Systemics and Cybernetics

François, Charles 1999. Systemics and cybernetics in a historical perspective. Systems Research & Behavioral Science 16(3): 203-219..

Some systemic-cybernetic terms have remote origins. Hereafter they are traced back in time, but connections with more recent developments are signalled.
The Greek word 'sustema' stood for reunion, conjunction or assembly. 'Kubernetes' (helmsman) was used by Plato, already in the abstract sense of 'pilot' of a political entity.
The concept of system resurfaced during the seventeenth century, e.g. principally in a philosophical sense. Descartes' 'Discourse de la Méthodé' introduced a coordinated set of rules to be used to reach coherent certainty, i.e. an epistemic methodology of systematic and possibly in some sense systemic character. (François 1999: 203)
But - What is a system? Here - an answer.
After Descartes, practically all important philosophers did construct their philosophical system, starting from some basic interrelated postulates. Leibnitz, for example, stated his 'principle of pre-established harmony' between substances, according to which any change in one substance is necessarily correlated with every other. This is coherence in complexity through reciprocal constraints. It would already be a kind of conceptual homeostat, in Ashby's twentieth century terms! Moreover these Leibnitzian correlations could be eventually formulated in scientific laws. Thus are scientific theories heralded, as conceptual systems. (François 1999: 203-204)
This is one of the few aspects of systems that I was previously well-aware of: change in one part of the system necessarily effects change in the whole system.
Much later, the unavoidable necessity of correlations and mutual interdependence, associated with a complex causality, and leading naturally to the concept of system, reappeared in N. Hartmann's reconsideration of ontology (1912). Hartmann also developed a theory of stratification, i.e. hierarchy of levels of reality through his theory of categories. His ideas were quoted more than once by Bertalanffy (1949, 195) and seem to have filtered, directly or indirectly, for example, into the works of Miller on living systems (1978), those of Mesarovic et al. (1970) and other authorities on hierarchies, and possibly van Gigch's concept of metasystems (1987b). (François 1999: 204)
Reference: Hartmann, Nicolai 1943. Neue Wege der Ontologie. In: Systematische Philosophie. Stuttgart. This guy seems pretty interesting. Something to get into in future.
From 1854-1878, the French physiologist Bernard (see 1952) in a series of works established the existence of the 'internal milieu' in the living being, thus making clear difference between what happens 'inside' and what is now called the 'environment' (Vendryes 1942). (François 1999: 204)
Something to keep in mind for inlooking sensational perception.
Psychology also was in want of more global views. After Brentano's research on the relation of the subject with the object (Psychology from an empirical viewpoint, 1874, 1911), Wertheimer's research on the principles of perceptual organization (1923) led to the formulation of Gestalt psychology, i.e. psychology of perception of forms, widely developed by Kohler (1929) and Koffka (1935). (François 1999: 206)
Oh god damn. Of course Brentano's fingerprints are on Gestalt psychology. Of course.
It became obvious that perception must start by picking up static structures and dynamic interrelations between elements, i.e. is systemic. We have here yet another root of various systemic-cybernetic interpretations of reality. (François 1999: 206)
From Firstness to Secondness.
Another very important precursor was the Polish logician, psychologist and semanticist Korzybski, who published in 1933 (in the United States) his seminal work on Science and Sanity, wherein he developed a 'Non-Aristotelian' logic, with very significant implications in psychology and psychiatry. While his work is frequently ignored by systemic psychologists, he explained psycho-semantic pathologies in an obvious systemic way. Bateson and probably most of his direct intellectual heirs have had knowledge of Korzybski's work. It is obvious that no satisfactory conversation nor consensus can be reached if psycho-semantic pathologies are not understood. (François 1999: 208)
Who are Bateson's direct intellectual heirs? Apparently Korzybski influenced Bateson's "difference that makes a difference".
Von Bertalanffy's main contribution was neatly stated in his 1950 paper, in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. However, equally important was his role as a catalyst of the systems view. This is so in at least two different senses.
In the first place he clearly stated the central concept of systems. The same could be said of him that is said about Christopher Colombus and America: after him there was never anymore need to discover systems. On the other hand, he strongly insisted on the existence of 'isomorphic laws in science', giving convincing examples. From this fact he deduced the possibility of a new multidisciplinary approach and proposed a 'general systems theory', by generalizing some widely significant principles.
He presented the so-called theory as 'an important regulative device in science' which should lead to the 'unity of science'. However, he merely discussed some specific subjects as competition between parts, finality and equifinality, closed and open systems, and anamorphosis and catamorphosis. (François 1999: 209)
