Ludwig von Bertalanffy

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Ludwig von Bertalanffy (September 19, 1901June 12, 1972) was an Austrian-born biologist known as one of the founders of general systems theory.



  • Our conception is that of a theory about the system in an inertial state... if the organism is a system in an inertial state, as our law expresses it, the metabolic processes generally have to follow the established system; the ever progressing findings must replace the general expression of 'a system in an inertial state' by a more and more detailed knowing about the nature of this system and its chemical, osmotic, fermentive system conditions.
    • Bertalanffy (1929, p.95-97) as cited in: Felix Müller, M. Leupelt (1998) Eco targets, goal functions, and orientors . p. 308
  • What in the whole denotes a causal equilibrium process, appears for the part as a teleological event.
    • Bertalanffy (1929, p.306) cited in: Cliff Hooker ed. (2011) Philosophy of Complex Systems. p. 190
  • Teleologie ist ... ein Ausfluss der Systemgesetzlichkeit und damit ein legitimer Gegenstand naturwissenschaftlicher Forschung
    • Bertalanffy (1929, p.394) as cited in: Suomalainen Eläin (1958) Annales zoologici Societatis Zoologicæ Botanicæ Fennicæ 'Vanamo. Vol 19-20. p. 34 - Pagina 34
  • It is an empirical rule that living, evolutionary, psychological, social, etc., systems tend toward increasing differentiation and organization.
    • Attributed to Bertalanffy (1929) in: Julia Kristeva et al. (1971) Essays in Semiotics. p. 200

Kritische Theorie der Formbildung (1928, 1933)[edit]

L. von Bertalanffy (1928) Kritische Theorie der Formbildung. Gebrüder Borntraeger. Translated by J H Woodger as Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology. Oxford (UK): Clarendon Press, 1933.
  • The rule is derived inductively from experience, therefore does not have any inner necessity, is always valid only for special cases and can anytime be refuted by opposite facts. On the contrary, the law is a logical relation between conceptual constructions; it is therefore deductible from upper [übergeordnete] laws and enables the derivation of lower laws; it has as such a logical necessity in concordance with its upper premises; it is not a mere statement of probability, but has a compelling, apodictic logical value once its premises are accepted
  • The characteristic of the organism is first that it is more than the sum of its parts and second that the single processes are ordered for the maintenance of the whole.
    • p. 305; as cited in: Cliff Hooker ed. (2011) Philosophy of Complex Systems. p. 189


  • The science of life has nowadays to a certain extent become a crossroad, in which the contemporary intellectual developments converge. The biological theories have acquired a tremendous ideological [weltanschauliche], yes even public and political significance... The condition of biology, problematic in many respects, has led to the situation that the “philosophies of life” were until now by no means satisfactory from the scientific as much as the practical point of view; we see all the more clearly the importance of the theoretical clarification of biology.
  • The characteristic of life does not lie in a distinctiveness of single life processes. [Lebensvorgänge], but rather in a certain order among all the processes.
  • Unsere Aufgabe muß es vielmehr sein, die Lebewesen als Systeme besonderer Art von in dynamischer Wechselwirkung stehenden Elementen zu betrachten und die hier geltenden Systemgesetze zu ermitteln, welche die Ordnung aller Teile und Vorgänge untereinander beherrschen. Notwendig ist sowohl die Untersuchung der Teile und Vorgänge als auch der Beziehungen, in denen diese zueinander und zum Ganzen stehen.
    • Bertalanffy (1937), Das Gefüge des Lebens. Teubner, Leizig. p.12

Modern Theory of Development, 1933, 1962[edit]

  • From the methodological standpoint, however, we see that 'mechanism' and 'vitalism' by no means form the mutually exclusive disjunction they have been supposed to do. If a 'non-mechanist' wishes to deny the assumption of methodological mechanism that biological explanations must also be physico-chemical ones, it is obviously by no means intended that the required explanation must be 'vitalistic', i.e. involving the assumption that in living organisms factors analogous to psychical ones are 'at work'. A 'non-mechanistic' theory which is not all 'vitalistic' thus appears to be logically possible, and if we make a critical study of mechanism and vitalism this possibility will be seen to be of special importance.
    • p.29
  • Mechanism... provides us with no grasp of the specific characteristics of organisms, of the organization of organic processes among one another, of organic 'wholeness', of the problem of the origin of organic 'teleology', or of the historical character of organisms... We must therefore try to establish a new standpoint which — as opposed to mechanism — takes account of organic wholeness, but... treats it in a manner which admits of scientific investigation.
    • p.46


