This paper discusses the novelty of Aleksandr Bogdanov’s approach, which combines the systemic perspectives employed in his
- system thinking
Contemporary interpretations of Bogdanov as a pioneer of cybernetics and systems theory see his contributions only as precursors to later perspectives. As James White and Vadim Sadovskiy pointed out, Bogdanov’s early thinking, and in particular his epistemology, deeply influenced the rise of the
During the constitution of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898, new cultural ferments from Europe reached Saint Petersburg to influence the political ideas and activities of a rich group of intellectuals. These intellectuals were fascinated by the epistemological revolution that the physicist Ernst Mach and the philosopher Richard Avenarius carried out in Europe and attempted to introduce some of their works and philosophical notions to the Bolsheviks. The followers of Avenarius and Mach thus ignited an ideological debate among revolutionaries that progressively led to a split. Indeed, it was much more than a simple political controversy, and it had the power to shake the columns of the entire theoretical apparatus on which Russian Marxism had been founded (Tagliagambe & Rispoli 2016; Plaggenborg & Soboleva 2009; Strada 1994).
One of the most important interrogatives on which the Russian ‘Machists’ and the dialectical materialists diverged regarded the way we produce knowledge and the means by which we know and represent the external world. See the article by Daniela Steila (2016) published in this volume.
See the article by Daniela Steila (2016) published in this volume.
In Mach wrote this in his
Mach wrote this in his
Following Avenarius’s argument, when a person has an experience, three things are immediately assumed by that person: the environment as a portion of space where other individuals live; other human beings expressing their verbal assumptions about the environment; and that what that person experiences somehow depends on the connection between these two kingdoms. Therefore, during the process of knowledge creation, a person assumes 1) the existence of different individuals who communicate with each other, 2) the ‘environment’ constituted and organized by those individuals, and 3) the dialectic process established among them, namely between the individuals and the environment (Avenarius 1972).
As in Jan C. Smuts’s analysis,
In the book
Moreover, the process of knowledge creation is not a passive recording of external phenomena but an active behaviour aimed at understanding and grasping ‘facts’ of nature that belong to the group and are collectively learned. In this respect, Avenarius and Mach share the assumption, later also endorsed by Bertrand Russell, that knowledge is primarily a biological adaptation. However, Avenarius seems to regard the process of active ‘communication’ as being prior to the process of ‘adaptation’ to the environment. In his view, the possibility of knowing implies a process of assimilation of the spatial and social environment through inter-communication of individual experiences.
Most probably, Avenarius examined mostly human knowledge in his theory because it was directly linked to his main interest in human psychology. Mach, on the other side, takes into account elementary biological organisms as well, showing how sensations do not belong only to humankind. A sensation, which is a product of biological evolution, is not just about individual sentient beings and their psycho-cognitive structures; rather, it is a global process that affects the whole body. It also occurs in less complex elementary organisms in which cognitive structures are almost absent. In such cases, Mach speaks about whole perceptual arrangements of behaviours. A sensation, in Mach’s view, is a relational mechanism and propagates itself along multiple sensory connections (Mach 1915).
Drawing on Mach and Avenarius, Bogdanov also believed that sensations are forms of adaptation to the world that actively contribute to building the environment.
In the next section, we shall investigate Bogdanov’s interpretation of the relationship between organisms and the environment in the framework of Bogdanov’s science of the organization. Then, we shall consider the process of knowledge in Bogdanov’s view and conclude with his idea of culture as living experience.
In Bogdanov’s view, organisms, regardless of their biological complexity, whether ants or human beings, build their social and natural environments by modifying them in ways that are beneficial to themselves. However, the environment, far from being passive, works as a set of circumstances that exert pressure on a community, and this reduces the spectrum of activities that a community can possibly undertake.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, an anti-reductionist view of the relationship between organisms and the environment, especially in Western evolutionary biology, still represented a challenge. As the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ developed in the mid-twentieth century, the properties of the environment were drastically oversimplified, for example in the understanding of natural selection, which was at times conceived as a merely mechanical process. This paradigm, which tried to reconcile Mendelian genetics with gradual biological evolution by means of natural selection acting on mutations, has been a dominant one within evolutionary biology since 1950. However, the definition of ‘modern synthesis’, a term that had been coined by Julian Huxley as early as 1942, explained natural selection as a powerful causal agent of evolution and over time this became seen as its exclusive force (Gould 1984).
