Introducing early systems thinkers (and others)

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 25/08/2017 15:10


It is difficult to find a source that is entirely reliable about the beginnings of system theory or systems thinking.

“Though it grew out of organismic biology, general system theory soon branched into most of the humanities.” Laszlo and Krippner.

Do not assume this means social system thinking emerged from general system theory!


Encyclopedia Britannica uses the terms “system theory” and “social system theory” interchangeably

Systems theory, also called social systems theory [is] the study of society as a complex arrangement of elements, including individuals and their beliefs, as they relate to a whole (e.g., a country).

The study of society as a social system has a long history in the social sciences.

The conceptual origins of the approach are generally traced to the 19th century, particularly in the work of English sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer and French social scientist Émile Durkheim.”

Do not assume this means systems theory is the preserve of sociology!


Nobody can get the history right, but this paper is an attempt to summarise more of the background than you can find easily on the internet.


Preface. 1

Social system thinkers before general system theory. 2

The emergence of general system theory. 5

Other thinkers, more remote from general system theory. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 8



Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe.

Plato quoted him as saying “Everything changes and nothing stands still.

Many systems thinkers have addressed system change by borrowing or adapting the biological ideas of homeostasis and evolution.

Given the importance of these two ideas, it is strongly recommended you start by reading this short preface Stability and change in entities and systems.

Social system thinkers before general system theory

Spencer: social systems as organic systems

Herbert Spencer (1820 to 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and liberal political theorist.

“Herbert Spencer dealt with social systems in terms of organic evolution…

“The organic model and homeostasis are basic for many cybernetic explanations of societal functioning” (Bausch 2001)


A presumption here: Evolution by natural selection explains the development of mutually-beneficial social behaviour.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: dialectic materialism

Karl Marx (1818 to 1893) studied political economy and Hegelian philosophy; he was a philosopher, economist, political theorist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist.

Friedrich Engels (1820 to 1895) was a German philosopher, social scientist, journalist, and businessman.

Together, Engels and Marx founded Marxist theory.

At the heart of Marxism is an ideology - a logic of ideas called “dialectic materialism”.

The logic of dialectic materialism is based on two ideas and three laws about system change, which appear to owe something to Darwin.


Read System change for further discussion of Marxism, and important notes on system change.

Pareto: social system as homeostatic

Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923) was an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist and philosopher.

He made several contributions to economics, particularly in the study of income distribution and in the analysis of individuals' choices.

He observed that c80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and c20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.

Today, the Pareto principle is usually interpreted as meaning 80% of the effects (or costs) come from 20% of the causes (or requirements).


In “On the Equilibrium of the Social Systems" Pareto proposed social systems are homeostatic, but in a different way from an organism.

A homeostatic organism restores its state variable values to a norm, if they depart from it.

Pareto’s idea of a social system is one that restores its roles and rules to a norm, if they are changed.

In other words, when a change is made to a social system’s form, the system tends to restore its original form.

“Any moderate changes in the [system] elements or the interrelationships away from the equilibrium position are counterbalanced by changes tending to restore it.

[Pareto’s idea was] taken over by many sociologists, especially Parsons” (Bausch 2001)


A presumption here: social systems are not generally homeostatic in either state or form.

Rather than stay the same, they tend to evolve (incrementally) into different forms.

Durkheim: collective consciousness and culture

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity.

He was eager to promote the acceptance of a society as a meaningfully discrete entity.

So eager that, in his Division of Labour in Society in 1893, he invented idea of collective consciousness

“The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own.

It can be termed the collective or common consciousness.”


Durkheim believed in “cultural cohesion” and that a “collective consciousness” acts as a unifying force within society.

Meaning that human beings in a group will interact to form a “society” that is a “determinate system” with its own culture.

He argued that any apparent cultural diversity is overridden by a larger, common, and more generalized cultural system, and the law.


How to verify or falsify such a proposition?

How to decide the boundary of a social entity – who is inside and who is outside?

Bear in mind that an individual may belong to several social entities, some with conflicting aims.

How to distinguish apparent cultural diversity within a social entity from real cultural diversity?

How many innovators and rule breakers would it take to turn a social system into a disorderly social entity?


A presumption here: the cohesion of individuals in social or business entity will help it succeed.

However, we do not presume there is such a thing as a collective consciousness.

And system theory is about the cohesion that happens when actors play describable roles.

Tarde: social system as emergent from the actions of  individual actors

Gabriel Tarde (1843 –1904) was a French sociologist, criminologist and social psychologist.

He was very critical of Durkheim’s methodology and theory (see above).

He viewed a society as micro-level psychological interactions among individuals, the fundamental forces being imitation and innovation.


A presumption here: macro-level systems do depend on micro-level interactions between individual subsystems or actors.

However, a social entity is only describable as a system where it is possible to describe types of information flow between types of actor (aka roles).

