fast-acting relief from stress,
try slowing down.
Tomlin, American actress and
comedienne, cited in Honore, 2005,
to the Bimonthly
I am supposed to turn 70 this month. It
feels a bit unlikely, almost surprising. But then, I have observed
that in the past few years, things have been accelerating, rather than
slowing down as one might expect (or hope) when retirement
approaches. The bimonthly rhythm of preparing essays has had a beneficial aspect
in that it imposed on me a discipline of regular writing; but
recently this rhythm has become too fast for me, the
more as my Bimonthly essays have tended to become longer.
a second consideration, I have meanwhile published just over
250 articles, of which some 60 are academic essays published
as Bimonthly or Monthly Picture articles. This
number of published articles makes it increasingly difficult, for
my readers as well as for myself, to overview them and find the exact occasions on which some thought
was originally introduced and perhaps was subsequently expanded.
need for searching in my own essays, if only to provide accurate
references, has really become quite
a cumbersome side of my writing in recent years, a price to
pay for perhaps having written too much?
was a time when the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Company famously
cited the horsepower of their engines as "sufficient,"
which I always found an elegant and so unmistakably British
understatement for saying "more than needed." Perhaps
in academia, where (it seems to me, at times) the number of
publications now is everything and their quality almost nothing,
we might do well to adopt a similar convention, say, by describing
everything over 100 as "sufficient." But of course,
this risks being a therapy for the symptom rather than for the
problem; which is that quantity (if not overproduction) appears
to go at the expense of quality. It might become necessary to limit the number of
publications that everyone is entitled to publish or, at least,
to get academic credit
for, so that people would have a real incentive to focus on
quality rather than quantity. Be that as it may, I have come
to the conclusion that the number of Bimonthly essays
that I have written in these past 12 years since I started the
series, or even in the past 15 years if I include
the Bimonthly's predecessor, the Monthly Picture, is
"sufficient." Consequently, I'll stop writing more
of them. Motto: "Enough is enough."
do not promise to stop writing altogether, though. Just to do it in
a freer, and slower, rhythm. I'll become a
(Berg and Seeber, 2016; cf. the short reviews by Farr, 2016, and
Hanson, 2017; also see Honore, 2005, the pioneer of the "slow"
movement, and Boulous Walker, 2017).
My focus will no longer be on writing new essays but on (slowly) completing those series of
essays which are not complete as yet, such as the series dedicated to
the role of general ideas in Western and Eastern thought, titled
the Moral, and the General"; the "What is Good Practice?"
series; then the "Reflections on Critical
Pragmatism"; and finally, based on all the others, the "Reflections
on Reflective Practice" series.
Further, as the Bimonthly will no longer be able to serve
its function of giving my readers an easy access to some of
my latest writings, I will eventually embark on an extension
and partial restructuring of my website in terms of thematic streams,
that is, sections of the site that will more or less converge
with the main themes I dealt with in the Bimonthly, among
them the series of essays just mentioned.
this "Farewell" Bimonthly In
this last issue of Ulrich's Bimonthly, I would like to
do something a bit special. I propose a brief glance back onto
how I came to engage in something like "critical systems
thinking," and then to switch to a glance ahead towards
the vision that has been motivating my work and which, as I believe,
remains a meaningful aim. For the first perspective, I have
thought of the kind of answers that I might have given if someone
had interviewed me on this occasion. But of course nobody has,
so I have opted for a fictitious "interview with myself."
For the second perspective, I have decided to take this opportunity
and publish an edited version of the "Erskine Prestige Lecture" that I was invited
to deliver on 26 May, 1999, during my appointment as an Erskine Scholar
at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time, I
was asked to bring along and make available a written version
of my lecture, which subsequently was also circulated within
the University. However, as my appointment ended shortly after,
I did not find the time to edit it as planned and in consequence it was
never published. The present "Farewell" Bimonthly provides a decent occasion, I think, for finally
publishing it. A first for a last, then. To keep this first
publication of my Erskine Lecture as close as possible to the
original, and the last Bimonthly issue as short as one might
expect and wish, at least optically, I'll offer the Lecture as
a downloadable appendix that comes in the same form and layout
in which it was originally circulated, except for the edits
Some passages have been expanded or are new, and some of the
references have been updated; but on the whole, the paper remains
fairly close to the original lecture.
INTERVIEW WITH MYSELF
Any author is easy if you can catch the center
of his vision.
(William James, American philosopher
of pragmatism, 1977, p. 44)
What basic idea led you to develop critical systems heuristics
German social theorist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1985, p. 173),
asked about his basic motive for grounding critical social theory
in a Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas, 1984/1987), once remarked that at bottom his version of a critical theory of
society explicates one central intuition, namely, that
reasonable speech contains an intrinsic telos (finality)
of mutual understanding. Whenever we communicate, we
that the people we talk to can understand what we want to tell
them, so that there is a chance to reach mutual understanding. This anticipation,
Habermas believes, is necessarily built into speech as without
it, it makes little sense to communicate.
you ask what led me to conceive of a "critical systems approach" (Ulrich,
p. 25), I
might explain it as an attempt to work out a central intuition,
namely, that there is an intrinsic telos in systems
thinking that to this day has not received adequate attention: whenever
we try to think systemically, we cannot help but anticipate
that the way we delimit a system of interest is adequate
for understanding and improving the situation or issue in question.
