Searching for the essence of systems

My journey to understand the basic principles of systems began informally in the early 1980s, and more formally in 1995.  Progressively, I have been drawn back to earlier and earlier writers.  Bertalanffy’s General System Theory was published in 1969, though he was working on his alternatives to a “materialistic” explanation for biology as early as the 1920s.

Courtesy of my friends and colleagues, David Hawk ( and David Ing (, I was recently led to the work of Andras Angyal, an anthropologist and psychiatrist.  His 1941 book, Foundations for a Science of Personality, lays out an organismic theory which complements Bertalanffy.

The work of another psychiatrist, John Bowlby, incorporated systems and cybernetic concepts in his development of Attachment Theory, but much less explicitly than others noted here (see

Bertalanffy referred back to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, in his statement that, “An atom, a crystal, or a molecule are organizations, as Whitehead never failed to emphasize” (Bertalanffy, 1969, p. 47).  Whitehead was a mathematician, logician, and philosopher who developed what became known as “process philosophy.”  In Whitehead’s (1925/1967) own words: “Nature is a structure of evolving processes.  The reality is the process” (p. 72)

While all of these authors made significant contributions to their fields, all of them encountered opposition from “mainstream science.” All of them were well trained and respected in their fields of study, but all of them challenged basic tenants of ideas beyond what was acceptable or politically correct.  None was trying to undo or replace science, but all challenged its limitations.  In Whitehead’s case it was apparently his unwillingness to divorce science from spiritual beliefs:

“Whitehead’s ultimate attempt to develop a metaphysical unification of space, time, matter, events and teleology has proved to be controversial. In part, this may be because of the connections Whitehead saw between his metaphysics and traditional theism. According to Whitehead, religion is concerned with permanence amid change, and can be found in the ordering we find within nature, something he sometimes called the ‘primordial nature of God’… Thus although not especially influential among contemporary Anglo-American secular philosophers, his metaphysical ideas continue to have significant influence among many theologians and philosophers of religion” (

With all of the recent talk about the value of innovation, the truth is that most people value security and stability more.  It’s OK to make improvements but not at the risk of heresy.

Science has done, and continues to do, incredible things.  But science is also based on its own system of beliefs and practices, and sees the world in particular ways.  Given the challenges of our current world, is science enough?  Is it the answer?  Or do we need to think again about other ways of understanding the world?

All four authors noted here died years ago.  It would be easy to dismiss their works as old and irrelevant.  But it is also possible that their insights have value for us, even if they turn out only to be partial truths; ideas on which we can build in new directions.  As Whitehead explained:

“We are told by logicians that a proposition must be either true or false, and that there is no middle term.  But in practice, we may know that a proposition expresses an important truth, but that it is subject to limitations and qualifications which at present remain undiscovered.  It is a general feature of our knowledge, that we are insistently aware of important truths; and yet that the only formulations of these truths which we are able to make presuppose a general standpoint of conceptions which may have to be modified (Whitehead, 1925/1967, p. 183).

More on these ideas in posts to come.


Angyal, A. (1941). Foundations for a science of personality. New York: The Commonwealth Fund.

Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General system theory (Rev. ed.). New York: George Braziller.

Whitehead, A. N. (1967). Science and the modern world.  New York: The Free Press (Original work published 1925).

One thought on “Searching for the essence of systems

  1. @garysmetcalf The ties you describe by Whitehead between science and spirituality speak to the challenges with objective worldviews, leading to a perspective that reality is not independent of the observer.

    In reading Pierre Bourdieu, I was initially frustrated his resistance to create objective definitions for his concepts. It took some time for me to became comfortable with the phenomenological perspective (through Heidegger’s influence on Bourdieu). I now think about context a lot more than I used to.

    The systems perspective would be to see interconnected in problematiques — systems of problems, where science can’t be untied from the minds of the theoreticians who have become notable.

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