Shamanism, the Dao, new spirituality, new technology and cultural revolution
Systems sensibility - the core of our method. A Family of Existing Methods. Story of the Meta-system Fiction as a Meta-system Audio downloads

  What you will find
  in this section

Here we begin to traverse the ground between our systems sensibility and the projects of transformation: personal, cultural and political, that are about to open up for us. We discuss existing disciplines: the Viable Systems Model of Stafford Beer, Eugene Gendlin's focusing, the Permaculture approach to plant and animal husbandry, and Feldenkrais Method. This leads on to the concept of the meta-system, which is the key to the self-steering of complex systems - understood in the terms of the discipline of cybernetics. A linked page describes the principles of the action-research group which is the practical exploratory phase of the present enquiry.

Who am I?
I am Michael Roth, the author of all the material on this site. While training as a medical doctor, I was also an alumnus at the famed AntiUniversity of London (1968-1969), and became involved with the alternative psychiatry movement in that era and later.

I worked and studied with the existential psycho-analyst R.D.Laing, and was a founder-member of the Arbours Association (London), which provides alternative care for persons diagnosed with severe mental illness.

My research path has taken me into spheres of philosophy, social politics, linguistics and anthropology - whilst I have continued to seek out a genuine way of relating to other human beings in the troubled milieux of psychiatry, communal living, and twentieth and twenty-first century social and cultural instability.

I have been consistently inter-disciplinary in all of my reading and exploration, and the personal and philosophical insights to which this has given rise are almost always outside the prevailing classifications - or accepted lists of subjects.

The following authors are they whose work I have been most deeply occupied with, at different times in my life. This has often entailed exploring what the actual world feels like, within the patterns and definitions of life offered by these people. I have also written extensively, and often critically, about many of them.


  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Buber
  • Lao Ze
  • St Matthew
  • St Mark
  • St Luke
  • St John
  • Rudolf Bultmann
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Richard Rorty
  • Robert Pirsig
  • Donald Davidson
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Benedetto Croce
  • Charles Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • A.N.Whitehead
  • J.H.Randall
  • Justus Buchler
  • Martha Nussbaum

Biology, Physiology, Ethology and Cybernetics


  • Mary Douglas
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Milton Ericson
  • R.D.Laing
  • David Cooper
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Victor Turner

Virtual Reality


  • Eugene Gendlin
  • Arnold Mindell
  • M. Scott Peck

I am the foremost exponent of Charlotte M. Bach's ground-breaking theories of emergent evolution, described in my A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky (Dielectric Publications, London, 1984). I continue to work as a psychiatrist and as a researcher into holistic methods of facilitating social change This used to include facilitation and training sponsored by the organization, Community Building in Britain which developed and disseminated the work of the holistic psychiatrist M. Scott Peck through the 90s and noughties.

I am also involved in an exploratory research group seeking to fuse poetic, practical and fantastical modes of action to create significant cultural/political interventions in the here and now.

emotional intelligence
lived reality
biology, culture, evolution
philosophy, science
systems sensibility
dao and shamanism
action-research (study group)
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   Systems sensibility - the core of our method.
At the core of our practical approach is a tangible shift in the quality and effectiveness of our communication. This is simultaneously a shift in the patterning and flow of our attention, a shift in the kind of things we spontaneously give our attention to, and a difference in how we feel: about ourselves, and the people we are interacting with. In broad terms, it corresponds to the difference between relating from a suspicious or manipulative standpoint, and placing ourselves instead on the ground of openness, goodwill and acceptance. This, I need hardly point out, is easier said than done - but our practical method depends upon our willingness to search out ways of doing just this.

The open-hearted standpoint leads to an enhanced ability to share information, feelings, images and sensibilities; it has the dual effect of inviting conflict out into the open, but we shall also discover a vast unused potential, which normally lies hidden amongst the ambiguities, mixed messages and missed connections of our everyday pattern of living. These are powers to connect and communicate, and also to generate insight that can spill over into all areas of life: social, artistic, scientific, technical and spiritual. In opening ourselves to these powers, we are also able to co-opt them into the service of a better quality of life for everyone.

