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This paper was presented at the Australia and New Zealand Systems Conference, ANZSYS 2003. It won the prize for best paper. It takes a well-known and much-discussed concept from Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology and discusses how Dooyeweerdian ideas might enrich it and address some of its known problems. It is an example of how Dooyeweerd can work with rather than against extant ideas. See also the paper 'Enriching humanist thought'.

A Philosophical Enrichment of CATWOE

Andrew Basden & A. Trevor Wood-Harper
Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford, M5 4WT, U.K.


This paper reviews some of the problems of CATWOE analysis in Checkland's soft systems methodology, and suggests that they may be ameliorated, and CATWOE analysis enriched in practice, by employing a multi-aspectual philosophy.

Keywords: CATWOE, Soft Systems Methodology, Weltanschauungen, Dooyeweerd, Philosophical underpinning.


The purpose of soft systems methodology (SSM) has been summarized by Bergvall-Kåreborn (2001) as "to improve real-world situations by orchestrating changes of appreciation through a cyclic learning process." It is oriented towards human activity that cannot be closely structured because appreciation, norms and relationships (Vickers, 1968) are of central importance. The methodology itself starts with a situation that is seen as problematic (i.e. needing change) and comprises four main phases, of finding out about the situation, modelling, comparison and taking action. All these activities are normally undertaken by a group of participants, and the modelling results in choices being made to construct "relevant systems of purposeful activity" (Checkland and Scholes, 1999:7). Modelling generates 'root definitions' of systems to enact proposed changes, and 'conceptual models' derived therefrom, which are used in the comparison phase.

While finding out, comparison and action are 'above the line' in being related to the problem situation, modelling is 'below the line', deliberately abstracted from the real world so that new insights may be generated. This distinction is strongly emphasized in SSM, and has enabled it to make its crucial contribution of providing a way of handling systems that are constructed by human analytical processes and choice, rather than being assumed to exist in the real world, while at the same time retaining strong links with the real world. The new insights thus generated can be particularly helpful when faced with long-standing problems that have defied conventional attempts at solution. Crucial to this is CATWOE, a conceptual tool that is responsible for the quality of root definitions and conceptual models.

CATWOE seems to have stood the test of time, remaining substantially as it was in the 1970s, and SSM more generally has had a long and honourable history of being used throughout business and government. It deserves its high reputation, not only because, as Jackson (1982) says, it is "the most self-conscious (and certainly the most rigorous) attempt at an interpretive systems methodology", but mainly because it works.

But it does not work as well as it might. The way it is formulated and taught serves to introduce novices to the methodology and way of thinking, but it is not sufficient when novice becomes apprentice and tries to tackle real world problems. Some of the concepts are ambiguous or even misleading. It has been found that SSM tends to generate rather pallid and unexciting models, so that new insights are the exception rather than the rule. The first author's group found, in the chemical industry in the early 1980s, that SSM just seemed to bring out existing views and proposals. Though the group consoled itself with the hope that at least it showed that existing thinking was on the right track, this author at least was not satisfied and suspected there was something missing in the methodology. Further, SSM finds difficulties in dealing with conflict between participants or different perspectives. And it has been criticised for having no sound theoretical underpinning.

This paper briefly explains these problems, most of which have already been discussed in the literature, with particular reference to CATWOE. It suggests a means of enriching CATWOE in such a way as to address some of the problems. The way it does so is by applying philosophy, that of the late Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd (1896-1977) whose magnum opus, 'A New Critique of Theoretical Thought' (1955), is not only broad in scope but radical in its insights, especially in the areas of unity and diversity, theory and practice, and human activity systems. The relevant portions of the philosophy are introduced as they are needed.


CATWOE suggests six elements on which it is useful to focus in constructing the root definition of the proposed system. It has been found (Smyth and Checkland, 1976, Checkland, 1981:224) that if any of these elements are inadvertently omitted then the root definition is impoverished. They are (with definitions given in Checkland (1981:224-5)):

  • C - customers: "beneficiaries or victims affected by the system's activities"
  • A - actors: "agents who carry out, or cause to be carried out, the main activities of the system, especially its main transformation"
  • T - transformation process: "the means by which defined inputs are transformed into defined output" (where input is current situation and output is desired situation; because of his background, Checkland tended to express things in chemical engineering terms)
  • W - Weltanschauung: "an outlook, framework or image that makes this particular root definition meaningful"
  • O - ownership of the system: "some agency having a prime concern for the system and the ultimate power to cause the system to cease to exist"
  • E - environmental constraints: "features of the system's environments and/or wider systems which it has to take as 'given'."

Of these elements, T is core of any root definition, E grounds it in the real situation, and C, O and A focus on human activity. Of W, Checkland (1981:18) says "This concept is the most important one in the methodology". This is because, as Bergvall-Kåreborn (2001) puts it, "It stresses the importance of trying to break away from self-imposed constraints and frames of mind." Checkland (1981:225) points out: "There will by definition be more than one possible W, of course; that has been argued to be the nature of human activity systems. But, for the sake of coherent systems thinking, a separate root definition should be formulated for each W considered relevant, whether it is supplied by the analyst himself or expressed by people in the problem situation." Thus Bergvall-Kåreborn (2001) believes, "The purpose of the modelling phase is to tease out different perspectives of the problem situation and to structure the thinking of the same." By making Ws (perspectives) explicit, it can be hoped that the new insights generated are not merely the product of one person's vested interest but are acknowledged as feasible and desirable by all participants.


