Basic Ideas of General Systems Theory

Each body of theory has its implied assumptions or axioms which in reality are impossible to prove and hence must be accepted as value judgements. The underlying assumptions and premises of systems theory can be traced backward in history. The thought that the existence has certain common general features and that a hidden connection exists in everything has always fascinated humanity. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), presented a metaphysical vision of hierarchic order in nature — in his biological systematics. His finalistic, or teleological, natural philosophy represents a rather advanced systems thinking for the time.

Closer to our own era, Fredrick Hegel (1770-1831) formulated the following statements concerning the nature of systems.

  • The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
  • The whole defines the nature of the parts.
  • The parts cannot be understood by studying the whole.
  • The parts are dynamically interrelated or interdependent.

Ideas of the German philoshopher and writer Wolfgang Goete (1749- 1832), may be considered preceding modern systems theory. Influenced by the monistic world of Spinoza, he tried to bring a multiplicity of of nature back to a simple principle integrating body and mind.

The concept of holism received its first modern appraisal through ‘structuralism’, a scientific school of thought established by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Structuralists studied ‘wholes’ that could not be reduced to parts. Society was not regarded as a conscious creation; it was considered to be a series of self-organizing structures overlapping each other, with a certain conformity to law. This wholeness regulated the personal and collective will.

After World War I, the limits of reductionism were known and the concept of holism already established (particularly in biology). A comprehensive exposition of holism was presented by the Boer general Jan Smuts (1850-1950) in his book Holism and Evolution in 1926. By this book Smuts must be considered as one of the most influent forerunners of the systems movement.

Another forerunner of systems theory is to be found in Gestalt psychology launched in 1912 by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943). The central idea of Gestalt psychology was that the whole was greater than  the sum of the parts. Its theory was holistic and it embraced the concept of emergent properties (see p. 69). It also stated that many physical systems, named Gestalten (from German), evolved into a state of equilibrium. Gestalt-theory is today well-known for its Gestalten-laws which explain how relations of different kind between elements determine the formation of Gestalts. A common definition of the concept is the  following:  ‘A gestalt is an organized entity or whole in which the parts, though distinguishable, are interdependent. They have certain characteristics produced by their inclusion in the whole, and the whole has some characteristics belonging to none of the parts’.

In General Systems Theory, one of the basic assumptions embraces the concept of order — an expression of man’s general need for imaging his world as an ordered cosmos within an unordered chaos. A consequence implicit in this order is the presumed existence of a law of laws which in turn inspired the name of the theory. The systematic search for this law is a main task for General Systems Theory. Another fundamental assertion is that traditional science is unable to solve many real world problems because its approach is too often narrow and inclined toward the abstract.

Systems science in contrast is concerned with the concrete embodiment of the order and laws which are uncovered.

Kenneth Boulding (1964) formulated five postulates which must be regarded as the starting point for the development of the modern General Systems Theory. They may be summarized as follows.

  • Order, regularity and non-randomness are preferable to lack of order or to irregularity (chaos) and to randomness.
  • Orderliness in the empirical world makes the world good, interesting and attractive to the systems theorist.
  • There is order in the orderliness of the external or empirical world (order to the second degree) — a law about laws.
  • To establish order, quantification and mathematization are highly valuable aids.
  • The search for order and law necessarily involves the quest for those realities that embody these abstract laws and order — their empirical referents.

Other well-known basic assumptions regarding general systems theory as a philosophy of world and life have been summarized by Downing Bowler (1981). A selection is given below.

  • The Universe is a hierarchy of systems; that is, simple systems are synthesized into more complex systems from subatomic particles to civilizations.
  • All systems, or forms of organization, have some characteristics in common, and it is assumed that statements concerning these characteristics are universally applicable generalizations.
  • All levels of systems have novel characteristics that apply universally upward in the hierarchy to more complex levels but not downward to simpler levels.
  • It is possible to identify relational universals that are applicable to all systems at all levels of existence.
  • Every system has a set of boundaries that indicates some degree of differentiation between what is included and excluded in the system.
  • Everything that exists, whether formal, existential, or psychological, is an organized system of energy, matter and information.
  • The Universe consists of processes synthesizing systems of systems and disintegrating systems of systems. It will continue in its present form as long as one set of processes does not eliminate the other.

A short summary of Bowler’s assumptions could be expressed in the statement that the design of the macrocosm reflects the structure of the microcosm.

A further perspective on systems has been provided by the famous professor of business administration, West Churchman (1971).

According to him, the characteristics of a system are the following:

  • It is teleological (purposeful).
  • Its performance can be determined.
  • It has a user or users.
  • It has parts (components) that in and of themselves have purpose.
  • It is embedded in an environment.
  • It includes a decision maker who is internal to the system and who can change the performance of the parts.
  • There is a designer who is concerned with the structure of the system and whose conceptualization of the system can direct the actions of the decision maker and ultimately affect the end result of the actions of the entire system.
  • The designer’s purpose is to change a system so as to maximize its value to the user.
  • The designer ensures that the system is stable to the extent that he or she knows its structure and function.