Amongst the main ingredients of this approach, as I outlined in the opening section of this work, is the theory of systems. Our primary concern here, is systems that we are a part of, and systems that are a part of us. The development of this way of thinking is one of the most important (and one of the less appreciated) advances in scientific understanding to have come out of the turmoil of the last century. And our present move - to combine this systems sensibility with a regard for the full intensity and intricacy of our lived reality - is going to unlock for us an unexpectedly powerful, practical alchemy.

I see this already demonstrated by an array of sophisticated and powerful methods which have been developed over the past several decades. My own project relates closely to these, as an attempt to reach towards the generic method - which will encompass these other methods, and reveal their fundamental kinship. There may well be a host of other practices which belong under this heading, but the following are the ones which I have personally studied or worked with:-

  • The Permaculture approach to plant and animal husbandry.
  • Stafford Beer's Viable Systems Model which applies to effective organisation at community, industrial and government levels.
  • Eugene Gendlin's Focusing methodology for psychology, psychotherapy and innovative thinking as a field in its own right.
  • Moshe Feldenkrais' Functional Integration applied to individual musculo-skeletal, kinaesthetic and postural organisation.

Not all of these methods talk about systems awareness. They all embody this sensibility, however, in the form of a commitment - and an effective leverage for change - on several levels at once:-

  • There is a different way of talking about things (about ourselves, our situation, and what we are doing - and adapted to the field of application of the method in question).
  • This is also a different appreciation of all these things, and of their inter-relationships.
  • This shift also entails a different way of engaging with the world in its various dimensions: social, practical, artistic or spiritual.
  • Finally, it entails a fresh approach to designing and organising which - considering the collective compass of all these methods together - can be applied to the whole range of human life activity.

All the methods are significantly more powerful than might otherwise be expected, because of a synergy between these different levels of change. They are, in effect, modelling the systems complexity of our lived situation, within the pattern of their engagement with the field. Hence this powerful alchemy - in which a pattern of subtle changes is transformed into something altogether different from the sum of its parts.

With my generic method, to be explored over the next several chapters, I am trying to carry the same principle a step further. I seek to generalise the approach and to bring it more explicitly into the domain of lived experience. To do this, I need to draw strongly upon Stafford Beer's thinking; his is the model with the most direct bearing on the work we are going to do.

Stafford Beer represents the high point of the emotionally intelligent systems thinking, which was on the rise in the decades from the Second World War to the early 1970s. (There has been something of an eclipse of his work and influence more recently, but I suspect that the cause of this is largely to do the vagaries of cultural fashion.) The focus of his method is the intelligent cybernetic modelling of any form(1) of human enterprise. From this complex and demanding(2) method I am selecting a small number of basic principles, which will help to ground - and to provide orientation for - the delicate structure which we are going to build together.

A remarkable feature of our own method, is that it centres so faithfully about our personal standpoint: our personal commitments, our feelings, desires, and preferred ways of getting along together. So although it is more general, and in a sense more abstract, in comparison with the practical methods I listed earlier, it is also more down-to-earth and personal. To understand this paradox, we need to know the technical background and reasoning, some of which I shall present now, and some of which is scattered through other sections of this study. We need some technical understanding, in any case, in order to understand how the method works; also to be able to make sense of the delicate choices we have to make in the course of our practice.

When we move on to exploring the practice itself, it will be in the imagined context of a group of people who approach the method for the first time, and we shall ask the following essential questions from a variety of different standpoints: who are we, what do we want, and what shall we do? These questions will be addressed in the unusual context, however, of the following key technical principle: a distinction that we shall keep continuous account of, between the system and the meta-system, within our field of activity.

