1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings

Graduate students in Social Systems Science at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (graduating 1975-1988) — the program led by Russell Ackoff — were guided to read a Penguin paperback collection of articles. Across multiple editions, the content changed. Long out of print, the earliest editions are difficult to find.

From the Internet Archive, we can resurrect an entry (circa 2007) on the Collection and Resources section of the Systems Sciences Connections Conversation. This annotated list of tables of contents and excerpts from each edition “Introduction” may be helpful to readers who want a sense of the articles that might otherwise be accessible as journal articles.

There are multiple editions of this book. It’s a bit confusing that the 1969 version was first published as a single volume, and the 1981 version seems to have added a second volume. We should get the table of contents for each.

F. E. Emery (editor), Systems thinking : selected readings, Penguin, 1969.

  • 398 pages
  • ISBN: 0140800719

F. E. Emery (editor), Systems thinking : selected readings, Penguin, 1971.

  • 398 pages

F. E. Emery (editor), Systems thinking : selected readings, Penguin, 1981.

  • ISBN: 0140803955 (v.1) Rev. ed. published with the addition of a second volume.
  • ISBN: 0140803963 (v.2)

Emery 1981, Volume 1

Introduction to Volume 1 and 2

Introduction to Volume 1, First Edition

Introduction to Volume 1, Revised Edition

Part One, Precedents to Systems Theory

1. A. Angyal (1941), “A logic of systems”

  • Excerpt from chapter 8 of A. Angyal, Foundations for a System of Personality, Harvard University Press, 1941, pp. 243-61

The Structure of Wholes
System and Gestalt

2. J. Feibleman and J. W. Friend (1946), “The structure and function of organization”

  • J. Feibleman and J. W. Friend, “The structure and function of organization”, Philosophical Review, vol. 54 (1945), pp. 19-44.

Part Two, Properties of Open Systems

3. W. Koehler (1938) “Closed and open systems”

  • Excerpt from chapter 8 of W. Koehler, The Places of Value in the World of Fact, Liveright, 1938, pp. 314-28.

4. L. von Bertalanffy (1950), “The theory of open systems in physics and biology”

  • L. von Bertalanffy, “The theory of open systems in physics and biology”, Science, vol. 111 (1950), pp. 23-9.

5. W. R. Ashby (1956), “Self-regulation and requisite variety”

  • W. R. Ashby, Introduction to Cybernetics, chapter 11, Wiley, 1956, pp. 202-18.

6. V. I. Kremyanskiy (1958), “Certain peculiarities of organisms as a ‘system’ from the point of view of physics, cybernetics and biology”

  • V. I. Kremyanskiy, “Certain perculiarities of organisms as a ‘system’ form the point of view of physics, cybernetics and biology”, General Systems, vol. 5 (1960), Society for General Systems Research, pp. 231-30. [This paper first appeared in Russian in Voprosy Filosofii, August (1956), pp. 97-107.

7. G. Sommerhoff (1969), “The abstract characteristics of living systems”

  • This paper was first published in the first edition (1969) of this volume.

Part Three, The Environment of a System

8. M. P. Schützenberger (1954), “A tentative classification of goal-seeking behaviours”

  • M. P. Schützenberger, “A tentative classification of goal-seeking behaviours”, Journal of Mental Science, vol. 100 (1954), pp. 97-102.

9. H. A. Simon (1956), “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”

  • H. A. Simon, “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”, Psychological Review, vol. 63 (1956), pp. 129-38

10. W. R. Ashby (1960), “Adaptation in the multistable system”

  • Excerpt from chapter 16 of W. R. Ashby, Design for a Brain, Wiley, 2nd edn, 1960, pp. 205-14

11. F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist (1965), “The causal texture of organizational environments”

  • F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist, “The causal texture of organizational environments”, Human Relations, vol. 18 (1965), pp. 21-32.

12. D. Cartwright and F. Harary (1977), “A graph theoretic approach to the investigation of system-environment relationships”

  • D. Cartwright and F. Harary, “A graph theoretic approach to the investigation of system-environment relationships”, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, vol. 5 (1977), pp. 87-111.

13 F. E. Emery (1976), “Causal path analysis”

  • Excerpt from F. E. Emery and C. Phillips, Living at Work: Australia, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Services, 1976, Apps. B and C.

Part Four: Human Organizations as Systems

14. P. Selznick (1948), “Foundations of the theory of organizations”

  • P. Selznick, “Foundations of the theory of organizations”, American Sociological Review, vol. 13 (1948), pp. 25-35.

15. F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist (1960), “Socio-technical systems”

  • F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist, “Socio-technical systems”, in C. W. Churchman and M. Verhulst (eds.), Management Science, Models and Techniques, vol. 2, Pergamon, 1960, pp. 83-97.

