Good Will and the Philosopher-King

Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leaders genuinely and adequately philosophize … cities will have no rest from evils, nor will the human race.

Read essay as PDF                               Socrates in Plato’s Republic, Book 5, section 473c    

When Alfred North Whitehead (1978) stated that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, he had in mind the “inexhaustible mine of suggestion” of his writings, which served as an inspiration to so many thinkers, in so many different ways. The philosopher-king sentence, quoted above, is perhaps the most famous in all of Plato. Much has been said about this concept. One thing is certain: not everybody approved of Plato’s idea.

Churchman developed the (dialectical) systems approach as his philosophical life’s effort to enable management “to secure improvements in the human condition by means of the human intellect.” (Churchman 1982, 19) Management is understood here as the interplay between three groups of people: the clients or beneficiaries, the decision-makers, and the planners (Churchman 1979, 79). Government is a form of management, but so is living one’s life. In all cases, it is about improving social systems, which can be anything, from families to businesses, projects, city-states (like Plato’s Athens or Syracuse), empires, religions or planet Earth. Designing the systems approach is an exercise in generality.

By the verb “secure” he meant that in the larger system over time the improvement persists. This includes what we mean today when we speak of sustainability and effectiveness. Systems are in a constant flux, so to make anything persist, in particular improvements in the human condition, is quite a challenge. First of all because problem solving often appears to produce improvement, but the so-called “solution” often makes matters worse in the larger system. This has given rise to the concept of “wicked problems” or “messes”.

“The important point is that in managing messes, the best we can hope for is to dissolve them. Next best is to resolve them. The notion that [wicked] problems can rarely be solved is so important that we cannot stress it enough.” (Mitroff et al. 2013, 21; includes a Jungian personality approach to systems) They require more than just knowledge to address them. Wisdom must come in. Enters Plato’s philosopher-king. Begging the question of the significance of Churchman’s systems approach. A quick historical survey seems in place.

Taken literally, the concept of the philosopher-king was met with approval by some great minds. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors (here), tried hard to be one. Erasmus (here) believed that the best ruler must be a wise man, “not someone who is clever at dialectics or science but someone who rejects illusory appearance and undauntedly seeks out and follows what is true and good.”

Machiavelli’s prince seems to be quite the opposite of the philosopher-king, while Karl Popper linked Plato’s idealism via Marx’s historicism to the dystopian totalitarianism of the Twentieth Century, be it Nazism, communism or Islamism. After having opened this philosophical can of worms, let me now try to put the lid back on by showing its relevance to the dialectical systems approach (Churchman 1968, 1971, 1979), because that is what this essay is based upon.

Churchman had discovered that there is more than one approach to human systems, whether they are businesses, production processes, government programmes or development projects.  His shortlist[i] of approaches included: (1) efficiency-oriented approaches as popularized by Taylor (1911);  (2) management science, optimization by linear programming; (3) a humanist approach, emphasizing values such as freedom, dignity and privacy; and (4) anti-planning, based on “the belief that any attempt to lay out specific and ‘rational’ plans is either foolish or dangerous or downright evil.” (Churchman 1968, 14) The excellent manager, by experience, luck or business acumen, can address a great many problems. Management science may work well in the case of well-structured problems, “but the most critical problems of today’s systems, war, poverty, racial disturbances, national […] budgets, are all poorly structured.” They are more commonly known as wicked problems, involving conflicts of values (Churchman, 1967).

Churchman argues that “given the limited scope of our capability to solve the social problems we face, we have every right to question whether any approach is the correct approach.” He therefore chose the second-best option, which is a dialectical learning approach of continuing debate between various attitudes of mind with respect to society. In the very last sentence of The Systems Approach he elevates this idea to the level of a principle by stating that “the [dialectical] systems approach is not a bad idea.”

What has Churchman’s dialectical systems approach to do with Whitehead, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Marx and Karl Popper, since none of them self-identified as systems thinkers? But then again systems thinking did not come out of nowhere. As Churchman noted, “it’s quite likely that the tradition of the systems approach goes back to primitive man.” I will argue that all of them can be linked in some important way to Churchman’s work or to the methodological principles of Churchman’s systems approach as elaborated in critical heuristics (Ulrich, 1983), soft systems methodology (Checkland, 1999) or Wicked Solutions (Williams & van ’t Hof, 2016).

