Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901--1972)

as one of the most important theoretical biologists of the first half of this century; researched on comparative physiology, on biophysics, on cancer, on psychology, on philosophy of science ...

developed a kinetic theory of stationary open systems and the General System Theory, was one of the founding fathers and vice-president of the Society for General System Theory, and one of the first who applied the system methodology to psychology and the social sciences ...

held positions at the University of Vienna (1934-48), the University of Ottawa (1950-54), the Mount Sinai Hospital (Los Angeles) (1955-58), the University of Alberta (1961-68), State University of New York (SUNY) (1969-72) ...

was a Visiting Professor of the University of London (1948-49), the University of Montreal (1949), the University of Southern California (1955-58), the Menninger Foundation (1958-60), the University of Alberta (1960) ...

was a Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation (1937-38), the Lady Davis Foundation (1949), the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1954-55) ...

was a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Naturforscher Leopoldina (Halle), the New York Academy of Sciences, the Canadian Physiological Society, Study Groups of the World Health Organization ...

published over 200 articles on theoretical biology and General System Theory in journals, among others in Roux' Archiv für Entwicklungsmechanik, Nature, Science, American Naturalist, Quarterly Review of Biology, Philosophy of Science, in books and encyclopedies, wrote over 10 monographies, edited the Handbuch der Biologie , and was translated into English, French, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Dutch ...

Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born in a little village near Vienna on September 19, 1901. In 1918 he started his studies with history of art and philosophy, firstly at the University of Innsbruck and then at the University of Vienna where he became a pupil of the philosophers Robert Reininger and Moritz Schlick, one of the founders of the Viennese Circle. He finished his PhD with a thesis on the German physicist and philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner in 1926, and published his first book on theoretical biology two years later (Modern Theories of Development).

In this critical review of morphogenetic theories Bertalanffy tried to solve the crucial issue of reduction, namely, whether the categories of biology are different from the physical ones, or whether an absolute reduction from the biological domain to the physical one is possible at all. He resolved this enigma with the organismic system theory that assigns to the biological systems a self-organizational dynamics. The organismic system theory should experimentally investigate how the pattern formation functions (1929, 1931). For it, he developed the kinetic theory of open systems characteristics of which are equifinality and steady state. His main goal was to unite metabolism, growth, morphogenesis and sense physiology to a dynamic theory of stationary open systems (1933, 1938).

In 1934 he was habilitated by Reininger, Schlick and the zoologist Versluys for the first volume of his Theoretische Biologie. The monography postulated two essential aims of a theoretical biology, firstly to clean up the conceptual terminology of biology, and, secondly, to explain how the phenomena of life can spontaneously emerge from forces existing inside an organism. Here the organismic system represented the main problem as well as the still-to-formulate program of a theoretical biology. The second volume developed the research program of a dynamic morphology and applied the mathematical method to biological problems.

As a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Chicago (1937-38) he worked with the Russian physicist Nicolaus Rashevsky. There he gave his first lecture about the General System Theory as a methodology that is valid for all sciences (1949b). In 1939 he was appointed to an extraordinary professor at the University of Vienna. There Bertalanffy concentrated his research on a comparative physiology of growth. He was the first biologist who held lectures in zoology for students of medicine and an integrated course on botany and zoology. During this time he wrote, beneath his most programmatic article on organisms as physical systems (1940), the summary of his biological reasoning: Problems of Life.

In 1949 he emigrated to Canada where he mainly worked on metabolism, growth, biophysics, and cancer cytology. In his biomedical research on cancer he developed, with his son Felix, the Bertalanffy-method of cancer cytodiagnosis. From the 1950's onwards he shifted his research from the biological sciences to the methodology of science, the General System Theory (GST), and cognitive psychology. Based on his humanistic worldview, he developed a holistic epistemology (1966) which sharply criticized the machine metaphor of neobehaviorism (Robots).

In 1960 he was appointed a Professor for Theoretical Biology of the Department of Zoology and Psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton (Canada). There Bertalanffy, the psychologist Royce and the philosopher Tenneysen established the Advanced Center for Theoretical Psychology that became a center for cognitive psychology over the next 30 years. In that time his system theoretical approach focused on the modern world of technology that has thrown us humans out of nature and has isolated us from each other. To overcome this Vereinzelung, Bertalanffy emphasized in his later works the importance of the symbolic worlds of culture which we ourselves have created during evolution.

