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'dealing with differentiated whole'

Part One

Zhichang ZHU (PhD?) Centre for Systems Studies University of Hull Hull, HU6? 7RX, U.K. e-mail:

Abstract: Based on a comparative study between an Oriental systems approach, WSR, and two Western ones, TOP and MMD, this paper highlights and analyses both commonalities and differences among these approaches.

It is first tried to show that these systems approaches are converging into an intention to (1) articulate a systems vision which is built upon a conception of differentiation and multiplicity, (2) move the concept of systems study beyond the domination of technical dimension towards a holistic inquiry of relations in the world, between human and the world, and among human fellows, (3) pursue synergy among various approaches and inquiring systems, (4) emphases human values and relations, and (5) stand on each own cultural tradition while open to 'alien' ones.

It is then tried to argue that on the other hand differences among these approaches should not be ignored, in terms of their explicit or unspoken meta-theoretical assumptions. After this analysis, this paper suggests that cultural differences among systems approaches might probably have been shadowed or overshadowed by both commonalities between Western and Eastern traditions and differences within a same cultural tradition.

In the conclusion, it is further suggested that by being more consciously open to and learning from each other, systems approaches in both the East and the West may probably have more to offer as a whole for dealing with the increasing complexity which confronts humankind.


'System' as a conceptualisation device has been used by human beings to investigate and describe the complexity in the surrounding relational dynamics, and to organise and take actions to change situations in the hope of improvement. In this paper, 'systems approach' as a not-rigorously-defined word is basically used to denote intellectual outcomes resulted from the latter kind of effort: viewpoints, perspectives, guide-lines, methodologies, etc., which are generally formulated for taking better organised human inquiries and actions, although this author holds that a 'model of the world' and an 'approach to change the world' appear to be always reinforcing each other therefore cannot be separated.

The author of this paper is a designer of one of these approaches. After formulating his own approach, he realised while paricipating in the Primer activity, that in the Western systems community there exist systems approaches which hold similar concerns, beliefs and desires with his. A journey of comparative study of these approaches suggests, to him, that despite of differences among cultural traditions of the populations, among practical experiences of the designers, and among social-political contexts in which these approaches emerged, developed and applied, a convergent movement among Eastern and Western systems approaches has recently emerged and is becoming significant. So far the journey has brought the author to such a stage which convinces him that by conscious and insistent mutual-informing and -learning among systems scientists world-wide, systems approaches developed in the East and the West may be able to improve their competence more wisely, and therefore able to have more to offer for dealing with the increasing complexity that confronts humankind.

This paper is a report of what appear interesting and significant to the author during the journey. In the next section, the three studied approaches, two of which developed in the West, one consolidated in the East, are outlined. The following two sections present, respectively, commonalities and differences perceived among these approaches. At the end of the paper, conclusions and suggestions will be made in terms of the convergence and divergence among developing systems approaches world-wide.

2. an outline of TOP, MMD and WSR

The systems approaches studied are the Multiple Perspective Concept (TOP) formulated by Linstone, the Multi-modal Systems Design (MMD) by de Raadt, and the Wuli-Shili-Renli Approach (WSR) by Gu and Zhu.

TOP is a two-decade old multiple perspective concept advanced to help the systems practitioner bridge the gap between analysis and action, between model and the real world. Criticising the prevailing systems approaches which are one-sidedly characterised by the traditional perspective of the engineer and scientist, TOP provides a three-dimensional view to address real-world systems which are complex. The three perspectives it suggests are: T - the technical perspective; O - the organisational or societal perspective; and P - the personal or individual perspective. It is asserted that the different perspectives force us to distinguish how we are looking form what we are looking at: we see the system through different filters. It is asserted that the three types of perspectives have inherently different characteristics and properties, each of which yields insights on a system that are not attainable with the others.

While emphasising that the O and P perspectives are not to replace the T perspective, TOP claims that the perspectives do not represent different mathematical models but very different sets of underlying assumptions, axioms, or paradigms. Documentation of TOP can be found in Linstone (1984, 1985, 1989), Linstone et al. (1981, 1987).

MMD is presented as an alternative approach to social systems design which is said to have taken advantage of the idea of 'multi-modal cultural ecology' in reality, in human life, and in knowledge. Criticising the reductionist tendency of guiding the affairs of humanity by a mechanical and utilitarian world view that considers humanity as a mean of production and subject to industrial goals, multi-modal thinking is reported to provide a theoretical framework that brings technology and humanity together. It is argued that each modal level, or 'law sphere', in modal ecology is governed by its own order or set of laws, which is unique and irreducible; that is, one cannot totally understand one modal order in terms of another, and therefore it requires a distinct intellectual discipline to study each modal order.

Drawing upon the ideas of homonorphism, expansion, and transduction among modal levels, MMD is formulated as a methodology which aims at ensuring that all modalities of human life, from the most 'hard' modalities to the most 'soft' ones, be presented and integrated in social systems design. MMD is documented mainly in de Raadt (1989, 1995).

WSR is said to be a systems approach which developed from a distinct tradition: the ancient Chinese philosophy and the systems practice in China since the 1950s'. More precisely speaking, WSR tries to combine insights from the Neo-Confucianist concept of Li (essence, patterns, principles, reasoning) and the teaching of Ge Wu Qiong Li (Investigating things for their utmost lis), and achievements of contemporary systems science, so to provide practitioners with operational systems guidelines in the hope of improving systems research and practice in the Eastern context.

In WSR, Wuli denotes to knowledge about objective phenomena, Shili means the ways of our seeing, modelling and doing, while Renli is concerned with human relations. It follows such a viewpoint that there are different lis governing different phenomena, engagement, and relations, one of which cannot be properly understood or tackled in terms of others, therefore we have to seek different ways to deal with different lis. For pedagogical purpose, principles have been suggested, methods introduced, and a methodology presented. WSR is consolidated and documented by Gu and Zhu (1995, 1996a, b), and Zhu (1996a, b, c, d).

Discussions in the rest of this paper are based mainly on this author's personal reading and interpretation of Linstone (1989), de Raadt (1989, 1995), Gu and Zhu (1996a, b), and Zhu (1996a, b).

3. Commonalities among TOP, MMD and WSR

These three approaches are studied, analysed and presented together due to, primarily, their significant commonalities, or, similarities, which seem to have overshadowed the differences among their cultural traditions.

3.1 A Systems Vision Built on Differentiation And Multiplicity

The most striking similarity among these three approaches lies on that all of them, each in its own cultural language, try to overcome the reductionist tendency as they perceived in traditional systems approaches, and doing so by articulating a 'systems vision' which emphasises differentiation and multiplicity in 'the world', of our perspectives, and among human inquiring systems. Such vision is manifested in TOP as multi-perspective, in MMD as multi-modality, and in WSR as multi-Li.

First, all three approaches are designed for dealing with human-social systems rather than just technical ones: TOP is for 'dealing with complex sociotechnical systems' (Linstone, 1989:329), MMD is concerned with 'a more humane design of social systems' (de Raadt, 1989:17), WSR is consolidated for conducting 'systems projects' which are viewed to be 'conditioned by Wu (objective existence), Shi (affairs and engagements), and Ren (human relations with all their objectivity, subjectivity and intersubjectivity)' (Zhu, 1996a:24).

It is, then, this common desire of dealing with (and improving) human-social systems that made the TOP, MMD and WSR designers pained to see the one-dimensional reductionist tendency in traditional 'systems approaches'.

Linstone (1989) contributes a whole section to analyse 'the most successful “religion” of modern times', 'the traditional perspective of the engineer and scientist', urging systems scientists to proceed beyond the inadequate T perspective.

de Raadt (1989) has a whole section titled 'Reductionism', criticising the tendency in social systems design which reduces the modal ecology of society, of human life and of knowledge into 'one modality' only: 'This reductionism considers the order in one or more modalities exclusively as a special manifestation of the order in another single modality that becomes a type of ultimate key to understanding. The development of an explanatory model is then attempted, in which all, or part of reality, is explained on the basis of one modality', and he claimed to have found such reductionism in Bentham, Mill, Marx, Comte, Skinner, Spencer, and traditional systems approaches which 'often lead to social agony and the dehumanisation of the individual' as well as of human life as a whole (de Raadt, 1989:19-21).

Zhu (1996a), in a similar way, uses a whole section to criticise the reductionist thinking manifested in both ancient Chinese culture and contemporary systems practice in that context. According to Zhu, while Confucianism in the ancient time was preoccupied by an overwhelming concern of isolated individual moral cultivation, systems practice in contemporary China today faces a real danger of a different kind of reductionist tendency: the domination of scientism. Zhu criticises the phenomena which he takes as manifestations of reductionism as such:

In our systems community, academic journals and research papers are expected to contain, and preferably to be full of, mathematical equations and models. Within project-lists, those which are technology-oriented predominate and are well funded. Should human factors be undeniable, they had better be expressed as secondary variables. What concerns us is not human values or interests, but merely human behaviour. … Few of us as systems scientists are concerned with the modelling of models. Few are interested in studying human relations in searching for reasons of success or failure in projects, nor human values and interests for their own sake. Fewer still bother to ask such questions: As an expert, do I have vision? What is that vision mean? Who said that? Does it matter? (Zhu, 1996a:22-3).

