Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 10

# Gheorghe Asachi Technical University of Iasi

## Faculty of Civil Engineering and Building Services

Master Program: Structural Engineering (in English)

Assignment #1

-System theory-

Master student: Morosan Andrei-Dragos

May 2014
System Theory
1 / 9

1. System theory. History
System theory is the transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena,
independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence. It investigates
both the principles common to all complex entities, and the (usually mathematical) models
which can be used to describe them.
Methodologically, it is important to set apart a theoretical system from an empirical
system. The former is a complex of concepts, suppositions, and propositions having both
logical integration and empirical reference, while the latter is a set of phenomena in the
observable world that is amenable to description and analysis by means of a theoretical system.
The concept of system serves to identify those manifestations of natural phenomena
and process that satisfy certain general conditions. In the broadest conception, the term
connotes a complex of interacting components together with the relationships among them that
permit the identification of a boundary-maintaining entity or process. A definition based on
Russell Ackoff's suggestion that a system is a set of two or more interrelated elements with the
following properties:
1. Each element has an effect on the functioning of the whole.
2. Each element is affected by at least one other element in the system.
3. All possible subgroups of elements also have the first two properties.
By substituting the concept of element for that of component, it is possible to arrive
at a definition that pertains to systems of any kind, whether formal (e.g., mathematics,
language), existential (e.g., real-world), or affective (e.g., aesthetic, emotional, imaginative).
In each case, a whole made up of interdependent components in interaction is identified as the
system. In the most basic definition a system is a group of interacting components that
conserves some identifiable set of relations with the sum of the components plus their relations
(i.e., the system itself) conserving some identifiable set of relations to other entities (including
other systems).
Bertalanffy often prefaced his explanations of General Systems Theory with a brief
account of its historical roots, which he saw going back to the Pre-Socratics. He held that the
roots in the West of General Systems Theory may be discerned with the Ionian philosophers in
the sixth century B.C. starting to see the world as orderly, hence intelligible and ultimately
controllable. The Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras (500-548 B.C.) separated mind and matter in
his attempt to find a cause independent of matter, which he called nous, the source of motion
and change. He opposed the rather mechanistic explanation proposed by others, introducing
teleological theory. His philosophy had some internal contradictions, thus setting up the
problem of telos for Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps more important, we also see the fundamental
distinction arise between mechanistic and more organic systems approaches.
Aristotle is an important figure to General Systems Theory because his system
encompassed everything, including ethics, which he derived from biology, not physics. Other
Aristotelian ideas that are crucial in General Systems Theory are telos, hierarchy, and
homeostasis--i.e., humans try to maintain a mean between two extremes. Donald Washburn
holds that Aristotle had a systems approach to literary criticism, unlike Plato, who had a
geometrical, not a biological conception of form. The development of Greek tragedy reminded
Aristotle of organic development in that, like any organism, a play must have proportions.
Catharsis and climax are also systems ideas, as is the idea that tragedy comes about when a
human becomes dissociated from cultural system. Aristotle's history also has systemic
elements.
The medieval scholar Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) was a figure of great interest to
Bertalanffy. He encompassed the mysticism of the Middle Ages, but also anticipated modern
rationality. Because of his great intellect and synthesizing ability, he was often recruited by the
System Theory
2 / 9

