Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Causal texture, contextualism, contextural

In the famous 1965 Emery and Trist article, the terms “causal texture” and “contextual environment” haven’t been entirely clear to me.  With specific meanings in the systems thinking literature, looking up definitions in the dictionary generally isn’t helpful.  Diving into the history of the uses of the words provides some insight.

  • 1. Causal texture
  • 2. Contextualism and contextural
  • 3. Texture
  • 4. Causal
  • 5. Transactional environment, contextual environment
  • Appendix.  Retrospective on the 1965 article from 1997

The article presumes that the reader is familiar with the 1965 Emery and Trist article,.  The background in the Appendix provides some hints, but is more oriented as context in a history of science.

1. Causal texture

While Eric Trist (with Fred E. Emery) are generally first associated with the socio-technical systems perspective directed inside an organization, the socio-ecological systems perspective concurrently was conceived for with changes outside the organization.  Rapid changes in technology, even those not currently in use in the workplace, were a concern.

A main problem in the study of organizational change is that the environmental contexts in which organizations exist are themselves changing, at an increasing rate, and towards increasing complexity. This point, in itself, scarcely needs laboring. Nevertheless, the characteristics of organizational environments demand consideration for their own sake, if there is to be an advancement of understanding in the behavioral sciences of a great deal that is taking place under the impact of technological change, especially at the present time. [Emery and Trist 1965, p. 21]

Early systems thinking started with closed-system models in biology.  This expanded with open-system models when the “whole had to be related to their environments”.  Extending the field from biological systems to social systems called for consideration of some additional concepts.

A great deal of the thinking here has been influenced by cybernetics and information theory, though this has been used as much to extend the scope of closed-system as to improve the sophistication of open-system formulations. It was von Bertalanffy (1950) who, in terms of the general transport equation that he introduced, first fully disclosed the importance of openness or closedness to the environment as a means of distinguishing living organisms from inanimate objects. In contradistinction to physical objects, any living entity survives by importing into itself certain types of material from its environment, transforming these in accordance with its own system characteristics, and exporting other types back into the environment. By this process the organism obtains the additional energy that renders it ‘negentropic’; it becomes capable of attaining stability in a time-independent steady state — a necessary condition of adaptability to environmental variance.

Such steady states are a very different affair from the equilibrium states described in classical physics, which have far too often been taken as models for representing biological and social transactions. Equilibrium states follow the second law of thermodynamics, so that no work can be done when equilibrium is reached, whereas the openness to the environment of a steady state maintains the capacity of the organism for work, without which adaptability, and hence survival, would be impossible.

Many corollaries follow as regards the properties of open systems, such as equifinality, growth through internal elaboration, self-regulation, constancy of direction with change of position, and so on — and by no means all of these have yet been worked out. But though von Bertalanffy’s formulation enables exchange processes between the organism, or organization, and elements in its environment to be dealt with in a new perspective, it does not deal at all with those processes in the environment itself that are among the determining conditions of the exchanges. To analyze these, an additional concept is needed — the causal texture of the environment — if we may reintroduce, at a social level of analysis, a term suggested by Tolman and Brunswik (1935) and drawn from S. C. Pepper (1934) [Emery and Trist 1965, p. 21]

Ah, “causal texture”.  What a strange combination of words. For its use with a more contemporary appreciation, there’s a 2008 explanation by Ramirez, Selsky and van der Heijden.

CTT [Causal Texture Theory] deals with systems trying to survive and thrive in their environments in a sustainable way. The inside (a system) and the outside (the environment of that system) ‘co-evolve’ in the sense that systems and their environments mutually and systematically influence each other, and they proceed into the the future together (Selsky et al. 2007). System and environment both have links between variables that exist within them and links with each other. Several interacting systems, their shared environments and the links that connects them together are defined as a ‘field’.

Causal texture is an emergent property of the whole field and concerns the behaviour of all systems within it. The causal texture of a field sets conditions on how these systems and shared environments transact (Selsky et al, 2007, p. 74).  [Ramírez, Selsky, van der Heijden, 2008, pp. 18-19]

To make doubly sure that we understand these terms, let’s refer directly back to the cited Selsky, Goes, Babüroğlu article, published one year earlier.

The socioecological perspective (or ‘social ecology’) originated in Tavistock approaches to open systems theory …. and diverged from the neoclassical roots of other schools of strategy. In social ecology the unit of analysis is a shared field of interorganizational action …., such as a policy sector or social issue. Such fields are identified by tracing the complex web of interactions, multiple effects and consequences of strategic actions taken by various social actors associated with the sector or issue.

Fields consist of systems and environments. systems are comprised of functionally dissimilar actors, making them more diverse than industries or populations. Environments are conceptualized as ‘extended social field[s]… with a causal texture’ (Emery 2000:625). The causal texture is an emergent property of the whole field and affects the behaviour of all systems within it. It is produced by interactions of the social actors inhabiting the same field plus the effects of external forces acting on those acts. Thus, systems and environments coevolve.  [Selsky, Goes, Babüroğlu, 2007, pp. 73-74]

Working our tracing back to original citations in history, we discover that Edward C. Tolman was an American who completed his PhD at Harvard University to include some study time in Germany; and Egon Brunswick was born Hungarian, studied at the University of Vienna, and then migrated to U.C. Berkeley.  Tolman was educated in English, and Brunwick in German.  Their 1935 article has the note:

“This article was written during a relatively long stay of the one author, Tolman, in Vienna. … . The authors have sought throughout to bring their two sets of terminologies into correspondence”. [Tolman and Brunswick 1935, pp. 43-44]

I struggled through this article for many days.  The key excerpt is reproduced here, and I’ll attempt to unpack an understanding (for which I’m willing to be corrected)!  Tolman wrote:

