Methodological organization of systems-structural research and development: principles and general framework

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Methodological organization of systems-structural research and development: principles and general framework

Shchedrovitsky G.P. Methodological organization of systems-structural research and development: principles and general framework // General Systems. Vol. XXVII. 1982. Translated by A. Rapoport (Перевод работы Г.П. Щедровицкий Принципы и общая схема методологической организации системно-структурных исследований и разработок // Системные исследования: Методологические проблемы. Ежегодник 1981. М., 1981). [также опубликована в Systems Research, II. Methodological Problems. Edited by J.M. Gvishiani. Pergamon Press, 1985]


Institute of General and Pedagogical Psychology Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR, Moscow, USSR

G. P. Schedrovitsky

The present socio-cultural situation and the system movement

1. During the last 10-15 years, problems of system analysis have become one of the most fashionable themes, discussed in most varied contexts and from most varied points of view. In the process, a wealth of different expressions and terms have entered usage. One finds references to the «system revolution» encompassing the world of science, engineering, and practical activity, to the «system approach», characterizing a new style and new methods of scientific thinking, to «general system theory» as a special sort of scientific theory, discharging a methodological function, to general system theory as a meta-theory, to «systemic operational analysis», to a «system orientation», etc., etc.

How these expressions are fixated remains, however, unclear. Is this a consequence of something already existing in reality or only a matter of projects and programmes, advanced by various groups of investigators?

In any case,  given so many different  points  of view,  we  are   compelled  to posе  the  question about what  is  actually happening  in the  realm   of  «systems». If it turns out that all of these notions and constructs are included in that sphere, we shall have to relate them with each other one way or another, in order to obtain a concrete and objective picture of what is happening. In order to do this, however, special tools are needed, in particular some sort of general conception encompassing and integrating the content mentioned above.

We believe the most general and the most precise conception encompassing what is happening today is that of system movement.

For us this means that an analysis of whatever relates to the systemic realm should begin not with the system approach, not with general system theory but rather with the system movement.     All the rest, the analysis of systems, system technology, systemic orientations, etc., should be   regarded as various elements, functional components and organizational features of the system movement.

The fundamental peculiarity of the system movement (that which makes it a «movement» rather than a «direction» or an «approach») is the fact it unites representatives of widely different professions (engineers, the military, pedagogues, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and managers), proponents of various means and styles of thought, various value orientations, and points of view. The motivations for such integration stem not so much from content as from socio-cultural (or even socio-organizational) factors.

Having joined the system movement, the representatives of the various professions nevertheless continue to orient themselves toward the standards and norms of their respective professions. They continue to strive to obtain products that have served as models in their professions. They continue to work with their professional tools and methods. Moreover, the representatives of each profession regard the meaning and content of the system movement ac-cording to their respective professional canons and try to transform and to organize the entire systemic sphere to make it correspond to the schemes to which they are accustomed.  They even insist that all the other participants in the system movement work within these frameworks. In other words, each profession in the system movement strives to learn and to assimilate the entire content of the system movement and of the systemic sphere in forms specific to its own way of thinking and to its activity.

At a certain stage of development of the system movement, such a strate­gy is natural and justified, since the structure and organization of the move­ment itself has not yet formed and the results to be produced by it have in no way been specified.

Accordingly, on the one hand, an extremely complex set of internally con­tradictory ideas and on the other a multiplicity of various systemic orienta­tions appear in the system movement. They all express the cultural-historical products that the system movement can and must generate. And they form the basis of the conflict among the participants of the movement.

2. In singling out what is most conspicuous and sufficiently clearly shaped, eight basic propositions can be stated and correspondingly eight pro­spects of the cultural product of the system movement can be named.

(1) The development and improvement of already existing particular sciences in the fields of engineering and other practical fields  by means of infusing them with systemic notions and methods of analysis.

(2) «General system theory», resembling already existing natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

(3) «General system theory» resembling traditional mathematics like geometry, algebra or its   newer branches, such as Shannon’s theory of information.

(4) «General system theory» modeled after the spirit of mathematics in the spirit of D.  Hilbert.

(5) A pragmatic methodology in the context of disciplines such as operations research, decision analysis, etc.

(6) Engineering-technological methodology of the type developed by G.H. Good and R. McCall.

(7) So called system philosophy.

(8) Systemic-structural methodology as a branch of general methodology.

The first seven approaches are represented by some historical prototypes in other contexts. In this lies their strength. But just this suggests ob­jections, as we see it. When each participant in the system movement offers his professional solution of systemic problems, he assumes the role of an agent representing an already existing and functioning sphere of thought and activity, be it science, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, or what not, within which he developed into a «systemist». For this reason he is always bound by the particular cultural-historical situation, within .which he understood the meaning and the importance of systemic problems and tasks. -There-fore, in the final analysis, he only uses systemic tools and methods and the professional organization of his own way of thinking. But it is well known (and can be regarded as generally accepted) that the system movement has been formed and is developing as an interdisciplinary and interprofessional phenomenon. And this means that it must formulate an integration transcending the bounds of any separate scientific discipline or profession. Hence the system movement in its emergence and development must take into account the entire socio-cultural situation and base itself on the widest possible understanding of potentialities and perspectives of its development. In this way, we face the necessity of   evaluating the contemporary socio-cultural situation as a whole.

3. In our opinion, it is possible to indicate at least eight features in the current socio-cultural situation having a most direct connection with the system movement.

The first is the ever deepening differentiation of sciences and professions. This  tendency,  having been progressive in the XVIII and XIX centuries, has now resulted  in the  formation of  a host  of  scientific disciplines  isolated from each other,  each   developing practically   independently of  others.  Presently, these disciplines not only do not integrate but actually limit the thinking processes of investigators.     Approaches  and   ways  of    thinking,  new technology, and new   methods  creates  in   one  field   do not  spread   to others, Each of the scientific   fields  creates   its own ontological   picture  isolated  from those of other  fields. All attempts to construct a single or at least a connected picture of our reality stumbles on formidable difficulties.