The term "meta-system" refers to the collection of devices and inducements which guides the flow of our own behaviour - but also, we will find later that the same concept can be applied to the control function of any purposive system. Furthermore the concept is flexible enough - (and this will become evident as soon as we start to make practical use of it) - that it can straddle the divide between our individual behaviour, and our collective and interactive behaviour. With our new practical method we are seeking a new relationship with this steering function, so that we can understand it better, work with it more closely, and learn how to revise and upgrade it - in accordance with the new insights that will emerge from our combined theory and practice.

At first sight, the meta-system seems to be an extremely disparate set of components: consciousness, subtle recognitions, transient feelings, tentative conversations, moments of confusion, questions and answers. It is also about feeling our way along difficult pathways without making a fuss. And about mixed-up(3) unruly feelings: happy and anxious, terrified and calm, confident and awkward, tentative and relaxed. An important consequence of us entering into a more integrated relationship with these multiple components, will be that the meta-system itself will gradually be able to function in a more integrated fashion.

The idea of the meta-system is not altogether new, and there are important areas of overlap with religious teachings going back to the most ancient scriptures(4). The cybernetic and the spiritual outlooks have closely related subject matters: what we might call the higher-level direction of our life. Both are seeking some understanding of our place in the order of things. Both have a close relationship with our sense of awe or humility in the face of the mysterious powers which govern our personal fates and the universe at large.

There is suggestive evidence(5), also, that something closely resembling our present method was being practised in ancient China (during the era of the warring states) and in ancient Israel (before, during and after the Babylonian exile). This was under the banners of the various prophets: Lao Ze, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea. Our own position will differ from most present-day religious and spiritual teaching, however, in being a commitment to query(6). Out of this query we will develop provisional theories, ways of working, and rules of thumb - but these will be neither prescriptive nor dogmatic, and none of them are offered under divine sanction.

Our novel frame of reference also propels us towards the discovery of an essential ambiguity and an overlap, between our highest aspirations and our deepest, instinctive promptings. Religious or spiritual commitment very often creates a division between a "higher self" (which the religious person is struggling to make themselves become, or at least to resemble) and a "lower self" that is looked down upon, or regarded as animal, or evil, or worse. Our cybernetic inquiry seeks instead to bring these rival "selves" into closer apposition - we want to discover what the relationship is, between the seemingly higher levels of decision-making and everything that is going on with the powerful mental, social and cultural habits(7) which are the stuff of our animal organisation. We are seeking to bring these different levels into one integrated functional outlook. This is the radical new possibility that is opened up for us by the science of cybernetics.

In spite of our resolutely experimental attitude, I do not believe there is any ethical conflict between what we are going to do, and the best available interpretations of the major world religions. This becomes an increasingly urgent issue, the more that variant traditions and cultures come into contact, and make their unavoidable impacts, with one another. Our new approach helps us to seek out the potential paths of reconciliation between variant traditions, and to develop the sense of an emergent process(8) of ethical life, as we shall constantly be called upon to do as the pattern of life in every corner of this planet becomes increasingly multi-cultural. We need to find our commonalities, respect and value our differences, and maximise the chances for our variant ethical commitments to dwell creatively alongside one another.

In shaping our new conception of the meta-system, I shall render an account of this crucially important region of space time from a variety of angles(9). Our approach will be through a series of different encounters. It begins with formal definitions, coming from the discipline of cybernetics. This part of the approach is unavoidably technical. It is not essential for our practical engagement with the meta-system that follows later, but it provides a very useful scientific grounding for our work; technophobes amongst my readership are, of course, free to skip the following few paragraphs.

