Transcript of interview with Churchman, part I

I like the interview so much (see previous post with links to the 1987 video) that I decided to produce a transcription and perhaps add a few notes. Here are the first 30 minutes. Over the next days or weeks I will add the remaining 90 minutes in 30 minute installments.

Introductory text

0m0s [on-screen introductory text] Professor C. West Churchman [CWC] of the University of California, Berkeley

Interviewed by professor Kristo Ivanov [KI] on April 30, 1987, at the University of Umea, Sweden – Department of Administrative Data Processing.

This interview was made during a visit of professor Churchman as guest researcher at the University of Umea in April-June 1987, following his being rewarded a honorary doctor’s degree in economic science in the autumn 1985.

A summary of professor Churchman’s life and work is given at the end of the recording. The background song “Der Lindenbaum” – music by Franz Schubert and text by Wilhelm Muller – is sung by professor Churchman himself! [end of on-screen text, start of the interview]

The human condition cause for concern

1m50s KI: Yes, I welcome professor West Churchman from the University of California, Berkeley, who is visiting us in Sweden today. And my first thought on such an occasion is to think about how many people during these years I have met who after reading and studying your work begin to think more and more intensively about the man behind the pages, who is this man and how does his life look like? What does he hope for and how he looks at his work and how he looks at his future work. I think perhaps it is best if I leave the introduction of the person to you yourself.

2m53s CWC: Well, thank you Kristo. I wish I have a ‘good’ introduction to myself, I might sound a bit more appreciative than I am at times. I guess I’ll describe what has bothered me as a philosopher all my life and that is what Hannah Arendt called the human condition. I think what she meant by that was the ways in which people live out their lives and in particular the lives they cannot live, they might have wanted to live because of social and environmental forces. After a bit of thinking about that, which I have to admit began in High School, a number of years ago I don’t want to mention, where I was taught by the Quakers to be concerned about the human condition as far as war is concerned. As you probably know the Quakers were not only anti-war, they were what we call peaceniks. But they also felt that one of the difficulties with the world today is the particular form of nationalism that has grown over the centuries. Each nation feeling that they at least ought to have the power to determine their own destiny and that thought led to their feeling that they ought to have the power to stop other nations from interfering. And if they felt that very strongly then they went to war on the matter if both sides felt that way. I think the Quakers did a reasonably good job of me and that I am agreeing that seems to be serious defect in the world systems. Not so much whether we have nations or not, but the kind of powers they have to decide whether to invade or defend against another nation. I don’t mind that I live in the area that I live in, Berkeley California, because it is beautiful and marvellous. But I don’t think I would go to war with Los Angeles if they decided to invade northern California. That’s not the feeling of nationalism I have. And then those reflections led to other reflections until I finally got to college and in my freshman year I took a course on ethics. That’s what it was called ‘ethics’ and as freshmen we had to figure out what that meant. And I took it from a man who was a highly successful philosophy teacher, Tom Cowan, and he would get us tremendously excited about these problems.

6m46s KI: So your thoughts were already about peace and war by that time?

Egoism versus altruism

6m53 CWC: By that time, yeah. But then, when I took that course on ethics I saw that generalized to a lot of other issues that I also had an ethical overtone to. For example, Tom introduced us to this whole question of altruism versus egoism. Most of us being young men and women of age eighteen had about discovered that there were lot of people who went about saying “number one is all that counts”, I being ‘number one’. But then there seemed to be a lot of people saying “No, that’s not true. One has to worry about the social system that you live in. And that’s probably more important than number one.” And so we had in that course almost violent arguments. We almost got to war on peace within the course, depending on whether we believed in egoism or altruism. And I was a good man, a good boy.

Ethics and systems are about the same thing

8m15s KI: So you also voted for altruism.

8m17s CWC: So I voted for altruism. Huh. And that led me over the years to the question “What is it to be an altruist, what does it [really] mean?” It seems simpler to say what it meant to be an egoist, because living in a country like the United States of America an egoist accumulates wealth, then he can use the wealth in any way he or she wants to. But what is to be an altruist? It is to love thy neighbour as thyself. But that didn’t seem to help me very much in describing the world, in which people had deep concerns about other people. And how was it .. that world constituted? I didn’t know at the time that it was the same question as “what is a system?” I didn’t find that out until much later. That those two questions “what is it to be a true altruist?” and “what is a system, a social system?” were about pretty much the same thing.

9m36s KI: Did you find this word system so to say by yourself during your search or did you already … it somewhere else?

