I am interested in what it means for something to be coherent. In particular, I find myself wondering about the coherence of self-organizing systems responding to incidents. Coherence first became significant to me when I encountered it in Cynefin videos and blog posts. It took on even greater meaning as I came across coherence in the writings of biologist-turned-philosopher Humberto Maturana, most notably in his later works. This will be at least a two-part post. Part 1 will explore Maturana's use of the term coherence and arrive at an understanding of what the term means. Part 2 will then discuss coherence within the context of self-organizing incident operations.
A Google search yields two definitions for the word coherence. The first is "the quality of being logical and consistent." The second is "the quality of forming a unified whole." Joined together, coherence might be defined as "the forming of a whole that is logical and consistent." Expanding further, the "whole" in the definition could refer to an integrated whole, a "system." The system could be one of logic, information, or data; an organization or a community; a group of humans, insects, or animals; a government, and so on. The definition of coherence now reads "the quality of forming a logical and consistent system." A system may exist, but to be coherent it must be logical and consistent.
The inverse of a coherent system is a chaotic system, where there is no consistency or logical pattern to its behavior over any immediately practical time frame, though both consistency and logic may appear over longer durations (Waldrop, 1992; Wheatley, 2006). Between ordered systems and chaotic systems, are complex self-organizing systems that exhibit coherence in the form of structures and the patterns they form (Morin, 2023; Waldrop, 1992; Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1996). The attention of this post now turns to coherence as it appears in Maturana's work, and to expanding on the initial definition provided above.
Maturana and Coherence
In Maturana's writings, he uses the phrase "operational coherences" as well as the term "coherences." Unfortunately, he does not provide a definition for either, which Mingers (1995) addresses in his book Self-Producing Systems Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis. Drawing from Maturana's work, Mingers (1995) provides the following example of operational coherence:
"Let us look at an example. A colleague walks into my office and asks, 'what's keeping you busy?' I point to a pile of papers and reply, 'exams to grade.' She smiles sympathetically and walks out. A question has been asked and an explanation given and accepted. Within the domain of education, which we share, I have brought forth a particular entity, 'exams to grade,' as mechanisms capable of generating the experienced phenomena, my apparent business. These three words carry with them a whole raft of connotations concerning the exam system, students, writing exam questions, marking schemes, deadlines, boredom with grading, and so on. These constitute the operational coherences entailed by giving and grading exams" (p.97).
For students, 'exams to grade,' entail quite different operational coherences--revision, anxiety, past papers, results, and so on. (p.98).
Minger's (1995) explanation of Maturana's operational coherences is to some degree as vague as the term appears in its original context. Recall the definition of coherence used earlier to begin giving meaning to Minger's analysis: "The quality of forming a logical and consistent system." Between Mingers and his colleague, a system (referred to as a domain in Maturana's writings) is formed and shared through the act of uttering the phrase "exams to grade." Attached to the phrase are what Minger's (1995) refers to as "a whole raft of connotations" (p.97) that are the coherences "entailed by giving and grading exams" (p.97).
Coherence in this example is implicit. The connotations are not said aloud. Rather, they travel along silently with the phrase "exams to grade," three words strung together that carry with them relatively little meaning. When a system is formed and shared among people like Mingers (1995) and his colleague around a phrase or action, it takes on additional meaning as the coherences are held in common by the participants in the conversation. "Exams to grade" begins to make all the more sense within the system it is taking place within as it gains coherence.
The coherences endow the phrase “exams to grade” with additional meaning and indicate how the task of grading papers forms a system that hangs in the world consistently and logically and spreads out, connecting to other tasks, emotions, people, and events. This is how we can understand coherence. Coherence arrives with the use of language, gestures, acts, tools, beliefs, and ways of understanding, and appears within the systems that are formed around them.
Establishing coherence among a group of people when there is not a shared system requires first building consensus around what terms mean and the coherences they entail. In the final quote, Mingers (1995) explains the phrase "exams to grade" has entirely different coherence among students. This is an important point. In different systems, the same language, object, event, or other phenomena, brings with it different coherence.
