Back to Topics Page

Archives by Topics: Systems Theory

"Within me I have known all the time that my work is on the trail of a completely new theory in psychiatry…"

— Dr. Bowen to Jamie Grady, September 30, 1970

My theoretical views have developed in the study of the family as an emotional system, and the extension of those concepts into larger social systems (this is not to be confused with general systems theory). The main body of psychiatric thinking is based on individual theory which is less comprehensive than a systems approach. I have long opposed psychiatrists’ tendency to extend partial theory into global explanations. The same reservations and cautions also apply to an extension of systems theory beyond specific knowledge. I believe that premature extension of theory closes a mind to new obvious facts, and it lulls the psychiatrist into believing he has knowledge he does not have. With tentative reservation, I occasionally indulge in enough broad systems theorizing to have a few ideas. I believe a systems theory is superior to current individual theory in explaining the human phenomenon. Most psychiatrists, who think in terms of individual theory, probably would not agree with this. No single piece of systems thinking will fit neatly into conventional theory. It is necessary to establish a new theoretical framework and this is a monumental task.

—Bowen's thoughts on a GAP Questionnaire by the Committee on International Relations, 1967

I have reached a nodal point in my effort to formulate a systems theory of human behavior. In 1956 I did a paper in which I said that we would eventually be able to understand schizophrenia when we could account for emotional events, physical functioning, physiology, chemistry, and genetic things all with the same theoretical frame of reference. I did not know what that meant in 1956. Slowly I am coming to recognize the implications of a statement made almost 25 years ago. Systems theory is the answer. The only problem is that the human mind is incapable of understanding more than a few superficial systems concepts. To understand another concept involves re-orientation of everything one thinks one knows. I have been on this systems thinking pursuit for 25 years and I have hardly scratched the surface, and I am about the best there is in adapting systems to human behavior. I think it will be another 25 years before a significant percentage of people are capable of discarding the old, and accepting systems ideas. In the past few months I have been saying that we will eventually be able to THINK systems “all the way,” and when that time comes we will be able to conceptualize the total of human existence within a single systems framework. Instead of compartmentalizing knowledge, we will conceptualize it as a whole, and then we will be able to have a single frame of reference for emotional, physical, physiological, chemical, genetic, and spiritual things, all with the same theory.

—Dr. Bowen to Family, April 27, 1980

The nodal point is to conceptualize spiritual phenomena into systems theory. I know it is possible and achievable in perhaps 50 to 100 years. Do not know why it took me so long to recognize it, except that is the way heads work. The field is complex going all the way from simple things such as fairly routine spirituality, extrasensory perception, and telepathic communication, to magic and mysticism, and voodooism, etc. I do not know enough about it to do more than frame a stage for effort, but I do know enough to add it as a 9th concept in my total theory. Systems Theory deals only with function, carefully bypassing all "why" reasoning.

—Dr. Bowen to Family, April 27, 1980

Dr. Bowen creating a diagram of family relationships in his office in Chevy Chase, MD, n.d. Photo by Charlie Bowen.