Zhu continues to question: We know that the Confucianist view of harmony reduced the Universe into human nature or Mind alone; but haven't we reduced the Universe to something else? We criticise the Confucianists as being epistemologically and methodologically handicapped; but aren't we using a particular kind of model to tackle all situations, or to exclude those situations not 'fitted' to our models from the system? (ibid.).

TOP, MMD and WSR are not the only approaches that urge systems scientists to overcome the reductionist tendency of the traditional 'systems approaches' and to move beyond the merely technical definition of systems towards more humanistic and holistic systems inquiries. Before the emergence of TOP, MMD and WSR, Churchman (1970, 1971, 1979a, b) has been arguing for a redefinition of systems approach; Ackoff (1979a, b, 1981) has been criticising the degeneration of OR, crying that 'The future of operational research is past'; Checkland (1981) and other 'soft' systems thinkers have tried great efforts to formulate a new range of systems approaches so to tackle human aspects of systems (or in their own words, 'ill-structured situations', 'messes', etc.); further some other systems thinkers, for example Flood and Jackson (1991), have tried to pave an avenue towards complementary synergy among systems methodologies. All these and other contributions are significant for the movement of overcoming reductionism towards 'truly' systems research and practice.

Yet, TOP, MMD and WSR appear distinct from other systems approaches, in that their designers consciously, explicitly and insistently build their approaches upon a core and unique conception: the differentiation and multiplicity of 'system': system as the complexity in the world, system as human knowledge, system as the way of human inquiry. This conception is emphasised and apparent as such that it cannot be missed even we take merely a quick glance at the titles of the approaches and relevant key papers: Linstone names his approach Multiple Perspective Concept, de Raadt calls his Multi-modal Systems Design, Zhu (1996a) describes the WSR philosophy as 'dealing with differentiated whole'.

It is of capital importance, further, to point out that although criticising the limitation of traditional systems approaches and practice, although being pained of the inadequacy of technical considerations in dealing with social systems, TOP, MMD and WSR are not to devalue or to replace the inquiry of the technical aspect of systems (the T perspective in TOP, the 'hard' modal levels in MMD, and Wuli in WSR). Rather, all of the three approaches insistently contend that research and tackling of the technical aspect of systems are to be augmented (Linstone), transduced (de Raadt), and complemented (Gu and Zhu) with other perspectives, modalities or Lis, which are differentiable and not less important, so to 'bridge the gap between analysis and action, between model and real world' (Linstone, 1989:307), to 'sustain this modal ecology of humane life' (de Raadt, 1989:19), or to 'conduct our systems projects more smoothly and successfully' (Zhu, 1996a).

More precisely, TOP, MMD and WSR contend, respectively, that: Each perspective presents insights not obtainable with the other. We also find it desirable, indeed essential, to call on several perspectives in addressing real-world systems which are complex, which deal with people as well as artefacts … We emphasise that we are augmenting, not replacing, the T perspective (Linstone, 1989:311-2).

Each modality has its own order and is governed by its own set of laws … These laws differ from modality to modality, so that is not possible to understand the behaviour of one modality on the basis of the laws of another modality. … The order in which transduction [among modalities] takes place is not important, … What is important is the variety of modalities involved … (de Raadt, 1989:19 and 22).

Wuli Shili Renli … are differentiable yet inseparable. They constitute an irreducible whole within which one li cannot be fully understood and properly tackled in terms of another. … all Wuli Shili and Renli will inevitably be involved in, condition, and hence determine the fate of systems practice … According to the Confucian teaching that 'every kind of things in this world has its own li', we contend that Wu, Shi and Ren naturally have their inherent lis, which are different and distinct from each other, changeable in themselves, and influence each other in every concrete circumstance. Again, following the Confucian argument of different ways for investigating different lis, we suggest that in conducting any systems projects, we systems scientists should bring all Wu, Shi and Ren into our consideration (Zhu, 1996a:2-3 and 22-3).

Again: … any project, especially those in the East, can be viewed as conditioned by a complex whole which is constituted by Wu (objective conditions, e.g., resources and constraints), Shi (events and engagements), and Ren (human relations). Both Confucianism and scientism tend to reduce these rich wholes into one sphere: ethics or techniques. As contrast, I suggest that it is useful, based on insights of Confucianism, to make differences in the rich whole, that is, to investigate laws and regularities governing Wu, to study the ways of our seeing/doing engagements (Shi), and to be concerned with relevant human relations (Ren). Involving into any project, we are dealing with a differentiable whole(s), therefore we had better seek different ways to tackle different lis (regularities, patterns, relations) (Zhu, 1996d:15).

