Customer Reviews: General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (Revised Edition) (Penguin University Books)
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I've looked high and low for a text summarizing systems theory and I write this review in near shock having just finished this book. I say "shock" because I just can't believe how remarkably undated this book is after nearly 40 years (first edition 1969). I've read books by Checkland, Lazlo, Weinberg and many others but nothing summarizes the systems world view better than this classic. You've gotta love a scientist/philosopher who quotes Aldous Huxley liberally. I'd give it six stars if I could.
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on November 30, 2010
Sometime in the mid-1990's I was appointed to lead the hardware portion of an engineering project, and a much senior colleague was appointed the software lead. At our first meeting I presented a brilliantly overwrought integration plan, and then asked him what he thought. "I don't know," he replied, "I'm still groping."

You get the sense that Ludwig von Bertalanffy also was groping as he wrote General Systems Theory. Between pages 1 and 259 you read many interesting things, but if asked at the end to articulate the fundamental principles of general systems theory, you might be embarrassed. There is nothing here for the mind to take firm hold of, no basic insight from which to build a theory--no universal law of gravitation, no axioms of probability, no fundamental theorem of algebra, not even a grand hypothesis, like random-mutation/natural-selection. A "general theory" of anything is difficult to imagine without such a foundation, which is perhaps why General Systems Theory in the end leaves you feeling undernourished.

Even the mathematical part is unsatisfying. Chapter 3, "Some System Concepts in Elementary Mathematical Consideration," purports to present quantitative tools. "For illustration, we choose a system of simultaneous differential equations," explains the author. But the equations are written in an entirely abstract and thoroughly general fashion, to the point that, if you're familiar with systems of differential equations, the presentation is pat; if not, it's opaque. And once the general solutions are presented, there is no attempt to solidify understanding through examples. This is an exposition for the mathematically conversant in whom intuition is already well developed. There is no attempt to edify the layman.

Even when an opportunity to edify presents itself, the author abandons it. For example, in asserting the similarity of "system laws" in different sciences, he cites (p. 81) what must be a fascinating case were it explained. "[T]here are hardly processes more unlike phenomenologically and in their intrinsic mechanisms than the formation of a whole animal out of a divided sea-urchin...and gestalt perception in psychology. Nevertheless, the principles governing these different phenomena show striking similarities." Indeed, the reader anticipates being struck, looks forward to it even. Alas, in vain: the very next sentence moves on to an example concerning the evolution of Germanic languages, equally curious, equally unelaborated.

It doesn't take long, in fact, to figure out that von Bertalanffy isn't writing to you, the reasonably intelligent and interested non-specialist. He is writing to a particularly rarified stratum of humanity, rare even in the halls of elite universities. He is writing as a Renaissance Man to other Renaissance Men, those to whom neither systems of differential equations, nor corporal regeneration of sea-urchins, nor gestalt psychology, nor linguistics need be explained. This is apparent from the examples cited above, from von Bertalanffy's habit of referring to scientific results merely by citing an author (e.g., "the machine concept of Ashby"), and from his occasional use of German, French, and Latin with neither translation nor apology.

But one has to wonder: If the intended audience was a bunch of academics for whom explanations are unnecessary, why write the book? At the time of his writing (late 1960's) von Bertalanffy seemed to be looking for a science that could deconstruct biological, behavioral, and social systems--he mentions these three repeatedly--the way Newton deconstructed the mechanical universe. The motivation for this seemed to be, at least in part, a desire to transcend the seemingly heartless rationality of the mechanical view, a view that (p. 49) "found its expression in a civilization which glorifies physical technology that has led eventually to the catastrophes of our time."

"What is knowledge of the laws of human society, and consequently a sociological technology. So the achievements of physics are put to use for ever more efficient destruction; we have famines in vast parts of the world while harvests rot or are destroyed in other parts; war and indiscriminate annihilation of human life, culture, and means of sustenance are the only way out of uncontrolled fertility and consequent overpopulation. They are the outcome of the fact that we know and control physical forces only too well, biological forces tolerably well, and social forces not at all."

Von Bertalanffy did not articulate anything like the foundations of a "sociological technology" in General Systems Theory, and, unless I am very much behind times, I don't think anyone has done so since. Instead he seems to have accepted that the best he could do at the time was to lay down an historical marker reporting the state of things as he approached the end of his career, to provide an "unpretentious survey," and "a sort of guide to research done in the field and to areas that are promising for future work." General systems theory was then, and remains, "a field...which is still groping to find its correct foundations."
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on January 1, 2005
This book is for people interested in interdisciplinary research from a theoretical point of view. It is like a time machine to allow a look through the eyes of Bertalanffy to the 1960's and the prevailing scientific views at that time. Above all, this is due to the 'special' style the book is writen. With 'special' I mean, that Bertalanffy does not write completely factual and impersonal but more emotional.

