PRESUPPOSITIONS IN INFORMATION SYSTEMS DESIGN:
FROM SYSTEMS TO NETWORKS AND CONTEXTS?
Commentary to "Exploring the intellectual structures of information
systems development: A social action theoretic analysis", paper by R. Hirschheim, H.K. Klein, and K. Lyytinen. Pre-print version. In Accounting, Management and Information Technologies, (renamed Information & Organization), 6, 1996
by Kristo Ivanov
UmeĆ University, Department of Informatics, S-901 87 UMEĀ (Sweden).
Phone +46 90 166030, Fax +46 90 166550, Email:
Abstract and summary
What seems to be a main conclusion of the commented paper, the need for pluralism in ISD research, can be framed as being the original problem that the application of social action theory cannot grapple with. Pluralism is questioned in terms of its meaning in political science, and in face of the elusiveness of the central concept of orientation. The call for pluralism ignores both political and ethical realities of power versus justice and love in the Christian tradition. The meaning of the goal of the paper as being "purely generative and analytic" is thereby also questioned, as well as its purpose to explain and understand . Its merit is mainly that it covers other concerns than the purely technical ones, and that it can be used as an ordered bibliographical source for the design of academic readings. In this respect the bibliography must be completed with more references to technology, human-computer interaction, computer supported cooperative work, design, and privacy as related to justice, power and profitability. Ultimate explanation and understanding of information systems development requires research on its presuppositions including paradigmatic limitations of social action theory as compared with other approaches. This includes the present unfortunate shift from systems thinking towards learning and networking, where the latter includes conversational sense-making, argumentation, and accomodation or negotiation.
Conclusions of the commented paper
In view of the apparent complexity of the paper, a frontal approach is to stick right away to its conclusions in order to try to grasp what is most worthy to be commented.
The authors realize that one dominant paradigm guides IS research, namely the one based on the empirical-analytical approach with its unstated identity och relation with an "instrumental orientation". This paradigm favors control over other valuable primary orientations: strategic, communicative, and discursive. The text exhorts the reader claiming that "IS researchers should exhibit more tolerance towards adherents of different research orientations. This includes a claim to equitable distribution of research resources among different traditions. The means must be found for stimulating substantive debate among different paradigms".
It seems to me that the conclusions are indeed the statement of the original problem that one would expect the paper to have addressed as its primary concern, to begin with. It is indeed a pacific point that there is a great diversity of research problems and approaches in the field. Depending upon what one should mean by "explanation", a question which is not really addressed in the paper, it is also a pacific point that if the situation is what it is, there must be some serious causes for it, in the Aristotelian sense of cause that includes motives.(1) The real problem is, then, to understand why one or two particular orientations or, rather, researchers, dominate over the other ones. It is also a question of how orientations relate to research paradigms, why some dominant researchers do not show more tolerance towards researchers with other orientations, whether debate will do any universal good in view of these unstated causes for intolerance, and consequently how to find the means for those particular kinds of debate or whatever that would do any good.
The paper does not show why some orientations dominate over the others, and it assumes the remarkably problematic hypothesis that "actors can change their orientations very quickly" in ISD, and "actors can also adopt multiple orientations". It does not acknowledge and specify its own limited orientation or framework, while drawing very vague and tenuous distinctions or relations between orientations, paradigms, and the rest. And still it goes further in its conclusions. It concludes forcefully that the call for a unifying paradigm is not desirable because that would assumedly reinforce the dominance of certain paradigms over other orientations, cutting down the variety of research approaches and limiting their ("potential") cross- fertilization.
I see here a serious paradox in that the paper seems necessarily to take its own theoretical basis as a sort of unifying meta-orientation, and at the same time negating both the possiblity and desirability of a unifying research paradigm or "unifying theoretical straitjacket" or "common conceptual platform".
It is certainly possible to try to escape the paradox by juggling around with ad-hoc differential definitions of paradigm, orientation, conceptual structure, conceptual framework, conceptual roof, theoretical basis, etc.. I think, however, that the reader is justified in having a certain skepsis regarding the import of the conclusions. The paper aims at stimulating pluralism and debate in the spirit of what nowadays if often called networking. It can, however, be understood or misunderstood as backfiring either in good old eclecticism that is seldom if ever considered in such contexts, or in the by now sadly known direction of postmodern relativism.(2)
In its conclusions the paper also misses the possibility that an increasing number of incompatible paradigms that try to account for disparate observations can be caused by inherent inadequacies of the theoretical base. The less one understands, the more, and more pluralistically, one needs or wants to "know". This recalls statements such as that if computers had been available at the time of the Copernican revolution, such revolution might never have taken place.(3) Pluralism might indeed have taken care of the problems even in the instrumental and strategic domains.
As far as I can see, these are issues that are not addressed in the paper, unless the reader is supposed to consider them implicitly solved in its theoretical base with its all encompassing ambitions.
