Origin of Systems Thinking LO23972

From: AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Date: 02/14/00

Replying to LO23925 --

Dear Organlearners,

Steve Elfrink <steve@beingfirst.com> writes

>I am doing research for a book on Conscious Transformation
>for Leaders and OD Consultants. I am trying to find information
>on the origination of "Systems Thinking", who is it first credited
>to and when. Any help / direction would be greatly appreciated!

Greetings Steve,

It is often said in Operational Research that Systems Theory began with L
Von Bertalanffy (1950). Other early thinkers were N Wiener (1961) and R
Ashby (1964). In the majority of books and papers involving "systems
theory/thinking" it is presented as a post WWII phenomenon. Other names
often encountered are Ackhoff, Bateson, Beer, Checkland, Drucker, Emery,
Forrester and Von Foerster.

As to whom first used the specific term "systems thinking", I cannot tell.
Its use has become common since the eighties of the last century.

As to whom first used the term "systematical thinking", it was perhaps
Baker three centuries back (1699) who stressed that Aristotle argued how
powerful systematical thinking in philosophy is. This warns us that we
have to distinguish carefully between "systems thinking" and the implicate
state of mind which allows for systems thinking/theory.

Allow me to paint a rich picture here. The word "system"
comes from the Greek prefix "syn"=together and the root
"histemi"=stand. It designates that kind of thinking which is
concerned with how parts "stand together" as a whole. In terms
of my seven essentialities of creativity, it means that
system/systematical thinking requires a sensitivity to the
Essentiality - "associativity-monadicity" (wholeness) LO18276
These essentialities play a vital role in any creative
emergence to a higher order. In my opinion one of the ultimate
tests for systems thinking is to understand the consequences of
The Digestor LO21272
I wonder how Dan Chay and Winfried Dressler feel about this

As to how I discovered the essentialities, see
"Essentialities of creativity LO17576 -Introduction"
After having discovered them, I undertook one of the most
exciting voyages of discovery ever to me by searching through
the literature of humankind where thinkers first became
sensitive to each essentiality. It is an intellectual task which
I can recommend sincerely to any fellow learner for getting a
glimpse on the evolution of human thinking. You will never
regret it. Obviously, I had to draw a disctinction between
the implicit awareness (tacit knowledge) of an essentiality
and its explicit articulation (formal knoweldge) through
whatever medium.

Perhaps the first person ever to use the word "system" is Selden (1619)
who refered in literature to the "whole scheme of things". Soon afterwards
Mede (1638) used it in his Apostacy of Later Times. In 1651 the
philosopher Hobbes took a decisive step in his Leviathan when he wrote:
"By systemes I understand any numbers of man joyned in one interest." In
1676 Halle extended it to the "universe as it comprehends systeme". In
1776 Mickle wrote that "his father was a most excellent system's builder
who made his theory look well." So much so for systems thinking as 20th
century concept associated with modern science or a post WWII phenomenon
associated with operational research.

The first person ever to refer to a "system" in the modern sense of
technology seems to have been Hales (1656) who wrote about the "system of
technical divine". But soon afterwards Heath (1663) used it in the dubious
sense of "life is a system of iniquity". The first person to refer clearly
to "system" in a negative sense seems to have been M Clark (1874) in His
Natural Life who wrote: "You have a future to live for man" -- "I hope
not" says the victim of the "system".

To paint the "systems thinking" any richer, it is advantageous to trace
how people have used the prefix "syn-" ("sym-", "sys-") to explicate
their thoughts formally. There are two very interesting periods of
emergence: 1640+/-50 and 1850+/-30.

The 1650+/-50 emergent period involves mainly religion, philosophy and
literature. For religion we have, for example, "syncretism"
(Barneveldt,1618), "synchronal" (More, 1660), "synchronism" (Harvey,
1588), "syndicate" (Darcie, 1624) and "synergist" (Gaule, 1657). For
philosophy we have, for example, "syntasis" (Bacon, 1605),
"systematically" (Boyle, 1661) and "systematic" (Locke, 1690). For
language we have, for example, "synaloepha" (Campion, 1602) and
"syncopate" (Cambden, 1605).

