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Grand-narratives. Question by Michel Bauwens to Bonnitta Roy

On June 6, 2013, Michel Bauwens asked Bonnitta Roy an essential question related to communication and paradigm change.

The Question:

Dear Bonnitta Roy, I need your lights on the following issue: it is often said that post-modernism killed grand narratives yet post-post-modernism is about synthesis, integration and looks a bit like grand narratives …

my own feeling with constructing p2p theory is that it was necessary to reconstruct after deconstruction, but with the following caveats the theory has to be empirical, you must be willing to change through facts it must be coherent internally, though paradoxes and contradictions may occur and must be recognized it must be integrative, non reductionist and invite people to ameliorative action nevertheless, these approaches may look like grand narratives ..

so how do you explain this type of approach to sceptical postmodern academics who always come with this argument?

The Response:

From my own view, the problem is with the conceptual limitations of the dualistic categories of dialectical mind. For 2000 years, dialectical reasoning has grown in sophistication by creating synthetic (or transcendent or meta-) narratives to reconcile contraries. Postmodernism comes along and points out that meta-narratives aren't really doing the work that we supposed them to do. They don't really solve the dichotomies, they basically take one of three ways out

1) reduce them to conceptually more foundational dichotomies — such that, for example, you have the ultimate contrasts in Buddhism "emptiness" and "form" and two truths doctrine (relative and absolute) , Schopenhauer gives us "world" and "representation" for Derrida we have "sameness" and "difference" or the ultimate contrast in Hegel "matter" and "spirit" or in Bhaskar "absence" and "identity" …. or

2) hold paradoxes simultaneously– as "two sides of the same coin" — this is Wilber's tetra-emergence, or Heidegger's paradoxical thinking, and also Nishida Kitaro's answer to Hegel, or

3) establish a meta-theoretical framework upon which the endless synthetic narratives can be adjudicated — hence Integral theory is a meta-theory which contextualizes 'green' narratives as "higher" than "blue" narratives — the problem is, a different meta-theoretical framework such as Critical Realism can, through explanatory critique, counter the Integral meta- framework, and so one is left with the frustrating position of having to formulate a meta-meta framework to contextualize the meta-theoretical frameworks. It is easy to show that this pushes the situation of "grand narratives" up a notch in terms of conceptual sophistication, but it does not solve the problem of grand narratives and as such is still subject to the post-modern critique (IMO).

Now, the problem is that the only way dialectical mind grows in conceptual sophistication is through these synthetic complexifications. We have the trap wherever there is "difference" we bump it up to a "higher" or more "complexified" sophistication,  of "sameness." We are trapped into this construction where conceptual sophistication grows from difference to sameness, multiplicity to unity, concrete and particular to abstract and universal.

Adding to the problem is the shadow of post-war humanism,  that embraces post-modernism and "difference" but it strives for some grand unifying principle (contract, identity, global commons) because it is afraid of "difference" and incommensurability. Hence it becomes the handmaiden of capitalism. This is why, IMO, when we have had a flourishing of pluralistic values, we have parallel with this the rapid globalization of new-liberal mono-culture. This is the big "holy fuck" of post-post modernism — because it engages capitalism in a way that paves the way for capitalism. It creates the internet (so we can all be connected) which is the best invention that global finance ever discovered. It creates the metaphor of "hive mind" and "global commons" — which is the exact structure that allows capitalism to capture the commons and the imaginations of people. It conflates the global view of humans with the planetary ecology of nature– the one a unifying principle (the image of the earth in space) at the center of an anthropocentic view, and the other a dizzying diversity of non-linear dynamics with absolutely no fixed perspectival or agentic center. This is why the grand global interventions of the environmental movement arise simultaneously with the accelerated destruction of the planet.

Something, Michel, has gone terribly wrong!