Here we outline the problems briefly and suggest directions that need to be taken to overcome them.

2.1 Ambiguous concepts

It is not always easy to understand what the elements of CATWOE are. This is partly because of the way in which they have been formulated, but the concepts themselves are sometimes not clear or are unnecessarily restrictive.

In the traditional way CATWOE has been formulated, T is expressed in terms of input and output:

Current State ---T---> Desired or Imagined State.

While this formulation helps the participants in the analysis to clearly distinguish the current from the desired state, it has led to a number of difficulties. For example, Checkland (1999:A22) observed, "the most common error ... is to confuse the input which gets transformed into the output with the resources needed to carry out the transformation process." To overcome this, it is sometimes re-formulated in terms of:

Need for X ---T---> Need met.

However, Checkland (1999:A22) remarks "when people realize that there is a formula (an abstract one) which will always produce a formulation which is at least technically correct, namely 'need for X' transformed into 'need for X met', they seize on this with glee." "Unfortunately," Checkland continues (1999:A22), "they then often slip into writing down such transformations as 'need for food' transformed into 'food'. What a fortune you could make in the catering industry if you knew how to bring off that remarkable transformation!" Checkland concludes, "It is evidently not easy to remember that in a transformation what comes out is the same as what went in, but in a changed (transformed) state." For this reason, Bergvall-Kåreborn and Grahn (1996) express T as a change to a situation, as in:

"Make ferries safer."

But the problem goes deeper than formulation, to difficulties in the concept itself. For example, Mathiassen and Nielsen (2000) argue that T is seen as discrete, goal-directed change but should be extended to cover on-going processes (such as maintenance) and 'interaction' with situations. Bergvall-Kåreborn and Grahn (1996) argue that, in CATWOE analysis, we are exhorted to find a simple T but this tends to generate narrow T statements that do not embrace the richness of the real transformation that is required. For example, "Make ferries safer" (in the context of a ferry disaster) is too easily interpreted as referring to the technical aspect of making ferries safer, while the whole issue of safety involves several aspects - social, economic, ethical and so on as well as technical. Really useful Ts embrace a variety of aspects of the situation, so SSM should encourage the analyst to become aware of them all - without becoming over-complicated.

The notion of Owner, O, has always proved difficult. Checkland often crystalises the meaning as "Those who could stop the T" - but he then has to qualify this immediately by saying it does not include terrorists who might 'stop' T by blowing the whole system up, and adds that O involves formal power. But what constitutes formal power is not clear: e.g. does it reside in the restaurant owner or the chef, in the leader of a research project or the funding body? Ownership seems on occasion to reside in several places.

Checkland has recently (1999:A23) suggested that O is in fact part of the wider system, the Environment. But, not only does this lead to further complexity, dividing environmental constraints into those the O imposes and those imposed upon O, but it still does not tell us what O is. O is often confused with the Customer, C. It may be that the root of the problem with O lies in the liberal-capitalist worldview that assumes that the owner can expect to be a main beneficiary. But a clue to its meaning might lie in the words of the original definition, "having a prime concern for the system", which speaks of responsibility.

Weltanschauung, W, is a perspective that gives T its meaning. But Fairclough (1982) found eight different types of W in Checkland (1981). To clarify the concept, Checkland and Davies (1986) distinguished three different types of W - W1, W2, W3 - that relate to three main areas of SSM when it is applied to a social situation that is seen as problematic. W3 is perspectives taken generally by society of situations of the kind being dealt with. For example, a situation to which information technology is to be applied can be viewed by some as political and by others in terms of data and information (Davies and Wood-Harper, 1989). W2 is perspectives taken in SSM itself, but 'above the line' during finding out, comparison and action, and is thus those perspectives from which the situation is seen as problematic. W1 is the perspective taken in SSM 'below the line' during modelling, from which it is believed that a proposed system and the changes (T) it brings about will be effective in solving the problem. Each W is expressed as a given-as-taken set of assumptions. The W in CATWOE is said to be only W1, and Checkland and Davies (1986) believe it should be "as pure, as simple, as possible", but the difference from W2 and even W3 is not always clear in real situation, and many simple W1s tend to be trivial (see below).

The Environment, E, focuses on constraints on T that seldom change, regardless of how many alternatives are considered for the other elements. Often, important constrains are overlooked during analysis. Dynamic situations occur where the environment is changing, such as volatile economic or political scenarios. Another problem is indicated by the transformation:

Piece of wood ---T---> Planed (smoothed) wood.

The grain of the timber makes it easier to plane in one direction rather than the other, but some timbers have very complex grain (e.g. rose wood). Such 'constraints' are inherent in the very nature of T itself, and it would seem inappropriate to place them in E.

While the novice may be satisfied with the explanations of the elements given in the early days, when they start to use SSM in real situations they find them ambiguous or difficult to fit to their situation. Little guidance is forthcoming apart from the admonition to follow the example of the experts. The SSM apprentice and seasoned practitioner alike want a more principled understanding of each of the elements of CATWOE.

