Chapter_31_HOI - Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity

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30 nov. 2013 (il y a 5 années et 6 mois)

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Systems t

Sytse Strijbos

Systems thinking is one form that interdisciplinarity has taken since the middle of the
previous century. It is a catchall term for different postwar developments in a variety of
fields, such as cybernetics, information th
eory, game and decision theory, automaton theory,
systems engineering

and operations research. These developments concur, however,
inasmuch as, in one way or the other, they relate to a basic reorientation in scientific thinking
attempting to overcome eve
increasing specialization, trying to make a shift from
reductionistic to holistic thinking, while acknowledging the unity of reality and the
interconnections between its different parts and aspects.

There have been a number of attempts to define interd
isciplinarity and identify its
different types. Of particular use in the present case is Margaret Boden (1999), distinguishing
six forms ranging from weak to strong: encyclopaedic, contextualizing, sharing, cooperative,
generalizing and integrative type of

interdisciplinarity. Encyclopaedic interdisciplinarity
requires not exchange or sharing between any disciplines involves, whereas integrative
interdisciplinarity demands rigorous interaction. The latter is thus according to Boden the
most genuine kind of
interdisciplinarity as “an enterprise in which some of the concepts and
insights of one discipline contribute to the problems and theories of another

preferably in
both directions.” Artificial intelligence, a field in which Boden has a scholarly reputati
on, is
in her view an excellent example of integrated interdisciplinarity. Each of the main types of
AI, traditional or symbolic AI, connectionism, and ‘nouvelle AI’ has borrowed concepts from
other disciplines such as philosophy, logic, psychology, and ne



How does systems thinking fit into this typology? Boden labels the proposal for a
‘general systems theory’ that has been launched by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and others in the
middle of the previous century and Norbert Wiener’s closely relate
d idea of cybernetics as
examples of ‘generalising interdisciplinarity’, defined as “an enterprise in which a single
theoretical perspective is applied to a wide range of previously distinct disciplines.” Also the
more recent developments in the area of co
mplexity studies can be regarded as an example of
this type
. And Boden (1999:
20) correctly notes that it is no accident that these examples are
all heavily mathematical: “The abstractness of mathematics enables it to be applied, in
principle, to all other


Boden nevertheless fails to note some of the ways systems thinking has developed. In
his later work von Bertalanffy for instance has distinguished between general system theory
in a broader sense

in a narrower sense
. Although von Berta
lanffy’s own theoretical
work focuses on the latter, he stresses in his

General System Theory: Foundations,
Developments, Applications

(1968), a collection of earlier published articles over a period of
more then twenty years, that he had both in mind from

the outset. His concern is not just with
a certain theory but the breakthrough of a new paradigm in science.

Different postwar
developments, such as cybernetics, information theory, network theory, game theory, systems
engineering and related fields culmi
nated in the birth of the systems movement when von
Bertalanffy joined with Boulding, Rapoport and Gerard to establish in 1954 the Society for
General Systems Research, an association that still exists under the name of the International
Society for the Sy
stems Sciences. Stimulated by this new scientific association a dynamic,
based field has developed and a multiplicity of approaches and trends arose.

With the increasing expansion of systems thinking von Bertalanffy felt the need to
distinguish diff
erent domains. Following his distinctions, the wide range of studies in the
systems field

general system theory in a broader sense

can be divided into three realms or


basic types. The first is
systems science
, which can be defined as the scientific exp
and theory of ‘systems’ in the various sciences, such as biology, sociology, economy etc,
while general system theory concerns the principles that apply to all. The second realm is
systems approach in technology

and management

that concerns proble
ms arising in modern
technology and society.

While philosophy is present in the areas of systems science and
systems technology,
systems philosophy

can be distinguished in the systems field as a third
domain in its own right. In the view of leading systems

thinkers such as von Bertalanffy the
introduction of ‘system’ as a key concept entails not only a total reorientation in science and
technology, but also in philosophical thought.

