Coevolving Innovations

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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.


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.

An editorial preface:
In the hardcopy version, every page has the footnotes 1)general information 2)methodology or model 3)epistemology, ontology and semantics 4)human sciences 5)disciplined oriented.
Boldface entries — an emphasis that I will not replicate here — refer to other entries within the encyclopedia.
The first sentence refers to “G.S. Theory”, which is an abbreviation for “General Systems Theory”.


Very numerous definitions have been given of the word and the concept even if limited to G.S. Theory and Cybernetics, the differences between these definitions are striking.  However, comparisons do not destroy the notion.  On the contrary, many interesting shades appear.

Accordingly, we give hereafter many definitions, obtained from authors of different countries and specializations.  As much as possible, they are supported by comments of the authors themselves. In some cases a critical evaluation or comment has been added.

The general idea is to extensively explore the multiple aspects of the notion in a non-contradictory way.

To put things into perspective here is G. WEINBERG’s one:  “The system is a point of view”.  And similarly, for G. PASK it is a “universe of discourse” (predefined by a reference frame) (1961, p. 22-3).

So “System” corresponds to a man-created general conceptual model for coherent, complex and more or less identificable and permanently observed real world entities.

All definitions are more or less complementary. Some are more embracing than others and others more specific.  All in all, this is one of the most evident case of polysemy in language and it would not be satisfactory to reject any off-hand without a careful scrutiny.

It should however be noted that no “point of view” and no “universe of discourse” on systems could exist without the simultaneous existence of something on which these subtle arts can be practised and which is generally called “concrete system”, or perhaps more imprudently “real” system.

As a result, the most simple and synthetical definitions open the way to careless generalizations and simplifications.

The most elaborated can be limitative, for example, be valid only for living systems.

Furthermore there are various degrees of systemic organization, from the least integrated (composite or distributed systems) to the most differentiated and integrated ones.

Shortly, there is no perfect definition … and, again, many possible ones according to the “point of view”.

Accordingly, we will thus give a number of them, first general, next more specific, in every case with the needed comments (from authors or from this compiler, according to necessity). Most definitions are from genuine systemists or cyberneticians, and some more from other scientists or philosophers, because they seemed relevant.

In conclusion, a critical synthesis will be proposed, even as the conclusions are by no means to be taken as definitive.


-“A system is a set of elements dynamically interacting and organized in relation to a goal” (J. de ROSNAY, 1990, p. 93).

J. de ROSNAY comment is as follows:  “The introduction of finality (the goal of the system) in this definition may seem surprising.  Understandably, the finality of a machine has been defined and specified by man, but what dare we say about the finality of a system like a cell?   The cell’s “goal” is in no way mysterious.  It implies no project. It is registered a posteriori to maintain its structure and to divide itself.  The same can be said about the ecosystem.  Its finality — again, not project — is to maintain its equilibria and to allow life’s development.  Nobody did established [sic] atmosphere’s content of oxygen, nor the earth’s average temperature, nor the composition of oceans. Nevertheless, they maintain themselves within very narrow limits.  [p. 341]

“This definition steps back from another with a certain structuralist overtone, for which a system is a closed structure.  Such structure cannot evolve, but undergoes collapses due to some internal desequilibrium” (ibid).

“A set of parts with a common destiny, which maintain their interrelations, even when placed in a different environment” (F.BONSACK, 1990, p. 67).

The author comments:  “In a system, there is first an object: a certain connexity in space, a conservation of internal relation sat the time of a displacement entailing a change in the relations with the environment…

“But there is more to it.

“There exists a functional unity. This means, a whole apt to perform some tasks and which needs the functional integrity of all of its parts in order to maintain that capacity…

“…a car (for example) performs correctly its function — which is to guarantee quick, safe and comfortable travelling at whatever hour and practically any weather conditions — only if all parts correctly perform their respective function” (p. 67)

“A set of interrelated elements” (BERTALANFFY, 1956 – ACKOFF, 1972).

This sweeping and embracing general definition is thus explained by R.L.ACKOFF:  “…a system is an entity which is composed of at least two elements and a relation that holds between each of its elements and at least one other element in the set. Each of a system’s elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. Furthermore, no subset of elements is unrelated to any other subset” (Ibid).

