Advances of General System Theory

The decisive question is that of the explanatory and predictive value of the “new theories” attacking the host of problems around wholeness, teleology, etc. Of course, the change in intellectual climate which allows one to see new problems which were overlooked previously, or to see problems in a new light, is in a way more important than any single and special application. The “Copernican Revolution” was more than the possibility somewhat better to calculate the movement of the planets; general relativity more than an explanation of a very small number of recalcitrant phenomena in physics; Darwinism more than a hypothetical answer to zoological problems; it was the changes in the general frame of reference that mattered (cf. Rapoport, 1959a). Nevertheless, the justification of such change ultimately is in specific achievements which would not have been obtained without the new theory.

There is no question that new horizons have been opened up but the relations to empirical facts often remain tenuous. Thus, information theory has been hailed as a “major breakthrough,” but outside the original technological field, contributions have remained scarce. In psychology, they are so far limited to rather trivial applications such as rote learning, etc. (Rapoport, 1956, Attneave, 1959). When, in biology, DNA is spoken of as “coded information” and of “breaking the code” when the structure of nucleic acids is elucidated, use of the term information is a façon de parler rather than application of information theory in the technical sense as developed by Shannon and Weaver (1949). “Information theory, although useful for computer design and network analysis, has so far not found a significant place in biology” (Bell, 1962). Game theory, too, is a novel mathematical development which was considered to be comparable in scope to Newtonian mechanics and the introduction of calculus; again, “the applications are meager and faltering” (Rapoport, 1959a; the reader is urgently referred to Rapoport’s discussions on information and game theory which admirably analyze the problems here mentioned). The same is seen in decision theory from which considerable gain in applied systems science was expected; but as regards the much-advertised military and business games, “there has been no controlled evaluation of their performance in training, personnel selection, and demonstration” (Ackoff, 1959).

A danger in recent developments should not remain unmentioned. Science of the past (and partly still the present) was dominated by one- sided empiricism. Only collection of data and experiments were considered as being “scientific” in biology (and psychology); “theory” was equated with “speculation” or “philosophy,” forgetting that a mere accumulation of data, although steadily piling up, does not make a “science.” Lack of recognition and support for development of the necessary theoretical framework and unfavorable influence on experimental research itself (which largely became an at-random, hit-or- miss endeavor) was the consequence (cf. Weiss, 1962a). This has, in certain fields, changed to the contrary in recent years. Enthusiasm for the new mathematical and logical tools available has led to feverish “model building” as a purpose in itself and often without regard to empirical fact. However, conceptual experimentation at random has no greater chances of success than at-random experimentation in the laboratory. In the words of Ackoff (1959), there is the fundamental misconception in game (and other) theory to mistake for a “problem” what actually is only a mathematical “exercise.” One would do well to remember the old Kantian maxim that experience without theory is blind but theory without experience a mere intellectual play.

The case is somewhat different with cybernetics. The model here applied is not new; although the enormous development in the field dates from the introduction of the name, Cybernetics (Wiener, 1948), application of the feedback principle to physiological processes goes back to R. Wagner’s work nearly 40 years ago (cf. Kment, 1959). The feedback and homeostasis model has since been applied to innumerable biological phenomena and— somewhat less persuasively—in psychology and the social sciences. The reason for the latter fact is, in Rapoport’s words (1956) that

usually, there is a well-marked correlation between the scope and the soundness of the writings.. . . The sound work is confined either to engineering or to rather trivial applications; ambitious formulations remain vague.

This, of course, is an ever-present danger in all approaches to general systems theory: doubtless, there is a new compass of thought but it is difficult to steer between the Scylla of the trivial and the Charybdis of mistaking neologisms for explanation.

The following survey is limited to “classical” general system theory— “classical” not in the sense that it claims any priority or excellence, but that the models used remain in the framework of “classical” mathematics in contradistinction to the “new” mathematics in game, network, information theory, etc. This does not imply that the theory is merely application of conventional mathematics. On the contrary, the system concept poses problems which are partly far from being answered. In the past, system problems have led to important mathematical developments such as Volterra’s theory of integro-differential equations, of systems with “memory” whose behavior depends not only on actual conditions but also on previous history. Presently important problems are waiting for further developments, e.g., a general theory of non-linear differential equations, of steady states and rhythmic phenomena, a generalized principle of least action, the thermodynamic definition of steady states, etc.