The second feature is the existence of narrowly specialized translation channels in the partitioned disciplinary culture. The contemporary mathematician knows and understands little about physics, not to speak of biology or history. The philologist, as a rule, knows no mathematics or physics, and even history remains foreign territory to him.  Already in school we distinguish children as those good in mathematics and those good in literature. The idea of a general education is further undermined by the idea of specialized schools.

The third feature is the crisis of classical non-Marxist philosophy, precipitated by the recognition that this philosophy has lost its means of guiding science and its role as a coordinator in the development of science, the role of mediator, transfering methods and tools from one science to another. This circumstance became apparent already in the first quarter of the XIX century and has been a theme of special discussion. K. Marx and F. Engels devoted much attention to it, having re-defined the function of philosophy in relation to the natural and the humanistic sciences. The loss of direct connection with philosophy has forced various sciences to work out their own methods of cognition. This became the basis of different forms of positivism and recently gave rise to so called «scientism».

The fourth feature is the shaping of engineering as a special activity, combining construction with different forms of quasi-scientific analysis. The traditional academic sciences, developing in large measure in an imminent fashion, became separated from new directions in engineering, and this has instigated the engineers to create new types of systems of knowledge, not corresponding to traditional models and standards. Information theory and cybernetics are just the most conspicuous examples of such schemes. Simultaneously, problems of interrelationship between analysis and construction started to be intensively discussed.

The fifth (very important) feature is the continuing identification and separation of various production techniques that assume an autonomous signifi­cance and become a new principle and objective «law» in the organization of our entire activity and, last in the analysis, subordinating our activity, nature, and human behavior. The servicing of this technology becomes a fore­most necessity, almost a fundamental goal of all social activity. At the same time, technological forms of organizational activity are constantly being formalized and become ever more significant. These forms spread also to ways of thinking.

The sixth feature is the formulation and partial segregation of planning as a special form of activity. In consequence, the question of connections and relations between planning and research has become ever sharper. Planning has been starkly confronted with the problem of the relations between natural and artificial objects in our activity. None of these problems was solved within the framework of traditional science.

The seventh feature is the increased importance and role of organizational-controlling activity in our social life. Its efficiency de­pends in the first instance on its scientific foundation. However, the tra­ditional sciences do not generate knowledge required for this activity. The main reason is that the «abstract» and analytic nature of traditional scien­tific disciplines does not fit the complex and systemic nature of this activi­ty.

The eighth (also especially important) feature is the appearance and formalization of a new type of sciences, which, roughly speaking, can be called «complex» sciences. Among these are the science serving pedagogy, planning, the military, management, etc. At this time, these complex forms of activity are served by unsystematic conglomerations of findings taken from diverse scientific disciplines.  But the very complexity   and diversity of this practice, its orientation toward both normative and natural aspects of activi­ty require integration and theoretical systematization of knowledge about both the natural and the man-made environment, something that keeps eluding us.

All these features, characteristic of contemporary socio-cultural situa­tion create a general «counter-environment». The differentiation of sciences creates a need for their unification and for a «staging area» for this task. The professionlization of education creates an orientation toward a general polytechnical and university education and stimulates the development of generalized and universal systems of knowledge required to realize this goal. The crisis of traditional philosophical cognition and the loss of philosophy’s guiding role in relation to science have given rise to the idea of recon­structing philosophy itself and of all those sciences with the view of enabling philosophy to re-establish its connections with the sciences and to regain its former leading role in the world of thought. Similarly, as a re­action to this situation, demands are made for establishing organic and effec­tive connections between engineering and science and for a complex integration of natural,  technological,  humanistic, and  social sciences.

All  these  aspects  of  contemporary  socio-cultural  situation   are  generally well known,  and we mention  them   only  to  indicate  the  connection between them and the system movement. The point is that from the very   beginning  it was hoped  that  the  system approach  would  solve  all  these problems,  would  integrate the  split  off  branches  of  science and  technology,  would work out  a  common  language and homogeneous  methods  of  thinking  for  all  spheres  of  activity and work and finally create  a single  reality  for modern science,  technology,    and practical activity. This was essentially the same hope that was pinned   in the 1930’s on physicalism and in the 1950’s on cybernetics.

4.   From our point of view, all these hopes related to the contemporary variants of the system approach are   no more realizable than the former hopes pinned on physicalism and cybernetics. But we are concerned here not with whether the existing variants of the system approach justify those expectations or not but rather with another, one might say inverse aspect of the problem: the demands that the existing socio-cultural milieu makes upon the system approach. It is these demands that we wish to put at the base of our discussion. If the orientation  toward  integration and  synthesis of various activities is established as a fact  and is accepted as a value (at least  for intellectual work), then we must now invert the problem and discuss  the product that  must  be obtained  from the  system  movement,  if  the aim of the movement is indeed   the  achievement  of  a  synthesis. Only after this question is resolved, can we begin to analyze the tools of systemic thought, its categories, its fundamental notions, methods, etc., and so obtain data for an answer to the question of whether the system movement can create a product of this sort.

It must be emphasized that such an inversion of the problem creates a quite different plan and style of analysis. It will deal not with what is now actually produced in the system movement but rather with the programmes and projects advanced by various groups of professionals participating in the system movement together with the justification of these programmes and projects and with their realizability. This will be on the one hand a critique of already existing programmes and on the other hand a proposal of new programmes, which, in our opinion, are more promising.

5. The first critical part of this work has already been carried out and partly published. Therefore, we will deal here only with the second part. We will try to characterize in most general terms the   essence of our own programme, which can be discussed within the framework of the system movement along with other programmes and projects. This is the programme of developing a «systemic-structural methodology».

