CEPA eprint 3755

What you get is what you see: A contribution to an epistemology of imagination

Barnes G. (1996) What you get is what you see: A contribution to an epistemology of imagination. Systems Research 13(3): 215–228. Available at http://cepa.info/3755
Table of Contents
Statement of problem
We are ’our own metaphors’
How may mental activity be conceptualized within the context of the epistemology engendered by cybernetics, and how may that epistemology account for imagination? I argue for an epistemology of imagination that both distinguishes imagination, understanding and interpretation, and unites all three concepts in a dialogical circle of ideas. The processes of distinguishing these concepts (and the processes that give rise to and describe mental activities) are dialogical processes. As dialogical, they fall within the scope of Heinz von Foerster’s work on second-order cybernetics.
Key words: Cybernetics; second-order cybernetics; epistemology; imagination; understanding; interpretation; von Foerster
Implicit within cybernetics is the unity of science and human experience. The Macy Conferences helped to set the terms for conceptualizations of mind as both the form and formation of communication. Von Foerster, a seminal thinker in that discussion, was eventually to spell out the terms for the unity of science and aesthetic and ethical experience. From the era of the Macy Conferences (Heims, 1984, 1991) to the present, he is the living exemplar of the best of the tradition of cybernetics. There is a reason why I describe him as an exemplar.
As cybernetics was applied in many disciplines, the professionals who used it did not demonstrate an understanding that cybernetics would eventually change its practitioners. Like some among the founders of cybernetics, they seemed not to think that observers are always participants within the circuitry of their observations and descriptions (e.g. see Brand, 1986, pp. 34-35). American workers in the field tried to avoid abstract thinking. They presented cybernetics within the framework of feedback and control theory. It is as if they tried to fit cybernetics into a conventional epistemology rather than reflect upon the epistemology cybernetics was proposing (see interview of von Foerster by Franchi et al., 1995).
To reflect upon our epistemology presupposes observation of the second order. It requires that we acknowledge that we have an epistemology, that we are autonomous and therefore that we are responsible even for our epistemology. (I am responsible for my epistemology, it is my epistemology, it is how I am becoming and making my way in the world of my making.) The epistemology proposed by cybernetics (and the cybernetics of epistemology) conceptually reunite mind, body and life and open the way for the investigation of living processes as both self-productive and productive, as a process – product complementarity.
Von Foerster defined epistemology as the theory of knowledge acquisition (or cognition) and understanding. He argued that cybernetics provides the appropriate conceptual framework for such an epistemology because it is the discipline that gives a rigorous treatment of circularity, closure, closed systems that act on themselves, and the self-reference of the observer (Foerster, 1974). In my interpretation, his experimental methods to investigate cognitive processes emerged within the framework of the following assumptions: first, that knowledge acquisition, or understanding, is subject to experimental investigation; second, that mental activity is embodied in multiple (biological, individual, social and cultural) contexts; and third, that the proper investigation of mind is not of mind as ontological-entity, but of mind as a recursive mental activity. From the results of the pioneering work of von Foerster and others, we now have new possibilities to investigate mind through the coordination of the activity we call living, and as both process and product. In addition, we can see that mind makes possible language and our talk about living, and that these mental activities also are subject to investigation.
My aim in this paper is to study conceptualizations of the mind within in the context of the epistemology advanced by cybernetics (and the cybernetics of epistemology) as a contribution to an epistemology of imagination. To clarify what I mean by the notion ’imagination’ I will compare it with the concept ’understanding’.[Note 1]
I presuppose that mental activity extends deep within to the activity of every cell and encompasses in the process complex interactions between organisms.
