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Nonrelativistic pragmatism and systems thinking

The ties between systems thinking and pragmatism are apparently strong, but the breadth in the philosophy of pragmatism can be confusing.  Within the tradition, one of the threads is called nonrelativistic pragmatism, proposed by systems luminaries C. West Churchman with Russell L. Ackoff, descending from the work of philosopher Edgar A. Singer, Jr.

A concise description of nonrelativistic pragmatism might be as a branch that centers on the entanglement of facts and values, within philosophy of science.  This centering surfaces in an interview of Hilary Putnam, expanded from the two into a “triple entanglement of theory, value, and fact”.

My alma mater was the University of Pennsylvania. The first teacher who really influenced me there was a pragmatist. His is an interesting story. His name was C. West Churchman. (I do not know what his first name was, because he obviously did not like it.) He was a philosopher of science for a while, but then he eventually left the field of philosophy, and became Professor of Operations Research at the University of California. He was a pragmatist, and he was a student – which makes me a “grandstudent” – of a philosopher named E. A. Singer Jr., who was in turn a student of William James. Singer created a pragmatist tradition at the University of Pennsylvania. The other pragmatist at that point – she did not even have tenure, she was just an assistant professor but later she became a full professor – was Elizabeth Flower. So, there was a pragmatist tradition at the University of Pennsylvania.

Singer was retired by the time I came, I never met him, but I heard about him from West Churchman, and I read one of his books, a little book called Modern Thinkers and Present Problems. I was strongly influenced by Churchman in my undergraduate years. For me, the pragmatist theory of truth is not that important (in fact, I regard it as mistaken), and I don’t think Churchman mentioned the pragmatist theory of truth, nor do I remember Singer’s book talking about it. But what Churchman talked about was what I call the entanglement of fact and value.

I quoted in one of my books E. A. Singer, saying four things (which were in turn quoted by Churchman in his lectures):

  • 1) knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of values;
  • 2) knowledge of values presupposes knowledge of facts;
  • 3) knowledge of theories presupposes knowledge of facts; and
  • 4) knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of theories.

I think by “facts” Singer probably meant observational facts, and by “theories” he meant things beyond observational facts. So, the idea of a triple entanglement of theory, value, and fact is what I got from Churchman and Singer. Unfortunately, I forgot all about it for quite a few years, and had to rediscover it for myself.  [Bella, Boncompagni, Putnam (2015), p. 1, editorial paragraphing added.]

Let’s draw out that idea, to aid understanding.  (I prefer verbs over nouns, i.e. “knowing” over “knowledge of”).

Facts <--> Values; Facts <--> Theories

In the lineage of pragmatists descending from William James (1842-1910), it’s a small hop over from Edgar A. Singer (Ph.D. 1894, who briefly taught with James) to Stephen C. Pepper (Ph.D. 1916, supervised by Ralph Barton Perry, a student of James) to see a resemblance in the distinctions between data and danda.

  • Data is “something given, and purely given, entirely free from interpretation”.’
  • Danda “are not pure observations, but loaded with interpretation” [Pepper 1942, Chapter III, p. 51]

Data by Pepper aligns with “observational facts” from Putnam.  Danda definitely includes theory, and probably values.  For those grappling with establishing “evidence” in coherent systems thinking, the meaning of “facts” or “data” can become a sticking point.

Since Putnam mentioned Singer (1923) as influential, let’s first look at the Chapter XI “Retrospect and Prospect” that concludes the book.  Jumping to Singer’s punch line defers slogging through centuries of philosophy in the texture of earlier chapters.  After 300-some pages of reviewing and criticizing other philosophical approaches, Singer (1923) boils down his pragmatism into two theses.  The two theses presented by Singer (1923) shows up later in chapters of Churchman & Ackoff (1950) Methods of Inquiry.

