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[sigchairs] An Appreciation of C. West Churchman {Tom Mandel, 2004/03/27}
Posted by: daviding (
Date: March 27, 2004 05:31PM

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Subject: [sigchairs] An Appreciation of C. West Churchman

An Appreciation of C. West Churchman
(With an Extensive Bibliography from 1938 to 2000)
By Professor Werner Ulrich ∑ 29 August 1999 ∑ last updated: 5 January 2000

C. West Churchman (born 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) has probably been the most influential philosopher of the systems movement thus far. A founding father of the systems approach as well as the fields of operations research and management science, he represents the rare case of a pioneer who never allowed himself to become absorbed by the mainstream of his colleagues.

His work has always been different ó not for the sake of difference but, rather, because of two outstanding qualities that distinguish his academic life: intellectual honesty, and moral outrage. In the following essay, I would like first to honor West Churchman as a person, before giving brief accounts of his professional career and of his major publications. In the appendix, finally, I have compiled a rather comprehensive selection of Professor Churchmanís published writings.

Intellectual Honesty
The systems idea, provided we take it seriously, urges us to recognize our constant failure to think and act rationally in a comprehensive sense. Mainstream systems literature somehow always manages to have us forget the fact that a lack of comprehensive rationality is inevitably part of the conditio humana; most authors seek to demonstrate how and why their systems approaches extend the bounds of rational explanation or design accepted in their fields. West Churchman never does. To him, the systems idea poses a challenge to critical self-reflection. It compels him to raise fundamental epistemological and ethical issues concerning the systems plannerís claim to rationality. He never pretends to have the answers; instead, he asks himself and his readers a lot of thoroughly puzzling questions.

I think West has well described the challenge posed by the systems idea in a passage of his book Challenge to Reason (1968a, p. 3):

"How 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?"

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