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Recent developments in general system theory.


General system theory (GST) was introduced in 1949 by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in a German language journal (Bertalanffy, 1949), although he had already presented the field's outlines in 1937 at a talk at the University of Chicago (Bertalanffy, 1969, p. 90). In 1945 the first paper on the topic should have appeared but remained unpublished (Bertalanffy, 1945). The galley proof version, however, is available at the archive of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (BCSSS) (Bertalanffy Papers). The reception of Bertalanffy's system thinking reached a peak in the two decades before his death in 1972. Together with Kenneth E. Boulding, Ralph W. Gerard, James G. Miller and Anatol Rapoport he founded the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR) as an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (for details see Hammond, 2003). The society's name was changed in 1988 to the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS), which dropped General and replaced Research with Science. The list of members, as shown in the society's yearbooks--the first volume was Bertalanffy and Rapoport (1956)--reflects an ever increasing number of society members. A period of increasing interest in the 'theory'--Pouvreau and Drack (2007) argue that general systemology would be a more appropriate name--was followed by a period of declining interest. Nevertheless, GST and its founders are still referenced to a certain degree today. This referencing raises the question of whether current interests are in line with those of earlier days. Here, we deal primarily with Bertalanffy's thinking about GST and further developments. Our purpose is to determine whether progress has been made with regard to his GST program.

Clearly, the full range of thought about systems cannot be covered by one article. We therefore focused on peer-reviewed articles that have appeared in the 'scientific world'. To investigate current notions of GST, its appearance in those articles serves as an instrument and indicator for discerning how GST has been developed further. First, we present a timeline on the number of relevant articles published in the last three decades. Next, we relate our more detailed investigation of articles to GST references relevant to science and philosophy out of 161 articles appearing from 1995 to 2006. Many of the articles deal with applications of GST in areas such as engineering and management, which we do not discuss. Rather, the present paper concentrates on contributions in the areas of science and philosophy in terms of critiques, further developments, potential restrictions of GST and the associated world view. A guiding question for the investigation was whether Bertalanffy's GST program was developed further. As to the founder's intention regarding the program, we investigated the recent authors' contributions, critiques and awareness of the underlying thoughts. We point out further developments that are in line with the original attempts. Contradictions compared to the original program are also pointed out. Finally, we attempted to determine whether GST had come any closer to the goal of a unified research program.


To obtain an overview of the awareness of system thinking, we utilized the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) Web of Knowledge[SM] database ( All databases for peer reviewed journal articles (Science Citation Index Expanded, Social Sciences Citation Index, Arts & Humanities Citation Index), all languages and all document types were consulted to retrieve the data. (1)

We searched for the topic 'general systems theory'--including both singular and plural spellings of system (the dollar sign denotes one character or no characters; quotation marks included)--and for how often it was cited during the past decades. Figure 1 shows the result.

The number of articles mentioning GST was never high. The first peak was reached in 1973, the year after Bertalanffy died. A slow decrease followed until around 1990. Then, in 1991, the number of references increased again, and it has apparently reached a stable plateau since then. What was the reason for this considerable increase after 1990? Before 1991 there was only one year yielding more results than in 1991. Why did the term become fashionable again? When we investigated the works that appeared in 1991 and that in one way or another referred to GST, we found no single event that explains the jump. Articles from different areas, ranging from computer sciences to sociology, referred to GST.


In the period from 1995 to 2006, the topic 'general systemS theory' appeared in 161 articles. Those articles constitute the source for our further investigation. Although many more articles dealt with system concepts and system thinking, we omit them because they are not directly linked to GST. Excluded from further investigations were applications (engineering, management) of GST, as they are of little relevance for the scientific and philosophical development.

The areas in which GST is still used are wideranging, numerous and diverse: the ethics of animal experiments (Locker, 2004); investigations of marriage (Gottman et al., 2002); interpretations of macrohistory (Inayatullah, 1999); designing legal regulations (Baer, 1997); investigations on military command (Skyttner, 2005); complementary and alternative medicine (Rangel, 2005); education (Gulyaev and Stonyer, 2002); new methods of neuroimaging (Stephan, 2004); and health care and nursing. These, however, are not of interest based on our investigation criteria.


Lane and Jackson (1995) assigned the various systems approaches to eight sections: GST, organizations as systems, hard systems thinking, cybernetics, system dynamics, soft systems thinking, emancipatory systems thinking and critical systems thinking. Their classification provides a useful, although subjective, overview that views GST as a discipline among others, reflecting Bertalanffy's GST in the narrower sense--which he described as "a discipline concerned with the general properties and laws of 'systems'. A system is defined as a complex of components in interaction, or by some similar proposition" (Bertalanffy, 1967, p. 69).