After his retirement he became a Professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the State University of New York (SUNY). An international symposium celebrated his 70th birthday in 1971. In June 1972, he suffered a heart stroke and died a few days later, on June 12, shortly after midnight.

To sum up his life-work, Bertalanffy wrote 13 monographies, four anthologies, over 200 articles, he was the chief editor of the Handbuch der Biologie--among many others. His themes encompassed theoretical biology and experimental physiology (Bertalanffy equations), theoretical psychology--particularly in the last two decades of his life--, cancer research (Bertalanffy method of cancercytodiagnosis), and philosophy and history of science.

No doubt, the person Bertalanffy was a very fascinating one, proud of his European background, a connoisseur of architectural drawings, Japanese woodcuts, and stamps, who loved to hear the music of Mozart and Beethoven and to become absorbed in the works of Goethe. Sometimes he puzzled his environment by sarcastic remarks, or his black sense of humor. His worldview was an old-fashioned, however, never outdated one that was deeply rooted in a humanistic ethos:

"In the last resort, however, it is always a system of values, of ideas, of ideologies - choose whatever word you like - that is decisive.'' (1964b:245)

Already in the 1930's Bertalanffy formulated the organismic system theory that later became the kernel of the GST (1949b, 1960a). His starting point was to deduce the phenomena of life from a spontaneous grouping of system forces--comparable, for instance, to the system developmental biology nowadays. He based his approach on the phenomenal assumption that there exists a dynamical process inside the organic system. In the next step he modelled the heuristic fiction of the organism as an open system striving towards a steady state. Then he postulated two biological principles, namely, the maintenance of the organism in the non-equilibrium, and the hierarchic organization of a systemic structure. Finally he furnished this biological system theory with a research program that dealt with the quantitative kinetic of growth and metabolism.

In the 1940's he conducted his theory of open systems from a thermodynamical point--a similar approach as the thermodynamics of irreversible processes as developed by Prigogine at the same time. As opposed to a closed system in a kinetic reversible equilibrium, a dynamically irreversible steady state determines an open. By it the process rates of the specific components are exactly synchronisized to one another as well as to the Eigengeschwindigkeit of the complex whole. The general system shows a kind of self-regulation comparable to the behavior of an organic system. For example, if you observe the energy flow of an open system, it tends towards a steady state because that phase corresponds to a minimum entropy production enduring the systems conditions. The minimum production stabilizes the system structure and the dynamics of streams and flows. Thus, the system will achieve the dissipative state that configures a structure since it maintains itself in a state far from equilibrium (cf. ffe-systems).

As a metatheory derived from both theories, Bertalanffy introduced the GST as a new paradigm which should control the model construction in all the sciences (1949c:45). As opposed to the mathematical system theory, it describes its models in a qualitative and non-formalized language. Thus, its task was a very broad one, namely, to deduce the universal principles which are valid for systems in general. In a first step he reformulated the classical concept of the system and determined it as a category by which we know the relations between objects and phenomena.

The new system concept now represents a set of interrelated components, a complex entity in space-time which shows structural similarities (isomorphisms). It constitutes itself in such a way that the systemic particles maintain their structure by an assemblage process and tend to restore themselves after disturbances--analogous to the features of a living organism. Since those isomorphisms exist between living organisms, cybernetic machines, and social systems, one can simulate interdisciplinary models and transfer the data of a scientific realm to another one.

As a methodology, applicable to all sciences, the GST encompasses the cybernetic theory of feedback that represents a special class of self-regulating systems (1964:15). According to Bertalanffy, there exists a fundamental difference between the GST and cybernetics since feedback mechanisms are controlled by constraints whilst the dynamical systems are showing the free interplay of forces. Moreover, the regulative mechanisms of cybernetic machines are based on pre-determined structures. In short, the GST is a regulative instruction that, for instance, synthetizes the data, or even laws, of the natural sciences, applicable to all the other sciences.

