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.

Cognitive Methodologies

By "cognitive methodology", I refer to cognitive operations that may be carried out, constructively and reflexively, that is , with full control and awareness, by the observer. These might for example, be metacognitive operations that guide learning a new skill. Harri-Augstein and Thomas (1995) give many examples of the "learning conversations", conversations with oneself, that accompany self-organised learning. As early as the 1970's, Pask and Scott (1972) reported how learning with CASTE (a prototypical intelligent tutoring system) could lead learners to adopt effective strategies for self-teaching. In a recent account of that work, I report how the development of conversation theory was experienced by the research team members as a reflexive, bootstrapping activity (Scott, 1993).

Understandings are personal knowings. An observer is free to intend matters as well as to describe and explain. Cyberneticians, like other people, "manipulate metaphors" (Scott 1974) but they know that that is what they are doing. Strategies for effective learning may be characterised but learning to learn is an open-ended activity. Cybernetics supports learning and learning to learn. Von Foerster puts it "We are free to act towards the future we desire". If the world is "real" and time has a direction, as some physicists and thermodynamicists tell us, then, in our "circularly caused" worlds of experience, second-order cybernetics tells us we our free to close time's loop, that is, by volitional acts of cognition , to know "heaven on earth" and to share that experience with our friends and neighbours.          

One of the referees for an earlier, terser version of this paper said it was "rambling and ...naive". As noted earlier, I have "rambled" a little about my early experiences of encountering cybernetics because I thought such anecdotes might be of interest to some readers. There are those who appear to think that cybernetics is old-hat, that it has been overtaken, in some sense, by a newer "cognitive science" that embraces neuroscience, artificial intelligence and phenomenology. I do not share this view. Rather, as I have argued in a recent paper (Scott, 1996), I think there has been a "forgetting", a series of distortions, which has led to the loss of the original vision of cybernetics as a transdiscipline. I think there are also those who have played safe by returning to the bland conservative mainstream or by embracing other trends that happen to be fashionable in the part of the world in which they happen to find themselves. As an educationalist, I believe there is a valuable place for cybernetics in our curricula and I believe that Heinz von Foerster would agree. In many presentations, he has taken the insights of cybernetics and shown their value to practitioners of many other disciplines and professions: psychologists, biologists, librarians, managers, psychiatrists.

With regard to the charge of my being naive, I suspect this was provoked by my talk of "heaven on earth". I realised at the time of writing the section containing those words that I was being very terse and that I might be misunderstood by some readers. However, I assumed that those contributing to the festschrift and familiar with von Foerster's work would not only understand me but find my words poetically enlightening or inspiring. It seems I was wrong and it is necessary for me to elaborate on my thesis a little more.

I am saying several things, which, taken together, have implications concerning the choices we make in the narratives and models we construct concerning who and what we are (cf. Kerby, 1991). Insofar as the goal of second-order cybernetics is to explain the observer to himself, then it is an open-ended creative affair. Importantly, what we believe about ourselves and our worlds affects how we are and the kind of worlds we find ourselves in. Many classic spiritual teachings have the aim of providing ways of knowing and being that promote love, peace and harmony, rather than their opposites. Examples are Buddhist deconstructions of the concept of self and causality and St. Paul's exhortation to make "every thought captive to Christ". My critical concern is with our conceptions and experiences of time and eternity.

As conversation theory developed, I  was attracted to writings in the phenomenological tradition, because of the evident parallels with our own work on cognitive methodology. I shall not attempt a detailed "compare and contrast" type of overview. That is well beyond the scope of this paper. It is worth noting that criticising the work of predecessors is the major way in which the phenomenological tradition has developed, for example the "line of descent" from Nietzsche to Husserl, to Heidegger, to Derrida (Blackham, 1961, Norris, 1982, Wood, 1989). The tradition is of "philosophers" who, amongst other things, debate the nature and purpose of philosophy. Our work and that of Laurie Thomas on cognitive methodologies developed within a natural science tradition, with a much stronger emphasis on empirical demonstration and utility.

