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


Coalescence of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
History: Chapter 2
SUMMARY: The Macy Conferences

ABOUT THIS SUMMARY   As previously mentioned, there is a lack of comprehensive documentation on the Macy Conferences. Part of this derives from the fact that the first five conferences - by all accounts the most lively and energizing - were never formally documented with published proceedings. Part of this derives from the fact that it was not until Steve Joshua Heims undertook his massive research decades after the fact that anyone addressed the Macy Conferences as a historical subject. Even Heims' work, impressive though it is, doesn't bother to give a uniformly detailed historical account of the conferences.

This summary is not claimed to provide a comprehensive account of the conferences. It is simply a collated set of basic facts along with such illustrative tidbits as can be gleaned from Heims' The Cybernetics Group, Dupuy's Mechanization of the Mind, and other sources.

Part 1 of this summary offers a chronologically-ordered listing of the Macy Conferences, the attendees involved, and the activities that occurred.

For each of the entries in Part 1, the Core Group members and the guests are listed.

The original set of Core Group members is presented in the entry for the 1st conference. Thereafter, only additions ("+") and deletions ("-", including both dropouts and non-attendees) are listed for each subsequent conference. The Core Group members' names are designated by use of a red font.

It is important to bear in mind that the 'additions and deletions' are based on specific citations (e.g., of first appearances or particular non-attendance) drawn from the source material. These annotations therefore represent only what has been noted by other authors. As such, this summary cannot be assumed to provide a definitive 'core group roster' for each and every conference.

Guest members are those whose attendance was by invitation to one or another specific conference. Guest members' names are designated by use of a black font. Because the guests' names and appearances are well documented (through Heim's research), the 'guest roster' can be considered definitive.

The events and discussions noted are not a comprehensive set of all that transpired in the conferences. They only represent those occurrences cited in (e.g.) Heims' book, Dupuy's book, and miscellaneous other sources. Their appearance below represents a collation of such citations into a consistent and chronologically ordered summary.

In selected places, the events listings have been annotated (in gold font) to highlight an illustrative point about the tone or course of the conference series.

Part 2 offers a summary (based on Jean-Pierre Dupuy's analysis) of the thematic constitution of the conference series' discussions. It must be emphasized that the categories and assignments within this taxonomic breakdown are Dupuy's own. The summary is included because it represents the only available such summary characterization of the conference series' content.

PART 1: A Summary Account of Macy Conference Attendees and Activities

Events and Activities -   - Notes and Comments
1st Conference

8 - 9 March 1946

New York City


von Bonin
Lorente de Nó
McCulloch (chair)
von Neumann



  • Inaugural Macy Conference entitled "Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems."

    The conference title will shift repeatedly during the series. In addition, Wiener's invocation of the term 'cybernetics' for the subject matter was still in the future.

  • Macy Foundation organizer Frank Fremont-Smith opens the conference (and the ensuing series) by saying, "Each group, when it comes together, is an experiment. If it excites you all enough to want to meet again, we will plan for further meetings."

    It is important to bear in mind that to Fremont-Smith the conferences themselves were an experiment in multidisciplinary science.

  • Because the 1st conference represented the first 'coming together' of the hard scientists and the social scientists, the discussion was more general and more philosophical than would be the case in the subsequent 9 conferences.
  • The conference's opening session had von Neumann and Lorente de Nó presenting detailed overviews of the state of the art in digital computers and neurophysiology, respectively.
  • The conference's second session had Wiener presenting an overview of automatic mechanisms for self-regulation. Rosenblueth then described purposive behavior and teleological mechanisms a la his 1942 presentation.
  • McCulloch gives a presentation on how simulated neural networks can emulate the calculus of propositional logic. He also draws attention to communication as a descriptive metaphor and notes the differences between descriptions of messages' mechanics and message content or meaning. He suggests memory may be a function of continuously cyclical impulses in a neural network.
  • Bateson makes a presentation outlining the need for sound theory in the social sciences, illustrating his points with observations from his anthropological field work of the 1930's. He distinguishes between 'learning' and 'learning to learn', then challenges the group by asking whether and how computers could accomplish either form of learning.
  • Wiener and von Neumann in particular make claims that their theories and models would be of utility in economics and political science.

