Donella Meadows argues that the only thing more powerful than changing a paradigm is staying unattached to paradigms altogether. This might seem like the height of abstraction, but let’s follow her reasoning. Consider any specific paradigm from the previous section, such as the idea that Land can be owned by humans. First, we recognize that this is a paradigm, which means accepting that our own latent assumptions about geography are subjective, a priori, and deeply rooted in culture and tradition. Next we now recognize that dividing up different ideas about land ownership into paradigms is a paradigm, too.

It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny.1

Everything that has preceded this paragraph presents a particular mental model. This text is a paradigm – a perspective, an interpretation, a set of assumptions – about the nature of systems. But another book might present systems thinking from an entirely different paradigm. You should be rightly suspicious that you are reading the final and absolute truth on the matter. Far from it. This is just another paradigm. Everything is a paradigm, including the postulate that everything is a paradigm. The paradigm that paradigms are paradigms is a paradigm, too. It is an infinite regression.

[Insert the sound of one hand clapping here.]

Is there a practical application to this point? (Other than assuming the lotus position to meditate on your assumed paradigm that ‘practical application’ serves as a justifiable measure for value?) Our ability to critique the paradigm of a system is largely dependent on our ability to transcend our own paradigms. Because paradigms are so invisible and embedded in our mental constructs of the world, it is only in rare moments that we mortals can see them for what they are – let alone see above or beyond them. This is why it is important to recognize that concept of a paradigm is a paradigm: it is the hard mental labour of training to see beyond own blinders.

Some of the most penetrating (and difficult) dynamics you can explore and analyze in any human system are its paradigms about its paradigms. How far down the rabbit hole can you go? Try explaining your company or organization from this perspective.

  1. Meadows, Donella H. (1997). Leverage points: places to intervene in a system. 

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Transcendence' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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