Thus it would seem that the philosophy which alone can bring to pass that gladness of the moment which comes not from its content, but from what there is mixed in it of fulfilment and of promise — that philosophy must give validity to two theses:

(1) Reality must in all its aspects be shown to be such a thing as human effort may make and mould.

(2) This effort must set before itself an ideal in which are consistently included all that is genuine in the old ideals calling themselves Peace and War. [Singer (1923), p. 314]

If the first of these theses was the topic of the chapter on Pragmatism, the second was that which inspired the conception of Progress. [Singer (1923), p. 315]

This first thesis from Chapter VIII “Pragmatism” sees Singer saying that human action isn’t deterministic, and we have the possibility to shape reality.  This can be tied to later Churchman-Ackoff efforts towards establishing an applied philosophy.

The second thesis from Chapter IX “Progress” sees Singer saying human effort should ideal-seeking (although the ideals are not specified here), with progress (that is measureable).  This is explicated and extended in Churchman  & Ackoff 1950 Methods of Inquiry, and is applied in Ackoff’s work on purposeful systems.

The first thesis on reality in science is detailed in Chapter VIII.  As a philosophy based on doubt, Singer positions pragmatism as swinging between realism and idealism,

Now, confidence in our ability to tell what we have made from what we have found once shaken, there is no saying how far our questioning mind may carry us. No saying, I mean, in the case of any individual man — for it is easy enough to tell the general history of this doubt and uncertainty.

It reaches all the way from those who think that back of all apparent creating by finite beings there is a Nature with its laws that was never made, but can only little by little be made out. Let us call those who think in this way “Realists.”

Historic uncertainty then reaches all the way from the realists to those who think that heaven, the earth, and all that in them is, have no reality save as they are the thought and work of finite minds. We will call these thinkers “Idealists.”

From realist to idealist and back again, through all intermediate phases, the dialectic of history swings; but it does not merely mark time therefore, it also measures progress. [Singer 1923, pp. 216-217, editorial paragraphing added]

While my reading is that Singer (and Churchman and Ackoff) lean towards idealism, there’s a recognition that there’s something to be learned from realism.  In the strictest sense, an ideal causes time to “disappear”.  If we think of idealism in Platonic solids, a perfect cube is always a perfect cube.  Yesterday and tomorrow don’t change that idealism of perfection.  In reality, a perfect cube doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that human beings don’t aspire towards that perfection over time.  A stronger exposition on progress is thus foreshadowed.

In discussing William James (1896) “The Will to Believe”, Singer mocks realists would would prefer to take human beings out of science.

There were, to begin with, the laboratory men. Now, a laboratory is a school of the most rigid discipline — a discipline whose first principle is “keep yourself out of your experiment.” I think you will understand what I mean by this when I say that a scrupulous experimenter about to take conclusive readings in a matter that promises to be of some value to science will, if possible, get another observer ignorant of their import to take these readings for him, lest something of his own excitement and anxiety corrupt his very touch, sight and hearing, and warp his result to his will. [….]

… James was saying — “For purposes of discovery… indifference is to be less highly recommended, and science would be far less advanced than she is if the passionate desires of individuals to get their own faiths confirmed had been kept out of the game. On the other hand, if you want an absolute duffer in an investigation, you must, after all, take the man who has no interest whatever in its results: he is the warranted incapable, the positive fool.” [Singer 1923, pp. 219-220]

This argument is continued by Singer, in the text that moves from criticizing realist science to criticizing realist history.  Singer questions ways in which “historical facts” are separated and distinct from “non-historical facts”.

The second thesis on progress towards ideals is detailed in Chapter IX.  In considering progress — from whence and towards wither — the thread flows from nature (possibility before technology, if we go back to the Garden of Eden), towards morality and science in collective human endeavours.

