Interesting quotes and references: from Laszlo and Krippner

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This paper presents more than 20 quotes – gathered under my headings – from Laszlo and Krippner in this source

“Systems Theories: Their Origins, Foundations, and Development” By Alexander Laszlo and Stanley Krippner

Published in: J.S. Jordan (Ed.), Systems Theories and A Priori Aspects of Perception. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 1998. Ch. 3, pp. 47-74.


A few quotes attributed to other sources are to be found in above source.

Quotes are selected because

·         they are relevant to preceding papers at, or

·         they raise topics to be explored in following papers, or

·         they are interesting.


System as collection of interrelated system elements. 1

General system theory concepts. 2

Abstraction of system description from operational system.. 2

Focusing more on behaviour (dynamics) than structural components. 3

Bounding a system within its environment 3

Encapsulation: analysis from external to internal and back again. 4

Systems theory and the humanities. 4

Complexity. 5

Heuristics. 5

Hard and soft systems. 5

Cognitive maps (mental models, internal state as model of environment) 6

System theory and thermodynamics. 6

System theory and philosophy. 6


System as collection of interrelated system elements

“In the broadest conception, the term connotes a complex of interacting components together with the relationships among them that permit the identification of a boundary-maintaining entity or process.”


it is possible to arrive at a definition that pertains to systems of any kind, whether

·         formal (e.g., mathematics, language),

·         existential (e.g., ‘real-world’), or

·         affective (e.g., aesthetic, emotional, imaginative).

In each case, a whole made up of interdependent components in interaction is identified as the system.

In the most basic definition a system is a group of interacting components that conserves some identifiable set of relations, with the sum of the components plus their relations (i.e., the system itself) conserving some identifiable set of relations to other entities (including other systems).”


a system is a set of two or more interrelated elements with the following properties:

1. Each element has an effect on the functioning of the whole.

2. Each element is affected by at least one other element in the system.

3. All possible subgroups of elements also have the first two properties. (Ackoff, 1981, pp. 15-16.)”

General system theory concepts

The universe and human existence are ever-unfolding processes.

Systems are islands of order and stability carved (by humans or by evolution) out of those unfolding processes.

Every system has a limited life time.

Some systems evolve in discrete incremental steps from one generation to the next.

A general system theory was proposed in the 1940's by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy.


“General system theory aims to provide a framework or structure on which to hang the flesh and blood of particular disciplines and particular subject matters in an orderly and coherent corpus of knowledge." (Boulding, 1956, p. 10.)


“General system theory, like other innovative frameworks of thought, passed through phases of ridicule and neglect.”


“The method proposed by systems theory is to model complex entities created by the multiple interaction of components by abstracting from certain details of structure and component, and concentrating on the dynamics that define the characteristic functions, properties, and relationships that are internal or external to the system.” Laszlo and Krippner.

Abstraction of system description from operational system

“Methodologically, it is important to set apart a theoretical system from an empirical system.

The former is a complex of concepts, suppositions, and propositions having both logical integration and empirical reference.

The latter is a set of phenomena in the observable world that is amenable to description and analysis by means of a theoretical system.”


the systems thinker's perception always incorporates an element of human intuition. (Tehranian, 1974, p. 68.)


“Implicit here is the notion that an observer engaged in systems research will give an account "of the world, or part of it, in systems terms;

·         his purpose in so doing;

·         his definition of his system or systems;

·         the principle which makes them coherent entities;

·         the means and mechanisms by which they tend to maintain their integrity;

·         their boundaries, inputs, outputs, and components;

·         their structure."

(Checkland, 1981, p. 102.)

Focusing more on behaviour (dynamics) than structural components

Von Bertlanffy was reacting against the tendency of biologists and other scientists to analyse an operational system by taking it apart.

He wanted people to focus less on individual components and more on the processes in which components cooperate, the “dynamics” of the system.


“The method proposed by systems theory is to model complex entities created by the multiple interaction of components by abstracting from certain details of structure and component, and concentrating on the dynamics that define the characteristic functions, properties, and relationships that are internal or external to the system.”


“The principal heuristic innovation of the systems approach is what may be called ‘reduction to dynamics’ as contrasted with ‘reduction to components,’ as practiced in the methodologies of classical science.”


“Traditionally, scientists have simplified natural complexity by viewing individual items of observation in isolation from the complex set of relations that connect them with their environment.

But this type of knowledge… did not disclose how complex things behave when exposed to a complex set of influences.

Yet almost every real-world system contains a large number of components and is exposed to a large number of external forces and events.

In consequence, another heuristic became necessary, capable of simplifying unmanageably complex phenomena by reduction to dynamics instead of to components.”

Bounding a system within its environment

 a “system” may be described as a complex of interacting components together with the relationships among them that permit the identification of a boundary-maintaining entity or process.”


the systems approach attempts to view the world in terms of irreducibly integrated systems.

It focuses attention on the whole, as well as on the complex interrelationships among its constituent parts.”


In systems theory the term 'environment' is defined as the set of all objects a change in whose attributes effects the system as well as those objects whose attributes are changed by the behavior of the system. (Hall & Fagen, 1956.)


