November 4,1998
Prakash Saraswat, Bentley College

This paper contrasts the traditional "scientific" approach to organizational problem solving with the "systems" approach, and provides a historical perspective on the philosophical foundations of these two world-views. The epistemological formulations of the philosophy of science from the 17th to the 20th century, relevant to systems movement, are identified and described. Cartesian Philosophy, Newtonian physics, and the Baconian method, the three pillars of the traditional scientific method, are contrasted with Bertalanffy's "general systems theory," Kurt Koffka's "gestalt psychology," Norbert Wiener's "Cybernetics," and Churchman's "Inquiring Systems" as the four cornerstones of the systems movement. It is argued that the contemporary information systems practice based on the conventional scientific method is inadequate to create systems that can solve complex organizational problems. Based on the ideas of a famous Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius, a conceptual model for organizational information systems architecture is suggested that assimilates the systems world-view in its scope. This article thus integrates Information Systems (IS) concepts, philosophy of science, and principles of classical Greco-Roman architecture in an interdisciplinary perspective.

1. Introduction

In a very short period of 40 years, computer based information systems (CBIS) have grown from their uncertain beginnings to a ubiquitous and indispensable force in the "third wave" economies marked by a predominance of information-processing activities. The rapid growth in the capabilities of information technology (IT) and its widespread deployment in organizations has created two philosophical problems. First, it has prevented its practitioners from developing a coherent historical perspective on its origins and consequences, and second, it has failed to create a convincing logical foundation for its intellectual justification. Methodologies used for the analysis, design, deployment and management of CBIS have relied heavily upon traditional scientific and engineering paradigms of problem solving, and the methodological tools such as Computer Assisted Systems Engineering (CASE) have remained primarily closed instrumental systems. The complex, dynamic and uncertain environment in which information systems are often required to function cannot be fully grasped, and adaptive, self-learning systems cannot be designed with conventional approaches [Callaos, 1992]. Therefore, many influential thinkers are now arguing in favor of a multidimensional approach that integrates the social, technological, psychological and economic dimensions of organizational problems. This approach is more important for information systems problems with their vast scope and intractable complexity. A proper application of this approach requires a full understanding of its multiple dimensions technical, social, psychological, and philosophical. Most text books and scholarly works that claim to deal with the theory of information systems barely mention the historical and philosophical foundation of this discipline, if not deliberately ignore them [Birch, 1983]. Consequently, the information systems practitioners appear to have a general lack of appreciation for the philosophical concepts that constitute the core of this discipline.

As the IS discipline is maturing and acquiring self-confidence, there is now a growing awareness among IT specialists that these fundamental questions about the discipline need to be addressed. An increasing volume of practical and academic discourse on CBIS is making the need for a philosophical understanding of the subject more apparent for enunciating its basic principles, furnishing a common basis for the interpretation of discourse, and providing the rules of logic to examine the validity of discourse. An incipient discipline like IS can use its epistemological and philosophical foundations to provide the intellectual justification for its practice, methodologies, tools, and techniques. The lack of an appropriate philosophical perspective tends to create a "technology driven" IS design which ignores the emergent human dimensions in organizations. It is being recognized that the existing "scientific" method is fundamentally inadequate to solve the complex problems of organizations encompassing numerous social, technological, psychological and economic dimensions. It is also inadequate to answer the questions about the primary justification of information technology in organizations. A multidisciplinary perspective is, therefore, essential for improving the practice of the information systems. A broad-based approach is also essential to correctly interpret the increasing volume of practical and academic discourse on this subject.

With a multidisciplinary approach, this article establishes the need for understanding the philosophical and historical aspects of systems concepts, compares the "scientific" and "systems" approaches to solving information systems problems in organizations, and suggests a new architecture of information systems based on the systems philosophy. The foundational ideas of the two approaches are compared on ten dimensions of organizational functioning, and the information systems architecture proposed in the paper is based on the architectural framework of classical Greco-Roman building architecture.


