Systems thinking is old hat

Don’t be mistaken. It was there before 1945.

William Blake, Newton, 1795

An official history

A conventional chronology of systems science, starting in the mid-1940s (source of graphic here)
An expansive genealogy of systems thinking (chronology visualised by the International Institute of General Systems Studies, currently accessible here).

The romantics were systems thinkers

  • organicism,
  • imagination, and
  • temporalism.
  • Organicism reflects belief that reality in all its dimensions should be understood not as a mechanism but as a organism. It is centrally important to romanticism: “The romantics emphasized organismic values in a conscious reaction to the mechanistic models of rationalistic science. While a mechanism is an aggregate of separate parts, an organism is a whole that cannot be broken up into its elements without killing it; and while a mechanism is static and can only be moved by outside forces, an organism is dynamic and has an inner principle of motion. Briefly: organisms are living, mechanisms are dead.” Clearly, it is not difficult to see the intellectual kinship between these core romantic ideas and the notions underlying the concerns of postwar cyberneticians and organismic biologists.
  • The idea around imagination comes down to this: romantics believed in a fundamental connection between human beings and the world around them. By perceiving (imagining) the world, we constitute it. This idea was key in post-Kantian idealist philosophy and can be seen as a reaction to a rationalist and empiricist philosophy that held that only tangible and measurable qualities are real. In contemporary systems theory this idea has made a significant comeback in the form of influential theories of social constructionism and enactive cognition [5].
  • Finally, the romantic theme of temporalism has a bearing on our conception of history and dynamic change: “The truly innovative element was the emphasis of change over continuity, on the diversity of historical periods and events over the idea that history shows us merely variations on the same universal themes; and, finally, on the fact that small contingencies may have the effect of driving events in completely new directions that could not have been foreseen or predicted theoretically.” I am sure that systems modelers, complexity scientists and chaos theoreticians would recognise themselves in these notions of change.

The esoteric connection



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck


Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?