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Soft Systems Methodology and Dooyeweerd - A General Comparison

Peter Checkland's message, that human activity systems are different and need a soft systems methodology, is a classic milestone work. Not only is it a good idea, but it is excellently argued and placed in a large context of philosophy and the history of thought. He seems to have been reaching for some of the things Dooyeweerd dealt with on a deeper scale. In this short article I discuss how what Checkland says compares and contrasts with what Dooyeweerd said. A paper by Grahn and Bergvall (1995) goes into more detail on some aspect, for the interested reader.

Checkland's message goes like this:

1. Science has been our way of finding out about things, of gaining knowledge. It is based on the method of reduction, repetition and refutation, and has given an account of the universe that has proved very successful.

So far Checkland and Dooyeweerd agree.

2. "But science also has many limitations." He differentiates first between 'restricted' and 'unrestricted' sciences, (he cites physics versus biology) and in the latter the standard scientific method does not work so well. "Complexity, in general, and social phenomena, in particular both pose difficult problems for science; neither has it been able to tackle what we perceive as 'real-world problems'." The latter involve teleology and 'management'. But 'management science' has been unsuccessful too.

Here, while Checkland posits that there is one (large) limitation of science, Dooyeweerd posits two. Checkland stresses the difference between 'science' (and solving problems with the aid of science) and 'management' in complex, social domains. In doing this he lumps together normativity and the multi-aspectual nature of everyday living, while to Dooyeweerd they are clearly separated issues. Very briefly, Dooyeweerd proposes the following:

3. At each level of complexity, properties 'emerge' that are not explainable in terms of lower levels. This is a 'systems' idea: the science of wholes. Checkland stresses that we are dealing with 'wholes' rather than 'the whole'.

Now, that sounds very similar to the irreducibility among aspects posited by Dooyeweerd. But there are also differences. In Dooyeweerd the properties of higher aspects are defined; in Checkland they merely 'emerge' out of the complexity. It is almost as though Checkland is invoking some kind of mysticism or magic here; he cannot really explain or account for the properties of each succeeding higher level, whereas Dooyeweerd can.

Moreover, while Checkland is at pains to point out that he does not deal with 'the whole', but with 'wholes' ('systems'), Dooyeweerd is able to deal with both. Checkland, like much systems thinking, stops its thinking at the boundary of the system. Unlike reductionist thinking it does acknowledge flow and relationships across the boundary, but does not try to account for them or discuss of what types they are. But Dooyeweerd does try to account for these; the types of relating and functioning that a 'system' does (Dooyeweerd uses the term 'individuality structure' instead of 'system' here) is circumscribed and enabled by the laws of the aspects. In this way, Dooyeweerd can also deal with 'the whole' as well as individual wholes.

4. To Checkland, as with much systems thinking, these systems are the central and dominant idea, in that we expect the explanation for the whole of reality to come from understanding systems. He offers a typology of systems:

Checkland's four different types of system does in fact mirror Dooyeweerd's aspects though, as there are fifteen of the latter, this is with some degree of amalgamation. His natural systems speak of the earlier aspects. His designed systems speak of human activity around the middle aspects. His human activity systems speak of the later aspects.

But there are two major differences from Dooyeweerd here. First, in Dooyeweerdian thinking, while systems are important, there is another side to reality, the Law Side, in which all systems (entities) function and which gives meaning to them. An explanation for the whole of (temporal) reality must include explicit reference to the Law Side, as well as to the Entity (systems) Side. It is in this Law Side that the aspects are to be found, which is probably why Checkland does not explicitly recognise irreducible aspects.

The second difference is that what we can do with different types of system is not limited in the way that Checkland suggests. We can learn about all types of system, use all types, and modify all types.

Why learning, using and modifying? Why not also enjoying, communicating, loving and committing oneself to? Both Checkland's three and the latter four are functionings, which are usually qualified by one or other aspect.

5. The natural and designed systems "could not be other than they are", once manifest, but human activity systems are different: they can be "other than they are" because different people will attribute different meanings to them. "There will thus never be a single (testable) account of a human activity system, only a set of possible accounts, all valid, according to particular Weltanschauungen."

Dooyeweerd would concur, but would explain it as follows. The phrase "could not be other than they are" could suggest determinicity; to Dooyeweerdian thinking, this implies subjective functioning in earlier aspects. Human activity systems, on the other hand, since they are related to the later aspects, are by definition normative and thus subject to alteration.

On the other hand, this phrase could suggest the difference is that human activity systems are collections of of human functionings while the designed systems are the results of human functioning.

In any case, the idea of a single testable account implies determination, and thus early aspects. The "set of possible accounts, all valid" all derive from accounts from different aspectual viewpoints. A Weltanschauung is a world view, that is, a view in which certain aspects assume greater importance than others.

This page is part of a collection of pages that compare the ideas of the late Herman Dooyeweerd with those of Peter Checkland's Soft Systems Thinking, as part of an attempt to link Dooyeweerd's thought to that of various other thinkers. It is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2002 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

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Created: 1998. Last updated: 20 November 2002. 17 June 2010 .nav, rid unet.