Kenneth Boulding General Systems Theory

Kenneth Boulding General Systems Theory, Boulding The Image

IN 1954, Boulding went to Palo Alto, California, as a fellow of Stanford University's newly opened Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences. Among those also present during that inaugural year were anthropologist Clyde Kluck-hohn, political scientist Harold Lasswell, and the biologists Anatol Rapoport and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the latter the father of general systems theory. All were interested in the problem of developing a general theory of behavior out of the various social and biological sciences. Together they founded the Society for General Systems Research. Boulding was ap­pointed president, and Rapoport and von Bertalanffy were designated as coeditors of a General Systems Yearbook, which appeared for the first time in 1956.

During Boulding's year in Palo Alto, a new invisible col­lege in peace research also emerged. One of the junior fellows at the Center for Advanced Study was Stephen Richardson, whose late father, Lewis Richardson, had done pioneering (but largely ignored) work quantifying historical data and building mathematical models of the conduct of wars and arms races. The young Richardson generated considerable excitement by making available microfilm copies of his fa­ther's books, since war was obviously the greatest behavioral problem which society faced. At the same time, another ju­nior fellow, the social psychologist Herbert Kelman, asked the people at the Center for advice on how to improve Re­search Exchange on Prevention of War, a newsletter he had been distributing for several years.

Boulding was greatly impressed by Lewis Richardson's work; he had increasingly come to feel that war, like other human problems, could only be eliminated through a precise understanding of how and why it came about. Kelman's query suggested a vehicle for gaining and communicating such an understanding. Together with Rapoport, who was about to come to Ann Arbor, Boulding recommended that the newsletter be expanded and that it originate at the Univer­sity of Michigan. A list of sponsors was put together, and the proposed publication was given a new title, Journal of Con­flict Resolution. Boulding became chairman of the editorial board, and in 1957 the first edition appeared under the auspices of the Michigan School of Journalism.

Two years later, Boulding was able to obtain permission to establish the interdepartmental Center for Research on Con­flict Resolution, and the journal became its official publica­tion. Boulding himself contributed such articles as "Organi­zation and Conflict" and "National Images and the Inter­national System." Never retreating from pacifism, he was nonetheless convinced that moral outrage and a principled opposition to war were no substitute for knowledge and understanding. Even at the height of the Vietnam war, Boulding defended peace research against the attacks of fel­low Quakers who felt that the cause of peace was best served not by research but by proselytizing and demonstrating.

Near the end of his year in Palo Alto, Boulding, in a state of intense intellectual excitement, spent just nine days dictat­ing the whole of a new book, The Image. This was his at­tempt to provide a general epistemology for dealing with all forms of behavior. All knowledge, in Boulding's view, is con­stituted in a series of images—of the world and the knower's position in it, of the past and the present, of values and de­sired objectives. These images are revised as new information is added to them; indeed, the meaning of a new bit of infor­mation is the change it produces in an image. Obviously, anything perceived, sensed, or imagined can help to build an image. Coherent images are not the product of just one sort of data. There are strictly personal images, and ones which are shared by many people. In all cases, however, knowledge is arrived at in the same fundamental way.

But which images provide a true picture of independent, underlying reality? How can the degree of correspondence between image and reality be ascertained? Boulding deliber­ately avoids this problem, saying that he has tried to steer clear of the great philosophical issue of whether an image is "true," or how, if it is true, we know that it is true. Rather, his purpose is to "discuss the growth of images, both private and public, in individuals, in organizations, in society at large, and even with some trepidation, among the lower forms of life." His object is not greater philosophical precision but a more adequate means of understanding behavior.

Postulating the image as the basic unit of knowledge, his study begins by outlining seven levels of organization: or­ganizations with static structures, clockwork organizations, organizations with homeostatic control mechanisms (where the concept of information, and hence the image, first becomes important), cells, plants, animals, and humans. At each successive level, Boulding argues, images grow more sophisticated and complex, while the concept of the image becomes increasingly important for any theoretical model of behavior. Man, with his unique characteristic of self-consciousness, is seen as acting on the basis of images not only of his environment but also of himself. These images are amalgams of fact and value held by varying numbers of peo­ple and susceptible in varying degrees to change. The great desideratum is to gain better images, and thus to improve both the efficacy and the moral caliber of our actions. Bould­ing believes that the ultimate goals of men and of societies as a whole are fundamentally good and fundamentally the same, although bitter disagreements arise over the means for achiev­ing them. Improved images would point the way more clearly.

After a survey of the place of the image in biology, psy­chology, sociology, economics, and history, Boulding pro­poses a new field, to be called eiconics, which would study the nature and growth of images generally. In effect, eiconics would provide the image of the image. Based on Gestalt psychology and the theory of feedback developed in cyber­netics, eiconics would be a truly interdisciplinary field en­compassing all the behavioral sciences, ranging from biology to political science. In essence, it would provide a broad the­ory of the formation of knowledge and its transformation into action. Knowledge for Boulding is the main hope of man­kind, for it is anti-entropic; that is, unlike physical processes, it does not tend toward a random or run-down state. Unlike energy, knowledge can be increased. It is lessened neither by use nor by transfer from one person to another.

Boulding did not see himself as the definitive developer of his new science of eiconics:

It may be that like Moses I have only brought the reader to Nebo, from which tantalizing glimpses of a promised land may be obtained. Like Moses, also (and let the comparison stop there), I am pretty sure that I shall not go over Jordan. Some Joshua must arise if the promised land is to be taken.

Although The Image received some very favorable reviews, it called forth no Joshua to lead the people of academe into the promised land. In the course of time, Boulding found that three sorts of people were most receptive to the book: teach­ers of the liberal arts in engineering schools, Madison Avenue-type executives, and those interested in decision theory, management science, and general systems. By and large, however, Boulding had been wrong in prophesying a great new push toward the integration of the sciences. New fields like biophysics or urban studies, combining the characteris­tics of a number of disciplines, might arise where there was a strong need to treat a particular set of phenomena which cut across disciplinary lines. But most scholars were not prepared to abandon their bailiwicks to chase what they considered to be the chimera of a unified science. There was enough to do as it was. Thus, The Image and the new science Boulding hoped to spark came to languish in yet another small subcul­ture of academic society. Nevertheless, Boulding did not allow the concept of the image to slip into oblivion; rather, he used it in much of his subsequent work as a way of analyzing the behavior of men and institutions.