Nihilism LO206

Kent Palmer (
Wed, 22 Feb 1995 16:09:12 -0800


See Below . . .


Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D. :Administrator of ThinkNet {aka DialogNet}
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On Tue, 21 Feb 1995, Joe Kilbride wrote in LO185:

> I asked Kent Palmer to trace the "lineage" of the "systemic" episteme that
> has given rise to Systems Thinking and Learning Org concepts. He offered
> the following:
> >>Origins of the "systemic" episteme:
> >> Newton -------> Kant -------> SYSTEMIC Approach
> >> Leibniz Hegel System as purely present
> In addition, he proposes two subsequent epistemes [snips from each].

What is snipped out here is important. Please refer to the original
post for the rest of it.

> The Ontological, Epistemological, Logocentric episteme
> with "lineage" of:
> > Kant ---------> Husserl -------> Process Approach

[Important stuff missing here]

> The anti-ontological, anti-epistemological, meta-systemic,
> general economic episteme with "lineage" of:
> > Bohr -------> Plotnitsky -------> Meta-systemic Approach

[Important stuff missing here too.]

> To follow this thread further I realize I have about 6 mos. of reading to
> do. But before I go off to the library, let me ask this:
> If Learning Org concepts have evolved from the "systemic" episteme,
> how are the Process and Meta-systemic Approaches described above
> likely to impact Learning Org and Systems Thinking concepts in the
> future? i.e., Since L-O and ST concepts have become cornerstones of
> the practice theories of many who haunt these airways, what
> predictions can you offer us re: how L-O and ST concepts will
> evolve as these "post-systemic" ways of thinking weave their way
> into management thinking?

I think the work process engineering that I do for a living with respect
to software and systems engineering kinds of work reflects the Systems Process
Episteme and its nascent institutionalization.

Organizations and Products have been seen in the past to be static. The
first step that has been taken in organizational development for some
time is to see them as part of an on going and dynamic work process.
Organizations and Products are reifications of the work process.
Attempting to understand the organizations processes and the work
processes that produce the products is a fundamental shift in focus form
the results of action to the action itself.

But what comes next after that is the main point of my posts to this
list. We need to begin to come to terms with the meta-systematic aspects
of this dynamic and it is not clear how that will manifest in actual
practice as yet. The point of my posts is to begin to explore that
meta-systematic realm that is on the horizon.

> Kent also wrote:
> >Each epistemic change is an intensification of nihilism.
> Is that really true? Ad infinitum? With never an anti-nihilistic swing of
> the philosophic pendulum? And some have called Systems Thinking the dismal
> science...

I believe that there are only intensifications of nihilism within the
western tradition. Thus we can understand each stage as the unfolding of
the basic nihilism inherent in the tradition.

What is nihilism?

For a good introduction see Stanley Rosen's NIHILISM, Crosby's THE

The nihilism of the Western tradition is a subtle debate really starting with
Neietzsche who first pointed out the intrinsic nihilism of our tradtion.

This does not just mean something negative but is really a point about
the distortion of the Eternal Return that occurs in our culture that
renders it a Will to Power.

Nihilism is the destruction of meaning.

There can be either active or passive destruction of meaning. Passive
destruction of meaning can be indifference, neglect, ignoring something.
Active destruction of meaning can be colonialization, political imprisonment,
discrimination, assassination, rape, explosion of a drug culture, all the
things that destroy people outwardly and devalue their meanings.

Our tradition Western tradition and worldview has a fundamental
ambivalence that we need to recognize. We are obsessed with productivity
and profit. An excellent metaphor for our basic Will to Power is the
Conquistadors that came to the new world for GOLD and THE FOUNTAIN OF
YOUTH and in the process destroyed everything in sight in order to be
able to take back ships full of gold to Europe. Gold was not as important
to the people of the Americas that had it and from which they took it
by force. They had other meanings that organized their lives but they
were reduced to the inhuman possessors of something the Conquistadors

The obsession with production is haunted by anti-production which is basically
the destruction of meaning of the Other. Hollywood has a major problem with
Europe because they insist that there is a certain amount of local
European television available to preserve their traditions. Hollywood is
concerned with increased profits a large part of which are come from foreign
sales. Ossie and Herriot in Sudan or Mauratania makes perfect sense, right?
They do not like to be locked out of foreign markets. But their ignoring
local markets destroys the cultural meanings that are not supported by
the programs they produce. These are examples of active and passive nihilism.