The paradigm shift did not take place until the 1970s when several biologists, Richard Lewontin among them, began to criticize the idea that the environment can be understood as being independent of organisms. According to Lewontin, in discussing the interaction between organisms and the environment, neo-Darwinists had postulated two definite and independent entities: the genome and the physical environment, describing the development of the organism as a result of both of them. But, in doing so, they had not considered that, during this process, the environment is continually being redefined and reshaped by the developing organism (Lewontin, Rose & Kamin 1984: 277). For example, Robert Brandon, who is largely known for his contribution to eco-evolutionary theories, shows that all organisms in a particular region of space and time share the ‘external environment’, but, to understand the particular selective forces acting on one lineage of organisms, it is necessary to pick out a specific ‘ecological environment’, so that the ecological environment of a fly will be quite different from that of a tree, even if they occupy the same external environment (Griffiths 2014).
Thus, we can investigate the environment at different layers according to the functional and physiological relations that occur between different organisms and environments in a specific niche. Even if we study one single organism in the course of its development, instead of many organisms, we should think in terms of multiple environments. As Bogdanov wrote in
Here is the germ of a plant. As its cells reproduce, they turn out to be in increasingly dissimilar environments: some go down into the soil, others rise into air; originally similar, they inevitably modify in terms of the increasing divergence. The principal point is that the dominant materials for assimilation are dissimilar: in soil, these are mainly water and salt; in air carbon dioxide, oxygen, and radiant solar energy. All the above materials, however, are part of the structures of all cells, i.e., they are assimilated and dissimilated by all parts of the system. In what direction, then, must the selection regulate the development? What correlations of the diverging parts will be most stable? The parts of the plant complement each other, and this is possible precisely thanks to the preservation of their connection which is kept intact by the common internal medium, the motion and the exchange of the plant’s sap. (Bogdanov 1988: 157–158)
According to Bogdanov, the development of a plant occurs in accordance with the varied environmental circumstances of that plant’s inner components; that is to say, during its developments and in relation to external environmental factors that are physical and biogeochemical.
In On the plural history of the concept of environment, see also Benson 2020. The Niche Construction Theory was inspired by Lewontin, among others, but Odling-Smee coined the term in 1988 (Odling-Smee 1988).
On the plural history of the concept of environment, see also Benson 2020.
The Niche Construction Theory was inspired by Lewontin, among others, but Odling-Smee coined the term in 1988 (Odling-Smee 1988).
It is important to note that, in Bogdanov’s view, a system cannot be separated from its environment because it does not simply exist or interact within its environment: ‘it is structurally coupled with it and thus evolves in its own environment while co-evolving with it’ (Zeleny 1988: 333). This also explains why Bogdanov used the term ‘complex’ instead of ‘system’ to describe the evolutionary conditions of natural things (Zeleny 1988: 333).
Bogdanov did not relegate the environment to the status of an element of disturbance to be kept under control. This conception would be examined in many further studies in cybernetics and systems theory in the 1950s, the period during which the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis also became widespread. For example, according to Norbert Wiener and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the environment is often mistakenly regarded as a perturbation that leads the system to a state far from equilibrium, whereas equilibrium is supposed to be the purpose to which a self-organized system should aim. Signals coming from the environment are put aside because they might create a deficiency in the organization of the system. The idea of the environment as an element of disturbance marks the General System Theory as inferior when compared to tektology (Zeleny 1988).
According to Pushkin and Ursul (1994), there are two distinct levels at which we can interpret the attitude of systems, such as organisms, towards their environment: self-regulation and self-organization. Self-regulation is inherent to systems that maintain the status quo, which means a static state of equilibrium that can be formalized through a mathematical explanation. A self-organizing system, however, which Bogdanov describes as one that shifts from the static to the processual aspect of the objects, maintains a more complex relationship with the environment because it assimilates material that then creates the conditions for that material to emerge and evolve to a different stage, in a new configuration, which in turn modifies the surrounding environment through the release of different outputs. Thus, it is a more dynamic process that involves the notion of On Bogdanov’s feedback as a ‘bi-regulative’ process, see Peter Dudley (2016) in this volume.
On Bogdanov’s feedback as a ‘bi-regulative’ process, see Peter Dudley (2016) in this volume.
