BERTALANFFY Ludwig von—eminent biologist and philosopher, author of general systems theory, b. September 19, 1901 in Atzgersdorf near Vienna, d. June 12, 1972 in Buffalo (USA).
Bertalanffy studied in Innsbruck and Vienna. In 1926 he defended his doctoral dissertation in the University of Vienna (Fechner und das Problem der Integrationen höherer Ordnung), and he earned his habilitation in 1932. From 1934 to 1948 he worked first as a docent professor, then as professor of biology at the University of Vienna (in the departments of Philosophy and Biology). In 1948 he left Austria. After a short period at the University of London (1948–1949) he went to Canada. He worked as a professor of biology in Ottawa (1949–1954). He was a fellow (1954–1955) and founder of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford, California). He worked as a visiting professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (1955–1958) and in the Menninger Foundation (1958–1959). From 1961 he worked as professor of theoretical biology in the Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Psychology at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada). In 1969 he moved to the Center for Theoretical Biology at State University of New York in Buffalo. He was a member of the Rockefeller Foundation, an honorary member of the American Psychiatric Association, a member of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, the International Academy of Cytology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He chiefly published articles that were published years later in books: Kritische Theorie der Formbildung (B 1928; English translation Modern Theories of Development, Ox 1933, NY 1962); Nikolaus von Kues (Mn 1928); Theoretische Biologie (I–II, B 1932–1942, BN 19512; Das Gefüge des Lebens (L 1937); Das Biologische Weltbild (Bn 1949, English translation, Problems of Life, Lo 1952); The Theory of Open Systems in Physics and Biology (Science 111 (1950), 23–29); An Outline of General Systems Theory (British Journal of the Philosophy of Science 1 (1950), 139–164); together with C. G. Hempel, E. R. Bass and H. Jonas: General System THeory: A New Approach to Unity of Science (Human Biology 23 (1951), 302–361); Biophysik des Fließgliechgewichts (Brau 1953); Robots, Men and Minds (NY 1967); Organismic Psychology and Systems Theory (Worcester (Mass.) 1968); General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (NY 1968; Ogólna teoria systemów. Podstawy, rozwój, zastosowania [General theory of systems. Foundations, development, applications], Wwa 1984); Perspectives on General System Theory: Scientific-philosophical Studies (NY 1975); A Systems View of Man (Boulder 1981).
Bertalanffy had wide-ranging interests. He studied German and Russian mysticism, expressionism and classicism in art, the history of art, the history of science, and the history of philosophy. His interest in the history of philosophy in the early stage of his scientific work bore fruit in works on Nicholas Cusa, Goethe, and O. Spengler. Biology and general systems theory were the chief domain of his scientific work. He made an important contribution to the development of theoretical biology (organismal theory) and experimental biology: comparative physiology of growth and metabolism (he formulated equations of growth), cell physiology, biophysics, experimental embryology, cytochemistry, and oncology (he developed a method for the early diagnosis of cancer).
In a discussion with the dominant conceptions in biology in the 1920s—with mechanicism and vitalism—Bertalanffy formulated organismal theory (organismal biology, which he understood as a “working attitude” and an instrument that served the scientific explanation of the individuality and integrity of the organism. Bertalanffy’s chief objection to the mechanicist conception of the organism concerned its reduction of living processes to elementary units and processes (the principle of reduction and summation). Yet he rejected vitalism as a scientific method for explaining the phenomena, for although it emphasized the integral character of the organism it introduced vague principles such as life forces (entelechy etc.). Both of the theories he criticized presupposed a machine theory of the organism, although they differed in their views on the origin of that machine. Bertalanffy opposed this with his organismal conception that was based on the following principles: (1) the conception of the system as a whole as opposed to the analytic and additive point of view in biology; (2) a dynamic approach to the organism as opposed to a static and mechanistic conception; (3) an approach to the system as a primitively active system as opposed to the conception of primitive reactivity. The new point of view in biology was formulated in organismal theory in the 1950s in the theory of the open system. Bertalanffy recognized that the open system, which is characterized by the importing and exporting of substances in the system, is an adequate model for explaining living processes.
General systems theory, as a new logical-mathematical domain of science concerning general principles that apply in all classes of systems, was the main field of Bertalanffy’s research. Bertalanffy distinguished three main fields of general systems theory: (1) system theories in science (biology, physics, psychology, etc.) and general systems theory in a narrower sense (a doctrine that constitutes a collection of principles referring to all systems); (2) the technology of systems, which unifies the applied sciences (system engineering, operational research, the theory of information direction, the theory of districts, the theory of mass service); (3) the philosophy of systems, as a result of the systems revolution in science (“system” as a new paradigm in science implies interesting philosophical problems in ontology, epistemology, and axiology). The large-scale program of general systems theory (institutionalized in the Society for General Systems Theory founded in 1954 by Bertalanffy and others, later called the Society for General Systems Research) was based on the affirmation that the world has structural uniformity which is manifested in the isomorphism of the laws discovered in different scientific disciplines. Bertalanffy saw the foundation of isomorphism in the existence of general systemic properties independent of the nature of the particular system, its components, and their interactions. The principal ends intended for general systems theory were the integration of science and the integration of scientific education.
C. Fries, Metaphysik als Naturwissenschaft. Gedanken zu Ludwig von B. theoretischer Biologie, B 1936; A. Bendmann, Ludwig von B. organismische Auffassung des Lebens in ihren philosophischen Konsequenzen, Je 1967; The Revelance of General Systems Theory. Papers Presented to Ludwig von Bertalanffy on his Seventieth Birthday, NY 1972; W. N. Sadowski, Analiza logiczno-metodologiczna “Ogólnej Teorii Systemów” Ludwiga von B. [Logical-methodological analysis of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’ps general systems theory], in: Problemy metodologii badań systemowych, praca zbiorowa [Problems of the methodology of systems research, collective work], Wwa 1973, 327–351; Unity Through Diversity. Festschrift in Honor of Ludwig von B., NY 1973; M. Davidson, Uncommon Sense. The Life and Though of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972), Father of General Systems Theory, Los Angeles 1983; M. Saint-Germain, Teorie Ludwika von B.: studium wzajemnych powiązań [Theories of Ludwig von Bertalanffy: study of mutual connections], in: Projektowanie i Systemy. Zagadnienia metodologiczne nauk praktycznych [Projection and systems. Methodological problems of practical sciences], 7, Wr 1985, 11–32.