In my view the main merit of the authors is that, by now for more than ten years, they have contributed in the Anglo-Saxon scientific community to the attempts to transcend the narrow technical view of our field. Some of us have looked into certain kinds of systems theory like Churchman's The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971; 1979) which discusses basic assumptions of ISD in philosophical terms including theological concerns. The paper, however, draws inspiration from one particular so called theory of social action by Jurgen Habermas: Theory of Communicative Action (1984; 1987). In doing so it does not abstain from a rich use of the undefined concept of system as it is more or less explicit in the use of frequently used words like information system, object system, integration, relation and interrelations, coherent framework, etc. There is probably no space to state the basic assumptions and the metaphysics of Habermas' ideas for understanding modern societies. Habermas' treatment of smaller collectives or organizations, as well as of technology, is, however, far less articulated. For this reason the analytical framework is supplemented by elements from A. Etzioni's The Active Society (1968).
While a philosopher like Churchman, for instance, forcefully explains the difficulties of pluralism vis-a-vis monism (1971, p. 71ff), Habermas apparently opens the way for what I would call orientational relativism. In the paper,Habermas' four "orientations" (instrumental, strategic, communicative, and discursive) are assumed to "capture the mind sets that guide the purposeful actions" of participants (and other concerned?) in ISD. They are also supposed to enable discussion of the assumptions that can be made about the general human intentions which drive ISD, and of the behavioral strategies that can be pursued during ISD to realize these intentions.
Disregarding what "mind sets" are supposed to be in their supposedly mix of attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, intentions, goals, values, drives, and whatnot, the authors, however, acknowledge that Habermas is too general in stating what is being changed. Etzioni's work, disregarding the issue of its compatibility with Habermas, is therefore used in the paper in order to classify the outcomes of ISD in three realms of action or domains of change (technology, organization, and language).
What follows in the paper is basically the treatment of all ISD research in terms of nine "object classes" corresponding to all meaningful combinations of orientations and types of changes. This recalls a remarkable and confusing difference from a prior work of the authors that had an identical theoretical base. What is now called objects classes was called there effectiveness measures, what is now called domains of change was called object systems classes, and what is now called orientations was called actions type classes.(4)
The final purpose seems anyway to be to show that most if not all known research that can be associated with IS and ISD can be related to these classes. Furthermore, the conclusions indicate that the real ultimate purpose is twofold: to legitimate other orientations than the so called instrumental and strategic ones, and to ask for tolerance and for funds to support these alternative orientations.
For the moment I will disregard the question of the definition of information systems (IS) in general, and and their development (ISD) in particular. I also disregard whether the tratment of ISD in terms of object classes "explains" its development in terms of either causes of purposes. Despite the authors' obvious admiration and devotion for Habermas, supported by authoritative quotations from the work of other admirers, there are indeed "many application problems" that remain unstated in the text.(5) They are briskly brushed aside in view of the assumedly modest goals of the paper. The psychologycally and ethically obscure category of orientation is nearly invalidated or postmodernly relativized by the observation that actors can change their orientations very quickly in ISD, and that actors can also adopt multiple orientations.
These kinds of problems may indeed explain what seems to me the surprisingly innocence of the conclusions. They disregard the reasons why humans have or adopt different orientations, whatever they mean. They disregard whether such orientations are psychologically correct or ethically justifiable at all (6). These questions recall the mentioned but unspecified"application problems" of Habermas' theory that supports the whole argument. These problems are ignored by the authors also on the basis of a sweeping wholesale justification that "all good theories in a state of change and development". This state of change or, rather, process of change, has to do with they "call" for a constraint-free situation or "ideal speech situation" which is supposed to be attained by the paper's "instititutional democracy design" in view of a "federated" ISD research framework.
Why "should" we all strive for Habermas' sort of categorical imperative of an ideal speech situation? Where does the belief in legitimacy and power of pluralism and of democratic debate come from? Many believe that it comes from logic or from the belief in logic. I think that it has deeper roots in the legacy of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant by whom both Habermas and the authors of the paper seem to be heavily influenced.
Federated pluralism and debate
I am painfully aware that a problematization of pluralism and debate is nowadays easily considered to be a curse against the god of democracy. Such questioning in the scientific establishment tends also to be seen as a curse in the invisible church of the free market of ideas. It is fascinating to wonder how this is possible despite of the paradoxical conclusions of the paper. The authors indeed observe that debate is sometimes not welcome in the struggle for dominance of certain paradigms or orientations. In a mood of "realpolitik" or political realism I wish, however, to dwell upon the reason for this state of affairs.
The paper calls calls for a coherent "federated" research framework. The value of the federation lies in its supposed ability to tolerate or even encourage independence, and, further, systematic democratic debate. The reader should note the use of the concepts of federation and independence. I myself would gladly identify such a federative problem as a typical political systems problem. Federation, for me as for many others, is system. The paper, however, does expressely prefer social action theories to system theories. The problem then arises concerning the theoretical status of political federationism, self- determination. My guess is that the background ideas of the paper in this respect are "Kantian" inasmuch the authors, especially in earlier works, refer often to the emancipatory, neohumanist ideals of autonomy and such, in the light of Kantian enlightenment ethics.
