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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. Pennsylvania).

I see myself as a researcher, and not primarily a teacher.  Gary has more empathy for students with no familiarity of the background history.  For the ISSS 2023 Kruger Park meeting 15-minute presentation, we wrestled through a series of slides more suitable for novices.  Systems Thinking Ontario has more luxury in time, so we are privileged to enjoy a much more relaxed conversation, with contributions from others who had direct experience with these figures.

The discussion reflects that early in the summer, Gary and I were closer to the beginning than the end.  We’re updating the paper for the ISSS Proceedings, and hopefully will publish our learnings more formally in the coming year.

This recording of the session is available on Youtube, as well as on the Internet Archive .

Video H.264 MP4
July 10
[20230710_ST-ON SciencingPhilosophizingSystemsThinking_FHD.mp4]
(FHD 1920×1080 812kbps 697MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was also created during the meeting.

July 10
[20230710_ST-ON SciencingPhilosophizingSystemsThinking.m4a]
(95 MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

Here is the original abstract sent in advance.

Sciencing can be seen as an ongoing pursuit of better answers. Philosophizing can be seen as a pursuit of better questions. In the history and development of systems thinking, both have coevolved.

Gary Metcalf and David Ing are jointly exploring how systems changes may be approached differently via the philosophical history of American pragmatism, and post-colonial (contextural-dyadic) thinking. Gary led a brief in-person session at the ISSS 2023 meeting to introduce the direction. With more time available through a Systems Thinking Ontario session, we can discuss at greater leisure.

The presentation slides are below.

Here is the abstract accepted for the conference

— begin paste abstract —

In the development of systems thinking from the 1950s through the 1990s, strands of an emerging science of systems coevolved with underlying philosophies of science. Collaborations, across the Churchman-Ackoff network in the United States, and the Trist-Emery network in the UK, were largely influenced by traditions in American pragmatism dating back to the 1890s.

Branches of philosophy of science underlie practices in action learning, and theories in the systems sciences. Over decades, progress is more explicitly recognized with verbs rather than nouns. Sciencing can be seen as an ongoing pursuit of better answers. Philosophizing can be seen as a pursuit of better questions. The two pursuits coevolve.

The socio-psychological perspective was constructed on the structuralist psychology of Gestalt, through Andras Angyal and Kurt Lewin. The other two perspectives can be traced through philosophical strands amongst students of William James. The socio-technical perspective was constructed on the inductive and experimental methods in pragmatism, by C. West Churchman building on Edgar A. Singer. The socio-ecological perspective was constructed on pragmatist metaphilosophy, by Stephen C. Pepper building on Ralph Barton Perry. Although published as 3 volumes in a Tavistock Anthology, the three perspectives on organizational systems reflect current sciencing.

Inquiry into the meaning of texture benefits through sweeping in 21st century philosophizing. With processual philosophizing in ecological anthropology, Tim Ingold depicts strands as the lives of lines, and texture in weaving. With the comparative philosophizing of the science of classical Chinese medicine for western audiences, Keekok Lee distinguishes the waning and waxing of yin qi and yang qi, as the intertwining of qi-in-dissipating mode and qi-in-concentrating mode. Through a post-colonial constructionist program of philosophizing Rethinking Systems Thinking, principal concepts of (i) rhythm, (ii) texture, and (ii) propensity have become the core of Systems Changes Learning practices, theory, and methods.

Causal texture theory shifted the emphasis from the system of interest to four types of change in the organizational environment. The four types of causal textures can be extended with recognition of qi-in-dissipating and qi-in-concentrating modes. The constructionist philosophy can be applied to the socio-psychological, socio-technical, and socio-ecological perspectives through a variety of contextual-dyadic combinations.

The emphasis on systems changes on the sciencing of systems prioritizes a time-space predisposition over a space-time presumption. Conversations on systems thinking accordingly inquire first on rhythmic shifts in textures, and subsequently the defining of systems and boundaries. Systems Changes Learning is a systems approach bridging Western and Chinese philosophizing.

Suggested pre-reading:

On American pragmatism:

On Systems Changes Learning:

On Contextual-Dyadic Thinking:

— end paste abstract —


1 Comment

  • A very articulate outline of a very complicated pile of ideas by some of the great thinkers over the past hundred years. They were seeking ways to recover from an ever-growing pile of analytic pieces left over from the serious work of the reductionist mind. They saw the piles to increasingly resemble garbage.
    I like that this article begins with the pragmatists in that they were seriously looking for how to behave better, better relative to what is occurring, until what occurs is suddenly seen differently. That changing of difference was why Ackoff shifted towards idealization, allowed it to become fluid. Trist avoided this by liking humans and thinking well of them, no matter how badly they behaved. Thus, he didn’t include pragmatism as his concern. He thought humans would respond well to truth, even with much evidence that they don’t. Churchman simply saw humans attempting to make the non-rational into the rational as pretty hopeless thus he just kept hoping for the best as he watched the irrational take over affairs.
    Good Stuff Guys.

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