Continued from Part 1/2
Ought to Count as Knowledge?
Research is usually undertaken to increase
knowledge. A typical dictionary definition explains that research
is "to establish facts and reach new conclusions"
(Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English). This
is not a bad definition. Counter to the frequent, often tacit identification
of research with empirical research, the Oxford definition tells
us that research requires two kinds of competencies:
skills to "establish facts," and
skills to "reach new conclusions."
first kind of skills refers to the ideal of high-quality
observations, that is, observations that are capable of
generating valid statements of fact. This ideal is traditionally
but rather inadequately designated "objectivity";
it requires our propositions or claims to possess observational qualities
such as intersubjective transferability and controllability,
repeatability over time, adequate precision, and clarity with
respect to both the object and the method of observation.
second kind of skills refers to the ideal of cogent reasoning,
that is, processes of (individual) reflection and (intersubjective)
argumentation that generate valid statements about the meaning
(interpretation, justification, relevance) of observations.
This ideal is traditionally designated "rationality";
it requires our propositions to possess communicative and argumentative
qualities such as syntactic coherence, semantic comprehensibility,
logical consistency with other statements, empirical content
(truth), pragmatic relevance and normative legitimacy (rightness).
requirements raise important issues for the concept of research
competence. How can we know whether we "really" know,
that is, whether our observations are high-quality observations
or not? And if we can assume that they are, how can we know
whether we understand their meaning correctly and draw the "right"
conclusions, that is, that we reason and argue correctly?
observation and argumentation require one another A
particular difficulty with the two requirements is indeed that they
are inseparable. This becomes obvious as soon as we consider
the nature of the "facts" that quality observations
are supposed to establish:
are what statements (when true) state; they are not what statements
are about [i.e., objects]. They are not, like things or happenings
on the face of the globe, witnessed or heard or seen, broken
or overturned, interrupted or prolonged, kicked, destroyed,
mended or noisy. (Strawson, 1964, p. 38, cf. Ulrich, 1983,
is to say, facts are not to be confused with objects of experience;
they cannot be experienced (they are statements rather than
objects), just as objects of experience cannot be asserted (only
statements can). Facts, because they are statements, need to
be argued. Accordingly observational and argumentative competencies
must go hand in hand; they are but
two sides of one and the same coin. (Fig. 1)
1: Two dimensions of competence
in systems thinking and research: observational and argumentative.
dimension entails specific validity claims, the redemption of
which may, however, involve claims that refer to the other dimension.
us consider some of the specific requirements on each side of
the coin. On the argumentative side, Habermas' (1979; 1984-87)
well-known model of rational discourse gives us a framework
for analyzing the difficult implications of the quest for compelling
argumentation or, as he puts it, "communicative competence."
makes a good argument?
According to this model, a competent speaker would have to be
able to justify (or "redeem," as Habermas likes to
say) the following validity claims that all rationally motivated
communication entails and which together amount to a "universal
validity basis of speech":
a claim that entails the obligation to express oneself so
that the others can hear and understand the speaker; it
cannot be redeemed discursively but merely through one's
a claim that entails the obligation to provide grounds for
the empirical content of statements, through reference to
quality observations and through theoretical discourse.
a claim that entails the obligation to provide justification
for the normative content of statements, through reference
to shared values (e.g., moral principles) and through practical
a claim that entails the obligation to redeem the expressive
content of statements by proving oneself trustworthy, so
that the others can trust in the sincerity of the speaker's
expressed intentions; again this cannot be redeemed discursively
but only through the consistency of the speaker's behavior
with the expressed intentions.
(adapted from Habermas, e.g., 1979, pp. 2-4,
these validity claims are always raised simultaneously in all
communication, whether explicitly or implicitly, it becomes
apparent that a competent researcher must be prepared to substantiate
statements of fact not only through credible reference to quality
observations but also through theoretical and practical discourse,
so as to convince those who doubt or contest the "facts" in
question of the validity of their underlying, theoretical and normative
makes a good observation? Similar
difficulties arise with the requirement of substantiating the
quality of observations. Observations – or more precisely, observational
statements – always depend on the construction
of some sort of objects that can be observed and reported upon.
Depending on the situation, these constructions may need to
rely on different notions of what kinds of objects
lend themselves to quality observations. A conventional notion
of "objects" assumes that the objects of observation can be construed
to be largely independent of the purposes of both the observer
and the user of the generated knowledge. In such a conventional
account, a claim to quality observations will entail the obligation
to redeem at least the following requirements:
the observation observes (or measures) what it is supposed
to observe (or measure).
the observation can be repeated over time and provides (at
least statistically) a stable result.
the observation can be repeated by other observers and in
that sense proves to be observer-independent (a validity
claim that is often subsumed under 2).
the observation provides (together with other observations)
information that serves as a support for a statement of
fact, or for an argument to the truth of some disputed fact.
"Challenge of the User":
Towards a richer construction of high-quality observations and
speaking, these or similar assumptions characterized the rise
of the empirical sciences (especially the natural sciences)
about three centuries ago. More recently, however, with the
extension of scientifically motivated forms of inquiry to ever
more areas of human concern, competent research increasingly
faces the difficulty that contrary to the original assumptions,
quality observations cannot be assumed to be independent of
either the observer or the user or both. As for instance de
Zeeuw (1996, pp. 2f and 19f /2001, pp. 1f and 25f) observes, science is now more
and more faced with the challenge of the user, that is,
the task of constructing quality observations so that they allow users
to have a voice inside science. This is different from conventional
science which, because of its underlying notion of non-constructed,
observer- and user-independent objects, depends on the exclusion
examples are research efforts in the domains of therapy (e.g.,
psychiatry), social work and social planning (e.g., care for
the elderly or fighting poverty), business management (e.g.,
organizational design, management consultancy), and public policy-making
(e.g., policy analysis, evaluation research). "Patients,"
"clients," and "decision-makers" increasingly
claim a voice in the making of the observations of concern to
them, so that "diagnoses," "help" or "solutions"
are not merely imposed upon them without considering their
observations. What does it mean for a researcher to assure high-quality
observations under such circumstances?