It is, of course, irrelevant whether or not research was explicitly labeled as “general system theory.” No complete or exhaustive review is intended. The aim of this unpretentious survey will be fulfilled if it can serve as a sort of guide to research done in the field, and to areas that are promising for future work.


The theory of open systems is an important generalization of physical theory, kinetics and thermodynamics. It has led to new principles and insight, such as the principle of equifinality, the generalization of the second thermodynamic principle, the possible increase of order in open systems, the occurrence of periodic phenomena of overshoot and false start, etc.

The extensive work in biology and related fields is partly reviewed in Chapters 5-7. (For further discussion also cf. Bray and White, 1957; Jung, 1956; Morchio, 1956; Netter, 1953, 1959).

Beyond the individual organism, systems principles are also used in population dynamics and écologie theory (review: J. R. Bray, 1958). Dynamic ecology, i.e., the succession and climax of plant populations, is a much-cultivated field which, however, shows a tendency to slide into verbalism and terminological debate. The systems approach seems to offer a new viewpoint. Whittacker (1953) has described the sequence of plant communities toward a climax formation in terms of open systems and equifinality. According to this author, the fact that similar climax formations may develop from different initial vegetations is a striking example of equifinality, and one where the degree of independence of starting conditions and the course development has taken appear even greater than in the individual organism. A quantitative analysis on the basis of open systems in terms of production of biomass, with climax as steady state attained, was given by Patten (1959).

The open-system concept has also found application in the earth sciences, geomorphology (Chorley, 1964) and meteorology (Thompson, 1961) drawing a detailed comparison of modern meteorological concepts and Bertalanffy’s organismic concept in biology. It may be remembered that already Prigogine in his classic (1947) mentioned meteorology as one possible field of application of open systems.


The simplest forms of growth which, for this reason, are particularly apt to show the isomorphism of law in different fields are the exponential and the logistic. Examples are, among many others, the increase of knowledge of number of animal species (Gessner, 1952), publications on drosophila (Hersh, 1942), of manufacturing companies (Haire, 1959). Boulding (1956a) and Keiter (1951-52) have emphasized a general theory of growth.

The theory of animal growth after Bertalanffy (and others)— which, in virtue of using overall physiological parameters (“anabolism,” “catabolism”) may be subsumed under the heading of G.S.T. as well as under that of biophysics—has been surveyed in its various applications (Bertalanffy, 1960b).

RELATIVE GROWTH                                                                                       .

A principle which is also of great simplicity and generality concerns the relative growth of components within a system. The simple relationship of allometric increase applies to many growth phenomena in biology (morphology, biochemistry, physiology, evolution).

A similar relationship obtains in social phenomena. Social dif- ferentiation and division of labor in primitive societies as well as the process of urbanization (i.e., growth of cities in comparison to rural population) follow the allometric equation. Application of the latter offers a quantitative measure of social organization and development, apt to replace the usual, intuitive judgments (Naroll and Bertalanffy, 1956). The same principle apparently applies to the growth of staff compared to total number of employees in manufacturing companies (Haire, 1959).


The work in population dynamics by Volterra, Lotka, Gause and others belongs to the classics of G.S.T., having first shown that it is possible to develop conceptual models for phenomena such as the “struggle for existence” that can be submitted to empirical test. Population dynamics and related population genetics have since become important fields in biological research.

It is important to note that investigation of this kind belongs not only to basic but also to applied biology. This is true of fishery biology where theoretical models are used to establish optimum conditions for the exploitation of the sea (survey of the more important models: Watt, 1958). The most elaborate dynamic model is by Beverton and Holt (1957; short survey: Holt, w.y.) developed for fish populations exploited in commercial fishery but certainly of wider application. This model takes into account recruitment (i.e., entering of individuals into the population), growth (assumed to follow the growth equations after Bertalanffy), capture (by exploitation), and natural mortality. The practical value of this model is illustrated by the fact that it has been adopted for routine purposes by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the British Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and other official agencies.

Richardson’s studies on armaments races (cf. Rapoport, 1957, 1960), notwithstanding their shortcomings, dramatically show the possible impact of the systems concept upon the most vital concerns of our time. If rational and scientific considerations matter at all, this is one way to refute such catchwords as Si vis pacem para bellum.

