Not goal-seeking; not hard systems; not steering from outside; human understanding, judgment, action (Vickers)

Peter Checkland reports on being a student of Sir Geoffrey Vickers, in a personal communications.

– begin paste –

Here, in drastic summary, is his journey.

Firstly, he rejected the goal-seeking model of human activity, regarding it as too poverty- stricken to encompass the richness of being human. His analysis was that life does not consist of seeking an endless succession of goals, but rather consists of experiencing relationships, trying to maintain satisfactory ones and elude unsatisfactory ones. This concept, as well as immediately reflecting the experience of all of us in the human tribe, also has the virtue that it does not throw away the concept of goal-seeking; rather it subsumes goal-seeking as an occasional special case.

Secondly, he discovered the sense-making power of systems ideas and was surprised to find most attention – in the 1950s and 1960s – being devoted to what would now be called ‘hard’ or technically defined systems. To him the idea seemed most relevant to social processes. In 1979 he wrote:

While I was pursuing these thoughts, everyone else who was responding at all was busy with man-made systems for guided missiles and getting to the moon or forcing the most analogic mental activities into forms which would go on digital computers. ‘Systems’ had become embedded in faculties of technology and the very word had become dehumanized. Vickers (1979)

Thirdly, he rejected the classic cybernetic model of the steersman since in that model the course to be steered is a ‘given’ from outside; whereas, he argued, real-life generates multiple, often incompatible, courses, none completely realizable, which stem from our previous history and judgements which we have previously made.

Fourthly, this leads him to formulate what he calls ‘an epistemology which will account for what we manifestly do when we sit in committee rooms … Or try personally, for example, to decide whether to accept the offer of a new job’. It is an epistemology which addresses ‘the nature of human understanding, judgement and action’. It leads him to the concept of an ‘appreciative system’ which he describes as ‘a mental evaluative act’, ‘a cultural mechanism which maintains desired relationships and eludes undesired ones’.

So what does this ‘appreciative system’ contain? Geoffrey describes it in many different ways in his books but always in words. When I pointed out to him that the obvious way to represent a system is in a diagram or model, he replied: ‘Ah Peter, you must remember I am a product of the English classical education in which the medium of expression is written prose’. [pp. 286-287, editorial paragraphing added]

– end paste –


Checkland, Peter. 2005. “Webs of Significance: The Work of Geoffrey Vickers.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 22 (4): 285–90.