Probably, the least known in above shortlist of ‘non-systems thinkers’ is Whitehead (1861-1947), a British mathematician, philosopher and educationalist. In the present context, two of his students are worth mentioning. The first is Bertrand Russell, with whom he wrote the Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), which attempted to establish the general, philosophical foundations of mathematics. Churchman refers to the Principia when he describes his own dialectical systems approach as “just another step in the search for the meaning of generality, in this case a general design of  social systems.”[ii] It is this search that enables us to draw out the basic categories that are necessary for a sufficient understanding or justification of human action, which is the essence of the dialectical systems approach.

Another student of Whitehead is Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), who not only developed Whitehead’s process philosophy into process theology, which is a panentheistic form of natural theology, but also edited the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, who founded Pragmatism, which strongly influenced both Whitehead and Churchman. Pragmatism’s  focus on the practical, i.e. concretely experienced, consequences of ideas about human activity is fundamental to the notions of ‘unfolding’ and teleology in the dialectical systems approach, and above all the organic model of reality in which individual events are interrelated into one whole process, which is what systems thinking is about. Peirce closely collaborated with William James, one of whose students, Edgar A. Singer, acquainted Churchman with the philosophy of Pragmatism.

The second in my shortlist is Plato (428-348 BC), who was a student of Socrates. With Aristotle they form the Big Three in Greek philosophy and by extension in Western philosophy. Plato used dialectics in his dialogues to resolve differences of perspectives in the search for truth. This resembles the dialectics of Churchman’s systems approach in the search for ‘justification of human action’, which is the Pragmatic substitute for (absolute) ‘truth’, since truth is elusive, particularly with regard to the justification of specific human action. Churchman distinguishes twelve categories in his dialectical framework, of which four categories of role: beneficiary (or client), decision-maker, planner, and systems philosopher. The choices we make for one category affect the others. The aim of dialectical heuristics is to optimize inter-categorical concordance. It could be argued that Plato’s philosopher-king concept suggests or represents such a concordance, particularly between the decision-maker and the philosopher or planner or all three.

Plato is also known for his attempts to turn the tyrants of Syracuse into philosopher-kings. Unfortunately, tyrants would continue to rule Syracuse until the city fell to the Romans in 212 BC. In Plato’s Republic Socrates considered democracy at risk of bringing dictators to power, due to incompetent and selfish people making use of democracy’s freedoms to attain power. The ancient Greeks famously invented democracy, its emergence often being linked to the agora or market place found in the 1500 or so Greek colonies or ‘poleis’ scattered around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. “In practice, whatever the political system adopted – tyranny, oligarchy or democracy – political power was dominated by a few aristocratic families.” “Of the democracies, the oldest, the most stable, the most long-lived, but also the most radical, was Athens.” Its origin can be traced back to Solon and Cleisthenes and took all of century to emerge in 508/7 and lasted for about 200 years in spite of a couple of counter-revolutionary interruptions.

A real, historical philosopher-king was perhaps Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). As I said before he is often referred to as the Fifth Good Emperor. He had been adopted by two good emperors before him, both the third and fourth one. And he was not just any kind of philosopher, but lived by stoic principles. In fact, stoicism influenced all four good emperors before him, which led them to take what we now call humanistic decisions. Those who have watched The Gladiator (2000) know Marcus as the old and wise emperor played by Richard Harris. Marcus Aurelius is perhaps best known as the author of the Meditations, in which he reflects on stoicism and his own conduct, probably during the lengthy military campaigns against less advanced, not to say barbaric Germanic tribes from across the Danube. In all this turmoil, Marcus describes how he conducts various spiritual exercises, including one that draws upon the Stoic theory of judgment (John Sellars 2003, p. 154 ff.). Stoicism expects people to care for themselves and others in ever wider circles as well as live in harmony with nature, but we cannot be happy or play our role in society properly if we cannot overcome our negative or wrongful emotional responses to external states of affairs that are based on mistaken value judgments or assumptions. If we recall that the most critical problems of today are wicked problems with value conflicts, then a ‘stoic’, detached approach may sit very well with a systems approach.