The principal idea of our proposal consists of combining a development of the system approach with working out new strategies and ways of thinking, which we call methodological. Here we start with the fact that systemic problems and tools because of their origin and their specificity are aspect-oriented rather than object oriented. They arise in situations where it is necessary to relate conceptions   of a single object arising   from orientations toward its several aspects. It is just these problems and tasks that, to our way of thinking, generate the specifically systemic technique of thinking, particularly in research, planning, and control. This technique remains active and effective only as one moves from many separate one-sided conceptions of an object to a single holistic conception. When we obtain a homogeneous constructively unfolding conception of the   object, the   systemic technique of thought becomes unnecessary, and the systemic problems and tasks are removed.

In other words, the system problematics and system thinking exist, in our opinion, where and only where a number of different aspects of an object remain, and we must somehow work with these different aspects, moving along them and over them, as it were, as we strive for an integrated description of the object in the face of the distinction of the aspects that define it. In most cases, we can evidently no longer remain within those aspects and act accord­ing to their imminent laws but  rather must «leap» beyond  their borders and work in some special way connecting the elements of the different aspects either with aims related to particular practice or to broad theoretical issues.

But then we naturally face the question of what specifically the organi­zation of research and planning consists of, more generally the organization of thought that enables us to assimilate the aspects singled out by science and to describe the object not through the prism of some one aspect but taking many aspects into account simultaneously as well as the peculiarities of each aspect. In addition, we must have a special point of view distinct from every aspect and at the same time transforming these very aspects into functioning elements of our «thinking mechanism» as well as into the objects of our think­ing and operational activity.

In our opinion, it is the specific forms of organization that solve such problems that constitutes the organization of methodological thought and work. They should not be identified either with philosophical or with social scien­tific forms of organizing thought and activity. For this reason, we must exa­mine the specific characteristics of methodological work and a possible plan of organizing and constructing a systemic-structural methodology in greater detail.

The general nature of methodological work

1. We will begin with some important but for the time being purely verbal characteristics of methodological work as such. In the given context, it can be identified and juxtaposed to concrete scientific and to philosophical work with respect to six fundamental symptoms.

a) Methodological work is not «pure» research. It includes also critique and schematization, programming and problem-posing, building and planning, ontological analysis, and standard setting as consciously defined forms and stages of work. The content of methodological work is not so much cognition as crea­tion of methods and projects. It not only reflects but also creates in greater measurethrough construction and projection among other means. The basic function of methodology is thus defined: it serves the entire scope of human activity, in the first instance by projects and direction setting. This implies also that the main products of methodological work, i.e., construction, projects, norms, methodological prescriptions, etc. are never verified and cannot be verified with respect to their truth. They are verified only with respect to realizability. The situation here is the same as in any form of engineering or architectural planning. When we plan a city, it makes no sense to ask whether our project is «true». After all, it corresponds not to an existing city but to a future city. Thus, it is not the project that reflects a city but the city that will reflect the project.

This is a very important component   in understanding Methodology. The products of methodological work consists not of findings, verifiable with re­spect to truth but of projects, schemes, and prescriptions. This becomes an inevitable conclusion the moment we leave the narrow purely cognitive orientation and adopt Karl Marx’s thesis of revolutionary-critical transforming character of human activity. This applies also to engineering, practical, and organizational-managerial activities, which can by no means be reduced to the acquisition of knowledge.  And, of course, methodology, as a new form of organizing thought and activity, must encompass all the above mentioned types of cognition.

b) The above emphatic assertions do not mean that research and knowledge are excluded from the realm of methodology.

On the contrary, methodology is distinguished from method in that it is fully saturated with knowledge (in the exact sense of this word) and includes clearly delineated and, as it were, refined research. Methodological work and methodological think­ing combine planning, critique, and standard setting with re­search and cognition. Thereby, research is subordinated to planning and the setting of standards, although it can be or­ganized as an autonomous system. In the final analysis, how­ever, research within the framework of methodology always serves planning and standard setting, being directed toward those goals.

с) Methodology not only does not reject the scientific approach but, on the contrary, continues and extends it to areas where it had not been possible to pursue. This is manifested, in the first instance, in the fact that methodology creates extremely complex combinations out of diverse types of knowledge, these combinations being inaccessible to traditional science. In par­ticular it joins in novel ways natural scientific, technical, historical, and practical knowledge. Traditional science avoided such combinations and justifiably so, because its task had been that of creating a «pure reproduction» of some natural object. Science (in the narrow sense of the term) is oriented toward separating genuinely objective «natural» knowledge from all other kinds of knowledge, in particular knowledge about what might be or what ought to be done, in order to attain some prac­tical goal. Science is based on the judgment that the story about how agricultural fields were measured is a pre-scientific story. And although ancient Egyptian practical-methodical know­ledge that established ways of measuring fields of various shapes fits into a chapter in the history of mathematics, still this chapter and the corresponding historical stage are regarded as pre-scientific in distinction from ancient Greek mathematics, which is unanimously regarded as part of science. Methodology agrees with this distinction between various types of knowledge and the corresponding ways of thinking. Moreover, it produces for the first time scientific (epistemological foundations for this distinction. Alongside, however, it creates more complex superstructures connecting the various types of knowledge and constantly makes use of these connections.

Besides, as has already been said, methodology creates and utilizes know­ledge about knowledge, learning about itself, as it were, its own standards. And this is necessary, since without the awareness of the form and structure of knowledge in general and of the specifics of different types of knowledge, it is impossible to realize the coordination of the different types of know­ledge mentioned above.

d) At the same time, methodology strives to combine knowledge about activity and thinking with knowledge about the objects of this activity and of this thinking, or, inverting this relationship, to combine directly objective knowledge with reflective know­ledge. For this reason, the object with which methodology deals is something like a set of Chinese boxes. Actually, it is a special sort of bind between two objects: inside the original object (activity and thought), another is placed, namely, the object of this activity and thought. Thus, methodology always deals with a double object, not with activity as such nor with the object of this activity as such but with their one-inside-the-other connection. If we confined ourselves to the description of activity representing it as a special sort of object, this would reflect the natural-scientific view of ac­tivity. The latter would appear as one of the objects studied by natural science, along with other objects, physical or biolo­gical.

