The Crisis of Knowing in the Age of Complexity

The Crisis of Knowing in the Age of Complexity

Ton Jörg (University of Utrecht, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4711-4.ch001
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The crisis of our time is very much a crisis of knowledge. There is no easy way of “solving” the crisis. “Solving” the crisis demands for a real shift of mind, implying new ways of thinking and knowing about what is the real. The most important task of today, therefore, is to see and to open up a new world: a world of the possible, with its hitherto uncharted and unexplored complexity territory. For the sake of mastering complexity, understanding real complexity is urgently needed. The problem of complexity for organizations is the way organizations and companies attempt to respond to complexity. To confront and master complexity, the focus should be on the conditions of possibility, hitherto unknown. These conditions are about the possibility of triggering self-generative, self-organizing processes with potential nonlinear effects within dynamic, hyperconnected networks. These effects can be generated by the process of amplifying changes within these networks. This amplifying is about the amplifying of learning, of thinking, and of knowing. In practice, this means that new thinking in complexity is urgently needed to master the complexity involved. This approach is compared with the recent approaches advocated by big firms and companies in their embracing of complexity. This chapter shows how they are unable to discover and explore the very potential of complexity for their own Complex Organization (CO). They are very much in need to master complexity for the sake of fostering creativity, novelty, and innovation in their own organizations.
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We have to deal with what we do not understand,

and that demands new ways of thinking.

-Paul Cilliers, 1998, p. 2

In this contribution we want to go deeper into the crisis of our time and its consequences for organizations and companies, operating in our society, commonly conceived as a kind of ‘information society’ or ‘knowledge society’. According to the French thinker Edgar Morin, we may speak about a so-called ‘poly-crisis’ (see Hessel, 2011, p. 43). We argue that the crisis of our time can be taken as being both a financial, economic, political and scientific crisis. The crisis is very much the crisis of Western Culture. According to Sandywell (1996), we may speak about a crisis of Western reason. We ‘simply’ lack an adequate understanding of the crisis we are in. To understand the very crisis we are in, and its effects on Complex Organizations (CO’s) and their management, we need to become more reflective on the nature of this crisis. We argue here that the deep nature of the crisis is still very much hidden. After reading the papers, journals and more specialist literatures, we are of opinion that nobody seems to have a kind of bird’s eye view of the crisis. Consequently, nobody seems to know what is underlying the very crisis we are still in. We seem ‘simply’ not able to view the system with new eyes.

We want to argue here that the crisis is very much the crisis of our common way of knowing: that is, about the very limits of our knowing. The crisis we are in is very much the crisis of a learned incapacity to make the link between the known known and the field of the unknown unknown (see Table 1). The crisis is very much a crisis of our learned ignorance: the ignorance about the unknown unknown. It is the crisis of complexity, of complex phenomena, which we still take so much for granted. We take not only complexity for granted but also the very notion of reality. We have ‘simply’ disregarded the very complex nature of reality: that is, the nonlinear complex reality (Mainzer, 2004). Our view of complexity of reality is ‘simply’ insufficiently complex. The map we have of reality is a reduced version of this reality. We seem insufficiently aware of our assumptions about reality, being so reduced. We seem insufficiently aware that reality can be different: nonlinear and complex. This is very much true for innovation. Innovation is a complex topic being part of our nonlinear complex reality. But we ‘simply’ do not know how to deal with this complexity. Dealing with the complexity of reality demands a new approach and new ways of thinking about reality. The crux of our crisis is that “we don’t have the right vocabulary to precisely describe what we’re studying” (Mitchell, 2011, p. 301). We are a kind of prisoners of description. Henceforth, we need a new approach, with a new language, a language of complexity, with a new vocabulary, with new terms, concepts and metaphors, so to be able to describe reality as a nonlinear complex reality. We have to learn to use the term reality in a new way, based on a new way of thinking. We urgently need a new kind of map about what is the real(m) of our sciences. That is, a map about the complex dynamics of reality. We need this map to overcome our learned ignorance and learned incapacity in dealing with reality. This map is linked to the complexity of knowing. We need a more complex map to deal with the hitherto unknown territories of complexity of a nonlinear complex reality. These territories are the territories of the complexity of knowing, but also of innovation, novelty and creativity (cf. Kuhn, 1999, p. 90). To be able to deal with this complexity, we need a new way of thinking: of thinking in complexity (see Jörg, 2011).

Table 1.
Description of fields of knowledge
Fields of knowledgeKnownUnknown
UnknownAmnesia/Blind SpotIgnorance

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