Each of us has come to envisage psychology as primarily concerned with the methods of response of the organism to two characteristic features of the environment.  [Tolman and Brunswick 1935, pp. 43-44]

The first of these features lies in the fact that the environment is a causal texture (Kausalgefüge)2 in which different events are regularly dependent upon each other. And because of the presence of such causal couplings (Kausalkoppelungen), actually existing in their environments, organisms come to accept one event as a local representative (Stellvertreter) for another event. It is by the use of such acceptances or assertions of local representatives that organisms come to steer their ways through that complex network of events, stimuli and happenings, which surrounds them. By means of such local representation (Stellvertretung) the organism comes to operate in the presence of the local representative in a manner more or less appropriate to the fact of a more distant object or situation, i.e. the entity represented (das Vertretene).3

  • 2 For the term “texture” as well as for advice on various other English terms we wish to express special indebtedness to Professor S. C. Pepper. (See also 29.)
  • 3 The first modern psychologist to suggest the universal importance of this principle of “representation” — the scholastic “aliquid stat pro aliquo“—for all psychological phenomena was Karl Buhler (7). He has emphasized in particular the “sign” function of local representatives in their different forms, i.e. as “signals” for action and as “Anzichen” in reception. He has made an especially important analysis of the sign function of “symbols” in his psychology of speech (8). For another modern emphasis on the sign-function in perception and thought see Ogden and Richards (26).

The second feature of the environment to which the organism also adjusts is the fact that such causal connections are probably always to some degree equivocal (mehrdeutig). Types of local representatives are, that is, not connected in simple one-one, univocal (eindeutig) fashion, with the types of entities represented. Any one type of local representative is found to be causally connected with differing frequencies with more than one kind of entity represented and vice-versa. And it is indeed, we would assert, this very equivocality (Mehrdeutigketi) in the causal “representation”-strands in the environment which lend to the psychological activities of organisms many of their most outstanding characteristics.

It appears also that, whereas the one of us, Tolman (33), was led to emphasize these two facts of local representation and of equivocality (Mehrdeutigkeit) by a study of the relations of means-objects (Mittelgegenstände) to ends (Zielgegenstände) in the learning activities of rats, the other, Brunswik (2) was led to emphasize these same concepts as a result of an examination of the relations of stimulus-cues or signs (Reize als Anzeichen) to Gegenstände 4 as a result of a study of the relations involved in the “Konstanz”-phenomenon in human perception.  [Tolman and Brunswick 1935, pp. 44-45]

The above text was so dense, that I resorted to constructing  a concept map (with respect to Novak), using CMapTools.  Here’s my interpretation of the Tolman and Brunswick article.  (Clicking on the image will open a larger version in the browser).

Concept Map of Tolman (1935)

The diagram mostly follows the thread of the text, roughly left to right, top to bottom.  Some insight comes from jumping to the right side, and working leftward.

  • The system of interest is in the discipline of psychology, primarily concerned with the response of an organism.
  • The “real world” (in a column at the rightmost) has local events that an organism can perceive directly, as well as distant objects or situations that can’t be perceived directly.  There’s a causal coupling between the local event and the distant objects/situations that also can’t be perceived directly.
  • The organism steers its way through a causal texture, which is an environment.
    • The causal texture depends directly on a local representation (i.e. a signal) this is connected simply with the local event.  The connection has a feature of univocality — like a single speaking in a narrative mode — as there’s a one-to-one relationship with the local event.  The organism can observe the event, stimulus or happening directly.
    • The causal texture accepts or asserts a local representative (signal) for a distant event that it can’t observe directly.  Organisms are not omnipresent, e.g. they can’t have visibility to everything happening in the world.
  • There’s equivocality — ambiguity, with two or more voices in conflict over meaning — both about the causal coupling, and the associated distant objects or situations.  The organism recognizes the mediation of signals (i.e. not observing directly), and adjusts responses accordingly.

Thus, causal texture gives us subjective, perceptual distance into parts of the environment that include (i) events closer and directly observable by an organism; and (ii) events more distant and subject to representations (potentially resulting in a broken telephone game).

To check our understanding, one path is to appreciate the reductive terms of “texture” and “causal” separately, to make sense of word uses close to our domain. As a non-linear way to appreciate “contextual”, we might pass first through a waypoint on “contextural”.

2. Contexturalism and contextural

In a interview of colleagues after Trist’s passing, there’s a reference to the contextualism of S. C. Pepper:

Gilmore:  I think there are too far too few places that really put things together in the same way Eric did.  I remember him saying, “I am a contextualist,” citing S. C. Pepper, and the way he could be so incredibly focused on the work group and technology issues but always have that wider context in mind.  He could be informed by psycho-dynamic insights yet know that it was not in his contract with that particular group to work at that level.  But he could then translate those insights into a strategy that did make sense to the people that he was connected to and working with.  [Carvajal, Gilmore et. al. 1994, p. 32]

Our view of causal texture may be expanded by considering context through the word contextural, rather than the presumptive suffix that leads to contextual.  The term “contextural” is sufficiently obscure to be cited as a mistake in the Oxford English Dictionary of American Usage and Style.  If we are more scholarly to go to the more venerable British dictionary, we find ..

contextural, adj

Etymology: < contexture n. + -al suffix1.
 Of or pertaining to the contexture or context.

