HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


Consultants of CENTER FOR C-A-F DEVELOPMENT, Heraklion, Crete, members of HESTAFTA and EFTA

(The following text is an enriched version of a  presentation which was given in Athens on 9/2/2019 at a seminar on "The Family Therapy Today" organized by ELESYTH)


The reason for this article stems from a variety of concerns regarding the 30-year engagement of writers of the systemic thinking and practice, especially in connection with the social context or the narrative of individuals. Examples such as the ambiguous concept of the system (totality, established), unrecognized or gravitational narratives triggered the questions raised below.

This is a critical review of the distortions that may arise from imbalanced implementation of systems thinking. The aim is to ask questions and the notion of 'maybe ...' rather than providing coherent anddocumented answers. Seeking sources and literature, we find articles with reference to criticism of systemic thought and therapy. Subsequently, the concepts of subjectivity, relativism and anthropocentrism, lead our thoughts back 2,500 years into the era of the Sophists where these concepts first appeared.

The Sofists

The Sophists were inspired thinkers in ancient Athens in the 5th century BC, with great encyclopedic knowledge and an acute and restless spirit. They were travelling teachers of the use of speech and rhetoric, who made it an art of persuasion and argument. They linked rhetoric with political action and taught those who wanted to learn how to think and speak well enough (the higher education of the time) to achieve active participation and, later, dominance in political life. Therefore, they were teachers of all kinds of knowledge and in particular knowledge of political affairs. They were accused of being paid for their teaching and introducing new ideas by Socrates and Plato. Then, their work became almost extinct. We mainly know them from the dialogues of Plato, but other ideas have been incorporated over the centuries.

The main questions they were concerned with were:

  • Must nature or law determine people's relationships? Is justice a social contract?

  • Is virtue inherent or acquired?

  • How is virtue expressed and what is it?

  • What is the significance of knowledge?

  • What power of proof and persuasion?

Protagoras began his book "Truth" with the well-known saying:  “Man is the measure of all values, for the beings as they are, and the non-beings as they are not”.   (For all things / values ​​the measure / judge is man, for what exists and for what does not exist). Therefore, there is no truth beyond the senses and personal opinions (J.De Romilly) and knowledge (truth) is relevant as all sides have a power. The same applies to customs and habits, laws and general beliefs of different cultures and people. Here is the notion of anthropocentrism and subjectivity. Regarding the Gods, the position of the first Sophists was neutral. "We do not know whether or not they exist, or what shape they have. Many things prevent me from knowing: the lack of data from the senses and the shortness of life" (Protagoras, Gods). It opens the way to disrespect and moral controversy and respect for the laws because the Greeks believed in Gods, and therefore in the oversight of the Olympians for the observance of laws and morality.

The later ones (eg Thraciamachus) went further and challenged the laws and their use. It is not unethical to neglect when no one sees you, so you do not obviously violate the law and then you follow your nature and your personal interest.

After Pericles, demagogues followed.

Should we think about questioning through what processes this new perspective of the philosophers-revolutionaries of the 5th century BC has been distorted and associated with the negative complexion of opportunists and immoralists to this day? It is probably through the degradation of values ​​before being replaced by others, with excessive emphasis on subjectivism-relativism (where all the views apply) and the specialized use of speech as a means of persuasion. The teaching and the new perspectives for individual profits from the second generation of Sophists and subsequent students were used, within a wider framework of war (Peloponnesian), pestilence and devaluation of human life.

Closing this report on yesterday's Sophists, we find possible parallels in the modern world as well as in the new trends in systemic vision. Clearly, the notions of amorality and demagogy are not unknown in modern times.

The System

So on to the systemic thinking that revolutionized the way we perceive the phenomena of living and inanimate systems. The first ideas emerged before 1940, but its dynamics developed after 1948 through the pioneering work of Wiener, von Neumann, von Bertalanffy, von Förster, Ashby and many others.

Von Betralanffy refers to the mechanistic-analytical approach, saying "The acceptance of living beings as machines, the dominance of the modern world by technology and the mechanization of mankind is but the extension and practical application of the mechanistic perception” (Bertalanffy 1952).

However, shortly after he described the new perspective of the holistic-systemic view as "the model of the world as a large organization can contribute to the strengthening of a sense of respect for life, which we have almost lost" (Bertalanffy 1955).