Kantian thought, even more than the Habermasian one, is prohibitively complex for common people who are not professional philosophers. Scholars' wholesale reference to such thought can therefore have unfortunate effects that are analog to the power over users as exercised by systems professionals, as referenced (Markus, & Björn- Andersen, 1987) in the bibliography of the very same paper that we are commenting. I direct therefore the reader to a work by Elie Kedourie, a political scientist and historian who discusses some basic tenets of Kantian ethics in their historical context.(7) I subscribe, in what follows, to his views on the issue, consistent as they are with my own earlier modest attempts to problematize some of the applications of Kantian ethics to our field.(8)
The Kantian view holds that man is free when he obeys the laws of morality which he finds within himself, not in the external world or in obedience to some external authority. Man must obey these laws of morality by his free will. The good will, which is the free will, is also the autonomous will. The logic of this doctrine was carried further. The end of man was to determine himself, as a free being, self-ruling and self-moved, (as if in the more or less implicit ethics of "autopoietic" approaches to ISD). Religion, rightly understood, was the perpetual quest for perfection. Intimate conviction, needing support from nothing external, came to be seen as the true guide to political action. Once convinced that a course of action is right, the righteous man has unconditionally and uncompromisingly to realize the dictates of reason as revealed to him.(9) Autonomy is made the essential end of politics. A good man is an autonomous man. Self-determination thus becomes the supreme political good. For its sake Kant is prepared to accept brutality; to it he subordinates all other benefits of social life; self-government is better than good government. Struggle (cf. debates or so called constructive conversations) is the guarantee of higher intentions and achievements.
This doctrine of Kant led to philosophical and practical difficulties which in the political climate of the time required emendations like those of Fichte, and the aggrandizement of the roles of the state or "society". Kant, however, had allowed a central place for struggle in the philosophy of history. This was elaborated further by Fichte, Herder, Schleiermacher, and others. Even political peace and progress would then be maintained by the equilibrium of powers in liveliest competition and in continuous change (cf. the paper's call for pluralism, diversification, and interrelation). Diversity, as much as struggle is, then, a fundamental characteristic of the universe, and diversity must be maintained within the federated frame of autonomy and self-determination. Action becomes understanding and understanding becomes action (as in today's much celebrated but seldom evaluated so called action research, and in social action theory). Intellectuals began to yearn for the life of action and of politics in a way that to me resembles today' ambitions of a science of design amidst the integration of research with industry and business. "By means of high philosophical words rulers can better control the ruled, who are ensnared by their literacy, and obtain their support or their passive acquiescence. Thus, by a natural development, it is not philosophers who become kings, but kings who tame philosophers to their use."(10)
It would have been interesting if the authors of the paper had reflected upon their own their own position, as philosophers or systems developers or whatever, differentiated from plain "researchers" in the context of power and science. They may indeed be putting themselves at the unstated level of metadesigners or matrix designers, or in the lower right cell of the matrixes, corresponding to the most sophisticated options like organizational sense-making and institutional democracy design. I see in any case the affirmation of the legitimacy of non unified paradigmatic commitments and orientations in ISD as an analog to Kedourie's nationalistic diversity. The same analogy with nationalism seems meaningful for the paper's repeated exhortation that paradigmatically limited researchers should not rely on a strong consensus with their own colleagues, but, rather, rely on some outside community or sub-community for support.(11) This is,.of course, still more tempting in our networked age of Internet/World Wide Web and of universities whose institutional structures crumble under the weight of commercialization of research.
This sort of thoughts as above, melting both liberal and socialistic overtones that are identifiable in later marxist development, indicate, in my understanding, some modern roots of the belief in pluralism.Without such roots it seems to be impossible to understand the call that the authors of the paper, and other admirers of Habermas, make for the counterfactual and patently absurd formal- procedural, ethical-political conditions of argumentation in the so called ideal speech situation: absence of constraints and of dominance of power, etc. And then we have also the paper's Habermasian call for honest search for truth through argumentation, and for "universal validity claims" of intelligibility-comprehensibility, veracity- sincerity, accuracy, and social appropriateness. They must be the Habermasian version of Kant's categorical imperative, in the context of Habermas' substitution of language for Kant's psychology or the original Frankfurt's school's psychoanalysis. Without such a Kantian- ethical understanding of the Habermasian appeals or claims, it seems unavoidable to perceive them as empty or politically-ethically naive wishful thinking, in line with the surprising conclusions of the paper. In fact such conclusions do not even portray a reflective consciousness of applicability (to the scientific community) of the paper's own prior suggestions for political organization design (POD), much less for institutional democracy design (IDD).
Motivation and purposes
The purposes of the paper, according to alternative and repeated formulations, are to achieve:
1) a clear theoretical foundations for the field of information systems (IS) or a conceptual foundation for future theories of information systems development (ISD),
2) a conceptual structure or coherent framework to understand, structure, relate and interpret the core research results from different intellectual structures or schools of thought in ISD, giving a theoretical explanation of why the field is a "fragmented adhocracy" pointing out core areas of ISD research, suggesting underdeveloped research areas for future research efforts, and questioning the wisdom to cultivate a unifying research paradigm for the IS field,
3) a framework that provides categories for making sense of the diversity and plurality of the field, helping to interpret and relate the research literature and to understand the co-evolution and de- evolution of diverse research concerns: interrelating the results of the diverse adhocratic research communities under a general conceptual roof,
4) demonstrating that a "federated" ISD research framework is possible and desirable, because it helps to understand the dynamics and establishment of the fragmented adhocracy, abilitating to tolerate or even encourage independence, and yet providing some structure and vocabulary to cross different intellectual communities: to supply a prespecified tool-kit and accurate road maps such that those committed to a paradigm can set out on an expedition in order to explore the terrain.
This is contrasted with what the authors judge is neither possible nor desirable to achieve, that is
A) a common conceptual platform, paradigm, or a unifying theoretical straitjacket on which to ground, build and organize IS research, or
B) widely accepted, legitimized results or procedures on which one must build in order to construct knowledge claims which are regarded as competent and useful contributions, or
C) a core set of consistent assumptions that are held by a specific research community and which guide its research agenda on generally recognized common puzzles.
The statements of goals of the paper are apparently softened by the disclaimer that the analysis should neither be seen as necessarily the "right way" to interpret the field, nor in a normative context. The goals of the paper are claimed to be "purely generative and analytic": generative in the sense of building a framework for classification, and analytic in the sense of analyzing the field based on the classification that provides further insights of the intellectual structuring of the IS field.
This kind of vague disclaimers, together the erlier mentioned disclaimers about the stability of concepts like orientation, undermine the value of most conclusions. With reservations for my own shortcomings I must profess that I do not think that theoretical (meta-theoretical?) foundations, clear or not clear, have been supplied for future theories of ISD, whatever theoretical foundations or theory are or should be. In particular, I question the repeated use of words like rational and analysis, while disregarding, under the mantle of Habermas, most problems that have historically been considered in the context of rationalism or irrationalism (Gardiner, 1967). This is the more remarkable in view of the paper's repeated use of related rational words like clear, clarify and unambiguous, consistent and coherent, logical analysis and analytic, rational, and such.
I do not think that the paper has made sense of the diversity and plurality of the field, whatever "making sense" means or should mean for those who do not know how it is to be implicit in Habermas. Concerning the help to interpret and interrelate research results I have got perhaps some help but I still cannot interpret or interrelate them, whatever interpretation and interrelation means or should mean. In particular I do not deem that seeing all these words in adjacent cells of a matrix implies an interrelation in the meaning of, say, teleological systems theory. It is still viable that some researchers will ask for more funds for technology, since when technology works it will also be easier to concentrate in studying social aspects and such. It can still be claimed that a proper balance among different orientations requires one hundred times more research resources for instrumental and strategic research. This can be so even if one diregards the further pressures inherent in interests of the industrial-commercial complex that promises jobs and welfare as a function of technologically enhanced productivity. Some readers may even wish for more good old marxist analyses here, as it was often the case in good old critical social theory before Habermas.
And I do not deem that a demonstration has been given that a federated ISD research is possible, with ability to tolerate or encourage independence. Or, rather, it does seem to be more necessary and valuable to know how this thing is to be achieved, assuming that it is desirable, rather that to know that it is possible, as all utopias seem to be possible.
Finally, I do not yet understand, disregarding what understanding means or should mean, the dynamics and establishment of fragmented adhocracy. I understand fragmented adhocracy to be an expression of our lack or understanding of what this computer revolution is all about and of where we are going, and why. The paper does not help me in that quest since, for instance, it does not really address the interdependence between the various orientations, granted that they are properly named and defined within the greater whole about which nothing is said. And I do not think that the a-historical word adhocracy is fortunate, since it hinders the reader's from the possibilities to reflect about what has been learnt up to now about, for example, pluralism, eclecticism, relativism, and nihilism.
The paper has its merits as a further attempt to related ISD to philosophy and to some current of the intellectual debate in the context of a increasingly receptive or tolerant environment. This includes the opportunities to publish in the supporting community. The authors have certainly contributed to this tolerance, but, as it often is the case with tolerance, it can also stand for the sort of indifference which is bestowed upon those who are not experienced as really challenging or menacing the establishment. As a matter of fact, both Habermas and Wittgenstein have become during the last 20 years a sort of profitable "industry" of the West. They are barely controversial, possibly because they are not dangerous for the establishment or they do not call into question the dominant order of commonly accepted political, ethical, and secular basic assumptions. In particular they do not question the importance of instrumental technology and of business, but are, rather, understood as wishing to complete them pluralistically with other orientations, leaving interdependencies, and relative weights or priorities, undiscussed or up to the political process. Therefore they can be met with silence by those dominant trends that welcome the relativism and pluralism that allow them to continue their dominance.
In this respect the paper does not add much to the earlier 1991 publication by the same authors (Lyytinen, et al., 1991), in the same way as my commentary here probably does not add much to my earlier criticism of Habermasian and soft-systems influences in our field (Ivanov, 1991b). The paper can, however, also be seen as a sort of commented encyclopedic bibliography of a great number of papers and books from which proper selections can be made for readings in undergraduate and graduate academic studies. I guess that mainly the authors, and perhaps some readers, experience the effort to write or read this encyclopedia as a catharsis or as divestment of much frustration in not having being able to make sense of it all. One is left at least with a sort of encyclopedic whole.
