Bunge’s Systems Ontology

Mario Bunge, in his Ontology II, systematically (i.e. attempting a strict logical-analytical discourse) proposes a suite of five levels or 'systems genera' as irreducibly distinct:

  • S1: physical
  • S2: chemical
  • S3: biological
  • S4: technical
  • S5: social

Here I compare and contrast Bunge's notions with Dooyeweerd's. At this point, I have merely set out notes that I have compiled to this end; they have yet to be forged into proper prose and argument. In what follows

  • My comments are all in bullets.
  • '+' indicates some degree of agreement between Dooyeweerd and Bunge
  • '-' indicates some degree of disagreement either between Dooyeweerd and Bunge or it indicates some concern I have with Bunge's treatment.

See also a more general discussion of Dooyeweerd and Systems Theory. See also comparison between Dooyeweerd and Nicolai Hartmann (including a useful tabular comparison, along with Dooyeweerd's own discussion of Hartmann).


To Bunge (p.249-51), emergence is central to system theory.

  • – But I find Bunge's treatment of emergence is unsatisfactory.

"Definition 6.1 Let S = {S1, S2, S3, S4, S5} be the family of system genera. Then Si precedes Sj, of Si < Sj for short, iff things of genus Si take part (either as components or as agents) in the assembly of every system in Sj."

"Postulate 6.7 For any x [element of] Sj there is at least one y [element of] Si, where Si < Sj, such that y has taken part in the assembly of x."

  • 'has taken part' is re. time, so involves theory of time.
  • 'in the assembly of x' refers to the coming into being of x. Again, time.
  • +Dooyeweerd: Dooyeweerd's theories of time and aspects can account for this.
  • -Dooyeweerd: Dooyeweerd would allow for intervention by the Divine, for which the postulate is false.
  • +Dooyeweerd: however, apart from intervention by Divine (and maybe angels), I think Dooyeweerd would agree with the postulate with respect to his theory of time and the coming-into-being of things. However …
  • -: In making use of this postulate, how do we tell whether "x [is element of] Sj"? I think Bunge assumes this is self-evident, though he does give some definitions of living etc. But this is the flaw. He does not give a satisfactory answer. Dooyeweerd does: by meaning related to aspects.

"Postulate 6.8 The precedence relations among the system genera are
S1 < S2 < S3 < S4, S5"
Physical – Chemical – Bio – (Social | Technical)

Bunge claims this is a precedence relation and not a hierarchy relation. That precedence is based on emergence while hierarchy is based on dominance.

  • -But he does not clarify the difference between these two.
  • His treatment of the social-technical is weak:
    • -: he does not adequately justify why it is valid to place two on same level. Nor why social and technical should be so treated (and not, for example, phys and chem).
    • -: He does not seriously consider levels above those, e.g. subsumes all post-social into social.
    • -: If we allow Soc. Tech to be at same level of precedence, this means there is a special kind of relationship between Soc, Tech. By implication, it is neither precedence nor subsystem-system, which are the two types of relation he has discussed. It behoves him, therefore to clarify the type of relation between them. He utterly fails to do this.
  • – His use of emergence presupposes the system genera (see below). But he does not adequately discuss what he means by system genera, and in particular how we would identify to which genus a thing belongs.
  • – In both of these he is uncharacteristically sloppy in his thinking. This suggests to me that there is a pre-theoretical commitment here which is ultimately religious in nature, and that it is at these two points that we can probe to find how his religious commitment affects his thinking.

Bunge explains why he chose these five systems genera on p.247.

"Remark 1. We have not lumped physical and chemical systems into a single category for the following reasons. Firstly, not all physical entities are systems. Secondly, chemical systems are never at rest: if all chemical reactions in a system come to a halt, the system becomes a physical one. Thirdly, chemosystems have hardly any inertia, as shown by their quickness to respond to external inputs and to the cessation of the latter. (Mathematically, the equations of chemical kinetics are of the first order in the rates, whereas most physical equations of evolution are of the second order or higher.) Fourthly, controllers, such as catalyzers, play an important role in chemosystems, for even the H+ and OH- ions are catalyzers. On the other hand the only physical systems endowed with control mechanisms seem to be artificial."

  • + This could be useful in discussions of whether Dooyeweerd's physical aspect should be split in two.

"Remark 2. We might have distinguished a system genus between biosystems and sociosystems, namely psychosystems. We have refrained from doing so from fear of encouraging the myth of disembodied minds. In our view psychosystems belong in the biosystem genus because they are animals endowed with a highly evolved nervous system."

  • – Note the reasons: "fear" and an a-priori decision that disembodied minds is a 'myth'! That is no way for a philosopher to choose their top-level categories.

"Remark 3. We have not grouped technical systems, i.e. artifacts, together with any others, because they have ontological traits that set them apart: they are a product of human work and as such, they bear the stamp of human intelligence and purposiveness as well as of social organization."

  • o No comment.