The distinction between something being coherent and incoherent is drawn by the person observing. For example, tool use can be coherent, meaning it hangs in the world in a way that is logical and consistent, connecting to other similar past or ongoing uses of the same tool. Alternatively, an instance of tool use can be incoherent, meaning, it is illogical and does not fit the circumstances--it does not make sense. It can also be inconsistent and incongruent with other uses of the same tool. Incoherent tool use still hangs in the world, but it fails to do so in a way that makes sense. It is important to note that whether something is incoherent or coherent is not a matter of simply looking at that thing. Rather, it is what the thing in question evokes. It is also not simply a matter of what is being seen but also a matter of what is being felt.
Another example of coherence is found in Maturana and Poerksen's (2011) From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Although the term coherence is not mentioned in the surrounding text, the excerpt's alignment with Minger's (1995) example, the broader context of Maturana's work, and the definitions provided earlier position it as another instance of coherence. In the following, Maturana (2011) provides a narrative to make a point about reality and how he knows a horse is a horse while being questioned by a second individual.
"The animal that you see yonder is a horse."
"And how do you know that it is a horse?"
"I know that it is a horse because I recognize in it the characteristics of a horse."
"And how do you know that those characteristics that you recognize are the characteristics of a horse?"
"I know because I have seen them in other horses.”
"And what is a horse?"
"An animal that those who know horses call a horse because it has the characteristics of those animals they call horses."
To Maturana (2011), the horse is a horse because it is coherent with other horses he has seen in the past. Whether intentional or not, coherence can be seen running through the entire example as the horse is seen as consistent with other horses, and a horse is logically called a horse because it has the characteristics of a horse that Maturana (2011) has seen in other horses. There is coherence between the horse Maturana sees now and the previous experiences he has had with other horses. The horse and its system hang in the world in the same way other horses have. Like coherent tool use, Maturana is reaching back to other instances of horses and seeing that they are consistent.
Through the use of Maturana’s work and Minger's (1995) analysis of it, a sense of what coherence means has emerged. Coherence appeared as the logic, consistency, and meaning surrounding an object, event, phrase, action, or belief, that takes place in a system the phenomenon forms around itself. Coherence is attached to the event or other phenomena and specifies how it hangs in the world consistently and logically. It attaches to elements such as emotions, meanings, time, people, events, tasks, and so on, and makes the system coherent. Incoherence is a product of something observed in the system not hanging in the world in a logical and consistent way. The emotions of the students waiting to get their graded papers back would not be coherent in the education system Mingers (1995) shared with his colleague, for example, as they belong to a different system and exist in the world in different ways. Incoherence may also manifest as not being consistent with past similar phenomena. If there is incoherence, the system formed around the phenomenon is incoherent.
Finally, Maturana's horse added a layer to the growing understanding of coherence. Maturana sees a horse and is questioned about how he knows it is a horse. The exchange carries on, and Maturana explains he knows it is a horse because it has the characteristics he has observed in other horses, and those who know horses call them so because they have the characteristics of a horse. There is an unmistakable coherence to Maturana's argument. The horse's characteristics, part of how it hangs or exists in the world, are a component of its meaning and provide it with the identity of being a horse. Layered on top of the above, the example of the horse points to the role of past experience in determining coherence.
Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2011). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition (2nd ed.). (W. K. Koeck, & A. R. Koeck, Trans.) Kaunas, Lithuania: Carl-Auer.
Mingers, J. (1995). Self-producing systems: Implications and applications of autopoiesis. New York, NY: Plenum Publishing.
Morin, E. (2023). Epistemology-complexity. In E. Morin, & A. Heath-Carpentier (Ed.), The challenge of complexity: Essays by Edgar Morin (pp. 86-108). Chicago, Illinois: Sussex Academic Press.
Waldrop, M. M. (1992). The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York, NY: Touchstone.
Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler.
Wheatley, M. J., & Kellner-Rogers, M. (1996). Self-organization: The irresistible future of organizing. Strategy & Leadership, 24(4), 18-24.