Growing into the Canopy

Will McWhinney, PhD

The Forest Canopy [1]

Konopos is the classic Greek word for mosquitoes. It came to be applied to the diaphanous fabric we spread over a bedstead to keep away mosquitoes. More recently it was applied to the canvas we stretch between poles to shield a celebration from the sun and rain. And now ‘canopy’ has been returned to nature by ecologists, who use it to label the cover formed by the branching of the great rain forest trees. This canopy has an ecology that is distinct from the deeply shaded ground below and from the trunks and vines soaring out of the moist earth.This rain forest canopy is an ecology floating fifty to two hundred feet over the forest floor, a tangle of branches and vines inhabited by its own flora and fauna. It is both ‘of the earth’ and transcends its domain. It no longer depends on the individual trees and vines. It is a self-organizing ecology that draws sustenance from the forest, but has functions that transcend it. The canopy is an ecological fabric displaying qualities not present in individual plants. For me it is also a metaphor for our complex society. It is a fabric no longer embodied at the individual level, but realized in the phenomena of “languaging,” which has properties of a group but not of individuals.

The canopy evokes rich metaphors through which to describe engagements with the systems of thinking in diverse paradigms (the species of trees in the human forests) in which I participated, the distinct trunks (paradigms) of system thinking and as a way to characterize life in the airy social ecology. I articulate these ideas through a tale of my fifty-year climb through the trunks and vines and meetings with remarkable men.

An Earthy Beginning —> 1951

My engagement with system thinking is a history of recognizing the multiple and complex ecologies of our intellectual forest, of growing up with system thinking from its seedlings in the 1950s to the emergence into the mature discipline in the new millennia. My teachers who were colleagues and followers of John Dewey prepared me for this journey through fourteen years of progressive schooling. What I learned led me to accept phenomena in the natural world, sciences, art crafts, and literature (as history and mythology). Each learning had a truth system that did not require conformity to the others. Each worldview had a clear domain of application and rules of operation. I was to adopt the worldview and truth system that was most constructive in each given situation. The diversity was enriching, but the greatest delight I found was in the confrontations between disciplines that led to bi-sociation of ideas of which Arthur Koestler wrote of in Insight and Outlook (1949), and in the uncertainty that Heisenberg injected into every observation. I felt safe in holding multiple views when I heard Einstein’s assertion that “the greatest myth of the modern world is science.” And I was delighted in Phil Stanley’s philosophy course called Techniques and Ideologies to find that Marx and Freud were the technologists and empiricists and psychoanalysts were treated as the theorists. Reality becomes process; Process becomes reality.  I took ownership to these inversions in my first published paper (1951) in which I compared F. S. C. Northrop’s Taoist views in The Meeting of East and West (1946) with the digital formulations of Claude Shannon in Mathematical Theory of Communications (1948). These juxtapositions led me to question how we articulate phenomena—how we separate and connect parts in every dialogue. So I entered the professional world dancing across the border between the connected and the separated, the holistic and the atomistic, the scientific and the mythological. I also learned that one could not argue the truth of one reality in the face of another, but it took me thirty years to find a systemic approach to managing the duality that was produced.

Computers and Management Science, 1951—58

In 1951, I asked Professor Stanley where I would find an environment in which I could work with myth, philosophy, and mathematical models of organizational behavior. On Easter holiday on Cape Cod, he put the question to his neighbor Fritz Roethlisberger, the Harvard business professor, who responded, “work for AT&T,” then, the largest private organization in the world, which he envisioned as a great Leviathan dominating the communications industry. I took his advice and went to AT&T to explore philosophical ideas. He was right. My initial job was to help plan the first trans-continental TV network. The technological aspects were intriguing but it was the internal network of administration and manufacturing that most ensnarled the task. I was nineteen levels down the hierarchy from the corporate president.  Fortunately, I learned early about making small world connections—a direct line though my sibling at the Federal Reserve Bank to the AT&T president’s office that helped me work the human side of administration. A few months later I experienced entirely different worldviews when the US Army drafted a few of us to do counter-intelligence in wartime Korea. Reading Northrop on Eastern philosophies proved an auspicious preparation.