The epistemological exploration of this paper takes part in a dialogue with various von Foerster notions, including self-organization, eigen behaviors, the phenomena of self-reference, the role of the observer, and, of course, epistemology.[Note 2] Our dialogue became deeply serious upon the occasion of my reading a paper entitled ’Psychotherapy of Psychotherapy’, at a meeting of the American Society of Cybernetics. Subsequent discussions with him clarified for me that every psychotherapy proposes (as opposed to presupposes) a psychopathology. Thus there is no ’prior’ psychopathology ’out there’ to be discovered, but innumerable psychopathologies await invention by the constitutive activity of psychotherapy (Barnes, 1993, Barnes, 1994, pp. 4-6, 130-150). Already I had divined that our theory was shaping our becoming, and that one could not engage in the acitivity of psychotherapy (even as a psychotherapist) without being changed by applying its theory and procedures. Earlier I had thought that I could use theories, approaches and methods without being changed by them, but Bateson had challenged that assumption (Ruesch and Bateson, 1951; Bateson, 1972; Bateson, 1978; Bateson, 1991). Subsequently I found that my theories, procedures and methods shape and mold me (Barnes, 1995). However, these theories are rooted in an epistemology that permits them to cover their tracks, and thus they lead practitioners to evade the reflection that the self-knowledge a theory proposes to enable is of a notion of a self which comes from applying the theory, and of a knowledge derived from the theory itself. Thus psychoanalysis can be used to investigate and describe how subjects are changed and become a different ’self’ in, for example, ’cyberspace’ without any comment that psychoanalysis has performed analogous changes on its subjects for a hundred years (Turkle, 1996; McCorduck, 1996).
Gregory Bateson invited me to the experiential feast of coming to terms with my epistemology. It is due to the epistemology proposed by cybernetics that my work has taken the direction it has following my meeting Bateson in 1977. My efforts to come to terms with the epistemology of cybernetics prepared me for the dialogue with von Foerster, who has continued to inspire and challenge my thinking. He especially enriched my conversation with cybernetics by sending me to work with Gordon Pask.
Heinz von Foerster joins scientific mentality with ethical and aesthetic experiences. Through the rigor of his logic and mathematics, particularly in his utilization of that rigor to solve problems of human communication and understanding, we see the scientific mentality at work. His treatment of ethical experience finds expression in his ethical imperative, ’Act always so as to increase the number of choices’. His treatment of aesthetic experiences finds expression in his aesthetic imperative, ’If you desire to see, learn how to act’ (Foerster, 1973; Foerster et al., 1995, p. 381). I assume (because I feel it is right without knowing how to offer rigorous proof) that von Foerster’s unity of science and these imperatives satisfies the agenda set by Whitehead in 1926, to overcome the separation of science from ethical and aesthetic experiences. He envisaged these two streams flowing together ’into an expression of the world-picture derived from science, and thereby end the divorce of science from the affirmations of our aesthetic and ethical experiences’ (Whitehead, 1925, p. 235). Where Whitehead implied that philosophy informed by science should make the accomplishment, von Foerster, a scientist informed by philosophy, succeeded. In the process of uniting science with our ethical and aesthetic experiences, von Foerster showed that this unity is circular. Our aesthetic experience of seeing specifies an ethical experience of learning to act (to increase the number of choices) as the basis for seeing.[Note 3]
My reference to the unity of science and ethical and aesthetic experiences in the work of von Foerster is background for the problem of epistemology that I address. That problem concerns the unity of science and human experience, our methods of investigation and our experience of experience. Contemplating experience of the second order has led me to contemplate understanding as a recursive process, that in producing itself gives rise to new processes. Further contemplation brought me to conceptualize understanding as embedded in individual, social and cultural, and biological embodiments. Then I reflected upon the mechanism required to make possible understanding, calling it interpretation. The use of the notion of computation by von Foerster proved useful, but I wanted to avoid any association with the computation model as used in artificial intelligence and the assertion of its proponents: ’No computation without representation.’ (See Varela et al., 1991). It occurred to me that the use of computation as a mechanism might be specific to discussion of the brain and that interpretation as a mechanism might apply generally to mental activity. (I believe von Foerster’s computation is essentially the same as my interpretation. See Foerster, 1980.)
Next, I asked how I might account for imagination. I did not want to conceptualize understanding as an activity of mind and imagination as an activity of the body.` Eventually I came to see that the mechanism of interpretation is both productive and self-productive, not only of understanding but of imagination. With this I came to the unity of imagination and understanding.
