Philosopher, Partner at Wemean
Learning simplicity again
To stop seeing everything through the prism of complexity: that is without doubt the most difficult thing that we must learn to do again. It is the most difficult because the paradigm of ‘complex thought’ (Edgar Morin1) has taken over. Our everyday semantics is evidence enough of this: all is ‘systemic’, ‘hybrid’, holistic’ or ‘fluid’. No matter where we look, the ‘VUCA’ world (for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous2) stretches as far as the eye can see.
Yet, applied to every situation, this complexity dogma actually makes us lose understanding, potential for action and responsibility. First, we lose understanding because it forces on us a baroque representation of the world where everything is entangled, where the part is in the whole but the whole is also in the part3, and where the causes of an event are indeterminable and subject to the retroactive effects of their own consequences4. Referring the search for truth to a reductive and mutilating approach to reality, it also encourages the equivalence of opinions and accentuates the shortcomings of the post-truth era5.
Second, we lose potential for action because from the moment everything becomes complex, how can we not be consumed with panic and paralysis? Where should we start if, as soon as we touch just one thread of the fabric of reality, the whole spool risks becoming even more entangled? Our inaction in the face of climate change derives in part from this representation of the problem as something of endless complexity and from the idea that the slightest attempt to do something about it would raise other issues that are even worse. The fable of the butterfly’s wings in Brazil that generates a hurricane at the other end of the world leads to our inertia and impuissance. Yet ‘the secret to action is to get started’6, as the philosopher Alain put it.
‘It’s complicated’ therefore becomes an excuse not to act. Whilst the state of the world requires us to commit to action now more than ever, today we are seeing a great disengagement, visible in both the civic and corporate worlds. Referring to effects of the system, the complexity dogma takes away individual responsibility. Learning to think, act and live with simplicity appears more urgent than ever. But the path is not easy. As the minimalist architect John Pawson put it: ‘Simplicity is actually very difficult to achieve. It depends on care, thought, knowledge and patience.’7 Let us add ‘courage’ to this list of ingredients, the courage to question a triumphant representation of reality that may well be one of our great contemporary ideologies.
1 Published in 1990, the book Introduction à la pensée complexe [Introduction to complex
thought] by Edgar Morin presents the main principles of complex thought.
2 The acronym VUCA was created by the US army in the 1990s.
3 Edgar Morin call this idea the ‘holographic principle’.
4 This is what Morin calls the ‘recursive principle’.
5 This is a possible interpretation of another principle of complex thought, the ‘dialogical principle’.
6 Alain, translated from the French ‘Le secret de l’action, c’est de s’y mettre.’
7 The book Minimum by John Pawson was first published in 2006.