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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

Systems thinking and holism involve looking at more parts or components of a whole and how they interrelate, as opposed to reductionistically focusing on fewer parts and the properties of parts in isolation. While holism is more of a broad philosophy of focus on and study of complex systems, as an antithesis of reductionism, systems thinking is a problem-solving style and a core ingredient of systems theoryWikipedia and cyberneticsWikipedia.

Whereas misapplied reductionism can lead to being unable to perceive the forest for the trees, misapplied holism can, conversely, lead to being unable to perceive the trees for the forest. Competent problem-solving using systems thinking is not associated with any dogmatic extreme, but rather with trying to find a suitable and pragmatic scale and approach for grouping parts into systems and studying them.

The phrase "systems thinking" can also be used a vague buzzword - in marketing, for example. As for holism, it is even more easily divorced from actual problem-solving and associated with much woo, including (but not limited to) spiritual (e.g. New Age) and alternative-medicine woo which proposes some vast interconnectedness of things while failing to study issues and solve problems for real.

Feedback loops[edit]

Systems thinking is concerned with how parts of a whole interact, and feedback loopsWikipedia are among the main concepts. Things are often connected in processes which amplify themselves (i.e. positive feedback) and/or in processes which dampen or inhibit themselves (i.e. negative feedback).

For example, when organisms reproduce faster than they die off, their numbers increase, in a positive feedback loop. And when organisms exhaust the resources they need for living and reproducing, then they either slow down their rate of reproduction gradually (adapting more gracefully to their environment), or they more suddenly die off (after the environment becomes more inhospitable), in either case in a negative feedback loop.

Note that the words "positive" and "negative" are used in a purely technical sense (amplification vs. dampening), and do not refer to any kind of judgment on whether things are "good" or "desirable" or not. It is however fairly common to see misuses of the terms, where the meaning of the words are confused with their everyday senses. This is most obvious when chain reactions that take off with ever-stronger negative consequences are referred to as negative feedback loops, which is wrong, instead of as positive feedback loops. For an example of something involving purely positive feedback with possibly very negative consequences, consider atoms which split during a nuclear detonation, the splitting of one atom leading to more atoms splitting at an explosively quickening rate.

Examples of systems thinking[edit]


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 holism would only allow the study of the whole ecosystem. The usual approach today, as prescribed by the presently dominant school of analytic philosophy,[1] calls for a bit of both.

Of course, one can also consider a tree, or an insect, or a mold, or a bacteria, etc., as the whole. Organisms are studied as systems of interconnected smaller parts: different types of tissue, different types of components inside of cells, etc. Layer by layer, at various scales in time and space, abilities and behaviors emerge from the combined working of smaller parts in living systems.

One can also consider the big picture of evolution, where natural selection is a negative feedback mechanism limiting the ever-increasing genetic diversity arising from mutations added on top of mutations. There is of course a richer structure to it all than such a short description, accounting with more precision for how evolution can lead from a simple and uniform beginning to diversity and complexity.

Business and management[edit]

Systems thinking is used in business and management. In management, it makes for a spectrum of approaches in-between a holistic extreme and a reductionist extreme. The holistic extreme is to be fully concerned with how everything influences everything, which means considering each and every unique person in the organization in full detail (i.e. not simplifying or filtering away any information), which only works when the number of persons is very small. The other extreme, the reductionist, is only really necessary for types of very large or very strictly hierarchical organizations,[note 1] and amounts to reducing people to mere labels for assigned roles and expecting all to follow the labeled leader (who may simplify the psychology of motivation down to the dimension of threat vs. reward).

Depending on the starting point and the aim, bringing more systems thinking into how business is done could mean accommodating workers either more or less. It could be about removing inefficiencies in production,[note 2] or it could be about improving the well-being of workers, or possibly both.


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, Christianity, and Islam. However, it can really be seen in any religious or spiritual system of thought in which the things of the natural world are interconnected with other things, and e.g. rituals or the pleasing vs. displeasing of supernatural forces play a part in changing the fortune of individuals and societies.


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 all ills by tackling the whole "system" of sin. In earlier ages, other types of great misfortune were also explained as being due to sin, e.g. the Black Death.

The Puritans got a reputation for this. Their thinking brought 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.[3][4]

A few decades later, this sort of idea gained new traction with the Methodist movement. Methodists held to the doctrine of "Christian perfection"[5] - 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[6] 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.[7]


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.[8]


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.[9]

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, called holistic medicine, in which systems thinking is applied in a way that does not merely expand the boundaries from illness to patient, but 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.[note 3] 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.[9]


All engineering taking feedback loops into account makes use of systems thinking. On the simple end of applications, consider the system of a thermostat and its use, in which the measured temperature (registered by a sensor) affects the produced temperature (through some kind of control mechanism) so as to minimize the difference between the measured temperature and a target temperature (within some bounds of variation).

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. For example, militaryWikipedia organizations.
  2. "Lean manufacturing," a latter-day spin on Taylorism, is one notable example.[2]
  3. Questionable approaches may also, ironically, be more reductionistic than the mainstream when it suits the alternative paradigm; for example, colloidal silver is safe and effective for killing bacteria outside the body, but quackery ignores that this is not sufficient evidence to say that it is also useful inside of the body (a complicated biochemical environment), which it generally isn't.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Analytic philosophy.
  3. 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.'" 
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Christian perfection.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Victorian morality.
  9. 9.0 9.1