His paper is titled "An Outline of General System Theory" and I will finally get to read him (as there is a copy of his book in Tartu but it is in a restricted library).
The basic password for his [Von Förster's] work is probably the German word Eigen, i.e. self-, now incorporated into the systemic language as in eigenbehaviour, eigenelement, eigenfunction, eigenprocess, eigenvalue, and the like, not to mention the numerous expressions beginning with 'self-'. (François 1999: 210)
As a person very much taken by expressions beginning with self-, I am intrigued.
Some ethologists, not necessarily closely connected with the systems movement, made interesting contributions to the pool of transdisciplinary concepts. Already in 1934, von Uexkull had developed an understanding of the environment as a percept, different from species to species and even from individual to individual. Other ethologists, as for example Bonner (1955), investigated the general social aspects of animal life. Bonner explored, for instance, colonies of cells and microorganisms or, at a higher level of complexity, coordination and cooperation in animal societies (ants, termites, beavers, deer, monkeys, seals). As these studies widely expanded and are still going on nowadays, it seems possible that a very general systemic theory of sociality and its ways could finally emerge, possibly connected to the recent research in AL. Bonner also studied other systemic topics such as differentiation, morphogenesis, patterns and limits of growth, and symmetry. (François 1999: 212)
I was waiting for von Uexküll to be mentioned. Also, i think Ruesch & Bateson's (1951) contribution is a step towards a very general systemic theory of sociality.
In his 1962 paper on 'The architecture of complexity', Simon successfully tried to throw more light on the concept of complexity, until then merely a not very clear password. Of course, systems, as made of numerous interacting components, and more generally identifiable sets of specifically interacting components, are to be clearly differentiated from simple unorganized collections of elements. Simon gave a variety of examples in his paper, but most of all made the difference crystal clear with his famous Hora and Tempus parable of two watchmakers, one of them working in a systemic way, and the other merely in a linear sequential way. (François 1999: 212)
Why does this remind me of the distinction between hypo- and hypersemiotic communication?
Chaos tehory as the study of the irregular, inpredictable behaviour of deterministic non-linear systems is one of the most recent and important innovations in systemics. Complex systems are by nature non-linear, and accordingly they cannot be perfectly reduced to linear simplifications. (François 1999: 214)
"The immanent laws of literary evolution form an unresolvable equation" (Jakobson & Tynyanov 1928).
Another outstanding French cybernetician and systemist, active since 1950, Vallée has constructed during the last 40 years under the general name of 'epistemo-praxeology' an elaborate mathematical and logical theory of cognition as related to systems (1993, 1995). This work, based on a very wide knowledge of the relevant authors in the field (as for instance von Förster, Maturana, McCulloch, Pitts and Wiener), introduces the notions of observation operator, inverse transfer and epistemo-praxeological loop in order to clarify the deeper nature of the interrelations between the observer and that which is observed. (François 1999: 215)
How does this compare to Rusech's loop between knowledge and action, and his insistence on the observer's position?
As the editor of my recent Encyclopedia of Systems, I included in this work some very generally unknown concepts, which seem, however, of a quite systemic nature and, as such, potentially uneful. Tree of the most significant among these are:
  • the 'aura' (Prat), i.e. whatever traces remain of the system after its demise (petrified wood, a ship's wreck, Hammurabi's and Justinian's code, Aristotle's logics);
  • 'stigmergy' (Grassé), i.e. the alternate and reciprocal transfer of structural and/or functional information from individuals to the system they are part of, or conversely;
  • 'invisibility' (de Zeeuw), i.e. the non-perception of some objects, features or situations due to the insufficiency of our observational competence.
I am convinced that there must still be a number of other concepts or models of potentially systemic generality scattered in some (un)fairly unknown works of disappeared or living researchers. We should dive for them in the deeps of literature. (François 1999: 217)
Aura sounds like a potential contender for Kalevi Kull's challenge to find a proper term for signs that remain from disappeared Umwelten. The definition of stigmergy here doesn't seem to do justice for the concept. Wikipedia writes: "The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent." In other words, it's as if the aura determined consequent behaviour. Invisibility sounds strained, much like Cesar Janello's cesia. I've found more suitable concepts from an (un)fairly unknown work: E. R. Clay's The Alternative (1882) proposes abditive and inabditive indistinctness for invisibility due to insufficient competence or invisibility as such. All in all this was one of the best papers I've read in a while.


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