The capability approach, Aristotle, and the systems approach

Last week I blogged a post on the capability approach. I mentioned the two versions of the capability approach, the original one by Sen and the more Nicomachean version of Nussbaum. The term Nicomachean refers to Aristotle’s ethics, which Nussbaum is an acclaimed expert of and which must have influenced her take on the capability approach. Aristotle’s teleological ethics dominated Western thought for almost 2000 years, so there must be something to it. Strange then that I knew so little about it. In fact, until last week, I was hardly interested. Here follows my understanding of the relationship between Nussbaum’s angle on the capability approach, the Nicomachean ethics of Aristotle, and Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. Churchman hardly mentions Aristotle in his works, but he does consider his systems approach to be teleological in nature.

Nussbaum’s capabilities        Martha Nussbaum has written mostly about feminism and the capability approach (see here). In this post I will focus on what she calls the central capabilities. Her list of 10 central human capabilities is described here. They are: (1) Life; (2) Bodily Health; (3) Bodily Integrity; (4)  Senses, Imagination, and Thought; (5) Emotions; (6) Practical Reason; (7)  Affiliation; (8 ) Other Species; (9) Play; and (10) Control Over One’s Environment. I have played around with them in the blue box of below concept map. I changed the terminology a bit. Number 4 was changed in ‘imaginative expression’, number 5 was changed into emotional growth, and number 10 was changed into co-management. To me management implies control and co-management implies the social aspect of it. The capabilities are in Nussbaum’s view the necessary preconditions for individual freedom and development. This has implications for the way in which we promote societal freedom and development.

Freedom and development     The capabilities are in Nussbaum’s view the necessary preconditions for individual freedom and development. This has implications for the way in which we promote societal freedom and development. In order to be able to shape the political conditions for development basic human rights such as the right of political participation, and the protection of free speech and association must be guaranteed. This includes legal protection. Practical reason entails entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance. The capability of social affiliation provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin. Bodily integrity implies having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction. Education in one form or another is crucial in stimulating imaginative expression and enabling practical reason. Practical reason can design justifiable plans to organize the co-management of environment whilst showing full concern for the other central capabilities. To all this I added systems thinking as one of the approaches to help practical reason to make good plans in a complex world, which seems to be the case even at the individual level.

Nicomachean ethics        … is quite a mouthful, but is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Besides it is about things we all have to deal with and think about, such as character, virtues, good habits and happiness or well-being (‘eudaimonia’). The name may have somehow come from Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus, who was named after Aristotle’s father. The Nicomachean ethics are based on a teleological philosophy, which claims that the things around us have natural ends or purposes (sing.: teleos), which are expressed or represented by their proper functioning. Humans have three categories of functions: vegetative, animal and human ones (see concept map or my post on Schumacher, a Thomist). The main teleos of the human functions is practical reason (or practical wisdom), which uses deliberation to examine and decide on options for human behaviour, ideally to enable living a more full, complete life. The human functions include moral and intellectual values, which are complex skills such as justice, courage, and temperance. Human character is what unifies these virtues in a way to balance the rational, emotional, and social areas of living. We must somehow acquire the necessary inner dispositions (or virtues). That is not always easy or obvious.

Systems approach       Now, 2368 years after it was written, Aristotle’s ethics still makes a lot of sense. And I have just scratched the surface of it (also using a lecture by Arthur Holmes, recorded on video in the 1980s and available here, highly recommended, just 35 minutes of your time!!!!). Richard Kraut, in his article on Aristotle’s ethics, speaks of an innovative “systematic examination of the nature of happiness, virtue, voluntariness, pleasure, or friendship.” I would prefer to call it systemic, because he also points out that “what we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.” Anything that is considered “as a whole” is considered systemically. My conclusion is that if human well-being requires a whole-system appreciation, both personally and socially, then the dialectical systems approach (see e.g. here) may well provide a generally applicable method for starting the necessary deliberation. This seems especially true since both Aristotle’s ethics as well as Nussbaum’s capabilities are highly systemic in nature. Another, more simple way of looking at all this is by taking all this in, both ethics and capabilities, and use them as general insights to be used in one’s application of the systems approach whenever the need arises. You may find both approaches useful. Just try it. With or without the help provided in ‘Wicked Solutions‘.

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The capability approach and the systems approach

In the world of international development Amartya Sen’s capability approach is well known, especially for its adoption by UN policy makers to formulate and justify the Millennium Development Goals and their successor set, the Sustainable Development Goals. The MDGs have been criticized for lacking an economic underpinning of the health, nutrition and education objectives, thus leading to unsustainable development. Having a background in international development myself, be it mostly from an agricultural perspective, I wanted to see if this critique was fundamental to the capability approach itself or whether it was just in its application. I picked up a serious introductory overview paper (Robeyns 2005) and produced a concept map (below), which I will describe. At the end I will add a few comments from the systems approach perspective.

