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.



Part 1

Bela H. Banathy
Saybrook Graduate School
International Society for the Systems Sciences
International Systems Institute
International Federation for Systems Research



As I listened to the introduction of the participants at a conference I was impressed by the fact that they represented the entire range of systems orientation. Their research and professional interest embraces system engineering, operations research, systems dynamics, cybernetics and information science, general theory of systems, living systems and evolutionary theory, soft systems and critical systems theory, and chaos and complex systems theory. The common ground of these orientations is the systems idea. Still, in the course of the conference. the differences among these orientations where emphasized, their lack of connections was often articulated. Most significantly, I had the feeling that while the focus was on sociotechnical systems, it was the technical side that was in focus. These observations lead me to develop this contribution, which, I hope, will show (a) the connectedness of the various orientations within the systems family, (b) the evolution of the systems movement, and (c) the human side of systems scholarship.


During the fifties, the basic concepts and principles of a general theory of systems were set forth by such pioneers of the systems movement as Ashby, Bertalanffy, Boulding, Fagen, Gerard, and Rappoport. These scholars represented variety of disciplines and fields of study. They shared and articulated a common conviction: the unified nature of reality. They recognized a compelling need for a unified disciplined inquiry in understanding and dealing with increasing complexities, complexities that are beyond the competence of any single discipline. As a result, they developed a trans-disciplinary perspective that emphasized the intrinsic order and interdependence of the world in all its manifestations.


Systems inquiry incorporates three interrelated domains of disciplined inquiry: systems theory, systems philosophy, and systems methodology. In contrast with the analytical, reductionist, and linear-causal paradigm of classical science, systems philosophy brings forth a reorientation of thought and world view, manifested by an expansionist, non- linear dynamic, and synthetic mode of thinking. The scientific exploration of the theories of systems standing for the various sciences have brought forth a general theory of systems, a set of interrelated concepts and principles, applying to all systems. Systems methodology provides us with a set of models, strategies, methods, and tools; that instrumentalize systems theory and philosophy in analysis, design, development, problem solving in--and the management--of complex systems. In the first part of the present paper I describe these three branches of systems inquiry.

Systems Theory

In defining systems theory, I review the key ideas of Bertalanffy and Boulding, founding fathers of the systems movement, published in Volume One (1956) GENERAL SYSTEMS.

Bertalanffy suggested first that modern science is characterized by its ever increasing specialization, necessitated by the enormous amount of data and the complexity of techniques and structures within every field. This led to a breakdown of science as an integrated realm. Scientists, operating in the various disciplines are encapsulated in their private universe. Against this background, there exists models, principles, and laws that can be generalized across various systems. Thus, it seems legitimate to ask for a theory of universal principles applying to systems in general. This theory would recognize the existence of (a) systems properties that are general and (b) structural similarities or isomorphies in different fields. Such a theory would be a useful tool providing models that can be used in, and transferred to, different fields. The second consequence of the idea of a general theory of systems is to deal with organized complexity, which is a main problem of modern science. Concepts like those of organization, wholeness, teleology, control, self-regulation, differentiation and the like are alien to conventional science. However, they pop-up everywhere in the biological, behavioral, and social sciences, and are, in fact, indispensable for dealing with living organisms or social groups. Thirdly, Bertalanffy summarized that: (a) There is a general tendency towards integration in the various sciences, natural and social. (b) Such integration seems to be centered in a general theory of systems. (c) Such theory may be an important means of aiming at exact theory in the non-physical fields of science. (d) Developing unifying principles running ‘vertically’ through the universe of the individual sciences, this theory brings us nearer to the goal of the unity of sciences. (e) This can lead to a much needed integration in scientific education.

Boulding said that a general theory does not seek to establish a single, self-contained general theory of practically everything which will replace all the special theories of particular disciplines. Such a theory would be almost without content, and all we can say about practically everything is almost nothing. Somewhere between the specific that has no meaning and the general that has no content there must be, for each purpose and at each level of abstraction, an optimum degree of generality. It is the objective of a general theory to develop “generalized ears”--that overcome the “specialized deafness” of the specific disciplines, meaning, that someone who ought to know something that someone else knows isn’t able to find it out for lack of generalized ears. By developing a framework of a general theory, will enable the specialist to catch relevant communication from others.

The two papers introduced above set forth the “vision” of the systems movement. That vision is still guide us today. In the course of the last four decades we have built on this vision as the systems movement has developed through its several orientations.

Systems Philosophy

The next main branch of systems inquiry is systems philosophy. Systems Philosophy is concerned with a systems view of the world and the elucidation of systems thinking as an approach to theoretical and real world problems. Systems philosophy seeks to uncover the most general assumptions lying at the roots of any and all of systems inquiry. An articulation of these assumption gives systems inquiry coherence and internal consistency.