This definition does not allow a clear distinction between logical or formal systems, for example, and dynamic concrete systems.  Nor is the role of the observer in any way expressed.

“… any set of variables that (the observer or experimenter) selects from those available on the real “machine” (W.R. ASHBY, 1960, p. 16).

One very important feature of this definition is the emphasis upon the role of the observer or experimenter, who is supposed to “select” the variables, and whose intervention implies clearly that, in ASHBY’s opinion, any system is a mere constructed model. Of course, some criteria would be needed, in order to avoid radical arbitrariness in the process of selection. A criterion should be, for instance, coherence, in relation to some general types of interconnections presen in all systemic-cybernetic models. One should also note that ASHBY postulates the existence of the real “machine”, an object “out there”, whichmay very well be differently modelized by different observers.

Finally, one could regret the use of the word “machine”, a practice of the first cyberneticians which has been sharply criticized for its mechanicists undertones.

“A grouping of interrelated elements possessing a boundary and functional unity” (Ch. DECHERT, 1968, p.119).

DECHERT writes:  “Each of the elements of a system is related, directly or indirectly, to all other elements so that a change in any element, to a greater or lesser degree changes the entire system. A system is distinguished from an aggregate (or congeries) by the interrelatedness of its elements” (Ibid).

In this sense, a system is basically a network.

“A system is [sic] an organization comprising man and machine components b) engaged in coordinated goal-directed activity, c) linked by information channels, and d) influenced by an external environment.” (D. HOWLAND. 1963, p.227).

This definition is only adequate for human systems, which, furthermore do not necessary include machines and whose activities are not always, at least consciously, goal-directed.

D. Mc NEIL deplores that: “The word system became cheapened by its identification with particular technologies such as computers or with particular methods such as “systems analysis” (1993 a).

He tries, in a recent and intricate definition, to include the many different aspects of systemic organization: “A system is a dynamic, organized, delimited, open, persistent, composite whole. It is volutionary, comprised of at least one loop and at least one link which manifest the aspects of content, form, function, and control, together with timing and scaling factors, relative to an environment and relevant to a percipient” (1993a). (“Percipient” stays here for “observer”, as considered in this encyclopedia).

M. BUNGE gives a very synthetic definition which implies many specific features of systems, save their relationships with their environment (including how an “object” becomes defined): “A system is a complex object every part of which is related to some other component of the same object” (1993, p.211).

However Mc NEIL’s definition reflects better the multi-facetic character of the “system”… and the need to ponder each and every characteristic stated in it.

There are numerous more specific definitions of peculiar classes of systems, most of which are reproduced – and commented, in view that some seem debatable – hereafter.

To conclude, systems are most generally characterized by their complexity, their coherence and relative permanence, and their tendency to seek their own survival. These general conditions dominate the whole concept.  [p. 342]

After the one-page entry on “system”, the “hereafter” is 11 pages of additional entries for system (from which one involving “meaning” is expanded as particularly relevant, and which Charles François provides a comment).

SYSTEM (Abstract)
SYSTEM (Adaptive)
SYSTEM (Allopoietic)
SYSTEM (Almost isolated)
SYSTEM (Anticipatory)
SYSTEM (Autonomous)
SYSTEM (Behavior)
SYSTEM (Closed)
SYSTEM (Colonial)
SYSTEM (Complex)
SYSTEM (Composite)
SYSTEM (Conceptual or formal)
SYSTEM (Concrete)
SYSTEM (Connectionist)
SYSTEM (Conscious)
SYSTEM (Conservative, or Hamiltonian, or non-dissipative)
SYSTEM (Controlled)
SYSTEM (Cybernetic)
SYSTEM (Decomposable)
SYSTEM (Description)
SYSTEM (Deterministic)
SYSTEM (Dissipative)
SYSTEM (Dynamic)
SYSTEM (Equifinal)
SYSTEM (Ergodic)
SYSTEM (Exosomatic)
SYSTEM (Far-trom-equilibrium)
SYSTEM (Formal)
SYSTEM (Generative)
SYSTEM (Goal directed)
SYSTEM (Goal-seeking)
SYSTEM (Heterogeneous)
SYSTEM (Heuristic)
SYSTEM (Hierarchic)
SYSTEM (Homeostatic)
SYSTEM (How to define the meaning of a) )1 – 4)

C. WEST CHURCHMAN writes (1991, p 29-30):
“… we can outline five basic considerations that the scientist believes must be kept in mind when thinking about the meaning of a system:

1. The total system objectives and, more specifically, the performance measures of the whole system.
2. The system’s environment (the fixed constraints).
3. The resources of the system.
4. The components of the system, their activities, goals, and measures of performance.
5. The management of the system.”

