A Special Interest Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Society (ISSS)
formerly ISGSR.


An activity of the Primer Group

December 1, 1996; to December 31, 1997


Where the East Meets the West?

'dealing with differentiated whole'

Part two

Zhichang ZHU (PhD)

3.5 Inheriting, Reconstructing And Learning

All three approaches consciously build their theses upon insights of the designers' own cultural tradition. The American TOP refers to Allison (1971), the European MMD draws upon Dooyeweerd (1975, 1958), while WSR is built on a reconstruction of ancient Chinese thought, especially the Neo-Confucianism of the Song-Ming dynasties (Zhu, 1996a, b).

Their cultural traditions are, obviously, different, yet their treatment of cultural traditions appears similar: standing on the shoulder of their own culture, making reconstruction if necessary, and at the same time keeping the mind open, open to any valuable insights from 'outside', e.g., alien cultures as well as latest achievements of systems studies world-wide. Therefore, their learning can be viewed as along two dimensions: a 'vertical' one along the values historically accumulated in each of their own cultural traditions, and a 'horizontal' one along insights provided by various cultural traditions.

The 'merit' of this style of study seems to be two-fold: first it provides opportunity for designers to enlarge their scope, to enrich their imagination ability, and therefore to increase their wisdom; second it enables systems approaches to reach the local people more easily, more 'user-friendly', and therefore to realise their competence more substantially.

4. Differences among TOP, MMD and WSR

4.1 Harmony And Differences

Confucius once said: The great man retains differences, achieving harmony; the small man harmonises without differences (quoted from private e-mail from Yongming Tang to Zhu, 29 December 1995; in Zhu, 1996d:26). In Guo Yu (Sayings of the States), an ancient Chinese classic, under a section about the Duke Huan of Cheng (806-771 BC), we can also find a saying that 'He (harmony) results in the production of things, but Tong (identity) does not.

When the one equalises the other there comes what is called harmony, so that then there can be a luxurious growth in which new things are produced. But if identity is added to identity, all that is new is finished' (cf.: Fung Yu-Lan, 1952:34).

These ancient Chinese teachings are introduced here because they have helped this author to realise that if we are pursuing harmony rather than identity, as 'great man' and willing to 'producing' something, it may be not bad to discuss differences along with commonalities.

The most striking difference among TOP, MMD and WSR appears to be their treatments of, and perhaps also their explicit or unspoken basic assumptions upon, 'meta-theory', by which I mean ontological, epistemological, methodological, and relevant cultural-ideological issues.

4.2 The MMD Meta-theoretical Proposition

Let us begin with MMD. It seems evident that the designer is well aware of the decades old debate about 'paradigms', 'philosophy of science', 'scientific truth' and 'order', and perhaps also the controversy between modernism and postmodernism (see de Raadt, 1995:186). It seems equally evident that the designer has chosen optimistically to accept and hold a 'controversial' presupposition from among a wide range. This presupposition is manifested not only in the declaration that 'the universe is ordered and that this order encompasses the totality of natural phenomena and human life. This implies that there exists a truth that is absolute and autonomous from man and nature. While the human intellect is limited and subject to error, truth is not completely elusive and it is the task and responsibility of man to seek this truth and to live under its guidance' (ibid.), but also in the MMD's multi-modal oriented ontological vision, epistemological viewpoint, and the methodology for design, which are expressed and articulated consistently, clearly and forcefully.

In terms of ontology, it is claimed that multi-modal thinking 'reminds us that reality and humanity show a variety of discrete aspects'. MMD criticises some other approaches and theories because those approaches, as it sees them, 'ignore(s)' and 'fail to see' or 'to recognise' the multi-modal 'nature' or 'character' of human life and systems (ibid:189, 191 and 194; also 1989:17, 18, 19 and 25; emphases added).

In terms of epistemology, although multi-modal thinking is called by the designer a 'presupposition', the words which MMD chooses to describe 'reality' and to question the others (such as Checkland's) indicate in some way that it intends to be more than a presupposition. In other words, it wants to show its greater closeness, than those of the others, to the 'truth'. While it asserts that the presupposed homonorphism between modalities 'cannot be verified by any modal sets of laws', there seems no question to MMD that 'It is possible however to identify a degree of homonorphism between the order of one modality and another' (de Raadt, 1989:19; emphasis added).