Statement of problem
The epistemological problem that I address is one that has gone through many formulations since it was raised by sixteenth – century skeptics (Collingwood, 1993, pp. 174-194; Rorty, 1988). They, in the words of Collingwood, questioned the medieval assumption that ’sensation in general gives us real acquaintance with the real world.’ The problem became how to distinguish between understanding and imagination, and how to avoid mistaking one for the other. A contemporary observer might describe the problem as how to distinguish between real sensation (or perception) and imagination (or between the ’really real’ and the ’virtually real’), and how to distinguish the product or content of thinking (intentionality) from its processes (for exam5ple, mental conditions, perception, memory). Descartes, taking seriously the skeptics, (correctly) concluded that arguments distinguishing perception from imagination are circular. The Cartesian solution was to say that imagination is an activity of the body, in contrast to understanding, which is an activity of the mind (Wilson, 1969; Wilson, 1993).[Note 6]
The problem with which I am grappling is how to conceptualize mental activity within the context of the epistemology put forth by cybernetics. What occurs if we follow the epistemology of cybernetics wherever it leads? What does cybernetics propose? The answer to the latter question, in von Foerster’s crystalline conceptualization, is that cybernetics proposes cybernetics; hence cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics. This answer provides the clue to the answer to my question (which von Foerster also discerned): the epistemology proposed by cybernetics is a cybernetics of epistemology. An epistemology is a cybernetics because it is cognition and understanding (Foerster, 1974).
The epistemological problem of distinguishing between understanding and imagination (and also between concept and image, between thought and idea), is as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth century. How, for instance, may we draw distinctions between: conceptualization of objects; material objects; fabricated objects; images of objects; illusions of objects; hallucination of objects; and dream objects? As von Foerster says:
Under which conditions, then, do objects assume ’objectivity?’Apparently, only when a subject, S1, stipulates the existence of another subject, S2, not unlike himself, who, in turn, stipulates the existence of still another subject, not unlike himself, who may well be S1.In this atomical social context each subject’s (observer’s) experience of his own sensorimotor coordination can now be referred to by a token of this experience, the ’object’, which, at the same time, may be taken as a token for the externality of communal space. With this I have returned to the topology of closure where equilibrium is obtained when the eigenbehaviors of one participant generate (recursively) those of the other … here is the origin of ethics. (Foerster, 1976, pp. 280-281)
This is an epistemological solution to the way of thinking that believes in drawing a distinction between ’reality’ and ’virtual reality,’ an opening to the kinds of problems that go unidentified in the contemporary classroom (Foerster, 1982), the psychiatric clinic (Foerster, 1991; Bateson, 1974, Barnes, 1994), and discussions about cyberspace (Foerster, 1972b, 1987, 1992; Foerster and Floyd, 1992), but see Heim (1993).
The solution is implicit in cybernetics and becomes explicit in second-order cybernetics. The solution points up the futility of any nondialogical attempt to see through superstitions and prejudices, or to distinguish between imagination and understanding, between fact and fiction (Foerster et al., 1995, p. 373), or between seeing and hallucinating (and the evidence is as contradictory as the epistemologies that generate it) (see Maturana and Varela, 1980, 1992)[Note 7]
My reversal of the already dated computer acronym, WYSIWYG, points up my assumption that seeing requires a ’getting’, and that both ’seeing’ and ’getting’ are interpretative activities. ’Getting’ presupposes understanding (Foerster), concepts (Pask, 1980, 1981), assumptions or epistemological premises (Bateson, 1972). Our language, and the words and concepts we use, give us the building blocks for our epistemology, for which epistemology is the ground of our understanding, or understanding itself. The objects we see may be constructions of concepts. To see through our concepts we have to learn how to act (Foerster, 1972b, 1980, 1993). Therefore, even as the simple physiological act of seeing involves constant movement of the eyes, so seeing as an interpretative process involves movement or activity as observed by (observer) S1 who speaks to S2. S2 then speaks to an observer who may be S1, and both S1 and S2 may be observed by S3. My claim is that there is not a non circular explanation to the formulation what you get is what you see’. It is an example of intransitivity, or circular preference (McCulloch,
1988), as an observer’s ’getting’ gives rise to an observer’s seeing as its product, where seeing becomes a process that leads to further getting. Formally, the ’getting’ of each process may be explained as demonstrating recursion. The formula also proposes a reflexive circularity: the getting proposes the seeing and the seeing proposes the getting. There also is the circularity of self-reference which suggests that both getting and seeing each becomes itself (see Foerster, 1993, pp. 33-46, for a description of three cases of the circularity of observing and communicating).
