Pure Inquiring Systems: Antiteleology | The Design of Inquiring Systems | C. West Churchman | 1971

The fifth way of knowing, as described by West Churchman, is a Singerian inquiring system. (This fifth way of knowing is more colloquially called Unbounded Systems Thinking in Mitroff and Linstone (1993)).

The book On Purposeful Systems (Ackoff and Emery, 1972) was derived by Ackoff’s dissertation that was controversially coauthored with West Churchman. Purpose can be associated with teleology, the philosophy of ends (or goals).

It’s only in Churchman’s writing — chapter number 14 of 16 in his 1971 book — that we can see some fine points being worked out. (This would require knowing what an inquiring systems is!)

For easier access, here are some excerpts from the chapter. (There’s an interesting suggestion that this is an issue in Western philosophies, and not Eastern philosophies).

— begin excerpts —

Chapter 14 – Pure Inquiring Systems: Antiteleology


The designer of inquiring systems is therefore obliged to consider what activities he should undertake which guarantee that the work that he is conducting can be continued in another generation. The impact of the “imperative” of the Singerian inquiring system in this instance is an imperative given to us by the coming generations. They demand that today’s scientist pay attention not only to his own specialized work, but to the whole social and political environment in which this work occurs, that they may also engage in similar enterprises.

The Spirit of Antiteleology


What evidence could there be for the need for another Weltanschauung add to the three that have so successfully played their roles in the development of the inquiring systems to date? Why, simply the evidence that accumulates in the writings and expressions of the human race, in its poetry, its music, its religion, and its philosophy. To all three image makers the philosopher will say, “No matter how far you have traveled down the road of your model building in order to explain my particular attitude of mind, you have come no way at all toward understanding what I mean by existence and what I mean by the good and evil of human living.” This man, this antiteleologist, antimechanist, antirandomist, simply states that the deepest feelings of the human race have nothing to do with goals, or mechanisms, or randomness.

The mood we are exploring finds expression in so many ways in the human life that the reflective mind finds it difficult to state what is being talked about in terms that would be satisfactory both to the rational model builders and to the people who feel the mood in the deepest way. It almost seems as though our languages were incapable of bridging this difference between two aspects of the human psyche.

The mood of course is most familiar to western man when he reads the pages of oriental philosophy and tries to understand the utterances of the posts and philosophers. The mood has also found its way into the western world in various forms of both contemporary and ancient philosophy; it is no stranger to the western mind, although its appearance in western thought has often been quite different from its expression in oriental philosophy. [p. 251]

We can see that the debate is the old one between feeling and thinking. Feeling is outraged that thinking claims to have captured the essence of inner feeling by its deterministic, probabilistic, or teleological models.

The Twist of the Knife: Ateleology Is Basic

But thinking plays strange tricks on itself, without the need of feeling to bring about its troubles. Suppose we see how a bit of thought can be used to show that all three of the models require a purposeless state as the ultimate base of their theories. In this part of our circumambulation, we’ll substitute the thinker’s term “ateleology” for the more dialectical “antiteleology”; antiteleology is a challenge to thinking as displayed by the three Weltanschauungen, while ateleology is a way of thinking about them.

Suppose we represent the world in accordance with strict deterministic laws; then the events of nature are never the free decisions of any man. In the earlier Stoics, and later in Spinoza, the only possible ethics in such a determined world was the prescription for each man to understand the underlying rationality of the determined world, i.e., the explanation of the events that occur in his environment. But even this prescription is not a prescription to select, from among a set of alternatives, that one which leads to rational understanding. To be sure, Epictetus, that beautifully superficial thinker, gave both master and slave the “freedom” to adopt an attitude. But a thoroughly deterministic psychology would not even permit this much freedom in the events of nature. Instead, the philosophy of determinism would have to say that a man may appreciate understanding when it occurs to him for its own sake the moment that it occurs. According to a deterministic model, he could not possibly hope to “choose” a plan that leads to understanding. Hence in this case the extension of the deterministic philosophy to ethics simply describes a man appreciating the moments of rationality as they occur to him, in an ateleological manner. [p. 252]

In the same manner in a probabilist Weltanschauung the events that occur are the accidental conglomeration of many minute events in nature. How docs it happen that I sit here writing this book at this moment of time? How many different little events must have occurred to bring about the one that is now occurring? And who would dare to have predicted two years ago that I would be sitting here as I am now? No one could conceivably have “planned” the writing of such a book. The “futurists” who tell us about the year 2000 are a ridiculous crowd for the believer in a world of chance. There are too many conglomerations of accidents to make a specific future state have anything but a very low probability. Planning and teleology are mythical behaviors, fantasies of the minds of animals caught in the world of chance. If one of the animals appreciates a happening, that’s all there is to say about it. [pp. 252-253]

Perhaps the cruelest blow of all is that the ateleological thesis is the foundation of the teleological Weltanschauung. From Aristotle we learn that the highest form of activity of man is contemplation because contemplation is that particular function which distinguishes man from the rest of living beings; later philosophers and biologists contribute to this theme in terms of higher and lower forms of life, the concept of learning, psychological development, social improvement. But when the living being has passed from the lower forms to the highest form, then what? While he sits contemplating in Aristotelian fashion, shall he ask himself what the purpose of all this contemplation is? Such a question is meaningless except in terms of the immediately circular answer that the “purpose” of contemplation is contemplation, this being the “highest form” of his living activity.

