A Philosophical Underpinning For ISD

Andrew Basden

Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, M5 4WT, U.K.


If information systems development (ISD) is to be anything other than an ad-hoc discipline it must have a theory-like foundation. This paper interleaves philosophical discussion of ISD with practical suggestions. A philosophy with radically different presuppositions allows us to take a multi-aspectual view of I.S. that can address even tricky problems of multiple stakeholders, unintended, long term and indirect impact.


Studies over the past 20 years show the failure rate in information systems (I.S.) is, and remains, high. Gladden (1982) found that as many as 75% of all systems development projects were never completed or if completed not used, Lyytinen and Hirschheim (1987) argued that at least 50% of information systems are failures, Cotterill and Law (1993) report that more than 60% of executive information systems applications either never reach production status or fall into disuse during service, Whyte and Bytheway (1996) refer to studies which indicate that one out of two information system development projects will not lead to successful systems, Butterfield and Pendegraft (1996) claim that despite improvements in development tools and design methodologies, the rate of failure on design projects is still high, with nearly 60% of them failing to meet all the users' needs.

A 60% failure rate is too high. If information systems development (ISD) is to contribute to reducing this, it must understand the types and causes of failure. However, despite a wealth of literature about I.S. failure the fundamental questions are still far from being answered. In most studies the failure concepts used are vague or unarticulated and they often neglect the diverse reasons for, and causes of, I.S. failure (Lyytinen 1988; Lyytinen and Hirschheim 1987). The scope of failure and success measures, as well as approaches to measurement, vary a lot from study to study (Saarinen 1996). The underlying causes for failure are full of contradictions and uncertainty (Rapely 1993; Sauer 1993).

1.1 The role of philosophy

If we are to make headway, we need to understand the diverse types of failure, to articulate more useful concepts, to discern the causes of failure, to obtain more precise measures, and to generate useful design principles that reduce failure. But, most of all, to ensure that these objectives do not conflict with each other, we need to find one coherent framework for understanding I.S. development and use on which all these can be based. Frameworks for understanding an issue come from philosophy and the assumptions inherent therein, whether the philosophy is explicit or tacit. See Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. The role of philosophy

For example, Brentano's (1874) philosophic concept of intentionality was used by the artificial intelligence community (e.g. Newell, 1982) to understand the technical artifact as itself possessing intentionality, and thus an agent of essentially equal status with the human being. Such a framework of understanding led the human factors community to focus on dialogue between two agents (human and machine) and to devise models like GOMS (Card, Moran and Newell, 1983) for designing and evaluating user interfaces. The result is user interfaces that "get in the way" (Norman, 1990) in real life. In contrast to this, Winograd and Flores (1986) suggested we should base our understanding of I.S. on Heidegger's existentialist philosophy, and that I.S. design should be guided by his notions of 'readiness-to-hand' and 'breakdowns'. But it is not clear how this works out in practice, and while it might improve our technical artifacts, it is not clear that it will solve the diversity of problems outlined below.

Likewise others have appealed to the philosophies of Husserl, of Habermas, etc. to help them understand information systems. More clearly than most, the philosophies of Brentano and Heidegger are examples of opposing polar tendencies in philosophy, those of Determinism and Freedom. In the words of Tarnas (1991), there are:

"two distinct streams of culture, two temperaments or general approaches to human existence characteristic of the Western mind. One emerged in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment and stressed rationality, empirical science, and a skeptical secularism. The other was its polar complement, sharing common roots in the Renaissance and classical Greco-Roman culture (and in the Reformation as well), but tending to express just those aspects of human experience suppressed by the Enlightenment's overriding spirit of rationalism."

Most philosophies since the Renaissance have clustered around one pole or the other. Those of the Determinism pole are appealed to when considering technology and other 'hard' issues, while those of the Freedom pole are appealed to when considering the 'soft' issues. Yet in real life I.S. we encounter both 'hard' and 'soft' intermingled and impossible to separate. To adopt a philosophy from one pole simply means we cannot properly address the issues of the other in a coherent and useful manner. Thus far, we seem incapable of finding a philosophy on which to base all the issues encountered therein.

