Make your own free website on


Appendix "A"

Conversation Theory
developed by the cybernetician Gordon Pask

Buber's insights were eventually operationalized (Laing et. al., 1966) for an Interpersonal Perception Method (IPM) for individual interactions on personal topics. But there is still need to extend dialogical technics to group processes and cultural issues.

1. Conversation Theory
2. Main Concepts
3. A strict conversation
4. Generalizations
5. Novel Conversational Environments
*. Sample case study
References to Appendix A

Back to the Main Contents Page

1. Conversation Theory

A likely model for extending the analysis of human interactions also for cultures and groups, is the Conversation Theory developed by the cybernetician Gordon Pask, which has been used to develop educational programs and for experimental research in the behavioral sciences. Conversation Theory (Pask 1975, 1976) regards social systems as symbolic, language-oriented systems where responses depend on one person's interpretation of another person's behavior, and where meanings are agreed through conversations. But since meanings are agreed, and the agreements can be illusory and transient, scientific research requires stable reference points in human transactions to allow for reproducible results. Pask found these points to be the understandings which arise in the conversations between two participating individuals, and which he defined rigourously.

Pask's definition of understandings and the significance of their stability comes from cybernetic theory, but these are intuitively clear - when two people come to an agreement based on understanding, then even if the agreement was built upon transient elements which changed, the conversants can re-create from their understandings new agreements to replace the old ones. The makers of the agreements can regulate the stability of their transactions without being dependent on their details.

Back to Contents of appendix A

2. Main Concepts:

Conversaton Theory regards the cognitive domain - and thus also the cultural domain - as stratified into concepts of different logical levels (or "Logical Types" in Russel's sense) that require different types of language to discuss them. Thus Pask regards individual cognition to be made by populations of reproducible "concepts" which are controlled (reproduced, edited) by higher-level concepts he calls "memories" which in turn belong to (are controlled, edited, reproduced, by) higher level concepts he calls "P-Individuals" (for "Psychological Individuals"). Discussions between individuals are conducted on several logical levels: they use an object language to activate concepts and demonstrate them, but use conversational languages with questions, answers and commands to talk about concepts and to explain them. Agreements can thus be produced (as new analogy relations) between concepts when their explanations match. Understandings require answering "why" questions through discussions of explanations of explanations and comparing them. In other words, understandings are evidenced by the ability of the conversing parties to produce explanations of self and other's explanations. Since the conversing parties (the P-Individuals) have named identities (self-reference) the conversation uses self- and other-references. In other words, they must engage in an "I-You", and not just "I-IT", transactions.

Pask regards Conversation as being mediated by "Language Processors" (or "L-Processors) that allow self- and other-references. To secure and nurture the production of understandings in an educational context, he has devised a special type of L-Processor called "Conversational Domain" which allows the exteriorization of complex cognitive processes and the detection of understanding.

We may say that conversational domains are recordings of fruitful past conversations and that they provide the symbolic environment in which the original insights can be reproduced and further conversations can take place and evolve. Unlike conventional recordings and curiculums, Conversational Domains are not linear, and the student can choose his route through them.

Back to Contents of appendix A

3. A strict conversation:

A strict conversation, typical of Pask's research work takes place within the supportive environment of a conversational domain, has the facilities to display information of descriptions and rules plus of several levels in a controlled environment. Such Conversational Domains are organized hierarchically of the following components:

A. A family of "entailment structures" which are like maps of topic names, showing the connections whereby any topic can be derived from other topics (specified relations) in that domain. The topics themselves are learnable relations.

B. Sets of "task structures" for building models or performing other activities which can produce the prescribed topic relations. There are usually many different ways to satisfy a relation and the stored programs are only illustrative examples;

C. Actual concrete media ("modelling facilities") in which task activities can be enacted or executed as models.

The two participants begin a strict conversation by agreeing on an aim for reaching operational knowledge of some topic on the "map" (Entailment Mesh) of the connections between the topics. Begining with only some vague appreciation of some preliminary topic, the conversation advances from one topic to another in a series of stages. In each stage, a topic is first marked as agreed between the participants and then as understood. Topics get marked as understood at a rate and in a configuration which is particular to that conversation.