phases of science: expanding the reach of high-quality observation De
Zeeuw has discussed this issue extensively (e.g., 1992, 1995,
1996/2001, 2005). He distinguishes three notions of "objects"
that allow quality observations responding to different circumstances
(the examples are mine): non-constructed objects
(e.g., the seemingly given, observer-independent objects of
astronomy such as the celestial bodies and phenomena),7)
constructed objects (e.g., groups such as "the
poor" or "the upper class" as objects of the
social sciences, or "systems" as objects of the systems
sciences), and self-constructed objects (e.g., expressions
of human intentionality as objects of study in social systems
design, organizational analysis, environmental and social impact
assessment, action research etc., where the construction of
the objects to be observed is left to those who are concerned
in the observations at issue, be it because they may be affected
by them or because they may need them for learning how to achieve
some purpose, or else because they may be able to contribute
some specific points of view). These three
notions of objects give rise to three developments of science
which de Zeeuw calls "first-phase," "second-phase,"
and ‘third-phase" science.
I understand de Zeeuw correctly,8)
the constructed objects of second-phase science distinguish
themselves from objects of first-phase science
in that they depend on the observer's purpose (e.g., the improvement
of some action or domain of practice); the self-constructed
objects of third-phase science depend, moreover, on the full
participation of all the users of the knowledge that is to be
emancipatory turn The
notion of competent research that I propose here and
which is also contained in my work on critical heuristics (CSH),
critical systems thinking (CST) for citizens, and critical pragmatism, is certainly
sympathetic to the idea of combining the "challenge of
the user" with an adequate notion of (objects of) high-quality
observations, a notion of quality that – in my terms – would
give a competent role to all those concerned in, or affected
by, an inquiry. I thus quite agree with de Zeeuw (1996, p. 19;
2001, p. 24)
when he refers to CSH as an example of a type of inquiry that focuses
need to give users in general a voice inside science,"
so as to overcome the conventional limitation of quality observations
to objects that are constructed by researchers without the full
participation of users. It should be noted clearly, however,
that CSH aims beyond the instrumental purpose of improving the
quality of "scientific" observations; it also aims
at emancipating ordinary people from the situation of incompetence
and dependency in which researchers and experts frequently put
them in the name of science. It aims at the earlier-mentioned
insight that what in our society counts as knowledge is always
a question of what ought to count as knowledge, whence
the issues of democratic participation and debate and of the
role of citizenship in knowledge production become essential
topics. That is why I find it important to associate the challenge
of the user with the goal of allowing citizens (as well as researchers)
to acquire a
new competence in citizenship
(Ulrich, 1995, 1996a, b, 1998b, 2000, 2012a).
a New Symmetry of Critical Competence For
me, a fundamental source of such competence consists in learning
to handle the boundary judgments that inevitably underpin all
application of research and expertise. The crucial point is
that when it comes to boundary judgments, researchers or experts
have no in-principle advantage over ordinary citizens:
an expert, by reference to his theoretical knowledge, defines
"the problem" at hand or determines "the solution,"
he must always presuppose such boundary judgments. To define
the problem means, in fact, to map the social reality (or the
social system) to be dealt with; to determine the solution
means to design a better social reality (or social system).
And since every map or design depends on previous boundary judgments
(or whole systems judgments) as to what is to be included in
it and what is to belong to its environment, it is clear that
no definition of "the problem" or "the solution"
can be objectively justified by reference to theoretical knowledge.
It can only be critically justified by reference to both the
transparency of values and the consent of all the affected citizens.
The first implication is trivial:
no amount of expertise (theoretical knowledge) is ever sufficient
for the expert to justify all the judgments on which his recommendations
depend. When the discussion turns to the basic boundary
judgments on which the exercise of expertise depends, the expert
is no less a layman than are the affected citizens.
second implication is less trivial, in that it seems to contradict
common sense: no expertise or theoretical knowledge
is required to comprehend and to demonstrate that this is so.
The necessity of boundary judgments can be intuitively grasped
by every layman: since no one can include "everything"
in his maps or designs, he cannot help presupposing some boundaries.…
Anybody who is able to comprehend the [relevance of such] boundary
judgments is also able to see through the dogmatic character
of the expert's "objective necessities." (Ulrich,
1983, p. 306, italics original)
be sure, experts are still needed to inform all those without
special expertise in an issue at hand (and virtually all of
us find themselves in this position most of the time) about
the likely or possible consequences of different boundary assumptions,
and thus about the options for efficacious action and resulting
kinds of improvement, side-effects, and risks. But they have
no privileged position when it comes to choosing among
these options, and thus among the competing boundary judgments:
may be able to contribute to the task of anticipating the
practical consequences of alternative boundary judgments; but
they cannot delegate to themselves the political act of sanctioning
the normative content of these consequences. (Ulrich, 1983, p. 308)
explains why professionals, counter to what one might expect,
have no natural advantage over ordinary citizens with respect
to boundary judgments. There is, in principle, a symmetry
of critical competence (Ulrich, 1993, p. 604) between
citizens and professionals, as both sides have an equal chance
of handling boundary questions in self-reflective and transparent
ways (for fuller accounts, see Ulrich, 1983, entire ch. 5, esp.
pp. 305-310; 1987, p. 281f; 1993, pp. 599-605,
2000, p. 254). The need for a careful
and open handling of boundary judgments thus translates into
a new skill of boundary critique, a skill that in principle
is available equally to citizens and to professionals as it
does not depend on any special expertise that would be beyond
the comprehension of ordinary people. Once we understand
this implication, our concept of high-quality observation of
situations will change, as will also our concept of compelling
of Science Theory and Research Methodology But
of course, giving users a more competent voice within research
does not answer all the questions raised by the search for valid
and relevant "findings and conclusions." The deeper
reason for this is that we are dealing with an ideal. A competent
researcher will always endeavor to make progress toward it,
while never assuming that he or she has attained it.
theories of truth and rationality We do not currently
have, and chances are we will never have, operational
theories of "true" knowledge and "rational"
argumentation. Given this situation, along with the ideal character of the quest for scientific validation,
we should not expect philosophers of science and theorists of
research methodology, either, to come up with safe and sufficient
guidelines, not any more than practicing researchers.
