Skip to content
Create an account for full access.

The ontology of the system as a set of descriptions for conceptual attention focusing

Often asked to provide a glossary (brief dictionary definitions of key concepts) of our course, ignoring the remarks of the initial sections that definitions are a coffin for a sleeping thought. So we will conclude our course not with a glossary, but with a short text about the ontology of the systemic approach, in which we will recall the concepts of the third generation of the systemic approach and provide literature on the theoretical foundations of the systemic approach. All this was discussed in the course on many pages, but for an advanced understanding, we highly recommend looking at the mentioned literature. If you need not an advanced ("postgraduate") understanding, but a "regular student" one, you can skip studying the material of this section and move on to studying the courses "Methodology," "Systems Engineering," "System Management" (in that order). If necessary, this text touches upon the material of the "Methodology" course (because when talking about work and practices carried out by creating systems, it is necessary to refer to the concept of the life cycle, consider methods of creation), and the material of the "Systems Engineering" course (as regulatory science for methodology).

Systems Engineering as methods/ways/culture/practice of changing the world for the better is based on the ontology of the systemic approach (sometimes referred to as "systemic ontology"/systems ontology, including all concepts necessary for the implementation of the systemic approach in thinking). There are several modern initiatives on the ontological groundings/commitments of such an ontology, which we consider the third generation of the systemic approach, considering thermodynamically conditioned evolution. We suggest ways to harmonize these approaches to creating a systemic ontology.

Gruber, Borst, and Studer defined ontology as an explicit specification of a shared conceptualization (an ontology is a formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualization)[1]. Let's define conceptualization as the assignment of elements important for reliable active/embodied inference[2] of perception objects in the world. This allows formulating the task of creating an ontology in terms of attention management, and "explicit formal specification" here states that the objects of attention are extracted not spontaneously, but according to some explicit model of these objects (ontology), defined using another model-formalism (foundational ontology).

We address the issue of creating ontologies and explanations based on them (the emergence and improvement of explanatory theories using an alternative slicing of the world into objects) in accordance with Popperian epistemology[3]: objects in ontology appear through guesses, the acceptability of these guesses to make judgments about the world is subjected to doubt, but guesses that survive criticism are taken seriously. In other words, good guesses that the world consists of systems (guesses about what concepts are in the ontology of the system) and judgments that these guesses are useful for changing the world for the better can be taken from literature, and if we do not know their criticism right away and cannot offer falsifications of these guesses immediately through reasoning and/or experiment, then we consider them our best theories (SoTA, state-of-the-art) about the world, take them seriously and proceed to teach people (reproduce the memes of) these theories so that these guesses about objects are shared.

Of course, we do not just inform people about the ontology of the system, but we teach them to distinguish abstract and physical objects in the world, described by an explicit and possibly formal specification. Of course, if there are problems in using this ontology, it means its falsification, but this is simply an opportunity to correct the ontology, correcting the identified errors---the ontological systemic approach thus evolves, at each point in time representing the best of what we know at that moment. We[4] have implemented a chain of courses in which several hundred people are now learning how to identify objects in the world described/typed by the ontology of the system every week. The main sequence of courses currently implements an approach of first fully conscious, then interiorized "automatic" conceptual attentional setting on objects described/typed by the ontology of the system. Students learn how to:

  • focus their attention and the attention of other agents on objects from an explicit specification (ontology), that is, to focus attention conceptually, not spontaneously, as well as to sustain conceptually focused attention on various temporal scales, including collective attention in such agents as a team or an entire enterprise, through leadership, or influencing the community or society (course "Modeling and Collectedness"),
  • focus attention on systems (course "Systems Thinking"),
  • focus attention on activities/practices carried out by system creators (course "Methodology"),
  • structure activities and roles that are necessarily maintained in attention during system engineering projects, (course "Systems Engineering"),
  • direct attention to themselves and the organization (team, collective, enterprise) on objects described by the specialization of the systemic ontology for such system creators as organizations (course "System Management").

To teach students the SoTA systemic ontology, we harmonized several specific conceptualizations of the system concept, which together represent the third generation of the systemic approach. As usual, each generation of the systemic approach encompasses all achievements of the previous generation, but adds something new.


  1. Nicola Guarino, Daniel Oberle, and Steffen Staab, What Is an Ontology?, in S. Staab and R. Studer (eds.), Handbook on Ontologies, Springer-Verlag, 2009 ↩︎

  2. Karl Friston, Embodied inference: or "I think therefore I am, if I am what I think" In W. Tschacher, C. Bergomi (Eds.), The implications of embodiment: Cognition and communication (pp. 89--125). Imprint Academic., https://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/~karl/Embodied%20Inference.pdf ↩︎

  3. Karl Popper, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/ ↩︎

  4. School of Systems Management, https://system-school.ru/ ↩︎