(Checkland (1999:A22) later suggested an alternative PQR form which, though supposed to complement CATWOE, is often assumed to replace it. Though PQR seems to meet some of these needs, in our experience it is less useful for analysis since it does not encourage the analyst to focus on W and it removes the explicitly human elements (C, A, O). For this reason, we concentrate our discussion on CATWOE.)

2.2 Quality of analysis

It has been argued by several authors (Jackson 1982; Mingers 1980; 1984; Naughton 1979; Prévost 1976; Schregenberger 1982) that SSM has a tendency to result in conventional and regulatory proposals, rather than radical proposals for change. Some authors (Jackson 1982; Mingers 1984; Prévost 1976) argue that this is an inherent characteristic of the methodology because of its functionalistic and/or subjectivist character, but we may also detect several reasons within the current version of CATWOE itself.

Especially in its "Need for X" form, T statements often feel empty rather than rich and creative (Bergvall-Kåreborn and Grahn, 1996). We saw above that we need a rich, multi-aspectual, rather than simple, notion of T. The same authors also suggest that limiting W to only W1 tends to drain the methodology of the richness that the concept Weltanschauung stands for, and cannot do full justice to the diversity found in different perspectives. It often leads to trivial Ws, such as found in Checkland and Scholes (1999):

  • "Organized provision of health care is feasible and desirable; it can be planned and organized."
  • "A mission-related concept is necessary, feasible."

To state, as these examples do, that "X is feasible" does nothing to fulfil the purpose of W (to make T meaningful in context). To state "X is desirable" without explaining why it is desirable is little better. The second example also merely restates its T ("need for concept relevant to sector mission -> need met"). We need some way to pinpoint what really makes T meaningful, to help the analyst discuss and explicate differences in perspective.

Finally, there is a tendency to make E merely a description of the current situation, and this can over-constrain analysis so that it becomes difficult to provide new insights.

However, some (Checkland 1982, Naughton 1979, Bergvall-Kåreborn, 2001) believe that this tendency to generate conventional proposals is not inherent in SSM itself but arises from lack of imagination or resistance to change. Whether or not this is so, we need to develop the concepts of T, W, E at least, so that they inherently stimulate the analyst to identify new insights.

2.3 Power, conflict and attitude

SSM has been criticised by Jackson (1991) for being less useful in conflict situations. Open participative debate, that is crucial for the success of the soft systems approach can become impossible to obtain when power is distributed unequally. No attempt is made within SSM to ensure that conditions for open debate can be provided. Mingers (1980) pointed out that when participants come with different Weltanschauungen SSM takes them at face value so that when they conflict, SSM can do little more than expose that fact. What is needed is some framework within which to gain a perspective on the differences of view, value or opinion.

The Critical Systems approach, espoused by Jackson and based on the thinking of Habermas (1972, 1986), suggests that this may be found in the notion of emancipation as a goal and 'ideal discourse' as a means. But, as Wilson (1997) points out, the emancipatory approach has many internal contradictions, such as that it can lead to the paradoxical situation of an authoritarian requirement to participate openly.

While sympathising with Jackson in his endeavour to achieve an open and participatory debate Bergvall-Kåreborn (2001) believes that it "should be viewed as a vision rather than something all methods and methodologies need to achieve or fulfil before we can use them, otherwise we will find that we have very few methodologies at our disposal." She suggests that "Jackson .. is also, partly, right when he says that in social systems 'political or economic factors often act as the main catalyst of change'. However, I argue that these changes, even when they have their source in political and economic changes, reflect changes in Weltanschauung among people and groups, and that many times it is changes in values and attitudes that drive the political and economical changes, rather than the other way around." She proposes a framework based on the notion of the qualifying function of a system. This is a notion derived from philosophy and, as such, her approach might also help to meet the final, and deepest, criticism of SSM.

2.4 Little theoretical underpinning

Mingers (1992) criticises CATWOE on account of having no theory behind it. Lack of theoretical basis is of more than academic interest, because it emerges as problems in practice. Without a principled account of each element of CATWOE, when the apprentice encounters situations that do not fit what they have learned they do not know how to fit them to it, and experienced analysts also have no basis on which to refine the concepts as CATWOE develops in years to come.

A philosophical underpinning is needed if we are to address the problems above, and others that may arise, in a principled rather than ad hoc manner. But the philosophy needs to be one that is sensitive to real life and to the richness of situations found therein. The attempt in SSM to find a root definition is reminiscent of phenomenology, as Checkland himself (1981) realises, and he also suggests that SSM may be related to Weberian sociology, but does not develop these themes. Mingers suggests soft systems thinking should be based on Critical sociology. But sociology, whether Weberian or Critical, cannot provide a good answer to what counts as a transformation; it can only tell us about the diverse views that people hold about transformation.

Bergvall-Kåreborn's notion of qualifying function might provide a more fruitful approach, because it can answer questions about what counts as a T and a W in a way that recognises diversity. She shows how it gives the analyst the base from which to explore different Ws, and also how it can overcome the regulatory problem discussed above.

The notion of qualifying function that Bergvall-Kåreborn finds so useful comes from a strand of philosophy different from those normally brought to bear on issues like SSM, that proposed by Dooyeweerd (1955). It is one small portion of this philosophy. We expand Bergvall-Kåreborn's proposal, suggesting how other portions of Dooyeweerdian philosophy might also address a number of problems in CATWOE and provide a fruitful enrichment that can both provide the much-needed theoretical underpinning and also useful guidance for the seasoned analyst and apprentice alike.