 Amartya Sen       … is an Indian from West Bengal. He was born in 1933 on the campus of a university, where his father was teaching. The university had been founded by Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (acceptance speech), and who gave Sen his first name, Amartya, meaning immortal one or immortal soul. Sen became a Nobel laureate himself in 1998. His Nobel lecture about social choice theory can be found here. The theory of social choice asks whether it is possible to find a rule that aggregates individual preferences, judgments, votes and decisions in a way that satisfies minimal criteria for what should be considered a good rule (i.e. of a ‘good society’). The capability approach provides a theory for seeking an answer to that question.

The capability approach (#A)    …. is perhaps easiest to understand as a critique of welfare economics, which is an optimization theory that uses price-based measures to calculate the so-called social surplus (see middle part of concept map). Social surplus is the amount of welfare (value or utility) that a society has gained from the present consumption of all goods and services produced or bought. For more information watch the MIT OpenCourseware on Welfare Economics. The nice thing about welfare economics is that one can use mathematics for optimization studies. The trouble with it is twofold: 1. it emphasizes material well-being (humans are more than just consumers of stuff); and 2. It aggregates welfare across a large number of individuals (e.g. a society), so there is a risk of inequalities or injustices among them if that would produced the greatest welfare for the aggregated lot. This is the classical problem with utilitarianism in general. There is no reason, however, why utilitarianism or welfare economics could not be made to be more accommodating by incorporating certain weighting principles or by critically examining certain arguments (cf. Jonathan Baron in the final chapters of ‘Thinking and Deciding’)

The capability approach (#B)      … is dealt with in the red box. The basic mechanism is depicted in the top two rows. It all starts with a production apparatus (‘input production’) which supplies a range of goods and services that enable individuals to develop a set of capabilities from which he or she can chose to achieve certain functionings. These functionings are an express of what a person desires and can range from working to being healthy and from being part of a community to being respected within that community or the society at large. A large number of factors affect what capabilities a person is capable  of, including policies, social context and personal characteristics.

Martha Nussbaum        …. has given a twist to Sen’s capability approach by defining ten central capabilities, including life, health, integrity, meaning, emotional expression, practical reason, self-respecting empathy, life & environment, play, and control (for full description, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Sen preferred not to define such a list, leaving the debate about them open for each situation. In the end it is the purpose that determines which capability has value and needs expressing. Nussbaum is a very good talker and organizer. I came across a very good talk (“Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach” in which she also discusses utilitarianism) here and a very good organization (Human Development and Capability Association, HDCA) here. It is interesting to note that the UK-based Open University is one of its institutional members.

Dimensions of advantage     (see green box:) Each person has under certain conditions certain advantages or lack thereof. They can be expressed in terms of basic needs satisfaction, freedoms and capabilities and become apparent as functionings. From an analytical point of view it is important at what level these advantages are evaluated, as consumer freedom, well-being freedom, or agency freedom. From a moral viewpoint agency freedom and agency achievement are the most important, because they allow a person to express his or her commitments to the well-being of others.

Aristotle, Smith & Marx       Sen and Nussbaum were in various ways influenced by Marx, Aristotle and Adam Smith. The latter’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is foundational to all free market thinking, which requires individual freedom for markets to function properly. This is very much at the basis of Sen’s capability approach. The Marxist and Aristotelian part is where Sen considers agency to be of the utmost importance to the meaning of human life. This goes far beyond the Pareto principle of welfare  economics, even to the extent that agency could be considered of a totally different dimension. The development problem is one of poverty and inequality. In Sen’s words “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.” In this sense the capability is about opening opportunities for agency rather than locking them in. The larger framework remains that of the market not government control.

Participation and empowerment      … are two terms that are often used in the modern development narrative. The question is: participation in what, empowerment to do what. Progress in the South is anything but simple if it has to be part of a cumulative process of sustainable development. It is unavoidable that in each situation advances must be made in terms of a mutually reinforcing set of development goals for such an effort to be in some way sustainable. It is the consideration of multiple goals that turns almost any such effort into a systemic one.

The systems approach        What Sen calls ‘reasoned agency’ then becomes the type of reflexive planning that has been described by C. West Churchman as a dialectical systems approach. Empowerment, in this (and my) view, is the application to a fairly specific local development challenge of the dialectical systems approach, which is not purely rational but contains necessarily political, moral, and aesthetic qualities. Participation is the dialectical aspect of it, provided, of course, that the beneficiaries of the development are themselves involved in the dialectics. Not just as beneficiaries, but also as co-planners and co-decision-makers. Perhaps I should add, as co-systems-thinkers. Churchman intended his systems approach to be of a general nature to get as broad an understanding of management as possible. Management is about justifying decision-making in complex situations. As a result of its generality the dialectical systems approach can provide a framework for unfolding the more intricate details of the capability approach or some other comprehensive approach for informing collective decision-making.