In contrast, methodological knowledge must consist of two kinds of know­ledge: knowledge about activity and knowledge about the object of activity. If we were to split this bind and regard the components as autonomous, we would be obliged to say that they are simply different kinds of knowledge about different things. But the essence of the methodological approach is in combining these two sorts of knowledge. Its most important specific feature is the way the means of effecting this combination are established. The rela­tionship between activity and its object is not «whole-part». Activity does not reflect the object nor is the object part of activity. The object of an activity is included in the activity in several different ways: as an ele­ment, as a container of other elements, for instance of findings, and as sub­ject matter.

In this waymethodological knowledge integrates within itself many di­verse forms of knowledge. It is internally heterogeneous. At the same time it should be unified and whole in spite of its internal complexity and diver­sity. In methodological work, we must have knowledge that unites within it­self both our conceptions about activity and conceptions about the objects of activity, whereby these must be combined in such a way that we can utilize this bind in practical activity. In this way, methodology prescribes a logic of  reflexion,  that  is,  the  rules  for  combining diverse  forms  of knowledge.

e) Methodology takes into account the multiplicity of diverse posi­tions of an actor in relation to the object and the distinctions among these positions. This implies work with different concep­tions of one and the same object, including different profes­sional conceptions, whereby these forms of knowledge and their multiplicity are regarded as an objective feature of the situa­tion in which mental activity is involved.

This is an extremely important circumstance. Classical physics and the entire science built upon it were based on a conception of a single genuine knowledge. If the same situation was described differently in different spheres of knowledge, the question was usually posed, which of these was true. Methodology, in contrast, presupposes  that many different concepts and kinds of knowledge  can relate  to one  and  the  same  object and  that  it makes  no  sense to test  their «truth» since they are simply different. This is a most important principle of modern methodological thinking called the principle of multiple conceptions and forms of knowledge related to a single object.     Since, however, the object  itself  is  always  taken  in a  context,  i.e., always   in connection with  its  representation,  the diversity of  these   representations  turns out to be a fact  in any  situation involving activity or communication  that unites different professionals. Methodology begins its work with the professionals’ conceptualization about an object. Initially, the object is given only in the form of these several representations. Only then, starting from this totality of representations, the methodologist can pose the problem of reconstructing the object in the way it exists «in reality» and carry out this reconstruction, assuming that all the available representations characterize the object from different perspectives or in different projections.

To be sure, this approach can be criticized as lacking in self-criticism since the ontological conceptualization of the object constructed in this way will serve only a definite set of selected findings and professional activities. If we were to choose another such set, we would get a different ontological conception.  However, these considerations by no means demonstrate the subjectivity of ontological conceptions but only their historical transitory nature. Therefore, every one who speaks of an object «as it really’ is» must always   remember that any ontological conception of it is valid only from a historically circumscribed point of view. And since we can never escape this limitation, we must always regard the object as bound up with a set of   findings about it and must always relate different forms of knowledge to each other: knowledge about the object and knowledge about knowledge. For this reason, methodological thinking always utilizes schemes of many kinds of knowledge about a single object. Each of the representations, in turn, can be marked by an   index of objectivity. That is to say, one asserts that just these data correspond to the object. Then all the other data are evaluated relative to the chosen criterion and are transformed to correspond to it. Next, we can transfer the index of objectivity to another set of findings or a conception, whereby all the other findings will be evaluated with reference to it. O.I. Genisaretsky called this the «rafter’s strategy» thinking of the lumber floating operation. We  run over the logs, stepping on one and pushing another floating beside, then jump from one  log to another, changing our support all  the  time and in  this way pushing  the float  forward.

f) In methodology, the integration of different findings is carried out in the first instance not according to the schemes of the object acted upon but according to the schemes of the activity itself. We have no other way of reconstructing the object on the basis of the various representations except via classifying the activity interests of the professionals from whom the repre­sentations stem. And only after we have described the thinking processes of the professionals that have led them to represent the object in just that manner and not otherwise and in this way determine the foci on the basis of which those representations were constructed, only then can we begin to gather and organize all these representations, be it once again noted, not directly through a representation of the object but rather through the representation of the activity. Realistically different concep­tions ought to be aggregated and organized only when the activi­ties with which they are associated are in a cooperative rela­tion with each other, when they begin to work on an object that has become common to all of them. Herein, is the basic princi­ple of methodological thinking: a conception about a complex cooperative activity becomes a means of integrating different conceptions of the object of this activity. This integration follows not so much the logic of the way the object in question fits into our life but rather the logic of the way various forms of knowledge are utilized in cooperative activity.

For this reason, methodological work invokes not just one ontological conception but at least two: one represents the structure of professional cooperative activity – the so-called «organizational activity ontology»; the other represents the object of this cooperative activity. This is the natural-objective ontology. A particular combination of these two ontological conceptions forms in each instance a specific characteristic of concrete meth­odological work.

2. All of the above features can be summarized in a single thesis: meth­odological work is directed not upon nature as such but on mental activity and its organization, whereby the organization of mental activity has a two-fold existence, as it were: one in elements and components of thought and activi­ty; the other in independent and autonomous construction, partitioned in many forms and connected to each other by mental processes. The «natural objects» themselves are thereby regarded as special organized entities of mental ac­tivity created within philosophy and within the disciplines of natural science along with the others. The natural scientific orientation toward the so-cal­led natural object is just one of many subdivisions in our organization of our knowledge and thought.