Bogdanov insists emphatically upon the role of evolutionary relations in the dialectic between the inside and the outside, a distinction that is sometimes hard to conceive, especially when we take micro-organisms, organisms like worms, or even biogeochemical processes such as photosynthesis as examples. ‘Only a very small fraction of the environment of an organism is inorganic. The largest part of that environment is formed by other organisms’ (Rashevskiy 1960: 246). As Bogdanov stated: ‘The living organism is characterized as a machine which not only regulates itself but also repairs itself. As the elements of tissues of an organism wear out[,] it replaces them with material taken from the environment and ‘assimilated’ …. The dead matter taken from (outside) is transformed by the protoplasm into its living matter, chemically identical’ (Bogdanov, chapter V, section 7: 95–99). This quotation has been taken from a collection of unpublished materials relating to Bogdanov’s tektology made available by Peter Dudley. Not surprisingly, symbiogenesis, the evolutionary origin of new morphologies and physiologies by symbiosis, has been at the forefront of the Russian conception of evolution since the last century. See Margulis and Fester 1991.
As Bogdanov stated: ‘The living organism is characterized as a machine which not only regulates itself but also repairs itself. As the elements of tissues of an organism wear out[,] it replaces them with material taken from the environment and ‘assimilated’ …. The dead matter taken from (outside) is transformed by the protoplasm into its living matter, chemically identical’ (Bogdanov, chapter V, section 7: 95–99). This quotation has been taken from a collection of unpublished materials relating to Bogdanov’s tektology made available by Peter Dudley.
Not surprisingly, symbiogenesis, the evolutionary origin of new morphologies and physiologies by symbiosis, has been at the forefront of the Russian conception of evolution since the last century. See Margulis and Fester 1991.
According to Bogdanov, organized systems require a changing environment, and a system under development involves an environment under development. The environment plays a constitutive and constructive role in the process of the structural evolution of those (Pushkin and Ursul 1994). Plasticity is therefore an important feature of tektological complexes, which can be analyzed as evolving unities thanks to the continuous exchange of matter and energy with the environment.
Many years after Bogdanov’s work, this idea is still found challenging. In the science of ecology, the interaction between the biological community and the environment tended to be viewed as unidirectional. It was assumed that species evolved in the environment and ‘the reciprocal phenomenon, the reaction and evolution of the environment in response to species, was put aside’ (Lewontin & Levins 1980: 49). A static complex, be it the system or be it the environment, does not exist in nature so the development of the system and that of the environment co-evolve. They are part of a single complex that is differentiated in its functions and organizations. The existence of this complex depends upon its organization in relation to all other external systems; it is therefore not fruitful to study them in isolation since in isolation they do not even exist. As Sadovskiy pointed out, ‘the complex is a Bogdanovian version of the modern concept of the system, which, in addition, is not interpreted as a set of interrelated elements but as a process of their organization’s change, dependent on the structural linkage of the complex and its environment’ (Sadovskiy 1992: 7). According to Bogdanov, the fluctuation of a system attributable to the intrusion of variables from outside should be interpreted not exclusively as disruptions to harmonies but as factors that can bring new possibilities of existence by stimulating the emergence of new properties and, in this way, the establishment of new organized entities.
Keeping in mind Bogdanov’s powerful contribution to the framework of contemporary systems theories as applied to the correlative and co-evolving relation between organisms and environment, we shall now return to his monistic interpretation of knowledge.
In proposing his empiriomonistic theory on the genesis of knowledge, Bogdanov starts from epistemological premises that are similar to those of Avenarius, namely, he posits the existence of a dialectical relation among three elements: the environment, the individuals comprising the spatial environment and the interdependence between their verbal expressions and the external environment. However, Bogdanov distinguishes his theory from those formulated by the empiriocritics in one particular respect: he argues that the process of knowledge production has to be seen in terms of shared activities in the context of collective work driven by common purposes, rather than as inter-verbal communication in a shared environment. A person’s experience of the external environment primarily refers to another individual’s action rather than to his or her verbal message. Before individuals communicate what they are experiencing, they must already have had the experience that will later be summarized and communicated. First of all, knowledge presupposes a concrete action in the world that can be seen as a practice of mastering the environment. Therefore, what is first exchanged, prior to any enunciation, is knowledge, in the form of a technical skill, of an action (White 1998). Moreover, according to Bogdanov, empiriocriticism is too passive and focused on individual sensations. Experiencing implies an active, socially structured interaction with the environment. The active nature of experience is stressed over passive perception (Rowley 2016).
Regarding knowledge as a sociological rather than an epistemological phenomenon, Bogdanov argued that an analysis of co-operation within individual groups provides the basis for the study of the development of knowledge (Gare 1994). Different activities in concert mean for Bogdanov nothing other than ‘general organization’, and this is a key issue in his
Bogdanov tried to apply his empiriomonistic ideas within the proletarian, cultural and educational institution (Proletkult) that he helped to establish in 1917 with the aim of forging a real proletarian culture intended for and produced by workers themselves. On the history of the Proletkult, see Mally 1990.