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A systems approach to address wicked problems

My last post was about the use of three basic systems concepts (inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives) in evaluation design. The post before that was about C. West Churchman’s last great book ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ (1979). In this post I will combine the two in ways that are both subtle and broad. What I have been after the last few years is no less than the holy grail of systems thinking. Maybe this is it, but let’s not get our hopes too high. Besides there is always the temptation of a quest without an ending. Which resembles the human quest to improve his condition by ever redesigning his social systems.

The systems approach      … is the title of Churchman’s first book in his ‘systems approach’ trilogy (1968, 1971, 1979). The last book of the trilogy was called The Systems Approach and its Enemies. There was obviously a certain development in the cycle, which suggests that the last book holds the (final) key to the other two. I summarized the last book in the previous post (Churchman wrote one more book, Thought and Wisdom – 1982 – but that’s not part of the trilogy). As usual I made a concept map. I lifted the key part out of that concept map and put it in a red-bordered box.

Wicked solutions      … is the title of a book of which Bob Williams is the main author. Bob Williams has used three basic systems concepts (inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives) in his published work and workshops in various ways. I put them in the green-bordered ‘wicked solutions’ box to the left. The next step was just a matter of linking the two boxes. The red arrows are about the origin of the wicked problem. I put “wicked” between quote marks, because it is quite normal that problems are not solved if one takes too narrow an approach to them (= environmental fallacy). It also makes a lot of sense to expand the boundaries of the system in which the wicked problem occurs so that one can properly see which inter-relationships (i.e. structures, patterns, processes, and dynamics) can be linked to the occurrence or emergence of the problem. If that is all, the systems approach is not all that interesting.

Dialectical heuristic        What makes the systems approach powerful and worthwhile is a tool in it, which I call the ‘dialectical heuristic’. This heuristic is a set of conceptual relations for the design and operation of all social or human systems, including manufactured items (an example of this can be gleaned from Conklin 2001 although he rather uses wicked problems concepts than dialectical heuristic concepts). Churchman developed this heuristic from his seminal work in operations research in the 1950s and his logico-philosophical studies in the 1930s. The starting point is that all human systems are teleological, ie. they serve the purpose of improving the human condition, which is necessarily all about value and meaning. If it is properly used, the dialectical heuristic applies certain systemic principles that Churchman discovered/developed/designed. Most people apply at least some of these principles quite naturally some of the time, but they do not do so consciously and consistently. The heuristic is used to for a comprehensive systemic inquiry of the problem situation.

Categorical roles     The proper use of the heuristic takes a conscious effort by the main stakeholders or most relevant actors involved. The main roles are those of the client (or beneficiary, but also in a negative sense as victim), the decision-maker, and the planner. Actors can play multiple roles, e.g. if a decision-maker may benefit in some way from the situation (e.g. by getting a good salary) he or she also plays the role of a client. I have explained at least some of this elsewhere, e.g. here or here.

Deception-perception       Of special importance are the principles of deception-perception. The trouble with human perception is that it can never be entirely objective, even if we try very, very hard and open-mindedly. Every way of perceiving obscures necessarily certain aspects of reality. Which is the reason why dialectics are necessary. Only by contrasting different perspectives can we get the fullest possible picture and can we reflect on the system boundaries that brings us closer to a sufficiently satisfactory solution to the wicked problem (this, by the way, is called satisficing, a term of Herbert Simon and not of Churchman, who preferred to talk in terms of approximation, something he had learned from Edgar A. Singer, himself a student of William James).

Enemies       There is one final thing. In 1979 Churchman added 3 more categories to his dialectical heuristic. The key one is: enemies of the systems approach. Later he would say that he regretted having called them enemies, but that’s not very important. The thing is that the first 9 categories in were part of the rational part of the heuristic, the last 3 are the irrational ones, or less rational ones. They include politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics. Politics is easy to understand: politics cannot work if it is purely rational, it also needs majorities or sufficient support in one way or another for implementation (another category in the heuristic) of any plan to be secured. Morality is what Churchman called the humanistic systems approach in his earlier work (e.g. Churchman 1968). Morality, too, does not always easily fit in a teleological framework, something utilitarianists will readily admit.

Sweeping in and unfolding        It is often said that the systems approach is about ‘sweeping in’ and ‘unfolding’. Unfolding is what people do when they apply the dialectical heuristic. Sweeping in, that is including additional inter-relationships that had not been considered earlier, is what happens by expanding the boundaries. The boundaries can be anything, not only physical things, but also mental or psychological aspects, often having to do with the world views of stakeholders.

Well, that’s it. More or less.

