Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

The Sweep-In Process of Systems Science (Churchman)

It the systems sciences are an open system, then learning more and more about systems of interest are foundational.  This was called a sweep-in process by C. West Churchman, in the heritage of Edgar A. Singer. Jr.  A concise definition is found in the entry on “Experimentalism” in the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics:


A methodology of inquiry that assumes the indissoluble interconnection between facts and scientific laws.

Experimentalism has been proposed by E.A. SINGER Jr. and developed by C.W. CHURCHMAN and R.L. ACKOFF. [….]

According to C.W. CHURCHMAN, the “original question becomes more and more complicated, not simpler and simpler. This learning “more and more” is what, following SINGER, I call the “sweep-in process” of systems science” (1981, p.1-2).

  • CHURCHMAN, C. West.  “An Appreciation of E.A. Singer Jr: the first Singer lecture”. Soc. Syst. Science. Dpt, Univ. Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1981.

There’s a more detailed exposition on sweeping-in from the last chapter in the 1982 book, Thought and Wisdom.  This hard-to-find source is fortunately available on the Internet Archive.  An excerpt is provided here, for convenience.


* Given 12 September 1981 as the First Edgar Arthur Singer, Jr., Lecture of the Busch Center at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. This paper was completed in April 1982.

I have selected the title of this chapter rather carefully. An appreciation of someone’s lifetime work is not just an evaluation; it is also a process of adding to and adjusting the results of that lifetime of creation of ideas and a system of philosophy. As Singer would put it, an appreciation “sweeps in” new ideas and corrections for the system. [p. 116]

As some of this paper is technical and not easy to follow, I shall begin by a fairly brief summary of what I intend to discuss. In the beginning, is a mystery. Why is it that Singer’s work in the theory of knowledge (epistemology) was and still is largely ignored by professional philosophers? It is correct to say that Singer is far better known today by students of social systems science than he is known by students in philosophy courses. Why? Because, I think, Singer adopted a completely radical point of view in his philosophy of science, namely, the complete rejection of simplicity in matters of fact: there are no simple facts of nature known by us “directly”. According to Singer, if a person sets out to answer any question of fact, he finds that he must learn more and more about the world, ie, he discovers that his original question becomes more and more complicated, not simpler and simpler. This “learning more and more” is what, following Singer, I call the “sweep-in process” of systems science. Practically all of Singer’s contemporaries in philosophy believed so thoroughly in a hierarchy of simplicity, ranging from the deeply complex to the purely simple, that they lacked the ears to hear Singer’s message. Those of us who practice social systems science learn the hard way that there are no simple questions and that the process of addressing a specific question will eventually require answers to more and more questions, i.e., require the “sweep-in” process. [pp. 116-117]

In order to explain Singer’s approach, I need to become somewhat technical for a while because his approach was based on a statistical theory, namely, the Theory of Least Squares, or what today we would call “analysis of variance”, which is basic to the understanding of human knowledge. [pp. 117]



* From Mind as Behavior, first published in 1924 and recently republished by the AMS Press, New York (1981)

[p. 121]


In my own lifetime, I have found that Singer’s and Smith’s philosopical advice has had a tremendous influence on everything that I have tried to do on a professional level. When I first left the ivory tower, I worked for a U.S. Army Ordnance Laboratory. One of my tasks was to redesign the method of testing small-arms ammunition for misfires. The method in use when I joined the laboratory consisted of starting with the simple procedure of testing the primers at an energy level where one expected that all of them would go off if they were correctly manufactured. It is a simple matter to find out if a primer does go off because it makes a fairly loud “bang”, loud enough to warm the cockles of a Lockean heart. The testing method said that if a hundred went off in a row, one could induce that all in the lot would go off at that energy and that the soldier in the field should have no fear of misfires. But, bearing Smith’s advice in mind, I asked myself how good the experiment actually was; and the answer I got was that it was not very good at all. Could one safely induce 100% firing from a sequence of one hundred firings? The answer came directly out of probability theory. Suppose that, in fact, there were 1% misfires in the lot: What would be the probability of not hearing a misfire in the first one hundred tested? The asnwer is about 1/3; so, as a consequence, very bad lots could pass the test quite frequently.