"All else is a footnote to Plato," said the philsopher A. N. Whitehead (1937), meaning that Plato's ideas formed the foundation for most of Western thinking, and the presuppositions underlying the latter are the same as those Plato and other thinkers of his time made. These have led us to treat Existence as more fundamental than Meaning, and Entity as more fundamental than Law. In information systems, this has been made explicit by, for example, Gaines (1997, his italics): "The most fundamental properties which we impute to any system are its existence and persistence over time" and in his quoting of Peirce (1898) ("the first germ of law was an entity") to argue that laws of behaviour emerge from Entity.

But Dooyeweerd's thinking is not of Plato's footnote. While a number of thinkers have questioned the Greek presuppositions, none has done so more radically than Dooyeweerd. He not only questioned the presuppositions, but, in his major work, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (1955), made a detailed analysis of thinking over the past 2,500 years, showed that the Greek presuppositions have led inescapably to fundamental antinomies in theoretical thought and disruptions in practical life (including that between theory and practice itself), and constructed a complete philosophical approach based on new presuppositions that, while still in need of some refinement, is breathtaking in its coherence and its ability to integrate unity with diversity, theory with practice, determinism with freedom, human with non-human. His alternative presuppositions included treating Meaning as more fundamental than Existence, and Law than Entity.

In examining how Dooyeweerd's philosophy can enrich CATWOE and resolve some of the problems above, we discuss each element in turn, introducing what we need of Dooyeweerdian philosophy as we go. We discuss T first, as the central element, introducing Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects, then W, that gives it meaning, introducing Dooyeweerd's notion of 'Weltanschauungenslehre' and ground motives. Discussion of E, as the 'wider system' invokes Dooyeweerd's entity theory and the nature of Law is used to discuss constraints. Then we discuss the three human elements, C, A, O. Discussing C introduces the notion of aspectual repercussions. A and O can be aligned with specific aspects.

3.1 T: Transformation as multi-aspectual human functioning

We start with transformation of a situation, T. Dooyeweerd would view the kind of T we are concerned with here as meaningful human functioning, for the purpose of bringing about a change to a situation that would not have happened otherwise. There is no suggestion of input and output, but rather of process of change that might be on-going or might have an end.

Perhaps the best known portion of Dooyeweerd's thought is his notion of irreducible aspects. Each aspect has a set of laws or norms that enable meaningful functioning (by which we mean any activity or even living). Based on long reflection on both day to day living and scholarly writing, Dooyeweerd offered the following suite of aspects:

  • Quantitative aspect, of amount
  • Spatial aspect, of continuous extension
  • Kinematic aspect, of flowing movement
  • Physical aspect, of energy and mass
  • Biotic aspect, of life functions
  • Sensitive aspect, of sense, feeling and emotion
  • Analytical aspect, of distinction, abstraction
  • Formative aspect, of history, culture, creativity, achievement and technology
  • Lingual aspect, of symbolic meaning and communication
  • Social aspect, of social interaction, relationships and institutions
  • Economic aspect, of frugality, skilled use of limited resources
  • Aesthetic aspect, of harmony, surprise and fun
  • Juridical aspect, of 'what is due', rights, responsibilities
  • Ethical aspect, of self-giving love, generosity, care
  • Pistic aspect, of faith, commitment and vision.

While the earlier (at least first four) aspects have determinative laws, the later aspects are normative, so that they enable freedom in our functioning, but act as guides for it. (This echoes the stress on norms and relationships that Vickers' (1968) makes, a thinker to whom Checkland often refers.)

To Dooyeweerd, human functioning involves, in general, every aspect, which gives his account of human behaviour a richness that some accounts lack. T is no exception. For example, if we are the team that transforms ferries from unsafe to safe, we function not only in the physical aspect of metal-working, but also in the analytic aspect to decide what detailed changes to make, the formative aspect to design the new safety features, the lingual aspect to communicate these decisions throughout the team, the social aspect to ensure the team coheres as a group, the economic aspect as we manage the limited resources (of time, materials, etc.) available, the juridical aspect as we take national and international law into account, the ethical aspect of self-giving when we do more than is strictly required, and pistic aspect as we see ourselves as engaged on a mission to save future lives. As can be seen, recognising the multiple aspects of T immediately overcomes the problem of the narrow technical approach mentioned earlier. Only the formative aspect assumes goals or deliberate shaping; functioning in most of the others can take the form of 'interaction' sought by Mathiassen and Nielsen (2000).

The aspects are irreducible to each other. That means that good functioning in one aspect cannot ensure good functioning in another. Hence, during SSM analysis, it is useful if every aspect is taken into account. Asking, "What other non-obvious aspects are relevant here?" provides a simple method of generating new insights and thus reducing the tendency towards conventional proposals.

The aspects are also intertwined in several ways. Later aspects depend on earlier ones (e.g. biotic functioning depends on good physical processes of diffusion). Each aspect contains 'echoes' of all the others, and each may be linked to the others. For example, the formative activity of design is applied not only to the physical aspect of safety, but also, for example, the lingual (e.g. better signage) and the social (e.g. grouping passengers for embarkation). Dooyeweerd describes such relationships as either anticipatory or retrocipatory, depending on the relative positions of the aspects in the suite.