We are ’our own metaphors’
In a brief essay entitled ’Cybernetics of Cybernetics (Physiology of Revolution)’, von Foerster writes: ’Should science be able to talk again it better be social’ (Foerster et al., 1995, p. 128), which proposes the cybernetics of science. I follow the argument that second-order cybernetics is a science of society that finds us already talking and engaging in dialogue; and precisely because it establishes that we are already in dialogue; that by having come to understanding we may perform the reflexive act-of-understanding that we become our own metaphors (Bateson, M. 1991), that we are constituted as subjects by the conversations which we are constituting. We are ’embedded in larger contexts’, and we ’are acted upon’ by others upon whom we act reciprocally. Thus all science is engaged in interaction (Foerster, 1990) suggesting that all science is cybernetic.
I assume that our metaphors both propose and presuppose language: they come after language; they come into language; and they generate themselves. We invent through our imagination our own metaphors and then we seem to assume our invention without question or doubt.[Note 8]
Our metaphors may become the world we see. The metaphors we invent may become literal. If we assume that our metaphors are literal, we may make them into objects (or they may become objects), and as objects they may become as real as material objects (Glanville, 1975). The metaphors of imagination and interpretation, for example, generate operations, activities or processes.
Perceval (rescued from possible oblivion by Bateson) serves as an instructive example. In telling the story of his mental collapse, and his eventual recovery, he describes how the shift from taking his hallucinations as literal to accepting them as metaphors of the imagination marked the beginning of his recovery (Bateson, 1974).
We have made the metaphor ’hallucination’ literal, so we say that people hallucinate. Perceval accepted the literalization of that metaphor, and for him his hallucinations were real, but they took on separate quality of reality; they were for him not hallucinations; they were reality – another reality. To get a hold on this, first Perceval devised a loop that distinguished between hallucinations and nonhallucinatory mental or interpretative activity. (Note that he added a loop to his hallucinations, which was a loop that came from the voices themselves.) The hallucinations, Perceval wrote, were not to be taken literally: they were to be taken as metaphors. The adding of this interpretative loop, which was generated within the hallucinations, signaled his recovery.
There is a tendency to make even our scientific metaphors literal (see Barnes, 1994, pp. 13-15). In making them literal, they risk becoming objects. It seems from von Foerster’s account that the founders of cybernetics let their metaphors remain metaphors. By not literalizing their metaphors they did not make them real and by not making them real they retained invention and the mechanism of imagination. They could have created objects by literalizing their metaphors. Not doing so, they required of themselves that they act upon action, implying learning, and that they act so as to learn how to see.
Rather than creating new objects, their problem was seeing:
Do we witness the emergence of a new paradigm, a model, a new way of seeing things at a different angle? No! What was talked about then was not a model of ’something’. Seeing things at a different angle requires ’things’, but there were none. The problem was not things, it was seeing. (Foerster, 1989, p. 808)
The Macy Conferences on ’Cybernetics’ slowly pushed open the door ’to let in one who, in orthodox science, was excluded from all these investigations: the investigators; the observer; me, who now asks, “who am I?” (Foerster, 1989, p. 813).