There are a few people just beginning to re-wire our conceptual software, and open up a larger choice field for problem solving without relying on grand narratives or unifying principles.  Whitehead set the stage, Charles Sanders Pierce showed up how it was wrong, and Hartshorne integrated the field. Why process philosophers? Because the only way dialectical mind can conceptualize contraries is by assuming that reality is fixed and thing-like, not fluid, dynamic, and transformative. Prigigone showed us why dynamic systems have an arrow of time. Therefore, when you include time as part of the process, you have to contextualize the contraries in a temporal framework, rather than in an integrative or synthetic framework. As an example, when we think of conceptual contraries such as "subject" and "object" or "unity" and "diversity" … we can, as good paradoxical thinkers, see that they are co-dependently related. But we tend to see them as "equal" and "simultaneous" opposites — as Wilber does. But this requires us to abstract the processural nature of reality, and fix it into conceptual categories. If we add back the processural nature, then we see that the contraries are actually asymmetrically related, such that the subject depends on the object and the object depends on the subject — but the subject depends on the object in a difference way than the object depends on the subject. For example, the parent and child arise simultaneously as abstract categories (they self-define), but it is obvious that the parent depends on the child in a different way than the child depends on the parent. Once we start using the categories to represent concrete actuals in a generative process with an arrow of time — we can no longer structure the way we use them in simple dialectical ways of reasoning. We can't force ourselves to "see" the parent and child as symmetrical contraries — we "see" them intuitively as generative structures in a process. The terms I use is that the parent is "onto-genetic" to the child (the parent pre-constitutes the child) and the child is ontological for the parent.

The promise is that *everything modern people have done in the past 200 years* needs to be re-composed outside of dialectical mind — but this is an extraordinary opportunity!

It turns out all the conceptual categories are asymmetrically contextualized by an implicit arrow of time. Hartshorne showed us that each dipolar construction can be seen to take the form of an absolute term and a relative term. "Sameness", "unity", "whole"  "transcendence" "object" "emptiness"– are all absolute or a-terms. "Difference", "diversity", "parts", "immanence" "subject", "form" are all relative or r-terms. When we put them back into usefulness as representatives of actual reality, which is an on-going  generative process, we find that all a-terms are, like "parent" onto-genetic to all "r-terms", like "child." And we discover our discourse, science and philosophy turn into generative systems, not meta-narrative or synthesizing systems!

Anyway, the point of all this, is that the only way to satisfy the post-modern concern with totalizing narratives is to develop a whole new mind, which does not operate under the conceptual limitations of dialectical mind. There are some immediate consequences of this.

  1. A whole new cosmology: we see the absolute certainty that we are unified in the ground source, or origin of becoming, and therefore realize that we are not separate, and that the universal trajectory is toward increasing complexity AND increasing diversity (uniquification)
  2. We see that the "fear" of fragmentation or separation is a by-product of establishing a static universe, where thing-like categories represent reality within the systematisizing program of dialectically structured reasoning.
  3. That at every level or domain of existence there are exclusionary principles which are the principles which guarantee difference and generate increasing levels of uniqueness. So for example, at the quantum level there is wave-particle uncertainty, at the atomic level there is Pauli exclusion, at the level of abiotic there are things like laws that govern crystals, handedness, etc… at the level of plant there is the exclusion of space, at the level of animals there are incompatible goods, and at the level of humans there are incommensurable beliefs.
  4. The most complex and most unique entity is forever in the future, and the ultimate unifying principle is forever grounded singularity of ever-presencing origin. (This one tenant in itself precludes synthetic grand narration)

So how does this play out existentially? Well, let's take the domain of animals. Hartshorne said there was too much emphasis on evil and not enough emphasis on "incompatible goods." We have the situation in nature where it is "good" for the fox to catch the rabbit to feed her pups, but it is also "good" for the rabbit to get away and go home and nurse her babies. We have ways of understanding why we cannot adjudicate between mutually incompatible goods in the animal realm — and we understand that there is something inherently creative and generative about this. As part of the animal realm, we share with animals the situation of incompatible goods. We have to eat animals. But as humans in the human sphere we have the situation of incommensurable beliefs. But there is something about post-war humanism that rejects this principle. There is always this need to adjudicate between and among incommensurable beliefs with some implicit or explicit grand narrative. And if the post-modernists of us don't have an explicit narrative that adjudicates incommensurable beliefs, then there is just the shadow lurking there.

The truth is, we have not yet come to terms with diversity, difference and incommensurability. We believe that things will only get better if there is a flag, a truth, an economy, a religion, or a values-system that we can become unified under. Of course there are temporary unifying principles created all the time. But *the* unifying principle is a singularity– it is ontogenetic to every entity, not waiting for us somewhere in the future or on another, metaphysical plane. In fact, every unifying principle actually increases the diversity of the system, because it does not transcend and resolve the differences, it preserves and adds to them, so we are not left with a magic "third term", as if the cosmos were a linear algorithm, no – we are left with "three terms" instead of the original two!

