The principle of apperception

The core of the systems approach?

Chapter eleven, “The Humor of Science,” was given at the New York Chapter of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS, part of INFORMS, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) in May, 1965 under the title of “The Humor of Management Science.” It is one of Churchman’s shorter addresses (only 8 pages in Challenge to Reason (CR) ). In it he posits apperception as a central principle in the systems approach. And there is a role for humor, too.

Applied and pure sciences       Just like in a contemporaneous address (see previous post ), Churchman makes a distinction between applied and pure research. Pure science works on small, isolated problems in relative isolation from society, whereas applied science takes on real world problems. Pure science is often dead serious, while applied science has to handle the confusion of complex reality, in which – wicked – problems get entangled in such a way that it is no longer clear what the problem ‘really’ is. Wicked problems make ‘fun’ of decision-makers and management consultants alike and need to be disentangled in some way. The question is: how?

Principle of apperception        The systems approach looks at human activity systems. One of the key questions is what the purpose is or ought to be of a particular human activity. In entangled – that is, wicked – problems we easily make all the wrong assumptions about that. Apperception enhances our perception. Perception means looking at something in a meaningful – that is, a purposive – way (CR 139). Apperception means the act of looking at the same thing (or activity) in two quite different ways. But it is more than that. It also connotes a mood (CR 140). The principle of apperception now becomes: “if you can’t see a purpose activity in two very different ways with different moods, you have failed to formulate the problem.” This “principle of scientific method [is] at least as compelling as any to be found in the logic of hypothesis testing” (CR141). Just as a reminder I point out that hypothesis testing is at the core of the truth finding mission of pure science, so Churchman could not have used stronger words.

Humor and irony        So, the applied sciences – and management science in particular – have a problem identification mission. And the principle of apperception is at the core of it. Hence the development of the inquiring system of the systems approach. The irony is that these notions have not yet – that is after just over 52 years – trickled down to the near-totality of decision-makers and their expert advisers. It would appear that the general acceptance of the systems approach presents a wicked problem of far greater magnitude than Churchman could have ever imagined. The solutions is known. Contrary to the detached pure scientist, the applied scientist must learn to ‘sweep’ himself into the world of reality. How this works is described in detail. The process involves the humors or …

Moods of apperception      “When we apperceive that the world is going to the dogs, our mood is melancholic; our image may be that men are seeking an atom-blasted earth, or that men are bent on evil, or whatever. When we apperceive that the world is an evolutionary process, our mood may be sanguine; our image may be biological, hierarchical, divine. When we apperceive that the world is an unfair game, our mood may be choleric; our image one of wolves or werewolves. When we listen long to speeches and observe them in a detached manner, our mood may be phlegmatic; our image a world of noise. And finally, there is that spirit-freeing mood called the humorous. Its blessed quality is that it puts no further demands on the human spirit. The melancholic, the sanguine, the choleric, the phlegmatic all have their “therefores.” But humor never does. It preaches no lesson, it insists on nothing whatever. If the [human] spirit soars, no strings are attached.” (CR 140-141).

The management consultant        …. “constructs models, makes observations, maximizes objective functions, all in a phlegmatic mood. But now comes the point of trying to change reality—to improve it. What arrogance! Now he is no longer phlegmatic. He must look at the whole world. But with a mixture of moods. If he turns sanguine, he sees himself and his recommendations as potentially doing good in the world. If he turns choleric, he sees himself as battling all the stupidity and dishonesty of men. If he turns melancholic, he sees the whole world as going down to inevitable destruction. A most marvelous mood combines the sanguine and the melancholic. (This is possible because, you know, emotions don’t know anything about the law of contradiction.) This combination gives the heroic mood of the preceding chapter; it combines the aspirations of a do-gooder with the tragic mood that the world is too big and too powerful for us mortals to cope with. Pure science is phlegmatic and often sanguine; applied science is heroic as well.” (CR 142)

“And built into all this talk is a principle of progress for management science. We’ll know we’re getting somewhere when we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously.”  Churchman, 1968

P.S.         Let me add that we really know we’re getting somewhere when we take Churchman’s systems approach more seriously. This is mainly so because it is a very smart way of critiquing assumptions by taking alternative perspectives seriously. See also Wicked Solutions (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016; available from Amazon and as a PDF), which shows that the systems approach is not difficult to teach or learn, whether it is for systemic inquiry or practical intervention design.

P.S. 2       One of the steps in the Wicked Solutions version of the systems approach is that of framing. It could be argued that the selection of key framings – or ways of understanding a situation or intervention which is what they are – follows directly from the principle of apperception. This may well imply that what distinguishes Wicked Solutions most from other versions of the systems approach, apart from its practicality, is what brings it closest to the core of the approach.

Churchman, C. W. (1968a). The humor of science. In Challenge to reason (pp. 135–142). New York: McGraw-Hill. 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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