upon which all men can agree, and proceeded to uncover such truths by discussion or by questions and answers. The Socratic dialectic method was the art of intellectual midwifery, causing other men's ideas to be born. It was also conceptual or definitional in that it set as the goal of knowledge the acquisition of concepts such as justice and wisdom. Socrates assumed that truth was embodied in correct definitions. The Socratic method is empirical or inductive, in that the proposed definitions are criticized through reference to particular instances, as well as deductive in that these definitions are tested as their implications are being drawn out.
Plato's follower, Aristotle, departed from the idealism of his teacher and became increasingly concerned with science and the phenomena of the world. Aristotle claims that all knowledge begins with sensory perception of concrete, particular, changeable, physical things. Natural forms (the true, unchanging essences of things), and all other basic categories with which we think and comprehend things, are abstracted from images we receive through sensory experience from particular things, or inferred and elaborated on the basis of these. Forms do not exist apart from a particular thing; therefore, the mind has no inherent intellectual access to them apart from abstracting them from sensory perception. Complete knowledge involves the construction of a systematic hierarchy of valid syllogisms that demonstrate and explain the truth of its conclusions, on the basis of generic premises known to be true.
Aristotle's ideas and methods were enormously influential on all subsequent thought, and set the stage for the modern scientific understanding as described below.
The usual meaning of the Greek term praxis roughly corresponds to action or doing, and is frequently translated into English as practice (as we shall use the term below, unless we speak of our own unique mode of Praxis).
Practice is view by Aristotle as the sphere of thought and action comprising the ethical and political life of man - of doing, of free activity in the polis, or of living well. It also signifies for him the sciences and arts that deal with the activities characteristic of man's ethical and political life. Conversely, theory is viewed as knowledge or wisdom for its own sake (Bernstein, 1971, pp. ix-x).
Aristotle's work, as variously interpreted over the ages, generally came to be understood as justifying the dominance of theory over practice: practice could not be entirely understood or rightly conducted without attention to theory. At the root of this dual reading of Aristotle is his basic association of theory with the "divine" and practice with the "human" (Shapiro & Decew, 1995). Jonsen and Toulmin note (1988, p. 28):
The "atemporal" world of intellectual reflection and certain knowledge was set apart from the "temporal" world of practical actions and corrigible opinions; and the timeless insights of intellectual theories were esteemed above the workaday experience of the practical craftsman. Eventually the "atemporality" of Theory was even interpreted as implying that its subject matter was Immutable and its truths Eternal, and it became associated with the unchanging celestial world. Meanwhile, the temporality of Practice was equated with Transitoriness and linked to the changeableness of terrestrial things.
The rise and fall of the modern program
One of the prominent figures overshadowing the modern era was the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). His influence aroused what is termed by Bernstein a Cartesian Anxiety, that hunted modern thinkers ever since:
Descartes' Meditations is the locus classicus in modern philosophy for the metaphor of the "foundation" and for the conviction that the philosopher's quest is to search for an Archimedan point upon which we can ground our knowledge... Descartes [demands] that we should not rely on unfounded opinion, prejudices, tradition, or external authority, but only upon the authority of reason itself. Few philosophers since Descartes have accepted his substantive claims, but there can be little doubt that the problems, metaphors, and questions that he bequeathed to us have been at the very center of philosophy since Descartes... (Bernstein, 1983, pp. 16-17).
The modern program is based on the eighteenth century European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Its carriers shared a belief in emancipation and progress by means of the amassing of knowledge, assuming a logical and ordered universe whose laws could be uncovered by empirical scientific research.
The fundamental premises of the modern program are further elaborated by Flax (1990, p. 41): (1) There is a stable, coherent, knowable self that is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal. (2) This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning and the only objective form. (3) The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world regardless of the individual status of the knower. (4) The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal. (5) The knowledge produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason or objectivity) and improved. (6) Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws conforming to the knowledge discovered by reason. (7) In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right. (8) Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists - those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities - must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as power). (9) Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must also be rational. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real or perceived world that the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).
The modern program acknowledges the capabilities of the human mind to discover all the laws of nature in order to allow human beings ultimate control over it. The last waves of this thinking (of encapsulating all the laws of nature in one Grand Unified Theory that would explain everything) were felt as late as the 1970s.
