Systems Theory/Introduction

Systems theory or general systems theory or systemics is an interdisciplinary field which studies systems as a whole. Systems theory was founded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, William Ross Ashby and others between the 1940s and the 1970s on principles from physics, biology and engineering and later grew into numerous fields including philosophy, sociology, organizational theory, management, psychotherapy (within family systems therapy) and economics among others. Cybernetics is a closely related field. In recent times complex systems has increasingly been used as a synonym.


Systems theory focuses on complexity and interdependence. A system is composed of regularly interacting or interdependent groups of activities/parts that form a whole.

Part of systems theory, system dynamics is a method for understanding the dynamic behavior of complex systems. The basis of the method is the recognition that the structure of any system -- the many circular, interlocking, sometimes time-delayed relationships among its components -- is often just as important in determining its behavior as the individual components themselves. Examples are chaos theory and social dynamics.

Systems theory has also been developed within sociology. The most notable scientist in this area is Niklas Luhmann (see Luhmann 1994). The systems framework is also fundamental to organizational theory as organizations are dynamic living entities that are goal-oriented. The systems approach to organizations relies heavily upon achieving negative entropy through openness and feedback.

In recent years, the field of systems thinking has been developed to provide techniques for studying systems in holistic ways to supplement more traditional reductionistic methods. In this more recent tradition, systems theory is considered by some as a humanistic counterpart to the natural sciences.


Subjects like complexity, self-organization, connectionism and adaptive systems had already been studied in the 1940s and 1950s, in fields like cybernetics through researchers like Norbert Wiener, William Ross Ashby, John von Neumann and Heinz Von Foerster. They only lacked the right tools, and tackled complex systems with mathematics, pencil and paper. John von Neumann discovered cellular automata and self-reproducing systems without computers, with only pencil and paper. Aleksandr Lyapunov and Jules Henri Poincaré worked on the foundations of chaos theory without any computer at all.

All of the "C"-Theories below - cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory,... - have the common goal to explain complex systems which consist of a large number of mutually interacting and interwoven parts. Cellular automata (CA), neural networks (NN), artificial intelligence (AI), and artificial life (ALife) are related fields, but they do not try to describe general complex systems. The best context to compare the different "C"-Theories about complex systems is historical, which emphasizes different tools and methodologies, from pure mathematics in the beginning to pure computer science now. Since the beginning of chaos theory when Edward Lorenz accidentally discovered a strange attractor with his computer, computers have become an indispensable source of information. One could not imagine the study of complex systems without computers today.


  • 1960 cybernetics (W. Ross Ashby, Norbert Wiener) Mathematical theory of the communication and control of systems through regulatory feedback. Closely related: "control theory" and "general systems theory" founded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and W. Ross Ashby
  • 1970 catastrophe theory (René Thom, E.C. Zeeman) Branch of mathematics that deals with bifurcations in dynamical systems, classifies phenomena characterized by sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances.
  • 1980 chaos theory (David Ruelle, Edward Lorenz, Mitchell Feigenbaum, Steve Smale, James A. Yorke....) Mathematical theory of nonlinear dynamical systems that describes bifurcations, strange attractors, and chaotic motions.
  • 1990 complex adaptive systems (CAS) (John H. Holland, Murray Gell-Mann, Harold Morowitz, W. Brian Arthur,..) The "new" science of complexity which describes emergence, adaptation and self-organization was established mainly by researchers of the SFI and is based on agents and computer simulations and includes multi-agent systems (MAS) which have become an important tool to study social and complex systems. CAS are still an active field of research.


  • Daniel Durand (1979) La systémique, Presses Universitaires de France
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications New York: George Braziller
  • Gerald M. Weinberg (1975) An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (1975 ed., Wiley-Interscience) (2001 ed. Dorset House).
  • Niklas Luhmann Soziale Systeme. Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1994
  • Herman Kahn, Techniques of System Analysis

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Un-annotated external linksEdit

Last modified on 17 August 2009, at 13:52