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Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founding father of the General System Theory was born on September 19, 1901, in Atzgersdorf (near Vienna) and died on June 12, 1972 in Buffalo (New York).

He was

  • a biologist who dared to discover some of the laws that govern the riddle of life,
  • a philosopher, ahead his time, who searched universal laws of organization,
  • a scientist inherently ethical who aimed at improving the human condition,
  • a man acting as a citizen of the world, then learning to be aware of humanity’s enigmas,
  • who encouraged his congeners to think ethically & ecologically.

It has been commented that apparently he preferred to live in the past. When listening music, his choice, was Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi. He collected ancient coins and Renaissance postmarks. He didn’t like to see television neither went to movies; instead he was inclined to examine the slides of pictures that he used to take of classical architecture. He considered worthless to go to parties and didn’t learn chess, as he thought it was mentally distracting. Most of his time and also his spare time he was reading, making notes, and writing.

His life was the life of an intellectual adventurer exploring first in the mystery of the living world, and searching later how to contribute to the reconciliation of science and humanities, materialism and idealism, body and mind.

Along the years he always managed to assemble a diversity of singular and inspired reference points, which allowed him to draw analogies that other thinkers could never identify, simply because their expertise was limited to one or two fields.


It was the right time in the 1920s but it still required a large amount of courage and even a lot more of creativity for writing the book “Theoretische Biologie”(theoretical biology) reflecting his “organismic biology” or “system theory of the organism”: a significant contribution towards the scientific development of biology, based on the need of discovering and understanding the laws that govern organismic organization. It was the very first step towards the General System Theory that Bertalanffy conceived as a culmination of his general systems insights into biological, behavioral, social and epistemological domains, while fighting specifically against the reductionist approaches and the mechanist interpretations that dehumanize human beings through robotomorphism, zoomorphism, scientism and other narrow-minded and shortsighted assumptions that have been used extensively by people without realizing that it is impossible and improper to simplify the complexity inherent to whatever human concern.

Anyhow the organismic biology still has a long way to go because the biology establishment continue assigning grants and other rewards oriented toward the mechanistic approach, while many biological experimentalists cannot even conceive of approaching biological questions in other way than the reductionist one, as they are under the fascinating influence of the technological tools that obstruct them to see life biologically.

Bertalanffy’s Bibliography

A complete bibliography of Bertalanffy was carried out by David Pouvreau, on the basis of Sabine Brauckmann’s list, and can be downloaded.

The term Systems Theory is used in a broad way and is interpreted differently from different people. What is of interest here is the General System Theory, which goes back to the biologist and philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the mathematician Anatol Rapoport, the economist Kenneth Boulding, and others.

Bertalanffy argued that a system would be a “set of elements standing in interaction” or “a complex of interacting elements”. Rapoport claimed that a system would be “a whole that functions as a whole by virtue of the interaction of its parts”.

“I seem to have come to much the same conclusion as you have reached, through approaching it from the direction of economics and the social sciences rather than from biology–that there is a body of what I have been calling “general empirical theory”, (or general systems theory, in your excellent terminology) which is of wide applicability in many different disciplines. I am sure there are many people all over the world who have come to essentially the same position that we have, but we are widely scattered and do not know each other, so difficult is it to cross the boundaries of the disciplines” wrote Kenneth Boulding to Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1953 after reading a GST article written for Scientific Monthly.

“Philosophy was born when the early Greeks learned to view the world as a cosmos which was intelligible and hence controllable in thought and rational action. One formulation of this cosmic order was the Aristotelian worldview with its holistic and teleological notions. Aristotle’s statement that the ‘whole is more than the sum of its parts’ is a definition of the basic system idea.”

Systems are dynamic complexes of elements standing in mutual interaction as wholes. Any particular system is an entity that maintains its wholeness by the mutual interaction of its parts, which can be a subsystem (part) of another system, depending on the observer focus of interest or could be a whole when facing downward and a part of another system when facing upward (Koestler). Then, it can be argued that it has been a conceptual assumption that could arisen in very early times of humanity when some of our ancestors started noticing in their minds and also in their hands that they could first and would afterwards distinguish clearly the boundary of something perceived or something induced in order to differentiate the interesting or motivating object or idea from the surroundings. It can be assumed that this notion was soon grasped by other individuals who transfered the notion to the following generations. The evidence of theoretical sets of ideas and the presence of man-made objects since early times of humankind confirm today how humans may constitute purposefully many diverse “systems” as particular arrangements of things or ideas conceived according to their interests. The first theoretical systems were, quite probably, those sets of ideas that inspired some of the early humans to make perhaps one tool composed by one stone tied to a wooden handle. This tool became de facto the first physical system built for increasing their survival chances.

A system:

  • is “a whole that functions as a whole by virtue of the interaction of its parts; roughly speaking a bundle of relations.” (Anatol Rapoport)
  • is anything greater than the sum of its parts because it consists of these parts plus the way the parts relate to each other and besides plus the qualities that emerge from these relationships
  • is a set of particular interactive relationships, an entity relatively well identified, that maintains dynamically in operation a certain whole
  • is the unavoidable outcome of organized intentions
  • can be physical, biological, psychological, sociological, or symbolic
  • can be static, mechanical, mechanically self-regulating, or organismically interactive with the environment
  • can be organized hierarchically according to its level of organized complexity
  • can be a categorical combination like the man-machine system that composes a factory
  • is a set of elements standing in interaction, where its wholeness depends on the parts, and the parts depend on the whole where one and one equals two plus (some interactions)
  • is a complex of components that becomes an entity through the mutual interaction of its parts, from atom to cosmos
  • is a whole that functions as a whole by virtue of the interaction of its parts
  • is an organized relationship of the parts of a whole
  • is a manifestation of an organization or an organized arrangement

Open Systems are systems functioning beyond the limits of conventional physical chemistry; systems that maintain their dynamic existence by continuously exchanging matter and energy with their environment, as animals import oxygen and food and export carbon dioxide and nitrogenous wastes. The components of an open system display their full range of traits only by interacting-among themselves and with their environment — like bees in a beehive, flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of animals and groups of people.

Bertalanffy is the father of the thermodynamics of open systems, as he published this idea in 1940. Open systems are maintained by “the continuous flow of matter”. “Living forms are not in being, they are happening, they are the expression of a perpetual stream of matter and energy which passes through the organism and at the same time constitutes it”. The Bertalanffy’s conceptual model of the living organism as an open system has had revolutionary implications for behavioral and social sciences.

The mysteries of life: negative entropy, equifinality, steady states maintained by a self- regulating balance of decay and synthesis, emergence of increased order and organization, … are characteristics of open systems, which ought to be studied continuously in the perspective of this model. The mysteries of human behavior and social performance need to be studied similarly. These studies will be the source of very transcendental concerns as scientific tasks, but so long as the scope of inquiry is pointed away from the unanswerable why of life and toward the how.

Bertalanffy believed that the overall fate of the world depends on the adoption by humanity of a new set of values, based on a General System Weltanschauung (worldview). “We are seeking another basic outlook: the world as organization. This [outlook] would profoundly change the categories of our thinking and influence our practical attitudes. We must envision the biosphere as a whole … with mutually reinforcing or mutually destructive interdependencies. [We need] a global system of mutually symbiotic societies, mapping new conditions into a flexible institutional structure and dealing with change through constructive reorganization.”

Bertalanffy emphasized the role that our species can play in shaping its own destiny, as he believed that humans may develop their abilities to direct their own evolution on ethical values determined while noticing the emergent realities created by an interdependent global community and creating environments out of symbols which may become human values after being cultivated. In his view human survival was the paramount purpose for cultivating the uncommon sense of general systems theory, as he believed that the need for a general systems consciousness was a matter of life and death, not just for ourselves but also for what historian Arnold Toynbee computed to be 77,000 future generations that are possible on this planet before the death of our sun.