The key notion in Husserl is that an observer may "bracket" the world of experience and give an account of the form or structure of that experience in a content-independent manner. The claim that this is possible and that the resulting description of forms is universal for all observers has provoked much controversy and debate, ever since it was first proposed. Rereadings of Nietzsche, lead some to propose a radical "existentialism", with no a prioris. Others continued to explore and describe, building on Husserl's work, notably Heidegger, who moving from a discussion by Husserl of the phenomenology of time-consciousness, went on to give an account of the experience of the monistic pure Being of the world, that embraces and transcends distinctions of space and time, self and other. Merleau-Ponty has gone further, with his account of  "wild-being", experiencing that which is beyond reason. In Castaneda (1988), the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan talks of "reason somersaulting into the inconceivable".

"A somersault of thought into the inconceivable is the descent of the spirit; the act of breaking our perceptual barriers."

"We must think aletheia, unconcealment, as the opening which first grants Being and thinking and their presencing for each other....Aletheia is nothing mortal, just as little as death itself." Hiedegger (1978).

In the essay from which the above quote is taken, Heidegger, discusses cybernetics:

"No prophecy is necessary to recognise that the sciences now establishing themselves will soon be steered by the new fundamental science of cybernetics.

This science corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being. For it is the theory of the steering of the possible planning and arrangement of human labour."

Heidegger is discussing the "technologising" of modern life. He goes on, "Philosophy is ending in the present age. It has found itself in the scientific attitude of socially active humanity. But the fundamental characteristic of this scientific attitude is its cybernetic, that is, technological character."

And later: "Perhaps there is a thinking which is more sober minded than the incessant frenzy of rationalisation and the intoxicating quality of cybernetics....a thinking outside of the rational and the irrational... The task of thinking would then be the surrender of previous thinking to the determination of the matter for thinking."

As I read these concerns, I see them as precisely those of second-order cybernetics. In questioning cybernetics, Heidegger is doing cybernetics of cybernetics. "Determination of the matter for thinking", as in von Foerster's analysis, implies freedom and responsibility.

My second-order cybernetic reading is that the narratives and experiences of phenomenologists are constructions; they are exercising a technology of knowing and being, with outcomes (experience of "objects") contingent on the choices made with respect to certain "in principle undecideable questions". However, their experiences and descriptions of those experiences are constructed within the limits of what is possible. Insofar as they can be constructed and reconstructed as experiences, there is a "truth" to them. Running through each of them is  a thread of narrative that "does its job", including the job of calling a halt to its own telling in order to allow the world to freely be what it is.

Paul Ricouer, as a member of the phenomenological tradition, has explored what he calls the "aporias" (necessary doubts) of time and narrative: the problem of reconciling accounts of cosmological time with accounts of phenomenological time and the problem of reconciling any notion of the "eternal" with the "temporal" (Ricouer, 1988, Wood, 1989). My reference, above, to "heaven on earth" was made in full awareness of these aporias.  To be is "to be in time" but, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, "Time is someone. ". In "my time", I may know and experience a novel "object": "time eternal".

My concept of second-order cybernetics as the study and deployment of cognitive methodologies was inspired particularly by the writings of Gotthard Gunther, von Foerster's friend and colleague, who was steeped in the traditions of phenomenology and related philosophies. My reading of Gunther is that he offers a synthesis: he retains a sense of structure as found in Husserlian descriptive approaches but is also true to the open-ended, creative, constructive spirit of Nietzsche and the existentialists. He uses the analogy of Elgar's Enigma Variations to develop the theme that our metaphors and models, however beautiful  in their coherence and pragmatically "true" in their application, are always variations on a "hidden theme".

"Cybernetics .. will only attain its true stature if it recognises itself as the science that reaches out for that which is hidden." Gotthard Gunther (1972).

