Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Cells, Waves, Systems

A Genealogy of Systems Thinking, 1880–1980

Julian Bauer


The first decades of the 20th century were marked by a general epistemological crisis spanning across both the humanities and the natural sciences. Henry Stuart Hughes tried to pin down these developments in his groundbreaking Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890–1930 (1959) by identifying two principal strands of discourse as the main causes of an erosion of confidence in the feasibility of genuine scientific knowledge. Unsurprisingly, he characterized on the one hand the quantum revolution in physics with its subsequent aporias for scientific observation and the dissolution of the last remnants of a naive and robust relationship between subject, perception and reality by experimental physiology and psychoanalysis on the other hand to be crucial factors in these processes. While Hughes does track those arguments’ diffusion in the fledgling social sciences magisterially, his reductionist trickle-down model of the relations between natural science and the humanities in general cannot be upheld anymore. Its implicit assumptions of anachronistic disciplinary boundaries simply do not materialize in the extant historical records. Furthermore, some vital debates especially in the realm of contemporary life sciences are ominously absent in his book.

Taking my cues from these methodological and empirical lacunae I will tentatively try to remedy these problems. First of all, many biologists around 1900 seem to perceive a growing gap between abounding empirical results and a lack of theoretical integration and generalization. Hans Driesch, Julius Schaxel, Jakob von Uexküll and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, to name only a few, discussed in their own idiosyncratic ways fundamental epistemological questions regarding the status and specificity of biological findings and methods, the role and authority of the scientist vis-à-vis experimental systems and society at large. These debates always implied and, in the end, reworked the order of disciplines and things. Those all-embracing dimensions also guaranteed rather impressive attention both from expert philosophical circles and the general public.

Sensitized by the principles of Garfinkel’s programme of ethnomethodology that stress the reflective capacities and wide-ranging agency of human actors, one cannot ignore the essential fact of the lability and agonistic character of disciplinary boundaries in most of the source material from the early 20th century. By taking serious the often painstaking and arduous considerations of the scientists in their writings, it is possible to gain a better and historically more adequate understanding of many positions that are currently being canonized, i.e. mainly treated in a very selective and instrumental manner as founding fathers of some of our present disciplines – in the natural sciences as well as the humanities.

Biologists and early sociologists thirdly and finally share basal assumptions about the historicity of life. Neither animals nor humans live in a quasi-timeless broad present. Instead, they shape and are being shaped by their individual, societal and species-specific past. It is particularly the telling of stories and the visual modelling of history’s deep rhythms that enables them to come to terms with a boundless past and explain their own times. Last but not least, most of these forays do not reveal the lethal crisis of the idea of progress that has been diagnosed by leading intellectual historians in Germany during the last few years, but rather show the resilience of argumentative strategies that rely strongly on forms of an unbroken progressive historicization of their respective epistemic objects.