Systems theory

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  • 1970 catastrophe theory : This branch of mathematics describes sudden changes that result from small impulses.

  • around 1980 Chaos Theory: Mathematical theory of nonlinear dynamic systems that describes branches, attractors and chaotic movements.

Systems theory is an interdisciplinary approach in which fundamental aspects and principles of systems are used to describe and explain differently complex phenomena.

Subject areas and models as diverse as the solar system, biological cells, humans, a family, an organization, a state, but also machines and computer networks can be understood as systems and described in terms of system theory. Cognitive processes of recognition and problem-solving, which refer to concepts of systems theory, are often summarized under the term systems thinking .

The analysis of structures, dynamics and functions should enable a more comprehensive view and more realistic predictions about the system behavior. System-theoretical terms are used in a wide variety of scientific disciplines . "From the beginning, systems theory pursued the goal of counteracting the fragmentation of knowledge in the scientific disciplines."

Systems theory is both a general and independent discipline as well as a widely ramified and heterogeneous framework for an interdisciplinary discourse that uses the term system as a basic concept. There is consequently both a general “systems theory” and a large number of different, sometimes contradicting and competing system definitions and terms. Today, however, a relatively stable series of terms and theorems has emerged to which the systems theoretical discourse refers.


The term general systems theory goes back to the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy . Together with cybernetics ( Norbert Wiener , W. Ross Ashby ), his work forms the fundamental considerations of this scientific approach. Other important theories come from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela ( autopoiesis ), Stuart Kauffman ( self-organization ) and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown ( structural functionalism ), as well as Talcott Parsons (structural functionalism or systems functionalism) and Niklas Luhmann ( sociological systems theory ).

In terms of cultural history, the term system goes back to Johann Heinrich Lambert and was adopted and developed by Johann Gottfried Herder , among others . This takes place above all in the question of how one can understand living organisms and their self-preservation and self-organization.

Modern systems theory is based on approaches developed independently of one another, which were later synthesized and expanded: The term systems theory or systems theory comes from Ludwig von Bertalanffy (see General Systems Theory ). Von Bertalanffy speaks of open systems and develops the concept of organized complexity , which is intended to describe the dynamic exchange with the environment. However, it was only with the formulation of the information concept that this concept could be further generalized. As early as 1948, Norbert Wiener had coined another central expression with cybernetics, which today is closely linked to the term system. Another related concept is Alexander Bogdanov's tectology .


The Cybernetics treated operationally closed mechanisms. It was conceived as a regulation and communication theory. The focus of cybernetics is on regulation and control . Therefore, regulated mechanisms are primarily considered as systems in cybernetics. The control is always based on processes that can be described with the mathematical system theory of technology . Bertalanffy spoke out against the mixing of his system theory and cybernetics because he did not consider the mechanistic thinking of cybernetics to be adequate for the description of life.

General extensions of cybernetics

As a systems theory 2nd order refers to systems theories that are self-referential in the following sense: With the respective system theory of systems theorist who makes the theory is described. The key term is therefore “the observation of the observer”.

As autopoiesis referred Humberto Maturana , both its systems theory as well as the essential process he describes his theory that is life. Roughly speaking, Maturana describes the same thing as von Bertalanffy in his system theory, but he argues cybernetic: he speaks of living (autopoietic) machines that are operationally closed.

As a self-organization refers to processes that result as the autopoiesis to higher structural systems without a controlling element is recognizable. One example is the laser beam, on the basis of which Hermann Haken's theory was also developed.

The radical constructivism was of Ernst von Glasersfeld developed. He used the work of Jean Piaget . Piaget's mindset was constructivist and epistemological . Ernst von Glasersfeld argues in particular with the operational coherence of systems.

As a System Dynamics is called modeling with control loops. Jay Wright Forrester made the process known through the world model World3 , on the basis of which the global consumption of raw materials was forecast in the Club of Rome publication Limits to Growth ( The Limits to Growth , Dennis L. Meadows 1972).

Sociological Systems Theory

The sociological systems theory sees itself as a universal theory in the sense of a comprehensive and coherent theoretical structure for all forms of sociality . The sociological concept of system goes back to Talcott Parsons . Parsons regards actions as constitutive elements of social systems. He coined the term structural-functional systems theory.

Niklas Luhmann extends Parson's theory and no longer uses action as a fundamental element, but rather communication - see systems theory (Luhmann) .

Complex Systems Theory

The latest trend is the theory of complex systems . A complex system is a system whose properties cannot be fully explained from the properties of the components of the system. Complex systems consist of a large number of interconnected and interacting parts, entities or agents.

Complex systems are widespread, even dominant, from the world of elementary particles right up to human society. They arise predominantly through processes of spontaneous self-organization and are usually not accessible to a theory based on known mathematical functions. Examples are the formation of atomic nuclei , atoms , the conversion of substances from one physical state to another, crystallization , chemical reactions , evolution , the mental processes in the brain , the development of social systems , etc. In living nature, open systems are dominant that require the supply of energy, in inanimate nature, complex systems usually form spontaneously with the release of energy or in thermal equilibrium .

