Centre for Systems Philosophy
Centre for Systems Philosophy
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Systems Philosophy //

About Systems Philosophy

Systems Philosophy formally originated in 1972 as the philosophical component of General Systemology (then called "General Systems Theory").  However the activities representing it have a long history going back to the beginnings of Western philosophy in the 7th century BCE, and its scope has broadened in the last half century  to encompass broader interests and alternative perspectives to those of the founders of General Systemology and Systems Philosophy.

  1. What is Systems Philosophy?
  2. The Nature of Systems Philosophy
  3. The History and Development of Systems Philosophy
  4. Recommended Reading on Systems Philosophy
  5. Systems Community

​What is Systems Philosophy?

Systems Philosophy is the philosophical component of Systemology, the transdisciplinary field concerned with the scientific study of all kinds of systems. In general terms Systems Philosophy arose out of the need to develop a scientific worldview that reflected the realization that everything in the real world is a system or part of one, with "system" being understood as "a whole that functions as a whole in virtue of the relationship between its parts".  The implication of this insight is that to properly understand something we have to understand not only its composition, but also the relationships between its parts, between the parts and the whole, and between the whole and its context. This calls for a change in perspective in how we conceptualise, study and engage with the real world. The central aim of Systems Philosophy is to articulate the systems worldview and find ways to use it to help solve important problems in science, philosophy and society.


Systems Philosophy arose specifically in the context of a search for a worldview that would appropriately reflect not only the physical complexity of the world but also the meaning, value and dignity of life and culture. The central ambition of systems philosophers from the outset has been to contribute in practical ways to scientific and humanistic efforts to build societies grounded in the values of justice, freedom, social welfare and environmental stewardship.
Evolution of Knowledge via Science & Experience

​The Nature of Systems Philosophy

Ervin Laszlo 1972

Systems Philosophy was formally founded in the 1970s as a scientific branch of philosophy, that is, one that respects and incorporates the findings of science, and proceeds in the way science does, i.e. by insisting on rigour, internal consistency, clarity, consistency between theory and observations, and subjecting its theories and models to empirical testing. As a scientific philosophy it embraced moderate forms of Naturalism (the idea that all changes in the concrete world are proportionate to changes elsewhere), Realism (the idea that the world has some objective aspects) and Scientism (the idea that science progressively reveals the truth about the nature of the concrete world).  It nevertheless remained philosophical in the sense that its objective is to make sense of the world and our place in it, and it tries to find ways to answer questions of ultimate concern.  As a philosophical framework it started out as a systems oriented and moderate version of what is sometimes called "Scientific Realism" or "Scientific Materialism".  In its original form it was the philosophical component of what was then called "General Systems Theory in the broad sense", and which has since been more appropriately renamed "General Systemology" (see papers by Pouvreau and Drack in the reading list).


The field of systems studies has expanded greatly in the last half century.  As academics from different disciplines increasingly engaged with the systems paradigm the philosophical perspectives within Systemology diversified, and today Systems Philosophy includes not only the naturalistic strand it started as but it also has strands that are unscientific, anti-scientific, heuristic or phenomenological, e.g. grounded in Radical Constructivism, Postmodernism, Idealism, Radical Holism, Discordant Pluralism, and so on.  That said, the 'centre of gravity' of Systems Philosophy in terms of attention by academic philosophers still lies with the scientific realist approach of the founders of Systems Philosophy (see section on History and Development of Systems Philosophy).  

​The History and Development of Systems Philosophy  

The term “Systems Philosophy” was coined by Ervin Laszlo in his book Introduction to Systems Philosophy, published in 1972.  The term was previously agreed between him and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of “General Systems Theory”, and von Bertalanffy then revised his 1969 book General System Theory by adding a new Preface in which he embraced Systems Philosophy as one of the three elements of “General System Theory”, alongside “Systems Science” and “Systems Technology” (this revised edition was published in 1976, four years after von Bertalanffy’s premature death in 1972).    


Although Systems Philosophy was only formally articulated as a disciplinary endeavour in 1972, the activities it incorporates have a long history in philosophy.  Western philosophy originated with the Pre-Socratic philosophers (7th – 5th centuries BCE), e.g. Heraclitus and Anaximander.  The Pre-Socratic philosophers were the first ones we know of who tried to work out the nature and dynamics of the world from observations and reasoning, rather than just basing their “world picture” (ontology, metaphysics and cosmology) on mythology.  The Pre-Socratic philosophers are a distinct group from the Classical Greek philosophers (4th – 3rd centuries BCE), e.g. Socrates and Plato, who tried to use reason to work out guidance for achieving flourishing individuals in a just society, rather than taking their “life view” (axiology and praxeology) from social tradition.  These earliest philosophical investigations were typically framed from a perspective we would today classify as systemic, in that to the ancient Greeks the world was a kosmos (something ordered, rather than a chaos), an ordered and harmonious structure in which everything was a living substance that tried to adjust itself according to its kind and its context.  In this way the early Greeks viewed the universe as a kind of great organism, rather than as a kind of great machine or a great jumble.