As far as the problem of ensuring high-quality
observations is concerned, the basis for such guidelines would
have to be some sort of a practicable correspondence theory
of truth. Such a theory would have to explain how we can
establish a "true" relationship – a stable kind of
"correspondence" – between statements of fact and
reality. But then, "reality" is not accessible except through
the statements of observers who, apart from being human and
thus imperfect observers, construct it dependent
on their particular views and interests and corresponding boundaries
of concern (i.e., boundary judgments). It is thus clear that such
a theory is basically impossible. The ideal – if indeed
it is a proper ideal – will remain just that, a mere ideal.
with regard to the problem of securing compelling argumentation,
the necessary basis would consist in a practicable theory of
"rationally" argued consensus. Such a discourse
theory of rationality would have to explain how a consensus
can be shown to be justified rather than merely factual, that
is, what kind of arguments are necessary to support it and what
conditions could ideally warrant these arguments. But as we
have learned from Habermas' (1979) analysis of the "ideal speech
situation," such a theory cannot make those ideal conditions
real. This is a topic that I consider essential for developing
our contemporary concept of science so as to meet the challenge
of the user, but it leads far beyond the scope of the present,
introductory essay. Interested readers can find some of my efforts
to come to terms with the difficult path to communicative rationality
elsewhere (e.g., Ulrich, 1983, Ch. 2; 2009a, b; 2013a)
as the methods of natural science appear to provide a proven
tool for ensuring scientific progress, many natural scientists
may disregard the lack of philosophical grounding without worrying
too much. The social sciences and the applied disciplines are
in a less comfortable position, however. The way they deal with
these issues is bound to affect the findings and conclusions
they will be able to establish. Applied researchers need to
be especially careful as to what their quest for competence
means and in what respects it can or cannot be grounded epistemologically and methodologically.
As students of the applied disciplines, how can you square the
circle and hope to become a competent researcher or professional
despite the lack of sufficient epistemological and methodological
Pluralism The unavailability of a satisfactory
answer is probably responsible for the postmodern rise of pluralism
in epistemological and methodological thought, sometimes also
called "methodological complementarism." Since there
is no single theoretical and methodological framework that would
be best for all research tasks and circumstances, so goes the
reasoning, the value of research depends on careful choice and
combination of methodologies and conforming methods. Accordingly,
meta-level frameworks for selecting proper research approaches
need to be developed to support sound practice. In the management sciences, for
example, this so-called
"methodology choice" approach
has been heralded particularly in the writings of Jackson (e.g.,
1987, 1990, 1991, 1997, 1999), Midgley (e.g., 1992, 1997),
and Mingers (Mingers and Brocklesby, 1996; Mingers and Gill,
1997). In different ways and partly critical of this
meta-level approach, which raises unsolved theoretical problems
of its own, methodological pluralism or complementarism also informs
the work of other authors in
the field, including my own work (e.g., Linstone, 1984 and 1989; Oliga, 1988; Ormerod,
1997; Ulrich, 1988, 2003; 2012c, d, e, 2013b, 2017; White and Taket, 1997).
course, the call for epistemological and methodological pluralism,
justified as it is by the lack of satisfactory theories of knowledge and of rationality,
makes a virtue of necessity. It cannot conceal the fact that
if by "competent" research we mean a form of inquiry
that would give us sufficient reasons to claim the validity
of our findings and conclusions, the quest for competence in
research remains chimerical. The methodology choice approach,
as we already found above in a different context (discussing
the mistaken idea that theoretically grounded methods can justify
practice), just doesn't carry far enough.
ongoing quest for good practice For
a tenable practice of research, we still need additional guidelines.
Two sources of guidelines have become particularly important
for my understanding of competence in research:
the relationship of theory and practice: Instead of seeking a basis for claims to knowledge and rationality
in the scientific qualities of research alone, we might be better
advised to seek to base them in a proper integration of research
and practice. The issue that comes up here is the precise model for mediating
theory and practice, or science and politics,
that should underpin our understanding of competence in applied
The critical turn of practice: Instead of seeking to validate claims to knowledge and rationality
positively, in the sense of ultimately sufficient justification,
we might be better advised to defend them critically only, by
renouncing the quest for sufficient justification in favor of
the more realistic quest for a sufficient critique, that is,
for a systematic effort of laying open justification deficits.
The issue here is what in my writings I describe as the "critical
turn" (or, in some more specific contexts, also as the "critically-heuristic,"
"critically-discursive," and "critically-normative"
turns) of our notions of competence, knowledge, science, rationality,
good practice, and so on, and as the consequent quest for an
at least critical solution to the problem of practical
reason, along with the critical significance of the systems
idea for such a solution.9)
and practice Ever since the rise of
science, there has been a hope that political practice, that
the use of power, could be enlightened by science. At the bottom
of this issue lies the question of the proper relationship between
science and society, between technically exploitable knowledge
and normative-practical understanding (and improvement) of the
social life-world, between "theory" and "practice."10)
Aristotelian praxis to decisionism Until
the rise of science, Aristotle's (1981, 1985) view of rational
as a non-scientific domain that was to be grounded in the ethos
of the polis and in the model of proper conduct or "excellence"
(arete) provided by virtuous individuals, was generally
accepted. The crucial link between reason and practice consisted
for Aristotle in his belief that "we cannot be intelligent
without being good" (1985, Book VI, Ch. 12). Virtues of
character and of thought were the human qualities that
mattered most for proper praxis, much more than reliance
on theoretical knowledge (theoria) and technical
skills (poiesis). Interestingly, these virtues were not
simply given to individuals but were the result of hard work
and of a persistent, life-long quest for excellence or, as we
say in this essay, for competence. Modern as this Aristotelian
concept is, there is a basic difference to the quest for competence
that inspires the present essay: Aristotle saw the task
and virtue of excellence (or competence) in its supporting the
conventional way of life of the community and thus would hardly
have expected it to pursue a critical or even emancipatory intent
along the lines of "boundary critique."
