CHAPTER TWO

General Systems Theory

2.0 Introduction

This chapter has a number of related functions and aims. Since the purpose of the dissertation is to demonstrate that Burke's theory of symbolic action is systemic (and that it provides a plausible foundation for a systemic theory of symbolic action), we would do well to compare his work to that of other systems theorists so that we can distill out the systemic elements in the following chapters. This chapter will also show a long battle between mechanistic and organic models and methodologies. This is important because both Burke and Bertalanffy struggled against the mechanistic hegemony. The final chapter will show the ramifications of the overthrowing of the mechanistic conception.

In some respects, systems thinking is nothing new, going back at least as far as Anaxagoras, but Ludwig von Bertalanffy is generally considered the founder of modern humanistic systems theory. Although Burke never directly cites Bertalanffy or other authors of the General Systems theorists, he does sometimes employ General Systems Theory terminology and he has been influenced by figures who have informed General Systems Theory, notably Aristotle, Marx, Freud and to a lesser degree Vico. As we shall see in Chapter Three, Burke was also influenced by J. H. Woodger's biology inspired by Bertalanffy.

Bertalanffy has cited Aristotle, Nicholas of Cusa, Ibn-Kaldun, Goethe, Vico, Marx and Spengler as precursors of General Systems Theory (1972 21-25). Many of these theorists strike us as precociously modern because they do not employ the mechanistic paradigm which has until recently dominated our thinking. In our own century, as the cracks in the wall of positivism have become more apparent, each generation has challenged the mechanistic scientistic paradigm, including neo-vitalists, Gestalt psychologists, functionalists, and structuralists, though with limited impact until very recently.

Although Bertalanffy had early interests in both biology and philosophy, he chose biology as his field. He remained interested in philosophy, as Ervin Laszlo observes, not as an escape from scientific rigor, but to find meaning (Bertalanffy 1975 10). After some considerable success in developmental biological theory, he began to extend his systems thinking to the psyche and then to culture. When he did so, he discovered the centrality of language, and many of his later observations could have come verbatim from Burke's philosophy of language.

In this chapter we will trace the historical origins of systems thought, noting how it evolved in Bertalanffy's career, and place that career in its epistemological context. The next task will be to show how his work became an interdisciplinary movement, and summarize some of General Systems Theory's basic principles. We will then be in a position to compare its development and concepts with those of Kenneth Burke. Such comparisons are essential because, as Bertalanffy observed, since the human sciences can not depend on replication of an experiment for validation, independent creation of an idea is the closest the human sciences have for proof (1981 60).

2.1 Biographical Background

At ten years Bertalanffy enrolled in the Gymnasium, studying Homer, Plato, Virgil and Ovid in the original languages. Later he read Lamarck, Darwin, Marx and Spengler. He also wrote poems, plays and a novel. Bertalanffy subsequently studied at the University of Vienna, and took part in the Vienna Circle, as he was proud to point out in his later years (since he could not be charged with damning positivism without any knowledge of it). Because of the limitations of positivism and the hege-monic claims it was making, Bertalanffy charged it with scientism--the view that science is the only key to reality (Davidson 50). He asserted that the objectivity of science was a myth.

In 1924 he published his first article, an essay on Oswald Spengler. At this time he was also interested in Goethe, Bosch and mystics like Nicholas of Cusa. Bertalanffy's career as a biologist was mostly devoted to development, hence his interest in teleology. His Modern Theories of Development was published in 1928, and translated into English by Joseph Henry Woodger in 1933. In 1932 he published Theoretical Biology. In 1937 as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Chicago, a bastion of pragmatism and neo-positivism, he first introduced General Systems Theory, which received a cool if not hostile reaction. He consequently shelved his theory for some years.

Bertalanffy spent the war years in Vienna investigating ultra-violet light and cancer, fighting with Nazi colleagues, and lecturing to enormous classes of pre-medical students trying to stay out of the army. During the war his house burned, along with his library of some fifteen thousand volumes. After the war he worked in Switzerland, and then in England with the help of Woodger. In 1949 he moved to McGill University and then to Ottawa.

