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C. West Churchman on the I Ching

A luminary in the systems movement, C. West Churchman, showed some respect for Chinese philosophy, with the I Ching (Yi Jing) in particular.

Deborah Hammond was encouraged by West Churchman into joining and becoming a historian of the systems movement.  In her 2003 book, Hammond wrote of her conversations with Churchman, back into his days with the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR).

— begin excerpt from Hammond (2003)

Historical Roots of Systems Thinking

C. West Churchman, who first introduced me to the general-systems community, was a longtime member and former president of the SGSR and has written extensively on the topic of systems thinking. His own professional evolution is typical of the intellectual richness of the tradition. He describes himself as an intellectual grandson of William James, having studied philosophy with a student of James’s by the name of E. A. Singer. During World War II, he was actively involved with the development of operations research, going on to spend much of his professional career teaching in the School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. After retirement (and into his early eighties), he continued to work in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, teaching courses on ethics.[17] [p. 12]

  • [17] See C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971), The Systems Approach (1979), and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). He was the primary author, with Russell Ackoff and Leonard Arnoff, of Introduction to Operations Research (1957), one of the first textbooks in the new field.

In conversations with Churchman on the historical sources of systems thinking, he often identified the Chinese I Ching as the oldest systems approach. As an effort to model dynamic processes of changing relationships between different kinds of elements, the I Ching might be seen as a systemic approach, in contrast with the more systematic approach of rationalist Western thought, rooted in the work of Plato and Aristotle. The pre-Socratic philosophers were perhaps closer in spirit to the Eastern view than they were to the more orderly view of systems embodied in the later evolution of the Western tradition. This is particularly true of Heraclitus, whose inspiration is often cited in connection with the more progressive developments within the contemporary systems tradition. This contrast between systemic conceptions, which focus on interrelationships and dynamic processes, and the systematic conceptions, which are more concerned with classification and order, is critical in understanding the relationship between different views of systems in the twentieth century. [p. 13]

— end excerpt from Hammond (2003) —

The 64 hexagrams of the I Ching are built up from the dyadic yinyang.  This statement that a Chinese philosophy might be more systemic, while rationalist Western philosophy is more systematic, is striking.  To be clear, let’s consult on a description from Ray Ison (2008).

— begin excerpt from Ison (2008)

The word ‘system’ comes from the Greek verb synhistanai, meaning ‘to stand together’ (the word ‘epistemology’ has the same root). A system is a perceived whole whose elements are ‘interconnected’.

Someone who pays particular attention to interconnections is said to be systemic (e.g. a systemic family therapist is someone who considers the interconnections amongst the whole family; the emerging discipline of Earth Systems Science is concerned with the interconnections between the geological and biological features of the Earth).

On the other hand, if I follow a recipe in a step-by step manner then I am being systematic. Medical students in courses on anatomy often take a systematic approach to their study of the human body –- the hand, leg, internal organs etc. –- but at the end of their study they may have very little understanding of the body as a whole because the whole is different to the sum of the parts, i.e. the whole has emergent properties …. [p. 140, editorial paragraphing added]

In our work at the Open University, driven by the need to develop effective pedagogy for educating the systems practitioner, … we employ the adjectives that arise from the word system: systemic thinking, thinking in terms of wholes and systematic thinking, linear, step-by-step thinking, as described earlier. Likewise, it is possible to recognize systemic practice and systematic practice. Together these comprise a duality – a whole …. [p. 148]

— end excerpt from Ison (2008) —

The instructors at the Open University have found the distinction between hard systems thinking and soft systems thinking unproductive.  Thus, an action research may involve both system practice and systematic practice.  More details may be found in the 2008 chapter with Table 9.3 “A summary of the characteristics that distinguish the epistemological basis of systemic thinking and action and systematic thinking and action”.

Let’s now refocus on Churchman (1979), and his writing about the I Ching.  I will omit the section on the Bhagavad-Gila, as I am uneducated on the Hindu tradition.

— begin excerpt from Churchman (1979)


It’s quite likely that the tradition of the systems approach goes back to primitive man. It is certainly not difficult to imagine that one of our early ancestors sat one evening within his well-defended cave and reflected that with his food supply, his defense, and his nearness to water, he was sufficiently well off not to have to worry further about other aspects of the total world. If he did so reflect, he was on his way to an early beginning of the systems approach, because he had done his very best to think about the “whole system” and specifically about its components, its boundaries, and his decision making relative to it.

As far as I know, the earliest document aiming at a systems approach to decision making was written in China in the second millennium B.C.  This very early attempt — which, interestingly enough, became quite popular in the “radical culture” of the 1970s — is the I Ching or Book of Changes.[1] The I Ching has been given many interpretations in the history of thought, and much of it as we know it today consists of commentaries on the original writings, so that there are several authors of the book. For our purposes, however, it can be regarded as a fairly straightforward attempt to assist decision making by identifying the relevant characteristics of a problem situation and suggesting attitudes and lines of attack that would be appropriate for the “management process.”