Another distinct characteristic of the TOP, MMD and WSR' differentiation and multiplicity vision deserves emphasis is that, unlike some other approaches or methodologies which suggest addressing one single aspect of systems in a certain stage while tackling other aspects in other stages, the three approaches discussed here contend that we should prepare to deal with a system of all perspectives, modalities, or Lis, throughout the whole process of our 'decision', 'action', 'design', or 'conduct of projects'.

For MMD, 'though each modality is unique, it depends upon and is inextricably linked with other modalities' (de Raadt, 1995:181).

For TOP, 'The various perspectives may, and do, impact each other'; 'Their interplay is the essence of the decision process'; 'Such interplay [also] leads to consideration of important facets that are not captured by any one perspective', therefore 'cross-cuing', 'cross-cutting' and 'integration' among perspectives must be encouraged (Linstone, 1989:328).

Gu and Zhu discuss various manifestations of Wuli, Shili and Renli in each stage of WSR, and suggest a view which perceives that Wuli, Shili and Renli are always conditioning, underlying and influencing the whole process of projects although sometimes this or that li may appear to be more 'crucial', 'important', 'urgent', or 'dominant' than others. Therefore, it is a critical requirement for systems scientists and participants to be sensitive to, and to deal with, differentiable yet unseparatable Wuli, Shili and Renli with all their skills, care, imagination and experience' (Gu and Zhu, 1996b:4).

Zhu continues to argue that: Wu, Shi and Ren in all systems projects are by no means static, fixed, or isolated. Rather, they are distinguishable yet interwoven manifestations of the dynamic and relational process of Yin and Yang. … Ideally, in undertaking any systems projects, we as systems scientists, or whoever, should investigate and follow these lis, responding to dynamic manifestations of and among them, in concrete situations confronting us. … [We should] accordingly search for appropriate methods to study all Wuli, Shili and Renli as well as their manifesting interrelations, although certain li(s) may be perceived by participants as more 'crucial', 'major', 'dominant', or 'urgent' than others at some stage(s) of the conduct of projects' (Zhu, 1996a:22).

3.2 A Trinitarian 'Relations' Inquiry System

This sub-title pushes forward another similarity among TOP, MMD and WSR: in each of the three approaches, the relations being addressed are coincidentally grouped into three general categories: relations within the complexity of 'the world', relations between human and the world, and relations among human beings.

In WSR, this conceptualisation of relations is apparent. First, Wu in WSR denotes dynamic relations within objective existence, 'the whole range of “facts” in our resources and constrains' (Zhu, 1996b:2). Accordingly Wuli covers orders, regularities and mechanisms that governing those objective relations.

Next, Shi is used to describe 'affairs' and 'engagements' through which we human beings 'involve into' the world: seeing, thinking, planning and acting, or in short, the modelling of models. Accordingly, Shili is 'defined' as patterns or ways in which humans think and act in the world. 'In studying Shili, we focus on investigating and understanding how the world can be better modelled and managed' (ibid.). Therefore Shili can be interpreted as pertaining to the study of relations between human and the world.

Then, 'Renli highlights the importance of human relations', 'stresses the intersubjective relations among parties concerned by our actions', 'denotes to patterns of human behaviour and interaction, effects of encounters among different value systems and interests, as well as ways of investigating and tackling those patterns, effects, and encounters' (ibid.:3).

In MMD, although, when discussing 'modal ecology' and 'multi-modal thinking' in general, it is asserted that 'the modal axis comprises 15 modalities' which are ranged from the 'hardest', numerical, to the 'softest', credal (pertaining to belief), yet when it comes to discuss more practical organisational design, the designer of MMD suggests: '… organisational design is visualised as an information transfer exercise, procuring order from a variety of source modalities and transducing it into the three foundation modalities identified above: social, lingual and physical' (de Raadt, 1989:23, emphasis added). It is also argued that by taking up multi-modal thinking, it is desirable and possible that 'multi-modal design integrates technological, organisational and cultural design into one single methodology' (de Raadt, 1995:186, emphasis added).

Taking a risk of oversimplifying, it seems not quite irreasonable to loosely relate those 'foundation modalities' to Wuli, Shili and Renli: 'physical modality' and 'technological design' to relations within the world, 'lingual modality' and 'cultural design' to relations between human and the world (the ways and patterns in which we see and act in the world), while 'social modality' and 'organisational design' to relations among human beings.