16. E. Nagel (1956), “A formalization of functionalism”

  • E. Nagel, “A formalization of functionalism”, Logic Without Metaphysics, Free Press, 1956, pp. 247-83.

17. R. L. Ackoff and F. E. Emery (1972), “Structure, function and purpose”

  • R. L. Ackoff and F. E. Emery, On Purposeful Systems, London, Tavistock, 1972, New York, Aldine Atherton, 1972, chap. 2

18. W. M. Sachs (1976), “Toward formal foundations of teleological systems science”

  • W. M. Sachs, “Toward formal foundations of teleological systems science”, General Systems, xxi (1976), pp. 145-54.

Emery 1982, Volume 2


Part One, Perspectives on Systems Thinking and Systems Analysis

1. N Jordan (1968), “Some thinking about ‘system'”

  • N. Joradan, Themes in Speculative Psychology, chap. 5, London, Tavistock, 1969 [sic], pp. 44-65.

2. I. R. Hoos (1972), “Methodology, methods and models”

  • Excerpt from chapter 5 of I. R. Hoos, Systems Analysis in Public Policy, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 124-36.

3. F. E. Emery (1973), “Planning for real but different worlds”

  • Excerpt from chapter 12, ‘Educational planning and strategic innovation’, in G. S. Harman and C. Selby Smith (eds.), Designing of a New Education Authority, Education Research Unit, Australian National University, 1973.  Previously reproduced in R. L. Ackoff (ed.), Systems and Management 1974, New York, Petrocelli.

4. H. W. J. Rittel and M. M. Webber (1974), “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”

  • H. W. J. Rittel and M. M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, chapter 12 in R. L. Ackoff (ed.), Systems and Management Annual 1974, New York, Petrocelli, pp. 219-33.

Part Two, Systems Thinking about Individuals and Groups

5. F. Heider (1946), “Attitudes and cognitive organization”

  • F. Heider, “Attitudes and cognitive organization”, The Journal of Psychology, vol. 21 (1946), pp. 107-21.

6. M. C. Greco (1950), “Neurosis as a system property of group life”

  • Excerpts from M. C. Greco, Group Life, New York, Philosophical Library, 1950.

7. S. S. Tomkins (1962), “Image, purpose and affect”

  • Excerpt from S. S. Tomkins, Affect — Imagery — Consciousness, vol. 1, New York, Springer, 1962, pp. 17-24.

8. A. Angyal (1965), “Personality as a hierarchy of systems”

  • Excerpt from A. Angyal, Neurosis and Treatment, New York, Wiley, 1965, pp. 48-58.

9. S. E. Asch (1952), “The individual and the group”

  • Excerpts from S. E. Asch, Social Psychology, New York, Prentice-Hall, 1952, pp. 128-37, 257-63

10. I. Chein (1954), “The environment as a determinant of behavior”

  • I. Chein, “The environment as a determinant of behavior”, The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 39 (1954), pp. 115-27.

11. M. Selvini Palazzoli, L. Boscolo, G. Cecchin and G. Prata (1975), “Paradox and counterparadox: a new model for the therapy of the family in schizophrenic transaction”

  • M. Selvini Palazzoli, L. Boscolo, G. Cecchin and G. Prata, “Paradox and counterparadox: a new model for the therapy of the family in schizophrenic transaction”, in J. Jørstad and E. Ugelstad (eds.), Schizophrenia 1975, Oslo, Universitetsførlaget.

Part Three, Systems Thinking and the Communicative Act

12. F. Heider (1958), “Language as a conceptual tool”

  • Excerpt from F. Heider, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, New York, Wiley, 1958, pp. 7-18

13. J. de Rivera (1969), “The concepts of anger and aggression”

  • J. de Rivera, “The concepts of anger and aggression”, Psychology Department, New York University, 1969, pp. 15-32 and 42-5 (mimeographed paper).

14. W. Labov and D. Fanshel (1977), “Rules of discourse”

  • Excerpt from W. Labov and D. Fanshel, Therapeutic Discourse: Psychotherapy as Conversation, New York, Academic Press, 1977, pp. 74-88.

Part Four, On Hierarchical Systems

15. P. G. Herbst (1976), “Non-hierarchical organizations”

  • Excerpt from P. G. Herbst, Alternatives to Hierarchies, Leiden, Martinus Nijhoff, 1976, pp. 29-40

16. S. Beer (1972), “The multinode — Systems Five”

  • Excerpt from S. Beer, Brain of the Firm, London, The Professional Library, 1972, pp. 253-63.

17. G. Sommerhoff (1974), “Hierarchies of goals and subgoals”

  • Excerpt from G. Sommerhoff, Logic of the Living Brain, London, Wiley, 1974, pp. 98-103.

