On the History of Systems Theory

As we have seen, there is a consensus in all major fields— from subatomic physics to history—that a re-orientation of science is due. Developments in modern technology parallel this trend.

So far as can be ascertained, the idea of a “general system theory” was first introduced by the present author prior to cybernetics, systems engineering and the emergence of related fields. The story of how he was led to this notion is briefly told elsewhere in this book (pp. 89ff.), but some amplification appears to be in order in view of recent discussions.

As with every new idea in science and elsewhere, the systems concept has a long history. Although the term “system” itself was not emphasized, the history of this concept includes many illustrious names. As “natural philosophy,” we may trace it back to Leibniz; to Nicholas of Cusa with his coincidence of opposites; to the mystic medicine of Paracelsus; to Vico’s and ibn-Kaldun’s vision of history as a sequence of cultural entities or “systems”; to the dialectic of Marx and Hegel, to mention but a few names from a rich panoply of thinkers. The literary gourmet may remember Nicholas of Cusa’s De ludo globi (1463; cf. von Ber- talanffy, 1928b) and Hermann Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel, both of them seeing the working of the world reflected in a cleverly designed, abstract game.

There had been a few preliminary works in the field of general system theory. Kohler’s “physical gestalten” (1924) pointed in this direction but did not deal with the problem in full generality, restricting its treatment to gestalten in physics (and biological and psychological phenomena presumably interpretable on this basis). In a later publication (1927), Köhler raised the postulate of a system theory, intended to elaborate the most general properties of inorganic compared to organic systems; to a degree, this demand was met by the theory of open systems. Lotka’s classic (1925) came closest to the objective, and we are indebted to him for basic formulations. Lotka indeed dealt with a general concept of systems (not, like Kohler’s, restricted to systems of physics). Being a statistician, however, with his interest lying in population problems rather than in biological problems of the individual organism, Lotka, somewhat strangely, conceived communities as systems, while regarding the individual organism as a sum of cells.

Nevertheless, the necessity and feasibility of a systems approach became apparent only recently. Its necessity resulted from the fact that the mechanistic scheme of isolable causal trains and meristic treatment had proved insufficient to deal with theoretical problems, especially in the biosocial sciences, and with the practical problems posed by modern technology. Its feasibility resulted from various new developments—theoretical, epistemological, mathematical, etc.— which, although still in their beginnings, made it progressively realizable.

The present author, in the early 20’s, became puzzled about obvious lacunae in the research and theory of biology. The then prevalent mechanistic approach just mentioned appeared to neglect or actively deny just what is essential in the phenomena of life. He advocated an organismic conception in biology which emphasizes consideration of the organism as a whole or system, and sees the main objective of biological sciences in the discovery of the principles of organization at its various levels. The author’s first statements go back to 1925-26, while Whitehead’s philosophy of “organic mechanism” was published in 1925. Cannon’s work on homeostasis appeared in 1929 and 1932. The organismic conception had its great precursor in Claude Bernard, but his work was hardly known outside France; even now it awaits its full evaluation (cf. Bernal, 1957, p. 960). The simultaneous appearance of similar ideas independently and on different continents was symptomatic of a new trend which, however, needed time to become accepted.

These remarks are prompted by the fact that in recent years “organismic biology” has been re-emphasized by leading American biologists (Dubos, 1964, 1967; Dobzhansky, 1966; Commoner, 1961) without, however, mentioning the writer’s much earlier work, although this is duly recognized in the literature of Europe and of the socialist countries (e.g., Ungerer, 1966; Blandino, 1960; Tribino, 1946; Kanaev, 1966; Kamaryt, 1961, 1963; Bendmann, 1963, 1967; Afanasjew, 1962). It can be definitely stated that recent discussions (e.g., Nagel, 1961; Hempel, 1965; Beckner, 1959; Smith, 1966; Schaffner, 1967), although naturally referring to advances of biology in the past 40 years, have not added any new viewpoints in comparison to the author’s work.

In philosophy, the writer’s education was in the tradition of neopositivism of the group of Moritz Schlick which later became known as the Vienna Circle. Obviously, however, his interest in German mysticism, the historical relativism of Spengler and the history of art, and similar unorthodox attitudes precluded his becoming a good positivist. Stronger were his bonds with the Berlin group of the “Society for Empirical Philosophy” of the 1920’s, in which the philosopher-physicist Hans Reichenbach, the psychologist A.Herzberg, the engineer Parseval (inventor of dirigible aircraft) were prominent.