The concept of system is nowadays well rooted in most disciplines; many different systems approaches are used extensively for pushing ahead the evolvement of the prevailing civilizing process through decision making that aims at managing efficiently the economic concerns of humankind. The so called systems sciences are engaged increasingly in supporting the evolvement of many disciplines and even to generate, by means of interdisciplinary actions, superb scientific achievements and magnificent technological innovations for being inserted and managed efficiently everywhere according to economic aims that aim at globalizing the interrelationships among all kinds of human societies.

Meanwhile the adventure of Homo sapiens sapiens on earth does not seem to be really successful: Billions of people essay to live in miserable circumstances: searching desperately no more than surviving; accepting sometimes even starvation; learning to emigrate whatever the means; stealing and killing as if it were another reasonable option; An increasing number of living species are simply classified as endangered ones because the prevailing decision making aims at assuring to maintain the trends of civilization. The terrestrial circumstances that make possible the existence of life are increasingly disturbed because the world suffers the effects of pollution of air, water and soils.

“I heartily agree that the main objection against current philosophy is its … reliance on so-called common sense … Society [has] become so complex that traditional ways and means are not sufficient anymore. Approaches of a holistic and systems nature have to be introduced”

Could knowledge about all kinds of systems provide humans with the power of prediction and control that is needed for a conscious evolvement of civilizing processes?

Nowadays it is urgently necessary to examine how and why the original Bertalanffian ideas which generated the ‘systems movement’ and made possible the emergence and evolvement of the ‘systems community’ have been interpreted, because it is increasingly worrying to notice what has produced the impact of the ‘systems approach(es)’ during the last four decades. A systems practitioner has commented recently: “The world has changed a lot, for better and for worse, but — allowing for a gross simplification — the improvements are rarely “due to us”, while the deterioration (poverty, gap between rich and poor, intolerance, violence, shortcomings in education and health care) are precisely the areas where the systems approach should have had an impact.” It seems that something is going seriously wrong in the utilization of this approach, as it seems evident that it is theoretically right. However necessary to identify what is wrong in the utilization of this approach, it is convenient to recognize that the serious problems that are disturbing today the evolvement of the prevailing civilization — which are reaching nowadays a crisis point — have been generated by human actions intelligently conceived and skilfully implemented, during several past centuries and even millennia, while the systems thinking could arise explicitly only around 50 years ago.

Bertalanffy, convinced that human behavior depends significantly on human values, conceived a new image of man for emphasising the role that our species can play in shaping its own destiny, as humans have always created an environment of their own out of symbols which become human values after being cultivated; they may develop new abilities to direct their own evolution on ethical values determined according to emergent realities created by an interdependent global community.

Symbolic systems (language, beliefs, law, customs, values, morality,…) are the most important subject for researching in GST. These kind of systems may lead groups of humans to raise their consciousness about the need of organizing consistently their means (ideas) — choosing and implementing them according to their ends (goals). It implies to avoid either to use immoral means for moral ends or to sacrifice the ideals on the organization’s altar of expediency or to be in the position of a man who fills a hole in his backyard by acquiring soil that is obtained by digging another nearby or to be a model head of a family who brings home bacon that has been stolen from another family or to maintain in operation a polluting factory arguing that it provides prosperity to local workers or to introduce automatic machines in an industrial plant in order to increase efficiency and quality in the production line but causing unemployment or to organize legal but unfair commercial activities, …

The healthy, then moral evolvement of human relations, being necessary for pushing ahead frankly and effectively the development of any particular community, makes necessary to create, maintain and improve the kind of cultural values that may help and lead people, children comprised, to develop individually and collectively their gregarious and cooperative features inherent in human nature which combined with sense of responsibility and free decision would support altogether the manifestation of humanitarian societies aware of the role of human beings on the planet Earth.

Human ideals should not be restricted by any social, economic, political and/or cultural system on the grounds that one or another system is temporarily needed for allowing some more intelligent fellows to create in every society what were necessary, which eventually will cause unavoidably the progress of humanity. The history of civilization that started around 6,000 years ago show evidently that the fragmentation of human idealism is after all against the humanitarian perspective of humankind.

