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Dooyeweerd and Systems Theory

This page is not finished and is consequently very limited, covering mainly only a small portion of systems science, whereas Strijbos [2010] suggests there are three main branches of systems thinking or theory:

In addition, there seem to be two main views of system:

At some time I hope to rewrite this page along those lines, incorporating a lot more material. But until then ...

Systems Theory

Systems theory, of the biological form, pioneered by von Bertalanffy [1968], has been widely used as a framework for understanding the nature of computer systems. It was motivated by the desire to find a way to consider entities not as isolated beings but related to their environment, yet maintaining a state that is not wholly at the mercy of the environment, and so maintaining integrity as a distinct organism. Its answer is that a system has a boundary separating it from the environment and across which interactions occur, and within the boundary are the subsystems of which it is composed. The origins of systems thinking in biology, and the organic metaphors that abound in system theory, have been acknowledged by many and discussed by Checkland [1981]. A number of variants have been proposed, such as Beer's [?] Viable Systems Model, used in organizational management, which identifies a number of subsystems that are necessary for the system's survival and viability - such as management, operations, intelligence. (Checkland's [1981] notion of 'soft systems' is not primarily a systems theory but rather an approach to human activity.)

The central question that systems theory exposes and addresses is: what is the Being of a complex thing that is distinct from, but always within, its environment? Put this way, we can see that it retains the Existence presupposition and the Immanence standpoint, but in an interesting form. Under systems theory, the Being of a thing is to be understood, neither as Aristotelian substance, nor as Platonic copies of a prototype, nor as the Historicist notion of the result of historical process, but as the hierarchical combining of sub-systems into systems, and their interaction with a wider system that is the environment. Dooyeweerd discussed the first three versions of the Immanence standpoint, but he did not discuss this version.

Hierarchy and Emergence

(See also the more detailed discussion of emergence.)

Given these ideas, the environment may then be seen as a wider system of which the system is a subsystem, and its subsystems may be thought of as systems, of which the first system is their environment. Repeating this idea yields a part-whole hierarchy. For example, systems theory might propose an hierarchy comprising: atoms to molecules, to materials, solutions etc., to living cells, to tissues, to organs, to organisms, to social groups, to society, to Cosmos. Of course, we feel there is something wrong here, in that we slide between different types of thing. The atom-molecule-material hierarchy feels valid, but materials-cells feels a bit dubious, and organisms-social groups-society feels distinctly awkward, as does society-cosmos. Dooyeweerd would say that this is because we are sliding between different aspects in an unjustified way (physical, biotic, social and back to physical).

Systems theory is also employed in computers; for example, the operating system is composed of subsystems, sub-subsystems, and so on. This provides considerable elegance in analysis, since, it is supposed, the analyst may apply the very same method of thinking to any layer in the hierarchy.

However, an important element in systems theory is that the hierarchy is composed of layers that demand different levels of description. Checkland [1981:81] gives the example:

"Thus in the language of chemistry, any arrangement of the bases in DNA obeys the laws of physical chemistry. But it is constraints upon the ordinary chemistry of the base-sequences which produce the specifically biological property of genetic coding, an emergent property which marks a transition from the level we call 'chemistry' to that called 'biology'."

To explain this shift in level the notion of emergent properties is employed. But how do we account for these? Some rely on Maturana and Varela's [?] notion of autopoiesis, as in Gaines [1997], who uses autopoiesis to argue that life is an emergent property of chemical things and that intentionality and goal-seeking behaviour are merely emergent properties of living things. Moreover, he argues that such emergent properties have no ontic reality and that to reify them is not necessary; in particular, he tries to show that Dennett's intentional stance and Newell's knowledge level are nothing more than useful labels.

(See also comparison between Dooyeweerd and Nicolai Hartmann (including a useful tabular comparison, along with Dooyeweerd's own discussion of Hartmann) and Bunge's notion of emergence and systems genera.)