Churchman’s concept of a designer may of course be interpreted in a religious or philosophical way (Churchman is a deeply religious scientist). A more common interpretation is, however, to see the designer as the human creator of the specific system in question (e.g. a computerized system for booking opera tickets).

Today, there is near total agreement on which properties together comprise a general systems theory of open system. Ludvig von Bertalanffy (1955), Joseph Litterer (1969) and other distinguished persons of the systems movement have formulated the hallmarks of such a theory. The list below sums up their efforts.

  • Interrelationship and interdependence of objects and their attributes: Unrelated and independent elements can never constitute a system.
  • Holism: Holistic properties not possible to detect by analysis should be possible to define in the system.
  • Goal seeking: Systemic interaction must result in some goal or final state to be reached or some equilibrium point being approached.
  • Transformation process: All systems, if they are to attain their goal, must transform inputs into In living systems this transformation is mainly of a cyclical nature.
  • Inputs and outputs: In a closed system the inputs are determined once and for all; in an open system additional inputs are admitted from its environment.
  • Entropy: This is the amount of disorder or randomness present in any All non-living systems tend toward disorder; left alone they will eventually lose all motion and degenerate into an inert mass. When this permanent stage is reached and no events occur, maximum entropy is attained. A living system can, for a finite time, avert this unalterable process by importing energy from its environment. It is then said to create negentropy, something which is characteristic of all kinds of life.
  • Regulation: The interrelated objects constituting the system must be regulated in some fashion so that its goals can be realized.

Regulation implies that necessary deviations will be detected and corrected. Feedback is therefore a requisite of effective control. Typical of surviving open systems is a stable state of dynamic equilibrium.

  • Hierarchy: Systems are generally complex wholes made up of smaller This nesting of systems within other systems is what is implied by hierarchy.
  • Differentiation: In complex systems, specialized units perform specialized This is a characteristic of all complex systems and may also be called specialization or division of labour.
  • Equifinality and multifinality: Open systems have equally valid alternative ways of attaining the same objectives from different initial conditions (convergence) or, from a given initial state, obtain different, and mutually exclusive, objectives (divergence).

The application of these standards to the theories introduced in Chapter 3 will demonstrate that the different theories are more or less general in scope. Most of them are in fact systems theories, albeit related to a certain area of interest. Implicit in them all is that it is better to have general and abstract knowledge regarding larger and less well-known systems than to have specific and intimate appreciation of smaller and more well-defined ones. Of course this view has broad implications for collecting information, organizing data, describing results mathematically, and interpreting interrelationships.

General Systems Theory is a part of the systems paradigm which complements the traditional scientific paradigm (see p. 18) with a kind of thinking that is better suited to the biological and behavioural realms. The objective attitude of the scientific paradigm is supplemented with intervention, activism and participation (often objectivity communicates less than subjectivity). This more comprehensive systems paradigm attempts to deal with processes such as life, death, birth, evolution, adaptation, learning, motivation and interaction (van Gigch 1992). It also attends to explanations, values, beliefs and sentiments, that is, to consider the emotional, mental, and intuitive components of our being as realities. Consequently, the scientist becomes involved and is allowed to show empathy.

Also related to General Systems Theory is the evolutionary paradigm (R. Fivaz 1989). Spontaneous general evolution from the uncomplicated to the complex is universal; simple systems become differentiated and integrated, both within the system and with the environment outside of the system. From elementary particles, via atoms, molecules, living cells, multicellular organisms, plants, animals, and human beings evolution reaches society and culture. Interpreted in terms of consciousness, the evolutionary paradigm implies that all matter in the universe — starting with the elementary particle — move up in levels of consciousness under the forces of evolution. The evolution per se thus points in a direction from the physical to the psychical. With this background, cosmological thinking sometimes states that man is the center of the universe because he is its meaning. In a sense, this is a return to the religious mentality of the Renaissance (see page 9). This view has many applications in sciences and makes it possible to unify knowledge from separate disciplines.

A connection between different systemic levels of complexity and consciousness and associated academic knowledge areas takes the following shape:

Systemists often state that to understand the specific systemic qualities and behaviour on a certan level, it is necessary to study the levels above and below the chosen level.

Inasmuch as scientists in the disciplines of physics, biology, psychology, sociology and philosophy all employ some mode of related thinking, a common language of concepts and terms has been established. This language embraces the common underlying principles of widely separated phenomena. Innovative and useful constructs within one area have spread to others and then merged into elements of General Systems Theory, which therefore can be defined as a metatheory.

On the following pages, the most essential terms — those related to the general properties of systems regardless of their physical nature — are presented. These terms refer more to organization and function than to the nature of the mechanism involved. To understand them is to be familiar with the basic foundation of General Systems Theory — to possess the conceptual tools necessary to apply systems thinking to real world systems.

Finally, the characterization of General Systems Theory made by its originator, von Bertalanffy (1967), is worth quoting:

‘It is the beauty of systems theory that it is psycho-physically neutral, that is, its concepts and models can be applied to both material and nonmaterial phenomena.’

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *