Transcending realism and idealism

One more way for understanding Churchman’s systems approach

The first six categories of Churchman’s categorical scheme are rather evident: client, purpose, measures of performance, decision-maker, components and environment. I must add that what many may not realize is that Churchman included these and six others (planner, implementation, guarantor, systems philosopher, enemies of the systems approach and significance) in his framework, not only because he considers them crucial for understanding any human activity system (policy, enterprise, project, life, historical event), but also because he considered their understanding and description surprisingly difficult, yet essential. Churchman also found out that there are a large number of relationships between the categories that made him conceive his categorical scheme as a system in which the categories ought to be in concordance with each other. In chapter 14 of Challenge to Reason (Churchman, 1968) he describes not only how this concordance can be understood, but also what is the importance of the second set of six categories of his framework. I will attempt to summarize the chapter below.

Realism and idealism      Normally realism and idealism are considered ideas that exclude each other, yet both are used to address problems in politics, international relations, diplomacy etc. Realism could be defined as dealing practically with situations as they really are, whereas idealism is something like considering things in their ideal form rather than as they really are. Churchman uses the systems idea to define idealism as considering situations as wholes, while realists rather deal with parts or segments. On many an occasion he uses the term ‘nonseparability’ to explain why situations ought to be treated as wholes: the parts simply interact with each other, so changing one part will affect one or more other parts. This phenomenon turns situations into the complex messes they often are, otherwise known as ‘wicked problems’. Even fairly simple problems can turn out to be pretty wicked. Realists are only justified in dealing with parts if these parts can be considered separately, i.e. when they are separable. Because they often consider different parts in succession they are called pluralists. Idealists, in contrast, are monists, because they look at parts interacting in ‘wholes’.

Realistic problems       As explained in the previous post, realists (i.e. most ordinary decision-makers) may use tools such as the allocation model to maximize profit. The allocation model serves to maximize a set of objective functions that describe an activity (policy, project, business etc.) in mathematical terms subject to a set of constraint equations. A realist will want to specify these equations on realistic data, i.e. data obtained from experience or by observing reality. Such a realistic approach has typically underlying assumptions that lie well within factual boundaries. It ignores the possibility of alternative approaches. It also tends to favour the ‘measurable’ as opposed to the ‘human’, which means it loses an important aspect of ‘human activity systems’ out of sight. What really needs to be measured is how the activity adds value to the client or beneficiary. Also, it tends to look at the parts as separable, i.e. without looking at them in relation to each other or to the whole of which they are part. The realist also tends to look at himself or herself as absolutely objective, whereas the entire approach is based on a predilection for short-term practicality that favours the reality of action. Such a preference is not very rational, because it ignores alternatives that may be more profitable, even without considering them.  It is also anything but objective because it overlooks that fact that he represents a coalition of many people (stockholders, governemnt, consumers, labour, public) and is himself a very complicated system of conflicting psychological beings, of ego and id, of persona and archetype. Taken together, more than enough reason to look at the realist as ‘ridiculously old-fashioned’.

Idealistic problems          Fortunately the idealist has his or her share of problems too. Two fundamental problems were already mentioned in the previous chapter (and therefore in the previous post): (1) the concept of wholes begs the question of boundaries and overlap since it is impossible to consider everything; this in turn leads us to the question of relevance: what should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’; (2) the problem of comprehensiveness is perhaps worse: since we cannot know everything, there is the possibility of the total darkness of ignorance as well as not yet evident evil;  Churchman compares it with the box of Pandora. Hence the need for a guarantor – one of the categories – to take care of all these unknowns and evils. The problem is that there is no proof of such a guarantor, but it is often assumed and must be brought to light in order to be discussed: religious people think of God, realists discard this as speculation, but reify their models, Marxists sought a guarantor in history, etc. A third problem with idealism is that it tends to prefer the plan over the implementation – also one of the categories. They often assume it is the task of others. It is the problem of nonseparability in another guise: implementation should be part of the plan (see also previous post). In a sense the idealist becomes the planner, a key role category in Churchman’s framework.

Transcendence        Both idealists and realists have a lot going for them, but both also face a lot of very serious difficulties. The systems approach is nothing else but a way for creating a dialectical process in which the best of each are combined and the worst of each are cancelled out. On the realist side, this means that it is necessary to look at the facts and bring to light the underlying assumptions, on the idealist side the emphasis is on ideas and ‘whole systems’. A summary description of the process can be found elsewhere in this blog. For more details I refer to the work of Werner Ulrich or to our own workbook Wicked Solutions, which provides an easy introduction (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016; available from Amazon and as a PDF).

Inter-relationships, perspectives, boundaries      There are many ways of explaining Churchman´s systems approach. One of them is ´Wicked solutions´. It proposes 3 key systems concepts and 4 main actions to get to a systemic intervention. The 3 systems concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. These concepts can be found in the above concept map and its explanation. Inter-relationships give systems their unity, while perspectives provide contrasting or conflicting views on them, which leads to contested system boundaries, the critique of which may result in illumination (incidentally the foundation of progress, aspiration, innovation and democracy). When we talk about systems we could also call them human problem situations. The 4 main actions are (in the purple circles): (1) to map the inter-relationships and perspectives (e.g. in a so-called rich picture; this is also called ‘sweeping in’, since it expands the scope of the situation); (2) to frame stakes (stakes are closely linked to people’s perspectives; they are what makes it difficult to find a common solution; framing stakes here means that stakes are framed in a such a broad way that hindrances to their resolution can be overcome; this happens in the next steps); (3) critique (i.e. debate critically) the system boundaries by taking into account the various perspectives; this results in a large number of possible boundary choices; and (4) design a systemic intervention by making the best possible combination of boundary choices.

