Heinz von Foerster proposed that the observer should be included in the domain of observation. He suggested that this approach to cybernetics be called second-order cybernetics. Heinz was primarily interested in understanding cognition, based on neurophysiology and mathematics. But there has also been strong interest in cybernetics as a theory of social systems. Using the “second order” idea for existing social science fields would focus attention on the role of the observer and on reflexive phenomena such as the effect of theories on what is being studied. This article considers how the field of economics might adopt the second order idea. Relevance: Second-order cybernetics, by interpreting self-reference as occurring in time, can serve as a guide to the social sciences for how to include reflexive phenomena in their theories.
Context: The term “second-order cybernetics” was introduced by von Foerster in 1974 as the “cybernetics of observing systems,” both the act of observing systems and systems that observe. Since then, the term has been used by many authors in articles and books and has been the subject of many conference panels and symposia. Problem: The term is still not widely known outside the fields of cybernetics and systems science and the importance and implications of the work associated with second-order cybernetics is not yet widely discussed. I claim that the transition from (first-order) cybernetics to second-order cybernetics is a fundamental scientific revolution that is not restricted to cybernetics or systems science. Second-order cybernetics can be regarded as a scientific revolution for the general methodology of science and for many disciplines as well. Method: I first review the history of cybernetics and second-order cybernetics. Then I analyze the major contents of von Foerster’s fundamental revolution in science and present it as a general model for an alternative methodology of science. Subsequently, I present an example of practicing second-order socio-cybernetics from within. I describe some consequences of doing science from within, and I suggest some new horizons for second-order cybernetics. Results: Second-order cybernetics leads to a new foundation for conducting science and offers important contributions for a new way of organizing science. It expands the conception of science so that it can more adequately deal with living systems. Implications: Second-order cybernetics extends the traditional scientific approach by bringing scientists within the domain of what is described and analyzed. It provides models of research processes for when the scientist is within the system being studied. In this way it offers a new foundation for research in the social sciences, in management science, and in other fields such as the environmental sciences or the life sciences. Keywords: Epistemology, general scientific methodology, cybernetics, social sciences, action research, Heinz von Foerster.
An extension of the calculus of indications (of G. Spencer Brown) is presented to encompass all occurrences of self-referential situations. This is done through the introduction of a third state in the form of indication, a state seen to arise autonomously by self-indication. The new extended calculus is fully developed, and some of its consequences for systems, logic and epistemology are discussed.
I met with Heinz von Foerster, Chairperson of the ASC Board of Trustees, last month at his home nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Seated with the 88-year-old physicist – his frail body somehow persistent, eyes flashing with intellectual vigor – what emerged was a clear commitment to a set of guiding principles. Famed as a robust raconteur, von Foerster explicated his dedication to the path that has led him, with characteristic dignity, to these penultimate days he enjoys at Rattlesnake Hill in coastal California.
Excerpt from the introduction: “Can machines be intelligent?” “Can machines think and understand?” These are questions of epistemology. Since the concepts of intelligence, thinking, and understanding have been thought of until recently only in the context of mental activity in homo sapiens (or other species), these questions should only be asked when we know what we mean by intelligence and thinking, or when we have an “understanding ot “understanding.” ” The formulation in quotes suggests that the fundamental issue associated with these concepts is the epistemology of recursion, that is of concepts being applied to themselves. The issue here is not an isolated case, as indicated by the numerous attempts to grasp the logic of self-referring concepts (1), for instance self-reproduction (the reproduction of reproduction) (2), self-explanation (the explanation of explanation) (3), autonomy, i.e. self-regulation (the regulation of regulation) (4, 5), and many more.