Coevolving Innovations

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The Systems Approach and Its Enemies | C. West Churchman | 1979

West Churchman (1913-2004) was a Ph.D. supervisor to some luminaries in the systems sciences, including  Russell L. Ackoff, Ian Mitroff, Harold G. Nelson and Werner Ulrich.  Churchman’s 1979 book, The Systems Approach and Its Enemies, is unfortunately out of print, and is only readable on the web if you already have the text to search on.  Here, some excerpts will be surfaced that may encourage readers to seek a copy in a local library.


[….] This book is just another step in the search for the meaning of generality, in this case a general design of social systems.

There are lots of themes that can be used to describe this search. Perhaps the best one is the discovery that the usual dichotomy of x or not x never seems to display the general, because neither of the above is always so prominent an aspect of the general social system. Thus there is an immense part of social systems reality that is none of the following popular dichotomies in the current literature: rational-irrational, objective-subjective, hierarchical-nonhierarchical, teleological-ateleological, deductive-nondeductive reasoning (for example, inductive or dialectical), ineffable-effable.

In the text I have used the word enemy to connote this immense land of social systems that has remained largely unexplored by “hard” systems analysts, who thereby reveal a distinct softness of living by avoiding the dangers of exploring unmapped lands.  [p. xi]

01 On Systems and Their Design

This first chapter is intended to show that the proper design is not a simple matter of fixing up some messes within the system. I want to let reflection show that simple, direct, head-on attempts to “solve” systems problems don’t work and, indeed, often turn out to be downright dangerous.  [pp. 3-4]  [….]

The Environmental Fallacy

The simplistic approach to systems design says that there is a clear and urgent necessity to do something about our systems, else we perish: we must create more resources of food and energy, we must reduce the pollution of air and water, we must reduce our population — or else no environment will sustain us. The other approach says that above all we must think through the consequences of any proposal for action, because otherwise the “clear and urgent necessity” will lead us down the pathway of disaster: we create more farm land and irretrievably destroy its future productivity, we eliminate pollution of waters by enacting laws that therefore prohibit industry in impoverished areas, we attempt to stop population growth by attacking deeply embedded religions and cultural values.

Strangely enough, the two approaches rarely confront each other. The battles seem to be mainly civil wars, between those who see different “clear and urgent necessities,” or between those who see different ways of “thinking through.”  [p. 4]  [….]

The best way to express intellectual anger is by revealing a fallacy, as Aristotle did in his anger at the false and deceptive teachings of the Sophists. The fallacy in point can be called the “environmental fallacy”; it might be called the “fallacy of ignoring the environment,” but this label doesn’t have nearly the clout of the simpler one. One form of the environmental fallacy consists first of observing that x is growing (or declining) in a way that is dangerous, harmful, or potentially disastrous. Usually some critical point is identified as being deftinitely unsafe, really harmful, or disastrous. On the basis of these observations, an imperative is generated, usually either legal or technological. The imperative takes the form “Prevent x from growing.” If x is the use of alcohol, then the (fallacious) imperative says, “Stop the consumption of alcohol by making it illegal,” and we have prohibition, that most dangerously fallacious law designed to overcome the dangers of drinking. And, of course, we never learn our lesson from the experience; x is now consumption of marijuana: x is growing, growth of x is dangerous, and “hence” it is “imperative” to outlaw the consumption of marijuana.  [….]

Fallacious, all too fallacious. Why? Because in the broader perspective of the systems approach no problem can be solved simply on its own basis. Every problem has an “environment,” to which it is inextricably united. If you stop x from growing (or declining), you will also make other things grow (or decline), and these changes you have created may very well be as serious, and as disastrous, as the growth of x.  [pp. 4-5] [….]

The fallacy of the environment, says our hero, is far more serious than pollution, depletion of resources, and the like. These so-called ecological phenomena are easy enough to see, but the insidious pervasiveness of the fallacy of the environment seems not to be seen at all. Nothing the prophets of doom predict about population growth can equal the disasters that lie ahead as a result of our repeatedly basing large-scale social policies on the environmental fallacy. The environment of a problem is far more difficult and far more important to perceive than the physical environment of a city or a nation.  [p. 6] [….]

A curious instance of the environmental fallacy arises in connection with the label “ecology” and its correlative “ecosystem,” which surely must puzzle many readers these days. Some biologists regard these words as part of the basic vocabulary of biology, and hence as technical and esoteric. But the technical problem of creating, say, a stable ecosystem in a wilderness forest may have grave economic and social implications for a region or a nation. These implications must belong to the problem along with the biological definition of the “closed system.” Etymologically “ecological” means “pertaining to the home,” and the environmental fallacy occurs when the “home” is given a technical, esoteric definition within a discipline.  [p. 7]

The Systems Approach

Our hero espouses something he calls the “systems approach,” which is designed to avoid the environmental fallacy. In order to appreciate the systems approach, we should try to understand what it really is. [p. 7]  [….]

On the broadest level, the systems approach belongs to a whole class of approaches to managing and planning our human affairs with the intent that we as a living species conduct ourselves properly in this world. Everyone adopts at least one such approach during her/his life, even if he/she is a recluse, an agnostic, a nihilist. [….]

In this book I’ve selected six pathways, all of which can be at least partially articulated. In order to understand what the systems approach means, we try to understand something about

  • (1) its history or tradition,
  • (2) its logical structure (i.e., its meaning of “reason”),
  • (3) its ethics or theory of value,
  • (4) its potential (i.e., what it claims it can do that no other approach can accomplish), and hence
  • (5) its enemies (i.e., those other approaches that most fiercely challenge this contention), and finally
  • (6) its future (i.e., its long-run. perspective which links its past to its present and to the ages to come).