This paper discusses a philosophical approach with different roots that might be able to integrate these two poles and thus both 'hard' and 'soft' issues. It was proposed by the late Herman Dooyeweerd (1895-1977), a Dutch philosopher whose writings are gradually emerging into the English language arena. Dooyeweerd (1955) not only made an incisive critique of 3,000 years of Western thinking, but proposed a new style of philosophy that provides interdisciplinary frameworks for understanding such topics as we wish to discuss here: success and failure in I.S. We make a brief examination of a subset of Dooyeweerd's philosophy and briefly suggest how it might be applied to ISD, to first provide a framework for understanding I.S. success and failure and then to yield methods, taxonomies, etc. We end by discussing what makes Dooyeweerd's ideas unique.

1.2 Diversity and multiple, unintended, indirect, long-term impact

First, though, let us identify some specific difficulties we face in coming to an understanding of I.S. success and failure:

These are not, of course, the only problems, but they are enough to start with; indeed, many would consider that even to tackle these would be a masterful feat. CATWOE analysis in SSM (Checkland, 1981) can help with some of these, as can cognitive mapping (Eden, 1988), but they are unlikely to provide the complete solution, and Mingers (1992) criticises SSM for having no theory behind it.


2.1 Overview of aspectual functioning

The most visible part of Dooyeweerd's philosophy is a pluralistic ontology that is proving to be useful in a number of fields, such as environmental sustainability (Lombardi, 2001). It is being considered for information systems (de Raadt, 1997), and promises to be of value in I.S. design and evaluation.

Dooyeweerd's (1955) ontology was of fifteen aspects of reality, each having a distinct kernel meaning, that form an ordered spectrum of Meaning. They are modes of Being, law-spheres that enable meaningful functioning, and providers of meaningful perspectives. Each aspect is ontologically irreducible, so that none can be derived from the others, and therefore in design or evaluation each must be deliberately considered in its own terms. Dooyeweerd's aspects are:

  1. Quantitative aspect, of amount
  2. Spatial aspect, of continuous extension
  3. Kinematic aspect, of flowing movement
  4. Physical aspect, of energy and mass
  5. Biotic aspect, of life functions
  6. Sensory aspect, of sense, feeling and emotion
  7. Analytical aspect, of distinction, clarity and logic
  8. Formative aspect, of history, culture, creativity, achievement and technology
  9. Lingual aspect, of symbolic meaning and communication
  10. Social aspect, of social interaction, relationships and institutions
  11. Economic aspect, of frugality, skilled use of limited resources
  12. Aesthetic aspect, of harmony, surprise and fun
  13. Juridical aspect, of 'what is due', rights, responsibilities
  14. Ethical aspect, of self-giving love, generosity
  15. Pistic aspect, of faith, commitment and vision.

The meaning of a single aspect is quite broad; for example the formative aspect covers culture, history, technology, creativity, achievement of goals, planning, formulation of artifacts, formulation of ideas, methodology, technique, and so on - everything in which human formation (whether of physical, conceptual or social things) is central. (The reader does not need to understand all aspects; the text below will explain what is needed.)

Irreducibility of aspects on its own would lead to fragmentation, but in fact we experience Coherence. Dooyeweerd explained this by elaborating two types of relationship amongst aspects: analogy and dependency. By the first he held that in every aspect there are 'echoes' of each of the others. For example, causality is of the physical aspect, but in the analytic aspect we find logical entailment. By dependency, he meant that each aspect requires all those before it (e.g. biological processes depend on physico-chemical processes) - but, because of the irreducibility of the aspects, it does not 'emerge' from those earlier aspects.

2.2 Human functioning

Each aspect has a set of laws that enable meaningful functioning and govern all activity and existence (Doing and Being). An entity functions by responding to the laws of relevant aspects. Meaningful human living (including use of I.T.) usually involves all aspects working together in coherence: multi-aspectual functioning. For example, as I compile this paper, I am primarily functioning in (responding to the laws of) the lingual aspect (in which meaning is conveyed by symbols). But I am also functioning in earlier aspects in order to do so (e.g. the biotic, in that I undertake life functions like breathing, etc.), and in later aspects, which give a wider meaning or 'flavour' to my lingual functioning (e.g. the social aspect, being polite rather than rude in my writing).

The laws of earlier aspects (e.g. quantitative, physical) are determinative while those of later aspects (e.g. lingual, social, ethical) are normative, allowsing us freedom in responding to, even to transgress, the laws. Sometimes we are aware of our functioning in an aspect, such as when actively seeking to obey the laws of syntax and semantics while writing. But usually we are not aware, and our functioning in each aspect is tacit, taken for granted, and we only become aware of them in breakdown situations (similar to Heidegger's concept mentioned above). As Clouser (1991) and Stafleu (1987) discuss, this relates to theory and practice.