In 1952 he lectured in the United States, where he met Aldous Huxley, with whom he had corresponded for some time. After a stint in Ohio, he worked as a Ford Fellow at Stanford, where he met economist Kenneth Boulding, biomathematician Anatol Rapoport and physiologist Ralph Gerard; this group discovered sufficient commonality of ideas to establish a General Systems Theory society. Bertalanffy attended a World Health Organization conference which included Piaget, Mead and Lorenz, who though in different fields had an affinity in terms of systemic ideas. In 1958 Bertalanffy was out of work, but obtained a position at SUNY, where he worked until his death in 1972. His influence was attested to by two posthumous volumes of his work, and a Festschrift volume containing works from many fields and an introduction by Buckminster Fuller.

2.2 Origins

Bertalanffy often prefaced his explanations of General Systems Theory with a brief account of its historical roots, which he saw going back to the Pre-Socratics. He held that the roots in the West of General Systems Theory may be discerned with the Ionian philosophers in the sixth century B.C. starting to see the world as orderly, hence intelligible and ultimately controllable (Bertalanffy 1972 21).8 The Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras (500-548 B.C.) separated mind and matter in his attempt to find a cause independent of matter, which he called nous, the source of motion and change. He opposed the rather mechanistic explanation proposed by others, introducing teleological theory. His philosophy had some internal contradictions, thus setting up the problem of telos for Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps more important, we also see the fundamental distinction arise between mechanistic and more organic systems approaches.9

Aristotle is an important figure to General Systems Theory because his system encompassed everything, including ethics, which he derived from biology, not physics (Churchman 38). Other Aristotelian ideas that are crucial in General Systems Theory are telos, hierarchy, and homeostasis--i.e., humans try to maintain a mean between two extremes (Churchman 38). Donald Washburn holds that Aristotle had a systems approach to literary criticism, unlike Plato, who had a geometrical, not a biological conception of form (233). The development of Greek tragedy reminded Aristotle of organic development in that, like any organism, a play must have proportions. Catharsis and climax are also systems ideas, as is the idea that tragedy comes about when a human becomes dissociated from cultural system (235). Aristotle's history also has systemic elements (155).10

The medieval scholar Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) was a figure of great interest to Bertalanffy. He encompassed the mysticism of the Middle Ages, but also anticipated modern rationality. Because of his great intellect and synthesizing ability, he was often recruited by the Church for diplomatic missions. Nicholas was precocious in a number of ways. For example, he was the first to formulate a concept of infinity (which Spengler says is the central metaphor for moderns) (1975a 59). Nicholas has remained a rather obscure figure, though Ernst Cassirer wrote a book on him. Karl Jaspers was rather critical of Cusa, denying he was a pre-modern, though Bertalanffy holds that Jaspers was blinded by the "Galileo legend," which holds that modern science replaced a primitive, superstition-ridden Aristotelian system (1975 65).11

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is another precociously modern thinker with clearly systemic ideas. Though he was aware of the scientific revolution, and even sought to do for human nature what Newton had done for nature, his thinking was largely free of mechanism. His New Science is a comprehensive historic-systematic study of culture. He had a cyclical theory of history, and considered nations as systems of institutions with internal stresses leading to constant change (growth or decay). He devotes a great deal of space to language, sounding very much like Burke and Bertalanffy in declaring that the world is made of words, that humans are separated from the natural world by abstraction, and that language forms mind. As with most systems thinkers, he was interdisciplinary, combining history and what was to become sociology. His ideas were generally ignored in his time, but taken up by Auguste Comte (the more popular candidate for the title founder of sociology), according to Mark Davidson (155). Vico's analysis of class conflict is said to be the best until Karl Marx, whom he influenced.