    No scholar-representative from economics or political science would ever attend any of the 10 conferences.

  • Gerard comments that the brain's operations are much more 'analog' than 'digital'.

    This establishes a dichotomy between 'analogical' and 'digital' which would become a recurrent topic of debate throughout the conferences. Some (especially the mathematicians like von Neumann) would be emphasizing 'digital' perspectives, while others (especially the psychologists) would be emphasizing a more 'analogical' orientation.

  • Heinrich Klüver gives a presentation on how object perception appears to use feedback mechanisms to enforce constancy. He declares psychology lacks a good model explaining how a brain handles form perception (Gestalten) - posing a topic which would be addressed repeatedly in the next few conferences.
  • Lawrence Frank suggests the conference's focal interdisciplinary concepts could only be elaborated and developed with the aid of a language more general than the disciplinary lexicons of the day.

    This allusion to the need for a 'meta-language' would be repeated again and again throughout the conference series. Fremont-Smith would open each conference with a reminder that it was necessary to establish a new lexicon or language for the new ideas being discussed.

  • Psychologist Molly Harrower gives a presentation on perceptual differences between normal persons and people with brain damage.
  • Psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie gives a presentation on neurosis, emphasizing compulsive repetitive behaviors in neurosis. Kubie's descriptive allusions to 'energy' (a la Freud) set off much discussion.

    Such (often critical and animated) discussion on psychiatric issues and models would recur throughout the conference series. Kubie in particular would demonstrate remarkable persistence and patience in making regular presentations on psychoanalytical topics which would invite criticism from the 'hard scientists' like Pitts.

  • Northrop - the sole philosopher in the core group - gives a presentation on philosophy of science. He brings up the notion of an ethics derivable from science and recommends that there be attention given to generating a valid normative theory grounded in scientific principles and evidence. He discerns a lack of interest in these philosophical issues among his fellow group members, and rarely speaks out after this first conference.

    Northrop's appearance illustrates three things. First, not all participants' contributions were treated with equal interest by the group at large. Second, not all core group members actively contributed presentations throughout the conference series. Third, although some would treat the Macy Conferences as 'philosophical' and as an 'exercise in metascience', Northrop's experience would seem to indicate neither of these themes struck a chord with the audience at large.

  • Sociologist Lazarsfeld proposes that a separate meeting be arranged specifically for social scientists, so as to provide a forum for introducing (e.g.) social theorists to these new concepts.

    This proposal (which was acted on) reinforces some scholars' opinion that the essence of the Macy Conferences was to impart the new ideas to a primarily social science audience.

  • The group agrees to meet again in a second such conference to occur in October.

    The participants found the inaugural conference sufficiently enlightening and interesting to motivate a commitment to attend further such conferences.

2nd Conference

October 1946

New York City


+ Brosin
+ Marquis
+ Schneirla



  • Conference now entitled "Teleological Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems."
  • As a result of Lazarsfeld's suggestion at the 1st conference, the Macy Foundation has Gregory Bateson organized a 'special conference' (Dupuy) or 'sociological subconference' (Heims) held in September. The title of this meeting was 'Teleological Mechanisms in Society'. It was designed to allow social scientists to meet with Wiener and von Neumann, to hear about their ideas, and to discuss how these ideas might be valuable in social science.

    This 'side event' turned out to be noteworthy on its own. Two sociologists who would later invoke systems principles - Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton - attend this subconference (but never attend any of the main Macy Conferences). This event was the first Macy appearance by anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (who would be a guest at 2 of the main conferences). This subconference recommended to the group at large that the concepts of 'field' and 'Gestalt' be clarified, and this recommendation is acted upon.

