ee. Systems Theory from a Cognitive and Physicalist Perspective

Systems Theory from a Cognitive and Physicalist Perspective

In June, 2022, I commented in my final post on causality and systems theory that General Systems Theory was not as well developed as I had hoped. So, more work was required before I could make further posts on the topic.

That work is now complete. However, the resulting article is too long for a single blog post and cannot be broken down into a series. So, I have produced it in pdf form and it can be downloaded here.

It updates my earlier articles and pdfs “Joining Up the Dots”, “How we Understand a Complex Universe”, “The Importance of Information” and “What is Information at Source”. So, these have been deleted from the website.

A brief description of the article follows.

The cognitive perspective holds that we are our minds and cannot escape the constraints imposed by their biology and evolutionary history. Nevertheless, human cognition is a reasonably accurate representation of reality. Physicalism holds that space-time comprises the whole of reality and that everything, including abstract concepts and information, exists within it.

From this perspective, I describe some of the main concepts in systems theory. They include: the importance of structure in forming meaningful systems; the nature of relationships, causality, and physical laws; and the significance of recursion, hierarchy, holism, and emergence. I also discuss cognitive factors including: our mental limitations; the nature of information and language; and our search for knowledge in a world of complexity and apparent disorder.

The article concludes with the implications of this perspective for General System Theory and Social Systems Theory and suggests further work to advance these disciplines.

The article has been written up in the style of an academic paper because I will submit it to relevant journals in the near future. However, I have used plain English and explain my ideas in a step by step manner. There are also many diagrams which help to illustrate them.

I hope that you find the article interesting and enlightening.

j. Knowledge, Language and Organisational Culture

Knowledge, Language and Organisational Culture

Organisations, in the general sense, include individuals, clubs, nations, and what are referred to in anthropology as “cultures”.

We gain knowledge from both the natural and social environment. However, mistakes are possible, all organisations are capable of concealing information from others, and of supplying misinformation to them.

Culture comprises norms, values, knowledge or beliefs, and symbols. Thus, knowledge is part of an organisation’s culture. It is held in schemata which include not only an understanding of the environment and an operating schema, but also a schema for worldview or purpose, a social systems schema, an internal ethical schema, an external ethical schema, a self-image, and so on.

The American anthropologist, Roland B Dixon, in his 1928 book, “The Building of Cultures”, explained that the natural environment has greatest influence on formation of culture. The main factors are topography, climate, and the availability of raw materials and other resources, all of which vary from time to time and from place to place. Thus, our knowledge of these factors varies in the same way, and so too does the culture of which it is a part. Religion has a significant but lesser effect, and it too may be influenced by the natural environment.

This anthropological explanation is relevant for “cultures”, i.e., tribes and nations whose main external interactions are with their natural environment. For organisations and individuals within a “culture”, the environment must also include society.

There are two important points to note about knowledge and its influence on culture. Firstly, as knowledge of society is gained, this can alter both culture and social theory. Secondly, progress is not inevitable, shocks can occur, and knowledge can be lost. For example, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. Such losses can cause an organisation or society to revert to a culture and behaviours similar to those of earlier years.

Culture, in turn, is a part of what in a very general sense can be called “the mind” of an organisation. An individual’s mind is his brain. In larger organisations, it is the brains of its members linked via language. In both cases, however, the mind comprises schemata which, as Bartlett explained, are resistant to change. Existing knowledge effects the ability of both individuals and organisations to correctly absorb new knowledge. It also effects the relative priorities of their needs, what they regard as satisfiers, their motivators, their attitudes towards social interactions, and whether they behave in a co-operative, positively competitive, or negatively competitive manner.

Language and the individual mind are very closely interrelated. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, Wales, UK, in his article at, explains that recent research has shown that language is processed everywhere in the brain. There is no distinct processing centre. He suggests, therefore, that language and our co-operative minds have co-evolved. This, in turn, suggests that they are reflections of one another. Language has evolved, and may still be evolving, to link minds into a single system, albeit rather unsatisfactorily at present. This provides a control system for organisations that is equivalent to the way in which an individual’s mind controls his body.

Evans describes a “Golden Triangle” comprising mind, language, and culture (of which knowledge is a part). This concept differs from the unidirectional Saphir-Whorf hypothesis that language influences the way that we think about reality. Rather, it includes the possibility that how we think about reality also influences our language.

The behaviour of an organisation, including communication, is directed by its multi-mind and language based control system, and this behaviour affects the environment. Thus, there is a feedback process in which:

  • the environment affects knowledge,
  • knowledge affects culture,
  • culture affects the multi-mind and language based control system,
  • the multi-mind and language based control system affects organisational behaviour, and
  • organisational behaviour affects the environment.

During this process, knowledge is continually updated and sometimes lost.

Anthropology reveals other ways in which cultural change can occur. Roland B Dixon, noted that ethnic migration can also result in cultural change, i.e., the introduction of those with a different culture, into an organisation or its environment. Whilst this has an anthropological basis, it can also be applied, more generally, to organisations of all sizes and might better be described as cultural, rather than ethnic, migration.

