The Open Concept of Systems:

In today’s post, I am looking at the famous American philosopher Morris Weitz’s Closed and Open Concepts. Weitz studied aesthetics, the branch of philosophy interested in beauty and taste. He looked at the simple or not so simple question of “how do you define art?” This might seem to be a simple question at first. As we try to answer this, we will soon find that this is not so easy to answer. This might remind you of Socrates and the Socratic method of asking questions. Socrates would ask questions such as what is virtue? For any answer he got, he would find a contradiction that would push the other person further and further into a corner. Weitz came out against this approach and said that the question “what is art?” is itself the wrong question. Instead, he said that you should ask “what sort of concept is art?” The general tendency amongst theorists is to use strict definitions about the essence of something. Weitz called this approach a “closed concept”. Weitz said:

If necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a concept can be stated, the concept is a closed one. But this can happen only in logic or mathematics where concepts are constructed and completely defined. It cannot occur with empirically-descriptive and normative concepts unless we arbitrarily close them by stipulating the ranges of their uses.

In this fashion, Weitz noted that – Art, as the logic of the concept shows, has no set of necessary and sufficient properties, hence a theory of it is logically impossible and not merely factually difficult.

To contrast the closed concept with the open concept, Weitz stated:

A concept is open if its conditions of application are emendable and corrigible; i.e., if a situation or case can be imagined or secured which would call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover this, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case and its new property.

Weitz had strong words against the theorists of Aesthetics wanting to confine the subject into a box:

 Aesthetic theory is a logically vain attempt to define what cannot be defined, to state the necessary and sufficient properties of that which has no necessary and sufficient properties, to conceive the concept of art as closed when it’s very use reveals and demands its openness.

Weitz was a fan of Wittgenstein and seems to have been influenced by his idea of “what a game is?” In his posthumous book, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein talked about how a concept such as a game can be defined. There are so many different games that you would be able to identify a game when you engage in it. They all have similarities but it is very hard to properly define a game in a closed concept sense. You know that Chess and Soccer (Football) are games, but also very different. Similarly, skating and polo are games, again of very different nature. They have family resemblances! Wittgenstein’s main point is that the meaning of a word is in its use. Weitz noted:

In his new work, Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein raises as an illustrative question, What is a game? The traditional philosophical, theoretical answer would be in terms of some exhaustive set of properties common to an games. To this Wittgenstein says, let us consider what we call “games”: “I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: ‘there must be something common, or they would not be called “games'” but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. … ” Card games are like board games in some respects but not in others. Not all games are amusing, nor is there always winning or losing or competition. Some games resemble others in some respects—that is all. What we find are no necessary and sufficient properties, only “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing,” such that we can say of games that they form a family with family resemblances and no common trait. If one asks what a game is, we pick out sample games, describe these, and add, “This and similar things are called ‘games.’ ” This is all we need to say and indeed all any of us knows about games. Knowing what a game is, is not knowing some real definition or theory but being able to recognize and explain games and to decide which among imaginary and new examples would or would not be called “games.”

In other words, a “game” is an open concept. How you define a game is specifically up to how you, as the observer, view the actual functioning of the concept. Weitz does note that it is possible to “close” an “open” concept in certain cases. The example he gives is that of “tragedy” and “Greek tragedy”. Tragedy is an open concept, whereas Greek tragedy is a closed concept. He notes:

Of course, there are legitimate and serviceable closed concepts in art. But these are always those whose boundaries of conditions have been drawn for a special purpose. Consider the difference, for example, between “tragedy” and “Greek tragedy. ” The first is open and must remain so to allow for the possibility of new conditions, e.g., a play in which the hero is not noble or fallen or in which there is no hero but other elements that are like those of plays we already call “tragedy.” The second is closed. The plays it can be applied to, the conditions under which it can be correctly used are all in, once the boundary, “Greek,” is drawn. Here the critic can work out a theory or real definition in which he lists the common properties at least of the extant Greek tragedies.


I was fascinated with the idea of open and closed concepts. I think this has use in Systems Thinking. Often, systems are depicted as real entities in the world that one can change or fix. This is to me, the use of a closed concept in systems thinking. Systems, similar to art, should be viewed as an open concept. A system is entirely dependent upon who does the observation. If we have three observers, then there are at least three systems of the same phenomenon. To paraphrase Dominik Jarczewski, the question whether something is a system is not a factual problem. It is a decision problem. How you define your system is entirely contingent upon your worldview, your biases and your experiential realities. The knowledge of what is a system is not theoretical but practical. You can replace the word “art” in the previous section with “system”, and there will be no meaning lost.

Peter Checkland, the eminent Systems Thinker provides more light on this. He noted that there will be an observer who gives an account of the world, or part of it, in systems terms; the principle which makes them coherent entities; the means and mechanism by which they tend to maintain their integrity; their boundaries, inputs, outputs, and components; their structure. Finally their behavior may be described in terms of inputs and outputs via state descriptions.

If you are trying to understand a system, you must not view it as a closed concept. You must view it as an open concept, and this means that you have to try to understand where the other person is coming from, and how it is constructed by that person. In other words, how does the functioning of the coherent whole affect that person. It is easy to fall into the mindset that systems can be viewed as closed concepts, where the purpose, the whole, etc. are definable and understandable by everybody. You might be tempted to say that the whole is more important than the parts, as if your whole is accepted by everybody. You might think that holism is the way to do systems thinking, and that reductionism is a terrible idea. When you embrace systems as an open concept, you realize that holism can be as bad as reductionism and reductionism can be as good as holism. All you have are abstractions. Even the holism you look at, is a form of reductionism.

I will finish with some more food-for-thought idea from Weitz that systems thinking is a meta-discipline (replacing “art” with “system”):

If I may paraphrase Wittgenstein, we must not ask, What is the nature of any system x?, or even, according to the semanticist, What does “x” mean?, a transformation that leads to the disastrous interpretation of “system” as a name for some specifiable class of objects; but rather, What is the use or employment of “x”? What does “x” do in the language? This, I take it, is the initial question, the begin-all if not the end-all of any philosophical problem and solution. Thus, … our first problem is the elucidation of the actual employment of the concept of a system, to give a logical description of the actual functioning of the concept, including a description of the conditions under which we correctly use it or its correlates.

Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Direct and Indirect Constraints:

[1] Art by Annie Jose