What are the implications of the introduction of von Foerster’s observer? (See Foerster, 1960.) Before cybernetics and ’in nineteenth century physics’, Wiener (1954, p. 29) reminds us that ’it seemed to cost nothing to get information’. Communication (including the languages of the communication) was something we could talk about as if our talk about it were not included in the communication. Here the circular logic of cybernetics proposed a profound revolution in thinking. Von Foerster saw that cybernetics proposed cybernetics, a cybernetics of the second-order. First-order cybernetics, as defined by von Foerster, is ’the cybernetics of observed systems’, and second- order cybernetics is ’the cybernetics of observing systems’ (Foerster et al., 1995, p. 1). In second- order cybernetics the observer participates in the observation, or, as von Foerster says, ’we mature from cybernetics (where the observer enters the system only by stipulating its purpose) to cybernetics of cybernetics (where the observer enters the system by stipulating his own purpose)’ (Foerster et al., 1995, p. 128). It is the observer who speaks (says Maturana), and von Foerster adds that the observer speaks to another observer (Foerster, 1979, p. 5). Now I return to the concept of epistemology to ask about its development in cybernetics.
The term epistemology has undergone a special development in cybernetics (Barnes, in press). Wiener (1954) considered cybernetics the biggest bite out of the epistemological apple since the Garden of Eden. McCulloch (1988, 1989), by making his epistemology ’experimental’, distinguished it from various metaphysical conceptualizations.[Note 9]
Von Foerster, adding a touch of magic, discerned the circular logical implications in the concept epistemology. For example, the traditional rendering of the Greek term Cilarr)gri by the Latin word scientia to mean ’any organized body of knowledge’ (Collingwood, 1993, p. 249) neither discloses that epistemology may become a concept of the second order, nor does it bring out that the concept epistemology itself proposes itself as a concept of the second order. Von Foerster renders the combination of the preposition, epi, and the verb, histamai, in epistemology as ’upper-standing’, or in English as understanding; hence he defines epistemology as ’the science, study, theory of understanding.’ He has wrought a change in the notion of epistemology by shifting its meaning from ’knowing’ to understanding. Thus the epistemology proposed by cybernetics, which turned cybernetics in on itself, is now conceptualized as understanding. In keeping with the fact that all definitions are tautologies, he adds, ’But since a theory is to provide an understanding of what it is the theory of, epistemology is understanding understanding’ (Foerster and Floyd, 1992).[Note 10]
Epistemology as understanding understanding, is the understanding of the language (or the logos, words) we stand upon; thus when we say we are already in understanding (Maturana and Varela, 1992), we are saying that we are already in language, in dialogue, and in interpretative processes. If we could step outside of understanding, we would have no access to anybody with whom to engage in dialogue about our interpretations, or with whom to share either our interpretations of our imagination of images and ideas or our understanding of concepts.
So an epistemology of imagination is an understanding of understanding of both our images and concepts. To understand the various meanings others share with me (of, e.g. the concept epistemology), I must think the concept, as itself. I must also think the conceptualizing (I believe) this ’anybody’ shares. I can do this because I am in understanding. However, to form the concept ’epistemology’ (and to grasp the conceptualizings of others), I imagine. To understand my interpretation of the concept ’imagination’ I become epistemological.
Understanding is the mode into which ’we have been thrown’ by time (Nietzsche, 1968, no. 57), but our ’thrownness’ (Heidegger, 1988) characterizes our time, says Nietzsche, as ’uncertainty: nothing stands firmly on its feet or on a hard faith in itself.’ We have seen the collapse of the foundational claims of religion, philosophy and science. The proposal of an epistemology of imagination is to acknowledge that what we have is what we share and that what we share are our interpretations of our concepts. Whether we stand under or upon, our relations are ’the between’ and the ground is not a terracotta, but an epistemology that stands upon the words we select and interpret and share. Laing’s formulation could be used in describing epistemology as ’the ground of the being of all beings is the relation between them’ (Laing, 1973, p. 41). Interpretation is the introduction of meaning, but who interprets, if not I, and whose meaning is it, if not mine?