Alvin Toffler remarked that "one of the most highly developed skills in contemporary Western civilizations is dissection: the split-up of problems into their smallest possible components" (Toffler, 1984, p. xi). One of the most common ways of dissection is that of dichotomy. Modern Western thought is indeed entangled in dichotomies, polarities and binary opposites. Thus, for instance, modern civilization relies on continually establishing a binary opposition between order and disorder, so as to assert the superiority of order (Klages, 1997).
One such prominent binary opposition is that of theory vs. practice, which has been central to almost every major Western philosopher since Aristotle. While suggesting a mutually exclusive distinction between the two terms, the modern program considered scientific understanding to be of a higher standing and of more value than practical knowledge. This position is epitomized in the philosophical approach of logical positivism.
The French positif, which served as the basis of Comte's coining of the term for the purpose of his philosophy, signifies "based on facts or experience." The principal aims of logical positivism, developed by the Vienna Circle, are "to provide a secure foundation for the sciences... [and] demonstrate the meaninglessness of all meta-physics... [by the method of] the logical analysis of all concepts and propositions" (Weinberg, 1936, p. 1). Such aspirations leave but little room for non-scientific practical knowledge.
A huge wave of criticism generally known as postmodern thought shattered the modern program. Its devastating effects are still apparent today, although the ruins of the modern stronghold of reason still emerge in different corners of the contemporary scenery.
The promise and limitations of the postmodern stance
The Postmodern stance proclaims that we cannot have a certain epistemological "foundation" or Archimedan point upon which we may ground our knowledge. Human knowledge is the outcome of interpretive cognitive schemes that produce a recognizable order in and meaning of experience. We do not have access to pure impressions and sensations. Consequently, human awareness does not contain images reflecting an independent reality but consists of constructions based on human organizing capacities (Rorty, 1979).
The postmodern stance represents a celebration of the diverse and ephemeral. It asserts that the real is not a single, integrated system, but a disunited, fragmented accumulation of disparate elements and events. While the modern program attends to regularities, postmodernism focuses on differences and uniqueness. Each movement or change is the consequence of the coming together at a particular place and time of a unique set of multiple forces. Knowledge should be concerned with these local and specific occurrences, not with the search for context-free general laws (Polkinghorne, 1992).
The postmodern stance represents a move from positivism toward an interpretive perspective, from the knower toward the known, from the knowing subject toward the subject known, from the psychology of cognitive processes toward epistemological investigations of the nature of the knowledge sought (Kvale, 1992).
Von Glasersfeld defines radical constructivism by the following two basic principles: (1) knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication, but is actively constructed by the cognizing subject. (2) The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the subject's organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality.
One of the most influential twentieth century schools of philosophy, closely related to the general postmodern stance, is that of deconstruction. It was originated by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-), and has been applied in literature, linguistics, philosophy, law and architecture.
Deconstruction is concerned with the structure of our thought, particularly with the binary opposites or dichotomies upon which this structure depends. The term dichotomy (Greek dich-, in two + temnein, to cut) is defined as "a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different" (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998). This notion of dichotomies of oppositions is indeed most prevalent in modern thought.
According to Derrida, literary meaning is constructed through contrasts between binary opposites, which are in fact mini-hierarchies. One term (e.g., theory) is dominant or prior, the opposite (e.g., practice) subordinate and secondary.
Deconstruction contends that universal concepts and the conventional boundaries between binary opposites such as theory vs. practice must be taken apart, or deconstructed, showing the way to "conceiving difference without opposition."
It is worth noting that the binary opposition of theory vs. practice has also left clear traces in postmodern thought. Even the attempts that some thinkers have made to break away from this mind-frame have all too frequently regressed into these standard opposites (Bernstein, 1983, p. 1). If they have introduced any change at all in theory-practice, it was restricted to shifting the balance in the hierarchy: postmodern thought often elevates the practical embodied knowledge of everyday life above theoretical or scientific knowledge. Science is therefore looked upon as another construct of the human mind, a subjective rather than an objective abstraction of some external reality.
Postmodernism questions universal certainties and concepts, and celebrates the end of "totalizing" grand narratives such as humanism and realism. The postmodern stance removes the necessity of foundations and of choosing one position over the other, and allows us the freedom to construct our own positions.
Only within postmodern relativist discourse was a cognitive space created, enabling us to justify philosophically and ideally subjective knowledge-in-context and to legitimize our quest for it. It thus paves the way for our understanding of Praxis.
The postmodern stance, however, is first and foremost a critique of the modern program; a reaction against rationalism, scientism and objectivity. The underlying themes of the postmodern stance are loss of faith (Polkinghorne, 1992), incredulity (Lyotard, 1993), ambivalence (Bauman, 1993), and disbelief (Anderson, 1990) towards the modernist program. As such, it is negative by nature.
Postmodernism thus subverts the modern program that afforded man intellectual confidence and optimism, for the sake of skepticism about foundations, methods, and rational criteria of evaluation. It shatters the Cartesian quest for some fixed point, some stable rock upon which to secure our lives against the vicissitudes that constantly threaten us. Instead of the grand narratives, it proposes a new vocabulary, a new language game which serves as a pragmatic, localized and tentative basis for knowledge. Meanings in such a game are evolving and changing. In the midst of this flux and dynamism, we have to redefine ourselves and regain our stability. Postmodern critiques lack the necessary methodology for such a critical task.
In its extremity, the postmodern stance represents a radical rejection of the possibility of knowledge. It is expressed by seemingly nihilistic attitudes or by reductio ad absurdum, stating that there are no hard "facts of the matter," that "anything goes," and that it is impossible to formulate any criteria of evaluation. Derrida's radical philosophical position has been ironically summarized by Anderson (1990, p. 87) as follows: "wrong you are whatever you think, unless you think you're wrong, in which case you may be right - but you don't really mean what you think you do anyway."
The new agenda of Praxis
Following the crucially important transitory phase of the negative postmodern epistemology, a new affirmative or reconstructive epistemology is called for. This should be achieved without the need stressed by Descartes "to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundation", complementing modern constructivism with post-modern deconstructivism.
Some first steps have been taken in this direction by affirmative postmodern epistemology. Neopragmatism (unlike the earlier pragmatism) accepts the postmodern assumptions about the foundationlessness and fragmentariness of knowledge. It does not, however, accept that a postmodern discipline must be solipsistic and relativistic (Rorty, 1991). Neopragmatism shifts the focus of knowledge generation from the modern attempts to describe the real as it is in itself (theoretical knowledge and "knowing that"), to programs for collecting descriptions of actions that have effectively accomplished intended ends (practical knowledge and "knowing how"). Pragmatic knowing concentrates on understanding how to do an act, rather than on knowing what laws of nature allow it. The test for neopragmatic knowledge is not whether it produces a picture that corresponds to the real, but whether it functions successfully in guiding human action towards fulfilling intended purposes.
A neopragmatic body of knowledge thus consists of a collection of examples of actions that have succeeded in bringing about desired ends; a summary of generalizations of the types of action that have been successful in prior similar situations. These summaries are always unfinished, and are in need of continual revision as newly effective actions are discovered.
Neopragmatism does not suppose these generalizations to be predictive of what actions will work in new situations. Rather, the generalizations have only heuristic value as indicators of what may be tried in similar situations. Because neopragmatism incorporates the postmodern understanding of fragmentariness, it holds that each situation is different and contains the uncertainties of its specific location and time. Neopragmatism recognizes the functionality of cognitive processes in understanding responsive regularities of the world. It maintains that our comprehension consists of drawing from our embodied interaction with the world enough of a sense of its regularities in order to accomplish our purposes. The more open we are to increasing and re-framing our patterns, and the greater variety of organizing schemes we have at our command, the more likely we are to capture the diversity of organization that exists in the world (Polkinghorne, 1992, pp. 149-150).
Some of the premises on which such a new affirmative epistemology may be founded are: (1) Knowledge can indeed be generated; (2) Such generation is the responsibility of each and every individual; (3) Human beings have the capability to construct and reconstruct their own existential survival out of their direct personal experience; (4) Knowledge should be part and parcel of the sphere in which human beings think and act in daily life; (5) Self-generation of knowledge must always occur within context, (6) Knowledge-in-context must enable individuals and groups to cope with fuzzy problems and rapid fundamental changes; (7) Knowledge claims must comply with some test of functionality - of usefulness or fruitfulness (rather than of truth) - that will enable us to trace alternative courses of action and then make sense of feedback from experience.
In recent epistemologies, it is increasingly fashionable to conceive of knowledge in terms that leave little or no room for epistemic commitment. Perry (1970, p. 258) defines commitment (in the context of intellectual development during the passage from adolescence to adulthood) as:
An affirmation of personal values or choices in relativism. A conscious act or realization of identity and responsibility. A process of orientation of self in a relative world.