  • The conference takes up the clarification of the terms 'field' and 'Gestalt'.

    The main outcome of this discussion is illustration of how little the attendees agreed on the definitions and implications of these labels. They end up deferring further discussion until the seminal Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler can address the conference. (NOTE: Köhler was invited to the 3rd conference, but couldn't actually attend until the 4th).

  • Molly Harrower is asked to explain the term 'field', but she demurs by noting her mentor Koffka's ideas diverged from those of Köhler.
  • Kurt Lewin gives an extensive presentation on his personal version of 'field' and other concepts from Gestalt psychology and social psychology.
  • Three psychologists are added to the core group.

    These first additions to the core group increase the already-disproportionate representation of psychologists among the conference attendees.

  • Schneirla (a comparative psychologist - i.e., an 'ethologist') gives a presentation on tactile and chemical communications within an army ant society.

    This is one of the rare occasions where psychological or behavioral issues were contextualized in terms of a collective (as contrasted with individuals).

  • Lawrence Frank arranges a separate conference on 'teleological mechanisms' conducted under the auspices of the New York Academy of Sciences and held in New York immediately following the 2nd Macy Conference. From the Macy attendees Frank draws the featured speakers Wiener, McCulloch, Hutchinson, and Livingston.

    The 2nd conference should therefore be seen as the central event in a trio of meetings. The earlier 'sociological subconference' and this latter conference serve to expand the audience for the Macy Conferences' core themes outside the context of the main conference itself.

  • In the wake of the 2nd conference, both Bateson and Northrop contact chairperson McCulloch to express reservations about the wisdom of focusing so much on Köhler. Bateson was concerned about the multidisciplinary conference getting diverted into intra-disciplinary controversies. Northrop saw Gestalt psychology as a suboptimal theme, and recommended keeping the focus on 'harder' science such as (e.g.) neurophysiology and mathematics.

    This illustrates the extent to which (a) there was occasional individual trepidations about the topical and procedural foci of the conference series as well as (b) there were a lot of back-channel communications concerning the conduct of the conferences.

3rd Conference

March 1947

New York City


- Lewin
(died shortly before conference)

(Köhler invited, but cancelled)


  • Conference still entitled "Teleological Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems."
  • For the first time, the number of invited guests is allowed to exceed the 5 originally planned by Fremont-Smith.
  • McCulloch begins collating and distributing a summary report on the conference

    This illustrates the realization that the earlier conferences had not been adequately documented. McCulloch attempted to summarize the key points of the first 3 conferences following the third event, then distributed this to the attendees. With the exception of Mead's shorthand notes (indecipherable owing to her personal shorthand coding) and the fragmentary results of the earlier crude recording / transcription efforts, McCulloch's retrospective remains the main documentation for the first 3 conferences.

  • First loss of core group member - Kurt Lewin dies shortly before the conference
  • Lewin's death cancels planned appearance by Köhler to discuss his view of perception (distinct from the 'coding' model previously discussed)
  • Erik Erikson gives a presentation on child psychiatry. His approach is considered non-rigorous compared with the tone of the conferences to date. Although Bateson and Hutchinson lobby for Erikson's inclusion in the core group, opposition prevents this. For his own part, Erikson was uncomfortable with the group's focus on machines.

    This illustrates the problems (both internal and external) in adding new core members to the group. It also illustrates the fact that not every new attendee saw the conference and/or its subject matter as something attractive enough to pursue.

  • In relation to his own research interests (e.g., cellular automata), von Neumann lobbies to get a geneticist invited to the conferences.

    This is the first important instance in which von Neumann acts not only on his own initiative, but with regard to his own personal topical interests. In retrospect, von Neumann would later be characterized (e.g., by von Foerster) as something of an 'insider' (member of the core group) who operated more like an 'outsider' (i.e., someone pursuing his own agenda tangential to that of the collective).