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

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Large models of systems

Wicked assumptions and how to approach them

Part II of Challenge to Reason (CR: Churchman, 1968 ↗] is entitled The maximum loop. Deduction and possibly induction are examples of minimum loop inference. Deduction is the domain of logic, induction that of science. The American pragmatist Charles Saunders Peirce developed a third mode of inference, which he called abduction. It is arguable that, as Beer suggests (in Barton, 1999), management is effectively concerned with abductive processes. Churchman has been strongly influenced by American pragmatism along the line of Peirce (1839 – 1914)-James (1842-1910)-Singer (1873-1954)-Churchman (1913-2004). The systems approach could be considered a practical application of abduction.

Our narrow muddle        At the end of chapter 13: Large models of systems, a reprint of an earlier presentation at the Second Stony Brook Conference on Advances in Computing, Stony Brook, New York, June, 1966, Churchman refers to John Dewey, another American pragmatist, “who showed that the quest for certainty is bound to fail, because certainty is an unattainable goal” (CR 167). Churchman also quotes Singer as having said that “When we reach a conclusion after having exposed our ideas to the most severe test we can imagine, then we have done the best that inquiry can possibly accomplish.” Churchman noticed that there was a snag: “How do we know we have exposed our ideas to the severest test? If we have bound ourselves by our thinking into one corner of reality, then we shall never expose ourselves to the really severe test. Instead, we shall wander aimlessly about in our own narrow muddle, thinking we are progressing, but getting nowhere at all.”

Large models of systems       … is the title of the chapter summarized here (CR 155-167). During the 1940s and 1950s, Churchman was one of the founding fathers of operations research, also known as management science or decision science. One of the most common models used is the allocation model, which deals with the problem of distributing scarce resources among alternative activities. The idea is to maximize value according to measures of performance and subject to certain constraints. By the mid-1960s advances in computer technology made it possible to handle millions of variables and tens of thousands of constraints equations. It is no surprise that the well-known report “The Limits to growth” (Meadows et al. 1972) was initiated by the Club of Rome in the late 1960s. In fact, an earlier design or ‘prospectus’ of the report (“The predicament of mankind”) was based on Churchman’s systems approach (Christakis, 2014).

Flawed assumptions        An obvious problem with large models is that only very few humans are able to program the computers that perform all the applied mathematics to handle the massive numbers of objective functions and constraint equations. This leaves most people out of the loop, which they will experience as threatening. The main flaw, however, is that large models assume that all the necessary correct information is available for specifying the functions and equations. This may or may not include the way people feel when they are left out of the loop. This situation is quite obviously the case in the European Union. The fundamental challenge to reason is that while trying our utmost best to be rational, we necessarily fail to do so. But there is a way out.

Sweeping in viewpoints        Churchman’s chief interest is in human activity systems, also referred to as purposive systems or teleological systems. Examples include government activities, business operations, but also individual lives. Humans and their systems restlessly identify and pursue goals and try to use reason to do so more effectively. In the previous three posts we have explored the idea that we can decrease uncertainty by applying reason as an expansive concept, which is by sweeping in contrasting viewpoints. These viewpoints can portray reality, represent human experience, which in turn checks whether complete rationality has been attained by observing and experiencing that same experience. All this applies to the extent that it is relevant, provided we agree that relevance is a debatable, and therefore expanding, concept, too.

Churchmannian inquiry       The point that Churchman emphasizes persistently is the problem that certain simple questions about subsystems cannot be answered without first having a full understanding of the whole system. He found that out while working on large models of systems from the 1940s to the 1960s. The wrong solution is that we easily bound ourselves into one corner of reality, where we can make all the wrong assumptions without being aware that they are not correct. In his books he gives many examples of a wide range of wrong assumptions. The right solution is to become aware of the deceptive mechanisms involved and the perceptive options available to us. These are: (1) critical awareness the limitations of inductive and deductive reasoning, no matter how seductive and convincing they may seem; (2) sweeping in contrasting viewpoints (examples in Churchman’s work include: (a) physicist vs. biologist or humanist vs. anthropologist; (b) management scientist vs. humanist vs. efficiency buff vs. anti-planner; and (c) the realist vs. idealist, see next post); and (3) understanding the key roles in decision processes in all their guises, including those of the client, the decision-maker and the planner (this resembles point 2.), in relation to the other 8 categories of the systems approach framework (see below and elsewhere in this blog).

Abduction and the maximum loop       Peirce defined abduction as the cognitive process by which we are capable of isolating a relatively small number of plausible hypotheses to account for observable facts. It follows the same three steps as deduction and induction, but with a twist: (1) Statement B is true (result); (2) On the basis of my experience, my best guess is that A causes B (hypothesis/rule); (3) Therefore, A must be true. Now, clearly a guess does not seem a very good basis for certainty, but Peirce argued that abduction was the only form of inference that extends knowledge (as for innovation), while deduction simply develops logical results from hypotheses, and induction uses data to quantify arguments. One could say that deduction and induction follow a minimum loop, whereas abduction follows a much longer loop, of intermediate length, by ‘sweeping in’ experience. Churchman’s key contribution is to extend this model by positing that we must sweep in all of human experience: the maximum loop.

