Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster
The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants

History of



Stuart Umpleby
1982, revised 2000


There are many definitions of cybernetics and many individuals who have influenced the direction of cybernetics. Cybernetics takes as its domain the design or discovery and application of principles of regulation and communication. Cybernetics treats not things but ways of behaving. It does not ask "what is this thing?" but "what does it do?" and "what can it do?" Because numerous systems in the living, social and technological world may be understood in this way, cybernetics cuts across many traditional disciplinary boundaries. The concepts which cyberneticians develop thus form a metadisciplinary language through which we may better understand and modify our world.

Several traditions in cybernetics have existed side by side since its beginning. One is concerned with circular causality, manifest in technological developments--notably in the design of computers and automata--and finds its intellectual expression in theories of computation, regulation and control. Another tradition, which emerged from human and social concerns, emphasizes epistemology--how we come to know-- and explores theories of self-reference to understand such phenomena as autonomy, identity, and purpose. Some cyberneticians seek to create a more humane world, while others seek merely to understand how people and their environment have co-evolved. Some are interested in systems as we observe them, others in systems that do the observing. Some seek to develop methods for modeling the relationships among measurable variables. Others aim to understand the dialogue that occurs between models or theories and social systems. Early work sought to define and apply principles by which systems may be controlled. More recent work has attempted to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves. Despite its short history, cybernetics has developed a concern with a wide range of processes involving people as active organizers, as sharing communicators, and as autonomous, responsible individuals.

ABOUT THESE LINKS   These links lead to Web resources for or email access to people in the fields of cybernetics, systems theory, and related disciplines.

Some have been key figures in the rise of cybernetics from the 1940's onward.

Others have been instrumental in the emergence of second order cybernetics from the 1960's onward.

Still others are interrelated with cybernetics by virtue of (e.g.) their holistic perspective, their theoretical foci, and/or the relevance of their work to themes within cybernetics.

If you would like to nominate someone for inclusion in this listing based on their contributions to the field or the themes of cybernetics, please contact the ASC Webmaster.

W. Ross

"Dr. Ashby's central interest was in mechanistic explanations of brain-like activity. Consistent with his conviction that the brain operates on mechanistic principles, he greatly enjoyed debunking various myths about the magical powers of the brain ("For 2000 years psychology was a simple discussion of Man's highest faculties - most of which he does not possess.") and devising mechanical models of behavior, the most famous of which was the Homeostat, deliberately constructed of unreliable components to emphasize that intelligence resides not in clever, high-quality components but in the structure of the whole. Although he constantly searched for simple explanations for behavior, he embraced complexity wholeheartedly and was chiefly interested in nonlinear, richly interconnected systems in which the complex relations constitute the chief object of interest."

About Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety

Ashby's Introduction to Cybernetics  (Complete! a PDF file)
(Courtesy of Principia Cybernetica )



"-- anthropologist, philosopher, author, photographer and filmmaker, naturalist, poet, third husband of Margaret Mead, husband of Lois Bateson, father of Mary Catherine Bateson , John Bateson and Nora Bateson -- was born on May 9, 1904 and died on July 4, 1980."

Information at

ASC Overview

'The Pattern Which Connects' (about Bateson and his work)

Global Vision webpage about Bateson



"Professor Stafford Beer, the founder of managerial cybernetics, is one of the pioneers and foremost thinkers of the systems approach in general, and management science in particular.

With his books Cybernetics and Management (London: English Universities Press, 1959) and Decision and Control (Chichester: Wiley, 1965) he laid the foundation for Management Cybernetics thereby building on earlier works of Ross Ashby, Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, and Heinz von Foerster."

ASC Overview

Beer's Viable Systems Model (VSM)

Beer's VSM and Organizations



"Boulding's lasting credit for advancing the development of economic theory will probably be his demonstrating of the methodological untenability of the mechanistic paradigm and of the relevance of evolutionary principles for the explanation of the complexity and dynamics of economic systems."

Also see a commemorative discussion of Boulding at:



Herbert Brün, born 1918 in Berlin, Germany, was a pioneer in applying computers and electronics to the composition of music. He was recognized within and beyond the field of music as an eloquent and original thinker, a contributor of ideas relating composition and systems theory, language and thought, performance and everyday life. He composed numerous pieces for theater and lectured on the function of music in society.



Peter Checkland is best known as the creator of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)  - a process model for analysis and design drawing on systems theory and cybernetics.