The Genera

Here we discuss the specific genera.

How should we choose genera? On p.246 Bunge said:

"Philosophers are not equipped to ascertain what kinds of system there are or could be in the world; they can only take note of the variety of systems that science discovers, and help vategorize them. Current science, pure and applied, seems to accept the existence of five system genera."

  • ? What types of philosophers did he mean?
  • + Interesting that he to some extent tries to make theoretical thought subject to empirical reality. So did Dooyeweerd.
  • – But notice how he presupposes that it is science, rather than everyday naïve experience, which can tell us what kinds of things there are. This is unlike Dooyeweerd, who contended that it is in naïve experience that we experience all the aspects, all the possibilities of types of thing, and that these aspects can be discovered by applying analytical functioning to naïve experience.
  • – Bunge does not discuss the technical genus at any length. It is not even mentioned in the index. He has chapters devoted to S2, S3, S5 but not S4.

Postulate 4.26 "An animal society is human iff (i) some of its members are absolutely creative, and (ii) it is composed of an economy, a culture and a polity." [p.183]

('Absolutely creative' is defined as creating a new behaviour or a new construct or discovers and event before any other member of its species and before any other species (p.168).)

  • +: OK as such, but …
  • -: He does not justify why this triple of economy, culture, polity. For example, why not a faith?
  • + Dooyeweerd: economy relates to the economic aspect, culture to the formative and polity to the juridical. Faith is of the pistic aspect, which cannot be reduced to the others.

Definition 4.57. "If s is an animal society, then
(i) the economy of s is the subsystem of s whose members engage in the active and organized transformation of the environment of s;
(ii) members engage in mental activities that control (or are controlled by) some of the other members of s;
(iii) the polity (or political subsystem) of s is the subsystem of s whose members control (or are controlled by) the social behavior of other members of s."

  • -: This, to me, is an inadequate definition of these three. However, one cannot argue that this is so from within the framework chosen by Bunge; one must appeal to a wider framework (which Bunge and his followers would deny and reject, so there can be no meeting of minds on this).

Breakdown (p.249)

"Postulate 6.6 The more complex a system, the more numerous its possible breakdown modes."

  • + a useful insight, which Dooyeweerd does not seem to deal with. #Dooyeweerd: an example of how Bunge can enrich Dooyeweerd?

Bunge's Presuppositions

In his concluding words of this section (p.251-2) he gives a Synopsis stating very explicitly the presuppositions made by his ontology. It is very useful, especially in understanding a comparison with Dooyeweerd, for which I try to give both + and -. …

"Our ontology endorses;

(i) naturalism or materialism, for it countenances only material existents and discounts autonomous ideas, ghosts, and the like; but not physicalism (or mechanism) as this denies that all things are physical entities;

"(ii) systemism, for it holds that every thing is either a system or a component of one; but not holism, as it rejects the myths that the whole is incomprehensible, prior to its components, and superior to them;

  • -Dooyeweerd: while Dooyeweerd does recognise the part-whole relshp, he does not deny other types, especially whole-whole relshps.
  • – note use of 'myth' indicating Bunge's pre-theoretical beliefs
  • -Dooyeweerd: the whole is indeed incomprehensible because beyond the grasp of theoretical knowing
  • -Dooyeweerd: the law-side whole is indeed prior to the entities, though the entity-side whole may not be

"(iii) pluralism as regards the variety of things and processes, hence the plurality of kinds of thing and laws; and also monism as regards the substance that possesses properties and undergoes change (namely matter) as well as the number of worlds (just one);

  • +Dooyeweerd: diversity, plurality of kinds of thing and laws
  • -Dooyeweerd rejected substance theory
  • +Dooyeweerd: just one world or cosmos that is multi-aspectual and yet coherent.

"(iv) emergentism with regard to novelty, for it holds that while some bulk properties of systems are resultant, others are emergent; but not irrationalism with regard to the possibility of explaining and predicting emergence;

  • +Dooyeweerd: anti-irrationalism because Dooyeweerd holds that if we validly know the aspects that pertain we have some way of explaining
  • -Dooyeweerd: Bunge's theory of emergence is flawed because on what basis can emergent behaviours be recognised as such rather than being merely collections of lower level behaviours; Bunge gives no answer.

"(v) dynamicism, for it assumes that every thing is in flux in some respect or other; but not dialectics, for it rejects the tenets that every thing is a unity of opposites, and that every change consists in or is caused by some strife or ontic contradiction;

  • +Dooyeweerd: all is dynamic.
  • +Dooyeweerd: change consists in response to aspectual laws, not in strife or ontic contradiction.
  • +Dooyeweerd: dialectic of one kind caused by polar ground motives
  • -Dooyeweerd: by 'unity of opposites' a la Hegel (see comparision between Dooyeweerd and Hegel), I have argued that Hegel had genuine insight and it is explained by the irreducibility of aspects; so some change in society's searching is human desire for truth and justice in face of absolutization of aspects.

