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November-December 2015
The Way of Inquiring Systems
A Review of C.W. Churchman's "The Design of Inquiring Systems" (1971
)

   Ulrich's Bimonthly (formerly Picture of the Month)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introductory note    Since joining the Academia.edu academic network and repository in Spring, 2015 (see the Wikipedia entry for a short explanation), I have begun to prepare and upload a number of postpublication versions of articles for which I do not hold the copyright (e.g., Ulrich, 1993, 2000, 2001a, 2012a, b) along with articles for which I do hold the copyright (e.g., 1996, 2001b, c, 2006b, 2015a-c). The idea is not only to make sure I respect applicable copyright terms but also to review and update some of my older writings that may still be of current interest. As a rule, I will also make such revised postpublication versions available in the Downloads section of my home page (this present site). However, while it has always been my policy to publish articles in my home page in both HTML and PDF formats (the Bimonthly essays provide a good example), Academia.edu articles come as PDF files only. Each of the two formats has its advantages; for example, HTML pages are quick to access and overview and also easy to update for the author, whereas PDF files offer stability of content and layout and thus are more suitable for printing and archiving; moreover, and very important for academic use, they allow pagination, which makes them ideal for citation and referencing purposes. There are thus good reasons for maintaining that policy.

I will therefore occasionally use the "Bimonthly" series as a convenient platform for offering new HTML versions (along with PDF versions) of such postpublication revisions, including revisions that thus far are available in PDF format only (e.g., Ulrich, 2015a-c) as well as revisions that I plan to prepare in future (e.g., of articles such as Ulrich, 1987, 2003, 2006a, and 2007). In this last Bimonthly of the year 2015, I start with a review article that, although 30 years old, is still occasionally cited today and which indeed may still be of interest for a wide readership (Ulrich, 1985). The occasion to update it came with an invitation by a German colleague, Dirk Baecker, who proposed to include a thus-far inexistent German translation (Ulrich, 2016) in a collection on key systems-theoretical approaches of which he was preparing a second edition and in which the work of Churchman had not been represented thus far (Baecker, 2016). Going back to this old review, I spotted a number of minor defects that offered themselves for correction on this occasion, along with some editorial improvements and substantial additions. It seemed consequent, then, to also update the original English version in the same way. In the present Bimonthy, I offer the resulting, slightly expanded and updated postpublication version of the original English publication; a prepublication version of the new German article will follow in the next Bimonthly.

 

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 The Way of Inquiring Systems:
A Review of C.W. Churchman's "The Design of Inquiring Systems"
(New York, Basic Books, 1971)

ABSTRACT.   The Design of Inquiring Systems is perhaps one of the most original books by the former UC Berkeley management scientist, research philosopher and pioneer of the "systems approach" as well as of the field of "operations research," C. West Churchman. Although it is not written in a conventional scholarly style, the book has been highly influential and remains today an inspiring text on some of the most fundamental, but still largely unresolved, difficulties and questions raised by key contemporary ideas such as systems design, information systems, artificial intelligence, and research-based practice. Churchman’s idea is to look at these concepts from the different perspectives of some major theorists of knowledge of the past: Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and his teacher Edgar A. Singer (a disciple of William James). At the same time, the book can be read as a self-reflective essay on the strengths and limitations of Churchman's own systems approach. This short review essay touches upon some of the core themes of Churchman's pioneering work on the systems approach and should thus be of interest to all readers interested in systems thinking.

KEY WORDS: Systems thinking; systems design; inquiring systems; information systems; information systems design; computer science; management science; philosophy of the systems approach; theory of knowledge; research philosophy; applied science

Essay history: This is an expanded and updated postpublication version of a review originally written for a special issue of the Journal of the Operational Research Society (Vol. 36, No. 9, 1985) on "Systems Thinking in Action," Special Book Selection: "Signposts to Successful Systems Practice," ed. by M .C. Jackson and P. Keys, pp. 873-876. The present version, prepared in December 2015, makes this review available for the first time in electronic form and open-access mode, both in HTML and PDF format.

Suggested citation: Ulrich, W. (1985 / 2 015). The way of inquiring systems: a review of C.W. Churchman's "The Design of Inquiring Systems," New York, Basic Books, 1971. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 36, No. 9, pp. 873-876. Expanded and updated postpublication version of 12 December 2015. Ulrich's Bimonthly, November-December 2015,
http://wulrich.com/bimonthly_november2015.html.