I can even argue, that the only fear we have, and the origin of all our pathologies as a species, is the inability to realize ourselves as the unity prinicple, in continuous process of diversification — instead all our efforts to "capture" or "achieve" unification somewhere in the future, is a consequence of amanesis, or forgetfullness, that we are not separate, that we come from unity and grow toward diversity. Every re-presentation of universality is a unique particular, because universality, origin, is not repeatable in a ever-transforming, creative universe!

I could go on and on — as there has been a lot of research and work done on this over the past 14 months. I am including Anne and Mushin on this thread because they, more than any other people I have worked with, are starting to figure this stuff out too!

As an aside — because Helene brought this in. It can be shown that there is a strong "developmental bias" that comes along with dialectical reasoning. And of course we see this developmental bias everywhere –even where people use the term "evolution" or "emergence" — they are thinking accumulatively as in development– IOW, they are implicitly ordering the system in a constitutive trajectory, that looks translate into "linear progress." Hence, I have a system called "Generative Process Analytics" that helps make explicit what we mean when we are utilizing different process terms to describe or prescribe systems. You can't move to a genuine evolutionary narrative if you are trapped inside dialectical categories. This is the problem that Teilhard de Chardin had, that Darwin avoided, that the evolutionary spiritualists fall prey to, and that Stephen J Gould fought against his entire career.

More information on Bonnitta Roy's work on post-dialectical thinking is available here

Discussion (6)

  1. I think this idea of underlying/ foundational/ ontogenic principle vs overarching or totalizing one is crucial. It's possible that because of language 'distortion' or preferred process narrative some people use the the meta-narrative/grand narrative unifying vocable (and I fell in the trap) in lieu of this underlying foundational principle, but Bonnitta provides us with the right elements to straighten this out…

    I think the way we are playing with the idea of commons as 'meta-narrative' or new paradigm could be this undertow principle, or ontogenic/generative system Bonnitta is referring to.

    As far as an application of this on commons communication is concerned, may take away/summary of this is the following:

    How to coalesce efforts?

    Our complex systemic crisis must be solved in a 'distributed' and ‘self-organized’, yet cohesive way

    > How can we make efforts ‘add up’ & accumulate rather than ‘compete’?

    > How can we evaluate where the whole is going in its diversified intricacy to take corrective actions at each locality?

    > What can help us make trade-offs and arbitrate conflicting interests and mutually incompatible ‘goods’ or ‘bads’

    Underlying not overarching principles

    > We are trapped in a dialectical construction where conceptual sophistication grows from difference to sameness, from multiplicity to unity; trying to build a grand unifying synthesis that makes us vulnerable…

    > We need a unifying principle that increases the diversity of the system. One that does not transcend and resolve differences, but that preserves and adds to them.

    > Such unifying principle would be ontogenetic and foundational to generative processes, it would act as an undertow for transformative action.

    The commons can speak different languages…

    > They can support as common ground the micro narratives and processes of a variety of actions on the ground…

    > In return they benefit as a whole from each of the individual initiatives in a feedback loop.

    What next?

    > How can each of our stories, initiatives, actions towards a better world find more strength in the commons as common ground?

    > How can a story of the commons and a new paradigm emerge from these various stories?

    > How can the actions in each of these areas contribute to strengthen the commons as a whole?

    –> It’s our duty as change agents to ‘install’ the commons at all these levels and scales!

  2. Note: this comment should come after Helene's comment; I didn't intend it to come up first!

    On Bonnita Roy's discussion, I would like to make some remarks on the following section:

    "We have the situation in nature where it is "good" for the fox to catch the rabbit to feed her pups, but it is also "good" for the rabbit to get away and go home and nurse her babies. We have ways of understanding why we cannot adjudicate between mutually incompatible goods in the animal realm — and we understand that there is something inherently creative and generative about this. As part of the animal realm, we share with animals the situation of incompatible goods. We have to eat animals."

