October 24, 2009

A Brief History of Systems Theory

In the current academic context, there are several theories under the name of "systems theory". In this post, I shall overview a history of the systems theory. We adopt, here, a categorization suggested by Hideo Kawamoto (1995), where the development of the systems theory is divided into three generation (See the Table below).

First generation is summarized as the theories for dynamic equilibrium systems, and their key concept is "homeostatis". They focused on the mechanism how a system maintains itself under the fluctuation from the environment. Leading scholars in this generation are Walter Bradford Cannon of "homeostasis" (Cannon 1932), Ludwig von Bertalanffy of "general systems theory" (Bertalanffy 1968), Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby of "cybernetics" (Wiener 1948; Ashby 1956). The sociologist who applies this generation theory is Talcott Parsons as "social systems theory" (Parsons 1951).

Second generation is the theories for dynamic nonequilibrium systems, and their key concept is "self-organization". They focused on the mechanism how a structure of system is crystallized from disorders. Leading scholars in this generation are Ilya Prigogine of "dissipative structure" (Prigogine & Nicolis 1977), Manfred Eigen of "hypercycle" (Eigen & Schuster 1979), and Hermann Haken of "synergetics" (Haken 1977).

Third generation is the theories for self-production system, and their key concept is "autopoiesis". They focused on the mechanism how a system itself is realized over time. Autopoietic system means a unity whose organization is defined by a particular network of production processes of elements. Leading scholars in this generation are Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela of "autopoiesis" (Maturana & Varela 1972, 1980; Varela & Maturana, 1974). The sociologist who applies this generation theory is Niklas Luhmann as "social systems theory" (Luhmann 1984).

Note that there is a clear distinction between "self-organization" and "autopoiesis" after the revolution caused by third generation. In this context, self-organization is focused on structural formation, but autopoiesis is focused on system formation. Luhmann emphasizes this distinction as follows:

"Autopoietic systems, then, are not only self-organizing systems, they not only produce and eventually change their own structures; their self-reference applies to the production of other components as well. This is the decisive conceptual innovation. […] Thus, everything that is used as a unit by the system is produced as a unit by the system itself. This applies to elements, processes, boundaries, and other structures and, last but not least, to the unity of the system itself." (Luhmann 1990: p.3)
"In order to clarify how much this concept of basal self-reference differs from an earlier discussion of "self-organization", Maturana and Varela have proposed the designation `autopoiesis’ for it." (Luhmann 1984: p.34).

As just quoted, the difference between "self-organization" and "autopoiesis" is of decisive importance for understanding the conceptual innovation of the systems theory.

Ashby W. R. (1956). Introduction to Cybernetics, Methuen.
Bertalanffy, L. v. (1968). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller
Cannon, W. B. (1932). The Wisdom of the Body, W. W. Norton.
Eigen M. & Schuster P.(1979) The Hypercycle: A principle of natural self-organization, Springer
Haken, H. (1977). Synagetics, An Introduction. Nonequilibrium Phase-Transitions and Self-Organization in Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Springer.
Kawamoto, H. (1995) Autopoiesis: The Third Generation System (in Japanese), Seido-sha Publishers.
Luhmann, N. (1984). Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie, Suhrkamp. (English translation: Social Systems, John Bednarz Jr., Dirk Baecker (translator), Stanford University Press, 1995)
Luhmann, N. (1990). Essays on Self-Reference, Columbia University Press.
Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1972). De Maquinas y Seres Vivos, Editorial Universitaria S.A.
Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The realization of The Living, D. Reidel Publishing Company.
Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System, Free Press.
Prigogine, I. & Nicolis, G. (1977). Self-Organization in Non-Equilibrium Systems, Wiley.
Varela, F.J., Maturana, H.R. & Uribe, R. (1974). "Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model", Biosystems, Vol.5, No.4, pp.187-196.
Wiener, N. (1948; 1965). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 2nd edition, MIT Press.


  1. Prof. Iba, I recently was pointed to your work and blogs, very interesting topics you cover. Thanks for that.

    I'm trying to include some thoughts in this post in a post for my blog. It seems that 'dynamic equilibrium' and 'nonequilibrium' are used differently, in the figure 'dynamic nonequilibrium' is related to the concept homeostatis, but in the text to self-organization. Can you please explain which one is right?

    Thanks, Bas Reus

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  9. Very interesting.
    Note that probably there's a mistake in the table, equilibrium and non-equilibrium must be switched.
    Let me ask you a question: do autopoiesis have a theory for the emergence of new properties in a system? (self-organization have it).
    thanks Massimo.

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