Additional sources: The PDF version of this article is also available in the "Tribute to C.W. Churchman" and "Downloads" sections of the present site, as well as in the "Reviews" section of the author's Academia.edu page.

 

 

 

Cover of "Inquiring Systems"

 

 

Link to 'A Tribute to C.W. Churchman' - Photo: Churchman in his late 50s, ca. 1970 Working at the Limits of the Systems Paradigm The advancement of science has always depended on individuals thinking beyond and ahead of prevailing paradigms. But the history of science also shows that the scientific community tends to "discipline" such thinkers by marginalizing them. Established disciplines often enough seem to spend more effort for the purpose of defending their paradigm than for overcoming its limitations. Ironically, the more successful a discipline is in securing its own paradigm, the more its advancement will finally depend on the few thinkers who are working at the limits of this paradigm.

The Design of Inquiring Systems is an impressive example of a pioneer working at the limits of his field's paradigm. Significantly, the first section of the book (p. 3) is entitled “On the Limits of the Design of Systems."

The Challenge of Improvement  For Churchman, the idea of systems design – "the effort to improve social systems through planning" (Churchman, 1982, p. 129) – entails a question of paradigmatic importance to applied science in general, and to operations research / management science in particular: "Is it possible to secure improvement in the human condition by means of the human intellect?" (1982, p. 19). Improvement implies learning; can systems design secure learning? And if it cannot, how can we secure at least a critical understanding of the limits of design, i.e., of the sources of deception implied in our relying on design?

This is the fundamental question that Churchman, as I understand him, poses himself in Inquiring Systems. In an age threatened by global self-destruction, ecological crisis, hunger and many other complex problems brought forth by scientifically supported systems design, this is not merely an academic question. It is a question of immediate importance to the applied scientist; for what else is he trying to achieve but producing knowledge that might help secure improvement?

The manner in which Churchman seeks to answer his fundamental question is no less characteristic of this deeply philosophical pioneer of the systems approach than the question itself. Far from presupposing that there is any such thing as one "best" epistemological starting point (theory of knowledge) for approaching his question – an early insight (see Churchman, 1948) on which today's prevailing theories of knowledge have hardly advanced – he turns to some outstanding philosophical minds of the past: Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel and finally, his own philosophical teacher, Edgar A. Singer, who was a disciple of the great American pragmatist William James. Churchman thus gains five alternative – or, as it turns out, complementary – epistemological viewpoints from which to elucidate some basic limitations of present-day Utopias of systems design (one might think of conceptions such as management information systems, artificial intelligence, expert systems, social cybernetics, and other applications of systems science).

Inquiring Systems   Churchman's idea is to look at these different epistemologies as designs for inquiring systems, that is, systems that would be capable of securing knowledge about the real world and of knowing how and why exactly they know: “We can regard the history of epistemology (theory of knowledge) not as a description of how men learn and justify their learning, but as a description of how learning can be designed and how the design can be justified." (1971, p. 17) This idea opens up two complementary perspectives for reading the book.

Basically, the book can and should be read as a philosophical inquiry into the meaning and limitations of systems design. In addition, it can also be read as a refreshingly unconventional discussion of the meaning and limitations of traditional epistemologies from a systems point of view. Both ways of reading the book have their charm; both might also cause the readers some difficulties in translating the book's insights back into their accustomed ways of thinking (be it as a systems designer or as a philosopher). As Churchman explains, his way of looking at the older texts "requires a translation, not from one language to another, but from one philosophical aim [i.e., the justification of knowledge] to another [i.e., the justification of design]." (p. 17)

The philosophical reader might find the translation inaccurate, as there is little direct consultation of the original authors. Churchman does not belong to the majority of ivory-tower philosophers, for whom philosophy is largely the same thing as studying its history (an observation that has lost nothing of its validity since Kant made it over 200 years ago). To Churchman, philosophy is meaningful and important as an applied discipline, as a stepping stone to improving actual social reality. Hence he is "less interested in what Leibniz, say, was trying to accomplish, than in what his attempts mean to the designer. Therefore, when we speak of a Leibnizian inquiring system, we do not mean that this system is an exact account of how Leibniz conceived the theory of knowledge; rather, it is a reconstruction of Leibnizian ideas in the language of the design of an inquiring system." (p. 17f)

As a basic translation of his underlying question, Churchman asks "whether it is possible to tell a computer how to design an inquiring system, or, in other terms, teach a computer to conduct research." (p. 6) To be sure, his interest is not in actually developing computer software, for example, in the sense of artificial intelligence research; rather, the question serves as a conceptual boundary experiment to clarify the limitations of some alternative designs for inquiry.