In 1953, I came back to New York and AT&T, this time to select and program the first electronic computer to be installed for industrial applications. Some of our tasks were simple doing payroll, others were complex ones like automatic data processing between suppliers and customers, and optimal allocation schemes using linear programming. Shortly after returning I heard of the formative meeting of the General Systems Society in 1955. There, I met Von Bertalanffy, Boulding, Wiener, and others and became a charter member. Their discussions gave me a name for what I was doing—system thinking—to views beyond the formal organization models of AT&T to explore biological and social phenomena. Intrigued to find this new discipline, I sensed the university would now be a better place to continue learning and went to study with Herbert Simon at Carnegie Tech.

Chess and Go at Carnegie, 1958—62

Herb Simon and Allen Newell’s Problem Solvers were learning to play chess using programmable rules, unambiguous responses, and well-defined pay-offs. Their systemic approach was as hierarchical as I experienced at AT&T. It modeled a narrower view of system thinking than I encountered in the System Society and I found that system thinking is not a homogenous discipline. I shied away from the discipline of chess to work with the Japanese game of Go, which is as different from chess as East is from West. I joined with two colleagues to program the rules of play. That was easy, but we recognized that Go has field-like properties, calling on players to develop spheres of influence, and subtle powers more aesthetic than declarative and far beyond our competencies. I demoted Go to a recreation and moved to a more practical engagement to program multi-agent tasks as initiated by Selfridge’s Pandemonium (1958).

Viewing the possibility of programming a computer as a collection of agents working cooperatively suggested exploring multi-agent systems. In 1954, Belmont Farley and W. Clark (MIT) had presented a paper at an IREE conference on a self-organizing system (SOS), which they defined as “a system that changes its basic structure as a function of its experience and environment.” (Yovits, Jacobi & Goldstein, 1962, p. ix.) I expanded this to “self-organizing systems viewed as complex adaptive internally goal-driven entities that respond to events in their environment” for my thesis using data on communications networks and built a computer simulation incorporating agents in which each had its own goals. The simulation, limited by the 64K memory, provided some insights on social network behavior that I reinforced with statistical modeling based on information theoretic measures and Zipf’s Law. (McWhinney, 1964)

Self-Organizing Systems,  1958 —>

The question that has driven the study of SOS is what preconditions will result in the appearance of order out of chaos. The answers developed in the intervening forty years have made it one of the most significant arenas in system thinking. The early research and conferences focused on the need for elements to be connected in feedback loops: Pure hierarchies do not self-organize. My work focused on forms of the requisite energy inputs. Later, in the 1970s, Ilya Prigogine showed that all living organizations have to be dissipative, that is, the energy inputs are organized, while dissipating the more entropic metabolic products. Concurrently, Humberto Maturana, a biologist, began writing of self-producing auto-poietic organizations, wherein the entities manufactured their own components and maintained the vital order, thus recreating themselves. By the 1980s, Hermann Haken and others reformed self-organization in terms of the coupling and fluctuation of transitions through which emergent biological and cognitive process were stabilized. The research on self-organization focused on boundary conditions and more recently, according to Scott Kelso (1995), on the dynamics of coupling and nonequilibrium phase transitioning.

While this research has progressed, organizational consultants have adopted SOS with casual attention to boundary conditions. They encourage groups within organizations to work participatively without considering the controls that are imposed by the boundary conditions set by managers, or the ambitions of individual members of a group. For all the good intention of the consultants, even democratic societies are wary of emergent forces. So I found when I tried to make application of the self-organizing processes in industrial firms, revolutionaries are seldom appreciated.

