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General System Theory Foundations, Development, Applications

by Ludwig von Bertalanff

systems theory-originally intended to overcome current overspecialization

A steam engine, automobile, or radio receiver was within the competence of the engineer trained in the respective specialty. But when it comes to ballistic missiles or space vehicles, they have to be assembied from components originating in heterogeneons technologies, mechanical, electronic, chemical, etc.; relations of man and machine come into play; and innumerable financial, economic, social and politica! problems are thrown into the bargain. Again, air or even automobile traffic are not just a matter of the number of vehicles in operation, but are systems to be planned or arranged – growing complexity of life and technology necessitates a “systems” approach

It is a change in basic categories of thought of which the complexities of modern technology are only one-and possibly not the most important manifestation. In one way or another, we are forced to deal with complexities, with "wholes" or "systems," in all fields of knowledge.

social phenomena must be considered as "systems"

Contemplating contemporary history in the making, it is difficult to ascribe its irrationality and bestiality solely to individuals (unless we grant them a superhurnan-or subhuman-capacity for malice and stupidity). Rather, we seem to be victims of "historical forces"-whatever this may mean. Events seem to involve more than just individual decisions and actions and to be determined more by socio-cultural "systems"

systems analysis treating "organization as a system of mutually dependent variables"· therefore "modern organization theory leads almost inevitably into a discussion of general system theory" – theory of organization demands systems theory

On the history of Systems Theory

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 Regel, to mention but a few narnes from a rich panoply of thinkers. The literary gourmet may remember Nicholas of Cusa's De ludo globi (1463; cf. von Bertalanffy, 1928b) and Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel, both of them seeing the working of the world reflected in a cleverly designed, abstract game.

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

GST attempts at “higher generality than that in the special sciences”.

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: (l) 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.

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)

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

Following Kuhn (1962), a scientific revolution is defined by the appearance of new conceptual schemes or "paradigms." These bring to the fore aspects which previously were not seen ór perceived,vor even suppressed in "normal" science, i.e., science generally accepted and practiced at the time. Hence there is a shift in the problems noticed and investigated and a change of the rules of scientific practice


2 The Meaning of General System Theory

In many cases, isomorphic laws hold for certain classes or subclasses of "systems," irrespective of the nature of the entities involved. There appear to exist general system laws which apply to any system of a certain type, irrespective of the particular properties of the system and of the elements involved. These considerations lead to the postulate of a new scientific discipline which we call general system theory. lts subject matter is formulation of principles that are valid for "systems" in general, whatever the nature of their component elements and the relations or "forces" between them

major aims of general system theory:

(1) There is a general tendency towards integration in the various sciences, natural and social.

(2) Such integration seems to be centered in a general theory of systems. . .

(3) Such theory may be an important means for aiming at exact theory in the nonphysical fields of science.

(4) Developing unifying principles running vertically  through the universe of the individual sciences, this theory brings us nearer to the goal of the unity of science. . . . .

(5) This can lead to a much-needed integration of scientific education

So, goal of “systems theory” is unity of science

definition of a system: a "set of elements standing in interaction"

the violent contradiction between Lord Kelvin's degradation and Darwin's evolution, between the law of dissipation in physics and the law of evolution in biology. According to the second principle of thermodynamics, the general trend of events in physical nature is toward states of maximum disorder and levelling down of differences, with the so-called heat death of the universe as the final outlook, when all energy is degraded into evenly distributed heat of low temperature, and the world process comes to a stop. In contrast, the living world shows, in embryonic development and in evolution, a transition towards higher order, heterogeneity, and organization. Being the basis of the theory of open systems, the apparent contradiction between entropy and evolution disappears. In all irreversible processes, entropy must increase. Therefore, the change of entropy in closed systems is always positive; order is continually destroyed. In open systems, however, we have not only production of entropy due to irreversible processes, but also import of entropy which may well be negative

mechanisms of a feedback nature are the base of teleological or purposeful behavior in man-made machines as well as in living organisms, and in social systems

you cannot conceive of a living organism, not to speak of behavior and human society, without taking into account what variously and rather loosely is called adaptiveness, purposiveness, goal-seeking and the like – understanding a goal is the most essential in understanding an organism.

Also, a social system: capitalist system is understood by the formula of Marx. Our system: Убил – Вошел во власть – Украл (урвал) – Убежал. Существуют и другие формы, как то капиталистическое пр-во, бюрократическое (ради отчета), и др., но они вторичные или третичные. Главное что творится – это большая кража и передел собственности.

Characteristic of organization, whether of a living organism or a society, are notions like those of wholeness, growth, differentiation, hierarchical order, dominance, control, competition, etc. Such notions do not appear in conventional physics

A unifying conception of the world can be based on isomorphism of laws governing different systems.

The unifying principle is that we find organization at all levels (of the Universe)

we need men who practice science - not a particular science, in a word, we need scientific generalists (Bode et al., 1949).