Johann von Goethe (1749-1832) is another thinker to whom Bertalanffy often turned for inspiration. He founded the science of morphology, which was important in evolutionary theory. Though he lived in a time which still held that spontaneous generation was possible, his finding of structural similarities in different species is very much like the isomorphism (i.e., structural and functional similarities in different systems) that General Systems Theory seeks (Davidson 92-3). His blend of philosophy and science inspired generations of German scholars, including Marx, Freud, and Bertalanffy.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) inherited systemic ideas from Georg Hegel, including teleology and dialectic (i.e., a force or situation calls forth its own opposite). Marx synthesized this dialectical idea with the materialism that dominated the day to create his dialectical materialism. His collaborator Friedrich Engels had a lively interest in science and Darwinism. Consequently, evolution or teleology is central to Marxist theory: economic relations lead to a given justifying ideology institutionalized into a class structure, government, and religions. But this steady-state will create its antithesis which will create disequilibrium, which will in turn produce a new system of production with a corresponding ideology, which will lead to the next phase.12 This account has very definite affinities with General Systems Theory: a concern with relations, steady state, a dynamic developmental model, and telos.

As with Marx, Sigmund Freud is influenced (though to a greater degree) by the mechanistic conceptions of the era. Not unlike Bertalanffy, Freud began with an interest in philosophical questions, but made his career as a scientist. In many respects, he was very much a product of his time. Darwin had established that human beings were animals, and therefore capable of being studied. Gustav Fechner, in founding psychology, took the argument a step further: the mind can be studied scientifically (i.e., that it was quantifiable). Helmholtz's discovery of the conservation of energy was no doubt influential as well. In studying physiology (especially neurology, particularly comparative structures of brain tissue), Freud came to believe that if an organism is a dynamic system subject to chemistry and physics, then the mind should also be considered a dynamic system. This is Freud's great contribution.

Freud's model, however, is apparently more mechanical than organic (it is the biomechanical reductionism to which Burke and Bertalanffy object). Freud's mechanical metaphor leads him to overemphasize biological drives and homeostasis, and therefore to underemphasize telos.13 Not coincidentally, these distortions are precisely what Freud's followers correct: Adler and Jung have more sophisticated ideas about telos, Sullivan emphasizes the social more, and Lacan inquires much more into the function of language. But these supplements should not distract us from the systemic aspects of Freud's theory, which tells us much about the structure and function of mind.14

Oswald Spengler was the last figure who influenced Bertalanffy's thinking (anyone coming along after will be considered among cases of parallel development, discussed below). Spengler's Decline of the West, published after the German defeat in World War I, contested the standard view of most historians who viewed history as linear. Spengler proposed a cyclic view (after Vico and the ancients). This model was adopted by Arnold Toynbee, who held that a civilization has a life cycle--rise, proliferation, breakdown (the latter resulting from external attack and/or internal systemic problems) and decay.

2.2.1 Parallel Developments

The non-mechanistic ideas that would eventually coalesce into General Systems Theory grew independently in a number of fields. For example, Nicholai Hartmann published a systems approach to philosophy as early as 1912. Alfred North Whitehead's organicist philosophy also had some strong affinities with Bertalanffy's work. So strong were the parallels, in fact, that Bertalanffy felt compelled to state that he was unaware of Whitehead's work while writing Modern Theories of Development (Davidson 96). But systemic ideas were taking hold even in the Newtonian stronghold of physics as well. For example, the physicist Ervin Schrödinger opposed mechanistic thinking. In fact, the New Physics is very much concerned with the superseding of mechanism, as is evident in the work of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Gödel.

As we turn from the "hard" science of physics, we find an irony that no doubt both amused and frustrated Bertalanffy: the vast applicability and dazzling certainty of Newtonian physics made it the scientistic ideal. Hence the life sciences and even the new and lowly human sciences emulated it. The irony is that these "soft" sciences were aping classical physics long after it had discarded Newtonian mechanism. The irony is more profound when one realizes that the method being adopted (the mechanistic model) is entirely unsuited to studying biological, much less human, phenomena, as we shall presently see. However, there were those who tried to buck the mechanistic tide, even when it was at its fullest.

