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Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (September 19, 1901, Atzgersdorfmarker near Viennamarker, Austriamarker – June 12, 1972, Buffalo, New Yorkmarker, USAmarker) was an Austrianmarker-born biologist known as one of the founders of general systems theory. Von Bertalanffy grew up in Austria and subsequently worked in Vienna, London, Canada and the USA.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born and grew up in the little village of Atzgersdorf (now Liesingmarker) near Viennamarker. Bertalanffy family had roots in 16th century nobility of Hungarymarker, and included several scholars and court officials. His grandfather Charles Joseph von Bertalanffy (1833-1912) had settled in Austria and had been a state theatre director in Klagenfurtmarker, Grazmarker, and Viennamarker, which were important positions in imperial Austria. His eldest son and Ludwig's father Gustav von Bertalanffy (1861-1919) had been prominent railway administrator. On his mother's side Ludwig's grandfather Joseph Vogel was imperial counsellor and a wealthy Vienna publisher. Ludwig's mother Charlotte Vogel was seventeen when she married the thirty-four year old Gustav. They divorced when Ludwig was ten, and both remarried outside the Catholic Church in civil ceremonies .

Von Bertalanffy grew up as only child educated at home by private tutors until he was ten. When he went to the gymnasium/grammar school he was already well trained in self study, and kept studying on his own. In the famous neighbour biologist Paul Kammerer, he found himself an example. In 1918 he started his studies with history of art and philosophy, firstly at the University of Innsbruckmarker and then at the University of Vienna. He had to make a choice between studying philosophy of science and biology, and chose the latter because, according to him, one could always become a philosopher later, but not a biologist. In 1926 he finished his PhD thesis (translated title: Fechner and the problem of integration of higher order) about physicist and philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner.

Von Bertalanffy met his future wife Maria in April 1924 in the Austrian Alps. They met the first day and were almost never apart for the next forty-eight years. She wanted to finish studying but never did, instead she would devote her life to Bertalanffy's career. Later in Canada would become his employee for some years and after his death she compiled two of Bertalanffy's last works. They had one child, who would go on to step into Bertalanffy's footsteps in the field of cancer research.

Von Bertalanffy was a professor at the University of Viennamarker from 1934–48, University of London (1948–49), Université de Montréalmarker (1949), University of Ottawamarker (1950–54), University of Southern Californiamarker (1955–58), the Menninger Foundation (1958–60), University of Albertamarker (1961–68), and State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) (1969-72). In 1972, he died from a sudden heart attack.


Bertalanffy according to Weckowicz (1989), "occupies an important position in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. His contributions went beyond biology, and extended to cybernetics, education, history, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology and sociology. Some of his admirers even believe that von Bertalanffy's general systems theory could provide a conceptual framework for all these disciplines". He is seen as founder of the interdisciplinary school of thoughts known as general systems theory. Yet he spent his life in semi-obscurity, and he survives mostly in footnotes. Ludwig von Bertalanffy may well be the least known intellectual titan of the twentieth century.

The individual growth model

The individual growth model published by von Bertalanffy in 1934 is widely used in biological models and exists in a number of permutations.

In its simplest version the so-called von Bertalanffy growth equation is expressed as a differential equation of length (L) over time (t):

L'(t) = r_B \left( L_\infty - L(t) \right)

when r_B is the von Bertalanffy growth rate and L_\infty the ultimate length of the individual. This model was proposed earlier by A. Pütter in 1920 (Arch. Gesamte Physiol. Mensch. Tiere, 180: 298-340).

The Dynamic Energy Budget theory provides a mechanistic explanation of this model in the case of isomorphs that experience a constant food availability. The inverse of the von Bertalanffy growth rate appears to depend linearly on the ultimate length, when different food levels are compared. The intercept relates to the maintenance costs, the slope to the rate at which reserve is mobilized for use by metabolism. The ultimate length equals the maximum length at high food availabilities.

Bertalanffy Module

To honor Bertalanffy, ecological systems engineer and scientist Howard T. Odum named the storage symbol of his General Systems Language as the Bertalanffy module (see image right).

General System Theory (GST)

The biologist is widely recognized for his contributions to science as a systems theorist; specifically, for the development of a theory known as General System Theory (GST). The theory attempted to provide alternatives to conventional models of organization. GST defined new foundations and developments as a generalized theory of systems with applications to numerous areas of study, emphasizing holism over reductionism, organism over mechanism.

