Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of more than hundred papers on the System Theory page at http://avancier.website. Last updated 02/05/2019 17:57
The first of the general system theorists was Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
This paper introduces a few of the ideas in his book “General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications” (1968).
Many more general system theory ideas are discussed in other papers.
The 1954 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in California was notable.
Four people at that meeting conceived a society for the development of General System Theory.
They included three thinkers whose ideas are introduced below.
· Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) the cross-science notion of a system
· Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) applying general system theory to “management science”.
· Anatol Rapoport (1911 to 2007) game theory and social network analysis.
Ludwig von Bertalanffy was a biologist who promoted the idea of a general system theory.
His aim was to discover patterns and elucidate principles common to systems in every scientific discipline, at every level of nesting.
He looked for concepts and principles applicable to several disciplines or domains of knowledge rather than to one.
“There exist models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind.”
Many general system theory concepts feature in also cybernetics, a parallel movement that started around the same time.
Systems concepts include: system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state, hierarchy, goal-directedness, and information." Principia Cybernetica Web
"von Bertalanffy.emphasized that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments.” Principia Cybernetica Web
He related system theory to communication of information between the parts of a system and across its boundary.
“Another development which is closely connected with system theory is that of… communication.
The general notion in communication theory is that of information.
A second central concept of the theory of communication and control is that of feedback.”
“Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow…” von Bertalanffy
So, general system theory incorporates cybernetic concepts such as:
· System environment: the world outside the system of interest.
· System boundary: a line (physical or logical) that separates a system from is environment.
· System interface: a description of inputs and outputs that cross the system boundary.
· System state: the current structure or variables of a system, which changes over time.
“General System Theory… is a general science of wholeness… systems [are] not understandable by investigation of their respective parts in isolation.”
To put it another way.
Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells),
systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism).
This particular organization determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).” Principia Cybernetica Web
Bertalanffy encouraged people to take a holistic view of a system.
Holistic view: a description of how parts relate, interact or cooperate in a whole.
Some contrast holism with reductionism.
Reductionist view: identifying the parts of a whole, naming or describing parts without considering how the parts are related in the whole.
E.g. listing the organs and limbs of the human body without relating them.
However, the scope of the "whole" system is a matter of choice; and so too is the granularity of a “part”.
Bertalanffy may have promoted holism (studying how organs cooperate to the benefit of the body) and deprecated reductionism (studying organs in isolation).
However, when you study a subsystem in isolation, it is the whole system of interest to you.
And when you study how two systems (e.g. heart and lungs) are related, they become parts of a wider system.
In practice, people flip between holistic and reductionist views of things.
Read Holism and emergent properties for more.
Simply put, an emergent property is a behavior or structure of a whole that depends on interactions between its parts.
Consider for example the forward motion of a cyclist on a bicycle, or the V shape of a flight of geese.
If you had never seen a bicycle ridden before, the forward motion of bicycle and rider would be a surprise.
But emergent does not mean unwanted or unexpected.
That forward motion was wanted and expected by the bicycle designer.
The requirements for any designed system must include emergent properties.
Note that a cross-boundary event that is external to a subsystem is internal to a larger system
And the emergent properties of a subsystem are ordinary properties of any larger system it is a part of.
Bertalanffy said the properties of a whole system “emerge” from interactions between its parts.
More questionably, he extended the concept of emergence to evolution.
"Von Bertalanffy.emphasized that real systems… can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.” Principia Cybernetica Web
If system is continually reorganised it is not describable or testable as a system at all.
And the emergence of properties in new system generations is entirely different from the emergence of properties in one system generation.
Read Holism and emergent properties for more.
We build hierarchies to understand and manage large and complex business systems
In biology, it is natural to describe an organism as a hierarchy.
A hierarchy can be built from the top down by successively decomposing one node into several nodes.
E.g. The human body might be divided from the top down into organs, limbs and other structures.
A hierarchy can be built from the bottom up by successively composing several nodes under a higher node.
E.g. The human body can be seen collection of interacting cells; which are grouped into successively larger subsystems.
There are hierarchies in sociology too.
Animals toward of the top of a hierarchy are usually more competent in some way.
Meaning, they have whatever competence is needed to win the competition to get the top.
(Marxists tend to see hierarchies as power structures in which those higher oppress those lower.
This can lead to denying that hierarchies can be beneficial and to denying the concept of competence.)
Business management hierarchies are much discussed in social systems thinking – often negatively.
For sure, there are many reasons why management hierarchies can become inefficient and inept bureaucracies.
