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General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice

Systems theorists see common principles in the structure and operation of systems of all kinds and sizes. They promote an interdisciplinary science adapted for a universal application with a common language and area of concepts. In order to solve problems, make recommendations and predict the future, they use theories, models and concepts from the vast area of general systems theory. This approach is chosen as a means to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of the specialist but also to find new approaches to problems created by earlier ‘solution of problems.’ The book summarizes most of the fields of systems theory and its application

Reading level: Intermediate


General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice by Swedish academic Lars Skyttner provides a good introduction to GST. It’s first part provides a history of the subject, particularly centered on the key contributions of people such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Jay Forrester and many others.  It acknowledges the contributions of folks like Aristotle, Hegal, Smuts and other forerunners. The second part of the book describes the application of General Systems Theory in fields such as organization, decision making and informatics.

General Systems Theory was founded on the assumption that all kinds of systems (concrete, conceptual, abstract, natural or man-made) had characteristics in common regardless of their internal nature. These systems could serve to describe nature and our existence. As an applied science, GST became Systems Science, a metadiscipline with a content capable of being transferred from discipline to discipline. As such, it is knowledge regarding knowledge structures and attempts to add and integrate those aspects that seem not to be adequately treated in older science (but also to engage in continuous cross-fertilization of various disciplines). Systems science become the science of synthesis and integration.

There are three particular aspects of General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice that I find quite appealing.

  • First, it whets the appetite. It opens doors. It is almost like a Readers’ Digest version of general systems theory, and I do not say this unkindly. It is a quick and quite broad reading of much literature in a most accessible form. If you are new to systems theory, Skyttner’s work gets you started and wanting more.
  • Second, it walks the walk of the very essence of GST, that is being inter-disciplinary, isomorphic and generative for generalist thinking.
  • Third, and perhaps most enjoyable for me at least, Skyttner will send you off in some surprising and non-traditional directions. Two of these that I found most useful were Erwin Laszlo, the Hungarian systems philosopher and Jonas Salk, the immunologist and father of the polio vaccine. I might otherwise never have discovered Salk’s contribution to the theory of cosmic evolution. Salk’s 1983 book Anatomy of Reality is worth reading if you can find a copy.