Note that these six pathways toward meaning all borrow from the philosophy of the systems approach, in that they are all “grand” perceptions of an idea. If you feel that your understanding of the systems approach will be biased as a result of these pursuits, you should respect this feeling as being sound. But then if you are inquisitive, you might also ask yourself whether an unbiased appreciation of meaning is possible.  [p. 8, editorial paragraphing added]  [….]

My Personal ]ourney

… I was a convinced disciple of one strong systems approach, developed by E. A. Singer, Jr., in the first part of this century. [….]

Singer’s philosophical position had the theme of comprehensiveness, so that all aspects of the natural world were to be “swept in,” in order to pursue humankind’s endless quest for knowledge and control of Nature. Singer made no attempt to exclude values from science, as did so many of his contemporaries — for example, the logical positivists; indeed, he undertook to include values in explicit ways. Physical reality, psychological and social reality, ethical and moral reality, religious reality were all to be included under the generic label “science,” or the quest for knowledge.  [p. 9]  [….]

In any event, I had come to realize that there are two “sciences”: the one represented by the collection of the disciplines, and the other by the systems approach. The first contains a collection of ideas about methodology and is essentially isolated by its disciplinary politics. The other is an attempt to engage in those areas of inquiry which are most relevant to the social good.  [pp 12-13]

Of course, this way of describing the distinction between the two meanings of “science” may not seem very radical or very new. After all, the pragmatists have always been saying that truth resides not in facts, or in hypothesis testing, or in any other data-based technique of verification, but rather in significance to our human enterprise. But there is in the distinction an implication that traditional pragmatism did not emphasize. The distinction is not just logical, but political. The “science” of the disciplines is an “enemy” of the science of the systems approach. What does “enemy mean? For the moment I take the word to be dialectical — that is, a consortium of opposites. An enemy is someone who is distrusted and admired; loved and hated; respected and feared. Above all, an enemy is someone who holds powers, resources, capabilities that one desperately needs. Thus, disciplinary science must not be trusted by the science of the systems approach. Disciplinary science’s insistence on a very narrow meaning of control in experimentation, for example, must be regarded by the systems approach with a great deal of suspicion; disciplinary science may very well be a political device to convert broad-minded Ph.D. students, who want to study big problems, into narrow- minded assistant professors, who study small problems in accordance with accepted standards of research. But, of course, disciplinary science must be admired by the systems approach science, because it has developed so many methods which are potentially useful in the total process of human learning: mathematics, the concept of control and adaptation, precision, measurement, etc. However, the point is that one is not likely to learn very much about the systems approach bv dwelling in a discipline.  [p. 13]  [….]

The Enemies of the Systems Approach, or Learning from SA’s Enemies

It was gradually dawning on me that there is another, totally different way of learning about the systems approach. The lessons I’ve been describing so far come from an inner critique — that is, from within the system. Then one day I was listening to a talk about the virtues of the world models which the Club of Rome had sponsored; the speaker was asking why the world’s leaders had not more rapidly responded to the models’ results. The answer came like a flash, “Because they’re not ‘in’ the systems approach but rather live and decide ‘outside’ it.” Thus was born my idea of the “enemies” of the systems approach. I threw away the speech I’d planned to give, and talked instead about the four enemies I’d identified: politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics. In each case the approach to human life is not comprehensive, holistic, or even “rational” in the sense of rationality which model builders use. What is common to all the enemies is that none of them accepts the reality of the “whole system”: we do not exist in such a system. Furthermore, in the case of morality, religion, and aesthetics, at least a part of our reality as humans is not “in” any system, and yet it plays a central role in our lives.

To me these enemies provide a powerful way of learning about the systems approach, precisely because they enable the rational mind to step outside itself and to observe itself (from the vantage point of the enemies).

Of course there are many rational questions to be raised about the enemies? Are they truly enemies? Is the list exhaustive? How are they to be defined? What should the systems approach strategy be with respect to them? And so on.

First of all, I think they all defy “definition” in any of the senses of this word which reason has invented. But of course that conviction does not stop me from characterizing them.


Politics means primarily the way in which people gather together around issues of human living, food, shelter, education, patriotism, war, security, etc. Each such gathering together I call “forming polis.” Although polis may look like a system at times, for its inhabitants its existence is not justified by some larger system — for example, by some cost-benefit analysis. Of course there is a systems approach to politics, and writers like Rapoport have even tried to explain, in a rational mode, how political “fights, games and debates” are to be handled. But there is also a political approach to systems analysis — namely, the ways in which the appearance of rationality can be used to create political action.  [pp. 24-25]


Morality is the underlying spirit of all action that drives a person to act as he does. True, “spirit” and “drives can be defined conceptually, and we systems thinkers can even codify the moral spirit into moral codes of conduct. But by so doing, we can justly be accused of destroying the spirit. The tradition of morality lies in the history of moral action, in wars, in crime and retribution, and especially in the many forms of revolution the moral human has invented: overthrows, strikes, civil dissent, voluntary starvation, and so on. A Marx can “explain” the history of revolution in terms of the inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat, but his is a systems approach to morality. There is also a moral approach to systems thinking — namely, consideration of whether the thoughts of the systems philosophers destroy or distort the moral spirit, as in strikes and revolutions.