One is reminded of Lenin’s paradox: When the state withers away, and the dictatorship of the proletariat exists, then what? Wasn’t it lucky that Stalin prevented such an embarrassing event from occurring?

What shall we say when a man has learned all there is to learn about a given situation? Shall he then ask himself what the point of all the learning was? Such an answer would be meaningless in terms of a pure inquiring system. To have found the answer to a question is to have answered it once and for all, and there is no point that lies beyond. The attitude of the pure scientist is that he seeks simply to satisfy his curiosity, and once his curiosity is satisfied, that is that. Curiosity is not satisfied for the purpose of creating some units of “utility.” Curiosity must be satisfied, and when it is satisfied, there is no more ultimate goal to be attained.

So when a man has attained his aspirations, then that is that; as far as that particular pursuit is concerned, no more is to be said. His pursuits may now turn elsewhere, but the attainment of the first pursuit is not to be regarded as a means in the attainment of other pursuits.

Of course, Singerian inquiring systems avoid the ateleological terminus of teleological behavior because in Singerian design neither satisfaction nor dissatisfaction are to be taken as end states. Rather they are signs of the need for additional planning and striving. In a sense, man struggles not to find solutions but to create new problems, or one might say, new and “better” problems. The attainment of any level of “success” of the human species always introduces more problems than it solves, but the problems are in some sense better because they are founded upon what has gone before. As viewed from the vantage point of the twentieth century, the problems of the working class in the nineteenth century were terrible problems of human deprivation, outrageous policies with respect to child labor, complete indifference to the health of thousands of people, and so on. And yet, in some sense, the problems of labor of the twentieth century are far more acute because people have learned more about the proper role of labor in society, the needs of health, recreation, family, etc. Because of all the “gains” we have made in creating a “better” society, we feel far more deeply today our inability to solve problems of the “quality of life” than did our forefathers of the nineteenth century. [pp. 253-254]

Hence the Singerian inquirer pushes teleology to the ultimate, by a theory of increasing or developing purpose in human society; man be-comes more and more deeply involved in seeking goals. To be sure, he may engage in relaxation, in playfulness and other forms of the non-serious, but he does so with the more fundamental purpose of re-creation. Comedy is the prelude or interruption of the heroic mission.

Can thought find the hidden ateleology of so strongly entrenched a teleology? The question is a very subtle one. One might argue that there can be a teleological defense of the Singerian ideals of science, plenty, cooperation, and the heroic mood. Yet one could let thought provide another twist by arguing that “defense” is per se a teleological activity. [p. 254]

The Backward Twist: The Teleology of Ateleology

Thought can continue on its twisting path by reversing the tables completely. Consider again the assertion that teleology is not to be extended to the pure feeling of value in the single act. There, for example, is the pure scientist, who takes his whole value to be in the satisfaction of his own intellectual curiosity when faced with a deep question he wishes to investigate in nature. It is absurd to argue that the satisfaction of his curiosity serves no other end. To be sure, that scientist at that time does not intend that his activity be a means to other ends. But he is not a separable component of society. Other members of society, e.g. the designer, have every reason to examine the more ultimate benefits of his acts. Society justifies its support of the ateleological attitude of the pure investigator, who wants only to satisfy his own curiosity, by judging the extent to which such activity seems beneficial to the rest of his community as well as to himself. The teleologist sees no conceptual embarrassment in saying that a man may pursue an activity for its own sake and not be willing to recognize any benefit that such activity may have beyond the happening or occasion itself. The feeling that is expressed by the philosophical ateleologist is therefore just that: a feeling to be explained by the very teleology of the living being. [pp. 254-255]

Thought vs. Antiteleology

This is enough of the twisting path of thought. Ateleology fails to capture the spirit of antiteleclogy. It is too caught in its own teleological processes. It’s all very much like the story of the planner who was having difficulty in persuading management to hire him because the managers were not sure they needed long-range planning. “All right,” said the planner, “then hire me to help you plan whether to have planning!”

