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.
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.
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.
This publication constructs a methodology of active learning for observing the observer: the tool used is the construction of games. The basic question is: What actions can be taken to allow the subject to observe himself, and how can learning activities be used as a way of reconstructing the subject’s experience during the observation? The basic reference framework for the qualitative research is constructivism. The conceptual and philosophical analysis of research is second-order cybernetics, which gives relevance to the theory of the observer and the relationship between the observer and what is observed. For the construction of the games the group is organized according to specific structures, which make up a work network within the proposed experimental scenario. Every reflexive discourse (conceptual, informational and descriptive) on the describer’s properties system will be formed, at least, of the perspectives, dispositions and distinctions in the language of the observer. In this sense, to observe the observer is not a representation of analyzable, controllable and predictable process, rather to observe the observer will be interpreting the metaphors that constitute him or her at any stage of experimentation that is proposed. The usefulness of the game as a methodology for observing the observer means that it is possible to propose a comparison between the dynamics of the social system built by the participants in the application of the methodology and the networks that can be built in terms of the language used. Relevance: The publication addresses a methodological approach for learning to observe the observer. In von Foerster’s words, observing the observer consists of describing the properties of the describer. First, we start from a position in second-order cybernetics which turns out to be a radical constructivist position. Then, we make a connection between observer, constructivism, metaphors and learning. The game is the designing pillar and the tool used to incorporate the proposed methodology. The games follow rules: constitutive, regulative and strategic. The structure of the game uses ideas of syntegration by Beer, and reinterprets them in a scenario of experimentation called the Cybernetics of Cybernetics course. In the game, each participant experiences the world which constitutes the game and the role of the observer in observing. Some final remarks discuss the use, advantages and limitations of the methodology proposed.
Context: Both Luhmann and Pask have developed detailed theories of social systems that include accounts of the role of learning. Problem: Rather than see the theories as competing, we believe it is worthwhile to seek ways in which a useful synthesis of the two approaches may be developed. Method: We compare the two approaches by identifying key similarities and differences. Results: We show it is possible to make useful mappings between key concepts in the two theories. Implications: We believe it is worthwhile for social scientists to be familiar with the two theories and that it is not a case of “either/or,” rather, it is a case of “both/and.”
Upshot: Emergence and Embodiment is a highly worthwhile and well-crafted collection of essays on second-order cybernetics that draws together ideas related to self-organization, autopoiesis, organizational closure, self-reference, and neurophenomenology. Chapters include articles by Heinz von Foerster, Francesco Varela, Niklas Luhmann, George Spencer-Brown, and Evan Thompson and external commentaries on them that analyze the relevance of their ideas in the context of social and cultural theory. Despite some projective distortions to cybernetics that arise from the internal imperatives of culture criticism, the book contains many valuable insights and analyses of core ideas of cybernetics that significantly advance our understanding of them.
This article deals with the problem of how operationally closed systems can construct a reality and therefore get their bearings in the world. But rather than looking for new theoretical solutions, it suggests going back to the empirical philosophical tradition of early modernity, in order to find a solution. Following a suggestion by the leaders of both firstand second-order cybernetics, Wiener and Foerster, this article reframes Hume’s theory of causal inference in order to make the case not only that Hume anticipated second-order cybernetics in interesting ways, but also that modern cognitive sciences can use Hume and second-order cybernetics to inform each other leading to a better understanding of both. Starting from the statement according to which the problem of causality represents ‘one of the most sublime questions in philosophy, ’ the article goes deeply inside the problem of causality in order to argue that the modern approach to epistemology has to be conceived of as a process of internalization of cognitive facts. This search path leads to casting a new light on the paramount concept of sign, conceived of as the possibility that certain environmental events or data again set off the self-reference of a cognitive system, which thus switches from memory to expectation. The aim of this article is finally to show that the main results of an interdisciplinary theory of cognition such as second-order cybernetics are particularly congruent with the speculations of the Scottish philosopher, and that Hume’s reflections maintain an extraordinary relevance regarding the most advanced elaboration of the main epistemological problems
Context: In this empirical and conceptual paper on the historical, philosophical, and epistemological backgrounds of second-order cybernetics, the emergence of a significant pedagogical component to Heinz von Foerster’s work during the last years of the Biological Computer Laboratory is placed against the backdrop of social and intellectual movements on the American landscape. Problem: Previous discussion in this regard has focused largely on the student radicalism of the later 1960s. A wider-angled view of the American intellectual counterculture is needed. However, this historical nexus is complicated and more often dismissed than brought into clear focus. Method: This essay assembles a historical sequence of archival materials for critical analysis, linked to a conceptual argument eliciting from those materials the second-order cybernetic concepts of observation, recursion, and paradox. Results: In this period, von Foerster found the “positive of the negative” in the social and intellectual unrest of that moment and cultivated those insights for the broader constitution of a new cognitive orientation. Implications: As a successful student of his own continuing course on heuristics, von Foerster left the academic mainstream to ally his constructivist epistemology with the systems counterculture.
“Gaming the Trace” builds up the power of narrative structures from a consideration, first, of the trace – the event of minimal inscription – and next, of what is latent in the reception – that is, the construction – of the trace. I coin a word to capture this combination of grammatological event and observing process, semiolepsis, and relate these dynamics to an allegory of narrative reception. Metempsychosis, or the tale of the transmission of the soul from one body to another, comes forward as an allegory of the reception of the trace. From here the essay moves to an interrogation of the movie Avatar’s mise en scène of the avatar system – its telling, its design specs, and its phantasmagoric realizations of technological metempsychoses. It turns out that an actual media technology exterior to that frame feeds another digital “transmission of soul” back into the physiological metamorphoses of the storyworld. Relevance: The essay expounds as well as applies a broadly Luhmannian framework of systems differentiations. Its methodology throughout is an application of epistemological constructivism and second-order systems theory.