Religion refers not only to the actions of organized religions but also to everyday human action in relation (often in worshiping relation) to something higher, more powerful, more knowing, more comprehensive than the action itself, or else to something fantastically small and refined. Such an account of human action can be described in systems terms, as I’ll try to do when I come to theology. But there is also a religious approach to systems thinking. Perhaps the systems approach is one of man’s finest ways of worshiping God; if so, should we dare to define “worshiping God” by rational concepts? The attempt may be sacrilegious.


Aesthetics is the core of all action, that which makes action “radiant” for us: beautiful, ugly, pleasurable, painful, comic, tragic, whatever. Since systems thinking is a kind of action, its significance lies in its aesthetics, and not in its “validity.” Aesthetics is that which gives life to human action; perhaps the action of trying to define such “life” kills the liveliness.  [p. 25]

Human history is a tapestry made up of the interplay of the four enemies. Politics is the background of human events, as people have formed themselves into communities and nations. Morality is the deep red hue of revolutions, dissent. and heroism. Religion is a pervasive tone, which melds into the background of politics by turning into doctrine and bureaucracy or into morality as the inspiration of religious wars. The history of aesthetics is rarely written, except in histories of art and (occasionally) in biographies, but the true essence of aesthetics is what gives the tapestry its meaning; what “really” happened to humans in history is an image of human joys, desperation, love, hate, opulence, and drudgery. Most histories recount the major political movements, just as most news journals emphasize the blending of morality (horror) and politics. Wouldn’t it be a delightful change if someone were to write a history of “welcoming the stranger,” the fantastic ways in which just plain folk have designed, aesthetically, a welcoming environment?  [pp. 25-26]

But are these four really enemies of the systems approach? The reflective mind of the rational systems planner can’t help asking whether politics has improved matters over the years, whether our present-day moral revolutions are really better than the old ones, whether our religions and our aesthetic sensibilities have become more refined. Perhaps, after all, the best systems approach we humans can find is coping with issues, so that the total tapestry of political history does display a “holistic” integration. Of course, there is much to make the rational mind skeptical about any of these speculations. But the question whether these four are truly enemies will remain to the end. After all, if we really understood the enemies, we’d really understand ourselves, and that’s not going to happen.

As to the exhaustiveness and exclusiveness of the four enemies, the proper response seems to be that the question is irrelevant, since these are not logical categories; indeed, they “unfold” into each other in fantastic ways. Another writer could easily make another list of enemies which would eventually unfold into mine. [p. 26] [….]


02 The Tradition

[…] The basic idea behind the systems approach is that all relevant interests or values should be served by the kinds of change we can institute in our society and in nature.  [p. 29] [….]

If history is to enlighten us on the meaning of the systems approach, then we presumably need a meaning of the systems approach in order to identify historical ftgures and occasions. Which comes first — the meaning or the history? The response to this reasonable question is that the systems approach itself demands a systems approach to defining it.  [p. 30] [….]


[…]  As far as I know, the earliest document aiming at a systems approach to deicsion making was written in China in the second millennium s.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.’ [p. 32] [….]

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. [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. The basic idea of the pre-Socratics, perhaps created by Thales, is that one can ask what reality is made of and arrive at a plausible and recognizable answer.  [p. 36]  [….]

The pre-Socratics might better be labeled the “non-Socratics,” because Socrates and Plato changed the metaphysical basis for systems planning. If I am right, the pre-Socratics took their clues for ethical doctrine from what they considered to be the nature of reality, whereas Socrates, and especially Plato, found their clues in the nature of rationality: reason, if allowed to respond freely to questions about virtue, would reveal the answers. Thus a dialectic was created that continues down the ages. Subsequently we’ll see it as the debate between Bentham and Kant: for Bentham all ethical doctrine is to be inferred from man’s hedonistic nature; whereas for Kant it is to be inferred from pure practical reason. As always the dialectic has created parties who scorn the opposites: so Nietzsche and Popper, for quite different reasons, charge Socrates and Plato with the crime of having murdered the spirit of Greek philosophy.  [p. 37]  [….]

As is well known, Aristotle attempted to put all conceptualization into teleological form, so that even physical entities “seek out their proper places.” Renaissance science and modern physical science has in effect assumed that one can describe the physical world without reference to teleology. This assumption of a separation of the two worlds, the world of the physical and the world of the social-psychological, was strongest in the physical sciences in the nineteenth century but still remains very strong in our own century. One of the first attacks on the separation seems to have occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, first with E. A. Singer, Jr., then later with Norbert Wiener and A. Rosenblueth. [p. 39]  [….]

It would be impossible in this short journey to do justice to that magnificent period of the systems approach which begins, say, with Paul through such tall figures as Plotinus, Boethius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas, Descartes, to Leibnitz, and beyond. The salient feature of this story is the question whether the “systems approach” requires a theology and, if so, what kind. The question is pervasive, seemingly in almost all cultures; what is remarkable about the Western European adventure is the depth and intricacy of its philosophical responses.  [p. 41] [….]

The Kantian Synthesis

… Kant was the great synthesizer who set the stage for the methodology we use today in the systems approach, which has its foundation neither in observation alone nor in reason alone, but in some kind of complex inquiring system built out of the connections between these two sources.