Systems thinking implies an intrinsic need for understanding
systems boundaries or, as I prefer to say so as to make their
judgmental nature clear, the boundary judgments
that inform our systems concepts. Epistemologically speaking,
these boundary assumptions stand for the points at which our
chains of argumentation break off, both on the side of presuppositions
or conditions and on the side of effects or implications;
normatively speaking, they stand for assumed borders of concern.
Both the meaning and the validity of
propositions depend on them. Without an effort to understand these unavoidable
limitations of argumentation and commitment, we cannot expect systems thinking (or
for that, any other kind of systematic inquiry and practice)
to be conducive
to clear and relevant thought. Indeed, as I noted in the Primer
(Ulrich, 1996, p. 17), we do not need the systems concept at all if we
are not interested in handling systems boundaries critically.
But if we are, I added in the Erskine Lecture (Ulrich, 1999/2018, p. 7), then systems thinking becomes a form of critique. Therein I see the fundamental
critical kernel of systems thinking.
This, then, is the central intuition that I link to the idea
of systems thinking. I owe it to a period of two years in my life, the years
1978-79, that I
dedicated almost exclusively to the study of Kant's (esp. 1786, 1787) critical philosophy
as applied to both the theoretical-empirical and the practical-normative
use of reason, that is, to the search for knowledge (guiding
ideal: the idea of science) and for rational action (the
moral idea). Kant woke me up from my previous, pre-critical understanding of the
scientific idea as well as of the moral idea and, linked to
both, the systems idea. As it slowly dawned on me, all three
ideas imply a quest for comprehensiveness, that is, for
some kind of holistic (e.g., Churchman,
1968, 1982) or interconnected (e.g., Vester, 2007) thought.
It is one of the most fundamental principles of reason to take
into account everything that is conceivably relevant to an issue
or argument. So reason has no choice but to try and consider
all the conditions and implications of its own conjectures.
In principle, there is no natural or conceptual limit to this
endeavor in that we can always expand the boundaries of what
we take into account; in practice though, it is always
limited and thus deficient. While comprehensiveness is a meaningful quest, it is not a meaningful
claim, a claim that would be critically tenable.1)
After Kant, I could no longer understand the systems idea
in the same way as before. It had become to me what Kant would have called a critical idea of reason, an idea that compels us to reflect on the limited and conditioned nature of all
our understanding and reasoning. The
limiting factor at issue is the inevitability of boundary judgments –
judgments as to what constitutes the relevant "whole system,"
the total situation or context to be considered – in all our
cognition, that is, in our ways of seeing, thinking, communicating and doing things.
At the same time, however, the systems idea must remain forever
problematic to our understanding,
as we can neither give it a definitive empirical content nor ultimately justify
the normative content of any claims to systems rationality.
Its use, even for critical purposes, is not immune to the problem
it helps us diagnose, the inevitable selectivity of boundary judgments. The
only tenable use of the systems idea, then, is a self-reflective
and self-limiting employment, as against any
holistic pretensions. This is the sort of thoughts which, although
still rather unclear to me then, sent me onto what Kant famously
critical path – the only path still open after leaving behind the dogmatic
(i.e., uncritical) and the skeptical (i.e., nihilistic) paths
(Kant, 1787, B884). I now
refer to it as the critical turn of systems thinking
and, linked to it, of all our notions of knowledge, rational
action, professional or any other form of competence, applied science and expertise, improvement, and even
morality (compare, for example, my discussion of research competence,
critically turned, in Ulrich, 2001a and 2017b-c).
Given this basic motive of a critical turn in systems thinking, how did you seek
to translate it into a systematic framework for reflective practice?
what we've discussed so far it follows that the central methodological
aim of critical systems heuristics
(CSH) is to support systematic processes of boundary critique,
that is, a transparent and critical handling of boundary
judgments. When I was setting out to develop CSH, in the years
my stay at the University of California, Berkeley, the field of systems
theory and systems thinking (including the so-called systems methodologies)
had not begun to cultivate any kind of reflective practice with respect
to boundary judgments. Nor had any other field of inquiry
and practice of which I would have been aware. (But of course
it was the systems theorists whom one might have expected in
the first place to take care of the problem of boundary judgments.)
Hence, some new tool of thought needed to be developed.
