Shamanism, the Dao, new spirituality, new technology and cultural revolution

the ground floor

how systems are built into human reality
at ground-level
Why systems? Encounter with a system A System that is Silly A Pivotal role for emotion Other systems topics

Who am I?
I am Michael Roth, the author of all the material on this site. While training as a medical doctor, I was also an alumnus at the famed AntiUniversity of London (1968-1969), and became involved with the alternative psychiatry movement in that era and later.

I worked and studied with the existential psycho-analyst R.D.Laing, and was a founder-member of the Arbours Association (London), which provides alternative care for persons diagnosed with severe mental illness.

My research path has taken me into spheres of philosophy, social politics, linguistics and anthropology - whilst I have continued to seek out a genuine way of relating to other human beings in the troubled milieux of psychiatry, communal living, and twentieth and twenty-first century social and cultural instability.

I have been consistently inter-disciplinary in all of my reading and exploration, and the personal and philosophical insights to which this has given rise are almost always outside the prevailing classifications - or accepted lists of subjects.

The following authors are they whose work I have been most deeply occupied with, at different times in my life. This has often entailed exploring what the actual world feels like, within the patterns and definitions of life offered by these people. I have also written extensively, and often critically, about many of them.


  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Buber
  • Lao Ze
  • St Matthew
  • St Mark
  • St Luke
  • St John
  • Rudolf Bultmann
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Richard Rorty
  • Robert Pirsig
  • Donald Davidson
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Benedetto Croce
  • Charles Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • A.N.Whitehead
  • J.H.Randall
  • Justus Buchler
  • Martha Nussbaum

Biology, Physiology, Ethology and Cybernetics


  • Mary Douglas
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Milton Ericson
  • R.D.Laing
  • David Cooper
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Victor Turner

Virtual Reality

  • Jane Austen
  • George Eliot
  • Dorothy Richardson
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Joanne Greenberg


  • Eugene Gendlin
  • Arnold Mindell
  • M. Scott Peck

I am the foremost exponent of Charlotte M. Bach's ground-breaking theories of emergent evolution, described in my A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky (Dielectric Publications, London, 1984). I continue to work as a psychiatrist and as a researcher into holistic methods of facilitating social change. This used to include facilitation and training sponsored by the organization, Community Building in Britain which developed and disseminated the work of the holistic psychiatrist M. Scott Peck through the 90s and noughties.

I am also involved in an exploratory research group seeking to fuse poetic, practical and fantastical modes of action to create significant cultural/political interventions in the here and now.

emotional intelligence
lived reality
biology, culture, evolution
philosophy, science
systems sensibility
dao and shamanism
applications/ study group
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  A world of relationships
We need to begin again, with the question why we are talking about systems in the first place? We shall take our point of departure, as always, from the landscape of our lived reality - the facts, the feelings and the actions which we meet with at the ground level of experience. In the section entitled "Lived reality - felt reality" we established the principle that this is a landscape made out of relationships. Every item within it is a nodal point for multiple criss-crossing interconnections with other items.

This applies even to the stone on the beach; it is intimately bonded with the other stones, with the carpet of sand on which it rests, and with the creatures which scramble over it from time to time - through an array of compulsive forces such as gravity, inertia, and friction. There are also the sub-atomic and inter-molecular forces which hold it together in the persistence of being the stone it is. Thus we recognize this stone existing in a web of relationships, even before we have begun to consider its relationship with ourselves.

Yet any recognition, any knowledge of any thing can only arise out of the already-existing relationship we have with what is there in front of us. With me and the stone we may think of this as beginning when I turn my gaze in the stone's direction. In the language of the physiologist, the stone is now casting its unique profile through the reflected light rays which enter my eyeball; simultaneously the movement of my attention has brought this stone to the central, most focal region of my retina. This is how, the physiologist tells us, the stone comes to exist for me.

But there is always more than merely a visual impact: there is the possibility that our histories may intertwine, in any number of complex ways. I may choose to pick the stone up and fling it into the sea, or I may take it home and grind its surfaces into jewel-like facets to keep it as a paperweight. One day in the future the same stone, well aimed and thrown hard, may even strike me dead.

