A Note on the Evolution of System Theory

The evolution of system theory exhibits three main phases of development. The first phase in the evolution of the theory of systems depends heavily upon ideas developed within physiology. Homeostasis. in particular is the guiding idea: a system is a dynamical whole able to maintain its working conditions.

In order to define a system, one needs (1) components; (2) mutual interactions; (3) the environment in which the system is situated; and (4) a boundary distinguishing the system from its environment.

The main intuition behind this first understanding of dynamic systems is well expressed by the following passage: “The most general and fundamental property of a system is the interdependence of parts or variables. Interdependence consists in the existence of determinate relationships among the parts or variables as contrasted with randomness of variability. In other words, interdependence is order in the relationship among the components which enter into a system. This order must have a tendency to self-maintenance, which is very generally expressed in the concept of equilibrium. It need not, however, be a static self-maintenance or a stable equilibrium. It may be an ordered process of change, a process following a determinate pattern rather than random variability relative to the starting point. This is called a moving equilibrium and is well exemplified by growth” (T. Parsons, The Social System, New York, Free Press, 1951, p. 107).

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The Categorial Structure of the Future

We can retrieve (fragments of) the past from its traces. Can we do the same for the future? Otherwise stated: can we categorially analyze the tendencies actively present in actually existing entities in order to foresee (fragments of) the future?

Unfortunately, the task of providing a categorial analysis of the future is absent from the agenda of mainstream philosophy. On the other hand, there have been and are thinkers trying to describe the future. Utopian thinkers, fantasy writers, cyber literates do so. Leaving aside their literary merits, which are not my concern here, I may try to consider them as sources for categorial analyses of what is not. Unfortunately, from a categorial viewpoint, such literature is usually poor, fragmented and astonishingly boring.

As a mental experiment, let us suppose that reality is open. This means that the ontological nature of entities is not thoroughly established. Something new can always happen. Entities are never totally given in advance. All of them present some kind of tendency toward the future.

Understanding the past often helps understanding of actually given situations. Likewise, prefiguring the future may also help in understanding actually given situations.

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Structure, Identity and Anticipations

An organism’s structuresdetermine how it looks at the environment. They are therefore anticipatory. Structures construct anticipations of what to expect, and thus enable the organism to actually perceive the expected information.

Most anticipations work as acquired habits either through evolution (as in biological anticipation) or learning (as in most cases of psychological and social anticipation). Evolution-based anticipations are difficult to change, for obvious reasons. However, as difficult as they are to change, they may evolve, and this raises the question as to whether we can eventually bend evolution in some or other direction.

According to the theory of anticipation, behavior is almost always goal-oriented rather than being stimulus-driven. Anticipation runs contrary to the claim that psychic processes in general are determined by stimuli (i.e. it is at odds with both Behaviorism and most of current Cognitive Psychology).

If behavior is indeed goal-oriented, this implies that changes in behavior are filtered by the system’s identity (seen as the second entry in the system’s autopoietic cycles). The reason for this is straightforward. Anticipation is based on feedforward controllers, i.e. on controllers that detect and control the system itself. Changes in the system’s working (i.e. in its identity) are therefore projected by feedforward controllers into new anticipations. From this basic dynamic of the system it follows that the most productive strategy to change the anticipations that a system may have is to modify the system’s dynamic identity. 


Where is the Future? A Note on the Idea of “Dynamic Disease”

All too often, institutions work as if the future ‘is there’ and they simply have to ‘go there’. An anticipatory perspective assumes the opposite stance and starts from the idea that futures are generated and consumed. Here I shall exemplify one aspect only of the generation/consumption problem. In the late 1970s, Mackey and Glass introduced the idea of “dynamic disease”. Complex systems contain endless processes unfolding with different rhythms. A dynamic disease occurs when some of the rhythms go out of sync. This lack of synchrony among internal processes may generate new dynamic patterns that may damage the system’s dynamic stability. At the beginning of a dynamic disease, no ‘piece’ is necessarily defective. All the parts of the system are working as usual – their dynamic patterns are only a little faster or slower and their outputs a little higher or lower than usual. If one adopts the standard positivist attitude and attempts to find the ‘broken piece’, one will find nothing. This is why dynamic diseases have escaped attention for so long. On the other hand, if the system’s processes continue to work out of sync, after a while the system’s parts begin to deteriorate. The cause of the illness, however, does not lie within the ‘broken piece’. The source of the problem is the cascade of failed synchronizations of dynamic rhythms, not the breakdown of some piece. It is the system as a whole that is ill, not the parts of the system, even if, after a while – as a consequence and not as a cause of the failed syncs – parts themselves start to disintegrate. Whatever the causes of the failed syncs, any increase in the degree of failed syncs consumes the system’s future, and any decrease of failed syncs generates more future for the system.


Mackey, M. C.  and L. Glass 1977. “Oscillation and Chaos in Physiological Control Systems”, Science 1977, 197(4300), pp. 287–289.


Conflict Theory and Anticipation

The connection between anticipation and conflicts has been well known since the early days of conflict studies. In fact, the difference between defensive and aggressive conflicts is often articulated in terms of anticipations, as shown by the way in which the basic types of conflicts are usually defined:

  • Defensive conflict = when the initiating contendant tries to avoid an anticipated loss.
  • Aggressive conflict = when the initiating contendant tries to acquire an anticipated gain.

Furthermore, it is often assumed that power is a scarce resource, i.e. that “what he loses, I gain”. If power is indeed a scarce resource, the obvious consequence is that contendants will try anything to have more of it (I will consider in a future post the alternative view that power may not be a scarse resource).

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