CEPA eprint 4150

The give and take between semiotics and second-order cybernetics

Bopry J. (2007) The give and take between semiotics and second-order cybernetics. Semiotica 164(1/4): 31–51. Available at http://cepa.info/4150
Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Making the connections
2.1. Rejecting foundational positions, especially representational realism
2.2. The stand-for relationship
2.3. Summary
3. Two cybernetic models
3.1. A recursive theory of communication
3.2. Levels of experience
4. Implications of an educational practice centered on meaning-making
In this paper, I describe what I consider to be some of the similarities between semiotics and second-order cybernetics. Particular attention is paid to the importance of interpretation and recursion in both fields. A distinction is made between the concept of representation in representational realism and representation as the stand-for relationship. Two models derived from cybernetic theory, ‘a recursive theory of communication’ and ‘levels of experience, ’ are discussed from a semiotic perspective and possible educational implications are described
Key words: semiotics, cybernetics, second-order cybernetics, systems, autopoiesis enaction, communication theory.
1. Introduction
This paper is an outgrowth of reflections on two interdisciplinary fields of study that have influenced my understanding of the world: cybernetics and semiotics. Cybernetic theory claims to take a nonrepresentational position on cognition; semiotics is nothing if not representational. While this would seem to exclude common ground between these two fields, such is not the case. The claim to nonrepresentation is better understood as a rejection of logical positivism’s correspondence theory of language, a rejection of pre-reflective symbolic cognition. Iconic and indexical forms of representation appear at pre-reflective cognitive levels in cybernetic theory. Symbols make their appearance in the reflective domain of communication – they are a product of cognition that makes language possible not the mechanism of pre-reflective cognition. In this paper, I consider some connections between semiotics and second-order cybernetic theory. The infinite regression of signs apparent in the work of Peirce is similar to the central notion of recursiveness in cybernetic theory. After considering some of the general issues related to connections between the two, I look at two specific cybernetic models and consider them from a semiotic perspective Finally, some implications for educational practice are considered.
2. Making the connections
During my first visit to the Semiotics Institute Conference in Imatra, Finland in 1998 I asked Jesper Hoffineyer why, given the position he was taking on biosemiotics, he had not referenced the work of cyberneticists Maturana and Varela. His reply was that since second-order cybernetics espouses a non-representational position it was not reconcilable with a semiotic position. A reversal in this stance was evident the following year when the biosemiotics stream of that same conference heavily emphasized the work of Maturana and Varela. It seems that Hoffineyer had overcome any obstacles to reconciling the positions. In fact, those like myself, versed in both semiotics and second-order cybernetics tend to sense a connection between the two that belies the apparent incompatibility. Putting that sense into a logical argument however requires some thoughtful reflection.
While I feel I can assume that readers of this journal are well versed in semiotic concepts, I suspect the same is not true for second-order cybernetic concepts so a short introduction to some cybernetic concepts may be useful. First-order cybernetics is concerned primarily with feedback systems (the system’s output becomes a source of input for the system). The thermostat is a prototypical example. All first-order cybernetic systems are observed systems. But consistent with contemporary scientific method (1940s), the observer is invisible. Second-order cybernetics includes the observer in the system; it is, in Von Foerster’s terms, a cybernetics of observing systems. Observed systems may be trivial machines, like the thermostat, input may determine output. Observing systems (as living systems) are never trivial machines. Interpretation, not input, is a central feature of second-order cybernetics. I believe it is the importance of interpretation in second-order cybernetics that fuels the sense of connection many of us feel between these two fields. Guddemi (2000) provides a concise description that combines the most important concepts of interest here, so I will use his rather than my own, much longer and discrete descriptions. To set the stage, Guddemi’s objective in his paper is to explore how organisms which are constituted in an autopoietic[Note 1] fashion can develop relationships with each other and with their milieu/environment – how such relationships are just as much a precondition for their being as their internal autopoietic organization.
The organismic autopoietic system is conceived as originating … as a recursive enactment of material events, by which recursion, a structure is constituted which conserves itself (or fails to do so) in interaction with other such systems and with the nonliving environment. The autopoietic system has the capacity (indeed the requirement) to preserve itself, not (like a rock) by remaining the same, but by (like an organism) changing. That which changes while the autopoietic system maintains itself is called its structure, while that which the system maintains is called its organization. The synchronic (mutual) changes of two autopoietic systems, each of which comprises part of the milieu (or environment) for the other, constitute together the structural coupling of the two systems. (Guddemi 2000: 132)
That which the system maintains is its identity. Loss of identity is death, the disintegration of the system. Structural coupling (see also note 5) is a historical process of interaction between two systems throughout which both maintain their identity (i.e., organization) even though both may undergo change to their corporeal being (i.e., structure). Hence the aphorism: the path is made by walking. Another walking metaphor can be found in the way that shoe and foot shape themselves to one another. If we look to the sciences, coevolution epitomizes the way that structural coupling induces changes in the structures of interacting entities. Each of these metaphors suggests mutual interpretation.
