Thinkers who foreshadowed systems thinking

Copyright Graham Berrisford 2017. Last updated 16/02/2019 17:20

One of a hundred papers on the System Theory page at

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The role of system architects is to observe baseline systems, envisage target systems, and describe both.

So, you might assume architects are taught about system theory and systems thinking; but this is far from the case.

This paper distils ideas in biology, economics and sociology that can be seen in some of branch systems thinking today.

I have tried to separate what seem well-agreed historical facts from my observations on them.


Highlights in the history of thinking. 1

Thinkers who foreshadowed systems thinking. 2

Smith: subdivision within and competition between systems. 3

Darwin: system mutation by reproduction with modification. 3

Bernard: homeostatic feedback loops. 4

Spencer: social systems as organic systems. 4

Marx and Engels: dialectic materialism.. 5

Pareto: social system as homeostatic. 5

Durkheim: cultural cohesion. 6

Tarde: social system as emergent from the actions of individual actors. 7

Weber: a bureaucratic model 7

Kurt Lewin: group dynamics. 8

Henderson: meanings communicated in interactions between actors playing roles. 8

Parsons: action theory. 9

A few more thinkers. 10

Concluding remark. 10


Highlights in the history of thinking


1300s Thinking about thinking

Alessandro della Spina of Pisa made reading glasses “and shared them with everyone with a cheerful and willing heart."

Petrarch led the recovery of knowledge from the writers of Rome and Greece; he is often credited with initiating the Renaissance.

The Renaissance was the “rebirth” of thinking inspired by the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek thinkers.

Debates today about the nature of description and reality still refer back to Plato and Aristotle.


1400s Dissemination of thinking

The invention and spread of the printing press was one of the most influential events in the second millennium

The printing press enabled the mass communication of ideas, and fundamentally altered society.

Also, the quadrant was developed to help sailors find their way, which facilitated world-wide exploration.


1500s Sociological thinking

Desiderius Erasmus’s “In Praise of Folly” showed many in the church did not live holy lives.

Machiavelli’s “The Prince” showed people who seek political power often do wicked things to get it.

William Shakespeare wrote plays about power and politics in history.

And Peter Henlein of Nuremberg made watches, assisting the more efficient use of time.


1600s Scientific thinking

Hans Lipershey in Holland made first Telescope, leading to a less earth-centric view of the universe.

William Harvey said that blood was pumped by the heart.

Isaac Newton laid the foundations of classical mechanics, contributed to optics, and (in parallel with Leibniz) developed the infinitesimal calculus.


1700s Scientific types and systems

Scientists looked to identify and describe patterns and types in many disciplines.

In physics, Faraday and Maxwell defined the laws that relate electricity and magnetism.

In chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier grouped 33 chemical elements into four types: gases, metals, non-metals, and earths.

(It was nearly one hundred years before the modern periodic table become clear.)

In biology, advances were made in describing complex activity systems such as the cardio vascular system.

A system description is a complex type; it symbolises both the structures and the behaviors of each entity that realises the system.

Thinkers who foreshadowed systems thinking

The term “group” appears many times in what follows.

Thinkers tend to presume we understand what a social group is.

You may think of it as a social network in which all the actors can communicate with any other – directly or indirectly.

That is not a satisfactory definition, but you’ll have to go along with it for now.

“Social group thinking” is discussed in the next paper.

Smith: subdivision within and competition between systems

Adam Smith (1723 to 1790) was a Scottish economist, philosopher and author.

He laid the foundations of classical free market economic theory.

In “The Wealth of Nations” and other works he advanced the idea that efficiency is improved by division of labour.

Consider for example the specialisation of a society into subsystems such as butchery, brewing and baking.

Smith also explained how rational self-interest and competition can increase economic prosperity.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”


Again: I have tried to separate what seem to be historical facts from my own “observations”, which you may or may not agree with.



Smith identified the practical usefulness of assigning different activities to different roles.

By practising the activities expected of their roles, actors become more efficient and effective.

Darwin: system mutation by reproduction with modification

Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist.

Beyond his famous book “On the origin of species”, he made other contributions to the science of evolution in biology.

His central idea is often misquoted and misinterpreted.

The idea is that inter-generational mutations help a system to change and survive in a changing environment.


Evolution is an inter-generational process that reproduces system version N with modifications in system version N+1.

The better new system N+1 is fitted to its environment, the more likely it will be reproduced, and perhaps changed, again.


Biological evolution requires changes in the phenotype (sum of observable characteristics) of organisms over successive generations.

A phenotype is the expression of a genotype (sum of heritable genes) passed from parents to an offspring during reproduction.