One important contribution to the systems approach that Kant made in his Critique of Pure Reason is the notion that the way the world appears to our observation depends very much on our basic theory about the structure of the world. [p. 43] …

After Kant-systems Versus Models

… in my perception of how the majority of so-called systems builders misconceived their task in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century. … those who believed that the road to comprehensiveness is through greater and greater precision. The phrase we have come to use for this approach is “model building.”  [p. 44]

The Flight from Human Values

… largely ignored because of this century’s strenuous effort to keep the deeper problems of values out of social system design.  [p. 47]

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.   [p. 52]

… we must face the reality that the enemies offer: what’s really happening in the human world is politics, or morality, or religion, or aesthetics. This confrontation with reality is totally different from the rational approach, because the reality of the enemies cannot be conceptualized, approximated, or measured. At least this is the reasonable claim of the enemies. For them it is absurd to say that any model is a representation of their reality.  [p. 53]

03 Logic: General

… In this book I follow Kant’s concept of logic as the basic justification for what we take to be true or false. Thus, there is an ethical dimension to logic.  [….]

This reflection is done here in two parts. This chapter provides a broad perspective of the logic of the systems approach, primarily for those who are interested less in the detailed structure than they are in the general idea. The next chapter is meant to be a contribution to the underlying methodology of the systems approach; it uses Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a model to guide in the construction of the logic.  [p. 54]

04 Logic: A Theory of Reality, or Kant for Planners

A planner needs to know what is really happening, in order to determine whether reality should be changed. How should he go about his task?

Now the question, “What is real?” (or What is really going on?) often seems to have the most obvious, commonsense answer, until we begin reflecting on its meaning.  [p. 70]  [….]

Kant believed that if we can classify assertions about reality in a satisfactorv manner, we mav more easily be able to decide which can be justified as true or false, and which require prior knowledge for their justification.  [p. 72]  [….]

Space and Time

The next section of Kant’s Critique, the”Transcendental Aesthetic” says that all observation must be shaped by two (a priori) images, space and time. The implications for planning are very significant.  [p. 75]  [….]

Understanding Experience

In the next section of the Critique Kant tries to explain the intelligibility of human experience. In effect, he denies the fundamental tenet of empiricism — namely, that there are simple experiences.  [p. 77]  [….]

The Ego in Planning

The next section of the Critique of Pure Reason deals with the “deduction” of the categories, with what “right” we can claim them to be necessary for all experience and thus to be a constituent aspect of reality.  [p. 101]

A Priori Science

The next section of the Critique is of fundamental importance for both Kant’s epistemology of phenomenal events and the planner’s epistemology of recommendations, because it deals with synthetic a priori knowledge.  [p. 105]  [….]

The differences between the philosophies of the objective-planner and the ideal-planner form a dialectic, to which I’ll turn in the next chapter.  [p. 107]

05 Dialectics

The major thrust of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was, as its title suggests, to determine how reason works in human experience. The section that deals with this topic is called the “Transcendental Dialectic.” It might be described as laying down the limits of reason — for example, as a precursor of the concept of “bounded rationality.” But it is by no means Kant’s last word on reason; in the offing is his Critique of Pure Practical Reason, which describes the role of reason in a world other than the phenomenal: the noumenal world of the good will. What Kant is striving to accomplish in the “Transcendental Dialectic” is to show that certain reasonable and apparently important questions about phenomena can never be answered, even approximately, by “phenomenal science” and, specifically, by physics.  [p. 108]

Since the ideal-planner sees the narrative as essentially a learning process, his method consists of systematically questioning his Weltanschauung; no aspect of it is “sacred” or obvious. Now one of the best ways to question a Weltanschauung is to design a plausible and hopefully powerful opposite. Thereby the learning process is put to a critical test. [….]

It is natural to wonder whether the enemies could be swept into a dialectical process, and it’s certainly tempting for the ideal-planner to do so. But the enemies have good reason to believe that he’ll fail. In that last sentence you’ll find a clue to the strategy of the enemies: use reason to show why reason can’t absorb them.  [p. 116]

06 Ethics of the Systems Approach

Why “Ethics”?

We have seen from an examination of the tradition of the systems approach that the problem of human destiny-that is, of ethics-has been central in historical writings. However, today we find a most curious phenomenon in which books on systems analysis, planning, operations research, etc., rarely consider ethical issues.  [p. 117]  [….]

A Historical Debate: Kant and Bentham

… there were two “synchronous” debates-one in the eighteenth century, one in the twentieth — which are so rich that thev virtually contain the essence of the whole historical process. I call them “synchronous” because the parties in the debate apparently were not aware of each other’s existence and yet wrote at the same time. The first debate is between Kant and Bentham, both of whom were deeply involved in considerations of human ethics during the 1780s, Kant in Konigsberg, Bentham in London. The second debate is between Singer and Jung, both of whom spent their active lives on ethical matters, most especially in the 1930s and 1940s, but neither of whom seemed aware directly of the other’s work, Singer in Philadelphia, Jung in Zurich.  [pp. 118-119]


We can begin with Bentham. It was his intent to design a methodology for assessing the worth of a proposed piece of legislation. In this sense he was a founder of the class of “evaluation or “assessment” techniques which have infiltrated into every aspect of government today: cost-benefit, technological assessment, social impact assessments, etc.  [p. 119]


[….]  Kant’s metaphysics led him to his formulation of morality. As we have seen, the Critique of Pure Reason dealt with the world of phenomena-that is, intelligible experience-but it left open the question of whether there are other worlds of things-in-themselves, which he called “noumena.” If the Good Will is such a being, it can have no relationship to experiential concepts.  [p. 122]

The Guarantor

We have seen how. for Kant, there are two basic values of the human being, happiness and the moral law. One cannot act to achieve happiness and there- by be moral, for morality demands that the moral law be the sole motive. Does the reverse hold? Can one achieve happiness b.v acting morally? In practice the answer is, “Apparently not,” since virtuous actions so often lead to unhappiness. But in principle there is no reason why acting morally can’t cause happiness, for we can surely imagine a world, a kingdom of ends, where morality and happiness are in complete accord. Kant calls this vision the summum bonum.  [p. 127]  [….]