The real confrontation of antiteleology is with the thought processes of teleology. The basic confrontation occurs in the concept of uniqueness. The teleological Weltanschauung is like the deterministic and probabilistic in that its thought proceeds by using particulars and generals; it describes particular aspects of nature and can subsume all particulars into a more general class. Almost all planning has the form of particularizing people – that is, people are described as having in comes in such-and-such a range, home locations, religions, race, etc. Two people are the “same” for the planner if they have the same set of basic properties.

What shall the teleological designer say when the poet or the philosopher claims that the individual act of loving is unique and is not to be subsumed under a set of properties of biological reproduction, or psychological libido, or whatever? The experience that one individual has in his love for another individual is never duplicated, and, indeed, the concept of duplication simply destroys the whole feeling of love itself. [p. 255]

The theme of uniqueness has taken many forms. I especially like Kant’s handling of the theme in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1898), where he enunciates the moral law to treat every man as an end-withal, never as a means only. But every teleological plan I have ever seen is based on treating some, and perhaps all, people as means only because it is impossible to regard everyone as an “end- withal.” Kant recognized this to be the case, and in modern language saw an eternal conflict between systems planning and morality; every plan must be partially immoral. The Foundations and more especially the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) are both forerunners of what I have called the Singerian inquiring system, for Kant believed in a gradual convergence of morality and systems planning or, as we would say here, between antiteleology and teleology. But a great deal more would have 1o be explored before we could understand how these conceptual enemies might ever become closer to one another. [1] [pp. 255-256]

  • [1] I’ve struggled a bit with thus problem in ““Morality and Planning” (1969).

Thomas A. Cowan (1963) has applied the theme of uniqueness to the practice of law. The theory of law itself seems to have gone through some of the processes we have described of the inquiring system. There have been thoughtful attempts to understand the decision making of the judge in terms of generalizations which in part are the precedents of the legal profession. The particulars, or “facts,” are taken to represent instances of these generalizations; the classical syllogism leads from the generalization plus the facts to the decision. There is no uniqueness here, and if one were to accept this model of the practice of law, one might be encouraged eventually to think that law itself could be subsumed under a teleological decision-making model. Perhaps a great deal of legal decision making could be handed over to some more or less automated process. But many lawyers and judges feel that in every case there is a unique element which co-determines the decision. Furthermore, the uniqueness of the decision is such that neither precedence nor the subsumption of facts under general laws can account for the particular decision that is made. What appear to the teleological analyst as “essentially” the same cases may be decided quite differently. To the analyst this may look like non-rational decision making, but for the lawyer it may appear rational because he believes in the underlying uniqueness of each decision. [p. 256]

Certainly many of the other professions, medicine, engineering, and teaching in particular, have often expressed somewhat the same philosophy, namely, that no amount of decision-making analysis can ever capture the unique properties of the great doctor, engineer, or teacher. No teaching machine can ever display the charisma that is associated with the inspired lecturer and his relationship to his students. No automated engineering design device can capture the particular unique ability of the great engineer to see in a flash the underlying essential problem to be solved. No automated diagnostician can capture that fine relationship existing between the patient and the doctor. [pp. 256-257]

Of course the teleologist is not done, even if he takes the confrontation seriously. He points out that the scientist from the beginning has been told that his methods will forever fail to capture the true meaning of some set of phenomenal events. At a given time and for a given group of scientists there may be the strong feeling that the problems they face are essentially unsolvable. But time after time, science has achieved the kind of breakthrough in the pursuit of knowledge which permits it to understand what was once regarded as nature’s eternal secret. To a generalizing mind, the assertion that the judge performs a unique event at the time he reaches his decision while on the bench is analogous to the assertion that the true distance between the centers of gravity of two planets at a moment of time is a locked secret of nature. To be sure, in some sense the true distance is a secret of nature, Such an event in astronomical history at a moment of time will never be completely understood by the scientist; there will always be some aspect of the event which his methods of measurement, no matter how fine, will fail to capture. There is no question that here is a unique event in the history of the world, this distance between the center of Mars and the center of Earth at the very moment of the beginning of this year. But this does not in any way imply the inappropriateness of the teleological model in the design of an inquiring system that is forever asking more and more about the same event. So if there is uniqueness in the moral individual and in the judge’s decision, then let us pursue them with the same spirit with which we pursue all unique events of nature, and accept that they stand as limit points in our endless pursuit of more and more understanding. [p. 257]

— end excerpts —


Ackoff, Russell L., and Fred E. Emery. 1972. On Purposeful Systems. Aldine-Atherton.

Churchman, C. West. 1971. The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization. Basic Books.

Mitroff, Ian I., and Harold A. Linstone. 1993. The Unbounded Mind: Breaking the Chains of Traditional Business Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press. http://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195102888.001.0001.

The Design of Inquiring Systems (book title page)