Peter Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology and CATWOE

Soft Systems Methodology

Models for Change: Soft Systems Methodology

Models for Change: Soft Systems Methodology Resource Page


C. West

"C. West Churchman (born 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) has probably been the most influential philosopher of the systems movement thus far. A founding father of the systems approach as well as the fields of operations research and management science, he represents the rare case of a pioneer who never allowed himself to become absorbed by the mainstream of his colleagues."

An appreciation by Werner Ulrich


Heinz Von

Together with Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, and others, Heinz von Foerster was the architect of cybernetics. In particular he developed a second-order cybernetics which focus on self-referential systems. As long-term director of the Biological Computer Laboratory in Illinois he provided an fruitful platform for studies of complex systems and had essential influence on many scientists.

Heinz von Foerster Archives (University of Vienna)

Overview at Principia Cybernetica

Summary Listing as an ISSS Luminary


Lawrence J.

Dr. Lawrence J. Fogel's interest in cybernetics grew from early (1950's) research in human factors analysis for flight instrumentation in aircraft and helicopters at General Dynamics (Convair Division). His many accomplishments during this period included a solution for a mathematical model of the human operator in aircraft flight control system, a successful program on 'anticipatory displays' to allow a pilot to "fly ahead" of the aircraft, and a research program to generate artificial intelligence through top-down simulations of evolution on computers.

While a Special Assistant to the Associate Director of Research for the National Science Foundation (1960 - 1961), he reviewed and projected the needs of the nation in light of scientific advancement. From 1965 to 2007 he continued to apply methods of evolutionary programming to real-world problems in industry, medicine, and defense and helped organize conferences and publications in the areas of machine and human intelligence.

Dr. Fogel served as President of the American Society of Cybernetics in 1969, following Warren McCulloch. He also served as the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cybernetics, the transactions of the ASC. He helped organize and co-edit the Proceedings of the Second and Third Annual ASC Symposia (1964, 1965), providing the keynote address at the latter meeting in which he concluded "it was my privilege to be among those who participated in this event in the 'coming of age' of cybernetics."

Dr. Fogel passed away in February, 2007.

For more details on Dr. Fogel, his life, and his work, see the Lawrence J. Fogel Legacy webpage here at the ASC website.



Charles François, a Belgian citizen, has worked with the Belgian Foreign Service, been a business owner, and served as an instrumental actor in the development of cybernetics and systems science. His involvement with cybernetics began in 1952 and progressed through participation in various systems and cybernetics societies as well as the editorial boards of multiple systems and cybernetics journals. François currently lives in Argentina and serves as Honorary President of the Argentine National Division of the ISSS.

IFSR webpage on Charles François and his work




He held several positions in marketing and labor market research from 1961 till 1968, when he became head of the methodology section of SISWO (Netherlands Universities' Institute for Coordination of Research in Social Sciences) - a function he kept until his retirement in 1998.

He has been instrumental in establishing 'sociocybernetics' as a recognized field.


Ernst Von

"Philosopher & Cybernetician he spent large parts of his life in Ireland [1940s], in Italy [1950s] and the USA [current]. Elaborating upon Vico, Piaget's genetic epistemology, Bishop Berkeley's theory of perception, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and other important texts, Ernst developed his model of Radical Constructivism - which is an ethos shared by all of these writers to one degree or another, sometimes it is difficult to see where their epistemological agreements begin and end - but that is part of the fun."

University of Vienna webpage

University of Massachusetts-Amherst webpage



Gotthard Günther was born in 1900 in Germany. He studied Indology, Chinese, Philosophy and Sanskrit. His PhD dissertation was the first version of his book Grundzüge einer neuen Theorie des Denkens in Hegels Logik which was published in 1933. At the International congress on Philosophy (Brussels, 1953) Günther presented the first version of his concept of a transclassical logic, and in 1957 he published "Das Bewuß:tsein der Maschinen - Eine Metaphysik der Kybernetik" and "Metaphysik , Logik und die Theorie der Reflexion" as well as "Die Aristotelische Logik des Seins und die nicht-Aristotelische Logik". In 1960 Günther met Warren S. McCulloch and a deep friendship began which was very stimulating for Güntherīs further research studies. In 1961 he became a research professor at the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he worked until 1972. During this time Günther developed his fundamental ideas about Polycontextural Logic (PCL) as well as Morpho- and Kenogrammatics.

