Perspectives on GENERAL SYSTEM THEORY
by Ludwig von Bertalanffy
A collection of essays gathered together and published two years after his death in 1972.
Edited by Edgar Taschdjian
with forwards by Maria von Bertalanffy and Ervin Laszlo George Braziller, New York
Of particular interest…
Forward by Ervin Laszlo
…In the late twenties, von Bertalanffy (himself in his twenties) spoke of the new perspective as a method, and called it “organismic biology.” He spoke of it as an attempt at explanation, calling it “The system theory of the organism.” Later (1947) he recognized that “there exist mdels, principles and laws that apply to generalized systems or their suclasses irrespective of their particulatr kind, the nature of the component elements, and the relations or “forces' between them. We postulate a new discipline called General System Theory/”
The use of this term in English has wroght a certain amount of havoc. mainly through misunderstanding. It was criticized as pseudoscience and said to be nothing more than an admonishment to attend to things in a holistic way. Such criticisms would have lost their point had it been recognized that von Bertalanffy's general system theory is a perspective or paradigm, and that such basic conceptual frameworks play a key role in the development of exact scientific theory.
The original concept of general system theory was Allgemeine Systemtheorie (or Lehre). Now “Theorie” (or Lehre) just as Wissenschaft, has a much broader meaning in German than the closest English words “theory” and “science.” A Wiss enschaft is any organized body of knowledge, including the Geisteswissenschaften, which would not be considered true sciences in English usage. And Theorie applies to any systematically presented set of concepts, whether they are empirical, axiomatic, or philosophical. (Lehre comes into the same category, but cannot be properly translated; its closest equivalent, “teaching” sounds dogmatic and off the mark.)
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.
These theories are and will be system-theories, for they deal with systemic phenomena–organisms, populations, ecologies, groups, societies, and the like. An Allgemeine Theorle that can integrate these in-themselves different phenomena with the rigor associated with the English concept of “scientific theory” does not exist.
We have basic concepts, a number of principles, some rigorous enough to be considered “laws,” and, a general framework for theory construction. If this be considered not enough, the reader would do well to remember that a true general theory of all such varieties of -systems would constitute a master science that would make Einstein's attempt at a unified field theory pale by comparison.
Von Bertalanfy gave us a new paradigm for transdisciplinary synthesis. Given the fact that many of our intellectual and almost all our practical problems have to do with systemic phenomena (system'. design, system management, system development, and so on.) we should look upon general system theory as a fruitful new research program. (Lakatos), an essential component in the growth of scientific knowledge, and not as another finished theory. to be verified or falsified, and fitted either into the spectrum of valid scientific data or placed on the shelves of the history of science to gather dust.
Take the tour…an introduction to general systemics