The two prevailing approaches to information systems design - traditional scientific, and systems - are compared in Table 1 along ten dimensions. These dimensions represent the assumptions of the two approaches about:


Dimension of Comparison

SYSTEMS World-View
































The systems world-view emphasizes a holistic focus on organizational problems while the traditional scientific world-view suggests a fragmented approach to such problems, due to its reductionist methodology. In terms of the information systems practice, the systems view translates into "top down" design, heavily emphasized in the contemporary information systems practice. A holistic perspective on the problems of information systems requires a simultaneous understanding of the environmental, organizational, technological, and human dimensions of the system. Teleological purpose implies that systems possess an ostensible "purposefulness" originating "within" them. These objectives are considered to be inherent in the behavioral properties and the "design" of the system. In addition, teleological activity demonstrates the presence of sensitivity and persistence while non-teleological activity is merely "functional." Equifinality, which implies that a system can achieve an objective by following different paths with different initial conditions, is another manifestation of teleology. The scientific view, on the contrary, assumes that systems follow a predefined set of rules to achieve their objectives which are externally determined. Newton argued in the General Scholium that the universe was created with all its governing laws so that it can function like a clockwork without the day to day interference of the creator spirit. This argument epitomizes the scientific thinking about the lack of internal purpose and inherent design in systems, and the mere "functionality" of their behavior. According to the systems view, the interactions among the elements of a system are synergistic, which means that the overall effect of these interactions is immensely greater than the sum of the individual effects. While the scientific view assumes liner and causal relationships among the system components, the systems view assumes non-linear effects. Aristotle's dictum, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts," expresses the essence of this property of systems. Norbert Wiener's interdisciplinary studies in cybernetics, based on the assumption of the commonality of relationships between man and machine, conducted at MIT over a decade, contain ample evidence of the presence of synergy in systems [Wiener, 1961].

Similarly, while the scientific view assumes a static and mechanistic organization of reality, the systems approach assumes that the internal relationships among the various elements of a system dynamically evolve in response to the environmental conditions. An open environment, characterized by continuous exchange of matter, energy, and information, is assumed by the systems approach while the traditional scientific paradigm postulates a closed environment that does not exchange resources with the system.

The systems view recommends synthetic solutions to the organizational problems while the scientific view, based on empirical observation, methodical analysis, and laboratory techniques, emphasizes the analytical approach. The planning responses generated by organizations, in scientific approach, are essentially reactive since the stimuli are assumed to be external. On the other hand, the systems view encourages proactive planning responses in organizations. Proactive responses are possible because the goals of the organizations are internally determined and the environment conditions can be easily monitored. One of the assumptions of the systems view is that the information related problems of organizations and organisms are intrinsically stochastic. Therefore, the analysis and design approaches are required to create an internal flexibility in the systems to accommodate the sudden changes in the organizational states. The scientific view, with its assumption of deterministic consequences, discourages rapid responses to sudden and chaotic changes occurring in the organizations. The "systems" view of organizations as open and dynamic systems thus provides a better approach to the analysis, design, deployment, and management of computer based information systems.


Since the 18th century, the prevailing paradigm of scientific inquiry has been the "analytical," "mechanistic," or "reductionist" approach. The three pillars of the foundation of the scientific method are the Cartesian philosophy, Baconian method, and Newtonian physics. The method proved extremely effective for scientific research in laboratories, production in factories, and hierarchical control of human resources in industrial age organizations. However, in the "information age" organizations, where "coordination" rather than "control" is becoming a more important managerial function, the traditional paradigm of production and inquiry in considered grossly inadequate. The following section of the paper discusses the three dimensions of the scientific approach.


René Descartes, a famous French philosopher of the 17th century, laid the foundations of the conventional scientific view of reality in his famous work Discourses on the Method. In the second part of this book Descartes expounds the four rules of his scientific and logical inquiry into the nature of truth. These rules are: (i) doubt as the inspiration to investigate the truth, (ii) dividing up problems into manageable components, (iii) bottom up understanding - from the simplest and smallest to the most complex and the whole, and (iv) complete enumeration and review of the problem. In part IV of this book, he posits his most famous dictum cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), which was a variation of St. Augustine's observation Si fallor sum (I err therefore I am). By emphasizing the primacy of the mind he reduced the human body to a mere mechanical organism to which the mind, or the soul, connects at the pineal gland. According to the prevailing belief, this observation is responsible for creating the perception of duality between mind and body. This dichotomy leads to the pervasive scientific argument that reality is a collection of discreet components associated with linear causal relationships based on mechanistic principles. [Hamlyn, 1967; Beck, 1952]. The mechanistic view of Descartes, defining the human body and the cosmos, also extends to organizations, societies and the smaller systems operating within them, in the realm of conventional scientific practice.