However, this circumstance – the change over from natural reality to ac­tivity in the course of passing to methodological forms of work – poses another set of quite complex problems. In order to learn to work with complex struc­tures of knowledge that integrate on the one hand methodological, constructive-technical, natural-scientific, historical, and philosophical knowledge and, on the other hand, knowledge of objects and knowledge about knowledge and about mental activity, one must develop a new logic of thought that could be summarily called the logic of reflexion. From this point of view, modern methodology will be characterized as based on this sort of logic.

One could add that the logic of reflexion itself presupposes special knowledge about reflexion. In discussing these problems we find ourselves in still another sphere of knowledge that could be called methodological-reflexive. Many of our assertions have been unfolding not on the level of methodology but on the level of meta-methodology. Instead of realizing some process of thinking or acting and demonstrating it, we described either the process itself or the transformation effected by it, its possible products or results. It is just here that the distinction between the level of methodology and the level of methodological reflexion (meta-methodology) appeared. This circumstance must be constantly kept in mind.

Many of the above assertions will have a different meaning depending on how they are further treated, namely as directly concretizable or as belonging to the specific reality of the methodologist. In some measure, this distinction can be made precise and grasped with the aid of a two-sided (or, generally many-sided) form of knowledge.

In particular, one can present certain representations of an object and maintain that this is the object as it «really is». In this way, concretization will be made, and we can then ask how an   object of this sort can be described and is actually described depending on given research tasks.   We will then construct these descriptions and obtain a secondary knowledge about the object.  But in exactly the same way, having presented certain representations of an object, we can say that this is only our subjective conception of it, obtained from a certain professional position.  Then we shall have to pose the question about how the object is «in reality» and seek a   representation of it.

In the latter case, although having introduced a certain representation of the object, we introduce in this manner a conception about the object itself, but its properties and characteristics, its structure as an object become thereby problematic, while the structure and nature of knowledge and of its reality will become dogmatized. In the former case, on the contrary, the structure of the object will be made dogmatic, while the structure of knowledge will become problematic. But this   sort of methodological reflexion is just as necessary and organic as a part of methodological thinking as investigations, planning, critique, etc.

Having given this summary characteristic of methodology, we can turn to our basic problem – that of characterizing the system approach from the methodological point of view and to chart a course for   organizing   systemic-structural methodology.

Organization of systemic-structural methodology; basic scheme

1. So far, we have avoided the question related to the specifics of the system approach. This was not coincidental, since we had no framework for answers. Now we have such a framework and we can turn to a discussion of the system approach proper.

Our first assertion is that the specifics of the system approach can be defined only in connection with describing the structure and form of methodo­logical work, since we are convinced that the system approach exists only as a subdivision and as a special organized activity of methodology and of the methodological approach. It arises with the need of integrating several dif­ferent disciplines (as has been said), proceeding in accordance with the means and normative standards of methodology. And while the expression «system ap­proach» is used also by representatives of specialized science, this happens, in our opinion, only because they borrow the means, methods, and ontology of methodological work. Therefore, only in describing the structure of methodo­logical work and of methodology can we deal with the specifics of the system approach. Until then, we could not even try to answer the question. Moreover, to the extent that by assuming the methodological position, we can use differ­ent systems of representation, the specifics of the system approach will also be defined in different ways, depending on the system of description we choose, even if we seek it in the actuality of methodology. If we use the description relevant to a theory of thought, we will define the specifics of systemic thinking. But the system approach can be described also in the con­text of a theory of action, in which case its specifics will be expressed and defined differently. Thus, here too we must take the multiplicity of concep­tion into account.

Having established this, we can make the next step by trying to gather and represent the special properties and principles of the methodological approach formulated above. In other words, we must now sketch the scheme of systemic-structural methodological work, keeping in mind the principles formu­lated above.

2. So far we have established that methodological work is directed at activities: practical engineering, planning, research, management, etc., and the organization of these activities. This work has content and is realized in the context of separate disciplines – scientific, engineering, management, etc. Thus, in the scheme, the blocks representing disciplines, growing out of different sorts of practice are encompassed by particular systemic-structural methodological lines of development (cf. Figure 1).  Naturally,  however,   

metho­dological work cannot be thus limited. Namely, the particular systemic-methodological developments, whether in physics, in biology, in management science, or in psychology, cannot generate a general notion of a system and cannot lead to the creation of general methods of systemic work equally ac­ceptable to all disciplines. Hence levels of methodological work are required that provide general notions for particular methodological developments, such as general ontological images and the logic of systemic thinking. In this way, we obtain four levels of activities, each built upon the preceding, as it were and assimilating it: (1) the level of practice (including engineering-construction, organization, management, planning, pedagogy, etc.; (2) the level of scientific, engineering, organizational, planning, etc., disciplines; (3) the level of particular methodological development; and (4) the level of general methodology.

Now we must make the next step and answer the question how the construc­tion of a general systemic-structural methodology can be imagined.

We have already emphasized that the products of methodological develop­ment must be not so much findings (especially scientific ones) as methodologi­cal prescriptions, programmes, normative standards, etc., to be used on the engineering levels of thinking and activity – in   particular, methodological developments in different sorts of disciplines and in practice. For this reason, the first and principal part of general systemic-structural methodology should be concerned not with research but with construction and planning. Schematizing this conclusion, we represented the level of general systemic construction in the «body» of general methodology over the totality of particu­lar methodological developments. (The arrows in Figure 1 issuing from this block represent the process of equipping the particular methodological and specialized developments with general tools.)

The relation of the methodological systemic-structural level to the lower levels of thinking  and  activity can be clarified by the  example of scientific content-oriented work (which today is more  thoroughly analyzed  than other forms  of content-oriented work).

