In attempting to give an initial outline of a philosophy of glimpses it is useful to begin with an image to help sketch out some of the thinking which underpins this idea. Armoire Surréaliste (below) is a painting by Marcel Jean, painted whilst he was in exile in Hungary in 1941.
The wardrobe itself is interesting, being constituted of a series of doors of differing sizes beyond which we can see a landscape, rather than the drawers and wardrobe spaces we might expect. I have found this image enthralling since I first saw it a couple of years ago as it opens up a series of questions and points for reflection. In relation to doing research, there are two main aspects of this image I find fascinating.
Firstly, there are a number of openings onto the landscape, some large, some small, some open almost fully, others ajar. Consequently, in attempting to observe the landscape beyond we have a series of restricted views, glimpses of the landscape beyond; to create a fuller picture of the landscape we need to extrapolate between the glimpses. Is the landscape a coastal environment, or given the darker foreground, is it an estuary or even a riverine environment? We have no way of telling the scale of the white cliffs (or banks) and hence we are left with a partial view which we need to interpret. In this way I see this as an analogy of our perception of the world and by extension the research processes we develop to understand it.
If we collect one type of data, for example interviews, then we're opening one of the wardrobe doors which might give us an interesting view of a part of the landscape beyond, but only a small part of it. Much remains hidden, but if I then used further data collection techniques, I would open further doors meaning that I uncover ever more glimpses which allow me to see more of the phenomenon I'm interested in. However, even if I open all of the doors I will always be left with the need for extrapolation and interpretation and I will hence always have a partial view; I will never be able to see everything, there will always be elements which remain beyond my view.
Secondly, the landscape in the painting is caught at a particular instant. Whilst we might think of such a landscape as being both primarily material and generally ‘static’ it is in fact in a state of constant change and flux. The landscape is primarily processional in nature and change is ubiquitous, hence not only do we only see glimpses of landscape through the doors we are able to open but we also only see glimpses of a landscape in flux. We see it at a ‘static’ point in time, which is not an accurate characterization of what is in front of us. Some processes are rhythmic, some are not, some occur over very short timeframes, others over very long time periods. Hence, we are looking at a huge tangle of processes which interact in predominantly complex ways, processes and interactions which might be fully or partially hidden. If we are very interested in this landscape we might decide to observe it for a time to see how it changes but if we do this we will still only get to see some processes and we may not see how these processes relate in any detail or we may only get to see what is actually quite unusual behaviours but we might not realise this.
In these ways Marcel Jean’s painting begins to open up the basic characteristics of a philosophy of glimpses founded on process philosophy and complexity theory, associated with the realisation that our attempts to see and engage with this reality is partial, incomplete, fleeting; we are seeing this reality through a series of glimpses. In a future post I will begin to outline some of the work of Alfred North Whitehead on process philosophy to develop this idea of glimpses further.
Processes are the central elements of a processual metaphysics. But how can they be defined? A definition is given by Rescher (1996: 38);
‘A process is a coordinated group of changes in the complexion of reality, an organised family of occurrences that are systematically linked to one another either causally or functionally. It is emphatically not necessarily a change in or of an individual thing, but can simply relate to some aspect of the general condition of things.’
Hence processes and events are linked, developing over time, not only existing in the present, but also the past and future, meaning that processes flow through time, with a spatiotemporal continuity. This continuity means that a process is not a random juxtaposition of unconnected events or occurrences, but are causally and/or functionally linked. Over time, processes therefore actualise some possibilities whilst not fulfilling others.
In this way, experience is an example of process. Experience is constituted of a coherent series of occurrences and/or events. These events develop over time, and hence there is the emergence of a past, the present of any occurrence/event within the experience, and the move towards a future, making the experience a flow over time. But the events are not random, they have spatiotemporal continuity, and therefore there is a shift in the process from possibility to actualisation.
This example also shows that process does not occur through its continuing and essential properties, as would be the case with ‘substances’,
‘by its history, by the temporal structure of its descriptive unfolding across time. The identity of a process is constituted through a sequential pattern of action.’
