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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.… 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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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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Systems Thinking, 1969 | David L. Hawk, John Pourdehnad | Systems Thinking Ontario 2023-06-12

The 1969 publication of Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, edited by Fred E. Emery as a Penguin Modern Management paperback, can be regarded as a milestone.  The articles date from the 1940s to the 1960s, when the first wave of systems thinking was on the rise.

For the June session of Systems Thinking Ontario, we stepped through a wiki digest of the book highlights, with two invited discussants.  David L. Hawk (Ph.D. 1973) and John Pourdehnad (Ph.D. 1982) were both graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.  In the Social Systems Science program led by Russell Ackoff, eminent visitors such as Fred Emery were frequent guest lecturers.

This session covered some basic idea in sections of the book, filled with colour commentary on personal history associated with systems researchers in the 1970s.

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

Video H.264 MP4
June 12
[20230612_ST-ON SystemsThinking1969_FHD.mp4]
(FHD 1920×1080 914kbps 861MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was also created during the meeting.

June 12
[20230612_ST-ON SystemsThinking1969.m4a]
(106 MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

Here is the original abstract sent in advance.

It’s been over 50 years, since the publication of the first edition of Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, a Penguin Modern Management paperback reader edited by Fred E. Emery.

From the selected readings, have we moved beyond that milestone? … Read more (in a new tab)

The Sustainable Development Goals: Origins, Context, and Perspectives | ST-ON | 2023-05-08

Within the Systems Thinking Ontario community, we were fortunate to have Nenad Rava step up to explain how the Sustainable Development Goals came to be, and relate them to systems change.

This May session of Systems Thinking Ontario was a quick follow-on for the March edition on Ecological Limits to Development: Living with the SDGs.  March was a launch for a scholarly book.  In May, the self-introductions at the beginning of our session confirmed that attendees were open to hearing more about the history of the SDGs, and what they mean to us, today.

To allow more time for the three discussion periods in the progressivbe presntation, asked participants for a quick check-in via text chat.  The introducton to the book started after 3m12s in.

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

Video H.264 MP4
May 8
[20230508_ST-ON Rava_SDGs 1920×1080.mp4]
(FHD 1920×900 206kbps 238MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was also created during the meeting.

May 8
[20230313_ST-ON EcologicalLimitsToDevelopment.m4a]
(90 MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

Here is the original abstract sent in advance.

Within the Systems Thinking Ontario community, we have an authority on the Sustainable Development Goals with Ned (Nenad Rava), Head of Programmes, Joint SDG Fund. The interest in the March 2023 ST-ON session peaked some interest into unpacking the history and trajectory of the SDGs.… Read more (in a new tab)

Ecological Limits to Development: Living with the SDGs | ST-ON | 2023-03-13

The book Ecological Limits to Development: Living with the Sustainable Development Goals, published in 2002 by Routledge, was released as open access in 2023 by Taylor-Francis for readers who don’t have access to a university library.

For the March edition of Systems Thinking Ontario, we were honoured to celebrate the release with editor-coauthors Kaitlin Kish and Stephen Quilley.  They were joined by contributing authors Sophia Sanniti and Kathryn Gwiazdon.  (There was minor confusion with two Katies/Katys on the call).

In a departure from the usual circle of introductions, we asked participants for a quick check-in via the chat.  The introducton to the book started after 3m15s in, with questions-answers beginning after 1h03m.

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

Video H.264 MP4
March 13
[20230313_ST-ON EcologicalLimitsToDevelopment_1920x900.m4v]
(HDPlus 1920×900 1197kbps 1.04GB)
[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was also created during the meeting.

March 13
[20230313_ST-ON EcologicalLimitsToDevelopment.m4a]
(103 MB)

Katie Kish started the session by describing the origins of the book, as a discussion between her and her doctoral supervisor.  I recognized some of the themes from her 2018 University of Waterloo thesis, Ecological Economic Development Goals: Reincorporating the social sphere in ecological economic theory and practice.  Katie unfortunately had to leave the discussion after 1h25m, leaving responses to her coauthors for the last half hour.… Read more (in a new tab)

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