1666 J. Smith Γηροκομία Βασιλικὴ (1676) 182 The Contextural expressions are of the self-same nature.  [OED second edition (1989)]

We can then move from the adjective to the noun for a more complete entry (with a word frequency, in current use, rated a 3 out of 8).  There is a variety of meanings — from the 1600s and 1700s! — that convey similar meaning.

contexture, n

Etymology: < French contexture (Montaigne, 1572–80), = Italian contestura (Florio), probably representing a medieval Latin *contextūra , < context– participial stem of contexĕre : compare Latin textūra texture n. Very common in 17th cent.; now rare.


a. The action or process of weaving together or intertwining; the fact of being woven together; the manner in which this is done, texture.  [….]


a. transferred. The linking together of materials or elements, so as to form a connected structure (natural or artificial); the manner in which the parts of a thing are thus united.  […]

1662 E. Stillingfleet Origines Sacræ iii. ii. §14 Without this there cannot be imagined any concourse of Atoms at all, much less any such contexture of bodyes out of them.  [….]

b. figurative of things non-material.

1672 A. Marvell Rehearsal Transpros’d i. 29 The Roman Church, having by a regular Contexture of continued Policy..interwoven itself with the Secular Interest. [….]

3. The structure, composition, or texture of anything made up by the combination of elements. Now chiefly figurative from 1.  [….]

1749 H. Fielding Tom Jones VI. xvi. vii. 59 Women are of a nice Contexture, and our Spirits when disordered are not to be recomposed in a Moment.  [….]

4.  That which is put together or constructed by the intertwining of parts.

a. quasi-concrete. A mass of things interwoven together.  [….]

1667 Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 2 491 The Corpus Callosum is nothing but a Contexture of small Fibres.  [….]

b. An interwoven structure, a fabric.  [….]

1664 H. Power Exper. Philos. i. 17 How many thousand parts of Matter must go to make up this heterogeneous Contexture? [….]


a. The weaving together of words, sentences, etc. in connected composition; the construction or composition of a writing as consisting of connected and coherent members.  […]

b. The connected structure or ‘body’ of a literary composition; a connected passage or composition.

c. = context n. 4.  [OED second edition (1989)]

The first four definitions relate to weaving in material and immaterial forms.  Only the fifth definition relates to writing or literary composition … but that’s where the confusion comes in.  A common interpretation associates context with text (as in language), rather than with texture (as with weaving).

Let’s now break out the idea of texture, separate from the causal.

3. Texture

Stephen C. Pepper, in 1934, was a professor of aesthetics at Berkeley. He would later chair the art department, and then the philosophy department.  At the publication of this 1934 review of Tolman’s purposive behaviorism, Pepper and Tolman would have been in the same department.  Egon Brunswik arrived in Berkeley in 1935.

The article by Pepper signalled a turn in psychology from mechanisms to organisms.  This research foreshadows an emerging shift in the systems sciences (e.g. Ludwig von Bertalanffy visited mathematical biologist Nicolas Rachevsky in Chicago in 1937) by a few years.  Texture should be seen not as part of the mechanistic perspective, but instead part of an organismic approach.

The psychology of the last two centuries has, with few deviations, been developed under the philosophic categories of mechanistic naturalism.   [….]  They have been hypotheses under a single categorial mode of interpretation. Lately this mode of interpretation itself has been subject to strain from various quarters. The explosion may be said to have occurred with the Gestalt psychologists. But, to my knowledge, Tolman’s ‘Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men’ is the first work that has gathered up the fragments and put them together in a new framework.

To one immersed in the present philosophical stream of contextualism, Tolman’s work appears like an unexpected confirmation.  [Pepper, 1934, pp. 109]

While there’s no denial of the world having mechanistic aspects, are view may be extended by recognizing some concepts omitted, and adding categories for contextualistic concepts.

Let me begin by briefly exhibiting the contrast between mechanism and contextualism.

The main categories of mechanism are:

  • first, a spatio-temporal field;
  • second, primary qualities qualifying locations in that field;
  • third, natural laws determining the configurations of locations qualified by primary qualities;
  • fourth, secondary qualities;
  • fifth, laws determining the correlations of secondary qualities with configurations of primary qualities; and,
  • sixth, laws determining the sequences of secondary qualities.

In this simple mechanistic interpretation the natural sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, are considered as dealing with the first three categories only. The secondary qualities appear as an unnecessary encumbrance upon the universe, and, if acknowledged, are relegated to the somewhat dubious science of introspective psychology and the ‘speculations’ of philosophy. They may be ignored, however, or even denied after the manner of J. B. Watson, in which case the last three categories drop out of the picture, and psychology becomes a somewhat inconspicuous branch of biology, specifically a branch of physiology. Psychology so considered is physiological behaviorism.   [Pepper, 1934, pp. 110, editorial paragraphing added]

In addition to the physics dominated with parts in aggregate of time sequence and spatial position, other sciences can work above the atomic modes of description.

The main categories of contextualism are:

  • (1) texture,
  • (2) in an environment of other textures,
  • (3) analyzable into strands which extend into environmental textures, and
  • (4) which have references (sense of direction) to or from environmental textures or
  • (5) towards consummations yet to come, or
    (6) from initiations gone by. The
  • (7) quality of a texture is a
  • (8) fusion of its strands and there is no quality more fundamental than this felt or observed quality of the total texture.

From these categories many consequences follow. But I shall only point out those which exhibit a marked contrast with features of a mechanism.

First, these categories imply a denial of the legitimacy of atomism. The most elementary thing, in the sense of that behind or beneath which you cannot go, is a texture.

  • A texture by its very nature is a complex whole having what are technically called internal relations.  That is to say, the parts of the whole can be adequately described only as parts of the whole. The character of the whole enters into its parts, and unless the function of a part in the whole is exhibited in the description of the part, the part is no longer a part of that whole; it is a part of some other whole.
  • The term ‘strand’ suggests this condition. A strand is relative to a texture. If you follow a strand out of its original texture, thinking thereby to find it isolated from all textures, you deceive yourself; for you will only discover that the strand has entered into a new texture with reference to which it has a new function, and consequently, according to the seventh category, a new quality. [Pepper, 1934, pp. 111-112, editorial paragraphing added]

[A paragraph where Pepper gives an example of pitch in a musical scale is omitted here, in the interest of brevity. We’ll continue with the second and third category.]

