His very self is a social product, or itself a society, which becomes self-conscious only as it becomes aware of other selves.

Robots, Men, and Minds (1967)

Portrait of Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Biologist and Systems Theorist
September 19, 1901 – June 12, 1972

Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy was an Austrian biologist known as one of the founders of general systems theory (GST), the “conceptual part” of which was first introduced by Alexander Bogdanov. This is an interdisciplinary practice that describes systems with interacting components, applicable to biology, cybernetics and other fields. Bertalanffy proposed that the classical laws of thermodynamics applied to closed systems, but not necessarily to “open systems” such as living things. His mathematical model of an organism’s growth over time, published in 1934, is still in use today.


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Cover image for General System Theory

General System Theory

In his seminal work, biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy outlines a theory of systems that breaks down disciplinary boundaries and argues that there are general principles and laws applicable to systems of all kinds. He contends that phenomena should be viewed not in isolation but as components of systems interacting with their environments. Bertalanffy proposes that there are commonalities across biological, physical, and social systems that can be explored through systems thinking. He suggests the need for an overarching systems science to uncover these universal system principles. The book develops key concepts like open and closed systems, steady states, growth, feedback, homeostasis, differentiation, hierarchy, and emergence. General System Theory was groundbreaking in its interdisciplinary approach and helped foster the growth of systems theory across academia and society.

Cover image for Robots, Men, and Minds: Psychology in the Modern World

Robots, Men, and Minds

Psychology in the Modern World

Based on lectures delivered as The Inaugural Lectures in The Heinz Werner Lecture Series at Clark University (Worcester, Mass.) in January 1966, the book introduces new conceptions of humans and their world. After discussing the advantages and drawbacks of humanity’s propensity for the symbolic construction of reality, it focuses on the systems approach to an understanding of the species. The author warns against the common error of identifying cybernetics with general systems theory. No matter how complex the cybernetic system, it "can always be resolved into feedback circuits" and thought of in terms of "linear causality." The regulative behavior of general systems is determined by goal-directed, dynamic interaction between many forces and variables in an open system. Bertalanffy points out that "no comprehensive theory of systems exists today." As a model, however, the approach has many advantages, such as obviating the need for the "ghost in the machine" and suggesting some solutions to the mind-body problem.

Mentioned in 13 documents

Alan Watts

Beyond Theology

Alan Watts examines the theme that our normal sense of the person as a lonely island of consciousness is a dramatic illusion based on theological imagery. In a global context, the meaning of this imagery inevitably changes, yet without losing its unique values.

Alan Watts

Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown

Over the course of nineteen essays, Alan Watts ruminates on the philosophy of nature, ecology, aesthetics, religion, and metaphysics. Assembled in the form of a mountain journal, written during a retreat in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais in California, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown is Watts’ meditation on the art of feeling out and following the watercourse way of nature, known in Chinese as the Tao. Embracing a form of contemplative meditation that allows us to stop analyzing our experiences and start living into them, the book explores themes such as the natural world, established religion, race relations, karma and reincarnation, astrology and tantric yoga, the nature of ecstasy, and much more.

Russell Ackoff

From Mechanistic to Systemic Thinking

Ackoff states that humanity is in the early stage of a transition from the Machine Age to the Systems Age. The Machine Age was characterized by belief in complete understandability of the universe, analysis as a method of inquiry, and cause and effect as a sufficient relationship to explain all. The dilemma that disrupted such beliefs was systems thinking. The Machine Age began to die when humanity gave up the principle of understandability. Gradually, it’s become accepted that there can be no complete understanding of the universe because nothing can be understood independently of its environment—all is environmentally relative. While analysis produces knowledge, it is synthesis that produces understanding. Furthermore, the Systems Age recognizes that cause and effect is just one way of looking at reality among an infinite number.

Terence McKenna and Riane Eisler

Man and Woman at the End of History

This seminar examined how one of the most fundamental human relationships, that between male and female, shapes our relationship to technology and ultimately to culture and nature. It looked at the forms of relationship between women and men in the shift from a society based on domination to one based on partnership. This is an exploration of how feminism, technology and the telling of a new story will contribute to rescuing us from history.