Bertalanffy was even more specific against the behaviorists’ declarations of idealism as he noticed and denounced that Frederic Skinner’s humanitarian motives and his utopian world were not moral at all as they were a danger against a real human development “… it is more than probable that methods used for inconsequential advertising can and will be employed for the deification of the state, the nation, its leader, or for global war, as those in charge desire. The enormous threat contained in Skinner’s latest book is that his is not a program or project to undo freedom and dignity but a description of what is [already] widely realized in the thought control exerted by the mass media, commercial society, and politics”. LvB also denounce the amoral intentions of Ernest Dichter the dean of motivational research and behavioral engineer, who sold advice to corporations on how “to manipulate human motivations and desires”. “The motivation research founded by Dr. Dichter is developing into a science of mass persuasion [that] can make the human animal buy everything and anything, from detergents to cigarettes, from cars to American presidents, up to wars and atomic self-destruction …”

It has been commented that some people argued that Bertalanffy had become an alarmist, being seriously involved in reading the advances of motivational research technology. But he continue striving “to integrate all aspect of experience”, comprised the amoral subliminal communication that had been very efficiently organized in the form of radio, television, film messages transmitted beneath the receiver’s level of conscious awareness and judgement, as he could realize the effects of modern mass persuasion “… amount to functional decerebralization … exclusion of higher cerebral centres and mental faculties almost as efficiently as if they were removed by surgical operation … [Such psychological genocide] is highly successful and potentially irreversible …” Mass persuasion has been always used supported by the latest technology, but the modern behavioral engineering in the 20th century was (and still is) a serious threat against an humanitarian perspective for humankind.

“… values are things or acts which are chosen by, and are desirable to, an individual or to society within a certain frame of reference — cultural, historical, social, religious, etc.” “In the last resort, it is always a system of values, of ideas or ideologies, that is decisive … Military hardware, including the most advanced superbombs, will not save us when the will to live, the guiding ideas or values of life, have subsided”. The realm of values as enduring beliefs about desirable goals and behavior are not irrelevant in an age of scientific “objectivity”. Neither can be substituted by traditions or dogmas. “A new symbolic universe of values must be found … if humankind is to be saved from the pit of meaninglessness, suicide and atomic fire”.

During the last few millennia, human beings have created here and there, although gradually and rather disorderly, many things and processes that they have managed, though not always intelligently to insert in terrestrial environments where they have been able to organize their respective lifes and survival. They have built, through the transformation or manipulation of natural elements, many diverse systems that have become, through the interrelations generated among the same humans, a human world or homosphere.

Humankind has been facing increasingly, and very fast during the 20th century, many difficulties caused by their incongruous performance toward the features of the biosphere which has allowed and still is allowing the presence of humans in time and space. Such a situation is quite serious, but it is enormously aggravated by the inconsistent interrelations that have been established among people by the decision making that prevails, which has been evolving without realizing how dangerous it is for the survival of the human species that most people are less and less aware of their terrestrial, biological and social commitments.

When calling for a universal declaration of interdependence Bertalanffy advocated a new global morality, “an ethos which does not center on individual good and individual value alone, but on the adaptation of mankind as a global system, to its new environment.” The need for this new morality, he said, was imperative: “We are dealing with emergent realities; no longer with isolated groups of men, but with a systematically interdependent global community. It is this level of [reality] which we must keep before our eyes if we are able to inspire large-scale action designed to assure our collective and hence our individual survival”.

Bertalanffy advocated a new patriotism saying that we dare to broaden our loyalty from nation to globe. He urged that we become patriots of the planet, endeavoring to think and act primarily as members of humanity. “Possibly the model of the world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we have almost lost in the last sanguinary decades of human history”. Besides he urged we begin pledging our allegiance to humanity and to the earth on which we stand, one planet indivisible or no planet at all.

The homosphere, the world created by humans and inserted into terrestrial environments, is greater than the sum of communities and nations or the sum of peoples.

