From Systems Theory to Systemics

By Umberta Telfener e Luca Casadio

Systemic thinking is understood in this introduction as the result of various evolutionary stages and not as derived solely from general systems theory. As we have seen, it involves a focus on the relations and dependence between objects, be they human, natural, companies or parts of a whole. What is put forward is therefore not so much an explanatory theory as a framework for the observation and understanding of events, a set of proposals, some of the many possible interpretive lenses, those we regard as still relevant and still delight in discussing.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn asserted that transition from one paradigm to another took place through scientists with one foot in the tradition and one on the new path. In order to combine respect for the past with an interest in new developments, we suggest that the evolution of systemic thought should be taken as a fundamental epistemological operation of knowledge. We take up Heinz von Foerster’s invitation to use systemics (the ability to consider things together) as an operation to be placed alongside the traditional operations of science.

Clarification of what this means will be provided by the following remarks made by the Viennese epistemologist during the two days spent inRometo supervise plans for this work in April 1998.

 There should be two complementary ways of seeing and thinking. One is the way peculiar to science (currently thought of too often with a capital S), which comes from sci (divide) and also puts forward a definitive methodology. Then there is the complementary way of thinking and observing of systemics, which comes from sun (put together), in such a way that the different divided parts together form a whole. If you choose to divide, it’s science. If you are instead concerned with complementarity, you can enter a systemic paradigm whereby one logic is capable of representing another and complementarity and overlapping are reflected in each. In this way, each of the two modalities represents and defines the other. General systems theory already set itself the goal of not dividing things and observations but connecting them to one another and considering them together. The strength of the work done in physics lies instead precisely in division, whereby if I don’t understand the whole, I can divide the parts and understand some of them even though the whole escapes me. To talk about science, art or even the weather, you have to make a choice. You can use the scientific model with its way of organising the data: carry out research, test a theory, try to refute it, devise models, discard hypothesis. You can also opt for the systemic approach based on dialogue, on a typical form of focus on human relations that reinstates science in its original domain of human dialogue.

The problem of physics and the so-called hard sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) is that they deal with soft problems, i.e. problems that can always be divided to the point where you are left with units that are easy to handle. The so-called soft sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology) instead deal with ‘hard’ problems, i.e. complex problems that cannot be reduced to simpler forms.

Systemics is concerned with the rules of composition and deals above all with interaction between parts. The term “systemic” is frequently misused if understood as an adjective, as in a systemic approach, a systemic therapy, a systemic way of thinking. What actually happens is that we don’t think sufficiently about what we are doing, how we operate as systemicists. My proposal is to invent a new term, namely the noun systemics. Systemics thus becomes a way of observing and addressing the world. There is a splendid term for science in German, namely Wissenschaft, which means knowledge production, something that produces knowledge. Knowledge can be produced in very different ways. It can be produced by separating things or putting them together: separating things and looking for differences or putting them together and looking for similarities, points of contact. The term system derives precisely from the Greek word for one and sun (put together). What it means etymologically is putting things in one, making them one.

I propose to consider systemics as a position, a way of observing, a cognitive attitude. Drawing a distinction is scientific; seeing complementarity is systemic. In this perspective, concepts overlap through the reciprocal definition of self and the other.

It is not necessary to choose one approach or the other. We must use both at the same time in order to obtain greater depth of field.

You ask me to go on talking about what systemics is? I will reply by explaining my interest in the form of the question and the form of the answer. I think that the idea of “form” is not fully understood. If someone asks me what consciousness is, for example, I can say, ‘Let’s look it up in a good dictionary.’ If he isn’t happy with the form of the dictionary, I can suggest looking it up in an etymological dictionary. He could then reply that he isn’t interested in where the term comes from but in something else.