The criterion for further investigating an article was if it brought something new to GST (or at least to more than one discipline), or if contradictions to the original GST program of Bertalanffy were found. The further structure of our paper results from the issues mentioned in the selected articles.

Logico-Mathematical Approaches

From the inception of GST the intention was to establish a formal approach to be used in various scientific disciplines, just as probability theory is a mathematical approach that can be used in many fields. As Bertalanffy announced, GST "is a logico-mathematical field, the subject matter of which is the formulation and deduction of those principles which are valid for 'systems' in general" (Bertalanffy, 1950, p. 139). Bertalanffy tried to illustrate the validity of GST for systems in general with differential equations, which are still a proper tool for many problems. Nevertheless, further formal attempts had to follow to tackle systems more generally.

In the analysed papers we found one attempt that strove to establish a new logic--the 'ternary description language'--a 'non-classical, deviant logic' which distinguishes itself from statement calculus and predicate calculus (Uyemov, 1999, 2002, 2003). An essential point is that besides thing, both properties and relations are basic categories. What is a thing in one context can become a property or a relation in another context. Uyemov (1999, p. 358) illustrates this by the following example: '[...] in the sentence "Love is a good affection", the word "Love" expresses a thing (=an object, an entity). In the sentence, "That affection is love", "love" is a property. In the sentence, "John loves Margaret", the word "love" denotes a relation'. Three further categories are definite, indefinite and arbitrary, which refer to the difference between 'the' thing, 'a' thing and 'any' thing. Uyemov formalizes the dual definition of a system into ordinary language: 'A system is an arbitrary thing in which a relation having a definite property is realized'; and 'A system is an arbitrary thing in which properties having a definite relation between them are realized' (Uyemov, 1999, p. 365). Only the future can tell whether this approach, which is currently not widely recognized, can lead to an advancement of GST.

The approach of Mesarovic and Takahara (1975, 1989) is the basis for several developments, such as the development towards the concepts of system transformation and adaptive systems by Saito (1999). Also, the language of general systems logical theory (GSLT) (Resconi et al., 1999) refers to Mesarovid and Takahara; GSLT is based on their input-output concept and is expressed by means of category theory concepts. The language of the more formal and general GSLT is said to be complementary to and has the same aim as the more problem-solving oriented general systems problem solver (GSPS) of Klir (1985). With the new language of GSLT, hidden structures of knowledge in various scientific areas can supposedly be investigated.

In combination with category theory and the mathematical conceptions of Mesarovid and Takahara, fuzzification was introduced in the area of system theory (Zlatos, 1996).

The work of Mesarovic and Takahara was also the basis for aiming at the development of a general physical systems theory. Such a unified theory within the realm of physics might also serve to inform GST with a 'general algorithm for recovering topological structure from unstructured data' (Bowden 1998).

Further related approaches, as mentioned by Takahara (2005), are based on the thread of mathematical general systems theory (MGST), as introduced by Mesarovid and Takahara: Forrester's system dynamics and Checkland's soft system methodology are examples of the GST methodology. Laszlo's natural system concept and Miller's living system concept are seen as typical grand theories. Zadeh's fuzzy system theory, Klir's formal general systems theory, Mesarovid's formal theory, Wymore's formal theory for systems engineering, Pichler's computer-aided system theory (CAST), Ziegler's formal theory and Wu's pansystem, which is said to be influential in China, are termed 'theories of general systems' (Takahara, 2005).

Another mathematical contribution--with roots in the work of Mesarovic and Takahara-was provided by Lin (1999), who mentioned open problems in the set-theoretic systems theory (Lin et al., 1997a,b). A system in this context denotes "the unification of 'isolated' objects, relations between the objects, and the structure of layers" (Lin et al., 1997a, p. 289). The assumed unsuccessfulness of GST was analysed by Lin et al. (1997a) and was to a certain extent attributed to a missing definition; Lin and Wang (1998, p. 24) gave a definition--first stated in 1987--that should have been a generalization of Mesarovid's definition: 'S is said to be a (general) system, if S is an ordered pair (M,R) of sets, where R is a set of some relations defined on the set M. Each element in M is called an object of the system S, and the sets M and R are called the object set and the relation set of the system S, respectively'. Within Lin's approach, basic features of systems are interpreted in a formal way, such as centralized system, partial system, hierarchy, multilevels, feedback and input/ output. Epistemological and ontological questions on the relationship between objects and mathematical descriptions are addressed, but practical questions are also raised: 'Find topological structures and algebraic structures such that in systems analysis they appear to be the same' (Lin et al., 1997b, p. 595). Lin et al. (199719, p. 603) concluded that, among other things, GST should become more unified; that is it should be a 'blending [of] philosophy, mathematics, physical science, technology, etc. into one body of knowledge'. According to Lin and Wang (1998) a shortfall of the set theoretical approach to GST, which was initiated by Mesarovid and Takahara, lies in the difficulty 'to quantify any subject matter of research', but the former try to overcome this shortcoming. The new approach has also been applied to issues in physics, such as the rest mass of a photon.