    When we see the rabbit and the fox, we see their opposed interests – but the reason why the fox can even eat the rabbit is that they are both made of the same stuff. Their proteins are made of the same amino acids, their DNA is made of the same four basic building blocks, and so forth. Animals and plants are also made of the same stuff, which is why rabbits can eat plant materials. To me, the most powerful evidence that all life on earth is descended from the same original ancestors is that the basic biological chemicals are the same for all the living things we know (the probability of this happening by chance, given the limitless number of compounds that are possible, is virtually nil).

    Are there common codes among humans which can be compared to the genetic code for life on earth? I would say there are. Some of them are about the most basic human communication – we all understand laughter, crying, hugging and various other basic expressions of human emotion. But some of them are also of recent invention. Regardless of our ideologies, the computers we use communicate through the same machine language. Regardless of our ideologies, virtually all of us interact through the use of money, and the dominant form of money is pretty much the same throughout the world (i.e., state/central bank issued, interest-bearing fiat currency). Can commons concepts approach this level of taken-for-grantedness?

    Maybe they can if we recognize that a higher level of integration is necessary for us to live – or at least, to live well – on this earth. Increased differentiation and uniqueness can actually also involve more intense cooperation and collaboration. Single-celled organisms beyond the level of the bacterium (such as ameobas and single-celled algae) are thought to have emerged through the symbiosis of several pre-existing simpler one-celled organisms. That is, the organelles (subsystems of a cell) that break down sugar to provide the cell with energy (mitochondria) and that do photosynthesis (chloroplasts) are thought to be descendants of separate organisms from the larger host organisms. This level of symbiosis was unprecedented at the time when there were only bacteria. Likewise, multicelled organisms are based on an extraordinary degree of cooperation among their component cells – a cooperation which allows individual cells to be enromously diverse from each other. In our own bodies, neurons are enormously different from red blood cells (which don't even have a nucleus and thus can't reproduce) and from muscle cells and so on. A heightened level of cooperation allows greater diversity among all the cooperants, you might say – each one does not need to do everything that needs to be done for its survival; there is a greater division of labor.

    We might say the same for human society – having invented ways to cooperate with each other, we have enabled a greater division of labor, and thus a vast diversity of ways of life. However, the organizational forms by which we have done that, especially currencies and markets, involve a very high degree of competition and conflict mixed in with the cooperation. They also pit us against non-human nature, and thereby utlimately against ourselves. So, it can be argued that we need to find better ways of cooperation and collaboration, involving not only humans but also other life forms, and rivers, oceans etc., the atmosphere, the soils. If the level of integration can be increased on a planetary scale, then by this argument it may be possible for far more diverse ways of living to co-exist, both among humans and among other living things. For example, not everyone will have to fix their minds on making money, constraining their life choices. The level of freedom would greatly increase as a result.

    So that may be the potential of "underlying rather than overarching" principle; something that becomes so basic that after some time we hardly think about it anymore (the way hardly anybody spends any time thinking about computer machine code)!

  3. I think these are quite complex arguments, but I do basically think we have about the right focus here, and see the initial point correct, a need "to develop a whole new mind, which does not operate under the conceptual limitations of dialectical mind" is apparently necessary.  

    I think there's a suspiciously simple way to do that if we just look at the two systems we're comparing, i.e. how nature works and how our minds do.   The rabit and fox work together in nature but their relationship does not resolve as logic.   It only makes sense within the rest of the ecology they are part of, in which they and every other part is bahaving by itself, and finding their own niches, and so actively learning how to survive leaving what survives the most.    That we live in a learning world and reasoning can't construct that is what I'm pointing to.

    That way of ecologies, where survival depends on learning of the individual parts, for the rabit to not be seen at dusk when the fox might sneak up on it, cannot be imitated in an information model, because in a model, by definition, the relationships between the bits of information are pre-defined, and not actively learning how to get along in their environments.  

    So, for people limited to thinking and communicating with linear language and refering to mental models based on their limited facts, to have access to the equivalent of nature's profoundly different way of "reasoning", is the challenge it seems.  It appears we'd first need to acknowledge the natural limitations of dialectical reasoning,  as we are doing here, and the basic phenomenological cause.   The rational behaviors of nature don't seem to work the way we think.  

    Our minds may have many of the properties, structures and behaviors of living systems, as living sytems themselves, but our reasoning doesn't seem to.   It's not endowed with independently designed, behaving and fluidly adaptive parts, with many scales of nesting within each other, interconnected on multiple scales too.   In all nature's way makes quite a preposerous way to run things in a "rational world", but also hard to deny! 

