Whole Systems Glossary

Last update: 8 February 95

This list is being constructed. If you have good definitions that are pertinent to whole systems, please send them to ffunch@netcom.com

a generalized, condensed, or simplified concept derived from a more complex situation. A part representation of some whole.

1. the zone of the earth, extending from its crust out into the surrounding atmosphere, which contains living organisms. 2. all the living organisms of the earth.

An economic engine built on ideas.

Necessary co-existence, inseparable pairs. The universe is inherently complementary, such as in concave-convex, positive-negative, male-female. "Unity is inherently plural". (Buckminster Fuller)

We can say there are two kinds of complexity. Detail Complexity is when there are many variables. Dynamic Complexity is situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious.

1. dealing with all or many of the relevant details; including much; inclusive. 2. able to comprehend fully.

deriving from the Greek word for steersman (kybernetes), was first introduced by the mathematician Wiener, as the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine (to which we now might add: in society and in individual human beings). It grew out of Shannon's information theory, which was designed to optimize the transfer of information through communication channels (e.g. telephone lines), and the feedback concept used in engineering control systems. (Principia Cybernetica)

Deliberate ordering of components.

A rigorous, systematic study of the deliberate ordering of components in our Universe.

A trademark word coined by Buckminster Fuller and used about various of his inventions, meaning essentially "doing more with less".

the study of the relations between living organisms and their environment.

the science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth, and with the various related problems of labor, finance, taxation, etc. (Webster's New World)

a system of producing, distributing, and consuming wealth. (Webster's New World)

Dividing verbally what cannot be divided nonverbally. For example, speaking of body and mind, or emotions and intellect, as separate and distinct entities.

[L. prp. of esse, to be] 1. a) being; existence b) the essence of something apart from its accidental properties. 2. a thing that has definite, individual existence in reality or in the mind; anything real in itself. (Webster's New World Dictionary)

A tendency towards disorder within a closed system, as potential energy gets "spent".

"The physical Universe's macrocosmic proclivities of becoming locally ever more dissynchronous, asymmetric, diffuse, and multiplyingly expansive". (Buckminster Fuller)


"Any reciprocal flow of influence. In systems thinking it is an axiom that every influence is both cause and effect. Nothing is ever influenced in just one direction." (Fifth Discipline)

The study of the relationships among language, thought, and behavior. A subject founded by Alfred Korzybsky in the 1930s.


a hierarchically organized, self-regulating, open system of 'holons'. A system of parts forming a dynamic whole. Coined by Arthur Koestler. Bigger wholes are divided into smaller parts that are again wholes to the parts below them. For example, you can divide organisms into organs into tissues into cells into molecules.

a whole that is also a part. Coined by Arthur Koestler from the Greek 'holos' meaning whole, and 'on' meaning entity, as in proton or neutron; hence a holon is a whole to those parts beneath it in a hierarchy but a part to those wholes above it.

a term descriptive of holistic knowing, i.e. knowing that is simultaneously intuitive and rational, scientific and artistic. Thus, holonomics describes the order of reality as well as the way we come to know and express that order. (Jose Arguelles)

the study or investigation of laws and principles of whole systems. A unifying science accounting for not only the interrelationships between fields in the phenomenal world, but for the interaction of man with this world - man with all of his cumulative history, thought, and forms of expression inseparable from the planet upon which he finds himself. (Jose Arguelles)

derived from holo-, "whole", and "-nomy", "law or principle governing or pertaining to", holonomy refers to the law or principle governing whole systems, while holonomics describes the study or investigation of this law or principle. As a descriptive term, holonomy ultimately refers to the universe entire as a dynamic interwoven web, transcending partial or analytical definition. (Jose Arguelles)

Thinking and evaluating situations and issues in terms of degrees and probabilities. In any situation there are multiple factors of concern and multiple perspectives. Infinity-valued logic would involve ascertaining degree or probabilities of usefulness of different parts as related to the desired objective and adding them up into an overall evaluation. (general semantics)

In general semantics, a condition whereby a term may exist on different levels of abstraction, for example, in "hate of hate" and "hate of a person", "hate" is used at different levels of abstraction.



Characteristic of systems that avoid identifications, that see parts in relation to wholes, and that deal with gradual scales of probabilities rather than with fixed categorizations. (general semantics)

Avoiding sharp divisions between what different things ARE. Addressing the whole, rather than artificial parts. Not dividing verbally what cannot be divided nonverbally. (general semantics)

Taking all data without question, like as the word of God, to be accepted without evaluation.

"A paradigm is a set of rules and regulations (written or unwritten) that does two things: 1) it establishes or defines boundaries; and 2) it tells you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful". (Joel Arthur Barker)

"A shared set of assumptions. The paradigm is the way we perceive the world; water to the fish. The paradigm explains the world to us and helps us to predict its behavior. When we are in the middle of the paradigm, it is hard to imagine any other paradigm" (Adam Smith).

"A paradigm is a framework of thought ... a scheme for understanding and explaining certain aspects of reality". (Marilyn Ferguson) From the Greek paradeigma, which means 'model, pattern, example".

Refers to two geometical systems which, oriented perpendicularly to each other, reveal a new system or geometric relationship.


In any system, the part that has the greatest range of freedom controls the system.

A response based on the consciously or mostly the sub-consciously perceived meaning of an event, rather than based on the event itself.

A self-stabilizing energy-event complex. (Fuller)


"behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system's separate parts or any subassembly of the system's parts." (Buckminster Fuller)

A tendency towards order and symmetrical combinations, designs of ever more advantageous and orderly patterns. Evolutionary cooperation. Anti-entropy. (ref: Buckminster Fuller)

An organized collection of interrelated elements that performs one or more functions. (The Communication Handbook)

"A system divides all of the Universe into a) all of the Universe outside the system, b) all of the universe inside the system, and c) the little bit of remaining Universe which comprises the system that separates the macrocosm from the microcosm". (Buckminster Fuller)

"The key interrelationships that influence behavior over time. These are not interrelationships between people, but among key variables, such as population, natural resources, and food production in a developing country; or engineers' product ideas and technical and managerial know-how in a high-tech company." (Fifth Discipline)

Systems theory or systems science argues that however complex or diverse the world that we experience, we will always find different types of organization in it, and such organization can be described by principles which are independent from the specific domain at which we are looking. Hence, if we would uncover those general laws, we would be able to analyze and solve problems in any domain, pertaining to any type of system. (Principia Cybernetica)


An expansion of two-valued logic. Everything is either Right, Wrong, or Undecided. Either Yes, No, or Maybe. Signifies a lack of ability to ascertain degrees and probabilities.


Black and white, polarized thinking. Evaluating events or issues in terms of two values, being right or wrong, good or bad. No degrees, no varying probabilities, no different viewpoints, simply Yes or No.

"An omni-interaccommodative, nonsimultaneous, and only partially overlapping, omni-intertransforming, self-regenerating scenario." (Buckminster Fuller) The aggregate of all experience. The role of the observers, or humanity, is an essential component of the definition, for awareness is a prerequisite to defining and understanding. Experience consists of dynamic, regenerative patterns of energy. (paraphrased from Fuller)


Represents an energy event, consists of magnitude and direction, represented on paper by an arrow with specific length and angular orientation. Vectors also represent relationships between energy events.

Organized capacity of society to apply generalized principles toward present and future life support. (Buckminster Fuller)