A mathematically deduced structural model of general systems was developed by Lin and Cheng (1998). Behaviour, or the external action of a system, is a function of its internal state and input from the environment; the system itself consists of parts 'which react on each other', and the relationship equations of the parts can be governed by natural or social laws. Hierarchical structures and the motion of the structure can be described. With this mathematical framework the behaviour of storage cells in a computer is demonstrated, and the model can supposedly also be applied to the brain. Moreover, the model should serve not only for a 'better understanding and control of systems in nature and society' but also to solve 'particular scientific problems' (Lin and Cheng, 1999, p. 82).

Information systems theory (IST) is a new formal approach that builds on further developed GST and information theory to arrive at (computer) models with minimized uncertainty for various fields (physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, technology, etc.). 'An information system (IS) is an interconnected set of interactions that exchange information, and which are capable of integrating themselves into a common information unit (subsystem, system)' (Lerner, 2004, p. 406). Random microlevel processes are modelled by stochastic differential equations. Regularities from the microlevel are transferred into the macrolevel, and described by macroprocess's equations. The main goal is to reveal IS regularities.

An approach towards a new axiomatic theory was made by Krivov et al. (2002). They referred to GST and complexity research (especially multiagent systems) when they developed a logic-based approach to deal with qualitative and quantitative parameters in a rule-based context. Formal treatment of organization and patterns was emphasized by modelling complex adaptive systems.

Synergetics, a transdisciplinary field of research for studying self-organization within complex systems, and GST are rarely mentioned at the same time. Nonetheless, it does occur in conjunction with discussions of quantitative sociodynamics by Helbing and Weidlich (1995), and there are certain connections.

Some approaches, for example Lloret-Climent (2002), Uso-Domenech et al. (2002), were based on mathematical approaches to systems, but these approaches focused on only one particular area of interest such as the cell or an ecosystem.

In summary, two major threads were evident in the developments of formalizing GST. One thread was based on the works of Mesarovic and Takahara, the other on the works of Klir.

Further Extensions

Late in his career, Bertalanffy (1969, p. 24) also stated that a 'verbal model is better than no model at all'. Mathematical models can restrict a field of research by their assumptions and formal limitations. Verbal models are more open, but not as precise as mathematical notations. Verbal models, which can also be formal, are often a predecessor of mathematical models, and thus they do not exclude each other.

This leads us to a linguistic approach. Linguistic modelling, which takes into account the 'expressive power of language', was developed to cover qualitative investigations (Korn, 2002). Linguistic modelling starts with a narrative description and is followed by a linguistic analysis, wherein lies the assumption that, for instance, a 'dynamic verb refers to causation'. The procedure leads to a 'computation of certainties of feasible states' that can be depicted in a semantic diagram. Linguistic modelling shifts attention, then, from 'system' to a change of state, whereby 'soft' problems should come closer to those of physics.

Niklas Luhmann's system approach in social sciences is a special case of development (Luhmann, 1984). His approach was rooted in cybernetics and second-order cybernetics, but he also referred to Bertalanffy and his GST (Luhmann and Baecker, 2002, p. 41, Luhmann, 1984, pp. 12, 15, 22). Concepts such as the distinction between system and environment (implicitly present in Bertalanffy's approach), autopoiesis and the observer played a major role.

Luhmann's theory was primarily sociological and more prominent in German-speaking countries than internationally. As was evident from our search in 161 articles, his theory did not have much influence in areas outside of sociology and philosophy.

Various Notions of GST

Although the above system definition of Bertalanffy is clear--and very similar ones can be found--the discussion about the system definition seems to be a never ending story, as illustrated earlier in discussions by Lin and Wang. Razik and Jacobs (1995), for instance, claimed that there are definitions of 'system' that are too broad and others that are too narrow. They consequently introduced a definition that was based on dataflow diagramming, but their definition was not adopted widely.