‘System’ a better, more general term

9m45s CWC: Oh, I guess I heard it somewhere else. I read a lot of books. By the time we got down to twenty, twenty-five years ago it was being used for human societies. Of course one of its earlier uses was solar system, as the astronomers got interested in how the planets behaved with respect to the sun and how their moons behaved with respect to them and began writing down the laws of the solar system and then they thought of the word “system”, because it all seemed to hang together in some sensible way. So by the time you get to Kepler and Newton you seem to have a pretty good description of how the solar system works. Then it gradually dawned on people that it would be a better word than nation or organization or whatever, to use the word system for it. So I began thinking like a lot of other people did and ask “what makes a good system?” And that took me back to that word ethics. What does make a good system, anyway? And certainly during my lifetime I had a chance to see a lot of different systems. Nazi Germany was a system and that was run by a bunch of gangsters at the top who pretty much decided what people should be doing and if they were doing totally the wrong thing, like being Jews, then they ought to be eliminated. I didn’t like that definition. I grew up under FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and he was faced with a huge systems problem, when he came into office in 1933, because we just had a depression, the bottom had dropped out of the stock market, people were standing in soup lines [waiting for] food, railroad cars were dumping potatoes along their tracks and people were starving. That didn’t seem to be like a good system.

12m28s KI: Would you also include the word, not only organization, but also administration in this idea of systems understood as a way of improving the human condition?

12m44s CWC: Well, you are an expert on administration so. It’s a funny word. Ad-minister. When you are running a farm, you administer, you administer the cows, right? And traditionally, when you were administering, you were administering the people in the office, the typists, the accountants and so on. What did you do to them, when you administered to them. You made them do work that you that had to be done. That didn’t quite sound right to me, as a good definition. You made them do the work?

13m26s KI: I think that etymologically, if I am not mistaken, the word administer has to do with serving, it has to with minister, but minister in its turn has to do with serving.

13m42s CWC: I see, that’s how you defend your job, then. Make it sound better. You are serving somebody, not being made to do it. So, the boss comes and gives the secretary a letter and – she has to type the letter – but as she is typing it, she thinks: “I am serving .. my master.”

14m08s KI: I have the opportunity to serve.

Parts wor­king togeth­er for a com­­mon pur­pose

14m10s CWC: That’s part of a system all right. It finally began to dawn on me that there was a central question about the system, because all my colleagues were talking about ‘how the parts worked together to serve a common purpose.’ And that’s how systems got defined, after a while in the 1960s. A system is something consisting of a group of parts, including administrators, that serve together a common purpose. What was the common purpose? And naturally a lot of us younger people said that: “is the mafia a system?” They have a common purpose. Accumulation of wealth of some kind. Or General Electric. Or General Motors. And then, God help us, is the government in Washington a system? And I did a lot of thinking about that. I wondered how the parts got put together in Washington? And so I had, I went down to parts. They didn’t seem to work together in the way the carburettor with the gas tank works with other parts in the automobile to make it run. We have a department of the treasury, and that seems to me to be sensible enough. There is somebody worrying about money. And then we have a defence department, that seems all right, you need somebody to worry about our defences. And then we have a department of interior. That doesn’t say what it is. It just says it’s interior. It’s in the country. It’s worried about things inside the country. But it doesn’t say what it does. That’s like something in the automobile, called the ‘interior part’. That doesn’t make any sense.

16m28s KI: You were never tempted by that time to begin to study these things from inside a discipline, for instance political science or statistics, perhaps, in the old sense of the knowledge about the state?

Churchman the discipli­narian

16m44s CWC: Yeah, I did. I started out being the most utter disciplinarian you can imagine and that’s a logician. Boy, do we define that discipline. We said that we are basic, naturally, because if you are not logical then, God help you, you can’t do anything else. And so we had the boundaries laid out, and we had what you could do, and what you couldn’t do. Very specifically laid down. No discipline is nearly as precise as symbolic logic, [which] is what I worked on. And then I came to the conclusion that wasn’t getting anywhere.

17m29s KI: Would you have been a computer scientist, now, if there would have been computers by that time?

17m33s CWC: That might have happened to me, yeah, I might have gotten transformed into a computer scientist. God help me.

17m45s KI: Because people also think that computer science is the materialization of logical mathematics, is the basis of anything else.

