Technical Notes & Blog

Systems Thinking Fundamentals


Systems Thinking and Science (2010)


The history of systems thinking goes back to antiquity. This results in the recognition that a “system” is a cognitive construct for understanding complexity. From at least Greek times, and including the mediaeval period through to the enlightenment and the modern period, the system concept was associated with framing “systems of knowledge.” Indeed, after von Bertalanffy’s (1968) enormous contribution to science by his destruction of vitalism using his open systems hypothesis, his real contribution to systems thinking was his attempt to use his open-systems construct as a building block for defining isomorphisms between the disciplines. Regrettably, the anti-mechanistic rhetoric associated with the vitalists stayed alive and became the organizing focus of many contemporary “systems thinkers” so disenfranchising some of the greatest systems thinkers known to science (Barton and Haslett, 2007). 

Individual systems frames are associated with different (but not always distinct) metaphors. This can be made even more explicit by associating various systems approaches with Pepper’s (1942) “world hypotheses” and his four “root metaphors”: 
  1. Formism- associated with classification systems. 
  2. Mechanism- associated with both static and dynamic machine-systems. 
  3. Organicism- associated with emergence, self-organization, and chaos; “naturalistic” systems. 
  4. Contextualism- associated with social ecology and co-evolutionary systems. 
Emery (2000) made the important observation that it was only contextualism that included human, purposeful behaviour, and as such, this was the only true “open system” and that Pepper’s first three metaphors corresponded to “closed systems". One possible implication of this is that while the closed systems constructs are used to frame hypotheses, it is only contextualism that accommodates taking action and is the legitimate domain of the action researcher. The systems construct lies at the centre of the scientific method (Barton and Haslett,2007). This can be seen by recognising that by definition, hypotheses must be framed systemically. Otherwise, they have no meaning. Furthermore, when the scientific method is described as analysis-synthesis dialectic, this systems construct determines not only the way parts are placed into synthesis, but also the way they are analysed. The analysis-synthesis dialectic can be described in terms of three modes of logical inference,  Peirce (1839-1914):
  1. Abduction- the creation of hypotheses. 
  2. Deduction- the logical consequences of the hypothesis. 
  3. Induction- the correlation of data with hypothesis. 
This framework can be further used to describe the scientific method as the application of these logics to “closed systems” and AR as the application to “open systems” (Barton et al., 2009). Contemporary management practice can be interpreted in terms of the systemic framing of issues and acting on the “hypothesis to the best explanation ”using the principles of AR.

In summary, it is argued that systems thinking and AR, rather than being at the 
margin of the scientific method, are in fact at the centre. Furthermore, Peirce’s pragmatist philosophy with its continuous world view (synechism and tychism), its pragmatic definition of meaning, its phenomenology based on three categories that provide a logical basis to semiotics, its modes of inquiry and rules of inference that define the scientific method, and finally, Peirce’s assumption of fallibility (which necessitates pluralism and team learning), provide a logical basis within which to consider contemporary systems thinking, and contemporary management practice.