CEPA eprint 1405 (EVG-115)

The cybernetic basis of behavior

Glasersfeld E. von (1988) The cybernetic basis of behavior. Continuing the Conversation 16: 5–6. Available at http://cepa.info/1405
The piece by the Smiths in CC #15 brought home to me once again the peculiar seclusion in which researchers do their work, seclusion generated partly by their own blinders, partly by the provincial attitude of the scientific establishments into which, whether we like it or not, we have to fit ourselves if we want to do anything at all.
From 1970 on, I worked for 17 years in a Department of Psychology, and because my background had been in early Italian cybernetics rather than in psychology, I had two mentors who were specialists in perception and cognition respectively. Neither of them ever mentioned the Smiths’ work, and I have good reason to believe that they had never come across it.
In their article, the Smiths note with some bitterness that Bill Powers failed to cite their work. It would not surprise me at all if Powers, in spite of considerable search for precedents of the application of feedback notions in the analysis of behavior, had never stumbled on their reports.
In the same vein, it would be easy to complain that the Smiths’ survey never mentions Piaget, who as early as 1957 made the first references to “feedback,” Warren McCulloch, and Ross Ashby, and from then on became progressively aware of the fact that much of the theory of cognitive development he had started to build some 20 years earlier could be considered “cybernetic.” And Piaget, of course, never mentioned the Italian cybernetician Silvio Ceccato, who, during the same years, produced a theory of conceptual construction that was in some ways parallel to Piaget’s “Genetic Epistemology” See (Beth, Mays, & Piaget, 1957) and (Ceccato, 1964, 1966).
This perpetual reinventing of approaches – if not wheels, then well rounded ways of thinking – has been par for the course – It may seem uneconomical in retrospect, but given the concentration of energy and attention it takes to develop any moderately consistent way of thinking for oneself, I am somewhat sceptical that even the most sophisticated and powerful computerized “knowledge banks” will significantly change the pattern of productive thinkers. Given this outlook, I try to see it differently: to discover that someone else has come to conclusions similar to one’s own, be it earlier or later, should be an occasion to celebrate.
Thus, I was delighted to find that the Smiths, too, insist on the idea that all perceptions and all knowledge spring from the subject’s own actions and operations, and that the rate of emergence and development of cognitive operations is “defined by their complexity and adaptive utility.” Incidentally, thanks to a Russian colleague, I have recently learned that both these ideas were quite clearly expressed, long before Piaget’s La Construction du Reel chez L’enfant (1937), by Aleksandr Bogdanov (1909).
However, given that the ideas of the Smiths and their coworkers were expressed in English in this country and have therefore been readily available for some 30 years, it is not very encouraging for cyberneticians that they seem not to have had much noticeable influence on the orientation of the psychological establishment and other students of behavior.
I am certainly not competent to assess the value of the extensive “empirical” work the Smiths cite. Their theoretical exposition, however, leaves me with a couple of questions.
(1) “Living organisms,” they write, “organize and control their own development...” by means of feedback (page 18). I would not quarrel with this. But feedback loops cannot control anything without reference values – and I would be curious as to what the hypothesized higher-level reference values are, and how they are set “from fertilization to death.” (2) The “reciprocal social tracking” that establishes an “integrated” social system is, as I understand the text, not unlike what readers of CC have come to know as the generation of what Humberto Maturana calls consensual domains. It appears that linguistic communication and “symbolic transforms” play a part in this integration and that “the speaker hears words, phrases, and sentences with meaning...” (page 16), but to me it is not clear how the authors envisage the abstraction of meaning, especially of the kind that cannot be manifested on the sensory-motor level of action.
W.E. Beth, W. Mays, & J. Piaget, 1957, Epistemologie et Recherche Psychologique, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.
A. Bogdanov, 1909, “Nauka i Filosofia,” in Essays on the Philosophy of Collectivism 1, St. Petersburg. (Private German translation by Isolde Maschke-Luschberger. I owe this discovery to Vadim Sadovsky of the Institute for Systems Studies in Moscow.)
S. Ceccato, 1964, 1966, Un Tecnico fra i Filosofi, 2 volumes, Marsilio, Padua.
J. Piaget, La Construction du Reel Chez L’enfant, 1937, Delachaux et Niestle, Neuchatel.
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