It was clear to me that such a new approach would not be a stand-alone
approach but rather should aim to complement and enrich existing
practices of inquiry in all fields, systems research / systems
design as well as other applied
disciplines, many of which have by now been influenced by systems
thinking or in any case face similar issues of delimiting the
reach of valid findings and conclusions.
should emphasize in this context that "boundary judgments"
are not an invention of mine, nor a specific problem of systems
theory. Rather, they have been there all along, in virtually
all fields of research and professional practice of which I
But apparently few people saw them or wanted to see them; and
those who did failed to come up with a systematic framework
for handling them. Nor are they a problem caused by the systems approach
– the systems idea is only the messenger of the bad news. Ignoring
the bad news or accusing the messenger of being its cause does
not help. The
problem of boundary judgments is pervasive and accordingly is
in need of a systematic critical handling. So it was obvious that whatever framework would
eventually be developed to support such a critical
handling, it was indeed to support and complement, not replace, existing tools
and practices of inquiry. In this self-limiting sense, CSH was not going
to establish or justify any positive claims to knowledge and
rationality in its fields of application but would only serve to limit and
qualify such claims,
as grounded in existing, specialized disciplines and increasingly
also in the emerging fields of inter- and transdisciplinary
research and practice.
with a view to this limited and self-limiting end, it
was clear that a careful theoretical
grounding, both philosophical and methodological;
was required; philosophical,
that is, in terms of both epistemology (theory of knowledge)
and practical philosophy (theory of rational practice, including
theory of moral reasoning). Only
thus could the framework be expected to reach academics in different
fields and to provide a clear and convincing explanation of
its systematic intent: of clarifying what rational practice
could still mean in the face of the unavoidability of boundary
judgments, that is, of inevitable selectivity as to what counts
as knowledge and as rational argumentation. This is how
I would describe the systematic intent of CSH from a theoretical
point of view..
as obviously, practicability was essential if the approach was to be broadly accepted. Whatever theoretical
grounding of a "critical solution" to the problem
of boundary judgments would emerge, it would have to prove its
value in the practice of applied research and professional intervention,
as well as in everyday problem solving and decision-making. A
majority of people should be able to understand and apply it,
not only well-trained professionals or even just a small group of
philosophers or theorists. Accordingly it needed to be translated into heuristic concepts
that would be accessible to "ordinary"
researchers, professionals, decision-makers, and citizens regardless
of whatever specialized knowledge and expertise they had concerning
the situation or issue
at hand. It's the heuristic concepts
in question, not the people who want to apply them, which need
to be theoretically well-grounded; whereby "well-grounded"
includes the qualification of being formulated so that a majority of non-specialists
can understand and use them. (Remember that even academics and experts do
most of the time belong to the non-specialists, namely, as soon
as the expertise required lies outside of their field of special competence). It is a common
misunderstanding that "heuristic" concepts are a kind
of theory-free concepts of low argumentative value; this is
not so in my understanding – certainly not as used within a critical approach, in which
heuristic concepts are to serve as critical
ideas in the double sense of supporting
both self-reflective practice and argumentation against
those who do not lay open their underpinning boundary judgments
or take them for granted). "Heuristics is epistemology brought down
to earth." (Ulrich, 1983, p. 41)
then, is the twofold aim of the project that I eventually came
to call "critical systems heuristics" (CSH).
As its name suggests, CSH should:
critical reflection and discourse with respect
to the inevitable selectivity, due to the problem of boundary
judgments, of all claims to knowledge,
rationality, and improvement;
to this end a
kind of systems language that would be accessible to
a majority of people without any specialized knowledge;
a pragmatic (though theoretically grounded) framework
of heuristics of social practice rather than of
theory of society.
concepts as I understand them can help us ask relevant questions
and examine the assumptions and implications of different conceivable
answers, but they do not serve to justify any particular answers
as the only correct ones. The proper use of heuristic concepts
is moreover a self-reflective use. This critically-heuristic
nature of such a framework does not, however, dispense it from
being grounded in a careful and explicit theoretical foundation.
sum, the systematic intent of CSH was to work out the philosophical and methodological implications of the central intuition we
were talking about at the outset, and to then translate these
implications into critically-heuristic tools for reflective
practice. Accordingly, the two crucial questions to be clarified
- Given the inevitability of boundary judgments and
the resulting selectivity of all practical claims to
knowledge, rationality competence, and improvement, how should
we understand the meaning and validity of such claims?
- How, then,
can we systematically identify, examine, and
argue (i.e., substantiate or criticize) the boundary judgments
CSH was to be my attempt to clarify the meaning
of this "systematically."
Can you briefly hint at some of the key concepts to which this
attempt gave rise and which belong to its intended "pragmatic"
said above, the methodological core idea of CSH is to support
systematic processes of boundary critique. The question
is, what kind of conceptual tools does CSH propose to this end?
Or, to put the same question differently, how does CSH try to
operationalize boundary critique? Let me try to hint
at some of the key concepts to this end. I say "hint"
as this is not the occasion for a systematic introduction; at
best I can give a bit more space to two or three of them while
treating the others in a rather cursory fashion. I shall, however, give references to sources where readers can find
for boundary critique: To begin with, CSH
distinguishes between three basic settings and corresponding
uses of boundary critique:
Self-reflective boundary questioning:
are my (our, their) boundary judgments?"
reflective practice as to boundary judgments that inform current
views and values and related claims to relevant knowledge, rational
action, and resulting improvement.
What boundary judgments
/we /they presuppose? What is their selectivity
as measured by the facts and values they exclude from consideration?
How partial are they in the sense of benefiting some parties while
neglecting the needs or concerns of others (i.e., resulting
partiality)? Are there options for less selective and partial
What alternative boundary judgments would I prefer (e.g., so that I could share
and defend them vis-à-vis those concerned)? (Main setting:
we agree on our boundary judgments?"
reaching mutual understanding on boundary judgments.
