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The Big Picture: What it Is, and Why it Matters

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FractalContemporary academics and intellectuals tend to reject theories dealing with the Big Picture. In the next couple of posts I will explore why the Big Picture still matters, why it became so unfashionable, and how we can work with it without falling into the old traps.

Part I: The Big Picture and its Critics in the Sciences and the Humanities

A few years ago a graduate student friend of mine in the Computational Neuroscience department at the University of Rochester was told in all seriousness by his adviser that he should not spend more than fifteen minutes a month thinking about the Big Picture.

He was referring to the meaning of my friend’s findings, beyond the immediate context of measurement and technical analysis. That is to say, my friend was warned against considering the implications of his research for understanding ourselves and the world. That is not what the research is for, argued the adviser, and it is not what the data can tell us.

What I will call the Big Picture refers to the attempt to systematically describe and explain patterns of events or broad categories of phenomena at a high level, such as we find in comparative and interdisciplinary studies. In the current intellectual climate, this approach is usually framed in opposition to close empirical study, which often has little to say about the world as a whole, or what things mean in the larger sense. The frequency with which the value of the Big Picture is dismissed out-of-hand might surprise someone unfamiliar with the academy, but it is extremely common, and most comparative work these days begins with a lengthy defense of the approach.



One still finds occasional advocates of thinking in large-scale terms, but the heyday of grand theorizing is long past. Few scholars take more than a historical interest in Durkheim, Frazer, Spengler, or Hegel, and entire disciplines that smack of interdisciplinary or comparative analysis have all-but vanished. Intellectual history is increasingly considered old-fashioned, and comparative work by pioneers such as the ethnographer Adolf Bastian, or by comparative religion scholars like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, are routinely dismissed by specialists who are frequently unfamiliar with their work.

For those of us who still believe that what things mean is important and worth analyzing, the rejection of global theories is unfortunate. The issue is not black and white, however, because the demise of grand theorizing was in many ways a healthy and necessary development. The increasing insistence that scientific claims be falsifiable, for example, has done much to constrain dangerous and misleading forms of pseudo-science. That is to say, we should be able to submit any scientific hypothesis or theory to empirical verification, or the fundamental rational-empirical premise of science is undermined.

On the one hand, then, we must take these advances seriously, and try understand what was wrong with so many of the old-style global theories. On the other hand, we should hold open the possibility that the Big Picture is not an unsuitable topic for study in principle. New strategies exist for dealing with global theories, and new classes of empirical phenomena are known to require such a perspective.

Let’s begin with a look at two of the most pervasive critiques of the Big Picture that have shaped our current intellectual climate over the last century: logical positivism in the sciences, and postmodernism in the humanities.



Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Christiaan Tonnis

In the sciences, global theories linking findings from different disciplines have been almost entirely displaced by close empirical observation, formal analysis, and experimentation. My anecdotal sense is that among working scientists, this theoretical orientation is typically inherited and is rarely the outcome of an analytical process of methodological reflection. But such analysis is present, what I generally find among scientists is a form of logical positivism.

In essence, logical positivism is a theory of science that holds that there are only two kinds of meaningful claims we can make about the world: empirical claims that can be either verified or disproven, and the terms of formal operations that are structured by rules, such as math or logic. In the view of logical positivists, most theory building is merely a thinly-disguised form metaphysical speculation, and speculative theories have about as much to do with truth as theology does – that is, nothing at all.

The epistemological stance of logical positivism has often struck me as naïve, as many logical postivists seem to regard the relationship between the knowing subject and the world as unproblematic, which ignores the keen insights of two hundred years of philosophy and at least sixty years of psychology. The practical consequence of this orientation, however, has been beneficial on the whole. Positivism orients scientists to stick close by the data, which counter-balances the innate human tendency to formulate theories prematurely, and to shape their subsequent findings to fit their ideas – a problem known to cognitive psychology as confirmation bias.


In the humanities, postmodernism has trained decades of students to view global theories with suspicion. Postmodernism, as formulated by the French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, rejects external overarching systems as the ground for determining the meaning of elements within the system. Lyotard suggests a cursory definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” referring to the lattice of epistemological assumptions and beliefs which legitimate any particular form of discourse. For example, he characterizes the basic narrative of science that grounds the discipline in a cultural and epistemological sense of legitimacy as “the hero of knowledge work[ing] toward a good ethico-political end — universal peace.” (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition; A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, xxxiii-xxiv)

The related critical-theoretical approach of poststructuralism analyzes texts through deconstruction, a technical approach to reading texts that excavates and destabilizes the implicit conceptual frameworks that organize textual meanings. A deconstructive reading exposes and undermines the hidden metaphysical assumptions implied by the conceptual framework upon which a text is based. Such a reading brings the metaphysical assumptions of its author to light, determining their influence on the text and unraveling their contradictions or limitations.


The Foxy Monsieur Foucault

As a rule, postmodernists emphasize difference over unity, polysemy over analogy, and deconstruction over metaphysics. As such, the very concept of a neutral conceptual sphere that allows different and manifold phenomena to be analytically grasped in terms that render them all alike with respect to conceptual judgments is viewed with suspicion. The postmodernist is likely to question many common strategies for conceptually organizing the world as based on anachronistic metaphysics that hearken back to Plato’s idea of the world as constituted by eternal, timeless truths.

The postmodern rejection of global narratives often constitutes a political critique of the control mechanisms encoded in the conceptual distinctions shared by members of a society, which both determine and reflect sociopolitical interpretations. Historically speaking, the coordination of social belief is often intertwined with tacit or overt mechanisms for enforcing conformity. As such, revolutionary or marginalized groups have often employed deconstruction to subvert social constructions of identity based on characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or race. Critiques of this kind, which one might find in the writings of Michel Foucault or Luce Irigaray, destabilize the covert tactics by which conceptual distinctions organize humans in typologies that suppress differences on the level of concept formation.

Here we have the strangest of bedfellows: positivism and postmodernism, which could hardly be less alike, nonetheless share a deep suspicion of grand theories. Largely as a result of these philosophies, an intellectual climate has arisen in the United States in which few academics take the possibility of looking at the big picture seriously.

My purpose here is not to call either positivism or postmodernism into question. Both have made important contributions to culture and society. I believe that the positivists are right to push science toward painstaking empirical engagement with the world, and the postmodernists have offered important criticisms of some very bad ideas.

But when these philosophies reflexively reject global theories, their putative target is often out-of-date.

In the last fifty years we have developed important new conceptual tools for dealing with complexity, and we have established strong empirical grounds for taking such theories seriously. There are species of global theory today that have little in common with the architectonics of, say, Marx’s dialectical materialism.

One of the most important conceptual frameworks for organizing such theories is general system theory. In the next post in this series, we’ll have a look at systems theory, what it deals with, and how it works.

Coming Soon:

Part II — General System Theory, Self-Organization, and Emergence


Written by Mesocosm

August 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm

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