Extreme Events, System Theoretically Considered

Every biological or psychosocial system tends toward expanding its boundaries and, to a certain extent at least, to pushing them to their limits by exploring and realizing new and “extreme” functional possibilities on its periphery. Most of them prove to be unstable and unworkable, while some are in fact sustainable, self-stabilizing and therefore claim more and more space and energy. Finally, they may even become the germ of comprehensive “enslavement processes” (according to the synergy concepts of Hermann Haken) that gradually take over the entire system. The rise of Hitler and National Socialism, the escalating Israel-Palestine conflict, or Islam and Al Qaeda extremists provide spectacular macrosocial historical examples thereof. Social trends and modern developments, such as the globalization and computerization of all areas of life, the increasingly rapid technical and civilizational progress, and the high estimation (or overestimation) of the individual in relation to the collective, are developing in a similar way. Again and again, a development that was initially only marginal suddenly, under suitable circumstances, becomes dominant and “enslaves” the entire system dynamics.

Every social development contains hidden extremisms, extreme possibilities, extraordinary potentials; there exists even something like “extreme conservatism.” The question is whether, and under what circumstances, such extremisms can be realized and radicalized.

Both the periphery and the center of a psychosocial system have system-preserving func-tions: The unstable, alternative and extreme periphery marks, defends and, if possible, expands the boundaries of the system further. Such marginal “extremists” in the social system are, for example, the criminals, the drug addicts and the mentally ill, the marginal sectarians, but also the inventors, extreme sportsmen, or artists and thinkers such as this crazy guy Friedrich Dürrenmatt (with whom I am currently intensively engaged in an arti-cle on his “soul” and its relations to his painting, which I have to write for a special issue of the literary magazine Du on occasion of  the 25th anniversary of Dürrenmatt's death ). Among these peripherical extremisms, there are, sometimes, also possible alternatives for emergencies which can be taken up  in a precarious situation, and “come to fruition.”

The “extreme middle” (for example, the stubborn conservatives, reactionaries, nationalists), on the other hand, serves primarily to stabilize the system; its core consists of obligatory blind spots in the form of unreflected “self-evidences” such as the “God-given differences between man and woman,” the usual distribution of power and money, the role of animals in our society, etc.


Luc Ciompi (born 1929), Swiss psychiatrist, Schizophrenia researcher, pioneer of integrative psychiatry and founder of Affect-Logic celebrates his 90th birthday. He lets us participate in his personal, scientific and ideological reflections. It shows, that even an old age can be a fascinating time full of unexpected highs and lows.

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