Non-imple­men­tation of good ideas is a key  problem

17m51s CWC:  Yeah, so I decided that I had to do something useful. You see, we didn’t have computers in those days. We had hand computers of Marchant and Friden. Buy you didn’t need much logic to find a language to work those two machines. They were all manual. It might have happened to me, Kristo. I might have turned into a computer scientists. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and sweating all over that it might have been my fate to be a computer scientist. What I did decide to do was study mathematical statistics because I thought I could go out and help people in laboratories to handle their data better. And it was at that point that World War II came along and I did join the US Army Ordinance Laboratory and I preached the gospel of mathematical statistics to ignorant chemists and metallurgists and also developed inspection procedures that made ammunition in the field much safer. You get fewer misfires. But then World War II came to an end. And I had a great time in it. I sometimes feel ashamed of myself for enjoying it so much. And then the question was, now what I do in the world with this mathematical statistics, which is very confining too. And I decided that, no, I was going to learn how to plan. To really try to see how, well, let’s say, how a city is a system. How it is and how it should be. So I was back to my ethics. And I got a group together at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and we worked on the slum area of Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, trying to figure out why conditions in that area of the city were not satisfactory, trying to understand that. And I then discovered as I did during the war, that even if you have a good idea, “I know something you don’t know, you Kristo don’t know, and I know what to do to improve your conditions”, it doesn’t do me any good to tell you that, because you go on doing the same dumb thing. I don’t mean you, Kristo, it’s just a generalization. We call that implementation. And we had good ideas for South Philadelphia, but they weren’t implemented, by the mayor or anybody else.

20m53s KI: Is this something that psychoanalysts I suppose have been doing and those who substituted them before they came here.

Authority versus freedom

21m03s CWC: No [well] analysts and doctors in general. If you tell a patient what to do, he is not necessarily going to do it, especially if you tell him to stop taking drugs or alcohol or whatever. So then I realized that I was in the whole business of that what we called operations research, but now we call systems, systems theory, systems approach, whatever the word is. And I tried to figure out what goes into the study of a system, a human system, now. Not an astronomical one, because I had some idea how that worked, but what about a human system, like a traffic system, like a postal system, or in this country [Sweden] you have a fascination with food, you are not the only country that does, but you have a system to handle the handing out of food. It is different from my country. You have to learn, like learning a new language, to go to one of these service stores, find you way around. Why are there different systems for the same thing? And what is the role of authority? You asked about administration. What’s the role of authority in the system? Should there be people you what to do? And you have no choice. If you don’t do what they tell you to do, then you get punished. Is that part of the system? I wonder about that. Is that appropriate? In my country we talk, in the USA, we talk about freedom a lot, but there are an awful lot of things that are not free to do. You are driving an automobile and there is a red light in front of you, you cannot say “Oh God, I am tired of being told what to do. I am just going to go right through it.” Or you can do that, people do that in my country. They go right through the red light. When comes April 15th, we all have to pay income tax or else you get punished for not doing it. So that puzzled me too. When do you have authority and when do you have freedom.

Future gene­rations are part of the equation

And then, Kristo, in my office one day came some young man from NASA, as we call it, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and a friend of mine who was at the faculty of Berkeley and I introduced ourselves and said “what are you here for?” And he said “we have been assigned to a new application for NASA’s work for the satellites.” “Now, what’s that?” And they said “Well, the nuclear plants that we have put up since the late 50s and 60s and so on have a waste and that waste is, no matter what we do with it, using present technology, is dangerous [for] radiation, so we have been assigned the task of thinking what to do with it. Because you could bury it, but then an earthquake might occur and there it would be again, or you could take it to the South Pole and dump it through the ice and snow of the South Pole. But we have been assigned space applications.” And this friend of mine and I said, “Well, how long does this waste [stay] dangerous?” thinking they would say “a few years” that it would be all right again. The answer was “25.000 years” at that time. It has varied since. “25.000 years!!” I said. And then it just hit me, like that [snapping his fingers]. I hadn’t in my thought about systems thought about thousands of years to come. Isn’t this generation obligated to think about a thousand years or ten thousand years? What kind of world would future generations want to have? All because some character told me that this waste would go on for that period of time.