4th Conference

23 - 24 October 1947

New York City


- Klüver
(didn't attend)

(recommended by Klüver)
Garcia Ramos


  • Title of the conference is modified to "Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems."

    This represents the third title in four events. It illustrates the manner in which the conference participants were still at a loss to provide a specific denotation for what they found so interesting.

  • Köhler presents his 'field' perspective, generating substantial controversy. Pitts and McCulloch criticize Köhler's 'field theory' as mere theory devoid of empirical basis.

    This debate illustrates two important points. First, there was a divide between those interested in the mechanisms of neural architectures (e.g., Pitts and McCulloch) and those who expressed interest in descriptive theories of what those mechanisms might do (e.g., perception). Second, it remained the case throughout the conference series that the neural mechanism people (who were also to be counted among the formalists) were repeatedly critical of what they perceived as fuzzy or vapid theorization (particularly with regard to the psychoanalysts).

  • Long argumentation over the distinctions between the continuous or 'analog' character of Köhler's Gestalt model and the discretely-coded or 'digital' orientation adopted by (e.g.) McCulloch and Pitts.
  • Harrower and Teuber are disappointed at poor reception given Köhler's presentation. Harrower threatens to resign from the core group, but is persuaded to stay.

    This illustrates that the Macy Conference audience was, after all, a collection of people, each with his or her own personal commitments and attachments. The social network of these commitments and attachments would influence the conferences in many ways - including selection of new invitees and the departure of some people along the way.

5th Conference

Spring 1948

New York City


+ Teuber
(becomes core member)
+ Bavelas

von Domarus

Delbrück (geneticist selected by von Neumann, expected to become member of core group)

  • Title of the conference remains "Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems."
  • First day's program, organized by Mead and Bateson, focuses on language

    Although this is not the only conference in which 'language' is a topic of presentation and discussion, it is the only conference in which an entire block of presentations on this topic was presented. It is unclear whether or not this attention to language overshadowed the invited presentation by biophysicist / geneticist Delbrück - a type of scholar and a specific individual recommended by von Neumann.

  • Second day's program dominated by presentations by Wiener (order vs. chaos), Pitts (formal modeling applied to chicken pecking order formation), and Lee (concept of "I" in language).
  • Geneticist Delbrück unimpressed by fifth conference - later stating, "It was vacuous in the extreme and positively inane." This illustrates the difficulty in getting new attendees to integrate themselves into the conference and/or the group.

    Delbrück was not the first or the only invitee to think little of his Macy Conference experience (cf. the earlier comments about Erikson). His reaction illustrates that not everyone readily accepted or endorsed the conferences (though the precise reasons remain unclear). It must be noted that the dedication of a significant block of this conference's itinerary to 'language' may have diminished the attention given Delbrück and the genetics subject matter which von Neumann had been promoting, and that this might help explain his negative reaction. It must also be pointed out that Delbrück's statement was given to Steven Heims in the 1960's, and that time may have amplified his displeasure.

    As was the case with Erikson, Delbrück had been invited with some expectation of his being added to the core group. As was the case with Erikson, Delbrück found himself sufficiently uncomfortable with the conference as to prevent his further attendance, much less his incorporation into the 'inner circle'. This illustrates that recognition of the conferences' themes was not universal.

6th Conference

24 - 25 March 1949

New York City


- Harrower
- Lazarsfeld
(didn't attend)
- von Neumann
(didn't attend)
+ von Foerster
(guest - invited to join)



  • The conference opens with discussion of a message from (non-attendee) von Neumann. Having calculated the number of neurons and interneuronal connections in the brain he'd claimed the brain's neurons were insufficient to account for human capacities, and that the means for achieving the brain's 'complexity' must include other mechanisms such as the biochemical structure of the neuron itself. The physiologists present were pleased at this idea. McCulloch defended the viability of his and Pitts' neuron model (which had thus been called into question). The debate ends when Pitts demonstrates von Neumann's statements had been based on a calculation which was invalid.

