Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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System and Structure

The system and its elements. A system is an internally organised whole where elements are so intimately connected that they operate as one in relation to external conditions and other systems. An element may be defined as the minimal unit performing a definite function in the whole. Systems may be either simple or complex. A complex system is one whose elements may also be regarded as systems or subsystems.

All things, properties and relations that strike us as something independent are essentially parts of some system, which in its turn is part of an even bigger system, and so on ad infinitum. For example, the whole of world civilisation is no more than a large and extremely complex self-developing system, which comprises other systems of varying degrees of complexity.

Every system is something whole. So anything that corresponds to the demands of unity and stability—an atom, a molecule, a crystal, the solar system, the organism, society, a work of art, a theory—may be regarded as a system. Every system forms a whole, but not every whole is a system.

We usually call the parts of a system its elements. If in investigating a system we wish to identify its elements we should regard them as elementary objects in themselves. Once we have established them as something relatively indivisible in one system, elements may be regarded in their turn as systems (or subsystems), consisting of elements of a different order, and so on.

The concept of structure. The aim of scientific cognition is to discover law-governed relations between the elements forming a given system. In the process of this research we identify the structures peculiar to that system. When studying the content of an object, we enumerate its elements such as, for example, the parts of a certain organism. But we do not stop at that, we try to understand how these parts are coordinated and what is made up as a result, thus arriving at the structure of the object. Structure is the type of connection between the elements of a whole. It has its own internal dialectic. Wholeness must be composed in a certain way, its parts are always related to the whole. It is not simply a whole but a whole with internal divisions. Structure is a composite whole, or an internally organised content.

But structure is not enough to make a system. A system consists of something more than structure: it is a structure with certain properties. When a structure is understood from the standpoint of its properties, it is understood as a system. We speak of the "solar system" and not the solar structure. Structure is an extremely abstract and formal concept.

Structure implies not only the position of its elements in space but also their movement in time, their sequence and rhythm, the law of mutation of a process. So structure is actually the law or set of laws that determine a system's composition and functioning, its properties and stability.

Structure and function. The life of a structure manifests itself in its function, they condition each other. The structures of the organs of the body, for instance, are connected with their functions. Any breakdown in structure, any deformation of an organ leads to a distortion of the function. In the development of organisms changes begin with the reorganisation of an organ's function under the influence of changing conditions of life, while its structure may survive for a time without any substantial modification. However, change of activity sooner or later leads to a change in structure. Functional disturbances in organs precede their morphological distortions. The contradiction between the organism's new mode of life and its structure is resolved by a modification in the latter. All the organs and functions of a bird, for example, are adapted to an aerial mode of life. The amazingly purposeful feather structure protects the bird from cold during the rapid changes of temperature in flight. The fact that a bird can fly is observable even when it is on ground. We can see this from its streamlined body, its fine-boned structure which allows it to pass through the air with minimum expenditure of energy, and from the design of the wings. The whole structure embodies the idea of flight. But a colourful butterfly resembles a flying flower. And this too is understandable because a butterfly feeds on the nectar of a flower and its resemblance to a flower protects it from birds when it is sitting motionless on a blossom. The life of the bird is associated with air and the life of a butterfly is bound up with flowers. Their functions, their ways of life determine their structure.

To sum up, function organises structure. The methods of morphology are subordinate to the methods of physiology. The function of sight organised the eye, while labour was responsible for the structure of the hand. But being an organised function, structure in its turn determines function.

Whole and part. We call something a whole that embraces all its parts in such a way as to create a unity.

The category of part expresses the object not in itself but as something in relation to what it is a part of, to that in which it realises its potentials and prospects. For example, an organ is part of an organism taken as a whole. Consequently, the categories of whole and part express a relationship between objects in which one object, being a complex and integral whole, is a unity of other objects which form its parts. A part is subject to the influence of the whole, which is present, as it were, in all its parts. Every part feels the influence of the whole, which seems to permeate the parts and exist in them. Thus, in a tragic context even a joke becomes tragic; a free atom is distinctly different from an atom that forms part of a molecule or a crystal; a word taken out of context loses much or all of its meaning.