It has been established in special logico-methodological investigations that every scientific discipline contains at least nine different epistemological units: (1)  problems; (2) tasks; (3) experiential facts; (4)  experimental facts; (5) the body of general knowledge constructed in the discipline; (6) ontological  schemes; (7) models; (8) tools (languages, notions, categories); (9) methods and methodics (cf. Figure 2).

Having this list, we can pose the question as to which of these organized entities are formulated and created directly in the scientific disciplines and which are borrowed from methodology and formulated under its influence. Historico-scientific analysis gives a perfectly clear answer: at least four elements of any scientific discipline, namely, ontological schemes and images, tools, and methods, and also problems were always worked out either entirely outside the limits of scientific disciplines (in philosophy and in seminal structures of natural scientific methodology) or else formally within the framework of science but actually in systems of philosophic and methodological thought captured by it.

However, in order that the blocks of construction and planning work properly, at least two special   kinds of knowledge are required. The first kind involves different kinds of information about the object   created by the constructive-methodological and planning-methodological mental activity. This is an indispensable requirement for any productive work, for which there are no prototypes. Since the   methodological construction and planning block introduces organization into scientific, engineering, and   managerial subject matter, and these organizational factors then function in ways determined by these subject matters, it follows that the functions of these organizing factors and their requirements with   regard to their methodology must be known. The second group of special findings concerns the conceptual tools of methodological construction and planning itself.

These two types of knowledge must be incorporated into the «body» of methodological construction and planning, and they must be utilized as tools. Clearly, however, they must first be somehow acquired.

We have already pointed out emphatically that methodological work cannot be simply reduced to construction and planning. It continues construction and planning with research. Methodological research is a special sort of research. Since its objects are not physical, chemical, or biological phenomena but rather scientific disciplines, that is, knowledge of specific sciences togeth­er with the objects of this knowledge and the activity that generates and utilizes this knowledge, we must speak of research that differs from natural science in the first instance in the specifics of its object. But the speci­fics of the object studies implies the specifics of tools and research methods. Therefore, in just this way, we can and ought to speak here of speci­fic techniques of methodological investigations.

In order to relate these assertions to discussions now going on within the system movement, we recall the theses advanced by G. Klir and V.N. Sadovsky: general system theory is a methodology rather than a theory. What general theory so conceived deals with should be described as follows: con­cepts, languages, methods, and problems of other sciences.

Leaving aside the question of whether it is justifiable to use the term «Metatheory» in this context and confining ourselves to the substance of the matter, we can say that the , main issue has been grasped. Although general system theory is not natural science research, it is nevertheless research and being research, it is sharply differentiated from traditional natural science research.

In our opinion, G. Klir and V.N. Sadovsky have in mind precisely methodo­logical research. This reason falls entirely into the system of methodologi­cal work as a whole, but it by no means represents all of it, not even methodological analysis, since there are other forms of analysis of which we will speak below. What is called methodological research is defined first by its orientation toward scientific, engineering, managerial, etc., disciplines, second by its function in serving methodological constructive and planning work. Taking into account the reflexive origin of research, we must represent it as a block encompassing everything that is an object of investigation (cf. Figure 1).

In addition, at least one more level must enter the composition of systemic-structural methodology. Its function is that of recognizing and sys­tematizing its own organization of methodological work in the sphere of sys­tems. This block, therefore, organizes the systemic-structural methodology as a whole, integrating systemic-structural building and planning with all find­ings and investigations that serve it. We can then label this level «Meta-methodology» or, more precisely, «systemic autoreflexion of methodology». This level connects systemic-structural methodology with wider systems encompassing it, with the philosophy of dialectical materialism and with the entire culture of humanity accumulated in the course of historical development. Essentially, this is the level of methodological reflexion and thought proper, encompassing all the components of methodological work and creating the specifics of meth­odological organization of thought and activity. We cannot, at this time, characterize it in terms of language, notions, or procedures specific to methodology, but we have, in a way, already grasped and expressed it in terms of connections between the objects of methodological reflexion and methodolo­gical thinking. The further task will be that of formulating tools and methods of methodological thinking as commensurate organizations of its sphere or the scope of its objects.

In this way, the sense of our scheme can be summarized in a single asser­tion. If we want to consider and characterize the structure and organiza­tional forms of the methodology of systemic-structural research, we must start not with a scheme of a scientific discipline and its basic functional units, namely, the scheme represented in Figure 2 but rather with a different scheme of mental activity, namely, that represented’ in Figure 1, and we must regard methodology as a super-disciplinary structure, encompassing both the disci­plines and the functional activities of various kinds, presupposing not a single relation to these but a host of different relations, residing not only in research but  also  in  construction,  planning,  reflexion,  organization,  etc.

Thus, systemic-structural methodology turns out to be not simply a complex structure or a complex system but rather a heterogeneous and heteroarchical system, presenting both a stepwise hierarchical and a «Chinese box-like» structure.

The basic «substance» (if we may use this term) of this system is shaped by methodological reflexion, which encompasses diverse practical activities and serves them or  independent disciplines, say geotechnology, geology, electrical engineering, theory of electricity, psychology, engineering psychology, etc. In these practices and disciplines, methodological reflexion identifies sistemic problems of various sorts, then (in concordance with different ideational relations) it assumes different types of systemic-structural thinking: programming, planning, constructing, investigating, organizational, etc. All these different types of methodological thinking are identified, formalized, and organized within reflection, on the basis of its own substance and of the substance of the practices and disciplines incorporated by it. Besides, all these organized components of methodological thinking are also organized into definite cooperating structures, corresponding to the paths, along which their products circulate in the realm of methodology.  Methodological programming delivers to all other sectors of methodology programmes of reflective and productive work,  methodological planning, the planning of practical activity, and of various disciplines, methodological construction-systemic-structural ontologies, tools of systemic-structural analysis, i.e., synthetic graphics, notions describing the uses of this graphics in mental work,  basic categories, procedures, and methods of systemic thinking,  etc.,  etc.,  while methodological research creates knowledge of systemic-structural aspects of practical work in disciplines.