Dooyeweerdian multi-aspectuality provides a rich view of T, but it need not overly complicate it. Dooyeweerd claimed that the aspects, though ultimately beyond complete theoretical definition, can be grasped with the intuition, and Winfield (2000) found this to be so in practical analysis. Moreover, the apparent complexity may be reduced further by recognising that in many situations certain aspects might have greater importance than their fellows, in three ways (Stafleu, 2000):

  • Qualifying aspect(s). The qualifying aspect (or qualifying function, as Bergvall-Kåreborn (2001) calls it) is the aspect (perhaps two or three) that is most meaningful in characterising the T as such. For example the biotic aspect of life functions and the ethical aspect of caring are important in hospital operations. In most cases the qualifying aspect provides the 'why' for T on which all participants would agree.

  • Contingent aspects. What we might call contingent aspects of T provide the 'why' for T that is its special purpose for each stakeholder; they are no less important than the qualifying, but can be different for each stakeholder. For example, to hospital accountants the economic aspect of a hospital operation is of particular interest.

  • Necessary aspects. In order to achieve T, various other aspects come into play, because of the inter-aspect dependency relationship. For example, the hospital operation will not succeed without proper physical functioning.

In general, the participants in a Dooyeweerdian version of SSM analysis would seek to identify the qualifying aspect first, contingent aspects next, necessary aspects third, and then ask "Have we overlooked any important aspect?" - though usually with iteration. In this way a Dooyeweerdian version of SSM might provide guidance for debate even, even in conflictual situations, that Jackson (1991) called for, but without incurring the authoritarian tendencies of forced emancipation highlighted by Wilson (1997). The qualifying aspect helps us understand what there is of T that transcends all stakeholders, while the contingent aspects help us delineate the different perspectives that might be taken, and in what ways one perspective differs from others. It also helps us to 'respect' each perspective - including non-dominant ones - because each aspect has its own distinct role in human functioning than cannot and should not be subsumed into others.

3.2 W: Weltanschauung as Meaning

W is what makes T meaningful in context. Dooyeweerd based his philosophy on the primacy of Meaning, in contrast to the Greek assumption that Existence is primary. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that Dooyeweerdian philosophy can underpin the important notion of W. In the Prolegomena to his major work Dooyeweerd says (1955, his italics),

"Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood. It has a religious root and a divine origin."

This is philosophical language, but it can be understood here as saying that Meaning is not something we have but what we are, and is the basic property of all that we can or will experience. It removes Meaning from the arena of theoretical thinking to that of commitment (what Dooyeweerd means as 'religious' is our (or our society's) commitments to what we see as ultimately real, true or important). This can give us five ways in which T might be meaningful, and these might help us understand W1, W2, W3 more clearly:

	 Trivial Ws | Necessary aspects
	      W1    | Qualifying aspects
	      W2    | Contingent aspects
	        ----| Aspectual world views
	      W3    |----
	            | Ground motives

To Dooyeweerd, the aspects form a spectrum of Meaning, so each can provide a distinct perspective from which to view things - for example, physical, biological, conceptual, social, economic, juridical, etc. By taking such a perspective, assumptions within that aspect are made; for example in the economic aspect we might assume profits are important. So it is no surprise to find that Ws exhibit strong aspectual tendencies, first by corresponding with the three types of important aspects of T, second by aspectual world views (see below).

The necessary aspects concern implementation and feasibility, and hence can account for what we called trivial Ws, that take the form "X is achievable". Qualifying aspects provide the primary meaning of a proposed T, and thus the proposed modelled solution to the problem - which is W1. Bergvall-Kåreborn (2001) has discussed at length how the notion of qualifying aspect can help the analyst identify W1 in CATWOE. Participants can 'play' with various proposed qualifying aspects. W2, the perspectives from which the situation is seen as problematic, depends on what each participant sees as important. This has two parts. The more explicit part is embodied in the contingent aspects of T, which often relate to the roles that the participants play (e.g. economic aspect for the accountant, juridical for the company lawyer).

But there is often also a more implicit, hidden part in W2, that we might call an aspectual world view. It can manifest itself in hidden agendas. Dooyeweerd discussed what he called Weltanschauungenslehre (life and world views). Referring to Rickert's classification of worldviews, Dooyeweerd noticed a tendency among theoretical thinkers to elevate one aspect to an importance denied the others (such as the analytical for intellectualism); in the extreme, this results in reductionism, in which all aspects are assumed to be reducible to the elevated one. In Western organizations, the economic aspect is commonly elevated in this manner, with the result that a slight reduction in company profits is deemed 'problematic' while gross injustice resulting from the company's trading policy in developing countries is not. Both aspect-elevating world views and those based on contingent aspects correspond with W2, but there is a difference. A perspective based on a contingent aspect is important because of the role of the participant, but it is still one among all the other aspects (other roles) with which it must work in harmony, while an aspect-elevating world view contains an element that denigrates the importance of other aspects and even denies they are relevant at all.

