general systems theory

You are here

See Also


General systems theory (GST) was outlined by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). Its premise is that complex systems share organizing principles which can be discovered and modeled mathematically. The term came to relate to finding a general theory to explain all systems in all fields of science. To quote Bertalanffy, ""...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, and the relations or ""forces"" between them. It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general."" (Bertalanffy, 1968, pp 32).

More than a scientific theory --
Bertalanffy was proposing a new way of doing science. What he was proposing with his general systems theory goes beyond the meanings of 'theory' and 'science'. Bertalanffy's GST refers more to an organized body of knowledge - any systematically presented set of concepts, whether empirical, axiomatic, or philosophical. Being more than a theory, it is a new paradigm for conducting inquiry.

Systems science description (from Bertalanffy, 1968) --
The scientific exploration and theory of systems [in the various sciences] and general systems theory as doctrine of principles applying to all systems (or defined subclasses of systems).

  • an understanding of not only elements but their interrelationships is required (e.g. the structure and dynamics of social systems).
  • there are general aspects, correspondences and isormophisms (similarities in form or appearance in different systems) common to ""systems""...

Systems technology (from Bertalanffy, 1968) --
The ""hardware"" of computers, automation, self-regulating machinery, etc. and the ""software"" of new theoretical developments and disciplines.

  • previous ""technology"" could not handle the complexity related to systems.
  • ""systems"" problems are problems of interrelations of a great number of ""variables"".
  • concepts involved - information, feedback, control, stability, circuit theory, ...

Systems philosophy (from Bertalanffy, 1968) --
The reorientation of thought and worldview as a result of introducing ""system"" as a new scientific paradigm - as contrasted with the ""blind laws of nature"" of the mechanistic worldview. There are three parts of systems philosophy --

  • systems ontology -- What is the ""nature of the beast"", what is meant by system. What is defined and described as ""system"" is not a question with an obvious trivial answer. (ontology - nature of existence and being).
  • systems epistemology -- The underlying principles or theories that form the basis of the field of knowledge of systems. (epistemology - the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. How much can one know about reality and how does one obtain that knowledge?).
  • values -- The relations of man and world. If reality is a hierarchy of organized wholes, the image of man will be different from what is in a world of physical particles governed by chance events as ultimate and only ""true"" reality.

Systems, and models, as guiding ideas (from Bertalanffy, 1968, p 24) --
""Models in ordinary language therefore have their place in systems theory. The system idea retains its value even where it cannot be formulated mathematically, or remains a ""guiding idea"" rather than being a mathematical construct.""

Necessity of a systems approach (from Bertalanffy, 1968, p 11) --
""...the necessity and feasibility of a systems approach became apparent only recently. Its necessity resulted from the fact that the mechanistic scheme of isolable (isolatable) causal trains and meristic (segmental division) treatment had proved insufficient to deal with theoretical problems, especially in the biosocial sciences, and with the practical problems posed by modern technology. Its feasibility resulted from various new developments - theoretical, epistemological, mathematical, etc. - which, although still in their beginnings, made it progressively realizable.""