Francis Bacon, an English philosopher and statesman of the early 17th century, proposed a new method of scientific inquiry in his seminal works Novum Organum and De Arguments Scientiarum. In his new method, he argued for collection of large amounts of data through experiments and observations, and a judicious interpretation of this data to discover the patterns, laws, and secrets of nature. The argument was primarily for the "empirical" method of observation which precludes any active involvement of the observer's subjective understanding in the inquiry. Since empirical observation is based on sense perception alone, all the mystery, intuition, or imagination of the observer, analyst and designer become unimportant in the Baconian method [Anderson, 1926].


Newtonian or classical mechanics is inextricably linked with mechanistic explanation and models of nature and organizations. Newton, as a well known fact, first proposed them in his famous work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. With his three laws of motion and the conception of gravity, he provided a purely mechanistic explanation of all movement in the universe based on linear and causal relationships. In the General Scholium, he also proposed that these principles apply not only to physical and mechanical but also metaphysical hypotheses. In spite of such assertions, it is widely believed that Newtonian mechanics provides the third leg on which the edifice of modern science is built. Its most conspicuous organizational shortcoming is that it provides extremely narrow and simple explanations of inherently complex phenomenon.

In the first part of the 20th century, with all the horrors of two wars and the general inability of science to solve the intractable problems of mankind, a movement against the reductionist approach of science developed in the intellectual circles of Europe and America. This movement, known as the general systems theory, was first proposed by biologists and psychologists by virtue of their broader and deeper understanding of the organisms and humans as the highest forms of organization. The philosophical underpinnings of the general systems theory are discussed in the following section of this paper.


The protagonists of the systems theory of organizations trace its origins to the works of numerous philosophers from ancient Greece to modern Europe [Bertalanffy, 1972]. Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and Parmenides are credited with the discovery of the teleological movement in the cosmos, and Socrates is identified with "synergy" as an integral property of systems. Hegel's dialectical materialism and the suggestion that thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are the fundamental forces behind human progress, with Theodore Fechner's formulations on psychophysical systems are also considered the foundation stones of systems thinking [Bertalanffy, 1972].

In the contemporary systems context, the prolific writings of Ludwig von Bertalanffy on "General Systems Theory" comprise the nucleus of the systems discipline. Bertalanffy, a biologist by profession, exposed the glaring weaknesses of the "mechanistic" approach as applied to the behavior of living organisms and intricate organizations. He believed that living organisms and organizations display intricate patterns of behavior, synergistic interactions, and innate purpose. Consequently, the mechanistic view that organisms are mere automatons with randomly determined goals without discernible design and purpose cannot adequately explain their phenomenology. He viewed organisms as "whole" entities whose distinctive characteristics and organizing principles cannot be reduced to simple and isolated components. This approach was originally identified as "organismic biology" or "the system theory of organisms." These speculations were the precursor of the modern systems theory which is considered the philosophical infrastructure of information systems. Bertalanffy's claims were considered preposterous by some skeptics in the early stages of the development of the systems theory but his ideas have become widely accepted since the early 1960's [Egler, 1953]. The growth of computer and communications technologies and the complexities of developing software for these systems have made the theory extremely relevant to the discipline of information systems. It is widely accepted by information systems professionals that organizations and information systems must be viewed as open, dynamic, and purposeful systems for effective development and deployment of information and communications technologies. Recent studies of the characteristics of "conscious" systems have also demonstrated the relevance of Bertalanffy's ideas to living systems. It has been found that conscious systems cannot be reduced to phenomenology of matter-distribution and energy-flux in space and time. Their interrelationships and the existential holistic dimension play a pivotal role in defining their organization and autonomy [Schwarz, 1992].