The optimism in MDD's epistemological assumption is further clearly exhibited by its explanation of one of its core concepts, that of 'Sphere of Sovereignty', which is quoted in length in the below:
... each system ... there is one (in less developed systems there may be two or more) modality that qualifies the system; that is, it endows the system with its ultimate mission, character and uniqueness, distinguishing it from other types of systems. A bank is qualified by the economic modality, the family is qualify by the ethical modality - which has love as its nucleus - and a hospital is qualified by the biotic modality. This qualifying modality provides the social system with the nucleus that becomes the ultimate focus for all its activities. ... Due to each system having a nucleus that provides it with a mission, the laws that rule that modality are the ultimate authority of what the system is and ought to be. A system should therefore be free ... to comply with these laws, for they prescribe the sphere of a system's duty as well as its right. This sphere is thus rightly termed the system's sphere of sovereignty. ... The expansion of knowledge of the qualifying modality and of the systems sphere of sovereignty is the gist of design and of learning in society (de Raadt, 1995:190).

Presented as a systems alternative for social systems design which is said to put human fulfilment and social justice as its starting point and destination, epistemologically there is no indication in MMD for how to 'identify' 'the qualifying modality' and the 'sphere of sovereignty' of a social system, how to determine 'the ultimate focus', 'the ultimate mission' and 'the ultimate authority' 'for all its activities', how to decide 'what the system is and ought to be', how to check the validity claim of all those 'ultimate', or whether such checking is necessary, who to undertake all these, under what conditions, in what terms, etc.

Such optimism and enthusiasm are also consistently embedded into the MMD's methodology. Besides of providing a four-activity methodology for multi-modal design, it is further claimed that:
While some methodologies of design specify more than four steps, this is only due to the subdivision of one activity into two or more to clarify some aspect of design important to that particular methodology. But in reality there seems to be a universality about the four activities ... (ibid.:194).

4.3 The TOP Meta-theoretical Proposition

Compared with the optimism, enthusiasm and confidence of MMD, the proposition of TOP appears to be more moderate, cautious, and tentative.

TOP does not have any attempt to provide or present formally its meta-theoretical proposition, although it asserts that 'What is not said may be as important as what is said' (Linstone, 1989:327; emphasis original). We can only find such statements as: 'We stress that "complexity" and "order" are properties of the observer - who is himself part of the system being observed' (ibid.:308).

Rather, TOP is presented as merely a process oriented three-dimensional view, which 'cannot expect scientific validation' although 'is well worth a strenuous effort' (ibid.:329). It is stressed that 'any complex problem may be viewed from any perspective', that 'we cannot prove that a set of perspectives is the "right" set'', and that 'we cannot derive the "proper" weighting in integrating perspectives'. It is further asserted that 'Experimental design and validation of hypotheses are intraparadigmatic: they operate within the framework of a perspective. They cannot prove that any model gives that "correct" representation of reality; they cannot give assurance that the variables chosen are sufficiently inclusive or appropriate' (ibid.:312; emphasis original).

In terms of methodology, TOP claims that 'The multiple perspective concept is not simply another methodology to add to the analyst's tool kit. There is no six-step procedure, no formula to weight perspectives' (ibid.:326). What it provides for practitioners are 'some [six] guidelines' (or principles) 'suggested' by the designer's experience 'to assist in applying the concept'. In a 25-page article on TOP, 12 pages are spent on application case reporting and analysis, which may be interpreted as an manifestation of the designer's desire of making TOP a process- and learning-oriented approach.

4.4 The WSR Meta-theoretical Proposition

It appears that WSR shares with TOP its moderation and caution. Yet such moderation and caution seem to have not prevented WSR from presenting its own ontological vision, epistemological viewpoint, and a six-stage process methodology. Possibly such doing is based on a rationale which underlies WSR that any approach, without any excption, 'should' hold its own meta-theoretical assumptions, being aware or not, acknowledged or otherwise. In a section titled 'A Conception of Reality', Zhu perceives 'reality' as such:

I will begin the elaboration of Wuli Shili Renli by declaring a conception that the reality we are to tackle in all systems projects can be viewed as constituted by Wu (objective existence), Shi (affairs and engagements), and Ren (humans with all their objectivity, subjectivity and intersubjectivity). In my view, the notions of Wu, Shi and Ren are parallel to the Confucian conception of 'the unity of Being, the unity of Existence, the unity of Life, and the unity of Value' (Zhu, 1996a:23)

Immediately following this message, Zhu writes: I would like to make it clear that such conception of reality is based on our belief, a belief we consider most informative and instructive to guide systems research and practice, especially in the Oriental context, rather than capable of being 'proved' in any ultimate sense (ibid:24).

