Scope of Systems Approach
Kalidas Sikdar
SYSTEMS THEORY: PHILOSOPHICAL & METHODOLOGICAL PROBLEMS by I.V. Blanberg Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978, 318 pp., 8.00
Sept-Oct 1978, volume 3, No 2

To an ordinary soul it seldom occurs to consider whether his kitchen is polluting the atmosphere or not. Suddenly scien­tists raised the alarm that the future of mankind is at stake. Indiscriminate indus­trialization, atomic wastes, deforestation, extensive use of pest-controlling chemi­cals are creating the greatest danger for mankind. We have to try to understand our relation with nature as a system and within this system its different functional connections.

Modern technology is no longer con­cerned only with a particular machine or instrument because, unlike earlier industry, modern industries are integrally connected with a. whole system.

Similarly in sociology or psychology it is not the study of parts and their summation but a structural functional systematic approach which gives us a true picture of the subject.

It is the inadequacy of the older mec­hanistic e1ementalist approach that helped raise science to a higher plane but failed to reveal the true picture of a systematic object which resulted in the emergence of a systematic, structural-functional approach.[ih`c-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”block” ihc_mb_who=”unreg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

Here is a monograph by some eminent Soviet authors who have presented a comprehensive account of the systems theory, its history, its content, develop­ment problems and significance.

In modern science and technology the systemic approach is a fast developing new trend, a general scientific and metho­dological conception. The authors have tried to investigate the philosophical and methodological significance from the point of view of dialectical materialism and have traced the development of the systems theory in the 20th century, ana­lysing different approaches to evolving a general systems theory.

Dialectical materialist philosophy is not a finished system of philosophy. It develops along with the development of sciences. It acquires new concepts and gives deeper meaning to the older con­cepts. The authors have tried to prove that the systems approach does not in any way oppose dialectics, rather it is a manifestation of the influence of dia­lectics on modern science. It is one of the applications of the general methodo­logical concepts of dialectics to specific materials.

Systems approach arose as one of the methodological trends in modern science as a way out of the crisis in scientific knowledge at the turn of the 20th century along with other prominent trends such as structural-functional analysis in sociology and structuralism in humanities. All these trends have much in common and sprang from the critique of some fundamental classical concepts as for example elementalism and mechanism.

As opposed to elementalism there was an integrated approach which rejected the idea that the whole is nothing but the sum-total of the parts because some of the qualities of the whole were not found in the parts. This trend remained at best at the speculative level and science in general was dominated by elementalism.

In spite of the dominance of elemen­talism, the integrative approach was not brushed aside, and all sciences had to detect the specific properties of the whole. ‘Thus scientific knowledge as a whole had developed within the elemen­talism vs integration dichotomy, and the possibilities inherent in this dichotomy have been far from exhausted’.

‘Since Descartes and Locke, there came the realization of the inadequacy not only of elementalism or its opposite, the conception of wholeness as such, but of the very way of thinking confined with­in such a dichotomy.’

Classical German philosophy tried to overcome this dichotomy. Kant rev­ealed that knowledge not only depends on its object, but also upon existing thought forms. This ‘means that know­ledge cannot be treated as simple reflection of reality uninfluenced by the constructive work of thought itself which creates the forms of the cognitive process.’

After Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel developed the dialectical method of thinking which had its ‘material exclusively from forms of cognitive in the field of psychology also this activity’ as against ‘existing forms of trend developed from gestalt psychology scientific thinking and their elementalist-mechanistic limitation’. Thus the ‘dichotomous approach to reality was dealt a severe blow’. ‘The new methodology of scientific enquiry that emerged at that time was increasingly concerned with the investigation of inner ‘mechan­isms’ of life and the development of complex objects of reality’.

Marxism took account of the ‘metho­dological gains of German classical philosophy and assimilated the rich pos­sibilities of dialectical analysis’. Marx’s understanding of the capitalist mode of production arose out of the application of a new methodological principle. He selected commodity as the cell of this system of production expressing interac­tion between man and nature and the relationship between people. He got this result ‘through an all-embracing recon­struction of the object by the method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete’. Cell (commodity) comprises ‘not only the substantive but also the structural properties of the object under study; and that is why the notions of part and whole as such are inapplicable to it.’

In biology Darwin brought a change from organism-centrist to species-centrist notion which ended the mechanistic conception of animate nature as a conglo­merate of separate organisms.

Strict determinism as a sort of blind necessity was thus challenged, and cause­-effect relationship came to be treated as not the only connection but was ‘regar­ded on a par with functional, correlative, genetic and other relationships’.

In the field of psychology also this trend developed from gestalt psychology and carried forward by Vygotsky and Piaget. It was no longer a search for the ultimate unit but a whole imposed from above by society. In linguistics and ethnography also, system-structural orientation proved fruitful.

L.von Bertalanffy advanced a gene­ral systems theory more than a quarter century ago. Although his theory was built within the framework of modern theoretical biology, it is now clear that this has a more ‘general significance of formulating principles of a general systems approach to the analysis of ob­jects of reality’. He first put forward the idea that organism is an open system. His organismic concepts were based on the idea that ‘organism is not a conglo­merate of separate elements, but a certain system possessing organization and wholeness’ and ‘this system is con­tinually changing’. He also thought that knowledge of such object needed a change in the method of thinking as against the old analytical summative approach which proceeded from un­derstanding of the properties of the parts. According to Bertalanffy an organism is not a conglomerate of separate elements, but a certain ‘sys­tem possessing organization and whole­ness’. By system Bertalanffy means ‘complexes of elements standing in inte­raction’. Any system is called closed if it neither takes in nor emits matter (only energy exchange is possible).

Introduction of general systems theory was necessitated by the change in the conceptual pictures of the world by science in the 20th century. It recognizes three stages in the development of object in scientific analysis: (1) organi­zed simplicity, (2) un-organized com­plexity, and (3) organized complexity.

In opposition to reductionism, the need for constructing a unified science on the basis of perspectivism was felt by the developing science. Perspectivism is founded on the idea that general cate­gories of thought are similar in widely differing branches of modem science; hence the possibility of evolving a unified science on the basis of isomorphy of laws in its various fields. That makes it possible to speak of the structural simi­larity of the theoretical models used in various fields of science.

The principal aims of general sys­tems theory are: (I) formulating general principles and laws for systems irrespec­tive of their specific features, the nature of their constituent elements and rela­tionship between them; (2) formulating precise and rigorous laws of a special type for non-physical fields of knowledge though the analysis of biological, social and the behavioural objects as system; (3) creating a basis for the synthesis of modern scientific knowledge by reveal­ing the isomorphy of the laws pertaining to different spheres of reality.

Because of its general nature, systems theory is directly associated with philoso­phy. Naturally tremendous interest has been shown in it by adherents of dialec­tical materialism. In fact Karl Marx presented the capitalist formation as a systemic whole, The authors of this monograph have correctly shown that, in spite of its tremendous significance, systems theory cannot replace dialectical materialism and cannot be equated with philosophy.

The authors have discussed the logi­cal and methodological problem of systems research. Whether something is a system or not is not immediately clear. The system character is appre­hended intuitively. After studying the phenomenal properties, a specific, theore­tical model is evolved in which the dynamics of various internal and exter­nal interrelations are revealed. This cannot be done by non-system methodo­logy but by appropriate conceptual tools.

Although the book is meant for researchers, social scientists and philo­sophers, general readers interested in these subjects will be able to acquire some general idea from this monograph.

Kalidas Sikdar is a Marxist intellectural, specialized in philosophy