In connection with experimental work on metabolism and growth on the one hand, and an effort to concretize the organ- ismic program on the other, the theory of open systems was advanced, based on the rather trivial fact that the organism happens to be an open system, but no theory existed at the time. The first presentation, which followed some tentative trials, is included in this volume (Chapter 5). Biophysics thus appeared to demand an expansion of conventional physical theory in the way of generalization of kinetic principles and thermodynamic theory, the latter becoming known, later on, as irreversible thermodynamics.

But then, a further generalization became apparent. In many phenomena in biology and also in the behavioral and social sciences, mathematical expressions and models are applicable. These, obviously, do not pertain to the entities of physics and chemistry, and in this sense transcend physics as the paragon of “exact science.’’ (Incidentally, a series Abhandlungen zur exakten Biologie, in succession of Schaxel’s previous Abhandlungen zur theoretischen Biologie, was inaugurated by the writer but stopped during the war.) The structural similarity of such models and their isomorphism in different fields became apparent; and just those problems of order, organization, wholeness, teleology, etc., appeared central which were programmatically excluded in mechanistic science. This, then, was the idea of “general system theory.”

The time was not favorable for such development. Biology was understood to be identical with laboratory work, and the writer had already gone out on a limb when publishing Theoretische Biologie (1932), another field which has only recently become academically respectable. Nowadays, when there are numerous journals and publications in this discipline and model building has become a fashionable and generously supported indoor sport, the resistance to such ideas is hard to imagine. Affirmation of the concept of general system theory, especially by the late Professor Otto Potzl, well-known Vienna psychiatrist, helped the writer to overcome his inhibitions and to issue a statement (reproduced in Chapter 3 of this book). Again, fate intervened. The paper (in Deutsche Zeitschrift fur Philosophic) had reached the proof stage, but the issue to carry it was destroyed in the catastrophe of the last war. After the war, general system theory was presented in lectures (cf. Appendix), amply discussed with physicists (von Bertalanffy, 1948a) and discussed in lectures and symposia (e.g., von Bertalanffy et al., 1951).

The proposal of system theory was received incredulously as fantastic or presumptuous. Either—it was argued—it was trivial because the so-called isomorphisms were merely examples of the truism that mathematics can be applied to all sorts of things, and it therefore carried no more weight than the “discovery” that 2 + 2 = 4 holds true for apples, dollars and galaxies alike; or it was false and misleading because superficial analogies—as in the famous simile of society as an “organism”—camouflage actual differences and so lead to wrong and even morally objectionable conclusions. Or, again, it was philosophically and methodologically unsound because the alleged “irreducibility” of higher levels to lower ones tended to impede analytical research whose success was obvious in various fields such as in the reduction of chemistry to physical principles, or of life phenomena to molecular biology.

Gradually it was realized that such objections missed the point of what   systems   theory stands   for,   namely,   attempting scientific interpretation and theory where previously there was none, and higher generality than that in the special sciences. General system theory responded to a secret trend in various disciplines. A letter from K. Boulding, economist, dated 1953, well summarized the situation:

I seem to have come to much the same conclusion as you have reached, though approaching it from the direction of economics and the social sciences rather than from biology— that there is a body of what I have been calling “general empirical theory,” or “general system theory” in your excellent terminology, which is of wide applicability in many different disciplines. I am sure there are many people all over the world who have come to essentially the same position that we have, but we are widely scattered and do not know each other, so difficult is it to cross the boundaries of the disciplines.

In the first year of the Center for Advanced Study in the Be- havioral Sciences (Palo Alto), Boulding, the biomathematician A.Rapoport, the physiologist Ralph Gerard and the present writer found themselves together. The project of a Society for General System Theory was realized at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1954. The name was later changed into the less pretentious “Society for General Systems Research,” which is now an affiliate of the AAAS and whose meetings have become a well-attended fixture of the AAAS conventions. Local groups of the Society were established at various centers in the United States and subsequently in Europe. The original program of the Society needed no revision:

The Society for General Systems Research was organized in 1954 to further the development of theoretical systems which are applicable to more than one of the traditional departments of knowledge. Major functions are to: (1) investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another; (2) encourage the development of adequate theoretical models in the fields which lack them; (3) minimize the duplication of theoretical effort in different fields; (4) promote the unity of science through improving communication among specialists.