In his work of remarkable breadth and considerable originality, C. West Churchman introduced the concept of "Inquiring Systems" during the 1970's [Churchman, 1971]. Inquiring systems are essentially very complex, self-learning, and self-examining systems relevant to the high level problem solving in organizations. Recommending the use of the systems philosophy for designing inquiring systems, Churchman reasons that: (a) the design of an inquiring system should assimilate the concept of distinguishing between reality and non-reality, and only a system that can relate its information to the "whole" reality can accomplish this purpose. Leibniz's theory of "monads" can contribute to the design of these systems since the monads symbolically contain the entire reality in them; (b) John Lock's "Essay on Human Understanding" is relevant to the design of inquiring systems in that it views the human mind as a tabual rasa, lacking any innate ideas. The system design based on this principle can receive unbiased information as inputs and develop a clearer sense of understanding, just like the human mind as a blank slate; (c) Since an inquiring system must have some innate processing capability regardless of inputs and outputs, Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" and conceptualization of a priori ideas can be helpful in the design of inquiring systems; and (d) Hegal's dialectical approach can be used in the design of inquiring systems since it leads to objectivity in understanding and a self learning process based on the dialectical method; and finally (e) E.A. Singer's philosophical ideas emphasizing a metrological approach to design can be helpful in designing inquiring systems since formal measurement, units, and standards are extremely important for these systems. Churchman also seems to introduce a "spiritual" dimension to the systems philosophy. Additionally, he proposes that Carl Jung's classification of the functions of mind into the categories of thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition are extremely relevant to inquiring systems. Similarly, Jung's typology of human temperaments as extravert and introvert can also be considered relevant to the design of complex, self learning systems. Churchman suggests that all these historical ideas can be applied to deciding strategic choices for global inquiring systems. Going beyond the traditional paradigm of science where fascinating discoveries are routinely made, inquiring systems imply a need for the "expression of the activity of inquiry rather than its mere appreciation." Churchman's "inquiring" systems are in many ways similar to Bertalanffy's "open" systems, but Churchman's emphasis on management, social, and computer sciences rather than biology make his approach more directly relevant to management information systems [http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/~gem/].

Gestalt psychology, practiced and popularized by three German psychologists, Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Kohler, and Max Wertheimer in the early part of the 20th century, emerged from their experimental investigations in psychology, logic and epistemology. The school of gestalt psychology has also made a remarkable contribution to the development of the systems theory and practice by arguing against the "simple dichotomy of science and life" [Koffka, 1955]. Gestalten, a German language term, means "pattern" or "configuration" and gestalt psychologists believe that perceived visual patterns demonstrate unexpectedly arising properties that are drastically different from their static images [Rock, 1990]. Gestalt psychologists also believe that both the organization of the nervous system and the images projected on the retina play an indispensable role in the visualization of objects. Again, this holistic view of psychology, diametrically opposite to the analytical and fragmented view of traditional psychology, is essentially a "systems" view. Wertheimer performed elegant experiments on the perception of movement and organization of perception, and Kohler studied insight and learning in apes. In addition to the experimental proofs of the presence of a holistic perspective in the mind, the gestalt psychologists also proposed the "systems" philosophy of the mind. According to Gestalt, the brain is primarily an open and dynamic system possessing a natural tendency towards achieving an equilibrium of energy. This suggestion is very similar to the prevailing theoretical assumptions of strategic level organizational information systems based on artificial intelligence. Due to these similarities, the ideas of gestalt psychology are now being utilized in neural networks and artificial intelligence, and modern cognitive psychology is considered extremely close to gestalt psychology.