one and a half millennia after Aristotle, this conventionalist,
but ethically grounded notion of rational practice prevailed. The alternative idea of
grounding it in science
and research did not arise before the modern
age. It was the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
who in the middle of the seventeenth century proposed a first design for the scientization of politics. His
insight was that practical issues raise questions that are scientifically
insofar as they require theoretical or technical knowledge.
Once these theoretical or technical questions had been identified,
the remaining questions would then properly remain inaccessible
to science as they required genuinely normative, subjective
decisions that lie beyond rationalization through theory
or technique. Thus decisionism was born, the doctrine
that practical questions allow of scientific rationalization
as far as they involve the choice of means; for the rest, they
can only be settled through the (legitimate) use of power. Auctoritas,
non veritas, facet legem, became Hobbes' motto: "Power
rather than truth makes the law." The limited function
of science, then, consists in informing those in a situation
of (legitimate) power about the proper choice of means for their
ends, according to the guideline: "Knowledge serves
the decisionistic to the technocratic model For
the Enlightenment thinkers, this could not be the last word
on the matter. Veritas, non auctoritas, facet legem, that
is, "Truth rather than power makes the law," was postulated
by the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(1712-1778) as a counterpoint against Hobbes. It was to take
nearly two centuries for Rousseau's postulate to acquire some
empirical content (descriptive validity) in addition to its
normative content. The growth of administrative and scientific
tools for rationalizing decisions, exemplified by the development
of computers, decision theory, and systems analysis in the middle
of the twentieth century, led to a partial reversal of the relationship
between the politician and the expert or researcher:
the researcher's understanding of real-world issues now increasingly
tends to determine the need and criteria for political action.
One need only think of environmental issues to realize how much
science nowadays defines the factual constraints to which politicians
remains to politics, then, is paradoxically the choice of the
means that are capable of responding to the needs that have
been defined by the experts. As a former chief evaluator in
the public sector, I have often experienced this peculiar
reversal of roles: I was expected to come
up with "scientific" findings and conclusions as to
what needed to be done, so that the politician could then justify
his chosen measures (or his inactivity) by referring to the
recommendations of the evaluation researcher. The danger is that the genuine
function of politics, to ensure legitimate decisions on issues
of collective concern, is in effect delegated to researchers
who, because they hold no political mandate, are not democratically
the extent that this reversal of roles takes place, the decisionistic
model of the mediation between science and politics becomes
technocratic. In the technocratic model, political debates
and votes are ultimately replaced by the logic of facts; politics
fulfils a mere stopgap function on the way towards an ever-increasing
rationalization of power (Habermas 1971, p. 64). Knowledge no
longer serves power, as in the decisionistic model; knowledge
now is power.
Weber's solution attempt The
German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920, see
1991) foresaw this tendency. As a bulwark against technocracy,
he sought to strengthen the decisionistic model by reformulating
it more rigorously. He tried to achieve this by conceiving of
an interpretive social science that could explain (and
thus rationalize) the subjective meaning of individual actions
or decisions in terms of underlying motivations of people, without
thereby presupposing value judgments of its own. Interpretive
social science was to describe and explain value judgments
but not to make or justify them. In this limited sense
it could then support subjective decisions or actions and promote
their rationality. Rather like Hobbes, Weber thus found that
decisions or actions indeed admit of scientific explanation,
namely, insofar as they can be shown to represent a "purpose-rational"
pursuit of motivations.
the bottom of this view is a concept that has remained very
influential to this day, Weber's means-end dichotomy.
It says that decisions on ends and the choice of means can be
separated, in that the latter do not require value judgments
of their own and hence are accessible to scientific support.
This concept of purposive-rationality permits a rational
choice of efficacious means; but it cannot deal with the rationality
of the purposes they serve, much less ensure it. In this respect
it falls back onto the very decisionism it was meant to overcome
or to "rationalize."
in the tradition of Hobbes, Weber in effect relegated the choice
of ends once again to a domain of genuinely irrational
– because subjective and value-laden – political and ethical
"decisions." Weber was willing to pay this price since
he hoped to achieve a critical purpose: lest it become
technocratic, science should not misunderstand itself as a source
of legitimation for value judgments on ends. That was the essential
concern that his famous slogan cited above meant to capture:
"Politics is out of place in the lecture-room." (Weber,
1991, p. 145).
problem with this self-restriction of science is not only that
the question of proper ends remains unanswered – the effectiveness
and efficiency of means, when used for the wrong ends, brings
about not more but less rational practice. The problem is also,
and more fundamentally, that it does not achieve its critical
intent, as self-restriction to questions of means does not in
fact keep research free of value implications. The reason is
that alternative means to reach a given end may have different
practical implications for those affected by the measures taken.
For example, alternative proposals for radioactive waste disposal
may impose different risks and costs on different population
groups, including future generations. That is to say, decisions
about means, just like decisions about ends, have a value content
that is in need of both ethical reflection and democratic legitimation.