The term "meta-system" refers to a dedicated part of a system, having the function of steering or organising the main system. (The word "cybernetics" was taken from the Greek gybernos, which means a steersman or a pilot - related also to our modern word "governor".) So - since this is a functional concept - our next question has to be: how is this actually done? From my reading in cybernetics, I pick out three main working elements for the meta-system. These are:

1. The circular movement of information - also known as feedback. We shall use this word in its strict cybernetic denotation; it means that a consequence of the system's functioning is being fed back as a control input to the actual process of that functioning. It is, in other words, a feedback loop. In more practical terms, it means watching the results of what we are doing, and modifying our approach accordingly.

2. The possession of a working model of the activity of the different parts of the system: this means we have some conception of what these components do, how they do it, and how they interact to give rise to the composite system.

3. Subtle adjustments to the functioning of the individual components, and to the design of the model, so as to enable them to maintain - or improve - their way of working together.

We note that the meta-system is one of the components - it is one part of the system which it is steering or organising, but it is set apart from the other components by the very fact of its unique function.

This is a sufficient, if bare account of what a meta-system is, in terms that lend themselves to the control engineering and the management services which Beer describes in his work. Our task now(10) is to translate these abstract, formal principles into a form we can recognize as the same world that we are grappling with here on the ground.- in other words the everyday landscape of our personal reality.

As a step towards this, we shall consider an example of how the meta-system operates, from the domain of animal and human biology(11). We shall look at the behaviour of the reproductive unit - the functioning system that is known as the family(12).

The Story of the Meta-system - Biological Version.

The story begins, as we know, with the encounter of the prospective lovers. They may be complete strangers, or they may have known one another for some time, without suspecting that they are destined to become a pair. We must also include in our picture - as additional components of the system - the supporting milieu: a natural habitat, a local ecology/economy, a village, a town, an extended family and so on. If we think of the male and the female - they who are about to meet and form a pair-bond - as individual elements of the system, we should note the following salient points about them.

  • They are self-maintaining animals, able to move independently through the landscape, forage for food, and take care of other essentials of life.
  • They have other interests in life, apart from finding one another. This means there is every likelihood that they will be in the wrong place at the wrong time, such that the species' plan for their meeting and pair-bonding may be disrupted.
  • There are plenty of other prospective partners, to distract them from the "right"(13) choice. Again, they may be at the wrong place, at the wrong time - from the point of view of making good their relationship.

The meta-system which is steering this family unit in the making, then, has the task of co-ordinating this couple's meeting, their mutual recognition, and their attempts to co-operate in the project of the Next Generation. It has to steer them to the right place, in the right frame of mind, at the right time. It goes without saying, that this is a demanding and complex task, for ourselves and the vast majority of our close animal relatives.

So, how is it done? We can note first of all, that one of the essential functions of the meta-system is the accurate exchange of signals between one individual and the other. There also has to be effective monitoring of the individual contributions to the project, and the welding of these contributions into a functional whole. The members of the couple need to have a sense of what they want, what they are doing, and what the other person wants, and what the other person is doing.)

This, you will see, relates directly to the basic components of the meta-system which I outlined earlier. The feedback element is the network of signalling whereby the male and the female "know where they are" with each other so as to be able to adjust their actions and reactions accordingly. The model of the system - which I also referred to above - is the embedded set of archetypes(14) within the animal organism: of Male and Female, of the stages of the life-cycle, and the nuances of the interactions between the courting couple - then, in later stages, archetypal relationships between the father, the mother and their offspring. The subtle adjustments are brought about by means of a continuous stream of internal cues of pleasure and pain - within the couple's interactive behaviour. (Every nuance of the prospective couple's mutual positioning is registered twice over: as a reading of what is happening, based upon a comparison with the archetypal model, but also as a felt sense awash with a subtle palette of multiple hues of pleasure and pain, fine-tuned indications that something "feels right" or "doesn't feel right". All these cues have significant influence upon the steering of the relationship.)

