War and Peace

Illustrating soft versus hard (systems) thinking

This is a summary of the last chapter of Challenge to Reason (CR; Churchman, 1968), of which I think he wrote it before his famous, but perhaps not always well understood, The Systems Approach (Churchman, 1968). As summaries go it doesn’t contain all the intricacies of the original argument. The main point is in the upper part of the concept map, where it says that apperception can help disentangle social systems (human activity systems, purposive systems, e.g. enterprises, policies, projects etc., but also war). Social systems can often be characterized (and examined) by a dichotomy of opposing ideas, which are not only at the root of the entanglement (or mess or wicked problem), but hold also the key to some ultimate resolution, be it without any guarantee that it will “work”(CR 217). In this case Churchman uses a soft vs. hard dichotomy to discuss war & peace. At the same time he explains a great many underlying ideas of the systems approach. As some of us may remember 1968 was the year that the horrors of the Vietnam War were at their peak with the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre. In the 1960s, UC Berkeley, where Churchman had been teaching since 1957, was noted for the Free Speech Movement as well as the Anti-Vietnam War Movement led by its students. But the chapter is not about Vietnam, it is about humanity, of which the multiple facets can be sensed apperceptively, but never fully grasped. I strongly recommend this chapter and the previous ones (esp. 11, 14), in fact the whole book. And it has been put online, for free. Not by me, so I don’t know how long it will stay there. As for now you are just one click away from your jump to wisdom. Judge/jump for yourself …

Apperception        … can be defined as a principle, which holds that: “if you can’t see a purpose activity in two very different ways with different moods, you have failed to formulate the problem.” Imagination and thought are also involved, because the contrasting moods arouse the imagination, which in turn can refresh your thought and enable the development of contrasting perceptions. Contrasting perceptions can also be found in different people or stakeholders. This forms the underlying logic of participation and stakeholder involvement, so ‘participation’ is just the start. The system of moods used by Churchman is that of the four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. According to Churchman the hard sciences also have a mood, that of phlegmatic objectivity.

Soft-hard dichotomy     … is about the difference between ‘softness’ and ‘hardness’ as in soft science and hard science. Softness is often considered weak, incompetent and sometimes profound if not ridiculous. Hardness, in contrast, is generally considered direct, competent, yet superficial, but – well – something has to be done, you know. Softness is usually ignored, whereas hardness is listened to and applied. Example of hardness are physics or mathematical finance, which like mathematical economics, is so practical that it has become “indispensable infrastructure for the political economy.” Examples of soft sciences are ‘irrelevant’ metaphysics, ‘impractical’ theology, ‘extratemporal’ cosmology, ‘selective’ history, ‘self-centered’ psychology. On the last pages of ‘War and Peace’ Churchman makes some extraordinary demands from these sciences, viz. to show how we can put hard morality into the system. The task for the historian is the most reasonable, because he/she only has to describe the history of morality and discuss whether hard and soft are useful terms for telling the story (CR 217).

Social systems    … have hidden depths and inter-relationships. They include wicked problems and are treated as ‘wholes’ by soft thinking. Soft sciences find it difficult to come to a conclusion, leaving final judgments open, whereas hard sciences manage to come to clear-cut conclusions, but manage so mainly by making ‘simplifying’ assumptions. The result can be quite destructive, as seen in the case of the banking crisis. The question is how to achieve ‘whole system improvement’. Hard sciences are time and again able to produce specific solutions that claim improvements that seem to eliminate the need for whole system improvement. This type of ‘magic’ is preferred by decision-makers generally and ‘hard’ politicians specifically, who are also inclined to what could be termed ‘hard morality’. A good example is the neutron bomb.

Hard vs. soft morality      … play a role in decisions on war and peace. A discussion about them could serve as an illustration of the general resistance to soft systems thinking mentioned above. Very few people doubt that war is ugly, very ugly, and should be avoided at all cost. Yet, it is the stuff of human history. Churchman shows that there is not a wide gap, but rather a narrow, dotted line between soft and hard morality. Hard morality: (1) maximizes national strength, including economic strength; (2) emphasizes law & order and the use of sanctions; and (3) upholds an idea of masculine morality, which considers the defense of family, property and country fully justified. Soft morality, in contrast: (1) reinforces the internationals system; (2) emphasizes the principle of fairness, which (3) presupposes the idea of global humanisms, which (4) prefers negotiations informed by a well-developed sense of reasonability. The principle of fairness is important in that it is able to address the issue of scarcity (e.g. of resources), which enhances the risk of war, just as the idea of masculine morality. Formulated in this way, soft morality is wonderful. The trouble is that it does not always work. That’s the ‘implementation’ problem in Churchman’s categorical framework (see previous posts).

Crux of the matter      In chapter 14 Churchman used the dichotomy of realism vs. idealism. That was an important one for the systems approach as it contrasts what ‘is’ with what ‘ought to be’, see also Williams & van ’t Hof (2016). The soft-hard dichotomy is also important for the systems approach. It may seem that the systems approach is soft, but in fact it is a very serious and very well thought-out (so both reasonable and rational) attempt to transcend the soft-hard dichotomy that characterizes many of our real-life problems. In brief, one could say that the systems approach tries to infuse as much of soft rational thinking into hard practical acting as possible or vice versa. Or to join the two as well as possible. That’s not easy, so ‘War and peace’ is a good title as well as subject to explore how this might be done. Besides there isn’t anybody in the world who hasn’t heard of the terrors of war. And tried to think of ways to avoid them. Call it peace. Or the systems approach.

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

Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon.


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 https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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