Some thinkers: before, close to and remote from general system theory

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford.

One of about 300 papers at Last updated 30/05/2017 13:25


“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!

There is a long and variegated tradition of social system thinking, which can be traced back to 19th century sociologists.

After the second world war, some of those thinkers tried to adopt ideas from general system theory – with mixed success.

And some thinkers ideas are only tenuously related to general system theory.


Preface. 1

Thinkers before general system theory. 2

Thinkers close to general system theory. 4

Thinkers more remote from general system theory. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 6



General system theory (GST) emerged after the second world war.

But long before that, sociologists used the term “system” in relation to a social entity or society.

The many schools of sociology address questions about a society and its individual members.

They ask: how does society relate to the individual? What are the origins of modern law, nation states, organisations and economics?


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.”


Some social systems thinkers take a philosophical and/or political view of society.

For example, a theme has been the contrast between:

·         Totalitarianism or centralisation of control (which usually implies a top-down management hierarchy)

·         Individualism or distribution of control (which usually implies a participatory democracy or anarchy).


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

In the other hand, issues like the balance between centralisation and distribution appear in many different kinds of system.

And the emergence of GST and cybernetics (Bertalanffy, Weiner, Ashby) stimulated others (Boulding and Beer) to look afresh at social systems.

Thinkers before general system theory

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 in a different way from an organism.

He focused not on the state of social system but its form.

He said when a change is made to a system’s form, the system tends to restore its original form.

Pareto [added] the idea of equilibrium.

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

[This idea was] taken over by many sociologists, especially Parsons” Bausch.


A presumption here: systems maintain an internal state of some kind.

But do not presume all systems are homeostatic in either state or form.

Rather than stay the same, we expect systems 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 that a collective consciousness acts as a unifying force within society.

And 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.

You may wonder how this proposition could be verified or falsified, and how it accounts for law breakers.


A presumption here: the cohesion of individuals employed by a business is important to business success.

However, our main interest is in that cohesion that happens by design.

“Cultural cohesion” is peripheral to our discussion of general system theory principles and their application.

And we do not presume there is a collective consciousness.

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.

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


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

Our interest is in the exchange of predefined types of information and material flows between those individuals.

Actors may use imitation and innovation when giving values to types, but system design takes place at the level of types.

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.

But do not presume a hierarchical chain of command, since other management structures are viable.

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 “The testability of systems thinking” for more on Parsons.


A presumption here: system architects must prioritise the goals and objectives of system sponsors and stakeholders.

The motivations of individual human actors employed to play roles in a business are more peripheral to our main interests.

Thinkers close to general system theory

The thinkers above (Pareto, Tarde, Durkheim and Weber) may be seen in retrospect as systems thinkers.

But given their focus on human society, it is not clear they spent much time analysing what the word “system” means.

The notion of a general system theory, and its specific application to social organisations took off after world war II.


“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)


See “Systems thinking approaches” for discussion of

·         Ashby: cybernetics and system theory

·         Bertalanffy: general system theory

·         Boulding: system theory in management science

·         Checkland: soft systems methodology

·         Beer: viable system model

·         Ackoff: purposeful systems

Thinkers more remote from general system theory

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

Rudolf Carnap: the logic of science

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

He said many philosophical questions (expressed in natural language) were meaningless, and favoured 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: a formal language (vocabulary and grammar) is needed to exactly describe system entities, events and processes.

And that 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 earlier writers, he presumed a system is homeostatic (or sustains itself), though here in a 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 the system itself.

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

Read “Luhmann’s Autopoietic Social System” for more.


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

The system has no persistent components,  no persistent state, and no record of communication events.

Habernas: universal pragmatics

Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) 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.

He was a critic of Luhmann’s theory of social systems.


We take a different approach to description theory and information theory.

Conclusions and remarks

The countless thinkers and schools of philosophy, sociology and systems thinking both overlap and conflict with each other.

Later papers contain some explanation and analysis of some positions outlined above.


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].”


GST focuses on actions performed in definable roles, rather than the fears, hopes, dreams beliefs and choices of individual actors.

We need a term that helps us contrast role-centric general system theory (GST) with actor-centric social system thinking.

SST is an acronym used in what follows for actor-centric social system thinking.


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

On the other hand, all system design methods depend on translating private perceptions and mental models into writing.

“As soon as writing made it possible to carry communication beyond the temporally and spatially limited circle if those present at a particular time, one could no longer rely on the force of oral presentation; one needed to argue more strictly about the thing itself.” Luhmann



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