This article was first presented as the Invited von Bertalanffy Lecture delivered at the 33rd Annual Meeting of the ISGSS/ISSS Edinburgh, Scotland, July, 1989. Systems science is named the “discipline of epistemological domains,” where symbolism plays a preponderant role in the study of systems of high abstraction. Symbolism and abstraction were already important concepts in the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972), to whom this lecture is dedicated. As a tribute to his vision, references and quotations from the founder of modern systems science are made. Other authors such as E. Cassirer, S. Langer, J. R. Royce, J. Piaget, etc., have also contributed to our modern understanding of symbolism/abstraction, a process which is fundamental to the epistemology of systems science, as well as that of all scholarly disciplines. A wide range of examples taken from several different fields are used to illustrate the importance of the process of abstraction in modern system thinking and in the design of the “global web,” and “artifact” of social, political, and economic interrelationships devoted to the solution of world problems. Symbolism and the underlying process of abstraction are studied further to show their role in language, cognition, communication, artificial intelligence, etc. The connection between symbolism/abstraction and the design of artifacts in organizations is made. It is shown that when decision makers neglect the study of inquiring systems of high abstraction where epistemological concerns are discussed, the risk of system failures is enhanced. Overlooking epistemology may also lead to the demise of a scientific discipline, through paradigm displacement and the disappearance of knowledge. On the other hand, resorting to high levels of abstraction in human thinking leads to knowledge creation, innovation, and artistic expression.
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