Informing a cybernetic perspective with semiotic concepts is hardly farfetched as at a deep level the two fields seem more than just tangentially related. Indeed, both fields seem to be getting at similar phenomena from different perspectives.[Note 2] But, if one can sense the commonalities, why is it so difficult to describe them? Guddemi applies the cybernetic concept of organizational closure to this question and answers it thusly:
By taking the recursive mechanics of living systems as their muse, they [Maturana and Varela] have invented a new set of inter-referential terms for the analysis of the interrelationships within living systems, as well as their relationships with each other and with their environments. By ‘inter-referential’ I mean that each term generates its meaning with respect to the others, and it is the whole which is constituted by the inter-referentiality of those terms which, at best, provides insight into the phenomenon, in this case what makes living systems alive (and what consequences thus follow from their interactions). Such a system of inter- referential concepts does not lend itself to being inserted piecemeal into an ongoing scientific discourse, since each concept within an inter-referential system takes its meaning from its relationship to that system as a whole. It is thereby difficult to separate out particular concepts from the system and relate them to the more familiar concepts used in empirical research … Peirce’s semeiotic is also a system of inter-referential concepts. (Guddemi 2000: 133)
From a cybernetic perspective, they can be seen as two organizationally closed systems each with a unique identity. Similar concepts are given different names and dissimilar concepts may be given the same name. For example, the all important term representation is a source of confusion. To understand the differences and similarities between the fields representation needs to be considered in two senses: first, in terms of representational realism and second, in terms of the stand-for relationship.
2.1. Rejecting foundational positions, especially representational realism
According to Guddemi, Peircean and second-order cybernetic theory share a feature that distinguishes both from foundationalist or representationalist standpoints. Mental activity is grounded in the behavior of human beings and other living organisms: ‘All signs, symbols, and systems of thought have their origin in this rather than in some transcendent or transparent autonomous mental realm’ (Guddemi 2000: 134). At the most fundamental level representations emerge from activity and interpretations of activity rather than being the means whereby activity is calculated. This contradicts representational realism, the position that we map the outside world onto our minds.
The most popular and current view of the nervous system considers it an instrument whereby the organism gets information from the environment which it then uses to build a representation of the world that it uses to compute behavior adequate for its survival in the world. This view requires that the environment imprint in the nervous system the characteristics proper to it and that the nervous system use them to generate behavior, much the same as we use a map to plot a route. (Maturana and Varela 1992/1987: 131)
The transmission model of communication (e.g., the Shannon-Weaver Model) is an example par excellence of the representational realist position. Maturana and Varela reject it outright:
According to our analysis, this metaphor is basically false. It presupposes a unity that is not determined structurally, where interactions are instructive, as though what happens to a system in an interaction is determined by the perturbing agent and not by its structural dynamics.[Note 3] (Maturana and Varela 1992/1987: 196)
This statement could as easily be made about representational realism. Maturana and Varela reject the notion that the environment instructs the nervous system; that is, causes it to generate representations of itself in one to one correspondence. The alternative is: What we see is not ‘the world;’ but, instead, our own visual field (Maturana and Varela 1992/1987). The environment does not determine changes in the nervous system, it only triggers them: the nervous system is structurally determined. The changes the nervous system undergoes in response to perturbation from the environment is determined by its own internal state and not by the perturbing agent.
Semioticians also reject the conduit metaphor of communication, in part because it places the responsibility for determining meaning on the sender of the message rather than the receiver, and in part because it divorces the message from the context and the relationship between interlocutors (Guddemi 2000). This relationship is of paramount importance for cyberneticists as well. For second-order cyberneticists, this relationship is a form of structural coupling, an ongoing interaction between entities that conserves the identities of each. For the cyberneticist, there is no transmission of messages, there is, however, mutual understanding between structurally coupled individuals (Krippendorff 1994). The meaning of the interaction is determined by the structural determination of each receiver and not by the intent of the sender. Guddemi (2000) argues that this thirdness can be successful only if the interlocutors share a mutual secondness. Maturana and Varela note that orienting behaviors (of which language is one) ‘can take place only if the domains of interaction of the two organisms are widely coincident’ (1980: 27).