"(vi) evolutionism with regard to the formation of systems of new kinds, for it maintains that new systems pop up all the time and are selected by their environment; but neither gradualism nor saltationism, for it recognizes both smooth changes and leaps;

  • +Dooyeweerd: recognising both smooth changes and leaps
  • -Dooyeweerd: the existence of law-side individuality structures
  • +Dooyeweerd: 'new systems pop up all the time': Dooyeweerd held that the law-side type laws are not a priori knowable, so new types of things 'pop up'

"(vii) determinism with regard to events and processes, by holding all of them to be lawful and none of them to come out of the blue or disappear without leaving traces; but not causalism, for it recognises randomness and goal striving as types of process alongside causal ones;

  • Note: different meaning of 'determinism' from our usual use of it.
  • +Dooyeweerd: all are lawful
  • -Dooyeweerd: but Dooyeweerd has a richer view of law
  • +Dooyeweerd: if 'randomness' refers to the latitude that we have to respond to non-deterministic aspects.

"(viii) biosystemism with regard to life, for it regards organisms as material systems that, though composed of chemosystems, have properties not found on other levels; but neither vitalism not machinism nor mechanism;

  • +Dooyeweerd also is anti-vitalism, anti-machinism
  • +Dooyeweerd: "with regard to life" is tacit acknowledgement of the importance of meaning related to a given aspect, that of life and that this meaning differs from that of other aspects. To Dooyeweerd, this is the biotic aspect.
  • +Dooyeweerd: "properties not found on other levels" refers to properties meaningful within an aspect, esp. that of life.

"(ix) psychosystemism with regard to mind, for it holds that mental functions are emergent activities (processes) of complex neural systems; but neither eliminative nor reductive materialism, for it affirms that the mental, though explainable with the help of physical, chemical, biological and social premises, is emergent;

  • +Dooyeweerd: Psychosystemism relates to sensitive aspect.
  • +Dooyeweerd: "explainable with the help of" = inter-aspect dependency
  • +Dooyeweerd: Note that psychic is explainable "with the help of .. social". This alludes to Dooyeweerd's dependency in the anticipatory direction, which he differentiates from dependency in the foundational direction (which is "explainable with the help of physical, chemical, biological" as earlier aspects).
  • +Dooyeweerd: 'emergent' = inter-aspect irreducibility. but see above about Bunge's inadequate handling of emergence.

"(x) sociosystemism with regard to society, for it claims that society is a system composed of subsystems (economy, culture, polity, etc.), and possessing properties (such as stratification and political stability) that no individual has; hence neither individualism nor collectivism, neither idealism nor vulgar materialism.

  • +Dooyeweerd: this relates to Dooyeweerd's social aspect.
  • +Dooyeweerd: 'stratification' aligns with Dooyeweerd's theory of social institutions and belongs to the social aspect.
  • -Dooyeweerd; economy etc. are NOT subsystems in the sense of being 'part of' society. This points to a tension in system theory between subsystem-system relationship as being part-whole and it being some enkaptic relationship. System theory refuses to differentiate, but Dooyeweerd differentiates between them.

"The reader accustomed to dwell in a single ism or on none is likely to throw up his hands in despair at the multiplicity of isms embraced by our ontology [I did not]. Let this be said in defense of such multiplicity. First, it is possible to synthesize a variety of philosophical isms provided they are not mutually inconsistent [eg. of different aspects] – i.e. provided the result is a coherent conceptual system rather than an eclectic bag. (We have tried to secure consistency by adopting the axiomatic format.) Second, it is necessary to adopt (and elaborate) a number of philosophical isms to account for the variety and mutability of reality [here, his isms seem to relate to perspectives centring on aspects] – provided the various theses harmonize with science [and Dooyeweerd would say his aspects do since science is the discovery of aspectual laws]. Third, tradition can be avoided only at the risk of unfairness and ignorance: rather than dismiss our philosophical legacy altogether, we should try and enrich it. [this is what Dooyeweerd can do]"

  • – Bunge denies valid insights such as holism. What we find is that Dooyeweerd agrees with and supports his insights while also acknowledging validity of insights Bunge denies. Therefore Dooyeweerd's philosophy is superior to Bunge's in that the latter can to some extent be incorporated in the former as a special and narrowed case.
  • e.g. holism can be treated within Dooyeweerd but not within Bunge because the former has law and entity side while Bunge explicitly allows only entity side.


Bunge M (1979) Treatise on Basic Philosophy, Volume 4. Ontology II A World of Systems. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel.

2 comentarios to “Bunge’s Systems Ontology”

  1. grupobunge Says:

    Hay que tener presente que este artículo sólo se basa en unoi de los siete tomos del monumental Treatise de Mario Bunge, y no tiene en consideración ninguna de las obras posteriores del autor. 

  2. Buy E Cigarettes No Nicotine Says:

    You have got the perfect writing technique. Like Jd
    Sallinger or someone like that.


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