Meaningfulness as key systems dimension

Or how to fit humans in systems thinking fittingly

There is a lot of talk about social systems design and human systems approaches in this blog, but the human dimension seems to be missing sometimes. While exploring the question of how human systems thinking evolved, i.e. in the Darwinian sense of the word, I came across the Princeton University Institute for Human Values (UCHV), in particular their publications page. Two publications drew my attention: Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” (2009) and Susan Wolf’s “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters” (2010). Maybe I am lazy, but I didn’t read the books (I don’t have access and my book cases are full), so I just watched De Waal’s Ted Talk (here) and Wolf’s 2017 Shipka lecture (there) to enlighten me. De Waal surprised me (elephants!), but Wolf gave me something that I have been searching for a while: a fundamental way to fit people in systems thinking from a deeply personal, individual point of view. So that’s what I am going to summarize in this blog (see concept map with in grey my additions). I also think that Wolf should get together with De Waal and a few others (e.g. Christopher Boehm) to tentatively integrate evolutionary anthropology. It is my personal belief that if we can show that human biology evolved simultaneously with evolutionary serendipitous discovery-invention-design of speech, fire, tools, morality AND systems thinking (all of them social!) there is a stronger case to bring systems thinking to the forefront in human debate (democracy, governance), business development, and education (all of them social).

The best possible life       …according to Aristotle, can simply be found by asking “why” recursively. At the end you will find that if you consequently pursue your self-interest in answering these “why” questions you will attain happiness, the pursuit of which even made it into the American declaration of independence. This is the monistic model of morally virtuous activity (see Bush, 2008). (In fact, happiness was also a guiding principle in the Dutch constitution of 1801 during the French occupation – and pillage – of the Netherlands from 1794 to 1815, which would seem to make ‘happiness’ an important Enlightenment principle. Implementation problems of all sorts are what give principles their bad name, as does a narrow, ‘theoretical’ understanding of them.)

The dualistic model      … is also described in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, at least in some interpretations. The dualistic view is more prominent in Kant. “Though you own individual happiness gives you one kind of reason for action, … morality or duty or the impersonal good of the world gives you another.” (Wolf’s speech). This is the model that corresponds to altruistic, impersonal, objective purposes in life, whereas the monistic model corresponds to the self-centered, personal, subjective purposes in life.

The fulfilment model     Both the monistic and dualistic model do not satisfy Susan Wolf. She looks at her life and finds that it is neither morality nor happiness that cause her to live in the way she does: visiting her brother in hospital (not always pleasant, but she cares about him), working at night on her daughter’s Halloween costume (loosing needed sleep, but she loves her), or toiling on a piece of philosophy (she is passionate about). So, she proposes a third model, that is more accommodating for the deep feelings of fulfillment that she is experiencing or anticipating: the fulfillment model. In this model people care for particular people or projects with a certain degree of passion or love that cannot be assimilated to the subjective happiness of the monistic or hedonistic model or the objective morality of the dualistic model.

I wouldn’t change my [fulfillment] life with the [hedonistic] life of my brother-in-law in a million years.              Susan R. Wolf, 2017 Shipka lecture

The fitting fulfillment model      … is an elaboration of the fulfillment model. Like the fulfillment model it has both a subjective and an objective pole which allows it to produce deep feelings of fulfillment and a strong sense of meaningfulness. The difference is that the objective pole is characterized by worthiness, i.e. it is worthy in some way of the passion or love directed to it. This worthiness is called objective attractiveness. It has its companion in the form of subjective attraction. When the two are successfully combined or integrated in meaningful human activity deep, positive feelings of fulfillment may follow. This contrasts with activities aimed at more or less superficial forms of pleasure that serve mainly to dispel negative feelings of boredom or  alienation. One of the nice things about the fitting fulfillment model is its generality: it can serve to clarify systems approaches in counseling and psychotherapy (see e.g. Bauserman and Rule, 1995) as well as Churchman’s dialectical systems approach in business and organization consulting (see below).