… whatever could come of the lament for the good old days, the golden days, before science had done this or that to cloud our first innocence? No history written in such ancient times but that it can recall times still more ancient when things went better with the sons of the gods because then they knew less. [Singer 1923, pp. 256-257]


Wherefore, no less futile than regret for a past we cannot recover, is fear for a future we cannot avert. It is natural that certain conditions arising out of the progress of science should make gentle souls anxious for what is to come. Science is power, and as no man can commit the sins he is impotent to commit, there is a certain safeguard for innocence in ignorance. [….]  Yet must man go on gathering unto himself knowledge with all its power for harm and no warning gesture of the fearful can stay him. Our only comfort can be that however great a power for harm science may bring, it ought to enhance in equal measure the power for good, did we but know what good and evil were. [Singer (1923), p. 257-258]

Sciencing is certainly a human activity. Is it possible to separate the facts of (scientific) progress from the values of (scientific) progress?  Singer continues with a discussion of good (and evil).

Did we but know good and evil! In the suggestion that perhaps we do not, in the suspicion that this is just the knowledge to which science does not help us, — yes, in the fear that it is science itself which throws doubt on ethical standards — is, I conceive, a motive for deprecating the progress of science more serious than the others, and more sincere.  Science is, indeed, endlessly critical; no authority of tradition or of general acceptance imposes upon it; nothing for it is finished, nothing fixed; and to those to whom all goodness is in danger the moment one asks, What is good? science may well seem a dangerous growth, — unhallowed in its origin, curiosity; damnable in its outcome, unrest.  And yet if as we assume science must progress, stayed neither by regret for the past nor by fear for the future, then must its questioning spirit invade every realm of opinion, examine the most sacred of beliefs, look into the very meaning of good and evil. [Singer (1923), pp. 258-259]


In the beginning, Man was Nature’s creature and her plaything. Sometimes she seems to have fondled her toy and been good to it, given it pleasant places to dwell in and let the light of her countenance shine upon it. [Singer (1923), pp. 277-278]


But need makes for perspicuity. Time passed, and some few caught a glimpse of the vision of science, caught it, widened it, brightened it and passed it on. Perhaps their lives were not very happy in a world where they were much alone; but it is easier to tell of their ostensible hardships than of their enthusiasms — who knows but that even they found here their compt? Time went on, and that Nature which had begun by being so cruel and capricious a mistress became through man’s science more and more his slave. Human eyes were not so often turned to the gods in supplication. [Singer (1923), p. 278]


The measure of man’s coöperation with man in the conquest of nature measures progress.  [Singer (1923), p. 279].

With a framing of World War I ending in 1918, and Singer publishing in 1923, defining progress as “man’s cooperation with man” can be appreciated.  From a 21st century perspective, “conquest of nature” may seem a little anthropocentric, yet technological breakthroughs are now occurring so rapidly that we worry about being overwhelmed by them.

Finding common ground in pragmatism is problematic.   The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism” speaks to some definitional differences in the pragmatic maxim.

The crux of Peirce’s pragmatism is that for any statement to be meaningful, it must have practical bearings. Peirce saw the pragmatic account of meaning as a method for clearing up metaphysics and aiding scientific inquiry.


The primary difference between Peirce and James is that the pragmatic maxim in Peirce’s work is a theory of meaning, but in the hands of James, it becomes a theory of truth. This, however, is due to more crucial differences between the two that mean James’ notion of pragmatism far outstretches a simple meaning criterion, and reflects his more fundamental thoughts about philosophy in general. This comes most prominently to the fore in their basic ideas about the place of pragmatism in philosophy as a whole.

Leaving these early distinctions for professional philosophers to debate, our focus is applicability to the systems approach, that leads us back to Churchman.

From a historical perspective, influences of evolution and biology were at the core of pragmatism, back to the Metaphysical Club in 1890.  Trevor Pearce emphasizes those roots in pragmatism.

There were a few shared commitments: a focus on the practical effects of our philosophical theories; a championing of experimental inquiry; and as I will argue, a biological approach to philosophy.[19]

  • [19] For a similar list of pragmatism’s “basic dimensions,” see Erin McKenna, Pets, People, and Pragmatism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 104.