The expressions used in population dynamics and the biological “struggle for existence,” in econometrics, in the study of armament races (and others) all belong to the same family of equations (the system discussed in Chapter 3). A systematic comparison and study of these parallelisms would be highly interesting and rewarding (cf. also Rapoport, 1957, p. 88). One may, for example, suspect that the laws governing business cycles and those of population fluctuations according to Volterra stem from similar conditions of competition and interaction in the system.

In a non-mathematical way, Boulding (1953) has discussed what he calls the “Iron Laws” of social organizations: the Malthusian law, the law of optimum size of organizations, existence of cycles, the law of oligopoly, etc.


The theoretical interest of systems engineering and operations research is in the fact that entities whose components are most heterogeneous— men, machines, buildings, monetary and other values, inflow of raw material, outflow of products and many other items—can successfully be submitted to systems analysis.

As already mentioned, systems engineering employs the methodology of cybernetics, information theory, network analysis, flow and block diagrams, etc. Considerations of G.S.T. also enter (A.D. Hall, 1962). The first approaches are concerned with structured, machine-like aspects (yes- or-no decisions in the case of information theory); one would suspect that G.S.T. aspects will win increased importance with dynamic aspects, flexible organizations, etc.


Although there is an enormous amount of theorizing on neural and psychological function in the cybernetic line based upon the brain- computer comparison, few attempts have been made to apply G.S.T. in the narrower sense to the theory of human behavior (e.g., Krech, 1956; Menninger, 1957). For the present purposes, the latter may be nearly equated with personality theory.

We have to realize at the start that personality theory is at present a battlefield of contrasting and controversial theories. Hall and Lindzey (1957, p. 71) have justly stated: “All theories of behavior are pretty poor theories and all of them leave much to be desired in the way of scientific proof”—this being said in a textbook of nearly 600 pages on “Theories of Personality.”

We can therefore not well expect that G.S.T. can present solutions where personality theorists from Freud and Jung to a host of modern writers were unable to do so. The theory will have shown its value if it opens new perspectives and viewpoints capable of experimental and practical application. This appears to be the case. There is quite a group of psychologists who are committed to an organismic theory of personality, Goldstein and Maslow being well-known representatives.

There is, of course, the fundamental question whether, first, G.S.T. is not essentially a physicalistic simile, inapplicable to psychic phenomena; and secondly whether such model has explanatory value when the pertinent variables cannot be defined quantitatively as is in general the case with psychological phenomena.

  • The answer to the first question appears to be that the system concept is abstract and general enough to permit application to entities of whatever denomination. The notions of “equilibrium,” “homeostasis,” “feedback,” “stress,” etc., are no less of technologic or physiological origin but more or less successfully applied to psychological phenomena. System theorists agree that the concept of “system” is not limited to material entities but can be applied to any “whole” consisting of inter- acting “components.”
  • If quantization is impossible, and even if the components of a system are ill-defined, it can at least be expected that certain principles will qualitatively apply to the whole qua At least “explanation in principle” (see below) may be possible.

Bearing in mind these limitations, one concept which may prove to be of a key nature is the organismic notion of the organism as a spontaneously active system. In the present author’s words,

Even under constant external conditions and in the absence of external stimuli the organism is not a passive but a basically active system. This applies in particular to the function of the nervous system and to behavior. It appears that internal activity rather than reaction to stimuli is fundamental. This can be shown with respect both to evolution in lower animals and to development, for example, in the first movements of embryos and fetuses (von Bertalanffy, 1960a).

This agrees with what von Holst has called the “new conception” of the nervous system, based upon the fact that primitive locomotor activities are caused by central automatisms that do not need external stimuli. Therefore, such movements persist, for example, even after the connection of motoric to sensory nerves had been severed. Hence the reflex in the classic sense is not the basic unit of behavior but rather a regulatory mechanism superposed upon primitive, automatic activities. A similar concept is basic in the theory of instinct. According to Lorenz, innate releasing mechanisms (I.R.M.) play a dominant role, which sometimes go off without an external stimulus (in vacuo or running-idle reactions): A bird which has no material to build a nest may perform the movements of nest building in the air. These considerations are in the framework of what Hebb (1955) called the “conceptual C.N.S. of 1930-1950.” The more recent insight into activating systems of the brain emphasizes differently, and with a wealth of experimental evidence, the same basic concept of the autonomous activity of the C.N.S.