At the same time the parts have an influence on the whole. The organism is a whole and disfunction of one of its organs leads to disbalance of the whole. For example, against a background of rational thinking an obsessive idea may sometimes have a very substantial effect on the general condition of the individual.

The categories of whole and part are relative; they have meaning only in relation to each other. The whole exists thanks to its parts and in them. The parts, in their turn, cannot exist by themselves. No matter how small a particle we name, it is something whole and at the same time a part of another whole. The largest whole that we can conceive of is ultimately only a part of an infinitely greater whole. Everything in nature is a part of the universe.

Various systems are divided into three basic types of wholeness. The simplest type is the unorganised or summative whole, an unsystematic conglomeration of objects (a herd of cattle, for example). This category also includes a mechanical grouping of heterogeneous things, for example, rock consisting of pebbles, sand, gravel, boulders, and so on.

In such a whole the connection between the parts is external and obeys no recognisable law. We simply have a group of unsystematic formations of a purely summative character. The properties of such a whole coincide with the sum of the properties of its component parts. Moreover, when objects become part of an unorganised whole or leave such a whole, they usually undergo no qualitative change. For this type of whole the characteristic feature is the varying lifetime of its components.

The second, more complex type of whole is the organised whole, for example, the atom, the molecule, the crystal. Such a whole may have varying degrees of organisation, depending on the peculiar features of its parts and the character of the connection between them. In an organised whole the composing elements are in a relatively stable and law-governed interrelationship. Its properties cannot be reduced to the mechanical sum of the properties of its parts. Rivers "lose themselves" in the sea, although they are in it and it would not exist without them. Water possesses the property of being able to extinguish fire, but the parts of which it is composed, taken separately, possess quite different properties: hydrogen is itself flammable and oxygen maintains or boosts combustion. Zero in itself is nothing, but in the composition of a number its role is highly significant, and at times gigantically so, by increasing 100 into 1,000, for instance. A hydrogen atom consists of a proton and an electron. But strictly speaking, this is not true. The statement contains the same error as the phrase "this house is built of pine". The mass of an atom of hydrogen is not equal to the total mass of the proton and the electron. It is less than that mass because in combining into the system of the hydrogen atom the proton and the electron lose something, which escapes into space in the form of radiation.

The third, highest and most complex type of whole is the organic whole, for example, the organism, the biological species, society, science, arts, language, and so on. The characteristic feature of the organic whole is the self-development and self-reproduction of its parts. The parts of an organism if separated from the whole organism, not only lose some of their properties but cannot even exist in the given quality that they have within the whole. The head is only a head because it is capable of thinking. And it can only think as a part not only of the organism, but also of society, history and culture.

An organic whole is formed not (as Empedocles assumed) by joining together ready-made parts, separate organs flying around in the air, such as heads, eyes, ears, hands, legs, hair and hearts. An organic whole arises, is born, and dies together with its parts. It is an integral whole, with distinguishable parts. Sensations, perceptions, representations, concepts, memory, attention do not exist in isolation; they form the synthetic knot which we call consciousness. The elements that make up the whole possess a certain individuality and at the same time they "work for" the whole. The whole is invisibly present, as it were, and guides the process of "assembly" of its elements, that is to say, of its own self.

The point of a case exists, in a sense, before the case itself. For example, harmony in the proper sense of the term is born at the moment when the musician consciously or unconsciously begins to interest himself in a simultaneous combination of sounds, that is to say, a chord, which thanks to the organisation of its elements has its own definite musical individuality. A harmonic "phrase" acquires its meaning from a certain way of arranging various chords and their interrelationship.

The defining attribute of harmony is a relationship between the elements of the whole in which the development of one of them is a condition for the development of the others or vice versa. In art, harmony may be understood as a form of relationship in which each element, while retaining a relative independence, contributes greater expressiveness to the whole and, at the same time and because of this, more fully expresses its own essence. Beauty may be defined as harmony of all the parts, united by that to which they belong in such a way that nothing can be added or taken away or changed without detriment to the whole.