Church for diplomatic missions. Nicholas was precocious in a number of ways. For example,
he was the first to formulate a concept of infinity (which Spengler says is the central metaphor
for moderns). Nicholas has remained a rather obscure figure, though Ernst Cassirer wrote a
book on him. Karl J aspers was rather critical of Cusa, denying he was a pre-modern, though
Bertalanffy holds that J aspers was blinded by the "Galileo legend," which holds that modern
science replaced a primitive, superstition-ridden Aristotelian system (1975 65).
Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is another precociously modern thinker with clearly
systemic ideas. Though he was aware of the scientific revolution, and even sought to do for
human nature what Newton had done for nature, his thinking was largely free of mechanism.
His New Science is a comprehensive historic-systematic study of culture. He had a cyclical
theory of history, and considered nations as systems of institutions with internal stresses
leading to constant change (growth or decay). He devotes a great deal of space to language,
sounding very much like Burke and Bertalanffy in declaring that the world is made of words,
that humans are separated from the natural world by abstraction, and that language forms mind.
As with most systems thinkers, he was interdisciplinary, combining history and what was to
become sociology. His ideas were generally ignored in his time, but taken up by Auguste
Comte (the more popular candidate for the title founder of sociology), according to Mark
Davidson (155). Vico's analysis of class conflict is said to be the best until Karl Marx, whom
he influenced.
J ohann von Goethe (1749-1832) is another thinker to whom Bertalanffy often turned
for inspiration. He founded the science of morphology, which was important in evolutionary
theory. Though he lived in a time which still held that spontaneous generation was possible,
his finding of structural similarities in different species is very much like the isomorphism (i.e.,
structural and functional similarities in different systems) that General Systems Theory seeks.
His blend of philosophy and science inspired generations of German scholars, including Marx,
Freud, and Bertalanffy.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) inherited systemic ideas from Georg Hegel, including teleology
and dialectic (i.e., a force or situation calls forth its own opposite). Marx synthesized this
dialectical idea with the materialism that dominated the day to create his dialectical
materialism. His collaborator Friedrich Engels had a lively interest in science and Darwinism.
Consequently, evolution or teleology is central to Marxist theory: economic relations lead to a
given justifying ideology institutionalized into a class structure, government, and religions. But
this steady-state will create its antithesis which will create disequilibrium, which will in turn
produce a new system of production with a corresponding ideology, which will lead to the next
phase.
12
This account has very definite affinities with General Systems Theory: a concern with
relations, steady state, a dynamic developmental model, and telos.
As with Marx, Sigmund Freud is influenced (though to a greater degree) by the
mechanistic conceptions of the era. Not unlike Bertalanffy, Freud began with an interest in
philosophical questions, but made his career as a scientist. In many respects, he was very much
a product of his time. Darwin had established that human beings were animals, and therefore
capable of being studied. Gustav Fechner, in founding psychology, took the argument a step
further: the mind can be studied scientifically (i.e., that it was quantifiable). Helmholtz's
discovery of the conservation of energy was no doubt influential as well. In studying
physiology (especially neurology, particularly comparative structures of brain tissue), Freud
came to believe that if an organism is a dynamic system subject to chemistry and physics, then
the mind should also be considered a dynamic system. This is Freud's great contribution.
Freud's model, however, is apparently more mechanical than organic (it is the
biomechanical reductionism to which Burke and Bertalanffy object). Freud's mechanical
metaphor leads him to overemphasize biological drives and homeostasis, and therefore to
underemphasize telos. Not coincidentally, these distortions are precisely what Freud's
System Theory
3 / 9

followers correct: Adler and J ung have more sophisticated ideas about telos, Sullivan
emphasizes the social more, and Lacan inquires much more into the function of language. But
these supplements should not distract us from the systemic aspects of Freud's theory, which
tells us much about the structure and function of mind.
Oswald Spengler was the last figure who influenced Bertalanffy's thinking (anyone
coming along after will be considered among cases of parallel development, discussed below).
Spengler's Decline of the West, published after the German defeat in World War I, contested
the standard view of most historians who viewed history as linear. Spengler proposed a cyclic
view (after Vico and the ancients). This model was adopted by Arnold Toynbee, who held that
a civilization has a life cycle--rise, proliferation, breakdown (the latter resulting from external
attack and/or internal systemic problems) and decay.