But if you are inclined to think of pragmatism as indicating a particular theory of truth or meaning, or as privileging either experience or language, I would ask you to set the label aside; this then becomes a story of a specific group of interconnected philosophers who introduced biological ideas into their ongoing conversation, using them in relatively similar ways. [20] [Pearce (2020), p. 8]

Pearce divides pragmatists into cohorts by graduation dates.

  • The first cohort, influenced by the American Civil War, included Charles Sanders Peirce (graduating 1859), Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr. (1859), and William James.
  • The second cohort, with the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin published in standard textbooks, includes John Dewey (1879), and Edgar Arthur Singer Jr. (1892).
  • The third cohort saw psychology becoming institutionalized in the early 1900s.
  • The fourth cohort, finishing college between the two world wars, included Paul Weiss (1927) and Charles West Churchman (1934).  Churchman worked with Singer at the University of Pennsylvania.

On “theory of truth” (along Singer’s first thesis on reality), Pepper would publish World Hypotheses (1942).

On “experimental inquiry”, (along Singer’s second thesis on progress), Churchman would publish The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971).

Inquiry is an activity which produces knowledge. [….] By “produces” we mean “makes a difference in and of itself.” In other words, for an activity to be said to produce a result it must really matter, and to test whether it matters one determine whether the absence of the activity would have resulted in something different. […]

Knowledge can be considered as a collection of information, or as an activity, or as a potential.  [Churchman (1971), pp. 8-9]

Inquiry was more directly related to progress towards General Systems Theory at the 1963 Second Systems Symposium at Case Institute.  Acknowledging the biological foundations brought by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Ackoff recontextualizes General Systems Theory with science both as an activity (a controlled inquiry) and as a body of knowledge.

Although I have a deep respect for much of the work done under the name of general systems theory, I am apprehensive about certain implications which Bertalanffy’s conception of this theory has on possible unification of science. It will be recalled that he was largely motivated by a desire to unify science through general systems theory.

I will attempt to show that Bertalanffy tried to unify science by reassembling aspects of nature which science had already disassembled. I shall argue that science can be unified without going through an initial disunification. Secondly, I shall try to show that Bertalanffy’s method of unifying science would result in the further separation of both the theoretical and applied aspects of nonformal science, and of the formal and nonformal sciences.

Science refers both to an activity — the process of controlled inquiry — and to the product of that activity — a body of knowledge. It makes a difference, however, in which of these two ways one looks at science in attempting to unify it. General systems theory tends to look at science as a body of facts, laws, and theories. This is reflected in Kenneth Boulding’s assertion [3] that “science is what can be talked about profitably by scientists in their role as scientists” (p. 198).

The systems researcher, on the other hand, looks at science as an activity, and at knowledge as its product. To one, unification of science is a matter of concepts, symbols, and statements about phenomena; to the other, it is a matter of how scientific inquiry is conducted. [Ackoff 1964, pp. 51-52]

Controlled inquiry appears early in the text of Methods of Inquiry (1950), an early publication by Ackoff (as Churchman’s first Ph.D. student, only 6 years younger than his supervisor), completing the doctorate in 1947.

In Chapter I “Introduction: The Meaning of Science”, Churchman and Ackoff differentiate between scientific inquiry and common sense inquiry.

Science is not a mere state or accumulation; it is an activity as well as the products of that activity. Science is inquiry; but not all inquiry is scientific. This fact gives us a clue to how we may go about defining it. Science as a kind of inquiry must differ from other types of inquiry either by virtue of what it inquires into, or how it inquires; that is, on the basis of either its content, or its method — or perhaps both. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 9]


We are inclined to say, among other things, not so much that science is an organized body of knowledge, as an organized way of obtaining knowledge. To be sure, science organizes its results, but so does philosophy. Scientists create systems, but so do poets. But science uses an organized and systematic method of inquiry, in some sense a controlled method, which makes it unique. [….]