    This event is interesting for a number of reasons. First, although von Neumann operated as something of an 'outsider' and wasn't even present, the attendees still took the time to consider his message. Secondly, this could have turned into another in the recurring rounds of debate over neural mechanisms versus subjective perception had not Pitts short-circuited the discussion by pointing out the flaw in von Neumann's description of the problem.

  • Klüver suggests research topic of analyzing situations leading to childhood trauma.
  • During this period, McCulloch becomes a severe and vociferous critic of psychoanalysis - alienating some of the psychological and psychiatric acquaintances who participate in the Macy conferences.
  • Kubie makes note of the (problematical) role of the observer in psychoanalytical work, and claims the therapist has to remain as detached as possible, even to the exclusion of humanistic impulses. Wiener brings up the problems of measurement interfering with observed phenomena in the sciences. Fremont-Smith and Stroud join in.

    This is the only occasion when the problem of the observer is explicitly discussed in the Macy Conference series. This seems strange in retrospect, given that the problem of the observer would become so prominent two decades later. It is perhaps less strange when one considers the fact that discussion of 'subjective experience' (cf. earlier debates on Gestalten) tended to be promoted only by the 'soft science' crowd (particularly the psychoanalysts), and that they were repeatedly criticized by the core 'hard science' advocates for doing so. In any case, it's fair to say this resistance to the topic of subjective experience would force deferral of this critical topic to the 1960's and the rise of second-order cybernetics.

  • Heinz von Foerster's presentation on memory politely received. He's invited to become editor for the Conference proceedings (allegedly so he can practice English). Mead and Teuber are appointed as assistant editors. These assignments persist for the remainder of the conference series.
  • Admittedly daunted by the length and complexity of the conference title, von Foerster recommends Wiener's recently-published label 'cybernetics' be adopted as the conference title. This is enthusiastically approved. Wiener, deeply touched, leaves room to hide his tears.

    This anecdote (cited in multiple of von Foerster's documented reminiscences) illustrates how concise circumscription of the conference's subject matter under a discrete label had not theretofore been given much attention. More generally, it's indicative of the inattention given to portraying the conference's themes as a discernible field in and of itself.

  • Fremont-Smith makes an appeal for collaboration between physics and psychology (and by implication all the 'hard' and 'soft' sciences) leading to unification of science. He emphasizes the need for cross-disciplinary awareness and declares, "The development of effective communication across the scientific disciplines in perhaps the most urgent need of our era."

    This illustrates multiple points. First, Fremont-Smith (as mentioned earlier) was very interested in these conferences serving as the birthplace for a truly multidisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) field (or metascience). Second, as of halfway through the eventual series, there was little evidence this was occurring. Third, it illustrates that Fremont-Smith was growing increasingly concerned at the extent to which the attendees continued to engage each other in terms of their respective disciplinary perspectives.

7th Conference

23 - 24 March 1950

New York City


- Lazarsfeld
(dropped out)



  • In accordance with von Foerster's suggestion (cf. 6th conference notes), the conference title becomes "Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems."

    It is important to note that the Macy Conferences were not titled or characterized as 'cybernetics' until 6 of the 10 conferences had already occurred. At this late stage, the conference title is stabilized once and for all.

  • Atypically large proportion of presentations by guests (instead of core group members).
  • Gerard starts conference with presentation on 'analog' versus 'digital' interpretations of mind. He states the mind is more toward the 'analog', calling into question the 'digital' logic-based model of Pitts and McCulloch. This sets off an animated debate that proves frustrating to many of the participants.
  • Bateson calls for clarification of distinction between 'analog' and 'digital'. He hearkens back to the arguments over Köhler's presentation at the 4th conference and suggested it would be wise to remove any ambiguities.