The categorical framework      … of Churchman can be described in many ways. One way is by following Kant´s 3 x 4 tabular approach, which is in a way what Churchman is doing as well. There are four aspects for examining and judging a human activity or plan: value, activity, design, and approach. For each of this aspects there is a role, i.c. those of the client, decision-maker, planner and philosopher, respectively. The client enjoys the value, the decision-maker decides on the activity based on whether the plan can be justified, the planner designs the plan to maximize the value, and the (systems) philosopher decides on the (systems) approach for the plan to make sure it all works for the best. There are difficulties with all these roles in relation to each other. These difficulties are an important part of how and why we are so easily deceived when making our plans.

The systems approach of deception      One of the problems is that of implementation. It is a well-known fact that many ‘wonderful’ plans end up not being implemented. This probably means that the planner has insufficiently taken into account how decision-makers make up their mind. One obvious aspect is that of the politics of a situation. Planners have their highly rational ideas about the feasibility of a plan in terms of effectiveness, but this may be quite different from feasibility in terms of acceptability, e.g. to the public. Would it then be reasonable to incorporate the politics into the plan or should more attention be devoted to how a plan can be ‘sold’. The trouble with these ‘solutions’ is that they work in tension with each other. The best plan is where an optimum concordance is struck between the twelve categories of the framework. In the dialectical process of doing so relevant viewpoints must be swept in and abduction must contribute innovative ideas. That, in short, is the systems approach as illustrated from the angle of large system models.

Barton, J. (1999). Pragmatism, systems thinking and system dynamics. In System Dynamics Conference (p. 17). Retrieved from Google Scholar.

Christakis, A. N. (2014). An Epic Learning Journey: From the Club of Rome to Dialogic Design Science and DEMOSOPHIA. In Social Systems and Design (pp. 37–70). Tokyo, Japan: Springer. DOC (June 7, 2017).

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

Griffin, D. R., Cobb Jr, J. B., Ford, M. P., Gunter, P. A. Y., & Ochs, P. (1993). Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Retrieved from Google Scholar. Partial preview.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., & Behrens, W. W. (1972). The limits to growth. New York: Universe Books. Retrieved from Google Scholar. PDF (June 7, 2017).

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The principle of apperception

The core of the systems approach?

Chapter eleven, “The Humor of Science,” was given at the New York Chapter of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS, part of INFORMS, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) in May, 1965 under the title of “The Humor of Management Science.” It is one of Churchman’s shorter addresses (only 8 pages in Challenge to Reason (CR) ). In it he posits apperception as a central principle in the systems approach. And there is a role for humor, too.

Applied and pure sciences       Just like in a contemporaneous address (see previous post ), Churchman makes a distinction between applied and pure research. Pure science works on small, isolated problems in relative isolation from society, whereas applied science takes on real world problems. Pure science is often dead serious, while applied science has to handle the confusion of complex reality, in which – wicked – problems get entangled in such a way that it is no longer clear what the problem ‘really’ is. Wicked problems make ‘fun’ of decision-makers and management consultants alike and need to be disentangled in some way. The question is: how?

Principle of apperception        The systems approach looks at human activity systems. One of the key questions is what the purpose is or ought to be of a particular human activity. In entangled – that is, wicked – problems we easily make all the wrong assumptions about that. Apperception enhances our perception. Perception means looking at something in a meaningful – that is, a purposive – way (CR 139). Apperception means the act of looking at the same thing (or activity) in two quite different ways. But it is more than that. It also connotes a mood (CR 140). The principle of apperception now becomes: “if you can’t see a purpose activity in two very different ways with different moods, you have failed to formulate the problem.” This “principle of scientific method [is] at least as compelling as any to be found in the logic of hypothesis testing” (CR141). Just as a reminder I point out that hypothesis testing is at the core of the truth finding mission of pure science, so Churchman could not have used stronger words.

Humor and irony        So, the applied sciences – and management science in particular – have a problem identification mission. And the principle of apperception is at the core of it. Hence the development of the inquiring system of the systems approach. The irony is that these notions have not yet – that is after just over 52 years – trickled down to the near-totality of decision-makers and their expert advisers. It would appear that the general acceptance of the systems approach presents a wicked problem of far greater magnitude than Churchman could have ever imagined. The solutions is known. Contrary to the detached pure scientist, the applied scientist must learn to ‘sweep’ himself into the world of reality. How this works is described in detail. The process involves the humors or …

Moods of apperception      “When we apperceive that the world is going to the dogs, our mood is melancholic; our image may be that men are seeking an atom-blasted earth, or that men are bent on evil, or whatever. When we apperceive that the world is an evolutionary process, our mood may be sanguine; our image may be biological, hierarchical, divine. When we apperceive that the world is an unfair game, our mood may be choleric; our image one of wolves or werewolves. When we listen long to speeches and observe them in a detached manner, our mood may be phlegmatic; our image a world of noise. And finally, there is that spirit-freeing mood called the humorous. Its blessed quality is that it puts no further demands on the human spirit. The melancholic, the sanguine, the choleric, the phlegmatic all have their “therefores.” But humor never does. It preaches no lesson, it insists on nothing whatever. If the [human] spirit soars, no strings are attached.” (CR 140-141).