Without necessarily diluting our own individual and cultural identity, we must begin protecting the individual and cultural identity of others.

Very often scientific achievements and technological innovations are conceived and inserted in every society as if they were modern, post-industrial, ultra-modern, … ‘achievements’ of rational human endeavors, without being recognized that they are determined by selfish utilitarian aims, that pretend to make possible the manifestation of lucrative business, money-making financial adventures & profitable monetary speculations, for creating more splendid entertainments and distractions that enjoy unilaterally around one of ten human beings.

This problem is aggravating very quickly because the survival rights of many members of all the other species are not sufficiently recognized, neither it is realized that the terrestrial circumstances, which until today are still making possible the presence of humans in the time and in the space, may become the source of catastrophic events for poor and wealthy people, for poor countries and presumably well developed countries.

The General System Theory was a kind of mental tool for allowing humans to realize that humanity could no longer afford to ignore the fact that all humans are located on Earth as if it were a spaceship system. R. Buckmisnter Fuller compared humanity to an unhatched baby bird that has eaten all its readily available nutrient and must now break out of its shell to live: “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe. We are going to have to spread our wings of intellect and fly or perish”.

GST helps to develop a new way of thinking that is needed because the trends of the prevailing civilization makes necessary a way of clearly seeing the forest instead of looking only at one tree or another. It seems certainly foolish to focus on individual trees when there is a threat to the forest. However, it is also foolish to focus exclusively on the forest when there are environmental problems generated by polluting industries. But it remains foolish to improve only factories in order to reduce pollution when the unemployment is growing due to economic policies that intend only to reduced the foreign debt. But today it would be an absurd belief to invent systems methodologies for allowing 6,000 million people to reach a standard of life as it is announced is happening in USA, without trying to understand what are the causes of the serious biological, social and terrestrial crisis that is affecting the whole biosphere.

The wide angle of GST benefit ecologists in revealing the interconnectedness of the web of life and the long-range systemic effects of reckless interference with the natural order. But ecologists, using properly the same GST, may discover how the ecological issues realistically depend from economics, just as economic development can never be considered realistically in isolation from ecology. In addition today economic development and ecological quasi-equilibrium in most countries cannot be organized without taking into account the economic, social and cultural situation of many millions of poor and hungry people.

It is indeed a new challenge for systems scientists to envision the biosphere as a whole, because everyone can perceive and comprehend gradually the dynamic features of some aspects of the terrestrial surroundings when it is necessary to focus on “the still higher systems of animal and plant communities, ecosystems in which the disruption of a part jeopardizes the whole”.

As life ascends the ladder of complexity, there is progressive integration, in which the parts become more dependent on the whole, and progressive differentiation, in which the parts become more specialized. Then the organism exhibits a wider repertoire of behavior. However it causes progressive mechanization, which means that parts are limited to a single function and also progressive centralization, which cause the emergence of leading parts (the brain) which try to dominate the behavior of the whole system. This model of hierarchical order developed and employed by Bertalanffy in biology when it is employed for studying the dynamics of the homosphere allow to comprehend better the assumed evolution of societies from primitive to industrial stages. When it were employed for getting a better comprehension of the dynamics of the biosphere it may allow to determine whether technological or social innovations are compatible or not with the possibilities that the world offers to human creativity.

The thinking about systems gained broad interest and thus many societies were founded to enhance the achievements in the area. As some of them are directly linked to the involvement or concepts of Bertalanffy they are mentioned here.

At the 1954 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in California Bertalanffy met the economist Kenneth Boulding, biomathematician Anatol Rapoport, and neuro-physiologist Ralph Gerard and they joined forces in conceiving a society for the development of General System Theory. In 1983 Kenneth Boulding commented the dinner that can be seen as the starting point of the SGSR: “Somebody said, ‘Let’s form a society.’ So we called a meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in December of that year in Berkeley. Some seventy people came and there was a lot of enthusiasm; the society got off the ground, originally as the Society for the Advancement of General Systems. Then, the following fall, Anatol Rapoport and Ralph Gerard joined me at the University of Michigan and the Society got underway.” In 1957 its name was changed to Society for General Systems Research (SGSR).

