Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Portrait of Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1926.jpg
Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1926
Born(1901-09-19)19 September 1901
Died12 June 1972(1972-06-12) (aged 70)
Alma materUniversity of Vienna
Known forGeneral systems theory
Von Bertalanffy function
Scientific career
FieldsBiology and systems theory
ThesisFechner und das Problem der Integration höherer Ordnung (Fechner and the Problem of Higher-Order Integration) (1926)
InfluencesJohann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rudolf Carnap, Gustav Theodor Fechner, Nicolai Hartmann, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick
InfluencedRussell L. Ackoff, Kenneth E. Boulding, Peter Checkland, C. West Churchman, Jay Wright Forrester, Ervin László, James Grier Miller, Anatol Rapoport

Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (19 September 1901 – 12 June 1972) was an Austrian biologist known as one of the founders of general systems theory (GST). This is an interdisciplinary practice that describes systems with interacting components, applicable to biology, cybernetics and other fields. Bertalanffy proposed that the classical laws of thermodynamics might be applied to closed systems, but not necessarily to "open systems" such as living things. His mathematical model of an organism's growth over time, published in 1934,[1] is still in use today.

Bertalanffy grew up in Austria and subsequently worked in Vienna, London, Canada, and the United States.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born and grew up in the little village of Atzgersdorf (now Liesing) near Vienna. The Bertalanffy family had roots in the 16th century nobility of Hungary which included several scholars and court officials.[2] His grandfather Charles Joseph von Bertalanffy (1833–1912) had settled in Austria and was a state theatre director in Klagenfurt, Graz and Vienna, which were important sites in imperial Austria. Ludwig's father Gustav von Bertalanffy (1861–1919) was a prominent railway administrator. On his mother's side Ludwig's grandfather Joseph Vogel was an 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.[3]

Ludwig von Bertalanffy grew up as an only child educated at home by private tutors until he was ten. When he arrived at his Gymnasium (a form of grammar school) he was already well habituated in learning by reading, and he continued to study on his own. His neighbour, the famous biologist Paul Kammerer, became a mentor and an example to the young Ludwig.[4]

In 1918, Bertalanffy started his studies at the university level in philosophy and art history, first at the University of Innsbruck and then at the University of Vienna. Ultimately, Bertalanffy had to make a choice between studying philosophy of science and biology; he 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 (Fechner und das Problem der Integration höherer Ordnung, translated title: Fechner and the Problem of Higher-Order Integration) on the psychologist and philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner.[4] For the next six years he concentrated on a project of "theoretical biology" which focused on the philosophy of biology. He received his habilitation in 1934 in "theoretical biology".[5]

Bertalanffy was appointed Privatdozent at the University of Vienna in 1934. The post yielded little income, and Bertalanffy faced continuing financial difficulties. He applied for promotion to the status of associate professor, but funding from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled him to make a trip to Chicago in 1937 to work with Nicolas Rashevsky. He was also able to visit the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.[5]

Bertalanffy was still in the US when he heard of the Anschluss in March 1938. However, his attempts to remain in the US failed, and he returned to Vienna in October of that year.[5] Within a month of his return, he joined the Nazi Party, which facilitated his promotion to professor at the University of Vienna in 1940.[5] During the Second World War, he linked his "organismic" philosophy of biology to the dominant Nazi ideology, principally that of the Führerprinzip.[5]

Following the defeat of Nazism, Bertalanffy found denazification problematic and left Vienna in 1948. He moved to the University of London (1948–49); the Université de Montréal (1949); the University of Ottawa (1950–54); the University of Southern California (1955–58); the Menninger Foundation (1958–60); the University of Alberta (1961–68); and the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) (1969–72).

In 1972, he died from a heart attack.

Family life

Bertalanffy met his wife, Maria, in April 1924 in the Austrian Alps. They were hardly ever apart for the next forty-eight years.[6] She wanted to finish studying but never did, instead devoting her life to Bertalanffy's career. Later, in Canada, she would work both for him and with him in his career, and after his death she compiled two of Bertalanffy's last works. They had one child, a son who followed in his father's footsteps by making his profession in the field of cancer research.


Today, Bertalanffy is considered to be a founder and one of the principal authors of the interdisciplinary school of thought known as general systems theory, which was pioneered by Alexander Bogdanov.[7] According to Weckowicz (1989), he "occupies an important position in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. His contributions went beyond biology, and extended into cybernetics, education, history, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology and sociology. Some of his admirers even believe that this theory will one day provide a conceptual framework for all these disciplines".[2]

Individual growth model

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

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

when is the Bertalanffy growth rate and the ultimate length of the individual. This model was proposed earlier by August Friedrich Robert Pūtter (1879-1929), writing in 1920.[8]

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 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.[1]

Passive electrical schematic of the Bertalanffy module together with equivalent expression in the Energy Systems Language
Passive electrical schematic of the Bertalanffy module together with equivalent expression in the Energy Systems Language

Bertalanffy equation

The Bertalanffy equation is the equation that describes the growth of a biological organism. The equation was offered by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1969.[9]

Here W is organism weight, t is the time, S is the area of organism surface, and V is a physical volume of the organism.