Typical questions: What different
boundary judgments make us see different "facts" and
"values"? What differences do they make in terms of
resulting partiality? What if we adopt one another's boundary judgments, how
do things then look to each of us? Can we agree
on differing boundary judgments; and if we cannot agree, can
we at least understand why we disagree and then limit our claims
Controversial boundary questioning:
you claim too much?"
Aim: rational critique
of claims that rely on boundary judgments taken for granted
Typical questions: Can I make visible to others the undisclosed
boundary judgments on which a claim depends? Can I with equal
right advance some alternative boundary judgments? How different does
a disputed claim then look? How can I defend such emancipatory
boundary questioning against an opponent's allegation
that I do not know enough to challenge him or her?
Ulrich, 2000, p. 15; 2017e, p. 10f)
three types of boundary critique can help people understand
how what they see as relevant facts and values depends on the
choice of systems boundaries. Their shared aim is to uncover the
optional character of all boundary judgments. On this basis,
mutual respect and understanding can grow even where views and
values continue to differ. People no longer need to assume that
parties argue dishonestly or irrationally or in any case got
their "facts" and "values" wrong. That may
be so at times; but much more often they simply rely on
different boundary judgments, and nobody has a claim to own
only correct ones. Cultivating the habit of boundary reflection
(the first use of boundary critique) and providing opportunities
for systematic boundary discourse (the second and third
uses) can get people accustomed to such considerations and
thereby, over time, will enable them to develop a new critical
categories, boundary questions, and other tools: Basic
to all three uses of boundary critique is that
people learn to systematically identify the boundary judgments that inform
a claim. On this basis people can then question their own boundary
judgments as well as those of others. This can happen by tracing their empirical and normative
selectivity with respect to the "facts" and "values"
they include as against those they exclude or marginalize, as
well as by then unfolding the resulting partiality of
the claim informed by these boundary judgments, that is, its
implications for the different parties concerned. People will thus also learn to demonstrate
to others what options there may be for some boundary
judgments they consider crucial, and how these options may make a specific claim
– its selectivity and partiality, that is – look
identification and unfolding of boundary judgments can be facilitated
by a number of simple conceptual tools such as a table of boundary
categories; a checklist of boundary questions; a standard sequence
for raising them; and a form for recording observations or conjectures
generated by boundary critique. In principle, once people have
understood the idea of boundary critique, I would encourage
them to feel free and address any boundary assumptions that
they find particularly important for understanding
a specific situation, in whatever terms they find useful.
However, in the practice of boundary critique it is often useful
to have a basic typology of boundary judgments at hand,
so that the focus can be entirely on the situation and not on
first finding out what types of boundaries might need to be
considered. Especially beginners might be lost in the latter
supplies such tools in the form of twelve
boundary categories, structured into four groups of thee, and twelve corresponding boundary questions
that are to be asked both in a descriptive (what is the case?)
and in a normative mode (what ought to be the case?), thus yielding
24 questions overall. A standard
sequence and a recording table are also available (the latter in
particular offering itself for digitalization). These tools
are easily found in my writings, so I need not present them here
in any detail (see, e.g., Ulrich, 1983; 1987; 1996; 2000; 2017e;
Ulrich and Reynolds, 2010). Suffice it to say that they have
proven themselves to be applicable and relevant in many domains
of research and practice, as well as for didactic purposes.
Where users find this is not so, and especially also with increasing
experience in boundary critique, they should feel free to adapt
these tools or the ways they use them, including their language,
to their specific needs; what matters is not the terms but the
underlying concepts and their critical intent.
boundary critique: Since boundary critique will in practice
often give rise to disagreements about boundary judgments or to attempts at concealing
or imposing them, it is vital for a framework of boundary critique
that it expands and operationalizes the notion of a critical
handling of boundary judgments by a practicable model of cogent
critical argumentation against boundary judgments that are
not handled so critically. This is the essential concern of
the third of the three above-mentioned settings and uses of
boundary critique, the controversial case. I refer to it as
emancipatory boundary critique (Ulrich,
e.g., 1999/2018, p. 16; 2000, pp. 257-260; 2001c, p. 95f;
2006, p. 78f; 2017e, pp. 7-9 and 11-13). It is such an
important concept that it merits a somewhat more detailed discussion.
methodological key concept by means of which CSH operationalizes
the idea of emancipatory boundary critique is the polemical
employment of boundary judgments (Ulrich, 1983, pp. 301-310;
1987, p. 281f; 1993, pp. 599-603; 1996, p. 41f). It
takes up a rather neglected concept from Kant's critical philosophy,
the "polemical employment of reason" (Kant, 1787,
B766-797). By a polemical argument Kant means an argument that
aims not to establish any claim to objectivity (or, as we would
rather say today, to empirical truth or normative rightness)
but only to demonstrate the dogmatic, underargued nature of
an assertion. It achieves this aim by relying
on a counter-assertion that nobody can prove to be objectively
false or impossible, as little as anyone can prove it to be
objectively correct or even necessary. As it claims and
requires no theoretical validity, its relevance and proper use
do not depend on its prior positive justification and
thus, on any theoretical or specialized knowledge that only
experts could have. Its only use is a critical one.