For second-order cyberneticists, it is organizational closure that makes interpretation an imperative. The organizational closure of the nervous system precludes inputs to and outputs from that system (Maturana and Varela 1980). If there are no inputs and outputs of information between two entities, interpretation is the only alternative. Given organizational closure, some means must exist for systems to adapt to their environment and communicate with other like systems. Maturana and Varela name this means structural coupling: recurrent interactions between two entities that allow their structures to change while at the same time maintaining their identities. This is the mechanism of adaptation. It is the importance of the role of the individual interpreter that grounds both semiotics and second-order cybernetics in the phenomenology of experience. Explicating the semiotic position, Deely notes that:
The advantage idealism has over realism lies in the simple fact that whenever we observe anything, that observation already presupposes and rests within a semiosis whereby the object observed came to exist as object – that is to say, as perceived, experienced, or known – in the first place. (Deely 1990: 5)
In the quotation above, Deely is not promoting the idealist position, he is simply saying that it is preferable to a realist position and why.[Note 4] Deely (1990) discusses the possibility of sign activity expanding beyond human, beyond animal interactions to the world of plants and even beyond that to the realm of non-living physical interaction. Deely believes that the way of signs leads beyond the classical way of ideas. He quotes Anderson et al. as recommending
a semiotics which provides the human sciences with a context for reconceptualizing foundations and for moving along a path which, demonstrably, avoids crashing headlong into the philosophical roadblock thrown up by forced choices between realism and idealism, as though this exclusive dichotomy were also exhaustive of the possibilities of interpreting human experience. (Anderson et al. 1984: 1)
The triadic relationship allows for balance between the sign vehicle and its object. Peirce notes that the interpreter supplies part of the sign’s meaning: this suggests that the object or phenomenon represented supplies a part as well. Consistent with this, Maturana and Varela (1992/1987) talk of wending a middle course between representational realism and idealism. Recall that the ability to orient some other depends upon coincident domains of interaction.
If the observer in some manner cannot know anything besides the observer’s own processes, it then becomes problematic as to how one can even discuss other organisms and environments … von Foerster, finds the solution to this conundrum, at least in the human case, in ‘seeing oneself through the eyes of the other’ – an exercise in imagination and empathy. (Guddemi 2000: 128)
In both semiotics and second-order cybernetics theorists are making a good faith effort to transcend the mind-body dichotomy that has plagued modernity. They do this by emphasizing the role of the interpreter or of the observer who operates from his own base of experience (interpretations of activity or interaction). In neither case does the environment instruct the organism:
It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe – not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as ‘the truth’ – that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs. (CP 5.448n)
Deely is blunter:
Indeed, at the heart of semiotics is the realization that the whole of human experience, without exception, is an interpretive structure mediated and sustained by signs. (Deely 1990: 5)
Strictly speaking, neither semiotics nor second-order cybernetics is consistent with a correspondence theory of language where the content words of sentences denote objects, properties, and relationships in the world (Winograd and Flores 1986). Language within both frameworks is connotational. There is no possibility of establishing a correspondence between words and world except within the context of culture and experience. This in no way lessens the power of the stand-for relationship itself.
2.2. The stand-for relationship
This leads to the second way that we need to consider representation: in its more general role as the stand-for relationship. Maturana and Varela seem to have contributed to some confusion by equating representation with the use of symbols. They are making the point that basic thought processes are not symbolic (not in language). Symbols come into play as tools for communication, part of a separate, higher level cognitive domain (See Winograd and Flores 1986). However, if one keeps in mind the central role of interpretation in Maturana and Varela’s work it becomes apparent that the stand-for relationship is alive and well within their cybernetic theory. Although explicitly restricting symbol use to the domain of description, no such restriction is placed on indexical or iconic signs. In fact, it seems likely that these forms of representation have not been explicitly considered by Maturana and Varela in their conception of representation at all; however it is apparent that both, but perhaps especially indexical signs, play an important role in understanding cybernetic processes.