  • [1] There are several translations into English and a number of modern commentaries. As far as I know, I’m the only commentator to emphasize its “systems approach.”

As in all systems approaches, the I Ching makes some fundamental judgments about the nature of reality. Essentially it assumes that the reality of decision making can be compartmentalized into sixty-four basic possibilities, each of which itself is rather general in nature. In each of these possibilities certain attitudes and guidelines are appropriate for the decision maker.

For the I Ching to be useful, therefore, it is necessary to know which of the sixty-four basic decision-making possibilities really obtains. One discovers this by having an appropriate person throw yarrow sticks according to a specific ritual. The yarrow was a sacred plant in China, and the basic philosophy of the I Ching is that certain “experts” can get in touch with the necessarv sources of knowledge through the ways in which this plant behaves when thrown in an appropriate manner. [p. 32]

On the whole, I find the I Ching to be an amazingly astute systems management document. Just consider what it does in modern systems terms. First of all, it assumes that the systems approach requires a comprehensive set of models of reality, Most contemporary attempts to apply the systems approach through models make just such an assumption. The fact that the I Ching contains a limited number of situational models certainly does not mitigate against its astuteness. [pp. 32-33]

In both the I Ching and contemporary systems planning, an expert is needed to decide which model should be used.

Next, the I Ching recognizes that there must be an explicit way of gathering information and a computational technique based on the information to decide which model holds. In this regard the writers of the I Ching thought they had solved a problem that today is still unsolved. At the present time we lack any explicit way of gathering the data to tell us which model is appropriate.

Further, the I Ching assumes that it is essential to describe not only what model is applicable but also the mood of the situation. In this regard it goes well beyond present-day practices. Most planners and operations researchers feel no necessity to describe the mood of the organizational situation they have been studying, although the mood may indeed be the most important aspect of the matter. For each of the sixty-four sections of the I Ching there is not only a “judgment” that provides the basis for the decision, but there is also an “image” that provides appropriate mood or attitude. This mood or attitude is often described in terms familiar to the decision maker — for example, in terms of wind, fire, or water. For example, in the thirty-eighth hexagram, the image is “fire above, the lake below, the image of opposition. Thus amid all fellowship the superior man retains his individuality.” Sometimes the image is more cheerful, as in the thirty-fifth hexagram: “The sun rises over the earth. The image of progress. Thus, the superior man himself brightens his bright virtue.”

I was trying to get at very much the same idea in Challenge to Reason where I argued that the mood of inquiry is just as important as the factual or the theoretical results. To be sure, in a great deal of modern scientific inquiry the results are presented in a phlegmatic mood; but also, to be sure, in the earlier stages of inquiry there has been both joy and despair, as research seems first so promising and then so frustrating. For entirely subjective reasons the modern scientist has chosen to eliminate all but the phlegmatic in his presentation, even though the joy and despair may be the most important aspects of his research, [p. 33]

At this point I should mention that giving the I Ching a systems interpretation may seem unaesthetic because it ignores the radiance of the work. Indeed, this entire historical account may often be at odds with one or more of the enemies, since it may gloss over the inspirations arising from forming polis or from morality, religion, and aesthetics. [pp. 33-34]

Next, in further dogged pursuance of the I Ching‘s rationality, I believe that it created the idea of dynamic models, a really remarkably modern concept. In the early stages of operations research, in the 1950s, we had to confine ourselves to “static” models that described a single situation simply because we didn’t have the theoretical power to describe situations that moved over time. Today with our increased capability for constructing large models, the time dimension is becoming more and more important. In the I Ching each model provides a way of determining how a situation will change (or not change at all). The changing situation is described both in terms of changing facts as well as of changing moods. Sometimes the changes can be horrendous, as in the fifth hexagram, called “Waiting,” where the judgment is to wait and have perseverance. One of the dynamic models indicates that the situation can become extremely dangerous, and the image is “waiting in blood”-that is, the decision maker is viewed as being in a pit of blood. “There is no going forward or backward; we are cut off as if in a pit.” And thus the mood is one of standing fast.

Finally, the I Ching‘s method (as I mentioned earlier) is to provide not specific directions for action, but rather general precautions, warnings, exhortations, and the like, which the decision maker then applies to his own framework. In this regard the I Ching may become a more helpful guide than prescriptions written in precise and unambiguous language.

