Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Complexity Theory and Human Action

Posted Feb 3, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 2 Comments

At the center of complexity theory is that idea that a whole system is larger than its parts, and that out of this wholeness emerges newness.  This seems like a good description of some events and processes.  It helps us understand them better.  In other cases, it leads to misunderstanding.  This is especially true when complexity theory is applied to economics and politics.  The reason for the misunderstanding is that complexity theory tends to erase the part that human decisions and actions play in human history.  One could say complexity theory may be good for understanding human behavior, but it does a lousy job in understanding human action.


Complexity theories tend to overlook the difference between natural and social systems.  Social systems include not only events, processes, and feedback loops, but also choices.  Humans make choices because there are alternative courses of action—things could have been otherwise and could be otherwise.  Human decisions and actions must be included in any complete (complex) history of economics or politics.


Where complexity theory runs into trouble is when one uses its doctrine of emergence to interpret human systems.  I remember a question and answer session with one of the leaders in the doctrine of emergence, Otto Scharmer.  In this meeting, he talked about his book, U Theory: Leading from the Future as It Emerges (2009).  The idea was that we need to slide down the one side of “U,” letting go of everything holding us back, until we reach the bottom, and then join the new that emerges on the other side.  Scharmer said he got this theory from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  Well, Heidegger certainly did have a strong belief in emergence.  In the early 30s, he believed the rise of Nazism was an emergence of a new humanity.  I asked Scharmer if he had known about Heidegger’s use of the doctrine of emergence, and more to the point, how he could discern if what was emerging was good or evil.  To put it nicely, he didn’t have a clue.  Neither did Heidegger, because whatever emerged was beyond good and evil.  Wherever we erase human choices from social systems, as Heidgger and Scharmer do, we also ignore the distinction between good and bad choices—the moral dimension of human life.


The classic case of erasing human action from social systems can be found in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  During his years in Glasgow meeting with the tobacco lords of Glasgow (they made him a honorary citizen), Smith wrote about the invisible hand as the dynamic for economic development.  How reassuring to these tobacco lords, whose enormous wealth depended on the tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland, that the hand that created their wealth was not the visible hand of the slave merchant or the slave owner, but the invisible hand of the market.


A fine example of writing human history that includes both trends and human choices is Orville Schell and John Delury’s Wealth and Power:  China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (2013).  They integrate deep collective motives and themes with individual choices by leaders and intellectuals.  Sun Yet-Sen, for example, decided to align himself with the Russians rather than the West in 1923 and 1924.  He made this choice in a thick context of social currents, of course, but he could have done otherwise, just as the Americans could have created stronger connections with China instead of Japan after the Second World War.


There are many strong trends today, and we all find our choices embedded in social systems.  Still, if we cannot point out some of the choices that got us to our current situation and some of the choices that may move us toward a better future, then why bother?

2 Responses to “Complexity Theory and Human Action”

  1. Joseph Petrick says:

    February 21, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Hi, Marvin, You emphasis on human choice and action hit the nail on the head with regard to the inadequacy of complexity theory. Some sad news. My mother passed away recently and because I was retired I was able to be with in Colorado her during her final days. Hope you and your family are well. Enjoy your blog. Stay in contact.
  2. Marvin Brown says:

    February 22, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    Sorry to hear about your Mother. And I didn't know you retired. Yes, stay in touch. Marvin

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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