In the following passage, Peirce describes the sign:
A sign stands for something to the idea which it produces, or modifies. Or, it is a vehicle conveying into the mind something from without. That for which it stands is called its object; that which it conveys, its meaning; and the idea to which it gives rise, its interpretant. The object of representation can be nothing but a representation of which the first representation is the interpretant. But an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it, may be conceived to have an absolute object at its limit. The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation. In fact, it is nothing but the representation itself conceived as stripped of irrelevant clothing. But this clothing never can be completely stripped off; it is only changed for something more diaphanous. So there is an infinite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series. (CP 1.339)
There are at least two important things happening in the quotation above. First, Peirce defines a sign as something that stands for something else. For this concept there is an interesting connection in the work of Varela where he discusses deformation to systems that result from interaction with the environment:
The domain of interactions of an autopoietic unity is the domain of all the deformations that it may undergo without loss of autopoiesis … an observer can consider the way in which an autopoietic system compensates its deformations as a description of the deforming agent that he sees acting upon it, and the deformation suffered by the system as a representation of the deforming agent. (Varela 1979: 47-48)
Varela’s term deformation is very close to Peirce’s term sign. The recognition of this representation can be made only by an observer (a human being) because, and consistent with the semiotic position, while all animals use signs, only humans recognize them as such.
Second, Peirce indicates that there is an infinite regression of signs (the interpretant of one sign may become the ground for another, ad infinitum). The outcome becomes the starting point. Cybernetics also concerns itself with the infinitely recursive:
If an organism can generate a communicative description and then interact with its own state of activity that represents this description, generating another such description that orients towards this representation…. the process can in principle be carried on in a potentially infinite recursive manner, and the organism becomes an observer: it generates discourse as a domain of interactions with representations of communicative descriptions (orienting behaviors). (Maturana and Varela 1980: 28-29)
Guddemi notes that only human language (symbolic) has the potential for infinite recursion, something lacking in less abstract forms of sign use, in this case, the vervet monkey’s system of alarm calls:
The representation function in this kind of alarm call system is static. Neither the concept of the eagle, nor indeed that of retreat, can be in such a system further interpreted semeiotically. In human language, on the other hand, there seems to be a potentially infinite recursion, whereby the interpretant itself is interpreted by further signs which modify its representation, for example by making it more specific: ‘the eagle is flying toward the river.’ (Guddemi 2000: 136)
Guddemi argues that iconic and indexical signs do not have the capacity for infinite recursion unless folded into symbolic language; they are limited to their proximate contexts. He also says: ‘for humans, but not for some communication systems in animals, we note what Peirce called unlimited semeiosis, an infinite recursion of interpretants’ (Guddemi 2000: 137).
Semiosis can be seen to be at play in second-order cybernetic concepts. For example, Guddemi (2000: 133) claims that ‘the concept of the Peircean sign gives substance to the relations between organisms, and those between organisms and their environments, i.e., “structural coupling.”’ It is through the interpretation of signs that individual organisms maintain their interactions with the environment and with one another.
Pushed a bit further, we can see the impact on what Maturana and Varela term effective action. According to Guddemi, each of Peirce’s three main categories of sign (icon, index, symbol) has predictive regularity. Analogy is the form of predictive regularity that yields the icon: ‘A is like B, therefore if I know how to behave with respect to A, I can behave similarly with respect to B’ (Guddemi 2000: 134). Contiguity is the form of predictive regularity that yields the index: ‘if A tends to be copresent with B then I can be on the alert for B when I perceive A’ (2000: 134). As for the symbol:
The symbol exists when I can predict that when I behave in a certain way (speak, gesture, write), you will behave in such a way that I know that we are both coordinating our perceptions/actions, with respect to a third thing (the ‘reference’ of the symbol), in the absence of iconic or indexical indication of that reference. (Guddemi 2000: 134)
The ability to correctly predict the effect of my actions in the environment ensures my survival. Effective action is essential to remaining structurally coupled to the environment; my predictions determine the form of my adaptation (structural coupling) to the environment. Semiosis therefore ‘is the mechanism by which perceptions of the environment become usable to the organism in the form of adaptive structural coupling’ (Guddemi 2000: 135). Through recursion (effective action at more and more abstract levels) structural coupling allows the emergence of a consensual domain where language can be used to coordinate the behavior of interacting observers.
In cybernetic terms we therefore see structural coupling, from the point of view of the organism, as an ongoing feedback system. Refinements of structural coupling thus emerge as recursions in that feedback system. Symbolic behavior, or language proper, is such a refinement. (Guddemi 2000: 135)
2.3. Summary
I summarize the discussion above with a short list of commonalities and connections between semiotics and second-order cybernetics.