The Guarantor Problem: Toward a Theory of Deception   In the first of the two parts of the book, entitled "A Classification of Systems" (pp. 1-205), Churchman examines the five chosen epistemologies in the light of his question. He shows that each of the thus-gained designs for an inquiring system is bound to remain incomplete (or open-ended) in regard to the validation of the information it produces. It cannot serve as its own guarantor (pp. 22f, 78, 204f). A design's specific gap of guarantee signals its "lonely," creative part, "the part that cannot be designed, at least relative to a standard computer." (p. 6) In other words, it signals the limit beyond which "man cannot be bettered by his own designs." (p. 3)

If not adequately considered, a design's specific gap of guarantee will become a source of hidden normative assumptions about how the world ought to be viewed or redesigned. In Churchman's language: it will become a source of deception. Because each conceivable design of inquiry runs the risk of such built-in sources of deception, a self-reflective, purposeful human inquirer is called for to take on the responsibility for the lack of guarantee in a design's premises and promises.

The Theme of Comprehensiveness and the Heroic Mood   As I understand Churchman, the fundamental limit common to all designs for an inquiring system lies in the simultaneous indispensability and impossibility of a complete (or comprehensive) systems design. This implication leads Churchman to two of his favorite themes: the theme of comprehensiveness, which he already discussed in Challenge to Reason (1968a), and the "heroic mood" required from a systems designer who really strives for a comprehensive rationality of his designs – a rationality to which its own built-in sources of deception would become transparent.

The theme of the "heroic mood" is expounded in the second part of the book, "Speculations on Systems Design" (pp. 207-277). It mainly discusses the inevitable role of "imagery" or Weltanschauung (pp. 209-218) in inquiry and the problem of designing a guarantor for the choice of such imagery (pp. 237-246). Other aspects discussed are the implementation of systems design and the psychology of the inquiring system (pp. 219-236, 259-273).

This part of the book, though impressive, will probably leave most readers rather helpless. Churchman poses a lot of thoroughly puzzling questions, and he does not seek to create the impression that he or anybody else has the answers. "To me the essence of philosophy is to pose serious and meaningful questions that are too difficult for any of us to answer in our lifetimes…. Thought likes solutions, wisdom abhors them." (1982, p. 20) The ultimate question with which the book concludes may convey the flavor of this second part: "What kind of a world must it be in which inquiry becomes possible?" (p. 277)

Personal Appreciation   What have I learned from this book? Despite a few critical thoughts, I owe to Inquiring Systems some basic ideas and questions that have shaped my understanding of the systems approach. Along with Churchman's earlier books, Challenge to Reason (1968a) and The Systems Approach (1968b), Inquiring Systems is a main reason why I did not prematurely write off systems theory as a technocratic approach (as many of my fellow students did) but began to see in it a critical and emancipatory potential waiting to be uncovered – the aim of my subsequent step from Churchman's "heroic" systems approach to "critical systems heuristics" (Ulrich, 1983).

I think the key insight for me was the inevitability and critical significance of the systems idea for an adequate, self-reflective and self-limiting concept of rationality, which, as I began to realize, had to replace Churchman's heroic quest for comprehensiveness (cf. Ulrich 2004, p. 1128f).

Linked to this was the conclusion that the systems idea, if only we understand it in the Kantian sense of an "unavoidable" critical idea of reason, can make a major contribution to dealing reasonably with the inevitable lack of comprehensiveness in all human knowledge and understanding (Churchman and Ulrich, 1980; Ulrich, 1981; Churchman et al., 1981; Ulrich, 1983).

As a third and last point, I was led to recognize the fact that not only modern systems science but also contemporary practical philosophy has failed to understand the significance of the systems idea for a critical and practicable approach to the problem of practical reason: How can we rationally identify and discuss the normative implications of our designs? Hence, my effort to redefine and unify practical philosophy and the systems approach in terms of critical systems heuristics (CSH).