Also oriental, and to some extent much more difficult for Western minds to interpret, is the Hindu tradition as expressed, for example, in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita.. These writings can be interpreted as containing all of the elements of the systems approach that I discussed earlier and they also clearly indicate the necessity of man’s coming in touch with a superior nature. The main purpose of meditation, which is taken to be the basis of all decision making, is to get in touch with the Atman, the universal being, who in some very real sense is the whole system.  [p. 34]


If this were a complete story, we should have to examine the varieties of the systems approach in Babylonian, Egyptian, and other cultures of the Near East. Instead, I’d like to skip to that most marvelous episode in the history of thought, the so-called pre-Socratics, a label that’s a bit of a put-down. [….] [p. 36]


This book is as much about reality as it is about any other topic. The reality that interests me is the reality of the planner. We can see the strong role that the concept of reality played in the history of the systems approach. To employ the I Ching, one needs to know what situation really holds and what it will really change into. The doctrine of the Gita is entirely a doctrine of the nature of reality, and it is not a commonsense doctrine, at least not to Western minds. The pre-Socratics believed that if we could grasp the nature of reality, we’d understand ourselves and our destiny. And so on. [p. 52]

— end excerpt from Churchman (1979) —

Discussing the nature of reality puts us into branch of philosophy named metaphysics.  Churchman’s lineage in American pragmatism back through Edgar A. Singer and William James does make him unique in even mentioning into a systems approach based on Chinese, and other non-Western, philosophies.

A digest of a broader overview of The Systems Approach and its Enemies was excerpted in 2018.


Churchman, C. West. 1979. “The Tradition.” In The Systems Approach and Its Enemies, 29–53. New York: Basic Books.
Hammond, Debora. 2003. “The Behavioral Sciences in Postwar America.” In The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory, 5–28. University Press of Colorado.
Ison, Ray L 2008. “Systems Thinking and Practice for Action Research.” In The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, edited by Peter W. Reason and Hilary Bradbury, 2nd ed., 139–58. Sage Publications.
West Churchman (1979) The Systems Approach and Its Enemies


  • It’s the structure. All viable system will evolve with the same structure, regardless of the medium or material. Or, to put it differently, every coding system will be an error-correcting coding system, given enough time (Shannon).

    The structure of the I Ching – 64 hexagrams – is the same as the structure of the Tarot – 22 to 84 cards -, the same as the structure of the cosmos (which is Greek for “structure”) or the zodiac signs and even the structure of DNA and RNA.

    The human systems – machines, organisations, nations, “-isms”, … – differ in one characteristic: “our” systems are based on “control”, “power”, feedback. They’re particular.

    Organical systems – like the I Ching – are not about “controlling chances” but about dealing with the nature of change. They’s universal.

  • Excellent outline David. Hope others are where they can appreciate it. This is what made Churchman more generally helpful then Ackoff, and why the two were fundamentally different in management of systemic phenomena. This was why Russ was seen as so valuable to Western organizations and West see as very smart, but not immediately useful. We students noted that Russ’s projects were very valuable as long as he was “involved” in them. When he left the value dropped, but such was hard to explain. West’s endeavors seemed even more valuable with time, even without him present.

    Maybe I’m biased? I read I Ching before I met either one of two thus found West more obvious with Russ easier to understand but not obvious.

    Note 1: For you Bateson fans, please note that his idea of there being serious problems in “unaided rationality” was his attempt to embrace “the more” of I Ching consistent with Churchman’s concern for rationality being quite limited.

    Note 2: Ask David Ing about his “non-rational” studios and their linkage to something “more.”

    Note 3: See, there is hope out there after-all. David Hawk’s pessimism about the human situation is unwarranted.

  • I Ching as a superior ‘systemic’ form of ‘divine judgment’ decision-making?

    A post (on West Churchman and the I Ching as a more profound (‘systemic’) form of the systems approach caught my attention. Churchman was my dissertaition chair at Berkeley — this was before his writing on the I Ching, but well into the period of his sverve from what Rittel (also my teacher there) called the ’first generation of systems thinking’ into the new [second) generation. The article decribed this a ‘systemic’ view as opposed to the first generation’s pre-occupation with ’systematic’ analysis and description. Rittel’s contribution to this (besides his famous description of the properties of ‘wicked problems’ and the development of ‘issue based information systems’) was the ‘Argumentative Model’ of Planning and I had followed this up with an effort to shed light on how we might clarify and develop measures for the merit or weight of arguments in design and planning, which glorious leaders use to claim to ‘carefully weigh’ when making decisions on our collective behalf, but never explain just how they do that.