Both can be distinguished from standard foundationalist or representationalist standpointsboth reject the dichotomy of realism/idealismboth are grounded in the phenomenology of experienceinterpretation is an essential aspect of both positionsthe role of the observer is foregrounded within both positionsboth allow us to avoid the container and conduit metaphors in communicationThere are commonalities and connections in the stand-for relationshipsemiosis is a possible mechanism for the cybernetic concept of structural couplinginterpretation is recursive and infinite in both positions [at least for people/observers]predictive regularity associated differentially with icons, indices, and symbols provides a possible mechanism for effective actionthe semiotic concepts of iconicity/firstness and indexicality/ secondness are essential (the latter prominently so) to second-order cybernetic descriptions of experience
3. Two cybernetic models
In the pages that follow, I will be applying semiotic concepts to two cybernetic models: Krippendorff’s (1994) ‘recursive model of communication’ and ‘levels of experience’ (Bopry 2005).
3.1. A recursive theory of communication
3.1.1. Description and discussion
The purpose of this presentation is to suggest a connection between second-order cybernetic and semiotic theory. Guddemi (2000) makes the argument that the mechanism of structural coupling[Note 5] (Maturana and Varela 1980) is semiosis. The communication model below was created in part with structural coupling in mind. It is at once psychological and social. It resides easily within the cybernetic framework called enaction, which holds that our primary way of relating to the world is by interacting with it rather than by making representations of it.
Figure 1: Recursive model of communication (after Krippendorff 1994: 87)
In Figure 1, we are looking at the experience of only one participant in a communication interaction. In this model Krippendorff is making two points about communication. First, it is centered around understanding and is therefore infinitely recursive. A understands his understanding of his understanding of his understanding, etc. The small figure at the bottom left is a detail that fits in the space that the arrow points to in the larger figure. Constructions of reality and constructions of practice are located in some participant’s understanding. Second, communication is constituted in the intertwining practices between participants that these participants would describe as being communicative: It is an essentially social phenomenon. Since we are looking at only one participant in the interaction, the social aspect is indicated by A’s understanding of B’s understanding, which includes B’s understanding of A’s understanding. This is what the set of circles labeled ‘B’s understanding’ stands for.
What is most important to notice in this model is the fact that it focuses on constructing messages from signals received rather than on how to manipulate signals for sending. The latter would be the focus of the more common transmission models of communication (e.g., Shannon- Weaver). The Krippendorff model is based upon layers and layers of interpretation. Meanings are not transmitted; they arise in the recursive process of understanding by individuals.
We are required then to regard messages sent as indices of the understandings and/or meanings of some other. Following Watzlawick’s axiom that ‘one cannot not communicate’ (Watzlawick et al. 1967: 49), Krippendorff’s model accounts for communication that is nonverbal, even unintentional. So, receivers may miss signs that we wish them to take account of, and they may perceive signs we do not wish them to, or even signs we are unaware of displaying. Watzlawick’s axiom fails only if the listener is unwilling or unable to understand what is taking place (Krippendorff 1994).
Even symbolic communication may be seen as having a primarily indexical function. Within the enactive position, language is not considered a carrier of meanings, but a device that orients behavior. We observe and interpret our interlocutor’s response to our language acts and if they fall within an anticipated range we believe they understand what we say. As long as both parties believe the other has a similar understanding the conversation can continue. If the interlocutor’s response falls outside the anticipated range, an objection to or a breakdown in the conversation has occurred and the parties must resolve the perceived misunderstanding before the conversation can continue. Comedy routines are often based upon two people who believe they understand one another having simultaneous but different conversations (of which only the audience is aware). The longer the conversation lasts without breakdown (recognition that something is amiss), the funnier the routine.
The model acknowledges that speakers and actors are powerless to control the meanings their practices are given by others; however well- meaning interlocutors may negotiate meanings. Understanding and acting is our way of being-in-the-world. The observer or the listener is always in control of his or her own understanding, within the constraints of his or her own understanding:
‘I understand (you)’ can hardly mean comprehending what someone else had in mind when saying something, but might be taken as indicating a sense of coherence or closure of one’s state of knowing and as a signal marking the readiness to proceed in a conversation. (Krippendorff 1994: 83)
Within the enactive framework representations are not the stuff of cognition, but a product of cognition created for the purpose of communication. They are indices of meaning and/or understanding. Representations and knowledge cannot be transmitted from one person to another. Each person must construct knowledge for himself or herself. In this light it is difficult to speak of knowledge as cumulative. A society does not accumulate knowledge, it accumulates indices of knowledge. The content of a book, for example, is not knowledge; when someone interprets the text and thereby uses it to transform their own understanding, knowledge is reconstructed. The way we use language, however, operates against our seeing this easily. Our means of communication appears to have developed within a representational and realist framework.