The general scientific nature of systems inquiry implies its direct association with philosophy. This explains the philosophers early and continuing interest in systems theory and the early and continuing interest of systems theorist and methodologist in the philosophical aspects of systems inquire. In general, philosophical aspects are worked out in two directions. The first involves inquiry into the WHAT: what things are, what a person or a society is, and what kind of world we live in. These questions pertain to what we call: ontology. The second question is HOW: how do we know what we know, how do we know what kind of world we live in, how do we know what kind of persons we are? The exploration of these questions are the domain of epistemology. One might differentiate these two, but ontology and epistemology can not be separated. Our beliefs about what the world is will determine how we see it and act within it. And, our ways of perceiving and acting will determine our beliefs about its nature.

The ontological task is the formation of a systems view of what is, in the broadest sense a systems view of the world. This can lead to a new orientation for scientific inquiry. There are two great philosophical alternatives of the intellectual picture we have of the world. One view is that the world essentially consists of things. The other view is that the world consists of processes, and the things are only “stills” out of the moving picture. Systems philosophy developed as the main rival of the “thing view.” It recognizes that primacy of organizing relationship processes between entities (of systems) from which emerge the novel properties of systems.

Epistemology deals with the general questions of how do we know what we know, how do we know what kind of world we live in and what kind of organisms we are, and what sort of thing the mind is. The ancient questions of whether the mind is immanent or transcendent can be answered in favor of immanence. Furthermore, any on-going ensemble (system) that has the appropriate complexity of causal and energy relationships: (a) will show mutual characteristics, (b) will compare and respond to differences, (c) will process information, (de) will be self-corrective. (e) No part of an internally interactive system can exercise unilateral control over other parts of the system.

The most significant guiding principle of systems inquiry is that of giving prominence to synthesis; not only as the culminating activity of the inquiry (following analysis), but as a point of departure. This approach to the “how do we know” contrasts with the epistemology of traditional science that is almost exclusively analytical.

Systems Methodology

Systems methodology--a vital part of systems inquiry--has two domains of inquiry, (1) the study of methods in systems investigations by which we generate knowledge about systems in the general and (2) the identification and description of strategies, models, methods, and tools for the application of systems theory and systems thinking to working and complex systems. In the context of this second domain: systems methodology is a set of coherent and related methods and tools applicable to: (a) the analysis of systems and systems problems, problems concerned with the systemic/relational aspects of complex systems; (b) the design, development, and evaluation of complex systems, and (c) the management of systems and the management of change in systems. The task of those using systems methodology in a given context is tree fold: (1) to identify, characterize, and classify the nature of problem situation [e.g., (a), (b), or (c) above]; (2) to identify and characterize the problem context and content, in which the methodology is applied; (3) to identify and characterize the type of system in which the problem situation is embedded, and (4) to select specific strategies, methods, and tools that are appropriate to the nature of the problem situation, to the context/content, and the type of systems in which the problem situation is located.

The brief discussion above highlights the difference between the methodology of systems inquiry and the methodology of scientific inquiry in the various disciplines. The methodology of a discipline is clearly defined and is to be adhered to rigorously. It is the methodology which is the hallmark of a discipline. In systems inquiry, on the other hand, one selects methods and methodological tools or approaches that best fit the nature of the identified problem situation, the context, the content, and the type of system that is the domain of the investigation. The methodology is to be selected from a wide range of systems methods that are available to us.

The Interaction of the Domains of Systems Inquiry.

Systems philosophy, systems theory, and systems methodology come to life as they are used and applied in the functional context of systems. It is in the context of use that they are confirmed, changed, modified, and reconfirmed. Systems philosophy presents us with the underlying assumptions that provide the perspectives that guide us in defining and organizing the concepts and principles that constitute systems theory. Systems theory and systems philosophy then guide us in developing, selecting, and organizing approaches, methods and tools into the scheme of systems methodology. Systems methodology then is used in the function context of systems. But this process is not linear or forward moving circular. It is recursive and multi-directional. One confirms or modifies the other. As theory is developed, it gets its confirmation from its underlying assumptions (philosophy) as well as from its application through methods in function contexts. Methodology is confirmed or changed by testing its relevance to its theoretical/philosophical foundations and by its use. The functional context--the society in general and systems of all kinds in particular--is a primary source of placing demands on systems inquiry. It was--in fact--the emergence of complex systems that brought about the realization of the need for new scientific thinking, new theory, and new methodologies. It was that need that systems inquiry addressed and satisfied. The dynamics of the recursive and multidirectional interaction of the four domains, described above, makes systems inquiry a living system. This dynamics is manifested in the interplay between confirmation and novelty. Novelty at times brings about adjustments and at other times it appears as discontinuities and major shifts. The process described here becomes transparent as I review next the evolution of the systems movement.

Part two