“Look at the inmost causes of things, stripped of their husks; note the intentions that underlie action; […] observe how man’s disquiet is all of his own making, and how troubles come never from another’s hand, but like all else are creatures of our own judgment.” (here)

In Churchman’s dialectical systems approach, as in stoicism, it is essential to look at the assumptions and intentions that shape human judgment. Furthermore, if we agree with the Greek stoic Epictetus that all misjudgements are always a product of the perspective of the limited individual, it would be a small step to widen the perspective, perhaps not to that of the cosmos – even though that may be beneficial to achieve equanimity -, but at least to those most directly concerned.

Machiavelli (1469-1527) is next on the list. From 1494 to 1559, Italy was ravaged by invading armies from France, Spain, England, Scotland, and the Holy Roman Empire. During the last decade-and-a-half of the Second Republic of Florence (1494-1512) Machiavelli rose to high office, with responsibilities for the city-state’s diplomacy and defence. In 1513 he was imprisoned, tortured and exiled to his estate, where he wrote The Prince, which is a commonly considered a controversial handbook for rulers explaining how to be cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous in politics. This would seem to make Machiavelli quite the opposite of Marcus Aurelius.

On the one hand, this is fervently disputed by Viroli (2000), according whom The Prince must be understood as an oration, which ends with an exhortation to liberate Italy from its French and Spanish invaders. What could possibly be wrong with that? Viroli refers especially Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. On the other hand, ethics in The Prince seem to be subservient to political needs (Tholen 2011), which poses an enormous challenge to ethics in politics and administration. Tholen suggests the development of a virtue ethics along the lines proposed by Alisdair MacIntyre. In Churchman’s systems approach, politics and ethics have a dialectical place in the overall systems approach framework. This means that dissociating politics from ethics and all other considerations in the dialectical framework of the systems approach is just as unwise as the reverse.

Erasmus (1467-1536) was a contemporary of Machiavelli. He was a leading humanist in the Northern Renaissance[iii], a prolific writer, and a Catholic priest. Like Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471), best known as the author of The Imitation of Christ, much of his training was with the Brethren of the Common Life, an offshoot of the Modern Devotion, which had been founded by Geert Groote (1340-1384). It is therefore not surprising that Erasmus was more concerned with the ‘pragmatic’ question of how to lead a good life, than with dogmatic principles.

As a humanist he embraced the idea that people could improve their lives with the use of reason. Like Machiavelli, Erasmus wrote a handbook for rulers: the Education of a Christian Prince, in which he promotes a “philosophia Christi” with ample references to the wisdom and knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. It was published in the same year, 1516, as Utopia, written by his friend Thomas More. Erasmus is best known for his Praise of Folly (1511), in which he criticises superstitious abuses and corrupt practices in the Roman Catholic Church, to which he remained faithful, contrary to Luther.

In 1517, the situation changed dramatically. Erasmus’ world view of devotional moderation was opposed by Martin Luther (1483-1546), who emphasized that salvation can only by attained as a predestined gift of God through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Erasmus fought back by acknowledging the legitimacy of doctrinal diversity (Remer 1996) in his De Libero Arbitrio (1524), a kind of philosophical dialogue about the free will. Erasmus came up with his ‘Via Media’ to maintain unity, peace and concord in Christianity. In the end, this middle way was condemned as a heresy by both Catholics and Protestants. In summary, it could be argued that Erasmus believed that the justification of human action required a dialectical reconciliation of religious, humanistic and rational approaches to systems or human problem situations.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was overwhelmingly concerned with the position of the world’s workers in capitalistic production processes, which he claimed to be inherently unstable and unjust as well as alienating everybody from their human essence as free, purposive producers. Marx’s emphasis on capitalism, like Marxists after him (e.g. Lenin on imperialism), followed from the fact that he was able to witness some of its ills first-hand. Marx distinguished five or six stages in the historical progression of humanity, commonly known as historical materialism: tribal communism, slave society (Marcus Aurelius), feudalism (Machiavelli), capitalism, and the post-revolutionary stages of socialism or first-phase communism and pure or higher-phase communism, in which social classes and private property are abandoned. This hypothesized progression towards an ideal is dialectical in nature. The production process of every stage leads to changes of private property in the social system that in turn lead to next stage.

