Excerpt from: "General System Theory. Foundations, Development, Applications" by Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Excerpt from: Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory. Foundations, Development, Applications, Braziller, New York 1968, pp.48-51.

General System Theory and the Unity of Science

[…] The integrative function of general system theory can perhaps be summarized as follows. So far, the unification of science has been seen in the reduction of all sciences to physics, the final resolution of all phenomena into physical events. From our point of view, unity of science gains a more realistic aspect. A unitary conception of the world may be based, not upon the possibly futile and certainly farfetched hope finally to reduce all levels of reality to the level of physics, but rather on the isomorphy of laws in different fields. Speaking in what has been called the “formal” mode, i.e., looking at the conceptual constructs of science, this means structural uniformities of the schemes we are applying. Speaking in “material” language, it means that the world, i.e., the total of observable events, shows structural uniformities, manifesting themselves by isomorphic traces of order in the different levels or realms.

We come, then, to a conception which in contrast to reductionism, we may call perspectivism. We cannot reduce the biological, behavioral, and social levels to the lowest level, that of the constructs and laws of physics. We can, however, find constructs and possibly laws within the individual levels. The world is, as Aldous Huxley once put it, like a Neapolitan ice cream cake where the levels-the physical, the biological, the social and the moral universe-represent the chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla layers. We cannot reduce strawberry to chocolate-the most we can say is that possibly in the last resort, all is vanilla, all mind or spirit. The unifying principle is that we find organization at all levels. The mechanistic world view, taking the play of physical particles as ultimate reality, found its expression in a civilization which glorifies physical technology that has led eventually to the catastrophes of our time. Possibly the model of the world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we have almost lost in the last sanguinary decades of human history.

General System Theory in Education: The Production of Scientific Generalists

After this sketchy outline of the meaning and aims of general system theory, let me try to answer the question of what it may contribute to integrative education. In order not to appear partisan, I give a few quotations from authors who were not themselves engaged in the development of general system theory.

A few years ago, a paper, entitled The Education of Scientific Generalists, was published by a group of scientists including the engineer Bode, the sociologist Mosteller, the mathematician Tukey, and the biologist Winsor. The authors emphasized the «need for a simpler, more unified approach to scientific problems». They wrote:

We often hear that “one man can no longer cover a broad enough field” and that “there is too much narrow specialization”. [...] We need a simpler, more unified approach to scientific problems, we need men who practice science-not a particular science, in a word, we need scientific generalists (Bode et al., The Education of a Scientific Generalist, «Science», 109, 1949, p. 553).

The authors then make clear how and why generalists, are needed in fields such as physical chemistry, biophysics, the application of chemistry, physics, and mathematics to medicine, and they continue:

Any research group needs a generalist, whether it is an institutional group in a university or a foundation, or an industrial group [...]. In an engineering group, the generalist would naturally be concerned with system problems. These problems arise whenever parts are made into a balanced whole (Ibidem).

In a symposium of the Foundation for Integrated Education, Professor Mather (1951) discussed «Integrative Studies for General Education». He stated:

One of the criticisms of general education is based upon the fact that it may easily degenerate into the mere presentation of information picked up in as many fields of enquiry as there is time to survey during a semester or a year. [...] If you were to overhear several senior students talking, you might hear one of them say “our professors have stuffed us full, but what does it all mean?”. [...] More important is the search for basic concepts and underlying principles that may be valid throughout the entire body of knowledge.

In answer to what these basic concepts may be, Mather states:

Very similar general concepts have been independently developed by investigators who have been working in widely different fields. These correspondences are all the more significant because they are based upon totally different facts. The men who developed them were largely unaware of each other's work. They started with conflicting philosophies and yet have reached remarkably similar conclusions. [...] Thus conceived, [Mather concludes], integrative studies would prove to be an essential part of the quest for an understanding of reality.

No comments seem to be necessary. Conventional education in physics, biology, psychology or the social sciences treats them as separate domains, the general trend being that increasingly smaller subdomains become separate sciences, and this process is repeated to the point where each specialty becomes a triflingly small field, unconnected with the rest. In contrast, the educational demands of training «Scientific Generalists» and of developing interdisciplinary «basic principles» are precisely those general system theory tries to fill. They are not a mere program or a pious wish since, as we have tried to show, such theoretical structure is already in the process of development. In this sense, general system theory seems to be an important headway towards interdisciplinary synthesis and integrated education.