    It is interesting to note that the old debate concerning 'analogical versus digital' remained a pesky item of 'old business unresolved'. Gerard's points are essentially the same that he'd made years earlier. Bateson's allusions to Köhler's presentation only remind us that the prior attempt to invoke and understand Köhler led only to dissension and hurt feelings and not any progress toward understanding with respect to Gerard's distinction.

  • Remainder of the conference is largely dedicated to presentations on communication and language.

    At the 5th conference there was a block of time invested in presentations on human language. This time around, the theme wasn't so much language in and of itself, but rather how human language intersected with the features relevant to (e.g.) Shannon's information theory. In this regard, it's important to note that this 7th conference was the first of three that Shannon himself would attend.

  • Psychoanalyst Kubie gives a presentation on language and symbols as they relate to neurosis. This touches off a debate with Pitts and Bateson criticizing psychoanalysis from two distinct perspectives. Pitts can't discern any coherent theory in psychoanalysis, while Bateson can't discern any objectivity in psychoanalytic tenets.

    This illustrates two points. The first was that no amount of criticism from the 'hard science' contingent (especially Pitts) would dissuade Kubie from presenting psychoanalytical issues at the conferences. The second was that some people from the 'soft science' contingent (in this case Bateson) also had problems accepting psychoanalytic theory or terminology as sufficiently clear or rigorous.

  • Guest Licklider gives a presentation on analyzing 'intelligibility' in speech communications - a topic quite distinct from reducing uncertainty a la Shannon's information theory. This sets off a series of exchanges wandering through topics like (e.g.) emotional tone and the speech of parrots.
  • Claude Shannon presents a paper on a formal analysis of semantic redundancy in printed English, focusing on writing as coding and tilting the discussion from the social scientists (energized by Licklider) over to the engineers.
  • Gerard makes critical remarks about overinflated claims for cybernetics and undue publicity given recent conferences. He muses that the group had originally presented ideas freely and uncritically, but had become apparently overconfident about their theories. He goes on to warn about the risk of accepting and relying upon mathematical models incapable of empirical validation through observation and experimentation.

    Gerard had served as a recurrent gadfly during the conferences (cf. his repeated observations on the 'analogical versus digital' distinction). This marked the first time anyone had pointed to the manenr in which these conferences' subject matter and participants were being externally viewed and treated as a cohesive group with a coherent agenda. His remarks were motivated in large part by articles in the popular press (e.g., Time) that were characterizing this 'cybernetics group' as the vanguard of an imminent fusion of man and machine. His remarks about mathematical modeling and empiricism are also interesting, because they mark the first recognition of the risks inherent in relying only on abstract models as the entirety of their methodology.

  • Psychologist Klüver criticizes both Köhler's 'field theory' and McCulloch's 'digital' models with respect to perception. He suggests both are too abstract to constructively analyze (e.g.) the functionality of the visual system in the course of 'seeing'.

    This illustrates how little progress had been made in response to Klüver's original challenge to the 1st conference to explain 'Gestalten'. Although the group had gone out of their way to invite Köhler so as to resolve such issues, that had ended up being a disruption rather than an illumination. It also highlights the fact that in between the engineering of artifical neural models and the fuzzy subject of psychoanalysis was a middle ground of experimental and comparative psychology which had been underrepresented and little noted during the conferences to date.

8th Conference

15 - 16 March 1951

New York City


- Bateson
(didn't attend)
- Wiener
(dropped out)
- von Neumann
(dropped out)



  • Neither Wiener nor von Neumann attended this 8th or any subsequent Macy Conference.

    These two 'dropouts' are significant in light of the fact these individuals would later be commonly cited as instrumental to and central in the Macy Conferences and in cybernetics generally. It is fair to say that their roles and criticality has been overstated in later decades (particularly in the case of von Neumann, the 'outsider').

  • MacKay's views on information (distinct from Shannon's by virtue of trying to incorporate 'meaning') are evident in his presentation, which touches off a debate on whether meaning is an intrinsic component of 'information' as that construct is being used at the time.