It is in the works of Aristotle (4th century BCE), who integrated the Pre-Socratic and Classical traditions of Greek philosophy, that we find the earliest explicit reflections on the nature of systems, and the first systematic approach to the organisation of knowledge.  It was Aristotle who first pointed out that a system is more than the sum of its parts (saying otherwise it would just be a heap), and he created the first synthesis of all the main branches of learning, establishing a classification of categories that was later diagrammed as a kind of complexity hierarchy (the “Tree of Porphyry”, 3rd century CE).

This promising start was diluted with the rise of Scholasticism in Europe in the medieval period.  Scholasticism integrated “worldviews” (world picture and life view) with Christian theology, creating the hazard that theories based on reason and observation that contradicted theological dogma would be classed as heresies.  In this period, the object of studying Nature was not to understand Nature but to gain insight into the nature and intentions of God.  This approach was sophisticated in the sense of assuming the experienced reality was not fundamental but a kind of by-product of a deeper underlying casual foundation that could be revealed via direct investigation.  However, this approach was unsophisticated in merely trying via investigations to affirm or illuminate dogmas about, rather than refine assumptions about, the nature of the underlying reality.  Nevertheless, important conceptual models that remain influential for the scientific systems philosophers of today were developed in this period, e.g. by Thomas Aquinas (13th century CE) and Nicolas of Cusa (15th century CE).

From the 16th century onward we have a return to the scientific ambitions of the Pre-Socratics but under the influence of Galileo, Descartes and Newton we see the rise of reductionism and mechanicism, and a devaluing of the kind of organismic aspects of Nature that impressed the ancient systemists.  The significance and power of the reductionistic paradigm is beyond question, but as the scientific era unfolded it became increasingly clear that linear reductionism and physicalistic mechanicism are inadequate for revealing the full nature of the reality underlying the phenomenal world, because it appears unsuitable for analysing the nature of life, sentience and sapience without losing the essential features of these phenomena.

Students of living, conscious and rational beings however soon re-introduced the ancient systems perspective.  The first scientific discussion of systems was given by a French philosopher, the abbot Étienne Bonnot de Condillac in his Traité des Systèmes ( Treatise on Systems ) of 1749.  This was soon followed by other important studies, including the work of statesman-philosopher Jan Smuts whose holistic theories were worked out (according to his biographer Hancock) in 1890 (but not published until 1926), physician-philosopher-revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov whose great work Tektology: Universal Organisation Science (published 1912 – 1917 in Russia) only appeared in German in 1928 (and in English only from 1980 onwards), and the work of biologist-philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy onwards from the 1920s.  1954 saw the founding of the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR) by von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Anatol Rapoport, James Grier Miller and Ralph Gerard.  The SGSR strongly promoted the systems paradigm, and high points were the publication of von Bertalanffy’s book General System Theory in 1968 and Ervin Laszlo’s book Introduction to Systems Philosophy in 1972.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Anatol Rapoport, James Grier Miller, Ralph Gerard

Von Bertalanffy’s premature death from a cardiac arrest in 1972, and Laszlo’s departure from academia into the visionary but politicised world of the UN’s Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in 1977, resulted in a significant loss of momentum in both general systems research and systems philosophy as co-ordinated endeavours.  However, the scientific and philosophical interest in systems and systemic processes never died out, and important contributions continued to be made by philosophers such as Ervin Laszlo, Peter Caws, Archie Bahm, Russ Ackoff, Robert Rosen, and Mario Bunge, and scientists such as West C. Churchman, Hans von Foerster, Ilya Prigogine, Umberto Maturana,  Lenard Troncale, Gerald Midgley, Alexander Laszlo and Cliff Hooker.  

Peter Caws, Archie Bahm, Russ Ackoff, Robert Rosen, Mario Bunge

Major academic influences served to dim academic interest in general systems research and systems philosophy in the latter part of the 20th century.  Although the Behaviourism and Positivism that the ‘Bertalanffy Circle’ opposed eventually declined, it gave way to Postmodernism and Constructivism, philosophies that were as opposed to the general systems worldview’s moderate realisms as Positivism and Behaviourism were.  Moreover, in the philosophy of science, impressive doubts were raised about the possibility of unified knowledge and about there being ‘best’ pictures of the world to be asymptotically revealed by science.  