So, being cognizant that I was not really interested in whether a primer fired at a given energy, I addressed the difficult question: What I would really like to know about any primer would be its critical energy, the energy below which it would not fire and above which it would, because then, knowing the energy delivered by the firing pin in a gun, I would be able to predict the performance of the lot in the field. But for any individual primer, there is no way to obtain the measure of the critical energy because once you hit the primer, it no longer belongs to the same species wherein it started, whether or not it fires. By exploring in the energy region where some go off and some do not, however, one can use probability theory to derive the distribution of critical energies and thereby infer from that probability distribution the energy required to detonate almost all of the primers in a lot. If this energy is less than the energy delivered by a firing pin in a gun, one can be almost sure of success in the field. Thus, what could not be known about any single item just because it went off could be known about a collection of items; and addressing the difficult question enabled us to do something that addressing the so-called simple question could not, namely, to assure the firing quality of the product. [pp. 124-125]

This is not the end of the matter, of course. The whole procedure may be faulty because the assumptions that were made in testing the primers may have been wrong. So I come to the heart of Singer’s philosophy of inquiry, the “sweep-in process”. All of Singer’s students believed that the problems we humans face are closely interconnected so that the only way we can study a system is to recognize the need to be comprehensive. But this prescription seems to be either paradoxical or hope lessly impractical. Recently I was watching a TV program on prisons in the U.S.A., where the possibility of another Attica was the main topic of conversation. At first, the problem was posed as one of reducing overcrowding in the prisons and eliminating bad food. To pose the problem in this manner is to believe that the problem of our society with regard to those who break the law is how to put them someplace where they will not harm others or themselves, much as, for many people today, the problem of the elderly is how to get them out of sight. But from a systems point of view, the problem is not prisons at all, but rather what makes people commit crimes. This second way of stating the problem opens up the inquiry and expands the boundaries of the system. [p. 125]

Any wary student of systems science immediately sniffs danger when the professor talks in this manner. He, the student, has to write a term paper or a thesis; and if he chooses to write it on prison reform, he can readily sense that his chances of completing his task in any pre scribed time period are minimal. The professor has just cracked the barriers of the prison system and pushed the student unwillingly into the larger social world of “causes of crime”. Even a very naive student would be aware that in a society like the U.S.A., unemployment is surely one of the chief “causes” of crime. So now, dear student, why don’t you study the employment system and ask why an affluent society like ours allows an unemployment rate of seven or more percent? This question will take you to at least two other systems, government and private enterprise. Naturally, the student cries out, “Professor, tell me how to bound the system!”

The professor’s reply might well be, “It doesn’t matter because you are not going to solve the problem of prison reform. No real problem is ever solved once and for all. The problems of human society are not like exercises at the end of a chapter of a textbook, where all the information is given for you to deduce a perfect answer. But you can make some progress if you can begin to ‘sweep-in’ to your inquiry the broader issues.” [pp. 125-126]

Suppose we consider how Singer used to explain the professor’s reply to his class of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania in the first year of his three-year sequence of courses on what he called the analysis of concepts. He began, not with an issue so apparently difficult as prison reform, but rather with a very practical, down-to-earth matter such as “What is the distance between two points, A and B, on the surface of the earth at a specific moment of time, t?” Suppose this question is an important, practical one for a person who is owner of a piece of land because he needs a reply to it in order to use the information to decide where to build his house. In all likelihood, he will hire a surveyor to determine the distance. The surveyor will set up his instruments; and, if he knows his business, he will make several determinations from which he will calculate the average and standard deviation, and hence a confidence interval. [p. 126]

It is important to notice that in addressing the question of fact of the distance, the inquiring system has made a lot of fairly complicated theoretical and factual assumptions: arithmetical, geometrical, and optical, for example. A cautious empiricist might want to check each assumption by reducing it to its simplest elements and testing the veracity of these. We can now understand that the discussion at the beginning of this chapter was a discussion about the strategies of inquiry, the de sign of inquiring systems. Which is better, to reduce the system to its elements or to expand the system? A system-science reply would be that since there are no simple, elementary questions, the first strategy is based on illusion and the second is the one to be followed. [pp 126-127]

Having gotten the surveyor’s report, the owner might feel that it would end the inquiry into the distance AB as far as he was concerned; but his next-door neighbor might dispute the finding, saying that the owner was planning to build his house too close to the neighbor’s property line, Now a second surveyor is hired, and his results differ radically from those of the first. What “differ radically” really means is partially a statistical matter. Statistical theory provides ways of de termining whether the two are radically different. This brings us to the question of the strategy for the case of statistically incompatible results. The strategy has to be one of “sweeping-in” more of the system, of explaining how it happened that two observers, in this case two surveyors, arrived at radically, different results.