(Rescher, 1996: 40-41)
Therefore, the core of a process is a group of changes through events/occurrences which have spatiotemporal coherence, flowing through time, and which are constantly moving from possibility to actuality. In turn a process is characterised/identified though its pattern of action or events.
With this as a basic definition of process, Rescher (1996) then goes on to offer different ways in which processes can be classified, hence identifying different ways of grouping processes. As he says,
‘The taxonomy of processes is a complex and diversified venture, and the present indications do no more than make a start, with the distinction between physical and mental processes playing a role of particular importance.’ (42)
Three different ways in which he presents classifications are.
1. Productive and transformative processes: product-productive processes produce actual products, which can be characterised as things or substances (e.g. manufacturing cars) AND state-transformative processes, which transform states of affairs in general and can lead to further processes without producing particular things. Process metaphysics stresses transformative processes as fundamental.
2. Owned and unowned processes. Owned processes are those owned by agents, for example a barking dog, in other words, the processes are owner attributable. Unowned processes are ‘free-floating’, and are not the result of actual agents, e.g. rising temperature or flashing of lightening. Unowned processes are important in process metaphysics because it identifies that processes can occur without the need for substances.
3. Thematic nature of processes. For example, physical causality – related to physical changes; purposive/teleological – related to achieving deliberate objectives; cognitive/epistemic – relating to intellectual problem-solving; communicative – relating to transmitting information.
Hence, by considering the nature of process, we can begin to expose a huge complexity in the nature and classification of processes, but also the potential for processes to interact and create a metaphysical perspective. How these might relate to complexity is something I’ll consider in a future post.
Rescher, N. (1996) Process Metaphysics. An introduction to process philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press.
In this post I want to pause and reflect on where I've got to in beginning to characterise/define change. At a basic level, change can be defined as difference. Implicit in this is the importance of time, as for difference to occur, time is needed however brief or long. Further, change occurs at all spatial scales, and given its resultant spatio-temporal nature, it can generally be said to be ubiquitous, that the normal nature of reality is one of flow rather than of stability and immobility. Where these occur, they are the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, the existence of change suggests a universal reality of flow.
But if change is ubiquitous, what is the nature of that change? Change is wide ranging, with very different characteristics in different contexts. However, I argue here that all change is the result of process. Western philosophy has made a distinction between process and substance for well over two thousand years. The dominant view has been one of substance, that metaphysically the nature of reality is essentially stable, solid, and where change occurs, it is of secondary importance. But since Heraclitus, there has been a counter-argument that the world is in flux, and is primarily the result of processes; here, substance either does not exist, merely being temporary concentrations of process (hard processual view), or that at the very least, substance is of secondary importance to process (soft processual view).
Therefore, I want to propose that a first approximation of change as a concept is characterised by difference which occurs over time and which is the result of processes, often many at a time, entangled, to create that difference. These processes work at a multitude of spatial and temporal scales and can move between them as flows emerge.
These flows and tangles of process constitute the basis for systems. It is to the different types of system that I want to turn to next, by focusing on the interaction of processes in bringing about change. To do this, in my next post, I'll explore the idea of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems, and how we might begin to understand them through the interaction of the processes from which they are composed.
In part 1 I started by trying to outline what might be meant by change. One way of doing this is to think about scale of change, distinguishing between personal, communal/organisational and societal/global. I want to go back to this, but before I do, I want to think a little more about the nature of change itself. At its simplest level, change might be characterised as simply difference, i.e. a change in something, be it the time of day, the appearance of a plant or someone’s point of view. In all these examples there is an implicit idea of change that it relates to time, i.e. change happens over time. Time is the continuing focus for an ongoing philosophical debate, and I may return to it in the future at some point, but for now, I am going to accept that change requires time. If we link scale (briefly considered in part 1) with time, then we can begin to think about differences and links between change at different scales and over different periods in time. This then leads to the possibility of giving examples of change in these different spatial-temporal dimensions. Hence, the following table gives examples in a simple matrix. Because of my interest in education, some of the examples focus on this context.