Aspectual elevation is a societal phenomenon and not only dictates what we deem problematic but also affects our whole view of a situation. Thus it aligns with W3 as well as W2. But W3 has a second, even deeper component. Dooyeweerd called it a ground motive, because it is a deep commitment to a view of reality that drives theoretical thought of a society forward over a long period, and may be seen as a generator of Weltanschauungenslehre. He identified four ground motives that have held sway in Western thought over the last 2,500 years: form-matter (the ground motive of ancient Greek thought), creation-fall-redemption (of Hebrew thought), nature-grace (of mediaeval Christianity) and nature-freedom (of secular humanism that has held sway since the Renaissance) (Dooyeweerd, 1975). Three are dualistic in nature, composed of two mutually exclusive poles, and academic fashions tend to swing from one pole to the other - an example is the swing from positivist (nature) to interpretivist (freedom) perspectives on information systems. According to Dooyeweerd, ground motives are not subject to theoretical analysis, since they even determine what we believe to be reason, but are held religiously. Expanding Dooyeweerd's thought, Clouser (1991) discusses how aspectual elevation and consequent reductionism is a natural outcome of a dualistic ground motive, so the two are tied together.

Dooyeweerd saw Weltanschauungenslehre as often invalid, harmful and distorting. But SSM has traditionally celebrated Weltanschauungen as a positive element. We can reconcile the two views by seeing the reason for Dooyeweerd's view. What is harmful is not Weltanschauungslehre as such but when they are based on an absolutization. Absolutization is distortion of the "religious root" of meaning mentioned above, and is a 'religious' commitment (Wilson (1997) calls it 'extra-theoretical') either to an aspect as supreme (extreme elevation of aspect) or to one pole of a dualistic ground motive. It often results in conflict during debate, because two (groups of) stakeholders are 'religiously' committed to opposing poles of a ground motive (e.g. some emphasizing control and others, freedom) or to different elevated aspects. Absolutization can also result in certain perspectives (especially belonging to those with less power) being dismissed as irrelevant or fundamentally incomprehensible.

Dooyeweerd, on the other hand, started from the ground motive of creation-fall-redemption (much as Polanyi (1958) did, though Dooyeweerd's account is more explicit). This motive outlaws absolutization, so that every aspect is, in principle, important, and the poles of other ground motives are not seen as mutually exclusive. W3 therefore corresponds, in a Dooyeweerdian scheme, with a multi-aspectual view of reality in which neither determinism nor freedom, neither control nor creativity, neither facts nor values, exclude the other.

From Dooyeweerd's point of view, therefore, conflict may be resolved, not simply by engineering the debate process, as Jackson (1991) suggests, but rather by using the aspectual suite as a device by which to afford respect to all views, whether held by the dominant participants, by the non-dominant or by nobody. Moreover, polar world views are associated more with theoretical thought than everyday experience. So, when they become troublesome, a useful remedy is to keep the discussion within the realms of real life experience and situation rather than theory.

We suggest that Dooyeweerd's notions of aspects, Weltanschauungslehre and ground motives provide a foundation for W in SSM that might lead us to simple mechanisms for handling the various types of W and understanding the differences between them (Mingers, 1980).

  • a) Identifying the qualifying aspect can focus on what is centrally important for all (or most) variants of the proposed T.
  • b) The necessary aspects are used to see if proffered Ws are merely stating feasibility.
  • c) The contingent aspect(s) can help explicate the different perspectives and aims, and help us place them all in the same overall picture.
  • d) Aspects that the communities, to which the participants belong, tend to elevate in importance (which might overlap with (c)) are those likely to be over-emphasized during discussion. Conversely, the remainder might be in danger of being overlooked. By directing analytical effort to the latter new insights are encouraged.
  • e) Identifying which pole of the nature-freedom ground motive dominates the debate can help overcome dangers of 'groupthink' or conflicts.

3.3 E: Given constraints and enablers

To address E, we need to understand Dooyeweerd's wider view of temporal reality as having two sides, law side and entity (or subject) side. His theory of aspects is of the law side. Systems are of the entity side - as are concrete events, ideas, etc. The sides are intimately linked in that entities gain both their existence and their meaning from aspectual law (for example, a symphony comes into existence because a person functioned in the aesthetic aspect). Dooyeweerd did not much use the word 'system', and usually what SSM calls 'system' is what Dooyeweerd called 'enkaptic structural whole' (ESW) (the reader need not understand that term here).

Dooyeweerd's theory of entities is radically different from systems thinking, and commensurable with it only in certain ways. Dooyeweerd would agree with most systems approaches that no system (ESW) is isolated. He would agree with SSM that individual human activity systems are constructed by the observer, in the eye of the beholder, rather than being 'out there', classing these as 'artificial' entities, but he held that 'natural' entities (systems) also exist, such as animals, plants, people, independently of any such construction. But the main disagreement is with the frequent assumption that the system is part of a 'wider system', and that this forms an hierarchy, as implied by Checkland (1999:A23-4). To Dooyeweerd, ESWs are genuine wholes that are not part of anything, but that make enkaptic relationships with other ESWs and with the environment. (Strictly, Checkland's text, where the wider system is a 'why', can be read without assuming a part-whole relationship.)

