The pure land of a(nti)teleology

Reversing the table on rationality, again and again

self-portrait-van-goghReading Churchman is like riding a conceptual rollercoaster. He never shies away from looking at things from totally different angles, opposites in particular, and not just occasionally but in quick succession, again and again. We have already seen that the systems approach is all about teleology, i.e. the idea that humans purposefully make designs to add value to their working lives, to improve the quality of their lives. Yet, many people distrust all this scheming and planning and much prefer to seek satisfaction in other ways. Instead of the systems approach, with its mixture of benefit and cost, assurance and risk, they prefer their lives to have a certain non-decomposable grandeur, passion, purity or unity, e.g. as in the way that a painter experiences his or her painting, a singer sings, an actor acts. This post summarizes Chapter 14 in Part II of Churchman’s “The design of inquiring systems”.

Speculations on systems design     … is the title of Part II of “The design of inquiring systems”. In previous posts I have written mostly on Part I “A classification of systems [of inquiry]”. In Part II, Churchman speculates on the nature of inquiring systems. Teleology (or the science of goal-seeking) is the conscious attempt to create a better world or a better live. One of the questions is: which aspects of an inquiring system to create the necessary knowledge or understanding cannot be made conscious? But if not all aspects can be made conscious, then how can we guarantee that it is right? What are the limits of artificial intelligence? How do we handle the relationship between relativism and non-relativism? Human nature is non-relativistic, so the concept of the guarantor comes out of their own individuality.


Simple teleology      In Churchman’s teleological model the designer plays a key role: not only does he design an intervention to improve (a problematic situation in) reality, but also does he or she design (or adapt) or choose inquiring system to produce the necessary knowledge that accurately represents reality. It is important to note that “the designer” is a role within the systems approach; this role could be played by a client (or beneficiary), a decision-maker or a hired expert. The clients (also a role) tend to look through the lens of their interests to whatever knowledge is generated by the inquiring system; this could be called their perspective. Since the client can also play the role of the designer he or she also uses an inquiring system to produce knowledge. The various frameworks for looking at reality can also be called perspectives. Perspectives are bipolar in the sense that they enable perception but also caution deception. In the systems approach the multiple aspects of reality are brought to light by contrasting the different perspectives. The multiple aspects are also bipolar in the sense that they have an actual and potential side. These are revealed by a boundary critique which is about the question whether aspects in some way are irrelevant or may contribute or counteracts to an optimum solution. Once known they are used in the final intervention design.

Antiteleology and ateleology       One of the main problems with the teleological model is that it is mostly based on thinking. It uses a rational approach to life and reality. But man is not just a thinking animal, he or she also has feelings (sadness, joy, happiness, anger, ‘heroic mood’, sense of beauty, sense of confidence), some of which are considered values, and not unimportant ones, in their own right. Another case that doesn’t fit the teleological model is that of the basic scientist, whose life is dominated by a strong desire to know more about the nature of reality. The value occurs in the satisfaction of that curiosity with no further goal in mind. The teleological mind may well rationalize the utility of basic science because it opens new possibilities for applications to serve particular goals, but that was not what drove the basic scientist.

Fundamental problems      Teleology is not entirely dissimilar to ateleology in the sense that once it has achieved its goal, it has no purpose. One could call this the ateleology of teleology. Another problem is that antiteleology may insist on the uniqueness of its feelings and abhors them to be subsumed in some way under one or the other of teleology’s generalizations. This also applies to the treatment of people in teleology. Churchman admits that “every teleological plan I have ever seen is based on treating some, perhaps all, people as means only “, contrary to Kant’s moral law. Consequently, every plan must be partially immoral. The answer to this is that the teleologist may believe, like Kant, Singer and Churchman, in “a gradual convergence of morality and systems planning or [..] between antiteleology and teleology.”

Conclusion     At the end of Chapter 16 Churchman asks: “What kind of a world must it be in which inquiry becomes possible?” Are we not stuck in an impure land of teleology with an endless reversing of the table? Are we not simply incapable of developing a feeling of unity in situations of complex conglomerates? What is the role of politics and management? Is it true that a fool may ask more questions in one hour than a wise man can answer in seven years? Is all wisdom folly or all folly wise? In the second but last sentence of the book, Churchman writes that “conclude” comes from the Latin concludere, meaning “to shut up together”; in one sense it means a Lockean community which agrees to shut up. He adds that “This inquiring system dissents. [..] The only conclusion of a philosophical discussion is a question.”

Postscript      The answer to Churchman’s final question may be: A world which is capable of implementing inquiry in a way that does the fullest and equitable justice possible to everybody involved. The “-cludere” in the Latin concludere not only means to lock up or shut up, but also to limit or enclose. This meaning bears close resemblance to the verb “to bound” in the sense of “to set the boundaries of”. In its substantive form we find it back in the final steps of Wicked Solutions, viz. boundary critique and boundary decisions. ‘Boundary’ can be considered one of three fundamental systems concepts, the other two being ‘inter-relationships’ and ‘perspectives’. A design is defined by its boundaries. Any design of an intervention to improve a complex situation can be considered an approximation to an ideal, in which the ideal of unity is replaced by that of intersubjective relevance. Civilization then is the restless effort to create an optimum balance between comprehensive thinking, passionate feeling and endless curiosity.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s