The management consultant        …. “constructs models, makes observations, maximizes objective functions, all in a phlegmatic mood. But now comes the point of trying to change reality—to improve it. What arrogance! Now he is no longer phlegmatic. He must look at the whole world. But with a mixture of moods. If he turns sanguine, he sees himself and his recommendations as potentially doing good in the world. If he turns choleric, he sees himself as battling all the stupidity and dishonesty of men. If he turns melancholic, he sees the whole world as going down to inevitable destruction. A most marvelous mood combines the sanguine and the melancholic. (This is possible because, you know, emotions don’t know anything about the law of contradiction.) This combination gives the heroic mood of the preceding chapter; it combines the aspirations of a do-gooder with the tragic mood that the world is too big and too powerful for us mortals to cope with. Pure science is phlegmatic and often sanguine; applied science is heroic as well.” (CR 142)

“And built into all this talk is a principle of progress for management science. We’ll know we’re getting somewhere when we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously.”  Churchman, 1968

P.S.         Let me add that we really know we’re getting somewhere when we take Churchman’s systems approach more seriously. This is mainly so because it is a very smart way of critiquing assumptions by taking alternative perspectives seriously. See also Wicked Solutions (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016; available from Amazon and as a PDF), which shows that the systems approach is not difficult to teach or learn, whether it is for systemic inquiry or practical intervention design.

P.S. 2       One of the steps in the Wicked Solutions version of the systems approach is that of framing. It could be argued that the selection of key framings – or ways of understanding a situation or intervention which is what they are – follows directly from the principle of apperception. This may well imply that what distinguishes Wicked Solutions most from other versions of the systems approach, apart from its practicality, is what brings it closest to the core of the approach.

Churchman, C. W. (1968a). The humor of science. In Challenge to reason (pp. 135–142). New York: McGraw-Hill. Retrieved from

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The heroism of applied science

… for the common wages of their most secret heart

Chapter ten of Challenge to Reason (Churchman 1968), “The heroism of applied science,” was a paper delivered at the Department of Defense (DoD) Logistics Research Conference in Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia, May, 1965. Churchman’s life was rather peculiar in many respects. In 1941, when his career as a university philosopher had just taken off, he joined the US war effort in DoD’s operations research. It was in many ways the beginning of the rest of his life. And the DoD never stopped advancing logistics research since then. After the war, Churchman helped establish operations research as an academic subject. Probably he became best known for creating ‘the systems approach’, which integrates philosophy, management and planning, all in the widest sense possible. The themes that unite them are value and inquiry. In the paper there is only one mention of the DOD and its scientists, which is on p. 129 of the Challenge to Reason (for link see below). And at the very end of the paper, where Dylan Thomas describes the spiritual basis or ‘mood’ of applied researchers, in defense logistics and elsewhere: “In my craft or sullen art”. This paper is about applied research in general, but it is also about science, progress, social systems, and the roles different people play in this ‘drama’. It is about the systems approach.

Pure and applied research      … combine to produce what we know as scientific progress, which – to some extent – improves our world. Pure research improves scientific theories, which are used by applied research to develop technical solutions. Pure research has no way of telling whether its science will be used for the better or worse. Scientists just go on expanding the boundaries to fill the metaphoric ´reservoir´ of scientific knowledge to the rim, hoping that other people such as applied researchers will make good and proper use of it. It does so by working on the most promising or intriguing lines of research. Pure science works in relative isolation from society in its so-called ‘ivory towers’. This is part of a simple division of ‘labour’. Nothing special about it.

Small, isolated problems       Both, pure and applied research like to work on small, isolated problems, of which it can realistically can be expected that they can be brought to a ‘scientifically’ justifiable conclusion. Applied research differs from basic research in that it is typically about technical solutions that ought to bring some form of improvement into the real world. But who is to judge and/or decide? And how? And with what information? And who can supply the information? Considering the complexity of the real world? These are questions that pure research doesn’t need to answer. That is why we say that it lacks the scientific heroism of applied research. Applied researchers (and consultants and evaluators) have good reasons to be concerned. This places a considerable burden of doubt on the shoulders of all concerned.

Debatable decision-making        For every instance of applied research considerable decision-making is required. First of all, the right balance between pure research and applied research needs to be determined. Then there is the issue of which problems need to be addressed.  Next there is the question of how the decision-making entity is to obtain the necessary information and whether it can be trusted. And reversely, how the applied researchers can be trusted in supplying the necessary information. Many of the problems are in the minds of those directly involved and those around them. Both the applied researcher and the decision-maker have a world view, a Weltanschauung, a general idea of what the world is like, that implies that a technical improvement can be introduced without in some way upsetting the ‘whole’. The decision-makers themselves have a decision-making culture that is based on old values involving ‘perceived’ wisdom and other ‘values’ that blind people to the truth. The story of the ‘stooge’ (Churchman 1968, p. 130. See link below) is a wonderful example of non-critical debate or even anti-critical debate, considering that the truth is staring the decision-makers in the face. It also undermines the storyline of the enemies of the systems approach.

Enemies of the systems approach       Finally, there is the problem of the enemies of the systems approach. The most common one is the ‘excellent’ manager, who supposedly is the one who quickly takes the right decisions due to his experience, perceptive mind, and intuition. He/she assumes leadership easily and has a powerful and popular myth going in the USA and elsewhere. He/she is endowed with such magical decision-making capacities as horse sense, common sense, special know-how, or just ‘plain’, deep insight. See also my earlier post here .

Tragic aspiration      We must conclude that the role of the applied scientist is a tragic one. In true heroic fashion he/she must act (to serve his people or mankind in the best way he/she can; this is his humanist side), “but he cannot ever know that his actions are good. His actions have a humorous side that all will recognize. Being human, he is reluctant to become heroic”, and will at some point close his eyes to the debatable myth of decision-making, and bring out his scientific side.

