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Paul Cilliers 1956-2011

August 10, 2011

Paul-Cilliers-200x300.jpg Paul Cilliers died of a brain aneurism on Sunday July 31st at his apartment in Mouille Point, a memorial service was held at Stellenbosch University on Thursday 4th August. Most people will know Paul for his seminal book Complexity and Post Modernism. It is one the the classics of complexity applied to human systems. From that book his list of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems has been reproduced more times than I can count (too often without proper acknowledgement). It is one of those books that anyone in the field knows, respects and references.

I heard the news last week while I was on holiday but delayed this post until I returned home and could reflect properly. I can’t remember when I first met Paul, but I think it was at a conference in Lecce where his gentle examination of my presentation left me aware of the need to read more, think more and generally be better prepared the next time. However there was no resentment, Paul had a way of asking questions that made you feel you were working together in an exploration of the field.

Subsequently we met in London and South Africa. I remember many conversations, but the one that is the most vivid is an evening in Stellenbosch after a good meal talking about ethics. I discovered then that his father had been a Dutch Reformed Minister who supported the ANC so Paul ended up as a child on the receiving end of treatment normally handed out to the intelligent minority by the ignorant majority. It cast his own wisdom in a new light, but it was a story told without drama or resentment.

We disagreed on post-modernism, on Derrida and many other subjects. We agreed on every example of ethics that we discussed in terms of practice, even if we disagreed on theory. He wanted people to learn and every now and then one of his students would get in touch and tell me that Paul had told them to come and talk to me. He wanted them to gain other perspectives, to see things from another point of view.

An engineer who became a philosopher he won the Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, set up the Centre for Studies in Complexity and inspired a whole generation. His death is a loss not only to complexity thinking but humanity.

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