Interpretation may be characterized as ’all the processes that establish “meaning” from experience’ (Foerster, 1969, p. 25). Von Foerster defines meaning as ’all that which can be inferred from a signal.’ (As he notes ’signal’ may refer to a sign or a symbol, and it allows for both qualitative distinctions of meaning and quantitative estimates of amount of meaning.)
In interpretation, understanding distinguishes itself in the process of drawing distinctions (Spencer-Brown, 1994; Kauffman, 1987). Interpretation becomes itself by looping back on itself – by understanding the narratives (and the concepts and interpretations embedded in the stories) of another person. Interpretation becomes itself in the telling of stories (Heidegger, 1971); in Bate- son’s metaphor the royal road to the study of relationship (Bateson, 1972, 1978). Relationships and stories constitute each other. A relationship is an interpretation by an interpreter: interpretation is the understanding of the other through a metaphor or analogy that connects.[Note 11]
The next stage of my argument is to look at the terms imagination and understanding. For Descartes the understanding is an activity of mind and imagination an activity of the body. These terms took on a different configuration in the hands of Kant. However, my immediate interest is to look at von Foerster’s use of the notion of imagination, and to proceed to explore how both imagination and understanding are both productive and self-productive, and as such how they are activities or products of interpretative processes.
I use the concepts imagination, understanding and interpretation to denote constitutive activities that are both productive and self-productive (Pask, 1981). These activities specify organizational closure, distinction drawing, and openness to information [’news of differences that makes a difference’ (Bateson, 1972)]. They are ways of worldmaking which act on and within the versions of actual worlds they are making through discourse (Goodman, 1985). Such a process, circling back on itself (biting its own tail), can come to be perceived as product, not process. Such a perception is likely to be of a world already made. If so, product may come to be perceived as separate from (the trace of) the circularity that produced it. If separated, the product may no longer be perceived as pattern, and, therefore, the basis for action. It may become an object, and becoming an object it may be perceived as real, i.e. independent of the perceiving subject. Objects may be perceived as real whether they are conceptual, actual or both. If in our sensory experience we find these objects, we could be expected to base our understanding upon knowledge already constructed, and we would be correct to assume that what we see is what we get. Conversely, our theories and beliefs, our cultural premises and assumptions, are the ground for generating our understanding. These are interpretative activities: ’what you get is what you see.’ By saying ’what you get is what you see’ I call attention to the form of happening described here.
By imagination I mean the constitutive ability of imagining, of forming images and ideas. To explain what I mean by the concept ’imagination’ I modify standard definitions to read: the poetic interpretative processes of imagining, or forming mental images or ideas of action that are present (empirically or not) to the senses, whether or not already perceived (present). The problem with my definition is that it may suggest the process of imagination produces a static picture, which is not what imagination does (or imagining is doing). Imagination produces and reproduces (in the kinetic sense, rather than in a kinematic sense of producing frames of a motion picture film (Pask, 1992; Wiener 1964, p. 31)). To see is to act. Thus my images or ideas are always slippery. About the time I think I can reach out and grab them they seemingly slip away. They are like dream images: as I am about to describe them, description eludes me. Their movements are too fast for snapshots. To make such images requires the skill of artists who add many loops of imagination. Their images may, for example, express themselves through the movements of their hands.
Yet are we in a world consisting only of imagination (as in dreams and hallucinations)? Is the world only my imagination? Von Foerster argues by reductio ad absurdum the thesis that ’this world is only in our imagination and the only reality is the imagining “I”.’ If I hold that I am real and that others appear only in my imagination, I will have to admit that the others who appear in my imagination may also argue that they are the sole reality and that their imagination also produces people, not unlike them, who populate their imaginary world. Yet they will have to concede that I am one of the others in their imagination. Such a concession presupposes that another and I are speaking to each other about our imagination, and that we arrive at the agreement that our imagination of the other is of an ’I’ who is real and whose imagination, in this case, constitutes reality.