  • Animal growth can be considered as a result of a counteraction of synthesis and destruction, of the anabolism and catabolism of the building materials of the body. There will be growth so long as building up prevails over breaking down.
    • Von Bertalanffy (1949) "Problems of Organic Growth". In: Nature, Vol. 163. p.156


  • From the physical point of view the characteristic state of the living organism is that of an open system. A system is closed if no material enters or leaves it; it is open if there is import and export and, therefore, change of the components. Living systems are open systems, maintaining themselves in exchange of materials with environment, and in continuous building up and breaking down of their components.
  • General Systems Theory... possibly the model of the world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we have almost lost.
    • Von Bertalanffy (1955) "General System Theory". In: Main Currents in Modern Thought 11: pp.75-83.
  • Today our main problem is that of organized complexity. Concepts like those of organization, wholeness, directiveness, teleology, control, self-regulation, differentiation and the like are alien to conventional physics. However, they pop up everywhere in the biological, behavioural and social sciences, and are, in fact, indispensable for dealing with living organisms or social groups. Thus, a basic problem posed to modern science is a general theory of organization.
    • Von Bertalanffy (1956) "General System Theory". In: General Systems, Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research, vol. 1, 1956.
  • What we call growth of even a simple organism is a tremendously complex phenomenon from the biochemical, physiological, cytological, and morphological viewpoints.
    • Von Bertalanffy (1957) "Quantitative laws in metabolism and growth" in: Quarterly Review of Biology 32(1957), p.217

Problems of Life (1952, 1960)[edit]

  • Every organism represents a system, by which term we mean a complex of elements in mutual interaction. From this obvious statement the limitations of the analytical and summative conceptions must follow. First, it is impossible to resolve the phenomena of life completely into elementary units; for each individual part and each individual event depends not only on conditions within itself, but also to a greater or lesser extent on the conditions within the whole, or within superordinate units of which it is a part. Hence the behavior of an isolated part is, in general, different from its behavior within the context of the whole... Secondly, the actual whole shows properties that are absent from its isolated parts.
    • As cited in: D.C. (1969) "Systems Theory — A Discredited Philosophy". in: Abacus V. p.4
  • From the statements we have made, a stupendous perspective emerges, a vista towards a hitherto unsuspected unity of the conception of the world. Similar general principles have evolved everywhere, whether we are dealing with inanimate things, organisms, mental or social processes. What is the origin of these correspondences?
    We answer this question by the claim for a new realm of science, which we call General System Theory. It is a logico-mathematical field, the subject matter of which is the formulation and derivation of those principles which hold for systems in general. A "system" can be defined as a complex of elements standing in interaction. There are general principles holding for systems, irrespective of the nature of the component elements and of the relations or forces between them.
    • p.199 as cited in: D.C. (1969) "Systems Theory — A Discredited Philosophy". in: Abacus V. p.8
  • The stream of life is maintained only in continuous flow of matter through all groups of organisms.
    • p.52)
  • Biological communities are systems of interacting components and thus display characteristic properties of systems, such as mutual interdependence, self-regulation, adaptation to disturbances, approach to states of equilibrium, etc.
    • As cited in: Debora Hammond (2005). "Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Systems Thinking", in: tripleC 3(2): pp. 20–27.


