CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

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Human teleology in Plessner’s philosophical anthropology

The double aspectivty of human eccentric positionality

Philosophical anthropology          Why would a blog on systems thinking be concerned with philosophical anthropology? Because systems thinkers themselves claim that systems thinking, including systemic design, may be traced to the origin of man. Churchman writes: “It’s quite likely that the tradition of the systems approach goes back to primitive man.” One of his students, Harold Nelson, writes: “Humans did not discover fire – they designed it.” The German-Jewish philosopher Helmuth Plessner, who survived German Nazism by fleeing to the Netherlands, elaborated on what everybody more or less knows: human beings, and that probably includes prehistoric man, cannot stop thinking and doing new things. A similar observation was made by American management scientist and philosopher Churchman: people think and do new things, but not always for the better. Problems abound, people disagree, solutions fail. Perhaps things would improve if we had a better understanding of reality, human nature, problems and how to go about them. Assuming Plessner, who pioneered the then new discipline of philosophical anthropology, may hold part of the answer, I made a concept map of his core ideas. I also described the concept map and added a few notes.

Eccentric positionality     ….is Plessner’s self-coined term for the particular pre-rational, pre-conscious situation all humans find themselves in. As an apriori characteristic of the human mind it is easiest to understand by making a comparison with the animal mind, say of a dog. Animal minds work mostly instinctively, by reflexes, that is by responding directly to external stimuli, without much learning. The animal mind is mostly in the center of its experience of life. The human mind works in a completely different way, namely by separating out a number of perspectives as a necessary precondition for its learning and inquiring habits. A person experiences his/her body internally in the same way as an animal (1), but in addition also creates a conscious mental image of his/her body (2) in its environment (or theatre of operation) as one body among others. Similarly, people experience psychological activity directly as a constant source of urges (3), like animals, but also use their mind as a mental apparatus to consciously, reflexively and deliberately apply to anything that catches their interest or attention (4). Finally, people have a non-reflexive ‘I’-dentity (5), which differs from their ‘constructed’ social identity as part of a larger ‘We’ (6). Their non-animal consciousness and mental activity are the result of the outer perspective, which positions them eccentrically, that is at some ‘distance’ from their more animal-like inner centre.

Bipolar biology    Plessner summarizes the previous paragraph by stating that human eccentric positionality is the result of human double aspectivity (i.e. having both an inner and outer perspective). This is deeply rooted in the bipolar nature of our bodies, which have both a mental and physical pole. The resulting eccentricity extends to all three worlds, the inner mental world, the outer physical world, and the social middle world. Plessner concludes that people are hard-wired to be eccentric, which means they are also hard-wired to seek re-establishment of the animal sense of unity or centricity. In other words, man’s atavistic centripetence is what defines him as modern human.

Anthropological principles      Plessner derives three anthropological principles from this eccentric positionality: (1) natural artificiality; (2) mediated immediacy; and (3) utopian location. Natural artificiality points to the idea man is always seeking to re-establish centricity, which urges him/her endlessly to discover and invent things, from technology and culture to institutions and systems. Whitehead (in The function of reason: 8; see also below) speaks of a three-fold urge (i) to live, (ii) to live well, and (iii) to live better, where the last instance purports to acquire an increase in satisfaction (which Plessner claims – and experience shows – to be always transient in nature). The second principle points to the idea that as a living body, we mediate our (immediate) contact with the world by getting our physical body to do things. This inherent instrumental nature of corporeality and its limitations implies the need to enhance our bodies by means of discoveries and inventions. We cannot experience the world directly, so we must make use of models to modify our environment.

Warnings against totalitarianism   The third principle may perhaps be linked to Plessner’s biography and his being half-Jewish and born in Wiesbaden, Germany. The principle says that man’s fundamental homelessness and inadequacy produces a sense of uncertainty and insecurity, which makes him/her susceptible to various forms of idealism. Like contemporaries such as Popper and Churchman, Plessner warns against the lure of totalitarianism, although each of them does it in his own way. Churchman does so by pointing out that so-called solutions almost always involve some train of reason which ends in totalitarianism, especially when solutions are large scale, say global, which may nevertheless seem necessary (Spaceship Earth: “Houston, we have a problem”; Houston: “We are the problem!”). The same applies to Popper who said that large-scale solutions should be ‘feared’, so it is better to opt for small steps and closely monitor what happens before deciding on any next step. Ideal planning (as in Wicked Solutions) is a way of formulating ideals for systemic inquiry of each next step. The dialectical systems approach of Churchman could be considered a thorough form of critical inquiry to elucidate any potential negative implications to any potential victims so as to improve planning. This is also a precondition for real transparency in decision-making.

Capra, Whitehead etcetera     Whitehead’s process philosophy derives from a phenomenological-philosophical analysis of human experience, not entirely dissimilar to Plessner’s. An examples is where Whitehead speaks of the “withness [of the body] that makes [it] the starting point for our knowledge of the circumambient world” (1978: 81). Whitehead incorporated evolution in his philosophy, which he himself characterized as a philosophy of organism. One of his conclusions is that the whole of nature is organic and sentient, all the way down to atomic and subatomic entities, an idea that has been much ridiculed. Much later, Fritjof Capra (and Pier Luigi Luisi) looked at evolution, especially at the very beginning the origin of life, and the origin of the human species and the evolutionary link between consciousness and social phenomena (Capra, 2014). Capra incorporates a lot of systems thought in his book, which holds may insights that are complementary to those of both Churchman and Whitehead. No single system of understanding or inquiry can ever hope to encompass the whole of human reality. Perhaps a juxtaposition of the major representatives of three or four schools of thought or disciplines (systems philosophy, anthropology, evolutionary biology, pragmatism, phenomenology) could help us stay in line. If this post is anything to go by, then Churchman, Plessner, and Whitehead are good names to start with.

Afterthought       In this blog post I have shown how three great ideas can be seen to converge: 1. a naturalistic diagnosis of the human condition (Plessner); 2. a speculative cosmology of the processual nature of (human) reality involving e.g. bipolar actual entities (Whitehead); and 3. a pragmatic systems approach to properly handle (human) ideals and wicked problems (Churchman). A fourth idea could also fit in, but is not dealt with in this post: a systemic view of life (Capra), which has interesting linkages with the other three.  I admit to be aware that most people will be totally disinterested in anything resembling cosmology, philosophy and anthropology, while the remaining people will be keen to defend other cosmologies, philosophies, and anthropologies, usually from a religious vantage point. The trouble with most religions is that they not only tend to rely on faith, promises of heaven or paradise, and other illusory mental schemes, but also tend to encourage division between people in varying degrees, some extremely so. Besides, they fail to be of much pragmatic value, except where they encourage a general benign attitude to other people, which could provide fertile ground for ‘great idea no. 3’. The advantage of such a ‘great scheme of convergence’ is that it does not necessarily make any illusory claims that require a leap of faith, so it can be subjected to critical inquiry or used as a framework or system of inquiry.

  • The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy, Olav Bryant Smith, 2010 (full)
  • The relevance and applicability of process metaphysics to organizational research, Per Ingvar Olsen, 2011 (full)
  • Anthropology: A Continental Perspective, Christoph Wulf, 2013 (preview)
  • The function of reason, Alfred North Whitehead, 1929 (Internet archive)
  • Process and Reality, A.N. Whitehead 1929/1978 (Internet archive)
  • Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology, Jos de Mul (ed.), 2014 (sample)
  • The systems view of life, Fritjof Capra, 2014 (introduction)


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Concept mapping the state of the world

The view of Van Kappen, former advisor of Kofi Annan

Yesterday I listened to a 20-minute radio item about current threats to world peace or what is left of it. The show can be listened to online here (in Dutch, sorry). The interviewee was Frank van Kappen, Major General, Senator, former advisor of the Secretary General of the United Nations etc. etc. The interview was about his growing concern about the increasing threat to global stability. So it’s about Russia, the US, China, Europe, North Korea, the Islam, and the rest of the world. In my previous post on soft operational analysis I discussed a NATO report, which incidentally wrote some very nice things about concept mapping as “an example of ‘soft’ OA: [in] a concept map … key concepts and their relationships are depicted in order to create a structured visual image of the ‘problematic situation’. Its purpose is creating clarity, focus and enabling communication and debate.” Let’s see if the NATO report was right. What follows is a description of my concept map of Van Kappen’s perceptive view of the current state of the world and what could be done to improve matters a bit. 