In Singer’s seminar, he illustrated the “sweep-in” process by an example from Bessel’s Observations of Planetary Motion in the Heavens. Bessel found the different observers made observations that differ significantly from the observations of other observers. He came to the conclusion that as observers watch a body passing through the telescope, some observers are the over-anxious types who want to make sure that they get the planet at the right time. They tend to respond too quickly and record the observation before the center of the body gets to the hairline. Others tend to want to be very safe and wait until they are sure: they tend to record the observation after the body has passed the hairline. Bessel’s experience led to a whole theory of response time in psychology, a theory which would have to be “swept in” to the observing system. The question of fact has necessitated bringing in psychological theory.

When I was at the Frankfort Arsenal during World War II, I did a lot of this kind of work. Most of what I did at the Arsenal was calibration work. [p. 127]

It happened that almost every measurement process I studied during World War II was out of statistical control; the measurement processes were not calibrated properly. For example, the metallurgists in the laboratory were worried about the accuracy of their metallurgical measurements. We took a steel bar and indented it in the Rockwell hardness manner by dropping a little diamond on the surface of the steel bar. The result was a small diamond-shaped indentation on the surface. The observer then had to line up the hairline in his microscope at one vertex of that indentation, roll the hairline over to the other end and then record the distance that the roll entailed. He then repeated this process several times. [pp. 127-128]

We sent that steel bar to twenty laboratories and asked them to have two or more observers in each laboratory determine the Rockwell hardness by doing what I have just described. Each laboratory had two to about ten observers go through the procedure. When we had received all the results, we found that many of the laboratories were statistically consistent but that there was one laboratory that reported a Rockwell hardness harder than that of any known steel, and another laboratory that reported a Rockwell hardness about the hardness of lead. Why? We found that there was consistency among observers in the same lab. In other words, a standard analysis of variance revealed no significant difference among the independent observations made by observers in the same lab, but there was a significant difference among laboratories. These findings suggested to us that each laboratory had its own culture, probably created by someone who trained all the other observers. Hence, we had to “sweep in” a sociological or cultural anthropological theory.

Many of you, I am sure, have gone through the experience of having blood tests which are performed by some laboratory. The results are reported to your physician, who may tell you, “This is rather a serious matter,” or “You’re OK.” You will be interested to know that medical laboratories suffer from the same problems as do metallurgical laboratories. That’s my comfort for the day! [p. 128]

During the War, I visited fifteen different laboratories in order properly to calibrate the measurement of the sensitivity of small-arms primers. I used to worry so much about calibration that I made a nuisance of myself. I would ask one of my physicist friends, “How dare you conduct your experiments in the sloppy way you do when your measurements are not calibrated?” For example, Birge, at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that the measurement of physical constants by independent observers were all statistically out of control. Russ Ackoff and I at one time became interested in the various determinations of the velocity of white light in a vacuum and found that they were all statistically out of control. So here is a science, physics, calling itself an “exact” science and yet having measurements out of control. [pp. 128-129]

For many of us, however, the “sweep-in” process, as Singer used it, seemed rather slow and modest. A bit of psychology was “swept in” here or a bit of social psychology there in order to calibrate instruments and adjust observations. Furthermore, Singer (and I in World War II) lived in a pre-computer age. Computers can be programmed to correct a lot of the mistakes in the measurement process. But this development hardly avoids the necessity of “sweeping in” because now the theory that needs to be “swept in” is computer science. In computer-science software, the calibration process is called “documentation”, and until recently it has been’in very bad shape.

Now, I would like to turn to social systems design, the effort to improve social systems through planning.

I have already suggested how “sweep-in” works in this area, namely, where we find that a system like a prison or a hospital is in difficulty. The planner should search not for ways to make the prison or the hospi tal run more smoothly, but for the reasons why we have things like badly run prisons and hospitals. The reasons turn out to be political, as much as economic; hence, the planner needs to “sweep in” the causes of the existence of the troubled organization, and these causes lie in other systems.

Another example of a somewhat different kind is the food system of the world. There is no doubt in my mind and the minds of my colleagues at Berkeley that the food system of the world is in terribly bad shape. We estimate that as many as one billion people are now seri ously malnourished because of lack of an adequate food supply. The reason why we have a food system is obvious. The mystery is why in a world of humanity, which has enough food to feed everyone, we have allowed such mass inhuman starvation, especially if we assume that most humans are both intelligent and compassionate. [p. 129]

For a long while, the U.N. and the affluent nations assumed that since people are starving, the rest of the world should feed them. This simplistic solution led to a plethora of food programs, almost all of which failed. One way to put the situation is this: If you compare the world food system today in 1981 with the food system shortly after World War II, ours today is worse. One reason is that the world population has increased; but even if we take population increase into ac count, the food situation is still deteriorating. One of the reasons is that as food programs went into effect, the natives of each village began to rely on the food program and lost the knack and interest in supplying themselves with food. India has one of the most severe problems of malnutrition today, but has had a surplus of grain in the last two years. Why? The Indian food system has to be understood not just in terms of its own supply and demand, but in terms of the political and economic system of that country and the world. [pp. 129-130]

Now, I want to do some adjusting of Singer’s “sweep-in” process. Both of the examples I have given you are good, and he would have recognized them without any trouble; but in systems planning there is a very general “sweep-in” process which applies to all problem areas and establishes the strong interconnection of all social problems. I can illustrate what I mean by one of the early studies we conducted for the Warner-Swasey Company in Cleveland, Ohio. The Warner Swasey Com pan manufacturers large road-building and road-repairing equipment. The managers believed they held a much larger inventory than was appropriate. The problem was to determine what the word “appropriate” meant. Most of the effort of operations researchers in the area of inventory has been designing more and more complicated mathematical models, whereas we found that our greatest difficulty was in obtaining the right data. In the theory of inventory control, one tries to balance as best one can two basic costs, the cost of ordering too much and having too large an inventory and the cost of ordering too little and having to reorder or to restart the machines or to face shortages. So what are these costs? Well, a little common sense and a little literature search showed us that the cost of holding inventory could be measured in terms of possible obsolescence, possible deterioration, but, most important, the cost of tied-up capital. What does it cost to tie up a hundred thousand dollars in inventory? [p. 130]

I would like to break away from inventory for the moment in order to introduce an awesome philosophical speculation which arises
from this question, The verb “to decide” comes from the Latin word “to cut”, or, rather, “to cut off”. Once a person decides to do A, he decides not to do a plethora of other things. He “cuts off” a myriad of other lives he could have had just as effectively as the headsman cuts off a head to end a life, So my cheerful speculation is that we spend our decision-making lives murdering all kinds of lives, the lives we cut off by our decisions. [pp. 130-131]

But back to the practical: How are we going to estimate the opportunity cost of holding inventory of a hundred thousand dollars for several months? How do we reason about such a question? What most of the textbooks in operations research suggest is consideration of what other investments there would be for that money. The authors argue that the hundred thousand dollars could be in the money market, for example, at p% interest; so the cost is p% per annum. If that is the answer, the conclusion might be that the whole company should be put into the money market! Why doesn’t it just sell them all and put the resulting money into the money market? For many companies, this might be the right answer, of course; but the question is not how the company uses a hundred thousand dollars, but how it should use it. That’s the “sweep-in” question, which goes immediately out of inven- tory into the cash-flow system and, indeed, into the whole financial investment system of the company. So, the problem is not inventory, but the financial operation of the company.

The problem of prison reform is not a problem of prisons. The problem of food shortage is not a problem of food. The same thing applies for data on the demand for inventory: Again, operations research textbooks foolishly tell the poor students, “Go into the files and find out how much has been sold previously!” They are “poor” students because when they get out into the world, they will find that, for one thing, companies do not keep their records that way. For another, even if the companies did, would the past be relevant? Past records would tell only how much the demand had been. As practicing operations researchers, they ought to be interested in not what demand was in the past but in what demand should be, a point that has been well recognized by the telephone company and harvester companies, who adjust their demand by pricing. [p. 131]

So that’s where our reasoning led us. And how are we going to “sweep-in” all these connected systems? Who can help us? Who knows about costs? Cost accounting? Where else would we expect to go but to the cost-accounting department to ask it, “What is the cost of holding a hundred thousand dollars in inventory?” But in the cost-accounting textbooks at that time, no one even mentioned opportunity costs.