All this started changing in the closing years of the 20th century.  The ‘science wars’ and other developments resulted in a significant moderation of both the reductionistic perspective of the physical sciences and the relativistic perspective of the social sciences.  In philosophy, new programmes of research in the philosophy of science developed important ideas surrounding “theoretical virtues” which once again affirmed that scientific progress can be objectively assessed.  Metaphysics rose again as a credible academic interest, and there has been a great upwelling of interest in both the nature of things (in philosophical terms, an investigation into the essences of things, on the conviction that concrete things have objective properties after all), and also in the nature of “causal mechanisms”, that is, processes that connect events to produce effects rather than just have correlations with phenomena.  These developments constitute a major revival of scientific philosophical interest in the phenomena and questions that inspired the founding of Systems Philosophy more than 40 years ago.  Contemporary philosophers working in the area of scientific realism with a sensitivity for systemic processes are often referred to as "the New Essentialists" or "the New Mechanists"  (but note that the term "mechanism" in this sense refers to causal processes that mediate, enable, limit or condition phenomena rather than to the machine-like 'linear production' models of how simple outcomes arise from singular causes).  Key figures in this area include Stuart Glennan, David Oderberg, Brian Ellis, Carl Craver, Lindsey Darden, Peter Machamer, Adele Abrahamsen, Bill Bechtel, Jim Bogan, Paul Thagard, Robert Richardson, and Bill Wimsatt.  Along with the revival of scientific metaphysics as a serious academic interest also came a revival of interest in worldviews, inspired by the efforts of philosophers such as Leo Apostel, David Naugle, James Sire, William Wallace, and Paul Hiebert.  Systems Philosophy is now distributed amongst many different academic groupings, but it is growing in importance and community attention.  It is often only loosely connected to the efforts of systems scientists involved in the development of General Systems Theory, but this only reflects the nascent state of General Systems Transdiscipline, and not a lack of academic philosophical interest in the nature of systems or the systems worldview.


 A selection of references to contemporary publications relevant to Systems Philosophy can be found in our recommended reading list

Stuart Glennan, David Oderberg, Brian Ellis, Carl Craver, Lindley Darden
Peter Machamer, Adele Abrahamsen, Bill Bechtel, Paul Thagard, Bill Wimsatt

​Recommended Reading

General Background

The founding text of Systems Philosophy is Laszlo (1972).  It is useful to read it in conjunction with the introduction to the revised second edition of the founding text of General Systems Theory (von Bertalanffy, 1976) .  For an accessible overview of systems thinking and systems practice see Skyttner (2006).  For a four-volume set of classic papers in “Systems Thinking” see Midgley (2003).  For an overview of the historical development of the systems perspective see Capra & Luisi (2014).  For an overview of the state-of-the-art in the application and potential of the systems perspective  see Mobus & Kalton (2015). 


  • Laszlo, E. (1972). Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought. New York  N.Y.: Gordon & Breach.
  • Von Bertalanffy, L. (1976). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. (Revised Edition). New York: Braziller.
  • Skyttner, L. (2006). General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice (2nd ed.). Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Co.
  • Midgley, G. (Ed.). (2003). Systems Thinking (4 Vols). London: SAGE.
  • Capra, P. F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Mobus, G.E., & Kalton, M.C. (2015) Principles of Systems Science.  New York: Springer.

History of General Systemology

  • Drack, M. (2009). Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s early system approach. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 26(5), 563–572.
  • Drack, M., & Pouvreau, D. (2015). On the history of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s ‘General Systemology’, and on its relationship to cybernetics – part III: convergences and divergences. International Journal of General Systems, 0(0), 1–49. http://doi.org/10.1080/03081079.2014.1000642
  • Drack, M., & Schwarz, G. (2010). Recent Developments in General System Theory. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 27(6), 601–610.
  • Pouvreau, D. (2013). The project of ‘general systemology’ instigated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy: Genealogy, genesis, reception and advancement. Kybernetes, 42(6), 851–868.
  • Pouvreau, D. (2014). On the history of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s ‘general systemology’, and on its relationship to cybernetics - Part II: Contexts and developments of the systemological hermeneutics instigated by von Bertalanffy. International Journal of General Systems, 43(2), 172–245.
  • Pouvreau, D., & Drack, M. (2007). On the history of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s ‘General Systemology’, and on its relationship to cybernetics, Part 1. International Journal of General Systems, 36(3), 281–337.

Systems terms and concepts

  • Bunge, M. (1977). Ontology I: The furniture of the world. Reidel.
  • Bunge, M. (1979). Ontology II: A World of Systems. Dordrecht: Reidel.
  • Bunge, M. (2003). The Philosophical Dictionary (Enlarged edition). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Francois, C. (Ed.). (2004). International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics. Munich: Saur Verlag.