2. Defining the key terms and concepts.
Terms:
- Input- the energy & raw material transformed by the system;
- Throughput- the processes used by the system to convert raw materials or energy
from the environment into products that are usable by either the system itself or the
environment;
- Output- The product or service which results from the system's throughput or
processing of technical, social, financial & human input;
- Feedback- Information about some aspect of data or energy processing that can be
used to evaluate & monitor the system & to guide it to more effective performance;
- Subsystem- A system which is a part of a larger system. They can work parallel to
each other or in a series with each other;
- Static system- neither system elements nor the system itself changes much over
time in relation to the environment;
- Dynamic system- the system constantly changes the environment & is changed by
the environment;
- Closed systems- fixed, automatic relationships among system components & no
give or take with the environment;
- Open systems- interacts with the environment trading energy & raw materials for
goods & services produced by the system. They are self-regulating, & capable of
- Boundary- the line or point where a system or subsystem can be differentiated from
its environment or from other subsystems. Can be rigid or permeable or some point
in between. Systems or subsystems will engage in boundary tending;
- Goal- the overall purpose for existence or the desired outcomes. The reason for
being. Currently, many organizations put their goals into a mission statement;
- Entropy- The tendency for a system to develop order & energy over time;
- Negentropy- The tendency of a system to lose energy & dissolve into chaos;
- Control or cybernation- the activities & processes used to evaluate input,
throughput & output in order to make corrections;
- Equifinality- objectives can be achieved with varying inputs & in different ways;
Methodologically, it is important to set apart a theoretical system from an empirical
system. The former is a complex of concepts, suppositions, and propositions having both
logical integration and empirical reference, while the latter is a set of phenomena in the
observable world that is amenable to description and analysis by means of a theoretical system.
The concept of system serves to identify those manifestations of natural phenomena
and process that satisfy certain general conditions. In the broadest conception, the term
System Theory
4 / 9

connotes a complex of interacting components together with the relationships among them that
permit the identification of a boundary-maintaining entity or process. As reviewed in the
previous section of this chapter on the origins and foundation of the systems theory, more
specific denotations have been offered since the early formulations of a general system theory
in the first half of the 20th century. For the purposes of this chapter, we provide a definition
based on Russell Ackoff's suggestion that a system is a set of two or more interrelated elements
with the following properties:
- Each element has an effect on the functioning of the whole;
- Each element is affected by at least one other element in the system;
- All possible subgroups of elements also have the first two properties;
By substituting the concept of element for that of component, it is possible to arrive
at a definition that pertains to systems of any kind, whether formal (e.g., mathematics,
language), existential (e.g., real-world), or affective (e.g., aesthetic, emotional, imaginative).
In each case, a whole made up of interdependent components in interaction is identified as the
system. In the most basic definition a system is a group of interacting components that
conserves some identifiable set of relations with the sum of the components plus their relations
(i.e., the system itself) conserving some identifiable set of relations to other entities (including
other systems). In the words of Macy (1991, p. 72), a system is less a thing than a pattern.
This definition is general but not meaninglessly so: it specifies a limited set of entities
in the real world. If any set of events in the physical universe is to conserve an identifiable set
of internal relations it must be capable of at least temporarily withstanding the statistical
outcome of disorganization predicted by the second law of thermodynamics. That law states
that "entropy always increases in any closed system not in equilibrium, and remains constant
for a system which is in equilibrium." (Bullock & Stallybrass, 1977, p. 634.) Systems will
dissipate energy unless they are purposively maintained by an outside agency; thus there must
be organizing forces or relations present which permit the conservation of its structure and
function. Internal relations in an entity not possessing such characteristics tend to degrade until
a state of thermodynamic equilibrium is reached.

3. Classification of systems.
Systems have been classified into different types of categories, one being their
development in history.
First generation is summarized as the theories for dynamic equilibrium systems, and
their key concept is "homeostatis". They focused on the mechanism how a system maintains
itself under the fluctuation from the environment. Leading scholars in this generation are
Walter Bradford Cannon of "homeostasis", Ludwig von Bertalanffy of "general systems
theory", Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby of "cybernetics". The sociologist who applies this
generation theory is Talcott Parsons as "social systems theory".
Second generation is the theories for dynamic nonequilibrium systems, and their key
concept is "self-organization". They focused on the mechanism how a structure of system is
crystallized from disorders. Leading scholars in this generation are Ilya Prigogine of
"dissipative structure", Manfred Eigen of "hypercycle", and Hermann Haken of "synergetics".
Third generation is the theories for self-production system, and their key concept is
"autopoiesis". They focused on the mechanism how a system itself is realized over time.
Autopoietic system means a unity whose organization is defined by a particular network of
production processes of elements. Leading scholars in this generation are Humberto Maturana
and Francisco Varela of "autopoiesis". The sociologist who applies this generation theory is
Niklas Luhmann as "social systems theory" (Luhmann 1984).
System Theory
5 / 9

