Excerpt: In 1995, the Leo Apostel Centre in Brussels, Belgium, organised an international conference called “Einstein meets Magritte”. Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine held the opening lecture at the conference, and Heinz von Foerster’s lecture was scheduled last… Heinz von Foerster was enchanted by the conference theme and – in the spirit of surrealist Belgian painter René Magritte – had chosen an appropriate title for his talk: “Ceci n’est pas Albert Einstein”. … [H]e was delighted to grant the organisers the following interview, in which he tells us about an even longer journey – that of his remarkable life and scientific career.
Purpose: Attention is drawn to a principle of “significance feedback” in neural nets that was devised in the encouraging ambience of the Biological Computer Laboratory and is arguably fundamental to much of the subsequent practical application of artificial neural nets. Design/methodology/approach – The background against which the innovation was made is reviewed, as well as subsequent developments. It is emphasised that Heinz von Foerster and BCL made important contributions prior to their focus on second-order cybernetics. Findings: The version of “significance feedback” denoted by “backpropagation of error” has found numerous applications, but in a restricted field, and the relevance to biology is uncertain. Practical implications: Ways in which the principle might be extended are discussed, including attention to structural changes in networks, and extension of the field of application to include conceptual processing. Originality/value – The original work was 40 years ago, but indications are given of questions that are still unanswered and avenues yet to be explored, some of them indicated by reference to intelligence as “fractal.”
A series of articles has recently appeared in which implications of second-order cybernetics for the practice of family therapy have been discussed. In this article, we attempt to advance the discussion by addressing ideas that we think have not been adequately emphasized thus far. Specifically proposed are ideas about conditions that might facilitate the emergence of consciously pragmatic strategy informed by the kind of systemic wisdom that delicately balances natural systems without the benefit of human planning. It is argued that a shift in the personal habits of knowing and acting that typically organize individual human experience is required. After attempting to specify what this shift might involve, implications of these ideas for the practice of family therapy and for human action in general are discussed.
Upshot: Ranulph Glanville’s musings about cybernetics are statements of wonder as much as careful reconstructions of the core ideas of cybernetics. In Vol. III of his Black Boox all 39 of them are collected, which appeared between 1994 and 2009 in the Journal, Cybernetics and Human Knowing. If Heinz von Foerster said that the ideas of second-order cybernetics are nowadays to be found just about everywhere in everyday life, Glanville is not that sure about this.
Upshot: Are narratives systems on their own, or rather structures supporting and, if need be, subverting the reproduction of systems? Bruce Clarke inquires into the ability of social systems theory to help understand narratives - and comes across some “mysteries of cognition” concerning the questions of how systems emerge and which of them might be considered self-referential and autopoietic.
The paper is a reading of Martin Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Even) by means of Ranulph Glanville’s notions of black box, cybernetic control and objects as well as by George Spencer-Brown’s notion of form and Fritz Heider’s notion of medium. In fact, as Heidegger was among those who emphasized systems thinking as the epitome of modern thinking, did in his lecture on Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom a most thorough reading of this thinking, and considered cybernetics the very fulfilment of modern science it is interesting to know whether second-order cybernetics, as it was not known to Heidegger and as it delves into an understanding of inevitable complexity and foundational ignorance, falls within that verdict mere modernity or goes beyond it. If modern science in its rational understanding considers its subjects to be objects sitting still while being observed, then indeed second-order cybernetics is different. It looks into the observer’s interactions with black boxes, radically uncertain of where to expect operations of a self, but certain that we cannot restrict it to human consciousness.
The classical formulation of the object of ethics refers to a knowledge of the rules of the adaptation of the human species to their natural environments, to normative expectations supposed in the others and to the biographical evolution of the self. Accordingly, a doctrine of the duties was edified on three pillars, embracing a reference to the duties towards nature, towards the others and towards oneself. Notwithstanding the fact that human action obeys to a variety of factors including bio-physiological conditions and the dimensions of the social environment, ancient and modern metaphysical models of ethics favored the commendatory discourse about the predicates “right” and “wrong,” concurring to ultimate goals. The ethical discussions consisted chiefly in the investigation of the adequacy of the subordinate goals to the final ends of the human action or in the treatment of the metaphysical questions related to free will or determinism, the opposition of the intentionality of the voluntary conduct of man to the mechanical or quasi-mechanical responses of the inferior organisms or machines. From a “second order” approach to the ethical action and imperatives, I propose with this book a critical analysis of the metaphysical and the Kantian ethics. Relevance: In “Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics” (1992) Heinz von Foerster referred the importance of the application of his notion of “second-order cybernetics” to ethics and moral reasoning. Initially, second-order cybernetics intended an epistemological discussion of recursive operations in non-trivial machines, which were able to include in their evolving states their own self-awareness in observations. The application of his views to ethics entails new challenges. After H. von Foerster essay, what I mean with “second-order ethics is an attempt to identify the advantages of the adoption of his proposal, some consequences in the therapeutically field and lines for new developments.
How may mental activity be conceptualized within the context of the epistemology engendered by cybernetics, and how may that epistemology account for imagination? I argue for an epistemology of imagination that both distinguishes imagination, understanding and interpretation, and unites all three concepts in a dialogical circle of ideas. The processes of distinguishing these concepts (and the processes that give rise to and describe mental activities) are dialogical processes. As dialogical, they fall within the scope of Heinz von Foerster’s work on second-order cybernetics.
Context: Public universities in South Africa are currently facing the challenge of decolonising knowledge. This change requires a review of curriculums, as well as teaching and learning with the goal of embracing the epistemology of the learners, addressing issues such as social justice and transformation. Problem: Human communication is subject to several perceptual errors in both listening and seeing, which challenges the success of the communication in the education system. The ability of the teacher and the learners to effectively communicate with one another is a factor for the success of each reaching their goals. The teacher imparts her knowledge in the classroom, but according to von Foerster, “[i]t is the listener, not the speaker, who determines the meaning of an utterance,” for the listener contextualises this information based on her own past lived experience. Thus, the student’s epistemology and her expression of her understanding is integral in the classroom context and should be actively included into the education system. Method: I present a cybernetic approach to the teacher-learner system, challenging traditional ideas about the role of each actor within the system, with special attention given to Pask’s conversation theory. Results: Early empirical findings suggest that a conversational contextual approach results in higher student involvement and better memory retention among the learners. Conversational approaches that are epistemologically inclusive diffuse social problems where the student groups require their individual worldviews to be reflected within the curriculum. This reduces the friction of competing epistemologies within the education system, moving toward a co-created contextually-driven knowledge system. Implications: Many educators would like deeper engagement from their learners but have not found a way to successfully engage the student group. A cybernetic approach is one method that can be adopted to remedy this. This is particularly useful in contexts where there is cultural diversity and impending social change. Constructivist content: I address von Glasersfeld’s points on human cognition, linking it to Austin’s speech acts.