Agreement is reached when one learner's demonstration of how to satisfy a topic requirement is consistent with the other's. But success in making the demonstration does not prove conception of a stable procedure for the topic, intrinsic to the mind of the learner.

Understanding the topic amounts to having a stable concept of it, one that can be reproduced and built from other concepts already in the student's mental repertoire. A topic is marked as understood by the participants only after agreement has been reached on both the adequacy of their concepts and the validity of their derivations of the concept. Understanding also amounts to answering a why question -- why was this answer preferred, and why is the answer couched in the specific terms used. Comparison of the two different derivations is especially significant when each participant inhabits a different universe of discourse and their agreement about a topic creates an analogy relation for that topic between these two universes. In this case, the understanding of the analogy relation involves each one adopting the other's perspective so as to see that relation from his world.

What has been built through these procedures is an evolving conversation which can advance from one verifiable understanding to another, leaving recorded traces that can be used for the study and reproduction of that conversation, and as data for research about cognitive styles and learning strategies.

Research has shown, for example, that a mismatch of cognitive styles among the participants almost guarantees that hardly any learning or understanding will occur, while matching improves learning dramatically. Awareness of personal style can lead to awareness of the styles of others and the possibilities of matching them. In many cases users of experimantal conversational domains acquire an enhanced capacity for learning.

Back to Contents of appendix A

4. Generalizations:

To appreciate the main implications of Conversation Theory in our present context, we should understand who are the participants whom Pask calls "Psychological Individuals" or "PIndividuals", as distinct from the "Mechanical individuals" or M-Individuals.

P-Individuals are the "persons" who converse and M-Individuals are the matrices or media in which the P-Individuals are embodied and "breed", and in which they become observable. For a person, the MIndividual is indeed his brain and body, and the P-Individuals are the various "personalities" which that person exhibits. But Pask's formulation allows the generalization of these entities beyond the confines of the individual human being.

P-Individuals are invisible and are not material. They are languageoriented, self- and other- referential, self-reproducing systems of beliefs. P-Individuals may be human personalities, social roles, theatrical characters, religious orders, scientific research programs or even whole cultures. They can be observed and/or communicated with only through language processors (such as M-Individuals, but also various artifactual media), yet are inherently "processor independent" and can even be encoded in a static inscription.

P-Individuals can undergo development only when they are executed in suitable language processors which have common aims - that is, a topic that is appreciated and desired by them but that is not known by them operationally - and when they fully enter a conversation. A successful conversation that leads to understandings is a P-Individual in its own right.

Claiming wide general validity to these constructs, Pask does not equate the P-Individuals with individual brains but defines them as cognitive programs (characterized by self-reference and organizational closure) which are executed in brains as well as in other suitable media (which Pask calls "Language Processors"). Several P-Individuals, even conflicting ones, can "reside" in one brain, whereas a single PIndividual can "reside" in several, even many, brains and their extensions in various media. This is the case of cultural entities, which are not just shared concepts but coherent systems of beliefs. Such belief systems, as P-Individuals, are "individuated" through organizational closure and self-reference, even self-reflection, and they control their own distinct "social memories" which, in turn, reproduce their own concepts and produce new ones in a distinct and characteristic style. Types of P-Individuals include human personalities, theatrical and social roles, schools of thought, systems of belief and human cultures. Scientific disciplines (or more precisely, scientific "schools" or "research programs" in the sense of Lakatosh, 1973) are such P-Individuals who have their own characteristic concepts and often even distinct languages, even while sharing the same facilities (libraries, computing media and academic framework).

It is evidently not easy to build agreements among the many P-Individuals that comprise the different schools of the social and human sciences about the concepts pertaining to social discourse and its (linguistic-symbolic) means. The suggestions in the paper as extensions of Conversation Theory will need the agreement of the larger social science disciplines to win currency. We claimed there that cultural explanations of self and other cultures are given by "myths" and that full conversations between cultures are possible (though deficient conversations are often dangerous, even fatal, to their myths), and that successful such conversations breed cultural innovations (Barnett,1952) that are novel, yet consistent with the traditions and myths of the culture.

While it is not easy to generalize from these small-scale contrivances to the processes happening within society at large, some generalizations to anthropological studies of whole (primitive) societies have been made *. These examples can help establish the socio-cultural analogues to the components of a Conversational Domain. We may thus assert that a whole coherent network of such symbols is essentially a "mythology", and the analogues to topic names are the cultural symbols while the analogues of the task structures are rituals. Obviousely, further generalizations to modern societies may be very worthwhile.

