Systems thinking is old hat

William Blake, Newton, 1795

“Systems thinking is a radically new way of seeing the world.”
No, it isn’t.

An official history

There is an official history of systems thinking that dates the birth of this intellectual movement to the years immediately following World War II. The so-called Macy Conferences — held once or twice a year between 1946 and 1953 by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation — are conveniently highlighted as a landmark event [1]. They provided an opportunity for prominent figures from a wide range of scientific disciplines to reflect on fundamental questions about the workings of the human mind [2]. System ideas such as reflexivity, feedback and identity that were presented and discussed at these meetings would prove to be foundational to the emerging fields of computer science, artificial intelligence and mathematical control theory (cybernetics).

Another seminal line of systems thinking derives from the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory. This represented a metabolic (rather than a language and information-based) conception of systems and their interactions with their environments. The book was published only in 1968, but von Bertalanffy’s key ideas predate the publication by a few decades. This lends further credence to that story of a postwar breakthrough.

This version of the history of systems thinking is visualised by a chronology that continues to be widely circulated.

A conventional chronology of systems science, starting in the mid-1940s (source of graphic here)

The potential problem with this presentation of the facts is that it suggests that systems thinking is a radically ‘new way of seeing the world’ that has appeared out of nowhere. This, of course, is an untenable fiction. Let’s accept the evidence that in the West systems ideas found a new and rigorous expression in the post-war period. But we must remember that the aptitude for systemic thinking — in terms of relationships, part-whole interactions and dynamic evolution — is probably several millennia old and manifests itself across cultures. A genealogical tree developed by the International Institute for General Systems Studies underlines that point (even if it still adheres to a largely Western frame of mind).

An expansive genealogy of systems thinking (chronology visualised by the International Institute of General Systems Studies, currently accessible here).

In the bottom right-hand corner of this sprawling timeline we find Babylonian astronomers and at the top all kinds of ground-breaking developments in a wide range of contemporary scientific fields.

Arguably this kind of spaghetti diagram is merely suggestive in its scope and complexity. It doesn’t bring us much beyond the general assertion that systems ideas in some form have been around for a long while.

The romantics were systems thinkers

The notion of a deep history of systems thinking becomes more tangible when we zoom in on a particular interval in our Western intellectual history and scrutinise it for systemic ideas. I’m pretty confident the choice doesn’t matter too much. A systemic lineage runs all the way through classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. Here I will focus on Romanticism, the intellectual and artistic movement that stretched approximately from 1800 to 1850 and followed immediately upon the Age of Enlightenment. Key figures in this period are thinkers and writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schelling, William Blake, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe.

But why focus on a notoriously difficult to define period as romanticism? My choice is facilitated by a perceptive essay written by the Dutch scholar of Hermetic Philosophy Wouter Hanegraaff [3]. Starting point for his paper is the question to what extent romanticism can be considered as an exponent of a Western esoteric tradition. In an attempt to provide an answer he critically and comparatively reviews the idea complexes underlying romanticism, as foregrounded by a number of scholars, and compares their correlation with the constitutive elements of esotericism as presented by Antoine Faivre [4].

Hanegraaff comes to the conclusion that three basic categories of ideas are distinctive for romanticism:

  • organicism,
  • imagination, and
  • temporalism.

I’ll briefly review them one by one and hint at the linkages with contemporary systems thinking.

  • 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.

This miniature sketch of the resonances between the romantic core ideas and notions espoused by contemporary systems thinking is only suggestive and warrants a much more nuanced discussion. But it may be sufficient to arouse in the reader a certain sense of wonder and a hunch that systems thinking may not be the radical innovation that contemporary spokespeople claim it to be.

The esoteric connection

There is another element here — the esoteric dimension highlighted by Hanegraaff — that raises interesting questions. Esotericism generally has a rather foul smell and is often considered to be the domain of crackpots. However, scholars such as Hanegraaff and Faivre have shown that it is a very resilient intellectual tradition that stretches from late antiquity to our times. Arguably it has always been a fringe phenomenon that sat uneasily with the dominant religious and scientistic paradigms that dominated our Western cultural history. The correspondence between esotericism and romanticism that Hanegraaff purports to see underlines the counter-cultural character of the romantic movement, reacting as it did to Enlightenment values and ideas. Extrapolating this reasoning would lead us to the hypothesis that a) contemporary systems thinking has esoteric roots and b) that it constitutes a reaction to the dogma and inflexibility of both religion and science. I believe that there are good grounds to take this double hypothesis seriously. Systems science has the ambition to embrace the changeability, heterogeneity, indeterminacy and uncontrollability of life. As such it is a challenge to ways of thinking and organising society based on hierarchy, predictability and control. And by definition it is subversive. I will be happy to write on systems thinking’s esoteric credentials in another post.


[1] The conferences became eventually known as the Macy Cybernetics Conferences, but the term ‘cybernetics’ did not appear until the sixth conference in 1949. The first five conferences were known under a different name.

[2] The list of attendees can be inspected on this page. Sadly this was an almost exclusively male affair. Margaret Mead was the only female member of the Core Group, in tandem with her spouse Gregory Bateson. Anthropologist Dorothy Lee seems to have been the only woman amongst the guest attendees.

[3] Wouter J. Hanegraaff (1998) ‘Romanticism and the Esoteric Connection’, in: Roelof van den Broek and Wouter Hanegraaff (Eds.) Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, 237–268, State University of New York Press.

[4] Hanegraaff’s review includes the philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy, the literary scholars René Wellek, Meyer Abrams, Morse Peckham, and Ernest Tuveson.

[5] See for instance my Medium post on Hanne De Jaegher’s work.



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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?