An activity of the Primer Group


A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.







An inquiry at the beginning of history

by Tom Mandel



Ludwig von Bertalanffy noticed that the various models stored on the shelves of his biology lab had certain similarities, as if the models had certain structural charateristics in common. This observation led von Bertalanffy to eventually develop a scientific theory of general principles which has come to be known as general system theory.

Bertalanffy wrote, "Thus there exists models., principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their paricular kind. the nature of their component elements , and the relations of "forces" beteween them. It thus seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general. In this way we postulate a new discipline called General Systems Theory. Its subject matter is the formulation and derivation of those principles which are valid for "systems" in general...General systems theory, therefore, is a general science of "wholeness."

While von Bertalanffy along with his collegues did create a science out of systems, a science which has been evolving for forty years, the principles of systems have been around since the beginning of time. It should not be of any surprise that "systems thinking" occured far back in humankind's history.

The elements of a General Systems View can also be found in the early philosophical writings of the Greeks. That is, if we disregard the conventional view and reinterpret them as systems we in fact can find systems. I would like to discuss two ancient major systems never before acknowledged as such.

It is rumored that Thales of Melitus predicted an eclipse on the 28th of May, 585 B.C.. And in fact it did occur. Because there was no distinction at that early time between what was philosophy and what was science, it can be said Thales conducted the first scientific experiment and thus would be the father of science, and May 28th, 585 B.C. would be the birthday. (Isaac Asimov also held this view.)

Around 585 B.C. Thales of Miletus formulated Western civilization's first philosophy in an attempt to break from the mythical gods of Homer and Hesiod. His rational explanation was the first to replace the magical creation of the Cosmos by the various gods. His idea was simple: the world was constructed of a kind of stuff, a single thing that made up the world, much like WATER made up the oceans.

But knowledge was not meant to stop evolving and soon afterwards Thales' student, Anaximander, took issue with Thales's model of stuff, water, suggesting that there also was an infinite quality, the Boundless, which was then further modified by Anaximenes to include a specificness about it, much like AIR.

Heraclitus then surmised that Change was an important part of the total picture, a movement from one thing to another much like FIRE consumes and creates new forms of matter. He also spoke of them as the opposites, "What is in opposition, is in concert."

A fifth Ionian philosopher, Empedocles, decided that all of these concepts should be integrated into a whole to include the many not unlike the EARTH integrates all forms of matter. Furthermore, these forces were modulated by the forces of love and hate. Hence the concept of Water, Air, Fire, and Earth was born.

Very little of what Thales actually wrote has been found. What we do have is a verbal account given us by Aristotle. Aristotle's interpretation, however, leads one to believe the four elements actually existed as things, that water, air, fire and earth were actual elements which everything was made of. He also added a fifth celestial sphere, presumably to make it original.

Unfortunately, Aristotle's atomistic treatment of the Ionian philosopher's System as four elements -- Water, Air, Fire and Earth -- missed the point. His approach of four distinct things resulted in a stagnant elemental age that lasted more than 1500 years as science sought, instead, to make gold. Secretly of course. Unprofitably, at end...

But what if water was merely an example of Thales Stuff? And what if air also was an example of the Boundless? And what if fire was an example of Change rather than the accepted version that everything was fire? And what if earth was an example of what happens when you put all these Together? We would have a Greek General Systems Theory that would rival any we have today, at least of the general sort.

Indeed, if we interpret these elements in this relational manner, we find that we have two primary elements, water and air, which is combined like fire combines, the whole of which is one, like the earth. Certainly this idea is not different from our own general system principles -- "standing elements in relationship." Could they have gotten it right to begin with? There is evidence that such a scenario could have existed.

So far we have discussed the material nature of the world. They story didn't end there. The idea of mind arose in Greek thought soon after the material. It was easy to imagine that such a thing existed. Protagoras reasoned that man is the measure, while Anaxagoras believed in mind or Nous. Socretes declined to comment on the material nature of the universe, instead used Nous and man to develop the concept of the Soul which existed inside of man. At the same time, Gorgias concluded that everything was relative and literally gave up. Aristotle adopted the material, but saw it as entity, not system.

Similarly, Plato's exclusion of the material in his Idealistic perspective stunted the evolution of knowledge of that complementarity of mind/matter, resulting in a illusory division of reality. A dualism that has persisted to this very day. And so the stage was set - unity was stated in the dualistic terms - mind and body. This chasm would express itself throughout the ages as the conflict between Idealism and Materialism.

In the context of philosophy and science in general, this situation has remained relatively the same. While Kant introduced a relationship, and Hegel subsequently derived his philosophy of Synthesis, the philosophy went nowhere until it later emerged in the organism of Whitehead and then general systems.

Yet the full impact of the changes we are now experiencing cannot be appreciated without reference to a new paradigm whose beginning can be traced to Thales.

