Reason as a basis for rational decision-making

As a co-author of Wicked Solutions: a Systems Approach to Complex Problems (2016, $12 pdf version available here) I have a practical understanding of how the systems approach could be applied very effectively to real-world problems and for well over a year now feel a deep urge to get to the bottom of this ‘Systems Approach.’ So far I have finished reading Churchman’s great trilogy (The Systems Approach, The Design of Inquiring Systems, and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies) and am now reading Thoughts and Wisdom (TW, 1982), Challenge to Reason (CR, 1968) and so on. Initially, my hope was that reading TW and CR would be more like a quick check whether I had really understood ‘my’ Churchman, but it turned out to become anything but quick, and most certainly dazzling. Little wonder that Noam Chomsky held Churchman in such high esteem. As a result of all this reading my postings to my CSL4D blog have come to a halt in January 2017. I will resume posting from now, mostly to keep a written record of my progress in dissecting and reassembling Churchman´s work. This is the first of what I intend to turn into a comprehensive series of in-depth Churchman notes, starting with my notes on Chapter 7 of Challenge to Reason: Rational Decision Making. It is the first chapter of Part II in which he explores what it might mean if “indeed, reason is that function of man that enables him to look at himself and to raise questions about everything he does.” (CR 91).

The concept of reason     … is elusive. It is closely linked to our origin as a human species, i.e. as Homo sapiens. In Chapter 7 of Challenge to Reason Churchman critically reviews six or seven ideas about reason that we have inherited from earlier thinkers such as Spinoza, Hegel, Popper, Jung and others. Churchman then tries to establish an alternative using his dialectical approach of whole system rationality, which is in fact a systems approach to understand the underlying rationality of the systems approach.

Spinozean logic    … is the first of the schools of thinking that Churchman considers. It can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy and Descartes, of course. It works very elegantly by first establishing a set of axioms that are so self-evident that they are beyond even the most radical form of doubt. From there a set of rules is applied in a number of steps to arrive at conclusions that are equally impervious to the skeptical mind. A nice idea that works pretty well in mathematics, but is much less convincing for organizing our thinking processes for making decisions in the real world.

Process of discovery     Here Churchman refers in quick succession to both Hegel and Popper. Hegel is best known for his dialectical approach, while Popper wrote a book The Logic of Discovery, in which falsification plays a key role (no falsifiability, then no science). Now, Churchman is a scientist and he must have read Popper with great interest, but he must have rejected the idea of falsification (probably in baffling, idiosyncratic style) when it comes to rational decision-making. As to Hegel, he loved the whole thesis-antithesis-synthesis idea (I know, Hegel never expressed it in these words), be it with little twist: the antithesis is not simply the denial (falsification?) of the thesis, but is rather a statement with the transformative power to pave the way for imagining a synthesis that transcends both opposites.

Jungean rationality     … is another thing altogether. Now Churchman really likes Jung a lot, including his idea of everything having shadow aspects. Jung famously created a theory of personality types, which was further developed into the Myers-Briggs typology that you may have heard of (I happen to be a rather rare INFJ-A with touches of INTJ and ISTJ). In Churchman´s interpretation of Jung´s key mental functions (Thinking, iNtuition, Feeling and Sensation) both thinking and feeling are ‘rational’ functions that deal with decision-making, while intuition and sensation are nonrational. To Churchman this is too narrow. In his view, reason characterizes the whole of life including the functions of intuition and sensation. “Reason has to do with the way in which human beings understand what human life means.” (CR 97).

Power and reason      Rationality is often defined by a ruling class or elite. This type of reason then becomes the basis of planning. Modern man abhors this idea although it is still very much entrenched everywhere. Instead we now prefer rationality to reflect our inner convictions. Some of these convictions then tend to get an aura of sanctity with axioms expressing rules of behaviour. A common reaction to whole system rationality is that it has no way of handling power relations. That doesn’t make it any less rational, except in terms of implementation. Such criticism is to be duly considered.

Game theory      …. is able describe rational conduct in the context of conflict as long as there is a recognizable set of rules governing “fair play”. Unfortunately, the practical value of game theory is rather limited. Moreover, it seems to lack an adequate moral basis, because it says very little about the worthiness of the goals of the game, which could well be geared toward genocide and other evil objectives. Talking about mass murder, in the 1950s RAND Corporation has been interested in the development of game theory for applications to global nuclear strategy. There may yet be a link between game theory and the systems approach: the latter’s multi-perspective aspect could be considered a whole-system rationality way of creating win-win situations.

Natura Artis Magistra      …. Is the name of the “royal” Amsterdam zoo, supposedly meaning “nature is the teacher of art”, so why not the art of reason. The origin of the saying is not quite known, but some suggest (sorry, Dutch source) it derives from Freitag’s Mythologia Ethica (sorry, all in Latin). Churchman objects against nature as the foundation of rational design, because whatever we observe in nature as ‘rationality’ cannot be more than human projection. The same applies to nature’s ethics, which belongs in a book of fables such as Freitag’s. By way of diversion I would like to point to the viable system model (VSM) of a self-sustaining organization, which was developed by Stafford-Beer. The funny thing is that the book in which he described the model, Brain of the Firm, has long been in use by biology students, who needed a model of brain. So perhaps it is time for a new saying: “management is the teacher of nature?”

Churchman’s radical alternative     … is based on the idea that “reason is the process by which man is able to look at himself” and his social institutions. Now, “for something to be able to look at itself, it must look at itself as though it were something other” (CR 106).  This may sound a bit cryptic, but it simply means that we can reason about one social institution by using another social institution as a lens. It is fascinating to see how Churchman uses this method all the time. He picks a social framework (e.g. science, management, politics, religion, education) and applies it to another in order to facilitate self-reflection using the whole system. One example was given in a previous chapter of Challenge to Reason (“The role of the well-informed public”) where Churchman shows that:

“the evolution of the rationality of politics will include the development of politics as a science, as a management, as a religion, as an educational system. In other words to make politics more of an educational system, that is, to develop a political life of our society in which politics will create the well-informed public.”

The maximum loop      is the title of Part II of Challenge to Reason. At the end of the present chapter Churchman outlines what he intends to explore in the remaining chapters of Part II:

“It is impossible to determine the rationality of conduct in one framework alone, as those who try to develop basic axioms of rational behavior attempt to do. Nor is rational conduct simply a development along certain prescribed lines, as evolutionary theory suggests. The test of the rationality of an institution, or a company, or a person, is the determination of the manner in which X functions as Y, and the way in which Y functions as X. For something to be able to look at itself, it must look at itself as though it were something other. What is not explained is the meaning of “function as.” What is entailed in “considering” management as science, or science as management? In the end, the answer will probably be, “I’m not sure.” But a few explorations of the idea in the chapters that follow may help to clarify as well as to confuse.”

Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. Retrieved from


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
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