    One can see this debate over 'meaning' and 'information' as analogous to the earlier debates over 'subjective experience' versus 'neural mechanisms'. In both cases, some participants wanted to address things solely in terms of cognitive 'vehicle', while others wanted to address cognitive 'content.' By and large, the 'vehicle-only' adherents prevailed throughout the conference series.

  • MacKay also suggested automatons could be capable of inductive inference if configured to employ random strategies. This brings a severe criticism from statistician and decision theorist Savage, who claims randomness adds nothing in emulating human behavior and can only diminish problem solving efficiency.

    This debate is interesting in the sense that what MacKay was proposing can be seen as the basis for exploration, adaptation, and learning. Given the prominence that learning and education would achieve in later decades (e.g., the work of Gordon Pask), it's ironic that 'learning in systems' would be such a rare subject of discussion in the Macy Conferences.

  • Savage gives a presentation on his seminal decision theory research, based on statistical analysis and predicated on a quantifiable 'utility' metric. McCulloch responds critically, arguing that decision contexts aren't typically reducible to any such one-dimensional metric.
  • Bavelas presents some of his recent experiments in small group dynamics and group communications.

    Bavelas' presentation is interesting because it illustrates how the Macy Conferences influenced the thinking and methods among some of the 'soft science' participants. This case illustrates Bavelas' drift toward concise and abstract theoretical elements (a la information theory) and away from the positions he'd held when he first appeared at the 5th conference. When he arrived, he could be characterized as an adherent of Lewin and Köhler's Gestalt approach. By this time, he'd begun to jettison some of the more 'fuzzy' descriptive concepts and make an effort to adopt more rigorous constructs.

  • Discussion of Bavelas' structured (and game-like) experiments runs the gamut from applicability of von Neumann's game theory to psychic motivations to ESP to applicability of 'meaning' within an 'information theory' to anxiety about automatic machines to the role of machines as models in understanding human cognition.

    This illustrates that even at this late date the conferences continued to engender stimulating and multi-faceted conversations.

  • Literary critic Richards gives a presentation on the type of language necessary to address and analyze language itself.

    The inconclusive discussion that followed Richards' presentation includes the only known allusion to Gödel's incompleteness theorem in the entire Macy series. Given the mathematical expertise present in the conferences and the subsequent prominence of Gödel's theorem in critiques of artificial intelligence, this is something of a surprise.

  • Animal communications researcher Herbert Birch makes a presentation in which he draws a distinction between interactions that are merely 'behavior' versus what he terms 'true communication' in higher animals and humans. This 'true communication' Birch characterizes as involving anticipation, intentionality, symbolization, learning, and social engagement. Rosenblueth and Bigelow respond very critically, claiming that the elements of Birch's 'true communication' entail ambiguous mentalist notions that are inimical to the non-mentalist approach underlying their paradigmatic cybernetics research.
  • In an exchange on the recurring topic of the 'unconscious', Rosenblueth declares that a mental event (and / or associated neural events) either occurs or it does not occur. He characterized the notion of a mental event engendering a memory but somehow still 'unconscious' to be nonsense.
  • As the recurring debate over psychiatry's status as 'scientific' played out, Rosenblueth claims natural science's general approach and language can handle the problems addressed by psychiatry, and Pitts claims that the onus is on psychiatrists to either demonstrate their methods are 'scientific' or else advance them to where they become so.

    These three factoids provide evidence of something that had permeated the entire conference series - a persistent critique from the 'hard science' contingent against fuzzy descriptions based on vague 'mentalist' constructs. This in turn illustrates why the participants interested in cognitive 'content' (cf. Klüver's persistent allusions to Gestalten) were always at a disadvantage in putting such topics before the group.

9th Conference

20 - 21 March 1952

New York City


- Savage
(didn't attend)
- Northrop
(didn't attend)



  • More 'guests' invited than at any other Macy Conference.
  • McCulloch opens the conference with observations about increasing disruptions to the conference series' coherence. He cites the problems of conflicting schedules which had forced a number of regulars to be elsewhere. He also cites the growing secrecy imposed on some participants' projects (von Neumann and Bavelas) which prevents presentation and discussion of relevant work.