    In that connection, I had to examine the decision-making modes used in planning.
    It became clear that they all rest on some basic assumptions and beliefs that helped them get around the annoying fact that any ‘systematic’ efforts could produce very different decision recommendations for the task of reaching collective decisions about plans to address problems that affect entire communities.
    The underlying assumption of the grand invention of ‘parlamentarian process’, for example, may be crudely descibed as «Let’s talk about it and exchange pro and con arguments (benevolently understood as messages by proponent to show how the proponent’s proposal would follow from premises the opponent already believed or would come to accept upon hearing more ‘supporting evidence’) before deciding» — hopefully, the commonly accepted solution would emerge from the discussion as a ‘consensus’ or at least ‘consent’. The deplorable crutch to get around the frequent failure of either one to emerge was to take a vote and accept the voting ratio as the decision criterion. Deplorable, because it allowed the decision to be based on total ignorance of the concerns of the minority. More systematic efforts, (including my attempt to develop an argument evaluation procedure), turned out to be more cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive, relying on ‘experts’, especially for the taste of citizen participants who pushed and were called upon to play a more significant role in ‘democratic’ governance domains.

    A prominent alternative to this approach was what I call the ‘divine judgment’ mode of collective decision-mkaing. Its basic and crude version is of course the flipping of a coin, though its crudeness made it applicable only to relatively unimportant decisions, in spite of its effectiveness and low cost. It may also have appeared to be somewhat disrespectful to the deity assumed to take enough interest in human affairs as to interfere in a coin toss. More elaborate rituals and procedures, also sacrifices (the word means ‘making sacred’) and mystery were needed. Oracles, prophets, augurs. And — significantly — experts to interprete the received messages. All these tools and assumptions are present in decision modes used throughout history, including the version of the great leader making the decisions: with slightly different versions regarding what enables the leader to make those decisions, Their rhetoric provides hunches: ‘the greater good’, the fate of the trib, the nation, the football team’s success, humanity. They are all using ’systemic’ concepts — pointing to the larger system, the greater whole, even if the deities are not used as universally everywhere anymore.

    All these features are present in the I Ching — down to the tossing of the yarrow sticks. Embedded in a grand system of archetypal concepts, all pointing out, up, to the larger system. Systemic.

    Questions? Well, one is about the extent to which the decision tool is applicable to planning projects in which there are two or several competing systems (or leaders), each supported by duly interpreted messages. The I Ching seems to avoid this issue: it refers only to «the superior man» seeking advice. The aspiring leader?

    So, bluntly asking: Should the ‘systemic’ version of systems thinking be adopted for the design of better governance and planning practice? The above question suggests, at the very least, that when there are several oracle answers, it may be useful to return to the ‘systematic’ discussion habits. And, in the larger view: explore how to integrate the systemic with the systematic?

  • Thanks, @Thorbjørn Mann, for providing your personal history connected to West Churchman, and the distinction between the first generation “systematic” approach, and the second generation “systemic” approach.

    In many respects, I wish that Churchman had written about yinyang instead of the I Ching. My approach has been to come through the philosophy of science underlying Classical Chinese Medicine (largely supported by the contextual-dyadic thinking of Keekok Lee). I have been purposefully avoiding Daoism (although others may want to go there), because I’m trying to stay in science, and not debate about the spiritual.

    Some years ago, I went to visit a person reputed as I Ching master near Toronto. Most others sought him out for divination. I was interested more in the underlying philosophy, e.g. moving forward from Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China series.

    My Chinese doctor, David Lam, has published a book on “Integrated TCM”, that is Internal Medicine. I asked him if there was such a thing as external medicine, and he laughed at me.

    Most people looking at yinyang aren’t appreciating the contexture that comes along with dyadic. In yinyang perspective, living is a process with a human body, in the contexture of heaven (immaterial yang) and earth (material yin) that are both also processual.

    From the dyadic 2, I had recently been writing about the Covid-19 pandemic disruption as an unanticipated metaphorical winter, for which some will see a metaphorical spring sooner than others. The idea of 4 seasons as contexture seems acceptable to Western minds, although explaining the dyadic of yang and yin in each season gets trickier.

    I then saw 4 phases characterized as 8 phases (i.e. more stages in a process, if you want to break up early winter an late winter) … and I recognized the trigrams that make up the I Ching.

    The current direction isn’t to think of the I Ching as divination. It’s a refined version of the dyadic yinyang.

    Coming from Classical Chinese Medicine, from a systems approach, changes the orientation from idealization (i.e. a desirable future point, traced back to the present) toward diagnosis and prognosis of a living system. This is move away from teleology towards teleonomy.

    We’ve recently been tracing pragmatism forward from the 1890s Metaphysical Club, into the Churchman-Ackoff community. It seems to me that studying Churchman (and Stephen C. Pepper) is going to be more productive than looking back at William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. We’re not yet a the stage where we’re fuly intelligible to layman. We have an Explainers Subgroup focused on just that.

    Just reviewing your blog, I think we’re playing in the same ballpark as “Can ‘Approach X’ be used to tackle Wicked Problems?” at . The Systems Changes Learning Circle at appreciates the challenges of systemic change, as compared to systematic change. If we’re consistent with the Rittel & Weber properties, we’re looking for situations where there’s an openness to getting beyond traditional problem-solving approaches.

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