To understand this whole organization correctly, it is very important to keep in mind that systemic-structural methodological research is directed not at systemic objects but at systemic-structural mental activity. It describes its processes, mechanisms and structure. For this reason, besides «system-lets» working in different particular disciplines, using data obtained in practice,  there must also be  «pure systemists» or «systemists-methodologists», who realize systemic-structural methodological programming,  planning,  and research and in the process create and investigate what  we  call «general  structures» and  «general systems.»

Generalizing this aspect, already related to the distinction between po­sitions and types of work within methodology, we can now say that in the framework of systemic-structural methodology there exist, necessarily, many different types of methods of thinking and of mental work and, accordingly, many different positions and, one could say, even specializations. These are: (1) organization of systemic practices of various kinds, (2) working out systemic problems in the framework of particular disciplines of science, engi­neering, management, etc., (3) systemic-structural programming of research and development, (4) systemic structural planning, (5) systemic-structural con­struction, (6) methodological systemic-structural research, describing system­ic developments within the framework of scientific engineering and management disciplines and practices, and, finally (7) methodological autoreflexion of the entire  sphere of  systemic-structural development as a whole.

If we want to bring into our «shop» of systemic-structural methodology, we must take into account on the one hand the fundamental distinction among all these types of activity and on the other their organic relatedness in the framework of systemic-structural methodology. If any of these spheres is eliminated, then in the end systemic-structural investigations in all the above named fields will be undermined and arrested.

The organization of methodological work and the problem of building the systemic approach

1. Everything said so far and schematically represented in Figure 1 is a certain plan of organizing methodological thinking and work in the sphere of systems. In the same connection, the question arises what relation all this has to the system approach, that same system approach that is supposed to give us concrete systemic categories, systemic methods of analysis, and systemic notions for different spheres of practical activity and of scientific research. In this question, there is an implicit doubt that what has been said has a direct relation to the matter, that is, doubt that it defines the specifics of the system approach. Are these not just general schemes for organizing methodological work? It does not seem as if they are directly related to the peculiarities of system-structural notions, which, in the last analysis, evidently determine the system approach itself. The principal objection will be formulated in some such manner.

From the  point  of  view of  traditional  naturalistic-notions,  it  is  surely legitimate  to  do  so. This is so, however, from this very naturalistic point of view, based on the assumption that the system approach is already known. From the point of view of methodological and action-oriented notions, unfold­ing from the assumptions that we do not now have adequate and effective systemic-structural notions, that these must yet be worked out, and that in just this, among many other things, is the task of the system movement, the matter looks different.

But if these last assertions are credible, we have only two strategies at our disposal: (1) to get down to business directly and to begin to construct systemic-structural notions without having any idea how to do it, nor what to expect as a result; or (2) to design an orientation or an «action machinery» which in the course of its functioning would begin to transform today’s em­bryos of systematic-structural notions into an orderly and consistent system of systemic views and development. There is no third strategy although there is always a path (in fact, the most widely used) of re-stating, and re-­formulating notions already on hand, notions advanced by others. This path, however, has not made a genuine input into our culture.

And so, there are two possible strategies of productive work. The first does not suit us for purely professional reasons (although we understand that without it any work, including the most refined methodological constructions would be stymied.) Therefore, while we by no means deny   the significance of the first strategy, we ourselves opt for the second in organizing our work. Our task is to create a special «thinking machinery» that would produce sistemic-structural conceptions.  And this, in our opinion is the essence of the methodological approach to the development of systemic-structural methodology.

Such a decision may seem senseless from a naturalistic outlook. Methodologists are constantly being asked whether they have such schemes or plans of these systemic-structural   notions that their «machinery» is supposed to create? If one does not know these products, how is it possible to construct the «machine». Essentially, the following task is presented: give us sistemic-structural notions, and we will construct the corresponding «machine». To this we reply: If we already had systemic-structural notions, we would not need to create this «machine». The point is that we still do not have these representations (notions) and, moreover, we do not even   know what they should be like. In order to escape from this situation, a hopeless one for a «naturalist», we create a «methodological machine» that will produce the sistemic-structural   representations we need. That they will be indeed sistemic-structural is assured by the circumstances that the machine will be oriented toward systemic problems and will re-work materials in the systemic sphere. That they will indeed be methodological is assured by the methodological construction of the machine itself.

To be sure, the following problem still arises (answers to which may widely diverge): Toward what sort of material in the systemic sphere should the «methodological   machine» be oriented? In our opinion, the answer has already been given in our proposed scheme. If someone thinks that methodological thinking, like scientific thinking, is directed toward natural objects, he will naturally regard systematically represented natural objects as material of this sort. Whoever thinks that methodological thinking is directed at scientific disciplines and knowledge will regard systemic bodies of knowledge and problems as the basic content of the system approach; while whoever regards procedures and methods of research and planning activity as the object of methodological analysis will naturally advance their systemic analogues to the forefront. For us all these variants are equally acceptable. They will all be included in the proposed scheme. This is, evidently, the main issue.

The important advantage of this sort of organization of systemic-structural research and development lies in the circumstance that this type of organization does not reject any of the existing variants of content-oriented and methodological work, accepts them all, and indicates the role and. the necessity of each. Besides, it takes them as  connected and  related to each other, and in their being part of a whole and,  in their dependence on the whole and on this   basis, deepens and develops each of  these kinds of work still  further.

Moreover (and this is exceedingly important for understanding the essence of the matter), this scheme establishes special relationships between the structure of the «methodological machine» and the content grasped by it. The nature of the «machine» is determined by both: the content included in it in­fluences the nature and quality of its product to the same extent as the structure itself. Moreover, the material of the «machine» itself exerts a pressure on the structure of the «machine», being constantly transformed into this structure.

