Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 18 November 2009

Systems Theory – A Primer – Part 1

I have sorely neglected to post on this blog, because I’ve been busy writing papers!  So, I am catching up with posts for a course I completed during the summer and one that I’m just completing now.  This is the first of a series on systems theory.

General Systems Theory

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1972) can be called the “father” of General Systems Theory, which is one of two classical systems theory streams of thought (the other is cybernetics).  Bertalanffy traces the roots of systems theory back to Aristotle, who purportedly said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Bertalanffy claims that this statement defines the basic systems problem we face today.   In describing the evolution of science during the centuries following Aristotle, Bertalanffy infers that humanity took a detour during the past five centuries, with the rise of the Scientific Revolution, epitomized by positivism and reductionism.  The goal of positivism and reductionism is to simplify problems into the most basic elements in order to understand cause and effect.  This paradigm works for simple problems, but does not work when more than two variables are introduced.  Newtonian physics and the perspective of the organism as a machine answer some, but not all questions.

Two main questions remained foremost across a number of scientific disciplines: 1) how can we understand the concept of organization within all living systems? and, 2) is there a “goal-directedness” in a living system? (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 410).  Bertalanffy first presented his concept of general systems theory in the 1920’s, stating,

Since the fundamental character of the living thing is its organization, the customary investigation of the single parts and processes cannot provide a complete explanation of the vital phenomena.  This investigation gives us no information about the coordination of parts and processes.  (Bertalanffy & Woodger, 1933, p. 64)

Bertalanffy (1972) defines a system as “a model of general nature, that is, a conceptual analog of certain rather universal traits of observed entities” (p. 416) and “a set of elements standing in interrelation among themselves and with the environment” (p. 417).  The study of systems is interdisciplinary; these concepts can be applied across a wide variety of problems, including sociology and psychology.

General Systems Theory extends the term organism to include all organized entities, such as social organizations.  The key focus of general systems theory is the relationships between elements of the system.  Open systems is an important concept, which exists when the system exchanges energy and/or matter with its surrounding environment.  Again, the focus is on how elements of the system relate to each other and the environment.  Due to their complexity, understanding systems requires nonlinear mathematics.  During the first half of the twentieth century, mathematics and physics evolved to provide a language that addresses systems problems.

Bertalanffy (1972) ascribes three key aspects to general systems theory: 1) systems science and mathematical systems theory; 2) systems technology; and 3) systems philosophy.  He contends that general systems theory requires expression in mathematical language “because mathematics is the exact language permitting rigorous deductions and confirmation (or refusal) of theory” (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 415).  I believe Bertalanffy contradicts himself in this statement.  First Bertalanffy decries positivism and reductionism, which both employ deductive reasoning (Neuman, 2006, p. 82).  Then, he espouses using deductive reasoning to validate general systems theory.  Inductive reasoning begins with observations and develops abstract theories over time as patterns emerge from the observations (2006, p. 60).  Since systems theory focuses on relations between elements, I believe that inductive reasoning should be employed in addition to deductive reasoning.  Both approaches will be relevant to a multiple-perspective approach to solving systems problems (discussed later in this paper).

The topic of systems technology relates to problems in society and technology, such as sustainability, organizations, and socioeconomic systems.  New related theories have emerged from within this aspect of systems theory, including game, information and decision theories.  Systems philosophy points to a new perspective or world view stemming from general systems theory.   Bertalanffy’s main contention regarding systems philosophy is that our definition of what is “real” is shaped by our perceptions.  He supports his argument with reference to quantum theory, in which entities cannot exist “independently of the observer” (p. 423).  Furthermore, any living organism has a permeable boundary that allows molecules to freely come and go.  He concludes that there is no “distinction between ‘real’ objects and systems as given in observation and ‘conceptual’ constructs and systems” (p. 422).  Therefore, knowledge “is an interaction between knower and known” (p. 423) and general systems theory brings back the holistic, humanistic perspective first presented by Aristotle.


Bertalanffy, L. V. (1972). The history and status of general systems theory. Academy of Management Journal (pre-1986), 15(000004), 407.

Bertalanffy, L. v., & Woodger, J. H. (1933). Modern theories of development; an introduction to theoretical biology. London: Oxford university press.

Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson/A and B.



  1. Well done and critically perceptive. Take a look at my chapter on The School of Athens that tackles some of the background of the argument between Plato and Aristotle on the concept of universals.

    • Thanks Dad. I’ve included the link to your website in my Blogroll

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