Not surprisingly, given the shortcomings of mechanism in biology, there are a number of biologists who take a systems approach: J. H. Woodger, A. J. Lotka, J. Needham, J.B.S. Haldane, R. Dubos and G.W. Sinnot. Similarly, sociology and anthropology saw the Integralist theories of P. A. Sorokin, Talcott Parsons' systematic general theory, the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss (Davidson 153), and the Social Interactionalist approach. Most of these were not widely known outside their respective fields, but eventually the affinities and resonances began to accumulate, setting the stage for a paradigm shift.

2.2.2 General Systems Theory Movement

Not unlike Burke, Bertalanffy encountered resistance to his systemic ideas throughout much of his career. He did, however, discover kindred spirits in other fields. These thinkers were adopting a system approach because the mechanistic approach simply could not help with the problems they were encountering. The systems approach also got a boost from the interdisciplinary scientific efforts during the war. In addition, the advent of computers made it possible to deal with more complex relations (Davidson 192). As a result, systems theory spawned many theories in many fields, including theories of automata, cybernetics, queuing, game, and fuzzy sets. These systemic theories influenced fields as diverse as physiology, medicine, psychology, sociology, history, education and philosophy (Davidson 71). One of the best-known offspring of General Systems Theory was Norbert Wiener's cybernetic theory, though Bertalanffy regarded classical cybernetics as a mechanistic subclass of General Systems Theory (Davidson 205). Classical cybernetics was concerned with control mechanisms such as those found in navigation, gunnery and missiles. Bertalanffy regarded this as little more than a stimulus-response model with a feedback loop. The reason for this attitude becomes clearer when we view Bertalanffy in the mechanistic milieu in which he proposed his systemic ideas.

2.2.3 Epistemological Context

Bertalanffy's contribution can only be fully appreciated when the context in which he struggled is understood. When first introduced, his "organismic biology" was dismissed as pseudo-scientific because it violated the mechanistic assumptions that permeated even the life sciences. Anything that could not be precisely quantified was not scientific, an idea going back to Galileo, who sought to "make measurable that which hitherto has not been measurable" (Churchman 57). In addition, according to Bertalanffy, at that time

the only goal of science appeared to be analytical, that is, the splitting-up of reality into ever smaller units and the isolation of individual causal trains. Thus, physical reality was split up into mass points of atoms, the living organism into cells, behavior into reflexes, perception into punctual sensations, and so forth. (1975a 13)

Bertalanffy identified Descartes as the precursor to the mechanistic model. The Third Axiom of the Discours de la Méthode exhorts us to start with the simplest phenomena and move to the more complex. He held that all nature was motion that could be reduced to mathematical laws, and so any animal, including man, was a bête machine (Davidson 74). However, as Bertalanffy never ceased to be delighted to point out, Descartes also held that human beings had souls, thereby admitting that a mechanical explanation of life had to be supplemented by a deus ex machina (Davidson 74). Similarly, Newton's cosmic clockwork had a divine clockmaker. Nevertheless, the mechanistic explanation was applied to everything, even biology, where the heart was regarded as a pump, the limbs as levers, etc.

2.3 Contra Mechanism and Behaviorism

Not unlike Burke, Bertalanffy "spent a lifetime denouncing mechanism as a doctrine that was scientifically unjustified and morally degrading" (Davidson 73). Bertalanffy opposed mechanistic reduction on scientific grounds because the mechanistic explanation is inadequate to describe biological and human phenomena, since such phenomena are simply not mechanical (Davidson 76-7). These systems violate the laws of entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) by increasing complexity. Moreover, biological systems do not move to homeostasis (as a cybernetic machine does), but toward equifinality: i.e., the ability of organisms to reach a final goal from different initial conditions and by different means (Davidson 77).