Industrial Democracy and Open Systems Planning, 1962—74

When I completed the work at Carnegie, I had the choice of following a career in formal systems and computer modeling, or of exploring organizational behavior. A chance offer to help found a Carnegie-like business school at Leeds University in England delayed the decision. The faculty we assembled at Leeds included the disciplinary split that C.P. Snow described in Two Worlds (1962). The faculty, that was assembled included members in the newest disciplines trained in operations research, computer modeling, and advocates of more radical forms of organizational behavior. They shared little language and few values. Within a year the internal discord was so great that we had to bring in a mediator. Eric Trist came from the Tavistock Institute in London. He smoothed over the conflict but the success was short lived. More significantly, he brought his ideas of socio-technical systems and the commitment to industrial democracy that Fred Emery, Einar Thorsrud, Philip Herbst, and he were developing in Norway. Their work with participative governance in the work place and community (since named, participative action research) was an earthy setting for testing self-organizing systems. It went beyond the formal logics and experimental models of communications to encompass social, political, and psychological factors. It expressed a third type of system thinking that added ideas of intentionality, sharply distinguishing it from the deterministic classic and dynamic models being advocated by others who were bringing the new systems discipline to industry.

On returning to the US, I set out to continue developing the technique of self-organizing systems using the behavioral laboratory and computers at UCLA, but a different path was foreordained for me. In the first week in Los Angles a senior faculty member invited me to lunch at the prestigious Bel Air Hotel. He handed me Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse  (1947) with the imperative that I absorb it. This work is a mythic companion to Carl Jung’s psychology of personal transformation. It displays the role of myth and metaphor in personal life. It started me on a new systemic quest, beginning with Jung and meditating on the works of the Lakota seer Black Elk, the Russian mysticGurdjieff,and Sufi poets. Their insights started me along a personal development approach to self organization.

About this time I happened to meet with a group of consulting clients from Proctor and Gamble who were learning socio-technical systems from my colleague Jim Clark.  I listened to the stories of their work places. I reframed them in archetypal terms echoing stories that arise in every organization’s life. The group was intrigued with the insights and asked me to join the team as mythic interpreter as well as system-technologist. With their internal consultant, Charlie Krone, we combined the realities of systemic design, human relations, and mythic insight into a practice we called Open Systems Planning. With OPS we enabled groups of workers to design their work environments and gain a deep sense of participation in management tasks in many of the P&G plants and thereby creating many of the earliest semi-autonomous installations in companies across the US and Europe between 1968 and the mid-1970s. The plants were profitable, efficient work settings that contributed deeply to the employees’ lives. The workers, renamed “technicians,” learned that they could engage responsibly in the work place that extended beyond to participative engagement in their communities, their churches, and local governance (Elden, 1981). Community engagements sometimes started with search conferences, sometimes using art events to recreate spirit as was an essential first step in the devastated Los Angeles communities following the Watts riots in 1965. The model of enabling participation in industry worked well in communities and governmental units—as Eric Trist had also found.

The Open System work place was a constructive generator of local autonomy for citizens and workers. However, we soon found that the autonomy the organization’s workers and low level managers gained was massively threatening to government and corporate executives. The effective power on the shop floor was countered by renewed control from above. Managers fenced the teams into  ‘play-pens’—supervisors agreed not to meddle in the operating pens if workers would stay away from business issues and government administrators blocked funds to these “upstart” projects. Sustaining change in society was more complex than our utopian models had anticipated, even in the midst of the social revolution of the “60’s.”

The Rise of Complexity and a Response, 1962—79

Erich Jantsch, looking back from 1974, called the ‘60s an era of “metafluctuation” in the course of history: Political chaos shaking up the world, the Cuban stand off, the assassination of John F Kennedy, the racial and student riots across the US and Western Europe, the Beetles, mau-mauing, and the flower children at Woodstock. Other changes introduced complexities at a deeper level: Lorenz’s discovery of deterministic chaos in the weather predictions, Mandelbrot identifying fractals, and the French proclamation that the modern world was passé. No language adequately described the complexity that devolved; we needed new metaphors and vocabularies as well as new techniques for managing beyond what we had understood.