The Polycontextural Logic Website

A Website with material on Günther and his work



Klaus Krippendorff is the Gregory Bateson Term Professor for Cybernetics, Language, and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for communication. He holds a graduate degree in design and a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Illinois, where he studied with W. Ross Ashby and came in contact with the work of Claude E. Shannon, Heinz von Foerster, Stafford Beer, Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Ernst von Glasersfeld, and Gregory Bateson. He has published widely on cybernetics, information theory, communication theory, methodology for the social sciences, content analysis, reliability statistics, and a human-centered science for design, design semantics in particular. His Dictionary of Cybernetics has become part of the Principia Cybernetica Web. He is a fellow of AAAS, ICA, NIAS, the East-West Center (Hawaii), and the Society for Science of Design (Japan); and recipient of the Norbert Wiener Medal for Cybernetics, the Wiener-Schmidt Prize for his contributions to cybernetics and education, and the 2004 ICA Fellows Book award. Besides teaching subjects on language and the social construction of reality, he conducts second-order cybernetic inquiries into a variety of social phenomena and addresses issues of emancipatory epistemology and the ethics of constructing human communication.

Klaus Krippendorff's home page



German sociologist Niklas Luhmann applied systems and cybernetics principles to his analyses of society and social processes. His is best known for his invocation of Maturana and Varela's concept of 'autopoiesis' as an explanatory paradigm for social systems.



Humberto Maturana is a biologist who specialized in neurobiology at Harvard. In the early 1960s his work on vision at MIT led to the celebrated paper with J. Lettvin, "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain." His distinctive approach to cognitive inquiry first appeared in his 1970 book Biology of Cognition, after his return to the University of Chile at Santiago, Chile. He subsequently entered into a long collaboration with Francisco Varela, another neuroscientist at the University of Chile at Santiago. In 1980 the two authors published Autopoiesis and Cognition, the key reference work on autopoiesis. Their popular introduction to cognitive biology, The Tree of Knowledge, was published in 1987. He currently works with the Matriztica Institute in Santiago.


Though best known as an anthropologist, Margaret Mead and her then-husband Gregory Bateson were important figures in the Macy Conferences out of which the field of cybernetics grew.


James G.

"Miller's scientific and professional activities have centered around the single theme of integrating knowledge about biological and social systems. His early approach to science, under the influence of Whitehead, was a mixture of philosophy and experimentation. His current research relates modern information processing technologies to living systems. The basic research consists of quantitative studies of cross-level identities among multiple levels of systems."

John Von

Biographical Summaries:



"Gordon Pask was a rare man. He was an original; an eccentric in the best sense; gifted as a scientist, artist, lyricist. His peers in academic life have regularly acknowledged his genius. He had an exceptionally productive career (several books, over two hundred published papers). His many contributions are still being assimilated in psychology, educational technology, cybernetics and systems science. ... Gordon will perhaps be best remembered for his role as one of the "founding fathers" of cybernetics, the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary intellectual movement that sprang up in the post war years."

Gordon Pask: In Memoriam

ISSS Memorial to Pask

Reflections on Pask (by Gary Boyd)



As a student and colleague of Humberto Maturana, Varela was involved in formulating the body of work known as 'the biology of cognition' or 'autopoietic theory' in the early 1970's. In the early 1990's he established the area termed 'enactive cognitive science'. His other contributions include work on extending George Spencer Brown's calculus of indications, bridging between Buddhist thought and cognitive science, critical analysis of consciousness, and an existential perspective on ethics.

At the time of his death in 2001, Francisco J. VARELA Ph.D.was Director of Research at CNRS (National Institute for Scientific Research) at the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurosciences and Brain Imaging (LENA)in Paris, where he was the head of the Neurodynamics Group. He was also Senior Faculty at CREA, Ecole Polytechnique.



John Warfield developed the process called "Interpretive Structural Modeling" or ISM. This process was founded in mathematics that was largely developed by DeMorgan in England and Peirce in the United States in the 19th century, and summarized very nicely by Frank Harary and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, who made the connections to graph theory.

John's research on complexity and systems began in the 1960s and has continued into the 2000s. Much of his work and those of colleagues is available in the Fenwick Library at George Mason University (GMU), Fairfax, Virginia.

The John N. Warfield Digital Collection (George Mason University)


"Apart from two books devoted to his autobiography, two short stories and a novel, Norbert Wiener's works concern mainly logic and mathematics, cybernetics, mathematical physics and philosophical issues. ... His papers on logic, written mainly at the beginning of his career, show a philosophical interest in mathematical thinking and its possible limitations.

The idea of "cybernetics" came to Wiener at the beginning of the forties, prompted by his work on anti-aircraft defence and by contacts with colleagues in Mexico ("Behavior, purpose and teleology" with A. Rosenblueth and J. Bigelow, Philos.Sci 1943). lt was made known to the world by the book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, published in l948.."

Summary Overview

Listing of Wiener's Publications (The Cybernetics Society)

Wiener's God and Golem, Inc. - A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1964)
(PDF format - circa 1.9 Mb)



History of

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The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants