Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster


Pre-History of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
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THEME: Qualifying 'Knowledge' with Respect to the 'Knower'

The Relevance of Epistemology to Cybernetics   By the 1940's there were numerous streams of theory that criticized objectivist or naive-realist epistemological stances (i.e., the belief that the world was objectively 'out there', and our knowledge of that world was direct and unambiguous). Such critiques had a long history in philosophy. However, thinkers in a variety of other fields - especially biology and the social sciences - were commonly addressing 'knowledge' not as something objectively 'given' but as something generated in a particular context and by a particular 'knower'. When the 'knower' is being addressed as a subject system, this motivates attention to that system's 'epistemology'.

Precedents for 'Systems Epistemology'   Given the generality of this epistemological theme, there are a wide variety of philosophical innovations which could be nominated as influences and precedents. However, it is just as important to emphasize the lines of development outside academic philosophy which linked epistemological issues to particular systems. In the following paragraphs a very brief illustrative summary will be offered.

The notion that 'man is the measure of all things' dates back to Protagoras in the 5th century BC. Descartes established the modern problematic of soul versus body and specified one's own mentation as the ground for philosophizing. Soon thereafter, Locke formulated our modern notion of 'ideas' as meaningful constructs populating a mysteriously non-spatial mental space. In 1710, Giambattista Vico declared the only knowledge one can have is what one construes - an event commonly cited as the original constructivist manifesto. By the 1790's Kant had established the distinction between external phenomena and internal noumena as the foundation of modern epistemological debate.

Another relevant stream of work concerned the mechanisms by which the observer accreted and exploited a constructed set of personal 'knowledge'. This stream can be characterized mainly in terms of linguistics and semiotics. Charles Sanders Peirce's work on 'phaneroscopy' (study of that which can be present to the mind) and signs provided foundations for addressing personal epistemological elements which are only now being explored and exploited. Saussure's early formulation of semiotics (published in 1916) established another framework for analyzing the mind's 'content'. By the early 1930's, Alfred Korbzyski was outlining how the richness of language derived from the essentially circular character of language - specifically the way in which meanings and utterances build on earlier ones. Benjamin Whorf seminal theses that language and culture are intimately interwoven and that language structures thought were published in the early 1940's, on the eve of the first cybernetics meetings.

Another, perhaps more immediately influential, stream of work occurred in biology and early psychology. In the late 1830's German physiologist Johannes Müller formulated his Law of Specific Nerve Energies, which associated perception with a diversity of neural mechanisms and pathways and refuted the notion that external phenomena are received 'as a whole' and 'as-is' by the perceptual system. This was the first in a long line of discoveries in biology, neuroanatomy, and psychophysics which would undermine the doctrine of naive objectivism. The contingency of behavior on individual experience became a scientific proposition with Pavlov's work on conditioning in the first decade of the 20th century. Edward Thorndike's 1911 Law of Effect further emphasized this contingency by stating subsequent actions would be more or less likely depending on how good or bad the outcomes of prior such actions were perceived to be. In 1909, Jakob von Uexküll introduced the construct Umwelt to denote the subjective world of an organism in contrast to the 'objective world' in which that organism was observed to live. Beginning the 1920's, Köhler, Koffka, Wertheimer, and others would develop their Gestalt psychology to illuminate aspects of individual perception. Jakob von Uexküll's 1928 Theoretische Biologie highlighted the role of the observer in biological analyses and the subject-dependency of perception. His 1940 book Bedeutungslehre linked this biological stream with the linguistic stream by outlining what we now call biosemiotics.

Epistemological Aspects of Cybernetics' Coalescence   These streams and others - scientific as well as philosophical - were converging at the time cybernetics' creators first met. It would be both inaccurate and unfair to make a global claim that cybernetics was born with an intrinsic commitment to (e.g.) a relativistic ontology (i.e., a view that 'reality' was wholly contingent on the observer). Many of cybernetics' early and subsequent proponents were clearly grounded in the dominant objectivistic orientation of the Enlightenment programme and the Western scientific tradition. This is especially self-evident among those cyberneticians in the engineering disciplines. Others pursued their cybernetics interests without evidencing any particular stance on such philosophical issues, or at least without explicitly rejecting the prevailing objectivistic stance.

By the same token, it would be reasonable and fair to claim that cybernetics was born with an intrinsic openness (if not predisposition) toward a relativistic epistemology - at least to the extent of circumscribing (e.g.) 'knowledge' accretion and 'knowledge exploitation' with respect to a specific subject system. The seminal work of Wiener and McCulloch (along with their respective colleagues) had fostered an appreciation for the manner in which a system's ascribed or operant 'knowledge' is qualified with respect to that system's particular form, dynamics, and constraints. In the case of Wiener's group this qualification surfaced in engineering control functions for anti-aircraft guns based on incoming radar data. In the case of McCulloch and Pitts this qualification was effectively their primary focus, because they were analyzing the extent to which a specific class of systems (artificial neurons) could capture and act upon inputs. In a similar sense, Mead's and Bateson's anthropological research had come to focus on the manner in which cultural 'meanings' arose and persisted among a society's participants in the course of their lives.

Combined with the systemic perspective, this theme led to addressing extra-systemic entities (e.g., elements of the environment) not in terms of their objective 'knowability' but in terms of how the focal system 'knows' or otherwise interacts with them. Such an approach or motif would become much more prominent decades later with the formulation of second-order cybernetics and its emphasis on an 'observer'. However, this was more than merely implicit at the outset, as is well illustrated by the fact that McCulloch characterized his neural modeling research as 'experimental epistemology'.

This epistemological qualification also interacted with other of the seminal themes. In relation to 'regulation', it motivated attention to how particular system(s) engaged their operational environments via their internal dynamics to manifest orderly behavior. In relation to 'communications' or 'information' it motivated attention to the sensory, representational, and inferential facilities through which a subject system's behavior was mediated. In relation to 'formalism', this theme motivated attention to the sets or frameworks of ascribed data elements which reasonably modeled the bases for such behaviors.

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The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
This essay contributed by Randall Whitaker, March 2003