Twenty years earlier Stephen Pepper proposed that cultures tend to operate out of some combination of four core metaphors (1942). C. P. Snow saw a similar source of conflict in the Cambridge University faculty cleaved into opposing worldviews. In 1962, just as the metafluctuation began, Thomas Kuhn wrote that we were in transition between the scientific paradigms that dominate a culture for long stable intervals. By the late 1960’s the turmoil in the western world indicated that no single paradigm could long support a particular societal form and then only tenuously where there was totalitarian or theocratic governance. Kuhn’s model had to be replaced with one that assumed a concurrent multiplicity of paradigms (core metaphors) led any culture.

I intensified my search for such a model when the management faculty at UCLA acknowledged that it lacked an adequate model with which to guide the MBA students into their work worlds. I joined in an effort to redesign the MBA curriculum to respond to the emerging complexity by assembling a committee from disciplines around the campus. The frustration we suffered in our meetings was reflected in the ultimate recommendation. The discussions mirrored the divisions and conflicts present in the outside world, finding its realities as diverse as Pepper’s metaphors. The group fragmented across four worldviews that closely matched sets appearing over the millennia in cultures around the world. I labeled them Unitary, Sensory, Social, and Mythic, as in Figure 1. The intransigent differences in the committee’s recommendation reduced us to the conclusion that each instructor should just reflect his or her native ‘language’ and the students would be left to choose among the approaches as they would have to in the management world beyond the classroom.

Figure 1. Four Bases For Reality

Bi-sociation of Reality and Myth, 1980 —>

In Koestler’s bi-sociation two distinct components suddenly come together for form new insights. Such a bi-asocation occurred for me as I began applying ideas that came from diverse universes. One idea was Whitehead’s conception of prehension—the view that we establish a reality through engagements between reality sources; the second arose from tales of the rites of passage such as the Orphic, Masonic, and others I had experienced years before. I, along with many others, have taken a long time to understand Process and Reality and the Jungian “The King and the Corpse.” Forty years after first struggling with Whitehead’s material that I realized he provided the process I needed to operate within the diversity of worldviews. It was clear that one’s concept of reality was to be found in the interaction of worldviews. The most obvious was empirical reality established between ideas as theories and sensations as observations. I observe something to be a flower because the characteristics I attach to a prototypical flower; I value a flower according to the socio-emotional preferences with which I grew up; or I accept the truth of its membership in the class ‘flower’ as a condition for membership in a discipline or society. The first insight was that awarenesses come by projecting one worldview onto another. Projections can be made in infinite ways, but I, and cultures everywhere, collect the worldviews into small sets between which projections form stages for discourse. I form six platforms by projecting each source through the others. (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Six Platforms of Discourse

Each prehension of one source of reality by another creates a different context for discourse. For example, projection of a mythic view into a social arena produces a generative exchange as a story, while examining the muscular system of a frog (sensory-unitary) uses analytic methods. The pain one feels on the loss of a spouse is realized on the evaluative platform (sensory-social.) On the normative platform, choices are worked out between social ethics and ordained morality (social-unitary). Every discipline and science is organized on a single platform, though casual discourses float among the platforms sometimes creating the bi-sociations that delighted Koestler, evoking humor and invention but often producing misunderstanding and conflict.

The platforms of discourse are one component of a bi-sociation pair that presented itself to me some years ago. The second component was the rites of passage of human and social transformation. By associating platforms with transformative paths, organizational change processes could be seen as occurring through a sequence of platforms, following paths used in rites of passage and in stages of human and social transformation. As I worked with organizational clients I heard echoes of the great myths of origin—Kronos and his sons—and of transformation— “Amor and Psyche” and the Heroes Journey of which Joseph Campbell wrote. On occasion, simply reciting these tales exposed the conundrums in a client system and allowed its members to see their own stage of development.