Whether or not their claim to purposive-rationality is backed
by science makes little difference in this regard.
conception of a value-free, interpretive social science breaks
down as soon as one admits this implication. Once this is clearly
understood, it seems almost unbelievable how uncritically a
majority of contemporary social and applied scientists still
adhere to the dogma that means and ends are substantially distinct
categories, so that only decisions on "ends" are supposed
to involve value judgments while the choice of "means"
is understood to be value-neutral with regard to given ends,
that is, to be the legitimate business of science (cf. Ulrich,
1983, p. 72).
pragmatist model of Jurgen Habermas In
order to overcome the shortcomings of both the decisionistic
and the technocratic models of relating theory and practice,
we need another model. Such a model will have to replace the
faulty means-end dichotomy by a fundamentally complementary
understanding of means and ends, just as of theory and practice
(cf. Ulrich, 1983, pp. 222 and 274; 1988, pp. 146-149;
1993, p. 590; 2011, pp. 13-18). In this model, the selection
of means and the selection of ends are not separable, for the
rationality of either depends on the rationality of the other.
Moreover, each decision has a value content of its own, although
this value content again is not independent of the value content
of the other decision. It is the merit of Jurgen Habermas (1971)
to have elaborated a model that conforms to these requirements.
He calls it the pragmatist model.
the pragmatist model, neither politicians nor researchers possess
an exclusive domain of genuine competence, nor can either side
dominate the other. Caught in an intricate "dialectic of
potential and will" (Habermas, 1971, p. 61), they depend
on each other for the selection of both means and ends. The
strict separation between their functions is replaced by a critical
interaction, and the medium for this interaction is discourse.
Its task is to guarantee not only an adequate translation of
practical needs into technical questions, but also of technical
answers into practical decisions (cf. Habermas, 1971, p. 70f).
order to achieve this double task, the discourse between politicians
and researchers must, according to Habermas (1979), be rational
(or "rationally motivated") in the terms of his ideal
model of rational discourse. That is, the discourse must be
"undistorted" and "free from oppression."
The difficulty is, once again, that we are dealing with an ideal.
Even where the discourse between politicians and experts occasionally
results in an undisputed consensus, how can we ever be sure
that the consensus is not merely factual rather than rational?
Realistically speaking, we can never be sure; for the discourse
would then have to include not only the effectively involved
politicians and researchers but all those who are actually or
potentially concerned or affected by the decision in question,
including the unborn or other parties that cannot speak for
themselves. Moreover, it would have to enable all of them to
play a competent role. The pragmatist model thus leads us back
to the fundamental concern of critical systems heuristics, namely,
that we need to develop a practicable and non-elitist "critical
solution" (rather than a complete "positive solution")
to the unachievable quest for securing rational practice.
we turn to this idea of an at least critical solution of the
problem of practical reason, let us summarize our findings with
respect to a competent researcher's understanding of the relationship
of theory and practice: a competent researcher will (1)
examine critically the role she or he is expected to play in
respect to practice; (2) analyze which model of the relation
of theory and practice is factually assumed in her or his mandate,
and which model might be most adequate to the specific situation
at hand; and (3), where the appropriate answer appears to consist
in working toward a pragmatist model, a competent researcher
will seek to consider all those people actually or potentially affected
and, to the extent that their actual participation is feasible,
will also seek to put them in a situation of competence rather
than their usual situation of (supposed) incompetence.
The "critical turn" is the
quintessence of much of what I have tried to say in this essay.
The quest for competence in research and professional practice
epistemological and ethical requirements that we cannot hope
to satisfy completely. I am thinking particularly of requirements
such as identifying all conceivable "practical implications"
of a proposition; assuming proper boundary judgments; securing
high-quality observations as well as compelling argumentation;
dealing properly with the practical and normative (ethical,
moral) dimension of our
"findings and conclusions"; mediating adequately between research
and practice; and facing the "challenge of the user."
view of these and other requirements that we have briefly considered,
the usual notion of competent research becomes problematic.
I mean the notion that as competent researchers we ought to
be able to justify our findings and conclusions in a definitive,
compelling way. As an ideal, this notion of justification is
certainly all right, but in practice it tempts us (or those
who adopt our findings and conclusions) into raising claims
to validity that no amount of research competence can possibly
suggest that we associate the quest for competence with a more
credible notion of justification. First of all, let us acknowledge
openly and clearly that we cannot, as a rule, sufficiently justify
the results of our research. This need not mean that we should
renounce any kind of validity claims, say, regarding
the quality of our observations or the rationality of our conclusions.
The fact that we cannot fully justify such claims does not mean
that we cannot at all distinguish between higher and lower quality,
or more or less compelling argumentation. It means, rather, that
the manner in which we formulate and handle validity claims
will have to change. We must henceforth qualify such claims
very carefully, by explaining to what extent and how exactly
they depend on assumptions or may have implications that we
cannot fully justify as researchers, but can only submit to
all those concerned for critical consideration, discussion,
and ultimately, choice.
a new ethos of justification It
is the researcher's responsibility, then, to make sure that
the necessary processes of debate and choice can be handled by
the people concerned in as competent a way as possible.
