Is Paul Weiss' and Ludwig von Bertalanffy's System Thinking still valid today?

Manfred Drack, Wilfried Apfalter


The roots of what is today called general system theory (GST) can be traced back to the Vienna of the early 20th century. In the 1920s Paul Weiss performed experiments in the Viennese Prater Vivarium (a privately founded research institution in the area of experimental biology) and found that his results were totally incompatible with the prevailing mechanistic concepts dominating the biologists way of thinking. Therefore he proposed a system view. At about the same time Ludwig von Bertalanffy, coming from philosophical grounds, tried to overcome the dispute in biology of vitalism versus mechanism by developing an organismic concept. They met each other and discussed the biological concepts when von Bertalanffy was still a student.

Rupert Riedl knew both scholars personally and thought that their ideas are of paramount importance not only for the biologists world view. Thus he initiated a research project called "System Theory Today", in which the developments in system theory in the last three decades should be investigated. The focus of the project here described lies in the reception of system theory after von Bertalanffy's dead. Further developments as well as reductionistic tendencies are to be tackled. As our pre-studies have shown, a whole lot of disciplines have adopted system theory for their needs, but some of the modified theories sheer away from the original context. On the one side the development in the different disciplines is positive, on the other side it leads to contradictory positions followed by misunderstandings and building up new boarders that are weakening the prime intention of system theory. System theory was always meant to be an integrative tool for all sciences and was aiming for a dialog between scientific disciplines. Based on the theory arising from biology the developments in different disciplines (from mathematics to engineering, from medicine to economics, but especially life sciences) will be investigated. The key question is, whether von Bertalanffy's and Weiss' system thinking still plays a role in science today and especially if there are contributions that broaden or reduce the concept. To complete the picture the just recently found Bertalanffy estate, which is now hosted by the University of Vienna, will play an important role. The working hypothesis is that what was made out of GST is a considerable reduction of the original concept.

In this paper an overview of the research work in the project will be given. It starts with the system concepts in 1920s biology and the thoughts of Weiss and Bertalanffy. Therefrom the basic concepts are extracted to be compared with the contemporary developments of GST.


Paul Weiss; Ludwig Bertalanffy; General System Theory; GST; History and Development of GST; Vienna; 1920s

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