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Systems thinking for evaluation design

Video transcript, summary, and concept map

In March, 2015, Bob Williams, the main author of Wicked Solutions and several other books on systems thinking, gave a 2-day workshop “Wicked Solutions: A Systems Approach to Complex Problems” on the use of the systems approach in evaluation design at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) in Kyoto, Japan. RIHN is a development organization that conducts practical transdisciplinary studies of development problems and their solution. Some of the researchers participating in the workshop were involved in peatland management research on Bali and Sulawesi, Indonesia. Peatland is a major part of coastal wetland geomorphology around the world (4 million km2). The catch (22) is that peat grows naturally, but the process is reversed when the land is drained for agriculture. Peat covers half of the Netherlands, where the peatlands – which are often already below sea level – subside to ever lower levels, while sea levels are rising. A small part of the 2-day workshop was taped on video, edited, and posted on Youtube in two 30-minute parts and They are not so much about peat but rather about the principles of systemic design. The transcription and slides have been combined in a single pdf. This post contains the concept map and summary. Have fun.

The video’s      … are in two parts: (1) introduction to systems thinking and the concepts; and (2) core concepts & the deep dive (that is, mostly of “Wicked Solutions”). In the concept map these two parts are clearly separated by a dotted line, yet the two parts are closely related. The introductory part provides the background for the second part. And the second part explains in adequate detail what the first part is mostly about.

Introductory part       Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary field of science and practice. As an academic interdiscipline it borrows from and contributes to almost all ‘straight’ disciplines including biology, philosophy, engineering, economics, cognition (i.e. psychology), computing, and management science. Systems thinking is special in that it integrates elements of ontology and epistemology. Sometimes it is more on the ontological side (e.g. systems analysis), sometimes more on the epistemological side (e.g. critical systems), sometimes it’s in the middle (management sciences, information systems). As a result of this enormous variety there is obviously no such thing as THE systems theory, there is just the “systems field” with a lot of ramifications in theory and practice that do not always same to have much in common with each other. There are a number of concepts that pop up quite often, e.g. planning, uncertainty, complexity, learning, (problematic) situations, and change.

The problem       Most people agree that systems thinking is a good antidote to the multitude of more narrow approaches to human reality. The trouble is that the systems field is so wide that hardly anybody knows where to start. Learning how to apply systems thinking in a practical way is itself is complex problem. People who need to learn systems thinking are usually experts in a field of their own (e.g. ecologist, soil scientist, mechanization expert etc.), each dealing with a subsystem of a larger whole. Below is an illustration of how an agricultural system is an integration of a natural ecosystem and a social system with about 20 subsystems (and counting, because I don’t see the peatland system, the irrigation and drainage system, the agricultural research system, the farmer communication system, the agricultural extension system etc.). My educational background is in tropical agriculture (BSc) and irrigation engineering (MSc), so I get really fired up about this. Below picture is from a set of slides from Ray Ison (here).

The solution       The problem of “allowing evaluation to become more systemic without having to adopt, accommodate and learn specific systems methods” was “solved” in 2004 by bringing a group of (about 16?) systems and evaluation experts together in Berkeley to explore “how to promote the use of systems ideas in monitoring and evaluation, not in terms of specific systems methodologies, but based on a set of principles. In other words, allowing evaluators to modify their existing practice rather than learning entirely new practice.” (Williams, 2016) After three days they came out of their room with three basic concepts: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries.

Publications      From there Bob Williams was involved in a number of publications: (1) Systems Concepts in Evaluation (with Imam, 2007), with a first account of the three concepts (p. 6, only inter-relationships is termed “entangled systems”); (2) Systems Concepts in Action (with Hummelbrunner, 2011), in which 19 systems methods are described in terms of the three basic concepts; (3) Wicked Solutions (with Van ‘t Hof, 2014/2016), which provides a clear-cut and generally applicable methodology for applying the three basic concepts without any previous knowledge of systems thinking whatsoever; and (4) Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation Design (2016), which specifically applies the Wicked Solutions approach to evaluation (also available in Spanish). There is also a recent USAID discussion note on systemic monitoring (2014). The story doesn’t end there. The Systems in Evaluation TIG (Topical Interest Group of the American Evaluation Association) published a final draft of Principles for Effective Use of Systems Thinking in Evaluation in September 2018, which adds “dynamics” as key concept. This may not be necessary if we think of inter-relationships as a spatiotemporal concept, as has always been the case with C. West Churchman (1968, 1971, 1979). In 2014, Bob received the American Evaluation Association (AEA) Lazarsfeld Theory Award for his contribution to systems approaches in evaluation.

