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2002. Agoshkova, Elena: Philosophical Foundations of Systems Thinking. In: Christensen, Birgit (ed.): Knowledge. Power. Gender. Chronos Verlag. Zurich 2002, pp 789-796


The many become one, and are increased by one

A.N. Whitehead


Human thinking develops over millennia on the basis of perception and activity. Experience of philosophy and science penetrates even into everyday consciousness. The systems movement of the 20th century has added to humankinds knowledge a considerable layer of knowledge known as a systems paradigm, systems methodology, and systems research. It can be said that since a presentation by L. Von Bertalanffi at the 9th World Congress of Philosophy in 1937, the second half of 20th century has gone under the badge of the concept of system. The end of the century saw the goals of developing system thinking and systems view of the world outlook formulated.[1]

Systems thinking rests upon the extension of conceptual basis with systems notions; enrichment of knowledge of real-world properties with the properties of organized complexity; development of non-formal systems logic.[2]

In order to enter the procedure of thinking, systems notions should take a proper place in the structure of categories. But systems terminology is borrowed from philosophy, mathematics, natural and technical science. Therefore it is necessary to correlate it with philosophical categories.

Historically, systems movement broke into different systems schools and trends that frequently adhere to opposite views on the very notion system. The most principal divergences are reflected in the following approaches.

Definition-S: A system is a set of elements in relations and links with each other that makes a definite whole, unity.[3]

Definition-G: A system is what is distinguished as a system.[4]

The principal difference between these two approaches is that by Definition-G a system is any arbitrary set of properties, while by Definition-S it is required this set to present a whole. If the understanding of a system as an arbitrary set of elements can be accepted for developing a methodology of systems research, then for the development of systems view of the world and of systems thinking philosophical essence of the notion system is of principal significance.

If a system is understood as an arbitrary set of elements, such a definition can in principal be used for building a procedure of scientific perception. This trend is successfully developed by a school of American systems movement.[5] But if it is suggested to everyday consciousness that a system is any set of properties and relations, we are deprived of the notional foundation of systems thinking. But in what does the specifics of systems vision of the world reveal itself? What set of categories determines systems thinking? If systems movement has given so contradictory definitions, we should look for a point of intersection between them. A solution to these questions requires a philosophical comprehension of the very notion system.


Gnoseological Foundations of the Notion of System


Human thinking receives knowledge only through the partition of reality; through the separation of discreet manifestations, parts of phenomena and objects. In doing this human mind is orientated toward three main cognitive goals:

        Explaining the phenomena through looked-for causes.

        Forecasting phenomena under the changes of known factors.

        Projecting artifacts with desired properties on the basis of a synthesis of elements with known properties.

To achieve these three goals it is necessary to determine regularity between the properties of a whole object and the properties of its components. This regularity is to be determined through forming a system.

In /2/ we have shown that presently the notion system acts as a gnoseological concept. It is a definite form, a definite construction, which we single out in the object in order to determine regularity between the properties of a whole object and the properties of its parts. A system is a form of presentation of the whole through its parts.

But neither the whole that we are going to represent as a system, nor the parts can be things, i.e. things possess an infinite number of properties and correspondingly the image of an object requires an infinite number of relations. In the objectives of perception a thing can appear to us as the whole only with regard to a definite property, quality Q of this thing.

Then we come to Definition-1: A system S formed on object A with respect to the objects property (quality) Q is a set of certain properties that are in certain relations, which generate property Qs of this set (see footnote 2).

Hence, a system as a set of properties and relations is an abstract object distinguished in object A.

Nevertheless, the very fact of distinguishing in an object an abstract object does not make it a system. In the beginning of our examination we have rejected the understanding of a system as an arbitrary set of properties and relations. So, it is appropriate to reveal the specific feature of this abstract object, which makes it a system.

Integral property Qs of a system is its principal individualizing feature. System as a gnoseological concept embodies our attempt at revealing, among the properties and relations of an object, such a finite set, which regularly generates integral property Qs of this set. Then for integral property Qs of a system we have two identical (due to abstracting) designations: on the one hand, it is an integral property Qs, and on the other hand, the same property Qs is represented by a set of properties and relations. From a position of examining an integral property it can be said that these two types of setting a system are in relation of identity due to abstraction. Identity due to abstraction is the so-called gnoseological identity[6], as against logical/formal identity.

Now we are able to give gnoseological definition of the notion system.

Definition-2: A system is an abstract object containing the relation of identity due to abstraction between the set of properties and relations and the integral property of this set.

It becomes clear why many systems researches adhered to the definition: a system is an equation. The relation of identity reflects the generating of a new property Qs. Therefore, notion of generative system introduced by G.J. Klir gains a higher status.

As this takes place, the following gnoseological problems come to the surface.

1.     In forming a object system, we use a finite set of the objects properties, considering other properties foreign to the producing of an objects property Q. But any object has an infinite number of properties. So, what consequence will be there? What would be the role of the principle of universal interdependence and the principle of phenomenas independence?

