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.



Very numerous definitions have been given of the word and the concept even if limited to G.S. Theory and Cybernetics, the differences between these definitions are striking. However, comparisons do not destroy the notion. On the contrary, many interesting shades appear.

Accordingly, we give hereafter many definitions, obtained from authors of different countries and specializations. As much as possible, they are supported by comments of the authors themselves. In some cases a critical evaluation or comment has been added.

The general idea is to extensively explore the multiple aspects of the notion in a non-contradictory way.

To put things into perspective here is G. WEINBERG's one: "The system is a point of view". And, similarly, for G. PASK it is a "universe of discourse" (predefined by a reference frame) (1961, p.22-3).

So "System" corresponds to a man-created general conceptual model for coherent, complex and more or less identificable and permanently observed real world entities.

All definitions are more or less complementary. Some are more embracing than others and others more specific. All in all, this is one of the most evident case of polysemy in language and it would not be satisfactory to reject any off-hand without a careful scrutiny.

It should however be noted that no "point of view' and no "universe of discourse" on systems could exist without the simultaneous existence of something on which these subtle arts can be practised and which is generally called "concrete system", or perhaps more imprudently "real" system.

As a result, the most simple and synthetical definitions open the way to careless generalizations and simplifications.

The most elaborated can be limitative, for example, be valid only for living systems.

Furthermore there are various degrees of systemic organization, from the least integrated (composite or distributed systems) to the most differentiated and integrated ones.

Shortly, there is no perfect definition… and, again, many possible ones according to the "point of view".

Accordingly, we will thus give a number of them, first general, next more specific, in every case with the needed comments (from the authors or from this compiler, according to necessity). Most definitions are from genuine systemists or cyberneticians, and some more from other scientists or philosophers, because they seemed relevant.

In conclusion, a critical synthesis will be proposed, even as the conclusions are by no means to be taken as definitive.


- "A system is a set of elements dynamically interacting and organized in relation to a goal" (J.de ROSNAY,.1990, p.93).

J.de ROSNAY comment is as follows: "The introduction of finality (the goal of the system) in this definition may seem surprising. Understandably, the finality of a machine has been defined and specified by man, but what dare we say about the finality of a system like a cell? The cell's "goal" is in no way mysterious. It implies no project. It is registered a posteriori: to maintain its structure and to divide itself. The same can be said about the ecosystem. Its finality – again, not project – is to maintain its equilibria and to allow life's development. Nobody did established atmosphere's content of oxygen, nor the earth's average temperature, nor the composition of oceans. Nevertheless, they maintain themselves within very narrow limits.

"This definition steps back from another with a certain structuralist overtone, for which a system is a closed structure. Such structure cannot evolve, but undergoes collapses due to some internal desequilibrium" (Ibid).

"A set of parts with a common destiny, which maintain their interrelations, even when placed in a different environment"(F. BONSACK, 1990, p.67).

The author comments: "In a system, there is first an object: a certain connexity in space, a conservation of internal relations at the time of a displacement entailing a change in the relations with the environment…

"But there is more to it.

"There exists a functional unity. This means, a whole apt to perform some tasks and which needs the functional integrity of all of its parts in order to maintain that capacity…

"… a car (for example) performs correctly its function – which is to guarantee quick, safe and confortable travelling at whatever hour and practically any weather conditions – only if all parts correctly perform their respective function" (p.67).

"A set of interrelated elements" (BERTALANFFY, 1956 – ACKOFF, 1972).

This sweeping and embracing general definition is thus explained by R.L. ACKOFF: "… a system is an entity which is composed of at least two elements and a relation that holds between each of its elements and at least one other element in the set. Each of a system's elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. Furthermore, no subset of elements is unrelated to any other subset" (Ibid).

This definition does not allow a clear distinction between logical or formal systems, for example, and dynamic concrete systems. Nor is the role of the observer in any way expressed.

"… any set of variables that (the observer or experimenter) selects from those available on the real "machine" (W.R. ASHBY, 1960, p.16).

One very important feature of this definition is the emphasis upon the role of the observer or experimenter, who is supposed to "select" the variables, and whose intervention implies clearly that, in ASHBY's opinion, any system is a mere constructed model. Of course, some criteria would be needed, in order to avoid radical arbitrariness in the process of selection. A criterion should be, for instance, coherence, in relation to some general types of interconnections present in all systemic-cybernetic models. One should also note that ASHBY postulates the existence of the real "machine", an object "out there", which may very well be differently modelized by different observers.

Finally, one could regret the use of the word "machine", a practice of the first cyberneticians which has been sharply criticized for its mechanicists undertones.

"A grouping of interrelated elements possessing a boundary and functional unity" (Ch. DECHERT, 1968, p.119).

DECHERT writes: "Each of the elements of a system is related, directly or indirectly, to all other elements so that a change in any element, to a greater or lesser degree changes the entire system. A system is distinguished from an aggregate (or congeries) by the interrelatedness of its elements" (Ibid).

In this sense, a system is basically a network.

"A system is an organization comprising man and machine components b) engaged in coordinated goal-directed activity, c) linked by information channels, and d) influenced by an external environment." (D. HOWLAND. 1963, p.227).

This definition is only adequate for human systems, which, furthermore do not necessary include machines and whose activities are not always, at least consciously, goal-directed.

D. Mc NEIL deplores that: "The word system became cheapened by its identification with particular technologies such as computers or with particular methods such as "systems analysis" (1993 a).

He tries, in a recent and intricate definition, to include the many different aspects of systemic organization: "A system is a dynamic, organized, delimited, open, persistent, composite whole. It is volutionary, comprised of at least one loop and at least one link which manifest the aspects of content, form, function, and control, together with timing and scaling factors, relative to an environment and relevant to a percipient" (1993a). ("Percipient" stays here for "observer", as considered in this encyclopedia).

M. BUNGE gives a very synthetic definition which implies many specific features of systems, save their relationships with their environment (including how an "object" becomes defined): "A system is a complex object every part of which is related to some other component of the same object" (1993, p.211).

However Mc NEIL's definition reflects better the multi-facetic character of the "system"… and the need to ponder each and every characteristic stated in it.

There are numerous more specific definitions of peculiar classes of systems, most of which are reproduced – and commented, in view that some seem debatable – hereafter.

To conclude, systems are most generally characterized by their complexity, their coherence and relative permanence, and their tendency to seek their own survival. These general conditions dominate the whole concept.


  • 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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