The Enlightenment and the systems approach

Recognizing social complexity in rational inquiry

Tinneke Beeckman       Last Saturday’s edition of Trouw – a Dutch newspaper – had an article on Tinneke Beeckman, a Flemish philosopher. She speaks regularly on Machiavelli, Spinoza and Nietzsche and has recently published a book in Dutch with a title that could be translated as “Power and powerlessness: an inquiry of the current attack on the Enlightenment” (available from e.g. Amazon). In this book she shows how the commotion over the 2015 Paris attacks (Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan) demonstrates that the Enlightenment ideals of truth and equality have been supplanted by the confusing ambiguity of post-modern thought.

enlightenment and its criticism

Enlightenment principles         The Enlightenment is based on three principles, the first of which is (1) rational inquiry. This is necessary for scientific progress but also to critically examine sacrosanct beliefs, including religious orthodoxies. Rational inquiry is based on facts and uses scientific methods. This brings us to two more principles: (2) the equal right of all people to conduct such inquiry; and (3) absolute disregard of any authority to oppose such critical inquiry. The Enlightenment principles are fundamental to a fair, free and progressive society, see concept map above. Conservative, unenlightened authorities tend to use beliefs to wield power to shackle people, control resources (often to their own benefit), and ignore inconvenient facts, even in the face of reason.

Michel Foucault     The great societal debates of today are debilitated by the prevalence of postmodern thought. This leaves us powerless in the face of wicked problems such as sinister fundamentalism and obdurate neoliberalism. Postmodern thought is epitomized by the influential French philosopher Michel Foucault, who criticized the key principle of the Enlightenment by emphasizing the limitations of rational inquiry due to subjective arbitrariness in judgment. He argues that after the ‘battle of perspectives’ (in the media), truth, like history, is written by the victors. Liberation can only follow by resisting the powers to prevail, because truth is subordinate to power and not the outcome of ‘rational inquiry’. Sadly, in all this the Enlightenment tool of reason plays a minor role. The former level playing field for reason is drowned by rhetoric and media mystification.

Nietzsche and Freud          Foucault and other postmodernists based themselves on Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment. To Nietzsche the Enlightenment, like for instance Christianity, was itself a sacrosanct belief that had to be rejected if we wanted to live in real freedom, because Reason (in itself) lacks zest. Freud, on the other hand, criticized sacrosanct beliefs in any guise, because they have been designed to reinforce one or several of a catalogue of pathological fears. Only by recognizing this mechanism we can liberate ourselves from false beliefs.

Beeckman’s  approach         In many of the current societal debates we chose to avoid conflict for fear of looking bad in the media. One way of avoiding conflict is by abstaining from the use of Reason, because rational inquiry may surface inconvenient truths that may appear Eurocentric or insensitive (e.g. to ‘vulnerable’ religious minorities) or arbitrary (e.g. to defenders of staunch liberalism). But the conflicts that led to the need for such rational inquiries do not go away. Besides, the arguments of Foucault and others are flawed. Paraphrasing Churchman we could say that rational inquiry is not a bad idea (i.e. a pretty good idea, two hurrays etc.).

Systems approach         From a systemic point of view, what is often lacking in rational inquiry is a proper understanding of the nature of the problems we are dealing with, i.e. o f the nature of so-called ‘wicked problems‘. Once we accept that many societal problems are very complex (i.e. systemic) in nature, we will find it easier to understand that we need forms of inquiry that do justice to such a systemic reality. The advantage of the systems approach could be formulated as: providing a better balance in the inquiry of (1) divergent perspectives (Foucault), (2) hidden or less hidden motivations (e.g. Freud), and (3) verifiable facts (Enlightenment rationality), unified by using (4) a purposive concept of social complexity (Nietzschean drive).

Wicked solutions          A practical format for applying the systems approach is described in:

  • Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems(First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from

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