This account, of course, is highly stereotyped in comparison with what we actually meet with, in our experience of life. This is because the individual life variations drop out of the story(15), as we sketch out the typical pattern of interactions from a biological or ethological perspective. (The purpose of this account, as I said, is simply to begin to get a feel for the functioning of the meta-system.) We need quite a different approach, if we want to get closer to our personal experience, with its rich variety and our perpetual overflowing beyond the simple stereotypes. For this we shall begin by considering the perspective of dramatic art: the stories told to us in novels, films or theatre. Let us note first of all, how we may find the meta-system coming into sudden, sharp focus, due the contrivance of the artist. This happens at certain points in the unfolding of certain novels, or films(16).

It is the moment when the narrative seems to suddenly switch: we were in the middle of a seemingly "objective" telling of the story, when the writer turns round and makes a reference to us the audience - or they may even take up details of the plotting with us. This is a shift from the system in focus, to the meta-system. There is one such shift towards the end of Jane Austen's Novel Mansfield Park, and to share this with you I need firstly to set the scene:-

We readers have been witnesses to Fanny and cousin Edmund's tentative restoring of their tender emotional ties, after Edmund's chastened return to the family home. Fanny has been in love with Edmund since childhood, always unsuspected by him. She has suffered cruelly from having to observe at close quarters - he knows of no reason why he should hide it - his infatuation with the vivacious, intelligent, but ultimately shallow Mary Crawford. Edmund has just received his final, shocking demonstration of the true extent of Mary's mercenary and shallow nature. He now understands that a close tie with her would have corroded his life and his life's hopes irrecoverably. The question we are asking is this: will Edmund manage to transfer his romantic affections from the seductive cosmopolitan, and fix them upon the true mate who has been yearning for him for most of the duration of the novel? And Jane Austen starts talking directly to us:-

"I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. - I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire"

In other words, Jane Austen is inviting us to participate with her, in "making up" the story! Edmund and Fanny have temporarily vanished from the scene, as our author reminds us that these are imaginary figures who stand for the interplay of personal desire, attachment, disappointment and struggle which any of us may go through. Jane is also invoking a natural course - as if the process were almost impersonal. The author does not want to impose her own, arbitrary, will upon the time course of this - the change must follow the rhythms and inclinations that nature herself will propose.

And so here is as vivid a shift as we could wish for, from the system in focus (the world of the story) to a meta-system (the world(17) of collaborative imagination which writer and reader participate in - and effectively steer - together). The contrast between the two domains (the system in focus, and the meta-system) might even be a little too stark for my purposes here. We need to recognize a much more subtle intertwining between them - the delicate weave that is far more typical of our real lives(18). The meta-system is not a localised piece of hardware, but a collection of steering functions and responses, which is distributed throughout the weft and the warp of the main system.

This is, in part, about the play of conscious awareness. And yet consciousness is only one aspect of the generation of information about the system, from within the system's own pattern of operation. So it is the back-and-forth reference between actuality, word, symbolic reference(19) and feeling, which pervades our lived reality. That is the heart of what is steering our course, through the pattern of our lives.

An important element here is the words we speak to one another - and the words we say to ourselves - but we need to remember that words always do more than simply say things. Words are human devices of astonishing versatility - which have enabled us to create a meta-system of immeasurably greater scope than any other animal on the planet. They frequently depict imaginary realities, they can symbolise relationships, between people, things or situations, and they can depict actual states of affairs. Part of the versatility of language is that words are always spoken in a tone of voice. (If written, they are couched in some particular literary style, so as to simulate an emotional tone or mood.) This very tone of voice makes an additional symbolic commentary; it modifies the meaning of the words, adjusts our relationship to what is said, and creates a mood - a kind of complicity - between speaker and listener. This is the effective steering function, it is the meta-system in action, with its continuous play of "subtle adjustments" upon the motivational sources of our ongoing behaviour - in this case, our reading of somebody else's meanings.