The significance of these concepts becomes apparent when we consider that they are in fundamental contrast to the conventional stimulus- response scheme which assumes that the organism is an essentially reactive system answering, like an automaton, to external stimuli. The dominance of the S-R scheme in contemporary psychology needs no emphasis, and is obviously connected with the Zeitgeist of a highly mechanized society. This principle is basic in psychological theories which in all other respects are opposite, for example, in behavioristic psychology as well as in psychoanalysis. According to Freud it is the supreme tendency of the organism to get rid of tensions and drives and come to rest in a state of equilibrium governed by the “principle of stability” which Freud borrowed from the German philosopher, Fechner. Neurotic and psychotic behavior, then, is a more or less effective or abortive defense mechanism tending to restore some sort of equilibrium (according to D. Rapaport’s analysis (1960) of the structure of psychoanalytic theory: “economic” and “adaptive points of view”).

Charlotte Biihler (1959), the well-known child psychologist, has aptly epitomized the theoretical situation:

In the fundamental psychoanalytic model, there is only one basic tendency, that is toward need gratification or tension reduction. . . . Present-day biologic theories emphasize the “spontaneity” of the organism’s activity which is due to its built-in energy. The organism’s autonomous functioning, its “drive to perform certain movements” is emphasized by Ber- talanffy… These concepts represent a complete revision of the original homeostasis principle which emphasized exclusively the tendency toward equilibrium, ft is the original homeostasis principle with which psychoanalysis identified its theory of discharge of tensions as the only primary tendency (italics partly ours).

In brief, we may define our viewpoint as “Beyond the Homeostatic Principle”:

  • The S-R scheme misses the realms of play, exploratory activities, creativity, self-realization, ;
  • The economic scheme misses just specific, human achievements— the most of what loosely is termed “human culture”;
  • The equilibrium principle misses the fact that psychological and behavioral activities are more than relaxation of tensions; far from establishing an optimal state, the latter may entail psychosis-like disturbances as, e.g., in sensory-deprivation experi-ments.

It appears that the S-R and psychoanalytic model is a highly unrealistic picture of human nature and, in its consequences, a rather dangerous one. Just what we consider to be specific human achievements can hardly be brought under the utilitarian, homeostasis, and stimulus-response scheme. One may call mountain climbing, composing of sonatas or lyrical poems “psychological homeostasis”—as has been done—but at the risk that this physiologically well-defined concept loses all meaning. Furthermore, if the principle of homeostatic maintenance is taken as a golden rule of behavior, the so-called well-adjusted individual will be the ultimate goal, that is a well-oiled robot maintaining itself in optimal biological, psychological and social homeostasis. This is Brave New World—not, for some at least, the ideal state of humanity. Furthermore, that precarious mental equilibrium must not be disturbed: Hence, in what rather ironically is called progressive education, the anxiety not to overload the child, not to impose constraints and to minimize all directing influences— with the result of a previously unheard-of crop of illiterates and juvenile delinquents.

In contrast to conventional theory, it can safely be maintained that not only stresses and tensions but equally complete release from stimuli and the consequent mental void may be neuroso- genic or even psychosogenic. Experimentally this is verified by the experiments with sensory deprivation when subjects, insulated from all incoming stimuli, after a few hours develop a so-called model psychosis with hallucinations, unbearable anxiety, etc. Clinically it amounts to the same when insulation leads to prisoners’ psychosis and to exacerbation of mental disease by isolation of patients in the ward. In contrast, maximal stress need not necessarily produce mental disturbance. If conventional theory were correct, Europe during and after the war, with extreme physiological as well as psychological stresses, should have been a gigantic lunatic asylum. As a matter of fact, there was statistically no increase either in neurotic or psychotic disturbances, apart from easily explained acute disturbances such as combat neurosis (see Chapter 9).

So we arrive at the conception that a great deal of biological and human behavior is beyond the principles of utility, homeostasis and stimulus- response, and that it is just this which is characteristic of human and cultural activities. Such a new look opens new perspectives not only in theory but in practical implications with respect to mental hygiene, education, and society in general. (See Chapter 9).

What has been said can also be couched in philosophical terms. If existentialists speak of the emptiness and meaninglessness of life, if they see in it a source not only of anxiety but of actual mental illness, it is essentially the same viewpoint: that behavior is not merely a matter of satisfaction of biological drives and of maintenance in psychological and social equilibrium but that something more is involved. If life becomes unbearably empty in an industrialized society, what can a person do but develop a neurosis? The principle, which may loosely be called spon- taneous activity of the psychophysical organism, is a more realistic formulation of what the existentialists want to say in their often obscure language. And if personality theorists like Maslow or Gardner Murphy speak of self-realization as human goal, it is again a somewhat pompous expression of the same.