What then do we do, when we think we analyze a whole? The answer to this will be our second point. What we actually do is to trace the strands of the given texture into some other texture or set of textures which have proved to be convenient instruments of control. A texture employed as an instrument of control in this manner may be called a schematic texture, or simply a scheme. A musical scale is a good example of a scheme. [….]

  • A musician with the scheme of a musical score before him can follow the references there suggested to the keys of a pianoforte keyboard and produce a texture of rich quality. An engineer following the references of physical formulae does the same thing in the construction of an aeroplane.
  • But no contextualist would dream of identifying the texture of the musical score with the texture of the music or of thinking that because the notes of the musical score were little dots with hard outlines around them, therefore the tones of the music must have a similar nature; and no contextualist would think of identifying the structure of physical formulae with the structure of an aeroplane.

Thirdly, one should notice that there is no ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ in contextualism such as develops in mechanisms from the distinction between secondary and primary qualities and the consequent distinctions between mind and matter.

  • There are different textures, and the character or quality of one texture is different from that of another, but the strands of one texture can be followed into another. Textures are freely communicating, and all is above board.
  • Perception is not an ‘inner’ idea corresponding in some puzzling way with an ‘outer’ object; it is a traceable relation of strands in a texture.
  • Desire is not an ‘inner’ idea qualified by an ‘inner’ feeling and attaching itself to an ‘inner’ will, which in some manner is projected into ‘outer’ motions directed upon an ‘outer’ object. Desire is a texture of strands with references which can be followed to a terminus producing quiescence or satisfaction.
  • The issue between introspectionism and behaviorism, as this issue was stated a decade ago, vanishes. [Pepper, 1934, pp. 112-114, editorial paragraphing added]

The idea of texture, published by Pepper here in the 1934 article and the 1942 World Hypothesis book — and by Emery & Trist in 1965 — might lead to a shallow reviewer to prematurely conclude obsolescence in the 21st century.  However, through continuing development by J.J. Gibson in the 1970s, and Tim Ingold in the 2000s, there’s new thinking.  A 2019 article by Eduardo de la Fuente “proposes the social sciences consider texture — rather than text — as the important legacy of the ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences.”

My argument is that the lasting importance of a cultural social science may well reside in the notion of texture and in the ontological and practical significance to social life of textural qualities. The concept of texture captures important ‘temporal’ and ‘spatial’, as well as ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ dimensions, of how the world is shaped and sensed. Arguably, there is a textural sensibility at play in a range of contemporary approaches attempting to rethink the entanglements of ‘the cultural’ and ‘the social’. It is evident in the turn to concepts such as ‘affordances’ (Acord & DeNora, 2008; Gibson, 1979) and the ‘non-representational’ (Lorimer, 2005; Thrift, 2008a), as well as in the growing emphasis on seeing ‘Everyday life [a]s a mix of taken-for-granted realities, habit, and routine, as well as impulse, novelty, and vivaciousness’ (Vannini, 2015, p. 320).

My argument is organized as follows.

  • First, I begin by outlining how the concept of texture was present from the beginning of the cultural turn – even if in tension with the concept of text.
  • Second, I will suggest that attitudes towards phenomena such as style, decoration and aesthetics have not been well served by the existence of depth ontologies.
  • Third, I examine the rise of a type of social and cultural analysis which has self-consciously labelled itself ‘surface studies’ and connect it to
    • (a) a revival of interest in ornament,
    • (b) a focus on the materialities of ‘glamour’ and ‘glossiness’ and
    • (c) the writings of urbanists and geographers who have recently emphasized the ‘atmospheric’ and other textural qualities of the city.
  • Fourth, I survey attempts to incorporate textural modes of theorizing into sociology, paying particular attention to the essays on everyday objects and spaces of Georg Simmel and the ‘iconic turn’ within the Yale School of Cultural Sociology.
  • In the conclusion, I summarize the major implications of a textural sociology in terms of it offering a redefinition of the qualitative which exists beyond subject/object dualisms.  [de la Fuente 2019, p. 553, editorial paragraphing added]

Philosophically, texture as described by Pepper is related to the contextualism, John Dewy and Henri Bergson.

Most organizational scholars who have embraced the concept of texture cite the importance of mid-20th-century philosopher Stephen C. Pepper (1942/1966) to textural modes of thought (Cooper & Fox, 1990; Strati, 2000). The latter claims texture is linked to the philosophical worldview of contextualism. Derived from pragmatists such as John Dewey and vitalists such as Henri Bergson, one of contextualism’s central characteristics is a preference for active descriptions of the world:

[Contextualism] is doing, and enduring, and enjoying: making a boat, running a race, laughing at a joke, persuading an assembly, unravelling a mystery, solving a problem, removing an obstacle, exploring a country, communicating with a friend, creating a poem, re-creating a poem. These acts or events are all intrinsically complex, composed of interconnected activities with continuously changing patterns. They are like incidents in the plot of a novel or drama. They are literally the incidents of life. (Pepper, 1942/1966, pp. 232–233)

Pepper’s contextualism involves, as Teemu Paavolainen (2015, p. 14) points out,

‘a process ontology of constant novelty and change’, and ‘events’ are its central unit of analysis. The key terms in this process ontology are quality and texture where the ‘quality of a given event is its intuited wholeness or character’ and its ‘texture is the details and relations which make up that character or quality’ (Pepper, 1942/1966, pp. 238–244).

Amongst contemporary social science thinkers, anthropologist Tim Ingold comes closest to Pepper in recognizing that social life represents a delicate web of mutually supportive threads. In books such as Being Alive, Ingold (2011, p. 14) proposes ‘to bring anthropology back to life’ by focusing on what he terms the knotting and weaving that comprise the ‘textures of the world’. He lays out the following meta-theoretical position:

‘in a world where things are continually coming into being through processes of growth and movement – that is, in a world of life – knotting is the fundamental principle of coherence’ (Ingold, 2015, p. 14).

