Abstract / Introduction / Encountering Cybernetics / Epistemology of the observer / Self-Organisation / Circular Causality / Cognitive Methodologies / References

Bernard Scott, April, 1996.

Second Order Cybernetics as Cognitive Methodology.


For some of us, the attraction of cybernetics is the very idea of it, the idea that the search for transdisciplinary truths is both possible and valuable. Many would accept that cybernetics has helped unify the first-order study of observed systems. In this paper, I explore ways in which second-order cybernetics may unify debates and discussions in the vast range of disciplines concerned with the observer, his experiences and his accounts of those experiences. The first part of the paper is deliberately first person and anecdotal, in the spirit of von Foerster's dictum, "life is studied in vivo not in vitro". The second part re-examines the classic cybernetic concepts of "self-organisation" and "circular causality" from the perspective of the constructivist epistemology of second order cybernetics and, by making the metaphorical status of the concepts explicit, shows how second order cybernetics may serve as a methodology for exploring modes of being. A major aim of the paper is to seek ways of navigating or building bridges between the praxes of rational science and the discourses of phenomenology and poetics.

Bernard Scott, April, 1996.


"Systems thinking, when it does develop, emerges from a long period of personal experiences and interactions and from the self-testing of one's own mental models", De Greene, 1993, p.14, author's italics.

"The imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it", Heaney, 1995.

In 1979, I rather presumptuously wrote a paper expressing my appreciation of Heinz von Foerster as a "founding father" of cybernetics (Scott, 1979). On receiving a copy of the paper, Heinz kindly (and, I think, teasingly) responded with a telegram that read, "Ah! You have succeeded in reversing evolution: now the sons are inventing the fathers." I have continued to appreciate von Foerster and his work and am proud and happy to consider myself as one of his sons. In this paper, I sketch, in outline at least, a story about how and why I came to consider cybernetics to be important, placing Heinz von Foerster and his contributions close to the story's core. In telling, the story I shall refer to some events that I witnessed at first hand. I do this partly for the benefit of those who may be exploring cybernetic ideas for the first time and partly for the benefit of those who lived through the same times but who, inevitably, saw things from a different perspective. Chiefly, I wish to preface the more abstract discussion in the second part of the paper with strong reminders that coming to know is a personal affair and that, for the time being at least, I am in the world.

The main part of the paper is concerned with the epistemology of the observer, as clarified by von Foerster in two of his key papers (von Foerster, 1970, 1974) and discusses how cybernetics, itself, as an idea, can be understood as a key tool or cognitive methodology for the observer who would know himself and his world. Essentially, the argument is that epistemological considerations show us that the observer is free to entertain a variety of ontological commitments and, hence may explore modes of being. The example given is that of putting the concept of "mechanical causation" in question, so as to be open to novel conceptions - and experiences of - time consciousness. Parallels are drawn with traditions of discourse in phenomenology and in poetics. The aim, metaphorically, is that of building bridges or finding ways of navigating between the many islands of discourse that make up the vast archipelago of modes of experiencing - and descriptions of those modes - that are the human condition. In this , the aim is similar to that of Michel Serres (1982), in his explorations of relations between disciplines and discourses in the sciences and humanities. Indeed, it his metaphors about bridge building and navigation that I have borrowed and I am  well aware that I am describing projects and journeys that are in progress. The novelty here is to place the idea of cybernetics and its goal of finding transdisciplinary unity in diversity at the heart of the enterprise.

In a short paper I can do little more than overview a form of argument and its consequences. I run the risk that, for those familiar with von Foerster's work, what I say may seem trite and obvious and that, for those not so familiar, what I say may seem obscure. My hope is that others will value and enter into the cybernetic enterprise,  and that, as humans continue to explore modes of being, the diversity that freedom brings is counterbalanced by continued attempts to communicate across disciplinary and cultural boundaries.

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