Even when considered as a bibliography the collection could be. improved. Pioneer studies of social issues of computing,with important dimensions that remain underdeveloped as of today, are missing (Mowshowitz, 1976, 1977, 1981). The technological dimension, weak as it is in Habermas, is also underdeveloped in this essay. Many technical references are to textbooks with scanty historical value, or are more than ten years old. This can be serious in view of rapid technical development and high rate of obsolescence like, for instance, in computer networks. Other weaknesses are the scanty attention given to the hot debates in human computer interaction (HCI) or computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) where, for instance, cognitive psychology meets psychosocial activity theory. Deeper questions of different conceptions and "levels"of programming and software, as related to the role and limitations of social applications of mathematics and logics, are not addressed.(12) Issues of productivity are not considered: their deepening would bring us to the most meaningful matters of sense making and argumentation as found in the discussion of the rationalization of work.(13) The particular definition that is adopted for IS and ISD ignores many contexts that are not social unless the definition of social organization is widened to the point of meaninglessness.(14) A lonely use of a personal computer hooked to the Internet, like the use of an interactive TV-set or of a computerized artifact, can disrupt the social organization of the family or raise new problems of privacy despite of not relating clearly to social organization.(15) Furthermore: no emphasis is given to the growth and metamorphosis of earlier currents of participatory ISD into what today goes under the name of artefact design, with more or less deep discussions of aristotelian concepts of knowledge and reason, relations among logic, dialectics, and rhetorics; the nature of mathematical-logical thought as embodied in the industrial computer and as related to other types of knowledge; or relations between technology, ethics and aesthetics of design.(16)
In view of the character and magnitude of the challenge I deem that, for all its merits, it would be unfortunate if the paper happens to encourage the reader to plunge into, and get lost in, the Habermasian framework. To the extent that Habermasian politics and ethics relies on Kantian thought, and with regard to the exercise of "power over user-readers" by professional ISD systems-philosophers, I wish to terminate by directing the reader to some excerpts from philosophical literature that problematizes Kantian ethics.
Systems or learning in ISD
In "An essay on philosophical method", the British historian and philosopher Robin Collingwood refers to the confusions into which Kant is betrayed by his failure to think out the relation between critical philosophy and metaphysics.(17) Kant's plea for liberty of discussion in metaphysics rings true; but his reason for defending it destroys the incentive for it; "for he argues that it can do no harm, since it can come to no conclusion. Why then should we pursue it? Because, says Kant, it is a useful gymnastic, in which reason comes to know itself better". Collingwood goes on discussing two opposing views of the relation between criticism and metaphysics: "Neither of these two opposing views, taken by itself, truly represents Kant's thought. But they cannot be reconciled except at the cost of revising anything he has told us about the relation between his two kinds of philosophy. And further, in a chapter on "the idea of system", Collingwood addresses his time's already "postmodern" question of constructive thinking implying system, and the common objections against finality, completeness, objectivity, and unity (versus diversity) of systems. He concludes that the idea of system is inevitable in philosophy. This idea is nowhere finally and completely realized; "but it is always tending to realize itself wherever any diversity is recognized in the subject-matter and methods of thought".(18)
It is possible to attempt to counter this kind of criticism of what amounts to Habermasian pluralism by establishing ad-hoc distinctions between philosophy and ISD orientations, and such. I will not tire the reader by trying to pursue such hair splitting arguments. I will, rather, refer to another recent approach, also by a Kant-admirer, that echoes the same type of concerns for the consequences of pluralist consequences of the application of misapplication of Kantian ethics.
In a recent paper, R. Fuenmayor, one of the pioneers of so-called interpretive systemology criticizes, as I see it, the relativism implied in substituting "learning" for the earlier systems thinking.(Fuenmayor, 1995) The author recalls that systems thinking was the hallmark of the type of modern thinking represented by the Enlightenment and German idealism. This is patent in the holistic character of Kant's critical thinking (reason). Reason, writes Kant, is impelled by a tendency of "its nature" to the completion of its course in a self-subsistent systematic whole. And this tendency is nothing more than the "will to systems" of reason. Fuenmayor goes on noting that before modernity, and even during the first part of modernity when Kantian metaphysics was still alive, making holistic sense and moral acting were non-separable. (cf. the Habermasian distinction between sense-making and argumentation as related to social action.) The idea of "knowledge applied to action" which lies at the essence of "methodology" and its ethics, as we understand it the ISD-context of the present paper, would have been meaningless.
In the philosopher Heidegger's interpretation, the moral practical question "What ought I to do?" (decision making on moral grounds) was a question addressed to the totality, to the "ground of beings" or the Theos of presocratic Greeks which we today understand as God. In Heidegger's arcane language, however, there is a major problem in posing the practical question to theos, which is not a manifested being but, rather concealment and mystery It is shown as presence. When the theos shows itself there is something suprasensory (presence, the way theos shows itself) apart from the sensory (apart from that- which-becomes-present). The sensory depends upon the suprasensory. Types of presence define metaphysical epochs.