This new perspective is used as a way of study in various scientific fields dealing with complex systems such as living organisms, inanimate systems, social systems, businesses, economies, etc. It helps to better understand how social systems work, how decisions affect the overall behavior and to improve them. There are general principles such as totality, differentiation, hierarchical classification, purpose, boundaries, flow (opening) and structure (closure).

At the same time there have been post-modern  tendencies in the 2nd/3rd  cybernetics  in system thinking  since 1990, through influences of constructivism and social constructionism, with examples of the reflective group (Tom Anderson), narrative approach (Mich.White, D. Epston), Open Dialogue (Jaakko Seikulla), cooperative therapy (Harl. Anderson, H.Goolishian) and the schools of M. Elkim and of Milan.

In more details, the views in Social Constructionism indicate (the following underlined suggestions remind us of the views of the Sophists).

  • Mind, feelings and self are redefined as social constructions that are linked to context, social dialogue and not exclusively to the brain.

  • Fundamentally disputed is what is considered 'given' and 'self-evident' in the social world.

  • Knowledge is considered historically, socially and culturally positioned, but also interwoven with power relations.

  • The concept of absolute truth is rejected. Postmodernists accept all the narratives without criticism.
  • Reality is nothing more than a social construction.
  • Special emphasis is placed on language. Realities, theoriesandsystems of ideas are somehow narrated. Human systems are language and meaning-creation systems. The meaning is created in relation to the individual context and is experienced in dialogue with others and with the self.

  • Social constructions include predominant discourse and the power relations associated with it. Descriptions and explanations about social things can never be neutral or impersonal. They are forms of competitive social action that preserve some patterns and exclude others.

  • Problems are created and regulated through language and can therefore be deactivated through it. In debate and in dialogue, it is believed that reality is being created and that many new transition routes are being opened up for treatment.
  • Treatment is linked to the creation of constantly new concepts without limitation to give rise to new narratives. Attention is drawn to the way in which the importance of systems is created and constructed.

  • Postmodern therapists call into question the existence of a single truth as well as traditional values. No reality is considered more correct than the other. Criticism of power and deconstruction puts the power of the specialist and the relationship between healers and their patients on a new basis.

  • Postmodern therapists also assume that each person constructs their own reality through interactive language processes (verbal and extra-verbal elements).

  • Avoid working with concepts such as identity and personal responsibility, believing that this reflects the emphasis on the person

  • Such concepts override the key role and responsibility of the family in the transfer of social and cultural values ​​and work primarily on the level of social responsibility.

  • Their aim is to exonerate for the family, since they believe that wider systems are the ones that are the main bodies of power, standards and value creation.

  • Common points of social contructionism with Constructivism: there is no 'objective reality', the world is a mental and social construct, and there is no knowledge that comes from a neutral observation and a neutral observer.

From the ‘sophisticated’  yesterday of anthropocentrism to the systemic narrative and construction of  today

A) Possible distortions and delicate balances at clinical level

On the narratives in situations of imbalanced  positions such as communication and the exchange of views of perpetrator/ victim, strong/weak: are there red lines and boundaries in the narrative parity? Does the position of the perpetrator measure equally or can it be perceived as acceptance of the perpetrator during the treatment and lead to the victim's incrimination or to the Stockholm syndrome? The expression of opposition from the feminist movement in the United States has restricted the application of family therapy in two states in cases of violence in the family.

Regarding taking personal responsibility, does the over-acceptance of constructions and narratives prevent anyone from becoming self-critical and then link it to the account and assumption of any responsibilities? Concerning the positive reframing and limits of its use, we would comment that it helps the emulation and de-burdening of the symptom of the IP, so it helps to support individuals and families, but at the same time can it work by emphasizing the (entropic) homeostasis and reduce the incentive for change, since "they are acting with a positive mood"? As regards the one-sided focus on a system level: eg. society, family or individual, here the chance exists to focus only on a single level, although in many cases it is known that multiple interventions are needed such as the examples of drug-abuse, violence and eating disorders. Concerning conflict resolution and connection to values, we will link it with a comment by G. Vasiliou (AKMA) on conflict in couples, where if the disagreement is at a level of deeper values, the conflict is not resolved. So there are limits to what is being solved and so what expectations can there be?

Finally, on the intervention of families in crisis, which we are constantly facing due to the direct and indirect effects of the 10-year crisis in our country, the techniques of reflection and narrative seem paradox and "luxury" when the immediacy and severity of problems push us into more intrusive management, advisory and therefore 1st cybernetics’ techniques.