This second bi-sociation came by conjoining the mythic tales with the ontological descriptions of rules for behavior within each stage. Personal and social changes follow paths of diverse projections: different paths for different destinations. (McWhinney, 1992)  This ‘flash’ immediately facilitated the re-design of strategic engagements. More recently I have used it to understand the paths along which cultures develop, why one is creative and another seems stuck in disciplined regime.

Systems of Thinking about Systems, 1981—83

System thinking, and more so, teaching system thinking were both difficult and unpopular during its first decades (1950-1980). Few faculties accepted it—then and now—as a proper discipline and students were seldom prepared to deal with the richness of mathematical, biological, and sociological applications. The difficulty arose from the power of system thinking. It is not a discipline such as physics and linguistics, but a modeling of philosophies with diverse ontological bases. There was no over-all structure to system thinking. The existing texts illuminated single approaches such as cybernetics and ecology. Applications were limited to engineering problems and often unsubstantial extensions to biological and social systems. Each system theory approach has foundations in a specific philosophical tradition, going back to classic Greek and to a lesser extent to Oriental and Arabic sources. With this recognition, it was easy to separate system thinking according to distinct ontologies, identify the progenitors, and give each a name.

The general term system was first attached to work started in the 1950’s by Ashby, Von Bertalanffy, Boulding, Shannon, Weiner and others who came from an empirical foundation, using the analytic platform. I label this variety of work, dynamic, based on the metaphors of doing, of which cybernetics is a prime example. Formal system theories were espoused by mathematicians and logicians: von Neumann, Turing, a number of East Europeans, and, more recently, by Stuart Kaufman. This approach, widely labeled the classic, is based on the assertive platform (mythic-unitary), its core metaphor is containing. The third type of system theory, I labeled exchange theory, is based on the evaluative platform (sensory-social), incorporates choice, expressions of the agents’ preferences, using the metaphor of grasping or reaching out. The exchange platform grew in importance with its application in the industrial democracy movement, communications, and second order cybernetics. Significant figures here include Bateson, Rapoport, Maruyama, and Trist and Emery. The classification scheme also indicated the variety of incomplete system theories. There is no adequate theory to deal with normative issues (unitary-social) such as politics, ethics, and conflict resolution. Or for creative activities (mythic-sensory) or generative (mythic-social)—both of which may defy systemic formulation.

Articulation of system theories’ exuberantly branching into the canopy (Figure 3), makes the evolution of system thinking is not only easier to comprehend, but makes more manageable the complexity that has emerged in the 21st Century. I have detailed this approach for organizing change efforts and managing conflict in the Paths of Change (1992) and for exploring the system canopy in preparing the manuscript for Grammars of Engagement. However we need to go beyond this approach that still accepts the duality of part-whole thinking and speech. I propose that can be achieved by replacing the models based in the container and force metaphors with coupling-based descriptions. Forced-based models have served the empirical sciences2 well but I believe they are inappropriate for understanding social phenomena, especially those mediated by (spoken) language. I develop this argument in the second chapter “Coupling” of the coming monograph (2007).

Systems Education at The Fielding Graduate University 1979—>

In 1979, an opportunity to start an innovative graduate student program at The Fielding Institute (now the Fielding Graduate University) provided me with a challenge similar to founding the program at Leeds University in England, which were both similar to a UCLA business school graduate degree program I later established. At Fielding with the commitment of the new program’s director, Don Bushnell, we were able to design and develop a program that spanned the full range of system thinking. Although few of the program participants and faculty had an analytic background in system thinking we did offer an integrative worldview and students began the doctoral program in social change with systems as a foundation.

The avoidance of the more systematic aspect was offset by their greater comfort working with experiential learning—dance movement, choral experiments, graphics and building analogies. It provided a sense of working with the whole without thinking in terms of relations between. For most, this approach achieved a better sense of dynamic systems, or as I’ve suggested elsewhere, system potentials, than does learning through the formidable calculus. Doing such rhythmic and non-verbal expression allowed them to get beyond thinking of relations between individual parts to the phenomena of coupling. With this approach it was far easier to make sense of the diverse paths taken by the schools of system thinking—or of any discipline—and thus giving a rationale for organizing the process of the diverse elements of a doctoral curriculum which so often dictates the otherwise focused advanced students. It was a step toward developing an integral core from which to generate relations to disciplines that often seem unrelated. Graphic devices such as the following figure that uses the forest as metaphor were used to create an integral awareness.