… we would say that a method of inquiry is under control if the inquirer can use it efficiently in solving the problems that force him into the inquiry in the first place. The degree of that efficiency will be a measure of the degree of his control. But we still have to find out what is involved in saying that the inquirer can “use his method efficiently,” or that he can lead it rather than have it lead him. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 10]

Suppose a scientist is forced to take a certain step in his inquiry for which he has no alternative. Then this step “leads him,” he does not lead it – or analogously, he does not have it under control. Practically in science, this means that he cannot investigate the advis ability of his step. In so far as the scientist can examine the adequacy of his steps and make an efficient selection, then he leads or controls his steps, and they do not lead him. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 11]

This is a carefully constructed scope with  the pragmatic maxim, focused on philosophy of science.

In Chapter VIII “Modern Synthesis: The Pragmatic Method”, after 4 pages reviewing a history of philosophy, Churchman & Ackoff get to their contribution.

5. Non-relativistic Pragmatism.

This new pragmatic outlook on the philosophy of science can be characterized by two very general tenets that come out of the previous study of the history of philosophic thought. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 205]

The first tenet is based on a theme the pragmatist claims has gradually appeared more and more forcibly in the history of modern science: all problems of science are interrelated; there is no fundamental separation of the branches or aspects of scientific inquiry. This says, in effect, that all the sciences are necessarily integrated. Science is not merely a series of endeavors loosely knit by a common objective: science, for this type of pragmatism, is an integrated whole whose parts cannot operate effectively for long in isolation from one another. This tenet, then, is anti-hierarchical. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 205-206]

The second pragmatic tenet of scientific method is the one already mentioned, namely, that it is necessary to evaluate scientific efforts with respect to a criterion of progress that is not relative to particular individuals or societies. If we incorporate the notion of progress into the description of science, then this type pragmatist means to imply that we can judge scientific effort from an “ethical” point of view. That is, we can make assertions about what the scientist ought to do, not merely what he, or the experts, actually do. The philosophy of science now becomes in part an evaluation of scientific effort on ethical or progressive grounds; the best scientific method does not depend merely on what the eminent scientists of our day are doing. It depends on notions of ultimate objectives of all scientific effort of all times.

This progressive tenet has been late in developing chiefly because the scientist has feared the introduction of uncontrolled ethical prejudices in his field. But this simply means that we must find a way to characterize scientific method so that ethical judgements can be controlled as any scientific hypothesis is controlled. This is no easy task, but it is one the pragmatist believes to be necessary for an integrated science to face if it is to remain scientific at all. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 206 editorial paragraphing added]

Thus, we have parallelism between Singer (1923) and Churchman & Ackoff (1950), with different emphases.

  • Singer’s first thesis on reality in science lines up with Churchman & Ackoff’s first tenet of science as necessarily integrated (later to become coined by Ackoff as a mess, or problematique); and
  • Singer’s second thesis on progress towards ideals lines up with Churchman & Ackoff’s second tenet of science progressive with ethics.

The idea of progress, with science and ethics, becomes more concrete in the last chapter of the book.

In Chapter XV, “Science of Value: The Nature of Ultimate Value”, Churchman & Ackoff tackle questions of “good” (as did Singer), with a review of history (for 15 pages!) before staking their own position.  This position reviews James and Dewey in subsection 6, before putting down their own stake in subsection 7.