It seems that TOP, too, puts attention to a similar set of relations. It appears that in TOP, relations within the world are addressed by the T - technical perspective; relations between human and the world (patterns and ways of seeing and acting) by the P - personal or individual perspective, while relations among human beings by the O - organisational or societal perspective.

If the above analysis is reasonable, then an interesting convergence can be said to be emgerging, and can be described as such: on the on hand, all three approaches are practical 'problem-solving' oriented (TOP desires to assist better policy analysis and decision making, MMD pursues better social-organisational design, WSR attempts to improve the conduct of projects); on the other hand, all three approaches happen to coincide in focusing their study at an investigation system, which we may call 'a Trinitarian relations system' - a system to investigate the objective world, to reflect on our subjective modelling of the world, and to care intersubjectivity among us human fellows.

This convergence appears to have some kind of epistemic significance: Why have all these approaches, despite of their cultural differences, come together as such a 'system'? Is there any implication in this convergence for the future of systems thinking, systems science or systems approaches? I must say that I am not concluding here that objectivity in the world, subjectivity in our mind and intersubjectivity among human fellows are the domains of, or the path for, the development of systems study. I would, rather, prefer to say that the three-fold relations inquiry system proposed and employed by TOP, MMD and WSR seems to have potential of opening up opportunities to enlarge and organise horizons for systems study, than to limiting or defining it.

What I am trying to indicate is that the convergence discussed here might deserve our attention and further research.

3.3 Openness Towards Various Inquiry Systems

With the differentiation-multiplicity vision as their core rationale, it is naturally that all TOP, MMD and WSR hold an open attitude towards other methods, approaches, and human inquiry systems:

Taken together, the multiple perspectives constitute a Singerian inquiring system (Churchman, 1971). As such it is pragmatic and includes application of all other inquiring systems, for example, data and model based or dialectic, as needed (Linstone, 1989:312). … multi-modal system design can be combined with a variety of theoretical models of organisations such as the viable system model of Beer (1979, 1981), the various organisational images proposed by Morgan (1986) or my own living social system model (de Raadt, 1995:197).

The world is so complicated. The manifestations of Wuli, Shili and Renli are so rich. We have no other choice but to learn and try as many methods as possible so to deal with the complexity we face. “Only variety can handle variety.”

Therefore, TOP, MMD and WSR can be perceived and be said to be some kind of 'meta-system', in that a 'meta-system' is understood 'rather than presenting a particular system based on systemic principles, where one would have relational elements and a relationship all existing as one whole', but 'a system of looking at systems', 'a system about systems', which is not 'competing with systems in general' (private e-mail from Editor Thomas Mandel to Zhu, 30 December, 1995; in Zhu, 1996d:28-9). If this is 'true', Linstone appears to know his own position most clearly among the designers of the three approaches when he writes: 'The multiple perspective concept constitutes an effective meta-inquiring system' (Linstone, 1989:329).

3.4 Emphasis On Human Value And Relations

In rejecting their perceived reductionist tendency and articulating their own systems vision, the designers put most of their energy to emphasise the importance of the human aspects of systems.

It is evident in de Raadt (1989, 1995) that a more humanistic social systems design for pursuing human fulfilment, happiness and social justice is the basic tone of MMD. For TOP, Linstone stresses that 'In view of … the missing human aspects in systems, I shall call to your attention … the organisational/institutional (O), and the personal/individual (P)' (private e-mail, 22 September 1995; in Zhu, 1996d:9). In all documented cases in Linstone (1989), what is emphasised are 'human beings', 'human actions', 'leaders/individuals', and so on.

In WSR, 'human relations' stands as a basic point of focus, attention, argumentation and application, so much so that Midgley and Gu (1996:3) comment as such: WSR has pushed forward a message that the 'most pressing need is for approaches that deal with human relations in a non-mechanistic manner (Renli)'.

Further, all three approaches insist that research and tackling of 'human aspects' of systems should move beyond the narrow scope of 'behaviourism' and the tendency of modelling human behaviour as 'secondary variables', but to take concerned parties' interests, desires and value systems as a prior subject of systems inquiry. For example, de Raadt (1989:21) criticises the 'social model endeavouring to explain behaviour spanning several modalities solely from the confines of the economic modality', Zhu (1996a:29) argues that we should enrich our conception of social systems design from merely 'of people' and/or 'for people' towards including 'by people'.

End of part One

system_approaches.txt · Last modified: 2020/07/27 15:38 (external edit)