To explore the implications of systems thinking for interdisciplinarity
it is appropriate
to consider each of the domains more in detail. In what follows some main lines will be
sketched, rather than pursuing an encyclopaedic overview of the developments in each
domain. A broad and rather up
date documentation of the system
s field can be found in
Systems Thinking

(2002), a four
volume collection edited by Gerald Midgley that includes
more than seventy classic and contemporary texts, including some critical evaluating studies.

1. Systems

The well
known stock phrase t
hat “a whole is more than the sum of its parts” stems
from a tradition in Greek philosophy, older than the conceptual use of the term ‘system’, that
speaks of wholes that are composed of parts (Harte 2002). This whole
part relationship
attracted renewed sc
ientific interest in wholeness and the whole arising in the early twentieth
century. Exploring the genealogy of contemporary systems thinking reference has been made
to Jan C. Smuts (1870
1950), a South African statesman and philosopher who
is often
ed as a white supremacist supporting a racially segregated society (
. Shula Marks
2000). In his book
Holism and Evolution
created the concept and word ‘holism’


(derived from the Greek


meaning whole, and entirety), expressing the idea that
all the properties of a given system (biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic,
etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system a
s a
whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. It has also been claimed by
Mattessich (1978) and others that the Russian philosopher and scientist Alexander A.
Bogdanov (1873
1928) has worked out the first version of a general systems conce
ption in
his book
Tektologiya: Vseobschaya Organizatsionnaya Nauka (
Universal Science of

Organization: Essays in Tektology

). Both Smuts and Bogdanov have thus anticipated
systems ideas in the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the con
ceptual use of
‘system’ as a technical term in science and technology arose some decades later and became
ubiquitous since the 1950s.

The philosopher
biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901
1972) became one of the
leading figures in the rise of systems thi
nking by coining the concept of ‘system
’ or more
precise the concept of ‘open system
’ as a key concept in the quest for a unified science
incorporating all the
disciplines, each corresponding with a certain segment of the empirical
. Just like Smuts
, von Bertalanffy was also inspired by the debate in the biological
sciences in the first decades of the previous century. Struggling with the controversy between
two competing views, the dominant mechanistic
causal approach and vitalist
ption, he does not take sides for one or the other but proposed what he called an
‘organismic’ view. At issue was the possibility of an explanation for phenomena of life that
would have the status of an exact science, not through a

of biology to
physics but
through the

of classical physics into a broader, exact natural science. Von
Bertalanffy considered this idea of expansion of scientific concepts as a key that opens a door
to very far
reaching scientific developments. The extension of

the domain of exact science
from physics to biology must be carried further. Organismic biology, he argues, which


focuses on the study of the organism as an open system (in contrast to the study of closed
systems in classical physics) becomes in its turn
a borderline case of the so called ‘general
system theory
’ The concept of the ‘open system’ is for him the truly ‘general system’
concept enabling the integration of all the sciences into a general system theory.

Like von Bertalanffy, the economist Kenne
th E. Boulding

1995), is one of the
early pioneers and founders of the systems movement. Being aware of the increasing
difficulty for profitable exchange among the disciplines the more science breaks into
subgroups, Boulding started pursuing the unit
y of sciences as an economist within the social
sciences. Early in his scientific career he became convinced that all the social sciences were
fundamentally studying the same thing, which is the social system. In his book
The Image

(1956) Boulding introduc
es the ‘image’
concept, apparently inspired by Shannon and
Weaver’s concept of
information, serving as a basis for the desired integration of the social
sciences. And in a classical article “General Systems Theory: The Skeleton of Science,”
published in th
e same year 1956, he pointed

out the next step towards a general systems
theory, incorporating all the sciences. Boulding sketches two possible approaches in the
interdisciplinary quest for a general systems theory. A first approach is to identify general
phenomena which are found in many disciplines, such as the phenomenon of growth. A
second, more systematic approach is to arrange the empirical fields in a certain hierarchic
order, a hierarchy of systems in which
each higher systems level has a higher deg
ree of
complexity. This issue of hierarchy has subsequently been widely discussed in the systems

by Herbert Simon in an often reprinted paper about “The Architecture of
Complexity: Hierarchic Systems

