Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

The Cybernetic Connection

The term ‘cybernetics’ has been used in different ways in popular articles and books and also in the technical literature. It has become a fairly general term that crops up in a variety of contexts. It still has, I suspect, a vague, somewhat mysterious meaning for most readers. This is not surprising, because the cyberneticians themselves have different individual perspectives. Some years ago I was asked by the American Society for Cybernetics to write a description of their field. I could do no better now and am therefore using this ‘Declaration’ as the first part of this chapter.

The second part is a paper that makes connections between a specific area of cybernetics, Piaget’s theory of cognition, and constructivist epistemology.

The last section deals with the particular notion of ‘model’ that I have used throughout this text. This word, too, is used in many contexts and has a more or less special meaning in each. I have used it frequently in my papers, but did not always announce that I was borrowing it from cybernetics. This has led to misunderstandings. The last part of the chapter should put this right.

Declaration of the American Society for Cybernetics1

Cybernetics is a way of thinking, not a collection of facts. Thinking involves concepts: forming them and relating them to each other. Some of the concepts that characterize cybernetics have been about for a long time, implicitly or explicitly. Self-regulation and control, autonomy and communication, for example, are certainly not new in ordinary language, but they did not figure as central terms in any science.

Self-regulation was ingeniously implemented in water clocks and self-feeding oil lamps several hundred years BC. In the scientific study of living organisms, however, the concept was not introduced until the nineteenth century and the work of Claude Bernard. It has a long way to go yet, for in psychology, the dogma of a passive organism that is either wholly determined by its environment, or by its genes, is still frequently accepted without question.

It is much the same with the concept of autonomy. Potentates and

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