… To be sure, the immortality of the social system seems essential if, besides goals and ends, there are also ideals that can be approximated more and more closely but never attained. And to be sure, if this ideal-seeking is to make sense as a human pursuit, there needs to be freedom of choice at the individual level.  [p. 128]


…. Jung presents a number of very helpful as well as radical ideas. First, individuation is a process for ]ung, and in this regard he differs from Kant and all the rest of science.  [p. 129]  [….]

Further to deepen the insight and confound the perspective is Jung’s elevation of the process of individuation to the pinnacle of the Good, so that the process is alike to Plato’s soul contemplating the pure idea, and to Kant’s Good Will motivated by the moral law within.  [p. 130]  [….]


Our spokesman now is Edgar A. Singer. We note first of all that Singer’s program (of defining all morality within what I am calling “social morality”) needs to reintroduce purpose. For Kant (but not necessarily for Jung), the moral law is not valid because it serves some purpose; it is valid in and of itself. In other words, Kant’s morality is ateleological, while Singer’s is teleological.  [pp. 133-134]  [….]

We have come to the confrontation of the systems approach with human affairs, to the question whether other approaches are “better.” But before we explore the land of the enemies, we need to give the hero — the ideal-planner –one more opportunity to make a plea for rationality.  [p. 144]

07 Retrospect and Prospect

… the academic world of Western twentieth century society is a fearsome enemy of the systems approach, using as it does a politics to concentrate the scholars’ attention on matters that are scholastically respectable but disreputable from a systems-planning point of view.  [p. 146]  [….]

… in giving up the standards of experimental design, we do not have to give up the standards of excellence in research. We do have to relinquish the notion that there is “one best way” to conduct our research, and that this depends on the one best way of formulating the problem or hypothesis. “Objectivity” is a characteristic not of the data, but rather of the design of the inquiring system as a whole: does it try to be open to all those aspects it deems relevant?  [p. 147]  [….]

The prospects before us are the enemies. But once again I have to ask why they are enemies. After all, the promise of the systems approach (ideal-planning) is to be comprehensive. If the enemies are real (they are) and important (they are), then shouldn’t the systems approach include them in its vision of the human condition? [p. 148]

The response, in part, depends on which enemy we’re talking about. Politics is the “closest” enemy, because it uses reason as one of its most powerful tools.  [pp. 148-149]  [….]

The other enemies are much farther apart. Indeed, they regard togetherness and apartness to be irrelevant, because they reside in a world where these categories are more or less meaningless, since it is a world in which “meaning” does not depend on concepts.  [….]

I am thereby led to one of the most fascinating problems of human life: How to relate to one’s enemies? The topic, important though it is, seems not to have created a cohesive genre of literature. It’s discussed widelv in novels and plays; it often appears in ethical and religious writings; it is discussed in a quite different way in books on management (Machiavelli’s Prince being an outstanding example).

Suppose, without allowing logic to interfere too much — as it would, for example, by using its tedious exhaustive-exclusive question — we list some strategies for dealing with one’s enemies:

1. fight
2. avoid
3. appease
4. surrender
5. convert
6. love
7. be  [p. 149]

Each has a number of subcategories. [p. 150]  [….]

…. The road to survival is to be your enemy.

Does this make sense? It is not a “conclusion,” because the unfolding it introduces is, for me, enormously invigorating and confusing.  [p. 151]


08 Politics

[….]  As we saw in Chapter 1, I’ve identified four enemies: politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics. The logical part of the rational mind immediately asks if these are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. The unfolding argument says that they are neither, that each unfolds into the others in intricate ways, and that all together hold the mystery of other approaches to human affairs. But it may be a help to mention one logical aspect of the four, because politics is the most extroverted enemy, as it relies on people’s relationships to people around a common issue.  [p. 156]  [….]

Could the debate between the systems approach and the political approach be made into a dialectic, and if it could, would a synthesis emerge? I think the answer would be a definite affirmative on the part of the systems approach, because then the entire dialectic would become an expanded systems approach, and nothing is more satisfying to the heart of the ideal-planner than expansion. But I can’t imagine that the political approach would agree. For it, debate and fights emerge as polis and counterpolis. It does form a counterpolis to the systems approach,’ which it regards as either absurd or dangerous. But it does not form this counterpolis to arrive at a synthesis, and it is not likely to consider the fight a “dialectic.”

So I leave the matter in the form of a paradox. If the systems approach attempts to swallow the enemy by setting forth the rules of their battle — for example, in terms of a dialectic-the political enemy will retaliate by forming a counterpolis of people who will eschew the results of systems thinking, make sure it is not funded or promoted, and generally carry on political processes that will thwart systems planning.  [p. 164]

09 Morality

1. This has been for me the most difficult chapter to write, because it has never developed a coherent theme.  [p. 165] [….]

Politics also has the two versions of evil, the first being the threat on the life of polis, and the second the need to threaten another polis in order to survive: we humans may have started a process of national defense that we humans can’t stop, and that will in due course destroy all polises.

Morality usually stirs up countermorality which threatens to destroy morality. Strikes, civil disobedience, riots, revolutions, all create the moral mood in a sector of the population which seeks to destroy the strikers, the disobedient, the rioters, and the revolutionaries.

