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Science, systems thinking, and advances in theories, methods and practices

Post-2013 addendum:  Many of the ideas in this January 2012 blog post — particularly around episteme, techne and phronesis — were more formally published in October 2013 as “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and Coevolving with the World”, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Please cite that article, rather than this preliminary blog post.

Commenting on the Overview of Systems Science (draft version 0.5) for the Guide to the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge is problematic. Applying systems thinking on systems thinking constitutes a mess of ideas that is difficult to tease apart. Breaking the idea of “systems science” in its parts of (i) “systems” and (ii) “science” is reductive. The more compatible approach is to view “science” with a larger context of “systems thinking”.

I’ll attempt to shed some more light on concerns and perspectives in the following sections:

  • 1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity
  • 2. Science is part of thinking, which can be philosophically framed as episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know when, know whom)
  • 3. Domains of systems thinking can be categorized into systems theory, systems methods, and systems practice
  • 4. Incomplete systems thinking may suggest paths through which gaps may be filled
  • 5. Systems thinking has evolved with roots of linear causality, circular causality, complexity theory and reflexivity theory
  • 6. Opportunities to refresh ties between systems thinking and action science, theory of practice and social learning could be pursued

The discussion of science and systems thinking leads to perspectives at another level. There’s an additional appendix on applied philosophy that illustrates that such inquiries are not without history.

1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity

In a previous post on systems thinking and (the) systems science(s) in a system of ideas, the correlation between the term “systems science” and “social systems science” at the University of Pennsylvania was reviewed. While “social systems science” was chosen as a term to be purposively clumsy, Russell Ackoff preferred more generally to use the label of “systems thinking”, obviating some criticisms on definitions of science. Science tends to be organized as disciplines. In the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of discipline is “a branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect”. Another is “a particular course of instruction to disciples”, which implies a master. Ackoff criticized disciples as anti-systemic, challenging his students and followers to transcend his body of work.

Post-2013 addendum:  Many of the ideas in this January 2012 blog post — particularly around episteme, techne and phronesis — were more formally published in October 2013 as “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and Coevolving with the World”, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Please cite that article, rather than this preliminary blog post.

Commenting on the Overview of Systems Science (draft version 0.5) for the Guide to the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge is problematic. Applying systems thinking on systems thinking constitutes a mess of ideas that is difficult to tease apart. Breaking the idea of “systems science” in its parts of (i) “systems” and (ii) “science” is reductive. The more compatible approach is to view “science” with a larger context of “systems thinking”.

I’ll attempt to shed some more light on concerns and perspectives in the following sections:

  • 1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity
  • 2. Science is part of thinking, which can be philosophically framed as episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know when, know whom)
  • 3. Domains of systems thinking can be categorized into systems theory, systems methods, and systems practice
  • 4. Incomplete systems thinking may suggest paths through which gaps may be filled
  • 5. Systems thinking has evolved with roots of linear causality, circular causality, complexity theory and reflexivity theory
  • 6. Opportunities to refresh ties between systems thinking and action science, theory of practice and social learning could be pursued

The discussion of science and systems thinking leads to perspectives at another level. There’s an additional appendix on applied philosophy that illustrates that such inquiries are not without history.

1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity

In a previous post on systems thinking and (the) systems science(s) in a system of ideas, the correlation between the term “systems science” and “social systems science” at the University of Pennsylvania was reviewed. While “social systems science” was chosen as a term to be purposively clumsy, Russell Ackoff preferred more generally to use the label of “systems thinking”, obviating some criticisms on definitions of science. Science tends to be organized as disciplines. In the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of discipline is “a branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect”. Another is “a particular course of instruction to disciples”, which implies a master. Ackoff criticized disciples as anti-systemic, challenging his students and followers to transcend his body of work.

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