The most dramatic examples of equifinality are organisms regenerating lost limbs, salamander eye tissue becoming an eye no matter where on the organism it is placed, or sponge cells reassembling themselves. Clearly a developmental biologist such as Bertalanffy who had to account for such phenomena would have to come to terms with what Aristotle called entelechy, although the mechanistic model had made the notion disreputable. Bertalanffy does, however, attempt to separate entelechy from vitalism (the notion that there was some sort of mystical life force which guided development), which he saw as an unscientific dead end. But he was equally opposed to the other extreme, the "nothing-but-ism" of the mechanists (Davidson 30). The vitalists mystified entelechy, while the mechanists denied it. Eschewing both extremes, Bertalanffy tried to make the myriad of relations of an organism understood: "the problem of life is that of organization. . . Organisms are charged with form the way batteries are charged with electricity" (Davidson 81).15

Bertalanffy's second grave objection to mechanistic theory is that organisms are autonomously active systems. This suggests Burke's central distinction between action and motion: humans can act, things but move. Human beings, the symbolic animals, have abilities that lower level systems do not have. While rudimentary goal-seeking is characteristic of biological organisms, true purposiveness is the privilege of man, and depends on symbols, as we shall see in Chapter Five (Bertalanffy 1981 132).

Because Bertalanffy was critical of mechanism in biological systems, he was particularly critical of Behaviorism's approach to mental systems. Despite the fact that General Systems Theory looks for similarities in all systems, it also recognizes that levels are hierarchical, with higher levels having emergent properties not possessed by simpler lower level systems or subsystems. Moreover, the more complicated the system, the more autonomous and active it is. Hence Bertalanffy opposed the "robot model" with his notion of human beings as active personality systems. The robot model assumes that animals are essentially reactive, trying to reduce tensions, gratify needs, or reacting to operant conditioning (Bertalanffy 1981 110). Accordingly, it studied animals, machines and infants because these were the most accessible, simplest systems, and conformed to the mechanistic model. Bertalanffy objects to the robot model on ethical as well as scientific grounds: if humans are robots, then ethics is pointless, and the Behaviorist efforts to better program and regiment people are justifiable.

These scientistic studies, such as stimulus-response and behavioral psychology (copying the methodology of physics), sought elementary entities which would explain complex human behavior (Bertalanffy 1981 110). But anomalous behavior kept creeping in: wholeness, hierarchy, goal directedness and order which could not be accounted for by the mechanical model (111). Even rats appear to look for problems to solve, as brain research pioneer Donald Hebb noted. This supports Bertalanffy's contentions that higher level systems are active, rather than reactive; much human behavior appears to be performed for its own sake. Many theories in psychology evolved to account for these phenomena, but they all had in common viewing the psyche as a system. Psychologist Gordon Allport summed up the consensus: "Whatever else personality may be, it has the properties of a system" (Bertalanffy 1981 112).

2.4 Symbolism

As many systems thinkers note, the introduction of language made humans fundamentally different from other animals. Bertalanffy is a strong proponent of this position, asserting that symbolism (i.e., the capacity to learn a symbol system) is the unique criterion of human beings (1968 41). It is here that Burke and Bertalanffy coincide completely. "Except for the immediate satisfaction of biological needs, man lives in a world not of things but of symbols" (Bertalanffy 1981 119). Moreover, human striving differs from the entelechial properties of other organisms because of symbolism: human beings strive to realize values (Bertalanffy 1968 217). Bertalanffy sounds very much like Burke when he cites Allport's observation that it is because of "symbolic functions that `motives in animals will not be an adequate model for motives in man'" (Bertalanffy 1968 216).