Yet a stone is a comparatively simple thing, compared with the monster of complexity we have to deal with every day, that which is generated by the collective interactions of people living in the world together. Here is where we need the concept of system, to help us tease out some order, some manageable pattern, from the troubled and chaotic domain of human life.
  Encounter with a system
The essential idea of a system is of several parts connected together, to make up a single whole. These "single wholes" are what we meet in the world: a whole factory, a city, a goat, a woodland, or the man next door. We shall consider my friend Peter, who is standing across the room from me at this moment. For me there is something like a choice - though it is rarely a choice consciously made - whether to give my attention to the whole person, as Peter addressing me now in this moment, or whether my attention will pick out details: his facial expression, his slight limp, his untidy hair. Or I may focus upon a single issue: the reason why he is annoyed with me. (I have lost the keys to his car.)

We have the ability to shift our attention from a detail, to the "whole thing" of which it is one contributory detail. This is the crux of our awareness of systems, and it is a basic element in our everyday awareness - there is nothing obscure or off-the-beaten-track about it. It is a great pity that in past decades the word "system" has been hi-jacked by advertising men and other clever people, to stand for something super-modern, efficient and a bit too complicated for an humble person in the street to understand. In fact we understand very well; therefore our task here is not to spin a complicated new theory, but to tease out the things we know already, to display them in a way which helps us to know them better.

When my attention is held by a detail of the Peter-situation (he, by the way, is wondering why I am not looking at him but am instead scribbling on a scrap of paper - some notes for the next chapter of my book. He is getting very angry indeed.) there is an unspoken assumption that this detail exists in complex relation with all the other relevant details. This means that somewhere within me I have a working model of how the different elements interconnect.

Peter's anger at the moment has to do with his car, with the missing car keys, with what he wanted to do today but is thwarted, with his natural expectation that I will pay attention to him in a moment such as this. More broadly this is about the whole complex system of Peter's life, his concerns and commitments which form the background to his present feelings and actions (he is going to hit me soon, if I do not give some attention to the question of where those car keys can be found.)

Staying with the theoretical question, and keeping Peter's concerns in the background, there are two separate and important issues here, which we shall see more clearly if we can disentangle them. We have me myself, with my appraisal of the system over there. So this is the question of how accurately I am reading the situation. This itself has two dimensions to it:
  • Questions of what I want from this, and so, whether my reading is giving me information that is accurate enough for what I am trying to do in this situation. (Peter may be about to cause me serious damage. Also, our friendship may be in ruins. Yet a little attention given now to his very obvious concerns, could be enough to recall to my mind that I was wearing a different jacket yesterday when I borrowed his car. The keys are probably in the pocket.)

  • What does the other person want? For the system "over there" has a life of its own. This is the domain of claims, and counter-claims, and the question of whether our interaction meets our own standards of justice, decency, and ethical relationship.

At this point in our argument, however, we are concerned with the basic principles of "systems" - and not so much with these personal questions. Our immediate concern, is this curious relationship between part and whole. This is at the bottom of the present-day pre-occupation with matters holistic, yet amidst all the chatter I cannot help feeling there is a simple and fundamental point which has so far eluded our grasp. In apprehending the world in terms of parts and wholes, I am confronting a reality which seems to be built in a series of distinct layers(1). Stated in general terms like this it may sound rather obscure, but will show up clearly in the series of examples we are going to look at.

Consider first your activity in reading this page of writing here. Where is your attention focused? My guess is that it would most naturally be with the flow of ideas. Now please notice this: that you are free to reconsider, and to focus anew. You might, for instance, come down to a much lower layer in the structure of the text, to the collection of letters of the alphabet (each of which you readily identify as an individual item). You may then observe that these letters are systematically related one with another, so as to give rise to constellations of words. You can also identify the words in their own right, of course, which means you are shifting your attention again, to another set of horizontal relationships in which the words give rise to the higher-level constellations called "sentences".