Key learning points         Churchman’s presentation covers several key aspects of his ‘systems approach’ at a time when he has not yet written ‘The systems approach’ (1968b). We see four roles, which are also categories in the framework of his systems approach: (1) the beneficiary (the real world), (2) the decision-maker (who decides on the allocation of resources, one more category), (3) the planner (mostly the scientist, but mixed up with the decision-maker), and (4) the systems thinker (anybody who at some point or other tries to take away the burden of doubt by seeking to embed the technical solution systemically). What is clear is that these roles do not exist in a pure form. If things go wrong, as they often do, the real world is inhabited by real people who feel more like victims than beneficiaries. The question will be asked whether this could have been foreseen. Another question is whether the right measures of success (another category) were in place or should have been in place.

The systems approach      Finally, there is the question to what extent the systems approach could help to ensure that human activity systems (such as DoD logistics research) deliver improvements in the human condition (this is category number seven out of a total of twelve). Just like all the other questions it raises, it is not an easy one to answer. In my biased view the answer needs to be a bit oracular: the importance of the systems approach lies in the measure to which the insights that may come from its application would be neglected without it. In other words: the systems approach provides a framework for critical inquiry and systemic design (or adjustment or evaluation) that is both systemic (in a teleological sense, since human planning invariably has purpose, and as such can be approached rationally) and systematic (it doesn’t leave out important categories, as we usually and inescapably do if we plan without it). In other words (again): the systems approach is something we do all the time without realizing it, but by realizing it we can do a better job at it. It is not particularly difficult to learn (although it will still require some hard thinking) and it is a really great eye-opener.

“His [i.e. Churchman’s] approach is based on differentiating the functions served by people in a system rather than on the behavior of particular people in a system. The focus is on roles and not individuals. Each role has particular decision-making responsibilities identified with it that define the purpose of that role as a teleological function. The functionality of the role is not defined so much by activity as it is by authority and responsibility.”                                        Harold Nelson, 2003 

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

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

Nelson, H. G. (2003). The legacy of C. West Churchman: a framework for social systems assessments. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 20(6), 463–473. Retrieved from

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Science and God

How empiricism restricted our concept of reason

In the previous post I have shown that Churchman probably elaborated his systems approach over a period of about 30 years (1952-1982). First he used it in his consultancy work as operations research expert, then he started teaching it at Berkeley for at least 14 years (1964-1978) in a rather famous class, which was enjoyed by students and Nobel Prize winners alike, and finally he wrote about it in five books (1968-1982, see below), not counting Prediction and optimal decision (1961), which contains many of the seeds of thought found in Churchman’s later work. There were also shorter communications such as the conference paper I want to discuss now. It was originally given at an Operations Research Society of America meeting under the title of “The Art of the State” in Washington, D.C., May 1962. It was republished under a different title (Science and God) as chapter 9 in Challenge of Reason (1968). It talks about the concept of reason, human reason that is. In the end he imagines a new Age of Reason, which “will regard science and society as whole systems; it will seek the whole system that is the optimal system. It will therefore bring back the concept of God as a necessary concept of all research.” This may sound very unscientific and irrational, but I will attempt to explain it in about seven short paragraphs.

Rationalism        … is the view that “regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge” . Descartes was the first of the modern rationalists and has been dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy. Rationalists were particular (at least in the eyes of 21st century man) in the sense that they needed God as a guarantor of the logical and stable structure of the world (reality, universe). In a previous post I show how Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” was the first step in addressing this issue about God and everything else (some would argue that Descartes’ “radical doubt” was the first step, which is a good point. But then perhaps there would be a need for an environment where radical doubt was not only permitted but could also flourish, which was the Netherlands in the early 17the century, where he stayed for about 30 years from 1618 to 1649). Other rationalists were Spinoza and Leibniz.

Empiricism      … is the view “that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience” , i.e.  observation, and stands therefore in stark contrast with rationalism. This theme dominated the philosophical controversies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Empiricism relegated God to a position of non-interference, which is a view otherwise known as deism, which led to the Enlightenment’s notion of secularism (the exclusion of religious considerations), the declaration that God was not necessarily benevolent (Voltaire’s Candide, 1759) or even dead (Nietzsche, 1882). Nevertheless, scientists such as Newton, remained very religious men, straddling the two views .  Francis Bacon (1561-1626) “has been called the father of empiricism. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature” .

Positivism        … is clearly rooted in empiricism. In two respects it can be considered different: (1) by its focus on specific principles of logic; and (2) by its focus on the social dimension of science. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is not only the founder of positivism, he is also by many considered the father of sociology (see also this hilarious 1 minute youtube video of the Open University on Comte’s “religion of humanity”). The trouble with scientific empiricism is that it tends to deny or ignore the possibility of value judgments, while positivism is problematic by using natural ‘laws’ to restrict value judgments. This brings us back to reason, which prefers to remain unbounded (and open-minded) about ‘given’ goals.