Wicked Solutions       … is by far the most practical of all these. In the bottom half of the concept map above its essence is explained. Each of the concepts could be considered a step in the process of designing an intervention, research program, or evaluation. Each step uses a set of tools and ideas to make it work: (1) rich picturing is used to map inter-relationships, which helps identify systemic structures, patterns, processes and dynamics, but also stakeholder values, norms, resources, conflicts, aspirations, goals, and motivations; (2) stakeholder analysis and stake analysis is used to identify possible framings (or “images”) of the problematic situation and possible purposes of the design. Since we are dealing with human, soft or social systems (which includes practically all systems, even the ‘hard’ ones), they can only be properly understood by discussing their purpose and meaning to the people involved; (3) critical heuristics is used to discuss boundaries. It helps us answer questions raised in the previous two steps by “revealing , exploring, and challenging boundary judgments associated with a situation of interest.” (Williams & Imam, 2007).

Participants        During the workshop the RIHN participants apply the Wicked Solutions methodology to their own research design in Indonesia. At the end four of them give comments. What they say is highly relevant. They consider the systems approach particularly useful in multi-stakeholder situations so as to enable them to make a more comprehensive design or project plan. Another issue is that the approach enables better stakeholder communication. The main problem is that it is difficult to use insights from the system approach to redesign an ongoing plan. Let me add a few comments to this: (1) the approach makes it less likely to ignore key stakeholders; (2) it is more likely that all stakeholders are heard and that they hear each other; (3) the key to application of the approach is to use it at as early possible a time. This will work much better if there is time to conduct project pilots or evaluation tests; and finally (4) there will always be learning as the activity unfolds. Learning will be better if the initial plan is more comprehensive, i.e. more systemic.

Final notes      In the workshop Bob uses cases from Latin America, Africa and Asia to illustrate the practical value of Wicked Solutions. They all happen to be in the field of agricultural development: (1) irrigated rice and malaria control in Peru; (2) irrigation development and pump procurement in Mali; and (3) peatland management in Indonesia. The Mali case is the detailed, worked-out case used in Wicked Solutions to ensure that starting systems learners can directly apply the methodology. Sometimes I use the words “solution” and “problem”. These terms must be understood in a systemic way, which means that most of the time there is not one, easily identifiable “problem”, nor is there one identifiable “solution.” For more information about that (i.e. wicked problems and the like), go here. Bob’s website is here.

This post has been reblogged by The Systems Community of Inquiry at, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners (Thanks!).


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The “enemies” of the systems approach

Here is a link to the abstracts of the individual chapters of C. West Churchman’s ‘The systems approach and its enemies’, which was Churchman’s last book of his great trilogy. Churchman’s work is the focal point of CSL4D. I used the abstracts to produce a concept map (see below), which I will describe in this post. I believe it could serve as a useful introduction to Churchman’s work. This post has been reblogged by The Systems Community of Inquiry at, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners (Thanks!).

Systems     Social systems are all systems with humans in them. The human environment is full of systems: organizations, businesses, projects, governments, nations, the world, shopping systems, transport systems, security systems, financial systems etc. All of these systems have been designed. The systems idea implies that systems have components (subsystems) and boundaries. Systems are not closed, they are mostly conceived as semi-open, which implies that their boundaries are subject to debate. In soft systems lingo we speak of the “boundary critique.”

Problems     Many human “systems” function poorly. The question is: what can be done about it? Fixing the most obvious problem in systems often doesn’t work, but even makes the situation worse,  delays a real solution, or simply costs a lot of money and effort to keep it functioning, be it poorly. Systems thinkers believe that such problems – often designated “wicked problems” – are caused by taking too narrow a view of the situation. Such a narrow view is what Churchman calls the ‘environmental fallacy.’ This fallacy is not part of classical logic. In fact, a whole set of new principles had to be developed in order to provide a solid foundation for addressing wicked problems. One of them is the Maximum Loop Principle (see here).

People      Among the principles that Churchman developed are also the four principles of deception-perception. The key idea is that when we perceive a problematic situation in a certain way, this obscures certain key aspects that can only be brought to light by perceiving  it in a totally different way. The essence of the systems approach, “therefore, is confusion [deception] and enlightenment [perception]” (The Systems Approach, p. 231). In Churchman’s words, we must see through the eyes of others to discover the restrictedness of our own perspective (including that of ‘experts’ or ‘managers’). We must also abandon any claims of absoluteness (without falling victim to the idea of relativity, which is replaced by the idea of approximation). Churchman’s great “trick” is to build a categorical framework centered on people. These people play roles in system design as client, decision-maker and/or planner. “And/or” here means that people can play different roles at the same time. It is the key to systemic inquiry as described in “The design of inquiring systems” (Churchman 1971, see also here).