Such reverberations and cross-currents are of the essence of the meta-system, and of conscious awareness - but we need to recognize how vastly this all exceeds the compass of our conscious attention. The push and pull of symbols, and the subtle emotion that attaches to them, reverberates continuously through all of our conversations, our consciousness, our sub-conscious motivation, and our actions. This is the natural habitat, the wild landscape wherein dwells the meta-system. And, as with a wild animal, we have to learn to track this creature with stealth - lure it from its hiding-places and find a way to make friends with it. More of this in the following chapters.

The meta-system is as real as anything else that is studied by scientific methods. But we have a paradox, that the depiction of the meta-system in fictional creations gets us closer to "the real thing" than any scientific model that has hitherto been assembled(20). This is partly because - in order to be credible to its reader - the novel has to re-create the wild landscape of symbolic reference, as an essential background to the story. A novel is a naturalistic account of the meta-system in its seamless operation, through situation, through character and plot. I quoted an instance of Jane Austen's abrupt switch into a meta-language, but throughout the rest of her prose we can sense all these scintillating cross-currents at play, which I have just been speaking of. Her narrative is steeped in ironic commentary between the lines - every novel is a masterpiece of implied tone of voice, implied relationship, implied mood, all skilfully implanted within the written sentences. She is one of the great artists of meta-language and meta-system.

The wit, the clarity and the accuracy with which she brings this off is, in my view, a large part of the reason for Jane Austen's enduring appeal to a wide and ever-renewed readership(21). Critics may speak of "the universality" of her appeal. I think that the universal in question is her skilful deployment of the subtleties of the meta-system - the web of subtleties in which all of us participate, whether we know how to speak it in words or not.

I think there are personal and historical reasons for Jane Austen's special status in this regard. She was writing at the end of a long period of gradual socio-cultural evolution, and close to the time of the Revolutionary Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Seismic waves from that time continue to shatter, and to re-shatter, the more enduring cultural forms of human life. Jane Austen lived within the richly incoherent cultural force-field of those newly turbulent times.

One of the cardinal signs of an incoherent cultural force-field is that conflicting sets of values are operating in competition with one another. This is what we see, in every one Austen's novels. On the one hand, there are the pressures of cultural conformity and the clawing for status within a given social hierarchy. And there is, on the other hand, an aspiration for a higher, more honest love, caring and respect between human beings. These two sets of ethical values are, in effect, two distinct levels of meta-system. The rich, humorous play of irony in Jane Austen derives in large part from the cross-talk between these two levels.

Understanding this, we are in possession of powerful guide-lines for the flexible, provisional meta-system which will be the work-in-progress of our new, practical approach. We, too, will aspire to a higher level of personal integrity in our dealings with one another. Yet we shall seek also to find some honest acceptance of ourselves in respect of the powerful counter-forces which operate within our very heart. Both levels of meta-system need to be allowed to come into focus - and with no blame for the contradictions and lapses of integrity which are bound to emerge in the process. The details of this work need to be discovered and practised by concrete groups of people - in a form which we shall explore here, in subsequent chapters.

Notes to Chapter P1

1. In Diagnosing the System for Organisations (1985) Beer declares that the approach is relevant: "whether you are interested in a firm, an international conglomerate, a social service, a consortium of like-minded people, a government department, or a national economy." One of Beer's distinctions was to be invited as a consultant to the entire economy of Chile, under the only Marxist government to be democratically elected in the history of the world. Between the years 1971 and 1973 he devoted his main professional energy to this project. Following the CIA-inspired military coup and subsequent imposition of a military state under General Pinochet, Beer was invited to return and provide his services for the new regime - which request I am given to understand he politely declined.

2. A proper understanding of Beer's approach requires an apprenticeship to the cybernetics and underlying mathematics. This would also need to be combined with practice in the detailed modelling of some real-world enterprises. As a step towards the needful study, I refer interested readers to the bibliography attached to this work

3. Many people find such odd combinations of feeling worrisome, a sign of "abnormality" and requiring some expert explanation. We, on the contrary, will accept them as normal aspects of a functioning meta-system; accepting them as straightforward data, we are saved the fruitless task of explanation and can focus on learning to make the best possible response to them when they arise.

