Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Infobox_Systems scientist H
region = General Systems Theory
era = 20th century
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption =

name = Ludwig von Bertalanffy
birth = September 19, 1901, Vienna, Austria
death = June 12, 1972, New York, USA
school_tradition = University of Vienna
main_interests = Biology and systems theory
influences = Rudolf Carnap, Gustav Theodor Fechner, Nicolai Hartmann, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick
influenced = Russell L. Ackoff, Kenneth E. Boulding, Peter Checkland, C. West Churchman, Jay Wright Forrester, Ervin László, James Grier Miller, Anatol Rapoport
notable_ideas = General System Theory |

Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (September 19, 1901, Vienna, AustriaJune 12, 1972, New York, USA) was an Austrian-born biologist known as one of the founders of general systems theory. Von Bertalanffy grew up in Austria and worked from Vienna and London to Canada and over the USA.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born in the little village Atzgerdorf near Vienna in 1901. He came from a distinguished family which included many scholars and court officials Weckowicz p.2] . The roots of the Bertalannffy family goes back to 16th century nobility of Hungary. His paternal grandfather "Charles Joseph von Bertalanffy" (1833-1912) settled in Austria, and was a state theatre director in Klagenfurt, Graz, and Vienna, an important position in imperial Austria. His eldest son "Gustav von Bertalanffy" (1861-1919), was a prominent railway administrator, and father of Ludwig. His grandfather on his mother's side was imperial counsellor "Joseph Vogel", a wealthy Vienna publisher. Ludwig's mother "Charlotte Vogel" was seventeen when she married the thirty-four old Gustuv. They divorced when Ludwig was ten, and both remarried outside the Catholic Church in civil ceremonies [Davidson p.49] .

Von Bertalanffy grew up as an only child. Educated by private tutors until he was ten, he went to the gymnasium/grammar school. Already trained in self study, he liked to study on his own. A neighbour was a famous biologist who was an example for him. In 1918 he started his studies with history of art and philosophy, firstly at the University of Innsbruck and then at the University of Vienna. He had to make a choice between studying "philosophy of science" and "biology", and chose the latter because, according to him, one could always become a philosopher later, but not a biologist. In 1926 he finished his PhD thesis about physicist and philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner.

Von Bertalanffy met his future wife Maria in April 1924 in the Austrian Alps. They met the first day and were almost never apart for the next forty-eight years. [Davidson p.51] She wanted to finish studying but never did, instead she would devote her life to Bertalanffy's career. Later in Canada would become his employee for some years and after his death she compiled two of Bertalanffy's last works. They had one child, who would go on to step into Bertalanffy's footsteps in the field of cancer research.

Von Bertalanffy was a professor at the University of Vienna from 1934–48, University of London (1948–49), Université de Montréal (1949), University of Ottawa (1950–54), University of Southern California (1955–58), the Menninger Foundation (1958–60), University of Alberta (1961–68), and State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) (1969-72). In 1972, he died from a sudden heart attack.


Bertalanffy occupies an important position in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. His contributions went beyond biology, and extended to cybernetics, education, history, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology and sociology. Some of his admirers even believe that von Bertalanffy's general systems theory could provide a conceptual framework for all these disciplines. He is seen as founder of the interdisciplinary school of thoughts known as general systems theory. Yet he spent his life in semi-obscurity, and he survives mostly in footnotes. Ludwig von Bertananffy may well be the least known intellectual titan of the twentieth century. [ Davidson, p.9.]

The individual growth model

The individual growth model published by von Bertalanffy in 1934 is widely used in biological models and exists in a number of permutations.

In its simplest version the so-called von Bertalanffy growth equation is expressed as a differential equation of length ("L") over time ("t"):

L'(t) = r_B left( L_infty - L(t) ight)

when r_B is the von Bertalanffy growth rate and L_infty the ultimate length of the individual.This model was proposed earlier by Pütter in 1920 ("Arch. Gesamte Physiol. Mench. Tiere", 180: 298-340).

The Dynamic Energy Budget theory provides a mechanistic explanation of this model in the case of isomorphs that experience a constant food availability. The inverse of the von Bertalanffy growth rate appears to depend linearly on the ultimate length, when different food levels are compared.The intercept relates to the maintenance costs, the slope to the rate at which reserve is mobilized for use by metabolism.The ultimate length equals the maximum length at high food availabilities. [Bertalanffy, L. von, (1934). "Untersuchungen über die Gesetzlichkeit des Wachstums". I. Allgemeine Grundlagen der Theorie; mathematische und physiologische Gesetzlichkeiten des Wachstums bei Wassertieren. Arch. Entwicklungsmech., 131:613-652.]

Bertalanffy Module

To honor Bertalanffy, ecological systems engineer and scientist Howard T. Odum named the storage symbol of his General Systems Language as the Bertalanffy module (see image right). [Nicholas D. Rizzo William Gray (Editor), Nicholas D. Rizzo (Editor), (1973) "Unity Through Diversity. A Festschrift for Ludwig von Bertalanffy". Gordon & Breach Science Pub ]

General System Theory (GST)

The biologist is widely recognized for his contributions to science as a systems theorist; specifically, for the development of a theory known as General System Theory (GST). The theory attempted to provide alternatives to conventional models of organization. GST defined new foundations and developments as a generalized theory of systems with applications to numerous areas of study, emphasizing holism over reductionism, organism over mechanism.