3.1.2. Implications
Within the framework suggested by this model, knowledge cannot be transmitted from one person to another. Each person must construct knowing for himself. In light of this it is difficult to speak of knowledge as cumulative. A society does not accumulate knowledge, it accumulates indices of knowledge. The content of a book or of a library, for that matter, is not knowledge; when someone interprets the text and thereby uses it to transform their own understanding, knowledge is reconstructed. Indices of knowledge that become uninterpretable are lost to the society as a whole. While knowledge is distributed among the members of a society it is shared or made public through a series of indexical relationships.
3.2. Levels of experience
3.2.1. Description and discussion
Readers familiar with the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (e.g., Varela 1979; Maturana and Varela 1980, 1992/1987; Varela et al. 1991) are aware of the position that all living systems are cognitive systems, that the process of life is a cognitive process. Given this, the emergence[Note 6] of a living system is the emergence of a cognitive domain. One of the essential concepts used by these theorists is that of domain. A domain is an autonomous entity, a space within which a living system engages in interactions. A domain may be physical or conceptual. The specification of any unity, through an act of distinction, results simultaneously in the specification of a phenomenal domain. New domains emerge from older domains, but are phenomenologically distinct from their parents; domains may share components with one another yet generate unique phenomena. It is important to understand that a phenomenal domain is defined by the relations into which its components enter and not by the mere existence of the components themselves. So, a single individual may simultaneously interact within multiple, yet non-intersecting domains.
Figure 2: Levels of experience
Based on the work of Maturana and Varela, the ‘levels of experience’ graphic in Figure 2 depicts three cognitive domains: phenomenal, observational, descriptive. These domains are autonomous and do not intersect. By this I mean that descriptions do not faithfully replicate observations, and observations of phenomena are not equivalent to experience of phenomena. As living organisms, we engage in interactions of which we cannot be aware; however, we also engage in interactions that normally occur below our threshold of awareness but which we may either bring into our awareness, or at least observe the results they produce. We may observe ourselves as well as others, and more of ourselves is available to us for observation than is of others. Our observations of these interactions are not the same as the experience of these interactions. Further, we may describe our observations to others, but again, our descriptions cannot capture our observations, let alone our experiences. Instead, it may be said that an observation is an interpretation of an experience and a description is an interpretation of an observation. Each of these levels constitutes a domain of experience. Each of the three levels of experience, are autonomous cognitive domains. While each depends upon the lower for its existence (having emerged from it), they are each distinct, non- intersecting phenomenal spaces. This simply means that experience within a domain is unique to that domain, and cannot be duplicated in another domain; each domain is phenomenologically unique – it has its own identity. While they do not intersect, as they are the result of closed (circular) relationships, they are structurally coupled, making mutual interpretation possible. Secondness or indexicality is central to understanding this model. Example of unreflective experience. Maturana and Varela (1992/1987) provide the following example in The Tree of Knowledge. They speak of a submarine being piloted through treacherous waters to safe harbor. The pilot has lived his entire life on the submarine and knows nothing of the world outside; he knows only that certain meter readings demand certain responses for the environment in which he lives to remain secure. The behavior[Note 7] of the submarine (negotiating treacherous reefs) exists only for observers on the shore, not for the pilot of the vessel. This metaphor is intended to represent the workings of the nervous system. It nicely makes a point that is fundamental to cybernetic theory: there is no equivalence between the experience of a phenomenon and the observation of a phenomenon. Emergence of the observer
An observer is a human being, a person, a living system who can make distinctions and specify that which he or she distinguishes as a unity, as an entity different from himself or herself that can be used for manipulations or descriptions in interactions with other observers. An observer can make distinctions in actions and thoughts, recursively, and is able to operate as if he or she were external to (distinct from) the circumstances in which the observer finds himself or herself. Everything said is said by an observer to another observer, who can be himself or herself. (Maturana 1978: 31)
How does the Observer come into being? When an entity interacts with its environment in such a way that each triggers structural changes in the other, while both preserve their identity (the alternative is disintegration), they are said to be structurally coupled. This historical process (structural drift) is the basic mechanism of adaptation and evolution. Living organisms may also act as environment for one another. In the case that structural coupling occurs over a period of time between two living organisms with plastic nervous systems, a consensual domain results. A consensual domain, once generated, depends upon the perturbations that generate specific responses and not on the identity of the parties engaged in the interaction, so that individuals may be replaced in the interaction so long as the triggering mechanisms remain the same (Maturana and Varela 1980).