Back to Contents of appendix A

5. Novel Conversational Environments:

Originally the concept of modelling facilities was derived from the theater and its stage settings as well as military gaming simulations. Note that drama and the stage were the traditional media to enact cultural myths and they have burgeoned into movies (which probably lower the possibility of identification and participation) and are now developing into the new media, such as interactive CD-ROM role-playing games and virtual realities which hold a promise of greater participation. Pask's early work employed various purpose-made analogue computers. But it is the current proliferation of multi-media machines and electronic information processors into the laboratory and the home on the one hand, and the development of psychological and social simulations - the specification of which are typical "task structures" - and their translation into plays and games of many kinds on the other, which promise to make modelling facilities common as everyday realities and extensions of the brain in McLuhan's sense. Building roleplaying mythical environments according to the specifications of CT for a conversational domain will allow the formation of cultural understandings.

In our context of renewing Zionism, it is most instructive that the founder of modern Zionism, Dr. Herzel, was an accomplished dramatist and his plays were the most popular in Vienna of his time. Herzel's genious enabled his translation of a set of ideas from a political manifesto and a utopian novel into the stage of the Zionist Congress and then into the Zionist organizations and eventually the State of Israel. The main symbol Herzel used, the very name "Zion" which carried a tremendous set of associations, tied the new movement to the whole of Jewish history and myth and it still allows, we now claim, its further extension into world civilization.

The modelling facilities of a conversational domain are only simulations of M-Individuals, since they are not self-organizing. There are, however, artifacts that serve as M-Individuals and which are quite important for our discussion. These are our cities. Viewed inclusive of their inhabitants and builders, their concrete structures carry symbolic messages for their populations and embody their cultural values; while their layouts channel social transactions. They are the media in which civilization is embedded, and from which "civilization" got its name. We may say that cities has been the L-Processors in which civilization was embodied and has evolved. Nowadays civilization is rapidly changing by being embodied in an emerging communications and computation media, and this is happening quite haphazardly and in the manner criticized by Buber of increasing "I-It" communications and substituting them to "I-You" communications. On the other hand, the concept of "Jerusalem" as the city of "showing wholess" discussed in here is the very symbol of the city as a learning and conversational environment, whereas the Heavenly Jerusalem, understood as "the City of Understandings", is the epitomy of such a city and its realization is thus the ideal setting of a conversational environment for cultures.

Back to Contents of appendix A

(*) The study of the Tsembaga tribe of New Guinea (Rappoport, 1969), which showed a society in an ecological balance maintained by a ritual cycle, was analysed by Pask and his students. They have shown that this traditional society has the exact basic structure of a P-Individual and its environment acts as a Language Processor. Symbolic acts as the erection of a rotten fence and the planting or uprooting of a certain tree signal the onset of war and peace, the slaughter of pigs and the copulation of people. This is a stable, non-learning society. But analysis of the "Cargo Cults" of Melanesia (Worsley, 1957) which showed remarkable social innovation in devising new (albeit ineffective) rituals, and of connected nativistic (yet effectively modernising) movements (Schwartz, 1962) and other social innovations (Barnett, 1952) has shown them as cases of "Conversational Breeding" on a social scale (Pask, 1976; ch. 10).

Back to Contents of appendix A

References to Appendix A:

Laing, Ronald, D., Philipson, H. and Lee, A.R., (1966)
"Interpersonal Perception - A Theory and a method of Research". London, Tavistock; N.Y., Springer. Penguin Books, 1970.

Lakatos, I. (1973).
"History of the Science and its Rational Reconstruction", in Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science VIII. Reidel, Dordrecht.

Rappoport, Roy (1969).
"Pigs for the Ancestors". Yale U. Press.

Schwarz, Theodore (1962).
"Palian Movement of the Admiralty Island". Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Vol 20, Part 2.

Worsley, Peter (1957).
"The Trumpet Shall Sound: a study of "cargo" cults in melanesia". MacGibbon & Kee. Revised paperback edition, Paladin. 1970.

Back to Contents of appendix A
Back to the Main Contents Page