The social theory of a sustainable, collaborative learning society is founded on a strong theoretical basis, which is the subject matter of this part of the writing. The underlying theories will be unfolded step by step, each step resulting in clarifying aspects of a fundamental principle or a ground rule derived from the principles. These fundamentals taken together underpin the social theory. Some theories are hard to digest. In particular, George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form is discussed, which is a mathematical and philosophical work describing the very principles of mathematics and human cognition. Laws of Form provided the basis for the social theory of Luhmann, which is highly influential but also not easy to comprehend. The theories are explained in such a way that the fundamentals for the social theory of a sustainable, collaborative learning society are justified. Readers with limited or no theoretical inclinations may just assume the validness of these fundamentals by taking the explanations for granted. However, much effort has been put into the explanation of the theories to make it worthwhile to dig deeper to gain deep insights. Again, it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but give it a try.

In the section on principles and ground rules, three principles and two ground rules were discussed to formulate plausible starting points on which the facilitators guide and the social theory are grounded. In this part – foundation – the underlying concepts and theories are discussed to substantiate the principles and ground rules.


  • Axiom: we got move;
  • Injunction 1: create room for change;
  • Injunction 2: determine the right direction.

Ground rules:

  • Rule 1: co-dependency implies care responsibility;
  • Rule 2: diversity in opinions is a basic and essential right.

The two injunctions and the two rules are directly derived from the axiom we got to move. The axiom was justified on the basis of a call for action. We are facing substantial man-made and environmental changes such as climate change that require countermeasures. Doing nothing in such cases is simply not an option. However, here the idea is put forward that living creatures like human beings have no other option but to move. Living creatures are sensing their surroundings continuously and adapt to changing circumstances in order to sustain.

Disclaimer: het vervolgverhaal is gestructureerd volgens de hieronder weergegeven concept map. Voor het structureren van het verhaal was deze concept map nuttig, maar het moge duidelijk zijn dat deze concept map niet in deze vorm aan de lezer kan worden voorgeschoteld.

We Got to Move (WGTM) map (pdf)

We Got to Move

The fundamentals for continuously sensing and adapting can be traced back to Laws of Form (LoF). LoF states how some-thing can be created out of no-thing by making distinctions. Imagine a formless void that contains everything there is, but at the same it is nothing because due to its formlessness, nothing can be discerned. The formless void is nothing and all at once. LoF starts with the definition: distinction is perfect continence, meaning that by making a distinction, some-thing is opposed to no-thing. This implies that nothing (i.e., no some-thing) can stand on its own, because without a distinction, something reduces to nothing.

All living creatures make their own distinctions to distinguish all kind of things in our world. The distinctions you make are meaningful for you. They are significant, some-things of value. Therefore, a distinction and an indication (i.e., indicating some-thing of value) arise together. There is no distinction without an indication, and vice versa.

LoF’s concept of living creatures making distinctions has a number of consequences. Firstly, because nothing, including human beings, can stand on its own it follows that we depend on each other. And since we depend on each other, we have the moral obligation to take on care responsibilities, not just physical care but also care in the broadest sense (i.e., I care about you). This moral obligation forms the heart of the Ethics of Care (EoC) philosophy and is reflected in ground rule 1: co-dependency implies care responsibility.

Secondly, because every living creature creates its own distinctions by sensing the world, the whole idea of objectivity becomes less conceivable. For instance, questions can be raised regarding whether an objective reality exist. Or one step further, does reality exist in the first place, or are things constructed in one’s mind only? What is then truth and what is knowledge? Clearly, taking a stance in these matters determine the way research is conducted to bring about change. Our stance is that reality exists, that is to say, things in reality are for real. However, these things cannot necessarily be associated with objectively determined truths about these things. Things are the way they are. It is the way how things are perceived, i.e., the distinctions being made are attributed to a thing to determine its qualities. The research philosophy that corresponds with this view is critical realism.