“The line that separates the aspects of a system from those of its environment tends to blur as the unit of observation moves from natural and designed physical systems to human and conceptual social systems.

While the former are easier to define and have relatively clear-cut aims or purposes, the latter are more difficult to define; most often they do not have clear-cut and agreed upon aims or purposes, and even when agreed upon, these may change over time.”

Encapsulation: analysis from external to internal and back again

 “In performing a systems analysis of a problem or situation, they start from the problem, not from a preconceived model.

Once the manifestation of the problem has been identified and described, they can proceed inward to the sub-systems and outward to the environment.”


“A four step approach of analysis/synthesis is needed to render possible the consideration of entities as diverse as atoms, organs and organ system, individuals, and societies through the common rubric of systems theory.

1.      consideration of the embedding context that includes, and is to some extent defined by, the phenomenon under consideration.

2.      description of what may be defined as 'sub-wholes within the embedding whole': identifiable discrete entities existing in their own right within the larger framework of the overall ensemble.

3.      attention shifts to the specialized parts within the identifiable wholes, with emphasis on understanding the structures, their compositions and modes of operation, much as in the three-step process described above.

4.      refocuses on the embedding context, integrating the perspective obtained at each of the preceding steps in an understanding of the overall phenomenon, including its internal and external context.”

Systems theory and the humanities

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


 “Human activity systems (a nuclear family, an orchestra, a national or international organization) tend to have multiple and overlapping purposes, of which it is possible to distinguish at least three levels: the purpose of the system, the purpose of its parts, and the purpose of the suprasystem of which it is a part.”


"the basis for any natural law describing the evolution of social systems must be the physical laws governing open systems, i.e., systems embedded in their environment with which they exchange matter and energy." (Prigogine et al., 1977, p. 2.)


social systems are embedded in an even more mercurial environment than are biological systems.

What the reality is that affects the existence of social institutions, political states, and economic systems depends not only on what the case is, but on what its members and its leadership perceive it to be.

Since reality is not an absolute given, systems theorists should not seek to design absolute solutions to contemporary challenges; solutions should take the form of flexible surveillance systems that help decision takers select humanistic and sustainable responses to the issues they confront.”


“The human brain, the most complex system of matter known to science, consists of some ten thousand million neurons, with up to a hundred billion connections among them.”


“The human organism is composed of some five octillion atoms, and the specific interconnections among them surpass any conceivable method or instrument of calculation.”


“Even social systems are not simple; a detailed consideration of their interaction with natural and artificial systems involves a number of factors and variables that surpasses the capacity of any presently known heuristic system or calculating device.”


“Procedures which follow a step by step path and lead to an end result are known as [processes or] algorithms.

The systems approach may also involve non-algorithmic procedures — known as heuristics — which in many cases prove to be sufficiently powerful to obtain satisfactory results.”

Hard and soft systems

“The classification of systems into hard and soft represents an effort to draw attention both to the degree of knowledge about a system, and about the system's aims or purposes. Checkland developed this classification to represent two ends of a continuum.”


“Hard systems are more easy to define and have more clear-cut aims or purposes.

They are typically the subject matter of engineers concerned with real-world problem-solving: mechanisms, machines, aircraft, and power plants are examples.

Simplicity of purpose and clarity of boundary, however, do not necessarily mean ease of design, operation, or maintenance: hard systems, as we know, can indeed be highly complex.


“At the other extreme are soft systems, characterized by human beings as their principal components.

Such systems are difficult to define; they do not have clear-cut and agreed aims or purposes.

At the level of the individual psyche there are multiple processes of perception, interpretation, representation, explanation, and communication that push and pull at our individual and collective cognitive maps as they shape our subjective image of phenomena and events.

At the level of a multi-person organization there are frequently different and conflicting aims operating simultaneously.


“In both cases, the images and the aims of the system, even if agreed upon, may change over time.”

Cognitive maps (mental models, internal state as model of environment)

“According to Ervin Laszlo et al., a cognitive map can be understood to represent "the process by which an organism makes representations of its environment in its brain." (1993, p. 2.)


“More specifically for the purposes of this discussion, it is possible to define the concept of a cognitive map as the mental image or representation made by human individuals and groups of their environment and their relationship to it, involving not only the rational aspects of attitudes and behaviors, but also the values and belief components that shape human perception.”

System theory and thermodynamics

“An entity that does not degrade its structure to thermodynamic equilibrium but maintains it through the utilization of the energies available in its environment is a product of the slow but vast processes of evolution in nature.”


If any set of events in the physical universe is to conserve an identifiable set of internal relations it must be capable of at least temporarily withstanding the statistical outcome of disorganization predicted by the second law of thermodynamics.”


“The second law of thermodynamics states that "entropy always increases in any closed system not in equilibrium, and remains constant for a system which is in equilibrium." (Bullock & Stallybrass, 1977, p. 634.)

System theory and philosophy

systems theory pertains to both epistemological and ontological situations.

But rather than constitute either an epistemology or an ontology, it is more reminiscent of the Greek notion of gnosiology concerned with the holistic and integrative exploration of phenomena and events.

There are aspects of the systems approach that are ontological and aspects that are epistemological, and aspects that are at once both and should not be circumscribed to either.”


References quoted by Laszlo and Krippner

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