polemical argument, then, has only critical validity; but as such it
must be relevant (i.e., make a difference) and cogent (i.e.,
rationally arguable). Kant's notion of the polemical employment
of reason has thus nothing to do with "polemics" in
today's popular sense of the term; it aims at the cause, not the
person, and it must be logically compelling. It is an entirely
rational, because anti-dogmatic, kind of argumentation, so long as it is used
for critical purposes only.
judgments perfectly lend themselves to such a critical use,
although Kant does not of course mention them as an application
of his concept of the polemical
employment of reason. Since they do not admit of theoretical justification
or falsification, nobody can prove them to be objectively false,
as little as objectively right or necessary. Ordinary citizens
can thus use them to show the dogmatic character of propositions
that do not lay open their underlying boundary judgments. Taking
an example from the domain of energy policy, the extent to which
we take future generations
to belong to the beneficiary (e.g., should it be the next two or the next thousand
generations?) is essential for deciding how
economically competitive, environmentally friendly, safe and
morally arguable renewable energy paths are as compared to fossil
fuels or nuclear power. The longer the time horizon, the better
renewable energy performs and the more problematic the other
options become. The beneficiary question obviously makes an essential
difference here, and the critical concerns that go with it can indeed
rationally argued in terms of foreseeable and well-known environmental
effects, costs, and safety issues. No special knowledge is required
that would not be available to a majority of ordinary citizens.
When it comes to such crucial boundary judgments, the "objective
necessities" to which many an expert likes to refer (not
surprisingly so, as experts still have a near-monopoly in identifying
and defining them) crumble and their mask
of objectivity slips. As soon
as people begin to recognize and question underpinning boundary judgments,
new ways of seeing things become available that previously were dogmatically
excluded or underrated.
What is more, ordinary citizens can advance alternative boundary
judgments or question those of the experts without needing to fear that they
will immediately be convicted of lacking the expertise required. Since boundary judgments do not involve
a claim to theoretical
justification but express subjective and value-laden borders
of concern, nobody can prove them objectively wrong or impossible; the
question is only how different they make a disputed claim look. Indeed it is not even necessary to conceal or deny
their personal, merely subjective character; they can be introduced
in overt subjectivity and for the only purpose of putting those
who take their own boundary judgments for granted in a position
in which it becomes obvious that they argue dogmatically.
It becomes then clear that experts who still present their findings
and conclusions as "objective necessities" move on
slippery ground. Citizens can thus demonstrate three essential
an expert's propositions and recommendations depend on underlying
boundary judgments for which there are options;
(b) that the expert's theoretical competence is insufficient to
justify his or her boundary judgments or to falsify those of
the critic; and
(c) that experts, inasmuch as they claim the objective necessity
of their professional findings and conclusions without qualifying
them in terms of the underlying boundary judgments, argue dogmatically
and thereby disqualify themselves (Ulrich, 1987, p. 282).
boundary critique is not, however,
a cheap argumentative weapon that merely disregards the importance
and value of special expertise and thus could be said to give the
uninformed and uneducated an unfair advantage; for it is effective only against
those who do not handle their own boundary assumptions overtly
and critically. Experts who properly qualify their claims have
nothing to fear. Conversely, ordinary citizens lose the
argumentative advantage of emancipatory boundary critique – of
arguing "from the safe seat of the critic," as Kant
(1787, B775) puts it – as soon as they forget its merely critical
validity and start to assert the superiority or even unique validity
of their own boundary judgments.
polemical use of boundary judgments is always on the side of
those who cultivate a reflective handling of their boundary
judgments. It thus provides an effective
and fair methodological basis for boundary
critique. It shifts the burden of proof from those who argue carefully
and limit their claims, whether as concerned citizens
or as professionals and decision-makers,
to those who don't and claim too much. No more, no less. In this sense it entails a qualified shift of the burden of proof
that is both fair and rational. Given that it does not depend
on any special knowledge that would be beyond the reach of ordinary
people, yet is still widely unknown to a majority of people,
I see in it an emancipatory potential that remains
largely untapped today. I'll say a little more on this
potential in a moment, when I'd like to point to a personal
vision that might inspire future work on the idea and uses of
boundary critique, I mean the idea that the contemporary "knowledge society"
might develop toward a "knowledge democracy,"
a term I borrow from Gaventa (1991). First, however, I would like to hint at two, three more key
concepts of CSH, concepts I consider more basic.
Systemic triangulation: Common
to all uses of boundary critique, including its emancipatory
employment, is an idea that I find very helpful for explaining
how boundary critique works, especially also for didactic purposes.
