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.



"The set of functional properties of the response produced by a stimulus" (after R.L. ACKOFF and F.E. EMERY, 1972, p.170).

These authors emphasize that "… a sign may have different meanings for different individuals, or different meanings for the same individual at different times" (Ibid)

Quoting C. CHERRY, they add: "A meaning is not a label tied around the neck of a spoken word or phrase. It is more like the beauty of a complexion, which lies altogether 'in the eyes of the beholder' (but changes with the light!)" (p.171).

J.Z. YOUNG expresses a similar opinion: "A sign has meaning when a group of people has adopted a particular program for using it. Hence the meaning of a word is defined by the rules for its use and the circumstances under which it can be verified" (1974, p.295). In short, meanings are, by necessity, accepted meanings (G. WEINBERG, 1975, p.56).

Meaning is a many-sided concern. Different views may be more complementary than opposed.

For K. SAYRE, meanings "… are neural patterns removed from exclusive control by external objects, and brought under the control of verbal signals" (1976, p.210).

While it remains to be better understood how verbal signals systems become organized by individual brains (autogenesis of language), this is a bridge between so-called "objective" and "subjective" concepts of meaning. From another viewpoint, languages become useful only when they are usable betweeen individuals who have a similar control of verbal signals. There are thus at least two enmeshed levels in this process: the individual one and the collective one. However similar control is transmitted from generation to generation by training and teaching.

In E. SCHWARZ words, meaning is hetero-referential, emerging from interrelations (1992, p.757). It must be acquired by learning, adaptation and accomodation in individual minds, through a very complex cerebral process, still poorly understood. Signals carry meaning only for pre-structured minds, but minds become pre-structured by previous interpretation and absorption of formerly non-significant signals. Such a process would be impossible outside of complex social and cultural settings. We receive our interpretations from people who already possess them and, to acquire these significances, we must accept them. Only later on, may we in some cases revise and correct them.

We use these interpretations, acquired by learning, to observe the world around us, which implies that they constitute a frame of constraints, i.e. a frame of reference: Shortly, there is a socio-cultural matrix of accepted meanings.

Of course, as stated by D. Mac KAY: "Questions of meaning need not arise until we bring in the human links in the chain…

"The original speaker, we suppose, means something by what he says. His utterance has meaning, at least for him. Yet, in the next stages of the chain… (the generation of sound wawes and all the rest of it) all signs of his meaning seem to have disappeared… Yet, finally, when the message reaches the ear of a human listener, its "meaning" seems to pop up again from nowhere." (Mac KAY, 1969, p.20).

Such a process evokes awkward questions and still more so that the meaning does still not reappear into the ear, as the input must be processed by the brain in ways up to now poorly understood.

Another curious aspect is that, without an appropiate receiver, any meaning is lost. In Mac KAY words: "Meaning is always meaning to someone" (1969, p.36).

When the message reaches a receiver apt to give it a meaning, this acts like a selective function and may trigger a specific behavior.

As observed by P.Y. RACCAH, meaning can be considered as a set of instructions to the receiver, or imply constraints needed in order to make some sense out of the message transmitted (1993, p.1247).


  • 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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