EDITORIAL: SYSTEMATICS AND GENERAL SYSTEMS THEORY
Vol. I No 2 September 1963
The research groups of this Institute that, for the past seventeen years, have been engaged in developing the discipline now called Systematics, learned only recently that a Society for General System Research had been founded in the U.S.A., (1) inspired mainly by the work of Professor L. von Bertalanffy. This ignorance was scarcely excusable in view of Bertalanffy's paper, 'An Outline of General System Theory', published in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science in August 1950. The explanation lies in the fact that the two groups started from widely differing premises and have only, within the last few years, converged to a point where interchange can be fruitful. We have been much encouraged to observe the welcome given to our Journal by the proponents of General System Theory and by university libraries in the U.S.A. An unexpectedly large volume of correspondence has been received from readers of the first number. Many of the letters are of general interest and we hope to deal with some of them in the next issue.
Meanwhile, it seems useful to make a tentative comparison of the work done at this Institute since 1946 with that initiated about the same time by Bertalanffy and his co-workers. The basic postulate of Systematics is that structures are inherent in the very nature of things, and that the main types of structure repeat themselves with the greatest variety of form and content. As applied to the history of human thought, the systematic postulate teaches us to expect that the ideas current at a given time will have isomorphic characters that are independent of causal communication. The Zeitgeist is a thoroughly systematic notion, and we should not be surprised to find that the transition from atomism to holism should be made at the same time by different thinkers working independently.
In a very general sense, it can be said that Systematics represents a characteristic trend in modern thought. This is traceable in A. N. Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism (2); in the work of H. Driesch (3); Lloyd Morgan (4); H. Lotka (5); Von Uexktil (6); and other biological philosophers; in the gestalt theory of Wertheimer (7) and Koffka (8); and in J. C. Smut's Holism (9). The trend is partly due to the evident failure of atomism as a principle of explanation, and partly due to the growing recognition that organized structures are ultimate constituents of reality, irreducible to simpler terms. These and many other lines of thought are symptomatic of the profound changes that have come over natural scientists, psychologists, economists and historians during the past fifty years. They are evidences of the Zeitgeist that is drawing mankind towards the One World consciousness which is the inevitable next step in our development. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that attempts to establish a general theory of systems as organized structures should have been made independently by workers in different parts of the world. Our systematics and the general system theory of Bertalanffy and Rapoport (10) stand apart from the majority of such projects by emphasis upon the evidence for general laws of structure which can be applied to the solution of a wide range of practical problems. Our search for the progressive unification of the scientific Weltanschauung is thus concentrated upon structure rather than simplicity; upon understanding the world as it presents itself to our experience, rather than upon the discovery of universal simple laws.
We have referred to the different points of departure. Bennett was certainly influenced by Gurdjieff's Fundamental Cosmic Laws of three-and seven-foldness. In his first book The Crisis in Human Affairs (1948) (11) he introduces the notion of seven levels of the thought process, which is derived from old Sufi doctrines, borrowed and transformed by Gurdjieff. It was not until the publication of The Dramatic Universe (Vol. 1 1956) (12) that he brought forward the suggestion that the cardinal numbers bear significant qualities. This was developed in Vol. II into the scheme of 'Multi -term' systems. (13) An important application of this sc heme is to the geometry of the physical world, which requires four distinct parameters, or dimensions, to account for positions, motions, force-fields, action and interaction. This has occupied our attention for several years. Since 1958, research groups at the Institute set themselves to study the properties of multi-term systems, and out of this work, the discipline of Systematics, described in Bennett's paper in our last issue, (14) is now emerging. This approach emphasises the importance of the qualitative elements in all experience, as derivative from the qualitative significance of number. One result is to direct attention to the simple systems of from one to five or six terms. The immensely promising results obtained by this concentration of interest make it desirable to continue this work, even if it means slower progress in the field of indeterminate systems, where the strict requirements of "independence and mutual relevance of terms" can be satisfied only approximately.
Bertalanffy's approach is indicated in his 1950 paper. (15) He observed the emergence of "formally identical or isomorphic laws in completely different fields” of natural and social science. Questioning the origin of these isomorphisms, he concluded that "there exist general system laws which apply to any system of a certain type, irrespective of the particular properties of the system or the elements involved." It seems that his first paper on the subject, sent in 1944 to the German Philosophical Society, (16)was never published and that his work first gained prominence in the U.S.A. The approach was that of the biological mathematician, who observes that growth processes follow exponential, logistic and parabolic laws according to the factors that dominate the situation; who sees that wholeness and summation are quite distinct properties of systems, and who finds that hierarchical order, differential growth and open equilibria can be expressed by sets of equations that are identical in form for widely differing content. Bertalanffy is far from concluding at the ability to express biological facts in mathematical terms is equivalent to the reduction of all knowledge to that of physical mechanisms. In this he diverges from, say Russell (17) or Carnap (18) and he does so emphatically, claiming that system theory requires us to of accept as real the organismic conception that gives its due place to each the special ways of studying the world. Writing in 1950, (19) he expressed the belief: "that the future elaboration of General System Theory will prove to be a major step towards the unification of science." "It may be destined", he wrote, "in the science of the future, to play a role similar to that of Aristotelian logic in the science of antiquity."
