Conceptual Foundations for Multidisciplinary Thinking

By Stephen Jay Kline | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Systems, Domains, and Truth Assertions

The system concept forms the basis for the first overview of how the disciplines of knowledge are formed and how they relate to each other. As we will see, the system concept has many uses and is closely related to the ideas of domains and truth assertions.

The system concept is the single concept that most sharply differentiates ancient from post-Newtonian modes of science. The concept (sometimes with different names, such as the client, the control volume, the free body diagram, the market, the culture, and so forth) is utilized in setting up the basis for essentially every branch of science. In some, but not all, fields of science, the system concept is used explicitly at the beginning of every problem analysis. The system concept provides a window through which the non-technical person can understand both the power and the limitations of what we call science. The technical worker in science and engineering needs to understand the limits of the system concept in order to understand how her or his discipline connects to the larger ideas and problems of the world.

Let us begin to elaborate the system concept in sufficient detail so it can serve these purposes. We can start by looking at the usages given in standard dictionaries. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary ( 1946 edition) lists eighteen meanings for the word "system"; the Random House Unabridged ( 1966 edition) lists thirteen. Surprisingly, none of the meanings given in either dictionary corresponds with the way the system concept is used as a basis for science. Since it is clear from many entries in both dictionaries that the editors were well aware of the importance of science in the twentieth century, this extraordinary omission highlights what C. P. Snow some decades ago dubbed "the Culture Gap." Snow ( 1969) discussed the difficulties scientists and literati have in communicating

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