International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

2nd Edition, as published by Charles François 2004 Presented by the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science Vienna for public access.


The International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics was first edited and published by the system scientist Charles François in 1997. The online version that is provided here was based on the 2nd edition in 2004. It was uploaded and gifted to the center by ASC president Michael Lissack in 2019; the BCSSS purchased the rights for the re-publication of this volume in 200?. In 2018, the original editor expressed his wish to pass on the stewardship over the maintenance and further development of the encyclopedia to the Bertalanffy Center. In the future, the BCSSS seeks to further develop the encyclopedia by open collaboration within the systems sciences. Until the center has found and been able to implement an adequate technical solution for this, the static website is made accessible for the benefit of public scholarship and education.



Ability of a system able to construct and change its own behavior or internal organization

The construction of self-organization is quite different from its maintenance, once the organization is completed. In the first stage, morphogenesis is important, even if the basic template of the system's. organization is already present and acting. In the second stage, when general organization is stabilized, it should possibly be useful to speak of self-reorganization.

hereafter: "Self-organization (Two meanings of)", for more shades of meaning.

Self-organization is a very general type of behavior in systems. G. DALENOORT gives some examples: "Biological evolution; linguistics; crystal growth and lasers; social processes" Many others could be given. Self-organization has even been discovered in some geological processes (Stylolites spacing – E. MERINO, 1992, p.466).

According to DALENOORT, it can be studied from many different approaches "… which usually correspond to specific choices of representation". He also cites some well-known formal approaches: "Cellular automata; Petri nets; Mc CULLOCH-PITIS nets; self-reproducing automata (von NEUMANN)", and some specific methods: "Autopoiesis (MATURANA and VARELA); synergetics (HAKEN); dissipative systems (PRIGOGINE); catastrophe theory (THOM); evolutionary systems (LOTKA-VOLTERRA); chemical auto-catalytic systems (EIGEN)" (1989, p.16)

Self-organization could be considered as the acquisition of variety by the system by progressive reduction of its redundancy in response to noise from its environment.

As observed by H. SABELLI, so-called selforganization is inevitably at some initial state a co-organization process. He stresses that, as noted by J. PIAGET, change is not caused by a cause-effect relation, but by an interaction between processes, which constantly evolve (pers. comm.).

Or, self-organization is the progressive expression of an initial potential to acquire heterogeneity or complexity by a process of differentiation based on energy dissipation, as follows:

From Homogeneity to Heterogeneity

From Redundancy to Variety and Complexity

From Undifferentiation to Differentiation and Organization

However, the initial state can evolve towards more expressed differentiation only under the guidance of some original template (as for example the genetic code in a biological system or the original basic values in a socio-cultural one).

This initial template is obtained from some previous system or systems and is in itself a more or less complex "recipe" for differentiation starting from redundancy (for example all merystemes in a plant are redundant, but each possesses that potential for variety in the guise of the genetic code).

Self-organization, moreover, is a process of at least partial (i.e. never totally completed) algorithmization of the system and is closely related to organizational closure and autopoiesis.

It is obviously of fundamental importance in all learning processes.

J.L. TABARY emits the following objection: "lf an increase of organization is to be significant, it must produce some perceptible gain in efficiency. This may be obtained by an increase of the number of non-equilibrium stationary states, which qualify the extension and precision of accomodation (Note: of the system to its environment). It can also be obtained by a more swift and less costly use of an adapted stationary state, to face some specific event". (1989, p.286)

This comment is important because it leads to a better understanding that an excessive self-organization may lead to block up and sclerosis when an excess of adaptations, frequently useless, leads to a ruined adaptability. Good examples are the bureaucratization processes.

E. LASZLO gives the following basic conditions for self-organization:

"First… it necessarily involves an open system (or a system coupled with another system)…

"Second,… (it) presupposes some inputs from the system's environment which stress or stimulate the system in some way, i.e. which have the overall effect of perturbations…

"Third, it is now understood that self-organization occurs in systems that have multiple equilibria… or several strata of potential stability".

"In view of these findings, self-organization can be explained on the general evolutionary principle of fluctuations induced either by energy-flows in the milieu acting on systems or by spontaneous activity by the systems themselves, inducing chance variations of states, some of which hit upon levels of stability" (1974, p.221).

The prerequisites for self-organization are somewhat differently stated (in accordance with the Brussels school of thermodynamics) by S.J. GAO and F.J. CHARLWOOD, as follows:

"Openness: The system must be open to the exchange of energy, matter, information with its environment;

"Non-equilibrium: The system must be in a state far from the thermodynamic equilibrium;

"Nonlinearity: there must be complex nonlinear relations between the system's components (with multiple feedback and feedforward loops);

"Fluctuations: there must be microscopic fluctuations within the system which constlantly test the stability of the macroscopic state of the system;

"Variation of environment: there is some structural coupling between the system and its environment and only the change of the environment can trigger the self-organization process in the system" (1993, p.58-59).

These conditions (save, possibly, the last one) do of course refer to an already organized system. There is a need to better connect the concepts of autogenesis and autopoiesis (and also morphogenesis) with models of self-organization, which describe either an incipient process, or a dynamic equilibrium condition.

The Swiss systemist E. SCHWARZ proposes a meta model of a "spiral of self-organization:…the birth of a wide variety of systems displays a common succession of four states:

0) precursor tensions source of instability

1) noise or fluctuations (alea) triggering

2) a cascade of mutually provoked events (self-organization), which leads to

3) a new dynamically stable structure-organization of the system, followed by

4) a phase of actualization of the potentialities of this new system (entropic drift or trend toward the more probable)

"It must be noticed that the fluctuations in the alea sector do not always lead to a new viable configuration but, more often, end up with the destruction of the system or eventually with its maintenance with minor adjustments…" A closer study of these processes shows that the iteration of such spiral cycles of self-organization and entropic drift generates a long term evolution toward complexity and autonomy, characterized by the successive appearance of six fundamental loops of increasing abstraction:

1- self-organizing morphogenesis (positive feedback loops)

2- vortices (recycling of matter)

3- homeostasis (negative feedback loop)

4- autopoiesis (self-production)

5- self-reference (between physical structure and logical organization), and

6- autogenesis (leading to autonomy)" (1998, p.92)


  • 1) General information
  • 2) Methodology or model
  • 3) Epistemology, ontology and semantics
  • 4) Human sciences
  • 5) Discipline oriented


Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science(2020).

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