The third pillar of the systems discipline is "cybernetics," a term coined in 1947 by the famous mathematician Norbert Wiener at MIT from the Greek word kybernetike which was, in turn, used by Plato to mean "helmsmanship". The theory of cybernetics is explained in Norbert Wiener's seminal work, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine and it is now widely used to study the problems of signal processing, information transfer, artificial intelligence, servo mechanisms, and even linguistics. Cybernetics is "essentially an attempt to bring together and reexamine lines of research that had formerly been pursued in isolation" [Guilbaud, 1959]. The synthetic techniques of cybernetics can be eventually applied to the analytical problems in specific disciplines. In cybernetics, the terms "control and communication" have a much broader meaning. Control implies the influence exerted by the components of a system upon one another, and communication is considered an essential property of the internal relationships of an organization [Hilton, 1966]. Computer based information systems are very similar to servo mechanisms since both are characterized by a high degree of interaction among their components, equilibrium seeking and goal directed behavior, networks of relationships, and "feedback" as the fundamental means of control. Cybernetics, therefore, remains highly germane to computer based information systems, although it was initially conceptualized for industrial control. In its broader interpretation, it is also applicable to organizations despite their multiplicity of goals that the cybernetic theory did not originally address. Figure 1 shows a broad comparison of the two approaches discussed in the previous section. It is believed that the motivation for cybernetics came from the work of James Clark Maxwell on governors for different types of machinery. These ideas were further elucidated, in connection with building architecture, by Jaque Lafitte, a French architect, who explained the operation of advanced forms of machines in which the sources of energy and sources of information are very closely associated. Modern computer based information systems are a perfect example of these mechanisms.

FIGURE 1: The Foundations of Scientific and Systems Approaches to Problem Solving



With the rapid growth of management information systems (MIS) in business organizations since the early 1970's, some new perspectives have emerged that have tremendously enriched the discourse on the systems approach. Some of these themes address the issues unique to the design of complex software systems based on the artificial intelligence capabilities of computer systems.

The concept of Inquiring systems is included by Richard Mason and Ian Mitroff in their comprehensive framework for MIS research [Mason and Mitroff, 1973]. The inclusive approach of these management scientists to MIS development is a specific application of the systems approach to solving organizational information systems' problems. In the Mason and Mitroff framework a convincing argument is made to include different psychological types, classes of problems, methods of evidence, organizational contexts, and modes of presentation in the design of management information systems and MIS research. Managers rely on different methods of evidence generation to make decisions. These methods are classified into five categories and each category is associated with the ideas of a famous European philosopher, as follows. (a) Data based method of evidence with John Locke, (b) Model based with Leibniz, (c) Multiple-models based with Kant, (d) Conflicting-models based with Hegel, and (e) Learning Systems based on the ideas of Singer and Churchman. Mitroff and Linstone have recently argued for a broader-based systems approach to solving larger problems of businesses, society, and science [Mitroff, 1993]. In fact modern organizations supported by information technology can be viewed as inquiring systems since organizational learning and creation of true knowledge are essential for their functioning in a competitive environment [Courtney, et. al., 1998].

The systems approach was first applied to the creation of a stable transportation infrastructure and the architecture of public buildings in the Roman empire. Suggestions are being made that this approach can be successfully used in the architecture of information systems. Therefore, I discuss, in the following section of this article, how the ancient ideas of a famous architect of the classical age can be applied to the formulation of a comprehensive management information systems architecture in organizations.


Two questions arise from the aforementioned discussion of the systems philosophy: (i) What is the relevance of the systems philosophy to contemporary information systems practice?, and (ii) How can these philosophical concepts be translated into a pragmatic approach to information systems architecture in organizations? I propose to argue that the systems philosophy is relevant not only to the top-down analysis, bottom-up implementation, functional decomposition, and many other detail-oriented principles of software design, but also to comprehensive planning and broad architecture of information in organizations. It is essential for the effective implementation of reliable and cost effective information systems in organizations to have an architecture that encompasses the broad principles of systems theory. Numerous approaches to information systems architecture have recently been suggested in text-books, articles, and manuals, but many of these architectural schemes confuse rather than enlighten the reader due to their incoherent structure and lack of sound intellectual framework [Martin, 1994]. The systems view of architecture was most successfully used in history by the Roman empire, which lasted for more than a millennium due to its sophisticated communications and transportation infrastructure and monumental architecture. Perhaps the oldest known treatise on architecture is by Marcus Vitruvius, the Roman architect and engineer of the 1st century B.C. who designed roads, viaducts, and state buildings for Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar. Vitruvius required all architects to be philosophers and argued that philosophy will improve the purpose of architecture while science improves its means and instrumentalities [Britannica, 1984; Durant, 1954]. A successful architecture of information systems in organizations requires this broad-based approach.

