Things and the Things of Things: The Complexity of Stories

While this may in certain contexts be a matter of mastery, I tend to think others telling simple stories about what we tell composite ones might more commonly have to do with reducing the complexity.

Things and the Things of Things: The Complexity of Stories


The word thing is inherently problematic but I will ask that you excuse that for a moment and think about a thing as something. As anything we can draw our attention to and distinguish out of the rest of the environment. A thing is that which we can behold.

I am interested in how we tell stories about things and whether we can consider the stories told to be complex or simple. This concern ultimately flows from my own deep independent study of the work of biologist turned philosopher Humberto Romesin Maturana. Practically, I hope exploring this concern will shed further light on how the narrative of our everyday lives influences how we make sense of an act in the world around us (Snowden, 2008).

Simple and Composite

In his work, Maturana introduces the concept of simple and composite unities which I have recently been focused on as I seek to understand what his theory of language has to say about absorbed sense-making. Note he uses the word composite and not complex, though given his own writing and its appearance in that of others, it seems complex and composite may be similar. Maturana explains the meaning of composite and simple in a paper published in 1980 titled "Autopoiesis: Reproduction,  heredity and evolution."

An entity in which an observer does not or cannot distinguish its components, is a simple unity. An entity in which an observer describes the parts that he names components, by recognizing them in reference to the entity that they jointly integrate as a simple unity, is a composite unity. Example: A book treated as a whole, without referring to pages, covers, or binding parts as components, is a simple unity (p.47).

The meaning of these terms becomes even clearer in the following treatment of Maturana's composite and simple unities found in Lynn Segal's book The Dream of Reality: Heinz von Foerster’s Constructivism. I stumbled upon this neat little book while Googling to see what had been written so far about composite and simple unities in the context of language. Or, how we use the terms simple and composite to distinguish the things we interact with.

Unities are either simple or composite. A simple unity has no components. It is specified by its properties. When distinguishing a simple unity, the observer cannot or chooses not to make further distinctions that would specify the unity's components. The original idea of the atom represents our most fundamental conception of simple unity in nature, i.e., that which could not be decomposed into a composite unity having components. Now particles are conceived of as the ultimate simple unities of nature.
The observer can decompose a simple unity by distinguishing its components. When a friend bakes a cake and you eat a slice, two classes of comments are used to discuss it. Treating it as a simple unity, we say it is delicious, it is light, it is rich-tasting, etc. We treat it as a composite unity when we discuss the recipe. Using language, we decompose the cake into its components and discuss how they were assembled (p.54).

It seems as if simple stories talk about things whereas composite stories talk about the components, the things of things. Given a broader reading of Maturana, composite stories become simple when they shift from the parts back to the whole, though they can always become composite once again.

Opposing Systems Thinking

Maturana's terminology opposes  systems thinking literature in that a simple story is one that talks about something as a whole in the form of Ackoff's synthetic thinking,  while a composite story talks about a whole's parts in a reductionist, analytical style. This seemingly upside-down situation becomes (somewhat) right-side up when Maturana's attitude toward systems thinking is considered:  

When Fritjof Capra and others promote their quantum theology or some network theology and begin to worship systems or networks, they are thinking and arguing in a reductionist way. They flatten and blur everything. They no longer speak of molecules but only of systems that they elevate to their new gods. This is obviously reductionism, too. What I do is fundamentally different from a reductionist approach. Since I am always aware of the existence of different non-intersecting phenomenal domains....Thus, what happens in the domain of the operation of the organism as a totality in its relational space cannot be expressed in terms of the molecules that compose it, or vice versa. (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p. 110; emphasis added).”

Maturana, then, seems to think that talking only about systems is itself a form of reductionism and I am inclined to agree, especially on the matter of "flattening" a system and talking about it without consideration of its parts. A similar sentiment can be found across much of the work of Edgar Morin (1992).

Holism is a partial, one-dimensional, and simplifying vision of the whole. It reduces all other system-related ideas to the idea of totality, whereas it should be a question of confluence. Holism thus arises from the paradigm of simplification (or reduction of the complex to a master-concept or master-category; p.372).
-The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (a principle which is
widely acknowledged and intuitively recognized at all macroscopic
levels), since a macro-unity arises at the level of the whole, along with
emergent phenomena, Le., new qualities or properties.
-The whole is less than the sum of the parts, since some of the qualities
or properties of the parts are inhibited or suppressed altogether under
the influence of the constraints resulting from the organization of the
whole.                                                                                                                               - The whole is greater than the whole, since the whole as a whole affects
the parts retroactively, while the parts in turn retroactively affect the
whole (in other words, the whole is more than a global entity-it has a
dynamic organization; p.374).

Morin (1992) adds another layer of insight to Maturana's opposition and adds that a system is at the same time more and less than the sum of its parts.

(Morin, 1992, p.111). 

Back to Stories

If Maturana and Morin's dissent from some systems thinking literature is taken seriously, a simple story is one that talks only about a system. I want to widen this understanding, remove it from the narrative to which it is attached, and talk more generally about things. Like Maturana writes earlier, a simple story about a book is one that treats it like an object whereas a composite one talks about its cover, pages, theme, and characters. To draw from Segal (2001), a simple story is about how delicious a cake is, a composite story is about what makes the cake delicious. A story can shift wholly, or by part, from composite to simple and back again - stories do this all the time. What might be important here especially in the context of working with others is what we tell composite stories about that others tell simple ones and vice versa. While this may in certain contexts be a matter of mastery, I tend to think others telling simple stories about what we tell composite ones might more commonly have to do with reducing the complexity of a thing. The pain of someone reducing a composite story you have just told to a simple one may be a common experience. At the same time, it also seems likely a story about a thing that moves from simple (being about the thing) to composite (being about the things that makes the thing) has the best chance of coping with complexity insofar as it has the capacity to talk about dynamic change and the components that are creating it.

Much, much more later.


Ackoff, R. L. (1999). Ackoff's best: His classic  writings on management. New York, NY: Wiley.

Maturana, H.R. (1980). Autopoiesis: Reproduction,  heredity and evolution. In M. Zeleny (Ed.), Autopoiesis, dissipative  structures, and spontaneous social order (pp. 45-79). Boulder, CO:  Westview Press.

Maturana, H.R. (1988). Ontology of observing: The  biological foundations of self-consciousness., (pp. 1-28). Retrieved from

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.

Morin, E. (1992). From the concept of system to the  paradigm of complexity. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 15(4),  371-385.

Morin, E. (1992). Toward a study of humankind: The  nature of nature (Vol. 1). (J.L. Roland Belanger, Trans.) New York, NY:  Pete Lang.

Segal, L. (2001). The dream of reality: Heinz von  Foerster’s constructivism (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.

Snowden, D. (2008). What is Sense-making? Retrieved from