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.
CHAPTER 10: AN APPRECIATION OF EDGAR ARTHUR SINGER, JR.
* 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.… Read more (in a new tab)
A luminary in the systems movement, C. West Churchman, showed some respect for Chinese philosophy, with the I Ching (Yi Jing) in particular.
Deborah Hammond was encouraged by West Churchman into joining and becoming a historian of the systems movement. In her 2003 book, Hammond wrote of her conversations with Churchman, back into his days with the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR).
— begin excerpt from Hammond (2003) —
Historical Roots of Systems Thinking
C. West Churchman, who first introduced me to the general-systems community, was a longtime member and former president of the SGSR and has written extensively on the topic of systems thinking. His own professional evolution is typical of the intellectual richness of the tradition. He describes himself as an intellectual grandson of William James, having studied philosophy with a student of James’s by the name of E. A. Singer. During World War II, he was actively involved with the development of operations research, going on to spend much of his professional career teaching in the School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. After retirement (and into his early eighties), he continued to work in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, teaching courses on ethics. [p. 12]
-  See C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971), The Systems Approach (1979), and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). He was the primary author, with Russell Ackoff and Leonard Arnoff, of Introduction to Operations Research (1957), one of the first textbooks in the new field.
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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.… Read more (in a new tab)
At U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s, Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel and C. West Churchman could have had lunch together. While disciplinary thinking might lead novices to focus only on each of pattern language, wicked problems and the systems approach, there are ties (as well as domain-specific distinctions) between the schools.
West Churchman joined Berkeley in 1957, and initiated master’s and doctoral programs in operations research at the School of Business Administration. From 1964 to 1970, Churchman was associate director and research philosopher at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, directing its social sciences program. After his retirement in 1981, Churchman taught in the Peace and Conflict Studies program for 13 years.
Horst Rittel came to the Berkeley College of Environmental Design in 1963, the same year that dean William Wurster recruited Christopher Alexander. In 1973, Rittel split his time between Berkeley and the architecture faculty at the University of Stuttgart, where he founded the Institut für Grundlagen der Planung.
Christopher Alexander became a cofounder of the Center for Environmental Structure at Berkeley in 1967, gradually moving outside of the university by 2000.
The tie between Churchman and Rittel are well-documented, in a 1967 article in Management Science.
Professor Horst Rittel of the University of California Architecture Department has suggested in a recent seminar that the term “wicked problem” refer to that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.
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An article on “sciencing and philosophizing”, coauthored by Gary S. Metcalf and myself, has been published in the Journal of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, following the ISSS 2023 Kruger Park conference in South Africa, last July. There’s a version cacned on the Coevolving Commons.
This article started in a series of conversations with Gary in early 2023, as he was listening to the history of Pragrmatism as an audiobook of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas by Louis Menand, written in 2002. Key figures in the development of this philosophy includes William James (1842—1910) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839—1914). My interests have taken me backwards in time, with C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff both students of Edgar A. Singer, Jr., who was a student of William James. A thread looking into Stephen C. Pepper, also a student of William James and Ralph Barton Perry, was encouraged by online comments from Michael C. Jackson, OBE. This led to a tracing of philosophical influences from the 1890s to 2000.
With my current research into Classical Chinese philosophy, I was encouraged by an 1993 interview citing Churchman having a similar interest for in exploring alternatives to classical Western philosophy for sciencing on systems.
In conversations with Churchman on the historical sources of systems thinking, he often identified the Chinese I Ching as the oldest systems approach. As an effort to model dynamic processes of changing relationships between different kinds of elements, the I Ching might be seen as a systemic approach, in contrast with the more systematic approach of rationalist Western thought, rooted in the work of Plato and Aristotle.
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For the November 2023 Systems Thinking Ontario session, historian and policy advisor Dr. Michael Bonner was invited for an interview by Zaid Khan. In organizing the sessions, we’re trying to avoid the trap of systems thinking becoming a discipline, through learning with a sweeping-in process.
The session opened on a map of The Sassanid Empire c. 620 CE, also known as Second Persian Empire, a high point for the Iranian civilizations before the early Muslim conquests of the 7th–8th centuries.
As the web conference participants introduced themselves, the number of responses with a strong background in history was low. Zaid led the interview of Michael with some probing questions:
- How did you come to the study of history and its overlap with your work?
- Can you draw on the methods that help historians to ask the right questions when historians are dealing with multiple worldviews?
- How do you relate between the two modes of analytical and synthetic thinking?
- How do historians grapple with drawing boundaries around the areas/topics of study that they look at?
- In historical synthesis, at what point does the author may form a narrative that captures their analysis and synthesis?
- How did you approach the narratives – clarity, beauty, order – that you form in your latest book In Defense of Civilization?
Further into the meeting, others were invited to join in with their questions and comments.
This recording of the session is available on Youtube, as well as on the Internet Archive .… Read more (in a new tab)