Martin Savransky: The Adventure of Relevance (2016)

A Systems Library, Vol. 31

Philippe Vandenbroeck
5 min readFeb 14, 2024
Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

A pluriversal conception of the world

Martin Savransky’s Around the Day in Eighty Worlds was a major highlight of my reading year 2023. What was so striking about this book was the way it combined analytical rigour, philosophical depth and poetic sensibility. In fact, I read the compact 140-page tome as an instructional prose poem. More Appolonian, however, than Michel Serres (Systems Library #22), who displays a similar but more dithyrambic bent in his work, in ‘Around the Day’ Savransky embeds a ‘politics of the possible’ in a pluriversal conception of the world. The ethical sensibility on which this politics is founded is a most touching blend of a pragmatist sobriety, an existentialist appetite for risk and a communitarian concern for the whole geocosmos (a word not used by Savransky which I’m borrowing from Augustin Berque (Systems Library #29). We find this ethos prefigured in the work of William James, to whom Savransky is keen to declare his allegiance.

Relevance as ‘event’

The Adventure of Relevance precedes the former book. Tightly organised and densely argued, it seems to fit in a more conventional academic mould. However, the sensibilities that animated the scintillating prose of Around the Day are already in place. The key question that is pondered here concerns the future of social science, a future that hinges on the way the challenge of relevance is approached. A conventional conception of relevance equates it with ‘impact’, i.e. with the presence of desirable, observable and preferably measurable effects on real-world problematic situations. The surprising, breathtaking conceptual move with which Savransky underpins his counterargument is to conceive of relevance not as a subjective value ascribed to findings of social inquiry, but as an event that belongs, immanently, to the world. “To express that ‘something matters’, that it is relevant, is to acknowledge that there is value beyond ourselves. The relevance of things, then, cannot be reduced to a judgement that is passed on to them, but must be seen as inhering in the situated specificity of the many existences that compose the world.” The question how practices of social inquiry may come to terms with the ‘event’-character of relevance is the object of the book.

A praxis of wonder

For Savransky the answer to that question is not to be found in a particular methodology, or in an epistemology, but rather in a praxis (or pragmatics) that is underpinned by a distinctive set of ethical sensibilities. The point of his argumentation is “not to provide solutions to research problems” but to find an angle “that may force social scientists to hesitate, wonder, and invent.”

The praxis that emerges from this perspective is qualified as ‘radical empiricist’. Building on James’s and Whitehead’s work, the author seeks to engage with an empiricism “which expands ‘experience’ to include not just isolated facts or things but also the experienced relations between them; not only human or subjective experiences, but also other-than-human experiences; not only perceptive experience, but also the experience of thought, concepts and ideas; not just the experience of things as they are, but also of what they could be. It entertains experiences all the way down.” The ethical sensibilities that come into play kindle care for and companionship with the active role of the many milieus with which social inquiry connects. But it also invites “an inventive mode of knowing that takes the risk of negotiating the question of how, in what degrees and manners, things come to matter in specific situations.”

In building and anchoring this argument Savransky reframes notions of objectivity, performativity, temporality and the role of theory, challenging crucial assumptions about the nature of knowledge-making in many traditions of contemporary social science, from interpretivism to social constructivism and Actor-Network Theory. What I’m summarising here in one sentence is the subject of a very layered and sophisticated argument that makes up the bulk of the book.

Encounters, all the way down

Somewhere in the middle there is a chapter devoted to real-life examples, drawn from various fields of social science, of how researchers have been lured into adventure by the destabilising effect of encounters in their fieldwork. Here again the deftness of Savransky’s way of thinking is demonstrated in the nuanced way in which he positions these accounts of how things, in a given situation, came to matter. He writes: “Encounters go all the way down, and up, from proteins to the play of ideas. For this reason, what follows is not an attempt to ‘apply’ the more abstract arguments that precede this chapter to more ‘mundane’ situations. The explorations below will themselves bear the mark of an encounter — in discussing them, I emphasise certain elements, propose possible patterns of contrast, and also place certain demands upon them, and in turn, they obligate my thinking in unexpected ways, forcing me to adjust to their demands, and attempt to construct a sense of what, in each case, comes to matter. Indeed, they already have.”

A springboard for ‘artistic’ researchers

Personally, I think the chances of Savransky’s proposed pragmatics and ethics of inquiry revolutionising social science are very slim. The ‘ethics of alienation’ and the competitive spirit that animate contemporary research are too deeply entrenched. But one niche epistemic community that could benefit enormously from engaging with this work is the growing cohort of ‘artistic’ researchers, i.e. people who are naturally drawn to material-based experiments in a wide range of experiential and expressive registers. And I believe that their work embodies a life ethic of adventure, humility and generosity that prefigures, hopefully, a flourishing 22nd century geocosmos. In that sense the importance of Martin Savransky’s work cannot be overestimated.

More to read in the Systems Library:

Vol. 30: Martin Savransky: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (2021)

Vol. 29: Augustin Berque: Poetics of the Earth (2014)

Vol. 28: Mary Catherine Bateson: Composing a (Further) Life (1989, 2010)

Vol. 27: Hilary Bradbury: How to Do Action Research for Transformations (2022)

Vol. 26: Francis Laleman: Resourceful Exformation (2020)

Vol. 25: Keller Easterling: Medium Design(2020)

Vol. 24: Ian Cheng: An Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018)

Vol. 23: Janis Birkeland: Positive Development (2008)

Vol. 22: Michel Serres: The Natural Contract (1990)

Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)

Vol. 20: Ray Ison & Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)

Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)

Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)

Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)

Vol. 16: Lois Holzman: The Overweight Brain (2018)

Vol. 15: Hanne De Jaegher: Loving and Knowing. Reflections for an Engaged Epistemology (2018)

Vol. 14: Judi Marshall: First-person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry (2016)

Vol. 13: Jocelyn Chapman (Ed.): For the Love of Cybernetics (2020)

Vol. 12: John Morecroft: Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics (2007)

Vol. 11: Antoine de St Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)

Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)

Vol. 9: Peter Block: Community. The Structure of Belonging (2008)

Vol. 8: Valerie Ahl & Timothy Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)

Vol. 7: Herbert Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial (1969, 1998)

Vol. 6: Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Vol. 5: Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems (2007)

Vol. 4: Béla Bánáthy: Guided Evolution of Society. A Systems View (2000)

Vol. 3: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: The Path (2016)

Vol. 2: Stafford Beer: ‘Designing Freedom’ (1974)

Vol. 1: John Law and Annemarie Mol (Eds.): ‘Complexities’ (2014)



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?