Robots, Men and Minds' (1967)[edit]

  • We are seeking for another basic outlook - the world as organization. This would profoundly change the categories of our thinking and influence our practical attitudes. We must envision the biosphere as a whole with mutually reinforcing or mutually destructive interdependencies.
    • p. 57
  • We are confronted with problems of organized complexity... organization runs through all levels of reality and science.
    • p. 58. as cited in: Doede Keuning (1973) Algemene systeemtheorie. p. 185
  • General systems theory (in the narrow sense of the term) is 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. Systems theory tries to develop those principles that apply to systems in general, irrespective of the nature of the system, of their components, and of the relations or “forces” between them. The system components need not even be material, as, for example, in the system analysis of a commercial enterprise where components such as buildings, machines, personnel, money and “good will” of customers enter.
    • p.69
  • Higher, directed forms of energy (e.g., mechanical, electric, chemical) are dissipated, that is, progressively converted into the lowest form of energy, i.e., undirected heat movement of molecules; chemical systems tend toward equilibria with maximum entropy; machines wear out owing to friction; in communication channels, information can only be lost by conversion of messages into noise but not vice versa, and so forth.
    • p.75 as cited in: Jan Kåhre (2002) The Mathematical Theory of Information. p.175-6

General System Theory (1968)[edit]

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968) General System Theory

  • Classical science in its diverse disciplines, be it chemistry, biology, psychology or the social sciences, tried to isolate the elements of the observed universe - chemical compounds and enzymes, cells, elementary sensations, freely competing individuals, what not -- expecting that, by putting them together again, conceptually or experimentally, the whole or system - cell, mind, society - would result and be intelligible. Now we have learned that for an understanding not only the elements but their interrelations as well are required.
    • p. xix

1. Introduction[edit]

  • If someone were to analyze current notions and fashionable catchwords, he would find "systems" high on the list. The concept has pervaded all fields of science and penetrated into popular thinking, jargon and mass media.
    • p. 3
  • Systems thinking plays a dominant role in a wide range of fields from industrial enterprise and armaments to esoteric topics of pure science. Innumerable publications, conferences, symposia and courses are devoted to it. Professions and jobs have appeared in recent years which, unknown a short while ago, go under names such as systems design, systems analysis, systems engineering and others.
    • p. 3
  • Another recent development is the theory of formal organizations, that is, structures planfully instituted, such as those of an army, Bureaucracy, business enterprise, etc. This theory is framed in a philosophy which accepts the premise that the only meaningful way to study organization is to study it as a system.
    • p. 9

2. The Meaning of General Systems Theory[edit]

  • The system problem is essentially the problem of the limitation of analytical procedures in science. This used to be expressed by half-metaphysical statements, such as emergent evolution or ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts,’ but has a clear operational meaning.
    • p. 18
  • Modern science is characterized by its ever-increasing specialization, necessitated by the enormous amount of data, the complexity of techniques and of theoretical structures within every field. Thus science is split into innumerable disciplines continually generating new subdisciplines. In consequence, the physicist, the biologist, the psychologist and the social scientist are, so to speak, encapusulated in their private universes, and it is difficult to get word from one cocoon to the other.
    • p. 29
  • It is necessary to study not only parts and processes in isolation, but also to solve the decisive problems found in organization and order unifying them, resulting from dynamic interaction of parts, and making the the behavoir of the parts different when studied in isolation or within the whole.
    • p. 31
  • Thus, there exist models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind, the nature of their component elements, and the relations or „forces‟ between them. It 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.
    • p. 32
  • Can civilizations and cultures be considered as systems? It seems, therefore, that a general theory of systems would be a useful tool providing, on the one hand, models that can be used in, and transferred different fields, and safeguarding, on the other hand, from vague analogies which often have marred the progress in these fields.
    • p. 34
  • There appears to exist a general systems laws which apply to any system of a certain type, irrespective of the particular properties of the system and of the elements involved.
    • p. 37
  • Mayor aims of general theory:
    (1) There is a general tendency toward integration in the various sciences, natural and social.
    (2) Such integration seems to be centered in a general theory of systems.
    (3) Such theory may be an important means for aiming at exact theory in the nonphysical fields of science.
    (4) Developing unifying principles running "vertically" through the universe of the individual sciences, this theory brings us nearer the goal of the unity of science.
    (5) This can lead to a much-needed integration in scientific education.
  • We find systems which by their very nature and definition are not closed systems. Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components, never being, so long as it is alive, in a state of chemical and thermodynamic equilibrium but maintained in a so-called steady state which is distinct from the latter.
    • p. 39
  • The general notion in communication theory is that of information. In many cases, the flow of information corresponds to a flow of energy, e.g. if light waves emitted by some objects reach the eye or a photoelectric cell, elicit some reaction of the organism or some machinery, and thus convey information.
    • p. 41

