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Beginnings of General System Theory

Ludwig von Bertalanffy said he coined the term general system theory in 1937. His earliest published references to it were in two 1950 articles. One was in the journal Science; the other was in the inaugural issue of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

In the British journal, Bertalanffy pointed out something routinely acknowledged by physicists. The same exact patterns, describable by the same mathematical formulas, could occur in different systems:

This is a well-known fact in physics where the same differential equa­tions apply, for example, to the flow of liquids, of heat, and of electric currents in a wire. But it appears that the significance of this fact, and the possibilities it opens in fields outside physics, have hardly been considered. (Bertalanffy, 1950a)

Bertalanffy saw the same thing in biology, his own specialty. Different systems often had the same underlying patterns.

Bertalanffy called this idea general system theory, also known as General Systems or General Systems Theory. (Bertalanffy used all three forms.)

A few words about labeling: general system theory (Bertalanffy's original phrase from 1937) was soon called general systems theory (with an s). Some scholars resisted, pointing out that adding an s was ungrammatical.

Bertalanffy used both forms and also referred to General Systems or systems theory. I decided to keep the s with two-word labels that are naturally plural because they refer to groups of systems, such as general systems, systems theory, dynamical systems, and complex systems.

For the sake of grammar I will drop the s when referring to general system theory or general system principles. A cosmol­ogist might propose a "general galaxy theory" but probably not "general galaxies theory."

Bertalanffy's choice of the word theory was also unfortunate. In German, Bertalanffy's native language, the word theorie can mean "any organized body of knowledge" including "any system­atically presented set of concepts" (Laszlo, 1974).

The German meaning of theory actually fits general system theory well. It is an organized body of concepts.

However, in English, a theory is usually a hypothesis about a particular system. That does not fit general system theory.

As a collection of general principles, General Systems is not intended to model any particular system. Rather, it draws attention to identical patterns in different systems.

Perhaps the best label for the original set of ideas from the mid-1950s is General Systems, capitalized as the proper name of a particular approach. When referring (in general!) to scientific principles located in various different subject matters, I would call them general system principles: no capital­ization and no s. But enough about labels.

After Bertalanffy's 1950 publications (and a series of seminars in North America) Bertalanffy's ideas were circulating among scientists interested in interdisciplinary connections. In 1954 a proposal for an organization to promote General Systems was drafted.

The proposal was presented to meeting of about 70 people at the convention of the AAAS or American Association for the Advance­ment of Science in Berkeley, California. At that meeting, Anatol Rapoport, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Ralph Gerard, and Kenneth Boulding joined to announce a Society for the Advancement of General Systems.

The next year, Gerard, Rapo­port, and James Grier Miller established a headquarters for a Society for General Systems Research at the Mental Health Research Institute in Ann Arbor. The newly formed institute self-consciously specialized in promoting interdisciplinary studies.

In retrospect, General Systems was not very relevant to mental health. That was the intended focus of the Mental Health Research Institute, which was renamed in 2005 to The Molecular and Behavioral Neuro­science Institute, MBNI.

However, General Systems meshed well with something unusual about the MHRI: its interdisciplinary character. The University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry offers this historical note when discussing the origins of the MHRI/MBNI:

At the time, it was unprecedented for geneticists, biochemists, anatom­ists, physiologists, pharmacologists, clinical investigators and psycholo­gists to work together as a team. ("The Molecular & Behavioral Neuro­science Institute (MBNI)", 2017)

Also convenient was the fact that three of the four founders of General Systems lived in Ann Arbor at the time, affiliated with the University of Michigan. So the MHRI became the home of General Systems for the next 30 years.

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References:

Bertalannfy, L. (1950a) An Outline of General System Theory. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1, 134-165

Laszlo, E. (1974) General systems theory and the coming conceptual synthesis. Kybernetes, 3, 3 - 9

The Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute (MBNI). Michigan Medicine. (2017) Retrieved from: http://www.psych.med.umich.edu/mbni/


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


Search Psych Web including the General Systems Toolkit and the online textbook Psychology: An Introduction below.