Conventional education in physics, biology, psychology or the social sciences treats them as separate domains, the general trend being that increasingly smaller subdomains become separate sciences, and this process is repeated to the point where each specialty becomes a triflingly small field, unconnected with the rest. In contrast, the educational demands of training "Scientific Generalists"

Our knowledge of the laws of physics is excellent, and consequently our technological control of inanimate nature almost unlimited. Our knowledge of biological laws is not so far advanced, but suflicient to allow for a good amount of biological technology in modern medicine and applied biology. It has extended the life expectancy far beyond the limits allotted to human beings in earlier centuries or even decades. The application of the modern methods of scientific agriculture, husbandry, etc., would well suffice to sustain a human population far surpassing the present one of our planet. What is lacking, however, is knowledge of the laws of human society, and consequently a sociological technology


3. Some System Concepts in Elementary Mathematical Consideration

A system can be defined as a complex of interacting elements – to discuss “Restoration” in the ex-USSR in isolation from rest of the world is a non-systematic approach. It can be seen only as a stage.

there is true finality or purposiveness, meaning that the actual behavior is determined by the foresight of the goal. This is the original Aristotelian concept. It presupposes that the future goal is already present in thought, and directs the present action.

demograpbic dynamics may he developed homologous to mechanical dynamics (Volterra, cf. d'Ancona, 1939). A principle of minimum action may he found in various fields, in mechanics, in physical chemistry as Le Chatelier's principle which, as may he proved, is also valid for open systems, in electricity as Lenz's rule, in population theory according to Volterra, etc. A principle of relaxation oscillations occurs in physical systems as well as in many biological phenomena and certain models of population dynamics. A general theory of periodicities appears as a desideratum of various fields of science

The existence of laws of similar structure in different fields makes possible the use of models which are simpler or better known  for more complicated and less manageable phenomena

If an object is a system, it must have certain general system characteristics, irrespective of what the system is otherwise

analogies i.e., superficial similarities of phenomena which correspond neither in their causal factors nor in their relevant laws

homologies Such are present when the efficient factors are different, but the respective laws are formally identical. Such homologies are of considerable importance as conceptual models in science. They are frequently applied in physics. Examples are the consideration of heat flow as a flow of a heat substance, the comparison of electrical flow with the flow of a fluid…

the question whether a hypothetico-deductive system embracing all sciences from physics to biology and sociology may ever be established

Unity of Science is granted, not by a utopian reduction of all sciences to physics and chemistry, but by the structural uniformities of the different levels of reality


4 Advances in General System Theory

"system" - a complex of interacting components

This development is closely connected with modern automation - how? Automation implies a system. To "automate" means to organize a system to function by itself, independently of a human operator.

the main function of theoretical models in the explanation, prediction and control of hitherto unexplored phenomena


5 The Organism Considered as Physical System

the organism as a whole, it shows characteristics similar to those of systems in equilibrium

The organism is not a closed, but an open system. We term a system "closed" if no material enters or leaves it; it is called "open" if there is import and export of material

The organism grows when building-up surpasses breaking-down, and becomes stationary, when both processes are balanced.


6 The Model of Open System

In a living being innumerable chemical. and physical processes are so "ordered" as to allow the living system to persist, to grow, to develop, to reproduce, etc.

The model of open systems is applicable to many problems and fields of biology

In an open system increase of order and decrease of entropy is thermodynamically possible. The magnitude, "informatiön," is defined by an expression formally identical with negative entropy. However, in a closed feedback mechanism information can only decrease, never increase, i.e., information can be transformed into "noise," but not vice versa

Order is the basis of organization and therefore the most fundamental problem in biology.

As is well-known, information is defined by a term formally identical with negative entropy, thus indicating a correspondence between the two different theoretical  systems of thermodynamics and of information theory. Elaboration of a dictionary, as it were, for translating the language of thermodynamics into that of information theory and vice versa, would seem to be the next step. – Information technology is the next step after mechanics

The mechanistic concept of nature dominant so far emphasized the resolution of happenings into linear causal chains; a conception of the world as a result of chance events, and a physical and Darwinistic "play of dice" (Einstein); the reduction of biologica! processes to laws known from inanimate nature. In contrast to this, in the theory of open systems (and its further generalization in general system theory), principles of multivariable interaction (e.g., reaction kinetics, fluxes and forces in irreversible thermodynamics) become apparent, a dynamic organization of processes and a possible expansion of physical laws under consideration of the biological realm. Therefore, these developments form part of a new formulation of the scientific world view.


7 Some Aspects of System Theory in Biology

Bohr's model of the atom was one of the most arbitrary simplifications ever conceived-but nevertheless became a cornerstone of modern physics. Oversimplifications progressively corrected in subsequent development are the most potent, indeed the only means toward conceptual mastery of nature - this is true also for construction of things, e.g. boat, robots.

“Categories” point to higher generalizations that exist in every system of knowledge, every system of culture. E.g.

