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Home General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory : The Skeleton of Science / Kenneth Boulding

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Kenneth Boulding
It presents an interesting classification of levels of systems and it elaborates on the vastness of the work that waits us if we want to push forward the scientific endeavour. For that we need not only the General Systems Theory but also a series of new concepts more capable of presenting reality in its full complexity.

This paper was written especially for Management Science, 2, 3 (Apr. 1956) pp.197-208 and was reprinted in General Systems, Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research, vol. 1, 1956. 

General Systems Theory is a name which has come into use to describe a level of theoretical model-building which lies somewhere between the highly generalized constructions of pure mathematics and the specific theories of the specialized disciplines. Mathematics attempts to organize highly general relationships into a coherent system, a system however which does not have any necessary connections with the "real" world around us. It studies all thinkable relationships abstracted from any concrete situation or body of empirical knowledge. It is not even confined to "quantitative" relationships narrowly defined - indeed, the developments of a mathematics of quality and structure is already on the way, even though it is not as far advanced as the "classical" mathematics of quantity and number. Nevertheless because in a sense mathematics contains all theories it contains none; it is the language of theory but it does not give us the content.

At the other extreme we have the separate' disciplines and sciences, with their separate bodies of theory. Each discipline corresponds to a certain segment of the empirical world, and each develops theories which have particular applicability to its own empirical segment. Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, economics and so on all carve out for themselves certain elements of the experience of man and develop theories and patterns of activity (research) which yield satisfaction in understanding, and which are appropriate to their special segments. 


Passages From General System Theory / Ludwig von Bertalanffy

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Prof. Dr. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, 1901 - 1972Note
Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) has been on of the most acute minds of the XX. century. Here is a miscellanea of passages from his General System Theory. The first part of the text focuses on the function of the theory of systems and on the main features of closed and open systems. The second part presents a conception of the human being not as a robot or a moron aiming at reducing tensions by satisfying biological needs, but as an active personality system creating his own universe, who revels in accepting challenges, solving problems and expressing his artistic inclinations.

The Quest for a General System Theory

There exist models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind, the nature of their component elements, and the relation or 'forces' between them. It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general.

In this way we postulate a new discipline called General System Theory. Its subject matter is the formulation and derivation of those principles which are valid for 'systems' in general.

A consequence of the existence of general system properties is the appearance of structural similarities or isomorphisms in different fields. There are correspondences in the principles that govern the behaviour of entities that are, intrinsically, widely different. To take a simple example, an exponential law of growth applies to certain bacterial cells, to populations of bacteria, of animals or humans, and to the progress of scientific research measured by the number of publications in genetics or science in general.

System isomorphisms also appear in problems which are recalcitrant to quantitative analysis but are nevertheless of great intrinsic interest. There are, for example, isomorphies between biological systems and 'epiorganisms' like animal communities and human societies.


What is Systems Theory?

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Systems theory
is an interdisciplinary theory about the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science, and is a framework by which one can investigate and/or describe any group of objects that work together to produce some result. This could be a single organism, any organization or society, or any electro-mechanical or informational artifact. As a technical and general academic area of study it predominantly refers to the science of systems that resulted from Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST), among others, in initiating what became a project of systems research and practice. Systems theoretical approaches were later appropriated in other fields, such as in the structural functionalist sociology of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann.



Margaret Mead was an influential figure in systems theory.

Contemporary ideas from systems theory have grown with diversified areas, exemplified by the work of Béla H. Bánáthy, ecological systems with Howard T. Odum, Eugene Odum and Fritjof Capra, organizational theory and management with individuals such as Peter Senge, interdisciplinary study with areas like Human Resource Development from the work of Richard A. Swanson, and insights from educators such as Debora Hammond and Alfonso Montuori. As a transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multiperspectival domain, the area brings together principles and concepts from ontology, philosophy of science, physics, computer science, biology, and engineering as well as geography, sociology, political science, psychotherapy (within family systems therapy) and economics among others. Systems theory thus serves as a bridge for interdisciplinary dialogue between autonomous areas of study as well as within the area of systems science itself.

In this respect, with the possibility of misinterpretations, von Bertalanffy [1] believed a general theory of systems "should be an important regulative device in science," to guard against superficial analogies that "are useless in science and harmful in their practical consequences." Others remain closer to the direct systems concepts developed by the original theorists. For example, Ilya Prigogine, of the Center for Complex Quantum Systems at the University of Texas, Austin, has studied emergent properties, suggesting that they offer analogues for living systems. The theories of autopoiesis of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana are a further development in this field. Important names in contemporary systems science include Russell Ackoff, Béla H. Bánáthy, Anthony Stafford Beer, Peter Checkland, Robert L. Flood, Fritjof Capra, Michael C. Jackson, Edgar Morin and Werner Ulrich, among others.


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