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.
Context: Conversation theory and second order cybernetics both imply that conversation does not entail a transfer of meaning, but a construction of meaning by both of the conversation partners. Problem: This evokes the question of the conditions that may support or enable this construction of understanding. Method: Through recounting a conversation with Ernst von Glasersfeld I identify generosity and flexibility as a basic condition and format of conversational exchanges. I employ linguistic communication across language barriers as well as making music together as illustrative examples. Results: Generosity seems a key ingredient for enabling conversations as well as a personal skill or talent. Bridging the gaps in communication that result from differences in personal experiential worlds is only possible through goodwill enacted in the listener’s direction of his own imagination. This paper extends and connects radical constructivist notions of constraints and experience, as introduced by von Glasersfeld, with Glanville’s description of the role of generosity in conversation and Wittgenstein’s notion of the “Vorstellungsklavier.” Implications: Generosity can be characterized as the ability to move from communicating to appreciating and accommodating the other in conversations. The implications I draw are limited to the scope of my personal reflections and experiences.
Open peer commentary on the article “Designing Academic Conferences in the Light of Second-Order Cybernetics” by Laurence D. Richards. Upshot: Richards’s article presents a well-argued discussion of conversational conferences, with a particular focus on the design of such conferences. Richards bases his discussion on many years of personal experience with conversational conferences, primarily those organized by and for the American Society for Cybernetics. I particularly appreciate that Richards writes not only on cybernetics, but also in a cybernetic manner. As I find the article comprehensive and thorough, I mainly add further depth and discussion to some aspects of Richards’s article in the following sections, such as Richards’s distinction between conventional academic conferences and conversational conferences, conversation theory in relation to design, and the question of how conversational conferences can be designed.
Ranulph Glanville was a prolific writer, a magic designer, an avant-garde musician, a cybernetician of the first- and of the second-order, a philosopher in disguise, to name only a few roles. His contributions to second-order cybernetics and to areas like design, philosophy, conversation theory, methodology or games, with the tools and perspectives of his version of second-order cybernetics were collected under the title “The Black B∞x” in three volumes in edition echoraum (Glanville, 2009, 2012, 2014) and were ordered and arranged by Ranulph Glanville himself so that they allow a general and systematic overview on this very large, diverse, and impressive corpus. In this short essay I will undertake a systematic attempt to make this work more easily accessible for others, including myself, and to provide a special location for Ranulph Glanville within the research program of second-order cybernetics in particular and within the research tradition of radical constructivism in general. It will become my central thesis in this article that Ranulph Glanville’s special role and function was to provide a meta-approach to all the available research programs in radical constructivism. This framework was transcendental in nature and focused on the conditions of the possibility for observation, for communication, for language, for knowledge or for learning to emerge at all. Thus, Ranulph Glanville reserved a unique place for himself that, at the same time, turned out to be magic for his explorations and very difficult to grasp for his intellectual environment.
Approaches Pask’s conversation theory from a sociological perspective. Pask’s vision of conversation as a self-organising process can help our understanding of the emergence of social order out of social interaction. Through conversation, human beings would be able to construct a shared reality which would be the common setting of their social life. But modern societies are only partially based on conversational interaction. Many of their structural traits are not a result of conversational agreements, but of the unintended consequences of conscious (inter)actions. In these societies, the main source of social order at the macro level is not intentional action, but the dissipation of intentional action. This phenomenon generates the dissipative structures that represent the objective frame of social life. The main purpose of this paper is to review the theoretical work of Gordon Pask from a sociological point of view, in order to appraise its potential as an instrument adequate for social analysis.