(In this way, Dooyeweerd (1955) brings together Determinism and Freedom within one framework in which they are no longer mutually exclusive. The various approaches to I.S. are all affirmed because each is centred on certain aspects: quantitative and analytic for 'hard' systems, lingual and formative for 'soft' systems, and juridical and pistic for critical systems.)

2.3 Example of multi-aspectual use of information system

Mitev's (2001) account of the failure of the SNCF Socrate rail ticketing system provides an example of multiple aspects of failure of an I.S. (in which aspectual functioning is denoted by the aspect's numerical order in {} brackets):

"Technical malfunctions {8}, political pressure {15}, poor management {11}, unions and user resistance {15} led to an inadequate {13} and to some extent chaotic {12} implementation. Staff training {9} was inadequate and did not prepare {13} salespeople to face tariff inconsistencies and ticketing problems. The user interface was designed using the airlines logic and was not user-friendly {6}. The new ticket proved unacceptable {6} to customers. Public relations {9} failed to prepare the public to such a dramatic change {12}. The inadequate database information {7} on timetable and routes of trains, inaccurate fare information {1}, and unavailability {11} of ticket exchange capabilities caused major problems for the SNCF sales force and customers alike. Impossible reservations {8} on some trains, inappropriate prices {13} and wrong train connections {3} led to large {1} queues {2} of irate {6} customers in all {1} major stations. Booked {13} tickets were for non-existent trains {11} whilst other trains ran empty {11}, railway unions went on strike {11}, and passengers' associations sued SNCF {13}." [Mitev's referencing removed]

What can be seen from this brief analysis is, firstly, what a wide range of aspects contributed to the overall failure of the information system. In particular, it was not just an economic, managerial or technical matter. Secondly, the above example illustrates how an aspectual analysis might be started: discern aspects within descriptions. We discuss aspectual analysis later.

2.4 Repercussions

Dooyeweerd made an ontological claim for the aspects: they pertain, whether we human beings know of them or not. What this means is that, though we might go against the laws of later aspects, we cannot set them aside. Our response, positive or negative, to their laws has repercussions. For example, I can be rude in my writing - but the reader is then less likely to accept my arguments. Each aspect yields different types of repercussion - physical, emotional, social, economic, juridical, and so on. (Strictly, the ontological claim was for aspects themselves and not for his own list of fifteen, as we discuss later, but for the purposes of this paper I ask the reader to apply the claim to the fifteen.)

The salient issue here is that when we respond positively to (in line with) the laws of an aspect, there will be positive repercussions, but when we respond negatively (transgressing its laws) there will be negative repercussions. What has been called the Shalom Hypothesis takes this further: to achieve 'shalom' - a deep and lasting peace, health, prosperity, well-being, etc. - we must function well in every aspect. If we function poorly in any aspect then shalom is jeopardized. This has been applied to communities by Lombardi (2001) to provide a means of understanding what sustainability is.

2.5 A framework for understanding success and failure

This can provide a framework for understanding the use of information technology by human beings: as multi-aspectual functioning that has repercussions of varying, but given, types. Success and failure are simply positive and negative repercussions. From this we can generate methods, theories, taxonomies, etc. as shown in Fig. 1, that can help us address each of the difficulties listed earlier.

The first difficulty was the diversity of types of success and failure. The aspects themselves give us a framework for understanding diversity: since our use of information technology is multi-aspectual, we can expect distinct and diverse types of success and failure: technical, social, economic, juridical, etc. (Since technical failures are mostly of one aspect, the formative, this explains why the majority of I.S. failures are non-technical in nature.)

From frameworks for understanding I.S. we wish to derive taxonomies and methods. At least as an initial proposal, we can use the suite of aspects itself as a taxonomy. From the laws of each aspect we can derive criteria for discussing and evaluating information systems. So, considering multi-aspectual use of I.T., we obtain a profile of aspectual functioning and repercussion that we can visualize by means of a 'Christmas Tree' shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2. 'Christmas Tree' of aspectual functioning

If we plot the aspectual functioning and repercussions thereof identified in the account by Mitev above, we have two such trees, shown in Fig. 3 (note the one-sidedness of both, indicating a major failure).