Russ and I had a bright idea: We would tell the accounting profession what we had discovered, that opportunity costing is much the most important item of cost of any that a firm faces. We wrote an article and sent it off to the Journal of Accountancy: we called it “Operational Accounting.” I think we had one request for a reprint! Conclusion: Cost accounting is not about real, practical costs.

Singer was perfectly right: There is the necessity for “sweep-in” but opportunity costing, opportunity demand, and so on, constitute the “sweep-in” principle that is the basis of it all. To repeat what I said earlier, the salient issue is not how much the inventory costs or how much the manager thinks it costs, but how much it should cost. The “should” is ethical.

Now I go back to the beginning of the chapter and say this about Singer’s method: The basic epistemological problem is not to be posed as what is the distance between A and B on the surface of the earth at a moment of time, but whether I should be investigating that problem at all. That is not a question of science, per se; so the implication of Singer’s “sweep-in”-process philosophy is that there is no such thing as the philosophy of science, per se, that all issues we try to investigate are based on a systems approach in which we have to ask, “Is the investigation warranted ethically?”

Hence, ethics is the basis of all epistemology; and ethics in its questioning is far broader than just inquiry. That’s why Singer, for example, differs so radically from Popper, because Popper sees the problem as essentially an epistemological one, whereas the implication of Singer’s philosophy is that the problem of a question of fact is an ethical one: “Should such a question be investigated?” [p. 132]

It may be helpful to make one more philosophical digression, and that is to speculate about the role of history in planning. If history means an estimate of what happened in the past, history may or may not be relevant. When the authors of Limits to Growth prepared their world model, they used the history of the past seven decades of the management of the world in relation to such matters as population, industrial production, and other factors. Their investigation tried to tell us what man’s future would be like if the world would be managed in the future as it had been in the past. Hence, history played a crucial role in their determination that within two centuries there would occur a tremendous disaster. Such a use of history may be quite appropriate; but the historical accounts of how a company has used its liquidity or sold its products may not be relevant at all because the company may have mis managed both. Similarly, if we ask how the world of the future should be managed, the problem of the proper role of history in our investigations may become extremely complicated. p. 132-133]

The notion that the good should precede the true in man’s inquiry takes me at the end to Singer’s ethics, and to me it is a matter of much interest and concern. Singer did have an ethics that he wrote primarily towards the end of his life. It appears in two books, On the Contented Life (1936) and la Search of a Way of Life (1948). His was an ideal philosophy of ethics, that is, ethics is to be discussed in the context of human ideals. Singer saw, however, that there was a dialectic between the realists and the idealists. The realist is a down-to-earth, practical person who tries to solve the practical, hard problems of every day life in a practical, coherent fashion. The realist goes to management-development programs and expects to find out what to do next Monday to be come a better realist. The idealist tries to understand the human saga in terms of human ideals and their meaning in the very long run, and he sees that there is a constant struggle towards an ideal society. He tries as best he can to explain what that ideal might be, an ideal health service, an ideal university, an ideal whatever, and then to find out what is blocking us from the ideal and how we can get the roadblocks out of the way. Both philosophies occur in operations research. The realist regards himself as a problem-solver: he goes out and looks at inventory problems or at transportation problems or at whatever problem is under consideration. The idealist does his best to see, not just what particular problems a manager wants to solve, but what the ideal system might be and what prevents our getting there. [p. 133]

Singer tried his hand at doing the latter for the whole of humanity: and he came up with four ideals, the first three of which pretty much represent what we would call “development” today. He attempted, first, to create a better society economically in terms of resources and, second, to create education among those who would live in that society so that they would know how to use their resources in sensible ways. The third aspect that he recognized, which we do not normally throw into development because our nation is dominated by economics, he called “cooperation”. From the point of view of the ideal of world cooperation, the United States of America is a very underdeveloped nation. It does not know at all how to handle the problem of national and international cooperation. Instead, it finds more and more dangerous means of increasing the degree of noncooperation. So, from Singer’s point of view, we would have to say today that it is highly questionable whether the United States or the U.S.S.R. or any of the so-called affluent nations are “developed”.