We eventually come to those highest and ill-defined entities that are called human cultures and civilizations. It is the field often called “philosophy of history.” We may perhaps better speak of “theoretical history,” admittedly in its very first beginnings. This name expresses the aim to form a connecting link between “science” and the “humanities”; more in particular, between the social sciences and history.

It is understood, of course, that the techniques in sociology and history are entirely different (polls, statistical analysis against archival studies, internal evidence of historic relics, etc.). However, the object of study is essentially the same. Sociology is essentially concerned with a temporal cross-section as human societies are; history with the “longitudinal” study how societies become and develop. The object and techniques of study certainly justify practical differentiation; it is less clear, however, that they justify fundamentally different philosophies.

The last statement already implies the question of constructs in history, as they were presented, in grand form, from Vico to Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee. Professional historians regard them at best as poetry, at worst as fantasies pressing—with paranoic obsession—the facts of history into a theoretical bed of Procrustes. It seems history can learn from the system theorists not ultimate solutions but a sounder methodological outlook. Problems hitherto considered to be philosophical or metaphysical can well be defined in their scientific meaning, with some interesting outlook at recent developments (e.g., game theory) thrown into the bargain.

Empirical criticism is outside the scope of the present study. For example, Geyl (1958) and many others have analyzed obvious misrepresentations of historical events in Toynbee’s work, and even the non-specialist reader can easily draw a list of fallacies especially in the later, Holy Ghost-inspired volumes of Toynbee’s magnum opus. The problem, however, is larger than errors in fact or interpretation or even the question of the merits of Marx’s, Spengler’s or Toynbee’s theories; it is whether, in principle, models and laws are admissible in history.

A widely held contention says that they are not. This is the concept of “nomothetic” method in science and “idiographic” method in history. While science to a greater or less extent can establish “laws” for natural events, history, concerned with human events of enormous complexity in causes and outcome and presumably determined by free decisions of individuals, can only describe, more or less satisfactorily, what has happened in the past.

Here the methodologist has his first comment. In the attitude just outlined, academic history condemns constructs of history as “intuitive,” “contrary to fact,” “arbitrary,” etc. And, no doubt, the criticism is pungent enough vis-à-vis Spengler or Toynbee. It is, however, somewhat less convincing if we look at the work of conventional historiography. For example, the Dutch historian, Peter Geyl, who made a strong argument against Toynbee from such methodological considerations, also wrote a brilliant book about Napoleon (1949), amounting to the result that there are a dozen or so different interpretations—we may safely say, models—of Napoleon’s character and career within academic history, all based upon “fact” (the Napoleonic period happens to be one of the best documented) and all flatly contradicting each other. Roughly speaking, they range from Napoleon as the brutal tyrant and egotistic enemy of human freedom to Napoleon the wise planner of a unified Europe; and if one is a Napoleonic student (as the present writer happens to be in a small way), one can easily produce some original documents refuting misconceptions occurring even in generally accepted, standard histories. You cannot have it both ways. If even a figure like Napoleon, not very remote in time and with the best of historical documentation, can be interpreted contrarily, you cannot well blame the “philosophers of history” for their intuitive procedure, subjective bias, etc., when they deal with the enormous phenomenon of universal history. What you have in both cases is a conceptual model which always will represent certain aspects only, and for this reason will be one-sided or even lopsided. Hence the con- struction of conceptual models in history is not only permissible but, as a matter of fact, is at the basis of any historical interpretation as distinguished from mere enumeration of data—i.e., chronicle or annals.

If this is granted, the antithesis between idiographic and nomothetic procedure reduces to what psychologists are wont to call the “molecular” and “molar” approach. One can analyze events within a complex whole— individual chemical reactions in an organism, perceptions in the psyche, for example; or one can look for overall laws covering the whole such as growth and development in the first or personality in the second instance. In terms of history, this means detailed study of individuals, treaties, works of art, singular causes and effects, etc., or else overall phenomena with the hope of detecting grand laws. There are, of course, all transitions between the first and second considerations; the extremes may be illustrated by Carlyle and his hero worship at one pole and Tolstoy (a far greater “theoretical historian” than commonly admitted) at the other.

The question of a “theoretical history” therefore is essentially that of “molar” models in the field; and this is what the constructs of history amount to when divested of their philosophical embroidery.