Any interaction with the environment results in changes to the internal states of the entity so engaged. This, of course, is also the case with interactions in a consensual domain. When, however, these internal states recursively reenter the consensual domain and become part of it, an Observer[Note 8] has emerged. Winograd and Flores (1986) use Heidegger’s concepts of thrownness and Dasein in the context of understanding Maturana’s work. These concepts comport well with the distinction between unreflective and reflective experience in my organizer. The human experience that Heidegger calls Dasein is called the Observer by Maturana and Varela. The Observer exists in the domain of language and both observation and description are aspects of the Observer. Example of reflective experience. Jean Lave provides an interesting example that illuminates the idea of levels of experience (Lave 1997). A teacher conducting a mathematics module, using a standard approach (pretest, provide the requisite instruction and practice, and then posttest) has received anomalous results: scores on the pretest are distributed in a regular manner; but on the posttest scores are clustered near the highest pretest score but none exceeds it.
An ethnographer present in the classroom observed that students working in groups were actively engaged in mathematical activity. However, students had largely ignored the teacher’s instructions. Instead they used strategies they already knew and supplemented these with tables found in the back of their texts. Students hid the strategies they used by carefully providing the teacher written work in the form that she expected; and she accepted their written work as evidence that they were following the procedures that she prescribed. The students were able to deceive their teacher by communicating with her in her domain of descriptions and she mistook this ability to use the same symbols and structures she used for an ability to engage in the procedures that she expected.
Because the teacher was unaware of the procedures the students were actually using (i.e., she did not engage in observation of their actual practice), she could not explain the unusual distribution of scores on the posttest. The students had created a community of practice in the classroom that allowed them to engage in effective action relative to the constraints of the classroom (i.e., the subject matter and the instructor).
The story provided above underscores the importance of all three levels of experience described above. Most importantly, it makes it apparent that we cannot necessarily expect instruction in the form of descriptions to translate well into phenomenal experience. It also shows that the level of description is one in which it is easy to deceive and be deceived by others.
The contribution that semiotics has to make here is a very basic one. One of the advantages of semiotics is its basic terminology, which allows us to talk of all signs, whether language or non-language, and whether drawn from auditory, visual, tactile, or proprioceptive stimuli (Morris 1971). Experience is drawn from all senses: a living system will attempt to explore a source of stimulation through as many perceptual modalities as possible (Gibson 1979). Every individual has the potential to create meaning in multiple modalities; however, the extent to which that individual is capable of such an activity is dependent upon the forms of representation he learns to use. The ability to use these modalities affects both the ability to understand meanings created by others and the ability to create meanings.
Experience of each form of modality, then is very important, as is transduction or experience across modalities. There is interaction between our sensory systems and forms of representation so that we can conceive an idea in one modality and express it in another. A writer may begin with pictures in his head and end with words on paper; an artist may base a painting on a dance experience; a composer may try to express emotions felt during a storm at sea or while viewing a lovely landscape at sunset in a piece of music. Those wishing to become more familiar with research on multi-literacies are directed to the work by scholars such as Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) and Gee (2003).
3.2.2. Implications
It is important that members of a group are provided experiences that exercise all the modalities of communication possible within the culture. This experience will need to be hands-on: students will require access to photo labs, science labs, basketball courts, theater stages, woodshops, art studios, etc. Students will also require opportunities to reflect upon experience though observation and though description. What type of experience will learners have? Do planned activities integrate multiple levels of experience? Are all levels coherent?
4. Implications of an educational practice centered on meaning-making
At this point, I want to consolidate the discussion in previous sections of this paper into some thoughts on educational practice. I have selected meaning-making as a central theme because it seems to involve both external and internal practices, and because it is common to both semiotics and to second-order cybernetics.
One might consider understanding to be the internal manifestation of meaning making and communication practices (shared meaning-making) the external manifestation. At any rate, both are under the control of processes of interpretation, a central feature of both perspectives. The following implications for practice are suggested[Note 9] :
educational experience should be broad (across all sensory modalities)educational experience should be deep (including all levels of experience)There should be congruence throughout the levels on a single dimensionScaffolding needs to be matched to each level of experienceeducational experience should be collaborativeeducational design should allow for idiosyncratic (grounded, diverse, and creative) solutions to problems to develop
As both semiotics and second-order cybernetics are grounded in the phenomenology of experience, and experience can be defined as interpretation (Deely 1990) of sensory deformation (Varela 1979), both are dependent on the corporeal experience of the interpreter. Given that the process is infinitely recursive, and with each recursion new cognitive domains may emerge, it is possible to lose sight of this fact. Ideas, then, do not stand for themselves, but ultimately for sensory experience. It makes sense then, to think in terms of grounding educational practice in sensory experience; with opportunities for reflective experience consciously built upon this foundation.
