4th International Conference of Sociocybernetics
- Society from Ancient Greece to Cyberspace and Beyond -

Corfu, Greece, June 30-July 5, 2003

Second Order Cybernetics: An Historical Introduction

Bernard Scott
SL in Electronically-Enhanced Learning
Cranfield University
Royal Military College of Science
Shrivenham, Swindon, Wilts SN6 8LA


In 1974, Heinz von Foerster articulated the distinction between a first order and a second order cybernetics, as, respectively, the cybernetics of observed systems and the cybernetics of observing systems. Von Foerster’s distinction, together with his own work on the epistemology of the observer, has been enormously influential on the work of a later generation of cyberneticians. It has provided an architecture for the discipline of cybernetics, one that, in true cybernetic spirit, provides order where previously there was variety and disorder. It has provided a foundation for the research programme that is second order cybernetics. However, as von Foerster himself makes clear, the distinction he articulated was imminent right from the outset in the thinking of the early cyberneticians, before, even, the name of their discipline had been coined. In this paper, I give a brief account of the developments in cybernetics that lead to von Foerster’s making his distinction. As is the way of such narratives, it is but one perspective on a complex series of events. Not only is my account a personal perspective, it also includes some recollections of events that I observed and participated in at first hand.


It is well known that cybernetics came into being before it had a name. The chief source was the series of conferences on Feedback and Circular Causality in Biological and Social Systems. I begin the paper with a brief overview of these developments, drawing particularly on the editors’ introduction to the series of volumes in which the proceedings of the later conferences were published (von Foerster et al, 1953). I also make reference to Wiener’s (1948) book, Cybernetics, which gave the discipline a name, a name which was adopted by the Macy conference organisers as a title.

I go on to very briefly mention the parallel developments that lead to von Bertallanfy’s (1950) articulation of the need for a general theory of complex systems – developments and approaches often referred to as general systems theory (gst). I punctuate the narrative at this point by noting that, amongst many other commentaries on the relationships between cybernetics and gst, that Ross Ashby’s (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics, provides an intellectually satisfying way of bringing the two developments, synonymously, within a unifying framework. I note as a contrast two commonly formulated alternative frameworks: one in which cybernetics is positioned as a subset of gst and one in which both gst and cybernetics are viewed as being part of some larger whole, such as complexity studies or the systems sciences. I also note the more pragmatic usage of the terms systems and cybernetics and cybernetics and systems as a way of embracing a broad ‘church’ of practitioners with different overlapping interests but possibly widely differing unifying frameworks and perspectives.

Next, I give an overview of developments prior to Von Foerster’s making the first and second order cybernetics distinction. I highlight two related trends: one, the speed and extent with which the concepts of systems and cybernetics were adopted by specific disciplines; the other, the eventual emergence of competing epistemological and ontological paradigms. I group these – as many commentators before me have done - into two broad classes. Using current terminology, I name one class as ‘representationalist, realist’ and the other as ‘constructivist, enactive’. I am aware this is a far satisfactory, being more of a caricature than a characterisation of different positions. I make the differences more concrete by referring to some of the specific events that indicated that a major schism was becoming manifest as particular research programmes emerged within what was by then being referred to as cognitive science.

By this stage, the scene is set for introducing von Foerster’s making of his seminal distinction as a significant historical event. I share my understanding of what were von Foerster’s motivations.

In the final part of the paper, I overview developments since then, paying particular attention to the domains where the concerns of second order cybernetics have been most clearly articulated and where its associated concepts and understandings have – and are – bearing fruit. Specifically, amongst many possible candidates, I note the contributions of Pask (conversation theory and interaction of actors theory), Maturana (autopoiesis theory), Glanville (‘objects’ theory), Luhmann (social systems theory) Geyer and others (sociocybernetics) and Brier (cybersemiotics).

References (indicative)

Ashby, W.R., (1956). Introduction to Cybernetics, Wiley, New York.
Luhmann, N. (1989). Ecological Communication, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
Maturana, H.R. (1970). ”Neurophysiology of cognition”, in Cognition: a Multiple View, P. Garvin (ed.), Spartan Books, New York, pp. 3-23.
Maturana, H.R. and Varela, F.J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition, D. Reidel, Dordrecht.
Pask, G., (1969). ”The meaning of cybernetics in the behavioural sciences”, in Progress of Cybernetics, Vol. 1, J. Rose (ed.), Gordon and Breach, London, pp. 15-45.
Pask, G. (1975). Conversation, Cognition and Learning, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Von Bertalanffy, L. (1950). ”An outline of General Systems Theory”. Brit. J. Phil. Sci., 1, 134-165.
Von Bertalanffy, L. (1972). ”The history and status of General Systems Theory”, in Trends in General Systems Theory, G. Klir (ed.), New York: Wiley, pp. 21-41.
Von Foerster, H. (1960). ”On self-organising systems and their environments” in Self-Organising Systems, M. C. Yovits and S. Cameron (eds.), London: Pergamon Press, pp. 30-50.
Von Foerster, H. (1970). "Thoughts and Notes on Cognition", in Cognition: a Multiple View, P. Garvin (ed.), Spartan Books, New York, pp. 25-48.
Von Foerster , H. (1993) ”Ethics and second-order cybernetics”, Psychiatria Danubia, 5, 1-2, pp. 40-46.
Von Foerster, H., Mead, M., and Teuber, H. L. (1953). Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems, Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, New York.
Von Foerster, H., et al (eds.) (1974). Cybernetics of Cybernetics, BCL Report 73.38, Biological Computer Laboratory, Dept. of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana.
Wiener, N., (1948). Cybernetics, Wiley, New York.
Wiener, N. (1954).The Human Use of Human Beings, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass.

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