This table focuses predominantly on human systems but would work equally well for natural and physical systems. In fact, these various systems will tangle within each other, leading to networks of change which work across both spatial and temporal scale and across human, natural and physical systems. The table above is an oversimplification to make the point that change operates at all scales and over all time periods in different ways.
In a recent online conversation I had with someone I reflected on the idea that ‘everything is process’, which is a process philosophical perspective concerning the lack of substance at a metaphysical level. This was challenged, quite rightly, and in the subsequent conversation I reflected that even if everything isn’t process, everything is in process. And if everything is in process, if Heraclitus is right, and the universe is a universe of flow, then change is ubiquitous and occurs in networks across these spatial and temporal ranges, and between systems.
This then suggest that change is ubiquitous and that all things at all scales (temporal and spatial) are the consequence of, or are impacted by, continuously emergent, entangled processes, creating a universal reality of flow.
How easy is it to define change? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines change as either,
to exchange one thing for another thing, especially of a similar type
but this is very vague, offering the idea of difference or exchange, but nothing of how or why. Using the concept of ‘change’ in research requires a deeper consideration. We have a general understanding of what change is, but this is based in experiential, common-sense views which have little detailed or analytic/philosophical basis. This means that change as a concept remains vague and has many contextualised starting points. This is a good reason for highlighting change as an area for study in its own right, transdisciplinary in nature, by making the process and nature of change the focus of study.
One of the problems with change is its apparent ubiquity and therefore the multitude of contexts in which it is used as an active concept, often with few direct discussions or explanations of the concept itself. So how might change begin to be considered? Here I suggest two different ways of looking at change to enable me to begin to understand and characterise it.
1. Understanding change
This is work attempting to understand the nature change. This is difficult to do as it has so many different contextual meanings, but these at least give a basis for thinking through what change might be. Below is a sketch of just a small number of the potential contexts for thinking about change,
This leads to consideration of how we are trying to understand the nature of change, as there is a choice between trying to reduce the concept to a form of foundationalism, or alternatively working with the complexity. Is it possible to reduce the concept of change without leading to such a large degree of reductionism that the essential features of change are lost? A complex understanding of change, in contrast, would instead attempt to reconcile the multifaceted richness of the concept, a form of conceptual ‘bricolage’ of change as opposed to a single defining framework. This alternative fits well with a complex processual metaphysics where change is the result of tangles of processes, often non-linear and shifting over time. This then opens the door for a form of meta-change, i.e. understanding the change of change.
Change also occurs at different scales:
- individual change: Based initially on Reynolds and Branscombe (2015), change sets the individual within the context of environment, difference across time and context and shifts in behaviour and identity. This is focused on trying to understand and explore the complex nature of human existence and how it changes.
- organisational/communal change: Engaging with the extensive organisational sciences research into organisational change, the theories, the philosophical perspectives, and the empirical observations. This can then be considered within the less formal context of communities.
- Large-scale changes: What are the processes driving large-scale change such as societal change? This interlinks with political change and planetary change – geology, climate, biosphere, civilisations etc.
Finally, how do these different scales of change intersect? How do they generate the shifting complex networks of adapting systems which lead to the constant emergence of reality?
2. Generating change
Another way of understanding change is to actively generate change. By developing an understanding of change we are able to consider and enact change in innovative and interesting ways to execute change processes. Some of these might be generic, whilst others more context specific. Hence, the generation of change processes and agendas become a necessity to consider how it might be possible to effect change.
By thinking about the nature of change and also by working to affect change, we can gain a range of perspectives which help us to explore both the complexity and the common emergent processes involved in creating change.
Reynolds, K.J. & Branscombe, N.R. (2015) Psychology of Change. Life Contexts, Experiences, and Identities. Psychology Press: New York.