Reason and the systems approach       Churchman uses three lines of arguments to show that the systems approach is (potentially) more reasonable than rationalism, empiricism or positivism, including science: (1) in order to find natural ‘laws’, science – including sociology – focuses on narrow relationships between components (or parts or aspects) of ‘objectively’ observable reality. This ignores: (a) key aspects of reason, including intuition and imagination (think of Einstein’s discoveries, Jung’s cognitive functions); and (b) the fact that these components are contingent to their environment (“whole” system, reality, universe); (2) humans are peculiar in that they use a highly complex faculty of valuation – an expression of ‘reason’, itself not a bounded concept – to attach value to whatever they do or experience; (3) humans use their ‘unbounded’ reason to design their social systems. It is humanly speaking impossible to ensure 100% satisfaction with the functioning of the overall design in the sense of a betterment of the human condition. Hence the need for a guarantor to ensure that the components form a whole that functions well in its environment.

Science and god      As I said earlier, contrasting the two (science and god) seems unscientific if not irrational. But the two frameworks of knowledge (theology and science) have considerable overlap in that they both try to give a coherent description of reality (i.e. the world, the universe, and the human role in it) and both seek some guarantee that this description is right. When it comes to the physical world, science is well able to do its work, but when humans and their values are concerned, things become more difficult. Translating scientific success into human progress is risky business. Science has no other scientific option than to convert the valuation of unbounded reason into restricted value judgments. Science gives guarantees of correct observation, but its observations are partial and never of ‘the’ whole. Its notion of ‘the’ whole always comes as an afterthought, as a reassembly of only part of the partially observed parts. This doesn’t mean that the systems approach has the solution, but it does have a rational, a reasonable, a thoroughly reasoned approach that does justice to the aspirations and goals of man. For a description see elsewhere in this blog or in the work Gerald Midgley (see below) or Werner Ulrich (for links, try this blog), both mostly using the critical heuristics version of Churchman’s systems approach

What use is ‘the’ guarantor?      Churchman’s categorical framework for inquiry and planning, which is the centerpiece of his systems approach, has twelve categories (for an online description of the first nine categories see p. 3-4 Churchman, Charles West; Nelson, Harold G.; Eacret, K. (1977). Value distribution assessment of geothermal development in Lake County, CA. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Retrieved from Now ‘categories’ here means ‘categories of inquiry’, which implies that they are labels for inter-related fields of inquiry (for a first version of my description see csl4d). What should be the design of the control of the implemented plan? “Control’ means the ability to change a process in the right direction if the process gets off the track. Further down, Churchman adds: “Finally, a sound and healthy decision-making body would be deeply concerned about the lives of future generations, and would attempt to design guarantees that nothing it decides would permanently mar the quality of life of those who in the future choose to live in Lake County. Our ninth and last question addresses the question of how to design such a guarantor.” Let me repeat, Churchman’s categories are categories of inquiry. Many other questions are possible. See also Wicked Solutions (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016; available from Amazon and as a PDF), which also shows that the systems approach is not difficult to teach or learn, whether it is for systemic inquiry or practical intervention design.

Teaching opportunity     Often the study of philosophy or theology leaves the student empty-handed. He or she has learned a lot, but sees little possibility for their application in practice. With science subjects, something similar is happening: one learns a lot, but when it comes to application, there are too many pros and cons to consider. So we don’t consider them at all. Or we leave the considering to others, higher up in the hierarchy. As we do so, we actually ignore that those superiors are superior in position, not necessarily in understanding. The systems approach is a formidable tool to come to grips with decision-making in a way that does justice to human reason. In Section III: Practice, Midgley (2000) shows how this can be combined with other planning methods. In fact, Churchman (1968b) does very much the same. The teaching opportunity, in my view, is to combine teaching the systems approach with teaching a bit of philosophy (see above, or elsewhere in this blog, or Churchman 1971) and applying it in practice, whether in history or in ‘business model generation’ or any other subject. Such is the generic nature of the systems approach that it can be (ap)plied the intricacies of any human activity system.

“So we could end by saying that operations research [SH: or the systems approach] is at the forefront in the movement toward a new Age of Reason. This age will regard science and society as whole systems; it will seek the whole system that is the optimal system. It will therefore bring back the concept of God as a necessary concept of all research.”     Churchman (1968a 126)


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

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

Churchman, C. W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization. New York, London: Basic Books. 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 (from your library)

Hay, C. (2009). Newton; Rationalist or Empiricist? In The Theory of Knowledge and the Rise of Modern Science (pp. 72–85). Lutterworth Press. Retrieved from ch6.pdf

Midgley, G. (2001). Systemic intervention: philosophy, methodology, and practice. Springer Science & Business Media. Retrieved from (partial preview)

Midgley, G. (2014). Systemic intervention. Hull, UK: University of Hull. Retrieved from

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The X of X (Churchman, 1962)

Early seminal paper about the systems approach

To the unsuspecting eye, Churchman’s systems approach may seem to have popped up quite unexpectedly in 1968, but it has roots in his writings well before that and in his consultancy work long before that again. I am currently close reading his Challenge to Reason (CR, 1968) in which several older papers are published, some of them dating back to 1962. Chapter 7, mysteriously titled ‘the X of X’, is described as a featured presentation at the Ninth Animal International Meeting of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), jointly with the Econometric Society, at Ann Arbor, Michigan, September 11, 1962. I will venture a summary here. The paper can be downloaded here or here. By what pathways “the x of x” was seminal remains to be determined in detail. For some preliminary ideas, see the last paragraphs of this post.

The X of X       Humans created but do not quite understand their own decision-making nor the systems that were created by their decisions. It is the business of decision-making to handle this complexity and uncertainty of the companies, universities, and governments so created. To do so, we humans must understand ourselves, which requires self-reflection. What is it that we are doing and why? On p. 113 Churchman writes that “the successful outcome of the problem of self-reflection is to find a minimum loop that leads from x to x.” On the pages before that he has shown how that ideal runs into difficulties.