Philosophical aspects of systems thinking

  • Bryant, J. (1991). Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy: An Application of the Cybernetics of W. Ross Ashby to Personal and Social Philosophy, the Philosophy of Mind, and the Problems of Artifical Intelligence. Lanham MD: University Press of America.
  • Bunge, M. (2001). Scientific Realism: Selected Essays of Mario Bunge. (M. Mahner, Ed.). Prometheus Books.
  • Bunge, M. (2003). Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Bunge, M. (2004). How Does It Work? The Search for Explanatory Mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 34(2), 182–210.
  • Bunge, M. (2010). Matter and Mind: A Philosophical Inquiry. New York, NY: Springer.
  • Bunge, M. (2012). Evaluating Philosophies. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Caws, P. (1965). The philosophy of science: A systematic account. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.
  • Corradini, A., & O’Connor, T. (2013). Emergence in Science and Philosophy. New York  NY: Routledge.
  • Craver, C., & Darden, L. (2013). In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries Across The Life Sciences. Chicago  IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Dilworth, C. (1996). The Metaphysics of Science: An Account of Modern Science in Terms of Principles, Laws and Theories. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Ellis, B. (2002). The Philosophy of Nature: a Guide to the New Essentialism. Chesham: Acumen
  • Gillett, C. (2007). The metaphysics of mechanisms and the challenge of the new reductionism. In M. Schouten & H. L. de Jong (Eds.), The Matter of the Mind (p. 76). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Glennan, S. (2002). Rethinking mechanistic explanation. Philosophy of Science, 69(S3), S342–S353.
  • Glennan, S. (2010). Mechanisms. In H. S. Beebee, C. Hitchcock, & P. Menzies (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Causation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hammond, D. (2005). Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Systems Thinking. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 3(2), 20–27.
  • Hooker, C. (Ed.). (2011). Philosophy of Complex Systems. Oxford: North Holland (Elsevier).
  • Illari, P. M., Russo, F., & Williamson, J. (2011). Causality in the Sciences. Oxford: OUP.
  • Machamer, P., Darden, L., & Craver, C. F. (2000). Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science, 1–25.
  • Mitcham, C. (1998). The Importance of Philosophy to Engineering. Teorema, 17(3), 27–47.
  • Midgley, G. (2001). Rethinking the unity of science. International Journal of General Systems, 30(3), 379–409.
  • Mingers, J. (2011). The Contribution of Systemic Thought to Critical Realism. Journal of Critical Realism, 10(3), 303–330.
  • Mingers, J. (2014). Systems Thinking, Critical Realism and Philosophy: A Confluence of Ideas. New York: Routledge.
  • Ormerod, R. J. (2014). Critical Rationalism for Practice and its Relationship to Critical Systems Thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2326
  • Sider, T. (2011). Writing the Book of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Von Bertalanffy, L. (1955). An essay on the relativity of categories. Philosophy of Science, 22(4), 243–263.
  • Von Bertalanffy, L. (1960). The Psychopathology of Scientism. In H. Schoeck & J. W. Wiggins (Eds.), Scientism and Values (pp. 202–218). Princeton  N.J.: Van Nostrand.
  • Von Bertalanffy, L. (1967). Robots, Men and Minds. New York: Braziller.

Worldviews

  • Aerts, D., Apostel, L., De Moor, B., Hellemans, S., Maex, E., Van Belle, H., & Van der Veken, J. (1994). Worldviews: from fragmentation to integration. Brussels: VUB Press.
  • Aerts, D., Apostel, L., De Moor, B., Hellemans, S., Maex, E., Van Belle, H., & Van der Veken, J. (1995). Perspectives on the World: An Interdisciplinary Reflection. Brussels: VUB Press.
  • Aerts, D., D’Hooghe, B., Pinxten, R., & Wallerstein, I. (Eds.). (2011). Worldviews, Science And Us: Interdisciplinary Perspectives On Worlds, Cultures And Society - Proceedings Of The Workshop On "Worlds, Cultures And Society. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company.
  • Hiebert, P. G. (2008). Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
  • Naugle, D. (2002). Worldview: The History of a Concept. Cambridge  UK: Eerdmans.
  • Rousseau, D. (2014a). Reconciling Spirituality with the Naturalistic Sciences: a Systems-Philosophical Perspective. Journal for the Study of Spirituality, 4(2), 174–189.
  • Rousseau, D. (2014b). Systems Philosophy and the Unity of Knowledge. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31(2), 146–159.
  • Sire, J. W. (2004). Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
  • Wallace, W. A. (1996). The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and the Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis. The Catholic University of America Press.

​Other organisations promoting Systems Philosophy