Can Husserl’s phenomenology provide the intellectual framework of soft systems? (Part one)

Frank Stowell*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between Husserl’s phenomenology and soft systems. An important idea arising from the action research programme at the University of Lancaster is the notion of soft systems. The concept of soft systems, that distinguished it from other systems (holistic) thinking of the time, was the conscious link between soft systems thinking and phenomenology. Phenomenology is that the realm of intentional consciousness that enables the phenomenologist to develop a radically unprejudiced justification of his (or her) basic views of the world and of himself and explore their rational interconnections. Similarly, in soft systems, it is acknowledged that reality is formed by sensation and fashioned by experience. It is not exclusively a process of thought (although this may shape how we process our experience), for us the world exists as the result of a subjective appreciation of it. In Part 1, the author explores how phenomenology informs soft systems theory and practice through the work of Husserl and some of those that influenced him and were influenced by him. In Part 2, the author explores a possible relationship between Husserl and Gadamer as a possible intellectual grounding for organisational inquiry. 

Design/methodology/approach: The research was conducted by examining published material relating to the development of soft systems ideas and Husserl's phenomenology. 

Findings: An analysis of the ideas within the material suggests that phenomenology can be considered as a underpinning the notion of soft systems 

Research limitations/implications: There is difficulty tracking down important papers that recorded the development of soft systems (i.e. 1970–1990) as Lancaster University had disposed of all issues. However, the author tracked down a source and was able to use this material as part of the research. In addition to helping research the origins of the idea, it also provides a paper trail for other researchers interested in these ideas. 

Practical implications: Tracing the published material relating to soft systems necessitated visits to several universities as many of the important papers where no longer held by the University of Lancaster library. 

Social implications: It seems apposite that the ideas behind soft systems are resurrected as they offer an alternative way of thinking about complexity – which the modern world seems increasingly creating 

Originality/value: There is a lack of research into soft systems as the publications describing the Lancaster research programme have centred around soft systems methodology (SSM). Checkland remarked a decade or so ago that said SSM should be taken as given and other ideas explored. There is little evidence that the soft ideas have been explored outside variations of SSM, this paper is intended to encourage more research into ‘soft’ systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1539-1552
Number of pages14
Issue number5
Early online date27 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2021


  • action research
  • epistemology
  • phenomenology
  • social systems
  • systemic thinking
  • systems theory


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