Philosophy Kitchen

CFP#18 \ Cybernetics. Systems, Theories, Models

PK#18 Marzo 2023

Edited by Luca Fabbris and Alberto Giustiniano


The seminar “Cerebral Inhibition” took place in New York exactly eighty years ago, in May 1942. The seminar, organized by Frank Fremont-Smith, then medical director of the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, was participated by many researchers from different fields: along with anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, there were psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie, social scientist Lawrence K. Frank, as well as neurophysiologists Warren McCulloch (co-author, with Walter Pitts, of a pioneering study on  artificial neural networks to be published  in 1943) and Arturo Rosenblueth. In that occasion, Rosenblueth presented the research he was carrying out with Norbert Wiener and Julien Bigelow. The research, which would have eventually led to the article “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” (1943), demonstrated the functional equivalence between living beings’ teleological behavior and the behavior displayed by machines capable of self-regulation by means of feedback loops.

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), Wall Drawing #289, 1976. Wax crayon, graphite pencil, and paint on four walls, dimensions variable. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Gilman Foundation, Inc. 78.1.1-4. © 2018 Sol LeWitt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

After the Second World War, this group of scholars gave impulse to a series of interdisciplinary biannual lectures (1946-1953), hosted and promoted by the Macy Foundation. At first, the cycle of conferences was called “Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biology and the Social Sciences”; in 1948, with the publication of Wiener’s Cybernetics, or the Control and Communication in the Animal and in the Machine, it was re-named “Cybernetics: Circular Causal, and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems”. Among the participants, there were mathematicians, experimental and Gestalt psychologists, physicians, engineers, sociologists, ecologists, anthropologists, biologists, and linguists.

As Fremont-Smith stated in the course of the sixth meeting, the conferences aimed to build an interdisciplinary environment in which to develop a common scientific vocabulary. Said vocabulary would have helped to bring to the fore the isomorphisms between issues coming from different disciplinary areas, and to tackle them by means of common operating models. In a nutshell, the cyberneticians aimed at unifying the sciences by building on phenomena and processes that cut across the different fields of knowledge. The history of those lectures could be regarded as an ongoing search for mediation. The very notions that gained ground in that context actually functioned as mediators: 1) information, intended as negentropy, promised to mediate between physical, biological, psychical, and social processes; 2) feedback mechanisms, crucial in understanding all those processes in which the interaction between systems or sub-systems produces homeostatic dynamics, promised to mediate between engineering, physiology and sociology; 3) the electronic calculator, then at its embryonic stage, promised to mediate between mental processes (logic reasoning, understanding of universals, etc.) and material processes (the transmission of electric signals in a circuit).

«Ce n’est plus d’une libération universalisante que l’homme a besoin, mais d’une médiation», Gilbert Simondon (1958, 103) would write, concerning the encyclopedic ideal embraced by cybernetics. This encyclopedic inspiration went hand in hand with an explicit desire for renewal of philosophical categories and with the will of overtaking metaphysics’ dichotomies. In the first chapter of Cybernetics, titled “Newtonian and Bergsonian Time”, Wiener argued that thanks to cybernetics «the whole mechanist-vitalist controversy [had] been relegated to the limbo of badly posed questions» (Wiener 20193, 63). McCulloch and Pitts claimed that their neural network represented a solution to the mind-body problem: «[…] both the formal and the final aspects of that activity which we are wont to call mental are rigorously deducible from present neurophysiology […]. “Mind” no longer “goes more ghostly than a ghost”» (McCulloch 1988, 38). William Ross Ashby’s ʻabstract machineʼ, as Mauro Nasti noticed in the foreword to the Italian translation of An Introduction to Cybernetics, subverted «the whole traditional philosophical setting […] based on a radical juxtaposition between the “material”, physical world of machines and the “immaterial” and “free” world of mind» (Nasti 1970, xvii-xviii).