4. The major work in which Beer introduces the meta-system is Decision and Control (1966). In it, he places epigraphs taken from a broad sweep of ancient texts, so as to set the mood of the individual chapters. These quotations make it clear that humans have been thinking around these various concepts, from at least the beginning of recorded history. The most ancient of those quoted is in some ways the most sophisticated; certainly it is the most "cybernetic":-

In reality, action is entirely the outcome of all the modes of nature's attributes; moreover only he whose intellect is deluded by egotism is so ignorant that he presumes 'I am doing this'.

THE LORD KRISHNA  in the Bhagavad-Gita (circa 3000 B.C.)

5. LAFARGUE, M. (1992) The Tao of the Tao Te Ching. and AVNON, D. (1998) Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue.

6. The term query was coined - in the usage I am adopting - by Justus Buchler to cover something more than "enquiry", in that it can include artistic endeavour, ritual, exploratory action, and philosophical and religious speculation. It is the genus of which "enquiry" is the species, and is useful in carrying us beyond the restrictive, and sometimes over-rationalistic tendencies of the latter term. See BUCHLER (1955)

7. The typical stance of many a religious or spiritual discipline, is to make our instinctive habits wrong. They may be the work of the Devil, or of blind cultural conditioning, or of some rapacious and cunning Ego. We, on the contrary, want to create the conditions for an open-hearted negotiation between our various instinctive habits, in company with whatever higher aspirations we may espouse. See also the section entitled Apes, Angels and Outlaws.

8. The same theme will emerge in my treatment of "the evolutionary perspective" in the section entitled Apes, Angels and Outlaws.

9. This has a strong resonance for me, with the several approaches made by the blind discoverers of The Elephant (in an ancient Buddhist story). Different discoverers make separate acquaintance with a leg (identified as a tree); the tail (identified as a creeper); the trunk (identified as a snake); and a tusk (identified as a spear). Thus the whole incredible creature becomes progressively manifest to these open-minded but sightless explorers - on condition they stop arguing with each other and try genuinely to reach towards the common object of their several researches.

10. There is a separate discussion, which I place in an appendix, about the metaphysics and epistemology of the meta-system. This is to address the important issues and questions: who or what is it, that decides what counts as a "system", what is the basis on which we discern what the system is "doing" and how do its boundaries come to be defined (i.e. where does the system begin and end). In relation to that last question, there are two broad possibilities: 1. that we - the observer - define the boundary, on the basis of our own interest in, and our interactions with, the system at hand; or 2. the system itself has an internal logic which is capable of defining its boundaries for itself. These are discussions that must be had - but they would seriously distract from the flow of our argument in the present stage of our exploration.

11. The enormous power and flexibility of these cybernetic principles, comes from their relevance to every level where there is meta-systemic control. We shall see this demonstrated, in other parts of this study, at the level of cell biology, at the level of higher-level animal co-ordination, and at the level of our highest human aspirations.

10. I have tried to keep this account general enough, that it can stand in for the life of a wide range of mammals and birds - in a rough-and-ready sort of way; I have also had an eye, of course, to the human connotations of it all. Hence words like "town" and "village". I am also aware that my account has strong parallels with innumerable romantic comedy films. I take this to mean that the genre of romantic comedy addresses the fundamental archetypes of human courting behaviour (which includes both patterns of implementation and patterns of thwarting) - and plays with them in ways that usually entertain, but that provoke or inform as a very common side-effect.