This paper comes to grips with the perplexing but important issue of consciousness as manifest in human beings and other organisms; in social organizations and, seemingly without degrading the idea, in other-than-biological systems. The possibility of taking such a radical step as to speak of consciousness within a theoretical frame, and without resorting to the expedient of relegating consciousness to a metatheory about science, arises from combining various developments in Cybernetics or General System Theory, which, though superficially disparate, have a great deal in common; for example, Goguen’s work in category theory (1969, 1975) and the work of Gergely and Nemeti (1977) in nonclassical model theory, the representation, in several different ways, of concurrent (in contrast to serial, or strictly parallel) computation, the work of Varela (1975, 1976), Maturana (1969, 1975), and Von Foerster (1960, 1978), upon organizational closure, Glanville’s (1975) notion of objects and self reference and the work done on conversation theory by my own group. This background is assumed to be familiar since an account appeared in Pask (1975a).
Over more than three decades Heinz von Foerster and I have collaborated and worked together as well as in separate laboratories. This contribution gives a terse account of work which we have done together and which is relevant to Heinz’ prescient notion of self organization and its many arborizations. In the course of doing so it spells out some of the history associated with cybernetics to which both Heinz and I adhere.
Open peer commentary on the article “The Banathy Conversation Methodology” by Gordon Dyer, Jed Jones, Gordon Rowland & Silvia Zweifel. Upshot: The Banathy Conversation Methodology (BCM) offers an approach to organizing and facilitating conversation groups among individuals self-identified as interested in a particular topic. As someone who would like to see more conversation integrated into academic conferences, I propose two extensions of BCM for consideration by the authors: one is an extension to the theoretical underpinnings, namely the conversation theory of Gordon Pask, and the other is an extension to the tools and techniques, namely the group syntegration process developed by Stafford Beer. If the authors do not like the direction these extensions might take BCM, I would be interested in their assessment of the circumstances under which alternative approaches to conversation groups might be more or less useful.
Open peer commentary on the article “Designing Academic Conferences in the Light of Second-Order Cybernetics” by Laurence D. Richards. Upshot: Building upon Richards’s notions of “design by constraint” and the usefulness of assigning collaborative tasks to conference participants, this commentary suggests a basic application of Pask’s conversation theory as a potential aide to fruitful knowledge construction in a conference setting.
Context: The thoroughly second-order cybernetic underpinnings of naturalist theatre have gone almost entirely unremarked in the literature of both theatre studies and cybernetics itself. As a result, rich opportunities for the two fields to draw mutual benefit and break new ground through both theoretical and empirical investigations of these underpinnings have, thus far, gone untapped. Problem: The field of cybernetics continues to remain academically marginalized for, among other things, its alleged lack of experimental rigor. At the same time, the field of theatre studies finds itself at an impasse between post-structuralist semioticians and embodied cognitivists regarding key onto-epistemological issues. A program of research framing and utilizing naturalist theatre as a second-order cybernetic/cybersemiotic laboratory holds much promise in addressing both matters and lending credence to Ross Ashby’s assertion that “the discovery that two fields are related leads to each branch helping in the development of the other.” Method: After establishing the nature of the onto-epistemological deadlock within theatre studies, this article examines the application of cybernetic heuristics within naturalistic theatre, leading to a second-order cybernetic analysis of its processes of production and reception and the outline of an experimental program for exploring these processes further. Results: Foundations for a model of naturalist theatre as a cybersemiotic laboratory grounded in a novel operationalization of Gordon Pask’s conversation theory. Implications: The proposed laboratory could result in the generation of quantitative and qualitative research pertaining to several dimensions of second-order cybernetics; particularly cybersemiotics, which, as a result, may end up better positioned to help dissolve onto-epistemological deadlocks between constructivists and realists of all stripes across the academy and beyond. Constructivist content: I argue that an analysis of naturalistic theatre’s processes of meaning-making filtered through the constructivist ontological agnosticism of second-order cybernetics offers a productive middle way forward for those on both sides of the social constructivist/embodied cognitive realist divide, within and beyond theatre studies. The article draws upon the works of Gregory Bateson, Søren Brier, Ranulph Glanville, Heinz von Foerster, and Niklas Luhmann.