Thales Theory of Stuff also led to a different, and most well known theory of the Atom or Atomos. Leucippus and Democritus formulated the original theory of the atom, conceiving of it as a bit or atomos existing in a space. Obviously this is a special case of Thales more general model (Schroedinger also makes this comparison.), but not of systems as it leaves out their relationship. The theory went nowhere as it was ridiculed by Aristotle severely (Aristotle even wanted to burn Democritus' books.) Fortunately, The philosopher Epicurus wrote of the Atomos concept incorporating it into his philosophy, but that philosophy died off, and with it went the atom theory. Around the turn of the millennium, the Roman poet Leucretius came across the writings of Epicurus and wrote the long poem "On the Nature of Things." which incorporated the theory of Atomos. This poem was lost, and with it, all reference to the atom throughout the dark ages. It would remain hidden for centuries until French philosopher Gassendi found it and passed it on to Boyle, and eventually "On the Nature of Things" became the second book published on the Gutenberg Press. The poem was read by Dalton who then modernized the theory of the atom, retaining the name "atom" out of deference to the earlier Greek theory of Atomos.

Ironically, many scientists chose not to believe in the atom, and general acceptance didn't occur until 1895 when the electron was found. Yet, the final convinving proof of the atom's existence was provided by Einstein in his Brownian Motion paper which ironically used the same principle "dancing motes of dust in a beam of sunlight " (in his Brownian motion paper) that Leucrtius used in his poem two thousand years earlier. With a twist of irony...

As physicists delved into the interior of the atom, conventional theory theory after theory crumbled to dust. The accepted methodology of science was proven inadequate and had to be fundamentally changed by Planck's concept of quanta - a unit of action. The absoluteness of Newtonian physics was shattered when space and time were found to be aspects of one whole rather than the separate "absolute" entities Newton claimed they were. Finally, the ontological basis of Identity was disrupted, if not washed away, by Bohr's complementarity. The Wavicle, described in strict classical terms, is and isn't, contrary to Aristotle's law of Identity. Yes, a thing can be a thing and not a thing at the same time. Furthermore, as science began to delve even further into the interior of the atom, looking for the ultimate particle everything must be made of, they found no entity, i.e., matter, what they found, succinctly put by Erwin Schroedinger, one of the founders of Quantum mechanics, was, "Form, not substance - the ultimate concept."

The atom is not a stuff after all...

"Let us now return to our ultimate particles and to small organizations of particles as atoms or small molecules. The old idea about them was that their individuality was based on the identity of matter in them...The new idea is that what is permanent in these ultimate particles or small aggregates is their shape and organization. The habit of everyday language deceives us and seems to require, whenever we hear the word shape or form of something. that it must be a material substratum is required to take on a shape. Scientifically this habit goes back to Aristotle, his causa materialis and causa formalis. But when you come to the ultimate particles constituting matter, there seems to be no point in thinking of them again as consisting of some material. They are as it were, pure shape, nothing but shape; what turns up again and again in successive observations is this shape, not an individual speck of material...

...On the other hand...the mere contention that every observation depends on both the subject and the object, which are inextricably interwoven - this contention is hardly new, it is almost as old as science itself...But I must mention one point, in order not to be accused of injustice towards the quantum physicists of our days. I said their statement that in perception and observation subject and object are inextricably interwoven is hardly new. But they could make a case that something about it is new. I think it is true that in previous centuries, when discussing this question, one mostly had in mind two things, viz. (a) a direct physical impression caused by the object in the subject, and, (b) the state of the subject that receives the impression. As against this, in the present order of ideas the direct physical causal, influence between the two is regarded as mutual. It is said that there is also an unavoidable and uncontrollable impression from the side of the subject onto the object. This aspect is new, and, I should say, more adequate anyhow. For physical action is always inter-action. It always is mutual. "

Instead the parts, or things, that ontologically must exist, the physicists found patterns. Instead of a single element of everything, the physicists found a relationship between different things. Instead of bits and pieces, the physicists found the whole. A new physics was born. (Eventually it would be found that the new physics must include the old, but both as aspects rather than separate absolutes.) Gregory Bateson explains it this way:

"My central thesis can now be approached in words.
The pattern which connects is a metapattern.
It is a pattern of patterns.
It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed,
it is patterns which connect."

Several hundred books have been written about the quantum revolution in elementary physics. The simplicity of the objects under study reduced the variables to a minimum, and thus the problems of investigation were likewise reduced to their minimums. For a long time enigma after enigma emerged and wrestled with, until finally a new paradigm emerged. While several excellent summaries of this paradigm shift have been published, Capra's approach fits best with what we are doing in the General Systems Sciences.

In 1976, Fritjof Capra wrote "The Tao of Physics" in which he described the parallels in Eastern thought and Quantum Physics in the common and ordinary language. This book set off a continuing stream of ordinary language philosophical interpretations of Quantum Physics written in ordinary language for the lay public There also was a resurgence of talk about a General Theory, the Secret of the Universe, a concept that has settled around the terms Theory of Everything. Below are excerpts taken from his books and lectures. It is, in our sense, The Best of Systems Thinking from the point of view of physics.

