Context: Society is faced with “wicked” problems of environmental sustainability, which are inherently multiperspectival, and there is a need for explicitly constructivist and perspectivist theories to address them. Problem: However, different constructivist theories construe the environment in different ways. The aim of this paper is to clarify the conceptions of environment in constructivist approaches, and thereby to assist the sciences of complex systems and complex environmental problems. Method: We describe the terms used for “the environment” in von Uexküll, Maturana & Varela, and Luhmann, and analyse how their conceptions of environment are connected to differences of perspective and observation. Results: We show the need to distinguish between inside and outside perspectives on the environment, and identify two very different and complementary logics of observation, the logic of distinction and the logic of representation, in the three constructivist theories. Implications: Luhmann’s theory of social systems can be a helpful perspective on the wicked environmental problems of society if we consider carefully the theory’s own blind spots: that it confines itself to systems of communication, and that it is based fully on the conception of observation as indication by means of distinction.
The paper recalls some skeptical comments Norbert Wiener made regarding the potential use of cybernetics in social sciences. A few social scientists were seduced by cybernetics from the beginning, but cybernetics never really caught on in sociology. The paper argues that one reason for this may lie in the mathematical theory of communication entertained by early cybernetics. This theory which maintains that there are probability distributions of possible communication is at odds with the sociological theory’s idea of a communication driven by improbable understanding. Yet the move from first-order cybernetics to second-order cybernetics, by re-entering the observer into the very systems she observes, provides for a bridge between cybernetics and sociology.
The paper deals with Aristotelian logic as the special case of more general epistemology and sociology of both science and common sense. The Aristotelian principles of identity, of noncontradiction, and of excluded middle are to be supplemented by the secondorder cybernetic, or cybernEthic principles of paradox, of ambivalence, and of control. In this paper we collect some ideas on how to evaluate the scope of Aristotelian logic with respect to the laws of thought they tried to determine and to do so within the historical moment of the impact of the invention of writing possibly triggering this determination. We look at some modern doubts concerning these laws and discovering an understanding of complexity that is not to be resumed under any principle of identity. The invention of sociology, epistemology, and the mathematics of communication follow suit in focusing not only on the observer but more importantly on the distinction between observers to further contextualize any talk of identities and operationalize both talk and fact of contradiction, paradox, and ambivalence.
Open peer commentary on the article “From Problem Solving to Problem Posing, and from Strategies to Laying Down a Path in Solving: Taking Varela’s Ideas to Mathematics Education Research” by Jérôme Proulx & Jean-François Maheux. Upshot: The aim of this commentary is to extend the work of Proulx and Maheux to include consideration of the teacher-observer whose role (in part) in the mathematics classroom is to ensure that curriculum goals are being met.
Open peer commentary on the article “Second-Order Science: Logic, Strategies, Methods” by Stuart A. Umpleby. Upshot: The evaluation of what (we think) we knew is an urgent and evolving issue. The issues discussed by Umpleby have been raised earlier, particularly in the social sciences. Arguably, in some quarters they are exaggerated. But an awareness of observer effects is of great importance and is greatly enhanced by second-order cybernetics applied more widely as second-order science.
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.
Open peer commentary on the article “Constructivism and Computation: Can Computer-Based Modeling Add to the Case for Constructivism?” by Manfred Füllsack. Upshot: Füllsack’s article offers many interesting ideas but falls short of elucidating the relationship between constructivism and computation. It could profit by taking into consideration stronger constructivist foundations such as the distinction between machine and organism, the relationship between reality and the observer, and Ceccato’s theory of attention.
Autopoietic theory is more than a mere characterization of the living, as it can be applied to a wider class of systems and involves both organizational and epistemological aspects. In this paper we assert the necessity of considering the relation between autopoiesis and emergence, focusing on the crucial importance of the observer’s activity and demonstrating that autopoietic systems can be considered intrinsically emergent processes. From the attempts to conceptualize emergence, especially Rosen’s, autopoiesis stands out for its attention to the unitary character of systems and to emergent levels, both inseparable from the observer’s operations. These aspects are the basis of Varela’s approach to multiple level relationships, considered as descriptive complementarities.
This paper introduces the idea of, and necessity for, a 'third-order cybernetics'. It does this through the critique and problematisation of the ontology of the observer as elaborated within a second-order cybernetics. The necessity for this third-order is directly generated from our work as strategy consultants and our needs to evolve an effective, coherent and ethical consultancy practice. The paper draws primarily on the writings of Lacan and Maturana to provide the epistemological presumptions upon which we generate a new characterisation of, and approach to, the business organisation. This new approach for the understanding of the business organisation is presented as an 'Economy of Discourses'. This Economy is a description of the effects of a third-order in the second-order observer's invention of himself as subject. We have formulated this approach as an aid for diagnosis, intervention and prognosis in our work with business organisations. We include two case studies, one of a chemicals-based manufacturer, the other of a large accountancy practice. In these two cases we seek to unpack and illustrate the way in which it is possible to use the new approach, and to highlight the principles which allow the consultant maximal movement and effectiveness in relation to his client system. We end by outlining the implications of our approach for an ethics of consultancy.
The paper presents a discussion of the epistemological and ontological problems of attempts to found information concepts on the often implicit mechanistic idea that the physical sciences hold the key to the nature of reality and information. It is furthermore shown through an analysis of the ethological and the Batesonian understanding of cognition and behavior that it is impossible to remove the fundamental epistemological position of the observer through a definition of information as neg-entropy. Instead Maturana and Varela’s concepts of autopoiesis and multiverse are invoked. But where the idea to derive information from the concept of negentropy is too physicalistic Maturana’s idea of a multiverse seems to be too close to a constructivistic idealism. To develop a more fruitful non-reductionistic world view it is shown that the more pragmatic understanding of physics, where thermodynamics is understood as the basic discipline and mechanics as an idealization, opens for a non-reductionistic con-ceptualization of chaos. Attention is drawn to C. S. Peirce’s conception of pure chance as living spontaneity which is to some degree regular as a realistic but non-reductionistic theory, which comprises a solution to the different world view problems of Bateson and Maturana. A fruitful connection between second order cybernetics and semiotics will then be possible and a bridge between the technical-scientific and the humanistic-social parts of cybernetics can be developed.