Excerpted from Foundations for Research in Educational Communitions and Technology. Systems Inquiry and its Application in Education
GENESIS OF GENERAL SYSTEMS THEORY
Written by Bela Banathy
“Somewhere between the specific that has no meaning and the general that has no content there must be, for each purpose and at each level of abstraction, an optimum degree of generality. K. Boulding ”
The objectives of GST. then. can be set out with varying degrees of ambition and confidence, At a low level of amibition, but with a high degree of confidence, it aims to point out similarities in the theoretical constructions of different disciplines , where these exist, and to develop theoretical models having applicability to different fields of study. At a higher level of ambition, but perhaps with a lower level of confidence, it hopes to develop something like a “spectrum” of theories, a system of systems that may perform a “gestalt” in theoretical constructions.
It is the main objective of GST says Boulding, to develop “generalized ears” that overcome the “specializcd deafness” of the specific disciplines. meaning that someone who ought to know something that someone else knows isn't able to f ind it out for lack of generalized ears. Developing a framework of a general theory will enable the specialist to catch relevant coumniunication from others. In (the closing section of this paper, Boulding referred to the subtitle of his paper. GST as “the skeleton of science”
It is a skeleton in the sense- he says, that “It aims to provide a framework or structure of systems on which to hang the flesh and blood of particular disciplines and particular subject matters in an orderly and coherant corpus of knowledge. It is, also. however, something of a “skeleton in a cupboard” The cupboard in this case being the unwillingness of science to admit the tendency to shut the door on problems and subject matters which do not fit easily into simple mechanical schemes.
Science, for all its success still has a very long way to So. GST may at times be an embarrassement in pointing out how very far we still have to go, and in deflating excessive philosophical claim for overly simple systems. It also may be helpful, however, in pointing out to some extent where we have to go. The skeleton must come out of the cupboard before its dry bones can live.
The (two) papers introduced above set forth the “vision” of the systems movement. That vision still guides us today. At this point it seems to be appropriate to tell the story that marks the genisis of the systems movement. Kenneth Boulding told this story at the occasion when I was privileged to present to him the distinguished scholarship award of the Society of General Systems Research at our 1983 Annual Meeting, the year was 1954. At the Center for Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, four Center fellows - Bertalanffy (biology), Boulding (economics), Gerard (psychology), and Rapaport (mathematics) – had a discussion in a meeting room. Another Center fellow walked in and asked: “What going on here” Ken answered, “We are angered about the state of the human condition and ask:” What can we do – what can science – do about improving the human condition?” “Oh!” their visitor said, “That is not my field. . . .'
At that meeting the four scientists felt that in the statement of their visitor the heard the statement of the fragmented disciplines that have little concern for doing anything practical about the fate of humanity. So, they asked themselves, “What would happen if science would be redefined by crossing disciplinary boundaries and forge a general theory that would bring us together in the service of humanity?”
Later they went to Berkeley, to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and established the society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory. Throughout the years, many of us in the systems movement have continued to ask the question: “How can systems science serve humanity?”
Take the tour…the evolution of systems inquiry