Ranulph Glanville’s Paper Proposal

Living in Cybernetics

Mead (1968) suggested we should not only study cybernetic systems, we should perform our studies in a cybernetic manner, that is, we should act taking into account what we learn in our cybernetic studies—in a manner informed by our understanding. It was in this sense that she spoke about the Cybernetics of Cybernetics. I understand her suggestion to be a call for rigorous consistency, and for us to live by the ”cybernetic behavioural code” we have written.

Thus, she implicitly argued that there were two aspects to cybernetics: cybernetic understanding and cybernetic action. These are connected (as we explored in last year’s conference) in a circle, acting leading to understanding, understanding to acting, often by means of learning. There is no structural hierarchy: understanding, in this cybernetic loop, is not superior to acting. This position undermines Aristotle’s insistence that sophia (understanding knowledge) is superior to phronesis (acting knowledge).

So we may add the requirement that we should also understand in a manner informed by our acting to Mead’s suggestion that we act in a manner informed by our understanding. This addition completes Mead’s proposal, making the proposal cybernetic, itself.

Much second order cybernetics remains unaware of the deeper meaning of Mead’s initiating comment. Not only does Foerster’s later characterisation divert Mead’s request for consistency from general behaviour to the particular (observing), it can also be seen to shore up the Aristotelian claim that sophia is superior to phronesis (which Aristotle, himself, undermines by remarking that sophia originates in and returns to phronesis).

(Foerster’s 1974) second order cybernetics is concerned with observing systems. Second order cybernetics studies are made by observers (of a cybernetic system) and comment on it from a traditional, external position. Sometimes, the observer (in the system) and the observer (of the system) elide, for instance in Foerster’s insistence that “the laws of biology must write themselves” or through what I have called “transcendence” in Black Boxes (Glanville 1982), but usually the system examined includes observer and observed, and we understand that the observing of that system also requires an observer—according to Foerster’s aphorism:

“objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him.”

But resulting from the argument in this paper, Foerster’s second order cybernetics should be seen as a weak version of Mead’s cybernetics of cybernetics, for Mead’s consistency requirement is concerned with understanding as well as acting. Acting brings us to live in cybernetics: to consider cybernetics not just as a way of thinking (Glasersfeld 1992) but also as a way of living—perhaps even of being—bringing together epistemology and ontology, establishing consistency in the deep link between both.

The cybernetics of cybernetics involves acting and is without any natural hierarchy. To force the imposition of hierarchy creates inconsistency. We should not, therefore, apply it. Taking this position leaves us with the possibility of showing it by and in how we live, and of spreading our message not by argument alone but, just as well, by example. We might be more convincing in bringing cybernetics to others if we followed tradition 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous which states “our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion”.

Cybernetic traditions:

  • 3) Experimental epistemology; constructivism; philosophy of science
  • 5) Education and conversation

2 thoughts on “Ranulph Glanville’s Paper Proposal

  1. klaus krippendorff

    well, ranulph, i am pleased you consider heinz von foerster’s definition of second-order cybernetics a weak version of margaret mead’s proposal for cybernetics.

    i’d say it stronger, rephrasing karl marx:
    “observers are destined to merely understand or explain their observations, the point is to change them by designing worlds with their other occupants.”

    i do not read margaret mead as proposing to act from understanding (i think she never mentioned the word). Instead, she talked of the language of cybernetics, how it is changing society and how cybernetics needs to develop a language that cuts across disciplines in order to keep up with the technologies cybernetics is introducing in the world.

    there is an old aristotalian axiom: the actions of humans cannot contradict their understanding. — humans can make mistakes, be careless, or ignorant but not act against their own understanding. I think margaret mead took that for granted

    rephrasing heinz von foerster, to me:

    “understanding is an observer’s delusion of having no questions to ask of his or her observations.
    understanding remains a delusion until it is articulated (in public), or observably operationalized (e.g as a design that meets expectations).”

    just something to think of


  2. Claudia Jacques

    “cybernetics needs to develop a language that cuts across disciplines in order to keep up with the technologies cybernetics is introducing in the world.” Søren Brier’s Cybersemiotic addresses this gap.


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