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Second-Order Cybernetics as a Fundamental Revolution in Science

Stuart A. Umpleby

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Context: The term “second-order cybernetics” was introduced by von Foerster in 1974 as the “cybernetics of observing systems,” both the act of observing systems and systems that observe. Since then, the term has been used by many authors in articles and books and has been the subject of many conference panels and symposia. Problem: The term is still not widely known outside the fields of cybernetics and systems science and the importance and implications of the work associated with second-order cybernetics is not yet widely discussed. I claim that the transition from (first-order) cybernetics to second-order cybernetics is a fundamental scientific revolution that is not restricted to cybernetics or systems science. Second-order cybernetics can be regarded as a scientific revolution for the general methodology of science and for many disciplines as well. Method: I first review the history of cybernetics and second-order cybernetics. Then I analyze the major contents of von Foerster’s fundamental revolution in science and present it as a general model for an alternative methodology of science. Subsequently, I present an example of practicing second-order socio-cybernetics from within. I describe some consequences of doing science from within, and I suggest some new horizons for second-order cybernetics. Results: Second-order cybernetics leads to a new foundation for conducting science and offers important contributions for a new way of organizing science. It expands the conception of science so that it can more adequately deal with living systems. Implications: Second-order cybernetics extends the traditional scientific approach by bringing scientists within the domain of what is described and analyzed. It provides models of research processes for when the scientist is within the system being studied. In this way it offers a new foundation for research in the social sciences, in management science, and in other fields such as the environmental sciences or the life sciences. Keywords: Epistemology, general scientific methodology, cybernetics, social sciences, action research, Heinz von Foerster.

Key words: Epistemology, general scientific methodology, cybernetics, social sciences, action research, Heinz von Foerster


Umpleby S. A. (2016) Second-order cybernetics as a fundamental revolution in science. Constructivist Foundations 11(3): 455–465. http://constructivist.info/11/3/455

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