The term “system” is perhaps among the most used in our language. Almost without realising, it always seems to crop up, whether we’re talking about elections, football pools, stars, units of measure, politics, irrigation, the kids’ algebra homework, security, transportation, medicines or mountain chains. Simple or complex, nerves or finances, a “system” (from the Greek systema, to combine) is always on our lips.
In 1937, and more “systematically” in 1945, an Austrian biologist named Ludwig von Bertalanffy (b. Vienna, 1901–d. Buffalo, New York, 1972) was the first to announce General Systems Theory, a method for reading into and interpreting the world as it exists.
“Every organism is a dynamic order of processes that reciprocally act on each other.” Jordi Marjanedas, from Catalonia, class of 1940, has scrupulously dedicated himself this theory in his recent volume entitled, Today’s Challenges in the Light of General Systems Theory, published by Città Nuova. The text stretches from biology to the life of the universe, from ecology to anthropology, from history to ethics, to social sciences and religion, searching every field of knowledge for elements of integration and cohesion, according to a unified vision of humanity and creation.
Why is systems theory so important? The development of modern science brought about a proliferation of knowledge that is partial, fragmented and hyper-specialized. To the point that, ironically, to the writer G. K. Chesterton it seemed that “eventually they end up knowing everything about nothing.”
In medicine, for example, a human being is not just liver or limbs, but a harmonious and unified togetherness of spirit – soul and body. In philosophy, there have been numerous theories and closed systems that claimed to explain all reality with a single meaning (totalitarianism is one example). Aristotle himself admitted that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
At the end of the 1900s, systems theory was developed at the university level as a science that aims at finding a united sense of existence – albeit in its multiple dimensions – in the various disciplines. Thus, for example, scientific developments cannot be ends in themselves, but in function of a greater good. The same can be said for the relationship between cultures, building dialogue and mutual respect.
This is why, Marjanedas affirms, the importance of constructive relationships with others needs to be emphasized, in function of a greater good. “We need to open up and promote a sincere dialogue between people and groups of different cultures.”
What is new about the theory, therefore, is its potential applications in all fields.
“The idea of a system gives us a an tool to integrate and coherently structure our understanding of different disciplines. Education, for example, cannot just refer to scientific values, but ethical and artistic ones as well in order to globally develop one’s personality, taking into account all the components of education and the different roles of students, professors, parents, administrators and communities.”
“Thought, in its highest and most noble sense,” writes Jesús Morán in his introduction to Marjanedas’ book, “is always open and in continual evolution, constantly developing. It takes in reality and, without closing itself within predetermined or fixed frameworks, allows us to move in a continual sense of wonder, despite being in just a corner of the horizon. Reality is something that precedes and supersedes us.”
The vision of reality as a system can be more than just an intellectual exercise, but a proposal to put everything in play, a continual adventure of humility and creativity. This is truly a genuine challenge.