Problems with Biologically-based Systems Theory and Dooyeweerdian View

Traditional systems theory exhibits a range of problems that Dooyeweerdian philosophy might be able to address. We may note the following problems relevant to its being used as a framework for understanding the nature of computer systems, some of which do not seem to have been examined.

Problem with Systems Theory Dooyeweerdian Answer
1. One is that it is not clear how to determine where in an hierarchy such level shifts occur. In the hierarchy above, is there a level shift from atom to molecule of similar magnitude to that from non-living to living? Is it with every system-subsystem aggregation, and if not, on what basis does each level shift occur? Pattee [1973] suggests that this may be done using the selecting ignoring of detail, and that on the basis of statistics, but this presupposes the higher level. Dooyeweerd differentiates between the part-whole relationship and the inter-aspect relationships. The need to shift into a different level of description only occurs when we cross aspectual boundaries.
2. Though the level shift from non-living to living has been much discusssed, other level shifts have been subjected to relatively little critical thought. As Gaines [1997] points out, in the shift from non-living to living it is the notion of persistence and integrity of the organism that plays a central part in differentiating living from non-living things. He then seems to assume, without question, that persistence also plays the central part in the shift from living things to intentionality and goals. But the difference between goals and living seems unlike that between living and non-living. It is the distinct kernel meaning of each aspect that defines the type of differentiator that occurs at each aspectual shift. Dooyeweerd would agree that the shift from non-living to living is centred on organic integrity. But shifts at other aspectual boundaries involve different things; for example the shift to goals is not centred on organic integrity, but on formative power.
3. Another problem is brought to light when we want to relate the various things we encounter in computer systems to each other, and to the user, such as operating system, program, data structures, bits, bytes, bitmaps, disk, keyboard, mouse, mouse pointer, files, file content, web pages, web pages content, and so forth. It proves very difficult, and exceedingly counter-intuitive, to try to fit them into a single hierarchy. Bits might be subsystems of bytes, but how do we then relate a bit to the electric charge that implements its value; it seems false to claim that either is a subsystem of the other. Other relationships seem to play a part in addition to the part-whole relationship. Many of the relationships between the various things relevant to computers and between these and human beings would be seen by Dooyeweerd as an enkaptic relationship rather than a part-whole relationship. For example, while the relationship from bit to byte is part-whole, that from bit to its electronic charge is an inter-aspect enkaptic relationship (from psychic to physical).
4. A fourth problem is evident when we try to account, in systems theory, for a computer connected to the Internet. Considering the hardware connection, we could say that the computer is then part of the Internet. But, from a different point of view, the Internet may be seen as part of the computer: from the user's point of view, the modicum of information obtained from the Internet plays only a part in the user's task. Not only does there seem to be another type of relationship here, but it is not clear that it is valid to think in terms of system boundary. The relationship between a computer and the Internet would be largely one of correlative enkapsis in which the Internet is an Umwelt. While systems theory presupposes that the environment may be treated as a wider system, Dooyeweerd clearly differentiates entities from Umwelten, discussing for example how its denizens not only exist within it but also form it.
5. There is also a problem with the very notion of emergence, with its connotation of directional genesis, that the higher level concept has its origin in the lower level one. This makes certain presuppositions about the nature of origin, diversity and coherence - which are the three things about which any philosophy makes a presupposition [Geertsema, ====]. Specifically, the notion of emergence has a a reductionist flavour, even though Checkland denies they are reductionist. Emergence is seen as necessary only when a shift occurs in a level of description, requiring a change of stance from one aspect to another. Dooyeweerd denies a strong connotation of the idea of emergence, that the genesis of one aspect is in an earlier one. While the later aspect has a foundational dependency on the earlier which enables the later aspect to function, its origin can never be in the earlier aspect. The presupposition about origin, diversity and coherence on which the notion of emergence resets is that of Immanence Philosophy, which, Dooyeweerd has argued, inevitably leads to antinomies. Instead, says Dooyeweerd, all the aspects pertain, and pertained even before humanity inhabited the cosmos, so their meaning does not 'emerge' but rather enables emergence within entities.

