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SYSC 421/521: Systems Philosophy


This seminar will consider some philosophical issues central to the systems field. Fundamental to these issues is Bunge's conception of systems science as a research program aimed at the construction of "an exact and scientific metaphysics," that is, a set of transdisciplinary concepts, models, and theories of broad generality and philosophical import, central to the sciences, and cast (or capable ultimately of being cast) in the exact language of mathematics.

The course draws from the literature of general systems theory and cybernetics, which launched the systems research program, and from the literature of chaos, complexity, and complex adaptive systems which continues this program today.  It presents a broad range of systems ideas (from information theory, game theory, thermodynamics, non-linear dynamics, decision theory, and many other areas) and attempts to integrate these ideas into a coherent framework. These ideas will be organized around the theme of fundamental "problems," that is, difficulties (imperfections, modes of failure) encountered by many systems of widely differing types.

While most of these ideas are mathematically-based, they will be approached in this course primarily at a conceptual level (with mathematical details provided as requested). Many of these systems ideas derive from the natural sciences and engineering, but they apply as well to the social sciences and to fields of professional practice (business, the helping professions, etc.). It is primarily their relevance to the human domain--to individuals,  organizations, societies, and the global human community--and to technology which motivates this theoretical/philosophical inquiry. Certain of these ideas pertain also to the arts and humanities.

Instructor: Martin Zwick

Readings will be from (1) the manuscript of a book (Elements and Relations) being written by the instructor which undertakes the integration spoken of above, available at the PSU Bookstore, augmented by (2) relevant papers on the STP web page.  Supporting material consisting of systems-oriented Scientific American articles is available via D2L.


521:  Graduate status in Systems Science or permission of instructor
421:  Upper division status and either admission to the Honors Program (section 421H) or having taken at least one SYSC 3xxU cluster course

Course Work

Grad students: 6 mini-papers 15% each; class participation 10%
Undergrads: 4 mini-papers 20% each; class participation 20%

Course Outline

  • Week 1: Introduction & overview; immersion
  • Week 2: The systems paradigm (“exact & scientific metaphysics”; basic systems ideas)
  • Week 3: The systems paradigm continued (relation to other fields; challenge of unity)
  • Week 4: Synchronics: Wholeness, Constraint, Distinction (set- & info-theory; graph theory; dynamics)
  • Week 5: Synchronics: Persistence, Identity, Agency (catastrophe theory; stability, regulation, & control; thermodynamics; game/decision theory)
  • Week 6: Synchronics: Complexity, Cognition, Summary (hierarchy/networks; modeling subsystem; dualities)
  • Week 7: Diachronics: Origins, Development, Limitation, Complexification (system formation; growth/development; integration/differentiation)
  • Week 8: Diachronics: Internal Opposition, Texture, Other Systems, Embeddedness, Impermanence (transformation; self-organized criticality; limits to growth; evolution)
  • Week 9: A systems view of history
  • Week 10: Systems theory & science, systems theory & religion, systems theory & politics

Fall 2014 Syllabus

Zwick's research page for Systems Theory and Philosophy