The coefficients and are (by Bertalanffy's definition) the "coefficient of anabolism" and "coefficient of catabolism" respectively.

The solution of the Bertalanffy equation is the function:

where and are the certain constants.

Bertalanffy couldn't explain the meaning of the parameters (the coefficient of anabolism) and (coefficient of catabolism) in his works, and that caused a fair criticism from biologists. But the Bertalanffy equation is a special case of the Tetearing equation,[10] that is a more general equation of the growth of a biological organism. The Tetearing equation determines the physical meaning of the coefficients and .

Bertalanffy module

To honour 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).[11]

General system theory

In the late 1920s, the Soviet philosopher Alexander Bogdanov pioneered "Tektology", whom Johann Plenge referred to as the theory of "general systems".[7][12] However, in the West, Bertalanffy is widely recognized 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.

Foundational to GST are the inter-relationships between elements which all together form the whole.

Open systems

Main article: Open system (systems theory)

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 inadequate for explaining large classes of phenomena. 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."[13] 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. His 1950 publication in the journal Science introduced his view that any open system 'may attain a time-independent dynamic equilibrium of steady state' (fliessgleichgewicht) that remains irreversibly constant at a macroscopic level holistically, while the system simultaneously evolves over time with continuous flux of matter, energy and information. He concluded that a steady state for a complex open systems can be defined by a process of minimum entropy production with decrease in system overall entropy and increased stability following the entropy equation of Prigogine: dS = deS+diS, where deS represents delta entropy vis import and is always positive and diS is internal delta entropy production from irreversible interactions which may be positive or negative.[14]

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;"</ref>Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller, pp. 139-1540<science]]s, 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."[15] The theorist critiqued classical "atomistic" conceptions of social systems and ideation "such as 'social physics' as was often attempted in a reductionist spirit."[16] 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 new developments in many fields, from sociology to anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology among other areas.[citation needed] Today, Bertalanffy's GST remains a bridge for interdisciplinary study of systems in the social sciences.


The first articles from Bertalanffy on general systems theory:

See also


  1. ^ a b Bertalanffy, L. von, (1934). Untersuchungen über die Gesetzlichkeit des Wachstums. I. Allgemeine Grundlagen der Theorie; mathematische und physiologische Gesetzlichkeiten des Wachstums bei Wassertieren. Arch. Entwicklungsmech., 131:613-652.
  2. ^ a b T.E. Weckowicz (1989). Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972): A Pioneer of General Systems Theory. Working paper Feb 1989. p.2
  3. ^ Mark Davidson (1983). Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig Von Bertalanffy. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher. p.49
  4. ^ a b Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science, page: His Life - Bertalanffy's Origins and his First Education. Retrieved 2009-04-27 Archived July 25, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ a b c d e Drack, Manfred; Apfalter, Wilfried; Pouvreau, David (11 March 2017). "On the Making of a System Theory of Life: Paul A Weiss and Ludwig von Bertalanffy's Conceptual Connection". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 82 (4): 349–373. doi:10.1086/522810. PMC 2874664. PMID 18217527.
  6. ^ Davidson, p. 51
  7. ^ a b Gare, Arran (2000-11-01). "Aleksandr Bogdanov and Systems Theory". Democracy & Nature. 6 (3): 341–359. doi:10.1080/10855660020020230. ISSN 1085-5661.
  8. ^ August Friedrich Robert Pūtter (6 April 1879 - 11 March 1929) wrote a textbook on comparative physiology entitled Vergleichende Physiologie (Jena: G. Fischer, 1911) and many other notable works. For a translation of his "Studien ūber physiologische Ähnlichkeit. VI. Wachstumsähnlichkeiten" ("Studies on Physiological Similarity. VI. Analogies of Growth") in Pflūgers Archiv fūr die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere, 180: 298-340, see
  9. ^ Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller, pp. 136
  10. ^ Alexandr N. Tetearing (2012). Theory of populations. Moscow: SSO Foundation. p. 607. ISBN 978-1-365-56080-4.
  11. ^ Nicholas D. Rizzo William Gray (Editor), Nicholas D. Rizzo (Editor), (1973) Unity Through Diversity. A Festschrift for Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Gordon & Breach Science Pub
  12. ^ Plenge, Johann (1927). "Um die Allgemeine Organisationslehre" (PDF). Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv Review of World Economics. 25: 18–29 – via Internet Archive.
  13. ^ Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller, pp. 39-40
  14. ^ L.Von Bertalannffy, 1950, The theory of open systems in physics and biology, "Science", vol. 111, pp. 23-29
  15. ^ Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller, pp. 196
  16. ^ Bertalanffy, L. von, (1969). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller, pp. 194-197

Further reading