originally published in 1962


back over a period of more than 40 years Peter Checkland (1999
49) made
the observation that the original interdisciplinary project of the founders cannot be declared a
success. A meta
level kind of approach leading to a greater unification of the scienc
es as


envisaged has not occurred. However, one can admit that systems ideas and concepts have
been incorporated in many disciplines. Even sometimes new systems concepts and insights
born in one discipline have contributed to the problems and theories of an
other. An
impressive example of such an exchange between disciplines

or integrative
interdisciplinarity, speaking in Boden’s typology

is the work of the social scientist Niklas
Luhmann (1927

Aiming for a unified social theory, a general theory
of social systems, Luhmann
argues in his
Social Systems

(1995) that two subsequent paradigm changes have taken place
on the level of general systems theory, showing a shift from an ontological to a more
functionalistic systems concept,

from thinking i
n terms of wholes as unchangeable
substances to systems that maintain itself in a dynamic exchange with their environment. The
first move in this direction was due to von Bertalanffy in the mid
1950s. By proposing the
concept of the ‘open system’ a transfo
rmation of thinking took place in which the traditional
difference between
whole and part

was replaced by
system and environment
. Like any
paradigm change, Luhmann notes, this implies a conceptual broadening. What has been
conceived previously as the diffe
rence between whole and part, the old paradigm, was
reformulated by this new schema as system differentiation and thereby built into the new
paradigm. Systems differentiation can be understood as the repetition within systems of the
difference between syst
em and environment.

The second paradigm change and move towards a more radical functionalistic
thinking is due to developments in systems science leading to a theory of
. Initial efforts in the 1960s, in which Heinz von Foerster (1

2002) played a
leading role, employed the concept of self
organization. Self
organization is the phenomenon
of self
reference with regard to the structure of a system, that is to say that structural changes
are produced by the system itself. Self
ence in a more encompassing way however


include also the composing elements of a system. For this purpose the biologists Humberto
Maturana and Francisco Varela (1946

2001) created the term

Autopoiesis thus means that a system h
as the ability to reproduce itself on the level of its own

According to Luhmann, a theory of self
referential systems as the most recent general
system theory opened up important avenues for a general theory of social systems. This
of the general system concept from ‘open system’ to ‘self
referential system’
enables Luhmann to overcome the critique on Talcot Parsons, his great predecessor in
sociology, whose social systems theory was the dominant paradigm in sociology during the
s and 1960s. While very influential for a few decades, Parsons’ systems theory was also
widely criticized as a legitimization of the status quo. It was charged that Parsons’ systems
approach was inherently conservative by its focus on the maintenance of so
cial order and by
emphasizing consensus at the lack of acknowledging social change and conflict. Profiting
from newer developments in systems science, Luhmann succeeded in the 1980s to propose a
new social systems theory, turning around Parsons’ structural
functionalism into a functional
structural systems approach.

2. Systems approach in technology and management

Parallel to the rise of the interdisciplinary movement in the sciences, increasingly the
need has also been felt for integration and general fra
meworks in the fields of technology and
management. While science concerns the pursuit of knowledge in the solution of theoretical
problems, technology and management aim at shaping or altering reality in addressing real
world problems. However

these prob
lems have become so complex that traditional ways and
means are not sufficient anymore, but approaches of generalist and interdisciplinary nature
became necessary. Nowadays the realm of systems approaches in technology and


anagement comprises a broad spec
trum of issues ranging from environmental modelling
and world modelling in the early 1970s, studies in business strategy and management of
organizations, medical practice and family therapy, human development and poverty issues,
to the quickly developing f
ield of industrial ecology since the 1990s.