What appears in one layer as an organised collection of parts appears in the next-highest layer as a simple whole - but these "simple wholes" can themselves act as constituent parts of another whole at a higher level again. These layers amount to something like a hidden dimension to our lived reality, a dimension we skeeter up and down with great mental agility and usually with very little awareness of the shifts we are making. I am going to refer to this series of layers as the vertical dimension of our reality, to mark it off from the practical and logical relationships we are more usually busy with at the conscious level, and which we can designate as a horizontal dimension. (These are relationships of causal efficacy or logical entailment.)

Although I refer to the vertical dimension of reality as "hidden", it is only invisible because it is so close to us. The dimension itself - and the possibilities it represents, in terms of these radical shifts of perspective - is an unchanging element in the landscape, like the outline of our eyebrows which forms the perpetual upper border of our visual field. We can become aware of our eyebrows by a special effort of attention. We can be similarly aware of this "vertical dimension" of this system-world we inhabit, and we can explore it easily with the help of simple illustrations.

Another example of the layers is offered by our contemplation of the sky at night, in all its raw and primordial beauty. Each star is for us a denumerable and identifiable being in its own right. Yet from the time when human beings first began to talk together about the stars, we have contemplated them in their spatially presented patterns. These patterns have often had a more compelling reality than the individual stars, since they embodied the Gods and the Heroes of our ancient tribal myths.

Nowadays we are more inclined to say that the pattern of constellations is a "projection" of our mythical imagination on to the starry heavens, and not corresponding to any intrinsic relatedness of the stars in question. Indeed, we may see a model in the London Planetarium which shows the three-dimensional relatedness of the stars, in such a way that the visible constellations appear as a simple two-dimensional projection onto our visible sky, of an array of elements actually situated in deep space. This is very obvious when you look at the model. It implies that if we (dwellers of planet Earth) imagine ourselves travelling further and further away from our allocated home in the universe we would find these constellations becoming progressively distorted, the further we travelled. We would eventually reach a point where they had become completely unrecognizable.

We might find ourselves, for instance, somewhere within the triangle delineated by the three stars of Orion's belt. In this case, these three stars would now be located in completely opposite directions within the space of our new night sky. The spatial pattern we used to know when we lived on Earth would now be obliterated: it would only be for sentimental and nostalgic reasons that we would pick out these three stars as having any special kinship at all.

It is interesting that if we keep our attention on the horizontal dimension (the fundamental relationships between the stars) we seem to have the hackneyed old story in which modern science overtakes and discredits the old myths. Most educated people, after all, give little credence to the mythical relationships between Taurus and Cassiopeia and would broadly accept the relativistic Einsteinian space-time continuum as the proper way to understand what the stars have to do with one another. By contrast the vertical dimension shows us a continuity of belief. We and the ancients are still in agreement on this fundamental insight: that the stars have unique and irreducible relationships one with another. It is only when we come to specify the nature of this relationship that we come to disagreement.

These examples, the constellation of words on the page and of stars in the sky, illustrates how we organise our perceptions and understanding into hierarchical patterns of parts and wholes. In this way we constitute the vertical dimension of the Hypertext structure of our experience, which I refer to at various different locations on this web-site. The horizontal dimension - the practical and logical relationships we trace between things - is ready to spring forth and display itself for us, at whatever level we choose to place our attention.

It is important that we recognize here the central role our emotional attitudes play, in the decision about what level to focus upon. We choose a particular layer because it feels important, because it has an emotional charge, or simply because we are used to it (in other words it feels familiar, or normal, to place our attention here). This decision, based upon emotional criteria, always has to be made before the work of practical and logical analysis can begin.

We can generalise our finding in the following way: every item which we focus our attention upon is embedded within a hierarchical pattern of parts and wholes, at the same time as it is also implicated in a series of horizontal relationships covered by everyday logic and practical reasoning. This points to a quite remarkable gap in the logical structure of our universe - a gap which is generally concealed from us by the agile way we skip from level to level in the hierarchy.

