For 27 years, I have been studying complexity. During that period, I have produced many publications pertaining to that work. (I can make available to you a bibliography of those publications.) In the first 15 years of that effort, I was about the only one who published regularly on complexity. My focus, in the work has always had to do with liberating human beings from dysfunctional constraints, in order to enable them to achieve three objectives:

  • Objective 1. To be able to describe accurately "problematic situations" (a term which was coined, I believe, by John Dewey, and offered by him as the best way to characterize an object of systematic inquiry) in sufficient depth to make possible broad agreement on the descriptions (whether these situations were extant, or whether they were hypothetical constructs arrived at for the purpose of portraying, clarifying, and/or designing better systems)

  • Objective 2. To be able to make sound diagnostics of problematic large-scale systems, based on those descriptions

  • Objective 3. To be able to design alternative large-scale systems from which to make choices

    In pursuing this activity, I have largely distilled the outcomes of the work into four manuscripts. (The relevant document is titled "Four Books on Complexity". This document summarizes each of the four books, chapter by chapter, showing what questions are raised in each chapter, and stating briefly what is asserted in the chapters.) It appears in Appendix 3.

    In spite of all the work reflected in the foregoing, I am now being asked to assume the responsibility of accounting for three new areas, and explaining why I do not accept these areas as the correct setting for work on complexity.(1)

    I bring this up only to advise you that I am aware of these areas, and my overall response to them is that "one twig does not a forest make, nor treble clefs a fugue". These misconceived definitions of complexity represent domains that I want to lay aside enroute to a discussion about the Great University, and resume at some future time, only if some genuine value can be attached to talk about those definitions at length.

    A Few Empirical Discoveries. A few empirical discoveries in my work on complexity have direct relevance to the Great University. Two of them may have direct relevance to this particular seminar on the Great University, as well as much broader relevance: Exorcism and Spreadthink.

    We discovered empirically, and documented with data, what many people already know intuitively. Meetings that try to come to grips with complex situations are almost always frustrating to almost everyone who attends them. But apparently it has only been in the last of the 36 lifetimes of documentation that this situation has been explained in some depth in terms of Exorcism and Spreadthink.

    I won't go on at length about these two things. I will only tell you the results, and why I believe they are relevant to this seminar. (If you are interested in pursuing them further, I can point you toward extensive documentation.)

    On exorcism, we have discovered that if we want people to engage with one another in constructive activity aimed at developing a systemic design concept, it is necessary first to make a strong provision as follows: all those who are going to come together must have the opportunity to enunciate in no uncertain terms all of the problems that they perceive to be relevant to the problematic situation; and to make sure that everyone else in the group understands them. It will not do for this to be a superficially-conceived activity, carried out in a Machiavellian way, inadequately supported, and with too little time allocation. But when properly done, the demons are not only exorcised, but their presence is brought into focus, allowing the mind to be released from the necessity to be alert to opportunities to introduce them individually and separately, as interruptions to what could otherwise be constructive dialog.

    I am strongly aware that this form of constructive exorcism should be done with any group that has an initial, serious intent to make progress toward achieving the Great University.

    Yet I am foregoing it here. Instead of doing it I am telling you that I know about it, in the hopes that, having been informed about it, and having possibly incorporated it in your own reservoir of knowledge (if you didn't already know it), you might be generous enough to allow me to violate what otherwise would be a necessity.

    The second finding has been named "Spreadthink". This refers to what we now consider an empirically demonstrated and reproducible phenomenon; and which also supports and illustrates the two Information Scale Propositions set forth earlier. Spreadthink reflects the fact that any time a group meets to work together on a complex issue using ordinary and familiar group processes, the individuals in the group will not agree on what are the most important subissues, and in general will not have a majority view on the merits of any of the many subissues.

    Because of this, I feel very certain it would be folly to believe that, in a 2-hour time period, agreement would be attained on any aspect of the Great University. And as a corollary to this, I believe that it would also be folly to spend much time discussing component issues in the group format, during this 2-hour seminar.

    On the other hand, I do believe that there might be some worthy followup to this 2- hour seminar, although I cannot begin to predict what it might be. It is with this optimistic view in mind that I am engaging in this seminar, and that I am presenting a very small set of references which I believe would be supportive of follow-up attempts.

    A Definition and a Quantitative Measure of Complexity. I have defined complexity as a state of mind, qualified by certain relevant conditions. You have received An Essay on Complexity which describes the definition, and the four indexes that have been established to help measure the complexity in a problematic situation. These measures are established to help demonstrate that when the Situational Complexity Index (logarithmic form) is 3 or greater, leaders or managers who are content to apply ordinary methods to those situations should be required to justify that point of view strongly, in light of the clearly-established research results which show that such an attitude cannot lead to adequate outcomes.

    The definition of complexity that is offered was clearly anticipated in the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, the great American philosopher whose views form much of the conceptual base for the research on complexity, and for the proposed design of the Great University. Peirce wrote that:

    "One singular deception ... , which often occurs, is to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious, and if our conception be afterward presented to us in a clear form we do not recognize it as the same, owing to the absence of the feeling of unintelligibility. So long as this deception lasts, it obviously puts an impassable barrier in the way of perspicuous thinking; so that it equally interests the opponents of rational thought to perpetuate it, and its adherents to guard against it." -- C. S. Peirce, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear", Popular Science Monthly 12 (January, 1878, 286-302.

    A Major Deficiency. A major deficiency in offerings by universities is now, and has always been, the absence of a well-defined program dealing adequately with complexity.


    1. Within the past 10 years, it has become commonplace in the developing literature of complexity to see three threads of effort being identified with complexity. These are:

      • Chaos Theory a la A. B. Cambel, Applied Chaos Theory: A Paradigm for Complexity (1993), New York: Academic Press.

      • Adaptive Systems a la the Santa Fe Institute, and as exemplified in publications by P. M. Allen, S. A. Kaufmann, Edgar Morin, and Ilya Prigogine.

      • Systems dynamics, a la Jay Forrester, Dennis Meadows, and Peter Senge.

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