E is often seen as 'wider system'. Fortunately, however, this possible incommensurability does not affect CATWOE analysis since the relevance of E lies not in it being 'wider system' but in the constraints it imposes. To Dooyeweerd, constraints are of the law side rather than of the entity (system) side, and are accounted for as arising from aspectual laws. Thus we can see E, not as a 'wider system', but as constraints from a variety of aspects - physical constraints, cultural constraints, economic constraints, etc. - and analysis will identify which particular aspectual constraints are relevant to a situation. This enables us to address the earlier questions about E.

First, the type of aspectual analysis discussed above can help us avoid overlooking whole sets of constraints. Second, the distinction between normative and determinative aspects suggests that some constraints are more flexible than others, and may be treated differently. Third, we are in a position to deal with a changing environment because such changes are of the entity side (events, things, etc.) rather than the law side, so the 'givenness' of the constraints is ensured by the aspects transcending human beliefs or actions, despite a changing situation. Fourth, the constraints that are inherent in T are accounted for by the aspects that are important in T, especially the qualifying and the necessary aspects. For example, the constraints imposed by the grain of wood are certainly accounted for in the physical aspect, and perhaps also by the aesthetic aspect. This means that the question of whether such constraints are part E or not dissolves if E is no longer seen as a 'wider system'.

Finally, under this view, since aspectual laws are not just constraining but also enabling meaningful functioning, E should be seen not only as constraints but also as positive enablings. This means that an aspectual analysis can stimulate participants to turn what seem to be environmental constraints round and think of them as enabling new possibilities.

Mirijamdotter has employed Dooyeweerd's aspects in these ways for some time, and recently (2000) reported:

"Yes, I used the aspects to help me getting an understanding of what might constrain the situation. Besides getting a fairly good and complete view of constraints on the situation I also discovered that constraints which I identified by means of the 'lower', more determinative aspects are things we usually need to adjust to while constraints that are characterised as 'belonging' to the more normative aspects we can discuss and 'change' if it seems appropriate. Further, this determinative-normative scheme helped me to realise that things we take for granted as constraints may not be so, especially not if they are of more normative nature."

3.4 C: Repercussions

All human functioning is seen as being constituted as the individual's response to the laws of each aspect - of which the response to normative aspects is not determined. For example, in communicating, we each respond to laws of the lingual aspect (such as those of syntax, semantics and pragmatics) and as a result undertake meaningful communication. To go against the laws of a normative aspect is possible, but usually results in meaningless or harmful activity. Therefore, for any T there are repercussions, whether beneficial or detrimental. That C, Customer, is defined as "the beneficiary or victim of the system's activity" (Checkland, 1981) fits well with this.

Each aspect provides its own distinct set of repercussions of T - for example, in the case of "make ferries safer", a wider ferry can no longer use certain harbours (physical repercussion), if passengers embark in groups of 4, families will be split (social), new laws are enacted (juridical). Since human activity in enacting T is multi-aspectual, there may be a host of repercussions from the single transformation, and each can impact on different things, people, groups, etc. This means that an analysis of repercussions likely in every aspect of T can help identify a wider range of customers and ways in which they might be affected as victims or beneficiaries. Aspectual analysis can move us away from considering only benefits and forgetting victims. It can even recognise the impacts on animals, plants and physical entities as well as on people, by reference to the sensory, biotic and physical aspects. Finally, long term repercussions can be considered because the later aspects seem to have timescales of decades or more. Full repercussions in any post-social aspect social usually occur via social activity, even if some immediate effect might be felt by individuals. For example, the abolition of slavery in the U.K. involved lengthy juridical activity in parliament and the gradual change in attitude of entire populations over many decades.

3.5 O: Ownership and responsibility

Eschewing the nature-freedom ground motive, Dooyeweerd saw human beings (and other entities) as neither 'determined agents' nor 'free agents' but as 'responsive, responsible agents'. So a central theme that pervades Dooyeweerd's thinking is that of human responsibility. We have often found it useful to link CATWOE's notion of ownership with responsibility rather than (or as well as) power or benefits, defining the Owner, O, as the person (or group) who bears overall responsibility for the transformation. This reflects "prime concern for the system" mentioned above.

Checkland's suggestion that O is part of the wider system makes little sense under a Dooyeweerdian scheme. Rather, O is a human role that is specifically qualified by the juridical aspect of 'What is due', which includes responsibility, along with the right or power to exercise that responsibility (which is what Checkland seems to have meant). The main responsibility the Owner has is purely juridical, namely to ensure all customers receive what is their due - which means (from the discussion of customer above) that O has responsibility for all the repercussions T might have, both positive and negative, in both long and short term. But diverse other types of responsibility arise from the anticipatory or retrocipatory relationships that the juridical aspect makes with other aspects - for providing resources to implement T (economic aspect), for ensuring all actors work properly together in achieving T (social and aesthetic aspects), and so on. This widens the notion of O as being not only that which can stop T, but that which can enable T and also has the right and duty to guide T towards a beneficial outcome. Stopping T is just one of these rights and duties, performed when it is necessary to do so.

Thus this juridical understanding of ownership, first, points us towards multiple responsibilities, and each of the actors, A, bears some responsibility. But it then gives us an integration point in the Owner, in whom all these diverse responsibilities are vested in one overall responsibility. This is why the notion of Owner, O, is so important, so that it has been found that if O is omitted then analysis suffers (Checkland, 1981:224). This juridical notion of O moves us decidedly away from the Western liberal connotation of O as chief beneficiary, and also gives us grounds for considering 'owner' of public bodies, universities etc. While there might be no single private owner, responsibilities remain, and can be meaningfully discussed.