Preparation in system thinking gave an added benefit in that it gave the Fielding students more open and appreciative views of the faculty and the professional clients who maintained strong commitments to specific disciplines and their use in work. Unfortunately the negative results of the attempted innovation were also the same. In spite of commitment to instruct from the interpretative worldview, most faculty reverted to the methods and worldviews of their familiar discipline: the psychologist returned to the discussion of human relations; the sociologist returned to see every issue as socio-political; the empiricist bias reappeared in every thing as tables and measures of significant differences.

Although I found the experience of introducing an integrative program at Fielding as disappointing as I had found in both other schools and corporations, it reinforced my belief that we need new approaches for living in the canopy.

Figure 3. The Systems Canopy


Coupling, 1983—>

Early in the 1980s Ralph Abraham was featured in Newsweek displaying the chaotic path of a Pacific typhoon. The magazine article introduced the public to mathematical dynamics and computer graphics of chaos. I called Ralph in Santa Cruz and we met on his next trip to Los Angeles. We talked of fractals, attractors, bifurcation sets, scale-free expansions, and the beautiful creations produced by computers graphing simple fractal expressions. My joy was partly in unfolding the fractal images but even more in the dynamic descriptions of the life of entities, particularly of social systems that we so arduously unraveled with hand drawing just twenty years earlier. (McWhinney, 1968)

This work, variously called mathematical or field dynamics is not another species growing in the system forest.[ii] It differs from the classic paradigm in that it describes a system over time. It differs from the dynamic and exchange models assuming properties of wholes, not the relations among parts. Its realizations are landscapes; diagrams that illuminate the states through which an entity will go, sometimes predictably, sometimes chaotically. The applications of mathematical dynamics suggested that we are spectators, watching events for which we cannot be responsible, for even a butterfly in Brazil can change the course of our history. Prigogine’s dissipative systems ‘happen’; Per Bak’s theory of avalanches and earthquakes has then occurring with probabilities set by the power law; and networks self-organize around one or two central nodes. Control is determined by energies external to the managed system. The field view places the controls beyond that system. It locates them in a higher power, a statistical god, a rule maker or simply a manager or parent. Adoption of a field view calls for transfer from responsibility for action to setting the conditions that set our courses. Unfortunately it serves organizational consultants by extolling the paradoxical freedom from certainty while simultaneously boosting self-organizing systems. Their interpretation of field thinking is a misapplication: Whitehead comments “continuity [of a field] concerns what is potential; whereas actuality is incurably atomic.” Field thinking is for mapping, system thinking for action. The dual condition is present in a community, in a commodity market, among the audience at a sports event. These are examples of the coupling we see at every level. These properties—as we see in electrons, molecules, a flock of birds or in people doing a ‘wave’ at a football game—follow from their coordinated or coupled state.

Most forms of coupling are harmonic, obvious in dancing, less obvious in brief and violent contacts that occur from the scale of atomic particles. In normal conversations responses take on a rhythm, couples walking down the street coordinate their step, and the biorhythms of an intimate group tend to converge. Every engagement requires that there be elements that connect, indicating coupling, and processes that separate, indicating difference. Paradoxically, coupling requires a degree of ambiguity; exchange takes place between elements only if there is a balance of distinctions and commonalities on relevant dimensions. For there to be communication there needs to be articulative processes that connect and separate.

The Canopy, 2000 —>

Out behind the house where I went walking this afternoon vines are climbing up into the trees. Without reflection, I began pulling them out. I didn’t noticed that the intermingling of species were evolving toward the very canopy I have found so intriguing. For all I have said here, I am still hooked on maintaining a neatly delineated landscape of the English estate. I am not yet at ease with living in the complex canopy with its trees and interwoven vines. I resist giving up the stable accoutrements of the rational life style. However, there may be no choice; we may all be living in such an ecology.  It is only a matter of how soon we recognize it. It might even be that eventually I can come to enjoy the canopy finding that worldview more integrative, less stressful, more copasetic with my flow, and in the end, accepting that it has always been our environment. It will take some readjustments for us to live with the cultural requirements of the canopy and its overstory.
We have to accept that the opportunity given first to Adam to name the animals and plants is a continuing one. It is the fundamental creative work for all humans that has been neglected over the recent eons, On rising into the canopy I would see there are no permanent labels; everything interpenetrates, everything connects and is separable. Names must continuously flow from parents and poets and theorists.

  • The universe is most fully represented as a single field. Things and ideas are artifacts designed for our convenience. I would give up the idea of there being material or conceptual boundaries. Conversely, the canopy is not open territory. Wherever one goes there will be “sporadic occasions of violent closure” that denude its culture—fires in a forest, jihads in a society, and pathologies of our own turmoils.
  • The metaphors of guidance we would use in the canopy transcend those embodied, ego-based compasses that have set our individual paths for operating in the forest below. There will be social metaphors of coupling such as languaging, and organizing.
  • The social ecology of the canopy is not stably defined. Its description and behaviors are co-products of the dance of my cognition and the context in the canopy. I would best skip among the ecological event without egocentric justifications. I no longer own a patrimony; my identity would be in a dance with the ecology.
  • I anticipate that we will all suffer the ambiguities of articulation and the duality of connecting and separating, and conversely, we can celebrate coupling in relations that transcend our individual existences. We will enjoy both our separate identity and being at one with all those others who would leap around the multi-dimensional culture.
  • The most visible change will be to drop the habit of using force as the fundamental cause of all happenings among “things.” In its place we can adopt coupling in our daily conversation on every topic from quantum mechanics to the love we feel for one another and our environment.

There is the tale of the reporter interviewing a wise old sage on the occasion of his one hundred and thirtieth birthday.

“To what do you attribute your longevity?”

He responded: “Humility.”

The reporter quickly proposed the alternative, “I think it is your wit and the good Scotch whiskey.”

The elder paused,

“You might be right.”

[1] With appreciation to Marc Tassoul and James M. Webber for their contributions and editorial comments.

[i] , In a 1991 article, “Fractals cast no shadows,” I envisioned the canopy as an arabesque. That metaphor is still a valid image, but since 2001, that label is likely to draw irrelevant implications.  The canopy metaphor is safer and it expands the image beyond the low dimensionality of an arabesque into a transcendent n-dimensional field.

[ii] These descriptions are formed as dynamical systems graphically presented by Ralph Abraham in the 1980’s and more formally by H. Hermann Hakon (1982), Wolf Singer (2003), and Tim Jarvilohto (1998). The Europeans have explored field thinking more than the Anglo-American researchers whose empirical studies of neural networks produce finer articulations.


Elden, Max  (1981) “Political efficacy at work: the connection between more autonomous forms of workplace organizations and a more participatory politics.” American Political Science Review 75 (1) 43-58.

Kelso, J.A. Scott, (1995)   Dynamic Patterns The Self-Organization of the Brain and Behavior  Cambridge, MIT Press

McWhinney, William H., (1964). Self-Organizing Systems. Industrial Administration. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon.

McWhinney, William H., (1968). “Synthesizing a social interaction model.” Sociometry 31(Sept): 229-244.

McWhinney, William H., (1992/97) Paths of Change. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.

McWhinney, William H., (2007) “Coupling.” Available from

Yovits, Marshall, George T. Jacobi, & Gordon D Goldstein (eds)  Self-Organizing Systems 1962.  Washington D.C  Spartan Books


One comment

  1. Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful article.

    Many thanks for providing these details.

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