The Society’s Yearbooks, General Systems, under the efficient editorship of A. Rapoport, have since served as its organ. Inten- tionally General Systems does not follow a rigid policy but rather provides a place for working papers of different intention as seems to be appropriate in a field which needs ideas and exploration. A large number of investigations and publications substantiated the trend in various fields; a journal, Mathematical Systems Theory, made its appearance.

Meanwhile another development had taken place. Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics appeared in 1948, resulting from the then recent developments of computer technology, information theory, and self- regulating machines. It was again one of the coincidences occurring when ideas are in the air that three fundamental contributions appeared at about the same time: Wiener’s Cybernetics (1948), Shannon and Weaver’s information theory (1949) and von Neumann and Morgenstern’s game theory (1947). Wiener carried the cybernetic, feedback and information concepts far beyond the fields of technology and generalized it in the biological and social realms. It is true that cybernetics was not without precursors. Cannon’s concept of homeostasis became a cornerstone in these considerations. Less well-known, detailed feedback models of physiological phenomena had been elaborated by the German physiologist Richard Wagner (1954) in the 1920’s, the Swiss Nobel prize winner W. R. Hess (1941, 1942) and in Erich von Holst’s Reafferenzprinzip. The enormous popularity of cybernetics in science, technology and general publicity is, of course, due to Wiener and his proclamation of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The close correspondence of the two movements is well shown in a programmatic statement of L. Frank introducing a cybernetics conference:

The concepts of purposive behavior and teleology have long been associated with a mysterious, self-perfecting or goal-seeking capacity or final cause, usually of superhuman or super-natural origin. To move forward to the study of events, scientific thinking had to reject these beliefs in purpose and these concepts of teleological operations for a strictly mechanistic and deterministic view of nature. This mechanistic conception became firmly established with the demonstration that the universe was based on the operation of anonymous particles moving at random, in a disorderly fashion, giving rise, by their multiplicity, to order and regularity of a statistical nature, as in classical physics and gas laws. The unchallenged success of these concepts and methods in physics and astronomy, and later in chemistry, gave biology and physiology their major orientation. This approach to problems of organisms was reinforced by the analytical preoccupation of the Western European culture and languages. The basic assumptions of our traditions and the persistent implications of the language we use almost compel us to approach everything we study as composed of separate, discrete parts or factors which we must try to isolate and identify as potent causes. Hence, we derive our preoccupation with the study of the relation of two variables. We are witnessing today a search for new approaches, for new and more comprehensive concepts and for methods capable of dealing with the large wholes of organisms and personalities. The concept of teleological mechanisms, however it may be expressed in different terms, may be viewed as an attempt to escape from these older mechanistic formulations that now appear inadequate, and to provide new and more fruitful conceptions and more effective methodologies for studying selfregulating processes, self- orientating systems and organisms, and self-directing personalities. Thus, the terms feedback, servomechanisms, circular systems, and circular processes may be viewed as different but equivalent expressions of much the same basic conception. (Frank et ai, 1948, condensed).

A review of the development of cybernetics in technology and science would exceed the scope of this book, and is unnecessary in view of the extensive literature of the field. However, the present historical survey is appropriate because certain misunderstandings and misinterpretations have appeared. Thus Buckley (1967, p. 36) states that “modern Systems Theory, though seemingly springing de novo out of the last war effort, can be seen as a culmination of a broad shift in scientific perspective striving for dominance over the last few centuries.” Although the second part of the sentence is true, the first is not; systems theory did not “spring out of the last war effort,” but goes back much further and had roots quite different from military hardware and related technological developments. Neither is there an “emergence of system theory from recent developments in the analysis of engineering systems” (Shaw, 1965) except in a special sense of the word.

Systems theory also is frequently identified with cybernetics and control theory. This again is incorrect. Cybernetics, as the theory of control mechanisms in technology and nature and founded on the concepts of information and feedback, is but a part of a general theory of systejns; cybernetic systems are a special case, however important, of systems showing self-regulation.

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

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