Now, metaphysical thinking "thinks beings as a whole with respect to Being (Theos). Hence metaphysical thinking is systems thinking, thinking in terms of the ground or Theos so that sense, holistic sense, be brought forth. The practical question and making holistic sense are the same. The practical question is posed to a representative of the epochal type of presence, be it "nature" or the Church as the house of God on earth. What Kant attempted was to change the representative (the Church) of the medieval type of presence (the Christian God), so that human action can be autonomous. The whole work of the main philosophers of modernity contributed to this revolutionary process, so that the practical question could be posed directly to Theos, without intermediate representative.
Reason, would be this new type of presence, to be directly consulted without intermediary. Until Kant, and still with Kant, Reason, however, is not a property of the human mind. It is a type of presence before which humans have limited access. The first wave of Modernity represents a new epoch in the history of metaphysics by which a new type of presence is constituted, but the basic feature of metaphysical thinking, systems thinking, remains. It still thinks beings as a whole, with respect to Being or Theos. Fuenmayor concludes that this is how systems thinking, contrary to what is common belief in our present (postmodern?) systems community, was the hallmark of modern thinking.
One could think that the shift from systems to learning, as in so called soft systems thinking and in Habermasian communication, would be a call for emancipation and autonomy. Fuenmayor remarks. however, that for instance the tradition of soft systems thinking talks the language of "issues"and "accomodations among conflicting interests", rather than "solutions". The notion of accomodation within a given ontological order is not altered in its essence if the circle of the affected is widened to all humans or if coercive contexts are considered using a pluralistic "system of systems methodologies".(19)
In attempting to grasp the type of order that accomodation (and, I would like to add, conversational sense-making and argumentative negotiation) is striving for to maintain, Fuenmayor recalls Nietzches's famous dictum that God is dead. That means, according to Heidegger, much more than people do not believe simply in God any more. It means the overturning of metaphysics implying the oblivion of the metaphysical totality, and the arrival of the postmodern epoch characterized by what he calls "enframing". Despite of all talk on freedom, democracy, and rationality everything is accomodated to the status of "standing.reserve" for being used in the technological way of revealing. The type of presence disappears, and Theos has no way to show itself. The two realms of being that characterize metaphysics are reduced to one that does not appear as depending on anything. The suprasensory is transformed into an unstable product of the sensory. And with such a debasement of its antithesis, the sensory denies its own essence, and it culminates in meaninglessness.
The reader might observe how much of Heidegger's thought as referred by Fuenmayor is absent in the wholesale referral to his philosophy in some of late ISD-literature. Repeated mention is made there of throwness, background (ready-to-hand), breakdown (present-at hand), etc., but Heidegger's discussions of systemic metaphysics, not to mention his conception of mathematics that is embodied in computer artifacts, find no place in the discussions of acquisition of skill and design in ISD.(20) I sense this phenomenon as a sympton of the death of metaphysics, and therefore of morality, among those who today read Heidegger in an unconscious enframing mode of design. This includes also de debasement of philosophical pragmatism to the utilitarianism of its coarse oversimplifications.
I still have considered this criticism by Fuenmayor because I think that it is applicable also to the Habermasian framework, that needs to be "de-mystified". In any case I myself consider the existential language launched by Heidegger as a desperate secular attempt to talk about God and religion without daring to ackowledge them and without even mentioning the words. In this sense I understand that Heidegger attempts the same "heroic" deed of those who today, 2000 years after Aristotle, try to revive his philosophy without its Christian counterparts like Thomas Aquinas etc. They try to reinstate some sense in the midst of increasing senselessness of supposed aimless "learning".(21) It is the senselessness of networked Internet- communication, conversation, and hypermedia edutainement, the aesthetic-rhetorical educational entertainements that are being substituted for both argumentation and tradition. And this happens while industry and business are encouraged to run their smart and hopefully profitable computerized mathematical models. It is the paradoxical legitimation of senseless irrationality of consumption being matched by the senseless superrationality of production.(22)
Conclusions of this commentary
I hope that my main point in this commentary, and my choice are clear. Metaphysics and theology must be reinstated in ISD research. If ISD- philosophers are going to preach, it is necessary that they know the historical meaning of preaching as a guide to what to preach. That could be a fruitful complement to the expression of pious hopes within the frame of a system of orientations that puts forward shoulds and oughts, categorical imperatives and universal validity claims.(23)
Such a suggestion need not be more utopian than the implications of the argumentation position presented. I would like to terminate by paraphrasing the implementation strategy that the paper suggests for the argumentation orientation, despite of the fact that the authors had earlier associated strategy with the control orientation: I am implying that the implementation must be concerned with instilling metaphysical and Christian principles that work as check and balances in argumentation, in democratic decision making and in policy formulation. A specific implementation problem is to change social attitudes of organizational actors so that metaphysical principles of love and justice are elevated above social norms of conformity and acceptance of customs and traditions like conceptions of rationality and analysis.
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NOTES 1)For a reminder of many issues of explanation and understanding in an ethical and philosophical context of knowledge that is not addressed in the paper, despite its apparent ambitions of universal coverage, see for instance Barnouw, (1990, esp. p. 223).