The theory of complex adaptive systems is largely based on the work of the Santa Fe Institute . This new complexity theory, describing emergence , adaptation and self-organization , is based on agents and computer simulations that include multi- agent systems (MAS), which have become an important tool in the study of social and complex systems.

Related areas

These four main directions have precursors, subdivisions, developments, applications in the specialist disciplines.

Chaos theory

The chaos theory deals with certain non-linear dynamic systems having a number of phenomena which one chaos (more precisely, chaotic behavior ) called. One of these phenomena is the butterfly effect, which implies that any small changes can have unpredictably large effects. Chaotic systems are for example weather , climate , plate tectonics , turbulent currents , economic cycles , the Internet and population growth .

Disaster theory

The catastrophe theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with the ramifications of dynamic systems and describes sudden changes resulting from small changes in circumstances.


The Konnektionismus understand a system as interactions of many interconnected simple units. Most connectionist models describe information processing in neural networks . They form a bridge between biological research and technical application.


In order to be able to describe systems in models, areas from mathematics and computer science play a role. If a system can be described quantitatively and other requirements are met (in particular the differentiability of the descriptive functions), systems of differential equations are often used for mathematical modeling. If these requirements are not met, the description must be made on a more abstract level. Formal concept analysis , a sub-area of order theory, is used in mathematics for a formal description using conceptual means . On the computer science side, ontology is concerned with describing systems formally using conceptual means. The foundations for this also lie in the philosophical ontology .


Medical cybernetics
The Medical Cybernetics involves the application of systems theory, news theory, connectionist and decision analytical concepts for biomedical research and clinical medicine.
Medical systems theory
The aim of medical systems theory is to better understand the complex interrelationships of the physical system and their specific networked functionality. Physiological dynamics in healthy and diseased organisms are identified and modeled according to system theory.
Dialectical systems theory
Dialectical systems theory assumes that the term system, understood as a structured whole, must be understood as constitutive for science. Chaos is set as the opposite of the system . The concept of system understood in this way and the key distinction between system and chaos are formulated primarily by Kant and Hegel .

Areas of application

In addition to the benefits of systems theory and cybernetics in the control sciences , in the modeling of complex systems, for example in computer science and ecology , numerous action sciences such as psychology , psychotherapy , counseling , pedagogy , social work and organizational development refer to systems theory as the basic theory. Models of the dynamics of complex systems are used to explain phenomena in social, educational, therapeutic and organizational areas of application. The systems theory models are also used as a theoretical background for the formation of hypotheses and for planning interventions. This reference is often marked by terms such as "systemic", "systemic-constructivist" or "systemic-solution-oriented.

See also


  • W. Ross Ashby : Introduction to Cybernetics. 1956.
  • Frank Becker , Elke Reinhardt-Becker: Systems Theory. An introduction to history and cultural studies. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2001, ISBN 3-593-36848-X .
  • Frank Becker (ed.): History and systems theory. Exemplary case studies (= campus historical studies, Volume 37). Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-593-37587-7 .
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy : To a general system theory, Biologia Generalis. 195, MIT Press / Wiley & Sons, New York / Cambridge 1948, pp. 114–129.
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy: General system theory. In: German university newspaper. No. 12, 1957, pp. 8-12.
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy: General System Theory. New York 1976.
  • Georg Klaus: Dictionary of Cybernetics. Dietz Berlin, (also Fischer paperback, Frankfurt 1968)
  • Holger Lindemann : Systemic, solution-oriented conversation in counseling, coaching, supervision and therapy. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2018.
  • Holger Lindemann : Constructivism, systems theory and practical action. An introduction to educational, psychological, social, societal and operational fields of action. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2019.
  • Gerhard Preyer : System, Media and Evolution Theory. On Niklas Luhmann's approach . Gerhard Preyer, Georg Peter, Alexander Ulfig Eds. Protosociology in Context. Lifeworld and system in philosophy and sociology. Würzburg 1996, ISBN 3-8260-1248-8 , pp. 302-346.
  • Günter Ropohl : General system theory. Introduction to transdisciplinary thinking . edition sigma, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-8360-3586-6 .
  • Rudolf Seising: From General Systems Theory to Fuzzy Theory. Or: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Science and Technology . In: Technikgeschichte, Vol. 67 (2000), H. 4, pp. 275-301.
  • Norbert Wiener : Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Hermann Editions, Paris 1948.
  • Johannes Zimmermann: For a history of systems science. Contributions from the Institute for Environmental Systems Research, Osnabrück 2010, ISSN  1433-3805 ( online ).

Individual evidence

  1. Günter Ropohl: General System Theory - Introduction to transdisciplinary thinking . Edition Sigma, Berlin 2012.
  2. Günter Dedie: The power of nature laws. Emergence and collective abilities from elementary particles to human society . tredition, 2014, ISBN 978-3-8495-7685-1 .
  3. Holger Lindemann: Constructivism, system theory and practical action. An introduction to educational, psychological, social, societal and operational fields of action . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2019.
  4. Holger Lindemann: Systemic, solution-oriented conversation in counseling, coaching, supervision and therapy. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2018.