The roots of this domain in systems thinking are quite complex and go back to
various developments that happened during or shortly after the Second World War. One
important aspect is that engineering has been l
ed to think not in terms of single machines and
separate technical artefacts but in those of larger ‘systems’: the engineering of the telephone
network, for example, rather than the telephone instrument or the switching equipment.
Traditionally engineers a
re used to tackle practical problems by analyzing its parts and
finding a solution for the different parts. As the name
systems engineering

suggests the idea
took hold that the traditional approach to engineer separate components needed to be
extended to a
pproach systems made up out of many components that are interacting.
Engineers speak about electric systems, power systems, transportation systems, computer
systems, etc. The initial use of the term “systems engineering” with roughly its present
meaning be
gan probably in the early 1940s at the Bell Telephone Laboratories


1956). A leading pioneer was the electrical engineer Arthur D.

Hall (1925
2006) who worked
for many years at Bell Labs and published in 1962 the first significant book on systems
engineering entitled
A Methodology for Systems Engineering

A development closely related to systems engineering is
operations research

“operational research

as it is known in the United Kingdom. Briefly discussing the
difference bet
ween both fields

Hall (1962:
18) notes that operations research is usually
concerned with the operation and the optimization of an existing system, including both men
and machines, while in contrast systems engineering focuses on the planning and design of
new systems to
better perform existing operations or to implement new ones never performed


before. In the aftermath of the wartime C. West
Churchman (1914
2004) and Russell L.
Ackoff, who were inspired by American pragmatism and aimed to apply this philosophy to

issues, became in North America leading scholars in the incipient fields of operations
research and systems thinking.
Together with Arnoff they published one of the field’s first
Introduction to Operations Research
(1957) that became internation
recognized. The book emphasized an interdisciplinary team
based approach, characterizing
operations research as “the application of scientific methods, techniques and tools to
problems involving the operations of a system so as to provide those in con
trol of the system
with the optimum solution to the problem.”

Simultaneously with the development of systems engineering and operations
research emerged in the 1950s an approach known as
systems analysis
, at that time closely
related with the RAND (acr
onym for “research and development”) Corporation, a non
organization in the advice
giving business, established in 1948. Since the 1960s Rand
systems analysis began to find broader industrial and governmental uses that led to an
initiative of
12 nations to set up in 1972 a non
governmental interdisciplinary research
institute in Austria, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).
Systems analysis has been defined by Quade (1973
121) as “analysis to suggest a course of
tion by systematically examining the costs, effectiveness and risks of alternative policies
and strategies

and designing additional ones if those examined are found wanting.” A case
described by Miser and Quade (1985) is a policy analysis clarifying the
issues for a
governmental decision in the Netherlands after the North Sea flood of 1953 about the
protection of the Oosterschelde estuary from flooding.

Acknowledging the differences that are present in background and concerning
particular features of
systems engineering, systems analysis, and operations research, these
systems approaches show important commonalities.
They all rely heavily on the methods of


the natural and technical sciences. Consequently they aspire to describe phenomena by
statistical models, while holding the assumption that an optimal solution exists
for a problem situation and may be uncovered in this way. Another member of this family of
approaches is
systems dynamics

which gained a certain reputation in the 1970s in t
he work of
Forrester (1971) and Meadows (1972) on world modelling for the Club of Rome.

Examining the origins and nature of systems engineering and systems analysis,
Checkland (1978
107) concluded that a single view underlies these approaches: “there is

desired state, S(1), and a present state S(0), and alternative ways

of getting from S(0) to S(1).
‘Problem solving

according to this view, consists of defining S(1) and S(0) and selecting the
best means of reducing the difference between them.” This c
onstitutes what Checkland called
“hard” systems thinking
, defined as any kind of systems thinking which adopts the means
end schema. Although this model may be useful for engineering
type of problems, it has a
very limited applicability. Hard systems think
ing demands that objectives can be clearly
defined, however, an important aspect of many “soft” problem situations is that involved
parties are likely to see the problem situation differently and define objectives accordingly.
Checkland was thus faced with

the challenge to rethink the failing concept of a systems
approach rooted in the engineering tradition. This has led to his conceptualization of a soft
systems approach in the 1970s that admits the human dimension, dealing with multiple
perceptions of rea
lity, values and interests of the people involved (Checkland and Haynes

