Building ISSS Success--One Failure at a Time

In-Coming Presidential Address

41st Annual Meeting of the

International Society for the Systems Sciences


Seoul, Korea

G. A. Swanson


The International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) was born of the quest, the progenitive quest to reach beyond its artistic, philosophical, and scientific roots. It was born--not to reject its progenitors--but to carry their heritage always forward, procreating the future from the past. Our Society emerged as a process of the ever-present, a process of succession, of success.

The dynamic of success is failure. We succeed by failing. The unidirectionality of time ensures that events progress--succession occurs. When a succession corresponds to an intended event, it is considered a success. An unintended event, alternatively, is a failure. All events progress, including successful ones, and, consequently, successes eventually fail. "Failureful" events are rejected outrightly when an unintended event occurs. Successful events, alternatively are accepted and processed over indefinite periods. Progress, nevertheless, is made through the failure of successful events, and science advances as we push our successes to their limits--to their failures.

It is particularly the obligation of theoretical science to push successful theories to their failures. Theoretical science makes no major advance until it forces failures. Out of the failures, new advanced theories are proposed and the effort to push the new theories to their failures begins. Theoretical science learns as its theories fail. Notice that I did not say science advances as scientists fail. The failure of scientists to theorize, test, and apply theories is simply a process of failure, not success. The process of success pushes theory to its failure through testing, development, and application.

Our Society emerged in the quest of theoretical science to reach beyond disciplinal theories that fragment epistemology to a grand theory that, while fostering the investigation of the analogy, or isomorphy, of concepts, laws, and models in various disciplines, would promote the unity of science and facilitate the transfer of concepts, laws, and models across disciplines. Early on, the General Systems Theory of von Bertalanfy was believed to show the greatest promise, Over a period of two to three decades, our Society and others pushed to its failure the idea that a single grand theory and, particularly, General Systems Theory could accomplish our objectives. In the following decade, amidst great fracas, we began to self-organize to recognize the importance of general systems theories of varying degrees of abstraction, generality, and purity. Special sessions were organized in annual meetings to study proposed general theories and later applications. When such theories were successfully defended and developed, continuing Special Integration Groups (SIGs) were formed to integrate the theories among themselves and with disciplinal theories and to apply them to human problems.

The acceptance of general systems-based theories, instead of a grand General Systems Theory, made it increasingly difficult to identify a core of knowledge with which systems science might be identified. The identification of that core, of course, was considered a necessary step in establishing systems science as a viable discipline that could survive amongst the other disciplines of a university-structured knowledge complex. Failing to identify such a specific core of knowledge, we have succeeded to a nondisciplinal process of succession--a process in which no particular theory, though general it may be, has encompassed the universe we have defined for ourselves. That process of succession is the unique characteristic of our Society and is our intellectual niche.

We failed to find the core of knowledge that we sought because we sought it as specialists among specialists. Although we are drawn to our Society as generalists, our bread and butter jobs are mostly specialties. We are hybrids; and when we move outside our general theories, we often revert to our specialist ways. In our search for a systems science core, we overlooked it because of its simplicity. The core is simply that all things real and imagined may be viewed as systems (sets of related and interacting elements) and, consequently, all things may be known by their relations and interrelations with all other things. But that statement is not enough to define a specialty and so the specialist in us persists in developing a special core of general knowledge.

Our specialist compulsions are not all bad. They serve us well in testing, developing, and applying successful general theories. In fact, without them, we might be content to bask in the infinite leisure of the general and the abstract. Our specialist compulsions draw us to dirty our hands in the complex problems of humanity and to seek solutions through our simplifying general theories. Within our Society, these compulsions are expressed in the SIGs. There each general theory is tested, developed, and applied to disciplines, professions, and problems and integrated with other general theories. In the absence of a specialist-styled core of knowledge, the SIGs act as search engines within the ISSS, providing orderly paths for newcomers to find their way into the diverse but systemically integrated body of knowledge that constitutes systems science. Within SIGs, pre-embryonic systems science cores develop and cross-fertilize with those of other SIGs. I predict that out of these activities an embryonic science of the general will emerge, drawing together the less general cores of various systems sciences.
This system of synthesis is often misunderstood by those members who come and go as their particular interests are stimulated and wane. Many organizations have SIGs, but that acronym stands for special interest groups in most. We all know that special interest groups tend to fragment organizations as well as knowledge. The ISSS is not a conglomerate that grows by fragmenting into special interest groups as members specialize in limited aspects of a discipline. It is the opposite. Through special integration groups, our society synthesizes diverse disciplinal knowledge into cohesive wholes, systemically integrating that knowledge.

