Philosophical dichotomies

Graham Berrisford. One of many papers on the System Theory page at Last updated Friday, 17 August 2018.

This paper draws on these sources

·         The philosophy book. ISBN 978-1-4053-5329-8


·         http:// (this appears to be a dead link)


Enterprise architecture is deprecated by some systems thinkers as being rationalist or deterministic or reductionist.

The implication is that other kinds of “systems thinking” are better for being not rationalist, or not deterministic, or not reductionist.

This paints an inaccurate picture of both schools of thought.

Better to assume that enterprise architects and systems thinkers may take either or both positions in the following dichotomies, according to the problem domain or work to be done.


Update in 2018

Since posting the table below in 2014, I’ve had reservations about it

I borrowed and edited the definitions from the three sources above – in an attempt to help me and readers compare and contrast them.

But some terms are defined differently in other sources and/or have multiple meanings.

Some terms presented on opposite sides of the table are arguably not opposites.

Some definitions depend on other terms, such as “existence”, whose meaning is debatable.

With that in mind, I have tinkered a little more with the definitions – and am open to feedback on that of course.


Some concepts on this side tend to be confused with each other

Some concepts on this side tend to be confused with each other

Determinism supposes every state and event is the consequence of antecedent states and events.

This implies that prediction is possible in theory.

Deterministic automaton. If a machine is in state Si, and receives input Ij, it will go into state Sk and produce output Ol (for a finite number of states, inputs and outputs).

Self-determination supposes a choice arises from reasons or desires, though this process may itself deterministic.

Indeterminism supposes a state or event is not wholly the consequence of antecedent states or events.

This implies some kind of randomness in state transitions.

Predictable means the outcomes of an event (because the processes it triggers are deterministic) can be predicted in practice.

Unpredictable means the outcomes of an event cannot be predicted in theory or in practice.

Random in common use means haphazard, not-predetermined, but in maths is only a measure of how unpredictable a future state or event is.

Chaotic behaviour in common use means disordered.

But in maths it means behavior in which small differences in an initial state or event yield widely diverging outcomes (even though the system is deterministic, with no random elements).

This makes long-term prediction impossible.

Materialism sees existence as material.

(What this means depends on what you think “existence” means.)

Idealism sees existence as mental or spiritual.

NOTE: I have no doubt there is a material reality out there, but count myself as an Idealist.

Because I see our understandings and descriptions of what exists as purely mental.

Or else, as external representations (in speech, in writing, whatever) of what is purely mental.

Like many scientists, I see material reality as deeply mysterious, far beyond our full comprehension.

However, our perceptions, descriptions and models do represent of material reality in so far as they help us manipulate what exists, and predict its behavior.

Cognitive embodiment views mental states and activities as bodily states, the mind is inseparable from the body.


Dualism views something as made of two parts

Cartesian Dualism views the mind as standing apart from the body; the mind controls, interacts with and reacts to the body. (After Descartes)

Holism treats a system’s parts as inseparable.

The properties of the whole system are not the properties of any part.

These “emergent properties” emerge only from the interaction between parts

Reductionism explains the properties of one thing by the properties of another (lower level) thing.

Or else, ignores the higher thing in favour of discussing the lower thing(s).

Empiricism understands and predicts from experience.

Knowledge is gathered from information obtained from the senses rather from reasoning.

Rationalism understands and predicts by reason and logical analysis.

Constructivism builds knowledge by active thought.

NOTE: I call myself an empiricist because I believe in testing assertions by gathering evidence.

But that doesn’t mean I deny the possibility of working things out in one’s own mind.

Interpretative or hermeneutical supposes we can understand things we perceive in world around us.

Formalism supposes we can understand things purely by manipulating symbols.

E.g. Mathematics does not require the existence of objects or properties.

Structuralism supposes we are born with structures that determine how perceptions (phenomena) of concrete things (noumena or a priori objects) are brought together and organised in the mind.

Structuralism in linguistics supposes language consists of rules that enable speakers to produce an infinite number of sentences. (Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Chomsky).

Functionalism supposes we build structures through maturation and interaction with the world (Piaget?)

Machine state functionalism – same as “deterministic automaton” above and left.