    So if nature defines her "terms" differently than we do, to gain any access to how she thinks it would seem we'd need a way of directing our attention to one and then the other, back and forth between the two, perhaps using a familiar metaphor to remind us what we're trying to do.   We might see it as regularly checking our mental maps, with all their defficiencies, against the territory they point to in a world that builds so many things behaving so differently.

    • Jessie, I indeed thought this might quite correspond to some of your positions. What I find different in Bonnitta's description is that she does not distinguish the ways nature works and mind works. She underlines forms of reasoning that prevent solving issues effectively-and even make things worse- and shows how forms of reasoning have evolved in time with complexity, suggesting that we should find forms that take us beyond the dialectical dualities and deadlocks. So she actually does not 'oppose' nature and mind, because such opposition would be a manifestation of dialectical reasoning…

      She has given some lectures on the evolution of reasoning as part of the magellan course. It's pretty clear and very interesting and provides some answers to the deadlocks you are describing in a non oppositional way. There are four or five of them. Have a look in her video library.

      • Well, yes, that's a reason to be going step by step, as of course, the mind IS working by nature's processes and the big problem is we can't picture that, presenting a problem unsolved by it.   I do need to study more of how you and Bonnitta are constructing the issues, though, as it sounds like a new gateway to understanding the limits of reasoning that I'm still a little confused by.   I reason it that  "reality" can't be what I or others conclude must be absolute, and so am left with it being just "what nature does", quite undefined by us.  

        That's sort of the first of the alternating attentions between subjects (mental images) and objects (behaviors of the world) for me,   In thinking about my subjects I reach a point where I start feeling unclear about how to put together what I'm thinking about, and have an urge to do the opposite, to go collect more observations to put together.   It might be compared to a builder realizing they have run out of concrete and need more before they can continue putting up walls and doors.  When I get to the point when I'm "missing something" I alternate from mental building to exploring the more complex forms of behavior found in the environment that I'm extracting patterns of relatinships from to build with. 

        That's also the same alternating process of shifting one's attention from one's own thoughts (an internal dialog) to external dialogs with nature, collecting and sorting found patterns, that I'm referring to as "updating one's map", as a metaphor.   In both descriptions it's a matter of alternating one's focus between putting ideas together and collecting observations to check one's ideas against.   It helps a lot it seems to collect patterns from one's environment that reflect the rich context that is really there, for the greater pleasure, finding surprising and more versatile suggestions, and constantly train one's self on being honest about what one observes.

        By far the most useful "signal" from nature I've found though (for "updating my map") is the clear sign that natural systems associated with what I'm looking at are reorganizing and changing form.   It's quite consistent that when you see change occurring by a seemingly repeated proportional steps, i.e. increasing or decreasing by regular %'s or factors of scale to create a flowing pattern of "growth" or "decay" (diverging or converging change) there's a strong direct implication that a) there's a system causing it are changing how it works, and b) that will prompt change in how its environment is organized too, i.e. transformative reorgainzation.  

        One may need to search for what system is doing it, to be able to map its boundaries and guess what parts might be connected to which.   Regular proportional change is a great and clear indication, though, of a need to not just adjust your map of the environment by an elastic stretch, but to ALSO reoganize it too. That indication of emergent reorganization in the environment you're looking at tells you when the "players in the game" are changeing, which is good to know if you're into staying in the game yourself!   ;-) 

  4. [...] From my own view, the problem is with the conceptual limitations of the dualistic categories of dialectical mind. For 2000 years, dialectical reasoning has grown in sophistication by creating synthetic (or transcendent or meta-) narratives to reconcile contraries. Postmodernism comes along and points out that meta-narratives aren't really doing the work that we supposed them to do. They don't really solve the dichotomies, they basically take one of three ways out  [...]

  5. [...] Great piece on post dialectic thinking. Bonnitta Roy in response to @mbauwens via @GrowTheCommons #4thecommons http://t.co/SUeKA1LeyW  [...]

  6. Adding Bonnitta Roy's paper on non dualistic forms of reasoning for further reference -it's a work in progress, in several parts:

    Part I: Early Roots in Theory

    Part II: A Map of the Known Territory & Getting Started

    Also relevant a video on insight and developmental theories

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