Fig. 3. Trees of aspectual functioning and repercussions for SNCF

This type of aspectual analysis, whether with or without the visual tool just shown, can be used in both design (prospective) and evaluation (retrospective). For evaluation, we can undertake an aspectual analysis of a situation to identify both the areas of concern and also the areas where things are working well (e.g. so that they be not jeopardized by other changes). For design, in which it is proposed to make an intervention in a situation by introducing new technology or techniques, aspectual analyses of the current situation and of alternative scenarios of intervention give us a means of comparison. The Christmas Tree visual tool is a useful means of comparing the various alternatives, but there are also dangers in using such a tool that we discuss below.

2.6 Multiple, unintended, indirect, long-term impact

By virtue of the ontological claim made for them, the aspects transcend all situations and all stakeholders. This opens the way to addressing the other issues, as follows:

The author and others have applied aspectual analysis widely in day-to-day design, intervention and evaluation. After a time, it becomes a way of thinking rather than a set of rules or methods to apply. However, it has not been tested rigorously, and research is needed to establish exactly what benefits and limitations such an approach might have.

2.7 Use of the aspectual analysis

As we can see, aspectual analysis is a multi-purpose tool for both design and evaluation. The visual 'Christmas tree' is a versatile tool that can express either aspectual functioning or aspectual repercussions, but it is only a start. Since it is pseudo-quantitative (lengths of the bars), it presents the danger of too quantitative an approach in which the analyst can be misled. Instead, we should use it to stimulate us to deeper thinking, to focus on aspects that are too often forgotten, ignored or even suppressed in our thinking. We should look for important patterns, like positive or negative clusters, long bars for single aspects, etc., some of which can be seen in Fig. 2. Positive and negative indications should be treated differently:

In addition, clusters can indicate which experts to engage in the subsequent analyses, since many expert disciplines tend to centre on one aspect but range into neighbouring ones.

Fifteen aspects can seem rather daunting to the novice analyst, but Winfield's (2000) Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation (MAKE) methodology makes this easier by allowing the analyst and client to focus on a couple of key aspects with which they are familiar, before gradually extending to all the others. As a method for analysing a domain of ill-structured knowledge, it has proved to be very usable, easy to learn, and highly effective in obtaining wide aspectual coverage.


Having seen something of the utility of an aspectual approach, we can of course adopt it uncritically, but at some stage we must ask ourselves why this suite of aspects is any better than others, and whether it has a good foundation.

3.1 Escaping Plato

"All else is a mere footnote to Plato", said A N Whitehead (1937) about what has happened in Western thinking over the last 2500 years. The aspects are part of a much wider philosophical approach that arose from Dooyeweerd's (1955) concern that this has been so and his attempt to construct an alternative. As Habermas (1972) has noted, the concept of theory "presupposed a demarcation between Being and Time". Dooyeweerd believed this and related presuppositions to be untenable and undertook a thorough analysis of theoretical thought over the past 3,000 years, with more detailed examination of the key thinkers like Kant. He showed how the presuppositions led thinkers to divorce coherence from diversity, theory from practice, and meaning, being and time from each other. While some ideas enjoyed acclaim over a few decades or even centuries, most eventually proved unsustainable because of deep antinomies that arise from underlying presuppositions. The main culprit is presupposing we can find the basic Principle on which all else depends within temporal reality or experience itself. This presupposition normally leads eventually to hypostatic reductions that suppress either diversity or coherence.

Rationalism and postivism are rightly criticised today, and Dooyeweerd makes the criticism explicit: they hypostatize (i.e. absolutize) the analytic aspect and reduce all else to it. It is made the foundation on which all else rests, and all else shall be sacrificed on its behalf, whether this be feeling, interpretation, ethics, faith, or whatever else has been ignored, suppressed or explained away throughout the long history of rationalism and positivism. But the answer is not a swing to its polar opposite, such as interpretivism, since these just hypostatize another aspect, such as the lingual aspect of interpretation.

To Dooyeweerd, no aspect is designed to withstand the pressure of being absolutized. All are relative, referring not only to each other through the analogical and dependency relationships, but ultimately to their Creator. Nothing in temporal reality (or imagination) is self-dependent (or 'divine' (Clouser, 1991)).

