The goals of a system are crucial, but there is yet another bedrock layer beneath them. Let’s call this substratum the ‘paradigms’ of the system. Paradigms are the largely unconscious assumptions and cultural beliefs that underlay everything that happens in a society:

Land can be owned by humans.

Nouns are different than verbs.

Money has value.

Humans eat animals.

Time is linear.

Think of it this way: the ancient Egyptians built pyramids because they had certain beliefs about the afterlife, and we build skyscrapers because we have certain beliefs about the value of downtown real estate.

Consider the ways that the ideas of people like Plato, Thomas Hobbes, Martin Luther, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, Simone de Beauvoir, and Kimberlé Crenshaw have influenced and shaped societies. Ideas – especially the beliefs we share in common about ‘the way world is’ – are the systemic bedrock of the social worlds we then create. Paradigms are like the elementary particles of human culture, and therefore the fundamental building blocks of human systems.

Paradigms present a paradox. On one hand, changing the paradigm of a society seems like one of the hardest undertakings imaginable. Historically, these kinds of seismic shifts appear rarely, as if the markers of bygone epochs. But a single individual can have their paradigm shifted in an instant – it can happen as quickly as reading a sentence.

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Paradigms' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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