While presenting the methodology of WSR as a six-stage process, a caution is made that this is only 'for pedagogical purpose' (Zhu, 1996b:3). It is emphasised that ... we must repeat again that the WSR approach should not be read or followed as a step-by-step Chinese cookbook. In practice, practitioners should try to design or formulate their own methods or procedures according to their perception of situations and their understanding of various methods. The sequential presentation of the WSR processes should be treated only as a starting point for learning, stimulation, reflection, and discussion. Once readers understand the philosophy and principles of WSR, as long as they realise tasks to fulfil, provided that they have more appropriate methods of their own, the presentation of the six step procedure of WSR had better be forgotten. To catch a fish we need a fishing pole. But when you have caught the fish you no longer need the pole. WSR is the fishing pole; and thinking and acting systemically is the fish. We hope readers, and ourselves, will not take the fishing pole for the fish ... (Gu and Zhu, 1996b:5).

The designers of WSR have so far spent much of their energy to bring to the Eastern systems community, and to try in their own practical projects, a wide range of systems approaches, methodologies, or methods, 'hard', 'soft', 'critical', which are originally developed and applied in the West. It is apparent that in doing so, the designers are aware of and concerned by the 'paradigmatic' or cultural issues:

However, to learn, to try and to employ the wide range of methods/methodologies appear to be a great challenge, culturally and ideologically.... If we agree that methods are not spanners or screws in our toolbox, but manifestations of deep-seated basic assumptions, beliefs, and value systems, or say, cultures, then to employ methods of 'the others' in our own cultural context, or even merely to learn those methods, may demand a 'culture shift'. Without awareness of this, we may on the one hand distort our situations while on the other hand denature those methods. Is it really so, or not? If yes, what to do? We admit that we face a great challenge and have not yet an answer to it. It needs further research, it requires intellectual effort, it demands open-mindedness (ibid.:5).

There seems to be an unspoken and struggling argument in WSR in the regard of methodology/method synergy, that on the one hand, attempts of providing participants with methodologies/methods are always taking a risk of 'trapping practitioners' or 'constraining their creativity', yet on the other hand, without introducing practical guidelines to participants, 'as a starting point for learning, stimulation, reflection and discussion', systems scientists will most likely leave participants to a disadvantageous position within an unequal or imbalanced relation in terms of expertise, information, power and other resources, waiting for delivery from experts, agency, or authorities. In a context where 'educated personnel are scarce' , the latter worry seems especially not quite irreasonable or irrelevant.

All the above concerns of the WSR designers might give indication for considering the 'WSR principles' which have been suggested as such:
First, pursuing differentiation rather than reduction; second, being open to varying lis, values, interests, rationality, creativity and methodologies; third, reflecting on basic and generally hidden assumptions of various models; forth, searching for possible synthesis and complementation among approaches; and fifth, the WSR methodology should be used flexibly rather than treated as a step-by-step Chinese cookbook (Zhu, 1996b:3).

Like Linstone, the designers of WSR hold a modest attitude towards their own approach. For Zhu, WSR is not 'facts-pertaining', nor is it 'objective' in the sense of 'universal laws', rather, it should be only 'consider(ed) probably to have some value for carrying out some kind of affairs "better"'. More precisely: ... what WSR is about is a piece of Shili, in the sense that WSR is a suggestion for seeing and doing things, in our case, to improve and to popularise systems research and practice through the effort of pursuing appropriate methods to address and tackle differentiable Wuli, Shili and Renli in a systemically informed way. It is subjective because it is based on our personal understanding of Confucian teaching as well as contemporary systems science. It is subjective also because it is built on our subjective interpretation of limited experience from previous systems projects. Yet it also appears to me as objective to the extent that employing WSR we are able to explain most successes and failures in systems projects in the Eastern context. Whether WSR has any normative or prescriptive significance and relevance for improving systems research and practice remains to be seen, and can only be seen through practice. ... WSR is not 'the only feasible and effective way' for systems research and practice, [yet] a trial of it might be justified (Zhu, 1996a:30-1).

I am not saying that this is 'the way' or this is 'the system'. What my paper is about is to suggest that there is a 'one more' way for seeing and doing 'systems' projects and it may have something to offer for participants to take 'proper' actions if they consider appropriate. With Wuli but without Shili, we can still turn our projects into mess. With good Wuli and Shili, 'bad' Renli will produce hardship rather than improvement. We have so much sad experience of this, and we appear to repeat it again and again ... (Zhu, 1996d:15).

4.5 Differences: Intracultural Or Intercultural?

To this author, the differences, like those commonalities, among TOP, MMD and WSR appear to be 'real' and fundamental. Given the background of the decades long debate on paradigms, philosophy of science, and modernity-postmodernity, it seems that MMD holds a meta-theoretical proposition at one end, TOP at the other, while WSR can be located in 'the between' or at 'the middle'. If this perception is reasonable, now the point is: how to make these differences rational, or how to see and understand these differences.