The logical gap can be nicely seen in the relationship between structure and function, as illustrated in the shape of the modern motor car. Both the structure and the function are inescapable features: we would never have designed the car in the first place unless we had its function clearly in mind; and the function can only be brought to life if it is backed up by a complete and workable construction. But the surprising fact is that there is nothing in science or in logic which can bridge the gap between these two levels: our intricately crafted artefact - every single part designed to fit into the overall construction - and its higher-level function as a driving machine (in which Peter, by the way, is now happily conveying himself to Chiswick having at last retrieved his car keys).

There are perhaps forty thousand distinct manufactured items which have to be assembled to make one functioning motor car. The construction is itself hierarchical, based upon a series of sub-assemblages. Each of these, we may note, has its own systemic and mathematical coherence. So there is an integral theory of electrical circuitry underlying the electrical sub-system, a theory of mechanics and chemical combustion underlying the engine and carburettor, and a theory of oscillations, inertia and damping functions underlying the suspension system. The relationship between structure and function is so obvious to us that it is easy to miss the point, that it is only our participation at the two different levels which creates any linkage at all between them. It takes an effort of imagination to recognize that if we did not know what cars are for there is nothing to connect the intricately crafted artefact with the use of this machine to travel from place to place.

Another way to think about this vertical dimension of parts and wholes, is to consider the different mental worlds which correspond with the different levels. There is, for example, the world of the motor mechanic - whose job is simply to restore the collection of parts to their state of functional integrity. There is the world of the driver of the car, for whom it is a normal part of his life that he gets into his car, and travels to where he wants to go. Then there is the world of the transport system designer who studies the flow patterns of road, rail and air transport and creates (we hope) an integrated system which combines economy of consumption with the greatest freedom of choice compatible with this. And there is the world of the resource economist, who is tracking the frightening rate of depletion of the world's fossil fuel reserves and the corresponding increases of carbon dioxide and toxic hydrocarbon particles in the atmosphere. The two levels that are most familiar to us, the mechanics of the car and the experience of driving, are so obvious that we take the link between them for granted. The other higher levels are less familiar, and most of us have been resisting recognizing the problems they pose for us for many decades now.

The motor-car is of interest to us here as an illustration, but it differs from the systems we aim to study in these pages in one very important way: this is a system which we are able to specify in all its relevant details. (This follows from the fact that it has been designed and constructed by human beings.) When we move to consider the system of my mental and physical workings, or the system of my relationship with Peter, there is no longer available to us a complete knowledge of what is going on at the lower levels. What we are presented with here, is profiles of a system that - in its totality - is not available for viewing. One such profile is my conscious sense of what is going on. It is the barest of sketches, but is enhanced by the nimble shiftings of level we have previously remarked upon, which can bring extra layers of information into play at a moment's notice. Still, the complexity of the whole system is several orders of magnitude greater than anything I can specify in conversation or in conscious thinking.

So this is why we need a systems theory. It is simply our way of reaching out to grasp the vertical dimension of complexity in a more explicit fashion than we may normally be used to. I have demonstrated that we have a mass of implicit knowledge of this dimension, but more often than not this knowledge stays below the level of our conscious awareness. Nor is it my intention to bring it all up to the conscious level - a task which would be self-defeating in any case. The function of the systems theory is to help us become more aware of the form of this complexity, the better to dwell intelligently within it.

  A system that is silly.
Let us now come back to the idea of "the item in focus" - by which I mean any mental or physical thing that we are concerned about in the here-and-now. I want to show you how the systems theory can help us re-shape our sensibility of this item-in-focus, whatever it may be, in both its horizontal and its vertical embedments. This is what we have begun to trace already in our sketches of Peter, of the words on the page, of the stars in the sky, and the construction of the automobile.

We shall move to a different item-in-focus, using as our example the gold chain(2) which Antipholus of Ephesus has commissioned the goldsmith Angelo to forge as a gift for his wife. Unfortunately and unbeknown to both these characters, Antipholus has an identical twin brother at present roaming the city (and equally as confused as he is), to whom Angelo has already given this chain. Most implausibly, Antipholus One and Antipholous Two happen to be identically dressed, which means that none of the other characters suspect that they are two different people. Now the goldsmith wants his money.