Bertalanffy's most extensive writings on symbolism were produced towards the end of his career. There he noted that symbolic behavior is so widely considered the difference between human and animals that he finds it hard to imagine how its significance could be neglected. Occasionally in the past the importance of language was acknowledged, even proposed as the difference between human and animals. However, this distinction has led to some problems; consequently Bertalanffy had to deal with the issue of animal language, broaden the concept of language to encompass symbolism and culture, and acknowledge that human symbolic ability is an outgrowth of subhuman behavior (41).16

Bertalanffy noted that symbolism has been defined in a number of ways with a wide range of meanings: compare Carnap to Goethe to Freud. However, Bertalanffy recommends Ernst Cassirer and Suzanne Langer's conception. Cassirer held that symbolic forms are essentially Kant's categories (However, the former asserted that the mind was not passive, and that a system of categories developed over time. These ideas will be treated in the final chapter.). Bertalanffy further argues that symbolism can be distinguished from animal language in that the former must be freely created, representative, and transmitted by tradition. By freely created, he means that there must be "no biologically enforced connections between the sign and the thing connoted," e.g., a conditioned reflex (1981 44). Second, to count as language it must be representative, not merely expressive, i.e., the signal must stand for something. Finally, a language is transmitted, thus learned, whereas most animal communication is instinctual and inherited (47).

Bertalanffy's privileging of language is particularly impressive when we note that the scientistically-minded had been trying to denigrate the importance of language since the attempt by the Royal Society in London to eliminate metaphor and ambiguity from language. Now that we have sketched the historical roots of General Systems Theory, and the epistemological context out of which it grew, we can turn to a consideration of its central principles.

2.5 General Systems Theory Principles

In order to understand General Systems Theory and its contribution to a Burkean theory of symbolic action, some of its basic terms and principles must be understood. Fundamentally, General Systems Theory departs from standard scientific approaches in advocating that a system can only be understood as a functioning whole, rather than in terms of its building blocks. General Systems Theory does not ignore components; rather it stresses the interrelations between components. Essentially, General Systems Theory is "the ultimate generalization of the organismic conception" (Davidson 172), but Bertalanffy does not accept the organic metaphor in a naive way. What General Systems Theory seeks to do is see what principles are true of a wide variety of systems (i.e., what can be said of systems as systems). These principles include wholeness, interaction with environment, self-maintenance, life cycle, and isomorphism.

2.5.1 Isomorphism

Isomorphism is in General Systems Theory a central concept: a one-to-one correspondence between objects which preserves the relationships between them (Hall and Fagen 64). This is an important concept in General Systems Theory because it seeks to find isomorphism between different systems, thus leading to laws that are true of all systems. What all systems have in common can be seen in their definition: a set of objects together with relationships between the objects and their attributes (Hall 52). James McFarland has gathered a number of related definitions:

Miller defines systems as "bounded regions in space-time, involving energy interchange among their parts, which are associated in functional relationships, and with their environments . . . . A system is all of a thing." McClelland adds, "A system may be defined as an assembly of components, having identifiable properties, among which relationships are perceived. To a person who has yet to comprehend some relationship between components or between their properties, there is no system." And finally, Rapoport says a system is "a whole which functions as a whole by virtue of the interdependence of its parts." From these definitions we may conclude that systems consist of an aggregate of dynamic events that are in some way interconnected and interdependent. (159)

We may also conclude that relationships are of central importance in General Systems Theory. Particularly in organic systems, all parts and processes depend on all other parts and processes (1975b 98).

Bertalanffy distinguishes between a precise, rigorous "hard" system theory which can be formalized (e.g., cybernetics), and a more general "soft" definition which includes any "portion of the world that is perceived as a unit and that is able to maintain its 'identity' in spite of changes going on in it" (Bertalanffy 1975b 48). Soft systems theory can deal with living organisms, as well as cultures (super-organisms) and even languages. These soft systems may be said to have a structure, function to maintain a steady state, and grow, evolve, or decay (47). These ideas will be crucial in refining Burke's theory of symbolic action in Chapter Five.