2)As a matter of fact there is a postmodern tendency in certain recent publications in the ISD field, claiming that outmoded and unspecified systems thinking, and possibly even social action thinking, be substituted by a sort of "network thinking" that is supposed to be emerging in the Internet and World-Wide-Web trendy developments. Modern development or destruction of the family as social organization is sometimes given as an example. The only references I like to mention in this context are the cultural criticism of this type of thinking by Sass (1992) and Lasch (1977).
3)(Mowshowitz, 1976, p. 117; Truesdell, 1984).
4)(Lyytinen, Klein, & Hirschheim, 1991). In an earlier paper of mine (Ivanov, 1991a, p. 30-31n) I had already reason to question the fruitfulness of such, what I called, a mind-blowing classification exercise.
5)The reader may find it problematic, however, that Habermas is endorsed by quotations of superlative partisan remarks by his own supporters. I grant that Habermas has been much more influential in quantitative terms during our historically short time span. I would not, however, dare to bestow upon my favorite philosopher a similar apology. It would suggest belief in a sort of social Darwinism in the sense of the best survival of the fittest researchers, or belief in the success of predestination in a Weberian sense. It would also weaken the reader's trust in the critical mood of the author. For a somewhat more sober appreciation, see Thompson (1982, esp. contributions by Heller, Ottmann, Hesse, and Giddens). For outright criticism see van den Berg (1989); McCarthy, 1984; Ferrara, 1985; Ferrara, 1987; Börjeson, 1989).
6)The paper quotes superlative evaluations of Habermas' contributions to, among other fields, psychology. The reader may therefore wish to compare, for instance, the so called orientations with the painstaking creation of C.G. Jung's psychological types (Jung, 1953-1979, Vol. 6) within the frame of a complex philosophical tradition (Clarke, 1992). The closest correspondents to psychological types in ISD research have gone under the label of cognitive styles. They are not surveyed in this paper.
7)Kedourie (1960/1993, esp. chaps. 2-4.) writes, in my view, a brilliant, short critical overview of sociopolitical implications of Kantian ethics. I assume that nobody will choose the easy way of classifying him as a traditionalist, further equated with conservative. He does not seem to dare, however, to take the step beyond negative criticism which probably would lead him to the dilemmas of secularization as hinted at by Lindbom (1983; 1995, where Habermasian ideas belong to the chapter on cultural radicalism, and possibly pp. 54ff) or other less outspoken researchers (Buckley, 1987; Riley, 1986). For the rest of Kant's work, and in order to "empower" the user-reader, I direct him to the most brilliant, albeit uncritical, short overview of his ideas by his admirer Gulyga (1977). Gulyga also suggest (in chaps. 6-7) the aesthetic and ethical importance of work, which has led to its "divinization" in the socialistic Scandinavian tradition of self- determination, co-determination, participation or democracy at the workplace. This background also explains why the Scandinavian emphasis on these values in the seventies could turn so rapidly into today's aestheticist emphasis on playfulness and skill at the human-computer interface, as evidenced in certain trends of "design" in general and HCI-design in particular. For an application of Gulyga, close to these issues, see Ivanov, (1995). Problematizations of Kant's philosophy are, for the rest, found in e.g. Max Scheler (1874-1928) and, further, Wojtyla (1980), following the pioneer meta-criticism by J.G. Hamann (1730-1788). For some details, see Ivanov (1991b, pp. 45-51; 1991a, p. 74n).
8)(Ivanov, 1991a; Ivanov, 1991b; Ivanov, 1993a; Ivanov, 1995)
9)This seems to me to be akin to the implicit ethics of the so called rationalities of late currents of neo-romantic ISD or computer artefact design which, as the autopoietic ones, are not considered in the extensive overview and bibliography of the paper. Cf. for instance the appeal to believe and follow one own's convictions as an practical and ethical standpoint in ISD, considered as neo-romantic design, in Stolterman (1991, p. 124) or in the paper's Habermasian encouragement to follow one's paradigm. What is seldom if ever stated in this kind of ethics of personal conviction, in absence of grand syntheses like Fichte's, is what to do when different actors have opposing convictions or rationalities and do not want further debate, argumentation or negotiation. They will soon look for political support in various sub-communities. And the more a community is fragmented in sub-communities, the easier will be to find one sub- community that will do, helping in the general pluralist struggle or, ultimately, war. Neo-romantic subjective ethics, such as the one that long dominated the German cultural sphere, turns, then, rapidly into objective politics and war.
10)(Kedourie, 1960/1993, p. 43.). This would be consistent with the lack of real debate in the pluralist context. Debate is substituted by the clash of actions in the political field.
11)Without further qualification such a statement can be understood or misunderstood as running counter the common, albeit problematic, wisdom of much science with Popperian falsification, the crucial experiment, or the dialectical deadly enemy. These seem to be still considered, and rightly so, to be more dependable than the consensus of a coalition politics which stands close to the positivistic view of a consensual reality "out there". They are also more dependable than peer-reviews by peers of own choice from the own community's "national" network. The analogy to nationalism is not far fetched. The Scandinavian ideology of the seventies concerning participation in ISD or "democratization of work" was heavily inspired by Yugoslavian experiences, the "praxis group" etc., that it is not opportune to mention today. It seems that the Yugolavian industry's and the military's workplaces were supposed to integrate denied or suffocated incompatibilities of nationalistic pluralism, under a Kantian-Marxist umbrella of workers' autonomy.