Obviously, this listing refers to human organizational systems and should be adapted for different classes of systems like physical, biological, mechanical ones, for example.

SYSTEM (Hypothesis of the lone)
SYSTEM (Ideal-seeking)
SYSTEM (Input-output)
SYSTEM (Integrated)
SYSTEM (Irreversible)
SYSTEM (Isolated)
SYSTEM (Isomorphic)
SYSTEM (Life cycle of a)
SYSTEM (Linear)
SYSTEM (Man-machine)
SYSTEM (Multi-level)
SYSTEM (Multistable)
SYSTEM (Near Equilibrium)
SYSTEM (Nearly decomposable)
SYSTEM (Nondeterminisitic)
SYSTEM (Nonequilibrium)
SYSTEM (Nonlinear)
SYSTEM (Organismic)
SYSTEM (Oscillating)
SYSTEM (Polystable)
SYSTEM (Probabilistic)
SYSTEM (Purposeful)
SYSTEM (Purpose seeking)
SYSTEM (Purposive)
SYSTEM (Quasi-Periodic)
SYSTEM (Richly or poorly joined)
SYSTEM (Second Order)
SYSTEM (Self-energizing)
SYSTEM (Self-modifying)
SYSTEM (Self-organizing)
SYSTEM (Self-reproducing)
SYSTEM (Source)
SYSTEM (Stable)
SYSTEM (State-determined)
SYSTEM (State-maintaining)
SYSTEM (State-transition)
SYSTEM (Static)
SYSTEM (Stationary)
SYSTEM (Steady state)
SYSTEM (Structure)
SYSTEM (Symbolic)
SYSTEM (Teleogenic)
SYSTEM (Ultrastable)
SYSTEM (Viable)
SYSTEM (World)

Completists will note that I only have the 1997 first edition of this encyclopedia on my bookshelf, and not the 2004 second edition.  To them, I will respond that Charles François spent many years of his life compiling the encyclopedia, and was 75 years old when the the first edition was published. You are welcomed to debate today with this 92-year man — whose is quite fluent in English, but first language was French! — if you travel to Argentina!  There is a “Third Edition Preparation Site for the Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics” as a joint project by the IFSR — the International Federation for Systems Research — and ISCE — the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence — at

The Cybernetics & Human Knowing – Thesaurus pilot project, edited by Martin Thellefsen and Torkild Thellefsen, provides definitions for “system” also from the Principia Cybernetica (by the board of editors of Francis Heylighen, Cliff Joslyn and Valentin Turchin) and from the Encyclopedia Autopoietica (edited by Randall Whitaker).

The diligent completist will note that I myself rarely provide a definition of terms without providing a reference to the source cited (i.e. the person with the system of ideas). The one definition that I will claim as my own was in an article formally reviewed and published in 2013.

Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes and their relations.

After that concise definition, I usually explain that this includes not only part-part relations and part-whole relations, but also whole-whole relations — based on the writings of Andras Angyal, and a system of ideas on “systems thinking”.

The International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (first edition) doesn’t provide an entry for “systems thinking”, only for SYSTEMS THINKING (Critical) 1) – 2) that refers to Michael C. Jackson in Chapter 7 of the 1992 edition of Systems Approaches to Management).  There is an new entry on “SYSTEMS THINKING: Some critical appraisals” on the “Third Edition Preparation Site for the Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics” … but that’s another story.


Charles François (editor), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, K.G. Saur, 1997.

Francis Cardinal Spellman, What America means to me: and other poems and prayers, Scribner 1953, at”what+is+a+mother”


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