Dooyeweerd's notion of inter-aspect dependency can explain why some who could stop T, such as terrorists, are not true owners. Functioning in later aspects depends on good functioning in earlier aspects, including, in most cases, proper physical functioning in machines and people. If this is interrupted then much of the functioning in later aspects is disturbed, and possibly terminated.

We suggest that this notion of O is both more precise than that currently purveyed in SSM and also more rich; it also links to people's intuitive grasp of things juridical. It should be possible to move away from a reliance on rules of thumb and exceptions to those rules, to a more explicit formulation of what the Owner is. Dooyeweerdian throught underpins the distinction between Customer (stakeholder) and Owner, between those who are beneficiaries and those with responsibility.

3.6 A: Actors and competences

There seem to have been few problems around the notion of Actor, A. But a Dooyeweerdian view might enrich the analysis in a number of ways. First, it would suggest that the role, A, is qualified by the formative aspect of achieving and shaping. On this basis, then, it would point the analyst to competences. A competence is a formative functioning that is directed towards one or more aspects (via anticipation or retrocipation), so each aspect offers a distinct competence. In particular, by identifying the system's qualifying, contingent and necessary aspects, we can discuss what types of competences will be required for the process of implementing T. When T is an on-going process, the formative aspect takes on a different flavour, and the competences required are those to do with sustaining as well as achieving.


Thus we can see that Dooyeweerdian philosophy can enrich our understanding of the elements of CATWOE in ways commensurable with SSM. It explains why each element of CATWOE is important. Some such as T, E and C are integral parts of human functioning seen as response to normative aspectual laws that has repercussions. O and A are qualified by two of the most important aspects of a transformation, the juridical aspect of responsibility and the formative aspect of cultural shaping and achieving. It provides an understanding of a number of elements like T, W, O and E that is richer and perhaps easier to understand:

  • C no longer focuses on individuals but on repercussions.
  • A helps us consider competences.
  • T is no longer input-output but human functioning.
  • W is not to be "as pure, as simple, as possible" (Checkland and Davies, 1986), but is the perspective given by the qualifying aspect of the system linked to all the other aspects.
  • O is not power but responsibility.
  • E is not 'wider system' but constraints and enablings.

A major contribution comes from aspectual analysis, in which we explore each aspect of T using Dooyeweerd's suite of irreducible aspects of meaning. On the basis of this, certain aspects can be identified as of particular importance: the qualifying aspect, contingent aspects and necessary aspects of implementation. This can result in a richer statement of T centred on the qualifying aspect but recognising other aspects explicitly, and it could be extended to on-going situations. The same analysis may be used to identify good quality versions of W1 and W2. Taking the aspectual analysis further, we can seek to identify those which tend to be elevated by the communities to which participants belong, thus filling out W2 further. To some extent, this might address the Mingers' (1980) criticism that SSM lacks an explanation of why particular Ws have developed. The same aspectual analysis can also be used to identify the diversity of repercussions of T - and thus the variety of customers, and the environmental constraints and enablers - so that a clearer picture is obtained, which can be questioned.

Because the aspects transcend human perspectives and expectations, aspectual analysis can emancipate the debate from the set of perspectives currently held by the current participants. Identification of aspects that have been ignored or underplayed is often a key to generating new insights and thus avoiding the tendency found in SSM to generate rather conventional proposals.

Dooyeweerd's philosophy is able to make these contributions to SSM for a number of reasons. One is that it recognises the reality of human subjectivity, interpretation and construction, though paradoxically (as it seems under the nature-freedom ground motive) it also recognises that there is a 'given' aspectual framework (though our knowledge of the aspects can never be absolute). Another is that this framework makes it sensitive to the diversity of human and other experience, providing a philosophical account of it. A third is that it emphasises norms (Vickers (1968)) and response thereto ('interaction' Mathiassen and Nielsen (2000)).

A fourth reason, that we have not discussed in depth here is that it refuses to elevate theory over practice, and is thus in the spirit of SSM. Indeed, it sees theory as just one aspect of practice, and in this way goes beyond SSM which still emphasises a strong distinction between modelling 'below the line' and the concrete situation 'above the line'. To Dooyeweerd, even models and modelling are part of the real world, from our functioning in the analytical aspect.

However, Dooyeweerd's work is little known, partly because of its very different presuppositional starting point. As a result, it is not always easy to understand, and has not yet been widely applied in information systems. (But, for example, de Raadt (1997) has applied it to management, Lombardi (2001) to urban sustainability, and so on.) So it has yet to undergo the testing, refinement and development that is needed of any such framework. This work is part of an on-going programme to investigate the potential of Dooyeweerd's philosophy to contribute to multi-perspective approaches in information systems methodology, and to provide integral frameworks for understanding the diversity of technical and non-technical issues in information systems. Comment is invited and debate is welcomed.


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The authors wish to thank Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn and Anita Mirijamdotter of the Technical University of Luleå, Sweden, for stimulating discussions and fruitful ideas, without whom this paper would not have happened.


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