The evaluation of such models must follow the general rules for verification or falsification. First, there is the consideration of empirical bases. In this particular instance, it amounts to the question whether or not a limited number of civilizations—some 20 at the best—provide a sufficient and representative sample to establish justified generalizations. This question and that of the value of proposed models will be answered by the general criterion: whether or not the model has explanatory and predictive value, i.e., throws new light upon known facts and correctly foretells facts of the past or future not previously known.

Although elementary, these considerations nevertheless are apt to remove much misunderstanding and philosophical fog which has clouded the issue.

  • As has been emphasized, the evaluation of models should be simply pragmatic in terms of their explanatory and predictive merits (or lack thereof); a priori considerations as to their desirability or moral consequences do not enter.

Here we encounter a somewhat unique situation. There is little objection against so-called “synchronic” laws—i.e., supposed regu- larities governing societies at a certain point in time; as a matter of fact, beside empirical study this is the aim of sociology. Also certain “diachronic” laws—i.e., regularities of development in time—are undisputed such as, e.g., Grimm’s law stating rules for the changes of consonants in the evolution of Indo-Germanic languages. It is commonplace that there is a sort of “life cycle” —stages of primitivity, maturity, baroque dissolution of form and eventual decay for which no particular external causes can be indicated—in individual fields of culture, such as Greek sculpture, Renaissance painting or German music. Indeed, this even has its counterpart in certain phenomena of biological evolution showing, as in ammonites or dinosaurs, a first explosive phase of formation of new types, followed by a phase of spéciation and eventually of decadence.

Violent criticism comes in when this model is applied to civili- zation as a whole. It is a legitimate question—why often rather unrealistic models in the social sciences remain matters of academic discussion, while models of history encounter passionate resistance? Granting all factual criticism raised against Spengler or Toynbee, it seems rather obvious that emotional factors are involved. The highway of science is strewn with corpses of deceased theories which just decay or are preserved as mummies in the museum of history of science. In contrast, historical constructs and especially theories of historical cycles appear to touch a raw nerve, and so opposition is much more than usual criticism of a scientific theory.

  • This emotional involvement is connected with the question of “Historical Inevitability” and a supposed degradation of human “freedom.” Before turning to it, discussion of mathematical and non- mathematical models is in order.

Advantages and shortcomings of mathematical models in the social sciences are well known (Arrow, 1956; Rapoport, 1957). Every mathematical model is an oversimplification, and it remains questionable whether it strips actual events to the bones or cuts away vital parts of their anatomy. On the other hand, so far as it goes, it permits necessary deduction with often unexpected results which would not be obtained by ordinary “common sense.”

In particular, Rashevsky has shown in several studies how mathematical models of historical processes can be constructed (Rashevsky, 1951, 1952).

On the other hand, the value of purely qualitative models should not be underestimated. For example, the concept of “écologie equilibrium” was developed long before Volterra and others introduced mathematical models; the theory of selection belongs to the stock-in-trade of biology, but the mathematical theory of the “struggle for existence” is comparatively recent, and far from being verified under wildlife conditions.

In complex phenomena, “explanation in principle” (Hayek, 1955) by qualitative models is preferable to no explanation at all. This is by no means limited to the social sciences and history; it applies alike to fields like meteorology or evolution.

  • “Historical inevitability”—subject of a well-known study by Sir Isaiah Berlin (1955) —dreaded as a consequence of “theoretical history,” supposedly contradicting our direct experience of having free choices and eliminating all moral judgment and values—is a phantasmagoria based upon a world view which does not exist any As in fact Berlin emphasizes, it is founded upon the concept of the Laplacean spirit who is able completely to predict the future from the past by means of deterministic laws. This has no resemblance to the modern concept of “laws of nature.” All ‘laws of nature” have a statistical character. They do not predict an inexorably determined future but probabilities which, depending on the nature of events and on the laws available, may approach certainty or else remain far below it. It is nonsensical to ask for or fear more “inevitability” in historical theory than is found in sciences with relatively high sophistication like meteorology or economics.

