[Humanist] 28.186 enthusiasms underwritten by ideologies

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jul 8 01:59:38 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 186.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 07 Jul 2014 14:16:36 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: enthusiasms underwritten by ideologies

I'm indebted to John Naughton (Cambridge) for recommending an old 
article on systems thinking, Robert Lilienfeld, "Systems theory as 
ideology", Social Research 42.4 (Winter 1975): 637-60. We are in the 
grips of a different though related set of enthusiasms now, so the 
urgency of Lilienfeld's and others' attack on systems theory as a 
movement may seem a bit antique, but the lessons to be learned from this 
article are just as relevant now as they were in the mid 1970s. There 
are psychological, moral and political lessons, but the one that stands 
out to me is the old warning against mistaking the model for the 
modelled, i.e. uncritically internalising the model so that becomes the 
way in which the modeller unwittingly construes the world.

Put another way, it is the caution to resist "as if" becoming "is". I 
suspect that to talk about X as a "system" is already to put oneself on a 
slippery slope at the bottom of which lies a flowchart. That is, if we 
regard something, like the human body, say, as a system, much is gained 
but also much silently slips out of view.  

Lilienfeld's analysis of systems thinking stresses its qualities as an 
ideological movement. It once was "the next new thing".


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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