Note the affirmative, not sceptical, nature of Gunther's thesis. As noted earlier, it has become a common place to "deconstruct" second-order theories, to show that any account of the observer and the observed is in someway contradictory, ambiguous  or incomplete. Second-order cybernetics acknowledges such limitations and works with them.

Joseph Margolis notes (1989): "There is no first-order science that does not implicate its own second-order legitimation; there is no legitimation that is not fitted to the practices of an actual science or inquiry; and the difference between first and second order matters is itself a second-order distinction. The "facts" count as facts .... only on the sufferance of second-order conceptions."

Von Foerster (1972) refers to "I" as, at least, a third order relator: that which relates first and second order.

"I" is a relator (and representor) of infinite order. "I" is "timeless". 

As noted in Scott (1976), "Second-order theories are always personalised: the theory is some one's theory...Within a second-order theory, there is a resonance; it is both true and false, accepted and denied. The resolution takes place on the occasion of a particular learning or remembering of the theory ...(and) is a function both of "fact" and of the alternative theories available. The latter is a matter of agreement between participants. The former become so when they are put into question."

Here is what I like to refer to as Gunther's First Law:

There is an exchange relation between cognition and volition.

I like to rephrase this as:

There is an exchange relation between knowing and being.

What we "know" as cognition, as theory, as narrative, affects what we are, what we feel, what we "know" by experiencing. And vice versa. Von Foerster puts this more tersely, "To know is to be".

Wittgenstein (1922), in a typically terse, epigrammatic statement captures the same insight, "The world of the sad man is not the world of a happy man".

So when I refer to the possibility of experiencing heaven on earth, I am not being "naive" (or if I am, I am being deliberately so, which is hardly a naive way of being), I am being creative, I am experiencing something real, I am being a poet, a child of the Kingdom of God.

The idea of "heaven on earth" is common to many cultures not just to the Christian claim that, "The Kingdom of God is at hand", with its accompanying experience of "baptism in the holy spirit". It is also part of the experience in intense romantic love (Smith 1985). In developing his thesis of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche (1961) claims there are moments when, from the perspective -and experience-of being superman (one who has "overcome" or gone beyond "man"), we knowingly will all to happen again. In Confucian China, the most important ceremonies were those where the ancestors were invited to be present. This was referred to as "the meeting of heaven and earth". Commentary in the I Ching reads, "He who understands the meaning of this rules the world as if it were in the palm of his hand" (Wilhelm, 1951).

Here is William James (1961) espousing his pragmatic view of religion: "The world interpreted religiously is not the materialistic world over again with an altered expression; it must have, over and above the altered expression, a natural constitution different at some point from that which a materialistic world would have. It must be such that different events can be expected in it, different conduct must be required."

Finally, here is Spencer-Brown's invitation: "It seems hard to find an answer to the question of how or why the world conceives a desire, and discovers an ability to see itself, and appears to suffer the process. That it does so is sometimes called the original mystery. Perhaps in view of the form in which we presently take ourselves to exist, the mystery arises from our insistence on framing a question where there is , in reality, nothing to question."

So, who is "steering the steersman", who is the "captain of the ship"? St. James' terse advice is: "Let him who is double-minded look to his heart" and as Castaneda's Don Juan says: "A path with heart brings great joy".

I hope now it is clear why I found the quotation  from Seamus Heaney to be so apt a preface for this paper  The following is from John Buchan's novel, Castle Gay. The narrator captures the poetic imagination at work in one of his characters, as he makes his choice about what kind of world it is that he inhabits (the poet referred to is Coleridge).

"This simple tale... is to have at least one hour of the idyllic. But an idyll demands a discerning mind, a mind which can savour that quality which we call idyllic, which can realise that Heaven has for a moment brought spirit and matter into exquisite unison. 'We receive but what we give', says the poet, 'and in our life alone doth Nature live'. Such a mind was Mr McCunn's...He alone... perceived the romance into which he had stumbled, and by perceiving created it. Cogitavit, ergo fuit. " (Buchan, 1930).

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