We begin to understand Bertalanffy's vehement objections to the mechanistic metaphor when we realize that one of the most important distinguishing characteristics of a complex system is its ability to produce standard behavior under differing conditions. Unlike in a simple system (e.g., a machine), a standard behavior is not maintained by a rigid procedure, but despite its absence. Also unlike a machine, a higher order system can arrive at a steady state through various procedures. The more complex the system, the broader will be the repertoire of coping strategies. Moreover, the more complex the system, the more heterogenous will be its components or subsystems, and the more hierarchical. These components will not be random, but can be mapped in a field pattern (Weiss 23). This pattern will return to a steady state after a disturbance below a destructive magnitude (e.g., order can be restored after a riot, but not always after an internecine civil war, or a massive infection).

One of the most important attributes of systems is their ability to compensate and to grow (anamorphosis). These are not features of lower level systems, such as machines, which is another reason why Burke and Bertalanffy object to the mechanical metaphor so vociferously. With each higher level of complexity there are emergent properties which give higher level systems more freedom and autonomy than those at the levels below. As a system develops, it becomes more hierarchical and progressive segregation takes place, which involves increasing division into subsystems with different functions, i.e., "transformation from a more general and homogenous to a more special and heterogeneous condition" (Bertalanffy 1981 117). As an organism further divides the labor, the subsystems become increasingly interdependent as well.

2.5.1 Entelechy

As the above discussion suggests, an important difference between a systems or organismic theory and a mechanical theory is telos. Aristotle's concept of entelechy had been discarded by science. Somewhat ironically, Darwinism led to decline of teleological thinking since evolutionary change became a matter of random mutation (i.e., chance), and the idea was only preserved by the vitalists, who steadily lost ground as more and more life phenomena could be accounted for in mechanical terms. Then Behaviorism, the idea that all behavior could be conditioned reflex, seemed to negate telos completely, even in the highest functions of the highest system--the human psyche (Rapoport 171-2). However, higher level systems are not merely reactive, as machines are, but are autonomously active, which leads to behavior such as creativity, dreams, and play (Davidson 85). These activities are emergent properties made possible by the complexity of higher level systems. Another significant difference between higher and lower level systems is that animals change themselves in response to a stimulus, rather than merely reacting to it, as the Behaviorists believe (Washburn 191).

Despite the domination of mechanistic thinking in psychology and even biology throughout this century, it eventually became apparent that certain attributes of living systems could not be accounted for by the mechanical model. Though the behavior of a machine could be predicted from its structure, this is not true of higher level systems. Whereas a cybernetic device like a thermostat can maintain homeostasis or equilibrium, more advanced living (open) systems can maintain disequilibrium. Moreover, living systems move toward a steady state or equifinality, and can achieve that through a number of different ways, which is not true of machines.17 In short, the mechanical model simply does not account for living systems behavior; Bertalanffy points out that if it did a race of grandfather clocks would be just as likely as, say, amoebas.

Many researchers in a variety of fields now accept the teleological nature of higher level systems, such as human beings. Though Freud dealt mainly in instinctual drives, Jung acknowledged that the task of each person is to discover the individual in the self. Allport holds that people favor change over stasis, progress over mere maintenance, and meaning over success, i.e., simple biological survival (Washburn 166-8).

Teleological ideas and the profound differences between machines and living systems become much more apparent and credible when such systems are arranged in a hierarchy, as systems theorists inevitably do. These different schemes have different numbers of levels and may differ in range, according to the interest of the author; some go down below subatomic particles and some go to supranational organization. All these schemes, however, note the significant distinctions between life and non-life, and between human and animal. (The latter distinction, that language creates a fundamental qualitative difference between animals and humans, will be crucial later, as it supports Burke's crucial distinction between action and motion.)

Bertalanffy's hierarchical scheme is representative: the lowest level he describes is that of frameworks e.g., the pattern of electrons, the DNA code, the arrangement of planets. The description of such basic and generally static structures is the necessary beginning of most scientific fields because the dynamic system cannot be described until its framework is understood (Bertalanffy 1975b 27). However, the investigation must not end with the framework, nor should the operation of higher levels be reduced to the framework level, as is the case with mechanistic approaches.

