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A science for the future, and always will be
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 lacking...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."