Furthermore, Bertalanffy's approach supposedly required the support of other philosophical epistemologies. This position was held by Georgiou (1999, 2000), who attempted to improve Bertalanffy's system epistemology by incorporating Sartre's understanding of Husserlian phenomenology.

Besides its scientific, or epistemological, dimension, GST also has a world view dimension. Bertalanffy's basic aim was to overcome a mechanistic world view and strive for a 'model of the world as a great organization' (Bertalanffy, 1969, p. 49).

Mulej et al. (2004) contrasted the problem of specialization in science and other areas with Bertalanffy's thinking: GST should not be used as a tool only inside specialized disciplines, but a linked world view must also be taken into account. The authors indicated that 'an exaggerated reductionism prevails in scientific and common thinking' and that the notion of a 'requisite holism' was needed. Seven groups of 'system thinking principles' were suggested: interdependence, relations, openness and interconnectedness; complexity; attractors; emergence; synergy, system and synthesis; whole, holism and big picture; and networking, interaction and interplay. Hence, a view of the whole should be restored to prevent major trouble. Mulej et al. (2003) supported an informal system thinking in addition to the already established formal system of thinking.

Besides the holistic view of Mulej et al., a world view that corresponds with GST did not appear in the articles studied, at least not in a novel and elaborated form.


A problem with the reception of GST lies in the book compiled by the founder (Bertalanffy, 1969). The book is a rhapsody of sometimes shortened articles that were written over the whole period of Bertalanffy's concerns with GST. The book does not provide a synthesis or concise overview of the field. Many authors refer solely to this book when mentioning GST, for example De Zeeuw (2006). Sometimes only certain aspects of GST are selected; this can result in misunderstandings and eventually lead to serious problems.

Dubrovsky tried to make a case against GST, saying that, so far, no 'general system principles' have been formulated. Furthermore, he states that 'GST does not have a method that addresses its subject matter: formulation of principles applicable to all systems' (Dubrovsky, 2004, p. 112). The critique was supposedly linked to the problematic notion that GST is underlied by a naive realist ontology, that is to viewing unity, part and relationship as ontological entities. He proposed reinvestigating Kant to overcome purported GST shortcomings. We, however, do not agree with Dubrovsky's (2004) claim that '[a]ll general system theorists share the realist view of systems'. On the contrary, Bertalanffy talked about models and perspectivism, that is he argued epistemologically.

Palmer made an interesting, though doubtful, statement regarding the relationship between software engineering and GST, especially with regard to Klir's GSPS. He stated that system science is "ignoring the fact that it is a 'metaphysical' discipline" (Palmer, 1996). At the very least, Bertalanffy's perspectivism must be seen in an epistemological way. GST was understood as a scientific and not as a metaphysical program.

A block for some authors in the reception of GST has been the theory's purported ontological attitude. Yet, as clarified by Pouvreau and Drack (2007), the founder of GST, Bertalanffy, cannot be accused of unmindfully mixing the areas of ontology and epistemology.

We also disagree with certain suggestions that Bertalanffy's system thinking should be in favour of 'holism' and 'emergentism'. He clearly judged both conceptions as metaphysical ones (Pouvreau and Drack, 2007, p. 308). Holism and emergentism were used in different contexts and ways that should not be mixed uncritically with GST.

Schurz (2004) assumed that system laws exist and that '[s]ystem laws are based on natural laws but do not have their stringency'; they are 'softer'. Although general system laws are widely missing, the former statement is doubtful. GST for Bertalanffy was a means for systems in general just as probability theory has been a means for thermodynamics (and many other fields) in that laws of higher order were derived without taking into account the behaviour of each single particle (Bertalanffy, 1951, p. 304). Yet, the statistical laws of thermodynamics are still natural laws.


Our investigation of articles in which GST is mentioned reveals an expanded domain; it ranges from logics and mathematical attempts to build a new framework for GST over natural and social sciences to philosophical treatise. Many of the papers were based on former developments that tried to apply or make operable certain concepts of GST.