Rule-based World Order       … is the central theme in Van Kappen’s view. There is a lot of talk these days about the emerging world order, but little attention is paid to what preceded it and why. The rule-based world order emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War. It involved the creation of a global platform for diplomacy, called the United Nations (UN), and a global platform for encouraging global trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has replaced – after the Cold War – the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In addition there existed more or less informal mechanisms for preventing the escalation of conflicts from turning into full-blown nuclear war. These mechanisms were necessary because diplomacy can be sluggish at times, while rockets are damned fast, these days. Almost any place on earth can be ‘nuked’ in 30 minutes. The rule-based world order (RWO) has been relatively peaceful and certainly prosperous, though not for all.

China wants to change    … the rule-based world order, because it reflects the interests of the West or so it claims. What is sure is that China has benefited enormously of this world order and the US decision in the 1970s to draw China into it in spite of Chinese expansionism in North Korea, against Taiwan, and in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Birma and Tibet (Levin, 2015). Thanks to the Americans Continue reading

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Soft operational analysis (OA)

Contrasting soft OA with Churchman’s systems approach

It is not often that I come across a concept map in a systems book. In fact, in the more than six years that I have studied soft systems thinking, in particular Churchman’s systems approach, I have not even once come across a single proper concept map of the type devised by Joe Novak of the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC), which is of the  type that I would call a concept map (proper). This blog is full of them, so I am obviously a true-to-hart aficionado, even though I do not follow all IHMC recommendation in my drawing practice. In this post I will redraw the concept map that I found and will examine some of its key aspects.

Soft OA concept map     The first ever systems thinking concept map I have come across is the one depicting the key elements of ‘soft’ operational analysis (OA) on p. 49 of the “Analyst-Oriented Volume: Code of Best Practice for ‘Soft’ Operational Analysis” of the “NATO Guide for Judgement-Based Operational Analysis in Defence Decision Making”, which was published in 2012 and is available here. The report writes some very nice things about concept mapping: “This figure in itself is an example of ‘soft’ OA: a concept map where key concepts and their relationships are depicted in order to create a structured visual image of the ‘problematic situation’. Its purpose is creating clarity, focus and enabling communication and debate.”

Limits of concept mapping       I could not have said it better, except for one crucial point: In my experience it is very difficult, if not impossible, to represent the full problem space of any problematique  or wicked problem in a single concept map. There are simply too many conflicting decision or design issues involved. A ‘systems smart’ dissolution or resolution will always involve a mental jump of some kind, a kind of “ah-ha!” experience, before we see a way ahead. The NATO guide puts so much emphasis on validity and credibility that we may fall in the same trap as the past ‘rigour’ proponents, which may trouble our troubled view even further.

concept map of 'soft' operational analysisElements of soft OA      Very briefly, decision-makers are faced with ill-structured, wicked problems that have decision issues that are seemingly impossible to address adequately. Yet, they need action plans or at the very least get some very good ideas of how to move forward. Soft OA suggests that rational study designs can enable the structuring and understanding of the wicked decision issues. These study designs are carried out by the stakeholders involved, including the decision-makers and clients, using appropriate problem resolving methods suggested by ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ soft OA analysts under the guidance of ‘neutral’ soft OA facilitators. If the analysts follow best practice the validity of the study results can be assured, which in turn leads to credibility and acceptability to the key decision makers. Crucially, Continue reading

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The uncertainty triangle

I am currently reading the “Analyst-Oriented Volume: Code of Best Practice for ‘Soft’ Operational Analysis” of the “NATO Guide for Judgement-Based Operational Analysis in Defence Decision Making”, which was published in 2012 and is available here. The guide is the product of an international team and provides for very interesting reading to those of us who are deeply interested in soft systems thinking. I came across an interesting diagram, which I would like to discuss briefly.