The later development of General System Theory, as shown by the papers published in the Year Book of the Society, has been away from the simple mathematical schemes to a more descriptive and empirical approach. To bring together, therefore, the work done at this Institute and that of the American Society, we should look at the more recent definitions of systems and their properties.
Bennett defines a system as a "set of independent but mutually relevant terms." Bertalanffy uses the formula: "sets of elements in interaction". A. D. Hall, (20) author of Systems Engineering, writes: "A system is a set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes." All three definitions go beyond that given in the Oxford Dictionary, (21) "A set or assemblage of things connected, associated, or inter-dependent, so as to form a complex unity", by the emphasis placed upon the organic character of the whole. Bertalanffy, (22) inspired by his biological insight, emphasizes the analogy of the animal body in which the various structures: organs, muscles and nerves; and functional groups, such as the digestive, respiratory, etc., are rightly described as systems forming a complex unity. Bennett, approaching the problem from the epistemological standpoint, emphasizes the connection between systems and meanings.(23)
The two groups are not far apart in their concern with the isomorphism of systems irrespective of content. The divergence makes itself felt chiefly in the methods used for bringing the isomorphism to light. Ashby (24) distinguishes two ways of establishing a theory of systems: "One, already well developed in the hands of von Bertalanffy and his co-workers, takes the world as we find it, examines the various systems that occur in it—zoological, physiological, and so on—and then draws up statements about the regularities that have been observed to hold. This method is essentially empirical. The second method is to start at the other end. Instead of studying first one system, then a second, then a third, and so on, it goes to the other extreme, considers the set of all conceivable systems and then reduces the set to a more reasonable size." Bertalanffy, (25) quoting this statement with approval, remarks that all system-studies follow one or the other of these methods, or a com bination of both. This certainly does not apply to the methods developed by Bennett and his co-workers, who have developed their Systematics by detailed study of very simple systems of one, two, three, up to twelve terms at most. This method has given results applicable to a wide variety of problems, but it does not bring out the importance of "open system" as defined by Bertalanffy. The corresponding notion in Bennett's treatment is that of transflux equilibrium that applies to material as well as to living systems. A simple case of transflux equilibrium is the sea level maintained by evaporation and precipitation. A complex case is the role of green vegetation as the stabilizing factor in the life of the earth. Such examples do not, at first sight, appear to satisfy any of the definitions of a system. Nevertheless, both groups accept structures in transflux equilibrium as true systems. Bertalanffy does so by allowing the interaction between a system and its environment to be regarded as a property of the system itself. Bennett ascribes transflux equilibrium to the five-term system, which has the property of allowing distinctions between inner and outer variations.
We may conclude that, notwithstanding the marked differences in methodology, and indeed in the very conception of a system, the two groups are working upon converging lines, and that a comparison of the results obtained should be very fruitful.
The points of similarity and difference are brought out by com paring Bertalanffy's principles of general systems with the systemic attributes in Systematics. The two lists are put side by side without the intention of suggesting equivalence of the terms.
Growth in Time
The term properties of the different systems are only to a limited extent recognized in General System Theory. On the other hand, notions such as organization, competition, growth and decision, are brought out more forcibly by the empirical approach favoured by the American workers.
We hope that it may be possible in future issues of Systematics to publish papers on General System Theory, and also to print more detailed studies than are possible here of the interaction of the two lines of research.
1 The Society originally called the Society for the Advancement of General System Theory was organized as a group under Section L of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Berkeley meeting of the AAS in 1954
2 Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality. London 1929.
3 Driesch, T. The Science and Philosophy of Organism. London 1929.
4 Lloyd Morgan. Emergent Evolution. London 1923.
5 Lotka, A. J. Elements of Physical Biology. Baltimore 1925.
6 Von Uexkiill, J. Theoretical Biology. London 1926.
7 Wertheimer, Max. Phi Phenomena. 1923.
8 Koffka, K. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. 1935.
9 Smuts, J. C. Holism and Evolution. London 1926.
10 General Systems Theory. Annual Yearbook. No. 1.
11 Bennett, J. G. The Crisis in Human Affairs. London 1948.
12 Bennett, J. G. The Dramatic Universe. Vol. I 1956.
13 Bennett, J. G. The Dramatic Universe. Vol. II 1959.
14 Systematics, June 1963, page 5.
15 Bertalanffy, L. von. The Philosophy of Science. Vol. I 1950, page 134.
16 Bertalanfly, L. von. Zu Einer Allgemeinen System Lehre. Bl.f.Deutsche Phil. 18 1945
17 Russell, B. Human Knowledge. Its Scope and Limits. London 1948.
18 Carnap, Rudolf. The Unity of Science. 1934.
19 Bertalanffy, L. von. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Vol. I Ch. 2, August 1950, page 165.
20 Hall, A. D. Systems Engineering. New York.
21 New English Dictionary. Sub. voc.
22 Bertalanffy, L. von. Journal of the Philosophy of Science. 1950.
23 Bennett, J. G. The Dramatic Universe. Vol. II. Introduction.
24 Ashby, W. R. General Systems III, 1-6, 1958.
25 Bertalanffy, L. von. General Systems Theory, A Critical Review. Year Book VII, 1962.