Thirdly, living creatures such as human beings are autonomous in the sense that everyone make their decisions on the basis of sensing the world. This is a self-referential notion. Future thoughts and actions are based on experiences referring to your own distinctions that you made in the past. Besides being self-referential, no other thing, e.g., another human being, can directly control your behavior. This is not to say that you cannot be influenced by the outside world, clearly you are and sometimes very strongly, but in the end, you make the decisions although the options may be limited. In short, an human being is a self-organizing creature: organizationally closed – a closure in which an human being makes its own decisions and guides its actions – and structurally open – influenced by the environment including other human beings.

To elaborate on the structurally open phrase, human beings are by means of interaction mutually influencing each other. For instance, this can be in a direct way by being engaged in a dialog, but also indirectly by reading a book. In order to keep going, there must be a difference in what is being said with respect of what has been said before, otherwise, in the end, nothing substantial is said anymore, which amounts to a standstill. However, a human being only accepts a new idea or insight if it resonates with previously established concepts in the form of distinctions that have been formed. Only then a human being will react and keeps itself and therefore a group alive: there must be a difference that makes a difference. Human beings renew themselves in a psychic sense by autonomously referring to past experiences. This process is called autopoiesis, which means self-producing by using their own means.

The four concepts – self-reference, autopoiesis, autonomy and closure, are distinct concepts but clearly, strongly related with each other. Living can be equated with cognizing (sensing) the world leading to adaptations regardless whether to adapt to small, mundane disturbances or to large disruptions. In order to sustain as a human being or a group, there must be continuously differences that make differences. A standstill is not an option. Therefor the conclusion is inevitable: we got to move, by all means.

How to Move

Recognizing that we must move is one thing but this statement does not tells us how to do so. Today’s societies are complex and the challenges we are facing have a wicked nature. Appropriate methodologies, methods and techniques are needed to tame the complexity to really understand the underlying mechanisms in order to intervene effectively where deemed necessary. Systems thinking and cybernetics provide the foundation to reason about wicked problems systematically. Together they form an interdisciplinary field, incorporating ideas from philosophy, mathematics, physics, sociology, biology, and many more, to develop an overarching theory to understand complex phenomena from different perspectives. The connection to other fields, such as ethics of care, identity and group dynamics, and democracy and governance, are discussed in the section on the social theory.

The foundation for the social theory is structured according to the scheme shown below.
Foundation for the social theory.jpg

Systems thinking is about understanding the whole through its parts. However, the parts cannot be understood without the context of the whole. Cybernetics is the art of steering, navigating or governing a system. First-order cybernetics a.k.a. hard systems thinking introduced the concepts of feedback, in particular negative feedback to control that a desired outcome is reached and maintained.

Systems thinking and first-order cybernetics shared originally the same ideas. The two branches then departed in two separate tracks having a distinct interpretation of the system concept. Systems thinking further developed into soft systems thinking and critical systems thinking, whereas first-order cybernetics evolved in second-order cybernetics, which further progressed in cybersemiotics. Second-order cybernetics (a.k.a. neo-cybernetics) introduced the observer as part of the system. The foundation of the social theory as expressed in the axiom we got to move is based primarily on second-order (neo) cybernetics concepts. Spencer-Brown’s LoF gave a decisive thrust to second-order cybernetics consolidating Maturana’s and Varela’s concept of self-producing systems and Luhmann’s social theory.

Remarkably, there is hardly any cross-fertilization between these two branches, which is regrettable because both strands of systems thinking have developed valuable ideas and methods. In particular, the hard systems approach evolved into soft and critical system approaches in which worldviews and boundary questions play a pivotal role. The soft and critical systems approaches provide practical methods to investigate stakeholder’s worldviews on societal challenges and to accommodate them in order to make progress together. Investigating and accommodating worldviews is the key to change, which is reflected in ground rule 2: diversity in opinions is a basic and essential right. The concepts of worldviews and boundary questions are also present in second-order cybernetics albeit in a more theoretical sense. However, in essence, they are very similar to the second-order cybernetic concepts like distinction and a difference that makes a difference.

With the Expertise Management Methodology (EMM), having the Expertise Management ontology (EMont) as its core, the two strands are brought together. This gives a rich and open methodological framework in which theories and concepts can be embedded, like the aforementioned systems approaches and cybernetics, but also human behavior models and identity theory. And these applications are all foundational for the social theory of a sustainable, collaborative learning society.