2001 Conference (May 27-29)

Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Philip Lewin

Paradoxes of Cybernetic Praxis




The relation of cybernetics and praxis is one of paradox. On the one hand, a cybernetics of praxis is teleonomic in character, underscoring the situated emergence of intentional action. On the other, the praxis of cybernetics is far too often teleologic in character, predefining an end state toward which activity is directed.

This paradox between cybernetics and praxis, between teleology and teleonomy, both extends and reproduces a number of related paradoxes posed by a cybernetic perspective. Among these are:

  • the paradox of the observer, or of "observing systems," where the observer is bootstrapped from the system as its own observer.

  • the paradox of self-knowledge, wherein I know myself only to the extent that I immerse myself in the world;

  • the paradox of memory and meaning, wherein I maintain a sense of the ongoing meaningfulness of my life on the basis of my memory of my experience in the past, but reconstruct my memory of the past on the basis of my sense of myself in the present;

  • the paradox of interpretive freedom, wherein the tendency toward narrative closure with its promise of meaning is in tension with the desire to honor the open-endedness and possibility of ongoing experience.

  • the paradox of complicity, wherein in a distressing number of situations and circumstances, our efforts to ameliorate oppression and exploitation result in the perpetuation of oppression and exploitation;

  • the paradox of human nature, wherein we are both part of nature and, as cultural, distinct from nature.

All these (and other) paradoxes arise from a fundamental tension that second-order cybernetics has helped bring forth so that it can be clearly seen, namely, the tension between drift and design, between living within one's situatedness and projecting a future, between two versions of nihilism that are simultaneously two versions of freedom, and two versions of meaning. In my own work, this paradox arises most directly in the tension between ego and soul.


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