Both Antipholus and Angelo firmly believe, wrongly, that the other is in possession of the chain. From Angelo's point of view Antipholus is perversely refusing to pay him. From Antipholus' point of view, the goldsmith is perversely demanding payment for an item he refuses to deliver.

Angelo's anger is about as straightforward as it can be. He is owed: he cannot help but feel that either the gold chain or payment thereof is his by right. Over and above this, there is an unavoidable feeling that Antipholus is taking him for a fool.

Angelo "Come, come, you know I gave it to you even now. Either send the chain or send me by some token (which means: give me a token showing my right to payment)"

Antipholus (who is equally sure that he is being taken for a fool) "Fie! now you run this humor out of breath. Come, where's the chain? I pray you let me see it."(3)

In the play this situation proceeds to get worse, and funnier, and culminates in the arrest of Antipholus. Now, the special point of interest for our theory is the emotion involved in all of this. The audience finds the action hilarious; the two protagonists are powerfully enraged. These emotions are in fact pointers to the fine structure of the situation, on this vertical level of complexity which we have been exploring (this is what makes this a systems theory of emotional intelligence).

Firstly, we may ask: why is this funny? Humour is a notoriously difficult thing to pin down and so we should not expect a complete answer to this question - but we can recognize a clash of descriptions between two adjacent levels on our vertical axis which is clearly playing some part in the humour of the situation. At the level of the individual protagonists (Angelo and Antipholus considered separately) there is bafflement, rage and impotence in a situation which simply does not make sense. At our level (that of the audience) we recognize the whole system of Angelo, Antipholus One and Antipholus Two so that the action unfolds for us with complete logic. We know where the chain is, and we know why Angelo and Antipholus are ignorant of this.

Let us stay with Angelo and his anger. The stumbling-block for him in this situation is his certain memory of having given the chain to Antipholus only a few minutes before. Antipholus' refusal to pay, and denial of all knowledge, offends Angelo's natural expectation that a person will not deny something that happened only a few minutes ago. We also expect that they will make payment for their purchases on demand; instead Angelo gets an outright denial that the transaction has taken place, which is both baffling and enraging. For us and our theory the important thing is that the anger is being fuelled by all of these elements simultaneously - even though it would be very hard for a person to think of them all at once. In one way the emotion is very imprecise, but in the very fact that it extends to all these different issues, this anger can open the way to wondering about how each of them matters to us.

  A pivotal role for emotion.
The pivotal role of emotion in evoking and colouring what is actually going on for us is not widely recognized in our Western European culture at large. Yet our delight in comedy and every form of emotional drama strongly suggests that we understand it well at a sub-conscious level. I first came to recognize emotion as a kind of searchlight or litmus paper, in my baffled and angry reaction to the philosophy of Krishnamurti. He used to teach that the emotions we call "negative" (anger, fear, grief) were always evidence of our attachment to things, and that they were our way of binding ourselves to expectations of the future. This is what was keeping us from living in the present moment, he seemed to be saying.

My problem was that I always read an implied "should" into this teaching. This meant that I received a strong message to the effect: "You should let go of your attachments, you should let go of your expectations!" This seemed to me be absurd, and a denial of the obvious fact that even to follow Krishnamurti's argument I had to maintain my trust in the play of expectations and attachments which would cause me to give him my attention in the first place, and to read the meaning of his words correctly in the second place. I was also struggling to understand in my own way the nature of the complex web of pre-supposition and expectation of the way in which language, thought and reality will all compose themselves, precisely and miraculously, from moment to moment. Without all of this, there would be no me, no Krishnamurti, and no dialogue concerning the Deeper Freedoms. I felt he was playing with my mind, in a perverse and ignorant manner.

The moment of liberation for me, in relation to Krishnamurti's teaching, was when I wholeheartedly let go of this sense of "should" and was simply able to recognize my emotion and my attachments. If I accept that I am angry, baffled and impotent in this situation, that I am caught up in all sorts of expectations, needs and desires, then I have gained a powerful and sensitive tool for diagnosing the pattern of my attachments and expectations.