Enemies       The systems approach is a rational system. Humans are not always rational, or our last name would be Spock or something. Rationality is also not easy to achieve. It is not always very convincing. Many a rational systems plan has disappeared in the bottom drawer (as have many other plans). Churchman identified 4 main “enemies”: politics, morality, religion and aesthetics. Politics is the easiest to explain: politics is all about getting enough support to get things done. In other words, politics is necessary for implementation. This usually means that the plan has to be adjusted to suit the wishes of various supporting parties. The plan becomes less rational. It will not serve the intended client (or beneficiary) as well as the planner would like to. That’s when the boundary critique becomes important. Similar things happen with the other enemies.

Heuristics        The categorical framework is a heuristic for operationalizing Churchman’s  systemic principles. The categories unfold by asking the basic ethical question: who is and who should be the client? What is and what should be the purpose? In England Churchman’s framework is used a lot, be it in the form of Ulrich’s “critical heuristics”. Ulrich was a Swiss student of Churchman in the late 1970s. His “critical heuristics” uses an adaptation of Churchman’s categorical framework. The good thing about critical heuristics is that it is easier to learn. It leaves out the entire “enemies” part. It is also part of the methodology described in Wicked Solutions, which has been used repeatedly at universities in Europe, Australia and the United States.

Significance      … is the last category of Churchman 4 x 3 framework. Churchman went flat out to make sure the dialectical systems approach was a significant contribution. Part of his approach was to seek the maximum generality. This allowed him to contrast it to existing philosophical schemas, oppose it to classical logic, and ensure the broadest possible applicability. This doesn’t mean there are no problems with it. In the preface Churchman writes that generality in the context of social systems is a highly debatable concept, because social systems are never wholly rational nor wholly irrational. They are beyond that. This means that in the end the effectiveness of the systems tool is in the eye of the beholder. If it works, it is OK. But that type of argument would apply to many another approach, especially the one associated with politics.

Book abstract       The design of social systems (organizations, businesses, projects, governments, nations, the world) in the most general sense is described and guidelines for system design are provided. It is argued that social system design is beyond dichotomies such as rational-irrational, teleological-ateleological and objective-subjective. Churchman proposes the dialectical systems approach as a rational solution for the so-called “environmental” fallacy, but admits that irrational “enemies” or non-friendly viewpoints are necessary to come to a fuller understanding of the systems approach. The historical roots of the systems approach in Western and Eastern thought traditions are explored, the limitations of classical logic are outlined, and the need for an alternative “whole system” form of logic and objectivity is discussed, in which people are the center of the planning reality. The first nine categories of Churchman’s framework are described, followed by a detailed discussion of the problems of a systems approach defined from within as contrasted with the outside perspectives of the “enemies” such as politics, morality, religion and aesthetics. Suggestions for unfolding the different categories into each other are included.

Well, that’s it. Now you can read the abstracts or the original book. Do not forget to put some of the abstracts, or at least the book abstract, in your university’s catalogue. You may also prefer to make your own abstracts. It’s good exercise. To get a better feel of what it is all about you may also go through a worked out case in Wicked Solutions

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Thought, knowledge, and the systems approach

As I wrote  earlier, I am currently studying two books, one by Jonathan Baron (Thinking and deciding, 2nd edition) and the other by Diane Halpern (Thought and knowledge: an introduction to critical thinking). My need is for a thorough overview of both to better situate the systems approach in the general theory of complex decision making and problem solving, so my posts about both books are not reviews. My last post about Baron can be found here. This post is about Halpern’s. Baron and Halpern serve slightly different audiences, but the subject (critical thinking, deciding) and approach (cognitive psychology) are very similar. Having gone through both volumes showed how books about critical thinking can be a design challenge. Baron solved it neatly by sticking to his search-inference framework throughout the book. I don’t think there are any topics that are dealt with in one book and missing in the other. The differences are mostly a matter of emphasis. Both books are very rich in insights and examples. I summarized both books in concept maps. In this post I describe my concept map of Halpern’s book. 

Critical thinking         .. is about the application of problem-solving and cognitive (thinking and learning) skills to problems in general and ill-defined situations in particular. The problem-solving skills are used in strategies that help resolve these problems. There is no point in applying one skill (say problem-solving) and forget about the others. They all hang together. This even applies to the memory aspect of the learning skills. The scientific basis for critical thinking comes from the learning sciences, cognitive psychology in particular.

Key intellectual skill      Many of the problems in the 21st century (in business, government and our own lives) occur in complex situations that are characterized by ambiguity. The ambiguity is the result of the inherent complexity of the situation, the individual values (or personal goals) of the actors involved and even the emotional aspects of their perception of the situation.

Creativity      … (or innovativeness) can be enhanced by problem-solving strategies. The problems we face are increasingly complex and lack clear-cut solutions, yet we feel a need for desirable outcomes (competitiveness, popular support etc.). Halpern describes creativity as the searching of people’s knowledge nets (i.e. memories) for remote ideas that can be connected to form new ideas or concepts and innovative solutions.