But it is Singer’s fourth ideal that I want to discuss in concluding this chapter. If he were living today, he would have been shocked by the universal use of the word “satisficed”. It seems to imply that all we are anxious to do is get ourselves to the level of being satisficed. That’s not what humanity is like from Singer’s point of view. He thought that psychologically we as humans were all dissatisfied, or should be, and that the feeling did not have to be negative at all. It just had to be human. It is not all pleasant either: if a person is dissatisfied, he is not finding an aura of pleasantness. But most of us are strugglers!

Since Singer’s day, the richness of the idea of dissatisfaction has been explored for me most deeply in depth psychology, especially by Jung. At one time, towards the end of Singer’s life, I thought he ought to read Jung; and I still have in my file the letter from Singer saying, “I have been trying to do what you told me to do, read Jung; but I find it so difficult.” It was not really necessary that Singer read Jung: it was up to the rest of us to adjust Jung to the Singerian system or vice versa. There is a quotation from Jung that runs somewhat as follows: “We all say that we want to avoid trouble and we all say we look forward to removing it once and for all; and yet if you watch us, we all seek it out persistently and with great effort.” [p. 134]

Because Singer thought that dissatisfaction was so fundamental to all of our lives, he tried to make it one of his ideals. It appears in a fantastic number of images, eg, for Singer, in the images of tragedy and comedy in the arts, in music as well as in drama. He had the image of the enternal mountain-climber, who, incidentally, must often go down in order to climb higher. It is an Everest without a top to it. I want to make one adjustment to Singer’s ideal-seeking philosophy: not only should we be engaged in seeking ideals, but we should also conscientiously be engaged in trying to find out what they should be. It is not unexpected that the question of what ideals we as human beings should be seeking is like any other question, theoretical or factual, namely, that it must keep changing What the Utopians of the nineteenth century thought was an ideal community, we would no longer regard as ideal. That does not mean that they were wrong to try to design utopias. They were right to have experimented. The same remark applies to Marx. Whatever it is we find as ideals in Marx have to be adjusted in today’s society and will have to be adjusted in time to come. [pp. 134-135]

Because Singer thought that dissatisfaction was so fundamental to all of our lives, he tried to make it one of his ideals. It appears in a fantastic number of images, eg, for Singer, in the images of tragedy and comedy in the arts, in music as well as in drama. He had the image of the enternal mountain-climber, who, incidentally, must often go down in order to climb higher. It is an Everest without a top to it. I want to make one adjustment to Singer’s ideal-seeking philosophy: not only should we be engaged in seeking ideals, but we should also conscientiously be engaged in trying to find out what they should be. It is not unexpected that the question of what ideals we as human beings should be seeking is like any other question, theoretical or factual, namely, that it must keep changing What the Utopians of the nineteenth century thought was an ideal community, we would no longer regard as ideal. That does not mean that they were wrong to try to design utopias. They were right to have experimented. The same remark applies to Marx. Whatever it is we find as ideals in Marx have to be adjusted in today’s society and will have to be adjusted in time to come. [pp. 134-135]

Put into Jungian terms, every proposed ideal has a negative-shadow side to it, something that is not good. It may require, for example, as in Plato, that there be a group of elite to run things, or, as in any other ideal, discomfort for many who have to live in the ideal city or ideal university. Both Russ and I have been engaged in designing ideal universities. Any one of you could well criticize the ideals we have proposed.

That remark takes me back to Singer’s first question: What is the distance between A and B on the surface of the earth at a given moment of time? The meaning of that question depends not only on the measurement instruments and calibration, but also on what the metric distance means and what the metric time means. We are right now in a revolution in physics in which the question of what the metric time means is crucial in changing our minds about time Just as we had to do it in Einstein’s time, we are redoing it today.

I had not planned that this final chapter would come to a conclusion except that I would stop writing. I hope that this will be the first of many chapters in the sense that it is not the last. So much more needs to be said about the practical philosophy that Singer inspired in all of us, as well as about the philosophies that inspired him. [p. 135]

Chapter 10 is the last chapter in Thought and Wisdom.