Francis Heylighen and Shima Beigi

Mind Outside Brain

We approach the problem of the extended mind from a radically non-dualist perspective. The separation between mind and matter is an artefact of the outdated mechanistic worldview, which leaves no room for mental phenomena such as agency, intentionality, or feeling. We propose to replace it by an action ontology, which conceives mind and matter as aspects of the same network of processes. By adopting the intentional stance, we interpret the catalysts of elementary reactions as agents exhibiting desires, intentions, and sensations. Autopoietic networks of reactions constitute more complex super-agents, which moreover exhibit memory, deliberation and sense-making. In the specific case of social networks, individual agents coordinate their actions via the propagation of challenges. The distributed cognition that emerges from this interaction cannot be situated in any individual brain. This non-dualist, holistic view extends and operationalises process metaphysics and Eastern philosophies. It is supported by both mindfulness experiences and mathematical models of action, self-organisation, and cognition.

Alan Watts

Parallel Thinking

What a tickling trickster the universe is! As Watts wanders down philosophical byways, tales emerge of those healed by harmonizing body and world. Yet we teach children to twist themselves to fit odd ideals. Tension tunnels through society, our “civilizing” ways quite uncouth! Might we reconsider, relax our willful ways? Observantly ambling amidst being's little blooms, we rediscover unity in the unruly diversity—finding wisdom whispering within, inviting us to dance delightfully with life’s flowing forms.

Terence McKenna

Psychedelics in the Age of Intelligent Machines

Humanity is metamorphosing through the synergy of psychedelics and machines, transcending biological constraints to become a galactic, immortal intelligencia. Print defined our ego boundaries, but electronic media and plant allies are dissolving those illusions. Merging with superintelligent AIs, we’ll birth an alchemical singularity—a spiritual, universe-taming mind born from techno-shamanic ecstasy. History crumbles as novelty’s virus engulfs the old operating systems, unleashing our wildest potentials. The felt presence of boundless experience awaits!

Francis Heylighen

The Global Superorganism

The organismic view of society is updated by incorporating concepts from cybernetics, evolutionary theory, and complex adaptive systems. Global society can be seen as an autopoietic network of self-producing components, and therefore as a living system or “superorganism”.

Terence McKenna

The Psychedelic Society

One of Terence's early presentations at Esalen—shocking, astounding, and amusing his audience with outlandish ideas.

Erich Jantsch

The Self-Organizing Universe

The evolution of the universe—ranging from cosmic and biological to sociocultural evolution—is viewed in terms of the unifying paradigm of self-organization. The contours of this paradigm emerge from the synthesis of a number of important concepts, and provide a scientific foundation to a new world-view which emphasizes process over structure, nonequilibrium over equilibrium, evolution over permanency, and individual creativity over collective stabilization. The book, with its emphasis on the interaction of microstructures with the entire biosphere, ecosystems etc., and on how micro- and macrocosmos mutually create the conditions for their further evolution, provides a comprehensive framework for a deeper understanding of human creativity in a time of transition.

Lancelot Law Whyte

The Universe of Experience

Modern experience forces philosophy and social thought to confront the basic problems of value. Is this life worth caring about? How can we find a way between the deceit of fanatical belief and despair? In the view of Lancelot Law Whyte, the essential challenge to mankind today is an underlying nihilism promoting violence and frustrating sane policies on major social issues. Avoiding the seductive trap of utopianism, Whyte approaches this challenge by defining the terms of a potentially worldwide consensus of heart, mind, and will.

Terence McKenna

Toward the End of History

“We are transcending ourselves faster than we realize:” Terence McKenna delves into his theory of novelty, psychedelics as catalysts for cognitive evolution, and the internet’s potential to disrupt power structures and empower marginalized communities. He paints a tantalizing picture of humanity’s inevitable leap into a transcendent future.

Terence McKenna

Understanding the Chaos at History's End

Delivered at the end of McKenna’s first month as scholar-in-residence at Esalen, when he began a new phase in his public speaking career. This weekend workshop provides an early glimpse at Terence’s description of the looming “transcendental object at the end of time,” and the psychedelic insights which led him to become an oracle.