International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

2nd Edition, as published by Charles François 2004 Presented by the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science Vienna for public access.


The International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics was first edited and published by the system scientist Charles François in 1997. The online version that is provided here was based on the 2nd edition in 2004. It was uploaded and gifted to the center by ASC president Michael Lissack in 2019; the BCSSS purchased the rights for the re-publication of this volume in 200?. In 2018, the original editor expressed his wish to pass on the stewardship over the maintenance and further development of the encyclopedia to the Bertalanffy Center. In the future, the BCSSS seeks to further develop the encyclopedia by open collaboration within the systems sciences. Until the center has found and been able to implement an adequate technical solution for this, the static website is made accessible for the benefit of public scholarship and education.



A relation between phenomena which is conserved in a bijective way even if the phenomena themselves change during the process.

This concept has been discussed by J.A. GOGUEN and F. VARELA who state "A distinction splits the world into two parts, "That" and "This", or "environment" or "system", or "us" and "them", etc. One of the most fundamental of all human activities is the making of distinctions. Certainly, it is the most fundamental act of systems theory, the very act of defining the system presently of interest, of distinguishing it from its environment. Distinctions coexist with purposes".(1967, p.32) The corresponding logical model is based on SPENCER BROWN's distinction algebra (1969)

It is also useful in order to differentiate causal and stochastic processes, as well as reversible (retrodictable) or irreversible (and more or less predictable) ones.

HEYLIGHEN states: "To be meaningful, a distinction must have a minimal stability or invariance (i.e. during (certain) dynamical evolutions it must either remain constant or be mapped on another distinction)" (1989, p.382)

"A distinction is constructed by the observer in interaction with the system. As such, a distinction is always to a certain degree subjective, depending on the goal the observer has in mind while modeling the system, but is not arbitrary, because not all distinctions will allow the observer to find coherence between the different observations performed on the system. Since all phenomena in the universe are by definition different, the number of potential distinctions is infinite. A representation of (part of) the universe is necessarily finite, and, hence, the number of distinctions an observer will make will be infinitely smaller than the total number of distinctions he or she could make" (1990a, p.427)

The preceeding comment is specially significant for human sciences.

In effect, any psychological or social distinction- much more than distinctions in hard sciences- is always made "in situ", i.e. in some specific observing way allowed to the observer by his/her culture (D. BAECKER, on LUHMANN's "Sociological enlightment" , 1996, p. 5).

It is thus very important to try to solve what BAECKER calls the "problem of latency", i.e. find ways to discover (distinguish!) "the manifest from the latent and thus "double" the world in two versions, a visible one and a hidden one"(Ibid, p. 8)

According to G. SPENCER BROWN (1979) ".. a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary which separates sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary"

For a critical study of SPENCER BROWN's concept, see R. GLANVILLE "Beyond the boundaries" in ERICSON, R. (Ed), 1979

E. SCHWARZ made however the following and quite disquieting-comment: "Distinction… - which is a necessary prerequisite to making pertinent scientific models of the world, has led to the radical separation of the objects (and of the forces) found in the mechanistic approach; the exageration of the separability of the mechanistic approach; the exaggeration of the separability of things prevents us to be aware of the dense network of relations between the events of the sensible world. Many of the contemporary concrete problems of our technological society (ecological, economical, social, etc) are due to the neglect of the web of interconnections between the phenomena".

He adds: "It seems to us that the thought of David BOHM is a crucial step toward a reconciliation between the necessity to make distinctions in order to recognize the configurations of the world around us, and the need to be conscious that we are a non-separable part of the world"(1999, p. 138-139)

Separability; Wholeness


  • 1) General information
  • 2) Methodology or model
  • 3) Epistemology, ontology and semantics
  • 4) Human sciences
  • 5) Discipline oriented


Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science(2020).

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Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]

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