Open systems

Bertalanffy's contribution to systems theory is best known for his theory of open systems. The system theorist argued that traditional closed system models based on classical science and the second law of thermodynamics were untenable. Bertalanffy maintained that “the conventional formulation of physics are, in principle, inapplicable to the living organism being open system having steady state. We may well suspect that many characteristics of living systems which are paradoxical in view of the laws of physics are a consequence of this fact.” However, while closed physical systems were questioned, questions equally remained over whether or not open physical systems could justifiably lead to a definitive science for the application of an open systems view to a general theory of systems.

In Bertalanffy’s model, the theorist defined general principles of open systems and the limitations of conventional models. He ascribed applications to biology, information theory and cybernetics. Concerning biology, examples from the open systems view suggested they “may suffice to indicate briefly the large fields of application” that could be the “outlines of a wider generalization;” from which, a hypothesis for cybernetics. Although potential applications exist in other areas, the theorist developed only the implications for biology and cybernetics. Bertalanffy also noted unsolved problems, which included continued questions over thermodynamics, thus the unsubstantiated claim that there are physical laws to support generalizations (particularly for information theory), and the need for further research into the problems and potential with the applications of the open system view from physics.

Systems in the social sciences

In the social sciences, Bertalanffy did believe that general systems concepts were applicable, e.g. theories that had been introduced into the field of sociology from a modern systems approach that included “the concept of general system, of feedback, information, communication, etc.” The theorist critiqued classical “atomistic” conceptions of social systems and ideation “such as ‘social physics’ as was often attempted in a reductionist spirit.” Bertalanffy also recognized difficulties with the application of a new general theory to social science due to the complexity of the intersections between natural sciences and human social systems. However, the theory still encouraged for new developments from sociology, to anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology among other areas. Today, Bertalanffy's GST remains a bridge for interdisciplinary study of systems in the social sciences.

See also


By Bertalanffy

  • 1928, Kritische Theorie der Formbildung, Borntraeger. In English: Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, Oxford University Press, New York: Harper, 1933
  • 1928, Nikolaus von Kues, G. Müller, München 1928.
  • 1930, Lebenswissenschaft und Bildung, Stenger, Erfurt 1930
  • 1937, Das Gefüge des Lebens, Leipzig: Teubner.
  • 1940, Vom Molekül zur Organismenwelt, Potsdam: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion.
  • 1949, Das biologische Weltbild, Bern: Europäische Rundschau. In English: Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Thought, New York: Harper, 1952.
  • 1953, Biophysik des Fliessgleichgewichts, Braunschweig: Vieweg. 2nd rev. ed. by W. Beier and R. Laue, East Berlin: Akademischer Verlag, 1977
  • 1953, "Die Evolution der Organismen", in Schöpfungsglaube und Evolutionstheorie, Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, pp 53–66
  • 1955, "An Essay on the Relativity of Categories." Philosophy of Science, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 243–263.
  • 1959, Stammesgeschichte, Umwelt und Menschenbild, Schriften zur wissenschaftlichen Weltorientierung Vol 5. Berlin: Lüttke
  • 1962, Modern Theories of Development, New York: Harper
  • 1967, Robots, Men and Minds: Psychology in the Modern World, New York: George Braziller, 1969 hardcover: ISBN 0-8076-0428-3, paperback: ISBN 0-8076-0530-1
  • 1968, General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, New York: George Braziller, revised edition 1976: ISBN 0-8076-0453-4
  • 1968, The Organismic Psychology and Systems Theory, Heinz Werner lectures, Worcester: Clark University Press.
  • 1975, Perspectives on General Systems Theory. Scientific-Philosophical Studies, E. Taschdjian (eds.), New York: George Braziller, ISBN 0-8076-0797-5
  • 1981, A Systems View of Man: Collected Essays, editor Paul A. LaViolette, Boulder: Westview Press, ISBN 0-86531-094-7

The first articles from Bertalanffy on General Systems Theory:
  • 1945, Zu einer allgemeinen Systemlehre, Blätter für deutsche Philosophie, 3/4. (Extract in: Biologia Generalis, 19 (1949), 139-164.
  • 1950, An Outline of General System Theory, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, p. 139-164
  • 1951, General system theory - A new approach to unity of science (Symposium), Human Biology, Dec 1951, Vol. 23, p. 303-361.

About Bertalanffy


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