Clearly, Marx believed the problems of capitalism to be systemic. Marxism is simply a systems approach to these problems. However, capitalism or neoliberalism is not without considerable achievements, thanks to the freedom it allows to develop extraordinary creativity and flexibility to accommodate the working class, but thanks also to the rise of the middle class. It could be argued that the idea of historical materialism as a dialectical process is still valid, but then the question is what importance we should assign to the material, production-based part of this process. Marx famously remarked that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, [whereas] the point is to change it.” This could have been a Pragmatic definition of philosophy, where the practical effect in our lives is what counts.

Karl Popper (1902-1994) became attracted to Marxism in 1919 Vienna, only to become a social liberal for the rest of his life soon afterward. Popper is mainly known for two ideas: first, that of empirical falsification as the only test for true scientific progress and, secondly, that of the open society – as best embodied by the liberal democracies of the West – and how it is threatened by totalitarianism and flawed philosophical ideas such as Marxist historicism. Before Popper it was generally believed that scientific progress was achieved by the verification of hypotheses. Popper argued convincingly that scientific progress was rather a process of trial and error, which means that the only scientific theories worthy of the name are those that can be falsified. Marx’s historical materialism cannot be falsified, so it cannot be considered scientific in a Popperian sense.

Popper was also highly critical of Plato’s essentialism, collectivism, holism and historicism, which he considered to underlie Plato’s and subsequent totalitarianism, including Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s communism, via Hegel and Marx. In a book about systems thinking the criticism of Platonic holism, which can be considered to subsume collectivism, is particularly interesting. In holism it is assumed that social systems can only be fully understood as a whole. In Popper’s view Plato supposedly was a holist in the sense that he believed that a just society required individuals to sacrifice their needs to the interests of the state. What is important here is that the dialectical systems approach is indeed a form of holism, but instead of suggesting that the whole requires individuals to submit to the greater good, it proposes an open debate – or critique of the system boundary and implications – in which the perspectives and interests of each and everybody are taken into account.

Another question is whether Popper has interpreted Plato correctly. “Many readers of the Republic have come to feel that Plato regarded himself as a kind of philosopher-king” (Churchman 1979). To Churchman this matter is best taken as a hint to one of the fundamental paradoxes of the systems approach. Is the systems approacher an expert subservient to the wishes of the decision-maker(s) or is he/she free to conceptualize the system, including the appropriate goals and ideals? In the first case he can hardly be called the designer or planner of the system. In the second case one might ask how his role can be justified or legitimized. The solution proposed by Churchman is by considering this question dialectically in relation to a carefully balanced collection of other considerations. This idea begs the question how such a collection of consideration should be designed and used.

A summary of our historical survey could look like this:

A lot has already been said now about how Churchman’s dialectical systems approach contrasts or concurs with some of the main ideas of the ten short-listed historical thinkers. Key concepts underlying the systems approach are inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. Inter-relationships are most prominent in Whitehead’s process philosophy to the point of denying materialism in the classical subject-quality sense. The Pragmatism of Peirce or James – which influenced both Whitehead and Churchman, via Edgar A. Singer – has a similar lack of concern for what things are, they rather look at what things really do and what the implications are. This may sound straightforward, but advertising and politics are full of fuzzy statements of value and purpose with uncritical acceptance of the boundaries of the smaller system to the detriment of the long-term effectiveness in the larger system.

As to the concept of perspectives Plato, Erasmus and Popper are the most explicit. Perspectives are needed in the systems approach, because any single perspective has its blind spot or more than one. A dialectic involving other perspectives is needed to reveal what is hidden by the blind spots. The same principle may be said to be at work in the so-called Socratic dialogue, Popper’s liberal democracy, and Erasmus’ dogmatic diversity. In Plato diversity of opinion is needed to clarify (or bound) philosophical ideas, so it could be considered an early example of boundary critique. In Popper critique is needed as a pathway to progress, which totalitarianism would block by eliminating it. Marx’s historical dialectic is of a completely different, revolutionary nature, because its predictions are carved in stone and therefore anti-dialectical in the normal sense of the word. It is dangerously totalitarian because it ‘dialectically’ – and often murderously – bans an important group of actors from its free and legitimate role in society.

