Systems Theory: An Overview


Systems thinking could be conceived as the opposite of reductionism.  In systems thinking the whole is the object of inquiry, not the parts.  In her excellent book on the subject, General Systems Theory beginning with Wholes, Barbara Gail Hanson points out, “When we begin to see in terms of wholes rather than parts, patterns appear that a classic model of simple linear cause and effect cannot capture.” 1 Systems theory started with the advent of computers, which allowed the management of multiple streams of data, and found applications in business, industry, and government.2   However, the idea that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts goes back as far as Aristotle’s Principle of Non-Summativity.1(p 27

Biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy originated the expression “general systems theory,” while mathematician and psychologist A. Rapaport gave a broad definition of a system: “A system is a portion of the world that is perceived as a unit and that is able to maintain its” identity “in spite of changes going on in it.”  (Quoted in Stamps, p. 12) 3

Erno Laszlo was one of the first to articulate systems theory most forcefully.4  What follows is a table based on his listing of the distinctions between the classical view of the world and the systems view of the world.

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