So we are looking at Angelo's emotion of anger, which is about an object (the disputed gold chain). This emotion points up and down the vertical axis of our systems map, and can thus help us make sense of the larger pattern of behaviour for which the rendering (or not rendering) of the chain is but a single component. We have already touched upon the higher-level system of trade and exchange which is the ground for both protagonists' expectations of each other. The goldsmith practises his craft as a way to make a living. He relies on the habits and expectations of all of us, that we will pay him for his goods, and that we will acknowledge our relevant past actions (the taking of the chain) as our own.

Through the dramatic device of identical twin brothers Shakespeare has brought it about that these expectations are frustrated. Antipholus does not own the actions of his missing identical twin, hence we have the hilarious spectacle of two innocent people bellowing their outrage at one another. And now we can see that underneath the comedy there are important issues at stake: the identity and integrity of the human person, and also the reliable conduct of trade (then, by implication, the stability of our social customs generally). There is a gold chain which has been misplaced. Its very absence makes it the item in focus for both the characters and the vehicle for the expression and working out of those higher level issues.

The fact that the anger is felt in relation to these various different levels is an indication of multiple levels of interaction that each person has with the situation. Antipholus wants a chain for his wife - but the chain has vanished. He has entered into a contract for sale - but the sale has become void. He is being called a liar and arrested as a cheat - since, not being able to produce the chain, this is what he appears to be. His anger is about all of these things at once.

Here we are getting closer to an explanation for how one world can appear to us in these multiple different ways, and with no logical bridges between the different levels. It arises from the complex way in which we interact with the world. We can also see what is entailed in one level being "higher" than another. On the lower level we are interacting with the "parts" (the chain, the agreement on the price) and on the higher level we are interacting with the "wholes" (the offering of a gift, the contract to purchase, and the system of trade constituted by the widespread practice of such contracts). We have the ability to focus our conscious awareness on each level in turn, but this is usually only one level at a time.

Our feelings are not confined in this way; they are coloured by all the levels that affect us at this moment, regardless of whether we are attending to them consciously or not. In this way feeling carries an intelligence of quite a different order compared with that of conscious perception and belief.

When we turn to the practical applications of this theory in later chapters, we shall make use of the concept of the definition of the situation(4) - as a way to make sense of what is happening at the various different levels we consider. Thus we can think of Angelo's and Antipholus' emotional combat under a range of different definitions: two men in a comic battle about which one of them is going to prevail; an angry dispute about the location of the chain; an angry and incoherent struggle to find out which of the two men is lying.

  Parts and wholes: higher and lower.
In trying to disentangle and explore the different levels of interaction, it will help us if we can gain a clearer idea of the relation of "higher and lower". I have suggested that the higher level consists of whole objects which appear at the lower level as connected ensembles of different parts. The notions of "wholes" and "parts", however, can mislead us into supposing that the whole must contain the parts; we need to be clear that this is not necessarily in the sense of spatial containment. A whole system can be dispersed in space and time (for instance, my project of writing this book) in a way which altogether defies the notion of simple location of parts within a whole. The essential feature is that the higher level is a structure or pattern which emerges out of the interaction of the parts which make it up. These lower level parts can be thought of as being independent of the whole, insofar as they could just as easily exist in quite different contexts. But the whole, the higher level, only exists by virtue of an effective interaction amongst the parts at the lower level(5).


One simple example of this is the playing of a tune. A tune is a completed entity in its own right - this is especially obvious in those cases where the tune acts upon us as a signal or symbol ("Come to the Cook-house Door, Boys!" is a bugle signal which informs the company that dinner is served; many loving couples have some piece of music or a song which for them evokes the magic and beauty of their relationship). But in the actual playing of a tune we can recognize that it comes into being through a temporal succession of distinct and measured notes. Played backwards we may observe that it still contains the same notes; yet we may now find it to be both un-melodious and unrecognizable; certainly it is not the same tune.