The next more complex level Bertalanffy calls that of clockworks: simple dynamic systems with predetermined motion. The steam engine and the dynamo which served as metaphors for so much eighteenth and nineteenth century theorizing are examples of simple dynamic systems. Most of physics, chemistry and economics are devoted to understanding systems at this level (27).

A still more complex mechanism has a cybernetic or control system. Bertalanffy nicknames this level that of the thermostat: a simple, stable equilibrium system maintained through the use of information. Actually at each higher level there is more information and less entropy, but here the distinction is clear: a cybernetic mechanism must "remember" information and compare it to its present state in order to make adjustments (feedback). This homeostatic model is important in biology and even in social science, but again we must not be too constrained by it because the next level introduces a fundamental emergent property--life.

The next level is that of the open system: life begins to differentiate itself from non-life. Bertalanffy calls this an open system because the system exchanges energy with its environment (basically, it eats, which allows it to import usable energy which in turn allows it to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics; in fact it flouts it by becoming more complex). Flames and rivers are open systems of a very simple type, but essentially this is the level of a cell. A number of important properties emerge here as well. Not only can a cell maintain itself (primitive equifinality), it can reproduce itself.

The next is the genetic-societal level, typified by plants, which have a division of labor, and blue-printed growth (1975a 28). Note again how an increase of information is required to maintain a system of this complexity: different sorts of cells have to communicate and cooperate, and participate in the overall plan. Information from outside the system is limited by the lack of specialized sense organs, however.

On the next level, that of the animal, such sense organs do exist. In addition, we find increased mobility, teleological behavior and self-awareness (which is not precisely self-consciousness, as that requires language). Since an animal must deal with vastly more information than a plant, it has a central nervous system. As one examines progressively more complex animals, one finds more information is structured by the brain into an increasingly complex "image" or model of the world. So behavior is less and less a response to a stimulus and more to a knowledge structure of the world (1975a 28), a distinction which is often lost on Behaviorists.

Though all these levels form a continuum, with rather indistinct boundaries, there are nonetheless fundamental distinctions. We have already noted the dramatic difference between open and closed systems (i.e., life and non-life) and to a lesser extent plant and animal. But these differences are no greater or more fundamental than the tremendous "quantum jump" made possible by symbolism. This brings us to Bertalanffy's next level, human beings. As a result of symbolism, not only does the human animal know, but it knows it knows--it is self-conscious (29). Language makes a much more complex model of the world possible, so concepts like time and values can emerge.

At the human level, Bertalanffy states that:

we must concern ourselves with the content and meaning of messages, the nature and dimensions of value systems, the transcription of images into a historical record, the subtle symbolizations of art, music, and poetry, and the complex gamut of human emotion. The empirical universe here is human life and society in all its complexity and richness (29).

This symbolic realm is, of course, precisely what Burke sets out to study, as we shall see in the following chapters. With language come social roles and values: "ideology makes our bodies hop in peculiar ways," which is Burke's way of pointing out that human beings are not motivated solely by biological drives. Human beings live in a symbolic universe, as Bertalanffy also points out.18

2.6 Conclusion

The laws of physics which inform the mechanistic model are specifically restricted to closed systems. To understand anything more complex requires a more sophisticated model. General Systems Theory attempts to "restore meaning (in terms of intuitively grasped understanding of wholes) while adhering to the principles of disciplined generalizations and rigorous deduction. It is, in short, an attempt to make the study of man both scientific and meaningful" (McFarland 161).

Now that the essentials of General Systems Theory have been established, we can look for isomorphisms in Burke, e.g., the importance of language, the inadequacy of the mechanical model, interdisciplinary approach, entelechy, hierarchy, and ethics. Burke's theory will be the subject of the following two chapters. In the fifth chapter, parallels will be drawn between Burke's theory and General Systems Theory. A dialectic will be set up in which the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two theories will be compensatory. In the final chapter the descendants of General Systems Theory will be used to further refine Burke's intuitive ideas to

bibliography

Go to Ch 3

back to Table of Contents