Outlook to the "Enemies"   The Design of Inquiring Systems to me is one of the two books by West Churchman that best represent the critical program of research that he proposed at the end of The Systems Approach: "The ultimate meaning of the systems approach lies in the creation of a theory of deception and in fuller understanding of the ways in which the human being can be deceived about his world…." (1968b, p. 229f)

The other of these two books is The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). Perhaps a short outlook to how this later book takes up the basic intent of Inquiring Systems will interest the reader. Basically, Enemies offers a dialectical framework for unfolding the meaning and limitations of concrete systems designs. Although Churchman does not say it in these terms, I believe that in this book the systems approach for the first time has become truly self-reflective with respect to the normative implications of its own quest for systems rationality. In Churchman's terms, the systems approach cannot realize its search for a comprehensive rationality of planning so long as it seeks to absorb the "enemies" of such rationality, which to him are: politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics (some readers might want to replace morality with economics).

The somewhat provocative term "enemy" is meant to connote the irreconcilable conflict between the whole-systems rationality of the systems approach and the private, subjective rationalities of these other standpoints, which are not willing to subject themselves to the planner's standards of systems rationality even though he may claim to plan for them. They are in this sense his "deadly enemies," that is, the dialectical negation, of the systems approach.

Rather than by seeking to absorb the standpoints of the enemies so as to render them innocuous, the systems approach can hope to claim comprehensive rationality inasmuch as it learns to reflect on its own limitations, namely, by listening to its "enemies" and by understanding them dialectically as what they are: mirrors of its failure to be comprehensive (Ulrich, 1983, p. 34).

The ultimate lesson to which Inquiring Systems and the Enemies amount for me is this: only that concept of rationality (and hence, understanding of systems design) can help secure improvement which makes transparent to itself its own lack of comprehensiveness and which also comprehends this lack of comprehensiveness – its own self-limitation, that is – as a necessary condition of reasonable social practice. Only thus systems design can become an effective instrument for bringing reason into practice, and for rendering practice reasonable.

West Churchman has served the design profession and other applied disciplines by thinking beyond their current concepts of rationality; but he cannot save us the trouble of reading and re-thinking his books for ourselves. So many years after the publication of Inquiring Systems and Enemies, it is certainly not too late, but more urgent than ever, to come to terms with this great, difficult pioneer of the systems approach who, by a lifetime's hard work at the limits of his own paradigm, has taught us so much more than we have as yet learned from him.

References for the Introductory Note

Baecker, D. (ed.) (2016). Schlüsselwerke der Systemtheorie, 2. Aufl. /2nd edn. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2016 (forthcoming; orig. 2005).

Ulrich, W. (1985). The way of inquiring systems. Review of "The Design of Inquiring Systems" by C. West Churchman, New York, Basic Books, 1971. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 36, No. 9, 1985, Special Issue: Systems Thinking in Action, Special Book Selection: Signposts to Successful Systems Practice, ed. by M.C. Jackson and P. Keys, pp. 873-876.

Ulrich, W. (1987). Critical heuristics of social systems design. European Journal of Operational Research, 31, No. 3, 1987, pp. 276-283.

Ulrich, W. (1993). Some difficulties of ecological thinking, considered from a critical systems perspective: a plea for critical holism. Systems Practice, 6, No. 6, pp. 583-611.

Ulrich, W. (1996). A Primer to Critical Systems Heuristics for Action Researchers. Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, Hull, UK, 31 March 1996, 58pp. Slightly revised digital version, 10 August 2014. Werner Ulrich's Home Page, Downloads section, http://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_1996a.pdf (also available from the author's Academia.edu page).

Ulrich, W. (2000). Reflective practice in the civil society : the contribution of critically systemic thinking. Reflective Practice, 1, No. 2, pp. 247-268.

Ulrich, W. (2001a). The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18, No. 1, pp. 3-28.

Ulrich, W. (2001b). A philosophical staircase for information systems definition, design, and development. (A discursive approach to reflective practice in ISD, Part 1). Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, 3, No. 3, 2001, pp. 55-84.

Ulrich, W. (2001c). Critically systemic discourse. (A discursive approach to reflective practice in ISD, Part 2). Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, 3, No. 3, 2001, pp. 85-106.

Ulrich, W. (2003). Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 54, No. 4, 2003, pp. 325-342.

Ulrich, W. (2006a). Critical pragmatism: a new approach to professional and business ethics. In L. Zsolnai (ed.), Interdisciplinary Yearbook of Business Ethics, Vol. I, Oxford, UK, and Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Academic Publishers, 2006, pp. 53-85.