Aesthetics, in its protection of the quality of life, may act to destroy the quality of life of another; aesthetics drives some to increase wilderness areas and parks, thereby destroying the quality of life for residents who rely on trees to make their living.
Thus the evil that lies in all humans comes from the fact that humans are “approachers,” and as they approach the conduct of human affairs, they cannot help but destroy the essence of their own approach.  [p. 172]

10 Religion

This was the easiest chapter to write, I think, because this book itself is written in a religious mode; under the inspiration to worship the Divine, which thought has labeled “The Whole System.”

In this discussion I am primarily interested in the manner in which the “religious approach” has been the directing influence in human affairs. Often this influence has expressed itself in terms of beliefs about a god or the gods, beliefs that have been turned into dogma or theology by the thinking mind. But here I am interested in something more than intellectual belief; my interest is in a combination of feeling and archetypal influence.

The religious approach to human affairs occurs first when we humans decide in terms of something we regard as superior, grander, more magnificent, than we feel ourselves to be. We act because we believe (feel) that this superior being has ordered us to act, or simply because it is appropriate to act so as to conform to the superior being’s intentions or existence, or because our actions are forms of worship. The superior being may be many things, and I shall consider only a sample: a personalized deity, “Nature,” community, and everything-nothing.

The religious approach to human affairs occurs second when we humans decide in terms of the small, minuscule, unique, which is not inferior to us, and is indeed superior because of its smallness. An apt comparison occurs in technology, between those who worship large technologies like automobile manufacture, military weapons systems, Apollo programs, etc., and those who worship small, “appropriate” technologies like solar heating of homes, mini- autos, small shops, etc.  [p. 173] [….]

11 Aesthetics

[….]  When philosophers have turned to aesthetics, they have often regarded the problem of its meaning to be centered in the arts — pure or applied. What is it that makes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a great work of art? And what shall we say to a critic who holds that the scherzo vastly overdoes its interruptions, that the adagio is oversweetened iced tea, and that the finale is German bombardment carried to Germanic extreme? Artists themselves tend to be frustratingly uncommunicative: if you don’t see that this is a marvelous sculpture, a painting with zing, a far-out dance, then nobody can tell you so, and your failure to appreciate is sad but irrelevant.

Nevertheless, serious aestheticians struggle to find a clue to the mystery of what makes great art. Perhaps it lies in form. That’s it! So beaux-arts lay down the “fundamental” form of all aesthetic buildings-a decree that lasts a few decades and is followed by functionalism, modularism, and now maybe a reincarnated beaux-arts. So it’s all a fad, and God only knows what the next one will be. But few would deny the splendor of the Acropolis. [p. 189]

The trouble, of course, came at the beginning, when aesthetics was cut off from her sisters, the Good and the True. Things took a turn for the worse when we could no longer ask whether a building was “good” except in the sense of being “beautiful”; this is why functionalism tried to turn things around and ask whether a building is (any) good first, and to worry about the aesthetics later, if at all. And as for asking whether a building is true, what nonsense! What could a “true building” possibly mean?  [p. 189]

And yet from a systems point of view it must mean a great deal. The part of the human system which produces knowledge is not separable from the rest. “Knowledge” doesn’t just occur in books and lectures; it is a living part of our everyday lives. From the moment of waking to the moment of sleeping and on through sleep, we are using knowledge, learning, forgetting, adjusting, judging. The objects about us that help us learn are a part of our knowledge system, whether they are propositions, cooking instruments, friends — or buildings. So a building may be “true,” in the sense that it helps us learn how to do the things we want to do.  [pp. 189-190]

All this sounds familiar to the ears of our systems planner. He can readily understand that aesthetics is a human value, and that it should not be separated from other values. Architecture is about the good, the true, and the beautiful in our edifices and landscapes, and physics is about the good, the true, and the beautiful in nature. Only some perversity of the disciplines made people say that we must carefully distinguish between the way a forest — as an ecological system-changes, from the aesthetics of the forest.

Where is the enemy? The systems point of view shows us that we should not search for the meaning of the aesthetic in the arts alone, and perhaps not in them at all, because often in art the connection of the aesthetic to its brothers, the Good and the True, is obscured. Thus, it may very well be that past writings on aesthetics were motivated by the wrong problem-namely, identification of the properties of great art-and thereby ignored the central systemic problem: How is aesthetics related to the other attributes that make up a human life?  [p. 190]


12 The Negative

“I have met the enemy, and he is us!”

I’ve labeled this last part “significance” (sign pointing) rather than “conclusion,” for while the tale told in this book has no ending, it does point in a direction. It is a signpost along the endless journey of the planner. It helps, I hope, to review the story of Part Two. We should recall the account of the word enemy” (pp. 24-26), which goes “friend” into “non- friend” into “opposite of friend.” The question (of the strategy of conversion) thus becomes whether this process can be reversed.

Politics is first seen as a strategy for the planner, who realizes that implementation is crucial in his life. Politics suggests that in order to create change in the social order, one needs to gather together a community (polis), and that community making requires a specifiic problem that carries with it an aura of crisis (war, brinkmanship, sputnik, Cuban missile crisis, third world, energy, etc.). This suggestion has great appeal to the planner. His basic intellectual principle is holism, but he sees no reason why one cannot start with a concentration on one aspect of the human condition; he knows full well that one aspect inevitably unfolds into all aspects if one keeps raising significant questions. (Again, we see the concept o{ “sign”: a continual pointing to broader issues.)  [p. 197]

So we shall make our nonfriend, politics, into a friend who is helping us by giving us directions about how to proceed on our way. Indeed, we planners can go farther and suggest the need for “political variables,” which would describe, with some degree of precision, what crisis and its related community means, so that we can examine a class of problems and choose the “optimal” problem.

