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general_systems_theory

Ludwig von Bertalanffy


Excerpted from General Systems Theory

“Modern science is characterized by its ever-increasing specialization, necessitated by the enormous amount of data, the complexity of techniques and of theoretical structures within every field. Thus science is split into innumerable disciplines continually generating new subdisciplines. In consequence, the physicist, the biologist, the psychologist and the social scientist are, so to speak, encapusulated in their private universes, and it is difficult to get word from one cocoon to the other…”

“Entities of an essentially new sort are entering the sphere of scientific thought. Classical science in its diverse disciplines, be it chemistry, biology, psychology or the social sciences, tried to isolate the elements of the observed universe - chemical compounds and enzymes, cells, elementary sensations, freely competing individuals, what not – expecting that, by putting them together again, conceptually or experimentally, the whole or system - cell, mind, society - would result and be intelligible. Now we have learned that for an understanding not only the elements but their interrelations as well are required…”

“It is necessary to study not only parts and processes in isolation, but also to solve the decisive problems found in organization and order unifying them, resulting from dynamic interaction of parts, and making the the behavoir of the parts different when studied in isolation or within the whole…”

General system theory, therefore, is a general science of “wholeness…The meaning of the somewhat mystical expression, “The whole is more that the sum of its parts” is simply that constitutive characteristics are not explanable from the characteristics of the isolated parts. The characteristics of the complex, therefore, appear as “new” or “emergent”…

We can also say: While we can conceive of a sum being composed gradually, as system as total of parts with its interrelations has to be conceived of as being composed instantly…”

“In our considerations we started with a general definition of “systems” defined as a “set of elements standing in interrelations… No special hypothesis or statement were made about the nature of the system, of its elements or the relations between them. Nevertheless from this purely formal definition of “system” many properties follow which in part are expressed in laws well-known in various fields of science, and in part concern concepts previously regarded as anthropomorphic, vitalistic. or metaphysical. The parallelism of general conceptions or even special laws in different fields therefore is a consequence of the fact that those are concerned with “systems” and that certain general principles apply to systems irrespective of their nature…

There appear to exist general system laws which apply to any system of a particular type, irrespective of the particular properties of the systems and the elements involved. Compared to the analytical procedure of classical science with resolution into component elements and one-way or linear causality as basic category, the investigation of organized wholes of many variables requires new categories of interaction, transaction, organization, teleology…”

“These considerations lead to the postulate of a new scientific discipline which we call general system theory. It's subject matter is formulation of principles that are valid for “systems” in general, whatever the nature of the component elements and the relations or “forces” between them…”

“It seems, therefore, that a general theory of systems would be a useful tool and providing on the one hand, models that can be used in, and transferred to, different fields, and safeguarding, on the other hand, from vague analogies which often have marred the progress in these fields.”


Perspectives of General Systems Theory by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. From the Foreward by Ervin Laszlo

“Thus when von Bertalanffy spoke of Allgemeine Systemtheorie it was consistent with his view that he was proposing a new perspective, a new way of doing science. It was not directly consistent with an interpretation often put on “general system theory,” to wit, that it is a (scientific) “theory of general systems.” To criticize it as such is to shoot at straw men. Von Bertalanffy opened up something much broader and of much greater significance than a single theory (which, as we now know, can always be falsified and has usually an ephemeral existence): he created a new paradigm for the development of theories.”

general_systems_theory.txt · Last modified: 2015/01/31 23:55 (external edit)