The ideas were generated in many places: in Vienna by Bertalanffy, in Harvard by Wiener, in Princeton by von Neumann, in Bell Telephone labs by Shannon, in Cambridge by Craik, and so on. All these separate developments dealt with communicational problems, especially with the problem of what sort of thing is an organized system. (1) [emphasis mine]
Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was among the first to appreciate the fact that the patterns of organization and relational symmetry evident in all living systems are indicative of mind. Here, we must not forget that due to the nineteenth century polemic between science and religion, any consideration of purpose and plan, e.g., mental process, had been a priori excluded from science as non-empirical, or immeasurable. Any reference to mind as an explanatory or causal principle had been banned from biology. Even in the social/behavioral sciences, references to mind remained suspect.
Building on the work of Norbert Wiener, W. Ross Ashby and Warren McCulloch (2), Bateson realized that it is precisely mental process or mind which must be investigated. Thus, he formulated the criteria of mind and the cybernetic epistemology that are pivotal elements in his “ecological philosophy.” In fact, he referred to cybernetics as an epistemology: e.g., the model, itself, is a means of knowing what sort of world this is, and also the limitations that exist concerning our ability to know something (or perhaps nothing) of such matters. As his work progressed, he proposed that we consider epistemology as an overarching discipline of the natural sciences, including the social/behavioral sciences: a meta-science whose parameters extend to include the science of mind in the widest sense of the word.
With its focus on communication and information as the key elements of the self-regulation and self-organization in cybernetic systems, the cybernetic paradigm exemplifies the hierarchical patterns of organization evident in living systems. The elaborate differences of pattern, organization and symmetry embodied in living systems are also indicative of mental process. Thus, Bateson employed the aggregate of ideas referred to under the rubric of cybernetics as a unifying model of mental phenomena, and as a tool for “mapping” and explaining the previously inaccessible “territory” of mind.
Apparently, many scholars and practitioners of the social/behavioral sciences, as well as the humanities (myself included), were first introduced to the cybernetic paradigm through Bateson’s work. Yet, he seldom offered his audience more than a cursory reference to the key principles underlying cybernetics. Hence, the aim of this essay is to delineate the fundamental principles underlying what is now often referred to as the ‘first’ cybernetics.
Clearly, Bateson’s interdisciplinary work in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology was profoundly influenced by the ideas set forth in systems theory, communication theory, information theory and cybernetics. As is now quite common, Bateson used the single term cybernetics in reference to an aggregate of these ideas that grew together shortly after World War II, and for him, cybernetics, or communication theory, or information theory, or systems theory, together constituted a unified set of ideas. The quotation headlining this essay is intended to indicate that our topic deals with essentially communicational problems, “especially with the problem of what sort of ‘thing’ is an organized system,” i.e., a mind system, a communications system, a social system, and an ecosystem.
Since we will be considering an aggregate of disciplines, I proceed chronologically, with the first of these disciplines to emerge, i.e., general systems theory, and then move to consider how the recursive regularities of negative and positive feedback mechanisms, and circular causal systems (principles established first in mathematics, communication theory, and information theory) (3) led Norbert Wiener to coin the term cybernetics, and serendipitously offered a firmer theoretical foundation for systems theory.
1) Gregory Bateson, “From Versailles to Cybernetics,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 482-83. (hereafter — STEPS)
2) Warren S. McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press, 1965). McCulloch was a key member of the group that did the original work in cybernetics. He is referred to by Bateson more often than any other modern scientist.
3) Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949; 6th ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), p. 1, n 1. (hereafter — Shannon & Weaver)