I call it the eternal triangle of
boundary critique. It says that three types of interdependent judgments are
unavoidably involved in all thought applied to real-word issues and situations:
– relevant observations or factual judgments;
– relevant evaluations or value judgments; and
– relevant boundary
judgments or reference systems
1. The "eternal triangle" of boundary critique:
tasks in applied research and expertise
Ulrich, 2012c, p. 11; earlier versions 2000, p. 252,
and 2003, p. 334)
three corners of the eternal triangle stand for the argumentative
tasks that inevitable come up with the three mentioned types
In a triangle we cannot modify any of the three angles (in this
case, arguments) without
affecting at least one of the other two. The
triangle reminds us to examine the ways each argumentative task
on the other two and is likely to change with them. The result
is a circular movement of thought, of exploring the
interdependencies in question, which is indeed the basic point
basic point, of course, is that both judgments of fact
(relevant observations) and value judgments (relevant evaluations) depend on boundary judgments
(relevant reference systems). In addition, the eternal triangle
also explains the often asserted but rarely well-understood
interdependence of factual and normative judgments: they both
are conditioned by the ways we delimit the relevant situation
or issue. Consistent judgments of fact (relevant observations)
and value judgments (relevant evaluations) share the same boundary
judgments as to the situation to be considered (relevant reference
systems). Consequently we cannot change the former without adapting
(or at least, checking) the latter. Conversely, when our concerns and corresponding value considerations change,
it is to be expected that new facts come into the picture, which
in turn may prompt new considerations as to how the
relevant situation may need to be redefined,
and so on (see, e.g., Ulrich, 2000, p. 252f; 2003, p. 334;
2017a, pp. 6-8; 2017e, pp. 5-7).
understanding of boundary critique leads to a conceptual tool to which I refer as systemic
triangulation, an extension of the better known conventional concept
of "triangulation" in the sciences. Conventional triangulation
suggests to analyze
and test theoretical hypotheses in the light of different, independent
data sets, as well as to interpret the data one relies upon in the light of
different theories. Systemic triangulation goes beyond
this conventional concept by also reviewing empirical and theoretical statements
(judgments of fact) in the light of different reference systems (boundary
judgments) as well as different normative assumptions (judgments
of value). Triangulation of validity claims thus becomes a systematic
process of thinking through the eternal triangle. By examining
each corner of the triangle in the light of the two other, we
can gain a deeper understanding of a claim's anatomy of selectivity
(see, e.g., Ulrich, 2003, p. 334; 2012c, pp.
11-13; 2017a, p. 8f).
systems for boundary critique: A specific, situational set
of boundary judgments defines what CSH calls a "reference
system," that is, a perspective for understanding the context
that is taken to matter for assessing and handling a situation
or issue of interest. But of course, there is not usually a
single set of boundary judgments that could be identified and
justified as amounting to the one best or definitive reference
system. It is the very core idea of boundary critique that any delimitation
of relevant contexts should always be kept fluent and should
in fact be systematically varied, rather than ever being taken
for granted. It's a way of keeping some critical distance, of
not becoming prisoners of our own boundary judgments. Although
in practice there always comes the moment in which we have to
pass from reflection and discourse to action, I would argue
that in our minds we should keep the option of alternative boundary
judgments open, lest we become blind to the selectivity of our
own assumptions and their consequences. "We have to maintain
the contradiction or else we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed
by the consistent." (Churchman, 1968, p. 229)
critique can in this respect be understood as a form of multiple
perspectives thinking. With a view to maintaining multiple
perspectives in applied science and expertise, as well as in
everyday situations of practical thought, CSH distinguishes
between four basic types of reference systems:
situation of concern or system of primary interest
relevant environment or decision-environment
context of application or of responsible action
total conceivable universe of discourse or of
potentially relevant circumstances (U).
these four reference systems embody four complementary rationality
perspectives for thinking through claims to relevant knowledge,
rational action, and resulting improvement, especially in complex
contexts of action. I also speak of the S-E-A-U formula of
boundary critique ("seau" is French for bucket
or pail, Fig. 2).
2. The S-E-A-U imagery
of a complete set (or pail) of
reference systems for boundary critique
have offered an introduction to the concept of reference systems,
along with the four types of reference systems and their interpretation
as complementary rationality perspectives, in some recent Bimonthly
essays and thus may refer interested readers to these sources
(see Ulrich, 2017d, pp. 15-28, 2017e, pp. 2-4 and 19-21; and
2018, pp. 2-12 and 15f); specifically on the relation between
"situation" and "system," I also recommend
the short discussion in Ulrich and Reynolds (2010, pp. 251-253).
At present I just want to point out that there is no need, in
the face of such distinctions, for worrying that boundary critique
is overly complex. The previously mentioned checklist of twelve
questions covers all four perspectives, so that it is not usually
necessary to engage in separate rounds of boundary critique,
each with a focus on one of the four types of reference systems.
The S-E-A-U formula is not meant to complicate things but rather,
to facilitate a deeper understanding of what boundary critique
at bottom is all about – in one word: rationality
critique – as well as to support its practice when some
specific boundary questions are found particularly difficult
to answer; it may then help to examine the concerned boundary
judgments with an explicit and changing focus on each of the
four rationality perspectives.
it here to note that
- a reference system is a whole
of circumstances or conditions selected from the (assumed) universe
make up a context for assessing the meaning and validity of
a specific claim; whereas
- boundary judgments are the acts
of selection by which we delimit a specific reference system from
other conceivable reference systems and/or from the universe
(as an ultimate reference system for reflecting on the selectivity
of all other reference systems, an idea that in practice becomes
important especially in moral reasoning).