Fallacies and biases     Critical thinking is often associated with learning a large number of fallacies and biases that muddle our reasoning. Good reasoning is as essential in science as it is in real life. Many of our reasoning errors can be avoided by a better understanding of hypothesis testing and the use of statistics. Other forms of reasoning are based on building a correct argumentation. This can be improved by using argument analysis involving the critical assessment of assumptions and counterarguments.

Systems thinking       … also deals with complex situations, yet Halpern’s book contains no mention of it. It does, however, contain a reference to the systems approach in the form of a psychological application to creativity. She writes that some psychologists “believe it [creativity] is the confluence of many different types of variables that make creativity more or less probable. Of course, the creative individual is central to the process, but she or he works in a domain of knowledge (e.g., art, physics, decorating, teaching, horse breeding, and any other domain you can think of). The contributions of an individual to a domain are judged by the people in that field—the art critics, funding agencies for physics  research, editors of decorating magazines, etc. The people in the field act as the gatekeepers for a domain—they decide what is and is not valued.” The systems approach is of course well known to psychologists, see e.g. “A brief history of systems approaches in counselling and psychotherapy” (Bauserman and Rule, 1995).

Churchman’s dialectical systems approach           … seems relevant to critical thinking in a variety of ways: (1) it can handle complex situations; (2) it can handle ambiguity; (3) it encourages creativity and innovativeness; (4) by looking at (and ideally involving) actors playing different roles it improves reasoning in a variety of ways, creating a propitious environment of sensitivity, synergy, and serendipity; (5) its full application requires a boundary critique, during which assumptions and counterarguments are identified and critically examined, thus avoiding a great many biases and fallacies. A straightforward methodological application of Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is described in Wicked Solutions (see also here, here or here).

Book abstract        The 5th Edition of Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking applies theory and research from the learning sciences, including cognitive science, to teach students the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in today’s world. Critical thinking is the use of purposeful, reasoned and open-ended cognitive skills and strategies to increase the probability of a desirable outcome when solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions. The role of memory is elucidated and a broad range of fallacies, biases, and techniques of propaganda is described. Other key topics include deductive reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, statistics, decision-making, problem-solving skills, and the need for creativity. It is emphasized that most of the problems encountered in life are ill-defined. Twelve different strategies for generating and evaluating solutions are presented, including means–ends analysis, working backwards, random search, rules, hints, split-half method, brainstorming, contradiction, and analogies and metaphors. All of the strategies to enhance creativity involve searching an individual’s knowledge net so that remote ideas can be associated, analogies can be applied across domains of knowledge, and information that is stored in memory can become available.

The companion website to the book is available from
The abstracts of the book and the individual chapters can be downloaded here (pdf)

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Thinking and deciding: concept map

I am currently studying two books, one by Jonathan Baron (Thinking and deciding, 2nd edition) and the other by Diane Halpern (Thought and knowledge: an introduction to critical thinking). My need is for a thorough overview of both to better situate the systems approach in the general theory. The common factor is that all three – deciding in general, critical thinking and the systems approach – use heuristic methods to deal with ambiguity, biases, fallacies, and ill-founded assumptions in one way or another. The question is: how do they relate to each other? From the look of things Baron has the most general theory, which – according to his own theory – should allow for some transfer of learning to the other two. So, that’s why I will start with Baron. I have already made some preparations in 5 previous posts in the form of an abstract for each of the 24 chapters, which I used for creating a meaningful concept, which is organized in 4 colums. It works for me, so I hope it will do the same for you, in spite of the about 100 concepts. (Halpern’s book will follow in a future post).

Search-inference framework              The cognitive psychologist Baron describes thinking about beliefs, actions and goals in a single, fundamental framework for thinking processes of search and inference. This process has the following main steps: (1) thinking is kindled by the realization (dubbed ‘doubt’) that a certain belief in a certain action may not be justified; (2) thinking, especially rationally thinking, then seeks to resolve those doubts by searching for alternatives (or possibilities) of action, belief and even goals; (3) evidence is then sought to justify, or rather infer the strengths of certain courses of action or belief; (4) the process ends by taking a decision about how well certain actions are expected to help achieve certain goals. The framework embodies the so-called principles of open-mindedness to avoid biases, fallacies, ill-applied heuristics, and ill-founded assumptions in our understanding and decision-making. The framework also serves as a basis for thorough approach to the normative, descriptive, and prescriptive aspects of judgment and deciding. The framework could also be used as a heuristic or thinking method in its own right.