However I have jumped ahead without noting how von Foerster closed the circle of the seeming contradiction:
If I assume that I am the sole reality, it turns out that I am the imagination of somebody else, who in turn assumes that he is the sole reality. Of course, this paradox is easily resolved, by postulating the reality of the world in which we happily thrive.Having re-established reality, it may be interesting to note that reality appears as a consistent reference frame for at least two observers.
Von Foerster surmounts the problem of how to account for both randomness and selection in mental activity by showing the necessity of the observer who observes and speaks to at least one other observer (Foerster, 1966, 1979).
Figure 1: Pask figure “Business man with bowler hat” (by permission of Heinz von Foerster and Gorden Pask)
Von Foerster modeled his proof after the Principle of Reality, which rejects a hypothesis if it holds separately for S1 and if it holds separately for S2, and if it does not hold for Si and S2 together (Foerster, 1960). In another paper he explains:
However, it should be noted that since the Principle of Relativity is not a logical necessity, nor is it a proposition that can be proven to be either true or false, the crucial point to be recognized here is that I am free to choose either to adopt this principle or to reject it. If I reject it, I am the center of the universe, my reality are my dreams and my nightmares, my language is monologue, and my logic monologic. If I adopt it, neither me nor the other can be the center of the universe. As in the heliocentric system, there must be a third that is the central reference. It is the relation between Thou and I, and this relation is IDENTITY: Reality = Community. (Foerster, 1973; Foerster et al., 1995, pp. 376-381)
Not only would von Foerster claim that another autonomous organism is my invention, but that the world, as we perceive it, is (each of ) our inventions. He interprets ’cognitive processes as never ending recursive processes of computation.’ Furthermore, he postulates that ’the nervous system is organized (or organizes itself) so that it computes a stable reality.’ With this postulate he has the stipulation of ’autonomy’ (’self-regulation’), or the ’regulation of regulation’, or self-organization (Foerster, 1960). ’This is precisely what the doubly dosed, recursively computing torus does: it regulates its own regulation.’[Note 12]
Without the understanding to shape sensory experience by pointing out patterns or qualities in quantities (Foerster, 1972), how may imagination alone find them out? Conversely, without the imagination how may understanding discern patterns of shape and size, and patterns in quantity? Also, without language how may there be descriptions of tastes, smells, colors and sounds (Whitehead, 1974, pp. 248-249), or of pain (Wittgenstein, 1981)? These questions bring me to the concept of understanding.
I regard imagination to be thought’s pristine experience. Imagination may take many interpretative expressions, such as dream, perception and sensory processes, cognition, illusion, hallucination, memory and emotion (Foucault, 1986). I claim that without imagination there could be neither understanding nor interpretation. Furthermore, imagination coupled with understanding gives rise to social and cultural coping. Understanding unifies imagination. Interpretation produces and acts upon their products.
I use the term understanding as the context for the totality of our interpretative mental activities. An individual becomes each individual ’self’ through understanding. Understanding selects what to act upon from among the entire language, and ways of acting, into which one is immersed and in which one participates. Thus, by understanding I refer to the totality of the human organism’s interpretative activities. These activities are not bounded by the skin of the organism. Through its organs of sense the human organism is connected to other beings and to its world. Therefore, I claim that the human organism is in understanding.
My concept ’understanding’ includes all the ways of becoming and acting, of interpreting, of coping, that we are acquiring or learning (including habits), through taking part in ’culture’ (or what Bateson called ’local epistemologies’), including our participation in groups. Understanding also denotes the common sense in which we are reared and in which we act. Understanding encompasses the whole of an individual’s thinking, including interpretative activities between individuals and groups. Interpretative activities presuppose language in those instances in which concepts or thoughts are to be shared. (By concepts and thoughts I mean public thoughts which, therefore, are not limited to one’s thinking process.)
The human individual is in understanding. Understanding encompasses those elements identified by Mead (1934, p. 162) that make ’the organized self.’ We belong to community. (Its) language becomes our medium. We take up (its) attitudes and the attitudes of (its) members through taking various roles that we are supplied by others. We take over (its) institutions into our own conduct. We, as individuals, develop common responses to common things and as we affect others through our common responses we also arouse our own selves.