If sensory experience is understood to be the basis upon which educational practice is built then it makes sense that all sensory modalities should be exploited in educational practice: there should be a breadth of sensory experience provided learners. Obviously, experience cannot be divorced from the senses (e.g., the act of reading involves visual and tactile sensory modalities), but what I am arguing here is that conscious effort should be made on the part of educators to account for the sensory affordances of the activities they design for learners.
Educators are often concerned with how concrete or abstract an experience is. This tends to result in prescriptions suggesting that younger learners and novices should be limited to concrete experience. This type of approach was apparent in behavioral practice and many find support for it in developmental theories like that of Jean Piaget. However, the early age at which language develops indicates that abstraction is something of which even the very young are capable. Matthew Lipman’s success teaching philosophical concepts to very young children provides countering evidence. The fascination of children with fantasy and myth may suggest a preference for the abstract over the real or tangible (Egan 1997). At the very least it argues for including abstraction in educational practice, including that directed to the very young. The idea of levels of experience, inspired by the work of Maturana and Varela, suggests a systematic and coherent approach to moving from the concrete to the abstract, expressed as a progression from the phenomenal domain to the descriptive. Such a progression provides a depth of experience focused on a single phenomenon or class of phenomena. Learners should have the opportunity to engage phenomena directly, reflect upon that experience and describe it to others. Descriptions by their very nature occur in a different cognitive domain than the direct experience of phenomena, however in accordance with the previous principle learners should be encouraged to create descriptions across modalities. When direct experience is not possible, observation is the best substitute, failing that, first-hand descriptions (primary source material) by others. Both of these encourage vicarious experience on the part of the observer. The common tendency of teachers or designers to distill the ‘important’ or ‘essential’ information from the descriptions of others and pass this along to learners robs those learners of both direct and vicarious experience. Without this, descriptions may have little relevance to learners. In the case where an activity is primarily phenomenal in nature, instructional designers should look for opportunities to incorporate observation, reflection, and description. When an activity is primarily descriptive, designers should consider opportunities to extend the activity into observation and/or direct experience.
Meaning making or understanding as presented in Krippendorff’s model is both personal and public. However, interaction of some nature, some form of structural coupling, is essential to both. The act of observation assumes something observed. A description is made to communicate to someone (even if it is one’s self). The creation of opportunities for collaboration affords domains of interaction within which shared meaning making can take place. Opportunities for collaboration also provide areas within which the ideas of individuals can be challenged and validated.
Such collaborations are likely to lead to idiosyncratic meaning making within the communities that result. By setting boundaries of acceptable practice within which such meaning making may take place, the educator can provide guidance without prescribing precise procedures and/or outcomes while still ensuring productivity. Acceptance of diverse forms of learner collaboration and meaning making will provide a space within which creative practices may develop.
My thanks to Daniel Churchill and John Hedberg for the production of the graphic images used in this paper.
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Autopoiesis is a second-order cybernetic theory. Autopoietic means self-producing: autopoietic entities produce all the components that comprise their structure. This process of self-production (not self-creation) results in a circular or closed organization. All living systems are autopoietic and all autopoietic systems are living. Autopoietic systems are a special case of autonomous systems; all autonomous systems are organizationally closed: all have some form of circular or recursive process that determines their identity. Self-production is only one possibility.
While it was possible to create a list (see this section’s summary), it is exceedingly difficult to discuss these ideas in isolation. Hence, there will be no point by point discussion of these items, but each will be addressed in the discussion that follows.
Recall that any system so determined would be, by definition, a trivial machine.
The problem with idealism is the assumption that our ideas represent themselves – they are objects instead of signs (Deely 1990).
Structural coupling is defined as a history of recurrent interactions between systems that are a) stable in nature, and b) allow all participants to remain viable.
Emergence is here used in the same way as in systems theory: parties engaging in neighborhood interactions may generate a new entity with its own separate identity (e.g., a social club). In cybernetics recursive interactions (interactions with interactions) result in the emergence of new domains of interaction (language is an example).
Behavior is defined as interaction within the context of an environment (as defined by an observer). The niche is the sum of the interactions that the observed entity is capable of, and is a subset of the environment. Hence, the observer sees both interactions into which the observed entity can engage and interactions into which it cannot engage.
The Observer is defined as: ‘a system that through recursive interactions with its own linguistic states may always linguistically interact with its own states as if with representations of its interactions’ (Maturana and Varela 1980: 137).
A version of these implications first appeared in Bopry and Hedberg (2005).
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