Ulrich, W. (2006b). Rethinking critically reflective research practice: beyond Popper's critical rationalism. Journal of Research Practice, 2, No. 2, 2006, Article P1.

Ulrich, W. (2007). Philosophy for professionals: towards critical pragmatism. Viewpoint. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 58, No. 8 (August), 2007, pp. 1109-1113.

Ulrich, W. (2012a). Operational research and critical systems thinking – an integrated perspective. Part 1: OR as applied systems thinking. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 63, No. 9 (September), pp. 1228-1247.

Ulrich, W. (2012b). Operational research and critical systems thinking – an integrated perspective. Part 2: OR as argumentative practice. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 63, No. 9 (September), pp. 1307-1322.

Ulrich, W. (2015a). Kant's way to peace. A review of Hans Saner's Kant's Political Thought: Its Origin and Development, University of Chicago Press, 1973. [PDF]  http://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_2015b.pdf  
[PDF] 
https://academia.edu/12100646/Kants_way_to_peace

Ulrich, W. (2015b). Kant's public construction of reason. A review of Onora O’Neill's Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[PDF] 
http://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_2015c.pdf  
[PDF] 
https://academia.edu/12101677/Kants_public_construction_of_reason

Ulrich, W. (2015c). Kant's rational ethics. A review of Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, transl. by H.J. Paton, New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
[PDF]  http://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_2015d.pdf  
[PDF]  https://academia.edu/12101835/Kants_rational_ethics

Ulrich, W. (2016). Forschende Systeme. Über C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971). In Baecker, D. (ed.), Schlüsselwerke der Systemtheorie. 2. Aufl. /2nd edn. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2016 (forthcoming).

References for the Review

Churchman, C. West (1948). Theory of Experimental Inference. New York: Macmillan.

Churchman, C.W. (1968a). Challenge to Reason . New York: McGraw-Hill.

Churchman, C.W. (1968b). The Systems Approach. New York: Delacorte; pb. edn. Dell.

Churchman, C.W. (1971). The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.

Churchman, C.W. (1979). The Systems Approach and Its Enemies. New York: Basic Books.

Churchman, C.W. (1982). Thought and Wisdom. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications.

Churchman, C.W., Ulrich, W. (1980). The status of the systems approach: reply to R.A. Bryer. Omega, The International Journal of Management Science, 8, No. 3, pp. 277-280.

Churchman, CW, with Cowan, T.A., and Ulrich, W. (1981). The systems approach and its enemies. Counterpoint to Christenson's critique – a dialogue. Journal of Enterprise Management, 3, No. 2, pp. 200-202.

Ulrich, W. (1981). On blaming the messenger for the bad news. Reply to Bryer's comments. Omega, The International Journal of Management Science, 9, No. 1, 1981, p. 7.

Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Bern, Switzerland, and Stuttgart, Germany: Paul Haupt; pb. reprint edn., New York and Chichester, UK: Wiley, 1994.

Ulrich, W. (1985). The way of inquiring systems. Review of "The Design of Inquiring Systems" by C. West Churchman, New York, Basic Books, 1971. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 36, No. 9, 1985, Special Issue: Systems Thinking in Action, Special Book Selection: Signposts to Successful Systems Practice, ed. by M.C. Jackson and P. Keys, pp. 873-876.

Ulrich, W. (2004). Obituary: C. West Churchman, 1913–2004. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 55, No. 11, pp. 1123–1129.

 

 

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Picture data  Digital photograph taken on 2 December 2013 near Wald, Canton Bern, Switzerland, around 4:15 p.m. ISO 200, exposure mode aperture priority, with aperture f/8.0, exposure time 1/400 seconds, and exposure bias 0. Metering mode center-weighted average, contrast low, saturation normal, sharpness low. Focal length 40 mm, equivalent to 40 mm with a conventional 35 mm camera (full-format sensor). Original resolution 5472 x 3648 pixels; current resolution 700 x 500 pixels, compressed to 222 KB.

November-December, 2015

 

December evening south of Bern, Switzerland

December evening south of Bern, Switzerland 

 

How is the world so quiet
and, in the cloak of twilight, a peaceful place to stay!”

(Matthias Claudius, "Evening Song," second stanza, transl. by Walter A. Aue)

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Last updated 2 Jan 2016; first published 12 Dec 2015
http://wulrich.com/bimonthly_november2015.html