But now our nonfriend, instead of turning into a friend, turns into the opposite. Any attempt to model politics, or to transform a problem into a larger problem, destroys the polis, and along with it any hope of implementation. At this point our systems planner feels entirely alienated, because if this meaning of politics is valid, then his vision is destroyed. Mankind would always have to act blindly, trying to solve crises and never knowing what lies beyond, what possible destruction such blind problem solving might leave in its wake. Such an enemy, surely, is not us.

Enter morality. Besides ego satisfaction, it says, there is another ethical value, call it fairness, equity, treating humanity as an end withal. A perfectly reasonable suggestion. Yes, we should not use cost-benefit as our sole criterion; Western economics has emphasized aggrandizement of wealth, to the neglect of the distribution of wealth. So we shall make our nonfriendly enemy into a friend. We’re not sure how to do this, of course. Some will want to use the variance of the income distribution as a comeasure of performance with the average or median. Problems of trade-off between these comeasures are messy naturally. But our nonfriendly enemy points out that in matters of equity there is no trade-off. To exploit another by robbery, suppression, or murder is a sin that cannot be traded off by subsequent benefits to himself or his family.

But now our nonfriend turns “opposite-of-friend” by declaring that any attempt to rationalize morality — including Kant’s categorical imperative — ruins the spirit of morality. Even the strategy of creating a dialectic between an ethic based on utility and an ethic based on moral law fails because it leaves out the essence of morality, its collective existence across all human lives or, perhaps, all lives. All that rationality does is to work with the residues of morality, much as one might try to discern the reality of a man by examining his feces.

Horrible! Are we to be left, not only blind, but driven by a blind collective feeling, which is not only whimsical but often downright dangerous as it creates dissent, strikes, wars, and revolutions? Such an enemy is clearly not us. Now religion. In perfectly reasonable but nonfriendly terms, it points out that humans are not the only designers of change in the world, and, indeed, may not be the important designers, or may be the wrong designers. Of course. When we think of it and recall our tradition, we see at once that planning requires an understanding of all the designers of change. Indeed, we see that we are finite and liable to serious error, so that we need to understand what guarantees that our endless journey is not a sardonic joke.  [p 198]

But now religion shows its true face. It is not simply a matter of absorbing a rational guarantor into the world system. Rather, reason plays the role of rationalizing the true nonrational nature of humans, who are basically worshipers-blind adorers of the immense and the small. Even the man who is “out for himself” worships the immensities called “wealth” and “power.” But the immense and the small cannot be “defined,” and every attempt to do so obscures their true images and the way in which they influence our lives. Even “reason,” which our systems approacher worships, is elusive and undefinable, as this book shows. So the conclusion is that the hero’s persistent urge to improve the human condition is simply the hero’s mode of worship; he is disturbed out of a mood of satisfaction into a mood of dissatisfaction by his nonrational need to worship humanity. Calamity! Certainly here is an enemy who is not us.  [p. 198-199]

Finally, the aesthetic. It’s extremely reasonable at the outset, because it suggests that in our “gung ho” attempt to reach certain goals, we may very well ignore the quality that people value in addition to the content. Airports are designed to get people on and off planes; the result may be a very uncomfortable experience for the traveler — even dangerous because his perceptions become distorted. Or an area may be strip-mined, in order to attain the goal of a satisfactory ore supply. But the residents who witness the partial destruction of their natural environment, which is familiar to them, may sustain a psychological shock from which they never recover.

So, yes, there are important values that planning has tended to ignore, and that should be incorporated into our reasoning about change. Even if we can’t quantify these important qualities of experience, we should find ways of incorporating them into our design criteria. Our nonfriendly aesthetic critic has become a helpful friend by calling our attention to an aspect of the human system we had ignored.

But our new-found friend turns against us, by pointing out that there must be something to carry this quality of experience, the psychological aspect of the human being which appreciates experience. This is not ego, or the Good Will, or superego, or the archetypes. It is unique, not classifiable. Kant spoke wisely when he told us to act so as to treat humanity, either in ourselves or another, never as a means only, but as an end withal. But perhaps he himself did not realize the profundity of his imperative, for the “humanity” to which he refers is that unique quality each of us has, which makes up the reality of our psyches.

But this, too, ruins the game, or work, of the planner. Gone is tradeoff. Gone is adding up values. Gone is any sensible way of assessing change. Everyone’s uniqueness is a world in itself, incomparable with any other uniqueness. My God, let’s not fall into that trap, so cleverly laid by the aesthetic enemy who is clearly not us.

We can readily see the insidious plot that underlies each of these encounters. Above all, the rational planner must be able to respond to reasonable or plausible questions and, indeed, welcomes such questions because they may enlarge his image. Thus politics raises a perfectly reasonable question: Why should we planners try to be holistic, to grasp more and more of the whole system? We planners must respond because the question addresses the epistemology of a guiding principle of our approach. We surely don’t want to respond that this principle of holism is a tautology. Furthermore, politics suggests a plausible reason why a nonholistic approach is preferable, because it holds people together and permits action. [p. 199-200]  [….]