B) Possible distortions at macro level

The principles of systemic thinking apply to many fields, have penetrated virtually everywhere and have boosted science and their applications, such as engineering, government and artificial intelligence, computer science (algorithms), technology, social, economic, political and cognitive sciences, administrative science (human resource development, management, marketing), biology, etc. But has this knowledge indirectly contributed along with other theories and techniques to the development, organization and effectiveness of ambiguous processes? For instance, the prevalence of technology and information science with their respective companies dominating, and more generally, the prevalence of multinational corporations and companies of immense size, resulting in inequalities, global integration and internationalization (transatlantic TTIP) outside any control, pressure for sustainable growth at the expense of environment. At the same time, is there a chance that IT and Internet applications could be used to control process and information, such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica? Examples of future sovereignty of artificial intelligence and algorithms are described in the book named ‘Homo-Deus’ (Y. Harari).

Lastly, we see attempts to change history by comparing "equal" positions and narratives against historical data, promoting models of homogenization of populations against diversity, the identity of every group of people and ultimately, the wider biodiversity. However, we do not claim that systemic theory and its postmodern versions are responsible for the distortions mentioned, but it is the way they have been implemented by some in certain fields. These distortions refer to G. Vasileios's article "A Presentation for the Child Psychiatrist", where he refers to man as a bio-psycho-social system. The Human system is composed of biological, psychosocial, socio-cultural and economic-social processes. Which processes play a fundamental role in the survival and morphogenesis of the Systems that humans make up? Economic and social ones do! If left competitive or exploitable, they will give similar characteristics to other processes with dysfunctional consequences.

Conclusions and closure

Systemic theory and practice has been a holistic, unifying and pioneering perspective, coordinated with the principles of living (holism, interaction, functionality, co-operation, balance). Its principles, both theoretical and applied, can be found in a number of fields that are gradually becoming independent and autonomous sectors. It tried to change and humanize science and society. It has strength, dynamic and evolving, enriched by modern visions and perspectives. But it is a "theory", a construction and a "tool" that needs sensitivity, respect, principles (values) and awareness of its vulnerabilities from those who use it. Its application has the power to be used for functional as well as for entropic situations and functions. With regards to family therapists, the knowledge and flexible use of various techniques in therapy seems to be useful as well as the existing recorded experience that links the technique to the type of problem we are facing.

Although it is not completely isomorphic, the conclusion from the vulnerabilities of the ancient pioneers (Sophists) and the questioning of the dominant attitude on many levels leads us to a more careful assessment of the concepts of the three dimensional levels: values-relativism-logos we find in the new narrative approaches. To close, we mention the chorus words of Sophocles 'Antigone tragedy’ in 442 BC (f. 365-367)

"αυτός το κάθε ανέλπιστο
Με τέχνη μηχανεύει
Πότε κακόν ορέγεται
Πότε καλό γυρεύει"


Romilly Jacqueline (1994) The Great Sophists in Athens of Pericles. Karadamitsas Publications

Vassiliou, G. (1987) Man as a system: A presentation for the child psychiatrist, in the book Chianti & Manolopoulos, Modern Issues of Child Psychiatry, 1st volume, 259-273, Athens: Kastaniotis

Dafermos M. (2008). Social Constructionism  and Speech Analysis. Eleftherna, 4, 67-90.

Ritsou Alex, Kouneli Anez, Christou Simela (2012) "SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM"  paper , SKEPSIS

Psycha Ioanna, Christodoulou Aggeliki (2017): Human resources management and development in enterprises and organizations "The exploitation of tools of systemic theory", diploma thesis of the Postgraduate Studies Program "Administration of Educational Units" of the Department of Business Administration of the School of Management and Economics of the Athens University. Piraeus

Harari Noah Yuval (2017), Homo Deus : A brief history of the future. Alexandria Publications.

Charles R. Featherston and Matthew Doolan (2012): A Critical Review of the Criticisms of System Dynamics. The 30th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society.

Murray, C. E. (2006). Controversy, constraints, and context: Understanding family violence through family systems theory. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 14(3), 234-239.

Kevin Adams, Patrick Hester, Joseph  Bradley (2013): A Historical Perspective of Systems Theory,  Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference

Hammond Debora (1997) “Ecology and ideology in the general systems community”  Environment and history no3, Ecological visionaries. White horse Press.

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 7/ ISSUE 14, April 2019

BOOK PRESENTATION: Family Therapy Unit, Psychiatric Hospital of Athens:"Memories and Reflections"

George Gournas, Psychiatrist, Group and Family Therapist. Athenian Institute of Anthropos
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