System-Theoretical Re-orientation

It is along such lines that a new model or image of man seems to be emerging. We may briefly characterize it as the model of man as active personality system. This, it appears, is the common denominator of many otherwise different currents such as developmental psychology after Piaget and Werner, various neo- Freudian schools, ego psychology, the “new look” in perception, recent theory of cognition, personality theories such as those of G. Allport and Maslow, new approaches in education, existential psychology and others.

This implies a holistic orientation in psychology. It used to be the general trend of psychology to reduce mental happenings and behavior into a bundle of sensations, drives, innate and learned reactions, or whatever ultimate elements are theoretically presupposed. In contrast, the system concept tries to bring the psychophysiological organism as a whole into the focus of the scientific endeavor.

Thus a new “model of man” appears necessary and, in fact, is slowly emerging in recent trends of humanistic and organismic psychology. Emphasis on the creative side of human beings, on the importance of individual differences, on aspects that are nonutilitarian and beyond the biological values of subsistence and survival—this and more is implied in the model of the active organism. These notions are basic in the re-orientation of psychology which is going on presently; hence the increasing interest general system theory is encountering in psychology and especially psychiatry.

In contrast to the model of the reactive organism expressed by the S-R scheme—behavior as gratification of needs, relaxation of tensions, reestablishment of homeostatic equilibrium, its utilitarian and environmentalistic interpretations, etc.—we come rather to consider the psychophysical organism as a primarily active system. I think human activities cannot be considered otherwise. I, for one, am unable to see how, for example, creative and cultural activities of all sorts can be regarded as “response to stimuli,” “gratification of biological needs,” “reestablishment of homeostasis” or the like. It does not look particularly “homeostatic” when a businessman follows his restless activities in spite of the ulcers he is developing; or when mankind goes on inventing super-bombs in order to satisfy “biological needs.”

The concept applies not only to behavioral, but also to the cognitional aspects. It will be correct to say that it is the general trend in modern psychology and psychiatry, supported by biological insight, to recognize the active part in the cognitive process. Man is not a passive receiver of stimuli coming from an external world, but in a very concrete sense creates his universe. This, again, can be expressed in many ways: in Freud’s reconstruction of the building-up of the “world” in the child; in terms of developmental psychology according to Piaget, Werner or Schachtel; in terms of the “new look in perception” emphasizing attitudes, affective and motivational factors; in psychology of cognition by analysis of “meaningful learning” after Ausubel; in zoological context by referring to von Uexküll’s species- specific umwelt; philosophically and linguistically, in Cassirer’s “symbolic forms” and culture-dependent categories; in von Humboldt’s and Whorf’s evidence of linguistic (i.e. symbolic and cultural) factors in the formation of the experienced universe. “The world as we experience it is the product of perception, not the cause of it.” (Cantril, 1962).

Such a list, in no way complete, illustrates different approaches to throw light on various aspects or facets which eventually should be synthesized. But there is consensus in the general conception. Indeed, if the organism were a camera and cognition a kind of photographic image of the outside world, it would be hard to understand why the cognitive process takes the circuitous route admirably described by Arieti (1965) via fantasmic, mythical and magical universes, only finally and lately to arrive at the supposedly “objective” world outlook of the average American and of Western science.

Such a new “image of man,” replacing the robot concept by that of system, emphasizing immanent activity instead of outer- directed reactivity, and recognizing the specificity of human culture compared to animal behavior, should lead to a basic réévaluation of problems of education, training, psychotherapy, and human attitudes in general.

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

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