Along the last five decades, more and more people engaged in scientific work, technological innovations and management activities, have become the System Movement, which rather paradoxically is NOT AT ALL a System. Bertalanffy didn’t always like what was happening but he considered that it was “a fertile chaos” that generated many insights and inspirations towards an idea whose time had come. “This is a scientific revolution which, when considered in retrospect, may well equal the Copernican Revolution in importance.”

Pretty soon, after the constitution of the Society for General Systems Research in the 1950s, Bertalanffy expressed that the members of the systems movement were “a heterogeneous lot” composed by biologists, behavioral scientists, social scientists, systems engineers, analysts, and designers. He was indeed very friendly when he recognized that the multiplicity of systems professions were engaged in creating an array of systems approaches that were different in basic assumptions, mathematical techniques and aims. He even justified the diversity of approaches arguing that every systems approach might work well only on some problems as he assumed that sometimes the best approach would be a combination of others previously developed.

However, it became gradually more and more evident that one of the main constituent elements of the systems movement was the analytical stream: culmination of the traditional scientific approach derived from the methodo resolutivo, successfully introduced by Galileo Galilei since the seventeenth century. This analytical avenue has an historical justification because it took the place of the ancient holistic assumptions — secret and practically inaccessible to human mind — that were used as a way for avoiding explanations of real circumstances. To think analytically has been considered during centuries quite indispensable for tackling any difficult problem through fragmentation, which would mean divide and conquer.

The SGSR’s manifesto defined a general system as any theoretical system of interest to more than one discipline. That definition was far less ambitious than the Bertalanffian vision of laws for systems in general, but Bertalanffy agreed to the compromise in the belief that even a thousand-mile journey must begin with one step.

The manifesto stated that the society’s major functions would be to:

  1. investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another;
  2. encourage the development of adequate theoretical models in the fields which lack them;
  3. minimize the duplication of theoretical effort in different fields;
  4. promote the unity of science [by] improving communication among specialists.

In 1988 the name of the society was changed to International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) which continues, though diversely playing a leading role in the international systems movement, providing a scholarly environment for a world-wide membership and virtually every discipline. Today it is one of the few professional societies nourishing interdisciplinary research while searching for integrative systems approaches.

Since the SGSR (now ISSS) started its operation many groups and societies, that aim at applying and developing systems (and also cybernetics) have been established. In each case, scientists, technologists, engineers, practitioners, etc. working with specific disciplines are searching how to cope with all possible kinds of wholes, and also how to create new ones. All along the last rather few decades the system as a concept has been implemented and developed for making feasible to improve substantially the management of organizations; to conceive unique insights into the character of social and behavioral systems; to provide common methodological approaches for different sciences; to conceive, design and built new technological facilities; etc.

In 1981 the Österreichische Studiengesellschaft für Kybernetik (Austrian Society for Cybernetic Studies), the Society for General Systems Research, and the Systeemgroep Nederland founded the International Federation for Systems Research. IFSR is a a non-profit, scientific and educational agency, constituted of member organizations from various countries. The overall purpose of the Federation is to advance cybernetic and systems research and systems applications and to serve the international systems community.

Its Goals were approved by its board at its founding meeting, in June 1980, in Vienna, Austria:

  1. Strengthen the programs of member societies by their involvement in the program and network of IFSR (Social Learning Goal)
  2. Facilitate (encourage) the development of Systems Science in countries in which such programs do not yet exist or are now developing (Membership Development)
  3. Develop – implement – evaluate IFSR level programs to meet the purposes of IFSR; to advance Systems Science (Synergetic Goal)
  4. Identify inventory System Science relevant resources, acquire those and make them accessible to member societies (Resource Development Goal)
  5. Make contribution to the larger (global) scientific community and be of service to improve the (global) human condition and enrich the quality of life of all (Global Mission)