In our society as we pursue our Will to Power through economic war there
is a constant emphasis on profit and productivity that has the effects
of destroying communities and neighborhoods through the corollary
anti-production that destroys meaning. Our organizations are for the most
part built to further these anti-productive ends by first colonizing the
workers within them and alienating them from their own labor. Taylorism
treats the workers as objects that are subject to management control.
Both the workers and the managers are dehumanized by this master-slave
dialectic. Then these organizations act as corporations -- imaginary
inhuman fictitious persons and pursue unethical courses of actions
motivated only by profit and efficiency. They are in fact social
monstrosities that roam the landscape reeking destruction where ever they
go. This is why we have the split between profit and non-profit
organizations. Non-profit organizations have motivations other than
profit. Why MUST these two organizational charters be incompatible?
Because it is a fundamental split recognized in law between the
organizations engaged in economic war realizing our Will to Power and
those organizations that do not engage in the economic war. Those that
engage in economic war pay a tax by giving a certain amount of their
profits to the non-profits to do good works. This is where the
ambivalence comes in. Rather than taking local issues, ethical issues,
environmental issues into account within the organizations they ignore
them and then assuage their guilt by giving money to organizations that
attempt to pick up the pieces later. Thus a facade of concern is created
for publicity purposes but the concern is displaced from the fictitious
(inhuman) corporate person. As actors within the organization we say to
our selves that we are forced to do unethical or inhumane
anti-productive things by the corporation. The corporation not being
human is not bound by ethics and human concerns with meaning. Thus we
allow ourselves to do things that objectify and destroy the meaning of
others in the name of the corporation. We allow ourselves to contribute
to the obsession with productivity and profitability and participate in
the anti-production that destroys meaning that this entails. This is a
fundamental split in our organizations and in our selves.

This is a split that goes very deep in our culture. It is expressed by our
ambivalence toward Christianity and militarism. Often the rhetoric is peace
as we pursue the ends of war. A Dutch man said to the Shogun of Japan when
Christian priests first appeared in Japan "First they send their priests and
then they send their army." The Shogun exiled all the priests immediately
and killed what ever Japanese Christians had been converted. That one act
saved Japan from the fate of China that was basically eaten alive by the
European powers who sold Drugs into that society and intentionally destroyed
it in order to gain economic advantage. Japan remained closed and safe
for 200 years until the Americans got worried about missing out on the
action and Perry sailed a Gun Boat into Tokyo harbor.

It is little known that the roots of this problem go back to a now little
known religion called Mithraism. It turns out that the Mithraists were the
only country that the Romans just could not beat. In fact the Mithraists took
over the entire Mediterranean Sea from the Romans at one point. They were called
pirates by the Romans. But they invincible. It turns out that they were
invincible because of their religion which was a Greek/Persian mystery
religion. Eventually the Romans learned about Mitharism and the whole of the
Roman Army converted to this religion. Then they were able to beat the
Mitharists --- Mithra was the leader of the forces of light against the
forced of darkness in the Zoroastrian dualistic religion in which the TWO
gods that rule the universe (Ahura Mazda and Ahriman) wage eternal war.

Mithrism was the first universal religion because it existed everywhere the
Roman Army was stationed. In fact it was the only example of a universal
religion when Paul of Taursus was trying to figure out how to make an insignificant
Judaic Messianic cult into a world religion. Tarsus was the heart of the
Mithraic lands. So Paul modeled his version of the Messianic cult called
Christianity on Mithraism. This brilliant but flawed concept of marrying
a male oriented mystery religion bent on war that was the only example
of a universal relation with a pacifistic Messianic off shoot of Judaism
has had profound effects producing incredible confusion in ethics and morals
for almost 2000 years. It is this confusion that appears everywhere in
our organizations as the mysterious knot of paradoxicality that the
various dualisms define and elaborate.

The parallels between Christianity and Mithrasim are to numerous to enumerate
in this post. See MITHRA: THE FELLOW IN THE CAP by Esme Wynn-Tyson for a
summary. [There are more interesting points to be made here but I will
control my self. Suffice it to say that until I learned about Mithraism
I really did not understand Christianity or its important paradoxical
relation to our militaristic culture. Another way to get at this is by
studying heresies as Morris Berman does in COMING TO OUR SENSES.]

Anyway from those humble origins we inherited a fundamental ambivalence
that exists in Christianity as the relation between TURN THE OTHER CHEEK and
Paul's exhortation for us to PUT ON THE ARMOR OF CHRIST. We have this
Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde schizophrenic personality that the Dutch man
clued the Shogun into and which saved Japan. For those 200 years
Japan would only trade with the Dutch and then only on a small island
once a year. But that was their favor for saving Japan from the ravages
of Western imperialism. Now we are more sophisticated --- we do the same
things with economic means that we used to be so crude to do with
military means. But the ambivalence between our nonprofit side and our
"profit is everything" side is still there as a deep divide in our
cultural psyche.