2.     It is obvious that we are not able to gain an objects representation as a system for all the objects. Humankind should be shown particular properties that generate the property of a whole object. Indeed, history of human perception is the history of revealing new properties (energy, electric potential, information, etc.). The laws of motion in mechanics were accepted only after Galileo introduced the concept of acceleration.

3.     Having formed a system as a finite set of properties and relations, we suppose that integral property Qs of the system is congruent with property Q of the whole object. Consequently, the system would be an image of the regularity of generating an objects property Q. What properties of what objects allow forming such a system?

We know that fundamental laws of physics possess high precision and simplicity. They include a very narrow set of properties. Procedures of abstraction, of throwing the foreign properties away present the essence of scientific perception. If the finite set of properties would not give us definite regularities, the procedures of abstraction would be senseless. Since the time of Pythagorean theorems and Euclids treatise on geometry, the system is a universal form of representing knowledge. The program of L. Von Bertalanffi should have strengthened the universality and commonness of this form. Systems movement intended to apply this form not only to primary properties (laws of physics, mechanics, etc.) but also to spread it over macro-properties of such objects as economics, organism, natural and technical objects. But the comprehension of the essence of this form stretched to 20th century.

Once a gnoseological form proves a universal form of perception, there should be ontological foundations within reality or human consciousness.


Ontological Foundations of the Notion of System


We can proceed on to considering the ontological foundations of the notion system from two viewpoints ontology of reality and ontology of reason. There is a question whether a system is a fundamental construction of reality or a system is just a gnoseological form, which operates intellect, or a priori form of reason.

If the notion system is so significant, then philosophy, starting from the Antiquity, could not have passed by a discussion of the essence of system, although the term system in its contemporary meaning was not used.[7]

Thanks to the perception of systems paradigm in 20th century, a new side in the works of great philosophers becomes visible for us. It becomes obvious that the problems of ontology of reality and ontology of reason discussed throughout the history of philosophy are directly related to the problem of systems vision of the world. Of the greatest interest in search for ontological foundations of the notion system is the exchange between Plato, A.N. Whitehead and their contemporary followers. The problems of unity and plurality, the one and the many, the whole and part are directly connected with the essence of notion system.

In his Physics Aristotle points out that ancient philosophers were of opinion that the one can not be the many.

Plato was the first to state the dialectic compatibility of the one and the many. Let us read carefully his words: If one is, he said, the one cannot be many?[8] And he affirmatively asks to the question: Yet that which has parts may have the attribute of unity in all the parts, and in this way being all and a whole, may be one?[9]

In penetrating into the problem of the whole, Plato gives a formulation, which is directly applicable to the essence of system. He differentiates the notions of all and whole. All shows up as a mechanical sum of discrete parts. A whole presents, as wed say today, a new attribute and the parts of the whole reflect in themselves this property of the whole (interpretation by A.F. Losiev).

Plato emphasizes that parts of a whole remain what they are; it is not an arbitrary division into parts, but such a division, which retains the distinctness of each of the parts. It is this sense that should be attached to elements of a system. Consequently, in singling out an object system we should have an opportunity of decomposition into qualitatively definite parts. These parts should have the definiteness of their properties acting as a possibility of interaction. The definiteness of property should be so that it would be possible to show the definiteness of relations between the parts. It is obvious that half a cloud does not show this definiteness.

However, the essence of the notion system is not limited to the problem of the one and the many. The essence of a system consists in creating a new property. A system acts as self-sufficiency, as the definiteness of the systems integral property. Platos creative ideas are of great interest here. For Plato, ideas are ideas of creating. In them there is the essence of things, with which the ideas are in inseparable unity. A system is akin to such a kind of Platos ideas when one idea embraces many very distant ideas. Similar to sounds and letters, certain ideas are capable of mixing and correlating with each other, other do not match.

Contemporary vision of an object system is that the possibility to distinguish parts of an object having a definite property does not guarantee the forming of object system. It is necessary that a set of properties and relations should create an integral property of this set. Here we plumb the depth of ontology in order to reveal the principal possibility of bearing new properties through interaction of groups of properties. A.N. Whitehead has explored this side of ontology in-depth.

The categorical scheme by A.N. Whitehead contains ontological foundations of producing a novelty. He introduces the category of the ultimate: creativity, one, many, as well as defines the essence of the universe as the creation of a novel entity. He writes: The Ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction The many become one, and are increased by one.[10]

Let us note that in fact this is the exposure of essence of system. The notions of complex unity, togetherness of the many, conjunctive unity allows regarding Whiteheads ontology as a profound elaboration of systems paradigm. At the same time Index to the A.N. Whiteheads work includes no notion of system.

We should notice an important feature of Whiteheads ontology. In fact, he formulates the principle of systemic organization and hierarchic structure of the universe, which lies in the basis of system vision of the universe. A.N. Whitehead introduces the notion of creative advance, thus spreading the effect of the principle of creating a novel entity over the all levels of reality: The creative advance is the application of the Ultimate principle of creativity to each novel situation, which it originates (see footnote 10).