7. Non-Relativistlc Pragmatic Theory of Value, (f)

… the study of mankind’s values must be made in terms of essentially unattainable objectives; but these objectives (if we are to avoid pessimism) must be at least potentially approachable within any given limits. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 531]


The new pragmatic position asserts that the good can be defined naturalistically, but that it cannot be reduced to an existing scientific language. That is, it asserts that a new scientific discipline is required to handle the new concept, “ideal.” [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 512]


Now as yet nothing has been said in this pragmatic theory to connect ideals with the “good.” As a matter of fact, the search for a perfect instrument of destruction may be an ideal, but, we suspect, it would hardly be a “good.” To show how ideals can be used to defining the good, certain additional notions must be introduced. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 534]

Ideals and objectives (and goals) are well-explicated by Ackoff, in On Purposeful Systems (1972), derived from his Ph.D. dissertation An Experimental Definnition of Personality (1947).  If you’re really curious about that dissertation, the 1947 journal article with Churchman as the first author is shorter.

Reading the text, I’ll have to pause to understand what is meant by “naturalistically”.  From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Naturalism”:

For much of the history of philosophy it has been widely held that philosophy involved a distinctive method, and could achieve knowledge distinct from that attained by the special sciences. Thus, metaphysics and epistemology have often jointly occupied a position of “first philosophy,” laying the necessary grounds for the understanding of reality and the justification of knowledge claims. Naturalism rejects philosophy’s claim to that special status. Whether in epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or other areas, naturalism seeks to show that philosophical problems as traditionally conceived are ill-formulated and can be solved or displaced by appropriately naturalistic methods.

Is knowing separate from science? Philosophy is a domain where I feel not competent to debate, so I’ll accept this as a position by Churchman and Ackoff.

Chapter XV continues from subsection 7 on theory above, to subsection 8 on ideals below.

8. Intention for Ideals.

The first notion that needs explanation is that of desire or intention for an ideal. We say that the intention* of a social individual for an ideal is equal to its intention for the standard end in terms of which the ideal is defined.

  • * For an intensive study of this concept see (7).

This is the case because in converting a standard end into an ideal we add to the end the desire for the ability to obtain the standard end with absolute certainty for all possible situations.

To want to obtain an objective a great deal, is to want “the power to obtain it with certainty” a great deal; to want it mildly is to want this ability or power mildly. The desire for an end and the desire for power to obtain it are correlatives; hence intention for the standard end and the ideal are equivalent. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 534-535 editorial paragraphing added]


… one can sensibly ask whether at present we have anything but very crude estimates of what a person or society really wants with respect to ends. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 535]


Is it true that a person’s vote expresses his real interest? Is it true that the interests of the majority (assuming such interests could be ascertained) express the interest of the social group? Suppose 55% of a society wants somethings mildly, while 45% is very strongly opposed. Does the society then “want” what the majority wants?

In the absence of satisfactory answers to such questions as these, who shall say that we can accurately determine social desires? These remarks are intended to show that the critical feature of non-relativistic pragmatism, which requires a measurement of intention for ideals, does not differ with respect to methodological difficulties from the relativistic theory. To repeat, the main point is not difficulty of measurement (for all measurement is difficult), but rather can man improve from age to age in his measurements. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 536, editorial paragraphing added]

If the cohort of pragmatists before WWI were tracing the development of psychology, we have Churchman and Ackoff in the cohort during and after WWII tracing the development of sociology.

Chapter XV continues from subsection 8 on ideals, to subsection 9 on specifying whom ideals are for.

9. Mankind.

Now we do not want to say that any ideal that is desired by some social individual is “good.” Ultimate values are to be defined in terms of the most comprehensive of all social individuals. Thus, to arrive at a definition of ultimate value, the pragmatist who follows this line of development must define mankind.

In common usage, mankind is taken to be the most general of all social individuals. It includes societies, civilizations, ages, etc. Mankind, then, is that social individual which includes all other possible social individuals whose elements were or are mem bers of the human species. Biology provides one type of control of what we mean by the human species, but psychology and sociology also contribute to the meaning of the concept. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 536, editorial paragraphing added]


This section on a pragmatic development of the meaning of man’s ultimate value has been quite general. Let us see now what one possible hypothesis regarding the mean ing of the Ideal would be like. Remember, first of all, that this is an hypothesis to be tested like any other scientific hypothesis; hypotheses, pragmatically speaking, are guides to certain types of action in inquiry, and the pragmatist attempts to formulate the hypothesis about the Ideal in such a manner that it does make investigation at least feasible. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 539]

Hmmm …. Following pragmatic tradition, this feels like a World Hypothesis, using the label from Pepper (1942)!