12)Cf. P. Natorp's "social idealism" belonging to the neo-kantian Marburg school. It is cursorily touched upon through the paper's second-hand's reference to E.Cassirer, without, however, relating to these issues. For a rough introductory orientation, see the hints in Ivanov (1991a, pp. 36-38). The relation or interdependence between formal and social science in also implicit in the missing discussion of the definition of information, which indeed is a prerequisite for the paper's definition of IS and ISD. (Ivanov, 1972, chap. 4; Churchman, 1971, chaps. 7 and 9, both deal with such a definition that is absent in the proposed Habermasian framework}.
13)See Hirschman (1977), Campbell (1987) and other literature in English, as referenced by Sanne (1995).
14)Without subscribing to his liberal philosophy, I wish to point out that this is akin to Hayek's criticism in the essay "What is social? What does it mean?" (Hayek, 1967, pp. 237-247).
15)As an example, it is difficult to see whether the proposed framework has anything to contribute to the new issues of privacy and liberty on the net, as presented by, say, Pournelle, (1995) or The Economist (1995b).
16)Cf. my own early attention to fronesis (phronesis) in Ivanov (Ivanov, 1991a, pp. 46-48; Ivanov, 1993a; 1995). Scandinavian readers can also refer to a recent monumental work in Swedish (albeit not specifically addressing ISD) by Ramirez, (1995, esp. pp. 78, 111f, 117, 143, 157-165, 216, 246, 288, 331). It includes learned discussions of relations of Theoria-Episteme, Poiesis-Techne, Praxis- Fronesis, etc., which also imply elusive relations between form, function, and structure in design. What is missing with risk for unintended relativism, as in Habermas work, is the connection to Christian thought that has historically complemented the Greek heritage as basis of Western culture. See, finally, Ivanov (1995), in view of the latest hot issues of fashionable hypermedia.
17)(Collingwood, 1933/1970, pp. 23f, 177ff, 191ff)
18)Collingwood suggests advancing from the conception of overlapping classes of philosophical topics to the conception of a "scale of forms". "The various parts which together make up the body of a philosophy will thus form a scale in whose ascent the subject-matter becomes progressively philosophical...". But "however far up the scale goes, he [the philosopher] never comes to an absolute end of the series, because he already comes in sight of new problems; but he is always at a relative end, in the sense that, wherever he stands, he must know where he stands and sum up his progress henceforth..." The reader is directed to the similarity between this philosophical treatment of diversity which is lacking in the present paper's Habermasian account, and the "sweeeping in" process described by Churchman or the "multimodal thinking" described by de Raadt, or in my own "hypersystem" (Churchman, 1971; de Raadt, 1991; Ivanov, 1993b) It is the inherent limitation of this relatively advanced thinking that has led me to transcend it in favour of non-market-oriented, non-competitive studies of "belief and reason" (Ivanov, 1993a), and of "theological aesthetics" (Ivanov, 1995).
19)Compare with Habermas-Apel's system of orientations, ideal speech situation and universal validity claims, as well as with Ulrichs critical heuristics (Ulrich, 1983). I repeat that this was the reason for my going beyond my own conception of hypersystems after sensing its limitations and the misuse of its pragmatist background ideas by constructive-learning instrumentalists (Ivanov, 1993a; Ivanov, 1993b).
20)(Heidegger, 1978, is but one example of what does not find its way in the ISD.literature by many Heidegger enthusiasts.)
21)(Ramirez, 1995). In a personal communication (14 August 1995), prof. López-Garay at the University of the Andes, Mérida, Venezuela, writes "I myself am trying to work out an answer to this question from a MacIntyreian perspective. I think the clue lies in MacIntyre's notions of Tradition and the Unity of a Human Life. As you recall MacIntyre basis his arguments in Aristotles and Thomas Aquinas'. Hence the point is that Habermas does not take into account the trascendental telos that gives unity to a human life and how this is related to a tradition. The result is that ethical decisions are reduced to debate where the better argument is the light that guides finally action, but where are taken into consideration tradition, and the unity of a human life ---that is. the trascendental telos that guides human action and which is nothing but the search for the "good life"? Practical reason used solely in this Habermasian terms becomes nothing but instrumental reason On the contrary, in Aristotles' and Aquinas' terms we must search for the Good life and be trained and educated in the virtues. Only with such an education we can firmly orient our search. The purpose of moral life is to search the good life. The purpose of the search is the Search!! For a non- academic polemic on MacIntyre ("After Virtue", 1985) as related to Etzioni see The Economist (1995a).
22)(Böhler, 1970; Sanne, 1995).
23)Scandinavian readers can recognize the image of meaningless purpose of never-ending "trespassing of all frontiers" in the last chapter of Tage Lindbom's recent work on modernism (Lindbom, 1995, in Swedish). It includes the background of Habermas' thought. The readers of English language can grasp some of the author's thoughts in an earlier book that is the only one so far translated into English (Lindbom, 1983).