The function of systems

In an earlier post, I wrote that something that is broken has lost its sense of wholeness. While this is true at a formal level (formal cause), it leaves out the clearer implication that this machine has ceased to function as we would like it to. Quite naturally, we think that broken things are broken when they stop performing their requisite functions, fulfilling their assigned tasks, or executing our commands perhaps in virtue of having lost their integrity. Here, we might speak of malfunctions as well as dysfunctions. We might also speak of something’s still performing, albeit less efficiently or effectively.

Concerning kinds of brokenness, then, I suppose we could say (1) that something doesn’t do any longer what we would like it to do (dysfunction), (2) that something does some of the things we would like it to do but no longer does others (malfunction), or (3) that something performs the required functions yet not as well as we would like (inefficiency). In all three cases, we are interested, from the first, in what this something can do and does do for us or in what we can do with it.

Systems work, operate, do things with and upon things. And the chief function of a system is to serve or benefit us. When it does not do this, we do not receive its benefits and may even speak of harms.

Manifestly, tool talk (about which I wrote last time) comes on the scene once a broken-down system does not perform its requisite function (malfunction, dysfunction, or inefficiency). The tool is applied to the system with the aim of fixing it. Fixing it means helping it to perform better for us so that we–or more of us anyway–can reap the benefits. If the world is grasped according to systems, then apparently the workers in high demand would be all kinds of designers, engineers, and repairmen: those with the know-how as well as the toolkits.

‘Democracy is broken. Who will fix it?’ ‘The American health care system is broken,’ it is said. ‘Who will fix it? What tools will be required to fix it?’ Saying these things, we lose sight of the basic philosophical questions that go unasked and therefore unanswered. These include: what is this thing? What is going on? And how on earth shall we make sense of it together?

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