Self-referencing and self deception    The minimum loop principle seeks to follow the shortest possible route to maximum understanding. One of the options is to use logic, but this can be shown to get us into the self-referencing problem. Not only does logic not lead to interesting insights because of its often tautological nature, but it also ends up in intractable paradoxes such as that of the ´lying Cretan´ of Epimenides (around 600 BC). A similar phenomenon occurs when we seek to create self-controlling systems. Churchman gives a few examples, including the problem of measurement (something he learned from his philosophical ‘master’ A. Singer Jnr.) and the concept of chekcs and balances in USA government. No matter how hard we try, there will always be a need for external guidance or control.

Trial-and-error     Because good, effective solutions are hard to come by there is a lot of trial-and-error in handling complexity. So-called learning organizations attempt to learn from their mistakes. Approaches involving satisficing and bounded rationality can be used to suit particular levels of aspiration (Simon, 1955). Generally, people are happy when “it works”. How do we know it works? Because there are “no complaints.” Why are there no complaints? That’s a question we generally consider too difficult to answer.

The maximum loop principle (MLP)      … holds that “for a mind to understand itself, it must understand everything.” It is Churchman’s interpretation of Leibniz Monadology (1714). As I wrote in a previous post CSL4D post : “His monads (or “inquiring systems” according to Churchman) use contingent truths and imagination to create ever expanding competing fact nets. These competing fact nets represent different parts or aspects of the whole of reality. The confrontation will falsify all but one fact net, which is at that moment the best approximation of the absolute truth about reality available. Leibniz is not in the least concerned about origin of the contingent truths, whether they are real or imagined. The fact net competition will sort it out.”

Sweeping in    We can conclude that what the MLP does is ‘sweeping in’ the ‘whole’ of reality. The ‘whole’ is a bit much, so in practice it is restricted to be the whole in as far as it is ‘relevant’ to the system under consideration. This restricting is not an easy matter and should be subject to what is known as a ´boundary critique´ (this is my addition, not Churchman’s). If well executed it can be said to exemplify what Churchman calls ‘whole system rationality’.

The systems approach        In ‘the x of x’ Churchman does not speak of the systems approach, but he calls it a (‘naïve’) “system-science approach” (1962), instead. It is important to note that ‘system’ here means human activity system, which differs from, say, a physical instance of transportation such as a railroad system. In ‘the x of x’ Churchman indicates that he was already a ‘systems approacher’ while working as an operations researcher in the 1950s, consulting with managers in health, law, education, defense, production and transport. This means that the systems approach was applied 10 to 15 years before it became known as such from 1968 onward.

Utility of the systems approach       Churchman (CR 115) in his own words: “The highy experienced railroad managers were correct in saying that what I could contribute would be naïve. They were wrong, however, in saying that a naïve system science approach to railroads was useless. The approach provided another way of looking at a railroad—as a system, not as a physical instance of transportation. Since then, I have had the same experience with managers in health, law, education, defense, and production. They all want to know how an operations researcher in six months, or a year, or ten years, could ever hope to “solve” their problems. Of course, he can’t, for he is no more of an expert than they are about the really fundamental problems. But he can provide a link of the maximum loop, a way to reflect, that no profession by itself can ever hope to provide.”

How to learn the systems approach       Over the years, Churchman has been describing the systems approach in all its theoretical detail, but he never produced a methodology. Instead, he insisted on the application from first principles, which he all described. Werner Ulrich, with Ian Mitroff one of the most widely known PhD students of Churchman, is one of those who gave the approach more operational bite with his critical heuristics.  He introduced the concept at various universities in the United Kingdom, where it is now used frequenty in combination with other systems methods. It came to the notice of the main author of “Wicked Solutions“, Bob Williams. Wicked Solutions was written as a practical and easy introduction to the systems approach or critical heuristics. It is available from Amazon and as a PDF.

Churchman, C. W. (1968). The x of x. In Challenge to reason (pp. 107–116). McGraw-Hill. Retrieved from

Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69(1), 99–118. Retrieved from

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Reason as a basis for rational decision-making

As a co-author of Wicked Solutions: a Systems Approach to Complex Problems (2016, $12 pdf version available here) I have a practical understanding of how the systems approach could be applied very effectively to real-world problems and for well over a year now feel a deep urge to get to the bottom of this ‘Systems Approach.’ So far I have finished reading Churchman’s great trilogy (The Systems Approach, The Design of Inquiring Systems, and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies) and am now reading Thoughts and Wisdom (TW, 1982), Challenge to Reason (CR, 1968) and so on. Initially, my hope was that reading TW and CR would be more like a quick check whether I had really understood ‘my’ Churchman, but it turned out to become anything but quick, and most certainly dazzling. Little wonder that Noam Chomsky held Churchman in such high esteem. As a result of all this reading my postings to my CSL4D blog have come to a halt in January 2017. I will resume posting from now, mostly to keep a written record of my progress in dissecting and reassembling Churchman´s work. This is the first of what I intend to turn into a comprehensive series of in-depth Churchman notes, starting with my notes on Chapter 7 of Challenge to Reason: Rational Decision Making. It is the first chapter of Part II in which he explores what it might mean if “indeed, reason is that function of man that enables him to look at himself and to raise questions about everything he does.” (CR 91).

