Reflexivity and recursion are fundamental to cybernetics and the themes related to them are well-known in the cybernetics community. These themes involve systems of participation where structures evolve through the actions and theories of the actors in the system. This means that theories may begin by describing an external “world” but those theories become part of that world and act to modify that world. Theory and praxis are not separate in a reflexive system. We will discuss the implicit nature of reflexivity in cybernetics and the impact of reflexivity on science and social science. These ideas have the potential to change the practice of social science, particularly economics, where the present paradigm of objective science (with theory strictly separated from praxis) has not been successful.
We live by a model that tells us we should understand in order to act. Yet babies do the opposite: they act in order to understand. This is the key lesson that Piaget taught us. In a more recent cybernetic interpretation, acting and understanding form a mutually dependant circularity. What is important is what happens between them (their interaction) within the mind of the agent who acts and understands. I argue this is powered by reflection, i.e., deep, contemplative thinking. I will explore how this relates to Behaviours in my own Theory of Objects; von Foerster’s recursive eigen forms; and Schoen’s reflection in action. Finally, I will bring these ideas towards Umpleby’s account of Soros’ reflexive economics.
Eigenform in the sense of Heinz von Foerster is often depicted as the result of an infinite recursion. In this view objects are tokens for eigenbehaviours in the long term action of a recursion, and self-reference occurs only in the limit of such processes. Self-reference is the hallmark of a reflexive domain or a self-observing system. On the other hand reflexive domains occur in the exchange of theories and processes in everyday life and language, far from such limiting processes. It is the purpose of this talk to give a model for the notion of a reflexive domain, and to show that self-reference and eigenforms arise naturally in the way processes interact finitely. Our modelling applies directly to self-observing systems and this point of view leads to an investigation of reflexivity in science, social science and linguistics as well as cybernetics.
I shall continue to elaborate on the cybernetics of discourse. To me, language use (social communication) is the master trope of ecology: multiple species of metaphors brought selectively in interaction with one another by communities of human actors, who coordinate their individual experiences while co-constructing and altering social and material worlds. Bateson had located mind in the circular flow of differences, involving human brains. I am less concerned with mind as a category but with how a variety of social phenomena, especially discourses maintain themselves in self-constituting linguistically mediated reflexive loops. Cybernetics is a discursive phenomenon and the artifacts that cyberneticians collectively construct, I would argue, need to be conceptualized not in observational but in reflexive terms.
I introduced the concept of self-reflexive system in 1965. The essence of its definition is that such system contains the element which reflects the whole system and, at the same time, is influencing on it as on the entity. At that time, this concept was not cybernetic, it was rather anti-cybernetic, because it required the system to have a mental domain with the image of the self. Introducing the concept of self-reflexive system into scientific usage requested reconsidering the principles of constructing theories in the social sciences. In this field, unlike in the natural sciences, a theory about an object may influence this object, which destroys the truth of the theory. Besides, the theory may be constructed by the object and imposed on the investigator. I have discussed these problems with Karl Popper, and he called my approach dangerous for the scientific methodology. Mathematical methods constructed on the base of the concept of self-reflexive system are being used in psychology, sociology and ethics.
Reflexivity, with its etymological roots in the “flecto” or shepherd’s staff, and as a bending-back on ourselves inherent in all of our knowing processes, has presented intriguing dilemmas for researchers. On the one hand, we have those who see the very idea of reflexivity as a threat to a desired objectivity, to keep the observer out of the story of knowing; on the other, we have those who embrace it as a way of allowing the story to focus on themselves, losing sight of the circularity at the heart of reflexivity. Both approaches are rooted in a non-cybernetic epistemology. I propose to explore a middle ground, rooted in extending Gregory Bateson’s ideas of recursion, context, and cybernetic explanation to allow for an ecological reflexivity. To do this I would like to explore what, in this context, a self-(less) reflexivity might mean in social research. Such an idea will encourage us to, paradoxically, juxtapose the responsibility AND humility of the researcher, and to celebrate the “muddle” (again, from Bateson) that this often entails. Illustrations from diverse research settings will be offered.
The dominant model in economics is equilibrium theory, which is based on an analogy to thermodynamics. The elements of the system are assumed to be rational profit-maximizers with complete information. When the system is disturbed, economists assume that it will quickly return to equilibrium.? As an alternative George Soros has proposed reflexivity theory, which assumes that the elements of economic systems are thinking participants. They observe, act, observe, act, and they have biases. This view is readily accepted by practicing managers but not by economists. There seem to be two main reasons why economists reject reflexivity theory. First, they are familiar with their current paradigm and resist change, as described by Thomas Kuhn. Second, they claim that reflexivity theory would encounter logical difficulties. This paper will review the logical difficulties anticipated, note that practical solutions have been available for a long time, and discuss several approaches to reflexive systems, which enable formal representations.