Oliver Human on Paul Cilliers

photo of Paul Cilliers
Photo: Paul Cilliers (1956-2011)


Modesty is a virtue: A tribute to Paul Cilliers (1956-2011)

by Oliver Human

On the 31st of July 2011, Paul Cilliers, one of the worlds’ foremost complexity thinkers suddenly passed away. Today, two and a half years later, writing a short tribute which adequately describes the complexity of his life and work seems like a resort to the worst forms of reductionism. Yet we must honour his contribution in some way, provide a model for the intellectual tradition he developed and passed on. It is perhaps the irony of this endeavour that Paul would have appreciated.

Paul Cilliers was born in Vereeniging, South Africa on 25 December 1956. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and working as an electrical engineer he soon realized his passion for, and the importance of, philosophical inquiry. In this regard, he enrolled to study philosophy at Stellenbosch University whilst continuing his research work as an engineer. Paul went on to write a dissertation on the interstices between post-structural philosophy and complex systems theory. He then took up a position in the Philosophy department at Stellenbosch becoming a full professor in 2003. Along with his close friend, the biochemist Jan-Hendrik Hofmyer, Paul founded the Centre for Studies in Complexity at Stellenbosch, in a short time producing the edited volumes Complexity, Difference and Identity– an ethical perspective (Springer, 2009), co-edited with Rika Preiser, and Thinking Complexity (ISCE, 2007).

Paul’s interest was piqued by the philosophical problems which complex systems presented to our thinking and acting in the world. Paul’s linking of the post-structuralist or post-modern philosophical tradition, with tenants of a connectionist view of complexity, were laid out in his book Complexity and Postmodernism: understanding complex systems (Routledge, 1998). This book laid the foundation for his future thinking about approaching complex systems. The crux of the matter was the possible and fruitful links which could be drawn between studies of complex systems and the insights of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. For Paul an important starting point when approaching systems was to draw a distinction between the complex and the complicated. Primarily, this distinction rests in the nature of the interactions between the components which constitute a system and the relationship between the system and its environment. Complicated systems can be given exact descriptions whereas the complexity of a complex system always eludes such precision.  This distinction is neatly summed up by his often quoted remark “a jumbo jet is complicated but a mayonnaise is complex.”

Complex systems are defined by the relationships “inside” the system and the relationships the system maintains with the environment. As complex systems have open or porous boundaries the limits of these systems are defined by the boundaries we draw in the process of modelling them. This is not to imply that complex systems are nothing but constructions or that complexity is a product of the observer. Rather, much like Derrida argued concerning the meaning of words in a system of language, our understandings of complex systems are products of the contexts within which we view such systems and decide on their limits. A process of interpretation is inevitable in the production of any understanding of complexity. This does not imply that we can construct any model of a complex system, some models are better than others.  As Paul noted, “the world speaks back.”

This holds consequences for our understanding of complexity. If we argue that any understanding of a complex system is the product of a frame, it is inevitable that exclusions have to be made in order to make this understanding possible. We choose what to include and what to exclude from our models of complex phenomena. What we exclude will not always be known to us and may continue to bear an influence on the system we are trying to understand. However, these limitations on our ability to model are not a hamper to our understanding of complex systems. Rather, these constraints are enabling, they are what make thinking about complexity possible. Without exclusions we are left with the complexity of the system we are trying to understand. Equally, these constraints imply a normative understanding to any dealings we may have with complex systems. If the models we use to understand complex systems are the products of the exclusions we make, and we have no way of knowing what we have excluded (because it is impossible to have a comprehensive view of a complex system) we are forced to concede to the inevitable provisionality of the models we deploy. For Paul this was an important feature of modelling complex systems, if we cannot know complex systems in their complexity it holds important implications for how we behave and think ethically in the wold.

Thinking about complex systems in the way Paul proposed gives shape to a certain ‘attitude.’ This attitude is formed by the limited frameworks we apply when trying to understand complex phenomena. When dealing with complex phenomena we are always dealing with an ethics as we cannot have certainty about what we choose to include and exclude from the models we create. Ethics then is not something that is supplementary to our understanding of the world. Ethics is always already part of what we do. An important feature of this ethical attitude is modesty. If we cannot know things in their complexity, if there is no framework for frameworks, then we need to adopt a modest attitude towards the claims we make. This does not imply a weak position. We can make clear and testable assertions about complex phenomena. However, the knowledge on which we base these assertions is limited and we need to acknowledge these limitations. Modesty then implies an attitude which is open to the provisional and ethical nature of dealing with systems we can only ever partially understand.

Furthermore, this attitude implies a certain change in the pace with which we deal with complex systems. In the age of the instant and the now, Paul argued for the importance of slowness. By this he did not mean that we maintain a conservative or backward looking attitude. Rather, by resisting the demand for the instant, through the building of memory we are able to learn. In this sense we are able to make better distinctions between information and noise and thereby react at an appropriate speed to the problems we face. Sometimes the best reaction is the quickest one. However we learn this through constant and slow engagement rather than reacting in the immediate to everything simply for the sake of speed and efficiency.

“Modesty is a virtue, and I have it!” is an ironic quip ascribed to a Roman emperor I recounted to Paul shortly before he passed away. He enjoyed this quip as it spoke to some of the future work he was looking forward to. Paul was interested in the importance of irony for our understanding of complexity. General or critical complexity argues against the possibility of reducing complex systems to an essential model. However, the position at the same time argues for the necessity of reduction in order to produce models so that we can deal with complex problems. The statements we make about any complex system then hold within them a certain irony which is productive or constitutive of our dealings with these systems.

Modesty, slowness, ethics and provisionality are all related in the work of Paul Cilliers to the importance of Critique. Along with Rika Preiser, Paul sought to develop the idea of ‘Critical Complexity’ as a means to frame the attitude one needs to adopt when approaching complex systems. This position is not one of unnecessary cynicism but rather a project which looks towards the productive and ethical possibilities harboured in the cutting and weaving together of post-structural philosophy and complexity theory.

As the complexity on which Paul’s intellectual life thrived, his daily life was a complex web of interests and fascinations. An accomplished cook, a keen reader and book reviewer, film buff, a music lover and musician all took place in his heart alongside his wife, Sandra, and his two children, Ilana and Cornell. Despite the productivity of his philosophical endeavour Paul always emphasized the importance of quality, in both academic discipline and daily life. It was perhaps this aspect, as his close friend Jan-Hendrik Hofmyer notes in his obituary to Paul in the South African Journal of Science, to which many were drawn. In a world of instant gratification and cheapness, Paul’s daily life and work inspired many to take the care, the energy and the time to ensure quality in every aspect of their life. As a former PhD student of his, this was perhaps the most important lesson I learnt from Paul. Although sorely missed, it is the quality of Paul the person, his sharp wit and amicable personality, and the quality of his work, its rigorous and honest engagements with the complexity of life, which has left behind inspiration for his students and those familiar with him to continue the project of Critical Complexity, modestly, slowly and with good humour.

To read articles by Oliver Human and Paul Cilliers in Theory, Culture & Society, see below.

Oliver Human and Paul Cilliers ‘Towards an Economy of Complexity: Derrida, Morin and Bataille’ (2013):

Read the abstract here

Access the full article for free (for one month only) here

Paul Cilliers ‘Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism’ (2005):

Read the abstract here

Access the full article for free (for one month only) here

And you can read the whole TCS Special Issue on Complexity (2005), edited by John Urry, here

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