Here also we see the very important function of time, in the unfolding of a higher level out of a pattern of prior events. The time factor is one important reason why the whole is definitely not equivalent to the sum of its parts. The whole, once constituted, has its own emergent properties and consequences, as if it were an entity in its own right. The playing of a tune illustrates this well; other examples are the living organism (though in this case it is a process continuously renewed and repeated, which obscures the time-factor somewhat), and any completed action - for instance the Battle of Waterloo. In all these cases there is a process unfolding in time, and a higher level process emerging as a result. The individual foot soldier in the heat of the battle knows virtually nothing about the broad sweep of events to which he is contributing; he may even be dead before the outcome is decided. Yet the defeat of the Napoleonic force was nothing else than a cumulation of many individual actions, which converged - partly through strategy and partly through accident - upon that final outcome.

In each of these cases we see the higher level emerging out of a prior succession of events. This is how it will tend to appear when we think of our selves as taking part in the relevant processes. When we take up an observer's point of view the relationship between the levels is more likely to appear in the form of the lower level being pre-supposed in the higher level. As an observer of the completed battle, as the listener of the tune, I simply take for granted the accurate placement of the component parts. But if anything was significantly out of place - if the tactics of the battle had gone in a different direction, if enough wrong notes were introduced into the tune, if a link were missing from the chain, or if the animal's heart or kidneys failed to function, then there would be a very different situation indeed. We would no longer have a defeated Napoleon, a recognizable "I Can't Give You Anything but Love", a saleable gold chain, or a live and healthy porcupine.

So in our relationship with some given item - the gold chain, let us say again - we are taking for granted all of the lower-level processes which underwrite that item. When I look upon the chain as an item of commercial exchange, or as a token of a man's good faith, I have to be supposing that it is already true that the chain exists and with everything else which this existence implies: its history, its physical structure, and its persistence as an enduring object of human desire. The history includes yet lower levels, in particular the whole set of actions which converged upon the forging of this individual piece of jewellery. There is Angelo's prior commitment to learning and practising his craft, and there is the mining, transportation and delivery of the gold from which he forged the chain.

When I try to depict this in writing I come up against an unavoidable gap between the general terms "gold", "chain", "physical structure" and so on, and the concrete historical reality I would like to be able to evoke. Here I wish to emphasize the fact that any actual gold chain has its own unique historical route from manufacture to dissolution, its unique material and its actual occasion of manufacture by real people. In the twentieth century the manufacturers are likely to be operating the mass production of anonymous articles, in contrast to the hand-wrought chain which the actors would have fought over in Shakespeare's time. Yet regardless of what the manufacturing process is, a gold chain is inescapably the product of concrete materials and concrete human labour.

We in the modern world are largely ignorant of the history of the objects we "consume" and it is easy for us to overlook that every object has a history. Yet it is always the case, that there is work being done at levels lower than where we place our attention; this means in effect that we are taking that work for granted. (This is evident in such a prosaic case as "the man of the house" taking for granted the work that is entailed in maintaining and caring for the home, and in educating and looking after the children.) Our seemingly innocent participation in the market economy entails a similar ignorance of layer upon layer of activities which are necessary for the arrival of each commodity or utility in our home.

This ignorance is quite worrying, because our act of purchase most certainly registers within the economy as a demand; thus it encourages the repetition of those lower-level activities which produced the item in the first place. So we can easily help to perpetuate the systematic exploitation - of nature, or raw materials, and of human labour - and be none the wiser in respect of pain signals being generated in lower levels of the system. Greater systems awareness, and insistence on the need for informed consumer choice, could help this situation greatly. We could move towards a position where we could effectively discourage any vicious circles of exploitation, and could encourage humane and sustainable practices including fair trade.

It should be clear from this range of examples that there is a massive wealth of detail always available about the lower layers of complexity in respect of any item in focus; we have simply to ask the right questions and be willing to undertake the necessary research. The higher levels can be more problematic because we may not know what questions to ask; also these higher levels often refer to the future implications of our actions (which may not be at all clear or settled in the present moment).