Part Five, Ecosystems

18. C. Geertz (1971), “Two types of ecosystems”

  • Excerpt from C. Geertz, Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1971, pp. 15-37.

19. M. Harris (1975), “Mother Cow”

  • Excerpt from M. Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, London, Hutchinson, 1975, pp. 11-31.

20. R. R. Curry (1976/77), “Watershed form and process: the elegant balance”

  • R. R. Curry, “Watershed form and process: the elegant balance”, Geology, vol. 480 (1977), pp. 1-27.  Extracted in Co-Evolution Quarterly, winter (1976/77), pp. 14-21.

Part Six, Redesigning Systems

21. R. L. Ackoff (1968), “Toward an idealized university”

  • R. L. Ackoff, “Toward an idealized university”, Management Science, vol. 15, no. 4. (December 1968), pp. B-121-30.

22. J. B. Channon (1976), “Work-settings”

  • J. B. Channon (1976), “Work-settings”, Military Review, May (1976), pp. 74-87.

23. F. E. Emery (1977), “The assembly line: its logic and its future”

  • Excerpt from F. E. Emery, Futures We are In, Leiden, Martinus Nijhoff, 1977, pp. 102-15.

Part Seven, System Thinking and Our Future Governance

24. F. E. Emery (1976), “Adaptive systems for our future governance”

  • F. E. Emery, “Adaptive systems for our future governance”, National Labour Institute Bulletin (New Delhi), vol. 2 (1976), pp. 121-9.

25. S. Beer (1975), “On heaping our science together”

  • S. Beer, “On heaping our science together”, in C. W. Churchman (ed.) Systems and Management Annual 1975, New York, Petrocelli/Charter, pp. 469-84.

Part Eight, Ideals and Common Ground

26. F. E. Emery (1977), “The emergence of ideal-seeking systems”

  • Excerpt from F. E. Emery, Futures We are In, Leiden, Martinus Nijhoff, 1977, pp. 67-91.

27. F. E. Emery (1976), “Searching for common ground”

  • F. E. Emery, “Searching for common ground”, in M. Emery (ed.), Searching, Canberra, Centre for Continuing Education, A N U, 1976, pp. 45-51.

Introduction to Volume 1 and 2

The last reading in the first edition (1969), by M. Ways, was first published in January 1967 and entitled ‘The Road to 1977’.  [p. 8]


The original volume or readings has been revised to reflect major theoretical developments and the emergence of promising methdologies.

These, however, have not been the only trends in systems thinking.  It seems to me that there are at least five trends represented in volume 2:

First, a greater concern for planning that is adaptive and participant (Reading 3 and 4 in Part 1; Ackoff, 1974).

Second, a new non-mechanical image of man’s relation to man (Parts 2 and 3; Chein, 1972).

Third, toward the design of organizations that support and encourage greater variety in the pursuits of their members (Parts 4 and 6).

Fourth, a new perception of man in his environment (Part 5).

Fifth, approaching future studies not as a projected state of a closed system but as choices between alternative futures by purposeful people and their institutions (Parts 7 and 8; Mesarovic and Pestel, 1974; Ackoff, 1972).

Merely listing these trends tell us something else:  they are among the broadest trends to be observed in our societies over the past decade or so.

Introduction to Volume 1, First Edition

Introduction to Volume 1, Revised Edition

Some revisions have been made to this set of readings to complement better the new volume of readings, Systems Thinking, Volume 2.

The first two readings that were in Part Five have been dropped.  They served in the first edition to stimulate thought about where the frontiers of systems thinking would move in comparison to where they appeared to be in 1969.  Since then the frontiers have moved, and not in the generally expected directions (see the Introduction to Volume 2).  The frontiers in planning are now better seen in Readings 3 and 4 in Volume 2.  The frontiers in systems thinking about government is now much closer to where Stafford Beer and I see then in our papers at the end of Volume 2.

Reading 5 from Katz and Kahn has been dropped for reasons of space.  It is a very readable analysis of the distinction between open and closed systems.  The distinction is now little questioned, and, in face, in 1977 Prigogine received a Nobel Prize for this many years of work on the thermodynamics of open chemical systems.  [p. 21]

Reading 16, by Ackoff, has been dropped.  It was didactically relevant in 1969, and the state of the art then was still very much as he had described it in 1960.  His 1972 theoretical paper which replaces it (as the new Reading 17) was a significant contribution to the large shifts in systems thinking that took place in the seventies.  The new Reading 18, by Sachs, represents one of the more successful attempts to build on that operational base.  [pp 21-22]


The new Cartwright and Harary paper (Reading 12) spells out at some length what can be achieved with graph theory.  [….]