I hope to build this up to explain any usage that may otherwise confuse. Unless otherwise stated usage is based on the Concise Oxford dictionary.


By default, this is ‘the process by which orgs become adjusted to their environment’, and is post-hoc. ‘Anticipation and adaptation’ or pre-adaptation or preparedness would denote a forward-looking adjustment, taking account of the potential as well as of the actual current environment.

It is not clear to me what people generally mean by this term, but a strategy of adaptation only might seem to be a ‘no strategy strategy’.


Able to be quick-moving, nimble and active, a short-term form of adaptivity not involving any substantive change. (Tactical.)


A complex is a whole in which the relationships between parts necessarily form cycles. Complexity means having parts which are necessarily related in cycles.

Wikipedia has “In general usage, complexity tends to be used to characterize something with many parts in intricate arrangement.” Here we emphasize that the intricate arrangement is ‘puzzlingly entangled’, forming loops and hence cycles.


The science of influencing orgs.

Wikipedia says that “Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems”, which can seem quite mechanistic. The COD definition is ‘science of command and communication in animals and machine. The term derives from ‘steersman’, and the notion of command can usefully be extended to any intentional influence, as in Ashby, such as ‘commanding’ a cat.


A hard word. In general usage this still implies gradual change, in contrast to revolution. But evolutionary mechanisms can and do generate sudden changes: ‘saltations’, as in ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and speciation. Thus by evolutionary I mean something subject to evolution as a type of process, not necessarily something that changes gradually.


The theory presented by Smuts in ‘Holism and Evolution’. Briefly, the whole and the parts co-evolve, and ‘should’ be mutually adjusting and supportive. This is in distinction to reductionism.

Keynesian uncertainty

Knightian Uncertainty

Uncertainty over and above probabilistic uncertainty. Sometimes called ‘uncertainty proper’ or Keynesian uncertainty, but more recently credited to his student, Frank Knight.


Simplified description of system etc. to assist anticipation and engagement (e.g. regulation) and, where appropriate, calculations and predictions. An engineering model tends to be very precise, supporting accurate calculation and prediction, but this is not always appropriate: one can also have a model of an unpredictable human.

Models may be nested, supporting strategy and tactics. They may cover a range of possibilities for a given actual system. To be useful they should normally allow one to determine constraints on the capabilities of a system, and on potential future behaviours.

Models can be thought of as combinations of hypotheses, and generic models are used in the construction of hypotheses. They often describe structure, but in some cases (e.g. water), this may not be possible.


A structured entity that tends to maintain some core characteristics, e.g. organism, organisation or machine. (IJ Good.)


Pragmatism is about ‘dealing with matters according to their immediate importance’. One has a pragma, which is an understanding, appreciation or model of a situation sufficient to determine immediate importance (i.e. contribution to utility) and hence inform rational decision-making.

A common wider use is to refer to any set way of doing things that is considered to be practical. The disadvantage of this usage is that it can be hard to interpret if we do not understand what these ways are, or why they are considered to be practical.


A number between 0 and 1 representing some aspect of uncertainty and satisfying Bayes’  axioms.

Be aware that the following are common:

  • To assume that probability adequately represents the whole of uncertainty
  • To use the term ‘probability’ for just a component of uncertainty.

Keynes used the term for the whole uncertainty, but the usage above is now almost universal. In conversations about probability it may be vital to ensure a common usage and understanding.


The view that wholes can be analyzed into parts whose properties determine those of the whole. In distinction to Holism.


The property that the activity of a thing necessarily affects the thing itself, typically indirectly.

C.O.D. has ‘implying subject’s action on itself’.


Control by rule, subject to predefined restrictions.

In common use the term may cover any activity that results in a subject system becoming more regular, without there being a pre-set rule or restrictions.


Broadly speaking, this is uncertainty magnified by importance. It is common to treat both factors as numbers, and hence to take account of probability only. Similarly, it is common only to take account of the measurable values.

In conversations about risk it may be vital to ensure a common usage and understanding. There may be no risk in the narrow sense and yet a disaster might be virtually certain in the broader sense.

Risk proper

Risk over and above conventional, probabilistic risk. Term due to Frank Knight, as in Knightian uncertainty.


Firmly fixed or established, not easily to be moved or changed or unbalanced or destroyed or altered in value.

In common use, we also talk about systems, such as economic systems, being stable if some core aspects are stable, despite significant non-core innovations. More precisely, we should talk about specific aspects of a system as being stable.


Strategy is a conception of future activity, as exemplified by Generalship. It includes, for example, diplomacy and peace-making, and is contrasted with tactics and planning, which are more mundane.

Often, strategy is about selection and maintenance of the aim, as distinct from working towards a set goal. Maintenance of the aim is about keeping the aim appropriate, honest and effective, not about blindly fixing it.

This pedantic usage can be contrasted with much common practice, which uses the term for the tactics and plans of the senior folk, irrespective of its nature. Thus something that claims to be a strategy might actually be a ‘no-strategy strategy’. For example prior to 2008 it seemed to be believed that the efficient markets hypothesis obviated the need for a market resilience strategy.

The disadvantage of the wider use of the term strategy is that makes it difficult to distinguish ‘real’ strategy. E.g., ‘higher strategy’ might be thought to mean planning by the seniors.


To keep going continually.

There is no sense of keeping within bounds, except in so far as this is necessary to sustainment.


Capable of keeping going continually, as distinct from only going for a short while, or suffering periodic set-backs. This can apply, for example, to an ecosystem as distinct from individual species.


Lack of certainty. This is broader than just probability and includes all aspects covered by Keynes in his treatise.

A common usage is to treat uncertainty as a synonym for classical probability. This makes it impossible to even ask the question as to whether uncertainty can be adequately represented by a single number. 

Dave Marsay

2 Responses to Glossary

  1. Pingback: Holism and Evolution | djmarsay

  2. Pingback: Uncertainty and risk ‘Heat Maps’ | djmarsay

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