Inquiring systems are ways of gaining knowledge about reality; they are applied epistemology, the framing technology of investigation, discovery, and learning. Their design and proper use involves recognizing and choosing the ways they relate theory and observation, which influences their suitability for particular problems or questions. The way questions are asked, the way answers and observations are sought, and the way observers revise their view of reality are expressions of the value systems of their proponents (and of the users of the frameworks they provide) as to what is credible (can be believed) and what should be believed. As Willard Van Orman Quine noted, "any statement can be held true, come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.", so it important to be aware of what adjustment we allow under what circumstances.

Why Bother?

Even "science never proves anything: science sometimes improves hypotheses and sometimes disproves them. But proof would be another matter and perhaps never occurs except in the realms of totally abstract tautology" 1 . The challenge of achieving scientific progress is even greater in the behavioral sciences (i.e. those involving human action) where, as Pynchon nicely put it in Proverbs for Paranoids #3, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers". 2, 3. The study of inquiring systems helps make epistemology relevant and useful for systems scientists doing research design, planning, and learning -- professionals who need to be aware of the limits and biases of their methods. 4 With the advent via operations research of the systems approach to problem-solving and design of purposeful systems (for military operations in the 1940's, and business and civil applications afterward) came the need to develop adequate techniques for conceiving, analyzing, testing, and evaluating complex, often cybernetic, systems. The experiences of the 1950's and '60's repeatedly showed the limitations of a purely analytical, "scientific" approach to decision research, as the results in decision theory and economics accumulated evidence that, like the three-body problem in kinetics, many social and economic problems would be impossible to solve mathematically. 5

How does one study Inquiring Systems?

First, take your favorite inquiring system and use it on all the inquiring systems you need to study. Oops, looks like Godel's going to cause trouble for us again! Bootstrap alert! Under the circumstances, it may be best to just "shop around": decide for ourselves which features are important and look around for the system that has all the features we want. If none is fully-featured, we choose the best (in our opinion) set of features available among those proposed.

This is what I. Mitroff and L. Pondy 6 did in 1974, using the thorough groundwork completed by C. West Churchman 7 in 1971 (which he had earlier begun in 1950 with Russell L. Ackoff 8 ). The features they looked for and compared were primarily the effectiveness for planning and decision-making in uncertain and complex situations--how well the systems managed theorizing and world-viewing. They did not emphasize features like ethics or aesthetics, or even cost-effectiveness, however. They discounted a Lockean approach as naive (neglects a priori theory and bias) and optimistic (consensual view is supposed always achievable). A Leibnizian "single best model" approach was seen as of limited use; placing greater value on theorizing than data collection, it has validity only when we can be sure the real world matches a logical structure (because we built it that way, for instance). A Kantian : IS admits that multiple views or models may fit the data (Occam's razor notwithstanding) and should be considered; respecting multiplicity of points of view, it trusts robust conclusions, i.e. those produced by all (or most) models possible. Finally, among the "pure" systems, the Hegelian or dialectic system seeks conflicting views, maximum debate; trusts the union of conflicting theories rather than their intersection, and is more appropriate for problems that are inherently conflictual, such as abortion, pollution, etc. Mitroff and Pondy describe a Churchman-Singerian composite of the preceding systems, which takes a "portfolio" approach to compensating the deficiencies of each system by using them all at once! The Kantian and Hegelian systems are typically obsessed with conceptualisation, which overshadows reasoning, whereas Lockean and Liebnizian refine their formal theory without reconsidering their conceptualisation. The Churchman-Singerian system, which admits that progress will be iterative, adds an influence from inquirer to reality, which recognizes a major difference between "natural science" and "behavioral science" in that man, with laws, organizations, and institutions of various sorts can modify his social-political-economic reality.

Were These The Only People Interested?

Correlated developments in psychology and social psychology include the work of Piaget, Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, Janis and Mann; also Bateson (double-bind theory of schizophrenia) and Laing.

Piaget's model of developing intelligence in infants (1963) proposed two pathways for processing experience : a short loop of "assimilation" when perceptions are in agreement with expectations, and a longer loop of "adaptation" when there is disagreement and revisions to the world-view are needed to restore consistency.

In their study of "Theories of Action" (1974), Argyris and Schon noted that long-run professional effectiveness requires learning, which in turn requires testability of one's theory of action. They then explored sets of governing values which interfere with learning by controlling and constraining observations, and how to adopt governing values which favor learning.

Janis and Mann, in Coping with Decisional Conflict (1976), considered how stress affects decision-making. In particular, their conflict-theory model of decision-making postulates the behavior is mainly influenced by three factors : the choice to consider changing ("are the risks serious if I don't change"?), belief that a better solution may be found, and time to continue the inquiry.

And then What Happened?

Well, it has caught on gradually in various forms. Not everyone is interested, of course. Lots of people have more trouble with undecidability than with infinity, and for them a Kantian or Hegelian system is intolerable. But here are a couple of positive examples, and others can be found in the mediative approaches increasingly used by planning institutes and facilitators :

In the early 1990's, Drs. Robert Kaplan (Harvard Business School) and David Norton developed a new approach to strategic management they named the 'balanced scorecard'. Briefly, they added "the customer", "internal business processes", and "learning and growth" to the traditional exclusively financial views expressed in corporate planning and control. The recognition of multiple, possibly conflictual views is significant, particularly as an on-going management tool rather than something applied by consultants in time of crisis and then forgotten. Additional views are also permitted--companies are not stuck with this off-the-shelf structure.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline (1990), developed the complementarity of systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models building, shared vision, and team learning: in essence, providing a synthetic presentation of how "live and work" the accumulated ideas on inquiring systems and theories of action.

Argyris and Schon, Ackoff, Peter Checkland, and others have continued to consult in both corporate and public-sector projects.


  1. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, 1979.
  2. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, 1973.
  3. As noticed by Edward Sapir, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others, language is a determining factor in the way we perceive, and how well we can describe reality.
  4. Consider also the psychoanalyst's problem nicely expressed by R.D. Laing : "I see you and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behavior. You see my behavior. But I do not and never have and never will 'see' your experience of me."(The Politics of Experience, 1967)
  5. Mathematicians have carried on with attempts to provide rigorous mathematical foundations for Kantian and Hegelian inquiry, producing fuzzy set theory, a mathematical theory of evidence, and calculation rules for formal belief revision in the work of G. Shafer, P. Gardenfors, B. Walliser, and others.
  6. Ian I. Mitroff and Louis R. Pondy, On the Organization of Inquiry: A Comparison of Some Radically Different Approaches to Policy Analysis, Public Administration Review, September/October 1974.
  7. C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems, Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations, Basic Books, New York, 1971.
  8. Russell L. Ackoff and C. West Churchman, Methods of Inquiry, Educational Publishers, St. Louis, 1950.

Other References

Alice Kienholz, PhD., Systems ReThinking: An Inquiring Systems Approach to the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization ,, 1999.

Gregory Bateson, Steps To an Ecology of Mind, 1972.

Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, Coping with Decisional Conflict, in the American Scientist, November-December 1976.

Ian I. Mitroff, James R. Emshoff and Ralph Kilmann, Assumptional Analysis: A Methodology for Strategic Problem Solving, Management Science, June 1979.