The writings on four ideals are most familiar for me via Ackoff.  There is discussion of ideals and objectives is here, but goals are absent.  In this book with Churchman in 1950 as first author, I would expect a more rigourous description … that Ackoff might evolve in decades to come.

The hypothesis we wish to consider states that the Ideal actually has four aspects:

  • the ideal of “plenty” (perfect production and distribution),
  • the ideal of “truth” (perfect knowledge),
  • the ideal of “moral good” (perfect cooperation), and
  • the ideal of “freedom” (perfect regeneration in ideal pursuit).

The more specific description follows: [p. 539, editorial paragraphing added]

(1) Plenty: the productive ideal. The ideal here is to provide for each individual in every environment perfect means for attaining any desired end. The objective is to have a perfect productive and distributive system, so that there is no discrimination in either process; and further, all individuals will have at their disposal perfect ways of doing whatever they want.

Remember that this is an Ideal: it is not a Utopian end we may someday hope to attain. The ideal merely guides us in evaluating a given stage of culture along one axis. It is essentially unattainable as far as we now understand the world, but it is at least potentially approachable within any limits. There can be no doubt that we now see many obvious ways in which huge steps could be made in this direction if we but had the know-how to avoid social conflicts. Note too that the “means” in this case are not just electric refrigerators and the like: they are also health measures, psychological cures, etc. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 539-540, editorial paragraphing added]

(2) Knowledge: the scientific ideal. This ideal is to attain for each individual in every environment the ability to choose the best possible means at his disposal for attaining any specific end or set of ends. This ideal, like the previous one, has two parts: the development of a perfect science, and the distribution (through education) of the fruits of such a science. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 540]

(3) Good: the cooperative ideal. The pragmatist first defines the “cooperative index” of a social individual as follows: take any random pair of individuals, A and B. Determine within any given environment the chances that as A succeeds in gaining what he wants, B will attain what he wants. If as A’s chances increase, the average tendency is for B’s chances to decrease, then the society has negative cooperation (conflict).

The ideal here then is that the most general social individual have perfect cooperation in any environment: this means that as A proceeds to gain what he wants, B will inevitably proceed to gain what he wants. This ideal thus defines a consistency of intentions among the membership of a social individual. It also implies a consistency of intentions in a single individual; i.e., the removal of conflict within, as well as between, individuals. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 540, editorial paragraphing added]

(4) Freedom: the recreative and aesthetic ideal. This ideal recognizes as fundamental to mankind the necessity for regeneration: a dissatisfaction with what has been accomplished, and a strong intention for new and as yet unattained ends. The ideal is one of perfect regeneration for every attained step. In a sense it is an ideal of freedom of man from attained goals, conservative aims, “peace of mind,” and the like.

The two important aspects of approach to this ideal involve recreative and aesthetic activity.

The function of art is taken to be the production of a disposition to ideal pursuit; i.e., a dissatisfaction with things as they are. Art thus provides the motive force, the urge, in pur suit of ideals.

Recreation has the function of providing temporary relaxation in pursuit of ideals, so that subsequent activity can be more efficient. It prevents an individual from “going stale.”

Thus art and recreation, working to gether, are conceived as having the function of keeping society efficiently striving to attain the “better.” [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), pp. 540-541, editorial paragraphing added]

Of the four, the clearest are probably plenty as the productive ideal, and knowledge as the scientific ideal.

Good, as the cooperative ideal, is described in a collective (sociological) sense, rather than personal (psychological) sense.

