A table of philosophical dichotomies

Copyright Graham Berrisford 2018. One of a hundred papers on the System Theory page at http://avancier.website. Last updated Sunday, 16 December 2018.


The table below is an attempt to help me and readers compare and contrast the terms and concepts therein.

The second and third columns were edited from the three sources below.

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

·         http://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2829&context=cq

·         http://www.hbcse.tifr.res.in/jrmcont/notespart1/node9.html (this may be a dead link)


The first column contains my view, derived from history as told in this paper The science and philosophy of systems.

Since posting the table in 2014 I’ve had many reservations about it.

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.


Some philosophical positions seem like meaningless babble to me.

In so far as philosophy is about language, knowledge and truth, it seems to have been overtaken by biological and software sciences.


My view

Some philosophical positions

Some different philosophical positions

On “existence

Matter and energy exists, but is deeply mysterious, beyond our full comprehension.

Our perceptions, descriptions and mental models of material reality also exist in material form – both in mental phenomena and in external representations of them in speech, writing and models of various kinds . SEE TRACTACO BELOW

Idealism: existence is mental or spiritual.

Foerster’s Constructivist Postulate: "Experience is the cause, the world is the consequence."

Materialism: existence is material.

Foerster’s Realist Postulate: "The World is the cause, experience is the consequence."

Contrary to Cartesian dualism, the modern view (cognitive embodiment) sees the mind as a part of the body rather than separable from it.

Cognitive embodiment: mental states and activities are 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)

Wisdom is the ability to respond effectively to knowledge.

Knowledge is information that is accurate or true enough to be useful.

Knowledge represents what exists well enough to help us manipulate what exists, and predict its behavior.

Knowledge is acquired in various ways.

We learn from a mix of

·         evidence, experience of the world,

·         education/interaction by/with others

·         logical analysis.


I believe assertions should be tested against evidence, but also that some things can be concluded from education and logical analysis.

After all, education and logical analysis are products of biological evolution that have proved useful to the survival of our species.


The members of a species necessarily see the world similarly, since our ability to perceive, remember and discuss the world evolved over millennia to represent the world accurately enough that we can determine our actions, and cooperate socially, to survive.


Radical constructivism and post-modernism are dangerous in that they undermine science and its importance to society.

Empiricism: knowledge is acquired from information obtained from the senses rather from reasoning.

Interpretative: we understand things by perceiving them.

Functionalism: we build mental structures through maturation and interaction with the world.

Cognitive constructivism: knowledge is acquired by creating mental structures in response to experiences. (Piaget)

Social constructivism: knowledge is acquired from social interaction and language usage, and is a shared rather than individual (Prawatt & Floden).



Epistemological Postulate: "He who organises his experience organises the world". Since reality can only be known through experience, the world is unique to each individual.


Radical constructivism: knowledge is acquired from experience, but is not, in any discernible way, an accurate representation of the external world or reality (von Glasersfeld).

Rationalism: knowledge is acquired by reason and logical analysis.

Formalism: we understand things by manipulating symbols. E.g. Mathematics does not require the existence of objects or properties.

Information is meaning created or found by an actor in a structure or behavior.

The hermeneutics principle makes innocent speakers guilty of causing offence where none was intended.

What matters, what must be investigated, is whether speakers and hearers share the same language for encoding and decoding a message.

The Hermeneutic Principle: "The hearer, not the speaker determines the meaning of an utterance."

The communication principle: Speakers create meanings in utterances. Hearers find meanings in utterances. Communication succeeds when the created and found meanings are the same.

[I named this principle.]

Data is a structure of matter/energy in which information has been created or found.

Facts are encoded in the data structure by a sender and can be decoded from it by a receiver.

On language

Whether there is some truth in structuralism or not, the human mind is plastic and language is infinitely flexible.

To describe a testable system, an artificial domain-specific language is needed.

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

On determinism

At a micro level, the world as we experience it is deterministic.

We can predict the next discernible event - at least in theory.


At a macro level, the world we experience appears indeterminate.

The long term outcomes of events are unpredictable (aka chaotic).


At a psychological and sociological level we have no reasonable or acceptable option but to treat people of sound mind as having free will.

Deterministic: every state and event is the consequence of antecedent states and events. This implies that prediction is possible in theory.

Deterministic automaton: a machine in state Si,

when it receives input Ij,

will go into state Sk and

produce output Ol

(for a finite number of states, inputs and outputs).

Self-determination: choices arise from reasons or desires (regardless of how the processes of choice work).

Indeterministic: a state or event is not wholly the consequence of antecedent states or events. This seems to imply some kind of randomness in state transitions.

Random: haphazard, not-predetermined. In maths it is a measure of how unpredictable a future state or event is.

Chaotic: disorderly. 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.

Both holist and reductionist views of a system are important and helpful different times.

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).


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.

In practice, both enterprise architects and systems thinkers take either or both positions, according to the problem domain or work to be done.


A Tractaco Logico Philosophicus

There was no description of reality before life.

Description is a side effect of biological evolution.

Descriptions appear mental phenomena and in external representations of them in speech, writing and models of various kinds.


Many more or less accurate copies of a description can be made.

There is no ethereal description aside from what exists in one or more copies of it.

Delete all copies of a description and it disappears from the universe.


Descriptions are created when actors encode them in some form of matter and/or energy.

Descriptions are used when actors decode them from those forms.

Communication between actors succeeds when the encoded and decoded meanings are the same.


With those assertions in mind, here is a Tractaco Logico Philosophicus (one that differs from Wittgenstein’s).

1.      Reality is what exists in matter and energy.

2.      A description is a representation of a reality, but also a reality in itself.

3.      A true description represents a reality well enough.

4.      A false description misrepresents a reality, it is a lie.

5.      A fanciful description represents an imaginary or impossible reality.

6.      A true description typifies what is instantiated in one or more realities.

7.      A description is a type or concept that includes one more descriptive qualities or properties.


Nothing said above depends on human language or linguistics.

However, the ability to form descriptions using words (and graphical symbols of them) dramatically extended human descriptive/typification ability.


Individual rocks share some common qualities or types, are readily perceives as instances of the same kind.

The descriptive types labelled “rock”, “plant” and “circle” have been created, remembered and communicated countless times.

That does not mean the type exists independently of its appearance in a description, in a more ethereal form.

It only means that many observers have generalised the same type from concrete realities.

If/when all “rock”, “plant” or “circle” descriptions are destroyed, then that concept or type must disappear from the universe.


There is no type or concept outside of a description encoded in a matter and/or energy structure.

The idea of an ethereal type is useless, redundant, and better cut out using Occam’s razor.


Descriptive types generalise qualities or properties of individual structure and behaviors in natural systems and artificial designed systems.

Individual Insurance Claim processes can only be regarded as instances of a descriptive type when then that type exists in reality.

There can be many copies of that descriptive type, in people’s minds, in ArchiMate, BMPMN and UML diagrams.

But there is no more ethereal Insurance Claim process type or concept – outside or above those copies of it.

There is however a more generic meta type – Business Process.


Idealisation from run-time

Generalisation description

System description element


Design time description

Generic meta model

Internal Behavior type


Meta model

Business Process type

Subtype of Internal Behavior


Insurance Claim Process type

Subtype of Business Process

Run-time behavior


Insurance Claim 999999

Instance of Insurance Claim Process type