Part two: the challenges of a soft systems inquiry. Integrating Husserl and Gadamer

Frank Stowell*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: This study aims to explore the ideas of Husserl and Gadamer as a possible basis of future soft systems methods of enquiry.

Design/methodology/approach: In Part one, the author has taken up the argument that soft systems is underpinned by Husserl’s phenomenology. The implication of this contention is an acceptance of subjectivity, and that our understanding the world is based upon personal experience. A consequence of this thinking renders predetermined models of the world to be deficient because each situation is unique. Instead of seeking a “solution”, the soft systems investigator engenders a cycle of learning as a means of gaining greater understanding. This means that a soft systems inquiry involves exploring the situation with those involved as a means of reaching an informed way forward. In this second paper, the author continues to explore Husserl’s phenomenology and also consider Gadamer’s ideas on hermeneutics and the importance of the “cycle of learning” that is central to any soft systems inquiry. The study concludes with a summary of points that, the author suggests, should be considered when undertaking a “soft” systems inquiry and in the development of any methodology that may enable it. 

Findings: Both papers explore the phenomenological ideas of Husserl and the relationship to soft systems. In paper one, the basis of this exploration was Checkland's assertion that phenomenology could be the basis of soft systems. In the second paper, the author takes this further by exploring Gadamer's ideas on hermeneutics and reflect upon the possibility of blending them with Husserl's thinking. 

Research limitations/implications: I had some difficulty in tracking down the published work relating to the development of soft systems, notably the Journal of Applied Systems Analysis. This journal was published by Lancaster University and covered more than 20 years of debate and provides an important record of its development. The author managed to find what might be the only compete set at the University of Southampton. This allowed the author to gain some understanding of the development of the thinking. Since the late 20th century, the number of publications on soft ideas has been severely limited, seemingly reflecting the dominance of reductionist science. It seems timely for such a paper as this to help initiate further debate. Practical implications: As indicated above – the difficulty is finding early journal publications where the ideas and their relationship to the action research programme emerged. Checkland himself, with whom the author has always enjoyed a close relationship, has, at the age of 90, withdrawn from academic activity; the early papers in the Journal of Applied Systems Analysis are probably the only “evidence” of the developing ideas at that time. Checkland has summarised the development (see references in the author’s two papers), but these early documents have the advantage of being written by a variety of scholars at the time rather than a single source. 

Social implications: The current crisis of the corona virus demonstrates the strength and the limitations of reductionist thinking. It is appropriate at this time that other methods and ideas of thinking about complexity are “visible”. Whilst there are many ideas, techniques, methods and so on in systems, these come from a common base, namely, to accept a world as tangible and easily modelled; adopting and alternative way of thinking can be challenging and healthy. 

Originality/value: Soft systems thinking is 50 years old, but there has been virtually no progress since the soft systems methodology (SSM) emerged of Husserl and Gadamer in the 1970-1990s; such is the dominance of this methodology. This paper attempts to revisit the early thinking and consider what soft systems thinking means rather than focus on SSM.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1553-1565
Number of pages13
Issue number5
Early online date23 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2021


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


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