The 1850+/-30 emergent period involves a sudden one-to-many mapping into
many branches of science and art. Here are but a few examples:

anthropology "synergia" (Mayne 1859)
botany "synacmic" (Bennet, 1870)
chemistry "systematics" (Davey, 1812)
geology "synadelphic" (Sorrenson, 1884)
logic "syncategorematic" (Whatley, 1827)
mathematics " sytem analysis" (Batchelor, 1852)
medicine "syndesmitis" (Dorland, 1881)
zoology "syndactyl" (Swanson, 1836)

What developments in human culture at large caused these two very
interesting periods (1640+/-50 and 1850+/-30) of the emergence of
wholeness in Western Culture?

As far as I could ascertain, the first person ever who used "systems" in
the modern sense together with concepts such as boundaries, complex,
freedom, openness, etc, was J W Gibbs (1876) in his monumental "rich
picture", a paper of 323 pages long ("On the equilibrium of hererogenous
substances"). In this paper he not only managed to set out the
relationship between the Law of Energy Conservation (LEC) and the Law of
Entropy Production (LEP), but carefully laid out the foundation of what
later would become known as "chemical thermodynamics". Picture again how
the 1850+/-30 period of emergence in wholeness provided the "field" (as
Jan Smuts would say) for this work on LEC and LEP.

In 1923 G N Lewis and his younger colleaque M Randal published their
famous textbook Chemical Thermodynamics in which the theoretical work of
Gibbs and all subsequent empirical findings in physical chemistry were
presented in a most compelling manner. It became the standard textbook for
physical chemistry the next 50 years, servicing it for even several
decades beyond WWII. This book did more to the evolution of chemical
industries than any other book. The leasure of studying how Lewis and
Randal used system concepts deliberately to bring order to a most
confusing picture of empirical information have an everlasting effect on
the mind -- mine included (1964-65). I do not know what subjects Von
Bertanlanffy or Wiener had studied in their undergraduate years, but if
Physical Chemistry was one of them and they had to use Lewis & Randal's
textbook, it will be no surprise to me that they became aware through this
book of the incredible power of "systems thinking".

The last strokes to this "rich picture" is on Jan Smuts (1926, Evolution
and Holism). I will recommend a study of his book any day. He stands out
as a rather lone thinker because he does not let his concept of wholeness
fall victim to the abyss between physical and spiritual systems invoked by
thinkers since Rene Descarte three centuries ago. He traces evolution from
subatomic particles in the physical world up to personality in the
spiritual world and argues how the "whole" is responsible for such
evolution. Had he lived another 50 years, he would have realised through
the work of Ilya Prigogine how wholeness accomplishes this evolution
through "entropy production". He died soon after Prigogine (using an
equation derived by Gibbs 75 years earlier), anaged to show how entropy is

In the "poor picture" above I have avoided painting Western thinking
earlier than the Enlightenment. There are some exciting things to read in
the Rennaisance (Da Vinci and Dante), the Middle Ages such as the
documents of the Brethern of Compassion of Deventer (14th century), or the
Arab philosophies during the turn of the first millenium after CE. Sadly,
classical thinking among the Greeks and Romans as to how things "stand
together" has faded in modern curricula because "modern" students will not
tolerate the "ancients" any more. By moving the mental eye over Oriental
systems thinking the past three millenia a most exquisite texture can be
woven into the "poor picture" above to afford a "rich picture".

Perhaps some fellow learner can do that for us. As for me, I will be happy
should some fellow learners question the possibility that the "evolution
of systems thinking" has a rich picture going back several millenia over
many continents. To be able to follw this "evolution of systems thinking"
we have to be aware of the difference and thus the relationship between
tacit/implicit and formal/explicit knowledge.

With care and best wishes


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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