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Criticisms of Principia Cybernetica

Turchin an Joslyn originally announced Principia Cybernetica by posting a first general proposal, and "The Cybernetic Manifesto on the CYBSYS-L electronic mailing list in the autumn of 1989 (see the Project history). This led to a a sometimes very heated debate. The most outspoken critic was Joseph Goguen, who interpreted the use of concepts like "control", "hierarchy" and "integration" as signs of a dangerous, totalitarian ideology. Joslyn and Turchin reacted by stressing the essential role human freedom plays in the philosophy, and by remarking that terms like control and hierarchy should be understood primarily in their abstract, technical sense. In fact, the metasystem transition, where a new control level emerges, should be seen as an increase, rather than a decrease, of the freedom of the system. This criticism led to a deeper understanding of the necessity for careful articulation of the ideas behind Principia Cybernetica, in the hope of avoiding misinterpretation.

Goguen also opposed the striving towards consensus, which is a fundamental goal of the Principia Cybernetica, on the grounds that all opinions are valuable, and that no one viewpoint should be privileged. This criticism is more difficult to answer in a few words.** It was repeated in different forms by different people, mostly those with a "post-modernist" or "social constructivist" philosophy. These critics stress the relativity of knowledge, and the creativity which arises from a variety of different opinions.

But we hold that this creativity can only appear through a confrontation and conversation between the different opinions, and that is just what Principia Cybernetica proposes. Without at least an attempt to reach consensus, people will stick to their own opinions, and no novelty is created. But it is not our intention to impose a consensus, and we start from the principle that Principia Cybernetica must be open-ended: every new idea or opinion can be incorporated somewhere along the way, even if only as a "discussion node". We do not expect to reach a complete consensus in any foreseeable future. Yet we do hold that there is a deep unity in the ideas characterizing Systems Theory and Cybernetics. In our experience, those with a background in Cybernetics or Systems share these fundamental concepts and values, although they may express them with different words. Further, we hold that a fundamental, broad consensus at the conceptual level is necessary for the advancement of a discipline, or a society.

Other criticisms (albeit in a generally sympathetic spirit) about the philosophy behind Principia Cybernetica, and its practical realizability, were made by Gerard de Zeeuw and Rod Swenson to Heylighen when he presented the ideas of Principia Cybernetica to a number of people at the European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems in Vienna (April 1990). Swenson mentioned in particular the difficulty of maintaining copyright in a network which is authored collectively by many different people. On the other hand, Principia Cybernetica was enthusiastically welcomed by Gordon Pask, who is one of the main theorists in the "social constructivist" paradigm, and the creator of conversation theory.

Copyright© 1993 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, & C. Joslyn,

Aug 1993


Introduction to Principia Cybernetica

History of the Principia Cybernetica Project

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