So there is a split between anti-production and production which mutually
entail each other. There is also a spilt between profit oriented and
nonprofit organizations. These splits have the effect of destroying
meaning in the world. In other words we concentrate on one criteria --
short term profitability and efficiency of production and become blind to
all other humanly important criteria. We can do this because we band
together as a fictitious legal person (corporation) by which we objectify
ourselves as a vehicle for objectifying everything else. But by
narrowing our perspective there is a side effect of destroying other
meanings in the world which is the anti-production that is the corollary
to our production obsession. Then there must be other organizations that
do not engage in the economic war who pick up the pieces from the social
destruction reeked by the anti-productive side effects. This is a perfect
example of our alienation from ourselves and this self-alienation has
been a feature of the Western traditions Will-to-power for quite some time.

Now within this process of economic war (we have substituted economic war
for military war in this era) there appear novel things that give economic
and technological (as well as military) advantage. Learning-organizations
are one of those new things. We think at first that they will solve all
our problems and unite the dichotomies that bind anti-production to
production while absenting real concern into nonprofit organizations. If
we could just learn then maybe some of our endemic problems would be
resolved. But like all the other fads we will eventually become bored
with Learning-Organizations because in the end we will learn that this
fad like all the others before it in the Taylorist and anti-Taylorist
rationalization of industry merely destroy meaning in new ways. Right now
Learning organizations are new and shiny and we think it will solve our
problems but how will we feel in ten years. We will be on to something
else by then that we are as excited about. There is a whole succession of
these gimmicks which only have superficial impacts on the way we do
business. The very process of generating new things all the time has to
make them suspect. We are engaged in the illusion of progress that arises
from the fundamental projections of our Will to Power. Nothing new can
ever address fundamental problems. This is the secret of Plato's talking
about knowledge as remembering. Only by accessing the absolute past
beneath the surface of relative past/future can we effect the deep
dualities that organize our actions and thoughts. It is in the absolute
past that these dualities are rooted. In thought/action we inhabit the
incomplete realm where we experience the chiasm/chasm of the dualities.
The process of projecting the dualities out of the chiasm creates the
events in the relative past and relative future. But the dualities
themselves arise from the absolute past which we have to access through
intersubjective and mythic memories.

Originally the term Being has two fundamental senses STATIC persistence or
"Being" in the sense that Parmenides (Kant) uses the term and DYNAMIC
unfolding or "becoming" which is the sense in which Heraclitus (Hegel) uses
the term. These are two faces of the same thing. They are represented in
the original Indo-european languages as the Complete (peterite; absolute
past) and the Incomplete (chiasmic) present. Philosophies (and
physical theories) tend to go to one extreme or the other in this
continuum. Whitehead proposed a process philosophy, for instance. But most
philosophies are Parmenidian and Platonic believing there are static
Forms that we can rely upon outside the flux of time. For us the dualities
are the cultural equivalent to the Platonic Forms. They persist in the
absolute past or the mythic realm that never changes. And we continue to
project them in our actions that arise out of the process flux. Part of
that projection is our productivity and part of it is out
anti-productivity that destroys meaning. The fact that we insist on
remaining alienated from ourselves is the basis for our destructive actions
toward others. Only by remembering this absolute past and seeing
ourselves projecting it -- and stopping that projection before it arises
is it possible to change this situation. As the Tao Te Ching teaches you
must change things when they are small not when they are large and
already grown too big to alter. By understanding the dualities and
changing our behavior in the heat of battle (the fog of war) we can
change what we project on the world. Part of that needs to be through a
broadening of our horizon from pure profit and productivity blinders that
provide our main motivation now. If we can stop ourselves from
anti-production and bring ethical concerns within the compass of our
organizational charters then every profit organization could become
partially nonprofit oriented. We see many organizations like this
springing up here and there. But as yet the sea change has not occurred
where every organization realizes that it cannot continue to exploit the
world due to the fact that in a complexity interrelated meta-system what
is taken out as profit one place must be compensated for by some loss
some where else.

Discovering that systems are embedded in meta-systems is at least one step
in this direction. Realizing that the corporation is nothing other than
its people -- not an abstract transcendental subject is another. There
are many strategic and tactical moves we need to make to address the
inherent nihilism in our cultural system. But at the philosophical level
one of the things we need to understand is "What is meaning?" When we
understand that then perhaps we can figure out how to stop destroying it.