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.
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? Who shall answer this?
A mother is a font and spring of life,
A mother is a forest in whose heart
Lies hid a secret ancient as the hills,
For men to claim and take its wealth away;
And like the forest shall her wealth renew
And give, and give again, that men may live.
Thus, for a systems thinker, a word is part of his or her system of ideas. This leads to a question about could be meant by a system of ideas? The Oxford Dictionary provides a definition that includes a “system of ideas”:
1. a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained:
‘Darwin’s theory of evolution‘
The “independent of the thing to be explained” is the part that could be counter to the way that the deep systems thinker thinks. The definition as “a supposition” doesn’t mean “the supposition” and presupposes that there is a person to suppose.
Oxford Dictionaries recognizes “system” as on the of the Top 1000 frequently used words in the English language.
1. a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole:
‘the state railway system’
‘fluid is pushed through a system of pipes or channels’
2. a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method:
‘a multiparty system of government’
‘the public-school system’
3. (the system) the prevailing political or social order, especially when regarded as oppressive and intransigent:
‘don’t try bucking the system’
4. Music a set of staves in a musical score joined by a brace.
For most people, the above definition from a well-regarded dictionary source will suffice. For those whom the definition will not suffice, the alternative is a much more exhaustive work in the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, edited by Charles François.