Ingold (2011, p. 18) asks with respect to a theory of social life:

‘What, then, would a world be like that is knotted rather than assembled, enchained or contained?’ Such a theory of social life should have as its central focus:

  • (1) ‘the flows and growth patterns of materials’;
  • (2) ‘bodily movement and gesture’;
  • (3) ‘sensory perception, especially touch and hearing’; and
  • (4) ‘human relationships and the sentiment that infuses them’ (Ingold, 2011, p. 18; emphasis in the original).

Thus, as we move from text to texture we also encounter a different model of the social scientist. Rather than the translator, the exegete, or the iconographer, the image of the cultural analyst and research practitioner is more likely to be that of the ‘collaborator’, ‘curator’, ‘carer’ and/or ‘correspondent’ (Ingold, 2016; see also Crang, 2010).  [de la Fuente 2019, p. 555-556, editorial paragraphing added]

So, this is the case for considering context as related to texture, rather than related to text.  Let’s shift to looking at “causal”.

4. Causal

Eric Trist was influenced by Kurt Lewin, extending the work into action in social relationships, recalled his longtime colleague, Fred Emery:

Trist saw human life as coming into existence and being lived in social relationships. Variations in the biological and sociological conditions attending birth and development were seen as manifesting themselves in these relationships, or not at all.  In this starting point Trist concurred with Lewin in rejecting explanations that invoked Aristotelean entelechies. He, at the  same time, escaped from Lewin’s neo-Kantian bind to a solipsistic “life space” where the valencies of objects could only be derived from the states of the person.  In social relationships, the partners mutually determine the relation and have the same epistemological status; even if one is a rambunctious infant helping its parent grow up.

Trist did not see these social relations as coming in separate packages that could be isolated and studied, each in its own right.  He saw these relations as clustered in more or less clearly defined social roles that an individual was pressured to seek, accommodate to, or forced to try and change.  These roles connect the individual, more or less clearly, more or less ambiguously, to institutional and social structures that may themselves be more or less integrated, or more or less riven by contradictions. [Emery 1993, p. 1173]

What are entelechies?  Looking up in the encyclopedia of systems and cybernetics helps.

A supposed vital force driving a living system toward self-fulfillment.

Originally, for ARISTOTLE, entelechy was the mode of being of the completely realized structure of something, i.e. the result of the actualization of its potentialities.

This quite abstract notion was re-introduced as a kind of conceptual crutch by H. DRIESCH, unable to otherways understand some biological experiments, as for instance that a sea urchin egg, segmented in two parts, was able to produce two perfectly formed urchins.

DRIESCH vitalism was never admitted by many biologists and a protracted debate between vitalists and mechanicists ensued. Finally, it became apparent to L. von BERTALANFFY and J. WOODGER, creators of organismic biology, that the conceptual deficit corresponded to our lack of good models of organized complexity.

Overtones of Aristotle’s entelechy seem perceptible also in some very recent physical theories, as D. BOHM’s implicate order, and the concept of decoherence in microphysics, and Prigogine’s emergence through dissipative structuration.

In metaphorical terms the “real” world is starting to appear somewhat similar to the fading smile of Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire cat. In the same vein, F. CAPRA refers himself to Goethe: “Each creature is but a patterned gradation (Schaffierung) of one great harmonious whole “(1997, p. 21)

Capra also notes further on that the classical aristotelian concept of entelechy “as a process of self-regulation”, was “postulated by DRIESCH (as) a separate entity, acting on the physical system without being part of it” (ibid, p. 26) This typically mechanistic view, combined with the need for a “deus ex-machina”was later on rejected by organismic biology, which somehow went back to Aristotle’s concept.  [François 2004, pp. 197-198]

Trist concurred with Lewin rejecting Aristotle’s problems with dynamics in physics, siding with Galileo as a foundation for a science of psychology.  The reference is way too deep to unpack, so I’ll settle for a footnote that contains a table in Trist’s 1931 article.

20 The contrast between Aristotelian and Galileian views of lawfulness and the difference in their methods may be briefly tabulated as follows:

For Aristotle For Galileo
1. The regular is lawful lawful
The frequent is lawful lawful
The individual case is chance lawful
2. Criteria of
lawfulness are
regularity not required
3. That which is common to the historically
occurring cases is
an expression of the nature of the thing an accident, only “historically” conditioned

[Lewin 1931, p162]

In the Emery and Trist 1965, remember that L11, L12, L21, L22 are labelled as lawful relations!

What about escaping Lewin’s neo-Kantian bind?  This leads to the Emery’s 1963 meetings, for which a summary was given to Frans van Eijnatten in a personal communication.

In the early fifties, indeed Emery did help in the breaking of new ground by developing a methodology of directive correlation. Because of the centrality of this epistemological pioneering work, we quote Emery’s argument at full length here:

‘There was a further epistemological problem inherent in the position I had taken. This was the problem of the ‘openness’ of systems (what Pepper, following Peirce, terms dispersiveness vs integratedness). I was made aware of this by Bertalanffy’s 1950 article in Science. I brought it to the attention of the Tavvy when I was there on the Bolsover experiment 1951-2. The solution of this problem was in the ‘Progress in conceptualization’ papers, 1963, and made public in the summer of 64. This was the conceptual leap from Bertalanffy’s:

  • L11 (L12, L21) .. ?,
  • to L11 (L12, L21) L22.