11. Is there a "right" choice? Are some couples "meant for" one another? The philosopher Schopenhauer wanted us to believe that Nature selects "the right pair" for her own purposes - of perpetuating the race - regardless of the misery and pain which the couple will surely bring to one another's personal lives. His principle is: Nature knows what she wants, and she does not care whether we are happy or not. Jane Austen - who is shortly going to enter into our discussions - takes it for granted that there is a "happy union" which her story-line always manages to steer the "right partners" towards. Sophisticates of the Twentieth Century were often scornful of this attitude - which they liked to equate with Hollywood and candy-floss. They would argue that there was no "right partner" for anyone on the planet - our idea of the right partner, or soul-mate, was just a romantic delusion. For our purposes, we may accept that from the community's point of view some pair-bonds are significantly better than others, either because the marital harmony is good for the children emerging out of this family, or because the sparks that fly help to nurture the creative powers of the parties to the marriage (if, by chance, one or both parties is a creative artist). In support of this, it is surely significant how much we care (when watching a film or reading a novel within which relationships are being made or broken), whether the right couples come together and live happily ever after.

14. We shall meet with the concept of archetype at many different locations in this study. The most detailed treatment is at the "Apes, Angels and Outlaws" main page. I am incorporating this concept into the cybernetic framework of the present argument, but it also has a central place in my analysis of bio-social and cultural evolution. This is about what the archetype does - in other words, the function that it fulfils, within an essentially cybernetic context. This is not the thing that sociologists call an ideal type, nor is it a blueprint or template that determines behaviour in some prescriptive or mechanical way. The archetype, functioning according to our cybernetic model, is the plan that every meta-system must incorporate - a plan that is continuously updated and modified in real time. It operates in a continuous tension and interplay with the actual situation that is unfolding. (Its function is to orient, not to prescribe.) Since this is a strictly functional concept - and not a psychological one - this is a major departure from previous usage, notably in C.G.Jung in such works as The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Psychology and Alchemy and others. In the section entitled "Biocultural" we explore the question in detail. We shall make a distinction between bio-social and cultural levels of organisation, and we will also discover a parallel distinction between archetypes: bio-social archetypes are relatively unchanging whereas cultural archetypes are continuously modified and updated in real time, to bring currently active needs into alignment with the present situation.

15. This account also leaves out the crucial dimension of evolution - which is the life context in which every individual life makes its unique contribution, regardless of whether or not it conforms to the standard archetypal pattern. See chapter E-1: Apes, Angels and Outlaws: the evolutionary perspective.Also ROTH, M.(1984) pp75-103

16. The earliest filmed example I know, is Helzapoppin' (@@@) The knowing switch to the meta-system becomes a stock in trade, however, from the beginning of the French New Wave of the 1950s - eventually to become a post-modern cliché. There are also the transitional cases: the films noirs of the 1940s which convey a knowing self-consciousness about themselves as film even while they draw us into the bleak atmosphere of the world of the story.

17. With breath-taking elegance, Jane Austen succeeds in resonating her reference to the meta-system of the author's and readers' creative process with the other meta-system - that of the hidden forces which operates at one remove from the visibly unfolding drama of our lives. Such skill - in my view - puts her on the level of the greatest of the world's philosophers and scientists.

18. This whole area merits a much more detailed exploration, which we pursue in a parallel section of this work entitled The Landscape: Fact, Feeling and Action.

19. We shall take up the question of symbolic reference again, and in more detail, in chapter S-3: Fact, Feeling and Action as a Living System

20. In a collection of deeply insightful essays, entitled Love's Knowledge, Martha Nussbaum illustrates in detail how the worlds of fiction enable us to explore and grapple with subtleties of the real world which philosophy (and science) unaided cannot manage to capture. See NUSSBAUM M. (@@@) Also RICOEUR, P. @@@

21. It does not undermine the present argument, that virtually none of Jane Austen's readership has ever heard of "the meta-system". We can think of my account of the meta-system as one way of explaining what it is about Jane Austen, that rings such powerful bells with so many readers. I should also acknowledge here two useful studies, closely related to what I am arguing here, that have been a powerful help in developing my understanding of what Jane Austen is doing. See TAVE(1973) and MORGAN(1980)

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