Let us note that neither Plato nor Whitehead raises the problem of infinite interactions, of common interdependence. Novel entities are generated from the definite many, and one idea embraces a finite number of compatible ideas. This unity of one and many is the main distinctive feature of a system as an abstract object with relation of identity.

Then the question of What is a system? can be answered by Definition-3: A system is the many united in one. Or we could say, A system is the many producing one. This one is philosophical essence of the notion system.

Thus, principal philosophies contain ontological foundations of a system as an ideal form of creating a new property, creating the diversity of the universe. A system as a pattern of Platos idea determines the regularity of generating novel entities. It is the form of uniting the many in one. Similar to Platos ideas that are intimately connected with things they produce, the idea of system does not exist isolated in nowhere but does exist everywhere.

Is there a system as a form in the basis of the universe? Probably, it is. Fundamental laws of physics are observed with high precision. The simplicity of fundamental laws advocated by A. Einstein reveals itself in the fact that the laws unite a very narrow number of properties. Thus, at ultimate levels of the universe the system is formed from a definite number of properties. But this has been revealed only at the level of fundamental laws.

At the same time, the goal set by L. Von Bertalanffi and the 20th-century systems movement is to apply this form to macro-properties of reality economics, natural phenomena, artifacts. However, here we have no grounds to accept the principle of phenomenas independence, thinking that a definite set of macro-properties would give a strict regularity. Therefore, with regard to macro-objects the notion system begins to act as an abstraction of human mind, as Kants a priori form of reason.

Then the notion of General System is the understanding of a system as an abstraction or a form, which the knowledge of regularities takes. And it is this form, which is universal for humankind. Correspondingly, the contents of General system theory should include the logic of abstraction processes[11] as applied to the abstraction system. It is at this stage that a shift to an arbitrary set of properties occurs, what we have discussed in the beginning. This is preconditioned not by the essence of system but only by limited cognitive facilities of the subject. One must be aware that an arbitrary set of properties can form a system, as well as a non-system or a quasi-system.

Now we can pose a question, whether the notion system can be included into the structure of categories of thinking? We create a perceived world from categories of common sense and abstraction processes. In this gnoseological universum, which is created by our consciousness, a system acts as a universal form of human knowledge. The categories of cause and consequence took their place in the conceptual structure of thinking. A system can be regarded as a single complex of categories, as a complete cognitive form that contains a structured cause-and-consequence relation.

What conceptual scheme would determine systems thinking? Let us just note that the understanding of a system as a creating form makes the key principle of systems thinking. The notion system reflects the fundamental feature of the universe of creating the new by uniting a finite number of phenomena. We should foreknow that every phenomenon we produce coalesce, participates in concrescence with other phenomena of nature, techno-sphere and society. This avalanche-like process, which is similar to the chain reaction, determines the future of the planet.

Correspondingly, contemporary science concentrates on organization: not what a thing is per se, not, how one thing produces an effect on one other thing, but rather how sets of events are structured and how they function in relation to their environment, - other sets of things, likewise structured in space and time.[12]

Our systems vision of associative events will make it possible to set a barrier against natural and social cataclysms and the neglect of Justice.

Systems concepts should belong not only to science and philosophy. They must get into everyday consciousness of every person. It is consistent with the principle advanced by the 20th World Congress of Philosophy: Philosophy Educating Humanity.

Here in Switzerland, in close proximity to Vienna, I would like to pay tribute to Ludwig Von Bertalanffi, who 75 years ago in a presentation in Vienna proclaimed the idea of general systems theory.

Let me also dedicate this presentation to the memory of my father, Boris Agoshkov.


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[1] Ervin Laszlo. The system View of the World. A Holistic Vision for Our Time. Hampton Press, 1996.

[2] Elena Agoshkova. Systems Thinking in the 21st Century. In: Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy. Boston, 2000. <http:>

[3] V.N. Sadovskij. Systema. In: Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. N.Y. London, 1981.

[4] B.R. Gaines. General systems research: quo vadis? In: General Systems. Yearboo. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1979, v. 24, p. 1 9.

[5] George J. Klir. Architecture of Systems problem solving. N.Y. Plenum Press, 1985.

[6] M.M. Novoselov. Identity. In: Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. N.Y. London, 1981, v. 26.

[7] E.B. Agoshkova, B.V. Achlibininski. Evolution of the notion system from Antiquity to our time. In: Voprosi filosofii, Moscow, 1998, No. 7, p. 170 178.

[8] PLATO. The Dialogues of PLATO. In: Great Books of the Western World. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1996, v. 6, p. 492.

[9] PLATO. P. 566.

[10] Alfred N. Whitehead. Process and Reality. N.Y. London, 1978, p. 21.

[11] M.M. Novoselov.

[12] Ervin Laszlo, p. 17.