As long as we have raised the question why the proposed plan of or­ganizing systemic-structural methodology and all the representations connected with It usually seem strange and evoke many objections, we must point, In the first instance, to the answer to the question concerning the relationship be­tween the construction of the «machine» and the content grasped by it. In our proposed plan of systemic-structural methodology, the construction of the machine is aimed not only at the processing of the material grasped by it but also at imitating and reproducing the morphology of this material. (Essen­tially, this principle is a further generalization of the principle of the content of logical forms at the basis of content-genetic logic.) Concretely, this relation is realized in the «methodological machine» by methodological reflexion and by the block of methodological investigations of systemic work in all forms of human activity.

2. Finally, there is still another basis for objections usually advanced against our proposed scheme. It is connected to a conception (an erroneous one, in our opinion) of the history and mechanisms of development of human activity. Frequently, the question is posed how the expectation can be justi­fied that our proposed scheme of methodological work will solve just that com­plex of problems that have presently arisen in the various fields of science and practice and are usually characterized as systemic-structural problems. But the essence of our point of view is that the whole system described above is organized not for the purpose of solving today’s problems called «systemic-structural» (although it should be able to solve or, more frequently, to re­move these problems). The system of methodological work is created in order to develop the entire cogitation and activity of humanity. The direct stimu­lus for creating this system is generated by present day problems, but if we limited ourselves to these, the work would be in many ways vacuous or, at any rate, not very effective. Therefore the actual goal of systemic-structural methodology ought to be not that of overcoming some group of special problems but rather that of securing a continual and continuous systematic development of activity. Naturally problems will be singled out and fixated during this process. But it would be a mistake to think that tensions and breaks in ac­tivity (or problems) uniquely determine the directions and methods of solving them, in other words, passing from problems to tasks. Nothing of the sort. In abstract possibility, every problem has an infinite number of solutions, and in practice a sufficiently large number of substantially different ones. If we combine problems and seek a single solution for each such group, then it is, of course, more difficult to find a practical solution in each case than for each separate problem. But here, too, there may be several different solutions. In this way, a tension, a break, or a problem in the thinking pro­cess does not yet determine a unique task. In many ways, the task is deter­mined by the means utilized, and these means are always results of our «cor­ruption», of our individual input to history. Specifically, they determine how and by means of what constructs this or that set of difficulties, breaks, or problems will be overcome and removed.

All this relates fully to the system movement. One ought not to ask whether the proposed organization of systemic-structural methodology will give us the necessary systemic-structural representations, since no one can say in advance what sort of representations we need. There is a distinctive set of tensions, difficulties, and problems in the activity that we can systemic-structural. But this is only a pretext for creating a system approach and a systemic-structural methodology. When this methodology is created, then it is just the tools of analysis and the representation produced by it that will be systemic structural in the precise sense of the word.

In this way, the critique is based on the presupposition that the speci­fics of systemic-structural concepts and of the system approach can be pre­sented irrespective of the means we use for creating them. We, however, assert the contrary, namely, that this is unthinkable, that the nature of systemic-structural representations and of the system approach as a whole will be determined in the final instance by the means we use. Accordingly, we pro­pose to regard those representations as systemic-structural, that will be pro­duced by our «machine» of systemic-structural methodology.

Such an approach issues directly from  the  above-mentioned  characteristics of the  system movement:      an orientation toward  systemic working out exists, but what  is  a  «system» or  «systemic»  is  not  known.      At  any  rate,  representa­tives of  various  groups  in  the  system movement  understand  all  these   things  in different ways. The distinctions are generated by differences between means and value orientations.      For this reason, we must first make an inventory of all these means and orientations and define them. On our part, we advance the concept of methodological organization of systemic work. For us, therefore, it is quite natural to think that genuinely systemic-structural representations will be those that this organization will create; just as it is natural for the representatives of other groups to think that genuine systemic-structural concepts will be created according to the models they propose.

We do not by any means regard the course we have charted as the only one. We only regard it as the broadest and the most efficient from the point of view of assuming a continuous development of mental activity. Each gap in a historical situation must be filled by some sort of construction, but, as we understand it, there is not nor can be any demand for a unique construction. We can proceed from such a situation in different directions, so to say, but where it is most reasonable to go is determined not by the situation but by the projected trajectories of our further movement. Our programme is the creation of a new form of thinking, which we call methodological, one of the new forms of organizing mental activity that like «machines» will produce new systemic-structural representations. And if we are asked whether this thinking and these forms or organizing mental activity will correspond to old situations (which we abandon), old problems and representations sketched in those situations, we reply that of course they will not. What is the sense of creating new forms of thinking and new «machines» of activity, if they lead to old systems and problems?

3. In this way, we have again approached (but with other notions) the decisive issue of contemporary discussion. The development of the system approach does not and cannot have, in our opinion, an autonomous meaning. The system approach will be created and will be effective in today’s socio-cultural milieu only if it is included in a more general and broader task of creating and developing tools of methodological thinking and methodological work. This path, that we tried to indicate, corresponds to conditions favouring the birth of a system approach and traditions of its development. The converse is also valid: the system approach, it seems to us, is one of the most important aspects of contemporary methodological thinking and meth­odological work. Methodology cannot exist without it. Therefore the most important socio-cultural task at this time is that of combining the system approach with the methodological approach in its different variants, e.g., pragmatic, normative, typological; and conversely: that of enriching and developing the methodological approach in all its variants by specific means of the system approach. And this two-sided task can be accomplished, in our opinion, with the aid of the methodological organization of thinking activity and within its framework.


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* Translation by Anatol Rapoport of Printsipy I obshchaia skhema metologicheskoi organizacii sistemno-strukturnykh  issledovanii  i   razrabotok in  Sistemnyie Issledovania, 1981: 193-227.