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The first generation of the systems approach: the system in its environment during operations/run-time

The first generation of the systemic approach emerged in the 1940s primarily as a result of the work of von Bertalanffy[1]. The concept of a system as an object of study, separated from its environment, has been around in physics for a long time, but the systemic approach as the consideration of the entire world as interacting systems emerged mainly after von Bertalanffy's work on general systems theory. An approach is a common term for a situation where the ontology successfully developed and tested in one domain is started to be used in various domains. The key point here was the realization that systems are interacting holons (Koestler introduced this term to describe a part of the whole made up of parts[2]), and these systems somehow appear in the world and then disappear from the world, going through a regular biological life cycle. Von Bertalanffy was a biologist and he generalized the successes of applying the systemic approach in biology, where the life cycle is a cycle of birth-maturation-reproduction and separately - death (which, after reproduction, does not affect the genome, so it may not be considered in evolution, but it is essential in techno-evolution). As a result of the interaction of parts of the system during operations, emergent properties of the whole are obtained. Gears in a clock do not show time, a clock shows time, a house with a clock inside no longer shows time. The key point here was that the first generation of systemic thinking operated with at least two different ways of dividing into parts, depending on the time of consideration:

  • functional breakdown depending on the purpose of the system in the supra-system and the purpose of subsystems in the system. It assumed the consideration of the system during its operations.
  • constructive/module breakdown, needed to consider design time/construction of the system.

The difficulties in mastering systems thinking were mainly due to the fact that people found it difficult to perceive the concept of singling out dynamic objects in the world with their attention - directly during the operation of the system. Most often, when mentioning parts-wholes, they imagined a "burst diagram"[3], thereby losing the multilevel nature of such division. It is clear that emergent properties of a stopped and broken down into single-level physical constructive parts of the system cannot be discussed, as interaction is a matter of operations over time, and consideration should be functional. But division into constructive parts is also important because such a system needs to be created. For example, scissors functionally consist of a cutting block and a handle, and constructively of two scissor halves and a screw that fastens them. The end user is interested in functional consideration, while the factory engineer is interested in constructive consideration.

Bertalanffy included systems engineering in the set of systemic disciplines he proposed, which was rapidly developing. In systems engineering, target systems were physical, providing guaranteed grounding for all descriptions. However, the descriptions themselves were not considered as a system, the interaction (i.e., changes in time due to each other) of description parts, which would provide emergence, could not be discussed strictly, and building a formalism to consider the mereotopological view of mental/abstract/mathematical objects mostly failed.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_von_Bertalanffy ↩︎

  2. Koestler, Arthur (1967). The Ghost in the Machine ↩︎

  3. Bellami, Nikon F3-P Parts Diagram, https://www.japancamerahunter.com/2014/11/nikon-f3-p-parts-diagram/ ↩︎