Furthermore, I assume that our individual interpretative activities are embedded in ’our’ social ways of acting (thus our being and becoming) in the world. Our social activities are embedded in understanding. The human organism is always embodied in multiple contexts of understanding. There is a unity (understanding) between the organism and these contexts, which constitutes an organism’s way of being in the world. For a human organism to make its way in its world it has to learn how to act. Action, occurring in learning contexts of understanding, is the basis for seeing-which is an action.
’Understanding as unifying our experience’ (of our way of becoming in our world) is at the service of imagination. In this sense, understanding brings together what imagination constitutes. Even the understanding processes and self-organization are the products of imagination: the understanding’s informing (through concepts or thought) is accomplished through the forming of images by the imagination. Understanding serves imagination by turning its fabrication of images into hermeneutic activities (which may be described explicitly as interpretation). Imagination serves understanding by acting upon the products of its processes to generate novel interpretations. I claim that both imagination and understanding are circular processes which give rise to modes of interpretative activities. Interpretation forms a middle term between understanding and imagination, which confirms that they are inseparable process. Interpretation unites these activities as it is the mechanism for the emergence of other activities. [Consider both the understanding and the imagination as satisfying the principle of order from noise (Foerster, 1960, 1984)].
I use the concept ’understanding’ as a social or communicative concept of interpretation; the concept ’imagination’ as an individual interpretative concept. The basic unit of understanding is an action of thinking a thought or a concept within the realm of the known (and hence the potentially public); the basic unit of imagination is an action that produces an image or idea within the realm of the as yet unknown (and hence the intensely private). We cannot understand without imagination, and we cannot imagine without understanding. Thus the circularity of understanding and imagination ensure differences, which means that Si’s interpretation of any concept will be different from S2’s interpretation of the same concept (Pask, 1981). Interpretation is the action that involves apperception of an action of distinction drawing and imagination of the patterns of relationships.
To make our concept of imagination epistemological is to share stories that interpret the concepts of imagination and epistemology. I have played with a reversal of the familiar computer acronym WYSIWYG to propose mental activity as the circularity of imagination, understanding and interpretation. I have attempted to enlarge the hermeneutic circle by suggesting that we are already in understanding through our participation in many dimensions of interpretation. These interpretative activities encompass understanding (in which we make our way in the world of our imagination). Even as we imagine others as part of our world, so we may assume that others imagine us (as their others) as part of their world. Even as we may assume that the others whom we imagine as part of our world are real, so we may assume that the interpretations of our imagined world, which we and they share, also are real. However, my images are mine, and my world is my imagination. I am responsible for my world and my epistemology of imagination: I am the one who imagines; I am my epistemology.
In this writing my explorations of various concepts seem to have often crossed and (occasionally) to have followed a path laid down by von Foerster, especially with reference to von Foerster’s findings on epistemology, self- organization, eigenbehaviors, and self-reference
and the observer who observes and speaks to another observer. Along the way I have met the conceptual unity of science and our ethical and aesthetic experience. I have apperceived that what I see is I, that my seeing the other seeing me is a mutual reflexive interpretation, and that ’my seeing the other seeing me see the other see me’ goes on perpetually between us. The dialogue with Heinz von Foerster, hearing his voice as a distinctive voice, seeing through his eyes, seeing what he may be indicating with his eyes, looking at where his finger is pointing, takes place ’I to I’ through the ’continually reciprocating reflection’ (Leibniz) of understanding understanding.
I am grateful for the dialogue with Gordon Pask as this paper went through many phases and formulations over a period of several years. I believe Gordon looked upon his dialogue with me as an extension of his contribution to Heinz’s Festschrift. Gordon applauded rigor and inspired imagination. For as long as I live I will continue the conversation with his concepts and with the conceputalizations he shared with me. I miss him immensely. I also acknowledge the encouragement, support and critique of Kurt Nilsson, Jeannette M. Steiner and Stephanos Giotas.
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