Churchman, C. West. 1982. Thought and Wisdom. Seaside, California: Intersystems Publications.

C. West Churchman, (1982) Thought and Wisdom


  • Thanks, David, for posting your comments on Churchman, etc….. It’s important even though it adds to a diminishment of the dreams of power via growth in human rationality, as being taught as the norm for our improvement. For skeptics of human knowledge and the methods used to create such knowledge this book was a great addition to accessing the world of knowledge via questioning. It is in the tradition of Socrates and Lao Tzu, not Plato and Confucius.

    To understand why I like this, and Churchman so much, we should remember how I tend to “sweep in” my feelings about Churchman’s approach to “knowing.” He preferred questions to answers. He was a collaborator in that eternal knowledge-seeking camp of action researchers as depicted by Emery and Trist in their call to “sweep contexts into discussions about what mattered.” Their ally, Russ Ackoff, did his best to simplify the complex, such as the context of a question, thus he tended to prefer answers to questions. He was more religious about filtering out contextual noises from those who seriously did not know what they were asking – e.g., me.

    For Ackoff some questions were relevant while others were…well you know… For Churchman all questions could enlighten what was “sort of” being seen clearly, but with weak and biased eyes.

    Churchman was very supportive of my 1970s inquiry into the human approach to regulating environmental deterioration. That was the thesis that human acts deteriorate their context via entropy and that we were moving towards a future of climate change consequences, briefly. He supported my data showing how the US education of lawyers, as modeled on the English version of same, played a major role in directing humans into an anti-natural method of industrialization via the false clarity of legalese. He enjoyed seeing the 100 plus word sentences in US laws where the end of a statement opposed the conviction of its beginning. This was the opposite of his “sweeping in” yet an obvious result of efforts to simplify the truth followed by the feeling that such truths might become lies. This was from the writing of US Senators of the day, Ed Musky who was interviewed in the research Churchman helped advise.

    I think we are now outside hope, but none-the-less David your posting of this still offers hope to some of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • RSS (Mastodon)

    • daviding: “Is it only deep systems scientists we would recognize that t…” June 1, 2024
      Is it only deep systems scientists we would recognize that the finale episode of Star Trek Discovery, titled "Life Itself", is the also the name of the 2005 book by Robert Rosen?Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life, Robert Rosen, Columbia University Press at #JudithRosen knows!,_Itself_(episode)
    • daviding: “Pre-announcing April 30 Dialogic Drinks session I'm leading …” April 23, 2024
      Pre-announcing April 30 Dialogic Drinks session I'm leading on "#Yinyang and Daojia into #SystemsThinking through Changes", online 18:30 Singapore, 11:30 London, 6:30am Toronto. Repeating May 2, 8:00pm ET. Official #EQLab notifications
    • daviding: “Diachrony (or diachronic shifts) resurrects a word from 1857…” April 10, 2024
      Diachrony (or diachronic shifts) resurrects a word from 1857, better expressing *changes through time*. A social practice publication in 1998 contrasts synchronic with diachronic.
    • daviding: “Web video introduction of 15 minutes for 1-hour Lunch and Le…” March 22, 2024
      Web video introduction of 15 minutes for 1-hour Lunch and Learn #CentreForSocialInnovationToronto on "Systems Changes Dialogues for Social Innovation" invites practitioners for upcoming monthly meetings. Evocative animated images, details deferred to conversations with mentors.
    • daviding: “Web video of slides from "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Sys…” March 21, 2024
      Web video of slides from "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Systems Changes Learning" for Dialogic Drinks of #EQLab represents only 1/5 of the time compared to peer-led discussions. Concise hosting called for brevity, and richer presentations. #SystemsThinking
  • RSS on IngBrief

