The Origins and Purposes of Several Conceptions of Systems Theory and Cybernetics

28 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2013 Last revised: 6 May 2018

See all articles by Stuart A. Umpleby

Stuart A. Umpleby

George Washington University - School of Business

Eric Dent

Florida Gulf Coast University; Florida Gulf Coast University - Lutgert College of Business

Date Written: October 1, 1997


Beginning in the 1940s, the work of several groups of scientists began to coalesce around a set of ideas which represented a departure from standard scientific thought at the time (this departure from classical science continues today). Foremost on the list of these ideas is the role that feedback plays in the performance of any system. Scientists began to identify and account for the presence of positive (or amplifying) and negative (or compensating) feedback loops. Feedback plays an important role in any system which is not completely reductionist. In other words, if there is any interaction among the parts of a system, then a holistic perspective will increase the understanding and possible prediction of the system effects. Fisher (1935) was, perhaps, the first to offer a comprehensive treatise on this subject.

Other changes in thinking that were taking place at the time included the notions of causality and observation. Nearly all work until that time had assumed linearly causal relationships among phenomena. Researchers began noticing the preponderance of situations in which circularly or mutually causal explanations seemed to be more fruitful. They also had resurrected Aristotle's distinction between efficient cause and final cause. A final change mentioned here is from objective observation, which seemed fairly clear-cut in sciences dealing with inanimate objects, to other forms of observation which included aspects of subjectivity. Mitroff and Blankenship (1973) explore the differences in scientific method when the observer is part of the phenomena being observed. Dent and Umpleby (forthcoming) address these and other underlying assumptions in the various strands of research groups devoted to systems thinking.

This paper presents a history of science pertaining to several different conceptions of systems theory and cybernetics. Although several research groups worked using the ideas above, they did so in relative isolation from one another with different emphases. This paper will discuss the books and people, conferences and institutes, and politics and technology that have influenced the systems theory movement. Several schools of thought within systems science are described. Three viewpoints within the heading of cybernetics are discussed. The schools of thought discussed are general systems theory, the systems approach, operations research or systems analysis, system dynamics, learning organizations, and total quality management. Total quality management is a new addition to the list, but appropriate in many ways. This paper will not address artificial intelligence, complexity theory, family therapy, or other traditions.

Keywords: Origins, Purposes, Several Conceptions, Systems Theory, Cybernetics

Suggested Citation

Umpleby, Stuart and Dent, Eric, The Origins and Purposes of Several Conceptions of Systems Theory and Cybernetics (October 1, 1997). Available at SSRN: or

Stuart Umpleby

George Washington University - School of Business ( email )

Washington, DC 20052
United States


Eric Dent (Contact Author)

Florida Gulf Coast University ( email )

10485 FGCU Blvd S
Ft. Myers, FL 33965-6565
United States

Florida Gulf Coast University - Lutgert College of Business ( email )

10485 FGCU Blvd S
Fort Myers, FL
United States

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