The parts of a whole may have varying degrees of relative independence. In a whole, there may be parts whose excision will damage or even destroy the whole, but there may also be parts whose loss causes no organic damage. For instance, the extremities or a part of the stomach may be removed, but not the heart. The deeper and more complex the relationship between the parts, the greater is the function of the whole in relation to them and the less their relative independence.

The various parts making up a whole may occupy by no means equal positions. Some of them are less mobile, relatively stable, others are more dynamic; some exist only for a time and are doomed soon to disappear, others have the makings of something more progressive. There are some parts without which the whole cannot be conceived and there are others without which it can carry on quite well although with some loss to itself.

In principle there is no limit to the divisibility of objects, but their division indicates a transition to a qualitatively different whole. When a pot is broken, we are left not with a number of smaller pots but with mere fragments. Even a rock is "defaced" by crushing. But the lumps of rock that are broken off nevertheless retain "their own face".

The highest form of organic whole is society and the various social formations. The general laws of the social whole determine the essence of any of its parts and the direction of its development: the part behaves in accordance with the essence of the whole.

For scientific analysis to be able to move in the right direction, the object must constantly occupy our consciousness as something whole. When we are investigating a whole, we break it down into its parts and sort out the nature of the relation between them. We can understand a system as a whole only by discovering the nature of its parts. It is not enough to study the parts without studying the relationship between them and the whole. A person who knows only the parts does not yet know the whole. A single frame in a film can be understood only as a part of the film as a whole.

An overabundance of particulars may obscure the whole. This is a characteristic feature of empiricism. Any singular object can be correctly understood only when it is analysed, not separately, but in its relation to the whole. Each organ is determined in its mode of operation not only by its internal structure but by the nature of the organism to which it belongs. The importance of the heart can be discovered only by considering it as part of the organism as a whole. The methodological fault characteristic of mechanistic materialism is that it understands the whole as nothing more than the sum of its parts.

In medicine, exaggeration of the independence of a part in relation to the whole is expressed in the principle of localisationism, which stipulates that every organ is something isolated in itself. This gives rise to the methodological principle of looking for the seat of the illness. This narrow, localised approach is just as harmful as the approach to the organism that ignores the question of which particular organ is sick. In any organism there are no absolutely localised pathological processes or any processes that affect only the whole. The disease of one separate organ is in some degree a manifestation of disease in the whole body and vice versa.

In rejecting the so-called summative approach, which mechanistically reduces the whole to the sum of its parts, we should not make a fetish of wholeness and regard it as something with mystical power. The whole does owe its origin to the synthesis of the parts that compose it. At the same time it is the whole that provides the basis for modification of existing parts and the formation and development of new ones, which, having changed the whole, help to develop it. So, in reality, we have a complex interaction between the whole and its parts.

Wholeness is today becoming a genuinely scientific cate gory. This category has immense methodological importance not only in science but also in the arts. Most artists will tell you that the key to a work of art lies in the correct proportioning of the parts and the whole. When one listens to good music, one feels that every note obeys the overall theme. For all the individuality of each figure the great masterpieces of art are so harmonious as a whole that nothing can be omitted without detriment to the picture itself. The problem of ensemble in architecture is also linked with the relationship of the whole and its parts.

Content and form. What is content? Let us imagine an object of cognition in the form of a circle. Our thought moves within its limits, taking in one component after another, certain processes after others, and thus learns about every thing that is going on in this circle, without crossing the circumference, but nevertheless coming up against that circumference at every stage. Our thought thus comes to know the content of the object. The content is the identity of all elements and moments of the whole with the whole itself. By content, therefore, we mean the composition of all the elements of the object in their qualitative determinacy, their interaction and functioning, and the unity of the object's properties, intrinsic processes, relations, contradictions and trends of development. Content is not all that is "contained" in an object. For example, it would be pointless to regard the atoms that form the molecules that in turn form the cells of an organism as constituting the content of that organism. One could never discover what a pigeon is if one tried to study every cell of its organism under an electronic microscope, just as one could never understand the beauty of the pictures in the Louvre or the Hermitage by subjecting each of them to chemical analysis. The elements that go to make up content are the parts of a whole, that is to say, the elements beyond which an object cannot be further divided without losing its definitive quality. So we cannot treat the canvas as the content of a picture or machines as the content of social life because canvas does not make a picture and machines do not make a society, although neither a picture nor society would be possible without them. The content of an organism is not simply the sum-total of its organs, but something more, the whole actual process of its life activity taking place in a certain form. The content of any given society is the wealth of the material and spiritual life of the people who make up that society, all the products and instruments of their activity. What do we mean when we speak of expounding the content, of, for example, Shakespeare's Hamlet? It means analysing its artistically expressed images, their actions, interrelations, the basic idea and intention of the author.