When actors in social entity imitate each other, then a common and persistent role may be established, resulting in a describable system.

When actors in a social entity innovate, they are – by definition – acting outside any describable system.

Max Weber: a bureaucratic model

Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote widely on religion, politics, economics and bureaucracy.

His principles included the supremacy of abstract rules.

He set out three essential principles for bureaucratic (public and private) organisations:

1.      Roles: labour is divided between roles with identifiable tasks and duties.

2.      Hierarchy: there are chains of command, and rules that describe a role in terms of the duties and the capacity to coerce others.

3.      Assignment of actors to roles: performance of roles is undertaken by hiring actors qualified to play them.


A presumption here: roles and rules are what distinguishes a social system from a social entity.

However, a hierarchical chain of command is only one of several possible management structures.

Henderson: meanings communicated in interactions between actors playing roles

Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878 to 1942) applied the functionalism of physiological regulation to the phenomena of social behavior - based on his concept of social systems.

He described social systems with reference to the sociology of Vilfredo Pareto, but also in contrast to him.

He applied the concept of social systems to all disciplines that study the meanings communicated in interactions between two or more persons acting in roles or role-sets.

He influenced other Harvard sociologists, especially Talcott Parsons and his "The Structure" of Social Action" (1937).

Parsons: action theory

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist who developed a general theory for the study of society - called action theory.

Parsons presented a metaphysical (not scientific) context for systems theory and cybernetics.

Parsons saw motives as part of our actions; he considered social science must consider ends, purposes and ideals when looking at actions.

He influenced Luhmann, and perhaps Ackoff also. Read This paper for more on Parsons.


A presumption here: system designers must prioritise the motives of system sponsors and key stakeholders.

Business managers must attend to the motivations of individual actors employed to play roles in a business system.

The emergence of general system theory

The thinkers above may be seen in retrospect as early systems thinkers.

But given their focus was on biology and/or human society, it is not clear they spent much time analysing what the word “system” means in general.


“The systems movement took hold in post-war America with the convergence of ideas drawn from biology, systems engineering, cybernetics and sociology.

·         Biology, with its evolutionary emphasis, contributed the ideas of emergence and hierarchy among and within living systems.

·         Systems engineering contributed the “hard systems” approach to problem solving that grew out of… trying to develop weapons and logistical systems during WWII.

·         Cybernetics introduced the idea of control through information (feedback) in operational systems.” Bausch (2001)


Read Introducing general system theory for notes on system theorists, including Bertalanffy, Weiner and Ashby.

General system theory doesn’t start from or depend on sociology, or any analysis of human-specific behaviour, language or motivations.

On the other hand, questions like the optimal balance between centralisation and distribution of control appear in many different kinds of system.

And from the 1950s to the 1970s, general system theory did stimulate people to look afresh at social systems.

Read Systems Thinking Approaches for notes on latter day social systems thinkers, including Boulding, Beer, Ackoff and Luhmann.

Other thinkers, more remote from general system theory

Erwin Schrödinger: using energy to maintain order

A fundamental characteristic of systems is orderliness in their structural elements and behaviors.

Bertalanffy considered a biological entity as a thermodynamic system in which homeostasis maintains order and keeps entropy at bay.

“By importing complex molecules high in free energy, an organism can maintain its state, avoid increasing entropy…."

Though homeostasis was focus of many early system theorists, it is not a property of all systems.

It turns out that the systems we describe can grow, shrink, die and lead to chaotic outcomes.


Erwin Schrödinger (1887 –1961) also discussed the principle by which an organism maintains itself in an orderly state.

His core ideas may be distilled as:

 living matter evades the decay to thermodynamical equilibrium by homeostatically maintaining negative entropy (today this quantity is called information) in an open system.”

“The increase of order inside an organism is more than paid for by an increase in disorder outside this organism by the loss of heat into the environment.” Wikipedia 2017


Note that some modern scientists call negative entropy "information" rather than “order”.

However, in most systems thinking "information" has a different meaning: it is a meaning created or found by an actor in an encoded description of a reality.


“Nature's many complex systems--physical, biological, and cultural--are islands of low-entropy order within increasingly disordered seas of surrounding, high-entropy chaos.

Energy is a principal facilitator of the rising complexity of all such systems in the expanding Universe, including galaxies, stars, planets, life, society, and machines.

Energy flows are as centrally important to life and society as they are to stars and galaxies.

Operationally, those systems able to utilize optimal amounts of energy tend to survive and those that cannot are non-randomly eliminated.” Cornell University web site.


This “optimal use of energy” principle has been at work in the evolution of biological systems.

But where minimising energy consumption is of little or no advantage, evolution proceeds in a suboptimal way.

Many modern software systems are over complex and suboptimal, because we give them as much memory space and electricity as they need.

And in the evolution of the nation state, the highest energy consumption per head is not found in countries that are especially orderly.

