Systems: Theory, Science, and Metaphor (3 units)
This Year's Theme: "Networks, Everywhere: The World as a Web"
Winter Quarter 2002-2003, Stanford University
Instructor:  Todd Davies
Meeting Time: Wednesdays 7:00-9:00 PM (first meeting on January 8)
Location: 460-126 (Margaret Jacks Hall, first floor, Joseph Greenberg Room)
Instructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Email: tdavies at
Office Hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays 10:30 AM - 12:00 Noon
Required Text: Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks, Perseus Publishing, 2002 ($26.00 at the Stanford Bookstore)
                    Fritjof Capra , The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Anchor Books, 1996 (excerpt distributed in class)

Prerequisite: Completion of at least one course from the Symbolic Systems undergraduate core in each of the following areas: (a) philosophy, (b) linguistics or psychology, and (c) computer science
Recommended: Computer Science 103B or 103X; Statistics 116

Note: This website is now a retrospective syllabus.  Student papers and commentaries have been linked for each of the books on which students gave presentations, so that those who participated in the course, as well as interested others, can read what all the students wrote.  The remainder of the syllabus appears as it did while the course was being taught.

[Updated June 26, 2003]


Symbolic Systems 205 is a small, upper-division reading- and discussion-based seminar.  The general topic of the course is systems science: the exploration of abstract properties of systems, such as network connectivity, complexity, feedback, self-organization, and emergence, with applications in natural, social, and artificial domains.  Systems theories have often been met with skepticism within traditional disciplines, and have been attacked as being too general to be useful and too vague to be testable.  A continuing goal of the course is to ascertain the merits of such criticisms, and of the theories themselves.  It is often claimed that viewing phenomena as systems under a particular framework can lead to novel insights, and such frameworks have frequently seeped into the broader culture to influence how people think and talk.  Each new wave of systems science generally draws both criticism and praise of the aforementioned types and it is a goal of this course to evaluate such claims afresh as new theories appear.

The theme is meant to change each time the course is taught, and for this year the theme is:

Networks, Everywhere: The World as a Web

The last few years have seen a great deal of scholarly activity, from the theoretical to the very applied, looking at the topology of networks of complex nodes.  In  earlier "neural network" and "cellular automata" models, the nodes or elements being connected were generally simple enough for the modeler to fully specify the nodes' internal behavior; network topology (which nodes are connected to which) was assumed to be fixed or uniform (e.g. full connectivity); and emphasis was placed on the dynamics of the network (how it changes over time).  Such models were often put forward as explanations of, for example, how the mind works, but usually without a clear mapping between the connections postulated in the model and observable connections in a physical system being modeled.  In contrast, what the Notre Dame physicist Albert-László Barabási calls "the new science of networks" pays primary attention to which nodes are connected to each other, allows each node to be arbitrarily complex (e.g. a human being or even an organization), and tends to focus more on the static or equilibrium topology of the network.

This approach can be used to analyze many phenomena, such as the World-Wide Web, social groupings, and complex physical and biological structures.  In such structures, unanalyzably complex information is contained in the elements, but the connections between elements can be observed and specified more completely, yielding a more direct mapping between models and what they are supposed to model than is the case for, say, neural network models of the human mind.  It is perhaps to be expected that as information processing has moved from individual, unconnected computers to the Internet, scientists would be inspired less by the metaphor of a single computer and more by the metaphor of the Web.  At the same time, the older methods and problems have not lost their relevance, and it will be interesting to see if this web-inspired perspective on systems leads to a true revolution in the cognitive sciences.


The general plan for the course is that everyone is reading a perspective history of systems theory by Fritjof Capra, excerpted from The Web of Life; the book Linked: The New Science of Networks by Barabási; and some important articles together during the first six weeks of the course, with the instructor serving as discussion leader.  In the first few weeks, each student was asked to choose another (generally recent) book or set of articles exploring some aspect of networks, read it, select part of it for everyone to read, distribute copies (one week in advance), and then present and lead a discussion on the book's or articles' ideas during 40 minutes of a two-hour class session, sometime between weeks 7 and 10 (inclusive).  A list of the possible books and thematic reading sets from which students chose is given below. In addition to leading a discussion, each student is expected to write a 5-10 page critical review of their chosen book or article set, to be placed on this website at the end of March, 2003, and to submit comments regarding both the excerpt and the class discussion of two of the readings chosen by other students.  These comments will be attached to those books'/articles' sections on the website at the end of the quarter.  The class is thus serving as a network of learners, sharing information with other participants and interested visitors to the website, regarding more books than any one of us would most likely have time to read on our own.

As a supplement to the course, a series of film showings has been scheduled on three Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m.: February 11, February 18, and March 4 in Bulding 160 (Wallenberg Hall), room 330 (see schedule below).

REGULAR CLASS SCHEDULE (readings should be completed before class)

Week 1 (January 8) - Review of syllabus, introduction of course participants; discussion of course motivation and background ideas

Week 2 (January 15) - Capra 1 through 4, and the history of systems science
Required reading:

Week 3 (January 21)  [NOTE different meeting day - Tuesday] - Capra 5 through 6, and a sample of past controversy
Reaquired reading:

Week 4(January 29) - Barabási 1 through 6, and the theory of random networks
Required reading:

Week 5 (February 5) - Barabási 7 through 11, and the theory of scale-free networks
Required reading:

Week 6 (February 12) - Barabási 12 through 15; reviews and updates
Required reading:

Recommended readings:

Week7 (February 19) - Student-led discussions #1; excerpts should be copied and distributed to the class by each presenter on February 12 - excerpts should be read by other students before the presentation. Please review this handout: Guidelines for Presenting/Leading Discussions .

Week 8 (February 26) - Student-led discussions #2; excerpts should be copied and distributed to the class by each presenter on February 19 - excerpts should be read by other students before the presentation.  Guidelines for Final Papers and Commentaries .
Presentations: Week 9(March 5) - Student-led discussions #3; excerpts should be copied and distributed to the class by each presenter on February 26 - excerpts should be read by other students before the presentation.
Presentations: Week 10(March 12) - Student-led discussions #4; excerpts should be copied and distributed to the class by each presenter on March 5 - excerpts should be read by other students before the presentation.
Presentations: FILM SHOWINGS - All films show on Tuesday evenings, beginning at 7 pm, in 160-330 (Wallenberg Hall).

February 11N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos (1993, 57 minutes)

February 18Six Degrees of Separation (1993, 112 minutes)

March 4 "Social Networks": A Panel Discussion at the 75th Anniversary Celebration, Stanford Business School (2000, 90 minutes)


Possible books:

Possible thematic reading sets: (suggested by Doug Bryan)


1. In-class presentation (25%)
2. Written review (50%)
3. Comments on two other books (25%)
4. Borderline grades will be influenced by attendance and participation (both quality and quantity)