Similar to the scientific program that Peter B. Checkland and his colleagues started
in the 1970s in the United Kingdom at Lancaster University, is the later work of Churchman
and Ackoff in North America. Dissatisfied or even disillusioned with the course of operations
Ackoff (1973:
670) argued that mainstream operations research as it has developed
since 1950 was only useful in dealing with problem areas that can be d
ecomposed into


problems that are independent to each other. However, major societal problems such as
discrimination, inequality within and between nations, increasing criminality, and so on, must
be attacked holistically, with a comprehensive systems appro
ach. Ackoff’s (1979a, 1979b)
dispute with the operations research community culminated in two papers in which he called
for a new paradigm breaking away from the ever
increasing ‘mathematization’ of operations
research and for a return to true interdiscipl
inarity, involving in the research of all those
affected by it.

In their plea for a systems approach Ackoff and Churchman triggered not only
debate in the operations research community about nature and characteristics of the field but
also delivered a fr
esh input to the debate in the systems movement on interdisciplinarity. In
1963 Ackoff published an article in the Yearbook of the Society for General Systems
Research in which he argued for a new vision on an integrating systems science and the

with the conception of general systems theory. According to Ackoff the
conception of a general system theory endeavours to achieve integration using the results that
are available in the mono
disciplines, that is to say it attempts a unity
. How
in his view ‘the integral’ precedes the disciplinary splitting of a problem into disjoint chunks.
“Therefore, posing the problem of unifying science by interrelating disciplinary output either
in the forms of facts or concepts (

logical positivis
m), or laws or theories (

system theory), is to try to lock the bar
n door after the horse has gone
” (Ackoff 1963

Ackoff’s idea that integration has to take place a priori,

in the phase of
knowledge production, implies that he put e
mphasis on science as an activity and the
scientific method employed in that activity. Integral knowledge requires an integration of the
involved disciplines within an interdisciplinary framework. The integration must come
during, not after, the performanc
e of the research. In his conception of systems science,
systems research is on sounder ground than von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory because


it takes systems as it finds them, in all their multidisciplinary glory. For the realization of
linary research Ackoff formulates three important conditions. First, it is necessary
to unify the variables and concepts of the different disciplines to a common denominator.
This enables the construction of interdisciplinary systems models. Second, for a
development of systems research an appropriate methodology is required. There is a need

to develop scientific methods to evaluate and compare the performance of systems such as
cars, planes, production systems, health care systems. Third, the
realization of programs of
interdisciplinary ‘systems research’ requires special educational requirements.

3. Systems

The worlds of science, technology and philosophy do not exist in isolation from each
other. Because philosophy raises question
s that are fundamental for science and technology
one could argue that philosophy is by nature an interdisciplinary endeavour. For the sake of
clarity it is therefore useful to distinguish some different meanings in which the term systems
philosophy can be

used, each standing for different themes and a different role of philosophy
in the systems field.

First, systems philosophy deals with the fundamental philosophical issues involved in
the realm of systems science. Such a fundamental issue in biology is t
he question “what is
life?” or “how to understand life phenomena?” As we discussed, von Bertalanffy advocated a
called organismic conception, the view that the organism is a whole or system,
transcending its parts when these are considered in isolation.

Searching for a satisfying
understanding of the Aristotelian dictum of the whole that is more than its parts, von
Bertalanffy at the same time takes a stand in another fundamental problem since Greek
philosophy. There is the famous statement of Heraclitus
: “
panta rhei
,” everything is in flux,
arguing against Parmenides who taught that only the static being was real, the fixed, and that


change is an illusion. In this controversy that has persisted in one form or another across the
whole of Western philosoph
y and science, systems science adopts the Heraclitean point of
view. The model of the organism as an open system implies that life has to be understood as
primarily a stream of life. Forms and structures that manifest themselves in living nature are
in von

Bertalanffy’s view secondary, just like social structures are secondary in Luhmann’s
understanding of social phenomena. Systems science thus manifests a totally dynamic view
on reality in which enduring structures seem to evaporate and become volatile and