3. Some System Concepts in Elementary Mathematical Consideration[edit]

  • While we can conceive of a sum [or aggregate] as being composed gradually, a system as a total of parts with its [multiplicative] interrelations has to be conceived of as being composed instantly.
    • p. 55 as cited in: Anthony Wilden (2003) System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange. p. 245
  • A system can be defined as a set of elements standing in interrelations. Interrelation means that elements, p, stand in relations, R, so that the behavior of an element p in R is different from its behavior in another relation, R’. If the behaviors in R and R’ are not different, there is no interaction, and the elements behave independently with respect to the relations R and R’.
    • p. 55-56
  • Progress is only possible by passing from a state of undifferentiated wholeness to differentiation of parts.
    • p. 69

4. Advances in General Systems Theory[edit]

  • Therefore, general systems theory should be, methodologically, an important means of controlling and instigating the transfer of principles from one field to another, and it will no longer be necessary to duplicate or triplicate the discovery of the same principles in different fields isolated from the other.
    • p. 80
  • Apparently, the isomorphisms of laws rest in our cognition on the one hand, and in reality on the other.
    • p. 82
  • We realize, however, that all scientific laws merely represent abstractions and idealizations expressing certain aspects of reality. Every science means a schematized picture of reality, in the sense that a certain conceptual construct is unequivocally related to certain features of order in reality;
    • p. 83
  • There are quite a number of novel developments intended to meet the needs of a general theory of systems. We may enumerate them in brief survey:
    1. Cybernetics, based upon the principle of feedback or circular causal trains providing mechanisms for goal-seeking and self-controlling behavior.
    2. Information theory, introducing the concept of information as a quantity measurable by an expression isomorphic to negative entropy in physics, and developing the principles of its transmission.
    3. Game theory, analyzing in a novel mathematical framework, rational competition between two or more antagonists for maximum gain and minimum loss.
    4. Decision theory, similarly analyzing rational choices, within human organizations, based upon examination of a given situation and its possible outcomes.
    5. Topology or relational mathematics, including non-metrical fields such as network and graph theory.
    6. Factor analysis, i.e., isolation by way of mathematical analysis, of factors in multivariable phenomena in psychology and other fields
    7. General system theory in the narrower sense (G.S.T.), trying to derive from a general definition of “system” as complex of interacting components, concepts characteristic of organized wholes such as interaction, sum, mechanization, centralization, competition, finality, etc., and to apply them to concrete phenomena.
While systems theory in the broad sense has the character of a basic science, it has its correlate in applied science, sometimes subsumed under the general name of Systems Science.
  • p. 90-91
  • If the variables are continuous, this definition [Ashby’s fundamental concept of machine] corresponds to the description of a dynamic system by a set of ordinary differential equations with time as the independent variable. However, such representation by differential equations is too restricted for a theory to include biological systems and calculating machines where discontinuities are ubiquitous.
  • We completely agree that description by differential equations is not only a clumsy but, in principle, inadequate way to deal with many problems of organization.
    • p. 97
  • Science in the past (and partly in the present), was dominated by one-sided empiricism. Only a collection of data and experiments were considered as being ‘scientific’ in biology (and psychology); forgetting that a mere accumulation of data, although steadily piling up, does not make a science.

