A table of philosophical dichotomies

Copyright Graham Berrisford 2018. One of several hundred papers on the System Theory page at http://avancier.website. Last updated Monday, 17 September 2018.


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.


The table below was edited the definitions from the three sources below – in an attempt to help me and readers compare and contrast them.

·         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)


Since posting the table 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.

And some philosophical positions seem like meaningless babble to me.

With all that in mind, I have inserted a column in the middle declaring my (evolving) position.


A table of what seem to be philosophical dichotomies


Somewhat related concepts

My position

Somewhat related concepts

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).

Orderly: regular or rule-bound.

At a micro level (above the level of quantum mechanics) the world we experience is deterministic and the next discernible event is predictable, at least in theory.

At a macro level, the world we experience appears indeterminate, and long term outcomes are unpredictable.

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

Indeterminismtic: 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.

Cognitive constructivism: knowledge is acquired by creating mental structures in response to experiences. Jean Piaget's 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..

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

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).

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.

Machine state functionalism: same as “deterministic automaton” above.

Knowledge is acquired by a mix of inheritance and learning. We learn from a mix of:

·         experience of the world

·         interaction with family, teachers and peers

·         logical analysis.


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


I think if myself an empiricist, because I believe in testing assertions by gathering evidence, but believe that some things can reasonably be concluded from logical analysis.


In my view, radical constructivism and post-modernism undermine science and its importance to society.

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.

Idealism: existence is mental or spiritual.

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


What “existence” means is open to question. 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 - in mental phenomena and in external representations of them in speech, writing and other forms.

Materialism: existence is material.

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

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).

Whatever truth there is in structuralism, the human mind is plastic and language is infinitely flexible.

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

The hermeneutics principle is fundamentally misleading; it 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 meaning of an utterance.

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

[I named this principle.]

Cognitive embodiment: mental states and activities are bodily states; the mind is inseparable from the body.


I favour cognitive embodiment.

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

Both positions may be taken at different times.

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).