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History of the Primer

We started out in February of 1995 as the Handbook Project. Unfortunately, we recently found out a ISSS Handbook has been published in Spain (1993), and out of deference to the author, we have adopted a new moniker - The ISSS Primer. In addition our original goal has risen somewhat as we now are attempting a primer equal to that task of educating the seasoned systems scientist as well as the naive elementary school pupil, or media person.

Perhaps it might be good to review von Bertalanffy so that you might know where we are coming from.

It was around 1925-30 that Bertalanffy first observed that the vast collection of biological models that had been constructed and stored in the laboratory had common structural characteristics among them. This led him to conceive of the concept of general system principles which eventually would unify the relational aspects of science into a single unified whole.

While it is commonly accepted that Bertalanffy is the founder, the father, of the science of General Systems, the science of wholeness, the essence of a General System does not necessarily come from our group – General Systems Studies. It is being observed on all quarters, just as it would be expected.

Bertalanffy's main premise is: “The only goal of science appeared to be analytical, i.e., the splitting up of reality into ever smaller units and the isolation of individual causal trains…We may state as characteristic of modern science that this scheme of isolable units acting in one-way causality has proven to be insufficient. Hence the appearance, in all fields of science, of notions like wholeness, holistic, organismic, gestalt, etc., which all signify that, in the last resort, we must think in terms of systems of elements in mutual interaction.”

“We believe that the future elaboration of general system theory will prove to be a major step towards unification of science. It may be destined in the science of the future, to play a role similar to that of Aristotelian logic in the science of antiquity. The Greek conception of the world was static, things being considered to be a mirroring of eternal archetypes or ideas. Therefore classification was the central problem in science, the fundamental organ of which is the definition of subordination and superordination of concepts. In modern science, dynamic interaction appears to be the central problem in all fields of Reality. Its general principles are to be defined by system theory.” pg88

“Yet there is a third reason for the isomorphism of laws in different realms which is important for the present purpose. In our consideration we started with a general definition of “system” defined as “a set of elements in interaction” and expresses by the system of equation. No special hypothesis or statements 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 as well known in various fields of science, and, in part concern concepts previously regarded as anthropomorphic, vitalizes or metaphysical. The parallelism of general conceptions or even special laws in different fields therefore is a consequence of the fact that these are concerned with “systems” and that certain general principles apply to systems irrespective of their nature. Hence principles such as those of wholeness and sum, mechanization, hierarchic order, approached to steady states, equifinality, etc., may appear in quite different disciplines. The isomorphism found in different realms is based of the existence of general system principles, of a more or less well-developed “general system theory.” ”(pp.84 GST)

So that is the task laid out by Bertalanffy. And as you well know, in the nearly four decades hence, hundreds have submitted their candidate for a GST. Little did they know that a “general theory” is a contradiction of terms, while “general principles” complement eachother. .

We began our task by accepting Bertalanffy's “system” (elements in standing relationship) as our starting point, moving forward with a general definition supplied by Markus. “An organized whole of interrelated parts.” as the core of our thought. Nearly everyone agreed that elements, relations and whole were parts of the general definition, so we presupposed those requirements.

We pretended we didn't have a clue about the definition of systems, and proceeded to painstakingly reconstruct one of our own., knowing, of course, where we wanted to end up.

Immediately from the beginning we gave up on the traditional approach of trying to incorporate all systemological principles explicitly into one definition. To be fully general, the principles could not be stated in specific terms, and thus are “useless” as such to the scientist. On the other hand, being specific in our general definition removed that generality by definition.

Alternatively, we proceeded by dividing the general definition into “two complementary parts”- part (A) would be the fully general -acceptable to all, while part (B) would be the particular - acceptable to the individual.

We soon found out that fully general may be too general and further, cultural bias tends to favor and disfavor certain meanings of words. We were right back where we started.

However, systems is not about entities per se; as we all know, the emphasis is on the relationship, and the relationship is actually the emergent property of the relationship between its parts, and that expression is what we perceive as the thing. We actually are dealing with two major systems of knowledge, one is identity based, while the other is relational based, (Schwarz).

We switched our emphasis to the relationship.

We were looking for a term that Ken's eight year old son would understand. We debated the value of “group,” “entity,” or “set” and decided that perhaps we ought to use a relational word instead. Relational words are words like father, son, cousin, up, hot, here, words that denote relationship as opposed to identity words like Bob, Mary, Bill and Mike. Relational words are informative, we know something about the “wife.” with just that one word. We know little about the identity term - Mary. These relational-terms form a part of what we call Relationship Theory, formulated by Ken Udas and I, which is just what it says.

This led to the obvious “Family.”

Family seemed to be an ideal word for “groups” because it was relational to begin with. It is holonic, a whole and a part. And best of all it is relatively culture-bias free– Everyone knows what a family system is. We would find out that the family system is also a mediating system in its own right, and it may turn out to be a GST on top of it all. (It is in fact a “translinking” tool; a tool which can be called on to convey difficult systemic principles. Because the typical family is perhaps the most complex system there is, it is likely that most systemic principles would occur in a family setting.)

The organization we were looking for, using a relational term such as father, is “family.” After kicking the family word around for a while, we concluded that in fact it would be useful.

We knew that we wanted to shift emphasis from identity to relationship so we moved relationships from the end of the sentence toward the beginning. So far we had a system is a family of relationships among the members. . Then Ken added “meaning” and we ended up with a “system is a family of meaningful relationships,” to which we added the remainder as a reminder - “among the members as a whole.”

This then is our general definition from which all further principles can be derived. - “A system is a family of meaningful relationship among the members acting as a whole.” This is our working definition of General systems.

We are now in the second part (B) defining process which appears to be a listing of generic principles of organization. It is here that you could be of great help in our collective effort.

Part (A) A system is (like) a family of meaningful relationships among its members (acting) as a whole.

Part (B) is not so simple…

Thomas Mandel e-mail thommandel at

primer_history.txt · Last modified: 2020/07/27 15:38 (external edit)