Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 21 November 2009

Systems Theory – Primer Part II


The second major classical systems theory is cybernetics, which originated from a cross-disciplinary group of mathematicians, social scientists and neuroscientists.  The original key thought leaders include Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Warren McCulloch, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener.  They focused on the organizational patterns of systems, especially communication patterns.  Capra (1997) asserts that the concept of feedback is one of cybernetics’ major contributions.  A feedback loop exists in a network as a connection between elements of the network in which some causal element has an effect on the next element in the network.  Each successive element in the network is, in turn affected, until the first element receives feedback from the last element in the loop.  This process provides the foundation for living systems to adapt, learn, and regulate themselves.  Another term to describe this learning and adaptation process is self-organization. Capra (1997) contends that in order to understand living systems, we must engage “three different but inseparable perspectives” (p. 7), which are pattern, structure and process (these will be explained in more detail in the next section).

In a lecture given at Stanford University on second-order cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster (1995) provided three definitions of cybernetics based on the work of major cyberneticians.  He attributed Bateson (1972) as saying “Cybernetics is a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness and information” (von Foerster, 1995, p. 2).  Per von Foerster, Stafford Beer (1967) defined cybnernetics as “the science of effective organization” and Gordon Pask (1961) defined it as “the science of defensible metaphors” (von Foerster, 1995, pp. 2-3).  Von Foerster described an evolution of epistemology that was influenced by advances in neuroscience.  Scientists began to move away from the perspective that we must keep the observer and the observed separate and turned “from looking at things out there to looking at looking itself . . .the writer of [the] theory has to account for her- or himself” (p. 4).  Similar to Bertalanffy’s view of the interconnection between observer and observed, the cyberneticist is part of the system he or she is studying, and therefore must include his or her impact on the system.  This is the concept of second-order cybernetics.


Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind; collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. San Francisco,: Chandler Pub. Co.

Beer, S. (1967). Cybernetics and management (2nd ed.). London,: English Universities P.

Capra, F. (1997). The Web of Life. Paper presented at the Schrodinger Seminar. from

von Foerster, H. (1995). ethics and second-order cybernetics. SEHR, 4(2), 12.


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