Designed evolution requires changes in the designed characteristics of an entity over successive generations.

These characteristics are the expressions of a specified or designed type that is created and revised by designers.



People often liken designed evolution to biological evolution, but there are important differences.

In biological evolution, entity N is replaced by entity N+1.

In designed evolution, an equivalent would be liquidating an old business to start up a new one.

In biological evolution, of the changes to a genotype “half are neural and of the remainder 999/1000 are harmful or fatal”.

In designed evolution, the goal is to make only beneficial changes.

In biological evolution, the changes in a phenotype are usually small.

In designed evolution, the requirement may be for very large changes.

In biological evolution, small stepwise changes.. accumulate gradually... over long periods of time.”

In designed evolution, beneficial change is wanted as soon as possible.

In biological evolution, there is no aim or direction.

In designed evolution, there are aims and directives.

Bernard: homeostatic feedback loops

Claude Bernard (1813 to 1878) was a French physiologist, considered by some to be the "father" of modern experimental physiology.

His promoted the concept of "homeostasis", the idea that life depends on the stability of a body’s internal environment.

"The living body, though it has need of the surrounding environment, is nevertheless relatively independent of it.”

“The tissues are withdrawn from direct external influences and are protected by a veritable internal environment.”

Bernard introduced the revolutionary idea that systems maintain homeostasis by feedback control loops.



Bernard’s idea led, a hundred years later, to cybernetics, the science of system control.

It also influenced much sociological thinking.

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

Spencer: social systems as organic systems

In 1803, Henri de Saint-Simon had described the idea of describing society using laws similar to those of the physical and biological sciences.

The conceptual origins of the [social systems] 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.”


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.



Analogies can mislead or fall short of explaining.

“Organic analogies are inadequate as models of social systems.” (Bausch 2001)

However, evolution by natural selection does explain the development of mutually-beneficial social behavior.

“Social group thinking” is discussed in the next paper.

Marx and Engels: dialectic materialism

Karl Marx (1818 to 1893) was a philosopher, economist, political theorist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist.

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

Marx and Engels developed a philosophy, eventually called dialectic materialism, as an inversion of Hegelian dialectics.

If their philosophy was obscurely academic; their revolutionary politics was clearer.

Marx eagerly misinterpreted (the then new) Darwinian theory as supporting his advocacy of “the class struggle”.



For more, read Marxism, system theory and EA.

The paper challenges presumptions of Marxism about systems in general and social systems in particular.

And indicates where the basis of Marxism in analogy may lead to confusion or error.

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 groups are homeostatic.

A homeostatic organism, when its state departs from the norm, will restore its state that norm.

Pareto’s social system is a social group that maintains its roles and rules – it resists or counterbalances changes to them.

“Any moderate changes in the elements or the interrelationships... are counterbalanced by changes tending to restore it.”

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



A social group that maintain its roles and rules is now called a “social cell”, as discussed in another paper.

Most human social groups are not homeostatic; their norms and values evolve rather than stay the same.

Durkheim: cultural cohesion

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 an entity in its own right, rather than a collection of individuals.

He presumed people in a group interact to form a “society” that is a “determinate system” with its own culture.

He believed “cultural cohesion” within a social group acts as a unifying force.



Modern science explains what Durkheim called cultural cohesion in terms of biology and game theory.

Individuals can thrive better if they cooperate in finding food, detecting enemies, making tools etc.

Game theory shows being agreeable to fellow group members (usually) is better for survival than being hostile.


These explanations work at the level of psychological interactions between individuals.

Cohesive behaviors occur when individual actors play compatible roles.

And compatible roles emerge from some combination of natural evolution, self-interest and design.


How to account for rule breakers, non-conformists, and antagonisms within a group?

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



How to distinguish apparent cultural diversity from real cultural diversity?

A biological explanation for non-conformities lies in atypical neurologies like autism, and other mental conditions.

Game theory shows being hostile is an effective strategy from time to time.

Moreover, one actor has to make choices when they belong to groups with conflicting aims or norms.


In his Division of Labour in Society in 1893, Durkheim invented the idea of a 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.”



The idea seems unscientific; how to verify or falsify the existence of this group mind?


Durkheim’s ideas prompt a more basic question.

In our modern interconnected world: what is a social group?

“Social group thinking” is discussed in the next paper.

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

He proposed the fundamental forces are imitation and innovation.



Most large systems depend on small interactions between its atomic elements.

Imitations may help to create and maintain a system’s roles and rules.

Innovations can disrupt a system by changing its roles and rules.

Weber: a bureaucratic model

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

Weber set out three essential principles for human organisations: hierarchy, roles and assignments.


Hierarchy: a chain of command with rules that describe a role’s capacity to coerce others.



A hierarchy is not the only possible organisation structure, it is a very common one.

There are natural hierarchies in animal societies.

And we often design artificial hierarchies to help us describe and manage large or complex realities.

Hierarchies appear and reappear in later discussions.


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



This reflects Adam Smith’s principle that efficiency is improved by division of labour.

It is wrapped up with Weber’s principle that the roles in a bureaucratic organisation are governed by rules


Weber and Henderson saw a social system as a set of roles and rules realised by a group of actors.

Tarde and Parsons saw it as a group in which actors choose behaviors to reach personal and/or shared goals.


Assignments: allocations of (qualified) actors to play roles.



Weber’s system is essentially a system of roles and rules.

The system is independent of individual actors, who may come and go.

Kurt Lewin: group dynamics

Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) was a social psychologist who coined “group dynamics”.

The term refers the positive and negative (cooperative and conflicting) forces within and between groups.


In 1924, Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer had proposed

‘There are entities where the behaviour of the whole cannot be derived from its individual elements nor from the way these elements fit together; rather the opposite is true: the properties of any of the parts are determined by the intrinsic structural laws of the whole’.



Often, the structural laws of a whole are indeed derived from the way that elements fit together.


In 1945, Kurt Lewin established The Group Dynamics Research Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Research has addressed behaviors for dealing with status, reciprocity, identifying cheaters, ostracism, altruism, group decision, leadership, and intergroup relations.



Lewin spoke of groups rather than systems.

Increasingly, research has applied evolutionary psychology principles to group dynamics.

Humans acquired adaptations that enhance survival as human social environments became more complex,

Game theory is used to explain the evolution of both cooperative and competitive behavior between individuals and groups.

“Social group thinking” is discussed in the next paper.

Henderson: meanings communicated in interactions between actors playing roles

Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878 to 1942) applied the concepts of physiological regulation to social behavior.

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

His interest was 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).



Click here for a discussion of meaning in communication.

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.

All quotes in this section are from Bausch 2001.


A pattern in socio-cultural essays is to invent a classification, then discuss how the classes overlap or interact.

Parsons divided a social system into organic, personal, cultural and/or social subsystems.

Then asserted that every system activity results from the “interpenetration” of activities in the four subsystems.



Bausch (2001) pointed to Feynman-like criticisms of Parson’s work

“According to Buckley, any critique of the Parsonian framework must contend with its loose conceptual structure” (1967, p23).

Alexendar finds... Parson’s thought is “internally contradictory”, and “provides support for a variety of partial, often mutually antagonistic interpretations” (Alexander, 1983, p309).”


Can we demonstrate there are four separate subsystems (organism, social, personal and cultural)?

Can we detect or measure the “interpenetration” these subsystems?

Above all, can we use these concepts to predict anything?


“Parsons uses this idea of interpenetration to explain how... human beings can engage with each other in mutually advantageous behaviors”.



Increasingly, mutually advantageous behaviors are explained by applying evolutionary psychology principles.

Rapaport showed how the development of cooperative and competitive behavior can be predicted by applying game theory to evolution.


“The idea of concensus plays a major role in Parson’s conception of society, which he conceives as coalescing around accepted values and norms of behavior.

Parson’s deals with how a society maintains its norms and values in the face of deviant behavior and thereby maintains its equilibrium.”



This harks back to Pareto’s idea of a homeostatic social system.

But most human social groups are not homeostatic; their norms and values evolve rather than stay the same.


Parsons saw motives as part of our actions.

He considered social science must consider ends, purposes and ideals when looking at actions.



Does anybody deny that?

Read other papers for more on “Goal directedness”.

A few more thinkers


A few more recent sociological systems thinkers

Social systems thinking continued alongside the post-war system theory movement, sometimes in touch with it, sometimes far apart from it.

Read System thinkers and their ideas for notes on these three thinkers.

·         Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) autopoietic social systems

·         Jürgen Habernas (born 1929) universal pragmatics

·         Herbert Alexander Simon (1916 to 2001) decision making.


A few more scientific systems thinkers

Read papers on the science of systems theory for notes on:

·         Erwin Schrödinger: using energy to maintain order.

·         Wittgenstein: the logic of natural language

·         Rudolf Carnap: the logic of science and data processing

·         Antony Hoare: declarative specification of system state change.

Concluding remark

It is not obvious what people mean by “social group”.

And to call every social group a “system” is unhelpful.

“Social group thinking” is discussed in the next paper.

A general issue in systems thinking is the confusion between:

·         A social network in which people communicate

·         A social system in which people realise role and rules.

These matters are explored in the following papers.



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