3.2 A new framework

However, Dooyeweerd did not only demolish; he accepted the challenge of constructing a replacement. As Habermas does, he accepted that all theoretical thought, including his own, rests on presupposition so, instead of vainly seeking to escape presupposition (as phenomenology tried to), he sought and adopted a different type of presupposition. In place of Being as the fundamental property of all we experience in temporal reality, he presupposed Meaning. This led him to conceive ontology, epistemology, theory, practice, the subject-object relationship, and particularly good and evil (success and failure), in novel ways (Hart, 1984). What is given is not Entity, but Law - laws of aspects - and entities come into existence therefrom.

This in turn allowed him to postulate the pluralistic ontology that we have met as his suite of irreducible yet related aspects above, by which the philosophic issue of unity and diversity can be addressed. This is why aspectual analysis of information systems can be more than a device to dissect situations, and instead lead to an holistic understanding of its diversity. This is why the emphasis in aspectual analysis is not on the detail but on the patterns.

Dooyeweerd's ontological claim that aspectual laws pertain whether or not people have discovered them, are aware of them, or obey or transgress them is the philosophic basis for why repercussions of I.S. use transcend the stakeholders' knowledge and interests, and why the framework is able to handle unintended, indirect and long-term impacts. It is because of this that Dooyeweerd maintains that if we operate in line with the laws of all aspects then things will go well, but if we transgress any then things will suffer. Kant drove a wedge between Ought and Is, and generations of technologists since then have focused on one to the detriment of the other, on technology without ethics. Dooyeweerd reconnects them because both Ought and Is are founded on Meaning, the former on the normativity of the aspects and the latter on functioning in those aspects.

3.3 The validity of the aspects

Dooyeweerd claimed that the aspectual laws pertain, but he recognised that every concrete suite of aspects (including his own) is fundamentally partial and limited, on the grounds that to make a suite involves functioning in the analytic aspect and all aspectual functioning is relative. So why should Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects be better than those of others (such as the Five E's of Checkland (1991) or even Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs)? Ultimately, we cannot prove whether it is, but there are a number of reasons for believing is might be.

First, the notion of aspects has a philosophical underpinning and has been worked out in detail in the form a theory (Book II of Dooyeweerd (1955)). This gives us explicit ways of testing and refining the notion. In contrast, most proposed suites of aspects have no such theory behind them, and must be either accepted or rejected.

Second, while most suites have undergone some degree of empirical scrutiny, Dooyeweerd's suite has been subjected to three additional types of scrutiny. Philosophical scrutiny has involved seeking antinomies, teleological scrutiny has involved discussing the role of each aspect in the total spectrum of Meaning, and historical scrutiny has involved a survey of 2,500 years of Western thinking to detect the aspects that thinkers have believed to be important, and how they treated them.

Third, though the kernel meanings of the aspects can never be fully comprehended by means of theoretical (analytical) thought, for the reason just mentioned, Dooyeweerd claimed they can be 'grasped' by intuition. For example, we can recognise justice even though we cannot define it. The findings of both Winfield (2000) and Lombardi (2001) support this: lay clients could understand and work with the aspects after a short period of learning.

Fourth, in practical terms, when compared with other suites of aspects, Dooyeweerd's has wider coverage, and because of the scrutiny it has been subjected to, it is more likely to be applicable across cultures.

Fifth, Dooyeweerd spent a life's work thinking about the aspects, with little intellectual axe to grind within the conventions of the time, and he was self-critical in the Habermasian sense. It is not clear to what extent this is true of the proposers of other suites.

Therefore we are justified in adopting his suite as a starting point for ISD, even though we may refine it sensitively in the process.


Having noted the high rate of failure of information systems, and the complex issues around their design and use, we have sought a philosophical underpinning that provides a framework for understanding information systems. From this, methods, models, taxonomies and methods may be derived for use in real life.

The philosophy we have examined, that of Dooyeweerd (1955), leads us to see information systems as human functioning in a diversity of distinct aspects, each of which has laws that lead to repercussions. We have seen that this framework for understanding I.S. enables us to devise ways of addressing the diversity of failure modes, multiple stakeholders, unintended impact, indirect impact, and long term as well as short term impact. These methods are equally applicable for both the design and the evaluation of information systems.

This is possible because the aspects transcend not only the individual stakeholders but even cultural differences. The philosophy rests on presuppositions very different from those on which most Western thinking has been based and combines determinative and normative aspects of a situation, without sinking into either positivism or interpretivism. Though application of this philosophy is in its early stages, it is being 'discovered' across a range of disciplines, from information systems through agriculture and transport to environmental sustainability, and so we commend it to the I.S. community for examination, testing and refinement.


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