In his famous work De architectura libris dicem (Ten books on architecture), Vitruvius takes a very simple yet comprehensive view of architecture, emphasizing the harmony of its three dimensions: FERMITAS, UTILITAS, and VENUSTAS. I have summarized these dimensions in Table 2 with their closest contemporary English meanings. In addition, I have added in the table the equivalent concepts of organizational information systems architecture relevant to each dimension. The adaptation of Vitruvius's principles by Alberty in the 15th century have played a dominant role in the renaissance and neoclassical architecture of modern Europe and the United States. The stability of this architecture due to its "noble" simplicity can be used as a foundation by the information systems community to design and create reliable, useful, and aesthetically pleasing information systems.

Table 2


Vitruvius' Dimension

Contemporary Meaning

Relevant issues in Information Systems



Computer and communications technology platforms; deployment of information technology at strategic points in the organization; Systems, procedures and personnel; Applications software; Information infrastructure for resource distribution.



Organizational efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation; Competitive advantage and competitive response; Group work coordination ; Organizational and individual learning.



User friendly systems; Ergonomic technology; Graphical user interfaces; Information policy conducive to individual freedom and organizational flexibility - ethics, security and privacy.

Ever since the term software engineering was coined in 1969 at a NATO conference in Italy, it validity has been questioned by software professionals because software development is not a mature engineering discipline. It lacks the detailed approach, standard methods, and routine design practices that are essential to any kind of engineering. The design principle of Vitruvius can be applied to software architecture for creating standard methods and codifying routine practices http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/Vit/vitruvius.html]. As a design handbook, de archetitura was an extremely successful book, and if software engineering and architecture have to become established disciplines, a Vitruvius type methodology is needed. An important software engineering project, the Vitruvius Project at Carnegie Melon University, is currently being undertaken to include the architectural philosophy of Vitruvius in software design and implementation. The purpose of the project is to "capture, organize, and disseminate design knowledge" so that software engineers and architects do not have to reinvent solutions for each project [http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/Vit/vit-project.html]. Most software practitioners retain their knowledge at the architectural level of abstraction. This is the level where the knowledge of software engineering has to be captured, organized and disseminated. Most of the existing software design practices are based primarily on drawing simple boxes and diagrams with rudimentary CASE tools. In specifying the details of the system with diagrams, architectural considerations are often disregarded. The architecture-based approach is needed to create a common understanding of the underlying principles of software design before specifying the requirements of the system. Rather than concentrating on the detailed design concepts, such as object oriented design, client server approach, and computer aided systems engineering, the Vitruvius project emphasizes the high level abstractions associated with software development. The architecture of software is defined in an easy-to-understand notation with a specialized architectural description language (ADL) called Unicon, before the low level details are specified [http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/Vit/unicon/reference-manual/Reference_Manual_1.html]. The project is expected to result in a system that will be useful in creating software architecture containing conceptual simplicity, structural strength, and esthetic appeal to software designers and users.


A glaring deficiency of paradigmatic thinking in the information systems discipline is raising questions about its raison d'être in academic circles and these views are being expressed in many colleges of business administration with increasing stridency. A confusion seems to be prevailing about the boundaries, sources, structure and fundamental basis of information systems as a field of studies. Although the eclectic nature of the discipline is widely recognized, the sources of its tradition remain obscure. This paper summarizes the important philosophical ideas that have contributed to the development of modern systems thinking as applied to the design and development of computer based information systems. The richness and diversity of philosophical thought from natural sciences and other academic areas can be successfully used to explore the intellectual roots of information systems and make the practice more effective. The interdisciplinary perspective of this paper enhances the boundaries of information systems research and imparts greater relevance to the proliferating tools and techniques of information systems trade. As a suggestion for further research, the intriguing ideas of Marcus Vitruvius can be studied in detail and their application to information systems design can be investigated.


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