    • The Nature and Application of the Daodejing | Ames and Hall (2003)
      Ames and Hall (2003) provide some tips for those studyng the DaoDeJing.
    • Diachronic, diachrony
      Finding proper words to express system(s) change(s) can be a challenge. One alternative could be diachrony. The Oxford English dictionary provides two definitions for diachronic, the first one most generally related to time. (The second is linguistic method) diachronic ADJECTIVE Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “diachronic (adj.), sense 1,” July 2023, For completeness, prochronic relates “to […]
    • Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2”, edited by F. E. Emery (1981)
      The selection of readings in the “Introduction” to Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2, Penguin (1981), edited by Fred E. Emery, reflects a turn from 1969 when a general systems theory was more fully entertained, towards an urgency towards changes in the world that were present in 1981. Systems thinking was again emphasized in contrast […]
    • Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings”, edited by F. E. Emery (1969)
      In reviewing the original introduction for Systems Thinking: Selected Readings in the 1969 Penguin paperback, there’s a few threads that I only recognize, many years later. The tables of contents (disambiguating various editions) were previously listed as 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings. — begin paste — Introduction In the selection of papers for this […]
    • Concerns with the way systems thinking is used in evaluation | Michael C. Jackson, OBE | 2023-02-27
      In a recording of the debate between Michael Quinn Patton and Michael C. Jackson on “Systems Concepts in Evaluation”, Patton referenced four concepts published in the “Principles for effective use of systems thinking in evaluation” (2018) by the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group (SETIG) of the American Evaluation Society. The four concepts are: (i) […]
    • Quality Criteria for Action Research | Herr, Anderson (2015)
      How might the quality of an action research initiative be evaluated? — begin paste — We have linked our five validity criteria (outcome, process, democratic, catalytic, and dialogic) to the goals of action research. Most traditions of action research agree on the following goals: (a) the generation of new knowledge, (b) the achievement of action-oriented […]
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS on

    • 2024/05 Moments May 2024
      Busy May with art university graduate exhibition, travel to UK seeing Edinburgh, Hull, Manchester, London, returning home for wedding in Lefroy, annual cemetery visits with family, and spending time with extended family in from Chicago.
    • 2024/04 Moments April 2024
      Return from visiting family in Vancouver BC, clan events and eldercare appointments
    • 2024/03 Moments March 2024
      More work than play for first part of month, in anticipation of trip to Vancouver to visit family.
    • 2024/02 Moments February 2024
      Chinese New Year celebrations, both public and family, extended over two weekends, due to busy social schedules.
    • 2024/01 Moments January 2024
      Hibernated with work for most of January, with more activity towards the end of month with warmer termperatures.
    • 2023/12 Moments December 2023
      A month of birthdays and family holiday events, with seasonal events at attractuions around town.
  • RSS on Media Queue

    • What to Do When It’s Too Late | David L. Hawk | 2024
      David L. Hawk (American management theorist, architect, and systems scientist) has been hosting a weekly television show broadcast on Bold Brave Tv from the New York area on Wednesdays 6pm ET, remotely from his home in Iowa. Live, callers can join…Read more ›
    • 2021/06/17 Keekok Lee | Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 2
      Following the first day lecture on Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 1 for the Global University for Sustainability, Keekok Lee continued on a second day on some topics: * Anatomy as structure; physiology as function (and process); * Process ontology, and thing ontology; * Qi ju as qi-in-concentrating mode, and qi san as qi-in-dissipsating mode; and […]
    • 2021/06/16 Keekok Lee | Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 1
      The philosophy of science underlying Classical Chinese Medicine, in this lecture by Keekok Lee, provides insights into ways in which systems change may be approached, in a process ontology in contrast to the thing ontology underlying Western BioMedicine. Read more ›
    • 2021/02/02 To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems | Zeynep Tufekci with Ezra Klein | New York Times
      In conversation, @zeynep with @ezraklein reveal authentic #SystemsThinking in (i) appreciating that “science” is constructed by human collectives, (ii) the west orients towards individual outcomes rather than population levels; and (iii) there’s an over-emphasis on problems of the moment, and…Read more ›
    • 2019/04/09 Art as a discipline of inquiry | Tim Ingold (web video)
      In the question-answer period after the lecture, #TimIngold proposes art as a discipline of inquiry, rather than ethnography. This refers to his thinking On Human Correspondence. — begin paste — [75m26s question] I am curious to know what art, or…Read more ›
    • 2019/10/16 | “Bubbles, Golden Ages, and Tech Revolutions” | Carlota Perez
      How might our society show value for the long term, over the short term? Could we think about taxation over time, asks @carlotaprzperez in an interview: 92% for 1 day; 80% within 1 month; 50%-60% tax for 1 year; zero tax for 10 years.Read more ›
  • Meta

  • Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
    Theme modified from DevDmBootstrap4 by Danny Machal