ISSS 1998 Annual Meeting Presidential Address
G. A. Swanson
President, ISSS 1998
In his videoseries, James Grier Miller interviewed Margaret Mead concerning the beginnings of the modern systems movement in which they participated. They identified Walter B. Cannon's treatise on homeostasis and the Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow paper on feedback as critical foundations. Jim chastised the Americans for being chauvinist about this seminal work on feedback, because Ashby, an Englishman, had published his paper on that subject the year before. Margaret responded, “I wouldn't quarrel about that if I were you, Jim. I think it was in the air. Every human scientist had something in his files somewhere labeled `circles' whether they were the vicious circles of the psychiatrist or some other circular relationship. I think it was in the air.” May I assert today, it is still in the air, and there is no better place to reassert the spirit of the systems perspective than this great city of Atlanta, the location of the first formal meeting of ISSS and the substantial beginning of the modern systems and cybernetics movement. It is fitting that we honor the chair of that first meeting, Anatol Rapoport, with this new beginning of the ISSS, here where the movement was launched.
The interview to which I refer is a most fascinating account of the convergence of the central ideas of the systems movement. It describes how the ideas of the whole, homeostasis, feedback, and boundary came together to form the core of a general systems perspective of reality, and it provides critical insights into the process by which this perspective continues to mature. A little further in the interview, Jim extols the mushrooming popularity of systems science, but again, Margaret moderates his exuberance. She says, “I don't think there's that much acceptance, because I think people mean very different things . . . they are awfully unwilling to look at the whole.”
Because the systems perspective emerged in the integrative efforts of individuals from multiple disciplines, it is easily propagated to those disciplines. But when the central and general concepts of systems, which emerged just prior to the organizing of the Society for General Systems Research (now ISSS), are not well understood, more limited integrations of disciplined knowledge often occur. Such integrations fall short of the level of generality achieved earlier and fail to build the general knowledge. The problem that Margaret Mead observed continues today. Nevertheless, while it is old, it is also newwhile there is nothing new under sun, there is also nothing old. The problem today is much more sophisticated, and within it lies its own solution. The systems perspective is again in the air as it was when the central concepts of general systems were being formulated. But this perspective is toying with minds that understand the inter-related and interacting elements of systems at a much greater level of complexity. Simplifications provided by a systems science must emerge as human systems become more and more complex. The systems science that is emerging in this renaissance of systems thinking is a necessary emergent in the evolving world order. The scientific specialities, the academic disciplines, the arts, and philosophy are coming together for a sustainable world.
Over the last four decades, the International Society for the Systems Sciences has been more of a phantom vortex for a fluid but identifiable subculture than a visible organization. During that period, this subculture, hovering around the systems perspective, has penetrated virtually every academic and scientific discipline. The endurance of ISSS for almost a half-century testifies to the profound strength of this new subcultureand ultimately to the passion of some humans to reach beyond themselves and to participate in that which is greater than they. ISSS has never been a strong organization. But many strong programs and organizations have grown at the hands of some who have passed through this vortex. We all know that strong organizations grow from maturing sets of ideas that concern specific purposes and goals. We also know that our Society seeks the general, the whole. Why then, can we not allow ourselves to understand that the nature of the product of ISSS has not heretofore provided the ingredients of strong organization? What is the purpose and goals of all encompassing theory? Do we then argue ISSS out of existence? On the contrary. Only a few years ago, few people could recognize a compelling need for theories beyond the level of individual disciplines. Today, the need for interdisciplinary research is widely recognized. System thinking is again in the air. The perceptions of scientists are growing more general, and we are part of that process. However, interdisciplinarity is viewed mainly from a discipline to discipline vantagenot from the perspective of general systems, from that of wholes. Methodological transfer is far more popular than epistomological integration.
That is understandable. Few individuals can make a living in Philosophy. Many scientists and technicians make their living applying methodologies to solving problems and forming the future. But methodology that devises its own epistomology often ignores important global considerations and other specialities. No individual can associate information in the learning process without that information being biased by that knowledge to which the information is associated. Likewise, no methodology can assimilate epistomological undergirdings without methodological bias. So the pursuit of epistomological integration comes from a few visionariesVisionaries who, while sustained economically by their bread-and-butter jobs, reach beyond their specialities and methodologies and dare to suggest to other specialists that they have some general insights that might apply to all specialities or some broad subset of “all.” Such an assertion is itself haughty – and proves too often to be shallow, as well. But it is from such transposition of ideas from one conceptual level to another that useful new paradigms emerge.
Today, the systems perspective is in the air againand the systems perceived are more general than those usually perceived four decades ago. But the work of the International Society for the Systems Sciences is not overit is just beginning. The whole is still seldom recognized. Or when it is recognized, too often its recognition comes at the expense of its parts. While it is more than its parts, the whole is not separate from its parts. As our perception of the whole grows more general, the interactions of that whole grow more complex. To acknowledge that complexity and to attempt to understand it is not reductionistic. To impose the characteristics of one level of complexity upon a higher or lower level is reductionistic. To ignore the complexity of the whole is to introduce a Never Never Land of ambiguity between the whole and its parts. So as we continue our quest for the grand general theory, we must expect and participate in the nurturing of those general, but not ultimately grand, theories that give insights into some aspects of the grand whole.
This is our providence, our karma, our fate, our destiny. We will push our theories to their limitsto their failuresmoving ever forward to discover what is beyond. This is the International Society for the Systems Sciences.