On the history of the Proletkult, see Mally 1990.
The Proletkult offered a way for workers to self-organize and self-govern their agenda both in the sciences and in the humanities, and it became the centre of a significant intellectual enterprise that was based upon a mastery of tektology. It made the development of a new creativity possible by providing a space for active co-operation in the building of a new culture. Ultimately, it was predicated upon a new way of living and knowing that reveals its leader’s theoretical ambitions to put action before the Machian elements of experience and the organization of labour at the base of knowledge evolution.
I have argued that the complex and systemic idea of the environment that Bogdanov deploys in his works provides a framework for his scientific ideas and undertakings. It is a framework that eventually enables him to bring into focus organization as a universal process of nature.
Bogdanov’s polymorphic concept of the environment, which he considered to be neither empty physical space waiting to be shaped by evolving living organisms, nor a collection of structural conditions that rigorously and unidirectionally determine the life of the community from all points of view, offers a compelling narrative through which to understand his ideas of culture as organization.
What is interesting is that Bogdanov provides an ample array of possible interpretations of the role of the environment across different disciplines and levels of analysis. These analyses include biological and ecological as well as cognitive and social dimensions. As Nikolay Krementsov has pointed out, an examination of Bogdanov’s work provides a unique window into the interplay of the revolution in life sciences in its institutional, intellectual and cultural dimensions (Krementsov 2011).
I have shown that Bogdanov’s work exposes the shortcomings of the reductionist approach towards the relationship between individuals and the environment that had been dominant in the understanding of evolutionary biology during the first half of the twentieth century. Emphasizing the co-determinant dynamics of systems and environments, Bogdanov brings into focus the construction of niches by biological communities, the interaction of cells and microbial communities within organisms. Importantly, he introduced the notion of the internal environment (the This work, written by Bogdanov between 1910 and 1911, was probably based on lectures he gave at the schools for Party workers in Capri and Bologna. See Rowley 2016.
This work, written by Bogdanov between 1910 and 1911, was probably based on lectures he gave at the schools for Party workers in Capri and Bologna. See Rowley 2016.
While most commentators on Bogdanov identify his general theory of organization, tektology, as the precursor to systems thinking and treat his empiriomonism as its philosophical foundation, Giulia Rispoli, in her contribution to this special issue, interprets his empiriomonism through his tektology. With this approach, she is able to interpret the subject matter of empiriomonism as a particular instance of organization, the organization of the experience of organisms, which includes the experience of people practically engaged in co-operative activities in their environments. This shows how Bogdanov went well beyond the empiriocriticism of Richard Avenarius with his characterization of the relationship among sensations, individuals communicating and scientific knowledge, and also the psychophysiology of Ernst Mach according to which sensation is a biological adaptation of the organism to its environment.
Bogdanov anticipated biologists such as Richard Lewontin, arguing that the environment is not an independent causal factor in evolution but is continually redefined and reshaped by the organism, a process of ‘bi-regulation’, a notion anticipating cybernetic theory. Through such bi-regulation, organisms select and assimilate dissimilar materials, which nevertheless complement each other, developing an internal environment (
On this basis, knowledge production was reconceived by Bogdanov in terms of shared activities of collective work driven by common purposes, in which the shared environment includes the actions of others, not merely their verbal messages. And rather than being seen as mastering their environment, knowledge involves active, socially structured interaction with their environment. Experience is active rather than passive perception, and knowledge is the organization of experience transmitted from generation to generation. ‘Individual sensation’ is thereby replaced by ‘collective experience’. Knowledge production is a collaborative, experimental practice developing and organizing this collective experience. While science is a major component of this, Bogdanov regarded artists and philosophers as also being involved in this organization of experience.
Through tektology, the organization of experience was interpreted by Bogdanov as participation in a universal process of self-organization. His notion of environment enabled him to examine biological, ecological as well as cognitive and social dimensions of life. As Rispoli concludes: ‘[O]rganisms and environments, nature and culture, pertain to different levels of organization but are parts of the same material world.’ Overcoming class divisions, most importantly the division between the organizers and the organized, will enable and require people to understand that they are not separate from each other or from nature. This is the challenge of Proletkult, a challenge for all workers, including labourers, scientists, artists and philosophers.