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Our un-killable mechanistic thinking warps organizations’ awareness of human behavior

January 7, 2015



This is from a piece I posted recently on my Tumblr (check out the feed) taken from a passage of my literature review.

Given the growing interest in forward-thinking topics like the Future of Work and new ways of thinking about organizations, I thought it both fitting and important to shine some light on those remnants from the past we can’t seem to shake that continue to hold us back.

One of our biggest–and oft undiscussed–challenges in 21st century organizations centers on our largely antequated understanding of human behavior and social processes. The critical weakness appears source from our 400 year-old mechanistic understanding of the universe. Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Descartes and Newton, started from a premise that the physical universe operated like a giant clock.

And while there was ample evidence–at least from the perspective of the 17th century–pointing to the notion that the natural world operated in a mechanistic fashion, there was no evidence to support the belief that human or social behavior operated according to these same principles.

Yet, that lack of evidence did not stop key thinkers from quickly projecting the same kind of mechanistic cause-and-effect thinking onto the human psyche. In fact, this worldview is so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking that most people don’t even consider that these views are a vast set of sensemaking constructions created by human beings; instead these assumption are simply taken to be the way the world IS.

Now, centuries later, we remain largely stuck in this same way of thinking about humans and what motivates them. In a world now defined by lightning-fast communication and highly networked knowledge-sharing processes, the results of our largely-mechanistic mindset toward causality and human behavior grow increasily disastrous.

So, a short passage from the lit review:

This turn to an exclusively-mechanistic worldview demanded an understanding of cause and effect that could insure a much higher standard of reliability than that previously afforded by Aristotle. Aristotle’s theory of Four Causes, while broad and encompassing, was far from precise as evidenced by Aristotle’s own admission that his attention was centered on phenomena that happened “for the most part”. For Descartes, whose aim was to establish a worldview that could ensure precise prediction and certainty in all domains of human experience, causal explanations that held “for the most part” were far too susceptible to what some would consider the perils of interpretation and uncertainty. Given such an agenda, Aristotle’s views, dominant up until that time, now proved far too broad and ambiguous to satisfy the growing thirst for predictability and control.

Descartes’s mechanistic understanding of the universe helped foster an equally radical shift in society’s understanding of the individual and how each person related to the larger mechanistic operation of the cosmos. In following the turn towards a more rational, mechanistic conception of the universe, this new view of human beings and human agency privileged the individual and individual action over contextual, temporal, or collective influences (Gergen, 2010, p. xiv). Through his new philosophy, Descartes’ made a clean break with Medieval thought and its restrictive view the individual as a product of ecclesiastical doctrine or feudal interests.

Descartes mechanistic universe, while offering affording a rationale for humans to “act in an intentional, predictable and responsible manner towards predetermined goals or planned outcomes” (Caldwell, 2005, p. 85), helped to establish what Juarrero (2011) refers to as “a worldview that held out the very attractive promise of absolute control” (p. 156). While deterministic thinking helped human beings understand and predict phenomena in the physical universe, it was quickly and without question applied to almost all other phenomena, including social interactions. As Colarelli (2003) has noted “the idea that mechanism applied to social phenomena was accepted before there was any evidence that social phenomena operated in this manner” (p. 11). This quick conflation in which human processes were assumed to be bound by the same mechanistic principles observed in the material world , “laid the groundwork for a social science directed toward increasingly accurate prediction and control of human behavior” (Gergen, 2010, p. 65).


8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2015 12:39 pm

    This antiquated thinking can also be seen in economic thought. Economists, on both sides of the fence, view the world only on terms relating to the pursuit of monetary gain. Not all, in fact many, human decisions are based emotion and even compassion – even if these decisions may make no sense economically (at least not in the short-term).

    Your thoughts here David are in line with the concept of ‘spontaneous order’ originating from the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century, and in particular with David Hume. Hume argued that in the absence of a system of centralized command, conventions emerge that minimize conflict and organize social activities (including production) in a manner that is most conducive to economic, sociological and psychological wellbeing.

    Great piece!

    • February 11, 2015 1:35 pm

      Clay, thanks for the comment. Your point about economic rationality makes a lot of sense. Like mechanistic thinking, economic rationality is derrived from the same Cartesian view of the universe as a stable, orderly system that can only be disrupted through the efforts of those who are ill-informed or ill-intentioned.

      I’m particularly fascinated about your comments on Hume. I don’t know his work nearly as well as I’d like (or apparently I need!). Could you recommend the best place to start to learn about his thoughts on “spontaneous order”?

      Many thanks!

      • February 11, 2015 3:11 pm

        Thanks David. Actually the info I stated about Hume came from Yanis Varoufakis’s blog. He’s the new finance minister from Greece. And he’s fascinating! This piece in Quartz will give you some info on him: And the blog post I pulled my Hume info out of is from is here:

        Get ready for a ride 🙂

  2. March 31, 2015 10:49 pm

    Have you read David C. Korten’s new book, “Change the Story Change the Future”? He analyzes our culture’s foundational storyline and considers science to be just one of several influences. I’m only halfway through the book and can’t do his analysis justice in a short comment, but you’d probably find it very interesting too.

  3. October 12, 2015 4:52 pm

    Reblogged this on heartoftheart.

  4. February 19, 2017 10:05 am

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your post and the replies it has prompted.
    I champion a generic conceptual framework – Hodges’ model – that can facilitate reflection, problem solving and critical thinking across all contexts. Your post’s focus on Descartes and the mechanistic is explicitly reflected in the structure of Hodges’ model which incorporates two axes, one of which is:
    the other is –
    INDIVIDUAL – GROUP (population)
    Superimposed these axes create four domains in which concepts can be placed.
    You and your readers may find this framework of interest?
    I’m pleased to follow you on twitter also @h2cm where I found your post.
    Best regards,
    Peter Jones
    Wigan, UK


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