Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Gombrich, Popper and Hayek

I've long been an enthusiast for the work of Ernst Gombrich. When I first encountered "Art and Illusion" I was beginning my journey into learning technology. With Gombrich I found somebody who was articulating the everyday experience of the visual and musical world, seeing it in the same breath as artistic masterpieces, and asking profound questions about perception and experience. I intuited that there was something important here for understanding experience with technology, of learning, of the web, and so on. I wrote a few papers about what interested me about this (which I've now lost!) particularly as I was interested in game-like experiences for stimulating creativity. But I wasn't at a stage in my studies where I knew enough to make deeper connections, and Gombrich wasn't a major figure in educational technology (!) so I let the thread of interest die as I took to cybernetics and critical realism as bodies of work which could be brought in to be more directly relevant to what I was working on.

Now I'm coming back to his work. This has been stimulated by his book "A sense of Order" (1979) which I didn't know before, but which he saw as a sequel to "Art and Illusion". In this book, Gombrich tackles the issue of pattern. In particular, he uses information theory (without direct reference to Shannon) as a way of talking of the effect of pattern, and especially the concept of 'redundancy'.

In the intervening years since first following Gombrich, I immersed myself in the work of Bateson, Beer and Luhmann - all of whom had a lot to say about pattern. Luhmann and Beer both greatly appreciated the work of Shannon, and it is with my interest in Luhmann that I started to engage with the work of Leydesdorff. Leydesdorff's work has made important contributions to the application of Shannon's equations, and in particular in the last year or so, has thrown the spotlight back onto redundancy as a major category of investigation in the understanding of communication processes.  So seeing Gombrich talk about redundancy in art and music in 1979 was a pleasant discovery.

But then there were further connections to be uncovered. In addition to embedding myself in cybernetics, I simultaneously read Roy Bhaskar's work, and started to engage in the Cambridge Realist Workshop headed by Tony Lawson. Cybernetics seemed facile to me, and Critical Realism deepened the cybernetic arguments because it also emphasised mechanisms, but in the context ontology, not epistemology (cybernetics is fundamentally epistemological). I saw Critical Realism as a way of thinking about the world which built on arguments put forwards by earlier 20th century thinkers who had argued against forms of idealism - notably Popper and Berlin. Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies" carries a strong realist message - a point not missed by Critical Realist thinkers including Pawson and Tilley, whose Realistic Evaluation is portrayed as an example of Popper's 'Piecemeal Social Engineering'.

Popper's book "The Open Society and its Enemies" owed its publication in 1945 to Ernst Gombrich. They were both Viennese, and although they didn't know each other well before arriving in England, became firm friends. Popper's approach to science became the underpinning of Gombrich's approach to art. However, the story of the publication of Popper's book involves another of Gombrich's friends Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek was connected to Routledge and so Gombrich's move, on receiving a request from Popper for help, was to send the manuscript to Hayek. Hayek was impressed enough to offer a readership to Popper at the LSE (those were the days!). But the Hayek-Gombrich connection is fascinating because Hayek major concern in economics was to do with information. In particular the distribution of information among a population, and the way that prices worked as signals within the economy. Stafford Beer apparently met Hayek and declared "at last, an economist who understands cybernetics!" (although he retracted this after learning of Hayek's support for General Pinochet and his endorsement by Mrs. Thatcher).

But Gombrich's interest in information theory seems directly related to his awareness of his friend's interest in information in the economy. Yet, the pieces don't appear to have been assembled. It may be that Gombrich's redundancy theory of art is of great importance in our understanding of the way that information works in the economy. I'm increasingly impressed by a theory of information which privileges the study of redundancies and not messages. The fact that such an approach makes sense in the study of art and music suggests to me that it's wider application and truth are more than possible.

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