SØREN BRIER
CYBERNETICS AND HUMAN KNOWING

vol.1, No.1 1992 

Cybernetics and Human Knowing is an international multi- and inter-disciplinary journal on cybernetics: the understanding of the self-organization and communication of knowledge in human, artificial, and natural systems, and the understanding of understanding, and its relation and relevance to other interdisciplinary approaches such as semiotics.

Cybernetics of Cybernetics 
Second Order Cybernetics

This approach is often called the cybernetics of cybernetics or second order cybernetics. The concept is coined by Heinz von Foerster. Here isone of the quotations from: "Observing Systems",1984 (originally from 1972) in which he formulates the shift from first to second order cybernetics: 
 

"While in the first quarter of this century physicists and cosmologists were forced to revise the basic notions that govern the natural sciences, in the last quarter of this century biologists will force a revision of the basic notions that govern science itself. After that "first revolution" it was clear that the classical concept of an "ultimate science" that is an objective description of the world in which there are no subjects (a "subjectless universe"), contains contradictions.To remove these one had to account for an “observer” (that is at least for one subject):....After this we are now in the possession of the truism that a description (of the universe)implies one who describes (observes it). What we need now is the description of the " describer" or, in other words, we need a theory of the observer. Since it is only living organisms which would qualify as being observers, it appears that this task falls to the biologist. But he himself is a living being, which means that in his theory he has not only to account for himself, but also for his writing this theory.        (von Foerster 1984, p.258)


This makes it clear why the works of the biologistsHumberto Maturana and Francisco Varela on autopoiesis as an understanding of the living, cognition, and languaging has been so important to the development of second order cybernetics, and why Stafford Beer has been so fascinated bybiological metaphors in his work on management. Varela sums up the movement from first order cybernetics to second order cybernetics in one of von Foerster's aphorisms:

First order cybernetics:         The cybernetics of observed systems. 
Second order cybernetics:       The cybernetics of observing systems. 

The general notion of observing systems awakens the notions of language, culture, and communication. Second-order cybernetics is a non-disciplinary approach which through the concept of self-reference wants to re-explore the meaning of cognition and communication within the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, information and library science, and in social practices such as design, education, organization, therapy, art, and politics.

Brier 2010: Cybersemiotics: An Evolutionary World View Going Beyond Entropy and Information into the Question of Meaning

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