Second, systems philosophy concerns the philosophical foundations of the systems
approach in technology and management. Comparing Ackoff with von Bertalanffy, one
notices that they agree that society is going through an important intellectual re
volution that
will usher us into a new era of science and society

a turn, in Ackoff’s wording, from a
Machine Age to a Systems Age. One of the important characteristics of systems science, as
we have seen above, is the priority to the dynamic and flowing

character of reality. The same
characteristic seems to hold for systems research when Ackoff (1981
16) points out that
there is a turn from analysis to synthesis, which implies a turn to a functional understanding
of the thing to be explained in terms of

its role or function within its containing whole or
environment. The synthetic approach does not exclude analysis, but in the Systems Age
synthesis has priority over analysis, and function over structure. The turn from the Machine
Age to the Systems Age e
ven implies a different understanding of reality. Characteristic for
the Machine Age is the deistic view in which God is regarded as the creator of the world as a
machine which runs according to fixed laws. While the Machine Age and deism personify
God as
the Creator
God, who is independent from his handiwork, God loses this personal and
independent character in the Systems Age. Like Smuts’ holism also Ackoff’s (1981
systems thinking is infused with a rationalist pantheistic view in which the world coi
with God as the largest, all
embracing whole.



In a more elaborate way this is also the case in Churchman. In his view, the most
fundamental and serious issues of the systems approach concern the problem of
improvement. If we assume that we have the c
apability to improve systems, then what
exactly do we mean by “improvement” in designing interventions for our social systems?
2) concisely describes the fundamental problem right at the start of his
Challenge to Reason

as follows: “H
ow can we design improvement in large systems
without understanding the whole system, and if the answer is that we cannot, how is it
possible to understand the whole system?” In a line of reasoning similar to Ackoff,
Churchman points to the tradition of an
alysis in Western thought that presumes that parts of
the whole system can be studied and improved more or less in isolation from the rest of the
system. And comparable to Ackoff, also Churchman discerns two differing views of the
whole system and its rela
tionship to God. If we assume that a Supreme Being exists,
Churchman (1979
: 41,

italics added) says, “then we have the conceptual problem of
describing (modelling) His relationship to the rest of reality.” And he continues: “Two
plausible hypotheses come t
o mind. The Augustinian hypothesis (…) is that
God is the

of the real system, as well as its decision maker. (…) The other hypothesis, the one
chosen by Spinoza, is to say that
the whole system

He is the most general system.”

Third, there
is the aspiration to formulate a systems philosophy as a new philosophy,
of which Archie Bahm, Mario Bunge and Ervin Laszlo are its chief proponents. As a prolific
author of many books Laszlo became the most influential. Building on von Bertalanffy’s

for a new scientific world view he developed in the 1970s the framework for a systems
philosophy in tune to the latest developments in science and technology, representing a total
reorientation of thought which aims to overthrow and replace the dominating

worldview and its incarnation in the industrialized and commercialized society of today. The
dynamic view on reality that, as we noticed, underlies von Bertalanffy’s and Luhmann’s


theoretical ideas and concepts, is a typical feature of the sys
tems view of the world that has
been summarized by Laszlo (1972
: 80
81) as follows: “Imagine a universe made up not of
things in space and time, but of patterned flows extending throughout its reaches. (…) Some
of the flows tie themselves into knots and tw
ist into a relatively stable pattern. Now there is
something there

something enduring (…) ‘Things’ are emerging from the background of
flows like knots tied on a fishing net.”

Laszlo’s philosophical conceptions culminate in his view on the future of hum
in our globalizing world. The general thrust of the many books that he published over a
period of nearly forty years is that contemporary society is in a critical stage of development.
World society can only be gotten out of the danger zone if there

is a complete turnabout at the
spiritual level. In Laszlo’s view there is thus not only the need to bridge the gap
between the sciences, gaining an integral scientific view on the world, more important even is
the integrating role of systems th
inking in bridging the divide between science and religion,
between science and spirituality. The interdisciplinary challenge for systems thinking is thus
extended in Laszlo’s view in the search for a new uniting spirituality for humankind. From
uction to Systems Philosophy
The Systems View of the World

published more then 30 years ago till his more recent books such as
Science and the

Reenchantment of the Cosmos

(2006), such a spirituality is linked to an evolutionary dynamic
of the universe, arguing that there exists an interconnecting cosmic field that conserves
and conveys information, a subtle sea of fluctuating energies from which all things arise.
Similar to the pantheism of Churchman and Ackoff also Laszlo thus rejects a

personal God
who is separated as creator from the universe. In his systems view of the universe God is the
embracing cosmic consciousness and we are part of that.