Note that there is a clear distinction between "self-organization" and "autopoiesis" after
the revolution caused by third generation. In this context, self-organization is focused on
structural formation, but autopoiesis is focused on system formation.
Another classification is based on their complexity levels:

Level of
Complexity
Example Characteristics
Level 1
Structural
Framework
The organizational chart
Level 2 Clockwork Dynamic, moving, predictable, must be controlled externally
Level 3
Cybernetic device
such as thermostat
Dynamic, predictable, capable of self-regulation within
certain limits.
Level 4 The cell
Open, dynamic, programmed for self-maintenance under
changing external conditions
Level 5 The plant system
Open, dynamic, genetically determined, capable of self-
regulation through wide range of changing external & internal
conditions.
Level 6
The animal
system
Open, dynamic, genetically determined system that adjusts to
its environment by making internal adjustments & by forming
simple social groups.
Level 7 Humans
Open, dynamic, self-regulating, adaptive through wide
circumstances because of ability to think abstractly &
communicate symbolically
Level 8 The social system
More complex than an individual, more open to
environmental influence, more adaptive to circumstance
because of collective experience & wider reservoir of skills.
Level 9
The
transcendental
Most freely adaptable to circumstance because it rises above
& extends beyond the boundaries of both individuals & social
systems.

3.1 Natural systems
An entity that does not degrade its structure to thermodynamic equilibrium but
maintains it through the utilization of the energies available in its environment is a product of
the slow but vast processes of evolution in nature. It has emerged in the course of time,
maintains itself in the face of perturbations, and is capable of reorganizing itself to cope with
changing conditions in its environment. Such an entity is a natural system, and includes
individuals and communities.
Natural systems contrast with entities which obey the statistical predictions of entropy
production dictated by the second law of thermodynamics. These types of entities are not
products of sustained evolution in nature but are accidental agglomerations of natural entities,
or else human artifacts. However, almost all the things we can identify as 'the furniture of the
earth' are natural systems, or components of natural systems, or aggregates formed by natural
systems. Stable atoms are natural systems, and so are molecules, cells, multicellular organisms,
ecologies and societies. Individual cognitive maps, complex socio-cultural systems, and indeed
the global system itself, form natural (rather than artificial) systems. This is important, for
System Theory
6 / 9

certain general propositions are true of natural systems, regardless of their size, origin, and
degree of complexity, which may not be true of artificial systems. These propositions are true
in virtue of the fact that in a universe governed by uniform laws certain sets of relationships
are required to conserve and enhance order over time. Much can be understood of the system's
basic properties by assessing its behavior in reference to the imperatives of natural system
dynamics.

3.2 Reduction to dynamics
The principal heuristic innovation of the systems approach is what may be called
reduction to dynamics as contrasted with reduction to components, as practiced in the
methodologies of classical science. Phenomena in the observed world are usually too complex
to be understood by modeling all their parts and interactions; some form of simplification is
necessary. Traditionally, scientists have simplified natural complexity by viewing individual
items of observation in isolation from the complex set of relations that connect them with their
environment, and ultimately with the rest of the world. They have isolated the object of their
investigations, interested mainly in delimited inductive chains that could be readily mapped as
linear - and perhaps circular - causality (that is, A affecting B, and B affecting C and possibly
also A).
The heuristic of 'reduction to components' has led to the accumulation of vast
storehouses of information about specific entities and the interactions among them. It enabled
scientists to know how one molecule, cell, or organ reacts to a particular kind of energy or
stimulant, and how one body reacts to a particular kind of force. The practical benefits have
been many: medicines could be prescribed and bridges built based on such knowledge. But this
type of knowledge proved deficient in one important respect: it did not disclose how complex
things behave when exposed to a complex set of influences. Yet almost every real-world system
contains a large number of components and is exposed to a large number of external forces and
events. In consequence, another heuristic became necessary, capable of simplifying
unmanageably complex phenomena by reduction to dynamics instead of to components.