Part I: Thinking     … is all about inference. Human inference – as opposed to its automated form in artificial intelligence – is studied within the field of cognitive psychology. Charles Sanders Peirce divided inference into deduction, induction, and abduction. Deduction uses formal logic, induction uses modern science to generalize from controlled observations, and abduction uses insight to try to diagnose (i.e. to hypothesize the most likely conclusion) an ambiguous, uncontrolled situation (ambiguity). Abduction leads to relatively uncertain or provisional conclusions, but in daily life there is often no alternative some sort of trial-and-error. If it works, it is OK. If it doesn’t it suggest the need for searching another possibility that fits the evidence better. This may involve reweighing the evidence. Formal logic has little use in the real world. Science is great, but if things get complex, which they do in reality, it has its limitations. The problem with abduction is that trial-and-error is beset with difficulties. So we want to infuse as much insight as possible. Thinking, especially abductive thinking, requires all human faculties, including memory, intelligence and creativity. It is good to be aware of the biases and errors one may fall victim to, including rationalization and resistance to correction. Social systems thinking belongs in the category of abductive thinking methods.

Part II: Probability     …. is all about statistics. Statistics can be subdivided in probability theory, hypothesis testing, and correlation theory. Statistics is useful because it is able to handle uncertainty. Baron is interested in it as a tool in decision making but also as a tool for identifying human biases. Cognitive studies of probability judgment have shown a great number of biases, including anchoring, gambler’s fallacy, availability heuristic, and hindsight bias. A serious problem in hypothesis testing is that we may be testing the wrong hypothesis. In fact people tend to rely on direct testing, rather than indirect testing. This is known as the congruence heuristic, which works like a confirmation bias or myside bias. Correlation theory poses its own problems. People tend to confuse correlation with causality, which is not a good idea, because addressing a single cause in a complex situation often makes things worse (a well-known phenomenon among systems thinkers). This is mostly due to attention bias.

Part III: Decisions          …. is the part that looks at some practical issues in decision making, especially quantitative judgment and moral thinking. Baron stresses the adaptability of utility theory as a normative model for handling trade-offs and for analysing fairness, social dilemmas, and decisions about the future, e.g. by discounting. Cognitive studies have shown that quantitative judgment of people is often way off, especially when people try to assess a situation without the use of calculations (“unaided holistic judgment”), which suggests the need for thoroughgoing decision analysis. Statistics and utility theory are two normative models with a high transfer of learning, i.e. with generality applicability in a wide range of contexts.

Systems approach       Churchman designed his systems approach with generality – of the type that enables learning transfer – in mind. In the concept map we can read that “heuristic methods support decision making, which mostly deals with complex material, where a structure serves a purpose, and that needs to be disentangled.” It also shows that: “principles of active open-mindedness prevent insufficient or partial search and the common fallacy of overweighing the evidence.” In my view, utility theory, decision analysis and statistics are all very good normative or prescriptive models, but in many cases these models are best used after applying the systems approach. The main reason is that the systems approach is more powerful for disentangling the ‘structure that serves a purpose’ (i.e. the system, however it may be bounded) and for conducting the search for possibilities, goals and evidence. When it comes to learning critical thinking  and decision-making skills, the dialectical systems approach has a lot to offer. The heuristic model of Churchman’s categorical framework would seem highly suited for operationalizing Baron’s search-inference framework and bring to life in a natural and coherent manner the notions, theories, models and techniques of critical thinking. Food for thought. The dialectical systems approach is particularly good in avoiding the myside bias and in learning by understanding, using various systems principles (deception-perception, maximum loop).

Logic, statistics, & cetera        Logic is the main theme of part I, while statistics is the main theme of part II. It is interesting to note that Churchman started his career with a PhD on logic, somewhere in the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s. It was called “Towards a General Logic of Propositions” (Churchman 1979, xi). Generality is an ideal (e.g. for learning transfer), which is very hard to approximate. Churchman concluded that logic falls in the trap of tautology or self-referencing with open eyes. Statistics is another theme in his early career. It had a double appeal to him in those years: statistics was a developing field of study with great practical utility in scientific management, the American discovery at the beginning of the 20th century. Thanks to the war he could apply his knowledge of statistics to improve the quality of small arms munitions. This gave him his first successful experience in real management and set him up for his contributions to the development of management science in the 1950s, which is about decision-making, the main theme of part III. Management science uses computer-based, quantitative models. Churchman found out their moral limitations and designed the dialectical systems approach. The quantitative and moral dimensions correspond to the two main sub-themes of part III.

Conclusion       Reality is ambiguous, evasive, uncertain, unstructured. Decision-making cannot be based on logic or quantitative optimization alone, because they are non-ambiguous in nature and seek certainty where none can be found. Statistics cannot solve this either, mainly because it tries to look at uncertainty in particular relationships, not at the situation as a whole.Certainty is an ideal that can only be approximated by giving place of honour to ambiguity. The denial of uncertainty is at the root of many human problems. A true framework of ambiguity attempts to look at decisions from a broad perspective. Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is a very good starting point. Wicked Solutions is based on that approach and provides a methodology for its practical application.

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