The models of both open system and feedback apply to a wide range of phenomena in physiology, and represent essential expansions of physical theory


8 The System Concept in the Sciences of Man

The 19th and first half of the 20th century conceived of the world as chaos. Chaos was the oft-quoted blind play of atoms which, in mechanistic and positivistic philosophy, appeared to represent ultimate reality, with life as an accidental product of physical processes

Now we are looking for another basic outlook on the world - the world as organization. Such a conception-if it can be substantiated-would iudeed change the basic categories upon which scientific thought rests, and profoundly influence practical attitudes. This trend is marked by the emergence of a bundle of new disciplines such as cybernetics, information theory, general system theory, theories of games, of decisions, of queuing and others; in practical application, systems analysis, systems engineering, operations research, etc. They are different in basic assumptions, mathematical techniques and aims, and they are often unsatisfactory and sometimes contradictory. They agree, however, in being concerned, in one way or the other, with "systems," "wholes" or "organization"; and in their totality, they herald a new approach.

One leading concept is the stimulus-response scheme

A second principle is that of environmentalism which states, in accordance with the S-R scheme, that behavior and personality are shaped by outside influences

The third is the equilibrium principle. In Freudian formulation, this is the "principle of stability": the basic function of the mental apparatus consists in maintaining homeostatic equilibrium. Behavior essentially is reduction of tensions, particularly those of a sexual nature. Hence, let them release their tensions by way of promiscuity and other tension reduction, and you will have normal and satisfied human beings.

Fourthly, behavior is governed by the principle of economy. It is utilitarian and should be carried through in the most economie way, that is, at minimum expense of mental or vital energy. In practice, the economie principle amounts to the postulate of minimum demands

If life, after disturbance from outside, had simply returned to the so-called borneostatic equilibrium, it would never have progressed beyond the amoeba which, after all, is the best adapted creature in the world-it has survived billions of years from the primeval ocean to the present day. Michelangelo, implementing the precepts of psychology, should have foliowed his father's request and gone in the wool trade, thus sparing bimself lifelong anguish although leaving the Sistine Chapel unadorned.

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 "homeostatid" 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."

let us understand "social science" in a broad sense, including sociology, economics, political science, social psychology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, a good part of history and the humanities, etc. Let us understand "science" as a nomothetic endeavor, i.e. not a description of singularities but an ordering of facts and elaboration of generalities.

The reign of nature is dominated by laws progressively revealed in science. Are there laws of history? In view of the fact that laws are relations in a conceptual model or theory, this question is identical with another one: apart from description of happenings, is a theoretical history possible? If this is possible at all, it must be an investigation of systems as suitable units of research-of human groups, societies, cultures, civilizations, or whatever the appropriate objects of research may be – “Revolution”, as I understand it, consists of a long-cycle of {evolution, contradiction of productive forces with relations of production leading to crisis, an uprising, a civil war, a development on a new platform of relations, Thermidor, Bonapartism, Restoration, a series of new political revolutions with the purpose of negation of Restoration} – may be a law of human history.

Another law: a progressive succession of human modes of production: stone based, agricultural revolution, slave society, feudal society, capitalist society, transitional society.

The above (“first” law) describes how the cycle proceeds; the “second” law describes a succession of the cycles.

Science is essentially a nomothetic endeavor-it establishes laws, based on the fact that events in nature are repeatable and recurrent. In contrast, history does not repeat itself. It has occurred only once, and therefore, history can only be idiographic i.e., a description of events which have occurred in a near or distant past.

Regularities in "microhistory," i.e., happenings in limited spaces, time-spans, and fields of human activity, certainly are vague, needy of exploration, and far from being exact statements; but their existence is hardly disputable. The attempts at finding regularities in "macrohistory" are almost unequivocally rejected by official history.

One point of agreement makes the issue into more than an academic question. This issue has, as it were, touched a raw nerve, and gained for Toynbee and Spengler both popular acclaim and an emotional reaction otherwise uncommon in academic debate. It is the thesis expressed in Spengler's title, The Decline of the West, the statement that in spite or perhaps because of our magnificent technological achievements, we live in a time of cultural decay and impending catastrophe.

"We note the psychological change in those classes of society which had been up till then the creators of culture. Their creative power and creative energy dry up; men grow weary and lose interest in creation and cease to value it; they are disenchanted; their effort is no longer an effort toward a creative ideal for the benefit of humanity, their minds are occupied either with material interests, or with ideals unconnected with life on earth and realized elsewhere." This is not an editorial of yesterday's newspaper, but a description of the decay of the Roman Empire by its well-known historian, Rostovtzeff.


9 General System Theory in Psychology and Psychiatry

Mental disease is essentially a disturbance of system functions of the psychophysical organism. For this reason, isolated symptoms or syndromes do not define the disease entity

the answer whether an individual is mentally sound or not is ultimately determined by whether he has an integrated universe consistent within the given cultural framework


1 0 The Relativity of Categories

the Whorfian thesis of the dependence of categories on linguistic factors is part of a general conception of cultural relativism

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