Uncertainty         In chapter 2 “Problematic situations and ‘soft’ OA” we find the normal explanation of the nature of wicked problems or messes. One of the takeaways of the chapter is that “Uncertainty is one of the key phenomena that need to be addressed in a problematic situation as it characterises a problematic situation to a large extent.” There is no doubt about that. Churchman developed the (dialectical) systems approach as his philosophical life’s effort to enable management “to secure improvements in the human condition by means of the human intellect.” (Churchman 1982, 19). By the verb “secure” he meant that in the larger system over time the improvement persists.

The problem with messes       Problem solving often appears to produce improvement, but the so-called “solution” often makes matters worse in the larger system. This has given rise to the concept of “wicked problems” or “messes”, which chapter 2 in the NATO report explains really well. “The important point is that in managing messes, the best we can hope for is to dissolve them. Next best is to resolve them. The notion that [wicked] problems can rarely be solved is so important that we cannot stress it enough.” (Mitroff et al. 2013, 21) Hence, the pervasive sense of uncertainty.

The uncertainty triangle         … was first suggested by Dreborg et al. (1994). In order to cope with uncertainty, three basic attitudes or biases towards it may be distinguished:  (1) prediction, which tries to make as accurate predictions as possible; (2) control, which seizes the initiative and takes control of the relevant parts of the environment; and (3) acceptance, which admits that one can never know exactly what is going to happen, so 100% accurate prediction or 100% complete control can never be achieved, especially when preparing a response to wicked problems or complex messes. One possible response would be to design a flexible, module-based response strategy in preparation of any contingency or challenge that might occur. In general, best response uses a mix of all three attitudes or biases. Adopting only one will be rarely sufficient. That’s good advice.

Churchman’s search for assurance      In 1968 Churchman designed a generic framework to better cope with the problem of uncertainty in social planning, i.e. all planning involving humans, including Continue reading

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Elevator pitch for the systems approach

In our working lives and beyond we are increasingly faced with ill-structured complexities that defy conventional problem solving methods. Underlying assumptions, scope, purposes, patterns, mechanisms, and their relevance or significance must be critically examined and so should the identification of people who can best contribute to this critique. A well-founded methodology for this is the dialectical systems approach of Churchman, an American philosopher and management scientist who lived from 1913 to 2004. A powerful step-by-step method for learning Churchman’s approach is described in “Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems.” This method provides (1) a common framework and vocabulary to (2) structure complex organizational and business problems and develop (3) innovative, effective ways to address them. It is (4) a highly generic approach suited to (5) a broad range of team learning conditions. It also introduces study participants to (6) critical and systems thinking and is well suited for (7) integration in secondary and tertiary curriculum. No student should leave college or university without a critical working knowledge of the general characteristics of ubiquitous ill-structured, wicked problems and one or more generic methods to address them. (First approximation, 181 words).

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Meaningfulness as key systems dimension

Or how to fit humans in systems thinking fittingly

There is a lot of talk about social systems design and human systems approaches in this blog, but the human dimension seems to be missing sometimes. While exploring the question of how human systems thinking evolved, i.e. in the Darwinian sense of the word, I came across the Princeton University Institute for Human Values (UCHV), in particular their publications page. Two publications drew my attention: Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” (2009) and Susan Wolf’s “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters” (2010). Maybe I am lazy, but I didn’t read the books (I don’t have access and my book cases are full), so I just watched De Waal’s Ted Talk (here) and Wolf’s 2017 Shipka lecture (there) to enlighten me. De Waal surprised me (elephants!), but Wolf gave me something that I have been searching for a while: a fundamental way to fit people in systems thinking from a deeply personal, individual point of view. So that’s what I am going to summarize in this blog (see concept map with in grey my additions). I also think that Wolf should get together with De Waal and a few others (e.g. Christopher Boehm) to tentatively integrate evolutionary anthropology. It is my personal belief that if we can show that human biology evolved simultaneously with evolutionary serendipitous discovery-invention-design of speech, fire, tools, morality AND systems thinking (all of them social!) there is a stronger case to bring systems thinking to the forefront in human debate (democracy, governance), business development, and education (all of them social).