That is a leap that mosts o-called systems theorists have still not been able to make. A leap they cannot make because it is academically unacceptable to deny Kantianism and accept that the L22 can be known for what it is. However, it is only thus one can get from Formism, Organicism or crude forms of inter-actionism to the genuine contextualist position of trans-actionalism; acknowledging that Ll1 and L22 are complementary, mutually determining. Neither can be adequately characterized without characterizing the other. A system and, particularly, the system principle, cannot be characterized without characterizing what is environment for it. Conversely, an environment cannot be characterized without specifying what sort of systems it is an environment for. (Which gives some idea of how far the concept of environment is from physics textbooks).  [Emery 1990, personal communication]

[van Eijnatten 1991, p. 42]

We’re getting into issues in the systems sciences, about features that are and are not isomorphic across domains (i.e. physics, chemistry, psychology, sociology). In the “Introduction to Volume 3” in 1997, Emery referred to an article by Robert Rosen that was critical of a 1977 book on Self-Organization in Nonequilibrium Systems by Grégoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1977, ISSS president 1988).

I must say that I do not find the authors’ arguments completely persuasive. For all its apparent novelty, the paradigm of “dissipative structures” has a conservative, and even archaic, quality to it. In some way, it seems to be an attempt to encompass biology within the confines of 19th century thermodynamics, appropriately modified and extended. It strikes me as a physicist’s endeavor to make himself comfortable in the company of developing and evolving systems, which behave so differently from the systems from which thermodynamics itself originally sprang. As noted above, the entire development treats the closed isolated system as somehow primary; open systems are only closed systems which are “constrained”. A more radical viewpoint would be to treat open systems as primary; to forget about closed systems (i.e. Boltzmann-Gibbs thermodynamics) altogether, or treat them as open systems which are constrained. This is not merely a semantic matter; the choice made here colors and permeates one’s entire approach to science. To this reviewer, there is a kind of artificiality involved in casting the entire discussion in terms of Boltzmann entropy and equilibrium, as is evidenced by the fact that the entire book could have been written (and indeed, written much more concisely) without ever mentioning either concept.

The adoption of the viewpoint taken in the present volume is thus not without its costs. As far as chemical reaction-diffusion systems are concerned, these costs manifest themselves initially in an increasingly cumbersome notation and murky terminology. [….] And when one attempts to generalize; to consider organization and self-organization in terms other than spatial order, I believe that the costs become too heavy to bear. It is here that the fundamental limitations of the paradigm become fully apparent.

The above reflections are, of course, only intended to supply a bit of conceptual perspective to the approach taken by the authors. They are not intended to impeach the importance of the book, nor of the problems with which it deals; as noted above, these are some of the basic prob-!ems of contemporary science. I urge that everyone interested in system theory should read the book carefully.  [Rosen 1978, pp. 268-269]

Perhaps instead of causality, we should be considering entailment.  Entailment is strong in Robert Rosen’s work.  Since I didn’t understand, I asked daughter Judith Rosen about what it meant, in 2016.

“Entails” can be a synonym for “could lead to”. Entailment and causality are linked concepts, the difference being that causality is “what does happen” and entailment refers to “what COULD happen”. Nothing can happen that isn’t entailed. That’s the bottom line. That’s the stuff of “miracle” and paradox and supernatural magic… If something is deemed to be impossible and it happens then the model that predicted it was impossible is at fault. Cuz obviously if it happens in the universe, it’s entailed by the universe and is not supernatural at all; it’s “natural”.

More formally, John Kineman has been developing R-theory, and contributed a closing chapter to the revised 2012 edition of Anticipatory Systems, originally published by Robert Rosen in 1985.

Rosen applied the concept of a relation between nature and models of nature as a central element of his arguments about complexity and anticipation. There were two levels of that application.

First there was a description of science itself as a program to understand nature by representing it in surrogate (or analogous) systems with similar entailments. In such an exercise scientists attempt to get a model of the system’s entailments to commute with nature, or at least to get a simulation to commute with certain behaviors.

The important question for science, then, is to what degree can one system represent another system? In distinguishing approaches in science that involve more complex relational thinking from those that reduce nature to mechanisms, Rosen made the bold assertion that scientific models should themselves be entailed, that is organized, in the same way that we believe nature is organized.

Implicitly that means considering all possible causes. When science does not do that, for example when it focuses only on efficient and material causes (mechanisms), it is actually not applying a model at all in Rosen’s terms, but a simulation.

Most of current science is thus based on simulation. However, the importance of this observation goes beyond mere labeling. By this criterion, a true model must then be a natural system; only then can it be said to be fully entailed like nature. Without delving into the philosophical arguments surrounding this issue, which are extensive, we can understand the depth of Rosen’s theory best in this concept of a model. If a modeling relation involves all the known causes then nature must be describable in terms of modeling relations. A system of analysis must therefore exist in which nature is seen to comprise nothing but modeling relations.  [Kineman 2012, pp. 413, editorial paragraphing added]

In a more practical sense, the issue may be one of ability of human beings to shape their futures, in the face of a changing environment. Rafael Ramirez writes about ongoing work now labelled as Causal Texture Theory:

Emery and Trist’s original statement (in 1965) concerning the causal textures of the environment may be seen as a high-level descriptive theory of environmental evolution (à la Toynbee, Darwin or Marx). However, they recognized from the beginning that it offered important direct implications for practice in the world.  [….]

We believe that reading causal textures as a macro evolutionary theory alone would be incomplete and inaccurate for several reasons.