The concept of reason     … is elusive. It is closely linked to our origin as a human species, i.e. as Homo sapiens. In Chapter 7 of Challenge to Reason Churchman critically reviews six or seven ideas about reason that we have inherited from earlier thinkers such as Spinoza, Hegel, Popper, Jung and others. Churchman then tries to establish an alternative using his dialectical approach of whole system rationality, which is in fact a systems approach to understand the underlying rationality of the systems approach.

Spinozean logic    … is the first of the schools of thinking that Churchman considers. It can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy and Descartes, of course. It works very elegantly by first establishing a set of axioms that are so self-evident that they are beyond even the most radical form of doubt. From there a set of rules is applied in a number of steps to arrive at conclusions that are equally impervious to the skeptical mind. A nice idea that works pretty well in mathematics, but is much less convincing for organizing our thinking processes for making decisions in the real world.

Process of discovery     Here Churchman refers in quick succession to both Hegel and Popper. Hegel is best known for his dialectical approach, while Popper wrote a book The Logic of Discovery, in which falsification plays a key role (no falsifiability, then no science). Now, Churchman is a scientist and he must have read Popper with great interest, but he must have rejected the idea of falsification (probably in baffling, idiosyncratic style) when it comes to rational decision-making. As to Hegel, he loved the whole thesis-antithesis-synthesis idea (I know, Hegel never expressed it in these words), be it with little twist: the antithesis is not simply the denial (falsification?) of the thesis, but is rather a statement with the transformative power to pave the way for imagining a synthesis that transcends both opposites.

Jungean rationality     … is another thing altogether. Now Churchman really likes Jung a lot, including his idea of everything having shadow aspects. Jung famously created a theory of personality types, which was further developed into the Myers-Briggs typology that you may have heard of (I happen to be a rather rare INFJ-A with touches of INTJ and ISTJ). In Churchman´s interpretation of Jung´s key mental functions (Thinking, iNtuition, Feeling and Sensation) both thinking and feeling are ‘rational’ functions that deal with decision-making, while intuition and sensation are nonrational. To Churchman this is too narrow. In his view, reason characterizes the whole of life including the functions of intuition and sensation. “Reason has to do with the way in which human beings understand what human life means.” (CR 97).

Power and reason      Rationality is often defined by a ruling class or elite. This type of reason then becomes the basis of planning. Modern man abhors this idea although it is still very much entrenched everywhere. Instead we now prefer rationality to reflect our inner convictions. Some of these convictions then tend to get an aura of sanctity with axioms expressing rules of behaviour. A common reaction to whole system rationality is that it has no way of handling power relations. That doesn’t make it any less rational, except in terms of implementation. Such criticism is to be duly considered.

Game theory      …. is able describe rational conduct in the context of conflict as long as there is a recognizable set of rules governing “fair play”. Unfortunately, the practical value of game theory is rather limited. Moreover, it seems to lack an adequate moral basis, because it says very little about the worthiness of the goals of the game, which could well be geared toward genocide and other evil objectives. Talking about mass murder, in the 1950s RAND Corporation has been interested in the development of game theory for applications to global nuclear strategy. There may yet be a link between game theory and the systems approach: the latter’s multi-perspective aspect could be considered a whole-system rationality way of creating win-win situations.

Natura Artis Magistra      …. Is the name of the “royal” Amsterdam zoo, supposedly meaning “nature is the teacher of art”, so why not the art of reason. The origin of the saying is not quite known, but some suggest (sorry, Dutch source) it derives from Freitag’s Mythologia Ethica (sorry, all in Latin). Churchman objects against nature as the foundation of rational design, because whatever we observe in nature as ‘rationality’ cannot be more than human projection. The same applies to nature’s ethics, which belongs in a book of fables such as Freitag’s. By way of diversion I would like to point to the viable system model (VSM) of a self-sustaining organization, which was developed by Stafford-Beer. The funny thing is that the book in which he described the model, Brain of the Firm, has long been in use by biology students, who needed a model of brain. So perhaps it is time for a new saying: “management is the teacher of nature?”

Churchman’s radical alternative     … is based on the idea that “reason is the process by which man is able to look at himself” and his social institutions. Now, “for something to be able to look at itself, it must look at itself as though it were something other” (CR 106).  This may sound a bit cryptic, but it simply means that we can reason about one social institution by using another social institution as a lens. It is fascinating to see how Churchman uses this method all the time. He picks a social framework (e.g. science, management, politics, religion, education) and applies it to another in order to facilitate self-reflection using the whole system. One example was given in a previous chapter of Challenge to Reason (“The role of the well-informed public”) where Churchman shows that:

“the evolution of the rationality of politics will include the development of politics as a science, as a management, as a religion, as an educational system. In other words to make politics more of an educational system, that is, to develop a political life of our society in which politics will create the well-informed public.”

The maximum loop      is the title of Part II of Challenge to Reason. At the end of the present chapter Churchman outlines what he intends to explore in the remaining chapters of Part II:

“It is impossible to determine the rationality of conduct in one framework alone, as those who try to develop basic axioms of rational behavior attempt to do. Nor is rational conduct simply a development along certain prescribed lines, as evolutionary theory suggests. The test of the rationality of an institution, or a company, or a person, is the determination of the manner in which X functions as Y, and the way in which Y functions as X. For something to be able to look at itself, it must look at itself as though it were something other. What is not explained is the meaning of “function as.” What is entailed in “considering” management as science, or science as management? In the end, the answer will probably be, “I’m not sure.” But a few explorations of the idea in the chapters that follow may help to clarify as well as to confuse.”

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

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