It may be said that, since the meta-theoretical distance between the Western TOP and MMD can be said to be greater that those between either of them and the Eastern WSR, differences within one cultural tradition can be viewed to be at least as fundamental as those between or among different cultural traditions.

It may also be said that, keeping in mind a fundamental tradition in the Western culture, that is, the distinction or even separation in the Western conception of 'object and subject', 'known and knowing', 'material and spirit', 'nature and human', 'others and self' since the ancient Greece, the differences between TOP and MMD discussed in the above can be viewed as rather varying manifestations of a same rationale; while at this cultural-philosophical level, WSR, which is emerging from a distinct context within which that separative conception perplexing the West so much so long has never occupied a significant position, can be viewed as dissociating from, rather than similar to, either the TOP or the MMD's meta-theoretical concerns, therefore cultural differences between the West and the East even in systems approaches can be said to be still dominating and overwhelming.

It may also further be said that why should we searching for a Yes-Or-No or Either-Or-Not conclusion, why not investigate this 'inter- or intra-cultural' issue through a more dynamistic viewpoint which sees concerns and pursuits of different cultural traditions, as well as their intellectual fruits (in our case systems approaches), as always undergoing convergence and divergence and hence always attracting and distancing each other through an endlessly varying constellation.

It is not the intention of this paper to indicate or to convince which theoretical viewpoint we as systems scientists 'should' select. Rather, what is emphasised is that this issue deserves our awareness, attention, warm hearts, cool heads, and further research.

In the following conclusion, this author desires to discuss what seems to be important for systems researchers and practitioners, here and now, with a focus at developing systems approaches.


In 1986, the editor for a special section/issue of Interfaces commented that in China, 'the concerns of MS/OR had to be narrowed', 'the practice of MS/OR was restricted to specific technical problems', 'methodology may not have advanced' (Bartholdi, 1986:1). Since then ten years passed. Today we may feel able to say that situation has begun to change. The emerging of WSR, the series of British-Chinese-Japanese Workshops on Systems Methodologies, and the funding for (soft) systems methodology research from the National Natural Foundation of China, may be counted among some others as evidences or at least signals of such change.

Reasons for such change? Among other factors such as economic, social, political and cultural (!) developments, it seems to this author that, learning and incorporating from outside the local cultural context might stand as an important one. But how is this possible given tremendous socio-cultural differences between the East (in this case China) and the West?

Around a century ago, a Russian revolutionist, Lenin said: a proletarian, wherever he goes, whatever situation he is thrown into by the fate, without relatives but alien language, will be able to find friends and comrades by the familiar melody of the Internationale. What I understand from Lenin's saying is that commonality among proletarians world-wide in their 'proletarianism', their 'class position' and social ideal, is more powerful than cultural barriers stemming from racial or national differences.

Today, it may be not irreasonable to say, based on the analysis in the above sections, that the commonalities among those recently developed systems approaches may have shadowed or overshadowed the differences produced by merely their different development- and application-contexts.
On the one hand, the differences produced by cultural traditions should not and cannot be ignored or downplayed: these approaches may hold different practical concerns, face different social-political problems and pressures, etc. They are using different literatural languages: some talk about Aristotle, some draw upon Dooyeweerd, others may reconstruct Confucius. Yet at a deeper level, they appear to use a same syntax, a 'common systems grammar'.
Through more conscious, explicit and insistent efforts of mutual-informing and -learning about the developments and applications of this 'common grammar' in different social-cultural contexts, systems approaches world-wide might be able to improve their competence more wisely, and hence able to have more to offer for dealing with the increasing complexity which confronts humankind. During this process, systems scientists may become more wise, if not necessarily more clever or fuller of 'know-how's.
Some may be not convinced by this suggestion. But even these 'some' will not fail to see the other side of the story, by which I mean the current domination of the merely T perspective, the narrow concern of 'hard' modalities or Wuli alone, and the current prevalence of their 'fruits' - reductionist 'systems approaches'. To me, a 'better' opportunity for the 'common grammar' is still open, yet dependent on our willingness and ability.
I believe that as scientists, especially systems scientists, our primary duty is to reduce the negative impact of that 'common grammar', and to realise and to enlarge its positive effect.

The real act of discovery
consists not in finding new lands
but seeing with new eyes.
Marcel Proust

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Zhichang ZHU (PhD) Centre for Systems Studies University of Hull Hull, HU6 7RX, U.K. e-mail: z.zhu@msd.hull.ac.uk

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