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.



"… directed behavior" (L.von BERTALANFFY, 1956, p.7).

J.Z. YOUNG describes teleology as: "The study of goals, ends or purposes" (1974, p.299)

Contrarywise, for D. BOHM and F.D. PEAT: "Put in the form of a metaphor: Mechanism is teleology" (1977, p.43).

This statement implies the meaning that any mechanism, being basically deterministic, seems to convey the inevitability of defined future states. In this sense, teleology is implied in Newtonian and Laplacian mechanics, without any needed reference to purpose, even if the 1Sth Century illuminists viewed God as the "supreme mechanic and watchmaker".

This is somehow confirmed by BERTALANFFY's statement that teleological behavior "… is a form of behavior which can well be defined in scientific terms and for which the necessary conditions and possible mechanisms can be indicated" (Ibid).

The word "purpose" in YOUNG's definition however opens the door to a wide discussion, as immediately obvious in this comment by O. YOUNG: "… teleology may be taken analytically as a subheading of the concept of goal…" (1964, p.79).

Now, what means "directed": directed by what?

And what is a "goal "? Is it something merely implicit within the behavior of a non-volitive system? And when dare we say that a system is volitive? And, even, what is exactly "volition"?

Obviously, teleology is in many authors heavily contaminated by anthropomorphism.

Another conceptual muddle was cleared by A. ROSENBLUETH, N. WIENER and J. BIGELOW already in 1943: "Teleology has been discredited chiefly because it was defined to imply a cause subsequent in time to a given effect. When this aspect of teleology was dismissed, however, the associated recognition of the importance of purpose was also unfortunately discarded. Since we consider purposefulness a concept necessary for the understanding of certain modes of behavior we suggest that a teleological study is useful if it avoids problems of causality and concerns itself merely with an investigation on purpose. We have restricted the connotation of teleological behavior by applying this designation only to purposeful reactions which are controlled by the error of the reaction – i.e., by the difference between the state of the behaving object at any time and the final state interpreted as the purpose ".

The final state is, of course, a presently desired future state, inscribed as a reference within the control structure of the system. There is thus no future action on the present and any paradox is avoided.

The authors add: "Teleological behavior thus becomes synonymous with behavior controlled by negative feedback… The concept of teleology shares only one thing with the concept of causality: a time axis" (1943, p.24).

As noted by R.L. ACKOFF, this introduced a deep conceptual mutation: "… in mechanistic thinking, behavior is identifying what caused it, never its effect. In teleological thinking, behavior can be explained either by what produced it, or by what it intended to produce… Study of the functions, goals, and purposes of individuals and groups has yielded a greater ability to evaluate and improve their performance than mechanistically research did" (1991, p.329).

Any feedback controlled teleological behavior needs, in cybernetic terms, three components: a reference value (expressing the purpose stated into the system), a sensory function (needed to measure eventual differences) and an effector function (needed to make the control effective). These are the basic parts of any regulator.

It should be observed that at least one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, W.R. ASHBY did not accept teleology: "Our purpose is to explain the origin of behavior which appears to be teleologically directed" (1960, p.9).

One wonders which "physical and chemical" factors (see former entry) induced in ASHBY the "purpose" to give a purely deterministic explanation of purposive behavior.

It would seem that teleological views are quite acceptable, for example within the organizational closure frame of autopoiesis, or P. VENDRYES' concept of autonomy, as the capacity of a system to make a decision about its behavior at any present instant, either by repeating a formerly successful decision, or in function of a presently (or even formerly) defined goal to be reached in the future.

Even ASHBY's own homeostat seeks(!) an equilibrium point through successive adjustments.

The split between the two viewpoints is probably a semantic problem that could be summed up as follows: How purposeless should a purpose, to be admitted as a spontaneously formed behavioral regulator in a system.

The final way to get out of this tangle is probably through R. ROSEN's observation that a system may contain a projective or predictive model (from the pure physiological level to the cerebral-mental one) and develop an anticipatory behavior, in accordance with what it can predict about possible or probable future situations, be these predictions correct or not.


  • 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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Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]

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