Subsequent d



Although systems science perpetuates in newer developments s
uch as systems
biology, chaos theory, and the study of complex systems (Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico,
United States), the original interdisciplinary

of the founders of the systems
movement has largely failed in its early aspirations to create a g
reater unification of the
sciences setting out general laws and principles governing the behaviour of any type of
system. On the contrary the systems movement was more successful in creating
interdisciplinary approaches for tackling practical real
world pr
oblem situations. Jackson

234) offers two reasons why systems approaches in technology and management
should have proved so successful. First, practical problems are by nature interdisciplinary and
do not correspond to a single mono
discipline. Seco
nd, the systems idea provides a useful
antidote to reductionism and enshrines a commitment to looking at real
world problems in
terms of wholes and interconnected elements. With the work of Ackoff and Churchman in
North America and that of Checkland in Eng
land this domain has not come to a standstill.
Moving from ‘hard systems thinking’ to ‘soft systems thinking’ they in principle opened the
way forward to further debates and advances. Ideas that have inspired subsequent
developments derive from social theo

and theology
. The account I shall give
here is necessarily biased by the role played by myself and the programmatic research efforts
in which I am involved.

In the first place
a program

entered on the stage in the 1980s that has been called

‘critical systems thinking’, a

that involved many people and gained a strong basis in
the University of Hull in the United Kingdom since the appointment of Michael C. Jackson in
1979, who is also the editor
chief of a central journal in the sys
tems community,
Research and Behavioral Science
. An important source that supplies informatio
n about the
broader context of
critical systems thinking is
a collection of articles
Critical Systems



(1991) edited by two of its main proponents
Robert L. Flood and Michael C.

Inspired by the social theorist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas

critical systems
thinking tried to overcome shortcomings in soft systems thinking. Similar to Checkland’s
critical analysis of the origins and nature
of hard systems thinking in 1978, Jackson embarked
upon a similar critique of the ambitions of soft systems thinking in an early article published
in 1982 on the nature of soft systems thinking. And he arrives at the conclusion that although
soft systems t

has attacked the technical rationality embodied in hard systems
thinking, one crucial element was never targeted, it still proceeds from existing power
relationships. In Jackson’s own wording: “Soft systems thinking is most suitable for the kind

social engineering that ensures the continued survival, by adaptation, of existing social
elites. It is not authoritarian like systems analysis or systems engineering, b
ut it is

(Jackson 1982:

In an overview article of about 2
0 years later
(2001: 233)
points out how critical systems thinking gradually made progress
towards realising its goal. After it became obvious that all systems approaches have their
limitations, it was critical systems thinking which has supplied t
he bigger picture
at a meta
methodological level
and “has set out how the variety of methodologies now available can be
used together in a coherent manner to promote successful intervention in complex societal
problem situations.”

Independent from the gro
up at Hull University, an important contribution to the strand
of critical systems thinking has been made in the 1980s by Werner Ulrich from the University
of Fribourg in Switzerland. As a student from Churchman and inspired by Kant’s critical
philosophy a
nd Habermas’ critical social theory Ulrich
launched a program

that led to the
conception of ‘critical systems heuristics
’ exposed in his main publication
Critical Heuristics
of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy
. A distinguishing feat
ure of this


dialect of critical systems thinking is its methodological core principle, known as ‘boundary