  • First, CTT [Causal Texture Theory] ascribes to ‘strategic choice’ rather than determinism in social (including business) affairs; that is, actors are able to choose among possible responses to their environmental conditions and such choices are consequential.
  • Second, as a part of open-systems theory and social ecology, CTT is underpinned by the notion that systems and their environments co-evolve; that is, actions by systems and their members can have the effect of changing the basic contours of environments; systems must then adapt to those changed contours.
  • Third, CTT is grounded deeply in human practice and ascribes to a deliberately normative stance toward an ‘improved future’ for humankind.
  • Finally, the ‘variant” on the original CTT advanced by McCann and Selsky (1984) explicitly introduces the perceptions by actors of their environment as a key contingency in adaptation. That introduces the suble link between the objective and the perceived environment that scenario work helps to explore as part of developing and strengthening adaptive behaviour.  [Ramírez, van der Heijden, Selsky, 2008, p. 8, editorial paragraphing added]

The distinctions between causality and entailment can be as difficult as the challenges between telelogy and teleonomy.  (Those are discussed in Open Innovation Learning, section 9.6 “Philosophy of alternative stable states: teleonomy meets teleology”)

5. Transactional environment, contextual environment

If weren’t already confused by what is the “contextual”, we might try to straighten out what it isn’t.  In this respect, Ramirez provides some help looking from 2008 back to the 1965 Causal Textures article.

In Emery and Trist terms, as expressed in the 1965 paper, the L22 links are relevant to all systems in a field.  For any system in this field, the links are perceived as the wiser context in which it finds itself.  This initially caused a degree of confusion as it was less than clear how to distinguish L22 from L21 links.

This dilemma was subsequently (post-1965) resolved by the definition of the transactional and contextual environments.

Each system (organization) in the field has its own competitive and collaborative operations and relations with others, which are defined as the L21 and L12 links. This is the transactional environment, defined by the actions of the actors in it. Together these transactions in aggregate become part of the contextual environment.

The latter is defined by the relevant L22 links, expressed not as agent actions but in terms of macrofactors. If an individual actor can influence the situation, she is in the transactional environment defined by L21 and L12 links. If an individual actor is looking at macro-phenomena that she cannot influence, she is looking at the contextual environment, defined by 122 links. [Ramírez, Selsky, van der Heijden, 2008, pp. 21]

In systems thinking, we have many systems, wholes amongst wholes.  In human groups or teams, we can identify a primary system of interest.  That primary system of interest sets a boundary in the field, where the environment is outside.  The transactional environment therefore includes the systems of influence.  The contextual environment includes textures that might interact with other textures, beyond the systems of influence in our transactional environment.

Now, that word “transactional” should be parsed, as trans + action, which means that it’s working not inside the system of interest, but between the system of interest and its systems of influence.  If we remember that this systems operate not only in time, but also in space, we can see this as co-responsive movement (as described in Open Innovation Learning, section 9.2), and as human correspondence [Ingold 2017].

Appendix: Retrospective on the 1965 article from 1997

Volume 3 of the Tavistock Anthology was published in 1997, completed by Fred Emery after the passing of Eric Trist (who was chief editor of the first two volumes). So while there’s no substitute for reading Emery and Trist (1965) article directly, reflections by Fred Emery some 30 years later provide a helpful summary, as well as perspective on alternative views.  The socio-ecological systems perspective required collaboration over a long period.

The Tavistock Institute’s socio-ecological perspective did not emerge as an almost solitary product of genius as did the socio-technical perspective, which seemed to emerge almost full grown with the case study that Trist and Bamforth (1951/Voi. II) published in Human Relations.  [….]

The socio-ecological perspective was announced publicly in a paper that Trist and I published in Human Relations (1965a/Vol.lll), “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” That was not born from a single case study, a single mind in a single year. It was born of a series of overlapping case studies, took five years to birth and had the attention of many midwives, not least of whom was the “invisible college” of 10 to 12 European social scientists that Jaap Kookebaaker and Hans van Beinum had brought into existence in 1962. The first draft of the paper was prepared for this group and debated over three two- to three-day meetings (Emery, 1963).  [Emery 1997, p. 36-37]

I would to read that (Emery, 1963) “Second Progress Report on Conceptualisation”, but will have to leave it to someone in London to look at “Tavistock Institute Document T125” in the Wellcome Archives.

Emery continues with the history of development the Tavistock Institute’s socio-ecological perspective, tracking with the development of the systems sciences through von Bertalanffy, Angyal, Prigogine to eventually align with Robert Rosen.

From 1959 through the early 1960s and leading up to our “causal texture” paper, the Institute was engaged with some very large British organizations in serious efforts to define new and viable missions in international markets such as aeroengines, agriculture and consumer goods. It was these challenges that led us to develop the method of search conferences (M. Emery, Vol. III). We found also that our conceptual apparatus was not up to dealing with these tasks. It was a challenge to develop further our notions of open systems thinking.

In 1952 the Institute had welcomed von Bertalanffy’s (1950) concept of open systems. Up to then the Institute’s main concerns had been with intra-organizational problems and we had blithely gone along with the closed system thinking implicit in even the best of the social theorists (Emery and Trist, 1960/1969). Our concerns had moved to problems of labor turnover and socio-technical systems. We were getting theoretically bogged down in how to represent the permeability/frigidity of boundaries. Von Bertalanffy’s concept replaced the boundary problem with the graspable, and much more measurable, transport equation deriving from the inputs and outputs between a system and its environment.

The notion of boundary was shifted from a structural concept to a functional process in keeping with our awareness of Angyal’s (1941, Chapter 4) strictures. At the time this seemed a big step. For once, we could start putting numbers on the task environment and measure significant covariations. By task environment we understood those directly related to the system as customers, clients or those that supplied labor, goods and services, or laid down the laws.

However, this left in place an important constraint that we did not recognize at the time. Once inputs and outputs had been identified over a period of time, for that period at least, we could treat the system-plus-task environment as a closed system (Herbst, 1962). So-called general systems theory did just that, and any difference of the kind that some sought between classical analysis and a synthesizing systems theory became simply a matter of verbiage. Empirically defining inputs and outputs for a finite period of time did not establish any theoretical links between system and environmental variables. Von Bertalanffy effectively wrote off the environment at large as random-and therefore unknowable. Being unknowable, it could be written out of our scientific theories, or treated as a valueless constant.