3.3 Emergent properties and synergy
Structurally, a system is a divisible whole, but functionally it is an indivisible unity with
emergent properties. An emergent property is marked by the appearance of novel
characteristics exhibited on the level of the whole ensemble, but not by the components in
isolation.
There are two important aspects of emergent properties: first, they are lost when the
system breaks down to its components - the property of life, for example, does not inhere in
organs once they are removed from the body. Second, when a component is removed from the
whole, which component itself will lose its emergent properties - a hand, severed from the
body, cannot write, nor can a severed eye see.
The notion of emergent properties leads to the concept of synergy, suggesting that, as
we say in everyday language, the system is more than the sum of its parts. For example, the
hydrogen atom, the simplest of the chemical elements, has a typical valence as an integral
system made up of a proton and a neutron in the nucleus and an electron in the lowest energy
shell around it, together with short-lived exchange particles and forces. The chemical valence
of the entire structure is not present in the proton, the neutron, the electron, or any exchange
System Theory
7 / 9

particle taken in isolation; it is an emergent property of the whole ensemble and a result of the
synergistic relationship among its parts. Consequently a reduction of the hydrogen atom to the
level of its component elementary particles amounts to a simplification that eliminates some of
the essential properties of the atom; in that regard it throws out the baby with the bath water.
With reference to the subject area of this volume, a similar observation applies at the
opposite extreme of the scale of complexity in nature. The human brain, the most complex
system of matter known to science, consists of some ten thousand million neurons, with up to
a hundred billion connections among them. The emergent properties of the full cerebral system
include patterns of sensation, emotion, thought, and volition familiar from introspective
experience, as well as the complex homeostatic regulations performed by the autonomic
nervous system. None of these characteristics and functions can be found in individual neurons,
and in some cases reduction even to neural nets has proven impossible as in the case of
learned behavior and memory, which seem distributed throughout entire brain regions rather
than being performed by individual nets or encoded in specific RNA sequences or engrams.
(Pribram, 1991.)

4. Basic principles of a system approach
- A system is greater than the sum of its parts. Requires investigation of the whole
situation rather than one (1) or two (2) aspects of a problem. Mistakes can't be
blamed on one person, rather a systems analyst would investigate how the mistake
occurred within a subsystem & look for opportunities to make corrections in the
processes used.
- The portion of the world studied (system) must exhibit some predictability.
- Though each sub-system is a self-contained unit, it is part of a wider and higher
order.
- The central objective of a system can be identified by the fact that other objectives
will be sacrificed in order to attain the central objective.
- Every system, living or mechanical, is an information system. Must analyze how
suitable the symbols used are for information transmission.
- An open system and its environment are highly interrelated.
- A highly complex system may have to be broken into subsystems so each can be
analyzed and understood before being reassembled into a whole.
- A system consists of a set of objectives and their relationships.
- A system is a dynamic network of interconnecting elements. A change in only one
of the elements must produce change in all the others.
- When subsystems are arranged in a series, the output of one is the input for another;
therefore, process alterations in one requires alterations in other subsystems.
- All systems tend toward equilibrium, which is a balance of various forces within
and outside of a system.
- The boundary of a system can be redrawn at will by a system analyst.
- To be viable, a system must be strongly goal-directed, governed by feedback, and
have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
The definition of certain varieties of entities and events in the world as 'system'
made for the mid-century emergence of a general theory of systems. Prior to that time
a specialized way of seeing things held almost exclusive sway in modern science.
According to the specialized perspective, the world and all that it contains is an
assembly of small and distinct parts, fit largely for analysis and study in isolation. This
fragmented way of approaching empirical phenomena is predicated on the belief that it
System Theory
8 / 9