The concepts described in this article are summarised in the diagram below.

e. Language


“No matter how abstractly formulated are a general theory of systems, a general theory of evolution and a general theory of communication, all three theoretical components are necessary for the specifically sociological theory of society. They are mutually interdependent.”
– Niklas Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society (1982), quoted in

The German sociologist and systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998), regarded social systems as systems of communication, i.e., he believed human society to be based largely on the transmission and processing of information. In this regard animals, particularly human beings, are unusual. Unlike other physical entities, except perhaps the machines we have created, information can lead to action. For example, we may reason that “there may be an accident so I will drive carefully”. In this statement, “there may be an accident” is information and “I will drive carefully” is a physical event. This does not apply to other physical entities, such as boulders, which cannot roll carefully due to information received. Evolution is undoubtedly the source of this ability, and we can see its progressive emergence as nervous systems become ever more complex. Its pertinence to people is largely a consequence of our social nature and the evolutionary advantages that this gives us.

The flow of information is what binds human beings together into society. However, the flow of goods and services also has a part to play. As might be expected from a characteristic that has evolved, there is a strong correlation with the hierarchy of needs. Satisfiers for our existence and procreation needs are largely material, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, etc. However, we do rely on information to know where and how to acquire these satisfiers. As we climb the hierarchy, material satisfiers become ever less important, and information plays an ever-increasing role. For example, although an exchange of material satisfiers has a part to play, relatedness is largely based on communication between the parties. At the top of the hierarchy, the growth of an individual is based almost entirely on knowledge or information. This is something that many religions stress.

The transmission and replication of information, an important feature of social systems, requires language. Language can take many forms: written or spoken words, icons or diagrams, the stream of bits in the internet, or even the formal language of mathematics. Language is not the sole preserve of human beings. Many animals communicate using a very basic language. For example, bees communicate by dancing, and ants communicate via scent pheromones. It is even thought that trees communicate with one another via mycelium, a thread like fungus, between their roots. What distinguishes human languages, however, are their complexity, versatility, and adaptability.

Typically, a language comprises:

  • Symbols such as words, images, sounds, etc. which represent the entities that we encounter in the world around us.
  • A grammar, i.e., the way in which these symbols are concatenated or otherwise laid out and connected. This represents the relationships between the entities.

Natural spoken language has evolved alongside our minds. This is evidenced by the fact that there is no central language processing part of the brain. Rather, language processing is distributed throughout it. Any processing centre is concerned only with motor functions, i.e., turning language into speech.

Language must be efficient, and so, resonate with the way that we think and understand the world we inhabit. Thus, it must reflect the structure of thought. Natural languages contain “universals”, therefore, i.e., features common to every language, and the most notable of these is the proposition. This comprises two entities and the relationship between them. For example, a simple natural language proposition comprises a subject (entity 1) an object (entity 2) and a verb (relationship). For example, “The apple (entity 1) is (relationship) green (entity 2)”. Here “green” is a simplification of the phrase “a green thing”. The same is true of formal languages such as mathematics. For example, 1 (entity 1) < (relationship) 2 (entity 2). Propositions are fundamental to the way that we reason. They reflect our understanding of the universe, which comprises physical things and the relationships between them.

An extreme interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that thought or mental content is constrained by natural language, i.e., that we can only think of things that can be expressed in that way. However, this is demonstrably not the case. We have the ability to form and remember visual, sound, or taste images of physical objects and events. Furthermore, we can manipulate and combine these in our imagination to create, for example, images of unicorns or mermaids. Using iconic analogues or visual representations, we can also manipulate more abstract concepts, although, due to the constraints of geometry, this can lead us astray.

The use of imagery is known as the iconic mode of representation. Natural spoken language is our symbolic mode. We use it to communicate efficiently, and translation from iconic mode is often necessary. When doing so, we often search for, or even invent, appropriate words. An example is the word “contra-satisfier”, used in these articles. It was invented by the author because no suitable word pre-existed. “Dissatisfied” and “unsatisfied” mean not satisfied, and every antonym of satisfy has its own specific colouration that disqualifies it. A contra-satisfier, on the other hand, reduces existing satisfaction or makes an unsatisfied state worse. In this way, new words are created, and a language evolves. Were the extreme interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis true, then no new words would enter a language.

All human languages are structured in a way which provides us with logical reasoning skills, although this is often obscured by the simplifications we use to express ourselves efficiently. Few of us are taught formal logic, and it is the preserve of those who study mathematics or philosophy at university level. Nevertheless, all of us can reason logically when we choose to. This skill is acquired through our use of natural language, which has evolved to represent, reasonably accurately, the world in which we live. Our native language can, therefore, affect us through our reasoning skills, and in other more subtle ways. For example, we mentally translate between imagery and language. If a translation is relatively frequent and easy, then this will reinforce the concept being translated. If it is relatively infrequent and difficult it will have the opposite effect.