When you ask me what systemics is and invite me to go on talking about it, I reply that I am interested in the form of your question and also in your expectations as regards the answer. My question comes to regard the forms in which a dialogue works and develops. Addressing the form of the questions and answers leads to thinking of a dialogue, which I see as a dance; a dialogue understood as an interactive operation in which causality disappears. If we are talking about a scientific definition of consciousness, for example, we can look it up in the books. When we look for a definition of systemics, significance attaches not so much to the answer as to the dance prompted by the question, which becomes a dialogue. It becomes interaction and builds up complementarity between two people who come into contact. Even though we have called them complementary, these are therefore two very different domains. Systemics is developed by people who want dialogue, who want to think together, to dance. Examining the form of the question means highlighting or in any case negotiating a common domain. Analysing the context of the question means not giving answers that bring the conservation to an end but asking which shared domain the question was framed in. Dialogue makes it possible to meet and to move beyond separate identities and the fragmentary nature of language. Being together becomes the important thing. This is an interactive operation in which two people become one, in which I have to put myself in the other person’s shoes in order to talk and s/he is forced to put him/herself in mine. We each see ourselves through the eyes of the other. In this way we come to form a unity. Separate identity disappears. Identity loses its explicative and explanatory power, and the very idea of explanation takes on a different dimension. I would also say that the logic of the two systems, the scientific and the systemic, are completely different. As regards language, we have two completely different spheres. In one there is appearance and appearance defines identity. It separates. It is similar to science. Appearance is always syntax. A person wishing to construct a meaningful sentence has to organise it with a subject and predicate, to put in the commas, make pauses at certain points, decide how to do it. A part of language has to do with understanding sentences but the other aspect, the semantic aspect, is a miracle. Syntax presents a linear and logical causality. Semantics is organised like a network. It establishes a net-like relationship stretching in many different directions.

Personally, I regard men as tending more towards syntax and women towards semantics. There are two different forms of logic, one syntactic and one semantic.

The arguments of McCulloch and Bateson are typical examples of semantic logic. In his renowned article on the heterarchy of values determined by the topology of the nervous system, McCulloch demonstrated that there are systems as rigid as military or religious structures that think in terms of a universal “best”. In actual fact, the salient aspect that McCulloch demonstrates is that the nervous system cannot compute a definitive value but works through a heterarchy, i.e. through a constant selection of values based on circular logic. I regard this as one of the greatest contributions to science of the 20th century. McCulloch said: Suppose a person has the choice of an apple and a banana, and chooses the banana. Then he has the choice of a banana and a cherry, and chooses the cherry. If he is now asked to choose between an apple and a cherry, a logician will assume that he must go for the cherry again, whereas the apple is also a possibility from the semantic standpoint. The logician will say: “Look how stupid people are. They cannot think logically.” Bateson and McCulloch instead say: “Look how stupid logicians are. They can’t even understand how people think.”

How can we develop a logic capable of accommodating this unpredictability? The new definitions and the new problems in science are not invented but emerge in the dialogue between two or more people who do not know how to solve a problem and try to address it in a joint dance. Scientists do not therefore sit down at their desks and invent new concepts; new concepts emerge from their dance, from their shared doubts and relationship. Let me give another quick example to clarify the difference between the two ways of approaching knowledge. In his day, von Bertallanffy put forward a general theory of systems that was in line with the times. The word “theory” would not be included in my “systemic dictionary”, however. Theory is a concept that belongs to the domain of science, not of systemics. In order to be valid, a theory must be falsifiable and Popper’s concept of falsifiability, though very valid and indeed indispensable, is not consistent with systemics because it presupposes a linear logic. Systemic logic is related to semantic logic, whereas scientific logic is syntactic and its rules are given from outside. The simple logic of syntax is crucial in order to examine, understand, analyse and dissect the rules of the sounds made in order to speak; the role of semantics is to make sense of the sounds. The logic of semantics is required to connect innumerable data.

Systemics is understood by Heinz von Foerster – and by the authors of this work – as the result of the various movements described rather than just general systems theory. It involves considering the effects of the connections between people both in the context of everyday life and in structured organisations. It involves suggesting approaches that take into consideration the aesthetic and the ethical dimension at the same time. The proposal is to accept the indescribable, the possibility of speculation, fancy and the imagination as possible modalities of knowledge. Access to what is not yet explicable would be placed alongside what is already predictable and calculable in a complementary vision, a broader vision in which both ways of thinking are accepted.

Heinz von Foerster has proposed a form of knowledge to place beside the traditional scientific method, one that takes relations into account as a tool of knowledge and language as a tool of experience, as well as the necessary assertion of the researcher’s responsibility. This is an operation in line with the complementarity of cybernetics, with processuality, with the revolution outlined in these pages.

The history of XX ‘century ideas
General systems’ theory
An Outline of Bateson’s Ideas
Pathways of Evolution
Constructivism and constructionism
Cognitive sciences
The present day panorama