Of the many barriers to a more robust presence for systems approaches in the academy, the relative scarcity of sufficient introductory textbooks in the field stands out as a particular irritant. In the decades since the publication of von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory
in 1968, a vast agglomeration of conceptual frameworks and methodological heuristics in the study of systemic phenomena has continued to accrue while the facilitation of entry points to the field combining both accessibility and thoroughness have largely failed to keep pace. George E. Mobus
and Michael C. Kalton
have leapt bravely into that breach with their co-authored volume, Principles of Systems Science
(Springer Verlag, 2015). As the title indicates, Mobus and Kalton are firmly focused upon an approach to systems grounded in the traditional scientific method and, while by no means objective realists of any remotely naïve sort, their project most definitely leans towards more positivistic approaches to the study of systemic phenomena; clearly separating their work from the wider, and arguably “softer” field of Systems “Thinking”.
Leaning on Herbert Simon’s notion of the near-decomposability of hierarchical systems as well as the computational accounts of contemporary cognitive science, the book’s 700 plus pages are carefully and thoughtfully structured to guide the reader through an array of crucial systemic topics including notions of system boundary, dynamics, emergence, complexity and adaptation. Of particular note is the thorough and rigorous treatment cybernetics receives within the overall scope of the systems sciences; something that makes this book something of a bridge builder between two fields with blurry boundaries between them that, too often, seem to jockey for the historical high-ground and supreme position of being “meta” to each other. While clearly keeping cybernetics within the wider conceptual margins of Systems Science, the central role that it is given to the very notion of what constitutes a system is sure to satisfy many who straddle both sides of the debate but consider cybernetics their disciplinary, intellectual, and ethical home. Carefully balancing scope with detail, this sweeping work of diligent scholarship does much to provide the kind of foundational textbook of which upper-level undergraduate and graduate students have long been in need.