Paradoxically, while the cause of free will rests with the testi- mony of intuition or rather immediate experience and can never be proved objectively (“Was it Napoleon’s free will that led him to the Russian Campaign?”), determinism (in the statistical sense) can be proved, at least in small-scale models. Certainly business depends on personal “initiative,” the individual “decision” and “responsibility” of the entrepreneur; the manager’s choice whether or not to expand business by employing new appointees is “free” in precisely the sense as Napoleon’s choice of whether or not to accept battle at the Moskwa. However, when the growth curve of industrial companies is analyzed, it is found that “arbitrary” deviations are followed by speedy return to the normal curve, as if invisible forces were active. Haire (1959, p. 283) states that “the return to the pattern predicted by earlier growth suggests the operation of inexorable forces operating on the social organism” (our italics).

It is characteristic that one of Berlin’s points is “the fallacy of historical determinism (appearing) from its utter inconsistency with the common sense and everyday life of looking at human affairs.” This characteristic argument is of the same nature as the advice not to adopt the Copernican system because everybody can see that the sun and not the earth moves from morning to evening.

  • Recent developments in mathematics even allow to submit “free will”—apparently the philosophical problem most resistant to scientific analysis—to mathematical examination.

In the light of modern systems theory, the alternative between molar and molecular, nomothetic and idiographic approach can be given a precise meaning. For mass behavior, system laws would apply which, if they can be mathematized, would take the form of differential equations of the sort of those used by Richardson (cf. Rapoport, 1957) mentioned above. In contrast, free choice of the individual would be described by formulations of the nature of game and decision theory.

Axiomatically, game and decision theory are concerned with “rational” choice. This means a choice which “maximizes the individual’s utility or satisfaction,” that “the individual is free to choose among several possible courses of action and decides among them at the basis of their consequences,” that he “selects, being informed of all conceivable consequences of his actions, what stands highest on his list,” he “prefers more of a commodity to less, other things being equal,” etc. (Arrow, 1956). Instead of economical gain, any higher value may be inserted without changing the mathematical formalism.

The above definition of “rational choice” includes everything that can be meant by “free will.” If we do not wish to equate “free will” with complete arbitrariness, lack of any value judgment and therefore completely inconsequential actions (like the philosopher’s favorite example: It is my free will whether or not to wiggle my left little finger), it is a fair definition of those actions with which the moralist, priest or historian is concerned: free decision between alternatives based upon insight into the situation and its consequences and guided by values.

The difficulty to apply theory even to simple, actual situations is of course enormous; so is the difficulty in establishing overall laws. However, without explicit formulation, both approaches can be evaluated in principle—leading to an unexpected paradox.

The “principle of rationality” fits—not the majority of human actions but rather the “unreasoning” behavior of animals. Animals and organisms in general do function in a “ratiomorphic” way, maximizing such values as maintenance, satisfaction, survival, etc.; they select, in general, what is biologically good for them, and prefer more of a commodity (e.g., food) to less.

Human behavior, on the other hand, falls far short of the principle of rationality. It is not even necessary to quote Freud to show how small is the compass of rational behavior in man. Women in a supermarket, in general, do not maximize utility but are susceptible to the tricks of the advertiser and packer; they do not make a rational choice surveying all possibilities and consequences; and do not even prefer more of the commodity packed in an inconspicuous way to less when packed in a big red box with attractive design. In our society, it is the job of an influential specialty—advertisers, motivation researchers, etc.—to make choices irrational which essentially is done by coupling biological factors—conditioned reflex, unconscious drives—with symbolic values (cf. von Bertalanffy, 1956a).

And there is no refuge by saying that this irrationality of human behavior concerns only trivial actions of daily life; the same principle applies to “historical” decisions. That wise old bird Oxenstierna, Sweden’s Chancellor during the Thirty Years’ War, expressed this perfectly by saying: Nescis, mi fili, quantilla ratione mundus regatur—you don’t know, my dear boy, with what little reason the world is governed. Reading newspapers or listening to the radio readily shows that this applies perhaps even more to the 20th than the 17th century.

Methodologically, this leads to a remarkable conclusion. If one of the two models is to be applied, and if the “actuality principle” basic in historical fields like geology and evolution is adopted (i.e., the hypothesis that no other principles of explanation should be used than can be observed as operative in the present)—then it is the statistical or mass model which is backed by empirical evidence. The business of the motivation and opinion researcher, statistical psychologist, etc., is based upon the premise that statistical laws obtain in human behavior; and that, for this reason, a small but well- chosen sample allows for extrapolation to the total population under consideration. The generally good working of a Gallup poll and prediction verifies the premise—with some incidental failure like the well-known example of the Truman election thrown in, as is to be expected with statistical predictions. The opposite contention—that history is governed by “free will” in the philosophical sense (i.e., rational decision for the better, the higher moral value or even enlightened selfinterest) is hardly supported by fact. That here and there the statistical law is broken by “rugged individualists” is in its character. Nor does the role played in history by “great men” contradict the system concept in history; they can be conceived as acting like “leading parts,” “triggers” or “catalyzers” in the historical process —a phenomenon well accounted for in the general theory of systems.