concept of rational practice: This concept explains the
two-dimensional, Kantian concept of rationality that underpins
CSH and at the same time seeks to operationalize it, by extending
Kant's (1786, 1787) two dimensions or "standpoints"
of reason – theoretical (-empirical) and practical (-normative)
reason – into a vertical model of three complementary levels
of systems rationalization. In the latest version, the three
levels now explicitly (rather than, as in previous versions,
only implicitly) refer to the three reference systems S, E, and
A, with U serving as an ultimate reference system for questioning
the delimitations of the other three (especially E and A). The
model embodies CSH's overall approach to systematic rationality
critique and as such serves as an important background concept
for practicing boundary critique (see Ulrich, 2018, pp. 12-27;
earlier accounts are found in 1988, pp. 146-159; 2001b,
p. 78-82; and 2012a, pp. 8-37, esp. 28-34). A complementary
concept is the principle of critical vertical integration
of rationality levels; interested readers will also
find it explained, as well as illustrated by two major examples,
in the mentioned sources (see esp. Ulrich, 2012a, pp. 34-44; 2018,
much for some hints about the key concepts for which you asked
me. I think I should not get longer. Readers not yet
familiar with my work may wish to follow up some of these hints and
consult some of the literature references I've given.
Now that you consider to become a "slow professor"
and to "slowly" reduce your amount of academic
writing, do you have any regrets as to unaccomplished aims or
remaining deficits of your work on CSH?
Certainly. I am thinking, for instance,
of the didactic challenge. I was so busy studying the philosophical
and methodological ("critically-heuristic") challenges
that I postponed an idea that I always had, namely, to test CSH in school classes
and, based on such experience and with their help, perhaps to
"translate" its terms into a language that would be
closer to young people. I am also thinking of the Irish program
for civil, social, and political education in secondary
schools (CSPE, 2016), which might be an exemplary kind of school
project for introducing CSH to young people and testing or developing
it with them. As a general stance, I propose that in
future, no child should leave school without having received
some training in boundary critique.
idea was to test CSH in adequate settings of adult education
and active citizenship, for example, as a tool to equip participants
of "planning cells" (Dienel, 1989 and 1991) or "citizens'
juries" (e.g., Crosby et al., 1986), "hybrid fora"
of scientists and citizens (e.g., Gibbons et al., 1994), stakeholder-based
evaluation (e.g., Bryk, 1983; Achterkamp and Vos, 2007; Gates,
action research (e.g., Fals-Borda and Rahman; 1991; Whyte, 1991;
Reason, 1994; Ulrich, 1996) and other forms of participatory and community-based
research and citizen engagement.
Nobody can do everything. I focused on work that I felt I was best
prepared for and which might not be done otherwise, I mean the
job of working out the basic philosophical and methodological
ideas that I had in mind. I am confident, however, that there are plenty of
people out there who are better qualified than I am to take
on the didactic task. I trust this will eventually happen.
theoretically speaking, I have not finished my attempts to translate
the ideas gained through my work on boundary critique into a
framework of what I'd like to call philosophy for professionals.
As I currently see it, such a framework would rest on two main
pillars that are still under construction. First and most importantly,
I see an urgent need for a renewal of
pragmatism toward what might justly be called critical pragmatism.
I have published a few articles in which I outline my ideas
on this (see, e.g., Ulrich, 2006 and 2007). I have also begun
a Bimonthly series titled "Reflections on critical pragmatism,"
with so far seven essays published between 2006 and 2016. I
may continue to add more such reflections. The other pillar
on which I have been working a bit is the methodological concept of
critical contextualism, which I think could support a
framework of critical pragmatism by helping both to ground it
epistemologically and to operationalize it with a view to systematic
practice. This idea was an important (although not the only)
motive for my Bimonthly series, equally uncompleted, on
"The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration."
Another, related motive was
to explore the use of general
ideas as critically-heuristic ideas, that is, as standards
for boundary critique or, more accurately, as limiting concepts
towards which, as explained in these essays, critical contextualization
can orient itself.
A third motive has emerged while working on the series, the
opportunity it brought to explore entirely
new territory in the form of ancient Indian ideas, especially
of the Upanishadic tradition and, still in work, of the subsequent
tradition of Buddhist logic and philosophy. I do hope to complete
this work eventually.
Q5: What other
hopes do you associate with CSH for the future?
to what I just said about school education, I could have imagined
to engage myself more in introducing boundary critique
to professionals. I believe that boundary critique is deeply
relevant to our contemporary notions of both professional competence
(cf. Ulrich, 2001a; 2011a, b; 2012b) and professional ethics (cf. Ulrich, 2006; Schwandt, 2015). I did have a good number of opportunities though
to introduce CSH to practicing and future professionals from
a broad array of fields, and the experience was encouraging
throughout. Based on this experience, I tend to think that just
as no school kid should in future leave school without some
basic training in boundary critique, no professionals should
end their professional education or training without it. Those
who did not have such an opportunity in the past should have
it in the form of future continuing education offers. The Lugano
Summer School of Systems Design was such an offer that
I initiated in the past, aimed at practicing professionals as
well as doctoral or postdoctoral researchers.