· Start with Parkinson's law and the Peter principle.
· Add the difficulty of recruiting, motivating and retaining employees to do the most boring and/or difficult work
· Add the impossibility of top-level managers knowing enough to do much better than random in big decision making
· Add the “unintended consequences” that arise from setting targets and imposing them in a top-down manner.
But that doesn’t mean there is no advantage to, or need for, top-down management.
It has benefits as well as drawbacks; and there is a balance to be drawn between hierarchy and anarchy.
Read Hierarchical and network organisations for more.
Given his background in biology, von Bertalanffy introduced the term organicism.
Organicism: the idea that systems are describable at multiple hierarchical levels.
He meant a system may be decomposable into subsystems, and/or composable (with others) into larger systems.
Systems can be nested, and systems thinking can be recursive, but the term system of systems is used ambiguously.
In general system theory, a system of systems is an integration of subsystems (and of processes within them).
In social systems thinking, the label is often applied to a business or institution that may realise any number of discrete – even conflicting - systems.
General system concepts are the same at whatever level of system composition you choose to model.
It is tempting however to label the concepts differently at different levels.
Russell Ackoff built hierarchical structures for words used to describe systems, behaviors and aims.
Here is different hierarchy, just by way of illustration.
But pinning different words to different levels of decomposition is arbitrary.
And trying to do it can obscure the general nature of system theory.
There are simpler systems and more complex systems.
Bertalanffy considered complexity in terms of counting system elements.
“The System Concept: In dealing with complexes of 'elements', three different kinds of distinction may be made:
(1) according to their number;
(2) according to their species;
(3) according to the relations of elements.”
With regard to complexity, Bertalanffy’s ideas were naïve.
Read Complexity for more.
Some systems shrink or die out, some are extended and refined.
Bertalanffy stretched his ideas into proposals about human psychology and the meaning of life.
“Life is not comfortable setting down in pre-ordained grooves of being; at its best, it is élan vital, inexorably driven towards higher forms of existence”.
It is possible Bertalanffy borrowed the idea of inexorable progress from Marxism.
The fact is, inexorable progress is not what one finds in nature.
Read Marxism, system theory and EA for a critique of this idea.
Read System Ideas for more on ideas traceable to von Bertalanffy’s writings.
Many are widely accepted; a few remain debatable.
It is often said that the most complex natural system is the human brain.
Today, unforeseen by Bertalanffy, the most complex designed systems are software systems.
And many general systems theory ideas are taken for granted in software system design.
Generic system description
An object-oriented software system
A collection of active structures
that interact in regular behaviors
that maintain system state and/or
from/to the wider environment.
A population of objects that interact by
processing information in the light of
state data they remember, and
exchange messages to communicate
with other objects and system users.
Usually, a concrete activity system matches an abstract system description only well enough.
Exceptionally, a concrete software system matches its abstract system description perfectly.
At run time, it can only do what is described in its code – no more, no less.
Paper: “General System Theory” (1956) von Bertalanffy.
Book: “General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications” (1968) von Bertalanffy.
Read System Ideas for more ideas associated with general system theory.
In his 1968 book von Bertalanffy said GST brings us “nearer the goal of the unity of science”.
The quotes below are drawn from selected passages, which you can find on this web page.
“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.”
“conceptions appear in contemporary science that are concerned with what is somewhat vaguely termed 'wholeness'.
I.e. problems of organization, phenomena not resolvable into local events, dynamic interactions manifest in difference of behavior of parts when isolated or in a higher configuration, etc.
In short, 'systems' of various order not understandable by investigation of their respective parts in isolation.”
“General System Theory… is a general science of 'wholeness'.”
“Closed and Open Systems: Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow…”
“Information and Feedback: Another development which is closely connected with system theory is that of… communication.
The general notion in communication theory is that of information. A second central concept of the theory of communication and control is that of feedback.”
“Causality and Teleology: You cannot conceive of a living organism, without taking into account what variously and rather loosely is called adaptiveness, purposiveness, goal-seeking and the like.”
“The System Concept: In dealing with complexes of 'elements', three different kinds of distinction may be made: (1) according to their number; (2) according to their species; (3) according to the relations of elements.”
Other sources say:
“Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems at all nesting levels in all fields of research.
The term does not yet have a well-established, precise meaning.” Wikipedia
Not everybody accepted that GST is valuable.
The schools of systems thinking have different roots and perspectives; different schools hold sway in different regions.
“General system theory, like other innovative frameworks of thought, passed through phases of ridicule and neglect. (Laszlo and Krippner)
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