A critique of the Churchman’s systems approach  – although it makes a lot of sense to pick people’s brains in a dialectic or whatever – is that it is either too cumbersome or requires too much Erasmian or Aurelian good will on the part of the decision-makers to be of much practical use. The experienced politician, administrator or manager needs a free hand to actually get things done, whether in business or government, instead of trying to implement unrealistic pipe dreams. According to some, this is the standpoint of Machiavelli’s Prince. Churchman would not agree, but he admits the point. One of his categories in his dialectical framework is therefore called ‘Enemies of the Systems Approach’, by which he means all those who put their faith not in rationality, but in things like religion, politics, humanism and the like. By creating this category, he has put these sceptics in a position where they can battle out their insights in relation to the more rational part of the framework. By doing so they can benefit of the approach and the approach can benefit of them. At this point it is worth noting that ‘implementation’ is also one of the categories, indeed a key concern of anybody in the planning mode. There are in my mind three reasons why the ‘enemies’ should heed the ideas of the ‘systems approacher’. One is to avoid short-termism, practical as it may seem. The second is that the systems approach can lead to innovative and transformative solutions that can save a lot of time and money. The third and final reason is that those who work to implement the solution will be among the first to see that its results are far from satisfactory, which will reduce their self-motivation and may lead to poor working relationships. Even the most experienced leadership stands to benefit from the systems approach in one form or another.

What we have seen is that thinkers of the past all held parts of the puzzle for the justification of human action. Ingredients include: (1) looking at the larger system, but not making it too large using boundary critique, lest it exceeds the human intellect or turns into totalitarianism; (2) looking at the problem of implementation in a balanced way lest it does not give full consideration to the eleven other categories of the dialectical systems approach. At the start, some measure of good will or equanimity will be necessary for those in the decision-making role to keep an open eye for the perspectives of others in order to better anticipate the consequences of one design or action or other. Good will (the only thing that is good without qualification, says Kant) and a more philosophical attitude will be strengthened if the results of the systems approach appear more promising than expected. With training the systems approach becomes easier to apply. The systems approach can be used for design, monitoring and evaluation purposes. More people should try it. Stand on the shoulders of giants.

P.S. I left out Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel and Singer from this essay, even thought they are highly relevant to the development systems approach. See my post on philosophic inquiring systems here.

Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking, systems practice: includes a 30-year retrospective. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from 

Churchman, C. W. (1967). Guest editorial: Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), B-141-142. Retrieved from

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

Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved from

Churchman, C. W. (1982). Thought and wisdom. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications. Retrieved from

Mitroff, I., Hill, L., & Alpaslan, C. (2013). Rethinking the education mess: a systems approach to education reform (1st ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from

Ulrich, W. (1983). Health systems planning: the case of the 1976 areawide health systems plan for Central Puget Sound. In Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: a new approach to practical philosophy (pp. 372–417). Stuttgart (Chichester): Haupt (John Wiley – paperback version).

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

[i] The shortlist can be found on p. 14 of The Systems Approach (1968). A longer list ranges from an artist’s approach and engineering approach to a religious approach or psychoanalytic approach. An example of the latter by Ian Mitroff, one of Churchman’s former students, is the application of a Jungian personality framework to the design of education reform (Mitroff et al. 2013).

[ii] Churchman 1979, p. xi.

[iii] The Northern Renaissance took place in England, France, Germany and the Low Countries in the period 1450-1650. It can be linked to the invention of movable type printing, the Fall of Constantinople, the Age of Exploration, Humanism, the Reformation, the development of the nation state, the rise of academic learning and science, the shift of mercantile wealth and power away from Italy, and the perfection of classical art. There were extensive inter-relationships between these phenomena. It was truly systemic.


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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