The nub of our philosophy

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 20/11/2017 20:11


Enterprise architecture is about business system planning.

It can be seen as applying the principles of general system theory – which we’ll get to later.

This short paper outlines the underpinning philosophy.

It seems an inevitable consequence of believing what Charles Darwin wrote on evolution and Ross Ashby wrote on system theory.

You may find it straightforward.

Or else you may find it at odds with some instinct or philosophy you adhere to and find difficult to put aside.

These two pages introduce the philosophy.

System description

Ashby saw a system as an island of orderly behavior in the ever-unfolding process that is universe.

He said the scope of a system is determined by its describers.

Give some aims or interests, describers focus on some regular behaviors performed by some interacting entities.

Ashby’s system might be characterised, very briefly, as a describable set of roles and rules.


A designed system is typically described in terms of:

·         Identifier (typically a name along with a generation/version number).

·         Aims or purposes (ideally SMART).

·         Behaviors and interactions (performed by active structures).

·         Active structures (that perform behaviors).

·         Passive structures (that are acted on by behaviors).

·         Places (addressable locations in space where structures sit and act).

·         Times (moments and durations when behaviors happen).


System can be nested; each may be seen as a holon (simultaneously a whole and a part).

Systems can be overlapping and may duplicate each other.

Systems can be integrated into a wider system.

Smaller systems can be wholly contained components of a larger system.
Separable systems can be loosely-related in a wider system which does not contain all the parts of those separable systems.


A thorough understanding system theory starts with an understanding of description theory.

Premises of description theory

Generally speaking, one description can be realised in many realities.

And one reality can be idealised in many descriptions.

But there is more to the relationship of description to reality than that.

Countless philosophers have proposed countless philosophies – both overlapping and contrary.


Many people’s instinct is to divide the universe into mental and physical worlds.

However, the two-way mental/physical dichotomy of Cartesian dualism (after Descartes) has long been rejected by philosophers and scientists.

Others have proposed various three-cornered views of description and reality.

Some are drawn to "the semiotic triangle" and/or Karl Popper's "three worlds view" of the universe.

This work proposes these are not the best way to model the describer/description/reality trichotomy.


First, one has to shake off:

·         the mental/physical dichotomy presumed in Cartesian Dualism

·         a human-centric view of the universe (unlike Popper in his “three worlds view”).

·         a language-centric view of philosophy (unlike Wittgenstein in his Tractacus).


Then acknowledge that:

·         describers are actors who have some intelligence about their environment

·         the ability of actors to describe the world is a side effect of biological evolution

·         the first description was a biological model of some kind, and brains evolved to retain descriptive mental models of perceptions

·         in natural intelligence, the mental world is physical – though the bio-chemistry of that is deeply mysterious

·         in artificial intelligence, the most notable ability is the ability to abstract descriptive types from observations of similar things.


And finally, acknowledge that:

·         descriptions include all signs, all models, all encodings of perceptions, private and public

·         mental, spoken, written, audio, visual and physical models are all descriptions

·         humans and their machines can translate a description of any kind into a description of another kind

·         describers and descriptions are themselves part of reality - and can themselves be described (if need be).

The evolution of description

A Darwinian explanation of description must start before mathematics and before words.

It starts from the notion that organisms can recognise family resemblances between things.

A family resemblance occurs when the same properties appear in several things, or when a new thing resembles a past thing.


Read Description for a story of seven steps that lead to the sophisticated creation and use of “types”.

1.      Recognition: sunflowers recognise the sun’s daily repeated passage across the sky.

2.      Memory: a predator instinctively recognises things that resemble others of the type we call “prey”.

3.      Learning: a bird learns by trial and error to recognise things that instantiate the type “edible thing”.

4.      Communication: an animal sounds an alarm call to signal a new instance of the type we call “danger”.

5.      Verbalisation: people may loosely define a bird as having feathers, a beak and the ability to fly. Still, penguins count as birds.

6.      Mathematics and computing: a circle is defined strictly, as a round plane figure whose boundary consists of points equidistant from a fixed point.

7.      Artificial intelligence: machines create and use descriptions using neural networks, polythetic types and fuzzy logic.


Our system theory presumes describers have the abilities at stages 4, 5 and 6 above.

It is presumed we can describe the structures and behaviors of a system by using words to typify discrete objects and events.

The description theory

The philosophy here can be expressed in a triangle.

Description theory

Descriptions (private & public)

<create and use>                   <idealise>

Describers     <observe & envisage>     Realities


The process of observing reality starts in perception and results in the creation of descriptive/mental models.

The process of envisaging reality starts in dream-like or consciously-directed brain activity and results in the creation of descriptive/mental models.

Describers translate descriptions from private to public forms, and back again.


Unfortunately, recalling a biological memory has the effect of modifying it some extent - though rarely as far as in "false memory syndrome".

That is why externalising memories – in publicly shareable written, audio and visual forms - is so important.

Obviously, documented models are vital in any collaborative design exercise.

But still, the private/public description distinction is not as fundamental as the description/reality one.


Our model of description and reality must include describers.

The premise here is that descriptions first appeared within biological organisms.

Later, many kinds of animal evolved to share their private mental models through social communication.

This ability to share descriptions is the basis of all social systems addressed in sociology.

Human interact in elaborate social systems, and have formalised some of those into business systems.

Further reading

This is the first of a family of related papers/chapters.

1.      The nub of our philosophy

2.      Introduction (which leads to How the brain works)

3.      A communication theory

4.      A language theory

5.      A description and type theory (which leads to Realism or Idealism?)

6.      A philosophy (which leads to Other triangular philosophies)

7.      Knowledge and truth



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