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Reframing Systems Thinking for Systems Changes: Sciencing and Philosophizing from Pragmatism towards Processes as Rhythms | JISSS

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.

Institutional lineages of key figures in systems sciences and pragmatism

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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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.

Institutional lineages of key figures in systems sciences and pragmatism

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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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:

EXPERIMENTALISM

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)

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:

EXPERIMENTALISM

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)

Sciencing and Philosophizing on Threads in Systems Thinking | Gary S. Metcalf + David Ing | Systems Thinking Ontario 2023-07-10

Digging into philosophies underlying the systems sciences, pragmatism seems to have been a strong historical foundation for some research streams. In ongoing discussions, Gary Metcalf and I have been approaching pragmatism from two directions. Gary has been tracking from mid-1800s forward, listening to the audiobook The Metaphysical Club, with a history of figures living through the American Civil War, seeking alternative approaches to the British and continental European ideas. I have been working backwards on two streams.  (1) West Churchman and Russell Ackoff were students of Edgar A. Singer Jr., who was a father of a pragmatic school of thought at the University of Pennsylvania, having previously taught with William James at Harvard University.  (2) Eric Trist and Fred Emery, in the development of the Socio-Ecological Systems perspective, track back to Stephen C. Pepper, who studied under Ralph Barton Perry, an associate of William James who is recognized for anthologizing and clarifying James’ writing.

The ISSS Kruger Park 2023 meeting was an opportunity for us to share our work in progress.  Tracing the institutional lineages of some of the key figures of interest shows periods when the philosophers and systems scientists had formal appointments to the same places.

Institutional lineages of key figures in systems sciences and pragmatism

Notable institions include Harvard U., U. Pennsylvania, and the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations.  The many decades give a sense of the time scales (e.g. Pepper arrived at U.C. Berkeley much before Churchman; Trist and Emery were together at Tavistock, and visited Ackoff at U.… Read more (in a new tab)

Digging into philosophies underlying the systems sciences, pragmatism seems to have been a strong historical foundation for some research streams. In ongoing discussions, Gary Metcalf and I have been approaching pragmatism from two directions. Gary has been tracking from mid-1800s forward, listening to the audiobook The Metaphysical Club, with a history of figures living through the American Civil War, seeking alternative approaches to the British and continental European ideas. I have been working backwards on two streams.  (1) West Churchman and Russell Ackoff were students of Edgar A. Singer Jr., who was a father of a pragmatic school of thought at the University of Pennsylvania, having previously taught with William James at Harvard University.  (2) Eric Trist and Fred Emery, in the development of the Socio-Ecological Systems perspective, track back to Stephen C. Pepper, who studied under Ralph Barton Perry, an associate of William James who is recognized for anthologizing and clarifying James’ writing.

The ISSS Kruger Park 2023 meeting was an opportunity for us to share our work in progress.  Tracing the institutional lineages of some of the key figures of interest shows periods when the philosophers and systems scientists had formal appointments to the same places.

Institutional lineages of key figures in systems sciences and pragmatism

Notable institions include Harvard U., U. Pennsylvania, and the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations.  The many decades give a sense of the time scales (e.g. Pepper arrived at U.C. Berkeley much before Churchman; Trist and Emery were together at Tavistock, and visited Ackoff at U.… Read more (in a new tab)

Nonrelativistic pragmatism and systems thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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C. West Churchman on the I Ching

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

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

— begin excerpt from Hammond (2003)

Historical Roots of Systems Thinking

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

  • [17] See C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971), The Systems Approach (1979), and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). He was the primary author, with Russell Ackoff and Leonard Arnoff, of Introduction to Operations Research (1957), one of the first textbooks in the new field.
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A luminary in the systems movement, C. West Churchman, showed some respect for Chinese philosophy, with the I Ching (Yi Jing) in particular.

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

— begin excerpt from Hammond (2003)

Historical Roots of Systems Thinking

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

  • [17] See C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971), The Systems Approach (1979), and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). He was the primary author, with Russell Ackoff and Leonard Arnoff, of Introduction to Operations Research (1957), one of the first textbooks in the new field.
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Appreciating Systems Changes via Multiparadigm Inquiry | ISSS 2022 Proceedings

In the ISSS 2022 Plenary talk, the first 25 minutes were a blast through (a) the rising interest in system(s) change(s); (b) appreciative systems (Vickers); (c1) the philosophy of architectural design; (c2) the philosophy of ecological anthropology; (c3) the philosophy of Classical Chinese Medicine; (c4) the philosophy of rhythms; and (d) methods of multiparadigm inquiry, and open theorizing.

The formal publication of the manuscript in the Proceedings of the 66th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences unpacks the content for those with an interest in really understanding the breadth of domains that the Systems Changes Learning Circle has explored, from 2019 through 2022.

This proceedings release is a milestone, as a coherent work that has been lightly reviewed. In a more thorough process of peer review, a publication may be further refined by anonymous comments requesting clarification of some points, or suggestions that some sections could be abbreviated. My style of writing presumes that readers might not know all of the references, so I’m explicit about sources. (This also helps me remember from whom I’m learning!)

Here’s the abstract, as it appears in the proceedings.


Abstract

In which ways is the subject of systems change(s), as a first-class concept, distinct from a reduction into (i) systems and (ii) changes? For practice, theory, and methods to be authentically rigourous, the philosophy underlying an approach to systems changes can be explicated. Through an appreciative systems framework, presumptions are surfaced as to (i) what are and are not systems changes; (ii) when, where, and for whom, systems changes are prioritized for attention; and (iii) how systems changes should be addressed.… Read more (in a new tab)

In the ISSS 2022 Plenary talk, the first 25 minutes were a blast through (a) the rising interest in system(s) change(s); (b) appreciative systems (Vickers); (c1) the philosophy of architectural design; (c2) the philosophy of ecological anthropology; (c3) the philosophy of Classical Chinese Medicine; (c4) the philosophy of rhythms; and (d) methods of multiparadigm inquiry, and open theorizing.

The formal publication of the manuscript in the Proceedings of the 66th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences unpacks the content for those with an interest in really understanding the breadth of domains that the Systems Changes Learning Circle has explored, from 2019 through 2022.

This proceedings release is a milestone, as a coherent work that has been lightly reviewed. In a more thorough process of peer review, a publication may be further refined by anonymous comments requesting clarification of some points, or suggestions that some sections could be abbreviated. My style of writing presumes that readers might not know all of the references, so I’m explicit about sources. (This also helps me remember from whom I’m learning!)

Here’s the abstract, as it appears in the proceedings.


Abstract

In which ways is the subject of systems change(s), as a first-class concept, distinct from a reduction into (i) systems and (ii) changes? For practice, theory, and methods to be authentically rigourous, the philosophy underlying an approach to systems changes can be explicated. Through an appreciative systems framework, presumptions are surfaced as to (i) what are and are not systems changes; (ii) when, where, and for whom, systems changes are prioritized for attention; and (iii) how systems changes should be addressed.… Read more (in a new tab)

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