To this end, a competent researcher will strive to give those concerned
all the relevant information as to how her or his findings came
about and what they may mean to different parties. Moreover,
it becomes a hallmark of competence for the researcher to undertake
every conceivable effort to put those concerned in a situation
of meaningful critical participation rather than of incompetence.
is the basic credo of the critical turn that I advocate in our
understanding of research competence. It amounts to what elsewhere
(Ulrich, e.g., 1984, pp. 326-328, and 1993, p. 587) I have called
a "new ethos of justification," namely, the idea that
the rationality of applied inquiry and design is to be measured
not by the (impossible) avoidance of justification deficits
but by the degree to which it deals with such deficits in a
transparent, self-critical, and self-limiting way.
in any case we cannot avoid justification deficits, we should
seek to understand competence as an effort to deal self-critically
with the limitations of our competence, rather than trying
to avoid or even conceal them. The critical
turn demands from researchers a constant effort to be "on
the safe side" of what they can assume and claim in a critically
tenable way. It demands a Socratic sense of modesty and self-limitation
even where others may be willing to grant the researcher the
role of expert or guarantor. Once you have grasped this meaning
of the critical turn, it will become an irreversible personal
commitment. Kant, the father of Critical Philosophy, said it
much is certain, that whoever has once tasted critique will
be ever after disgusted with all dogmatic twaddle. (Kant, 1783,
invite you to "taste critique" and to give it a firmly
established place in your notion of competence!
students of systemic research and practice, you might begin this
critical effort by understanding the systems idea
critically, that is, using it as a tool of reflective research and practice
rather than a basis for claiming any kind of special rationality
and expertise (e.g., in handling tasks of systems analysis,
design, and management, or any kind of professional intervention
with a systemic outlook). Thus understood, the
critical turn will change the way in which we employ systems concepts
and methodologies and in fact, any other methodologies. Rather than understanding systems
thinking as a ground
for raising claims to rationality and expertise, or even some kind of superior
"systemic" rationality, we shall understand it from now on as tools for critical reflection. In other words,
we will use it more for the purpose of finding questions than
for finding answers.
crucial idea that can drive the process of questioning is that
of a systematic unfolding of both the empirical and the normative
selectivity of (alternative sets of) boundary judgments, that
is, of how the "facts" and "values" we recognize
change when we alter the considered system (or situation) of
concern. I have referred to this process earlier in this paper
as a process of systematic boundary critique.
concepts of boundary critique that I have often used to explain the idea are the
"eternal triangle" of observations, valuations, and
boundary judgments, and the related concept of a "systemic
triangulation" of our findings and conclusions (or related
claims). Interested readers will find two introductory essays
that are written for a wide audience of researchers, professional people,
decision-makers, and citizens in Ulrich (2000 and 2017).
third key concept of boundary critique that I would like to
mention here concerns the way boundary critique can help promote
a better "symmetry of critical competence" among people
with different backgrounds and concerns – those who in a project
have the say and those who don't; those involved and those affected
but not involved; experts and non-experts; professionals and
the citizens they are supposed to serve. The basic point should
by now be clear: whatever skills in the use of research methods, theoretical
knowledge, and professional experience or any other kind of expertise a researcher may possess
– when it comes to boundary judgments, researchers are
in no better position than other people. Whoever claims the
(objective) validity of some findings or the (superior) rationality
of the conclusions derived from them without at the same
time explaining the specific boundary judgments on which these
claims depend, can thus be shown to be arguing on slippery grounds.
critique for citizens Based on this concept of
a fundamental symmetry of competence in regard to boundary judgments, boundary
critique can also serve as a restraint upon unwarranted claims
on the part of researchers or other people who do not employ
systems concepts and methodologies (or any other methodologies) as self-critically
as we might wish. If reflective research practice is not to
remain dependent solely on the good will of researchers and
professionals, it is indeed
important that other people can challenge their findings and
conclusions by making visible the boundary judgments on which
they rely. See Ulrich (1993) for a fuller account of this important
implication of boundary critique. Readers will also find
this tool described in my writings in terms of an "emancipatory employment
of boundary judgments" or shorter, of "emancipatory boundary
critique" (e.g., 1996a, 1987, 2000, 2003).
believe that ordinary people, provided they receive an adequate
introduction to the idea of boundary judgments, can understand
the conditioned nature of all findings and conclusions and
can then also learn to challenge unwarranted claims on the part of experts
in an effective way, without depending on any special expert
knowledge that would not be available to them. No special expertise is required because
no positive claims to validity are involved; it is quite sufficient
for such critical argumentation to show that a claim relies
on some crucial boundary judgments (say, as to what "improvement" means
and for whom it should be achieved) that has not been laid
open and for which there are options.
The employment of boundary
judgments for merely critical purposes has this extraordinary
power because it is a perfectly rational form of argumentation:
its relevance and validity cannot be disputed simply by accusing the critic of lacking
expert knowledge. For this reason I am convinced that it is
able to give not only researchers and professionals but also ordinary citizens
a new sense of competence. I have explained this emancipatory
significance of the concept of boundary judgments elsewhere
in more detail and in various terms, partly also in terms of Kant's (1787) fundamental
concept of the "polemical" employment of reason (see, e.g.,
Ulrich, 1983, pp. 301-314; 1984, pp. 341-345;
1987, p. 281f; 1993, pp. 599-605; 1996a, pp. 41f; 2000, pp.
257-260; and 2003, pp. 329-339). But as I just hinted, you do
not need to become an expert of CSH to understand and practice
the idea of boundary critique.
At the outset I proposed that to "understand"
means to be able to formulate a question. I suggested that in
order to become a competent researcher, it might be a good idea
for you to reflect on the fundamental question to which your
personal quest for competence should respond.
hope I have made it sufficiently clear in this paper that you
will have to find this question yourself. Nobody else can do
it for you. In order to assist you in this endeavor, I have
tried to offer a few topics for reflection. There are, of course,
many other topics you might consider as well; my choice may
perhaps serve as a starting point for finding other issues you
find important for developing your notion of competence.
also proposed at the outset that for some of you, systems thinking
might be part of the answer. But should it? Well, I am inclined
to say, it depends: if you are ready to take the critical
turn and to question the ways in which systems thinking can
increase your competence, then it might indeed
become a meaningful part of your personal understanding of competence.
