Notebooks

## General Systems Theory

15 May 1997 15:42

Lord, I disbelieve; help Thou my unbelief.''
An off-shoot of cybernetics, with (so far as I can see) far less to recommend it. This is not to say that none of its advocates ever produced anything worthwhile, just that the credit for it should not go to the verbiage which passed for approaches to a general theory of systems'' (query --- why is that phrase much more respectable than theory of things in general''?). Its hey-day was in the '60s and '70s, when my father was studying planning, and took a course or three in it from C. West Churchman (see below); it seems to have become extinct by now, though some of the survivors have tried to hitch it to complexity. It is not to be confused with dynamical systems theory in mathematics, still less systems of equations, though I've seen philosophers and science-studies people do both.
Recommended:
• David Berlinski, On Systems Analysis: An Essay Concerning the Limitations of Some Mathematical Methods in the Social, Political, and Biological Sciences [I've seen my own writing described as Panzer assualts,'' but this made me blanche. This is fire-bombing.]
• C. West Churchman, The Systems Approach [A gentle, almost folksy approach which wisely put the idea of taking everything relevant into account before the mathematical appratus; but this fails to distinguish the systems approach from the rational approach in general, especially as Churchman is frank about the difficulties of deciding what is relevant, and how little the mathematics actually added.]
• John Gall, illus. R. O. Blechman, Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail (a.k.a. General Systemantics)
• The Society for General Systems Research used to (and for all I know still does) put out an annual journal, General Systems, which at least in the early issues had many interesting articles, especially some papers by Ashby, but nothing remotely resembling a general theory of systems. The decline in its scientific quality was, however, steady and perceptible, and even the least fastidious must have written it off after about 1980.