Stuart A. Umpleby

Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning

The George Washington University

2033 K Street NW, Suite 230

Washington, DC 20052






January 31, 2001




Prepared as an editorial for Cybernetics and Human Knowing at the request of

Pille Bunnell, president of the American Society for Cybernetics





By Stuart A. Umpleby



In recent years the field of cybernetics has been described as consisting of two bodies of work created in two time periods:  first order cybernetics from the late 1940s until about 1975, and second order cybernetics from the mid 1970s to the present.  Each period lasted about 25 years.  What comes next?  I shall describe here what I think comes next and how the new point of view emerged, at least in my own thinking.


I have been a member of the group of people who worked to develop the ideas of second order cybernetics and to arouse interest in these ideas among academics in a variety of disciplines.  In the language of Thomas S. Kuhn we were attempting to make a scientific revolution.   A scientific revolution is marked by the emergence of “incommensurable definitions.”  Consequently the differences between first and second order cybernetics were repeatedly stated.  The way others and I defined the differences are summarized in Table 1.


Table 1




                                    First Order                             Second Order

Author                         Cybernetics                            Cybernetics


Von Foerster                the cybernetics of                      the cybernetics of

                                    observed systems                     observing systems


Pask                             the purpose of                          the purpose of

                                    a model                                    a modeler


Varela                          controlled systems                     autonomous systems


Umpleby                      interaction among                      interaction between

                                    the variables in a                       observer and

                                    system                                      observed


Umpleby                      theories of social                       theories of the

                                    systems                                    interaction between

                                                                                    ideas and society



After about twenty years of making the case for second order cybernetics, it seemed to me that we had largely succeeded.  The idea of perspectival observation – what a person sees depends upon his or her background – had become widely accepted in scientific circles even if cyberneticians did not receive much credit for the change in thinking.   Furthermore, I decided that not much more could be done to interest other scholars in the particular way that cyberneticians described constructivism. 


There are additional reasons for creating a new, well-defined position.  For many years I thought that second order cybernetics could easily encompass my interest in social systems.  However, others who were developing second order cybernetics said that the distinctions I was making were not what they had in mind.  I now believe that rather than try to stretch the conception of second order cybernetics to encompass both biological and social phenomena, it would be more fruitful to distinguish between these two points of view in order to create richer descriptions of each.


Another reason for my interest in creating a distinction between biological and social cybernetics is that biological cybernetics emphasizes a different distinction than the one I want to emphasize.  Biological cybernetics distinguishes between the philosophies of realism and constructivism.  I wish to emphasize the difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences.  My motivation arises from my teaching experience.  At The George Washington University I teach a course in the philosophy of science for entering doctoral students in management.  The literature on the philosophy of science uses primarily examples from the natural sciences, especially physics.  However, social systems are quite different from physical systems.  When theories of physical phenomena change, we assume that the phenomena themselves do not change.  For example, when physicists changed their thinking from classical Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics, the behavior of atoms did not change.  But when theories of social systems change, social systems operate differently.  For example, the theories of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman did change the way social systems operated.  Hence, in the social sciences there is a circularity or a dialogue between theories and phenomena.  This circularity does not occur in the natural sciences, or at least not in the same way.  Our use of technology affects the environment, which leads to new technologies, but theories in the natural sciences remain mostly unchanged.


Due to my experience in attempting to promote second order cybernetics I have become interested in what I call “the design of intellectual movements.” A few examples of intellectual movements in addition to second order cybernetics are:  process improvement methods in the field of management, the interdisciplinary field of socio-economics, and Vladimir Lefebvre’s idea of reflexive control, that has attracted considerable interest in Russia.


 Essential to the design of intellectual movements is the circularity between theories and phenomena in the social sciences.  However, this is not the focus of attention of biological cybernetics.  Biological cyberneticians emphasize the fact that our conceptions of observed phenomena are our own constructions.  This point of view has great implications for how human beings communicate with one another and strive to achieve agreement.  But once we have an improved understanding of how to communicate, what will we communicate about and how can we be more effective in changing social systems?  My answer is to design and encourage intellectual movements, or the widespread adoption of ideas that we believe will have a beneficial impact on the operation of social systems.  This is the work that I think of as social cybernetics.


I feel that a new organizing idea is needed to advance the field, or at least my work in the field.  I call the new point of view social cybernetics or the cybernetics of conceptual systems.  For an overview of how this third point of view is different from both first order cybernetics and second order cybernetics, see Table 2.  In the table “engineering cybernetics” refers to first order cybernetics and “biological cybernetics” refers to second order cybernetics.  The column called “social cybernetics” describes the view that I am advocating.


Table 2




                         Engineering               Biological                    Social

                         Cybernetics               Cybernetics                Cybernetics


The view of      a realist                         a biological                   a pragmatic view

epistemology   view of                          view of                         of epistemology:

                        epistemology:               epistemology:                knowledge is

                        knowledge is                how the brain                constructed to     

                        a "picture"                    functions                       achieve human      

                        of reality                                                           purposes


A key               reality vs.                      realism vs.                    the biology of

distinction         scientific                       constructivism               cognition vs. the

                        theories                                                            observer as a

                                                                                                social participant


The puzzle        construct                      include the                    explain the

to be solved      theories which             observer                       relationship

                        explain                         within the                      between the

                        observed                     domain of                     natural and the

                        phenomena                  science                         social sciences


What must be  how the world               how an                         how people create,

explained         works                           individual                      maintain, and change

                                                            constructs                    social systems

                                                            a "reality"                     through language

                                                                                               and ideas


A key               natural                          ideas about                  ideas are accepted

assumption       processes can               knowledge                   if they serve the

                        be explained                 should be                     observer's purposes

                        by scientific                   rooted in                      as a social

                        theories                        neuro-                          participant



An important   scientific                         if people                       by transforming

consequence   knowledge can               accept con-                  conceptual systems

                       be used to                     structivism,                   (through persuasion,

                       modify natural                they will be                   not coercion), we

                       processes to                  more tolerant                can change society

                       benefit people



Of course, I am not the only person interested in developing the idea of social cybernetics.  Niklas Luhmann has written about self-reference and autopoiesis in biological, psychological and social systems, and Felix Geyer has organized a socio-cybernetics working group within the International Sociological Association.  I look forward to working with others in further developing cybernetics ideas in the realm of social systems.










back to recent papers page.