By reflecting on what might be the fundamental question to which
a critical systems perspective gives part of the answer, you
might begin to understand more clearly what exactly you expect
to learn from studying systems thinking and how this should
contribute to your personal quest for competence.
did not promise you that it would be easy to formulate this
fundamental question. It may well be that only by hindsight,
towards the end of your professional life, you will really be
able to define it. In the meantime, it will be necessary to
rely on some tentative formulations, and more importantly, to
keep searching. Only if your mind keeps searching for the one
meaningful question can you hope to recognize it when you encounter
it. Sooner or later you will find at least a preliminary formulation
that proves meaningful to you.
basic question (an example) Perhaps
you wish you had an example. Should I share my tentative question
with you? At the end of this essay, I hope you are sufficiently
prepared not to mistake it for your own question. I first encountered this
fundamental question in the year 1976, when I
moved to the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) to study
with West Churchman, who had helped to pioneer the fields of
operations research and management science in the 1950s and
then, since the 1960s, became a pioneer and leading philosopher
of the systems approach. Churchman used to begin his seminars
with a question! He then asked his students to explore the meaning
of that question with him, and that's what I have kept doing
ever since. This is what Churchman wrote up on the blackboard:
in the human
means of the human
Churchman, each one of the underlined key expressions in the
question – "secure," `"improvement," "human
condition," and "human intellect" – pointed to
the need for a holistic understanding of the systems
approach. We cannot hope to achieve their fulfillment without
a sincere quest for "sweeping in" (Singer, 1957; Churchman,
1982, pp. 117, 125-133; cf. my appreciations in Ulrich, 1994
and 2004, pp. 1126-1128) all aspects
of an issue that might conceivably be relevant, that is, ideally,
for "understanding the whole system" (Churchman, 1968,
p. 3). Churchman's life-long quest to understand the question
thus led him to see the systems approach as a heroic
effort. A systems researcher or planner who is determined to
live up to the implications of the question is bound to become
own endeavor to come to terms with the question was a little
less heroic. For me, each of the question's key expressions
points to the need for a critical turn of the systems
approach. We cannot hope to do justice to them without a persistent,
self-reflective effort to consider the ways in which we fail
to be sufficiently holistic. Since boundary judgments are always
in play, all our attempts to secure knowledge, understanding,
and improvement are bound to be selective rather than comprehensive.
We must, then, replace the quest for comprehensiveness with
a more modest, but practicable, quest for boundary critique.
This is why in my work on CSH, the principle of boundary critique had to replace the sweep-in
principle as a methodological core concept of competent research
and practice (Ulrich, 2004, p. 1128).
least in hindsight, Churchman's question makes it easier for
me to understand why I had to struggle so much to clarify my
understanding of the systems idea, and why I ended up with something
like critical systems heuristics and its central concept of
boundary critique. It is because I tried, and still try, to
understand systemic research and practice so that it responds
to that fundamental question. There is no definitive answer
to the question, of course; but that surely does not dispense
me (or us, inasmuch as you agree) from struggling to gain at least some critical competence
in dealing with it.
I wish you success
in your quest for competence.
1) The British philosopher, historian,
and archaeologist R.G. Collingwood (1939/1983, 1946) was perhaps
the first author to systematically discuss the logic of
question and answer as a way to understand the meaning of everyday
or scientific propositions. As he explains in his Autobiography
began by observing that you cannot find out what a man means
by studying his spoken or written statements, even though he
has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly
truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must
also know what the question was (a question in his mind, and
presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said
or written was meant as an answer.
must be understood that question and answer, as I conceived
them, are strictly correlative.… [But then,] if you cannot tell
what a proposition means unless you know what question it is
meant to answer, you will mistake its meaning if you make a
mistake about that question.… [And further,] If the meaning
of a proposition is correlative to the question it answers,
its truth must be relative to the same thing. Meaning,
agreement and contradiction, truth and falsehood, none of these
belonged to propositions in their own right, propositions by
themselves; they belonged only to propositions as the answers
to questions. (Collingwood, 1939/1978, pp. 31 and 33, italics
remaining rather neglected in fields such as science theory
and propositional logic, it was in the philosophy of history
(the main focus of Collingwood, esp. 1946), along with hermeneutics
(Gadamer, 2004), and argumentation theory (Toulmin, 1978,
2003) that Collingwood's notion of the logic of question and
answer was to become influential. In hermeneutic terms, the
questions asked are an essential part of the hermeneutical horizon
that shapes what we see as possible answers and what meaning
and validity we ascribe to them. In his seminal work on hermeneutics,
and Method, Gadamer (2004) notes:
always involves a relation to the question that is asked of
the interpreter.… To understand a text means to understand this
question.… We understand the sense of the text only by acquiring
the horizon of the question – a horizon that, as such, necessarily
includes other possible answers. Thus the meaning of a sentence
… necessarily exceeds what is said in it. As these considerations
show, then, the logic of the human sciences is a logic of the
Despite Plato we are not very
ready for such a logic. Almost the only person I find a link
with here is R.G. Collingwood. In a brilliant and telling critique
of the Oxford "realist" school, he developed the idea
of a logic of question and answer, but unfortunately never elaborated
it systematically. He clearly saw that … we can understand a
text only when we have understood the question to which it is
an answer. (Gadamer, 2004, p. 363)
As I found out after writing the original working paper (Ulrich,
1998a), the phrase "death of the expert" is not mine. White
and Taket (1994) had used it before. By the time I prepared
the expanded version of the essay for Systems Research and
Behavioral Science (Ulrich, 2001a), I had become aware of
their earlier use of the phrase and accordingly gave a reference
to it. My discussion here remains independent of theirs, but
I recommend readers to consult their different considerations
We'll return to this issue under the heading of "methodological
pluralism" below. For a systematic account and critique of the identification
of critical practice with methodology choice in this strand
of critical systems thinking (CST), see Ulrich (2003) and the
ensuing discussions in several subsequent "Viewpoint"
sections of the journal. Readers
not familiar with CST may find Ulrich (2012e or 2013b) useful
preparatory reading. [BACK]
I have given an extensive critical account of Weber's notion
of "value-free" interpretive social science and his
underlying conception of rationality elsewhere, see Ulrich (2012b).