Of course, this was an intellectually comfortable position. Along with the traditional closed systems thinkers in the social sciences, we could pride ourselves on following the “hard” sciences in isolating our unit of study. We could even hope eventually to represent that unit by a set of linear differential equations (Herbst, 1962)! Both in method and in logic we, in the social sciences, were all on the path to becoming respected as “genuine” scientists.

Years later many social scientists were to be captured by Ilya Prigogine, as we had been captured by von Bertalanffy. Prigogine also defined the environment as random vis à vis the system, but added the sophisticated touch that within this randomness there could occur “large random fluctuations.” A system exposed to a large random fluctuation could evolve in unpredictable ways. This postulate of a second order of randomness is no basis for a social ecology. The weight of evidence seems to favor Rosen’s (1978) judgment that “for all its apparent novelty the paradigm of ‘dissipative structures’ has a conservative, and even archaic, quality to it . . . the entire development treats the closed isolated system as somehow primary” (p. 269). In the analysis of closed systems, concepts could be used that referred only to the properties of those systems and one could expect to use the ceteris paribus clause to develop mathematical models or apply the grand logics based on abstract universals (Emery, 1993/Vol. III).

This is where we were at in the late 1950s with von Bertalanffy’s concept of open systems. But we were dealing with cases where the broader environment — the customers, labor force, legislators etc. — was developing and changing the task environments. These broader environmental changes were acting to change the input/output equations as much as, if not sometimes more than, the systems themselves.

More than that, it was possible to trace through these broad environmental changes and they appeared as knowable and as lawful as the changes occurring with systems or between systems and their dedicated task environments.  [Emery 1997, p. 37-38, editorial paragraphing added]

This brings us to a concise summary of “The Causal Texture or Organizational Environments”, specifying with “lawful relations”.

We gradually realized that if we were usefully to contribute to the problems that faced the cases mentioned above we had to extend our theoretical frame- work. In particular, we had to discard the assumption that systems or individuals could not know their environments and the unipolar focus on the system, or individual as system. In a positive sense we had to theorize about the evolution of the environment and the consequences of this evolution for the constituent systems.

Theoretically, these steps in the development of the unit of study with which we were concerned can be formally represented as follows:

a) L11 where L represents lawful relations and 11 represents parts within the same system
b) L11 L12 L21 where 12 is output to the environment and 21 is input to the system
c) L11 L12 L22 L21 where L22 is the environment

The environment represented by L22 is not the universe of the physical scientist.

  • An environmental feature that does not enter significantly into an L21 relation is not an environment for that particular system or class of systems.
  • Conversely, a system that cannot form significant L12 relations is out of place and will not survive.
  • It is the coexistence of L12 and L21 relations that defines the bipolarity essential to a socio-ecological perspective.

When these relations are identifiable, we can start to ask questions about the coevolution of systems and their environments. However, the concepts that represent the properties of these relations have to have measurable references in both systems. Isidor Chein (1954) had already spelled out the dimensions of the L12 and L21 relations to define what he terms “the geo-behavioral or objective-behavioral environment” (p. 118). He explicitly put to one side the problems of defining L22 — “this may be left to fellow workers in other disciplines.”

For our analysis of the changing causal textures of organizational environments we chose Chein’s dimensions of goals and noxiants. These dimensions encapsulate the concept of motivation and the question of the sufficient conditions of behavior. This theoretical choice made it possible for us to make the main point of our version of socio-ecology; namely, that these conditions are in continuous flux between the individual and the social field. Sometimes the individual is freely choosing goals, purposes or ideals and the means to pursue them. At other times individuals can be seen to choose means and ends because the social fabric has left them little choice. Either way it is the individual in the social field that is choosing.

At the same time — and this has been the prime difficuIty — a different logic is required. The system and its environment have their own identities but are mutually determinative and hence are changing each other’s identity. The facts of this change, and the direction of change, are critical to the course of their coevolution. Thus neither the system nor its environment can be represented by abstract, unchanging universals. A concrete logic is required that proceeds from material universals. Material universals do not require the total identity of class members. For our purposes we relied heavily on the concrete logic of organizations that Feibleman and Friend (1945) had formulated and Sommerhoff’s (1950; 1969) mathematical model of the directive correlation of coupled systems. Sommerhoff was explicitly dealing only with goal-seeking systems — the system environment relation for living systems in general. It was, for us, a significant confirmation of Heider’s (1930/1959) claim that “a function is called purposeful if it can be meaningfully referred to two different systems.” We never felt, in formulating the socio-ecological perspective, that we were sociologizing psychology. On the contrary, we felt that we were creating a universe of scientific discourse in which considerations of human motivation could be raised above the belly button to the pursuit of purposes and ideals.  [Emery 1997, p. 38-40, editorial paragraphing added]

The article continues on the opposition initially received on the paradigm of socio-ecology.  Rifts with the Lewin community resulted in changes in the editorial policy of Human Relations.


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de la Fuente, Eduardo. 2019. “After the Cultural Turn: For a Textural Sociology.” The Sociological Review 67 (3): 552–67.

Emery, Fred E., and Eric L. Trist. 1965. “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human Relations 18 (1): 21–32. Anthology (1997) preprint at .

Emery, Fred. 1993. “An Appreciation: Eric Landsdown Trist (1909-1993).” Human Relations 46 (10): 1171–1176.

Emery, Fred E. 1997. “Introduction to Volume III.” In The Social Engagement of Social Science: The Socio-Ecological Perspective, edited by Eric L. Trist, Frederick Edmund Emery, and Hugh Murray, 3:36–46. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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