The last conference (held in 1953), far from leading to the end of cybernetics, established in fact its wider circulation. Cybernetic ideas break into every field of knowledge, where they were greeted sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes with skepticism, sometimes with explicit criticism. From philosophy (Ruyer 1954, Jonas 1953) to economics (Lange 1963); from physics (de Broglie 1951) to ecology (Odum 1963); from politology (Deutsch 1963) to biology  (Monod 1970, Atlan 1972); from cosmology (Ducrocq 1964) to business management (Beer 1964); from literature (Calvino 1967) to law (Knapp 1963); from architecture (Alexander 1964) to ethology (Hassenstein 1966), cybernetics was able to transform the vocabulary of the fields of knowledge it entered, thus contributing to the birth of brand-new fields of research. In the context of cognitive sciences, in 1968 Marvin Minsky stated that cybernetics had branched in three different, now autonomous research programs: 1) the theory of self-organized systems, based on the simulation of evolutionary and adaptive processes; 2) human behavior’s simulation through computational models; 3) Artificial Intelligence as such, i.e., the design of intelligent machines not aiming at simulating biological or cognitive processes.

While the second and third program were to be regarded as autonomous researches, fully detached from their cybernetic past, the first one never stopped to rely on its historical roots, that found in the Biological Computer Laboratory (University of Illinois, under the direction of Heinz von Foerster) a fertile ground in which to thrive. This context gave rise to a cybernetic epistemology – i.e., second order cybernetics, or cybernetics of observing systems – which fostered the development of the theory of autopoietic systems (Maturana & Varela 1980), of neurophenomenology (Varela, Thompson, Rosch 1991), of the general theory of society (Luhmann 1984), of many-valued logics and trans-classic ontologies (Günther 1962), of the pragmatics of communication (Watzlawick, Bavelas, Jackson 1967), of radical constructivism (Glasersfeld 1974), and so forth.

When the Biological Computer Laboratory was shut down, in 1974, cybernetics entered a diasporic phase, that continues to this day. It is a diaspora that, in contrast with the fruitfulness of the first dissemination, has now taken the form of a progressive fading of cybernetics. Cybernetics appears today as a ghostly entity that haunts a great number of debates; its traces can be detected pretty much everywhere, most times not considered to be such.

Nevertheless, in spite of – or thanks to – such ghostly features, the last two decades have witnessed a growth in historiographic interest in cybernetics, resulting in works that reconstruct its history as it has developed in the United States (Kline 2015), Great Britain (Husbands & Holland 2008), France (Le Roux 2018), Italy (Cordeschi & Numerico 2013), Soviet Union (Gerovicht 2002), and China (Liu 2019).

Alongside the growing interest in the history of cybernetics, there has been an increasing fascination with its theoretical and political implications – proving that we have not ceased to think along with its specter. Such a fascination concerns, among other topics, investigations on the relationships between cybernetics and ontology (Pickering 2010), metaphysics (Hui 2019), political philosophy (Guilhot 2020; Bates 2020), philosophical ecology (Hörl 2013), media studies (Hansen & Mitchell 2010), posthumanism and transhumanism (Malapi-Nelson 2017), French theory (Lafontaine 2007; Geoghegan 2020), and so on. It is such a ghostly and disseminated character, such a way of insisting within the interstices of encyclopedic knowledge, that leads us to devote the 18th issue of Philosophy Kitchen to cybernetics. The aim is to map out the places of knowledge in which it is possible to spot the traces left by cybernetics, in order to follow its tracks, reconstruct its threads, let its ways of being emerge, and question its legacy and current relevance.

In particular, we welcome contributions that investigate:

- Cybernetics in history of ideas and in history of science

- History of the historiographical reconstruction of cybernetics

- Epistemology and ontology of cybernetics

- General theory of machines

- Cybernetics and complex systems science

- Cybernetics in life and social sciences

- Cybernetics and cognitive science

- Cybernetics in contemporary philosophy

- Cybernetics and governmentality

- Cybernetics, planning theories and theories of design

- Critique of cybernetic rationality

Accepted languages: Italian, English, French and German.


To apply, please send an abstract of no more than 6000 characters to redazione@philosophykitchen.com by April 30, 2022. Abstracts should include a title, the argumentative structure of the paper, an essential bibliography and a short biography of the author. Proposals will be evaluated by the editors and editorial board; the authors will be notified by email by May 7, 2022. Selected papers have to be sent by October 30, 2022 for double-blind peer review. The issue is scheduled for publication in March 2023.


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