1.4.2 Engaging with multiple perspectives
A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.
(Churchman, 1968, p. 231)
The Ulrich reading is an extract from an article written in honour of another systems philosopher, C. West Churchman. Also drawing on Churchman's influence, Jake Chapman sums up two qualities of systems thinking in terms of ‘gaining a bigger picture (going up a level of abstraction) and appreciating other people's perspectives’ (2004, p. 14). He goes on to acknowledge that appreciating other people's perspectives remains the most challenging aspect of systems thinking. ‘Systems approaches’ tend to focus on the need to make proper representation of the interrelationships between entities deemed relevant to a situation. They sometimes pay little attention to practical issues of engaging with different perspectives (Figure 4).
The ability to frame a perspective and also to reframe a perspective based on another viewpoint is a powerful tool that is peculiar to humans. Churchman's idea about seeing the world through the eyes of another is also discussed by Stephen Talbott (2004, p. 52):
The well-intentioned exhortation to replace anthropocentrism with biocentrism, if pushed very far, becomes a curious contradiction. It appeals to the uniquely human – the detachment from our environment that allows us to try to see things from the Other's point of view – in order to deny any special place for humans within nature.
Talbott considers this capacity to be overtly anthropocentric, and one that legitimately distinguishes us from non-human nature whilst at the same time bestowing particular responsibilities on us: ‘We are asked to make a philosophical and moral principle of the idea that we do not differ decisively from other orders of life – but this formulation of principle is itself surely one decisive thing we cannot ask of those other orders’ (ibid.).
So making perspectives transparent and appreciating other perspectives, particularly those that may not share the same foundational worldview of science, religious commitment or whatever, is a key attribute of systems thinking. In the context of carrying out an ecological conversation, or any other such way of describing our relationship with non-human nature, systems thinking confers a particular responsibility on us as humans. Humberto Maturana, the systems theorist referred to earlier (see Box 3), describes Churchman's endeavour in terms of practising being epistemologically ‘multiverse’ (Maturana and Poerksen, 2004, p. 38), as distinct from assuming access to some ontological ‘universe’ (or even multiple ontological universes, as in the contemporary scientific meaning of multiverse). Ontology is the study of the nature of being, whilst epistemology is the study of knowledge, its validity and scope. Thus the focus moves away from an ontological idea that there is a single reality to be discovered, towards the acceptance that there may be many valid realities depending on the criteria of validity and values applied (an epistemological concept that is inherent in Churchman and Maturana's systems thinking).