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What is a system? (and the challenges of definition)

When asked “what is a system?”, a deep systems thinker may hesitate to respond.  He or she may be reflecting on whether the response should be “what does a system mean to you?”, or “what should a system mean to me”?  The systems thinker recognizes that meaning comes in a context, and is therefore associated with a system of ideas held by an individual (i.e. me or you) occurs within an environment (i.e. my experience or your experience).

In parallel, consider the question “what is a mother”?  If the questioner is asking for a thoroughly researched answer, perhaps the Oxford Dictionary definition for mother will be helpful.

mother

1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth:
‘a mother penguin’
‘a mother of three’

2. (Mother, Mother Superior, or Reverend Mother) (especially as a title or form of address) the head of a female religious community.

3. vulgar slang , chiefly North American short for motherfucker.

On the other hand, the responses to “what does a mother mean to you?” and “what does a mother mean to me?” draws on human experience. Every baby knows what a mother means to him or her, before language — or even coherent thought — develops. For that question, perhaps a poem serves better. Here’s one from Francis Cardinal Spelling (who was first named as Francis Joseph Spellman) .

What is a mother?

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When asked “what is a system?”, a deep systems thinker may hesitate to respond.  He or she may be reflecting on whether the response should be “what does a system mean to you?”, or “what should a system mean to me”?  The systems thinker recognizes that meaning comes in a context, and is therefore associated with a system of ideas held by an individual (i.e. me or you) occurs within an environment (i.e. my experience or your experience).

In parallel, consider the question “what is a mother”?  If the questioner is asking for a thoroughly researched answer, perhaps the Oxford Dictionary definition for mother will be helpful.

mother

1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth:
‘a mother penguin’
‘a mother of three’

2. (Mother, Mother Superior, or Reverend Mother) (especially as a title or form of address) the head of a female religious community.

3. vulgar slang , chiefly North American short for motherfucker.

On the other hand, the responses to “what does a mother mean to you?” and “what does a mother mean to me?” draws on human experience. Every baby knows what a mother means to him or her, before language — or even coherent thought — develops. For that question, perhaps a poem serves better. Here’s one from Francis Cardinal Spelling (who was first named as Francis Joseph Spellman) .

What is a mother?

Read more (in a new tab)
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    • 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings
      Social Systems Science graduate students in 1970s-1980s with #RussellAckoff, #EricTrist + #HasanOzbehkhan at U. Pennsylvania Wharton School were assigned the Penguin paperback #SystemsThinking reader edited by #FredEEmery, with updated editions evolving contents.
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      It's been challenging to find sources that specifically define two-word phrases -- i.e. "systemic change", "systematic change", "systems change" -- as opposed to loosely inferring reductively from one-word definitions in recombination. MartinReynolds @OpenUniversity clarifies uses of the phrases, with a critical eye into motives for choosing a specific label, as well as associated risks and […]
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