Here is another place where literature and drama can help us - in tracing, for instance, the likely consequences of acts of deceit or meanness - consequences which often escape the awareness of those who commit them in real life(6). This is the kind of arena which will be very usefully illuminated by the present theory. Both a better developed systems awareness, and an active dialogue of emotional intelligence, can help bring home to us the cumulative effects of our habitual behaviours. We will come to recognize clearly that even small acts of kindness, consideration, empathy and civility have a powerful long term influence on the quality of the human environment. This environment is, after all, created by us through our day to day interactions. The levels of trust, mistrust, friendship and alienation which we have to live with tomorrow are what we are creating today through a process which is largely invisible, but powerful nonetheless. They can make the difference between a mutually supportive community, an efficient but mindless ant-heap existence, or a "Mad Max" world given over to predatory gangs stalking the ruins of civilisation. Don't we want the George Eliot quote as a footnote?

In this chapter I have restricted myself once again to depicting the broad spread of details in an extremely complex situation. I have wanted to establish the principle of many simultaneous layers of meaning to each and every situation - each layer of which we have the option to trace out in more detail if that is where we want to dedicate our attention and energy. I have wanted to demonstrate how emotion can be a powerful means of orienting ourselves within this complex field. Emotion by itself would not give us the information needed to unravel the layers of concern of a tormented goldsmith; but it is evident that without the emotion we would not have any idea of what it was that we needed to unravel.

These multiple layers of meaning do not always look out onto complete and coherent systems. In human affairs there are important areas of confusion, conflict and incoherence(7); a search for system in such places will reveal many blind alleys, bottomless pits and other geometrical curiosities. The so-called "natural" world - as we explore its inner structure with the tools of atomic physics and physical chemistry - seems somewhat less prone to such incoherencies. As natural science progresses it comes increasingly to reveal the world in terms of the emergent properties of collections of lower level elements; in other words it parallels very closely the kind of schema I have been outlining in this chapter. For instance the familiar properties of substances like wood, coal and diamond - their textures, hardness, resilience and chemical reactivity - are seen as the outcome of particular ways in which the atoms and molecules are packed, and of the particular structuring (including the electrical and inertial properties) of the individual molecules, atoms, and elementary particles.

This suggests that if we try to map out several system layers in detail there will be times when we come upon domains of interest where a more-or-less complete mapping is practicable, and there will be other times when we will be thwarted by contradiction or insufficient information. The failures are especially likely where we have reduced co-operation amongst different human factions - those situations where it is not possible for us to pool or correlate our information, or where our quest for data is actively obstructed by others. But the recent development of "chaos theory" has acknowledged that there are also complex physical systems where our knowledge is likewise condemned to be incomplete(8).

The systems theory of emotional intelligence does not aspire to any complete system of mapping in any case. What is essential is to understand how several layers of reality can co-exist in the way that they do, and to recognize that we often need to refer to more than one of these at a time if we want to understand and cope with the various practical challenges which life throws in our way. It is also to recognize that emotion is a powerful signal that can alert us to important events going on in the layers where our attention happens not to be focused upon, at some given time. We thus have the beginnings of a method for unravelling "difficult situations" - a way of researching that will be steered by emotion but informed by all of our practical intelligence and know-how.


1. The conception of a reality which is structured in multiple layers has been with us at least since the time of Charles Darwin, and the explosion of biological, neurophysiological and biochemical understanding that followed him. It has been a prominent feature in the accounts by every philosopher who has recognized the major challenge which Darwin's work makes to our understanding. (This is prominent in the Classic American tradition: Peirce, James, Dewey, Whitehead, Mead, Randall, Buchler - and most consummately developed and portrayed in the "Ordinal Metaphysics" of Justus Buchler. See Towards a General Theory of Human Judgment, Nature and Judgment, and The Metaphysics of Natural Complexes).

2. The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare.

3. Act IV, scene i, lines 54-58.

4. This will be further elaborated in subsequent writing.

5. This is precisely the situation described by Konrad Lorenz, in the genesis of human conceptual thinking, from the simultaneous operation of a set of simpler skills, as we discussed it in the previous chapter.

6. An Inspector Calls, by J.B.Priestley.

7. I have explored these questions elsewhere.

8. In similar vein, Heisenberg's famous principle of uncertainty perhaps refers to an actual indeterminacy in the behaviour of elementary particles, and not merely a limitation on the data we are in a position to obtain in practice.

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© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004