The latest
development is a program

that emerged in the late 1990s.
This program

involves a variety of disciplines, ranging from engineer
ing to philosophy, executed by an
international group of cooperating scholars affiliated with universities in different countries.
In view of the need for an independent organizational basis the Centre for Philosophy,
Technology and Social systems (CPTS) h
as been established in 1996 that is linked with the
Philosophy Faculty of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Inspired by the legacy of
philosophers from this university, Herman Dooyeweerd (1894
1977) and his student Hendrik
van Riessen (
2000), this

attempts to break with the Western idea of an
autonomous human rationality and the absolutization of a scientific view of the world as the
final horizon for human understanding. It aims to break with deism and a mechanistic
technical world view in
which God and reality are separated but also with pantheism and a
dynamic world view blurring the boundary between God and the world. Dooyeweerdian
thinking that
provided common ground
the CPTS

is based on a theistic
world view that di
a personal
God from created reality and relates God and reality
in a living, continuous and sustaining creator
creation relationship.
Churchman (1987: 139)
has once formulated as the most important question for systems thinking “Does God exist?

Of equal importance however is the next question “If God exists, how does he relate to
reality?” Both questions are also fundamental in Christian theology and are rephrased by
John Calvin (1509
1574) in terms of the two connected questions about our know
ledge of
God and that of ourselves (Calvin 2008).

With the appearance of
In Search of an Integrative Vision for Technology
, edited by
Strijbos and Basden (2006), the results
of the CPTS

during its first decade have
been documented.

There are

at least three important features that distinguish the


interdisciplinary scope and character

of this program
. In the first place interdisciplinarity
concerns the shaping of a
philosophical integrative
framework that depicts the relationship
between ‘techn
ology’ and ‘society
’ aiming for a normative
ethical basis to guide the
development of science and technology for the benefit of society. For that purpose a systems
view on ‘
and society’
has been conceived in which different system
s levels are
istinguished (Strijbos and Basden 2006
). With the help of this model it is possible to connect

in engineering, management methodology, philosophy

on a specific systems
level with research on other systems levels.

Second, an important part of
the research

to which a number of people have
contributed deals with the second realm of systems thinking, the study of practice
systems methodologies for the fields of engineering and management. While making use of
key notions of Dooyewe
erdian philosophy, and in a critical conversation with hard, soft and
critical systems thinking, a new strand of systems thinking has been explored, labelled as

modal systems thinking

by de Raadt (1997) or

disclosive systems thinking


the CPTS

involves a wide spectrum of disciplines and thus seems to
fit nicely with what Boden has classified as integrated interdisciplinarity. It even takes this
type of interdisciplinarity further, aiming to bridge the gap between

the natural sciences and
the humanities, and between theory and practice. Borrowing distinctions
from Frodeman

(2001, 2007) the CPTS
research can also be characterized as a ‘wide’ and ‘deep’
interdisciplinarity, a type of interdisciplinary research

that aims to be ‘wide’ rather than
‘narrow’ and ‘deep’ rather than ‘shallow
’ The narrow
wide distinction refers to whether only
the natural and engineering sciences are involved or whether these are integrated with the
human and social sciences. The shal
deep distinction refers to whether interdisciplinarity


is limited to scientific experts or whether also people are involved who are not academic
researchers, but are experts with practical experience concerning real
world problems.

. Final r

discussion in this essay focuses on the ambitions of
systems thinking
to attain
frameworks that enable relevant communication and exchange between
the disciplines.
Overlooking its
now more then fifty
year history one can
that this
interdisciplinary movement has stimulated fruitful theory formation in a broad variety of
fields in the natural and social sciences but has not succeeded to achieve its original far
reaching goals. Furthermore one can conclude that integrative, i
nterdisciplinary systems
approaches in technology and management have become well
accepted and have put
normative considerations and ethical issues firmly on the agenda.

With respect to this there is
still remains much to be done. An important challenge fo
r the future is to foster an open and
critical debate between the different systems approaches about their normative sources and
underlying worldview (Strijbos 1988, Eriksson 2003). Another vital element is the
establishment of links with other interdiscip
linary fields, such as development studies, and
science, technology and society (STS) studies, which also struggle for a better understanding
of the forces shaping our times and search for strategies to address the big societal problems
facing us.


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