Suppose, instead, we adopt a dialectical epistemology and say that holism and politics are two dramatically different approaches to planning, and that out of their opposition arises a rich and hopefully powerful process for trying to improve the human condition. This is a suggestion, of course, that is wholly holistic: in the planning context we let the narrow, political approach debate “in court” with the holistic approach. But such a courtroom scene spoils the politics, because it has to be conducted in our “impartial” manner. Better- for politics-would be a rigged court-or, in general, politics decides the rules of the debate and the referees.

Matters become worse for the dialectical approach as we consider the other three enemies, none of whom are inclined to debate at all, especially if the debate is based on concepts and information. Sitting down and talking it over ruins the moral spirit, as revolutionaries and oppressors both know; morality abhors reasonableness. For religion, we might debate with images and counterimages of the immense and the small, as the great religions of the world have done. But it’s probably absurd to speak of a synthesis of imaginal conflict. And what is there to debate about the uniqueness of the individual?  [p. 200]  [….]

13 The Positive

[….]  Now when reason creates through reflection its own deep puzzles, it arrives at “paradox”; that is, it arrives at a result that runs counter to its own teachings (para: “contrary to”; dox: “opinion” or “teaching”). Paradox has been one of the driving forces in the history of the codification of logic. Consider the following. It seems highly rational to say that every meaningful proposition is either true or false and cannot be both. Then reflection suggestions that “this proposition is false” is a proposition that cannot be either “true” or “false.” somehow reason needs to unfold its logical theory to take care of this annoying case of the breakdown of its doctrine (i.e., a case of “paradox”). Indeed, this history of logic shows not only different “solutions” of this paradox, but also the way in which the paradox served to create more general logical systems.

There is much to be said, therefore, for purposefully designing paradox, as I’ll attempt to do in this last chapter. Returning to the strategies of dealing with one’s enemies (p. 149), I suggest that we select the “paradoxical” one, of “being ones own enemy.” The prescription “Be your enemy” appears contrary to the teachings of rational planning. What is called for, therefore, is a new teaching of rational planning — that is, a new and more general meaning of rationality, which goes beyond dialectical reasoning.  [p. 204]

It is not difficult to see what this new teaching might be. It says that rational humans need to leave the body of rationality and to place the self in The Positioe another body, the “enemy,” so that the reality of the social system can unfold in a radically different manner. From this vantage point he/she can observe the rational spirit and begin to realize not only what has been left out of it, but also what the spirit is like, especially its quality of being human.  [pp. 204-205]

It is important (to me) to point out that “being one’s enemy” does not mean losing one’s identity; the rational body continues to exist and to do its life’s work. This is why the philosophy of this book is not existentialist nor phenomenological: a philosopher like Heidegger did not truly exist in the rational body. I’m talking about the rational planner who has lived deeply in rationality, in modeling, in conceptualization, in trying to measure some aspect of reality, and who had taken these tasks with deadly seriousness. In “being” the enemy he/she has not lost this “other me” at all but rather has objectivized it. The resultant “being” is neither a loose dreamer nor a hard thinker. To be the enemy means to release the bonds of hard rationality.  [p. 205]  [….]

I hope I have revealed the ways in which the rational mind may free itself and explore the larger land of reality by placing itself in the body of the enemies. Now I want to end with some general thoughts and feelings.

Of course, “being one’s enemy” is probably not a strategy at all in the images of the enemies, because strategies are options in a class of alternatives, and the enemies do not usually image their reality in this manner. Otto Rank, in his astute Art and Artist, says that many great artists (e.g., painters and novelists) have a vision they can never realize — that is, in my language, a vision that cannot be the reality of the collective conscious. Naturally, these artists will reflect on whether their visions are not more real than the “other” reality: “Do I wake or sleep?” All deep dreamers have similar questions, especially when the dream material is clearly, even logically, connected, tied together. Rank argues for a kind of “sane schizophrenia”: the visionary must at one and the same time and way live his visions and the reality of the collective conscious.

It’s not a bad lesson for the ideal-planner, the hero of the systems approach. Above all, he must not give up his vision, even though in reality it fails over and over again. Indeed, his vision is a part of reality; and were the human race to lack it, it would die as a species, even though the rituals of daily living went on. You, dear hero/heroine, will perceive day after day the dangerous follies of the enemies and will occasionally be overwhelmed by the enormity of evil and ignorance. The moral is that you must at one and the same time be in the reality and the vision.  [pp. 213-214]

There is a positive side to this apparently dolorous existence. If you are your enemy, you can begin to learn what you yourself are like, as you look on yourself from the vantage point of the enemy: how foolishly you push one point of view, of model building, statistical analysis, game theory, ethics, or holism. Once you are your enemy, you at last see yourself as you really are’ a human being, wise and foolish, who has a quirk about the destiny and the improvement of the human condition, just as all the rest of humanity has its quirks.

Finally, consider the gift of freedom the enemies offer us. Sometimes my students ask me if I really believe in the existence of God. Of course, as this book indicates, I’ve let my rational mind work hard on this question, even to the point of saying that it’s badly put, the real issue being how to design a god. But as I pass into the body of religion, I realize how terribly stifling the question is, because reason tends to believe this is the first, or most basic, issue of religion, whereas Saint Paul doesn’t even list it in his trilogy of faith, hope and love. That one can have glorious religious experiences without even considering the issue of a divine being’s existence is the revelation of religion. One can be intensely political without once worrying about what politics and political power mean, or one can be moral without asking for definitions of the good or the bad, or sophomoric questions like “Who’s to decide?”

And enjoy to its depth the aesthetic quality of our life without knowing what it means.  [p. 215]


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

West Churchman (1979) The Systems Approach and Its Enemies


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