is better to have specific and intimate knowledge of smaller and more well-defined
items than general and abstract knowledge of larger and less well-defined ones. As a
result, instead of focusing on the interacting and integrated ensemble -the system-
attention is drawn to the parts regardless of their position within the ensemble.
By contrast, the systems approach attempts to view the world in terms of irreducibly
integrated systems. It focuses attention on the whole, as well as on the complex
interrelationships among its constituent parts. This way of seeing is not an alternative,
but a complement, to the specialized way. It is more all-embracing and comprehensive,
incorporating the specialized perspective as one aspect of a general conception.
The specialized approach has created an orientation toward decision making that is
currently in vogue in many parts of the world. It is based on individualism, competition,
training for 12 a specific profession, and indoctrination into a specific culture. On the
other hand, the general systems approach encourages the development of a global, more
unitary consciousness, team work, collaboration, learning for life, and exposure to the
universal storehouse of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

5. Conclusion
The above insights have led to the development of an orientation in the systems sciences
that may provide a solid bridge between systems theory and studies of perception. In this
context it is useful to recall Rapoports description of the fundamental aim and orientation of
general system theory: the task of general systems theory is to find the most general
conceptual framework in which a scientific theory or a technological problem can be placed
without losing the essential features of the theory or the problem. The proponents of general
systems theory see in it the focal point of resynthesis of knowledge. There was a time when the
man of knowledge was a generalist rather than a specialist, that is, he embodied the knowledge
of principles rather than skills. He was the philosopher and the sage, and his epistemological
creed was most clearly stated by Plato, who believed that all real knowledge comes from within
rather than from without, that is, from the contemplation of what must be rather than what
seems to be.
The erstwhile future of systems thought is now the practice of the contemporary action
oriented systems theorists. Evolutionary systems design, drawing on emancipatory systems
thinking, and based in evolutionary systems theory and social systems design, presents the
humanistic manifestation of systems theory in its fullest expression. In the context of individual
and collective human activity systems, evolutionary systems design is a rigorous future-
creating area of inquiry and action. Much as Rapoport suggests, people engage in design in
order to devise a model of a system based on their vision of what should be. They seek a design
that has a 'good fit' with the dynamics of their society, with their own expectations, and with
the expectations of their milieu.
Through action-oriented systemic inquiry on issues of individual and collective
cognitive maps, it may be possible to guide social systems design efforts in ways that
simultaneously heighten individual perceptions of inclusion and meaningful participation in
the dynamics of change, while creating adaptive strategies for evolutionary development by
ensuring the continual maintenance of an increasingly robust and supportive environment.
Design efforts that realign contemporary cognitive maps with the imperatives of evolutionary
development can be brought to individuals and communities through the vehicles of
participation and empowerment.
Evolutionarily empowered individuals not only perceive the dynamics of change of
which they are a part and are conscious of the urgency for responsible interaction with their
System Theory
9 / 9

evolving socio-ecological system, but manifest their perceptions and consciousness in value
shifts that re-align individual cognitive maps with the new realities of the world around them.
Evolutionary systems design derives from a general system theory that provides the
constructs for interpreting the processes of change in open dynamic systems and is infused by
studies of perception that shed light on how we navigate the diachronic terrain of physical and
social reality. It holds out the hope of creating the conditions in which individuals and groups
may gain the evolutionary competence needed to co-create sustainable evolutionary pathways
for humanity - in interactive ways that allow the other beings as well as the earths life support
systems to evolve sustainably, as well as with dignity and harmony.

6. References
- Ackoff, R.L. (1981). Creating the corporate future. New York: J ohn Wiley & Sons.
- von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: Essays on its foundation and
development, rev. ed. New York: George Braziller.
- Boulding, K.E. (1956). General systems theory - the skeleton of science. Management
Science, 2:197-208.
- http://archive.syntonyquest.org/elcTree/resourcesPDFs/SystemsTheory.pdf
- http://www.statpac.org/walonick/systems-theory.htm
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_theory