Open systems

Bertalanffy's contribution to systems theory is best known for his theory of open systems. The system theorist argued that traditional closed system models based on classical science and the second law of thermodynamics were untenable. Bertalanffy maintained that “the conventional formulation of physics are, in principle, inapplicable to the living organism being open system having steady state. We may well suspect that many characteristics of living systems which are paradoxical in view of the laws of physics are a consequence of this fact.” [Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). "General System Theory". New York: George Braziller, pp. 39-40 ] However, while closed physical systems were questioned, questions equally remained over whether or not open physical systems could justifiably lead to a definitive science for the application of an open systems view to a general theory of systems.

In Bertalanffy’s model, the theorist defined general principles of open systems and the limitations of conventional models. He ascribed applications to biology, information theory and cybernetics. Concerning biology, examples from the open systems view suggested they “may suffice to indicate briefly the large fields of application” that could be the “outlines of a wider generalization;” [Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). "General System Theory". New York: George Braziller, pp. 139-1540 ] from which, a hypothesis for cybernetics. Although potential applications exist in other areas, the theorist developed only the implications for biology and cybernetics. Bertalanffy also noted unsolved problems, which included continued questions over thermodynamics, thus the unsubstantiated claim that there are physical laws to support generalizations (particularly for information theory), and the need for further research into the problems and potential with the applications of the open system view from physics.

Systems in the social sciences

In the social sciences, Bertalanffy did believe that general systems concepts were applicable, e.g. theories that had been introduced into the field of sociology from a modern systems approach that included “the concept of general system, of feedback, information, communication, etc.” [Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). "General System Theory". New York: George Braziller, pp. 196 ] The theorist critiqued classical “atomistic” conceptions of social systems and ideation “such as ‘social physics’ as was often attempted in a reductionist spirit.” [Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). "General System Theory". New York: George Braziller, pp. 194-197] Bertalanffy also recognized difficulties with the application of a new general theory to social science due to the complexity of the intersections between natural sciences and human social systems. However, the theory still encouraged for new developments from sociology, to anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology among other areas. Today, Bertalanffy's GST remains a bridge for interdisciplinary study of systems in the social sciences.

See also

* Population dynamics
* Systems theory


By Bertalanffy

* 1928, "Kritische Theorie der Formbildung", Borntraeger. In English: "Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology", Oxford University Press, New York: Harper, 1933
* 1928, "Nikolaus von Kues", G. Müller, München 1928.
* 1930, "Lebenswissenschaft und Bildung", Stenger, Erfurt 1930
* 1937, "Das Gefüge des Lebens", Leipzig: Teubner.
* 1940, "Vom Molekül zur Organismenwelt", Potsdam: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion.
* 1949, "Das biologische Weltbild", Bern: Europäische Rundschau. In English: "Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Thought", New York: Harper, 1952.
* 1953, "Biophysik des Fliessgleichgewichts", Braunschweig: Vieweg. 2nd rev. ed. by W. Beier and R. Laue, East Berlin: Akademischer Verlag, 1977
* 1953, "Die Evolution der Organismen", in "Schöpfungsglaube und Evolutionstheorie", Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, pp 53-66
* 1955, "An Essay on the Relativity of Categories." "Philosophy of Science", Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 243–263.
* 1959, "Stammesgeschichte, Umwelt und Menschenbild", Schriften zur wissenschaftlichen Weltorientierung Vol 5. Berlin: Lüttke
* 1962, "Modern Theories of Development", New York: Harper
* 1967, "Robots, Men and Minds: Psychology in the Modern World", New York: George Braziller, 1969 hardcover: ISBN 0-8076-0428-3, paperback: ISBN 0-8076-0530-1
* 1968, "General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications", New York: George Braziller, revised edition 1976: ISBN 0-8076-0453-4
* 1968, "The Organismic Psychology and Systems Theory", Heinz Werner lectures, Worcester: Clark University Press.
* 1975, "Perspectives on General Systems Theory. Scientific-Philosophical Studies", E. Taschdjian (eds.), New York: George Braziller, ISBN 0-8076-0797-5
* 1981, "A Systems View of Man: Collected Essays", editor Paul A. LaViolette, Boulder: Westview Press, ISBN 0-86531-094-7

The first articles from Bertalanffy on General Systems Theory:
* 1945, "Zu einer allgemeinen Systemlehre," Blätter für deutsche Philosophie, 3/4. (Extract in: Biologia Generalis, 19 (1949), 139-164.
* 1950, "An Outline of General System Theory", British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, p.139-164
* 1951, "General system theory - A new approach to unity of science" (Symposium), Human Biology, Dec 1951, Vol. 23, p. 303-361.

About Bertalanffy

* Sabine Brauckmann, [ "Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901--1972)"] , ISSS Luminaries of the Systemics Movement, January 1999.
* Peter Corning, [ "Fulfilling von Bertalanffy's Vision": The Synergism Hypothesis as a General Theory of Biological and Social Systems] , ISCS 2001.
* Mark Davidson, "Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig Von Bertalanffy", Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1983.
* Debora Hammond, [ "Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Systems Thinking"] , tripleC 3(2): pag. 20-27, 2005.
* Erwin Lazlo (editor), "The Relevance of General Systems Theory: Papers Presented to Ludwig Von Bertalanffy on His Seventieth Birthday", New York: George Braziller, 1972.
* David Pouvreau, [ "Une biographie non officielle de Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972)"] , Vienna 2006.
* David Pouvreau & Manfred Drack, "On the history of Ludwig von Bertalanffy's "General Systemology", and on its relationship to cybernetics", in: "International Journal of General Systems", Volume 36, Issue 3 June 2007 , pages 281 - 337.
* Thaddus E. Weckowicz, [ Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972): A Pioneer of General Systems Theory] , Center for Systems Research Working Paper No. 89-2. Edmonton AB: University of Alberta, February 1989.


External links

* [ International Society for the Systems Sciences'] biography of Ludwig von Bertalanffy
* [ Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science] BCSSS in Vienna.

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