5. The Organism Considered as Physical System[edit]

  • A general proof is difficult because of the lack of general criteria for the existence of steady states, but it can be given for special cases.
    • p. 132

7. Some Aspects of System Theory in Biology[edit]

  • The 19th and first half of the 20th century conceived of the world as chaos. Chaos was the oft-quoted blind play of atoms, which, in mechanistic and positivistic philosophy, appeared to represent ultimate reality, with life as an accidental product of physical processes, and mind as an epi-phenomenon. It was chaos when, in the current theory of evolution, the living world appeared as a product of chance, the outcome of random mutations and survival in the mill of natural selection. In the same sense, human personality, in the theories of behaviorism as well as of psychoanalysis, was considered a chance product of nature and nurture, of a mixture of genes and an accidental sequence of events from early childhood to maturity.
    Now we are looking for another basic outlook on the world -- the world as organization. Such a conception -- if it can be substantiated -- would indeed change the basic categories upon which scientific thought rests, and profoundly influence practical attitudes.
    This trend is marked by the emergence of a bundle of new disciplines such as cybernetics, information theory, general system theory, theories of games, of decisions, of queuing and others; in practical applications, systems analysis, systems engineering, operations research, etc. They are different in basic assumptions, mathematical techniques and aims, and they are often unsatisfactory and sometimes contradictory. They agree, however, in being concerned, in one way or another, with "systems," "wholes" or "organizations"; and in their totality, they herald a new approach.
  • Conventional physics deals only with closed systems, i.e. systems which are considered to be isolated from their environment... However, we find systems which by their very nature and definition are not closed systems. Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components, never being, so long as it is alive, in a state of chemical and thermodynamic equilibrium but maintained in a so-called steady state which is distinct from the latter.
    • p.166-167 as quoted in: Eugene Thacker (2004) Biomedia. University of Minnesota Press. p.150

8. The System Concept in the Sciences of man[edit]

  • Biologically, life is not maintenance or restoration of equilibrium but is essentially maintenance of disequilibria, as the doctrine of the organism as open system reveals. Reaching equilibrium means death and consequent decay. Psychologically, behaviour not only tends to release tensions but also builds up tensions; if this stops, the patient is a decaying mental corpse in the same way a living organism becomes a body in decay when tensions and forces keeping it from equilibrium have stopped.
    • p. 191
  • Also the principle of stress, so often invoked in psychology, psychiatry, and psychosomatics, needs some reevaluation. As everything in the world, stress too is an ambivalent thing. Stress is not only a danger to life to be controlled and neutralized by adaptive mechanisms; it also creates higher life.
    • p. 192

9. General Systems Theory in Psychology and Psychiatry[edit]

  • The concept of man as mass robot was both an expression of and a powerful motive force in industrialized mass society. It was the basis for behavioural engineering in commercial, economic, political and other advertising and propaganda; the expanding economy of the 'affluent society' could not subsist without such manipulation. Only by manipulating humans ever more into Skinnerian rats, robots buying automata, homeostatically adjusted conformers and opportunists (or, bluntly speaking, into morons and zombies) can this great society follow its progress toward ever increasing gross national product.
    • p. 206

Attributed from memory and posthumous publications[edit]

  • Our civilization seems to be suffering a second curse of Babel: Just as the human race builds a tower of knowledge that reaches to the heavens, we are stricken by a malady in which we find ourselves attempting to communicate with each other in countless tongues of scientific specialization... The only goal of science appeared to be analytical, i.e., the splitting up of reality into ever smaller units and the isolation of individual causal trains...We may state as characteristic of modern science that this scheme of isolable units acting in one-way causality has proven to be insufficient. Hence the appearance, in all fields of science, of notions like wholeness, holistic, organismic, gestalt, etc., which all signify that, in the last resort, we must think in terms of systems of elements in mutual interaction..."
    • Attributed to Bertalanffy in: Mark Davidson (1983) Uncommon Sense, the Life and Thoughts of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Houghton Mifflin, p. 159, as cited in: Thomas Mandel (2004) "Is there a general System?" on

About Von Bertalanffy[edit]

  • What I consider completely sterile is the attitude, for instance, of Bertalanffy who is going around and jumping around for years saying that all the analytical science and molecular biology doesn’t really get to interesting results; let’s talk in terms of general systems theory ... there cannot be anything such as general systems theory, it’s impossible. Or, if it existed, it would be meaningless.
  • Many of the ideas surrounding systems and systems theory come from Ludwig von Bertalanffy's 1928 graduate thesis, in which he describes organisms as living systems.
    • Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman (2004) Rules of play: game design fundamentals. p. 53

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