The best possible life       …according to Aristotle, can simply be found by asking “why” recursively. At the end you will find that if you consequently pursue your self-interest in answering these “why” questions you will attain happiness, the pursuit of which even made it into the American declaration of independence. This is the monistic model of morally virtuous activity (see Bush, 2008). (In fact, happiness was also a guiding principle in the Dutch constitution of 1801 during the French occupation – and pillage – of the Netherlands from 1794 to 1815, which would seem to make ‘happiness’ an important Enlightenment principle. Implementation problems of all sorts are what give principles their bad name, as does a narrow, ‘theoretical’ understanding of them.)

The dualistic model      … is also described in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, at least in some interpretations. The dualistic view is more prominent in Kant. “Though you own individual happiness gives you one kind of reason for action, … morality or duty or the impersonal good of the world gives you another.” (Wolf’s speech). This is the model that corresponds to altruistic, impersonal, objective purposes in life, whereas the monistic model corresponds to the self-centered, personal, subjective purposes in life.

The fulfilment model     Both the monistic and dualistic model do not satisfy Susan Wolf. She looks at her life and finds that it is neither morality Continue reading

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Good Will and the Philosopher-King

Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leaders genuinely and adequately philosophize … cities will have no rest from evils, nor will the human race.

Read essay as PDF                               Socrates in Plato’s Republic, Book 5, section 473c    

When Alfred North Whitehead (1978) stated that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, he had in mind the “inexhaustible mine of suggestion” of his writings, which served as an inspiration to so many thinkers, in so many different ways. The philosopher-king sentence, quoted above, is perhaps the most famous in all of Plato. Much has been said about this concept. One thing is certain: not everybody approved of Plato’s idea.

Churchman developed the (dialectical) systems approach as his philosophical life’s effort to enable management “to secure improvements in the human condition by means of the human intellect.” (Churchman 1982, 19) Management is understood here as the interplay between three groups of people: the clients or beneficiaries, the decision-makers, and the planners (Churchman 1979, 79). Government is a form of management, but so is living one’s life. In all cases, it is about improving social systems, which can be anything, from families to businesses, projects, city-states (like Plato’s Athens or Syracuse), empires, religions or planet Earth. Designing the systems approach is an exercise in generality.

By the verb “secure” he meant that in the larger system over time the improvement persists. This includes what we mean today when we speak of sustainability and effectiveness. Systems are in a constant flux, so to make anything persist, in particular improvements in the human condition, is quite a challenge. First of all because problem solving often appears to produce improvement, but the so-called “solution” often makes matters worse in the larger system. This has given rise to the concept of “wicked problems” or “messes”.

“The important point is that in managing messes, the best we can hope for is to dissolve them. Next best is to resolve them. The notion that [wicked] problems can rarely be solved is so important that we cannot stress it enough.” (Mitroff et al. 2013, 21; includes a Jungian personality approach to systems) They require more than just knowledge to address them. Wisdom must come in. Enters Plato’s philosopher-king. Begging the question of the significance of Churchman’s systems approach. A quick historical survey seems in place.

Taken literally, the concept of the philosopher-king was met with approval by some great minds. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors (here), tried hard to be one. Erasmus (here) believed that the best ruler must be a wise man, “not someone who is clever at dialectics or science but someone who rejects illusory appearance and undauntedly seeks out and follows what is true and good.”

Machiavelli’s prince seems to be quite the opposite of the philosopher-king, while Karl Popper linked Plato’s idealism via Marx’s historicism to Continue reading

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