See fuller discussion of Emergence - a Dooyeweerdian view.

The question remains whether systems theory can be enriched by Dooyeweerdian philosophy or whether the two approaches are so incommensurable that no integration is possible. First, somewhat affirmatively, we might notice Dooyeweerd shares with systems thinking its original motivation of holism, and the notion of the level shift is very similar to that of aspects. Also, Ackoff's contention that we should not seek to rectify fragmentation after it has happened, but rather see the original integrality of reality before it is split apart into specialisms and sciences, is very like Dooyeweerd's notion of systasis.

But there are several obvious differences. We have seen that, to systems theory's single type of relationship, Dooyeweerd adds another, enkapsis. But this does not make the two schemes incommensurable because it is likely that the idea of enkapsis could be incorporated into systems theory. Dooyeweerd had a very strong notion of wholes as ontologically different from parts, and also from Umwelten, whereas systems theory presupposes the ontic equivalence between parts and wholes (and environment). But, again, it is likely that Dooyeweerd's ideas could be used to enrich systems theory by allowing for heterogeneous rather than homogeneous hierarchies and by drawing system boundaries according to aspectual rather than entitary considerations ("What aspects are important?" instead of "What entities are part of this?").

However, the very explicit existense-orientation of systems theory might make it incommensurable with Dooyeweerd's meaning-orientation, which is a fundamental antithesis at the level of presupposition. So the question turns to whether it is likely that systems theory could be re-situated on a meaning-orientation without subverting its inner nature. Its central concept, the system, is an entity, and the relationships it has, with wider system and with subsystems, are relationships between entities. Systems and environments are defined by reference to objects [Laszlo and Laszlo, 1997].

While activity and behaviour can find their place within this picture, no significant place is given to values, norms and meaning within systems theory itself (as opposed to certain variants of it). Especially in those branches of systems theory that stress hierarchy and emergence in particular, not only is there no significant place for meaning, norms or value, but they are deemed to be merely emergent properties, and thereby respect for them is diminished. Thus it is difficult to see how these versions of systems theory could ever be modified to give them significant place without disrupting their very core.

Moreover, the biologically-inspired systems thinking tends to take the environment as given; it 'just is'. The environment is not usually made into a philosophical problem, but presupposed. There is a form of systems thinking below that does consider the environment, but not in an altogether satisfactory manner. Dooyeweerd's 'oceanic' view of meaning treats both environment and system (thing) as alike existing because of meaningfulness, and provides a basis for thinking about distinct aspects of the environment and its relation with system of, if you like, distinct environments - physical, biological, sensory, linguistic, social, economic, up to faith environment.

Therefore we must conclude that, while Dooyeweerd would agree with the original motivation of systems thinking of trying to see entities within their wider context, most of these branches of systems theory would seem deeply incommensurable with Dooyeweerd and it would be a challenge to enrich them with his ideas in any major way.

But there are other branches of systems thinking. De Raadt [?] has suggested a marriage of a version of Dooyeweerd's aspects and idea of normativity with Beer's systems thinking, and Strijbos [] has undertaken a similar, but more philosophically aware, exercise with what he calls Disclosive Systems Thinking, that stresses the transendental nature of the aspects. In these attempts at integration, the notions of hierarchy and emergence play very little part. As we argued above, how Checkland's soft systems thinking has actually been used and what it is valued for, is values and meaning, rather than hierarchy and emergence, despite the theoretical attention that Checkland himself gave them in his major work [1981]. Thus soft systems is commensurable with Dooyeweerd's orientation towards Meaning.

Overview of Dooyeweerd and Biologically-based Systems Thinking

In this brief discussion we have seen that Dooyeweerdian philosophy is rests on presuppositions fundamentally very different from those on which systems theory rests, despite their agreement about the importance of an holistic view. Systems theory appears to be a very explicit attempt of an existence-oriented philosophy to endorse holism. Systems theory lacks any significant reference to meaning or norms except as emergent properties, but the ontic status of emergence is still in dispute, and to most thinkers it is simply assumed unquestioningly. Because Dooyeweerd, conversely, starts from a diversity and coherence of meaning, there is little need to postulate emergence, and Dooyeweerd provides a richer set of types of relationship. Most of the benefits of systems theory are available, and Dooyeweerd can address some of its problems.