The greatest merit of Bertalanffy, beneath his outstanding work on theoretical biology, was to have pushed forward the development of the modern system theories that nowadays study non-stationary structures and the dynamics of self-organization. Instead of a conclusion, the last words will belong to Bertalanffy himself:

"... this shows the existence of a general systems theory which deals with formal characteristics of systems, concrete facts appearing as their special applications by defining variables and parameters. In still other terms, such examples show a formal uniformity of nature.'' GST:62

Sabine Brauckmann
University of Münster
January 1999

Selected Bibliography


Kritische Theorie der Formbildung, Berlin 1928 (Modern Theories of Development. An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, Oxford 1933, New York 1962).

Theoretische Biologie. 2 Bde., Berlin 1932, 1940

Das Gefüge des Lebens, Leipzig 1937

Vom Molekül zur Organismenwelt, Potsdam 1940

Das biologische Weltbild, Bern 1949 (Problems of Life, New York 1952, 1960).

Biophysik des Fliessgleichgewichts, Braunschweig 1953 (mit W. Beier und R. Laue, 2. stark erweiterte Auflage 1977).

Robots, Men and Minds, New York 1967

General System Theory. Foundations, Development, Applications, New York 1968

The Organismic Psychology and Systems Theory, Worcester 1968

Perspectives on General Systems Theory. Scientific-Philosophical Studies, E. Taschdjian (eds.), New York 1975

A Systems View of Men, P. A. LaViolette, Boulder 1981

1929a. Zum Problem der theoretischen Biologie, Kantstudien , 34:374--390

1929b. Vorschlag zweier sehr allgemeiner biologischer Gesetze, Biologisches Zentralblatt, 49:83--111.

1931. Tatsachen und Theorien der Formbildung als Weg zum Lebensproblem, Erkenntnis , 1:361-407.

1933. Physikalisch-chemische Theorie des Wachstums, Biologisches Zentralblatt, 53:639-645.

1934. Untersuchungen über die Gesetzlichkeit des Wachstums, Rouxs Archiv für Entwicklungs-Mechanik, 131:613-652.

1938. A quantitative theory of organic growth, Human Biology, 10:181-213.

1940. Der Organismus als physikalisches System betrachtet, Die Naturwissenschaften, 28:521-531.

1949a. Problems of organic growth, Nature, 163:156-158.

1949b. Zu einer allgemeinen Systemlehre, Biologia Generalis, 195:114-129.

1949c. The concepts of systems in physics and biology, Bulletin of the British Society for the History of Science, 1:44-45.

1950a. The theory of open systems in physics and biology, Science, 111:23-29

1950b. An outline of General Systems Theory, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1:139-164

1951. (with C. G. Hempel, R. E. Bass, and H. Jonas) General System Theory: A new approach to unity of science, Human Biology, 23:302-361

1955. An essay on the relativity of categories, Philosophy of Science, 225:243-263.

1960a. General System Theory and the behavorial sciences, in: Discussions on Child Development, vol. 4, J. M. Tanner and B. Inhelder (eds), pp. 155-175, London

1960b. Principles and theory of growth, in: Fundamental Aspects of Normal and Malignet Growth, W. W. Nowinski (ed), pp. 137-259, Amsterdam.

1962. General System Theory - A critical review, General Systems, 7:1-20

1964 a. Basic concepts in quantitative biology of metabolism, Helgoländer wissenschaftliche Meeresuntersuchungen, 9:5-37

1964 b. The world of science and the world of value, Teachers College Record, 65:244-255

1965. On the definition of symbol, in: Psychology and the Symbol, J. R. Royce (ed), pp. 26-72, New York

1966. Mind and body re-examined, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 6:113-138.

1967. General Theory of Systems: Application to psychology, Social Science Information, 6:125-136

1969. Evolution. Chance or law, in: Beyond Reductionism, A. Koestler and J. R. Smithies (eds), pp. 59-84, London: Hutchinson

1971. Cultures as systems: Toward a critique of historical reason, Bucknell Review, XXII:151-161.

1972. The model of open systems: Beyond molecular biology, in: Biology, History and Natural Philosophy, A. D. Breck and W. Yourgrau (eds), pp. 17-30, New York