Freedom, as the recreative and aesthetic ideal, would later be described by Ackoff as “fun” and “beauty”.

Specifying four ideals separate is analytical. With authentic systems thinking, in later writing by Ackoff, synthesis precedes analysis. An ideal whole is more than (i.e. different from) the sum of its parts.  This is expressed as dimensions (i.e. with axes).

Note that these ideals are not distinct. What appears to be a step toward just one of them may be disastrous from the point of view of the rest, and consequently represent no progress at all.

Hence, it is incorrect according to this hypothesis to say that progress is necessarily made when we discover something like the atomic bomb. It is also wrong to say that what mankind needs first is a spiritual regeneration toward cooperation.

Progress can only take place when nothing is lost with respect to the other paths. The pragmatist does not argue that we want an engineering world where all machines work perfectly, and just this alone. We want a world of consistent aims, we want a world of constant regeneration and freedom. Progresses only to be judged, according to this hypothesis, in terms of all four of the axes.

The investigation of this hypothesis would involve an examination of mankind’s intentions (not merely his actual behavior as such) to see if there is indeed any increase of intention for these standard ends. [Churchman & Ackoff (1950), p. 541, editorial paragraphing added]

Wow.  Saying that progress is advanced only if advances in all four ideals (dimensions) is achieved is a tall order!  Churchman and Ackoff may have set a higher bar than Singer!

Moving forward from 1950, Churchman continued to supervise doctoral students who are now themselves retired.  In a conversation between two students remembering Churchman, Richard O. Mason related to Ian Mitroff, a parallelism to Singer’s two theses in the early days of Operations Research / Management Science, followed by his own extensions.

… his works establish a rich and pragmatically oriented philosophical foundation not only for OR/MS but also for management in general and many other applications of scientific thinking to management. His first book in this genre, Prediction and Optimal Decision, was published in 1961. The book explores the interpenetrating relationship between problems of value and problems of fact, a knotty set of issues with which all practicing managers and operations researchers as well as theoreticians must cope. West worked on this philosophical issue his entire career.

The year 1968 saw the publication of Challenge to Reason. Churchman asks the question of whether it is possible to understand the larger or “whole” system well enough to ever guarantee the real-world validity of scientific, especially OR/MS, results. Challenge is frequently quoted, “How can we design improvement in large systems without understanding the whole system, and if the answer is that we cannot, how is it possible to understand the whole system?” (p. 3). And then, “The problem of systems improvement is the problem of the ‘ethics of the whole system’” (p. 4). This book received the 1968 Academy of Management Award. [Mason & Mitroff 2015, p. 6]


In The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization (1971) Churchman takes a quantum leap beyond Singer’s original insights. Having been a major contributor to the effort he was well aware that systems analysis, operations research, and information technology were being applied to a variety of social problems and he was deeply concerned that all too often this activity was undertaken without a very thoughtful understanding of the underlying knowledge generation processes involved.  [Mason & Mitroff 2015, p. 7]

With the series of books written over decades, we can see how Churchman essentially extended the two theses from Singer (1923), and elaborated on them with own continuing discovery.  The last two publications that I’ve found are a guest editorial on (i) “What is Philosophy of Science?” in Philosophy of Science (1994), and (ii) on “Ethics and science” in Systems Research and Behavioral Sciences (1995),

On a personal note, West Churchman passed away in 2004, and I never got the opportunity to meet him in person.  After the ISSS 1999 meeting in Asilomar, CA, a day trip was planned by Bela A. Banathy to Bolinas, CA, to visit Churchman at his old age home.  Bela said that Churchman was enjoying his retirement, discussing philosophy with other seniors.  I waffled on changing my return flight home, and subsequently regretted not making the time for a personal visit.  Some years later, I mentioned my regret to Bela.  He said that he did go to Bolinas, but he found that Churchman’s family had “kidnapped him for the day” from the old age home, so Bela didn’t get to see Churchman.


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