have some hope that my work on boundary critique might contribute
in the future to a new kind of citizenship training,
aimed at conveying to citizens not only knowledge about politics and
but also the kind of competencies they need for exerting their
rights. How else can they become active citizens who know to argue their
concerns, even if at times it means to challenge those who claim to know better what is
good and right for them? I believe this need not remain a mere
utopia. The concept of the polemical employment
of boundary judgments, or of emancipatory boundary critique
as briefly introduced above, explains why and how ordinary
people can be prepared to meet experts on equal terms, at least
for critical purposes.
believe that people who have understood the idea of boundary
critique and perhaps have received some training in it, have
a realistic chance to help create a basic symmetry of critical
competence (Ulrich, 1993, pp. 604-606; 1999/2018, pp. 15-17;
2017c, p. 9f, 12) among all the parties involved and/or concerned
by a proposal or project, regardless of what their special skills
or deficits of expertise are (remember that even experts are
in most questions facing them non-experts). I refer to this
vision of a new, reformed kind of citizenship training as critically-heuristic training in citizenship
(e.g., Ulrich, 1983, pp. 397, 407; 1993, p. 608; 2000, p. 261).
Adult education and continuing professional education are related
fields of application for this vision.
ultimate vision though goes even further. I hope that based
on new concepts such as boundary critique, along with other
ongoing developments such as the forms of active citizenship
I have mentioned above, the contemporary knowledge society will
eventually become what we might call a knowledge democracy.
am not going to say more about this vision here, as it is
the topic of my so-far unpublished Erskine Prestige Lecture, appended
below. This was a lecture delivered to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New
Zealand, in May 1999, and circulated internally thereafter but
not formally published. What better occasion could there be
for finally making it available to everyone than this "Farewell"
Bimonthly? Please find the PDF file below if you'd like to see
Let us end with a personal note. Could you share with us some favorite
quote, whether from the academic or the belletristic literature, that captures the spirit of your academic
work and life?
pleasure. One quote that currently is on my mind is the observation
that I cited in my last bimonthly essay, of January-February
2018, from Pirsig's Zen or the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
true system, the real system, is our present construction of
systematic thought itself, rationality itself.… There's so much
talk about the system. And so little understanding.
Pirsig, Zen or the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1975,
you have it all, the reason why we need to engage in "systems
thinking" and allow a majority of people to acquire some
critical competence in it. Pirsig's book was the first I read
after arriving at UC Berkeley, in March 1976, where I had come
to work with the pioneer of the "systems approach,"
C. West Churchman (cf. my appreciations in Ulrich, 2004 and
2012b), and to pursue what then was still a rather vague project
of developing a "critical systems approach" that would
be practicable for many people (1983,
p. 25). Along with Churchman's books, Pirsig's Zen
was indeed one of the books that got me started. So isn't it
quite fitting that at the end of this series of Bimonthly essays
I return to it, thanks to your question.
be sure, I would not do justice to the one major source of inspiration
that really has accompanied me closely through all the years
and which still enlightens me whenever I consult it these days
(and I frequently do), I mean Kant's (1787) Critique.
I had started to read the original German text before moving
to Berkeley, but there I started to read it in English, as I
would anyway need to cite it in English. I was fortunate enough
to select the outstanding translation of Norman Kemp Smith,
which for me has remained the best. It is such a fine translation,
faithful to the spirit as well as the language of Kant yet somehow
more modern and easier to read than the German original. My
understanding of Kant benefited enormously from this translation,
the more as I could always go back to the German text in cases
of difficulties or doubts as to how to interpret what I read.
was inevitable that sooner or later I would also find in the
book some passage that captured it all – the original intuition
and the ensuing inspiration and enduring hope that at least
a critical solution must be possible to the difficulties
and limitations of human reason in dealing with this messy world
of ours. Kant remains of ongoing importance, I
think, when it comes to understand the need for such a critical
solution and its basic requirements. As Kant would say, we have no choice but to
try and handle the key contemporary problems that mankind
is facing "with reason." I take Kant's word, therefore, that
as an alternative to dogmatism and nihilism, a critical
solution to the questions of reason might still be possible:
cannot, by complaining about the narrow limits of our reason,
the responsibility of at least a critical solution
to the questions of reason.
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd edn.,
my own transl.)2)
found this comment of Kant so important that I made it the guiding
motto of my book on Critical Heuristics (Ulrich, 1983,
p. 5). I have never regretted giving it this central place;
it has always remained an inspiration to me.
also hinted at the possibility of a quote form the belletristic
literature, so as to end with a somewhat personal note. When
you said that, I immediately knew what it would be. It can only
be that most beautiful line from a poem by the French poet,
essayist, and philosopher, Paul Valéry, a line that I
never forgot since I first encountered it some forty years
ago and which, as I grow older, gains more and more meaning:
vent se lève !… Il faut tenter de vivre !
wind is rising !… Let us try to live !”)
(From Paul Valéry's poem "Le cimetière marin," orig. published in 1920;
for a bilingual edn. see Collected
Works, Vol. 1, Poems, 1971, p. 220f)
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
is the last regular Bimonthly that I publish. Some future essays
with which I hope to complete the unfinished series of essays
published through this platform may still take the form of (occasional)
Bimonthlies, but they will then be made available as contributions
to thematic strands of articles as I plan to offer them in future,
as part of my continuing maintenance and development of this
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