Energy consumption is highest in countries that are rich and either:

·         too cold: Iceland, Canada,

·         too hot: Trinidad and Tobago, Qatar, Kuwait, Brunei Darussalam, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, or

·         too rich to care about the cost: Luxembourg, and the United States.


It turns out that thermodynamics is tangential to most practical applications of general system theory.

“Cybernetics depends in no essential way on the laws of physics.”

“In this discussion, questions of energy play almost no part; the energy is simply taken for granted.” Ashby


A presumption here: Thermodynamics is tangential to most social and business systems thinking.

Wittgenstein: the logic of natural language

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) influenced the “Vienna circle” of logical empiricists (aka logical positivists).

He considered many philosophical propositions to be poorly formulated, and that debates arose from misunderstandings.

He favoured dissolving philosophical disagreements and confusions by analysing the use and abuse of language, rather than producing new theories.

“Our investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away..” Philosophical Investigations Sect. 90


Presumptions here: a relatively formal language (vocabulary and grammar) is needed to describe system structures and behaviors.

However, a study of natural language is not the starting point for a general system theory.

Rudolf Carnap: the logic of science and data processing

Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970) was a member the Vienna circle.

He said many philosophical questions (expressed in natural language) were meaningless, and favored the logic of science.

His “Principle of Tolerance” is that the concern (in choosing a linguistic framework) is not truth, but the pragmatic considerations of simplicity and usefulness.

We are free to build up our own language or logic as we wish.

Carnap designed the logical syntax used to exactly formulate the results of logical analysis.

It is said that his work foreshadowed the logic used designing software.


A presumption here: we do need a formal language (vocabulary and grammar) to describe system structures and behaviors.

The grammars used in programming and data definition languages are useful in business system definition.

Luhmann: autopoietic social systems

Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) was a German sociologist and student of Parsons.

Like writers a century earlier, he presumed a system is homeostatic and sustains itself, though in a very curious way.


In analysing Luhmann’s ideas, David Seidl (2001) said the question facing a social system theorist is what to treat as the basic elements of a social system.

“The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons [think actors] or actions [think roles].”

Luhmann chose actions. He occupied a position in an extreme wing of activity-centric systems thinking

He proposed the basic elements of a social system are communication acts about a code that lead to decisions that sustain that code-centric system.

Luhmann’s system of transient communication events is radically different from systems as understood by most other system theorists.

Read Luhmann’s ideas for more.


Luhmann’s view of systems is well-nigh diametrically opposed to that of general system theory and cybernetics.

The system has no persistent structure, no persistent state, and no memory of communication events.

Habernas: universal pragmatics

Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) was a critic of Luhmann’s theory of social systems

He developed the social theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality.

According to Wikipedia, this distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition, by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of the cosmos.

It rests on the argument called universal pragmatics – that all speech acts have an inherent "purpose" – the goal of mutual understanding.

He presumed human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding.

And hoped that coming to terms with how people understand or misunderstand one another could lead to a reduction of social conflict.


Presumptions here: a theory of why and how animate entities communicate has to start from the evolutionary advantage it gives them.

Natural human language is inherently fluid and fuzzy; it is in part an imperfect communication tool and in part a tool for social bonding.

Simon: decision making

Herbert Alexander Simon (1916 to 2001) was a political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist.

According to Wikipedia, he argued that fully rational decision making is rare: human decisions are based on a complex admixture of facts and values.

And decisions made by people as members of organizations are distinct from their personal decisions.

He proposed understanding organizational behavior in humans depends on understanding the concepts of Authority, Loyalties and Identification.


Presumptions here: a theory of why and how humans conform to group norms has to start from the evolutionary advantage it gives them.

Authority, Loyalties and Identification are matters for management science rather than a general system theory.

Conclusions and remarks

There are countless thinkers in the domains of philosophy, sociology and systems thinking.

Their various assertions both overlap and conflict with each other.

Is there any kind of consensus?

Kenneth C. Bausch (2001) wrote that systems thinkers have a mission to herald a new era of social organisation, of advancing participative democracy.

Read the “The emerging consensus in system theory” for discussion of this point.


David Seidl (2001) said the question facing a social system theorist is what to treat as the basic elements of a social system.

“The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons [think actors] or actions [think roles].”

This work explores a schismatic distinction between:

·         a social system - in which actors realise roles and rules (cf. Weber and Henderson)

·         a social entity - in which actors choose their own behaviors to reach agreed goals (cf. Tarde and Parsons).

Read Systems Thinking Approaches for discussion of this distinction.


Certainly, seeing a business as a social entity is important; and may be regarded as a primary responsibility of business managers.

The question here is whether classifying every such approach as "systems thinking” has a useful meaning.

If every problem or situation is a system, if every entity we name or point to is a system, then the term “system” is meaningless.



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