Preface to part four: A philosophy for system science

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. A chapter in “the book” at Last updated 22/04/2021 13:53


“A biological approach to human knowledge naturally gives emphasis to the pragmatist view that theories [descriptions of reality] function as instruments of survival.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Part four develops a philosophy of systems thinking by stepping to up to a higher level, considering how we know what we know, and describe things by typifying them in memories and messages.


Parts one and two discuss cybernetics, which is about the storage and transmission of information, in memories and messages, to describe and direct the state of things. Cybernetics stands independent of any physical form or medium. Information can be stored and transmitted using electric pulses, sounds, words, smells, dials, gestures, pictures, sticks arranged in a pattern on the floor, radio waves, or any other structure of matter or energy that can be organized or encoded by an actor to hold some information or meaning, and later decoded by the same or different actor.


Part four is about how our intelligence, social cooperation and civilization depend on the storage and transmission of information, in memories and messages. It stands independent of how the biochemistry in a brain works, or what language we use. It explores the ideas that “knowledge is a biological phenomenon” (Maturana) and that to describe something is to typify it (Ayer). With the help of a new epistemological triangle, it explores some implications of those ideas for those who present other views of description and reality.


In addressing questions about how we acquire information, verify it and share knowledge, part four answers questions about description and reality in ways that underpin systems thinking, and favor some philosophical positions over others. It rejects the “relativist” or “perspectivist” position (taken by some who read von Foerster’s “second order cybernetics”) that all descriptions of reality are purely subjective and therefore equally valid.

Chapters to follow


A description theory

This chapter discusses the nature of description and details the semantics of the epistemological triangle used to illustrate points in other chapters.


Our epistemology


<create and use>              <represent>

Describers <observe and envisage> Phenomena


Intelligence and civilization

This chapter discusses the following three principles.

Knowledge and description evolved in biological organisms

A good regulator has a description of what it regulates.

Consciousness enables us to compare the past, present and future.


Description as typification

This chapter discussed the following three principles.

To describe a thing is to typify it in terms of types already understood

Every type is a description.

Every description is a type


Think of any particular thing; a molecule, a game of chess, a galaxy, whatever. Write down a description of it. Perhaps the thing you have described is unique. But there is nothing to prevent your description being realized in more than one particular thing. To describe one thing is to create a type to which other things might conform.


Information and communication

This chapter discusses the following two principles.

A description is meaningful to an actor only in the process of creating or using it.

Coding is ubiquitous in the creation, sharing and use of symbolic descriptions.


Ashby observed that coding is ubiquitous in thought and communication. To create a description is to encode a model that represents some feature(s) of a phenomenon. To use a description is to decode it, then use it to respond to or manipulate whatever is described.


Knowledge and truth

This chapter discusses the following principle.

We share knowledge by verifying descriptions we share.



The final chapter summarizes some implications of the principles above for

·       system architecture – as defined in ISO/IEC 42010.

·       semiotics – notably Peirce and Popper.

·       philosophy – including the problem of universals

·       mathematics – did numbers exist before life?