The word ‘fitting’      … in the ‘fitting fulfillment model’ may be a bit difficult to understand. Kauppinen (2015) writes that “Our lives are meaningful to the extent it is fitting or correct to find them meaningful.” The word pops up in combination with attitude, e.g. as fitting attitude theories or analysis. Attitude is a complex psychological term. The effects of attitudes on behavior or as an aspect of motivation is of particular interest. Wolf uses the word ‘fitting’ to express that a person attaches a certain personal or situational ‘worth’ or ‘meaningfulness’ (or ‘merit’ or ‘propriety’ or ‘appropriateness’) to a particular action in relation to a particular object or person or goal.

 The person as subsystem     … in a larger social system (business, organization, project) is a concept I have been struggling with. There is the person as psychological unit and the person as social unit. The fitting fulfillment model seems useful for understanding and expressing what people are doing in a system psycho-socially and how they feel about it. Feeling a part of something bigger than oneself, especially if this feeling has a dimension of love or passion, important to people. This is what birth, family, friendship, marriage, tribe (initiation or getting a degree), affiliation, nationality, work and burial are all about.

The larger system      … of which people may be part or in which people play a role can be usefully examined or (re)designed using the systems approach. According to Ackoff any system is both a part or subsystem of a larger system as well as composed of smaller, interacting subsystems (or parts). At some point it may be better to expand an individual fitting fulfillment model to look at the larger system, using the systems approach, or vice versa. How this can be the case is easy to see if we replace ‘project’ by ‘system’ in the above concept map.

Hints      We are not totally clueless about whether an activity is worthwhile or is instead an utter waste of time, since we have all sorts of hints or inklings. Most of us would agree of our own accord that seeking ways for making international development more effective is a more worthwhile project than playing solitaire. Further, we do better if we listen and learn from each other pooling our information and experience so as to shed some of the prejudices and blinders that keep us from seeing the worst in activities and objects that others find deeply rewarding. Next, we often experience a sense of outrage when something is seriously wrong and a situation needs addressing. Finally, if we don’t have any inklings of our own accord, “it’s always wise to raise questions about the most obvious and simple assumptions” (Churchman, 1968: ix).

Systemic understanding fundamental    There are some obvious similarities between the two frameworks. Like Wolf in her ‘fitting fulfillment model’, Churchman insists that there can be no experts in the systems approach. Yet, in both cases, people can initially experience inklings, intuitions (Wolf; I used the word hint in the concept map), or outrage (Churchman) to guide them in their behavior or planning. It is also good “to pool information and experience so as to shed some of the prejudices and blinders.” Finally, there are good reasons to consider a person as a system, simply because the activities are very varied and have to be juggled or considered in their interdependence, both in space and in time. Systemic agency is the name I gave to this characteristic of human agency, that it is deeply systemic. Finally, no matter what else the two frameworks can be used for, at the very least they provide a vocabulary and framework that can help structure our thinking when we are trying to understand how people and systems work or should work.

The only good way to fit people in systems thinking is by fitting their passions as well as possible in a two-way process.         Sjon van ’t Hof, CSL4D blog, 2018

Link with categorical framework      It is obvious that in larger social systems (businesses, organizations, project) we cannot accommodate the passions of everybody individually, simply because there are too many people involved. Even a small business touches in many ways on the lives of many people: clients, owners, stockholders, employees, suppliers. Similarly, small business are touched in many ways by legislators, taxes, competition, interest rates, the economy in general. The only sensible way to accommodate people’s interests or passions is by differentiating different groups of people, i.e. by categorizing them. Churchman’s dialectical systems approach offers a general, broadly applicable and useful way of exactly such a categorization in four roles: beneficiary/client, decision-maker, planner and systems philosopher. For more information see e.g. here, here or here or read the highly practical Wicked Solutions (or here).

Stephen S. Bush, “Divine and Human Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics,” Philosophical Review 117.1 (January 2008), 49-75; doi:10.1215/00318108-2007-024;

Antti Kauppinen, “Meaning and Happiness”. Philosophical Topics 41 (1), 2015 (listed as 2013), 161–185; . See also


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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