Subproject 1: The Paradigm of (Social) Complexity – Part II-1: Complexity – The Definition Problem

(1) Complexity – The Definition Problem

There is no absolute definition of what complexity means; the only consensus among researchers is that there is no agreement about the specific definition of complexity. [Wikipedia 2016 c]

Wikipedia is right. But, the search for an essentialist definition (the ultimate identity, the essence, or the true nature) of any media form (sign, mark, etc.) is futile – right from the start.


Well, as Jacques Derrida´s deconstruction has taught us since the late 1960s, any media form depends on permanent de- and recontextualizations so that the ultimate (essential) meaning of such a form can´t be determined once and for all.

Or, to put it differently: If the meaning of a sign depends on its context and if this context can´t be closed once and for all – otherwise the sign couldn´t be used in different contexts anymore ( = the collapse of any medium!) – then the meaning of a sign is always provisionary and somehow incomplete (that is, radically context-dependent = non-essentialist) [cf. Derrida 1971].

Accordingly, we can only choose a provisionary interpretation among other possible interpretations – or, in this case, a provisionary definition among other possible definitions. But, it´s impossible to know what the essence or true nature of complexity (or any other phenomenon) really really isTherefore, the more scientific (sub-)disciplines and approaches are involved in trying to define complexity, the more (sometimes even incompatible) interpretations / definitions have to be expected.

And that´s the reason why difference-based approaches such as social systems theory (Luhmann et al.) opt for replacing the notorious What is xy? question by the question of How (that is, by means of which differences) is xy constructed?
In other words: In order to understand a phenomenon xy, we can study the network of differences being used to specify xy.

So, our question could be formulated as follows: Which differences are used to specify the concept of complexityPossible answers would be:

  • organized / disorganized  [Wikipedia 2016 c],
  • decomposable (complicated) / nondecomposable (complex) [Le Moigne 1990, p. 25]
  • simple (reduced to simple entities) / implex (reduced complexity) [ibid.],

As those differences often refer to characteristics of complexity, it´s better to jump right into the next section (Part II-2) where I discuss some important features of complex systems.


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