"The dramatic change in concepts and ideas that happened in physics during the first three decades of this century has been widely discussed by physicists and philosophers for more than fifty years...The intellectual crisis of quantum physicists in the 1920's is mirrored today by a similar but much broader cultural crisis. The major problems of our time...are all different facets of one single crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception...Like the crisis in quantum physics, it derives from the fact that most of us. and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated world view...At the same time researchers...are developing a new vision of reality...What we are seeing today is a shift of paradigms not only within science but also in the larger social arena...The social paradigm now receding had dominated our culture for several hundred years, during which it shaped our modern Western society and has significantly influenced the rest of the world...This paradigm consists of...the view of the world as a mechanical system, the view of the body as a machine...the view of life as a competitive struggle...the belief of unlimited of unlimited progress achieved through economic and technological growth and the belief that the female is subsumed under the male...During recent decades all these assumptions have been severely limited and in need of radical revision. Indeed, such a revision is mow taking place...In science, the language of systems theory. and especially the theory of living systems, seems to provide the most appropriate formulation of the new ecological paradigm. I would like to now specify what is meant by the systems approach...I shall identify five criteria of systems approach...1. Shift from the parts to the whole. The properties of the parts can be understood only from the dynamics of the whole. In fact, ultimately there are no parts at all 2. Shift from the structure to the process. In the new paradigm, every structure is seen as a manifestation of an underlying process. 3. Shift from objective to epistemic science. In the new paradigm, it is believed the epistemology - the understanding of the process of knowledge - has to be included explicitly in the description of natural phenomenon...4. A shift from building to networks as a metaphor of knowledge. In the new paradigm, the metaphor of knowledge as a building is being replaced by that of the network. 5. Shift from truth to approximate descriptions. This insight is crucial to all modern the new paradigm, it is recognized that all scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate...One of the most important insights of the new systems theory is that life and cognition are inseparable. The process of knowledge is also the process of self-organization, that is, the process of life. Our conventional model of knowledge is one of representation or an image of independently existing facts which is the model derived from classical physics. From, the new systems point of view, knowledge is a part of the process of life, of a dialogue between subject and object. I believe that the world view implied by modern physics is inconsistent with our present society, which does not reflect the interrelatedness we observe in nature. To achieve such a state of dynamic balance, a radically different social and economic structure will be needed; a cultural revolution in the true sense of the word. The survival of our whole civilization may depend on whether we can bring about such a change. It will depend ultimately, on our ability to...experience the wholeness of nature and the art of living with it in harmony." [7]

But so far, all we have presented here are interpretations. The question has been asked, "Is there any scientific evidence of wholeness? The answer is yes.

In short, the cutting edge experiment today is Bell's Theorem, and its philosophical implications are that either there is faster than light travel (arrives before it left), or, b, subatomic particles remain as a whole even while separated by any distance. )

While Western civilization began on the shore of the Nile and Euphrates river deltas, an Eastern civilization arose on the shores of the Yangtze river delta, now known as China. Four thousand years ago, a document was produced introducing the art of acupuncture. In this document reference was made to the Chinese system known as the Yin/Yang. This symbol is said to be a birds eye view of a mountain, with a dark and light side. The form of their symbol implies a movement of the light around the mountain, a flow, if you will. Indeed, the essence of their system is about movement or flow.

Around the time (3OO-500 B.C.) when Heraclitus was formulating his concepts of change, or thereabouts, the Chinese were hard at work formulating their own system, using pictures to write it down. The Tao Te Ching is thought to be authored by either a group of writers or by the man called Lao Tzu., doesn't matter now who wrote it, what mattered was that at nearly the same time in history, while the Greeks were thinking about their whole system of earth, the Chinese were also writing down their system. Thousands of miles away, someone wrote down these words. Compare them to the whole of the pre-Socratic Greek systems philosophy we have speculated on above -- Interestingly, I have never seen this passage quoted in any Eastern or Western texts outside of The Tao Te Ching. This is the first time you have read thins?

Written down in the ancient book, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42, Lao Tzu wrote:

"The Tao begot one,

one begot two,

two begot three.

The three begot the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things embrace Yin and express Yang.

Harmony is achieved by combining these forces." [12]

Compare this to the Greek idea of stuff and space and a relationship as a whole according to the principles of love and hate. One made two and two is of three and three are many and many are harmonized by Yin/Yang. Systemically, they are the same.


The Primer, charged with the role of defining a system, defines it as "a family, of meaningful relationships among the members, acting as a whole." A whole-system is a family in a meaningful relationship with its enviornment as a whole. Here are the secondary elements of systems, our part "B"

Systems, (from the Four Directions of Philosophy, Theory, Methodology and Application), as a family of meaningful relationships among the members acting as a whole and possessing organization as a process with aspects determined by boundaries of information and control as set by the observer according to subjective and objective considerations that might be static or dynamic, with qualities or quantities that are simplicity compared relatively to complexity expressing itself as a closed and/or open system having form and function which can have emergent effects creating an evolution or devolution depending on internal or external relationships utilizing differentiation and integration to form order out of chaoic behavior all at once over a period of time.

Don't we need a new way of saying this?

Send e-mail to

Return to home page

Return to map page