We will return to Weber's "interpretive social science"
in the section on theory and practice below. [BACK]
I use the term "boundary critique" as a convenient
short label for the underlying, more accurate concept of a "critical employment
of boundary judgments." The latter is more accurate in
that it explicitly covers two very different yet complementary
forms of "dealing critically with boundary judgments."
It can be read as intending both a self-reflective
handling of boundary judgments (being critical of one's own
boundary assumptions) and the use of boundary
judgments for critical purposes against arguments that do not
lay open the boundary judgments that inform them (arguing critically
against hidden or dogmatically imposed boundary assumptions).
By contrast, the term "boundary critique" suggests
active criticism of other positions and thus, as I originally
feared, might be understood only or mainly in the second
sense. While this second sense is very important to me, the
first sense is methodologically more basic and must not be lost.
I would thus like to make it very clear that I always intend
both meanings, regardless of whether I use the original full
concept or the later short term.
Terms do not matter so much
and represent no academic achievement by themselves, only the
concepts or ideas for which they stand do and these should accordingly
be clear. The concept of a critical employment of boundary judgments
in its mentioned, double meaning embodies the methodological core principle of my work
on critical systems heuristics (CSH) and accordingly can be
found in all my writings on CSH from the outset (e.g., Ulrich,
1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1993, etc.). Only later, beginning in
1995, I have introduced the short label "boundary critique"
(see, e.g., Ulrich, 1995, pp. 13, 16-18,
21; 1996a, pp. 46, 50, 52; 1996b, pp. 171, 173, 175f; 1998b,
p. 7; 2000, pp. 254-266; and 2001, pp. 8, 12, 14f,
18-20, 24). Meanwhile I have increasingly come to find it a
very convenient label indeed, so long as it is clear
that both meanings are meant (and in this sense I use it as
a rule). Accordingly I am now employing it
regularly and systematically (cf., e.g., Ulrich, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006a,
2012 b, c, d; 2013b; and most recently,
The boundary questions presented here are formulated so that
the second part of each question defines the boundary category
at issue. For introductions of varying depth and detail to the boundary
categories and questions of CSH, see, e.g., Ulrich, 1983, esp. pp. 240-264; 1984,
pp. 333-344; 1987, p. 279f; 1993, pp. 594-599; 1996a, pp. 19-31,
43f; 2000, pp. 250-264; 2001a, pp. 250-264; and 2001b, pp. 91-102.
On CSH in general, as well as the way it informs my two research
programs on "critical systems thinking (CST) for citizens"
and on "critical pragmatism," also consult:
Ulrich 1988, 2000, 2003, 2006a, b, 2007a, b, 2012b, c, d, 2013b,
and 2017, and Ulrich and Reynolds, 2010.
I should note that strictly speaking, observer-independence
does not imply that objects are non-constructed; it only implies
transferability in the sense of the above-mentioned requirement
of conventional high-quality observations. I understand de Zeeuw's
language as referring to ideal types of "objects" only, ideal
types that may help us understand the historical and present
development of science but which do not necessarily exist as
such in the actual practice of science. Nor would I equate them
with philosophically unproblematic notions of scientific objects.
The notion of "non-constructed objects" in particular
appears to be tenable only within a philosophically uncritical
realism or empiricism. On more critical grounds, it would appear
that all objects are constructed; indeed, even the celestial
bodies of astronomy are constructed as "stars," "moons,"
"solar systems," "constellations," "comets,"
etc., before they are conceptually subsumed under one or several
classes of celestial objects. Taking the example of "comets,"
they were not always construed as celestial bodies but earlier
were seen as phenomena of the atmosphere, a change of conception
that betrays the constructive side of objects.
I have discussed de Zeeuw's ideas and the way I relate them
to my work on CSH in a bit more detail in Ulrich, 2012a. Basically,
I see in the two frameworks two complementary approaches to
the need for extending and developing the contemporary concepts
of science and research practice. [BACK]
The concepts of a "critical turn" of our understanding
of competence, professionalism, rationality, and so on, and,
related to it, of securing at least a "critical solution"
to the problems of reason (particularly the unresolved problem
of practical reason and the impossible quest for comprehensiveness
or "systems rationality"), are as fundamental to my
work on critical heuristics, critical systems thinking for citizens,
reflective practice, and critical pragmatism as is the concept
of boundary critique (cf. note 5 above). See, e.g., Ulrich,
1983, pp. 20f, 36, 153-157, 176f, 222-225, 265f and passim; 1993, p. 587;
1996, p. 11f; 2001, pp. 8, 11, 14f, 20, 22-25; 2003, p. 326f;
2006a, pp. 53, 57, 70f, and 73-80; 2007a, pp. 1112, 1114; 2012c,
pp. 1237, 1244; and 2012d, pp. 1313-1316, 1318, 1320). [BACK]
The following short account of the history of thought on the
mediation of theory and practice (or science and politics) is based on my earlier, more substantial
discussion of "The Rise of Decisionism" in Critical
Heuristics (Ulrich, 1983, pp. 67-79). Readers who wish I
had provided a more detailed account here in the present essay
should consult that earlier text. In addition, a classical essay
on the topic that I recommend, and which has strongly influenced
by thinking on the matter, is "The scientization of politics and public opinion"
by Jurgen Habermas in his Toward a Rational Society (see
Habermas, 1971, pp. 62-80). [BACK]
References (for Parts
1 and 2)
The number of references listed in this bibliography to
my own writings may suggest a lack of modesty that is not intended.
It is motivated by the circumstance that this essay is of a
didactic nature and that my teaching has always been based mainly
on my own writings, as these are the ideas I can convey to the
students in the most authentic and reflecting ways. As I hope
the essay shows, no disregard for the ideas of other writers
is intended; quite the contrary, it seeks to document its sources
by providing the most relevant and accurate references of which
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