The Systems Approach and its Enemies Helps Us Find the Morality of a Revised Democracy | van Gigch | 2006

In a book series celebrating C. West Churchman, John P. van Gigch digests (and portends to extend) The Systems Approach and its Enemies.

On enemies …

I note the similarity/difference between the words ‘enemy’ and ‘adversary.’ Other authors use the word adversary (ies) to denote all the forces that impede the progress of his/her own discipline.

In the Oxford dictionary (1976), the concepts of adversaries and enemies are considered synonyms. However other sources show a distinction between these two concepts.

An enemy is seen as a hated opponent and is usually considered a person who hates another and eagerly seeks his/her defeat. Words used in lieu of ‘enemy’ include: opponent; hostile army or nation, an alien.

An adversary is an opponent who is not hated; an adversary is someone who is ‘in front of, opposed, coming from another direction, averse. Adversary indicates one against the other without intent to harm. As an example, in the conflict between Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev during the Cold War, they called themselves adversaries but not enemies. Reagan acknowledged that he considered Gorbachev a worthy adversary: they faced one another but did not necessarily hate each other. [pp. 42-43, editorial paragraphing added]

The four enemies presented by Churchman:


CWC concentrates in The Systems Approach and its Enemies on four main enemies (of the rational mind), namely:

a) Morality, a concept that usually stirs up countermorality that threatens to destroy morality. More details concerning each of these threats are given below.

b) Politics that reveals two versions of evil. The first being the threat on the life of the polls; the second, the need of the polls to threaten another polis in order to survive. One nation against another is the equivalent of one polls against another.

c) Religion is a concept that is used widely in CWC’s book: It acquires a special meaning which refers to blind ‘worship’ of an idea, a god, an issue. Thus, in their research, physicists worship ‘The Holy Grail Of Truth.’ Worship can be the blind adherence to a cause like that pursued by environmentalists and anti-environmentalists on different side of an issue. Those who defend the spotted owl or the salamander in order to save the environment do it in the name of so-called ‘religious beliefs’ or a ‘faith’ in the infallibility of their cause. Their opponents are equally convinced of their own righteousness.

d) Aesthetics is another enemy that in the name of protecting the quality of life of a polls can result in actions that may be counter-productive because it may act to destroy the quality of life of another polls. “Aesthetics fights the tragedy of those who destroy the quality of life.” [pp. 43-44]

On rationality, and a systems approach:


In the SA&E (abbreviation for The Systems Approach and its Enemies) CWC raises the question “How can we be certain that we are making ‘good decisions’ in view of ‘the enemies’ which are lurking at every turn to derail our project?”

If the Systems Approach is an attempt not only to be holistic but also to be rational, these enemies are making it impossible not only to be rational but also to be holistic.

What is ‘a good decision’? Is a good decision one that is merely rational?

Or does a good decision also needs to be ethical? As we study the world of decisions, we realize that we have no way to prove that a decision is ‘good’ i.e. that it will result in a success. As an example, in the world of investments, we may choose a stock after careful research. It may or may not be a good investment. Too many variables are at play. To say that ‘the future will tell’ is admitting our ignorance of where the stock will go. It is admitting that our rationality is flawed or at least limited.

When seeking The Good or The Beautiful, we cannot use the rational mind to prove whether our quest has been successful or not. In every realm. the process of making choices is tied to behefs (held behefs) that are not necessarily of the realm of the rational mind.

CWC argues that as we try to reach rationality and truth our minds are hampered by enemies …. [pp. 44-45]

van Gigch sees the possibility for more enemies of The Systems Approach:

Why does CWC consider Politics, Religion, Morality and Aesthetics the enemies of the Systems Approach? I hope to have attempted to address this question in this essay.

Basically, CWC sought to explain that efforts to be rational and use rational thinking for planning and decision making is fraught with hindrances and barriers which apart from the inadequacies of our methodologies is due to the way the world is organized. Human beings congregate in tight communities as a result of their adherence to groups which may be political or religious and to which they owe their allegiance. Furthermore, while seeking to be rational or ethical they naturally impose their own brand of rationality and ethics, because that is what they believe in. Consequently they do not only impose their own political and religious beliefs but also in addition impose their own rationality and morality while interrelating with other human beings.

While CWC limited himself to four enemies (Politics, Religion, Morality/Ethics and Aesthetics) it is easy to conjure other enemies. I will try to address a new list of enemies in this changing world in another paper. These will include pitting one kind of culture and one kind of science against another, and other obstacles to reach an objective, rational and balanced view on any problem or issue. The world is made up of factions, partisans and enemies. The way CWC describes the enemies is original, revealing and certainly not trivial. Having decided that conflicts are the order of the day and that we cannot solve any problem in this world without addressing the notion of enemies, we must suggest at least one approach at resolving them. [p. 53, editorial paragraphing added]

Van Gigch, John P. 2006. “The Sytems Approach [Sic] and Its Enemies Helps Us Find the Morality of a Revised Democracy.” In Rescuing the Enlightenment from Itself: Critical and Systemic Implications for Democracy, edited by Janet McIntyre-Mills, 1:42–54. C. West Churchman and Related Works Series. Springer, Boston, MA.

van Gigch (2006) Rescuing the Enlightenment from Itself

#churchman, #systems-approach

The Systems Approach: Its Variety of Aspects | Richard Mattessich | 1982

An informed view of the Systems Approach from 1982.  (Richard Mattessich was a well-respected professor at UBC when I started in the doctoral program in 1982, but I wouldn’t get to appreciate the Systems Approach as described by C. West Churchman until the ISSS 1998 meeting).

In his latest work [The Systems Approach and its Enemies], Churchman (1979) continues the search for generality and for a design of social system. Here, the major themes, with many variations, are the “environment fallacy” and “the enemies of the systems approach.” The latter expression is not meant in the personal sense and does not refer directly to such opponents of systems thinking as Berlinski (1976) or Lilienfeld (1978), but refers to the traditional approaches to politics, morality, religion, and even aesthetics. Of course, this could easily be misunderstood, and its full comprehension is hardly possible without reading Churchman’s entire treatise. [pp. 389]

I see from the Mattessich profile at UBC of a “Tenure Professorships … 1959-1967 University of California, Berkeley”, and he would be an accounting professor in the same business school that Churchman had joined in 1957.

Mattessich, Richard. 1982. “The systems approach: Its variety of aspects.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 33 (6): 383–94.  Cached at and

Mattessich (1982) The Systems Approach

#churchman, #mattessich, #systems-approach