The Nature of Systems

“Philosophy was born when the early Greeks learned to view the world as a cosmos which was intelligible and hence controllable in thought and rational action. One formulation of this cosmic order was the Aristotelian worldview with its holistic and teleological notions. Aristotle’s statement that the ‘whole is more than the sum of its parts’ is a definition of the basic system idea.”

Systems are dynamic complexes of elements standing in mutual interaction as wholes. Any particular system is an entity that maintains its wholeness by the mutual interaction of its parts, which can be a subsystem (part) of another system, depending on the observer focus of interest or could be a whole when facing downward and a part of another system when facing upward (Koestler). Then, it can be argued that it has been a conceptual assumption that could arisen in very early times of humanity when some of our ancestors started noticing in their minds and also in their hands that they could first and would afterwards distinguish clearly the boundary of something perceived or something induced in order to differentiate the interesting or motivating object or idea from the surroundings. It can be assumed that this notion was soon grasped by other individuals who transfered the notion to the following generations. The evidence of theoretical sets of ideas and the presence of man-made objects since early times of humankind confirm today how humans may constitute purposefully many diverse “systems” as particular arrangements of things or ideas conceived according to their interests. The first theoretical systems were, quite probably, those sets of ideas that inspired some of the early humans to make perhaps one tool composed by one stone tied to a wooden handle. This tool became de facto the first physical system built for increasing their survival chances.

A system:

  • is “a whole that functions as a whole by virtue of the interaction of its parts; roughly speaking a bundle of relations.” (Anatol Rapoport)
  • is anything greater than the sum of its parts because it consists of these parts plus the way the parts relate to each other and besides plus the qualities that emerge from these relationships
  • is a set of particular interactive relationships, an entity relatively well identified, that maintains dynamically in operation a certain whole
  • is the unavoidable outcome of organized intentions
  • can be physical, biological, psychological, sociological, or symbolic
  • can be static, mechanical, mechanically self-regulating, or organismically interactive with the environment
  • can be organized hierarchically according to its level of organized complexity
  • can be a categorical combination like the man-machine system that composes a factory
  • is a set of elements standing in interaction, where its wholeness depends on the parts, and the parts depend on the whole where one and one equals two plus (some interactions)
  • is a complex of components that becomes an entity through the mutual interaction of its parts, from atom to cosmos
  • is a whole that functions as a whole by virtue of the interaction of its parts
  • is an organized relationship of the parts of a whole
  • is a manifestation of an organization or an organized arrangement

Open Systems are systems functioning beyond the limits of conventional physical chemistry; systems that maintain their dynamic existence by continuously exchanging matter and energy with their environment, as animals import oxygen and food and export carbon dioxide and nitrogenous wastes. The components of an open system display their full range of traits only by interacting-among themselves and with their environment — like bees in a beehive, flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of animals and groups of people.

Bertalanffy is the father of the thermodynamics of open systems, as he published this idea in 1940. Open systems are maintained by “the continuous flow of matter”. “Living forms are not in being, they are happening, they are the expression of a perpetual stream of matter and energy which passes through the organism and at the same time constitutes it”. The Bertalanffy’s conceptual model of the living organism as an open system has had revolutionary implications for behavioral and social sciences.

The mysteries of life: negative entropy, equifinality, steady states maintained by a self- regulating balance of decay and synthesis, emergence of increased order and organization, … are characteristics of open systems, which ought to be studied continuously in the perspective of this model. The mysteries of human behavior and social performance need to be studied similarly. These studies will be the source of very transcendental concerns as scientific tasks, but so long as the scope of inquiry is pointed away from the unanswerable why of life and toward the how.