The case of world hunger

And subsequently I got because of my colleagues at Berkeley interested in hunger. And I discovered that something like a billion people are starving in the world today. And naturally by that time I began to ask my questions in a different way. Are they going to continue to starve? Is there going to continue to be not enough food to feed them? Oh no, said my respondent, there is already enough food. That isn’t the problem at all. I said, you mean there is enough food to feed everybody and we are starving a billion people? Yes, he said, that’s right, we are. And as far as the future is concerned we are going to continue to do that for hundreds of years. Now I was learning about systems, at last. It wasn’t a little matter of who administers, who sets the rules, who puts down freedom and so on. But future generations are being given a world, which is so bad, so lousy, as far as being a good system is concerned, it’s incredible. Naturally, I asked how this had happened, that we have enough food in the world to feed everybody and yet a billion people are starving. They are not all starving to death, but they are hungry all the time. And the answer was, the glib answer was ‘distribution’. He didn’t need to tell me that. Obviously, if there was enough food nearby, you ate it. So, how did it happen?

28m13s KI: As you put it, it sounds that it was then a problem of economics, or a problem of reason at least. Isn’t it that it could be understood by many people as a problem of evil, a problem of wisdom. And how does one approach the problem of evil. I am reminded that you are also philosopher from the beginning. You said something about logic, and you said something about statistics. But at the bottom there is the problem of wisdom and philosophy and even the problem of evil and religion, I guess.

28m54s CWC: Well, when I was a kid I used to watch Ronald Reagan, not as president of the United States, but as the town marshall of a Western town. And his task as marshall of the town, according to the movie, was to identify the good people in town and the evil people in town. So his systems problem was fairly easy. He was to figure out how to get rid of the evil people. Either run’em out of town or shoot’em. And then when you got rid of all those evil people you had a good system. Because that’s why, all that was left in town were the good people. That’s how I was educated about systems. Identify the evil people and then get rid of them, then you have a good system.

Problems not easy to identify

19m56s KI: I guess this does not work if you begin to think about the evil in each one of us. The evil inside ourselves.

30m06s CWC: You don’t want to think about that. Yes, not only that. But if you take a typical village in India, I am told, some people have the land, own the land, and some people do not. The people who own the land decide what to grow and who to hire. The people who don’t own the land have to do what the people who own the land say. And for a while the culture said that the land owners should feed the non-land owners, so that nobody starved in the village. It goes back to the principle enunciated in the New Testament and a lot of other sacred books: if one person is all in the community than all are ill. It is most explicitly stated in St. Paul’s Romans as a principle of how to live together and they lost that. And now the land owners ex-(VIDEO 2 0m0s)-port the grain and keep the workers in a semi-starved state. Are they evil? I don’t know. They are misguided, maybe? There’s no way it could be broken. I think the Indian government in New Delhi would like to have broken that and made sure that everyone in the village was adequately fed before you exported anything. But then there’s a caste system in India. Is that evil?

0m42s KI: Is that religion? Is that religion, I wonder? This takes us into the difficult matters of ultimate values. And what would we ourselves do in a similar position.

0m56s CWC: I get the feeling that if you give something a label, you got a solution.

[to be continued]

Notes    (I will follow the subheading in the transcript, which, by the way, are my own): (1) The human condition cause for concern: the starting point of systems thinking is always some deep concern. The most general form of that concern is about the human condition; (2) Egoism versus altruism: the concern about the human condition must be of the detached type; (3) Ethics and systems are about the same thing: the purpose of systems is to increase value; (4) ‘System’ a better, more general term: systems thinking tries to identify and apply general principles to all sorts of systems, be it a transport system, or a postal system, or a nation, or an organization or business; (5) Parts wor­king togeth­er for a com­­mon pur­pose: it is important to recall that systems thinking is about increasing value; (6) Churchman the discipli­narian: Churchman mentions this because he would become a staunch anti-disciplinarian 2 or 3 decades later; (7) Non-imple­men­tation of good ideas is a key  problem: One of the good ideas Churchman had was for improving small-arms ammunition by means of statstoics. It took him about a year to get his new inspection regime, which must have saved many allied lives, implemented; (8) Authority versus freedom: this is about the question who can decide anything and the need for multiple perspectives for the best, i.e. most systemic intervention; (9) Future gene­rations are part of the equation: the increase of value by a system has clients or beneficiaries. It is important not to look at short-term benefits only, but also to look at long-term effectiveness; (10) The case of world hunger: this is always a good example to illustrate what systems thinking is about; (11) Problems not easy to identify: this is important, because if we don’t no what the problem is then we can’t formulate a solution or worse still, we can’t even formulate the purpose of a solution or intervention.


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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One Response to Transcript of interview with Churchman, part I

  1. Harold Nelson says:

    Thank you so much for doing this! He was a great friend and mentor. It is important to keep his ideas front and center and to keep building on them!

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