  • A further question is the “organismic analogy” unanimously condemned by They combat untiringly the “meta- physical,” “poetical,” “mythical” and thoroughly unscientific nature of Spengler’s assertion that civilizations are a sort of “organisms,” being born, developing according to their internal laws and eventually dying. Toynbee (e.g., 1961) takes great pains to emphasize that he did not fall into Spengler’s trap—even though it is somewhat difficult to see that his civilizations, connected by the biological relations of “affiliation” and “apparenta- tion,” even with a rather strict time span of development, are not conceived organismically.

Nobody should know better than the biologist that civilizations are not “organisms.” It is trivial to the extreme that a biological organism, a material entity and unity in space and time, is something different from a social group consisting of distinct individuals, and even more from a civilization consisting of generations of human beings, of material products, institutions, ideas, values, and what not. It implies a serious underestimate of Vico’s, Spengler’s (or any normal individual’s) intelligence to suppose that they did not realize the obvious.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that, in contrast to the historians’ scruples, sociologists do not abhor the “organismic analogy” but rather take it for granted. For example, in the words of Rapoport and Horvath (1959):

There is some sense in considering a real organization as an organism, that is, there is reason to believe that this comparison need not be a sterile metaphorical analogy, such as was common in scholastic speculation about the body politic. Quasibiological functions are demonstrable in organizations. They maintain themselves; they sometimes reproduce or metastasize; they respond to stresses; they age, and they die. Organizations have discernible anatomies and those at least which transform material inputs (like industries) have physiologies.

Or Sir Geoffrey Vickers (1957):

Institutions grow, repair themselves, reproduce themselves, decay, dissolve. In their external relations they show many characteristics of organic life. Some think that in their internal relations also human institutions are destined to become increasingly organic, that human cooperation will approach ever more closely to the integration of cells in a body. I find this prospect unconvincing (and) unpleasant. (N.B., so does the present author.)

And Haire (1959, p. 272):

The biological model for social organizations—and here, particularly for industrial organizations—means taking as a model the living organism and the processes and principles that regulate its growth and development. It means looking for lawful processes in organizational growth.

The fact that simple growth laws apply to social entities such as manufacturing companies, to urbanization, division of labor, etc., proves that in these respects the “organismic analogy” is correct. In spite of the historians’ protests, the application of theoretical models, in particular, the model of dynamic, open and adaptive systems (McClelland, 1958) to the historical process certainly makes sense. This does not imply “biologism,” i.e., reduction of social to biological concepts, but indicates system principles applying in both fields.

  • Taking all objections for granted—poor method, errors in fact, the enormous complexity of the historical process—we have nevertheless reluctantly to admit that the cyclic models of history pass the most important test of scientific theory. The predictions made by Spengler in The Decline of the West, by Toynbee when forecasting a time of trouble and contending states, by Ortega y Gasset in Revolt of the Masses—we may as well add Brave New World and 1984—have been verified to a disquieting extent and considerably better than many respectable models of the social

Does this imply “historic inevitability” and inexorable dissolu- tion? Again, the simple answer was missed by moralizing and philosophizing historians. By extrapolation from the life cycles of previous civilizations nobody could have predicted the Industrial Revolution, the Population Explosion, the development of atomic energy, the emergence of underdeveloped nations, and the expansion of Western civilization over the whole globe. Does this refute the alleged model and “law” of history? No, it only says that this model—as every one in science—mirrors only certain aspects or facets of reality. Every model becomes dangerous only when it commits the “Nothing-but” fallacy which mars not only theoretical history, but the models of the mechanistic world picture, of psychoanalysis and many others as well.

We have hoped to show in this survey that General System Theory has contributed toward the expansion of scientific theory; has led to new insights and principles; and has opened up new problems that are “researchable,” i.e., are amenable to further study, experimental or mathematical. The limitations of the theory and its applications in their present status are obvious; but the principles appear to be essentially sound as shown by their application in different fields.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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