All in all, this book does not provide you with solutions to problems but gives you the ability after reading to ask questions you could not ask before because you did not know the problem at all. For me, it was really interesting to contrast the ideas discussed in the book with our current state of knowlegde over 50 years later (the book covers the work of Bertalanffy from 1930's - 1960's). I recommend this book to everyone interested in foundations of basic research in physics, chemistry, biology and pschology, it should be a must read.
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on October 30, 1999
Perhaps the best way to start this review is with Bertalanffy's own words: "Compared to the analytical procedure of classical science with resolution into component elements and one-way or linear causality as basic category, the investigation of organized wholes of many variables requires new catagories of interaction, transaction, organization, teleology..."
"These considerations lead to the postulate of a new scientific discipline which we call general system theory. It's subject matter is formulation of principles that are valid for "systems" in general, whatever the nature of the component elements and the relations or "forces" between them...
"General system theory, therefore, is a general science of wholeness"...
Wholeness is not new, the Chinese and Greeks had their own versions, but what Bertalanffy did is make it an authentic science.
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on June 3, 1999
GST is certainly the best intent we have to transcend the mechanistic worldview from the point of view of the new science. And there is just one way to transcend that framework and it just by positing a new sphere to manage complexity: the sphere of life.Teilhard, Bergson, Bertanffy were "biologists" but also philosophers, great philosophers and this is probably why today the Science of Complexity is looking at Life, and why the new thinkers are more and more aware that if we want to understand organizations, human organizations, we must first understand life. So we find a clear turn in books about complexity and administration trying to learn from the lesson of life...this is the only way to enter the age of adaptation as Thomas Petzinger calls it. Our time owes to GST a great deal, and as so, GST stands as a monument to that whole movement toward the global nature of our civilization of the same kind of The Phenomenon of Man and Creative Evolution.
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on December 12, 2003
This book is quite old now and shows some of its age. At the time the idea of system theory was new and invigorating although it still appears that the theory was not radically new by any means even then.
Bertalanffy discusses the idea of a system mainly through dynamical systems in his early chapters but also discusses important issues such as open systems, teleology and the organism considered as a system. By no means does this remove the dogma of the reductionists but the whole idea can be incorporated within it by some adjustments and expansions of the original concept. In that sense it is still possible for a biologist to consider animals and plants as complex machines. Nothing in this book really forces anyone to onsider an alternative.
On the other hand his later chapters from chapter 8 onwards discuss truly fascinating questions in psychology and the study of language especially noting the work of Whorf. It is these last chapters which make the book interesting. In its day it would have been something that evoked interest and fascination but now its the as yet unexplord aspects of the study of man which remain as they have always been an enigma and a source of endless wonder.
A book for the development of system ideas.
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on April 7, 2011
Biology rather than physics should be the basis for linking all the scienes together, seems to be to be the main message in this book. Physics is mostly concerned with closed systems or machines. However, this makes a poor model for understanding individuals and society. The concept of the 'organism' is better, or 'system' as Bertalanffy calls it. An organisim cannot be fully understand from the perspective of linear causality. The models we have to use are system models. Processes linked together in systems and sub-systems. It is an interesting complementary perspective on systems theory when compared with operations research and systems engineering, and highly useful because of this as our machines and computer systems are getting more and more complex and perhaps need to be understood more in terms of biology than physics and engineering.
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on July 4, 2015
The value of the work is twofold. First, the presentation of General System Theory in and of itself and second, Bertalanffy himself providing a method of thinking by taking the reader through his own process of getting to General System Theory.

I read this book knowing that some of it would be outdated, however since I was unfamiliar with the field I assumed that would be fine. I think I was, there are obviously new developments in this field, but I think this works provides a good foundation.
The chapters are repetitive as it's clearly explained in the book itself because it's a collection of works by Bertalanffy that were previously published in academic journals. I actually found that to be helpful, as I gained from reading the same theory from a different perspective each time, biology, physics, psychology etc.

Bertalanffy is writing for an academic audience in these journals, expecting that his audience has the same educational background in a variety of fields like he does. He expects the reader to be familiar with differential equations and other math. I didn't find this to be a problem, other than one of expectations, like any academic level work, expect to spend some time with a dictionary and an encyclopedia. I found myself skimming through equations, then going back to them for a seconds or third reading then looking them up on the internet for more details. He also frequently uses words in French, German, Latin, often without translation.
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on April 20, 2007
Although he wrote a lot about the general theory of systems,

I think it is his approach to the problems of how living systems

interact with their environment in a catabolic manner

that makes him really important.

He has had impact from fields like biology to

fluid dynamics.

He set a standard for how we think about history

and with Lewis F. Richardson The Collected Papers of Lewis Fry Richardson (Collected Papers of Lewis Fry Richardson, Vol 2)and Isaac AsimovThe Foundation Trilogy

made a science possible.
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on December 27, 2007
The best view, writed on general system theory, selected and edited to show the evolution of systems theory and to present its applications to problem solving. Recommended on such widely diverse disciplines as biology, economics, psychology, and demography.
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