Wicked problems according to Schumacher

Or what the author of Small is Beautiful says on complexity

schumacherVery short biography      Schumacher is an influential 20th century economist, best known for writing Small is Beautiful (1973), which deals with socio-economic sustainability and  development economics. After his escape from Nazi Germany in the 1930s he was interned in the UK as an enemy alien before his release by John Maynard Keynes, the man who revolutionized neoclassical economics. Schumacher has been involved in the economic reconstruction of post-war Germany and developed his “Buddhist economics” while in Burma in the late 1950s. He was influenced by scholasticism (Thomas Aquinas) and 20th century catholic thinkers. Originally an atheist, he converted to Catholicism in 1971, but had no qualms about religious pluralism. He was also a humorous man.

Click on the image for the full concept map of Schumacher’s ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics for
human survival (yes, he was also a serious man ;-)) or read on for a description.

A guide for the perplexed        Schumacher finished A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) five days before his death. It provides the philosophical underpinnings for Small is Beautiful (as opposed to “bigger is better”). In it, he unfolds a system of thought that could help people find a way of life to meet the challenges of the contemporary world without despair. His four “great truths” are that: (1) reality has at least four levels of being; (2) each level requires its own means for understanding it (the principle of adaequatio); (3) four fields of knowledge permit the study of reality; and (4) the meaning of living in the world is intertwined with the problems it poses. The words “intertwined”, “perplexed”, and “complexity” are closely related. Schumacher argues that we would do wise to handle the world’s complexity and our own perplexity in tandem.

Four levels of being      Similar to Thomism, Schumacher claims that there are at least four levels of being: (1) non-living matter; (2) animate plants; (3) conscious animals; and (4) self-aware humans. These four levels are ontologically discontinuous (i.e. fundamentally different) by the progressive presence of life, consciousness, and self-awareness. There is no discernible ceiling, so there is no reason why this progression cannot be extended. Other progressions can be formulated in terms of motion, causality, freedom, integration, interiority/visibility, time, and space (see full concept map). By extending these progressions into the unknown next level (if it exists, but we cannot know that), it is possible to hypothesize some qualities of a spiritual or religious world, essence, or “otherness” (epiphenomenous or not), including invisibility, omniscience, omnipresence, and motivation for inner unity or integration. Perhaps self-knowledge can help us look through the indiscernible ceiling for more integrated solutions.

Four fields of knowledge     Schumacher distinguishes: (1) self-knowledge; (2) knowledge of the self of others; (3) knowledge of the self as seen by others; and (4) knowledge of the outside world. Following the principle of adaequatio, science is most suited for studying the lowest level of reality. Schumacher further distinguishes instructional science (e.g. physics) from descriptive science (e.g. botany). He warns against methodological lapses when attempting to apply instructional principles to higher levels of reality: absence of evidence ≠ evidence of absence. As to self-knowledge, Schumacher is convinced that it is foundational to the other fields of knowledge. It helps one to get into gear with the deeper insights that have been described by thinkers in the East and the West. Attentive exploration may help to make these insights one´s own. Knowledge of the self of others is difficult, because it is only accessible indirectly. It can be enhanced by trying to acquire knowledge of the self as seen by others. This gives real meaning to the golden rule, which may provide us with another clue to solving intractable problems.

Convergent and divergent problems     Convergent problems are (relatively simple) problems that converge to a solution. Schumacher gives the example of designing a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transport, which ultimately converged to the bicycle as we know it. Divergent problems, however, will never converge, because they are caught between opposite tendencies. According to Schumacher, life is full of these divergent problems. They are mostly of the type “freedom” versus “order”. Typical examples include “freedom” versus “equality” in politics, and “freedom” versus “discipline” in education. It is worth noting that “freedom” and “integration” are two of the progressions observed between the different levels of being. Being opposites, the best approach is one of constant balancing. This means that the satisfaction of unification can only be obtained at a higher level, for which we need faculties of a higher order. Honing and using these faculties for handling divergent problems is the meaning of living in this world. In Schumacher’s view, this is intricately linked to acquiring higher levels of knowledge, self-knowledge in particular.

Implications for wicked problems      It can be concluded that many problems are too “wicked” to be provided with a “final solution” (excuse the term). Instead they should be handled by continually balancing opposing polarities, such as “freedom” and “order”. These are both powerful organizing principles, but where negative externalities become excessive, one of the two should be carefully allowed to encroach onto some of the most damaging aspects of the other. This demands great sensibility, requiring both good governance and higher levels of knowledge. None of this will come any closer without a higher level of social consciousness at the same scale as the problem at hand. It may help to train more people in using tools for solving wicked problems, such as critical system heuristics. Maybe it is time for “wicked problems : the board game” or better still: “wicked (world) problems : the massively multiplayer online role-playing game?”

A summing up       Schumacher came up with the above philosophical scheme after he had written Small is Beautiful, in which he tried to rebalance economic growth, the satisfaction it creates, and the external damage it does. It would seem that the current extreme imbalances in globalization are the absolute opposite of what he had in mind and an illustration of what he warned against when advocating for alternative forms of governance. The energy problem is still far from solved. We continue to expand well beyond our natural bounds. Almost exactly 40 years ago he already noted “our disappointment with the effectiveness of aid”. Perhaps the wickedest problem of all is the question of how to handle this pack of wicked problems that continues unabated. Is there something systemic about the group as a whole? And if so, does it require a worldwide mental reset as suggested in A Guide for the Perplexed?
This post was produced using concept mapping and structured writing (see earlier posts). It is mostly based on the following two publications:

An excellent overview of systems approaches, including critical systems heuristics, can be found in:

For more information on critical systems thinking, see:

About csl4d

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2 Responses to Wicked problems according to Schumacher

  1. Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:



    Tom Ritchey

    • Thanks a lot for the tip. Your work is very interesting, not only for showing the versatility of morphological analysis, but also for your insights in the requirements of problem structuring methods (PSMs) for dealing with wicked problems in general. What I really need, though, is an authoritative overview of the various PSMs available coupled to a typology of (wicked) problems in a way to allow (a) a quick selection of the best PSM for a particular problem at hand; (b) a good understanding of WHY certain PSM’s are suited to particular problems.

      Sjon van ‘t Hof, The Netherlands, sjonvanthof@xmsnet.nl

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