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
BACK: History
THEME: Circularity

"Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity."

- Heinz von Foerster

  The one theme most critical to the coalescence of cybernetics was 'circularity'.

"It seems that cybernetics is many different things to many different people ... However, all of those perspectives arise from one central theme, and that is that of circularity. ... When, perhaps a half century ago, the fecundity of this concept was seen, it was sheer euphoria to philosophize, epistemologize, and theorize about its consequences, its ramification into various fields, and its unifying power."

- Heinz von Foerster

Prior to the rise of cybernetics, 'circularity' had become a suspicious notion in Western academic circles. Arguments, events, and processes which 'went nowhere' were described as 'vicious circles'. People incapable of constructive action or progress were characterized as 'going in circles'. In conventional logic, 'circular reasoning' was treated as a pathology to be avoided. More broadly, the Enlightenment engendered a paradigmatic motif of linear historical progress whose adoption effectively precluded consideration of circularity.

As a result, circularity was a 'bad word' in the parlance of science and even in philosophy. Its return as a viable and valuable construct would only occur once science (particularly biological and social sciences) began having problems explaining phenomena in terms of 'linearity'. This didn't occur until the mid-20th century, when the first cyberneticians accorded circularity its newfound and rightful respect.

For our purposes, circularity can be addressed in terms of two discriminable aspects - both of which are relevant to the other themes cited in our historical review, and both of which are critical to understanding the original foci of cybernetics theorizations. In the following subsections we shall discuss each of these in turn.

Circularity in Systemic Organization   The first aspect concerns the way in which a 'system' is seen to be organized as discrete sets of components whose functional interrelationships with each other define that 'system' and distinguish it from the remainder of the space or context within which it is observed. Figuratively speaking, these components participate in an intra-systemic domain that is 'circumscribed' by the extent of the processes constituting the system as a whole. Phrased even more figuratively, system components are discerned as if they were 'circled' like wagons in a Western movie.

This aspect of 'circularity' may seem trivial on first inspection. It certainly hasn't been emphasized much in the cybernetics literature. However, its criticality lies in its role as referential context for the aspect of 'circularity' more commonly cited in explaining cybernetics. Such circular form or constitution in systemic entities provides the basic road map for tracing the course of systems' functions and processes. This makes for descriptions and explanations which themselves emphasize 'circularity' in the second (and more historically important) sense described in the next subsection. It is also important to note that this connotative effect is reciprocal. The first step in analyzing a circular process or chain of causation is to circumscribe the 'system' manifesting it.

The self-regulating mechanisms cited earlier in our historical review were all configured to afford a circularity of cause and effect. This interweaving of causation and the mechanisms' structure often obscured any view that there was a circular 'form' being enforced. For example, in the case of the earliest float regulators the water operated as a functional component of the mechanism, but was more easily seen as something other than the mechanism per se (e.g., as 'the content of the regulatory vehicle'). As control mechanisms became more sophisticated, the circular character of their organization became even more difficult to readily discern. In part, this derived from the fact that later control mechanisms were distinguished as separate from the apparatus they controlled. In part, this derived from the increasingly ephemeral character of the 'content' for which these systems' structures served as figurative conduits (e.g., steam, electricity). It would not be until systemic perspectives became prominent in physiology and biology that circularity of organization or form would be recognized as important. By the 1920's, electrical and communications engineers were grappling with organizational circularity (if only figuratively) in terms of feedback effects in electronic circuitry. A decade before the cybernetics group's first meetings, Alfred Korbzyski (of 'general semantics' fame) made much of the essentially circular character of language - specifically the way in which meanings and utterances build on earlier ones. By the early 1940's, the precedents and early exemplars of circular organization were numerous enough to provide inspiration for the original cybernetics group.

Circular Causality   The second, and more crucial, aspect of 'circularity' in cybernetics concerns function or process - i.e., the descriptions and explanations applied in analyzing a systemic entity's dynamics, history, and evolution. This aspect provided the discursive focus for the early cybernetics meetings. More specifically, the earliest cybernetics discussions addressed the way in which the behavior of a systemic entity was best explained in terms of how the effects of its actions (i.e., 'outputs') circled back (i.e., as 'inputs') to influence that entity's state and its subsequent actions. It was this 'circular causality' which would come to be called 'feedback' - the cybernetics group's original self-ascribed topic and the single concept most frequently cited as illustrative of cybernetics thinking.

As was noted above with respect to circular organization, there is only scattered and allusive historical evidence for an appreciation of circularity in function or process. One assumes the builders of (e.g.) the early float regulator mechanisms had some conceptualization of the circular causality these artifacts exploited, but there are no written records to prove this. To be sure, various philosophers (e.g., Descartes) and natural scientists illustrated responsive behaviors (e.g., reflex) in terms of a circular path of stimulus and action as early as the 17th century. However, such allusions remained descriptive or illustrative, and no deeper analysis of their significance can be claimed to have been undertaken at that time. James Watt expended years of effort in perfecting his flyball governor during the mid-1700's, but he was more interested in making his steam engine practicable than devising any generalized theory. Both Airy (1840's) and Maxwell (1860's) applied mathematical techniques to analyze stability in mechanical 'feedback circuits', but neither seemed to have dwelt on the general issue of circularity.

Such circularity was implicit in the notion of self-maintained 'homeostasis' in living systems - a concept introduced by Bernard circa 1855 and more formally treated by Cannon in 1929. As was the case with the 19th century engineers, their description of the general outcome overshadowed any attentions to an explanation of the causation thus insinuated. In 1933, Korbzyski's description of language as a circular structure went on to address cirularity of function. He noted a given effect will become a causative element in determining future effects, and that the results of this recursive causation would necessarily be rich and complex.

Still, it would remain for the cybernetics group of the 1940's to address circularity in and of itself. This became the dominant topic around which this diverse group coalesced, and it would become the centerpiece of the field they created.

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The Subject of Cybernetics

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