See also comparison between Dooyeweerd and Nicolai Hartmann (including a useful tabular comparison, along with Dooyeweerd's own discussion of Hartmann) and Bunge's notion of emergence and systems genera.


The second view, of system as the environment in which we live, was Weber's use.

Weber [===] emphasised the meaning found in 'systemic', 'systematic' and 'systematized'. He used 'system' to denote a set of rules that act as a constraint on people's activity. The rationality of rules give system a mechanical flavour, so that people can function mechanically rather than by considering the meaningfulness and normativity of what they are doing, can justify their activity by reference to the rules within they are expected to work. Life becomes 'bureaucratized', something that runs 'automatically' in a way that seems to absolve people within it of normative responsibility for it ("We had to do this because the system tells us to!"). System removes people's freedom. According to Weber, normativity and meaning is not found in system but only in what Habermas [1987] calls the lifeworld.

Geertsema [====], however, argues that Weber's and Habermas' view is flawed in that even within the most draconian mechanical system, life and work can still have some meaning and normativity. Geertsema, informed by Dooyeweerd, has taken note of the everyday life of people within the system, while Weber and Habermas were theorizing it. Even the supposed mechanical following of rules only occurs because people tacitly agree do so.

Rogers [1998] suggests Schutz and Luckmann end up in a Cartesian split between mind and body, and Geertsema [1992] argues that though Habermas tried to overcome the subject-object scheme that lay at the root of Weber's thought, in fact he remained entrapped in the same scheme. As we indicate later, difficulty in escaping might be due to a presupposition of an autonomous self.

Dooyeweerd would approach the societal view of systems via his notion of Umwelt and correlative enkapsis, which also enriches Giddens' structuration theory.

Integrating the Biological and Social Systems Views ?

Luhmann tried to reconcile the social and biological views of systems, depending on autopoiesis. Habermas critiqued both Weber and Luhmann's views. Luhmann, he argued, was too close to the biological view. In biology there is only one selection mechanism (natural selection) while in the social sphere there are several selection mechanisms, such as markets and tradition. More to be written ====.

Dooyeweerd would bring them together by seeing the biological version as proximal subject-object functioning, in relation to correlative enkapsis.


(Apologies: Some references still to be given.)

Ackoff, RL. (1963) General Systems Theory and systems research: contrasting conceptions of systems science. General Systesms, 8: 117-24.

Checkland P (1981) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Wiley.

Gaines BR (1997) "Knowledge management in societies of intelligent adaptive agents". Journal of Intelligent Information Systems 9:277-98.

Pattee HH (1973) Hierarchy Theory.

Strijbos, S. [2010]. Systems thinking as interdisciplinarity. In Systems Thinking and Philosophy as Interdisciplinarity: Proceedings of the 14th Working Conference of the Centre for Philosophy, Technology and Social Systems, Basden, A., Haftor, D., Grobler, LMJ. (eds.). CPTS, Maarssen, Netherlands. ISBN: 978-90-807718-7-1. If you wish to obtain a copy please contact Andrew Basden.

Weber, Max. 1994. Political Writings. Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, K. (1998) "Human Life And World: On the Insufficency of the Phenomemological Concept of the Life-World". Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy. Archive of contributed papers in the subject area of Theory of Knowledge.

This page, ' .html', is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Copyright (c) at all dates below Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 12 November 2003. Last updated: 3 October 2005 added link to Bunge, Hartmann. 19 December 2009 Intro recognises Strijbos' view. 16 June 2010 hierarchy feels awkward. 20 August 2011 link to emergence. 11 December 2015 biol and soc views begun. 19 April 2017 system as 'just is'; new .nav, .end.