Heterarchy – a big concept with lots of connections (McCulloch and onwards)

This is very much a ‘research notes before the research’ post, inspired by discussions (https://groups.google.com/g/cybcom/c/mEzg6WT3EII/m/PrbiwDysAgAJ) on the Cybcom google grops mailing list https://groups.google.com/g/cybcom

All I’ll say to try to frame this is that:

  • where there is a circularity of ‘values’, that means that a calculated hierarchy is not possible. ‘Logically… to assert a hierarchy of values is to assert that values are magnitudes of some one kind’. (It doesn’t take much to think about how this applies to moral judgements arising from diverse systems/framings/perspectives).
  • ‘Circularities in preference insead of indicating inconsistencies, actually demonstrate consistency of a higher order than has been dreamed of in our philosophy. An organism possessed of this nervous systemsix neurons – is sufficiently endowed to be unpredictable from any theory founded on a scale of values’
  • the discovery of this relationship-structure within the modelling of our brains themselves has been extending as a metaphor or isophore into many domains

(NB some other incidental insights that arise when you even think about diving deep into this old rich stuff:)

  • there is also a bit in the McCulloch about a distinction between ‘appetitive’ and ‘homeostatic’ activity – though not applied in this case – which is often forgotten
  • there is reference that ‘the circuit – whether regenerative or degenerative [note how much more interested that is than positive or negative feedback!] must be close for its activity to be purpose’. Note that this does not necessarily include any actual external reference…
  • explicit link of hierarchy to the ‘notion of the sacred or ‘holy”)
  • this also links to a lot of ‘post-modern’ concepts, of course (it was at this point, reading the wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterarchy, that I started to worry that the big insight of heterarchy was merely trivially true, and uninteresting), particularly rhizomatic connections, and intersectionality – and links powerfully to https://stream.syscoi.com/2021/01/24/elite-capture-and-epistemic-deference-olufemi-o-taiwo/ – both ‘sides’ of the ‘hierarchy vs post-modernist collapse’ are unable to maintain a relationship between hierarcy and heterarchy, and are subject to a kind of ‘epistemic collapse’
  • while we tend to break down these distinctions more-or-less satisfactorily (complexity and praxis and bricolage have varying degrees of satisfaction, for me), what all this suggest really is a much more crisp, sophisticated, complex approach to understanding this stuff which does not have to retreat from theory into handwaving..
  • Is this, though, perhaps, at the root of von Foerster’s ‘only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide’? (see https://stream.syscoi.com/2018/10/21/ethics-and-second-order-cybernetics-heinz-von-foerster/)
  • This, it seems to me, links cybernetic governance (heretofore, in my mind, ‘steering / goal-oriented within complexity’) with another definition of governance I have liked over the years: ‘adjudicating scarce and conflicted resources’ (to which I might add ‘and making ethical decisions within conflicting and contested ethical frameworks). If we can only decide the algorithmically undecidable (that which is not pre-determined by the framing), we have to bring heterarchical thinking to bear.
  • (Seeing this as simply ‘something better or other than a fixed hierarchy of command-and-control seems very limited by comparison)
  • Hence ‘politics’ in the sense of the quote (Glanville?) as the proces by which humanity engages with its environment (someone please point me to the proper quote)

(Some interesting explanation of the core concept in ‘The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life by David Stark – https://books.google.rs/books?id=mBuOA5QylGsC&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=mcculloch+heterarchy&source=bl&ots=5TyNn0wD8-&sig=ACfU3U1Mo0HCczbl252kgWFsmRB4A4DAIg&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=mcculloch%20heterarchy&f=false)

(Here footnote 69 refers to McCulloch’s involvement in the design of (graphical) triadic logic and his interest in Pierce’s experiments with the same and argument that all cognition is irreducibly triadic, which reminds me of Lee’s contextual dyadic thinking https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/03/02/contextual-dyadic-thinking-lee-2017/ )

Core concept: heterarchy


A heterarchy of values determined by the topology of nervous nets

The bulletin of mathematical biophysics volume 7, pages89–93(1945)


Because of the dromic character of purposive activities, the closed circuits sustaining them and their interaction can be treated topologically. It is found that to the value anomaly, when A is preferred to B, B to C, but C to A, there corresponds a diadrome, or circularity in the net which is not the path of any drome and which cannot be mapped without a diallel on a surface sufficient to map the dromes. Thus the apparent inconsistency of preference is shown to indicate consistency of an order too high to permit construction of a scale of values, but submitting to finite topological analysis based on the finite number of nervous cells and their possible connections.

reference link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02478457

pdf: https://vordenker.de/ggphilosophy/mcculloch_heterarchy.pdf

Also explored in

Heterarchy (May 2015) DOI:  10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0158 In book: Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Carole Crumley – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299904233_Heterarchy (Crumley writes about archeology but this is much broader)

And wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterarchy

The concept has been explored and championed by Jay Ogilvy of Stratfor – see https://www.forbes.com/sites/stratfor/2016/02/04/heterarchy-an-idea-finally-ripe-for-its-time/?sh=519b737547a7 (From this piece you can clearly see that Ogilvy’s view of heterarchical thinking is only one step away from the mutual interrelations of the Five Elements theory, that the rock-scissors-paper-stone metaphor is so reminiscent of)

Applied to ‘rule’ in social science


WRITTEN BYSatoshi MiuraAssistant Professor, Department of International Economics, Faculty of Economics, Toyo University. He contributed an article on “Hierarchy” to SAGE Publications’ Encyclopedia of Governance (2007),…See Article History

Heterarchy, form of management or rule in which any unit can govern or be governed by others, depending on circumstances, and, hence, no one unit dominates the rest. Authority within a heterarchy is distributed. A heterarchy possesses a flexible structure made up of interdependent units, and the relationships between those units are characterized by multiple intricate linkages that create circular paths rather than hierarchical ones. Heterarchies are best described as networks of actors—each of which may be made up of one or more hierarchies—that are variously ranked according to different metrics. Etymologically speaking, the term is made up of the Greek words heteros, meaning “the other,” and archein, meaning “to rule.”

The earliest academic discussion of the concept of heterarchy is attributed to American psychiatrist and neurophysiologist Warren S. McCulloch, a pioneer in cybernetics, who in the mid-1940s regarded a neural network that propagated in a circle as an archetype of heterarchy. The value of the concept was rediscovered decades later by social scientists in disciplines as diverse as archaeology, management, sociologypolitical science, and law.

American philosopher James A. Ogilvy presented one of the simplest illustrations of heterarchy in the mid-1980s as a game of rock paper scissors—in which rock beats scissors, which beats paper, which in turn beats rock. A similar circular logic, though far more complex and dynamic, can apply to the checks and balances among three branches of a government as well as to the relationship between sovereign states and international institutions such as the European Union (EU) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

At their core, heterarchical networks are considered both flexible and dynamic; authorities therein are not institutionally fixed but rather change places as situations evolve. Swedish politician Gunnar Hedlund remarked in 1986 that nested hierarchies and even markets could be observed in some multinational corporations. In such organizations, heterarchy could be conceived as a metagovernance mechanism of flexible coordination among transactions organized by different actors. In The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life (2009), American sociologist David Stark observed that a heterarchy’s linkages between one unit and another—usually across such conventional divides as levels, departments, and sectors—form a multicentric network of heterogeneous actors with distinctive resources and capabilities. That structure, he argued, makes an organization more productive and gives it the ability to adapt to rapid changes.

Heterarchy is emerging as an important concept with respect to globalization and national and international governance. Heterarchies have existed in the past, such as within parts of the Mayan civilization in Central America, and some international-relations experts argue that the world political order is moving toward a heterarchical structure rather than a hierarchical one, since some present-day global issues require organizations of actors that cut across public, private, and civic sectors ranging from local to global scales. Evidence for present-day heterarchy in global governance can be seen in the rise of a number of transnational networks (such as NATO, the United Nations, the WTO, and the EU) to facilitate trade, security, and international cooperation.


In psychology

Awareness as observational heterarchy – Sonoda, Kodama, and Gunji (2013)

Libet et al. (1983) revealed that brain activity precedes conscious intention. For convenience in this study, we divide brain activity into two parts: a conscious field (CF) and an unconscious field (UF). Most studies have assumed a comparator mechanism or an illusion of CF and discuss the difference of prediction and postdiction. We propose that problems to be discussed here are a twisted sense of agency between CF and UF, and another definitions of prediction and postdiction in a mediation process for the twist. This study specifically examines the definitions throughout an observational heterarchy model based on internal measurement. The nature of agency must be emergence that involves observational heterarchy. Consequently, awareness involves processes having duality in the sense that it is always open to the world (postdiction) and that it also maintains self robustly (prediction).


[This really interesting paper talks about emergence in heterarchical terms, and links to many other interesting papers!

In ecological theory

Heterarchies: Reconciling Networks and Hierarchies

Published:May 24, 2016


Hierarchy theory has been an important component of ecological theory for >20 years. It has also been widely applied in social and economic analyses. It is particularly useful for questions of constraints, system controls, and scaling problems.Social network analysis has seen extensive recent growth and development as an analytical tool in ecology, social science, and economics. It is particularly relevant to questions of connectivity, configuration, and self-organisation.Despite their complementary goals, an uneasy tension exists between hierarchy theory and network analysis. For example, published studies may treat food webs as unidirectional networks or as hierarchies.The heterarchy concept is not new, but its full potential has not yet been realised. It promises to unify hierarchy theory and network analysis by bringing together top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer dynamics.Social–ecological systems research suffers from a disconnect between hierarchical (top-down or bottom-up) and network (peer-to-peer) analyses. The concept of the heterarchy unifies these perspectives in a single framework. Here, I review the history and application of ‘heterarchy’ in neuroscience, ecology, archaeology, multiagent control systems, business and organisational studies, and politics. Recognising complex system architecture as a continuum along vertical and lateral axes (‘flat versus hierarchical’ and ‘individual versus networked’) suggests four basic types of heterarchy: reticulated, polycentric, pyramidal, and individualistic. Each has different implications for system functioning and resilience. Systems can also shift predictably and abruptly between architectures. Heterarchies suggest new ways of contextualising and generalising from case studies and new methods for analysing complex structure–function relations.


In human value and motivational systems

Daddy, Why are People so Complex?

ALLAN L. COMBSPages 464-472 | Published online: 23 Nov 2006

The implications of Warren McCulloch’s 1945 concept of heterarchy are analyzed in terms of human value and motivational systems. The results demonstrate the near-impossibility of predicting behavior on the basis of any hierarchical scheme, or even which among a set of hierarchical schemes will be selected as the basis of a behavioral choice. Thus, for example, people regularly say one thing and do another.


1. This is apparent in any web search that cross-lists “heterarchy” with “management” or “business.”

2. In 1943 McCulloch had published a groundbreaking paper titled it A Logical Calculus Immanent in Nervous Activity with the young mathematician Walter Pitts.

3. Though some prominent figures of the day, such as Norbert Wiener, were skeptical of conceptual schemes not grounded in actual physiological investigations of the brain. John von Neumann was supportive of the general notion of nerve cells as computer components, but believed they contributed to a computational process that was at least partially analogue.

4. This and several other lists given this article are not intended to follow any particular theoretical scheme, but simply are examples of behaviors that we all engage in.

5. One is reminded of the proverbial “Harvard Law of Behavior” which states if a rat is placed in an operant box and all the relevant conditions are diligently controlled, it will go off and do what it pleases¡

6. During the 1940s and 1950s, many theoretical problems in neurology were “solved” by postulating closed-loop circuits in which neural activity folded back upon itself, creating continuous loops of activity. Such circuits were said, for example, to be at the root of brain motivational centers as well as certain motor control operations. By the mid 1960s, however, it was becoming all too apparent that what had been a good idea on paper was not to be found in meaningful numbers—or evidently at all—in real living organisms.

7. An alternative but equivalent conceptualization would be to imagine one large attractor with many basins.


Other links and papers

Metaphysics of an Experimental Episemologist (von Foerster), 1996 – a tribute to McCulloch, 1996 (via the CybCom google group)

Heterachy-Hierarchy: Two complementary categories of description (von Goldammer, Paul, and Newbury)2003 – http://www.vordenker.de/heterarchy/a_heterarchy-e.pdf

Towards a heterarchical approach to biology and cognition Brunia and Giorgi, 2016

Also applied to International Development (a dissertation I couldn’t quite get to grips with – https://mro.massey.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10179/12696/02_whole.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y)

In law- Dekker, E. , & Kuchař, P. (2017). Heterarchy. In A. Marciano, & G. B.
Ramello (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Law and Economics Springer, New
York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-7883-6_640-1

Abstract: Whenever agents choose A instead of B, B instead of C, and C instead of A, a logical
contradiction arises. This contradiction – also known as a value anomaly – characterizes genuine
choices. Some organizations and firms, but also legal systems, markets, or even the human brain
can be regarded as complex systems that manage the value anomaly by operating with multiple
mutually incompatible ordering principles. Such a management – as opposed to a mere
elimination – of these mutually incompatible values allows these systems to better cope with
uncertainty, and to benefit from the recognition of complexity. One of the central implications of
these heterarchical systems is that there is no single scale on which unequals can be compared
and, consequently, that commensuration is an active process which involves friction and
opportunities for entrepreneurship. We argue that in a world that naturally seems to be
characterized by these value anomalies, heterarchical organizations and, in particular, heterarchy
as a complex system of valuation might well be a good response.
Definition: Heterarchy is a complex adaptive system of governance, an order with more than one
governing principle. Heterarchies include elements of hierarchies and networks, but in a number
of important ways, heterarchies are different from both of these systems of governance. The
model of heterarchical governance is like plate tectonics: mutually self-contained orders with
unclear hierarchies among them.

This paper:

Is heterarchy the answer to the crisis of hierarchy? (Wagner, 2018) take us right back to ‘heterarchy is not hierarchy’, and right now seems a lot less exciting by comparison: https://www.ipma.world/heterarchy-answer-crisis-hierarchy/