Bronze-level article

Systems thinking

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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
If a barber has cut his customer's throat because the girl has changed her partner for a dance or donkey ride on Hampstead Heath, there are always people to protest against the mere institutions that led up to it. This would not have happened if barbers were abolished, or if cutlery were abolished, or if the objection felt by girls to imperfectly grown beards were abolished, or if the girls were abolished, or if heaths and open spaces were abolished, or if dancing were abolished, or if donkeys were abolished.[1]
—G.K. Chesterton

Systems thinking or holism is a process of looking at a field in its entirety and focusing on the relationship of the parts with each other, rather than considering the parts individually. It operates as the antithesis of reductionism, which focuses exclusively on the parts that make up the system,[2] with the whole system regarded only as the "sum" of those parts.

For example, in biology, one can study each and every part of a forest (for example: bugs, water systems, molds) independently, or one can study ecosystems as a whole and see where each distinct element plays a relationship role on the health of an ecosystem. Reductionism would only allow one to study the individual parts, while systems thinking would only allow the study of the whole ecosystem. The usual approach today, as prescribed by the presently dominant school of analytic philosophy,[3] calls for a bit of both.

Systems thinking, taken to its extreme, may serve to underpin a wide variety of bullshit, partially based on New Age pish-posh about the "unity of everything," etc.

Examples of systems thinking[edit]

Reductionism is often criticized for being unable to perceive the forest for the trees in some situations. Conversely, systems thinking is sometimes unable to perceive the trees for the forest, often leading to proposals for grandiose, sweeping solutions to a problem that might actually be best solved by a smaller measure.


Systems thinking is sometimes used in the field of business and management, where some "efficiency experts" consider a workplace as a whole "system" whose efficiency can be improved by management, without giving adequate consideration to the individual "parts" of that system (i.e., workers). "Lean manufacturing," a latter-day spin on Taylorism, is one notable example.[4]


Systems thinking is common in religion, where an isolated incident is often seen and treated as part of the operation of some larger plan or design. For some reason this is particularly pronounced in monotheistic and/or dualistic religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Christianity.

In Christianity, systems thinking is most noticeable in those forms of Protestantism that attempt to ascribe the blame for all social ills to the existence of "sin", and consequently try to eliminate those social ills by tackling the whole "system" of sin rather than applying a more common-sense approach.

The Puritans got a reputation for this. A result of their thinking came in the infamous shutdown of all English theaters (1642-1660) during the Parliamentary ascendancy. Earlier, the Puritan cleric Thomas White had provided the groundwork for this policy by claiming it was necessary to avert plague epidemics:

The cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well: and the cause of sin are plays: therefore the cause of plagues are plays.[5][6]

A few decades later, this sort of idea gained new traction with the Methodist movement. Methodists held to the doctrine of "Christian perfection"[7] - the idea that it was possible for a Christian to abstain from all outward sin, thus resolving a good many social ills without the need to address them directly. From this starting-point eventually sprang the infamous Victorian morality[8] that some people have been denouncing with obsessive fervor ever since.


Marxism was the systems-thinking approach of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Karl Marx viewed society solely in terms of economic interactions between aggregate classes (class struggle), which he viewed as society's "base." The whole of culture, religion, politics, etc., he viewed as the "superstructure" laid on top of that base.

Hence, Marx's votaries have focused on whole-hog systematic alteration of the economic "base" to tackle things in the "superstructure" they find disagreeable, foregoing more narrow approaches that they have dismissed as mere "bandages" on capitalism.

An example of Marxist systems thinking in practice is highlighted in some anarchist analyses of Russia's February Revolution. In an appendix to the well-known Anarchist FAQ, these anarchists argue that while communists sat on their thumbs, waiting for the perfect time to spring their finely-orchestrated revolutionary plans on the population, other groups did an end-run around them and got the revolution started:

[T]he Petrograd organisation of the Bolsheviks opposed the calling of strikes precisely on the eve of the revolution which was destined to overthrow the Tsar. Fortunately, the workers ignored the Bolshevik 'directives' and went on strike anyway.[9]


Systems thinking of this kind has also been inherited by many philosophies derived from or influenced by Marxism; the only difference being that instead of the "base" being a class struggle, it can be a gender struggle, or a race struggle, or some other identity struggle on which it is deemed necessary to move primary focus to solve the world's ills; this entails an enormous amount of bickering and infighting among various groups of left-wingers as each group fights for pride of place and accuses the others of "failing to take the struggles of >insert identity group here< into account."

An example of this is the well-known bickering within feminism between those who focus strictly on the issue of gender, the "womanists" who argue that this approach contains an inherent bias toward the white upper-middle-class world, and the "redstockings" who insist on a greater role for class issues.[10]


The mainstream of modern medicine is often criticized as leaning toward reductionism, in that doctors will focus on the specific symptom with which the patient presents, but not take time to look at the patient's history or overall health. Or, as one critic put it:

Healthcare today is focused on illness rather than health. It tries to resolve health issues by addressing only a specific diagnosis, rather than the whole person.[11]

At least, that is how such critics generally present their grievance; what they actually have against mainstream medicine is usually quite another matter, as evidenced by the fact that most of them are also advocates of an alternative approach making much greater use of systems thinking, called holistic medicine, which instead of merely expanding the boundaries from illness to patient, does not recognize any boundaries at all. Where mainstream medicine uses evidence-based theory to diagnose a single patient at a time, diagnoses in holistic medicine do not have to follow either of these constraints, which are considered too reductionistic. Hence, practitioners of holistic medicine are often found employing non-medical analyses, such as assessments of people's "spiritual health," as well as making sweeping holistic diagnoses and proposing corresponding "treatments" of an entire society.

For example, the approach of "Whole Systems Healing" (formerly known as "Lakota religion") proposes treating medical problems on a society-wide basis by Spiritual Practices and building environmental and social justice movements.[11]


There is a humorous story illustrating systems thinking in the field of engineering. A king calls in an electrical engineer and a software developer and asks them both to design an embedded computer for a toaster. The electrical engineer offers a very narrow solution only good for toasting bread, while the software developer views it as part of a broader problem of cooking breakfast food, proposing an overly complex (and unworkable) solution requiring very expensive hardware.[12]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Flying Inn, chapter IX
  2. See the Wikipedia article on System.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Analytic philosophy.
  5. Egan, Gabriel (2001). "anti-theatrical polemic". In Dobson, Michael; Wells, Stanley. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780198117353. Retrieved 5 July 2019. "In a sermon at Paul's Cross delivered on 3 November 1577, Thomas White [...] welcomed the cessation of playing due to the plague and saw a spiritual as well as a practical causal connection: 'the cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well: and the cause of sin are plays: therefore the cause of plagues are plays.'" 
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Christian perfection.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Victorian morality.
  11. 11.0 11.1