Curiously enough, as organizations of special interest groups grow by increasing the number of their special interest groups, the ISSS grows as we increase the number of our special integration groups. These groups form the tentacles that reach into the diverse disciplines of human investigations to build the bridges among them for the unifying of the arts and humanities as well as the sciences. Those bridges are not built from one discipline to another through informal analogy and the forced-fitting of methods and models as often occurs in grand umbrella interdisciplinary organizations. Instead, as 2,000 years ago all roads were said to lead to Rome, the interdisciplinary bridges we build all lead through systems science. And, as with the great transportation hubs of today, you can go anywhere from there. When the bridge is built between systems science and a discipline, the whole world is open to that discipline and that discipline to the whole world.

Please notice that I said all bridges are built through systems science. Science is our bent. We are a progeny of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). We were organized under the History and Philosophy of Science section of that organization. But while science is our perspective, we peculiarly reach beyond science to relate science with the arts and humanities. Each informs the others. This relationship, however, is sometimes misunderstood. Unquestionably, the ISSS is a scientific organization. We seek to advance science. We are not simply an information- processing organization. Science, nevertheless, is concerned with all of existence and our Society is particularly interested in the grand theories that should instruct science and the application of science to human problems. We must interface and interact with the arts and humanities--we must be informed by them and inform them.

This broad outlook presents us with its own set of problems. Science at the fringe is for less orderly than hard-core science. Science seeks the exact while art seeks the ambiguous. Drawing the two together in the interest of humanity requires tolerance and respect--the artist's tolerance of the scientist for the irritating detail of exactness, the scientist's tolerance of the artist for the exasperating vagueness of ambiguity, and the respect of both that the ideas they strive to communicate across this great chasm are substantive. Only in an environment of tolerance can the grain be separated from the chaff and the grand harvest of success be reaped.

We can rather easily agree with the idea of tolerance at this level of abstraction. Getting down to the "nitty-gritty" has too often proven much more difficult. By what standard do we judge ideas presented? Again, our specialist ways demand the rigor of a refereeing process and, to the extent that cores of knowledge have developed within SIGs and for specific general systems theories, that process may be applied. But new and initially developing ideas do not lend themselves to such processes. There the need for tolerance and respect sometimes demands great faith and our faith is not always rewarded. Sometimes we think as in the words of a referee in a double-blind review process in my special discipline concerning one of my early submissions, "This is shit!" But we tolerate the idea until it is shown to have or not have substance.

Our attempts to introduce specialty developed review processes that apply to all papers submitted to our annual meetings have repeatedly failed. Out of that failure, a system of pushing the review process down to the SIGs and incorporating a wide range of differing decision criteria commensurate with the SIGs' goals is evolving. There the different degrees of scientific rigor of various sciences, as well as the differing logics and ambiguities of the humanities and arts may be assessed.

Perhaps our grandest failure, and consequently our greatest success, has been in the area of systems pedagogy. Our quest for a core of knowledge may have been driven more by a desire to establish systems science programs in universities and colleges than to conceptualize viable systemic espistemologies and supporting methodologies. Today some herald the demise of several systems programs in a eulogy of our Society. The record should be set straight. The ISSS was not organized as a pedagogical association. It was born in an epistemological quest.

We all hope that our ideas will spawn methodologies that, in fact, will produce answers and identify new questions in such volume that a pedagogy to transfer that knowledge will become necessary. Pedagogical advances follow naturally epistemological and methodological advances--and, perhaps, premature pedagogical expressions are as natural. We are ever-learning and there is a compulsion to communicate to others that which we learn. It might be expected, then, that systemic pedagogies would spring up before their time to flourish for a while but ultimately fail for lack of demand for the less than matured systems of knowledge they deliver. That process of successive failures is a learning process, and, out of our many pedagogical failures, we have advanced systems pedagogy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of this year is our opportunity to provide a professional organization that understands to some degree a pedagogy for the interdisciplinal integration of knowledge. Some new standards for regional and specialty accreditation of higher education programs sound like something we would have written. Integration across disciplines is required and we know that systemic integration of knowledge works.

The time is right for a generalist approach to the advancement of systems pedagogy. We should grasp this opportunity even though the integration generally envisioned may fall short of the degree of epistemological support we seek in the full emergence of systems pedagogy.

For more than forty years, the International Society for the Systems Sciences has determinedly, if erratically, pushed its successes to their failures. Today, we are lean but well. I believe our greatest contributions to science and humanity lie just ahead.

So, in the words of a great 1960s American hit song, lets " . . . take it to the limit one more time!"

See ISSS 1998 Call for Papers