So, has there been a development of Bertalanffy's GST program as he intended it? GST was meant to become a unifying logico-mathematical approach. The works of Mesarovic Takahara, Klir and Lin are elaborated developments in this direction. Because works such as these are rarely used, however, a unification of science by means of GST has not yet been achieved. No common 'language' for all system research, nor a uniting of several disciplines, have yet been established. The various system attempts in the investigated literature are still rather fragmented. We found little interconnection between the various strands in GST among the topics in the 161 articles. However, the appearance of rather different views and concepts is nothing new. As the following quotation shows, variations in perspective are not necessarily negative: "The fact that 'system theories' by various authors look rather different is, therefore, not an embarrassment or the result of confusion, but rather a healthy development" (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 30).

Some more recent developments run parallel to each other, although their connection to system theory in general is obvious. Direct connections from GST to the related fields of complexity research, chaos theory and concepts or techniques such as cellular automata, neuronal nets or autopoiesis are rarely made.

We realized from consulting recent anthologies of papers of 'system thinkers' such as Klir's Facets of Systems Science (Klir, 2001), Midgley's Systems Thinking (Midgley, 2003) or Baecker's Schlusselwerke der Systemtheorie (Baecker, 2005) that many of the important articles had already been written long ago and only a few key articles or books had been added in the last 20 years. Significantly, those recent anthologies, together with Francois' International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (Francois, 2004), several websites, societies and conferences, reflect an active, vivid interest in the topic. Nonetheless, the common baseline--to a rather small community--seems only to be that system approaches are valuable.

We further recognized that system thinking in a broad sense, in the way Bertalanffy understood it, was rare. How authors received system theory, and especially Bertalanffy's GST, reflected a great variety of interpretations. Some of these were questionable in that they either selected only isolated issues from GST or they misunderstood that GST belongs to naive realism. Finally, even though Bertalanffy linked a world view to GST, we found little mention of this link in the investigated literature, which also included philosophical journals.

GST is still considered useful in overcoming reductionism. Within the investigated articles, however, many attempts were restricted to only certain specific problems and ignored the generality of the original intention.

Within system approaches many attempts-which may not have had an explicitly reductionist tendency--had narrow or restricted foci. Perhaps a reductionist tendency exists in science. At the same time complementary system approaches, for example systems biology, also appear in many fields (medicine, economics and biology).


A current problem within the field of system theories, or system sciences, is that adherents subscribe to different notions of the philosophy behind system approaches; this problem is particularly evident within cybernetics and GST. As noted above, GST is not bound to naive realism and, in principle, Bertalanffy's perspectivist epistemology is not incompatible with the constructivism of second-order cybernetics. More detailed investigations are needed to discern where the approaches overlap.

To encourage further investigation into a synthesis of system sciences, we suggest that system theory adherents examine the different 'dimensions' of GST. We specifically recommend the following dimensions: scientific concepts and methods, epistemology, ontology, world view, ideology and history of ideas. We contend that misunderstandings about approaches and intents can be overcome if adherents are aware of the existence of different dimensions and if they can identify from which dimension others may decide to approach an issue. Thereby the overlaps between different approaches can easily become apparent.

As a scientific concept, for instance, autopoiesis might serve as one link between cybernetics and GST. Gloy (1995, p. 246f) identifies the concept of autopoiesis, as introduced by Humberto Maturana, as an extension of Bertalanffy's concept of steady state (Fliessgleichgewicht), where, supposedly, self-reference extends the former concept.

A synthesis--if one is possible--of the various system approaches is still missing, but incorporating the proposed dimensions may provide a good starting point for adherents of system theories to bring together approaches from different fields.

DOI: 10.1002/sres.1013


This research was supported by Austrian Science Fund grant P18149-G04 to Rupert Riedl, a former student of Bertalanffy. It was also supported by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture of the Federal State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany (grant UR 08 254). We thank Karen Kastenhofer and Robert Kolbl for their very helpful advice. Furthermore, we wish to thank Ludwig Huber and Gerd B. Muller for their support.

Received 26 June 2008

Accepted 15 December 2009


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(1) The search tool of ISI was changed. However, searching the Web of Science, excluding conference proceedings, still leads to the articles of interest.

Manfred Drack [1] * and Gregor Schwarz [2]

[1] Department of Theoretical Biology, University of Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, 1090 Wien, Austria Systems Biology and Bioinformatics Group, University of Rostock, Uhnenstrafle 69, 18057 Rostock, Germany [2] Club of Vienna, Rilkeplatz 2, 1040 Wien, Austria

* Correspondence to: Manfred Drack, Department of Theoretical Biology, University of Vienna, Althanstratsse 14, 1090 Wien, Austria. E-mail:
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Title Annotation:Research Paper
Author:Drack, Manfred; Schwarz, Gregor
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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