2008/07/14 11:30 Manfred Drack, "Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s Early System Approach", ISSS Madison 2008

ISSS Madison 2008, 52nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted on the ISSS web site by David Ing.

Intro by Gary Metcalf

Manfred Drack for the von Bertalanffy Lecture

  • Not only interested in von Bertalanffy archives, read them original German, digging
  • Biomemetics
  • Centre for Appropriate Technologies
  • Systems theory at Department of Theoretical Biology
  • Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Sciences:

von Bertalanffy was clear about his thoughts, and what he was bringing forward

von Bertalanffy, born in Vienna 1901, died in Buffalo in 1972

Early influences

  • Philosophy:  Maurice Schlick, leader of Vienna Circle, and with Reininger supervised dissertation
    • Vaihinger
    • Ancient Greek philosopher
    • Cusanus, Leibniz, perspectivists
    • Goethe, morphologists
    • Nicolai Hartmann, stratified view of the world
  • Science
    • Paul Weiss
    • Wof van Kohler, gestalt psychology
    • Lotka, the grandfather of general systems theory

Bertalanffy's Ph.D. thesis: interested in the different levels in science, from the beginning

  • Biology, sociology, psychology, all levels are already there

At the beginning, devoted to biology, although trained in philosophy

Core problem: conflict between vitalism and mechanicism (substance essential for life, vs. organization as a machine).

Mechanicism, Pourvreau 2005, comes from 4 concepts

  • Analytico-summative approach, can investigate the parts of the whole, and come up with a summation
  • Physicalism:  sufficient to only use physical laws
  • Determinism:  the state at the moment is the function of the former state
  • Reactivism:  something is only reacting to stimulus from the outside

Conflict is essentially metaphysical, and can't be solved by science

  • Bertalanffy came up with an organic view
  • Core problem in life is order and organization in the organism
  • Key question in biology is to find out about order and organization, with wholeness as a primary attribute

Basic aim:  to liberate wholeness from its metaphysical connotations, and arrive a strong scientific theory

Systems:  it's not just the parts, the sum of the parts, but also the relations between the parts

  • This is hard to investigate in details
  • Should also look at laws, at another level
  • Can compare to statistical thermodynamics, don't care about single atoms

Different perspectives necessary

  • Physico-chemical
  • Organismic perspective (systems)
  • Teleology
  • History:  products of history

What in the whole denotes a causal equilibrium process appears for a part as a teleological process.

General organismic principles

  • Organism is an open system in a flux equilibrium
  • The striving of the organic whole for the maximum of formness, is an animate process
  • Primary activity, as compared to reactivist attitude, in biology the organism does things by itself

Basic concepts

  • Wholeness
  • Open system in flux equilibrium
  • Hierarchy and hierarchichisation
  • Primary activity
  • Conservation of integrity:  if you disturb the system, it will try to go back

Bertalanffy doesn't define system until 1945, in the first article written in German

  • A system is a complex of elements in interaction
  • Then tries to derive system laws in the living
  • Apply in morphology, physiology, biocoenosis, evolutionary theory, genetics

Focused on morphology and physiology

  • Were separate fields in biology at the time, but had to be combined
  • Thought growth would be the problem that combined those theories
  • Combining the dynamic morphology, developmental biology and physiology with laws

Math modeling:  growth is related to mass, assimilation and dissimilation

  • Change in math over time
  • Purely deductive

Biocoenosis and ecosystems

  • Flux and steady state, not the same as in organism, but the scheme is kind of the same
  • Not an individual, but how different species come in and do things


  • Not the material from which the organ originates, but then the organizing relationships come through from the material and is imprinted
  • It's not important what the material is, but where it is positioned in the organism

Cell theory

  • Aggregate of building blocks
  • Multicellular organism is not same as the single cell:  higher level
  • Physiologically, life is not the sum of single cells, but organized in a different way

Darwinian selection

  • Summation of a single modification of similar traits
  • It's reactivist to environmental conditions

In evolutionary theory, Rupert Riedl was a student of Bertalanffy's, and Manfred's supervisor

  • Interconnectiveness of genes, hierarchy in the genome
  • See the feedback between the genotype and phenotype to make sure that the organism can adapt quickly enough

Riedl expanded system approach from atoms to cosmos

  • Levels aren't build on top of each other
  • Exposed selection forces on levels above
  • Book isn't translated to English
  • Introduced Aristotle's four causes

Bertalanffy also tried to used the systems approach to genetics

  • The whole organism emerges out of the whole genome
  • So not a single gene for red eyes

Ethology:  Paul Weiss, experimental biologist in Vienna

  • Ph.D. thesis, the resting position of butteflies
  • How do butterflies respond to light and gravity when resting?
  • Organisms aren't predictable out of parameters
  • Said that it's important to come from a systems approach

Weiss came out with field laws, and was referenced by Bertalanffy

Weiss's system definition:  interested in how a system establishes its state and influence from outside

Have similar concepts between Weiss and Bertalanffy

  • Wholeness
  • Hierarchical view of biology
  • Dynamic understand
  • Primary activity of the organism
  • Conservation of the integrity of the system
  • Biology as an autonomous discipline
  • Laws separate from physics, at a higher over
  • Both tried to generalize systems approaches

Weiss was also an early member of the Club of Rome

Systems in Ethology:  Konrad Lorenz, new Berlanffy in teaching times

Lutz was nickname of Bertalanffy


  • Organismic biology as a scientific program
  • Not talking about ontology, just trying to get an epistemology that can deal with the problems of life
  • This incorporates an perspectivist approach over realism
  • Can approach objectivity, not fundamentally opposed to constructivism:  can arrive at the same constants

Toward a general systemology


  • Extends system view to several levels of biology
  • Training as philosopher meant profound, not just philosophy but also science
  • Different dimensions of the systems approach, integrates:  many misunderstandings as people talk in many dimensions (e.g. science, epistemology, ontology, world picture)

Mostly in epistemology, Bertalanffy didn't talk about the thing itself


Have seen people going in divergent directions, see common root in Bertalanffy.  Interested in GST, looking for ontology.  GST book starts 20 pages of redefining with GST is:  went quantitative, people put down as deterministic, controlling persons, and Bertalanffy prefers qualititive.  Look for ontology that could apply in all fields.

  • Descriptive model is better than no model at all, which incorporates qualitative
  • He was keen, though, to also create quantitative models

Darwin.  Production of novel wholes?  Why isn't the system recognized as an evolutionary principle?

  • I don't know
  • Bertalanffy tried to incorporate the historical dimension in his work, but couldn't
  • It's hard to take history of evolution into account, which you must
  • It's tricky problem
  • Selection in evolution is part of system, but there must be other things, because accident isn't enough for whole to emerge

Importance of biological knowledge to people to learn systemics

  • I don't think so
  • It's important to explain things in biology as well, but don't need to know each and everything about biology
  • It's helpful, though