Thursday, 8 October 2015

What Second-Order Cybernetics stands against

Second-order cybernetics is a broad church and there is significant internal tension as a result. Ostensibly defined as the "cybernetics of observing systems", there are a variety of interpretations of what that might mean. For example, both Niklas Luhmann and Humberto Maturana are both second-order cyberneticians, and yet each has criticised the other for an inconsistent application of second-order cybernetic principles. This isn't helped by the fact that each wishes to define second-order cybernetic principles.  Luhmann's borrowing of Maturana's theory of autopoiesis as a way of developing sociological theory (particularly developing Parson's Social Systems theory), and its entailed view that communication systems are 'autopoietic' (i.e. it is an organisationally-closed, structurally-determined system which regenerates its own components) appears to impute some kind of reality to the communications system which subsumes psychological, perceptual and agential issues. Luhmann famously declared he was not interested in people, but in the dynamics of communication systems. Imputing the existence of a communication system existing beyond the biological boundary of the organism is the opposite of Maturana's thinking when he conceived of autopoietic theory. He argues:
"a cognitive system is a system whose organisation defines a domain of interactions in which it can act with relevance to the maintenance of itself, and the process of cognition is the actual (inductive) acting or behaving in this domain"
There is no information, only self-organisation of the organism. The cognitive system organises itself within a domain of interactions.  Luhmann's redescription of sociology in terms of autopoiesis has been taken by Maturana and his followers as something of a betrayal and distortion. And yet, Luhmann's redescription of sociology has been the most influential social-cybernetic theory, attracting the attention of Habermas (who disagrees with Luhmann, but clearly takes him seriously) and many others, for whom systems thinking would otherwise have been sidelined. Few cybernetic thinkers (apart from possibly Bateson) can claim such extensive influence.

In unpicking the distinctions between different positions regarding second-order cybernetics, two approaches might be used. On the one hand, it is possible, following Harre's example (in his "varieties of relativism"), to identify the differences between positions with regard to what they oppose. Alternatively, it is possible to determine the differences in what the positions support. Here I want to deal with the former.

Harre identifies three major themes which intellectual positions concerning relativism stand against:

  1. Objectivism: the belief that there are objects and concepts in the world independent of individual observer;
  2. Universalism: that there are beliefs which hold good on all contexts for all people;
  3. Foundationalism: the belief that there are fundamental principles from which all other things can be constructed.
There are differences between different versions of Second-order cybernetics with regard to these categories. Objections to Objectivism would appear to be the most clear issue: as the cybernetics of observing systems, second-order cybernetics clearly opposes the assumption of a mind-independent reality. However, on examining different theoretical stances, there are discernable and differentiated traces of objectivism in each variety. For example, Maturana's philosophy derived from biological evidence. A common criticism therefore cites implicit objectivism in its biological foundation. Luhmann, by contrast, escapes this charge. 

With regard to Universalism, there is an implicit view within second-order cybernetics which allies itself to philosophical scepticism: that there is no 'natural necessity', or naturally-occurring regularities in nature: von Glasersfeld calls this a 'pious fiction'. However, second-order cybernetics does appear to uphold the law-like nature of its own principles, arguing for these as a foundation for processes of construction of everything else. At the heart of this issue is the nature of causation inherent within universal laws. Second-order cybernetics upholds a view that rather than universal causal laws in operation, self-organising systems operate with degrees of freedom within constraints. However, in taking this position, different varieties of second-order cybernetic differ in their understanding of what those constraints might be, and how the system might organise itself with regard to them. Maturana's constraints are biological; Luhmann's are discursive. 

With regard to foundationalism, all varieties of second-order cybernetics appear to wish to maintain their principles as foundational. Whatever constraints bear upon the self-organisation of a system in its environment, there is little consideration of the constraints that bear upon the second-order cybernetician who concocts the ideas of systems self-organising within constraints. Perhaps closest to the post-foundational position is von Glasersfeld, who has argued for his 'radical constructivism' as sitting on the fence with regard to an external reality or a human construction. He emphasises the in-betweenness of the intellectual position, albeit with a somewhat strident certainty that all is construction. Although Luhmann's social systems seem foundational, in his adoption of Parsons's ideas of 'double-contingency' of communication, the intersubjective flux of being which this presents is closely related to sociomaterial, post-foundational ideas about entanglements between subjectivity and objectivity. 

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