We have defined content as the identity of the components of the whole with the whole itself. Now let us consider form. The category of form is used in the sense of external appearance, that is to say, the boundaries of the given content, its outward posture, in the sense of structure, and also in the sense of the mode of expression and existence of the content. Form is often defined in such a way that it coincides with structure, although these are different concepts.

What is form? Take our thought travelling around the content of the circle. It reaches the circumference and follows it from one point to another and finally returns to its initial position. The content of a given object appears to lie on one side of a boundary and beyond that boundary there is a backdrop, something different. The boundary that differentiates the given content as a whole from all the rest is, in fact, the form. The boundary belongs at once both to the circle and to the background. It differs from both the circle and the background. When we perceive and speak of some object and pose the question of its form, we must single out this object from the background. If we do not distinguish it from everything else, we cannot perceive it.

When considering the form of a given whole, we must also be able to identify the given whole with other wholes. The form of the object belongs both to the object itself, without which it cannot exist, and to the background, otherwise we should not be able to distinguish it from that background. The form of the object is its boundary and the boundary is what distinguishes the given object from others and at the same time what identifies it with them. What do we mean by seeing a jug? It means singling it out from the background primarily by distinguishing its form, its shape. Consequently, the dialectics of identity and difference varies for the content of the object and for its form. In the case of the content it is limited only by the object itself and does not go beyond its boundaries, but in the case of form this dialectics shows through in the given object's relation to other objects, it stands out from the background.

Form may be an independent object of study. At the same time form can never be absolutely separated from content. The indifference of "pure forms" to content indicates only that they may refer to completely different contents just as one and the same formula may express laws governing different phenomena. Form and content are different poles of one and the same thing but not its components. Their unity lies in the fact that a certain content is "clothed" in a certain form. Crystal-forming processes are organised in the quaint forms of crystals. Qualitatively different life processes have created the countless forms of plants and animals. Material processes acquire the quality of life when they are organised in corresponding forms: only in a certain form does the content of biochemical, energy and information processes give life to a harmonious organism.

The way something is organised depends on what it is that is organised. One can say that content forms itself and is not formed by some external force. Every form disappears together with its content, to which it corresponds and from which it originates.

The unity of form and content presupposes their relative independence and the active role of the form. The modification of form involves reorganisation of the relations within the object. This process takes place in time and through contradictions. For example, in society it is linked with the struggle against the routine of the old. This process of reorganisation of the content therefore "lags behind" the motion of the content itself. The lagging of the form behind content indicates a breakdown of the correspondence between them. Everyone agrees that form should correspond to content. But there is also a contradiction between them. In the course of development there is bound to be a period when the old form ceases to correspond to the changed content and begins to retard its further development. This gives rise to a conflict, which is resolved by the breakup of the old form and the emergence of a form corresponding to the new content. For example, at the dawn of a given social formation production relations, as a form of society's productive forces, correspond to the tendency of development of the productive forces, but in the formation's period of decline production relations lag behind the productive forces and they retard the development of the content.

Obsolete modes of thinking become stereotypes and lag behind the substance of new ideas. Wisdom is a matter of keeping in view both the content and the form. In art, the relation of content and form is sometimes distorted, usually in the sense that form is divorced from content and absolutised. Hence the extreme cases of formalism and abstractionism. But combatting formalism does not mean contempt for form, which plays a vital role in the organisation and development of content. One must bear this in mind not only in theory but also in practice; for example, in production, where skilful application of the active role of form in the organisation of labour, distribution of manpower, and so on, may decide the outcome of the project. Wisdom in management lies in the ability to choose the necessary form for organising the content of the project.

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