    By this time von Neumann had effectively dropped out of the conference series. McCulloch's remarks illustrate both the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of the McCarthy era and the apparent fact that long-term conference participants were prioritizing other things.

  • Divergent interests continue to characterize the participants' discussions. For example, Bateson responds to Gerard's presentation on neuronal excitation / inhibition by asking how one can relate such neurophysiological minutiae to broader philosophical or epistemological issues.
  • Bateson gives a presentation on humor and communication, leading to his unveiling of a notion that paradox (his espoused key to humor) was at the heart of all human communication.
  • W. Ross Ashby presents 2 papers - one on his 'homeostat' and the other on the prospects of chess playing automatons requiring random tactics before they can defeat human opponents.

    Though he would later become one of the most famous cyberneticians, this was Ashby's only appearance in the Macy Conference series.

  • Interestingly, some of the more technically-minded regulars like Bigelow and Pitts, interrogate Ashby about his homeostat and challenge him to explain how it 'learns'.

    Ironically, this means the 'hardcore' cyberneticians were in the position of arguing their case from an internalist or mentalist perspective - the same position for which they'd been castigating the psychiatrists for years. It's also ironic in the sense that such critiques had for years stifled attention to the subject of 'learning' - the very point upon which they challenged Ashby.

  • Kubie avoids some of the arguments associated with his earlier presentations by downplaying psychoanalytical theory and characterizing himself as a sort of naturalist observing emotions.

    This illustrates a drift similar to Bavelas (cf. 8th conference notes), but one more like a defensive reaction rather than a positive adaptation based on past discussions.

  • Guest Quastler proposes application of cybernetics at the microlevel in relation to biochemical and cellular processes. He presents a set of estimated values for 'complexity' in biological organisms, based on the amount of information they represent or can represent.

    Quastler's presentation apparently didn't generate a lot of discussion or enthusiasm. Interestingly, the notion of quantifying 'complexity' would serve as the seed for 'complexity studies' - one of the many alleged latter-day successors to cybernetics.

  • Bigelow chides the social science contingent for falling into a trap by surrendering to a fascination with mathematics.

    Dupuy (2000) cites this as a specific illustration of cybernetics' problem with managing non-specialists' and public perceptions of the usually very specific concepts and constructs the group generally addressed. In this case, Bigelow was warning the non-specialist participants that they were uncritically accepting some of the 'hard science' contingent's products without understanding the limits of their significance. This also relates to Gerard's earlier comments warning of overinflated expectations among the public.

10th Conference

22 - 24 April 1953

Princeton New Jersey


(No Changes)




Group Photo:
Final Conference

  • This was the only Macy Conference held somewhere other than the Beekman Hotel in New York City.

    Ironically, this final conference was supposedly moved to Princeton for the convenience of von Neumann, who for all intents and purposes had dropped out of the 'cybernetics group' three conferences earlier.

  • Discussion at this conference is unusually animated in style and ambiguous in content. Assistant editor Teuber described the conference as lacking content, and threatens to resign if anyone pushes to publish a proceedings for such an affair. In a compromise to prevent Teuber's resignation, it is agreed that only papers (and not discussion transcripts) will be included in the final transactions, which will not appear until 2 years later.

    This illustrates how the long-term conference attendees were showing signs of fatigue.

  • McCulloch reports on his and Pitts' work on how neural mechanisms can recognize shapes and musical chords. He cites strong arguments from others rebutting this work, and ends with a good-natured concession that his and Pitts' efforts have been in the fine tradition of scientific refutability.

    This incident is a poignant event, in that at the time it seemed to indicate one of the project streams feeding the Macy Conferences had in fact turned out to be a dead end.

  • McCulloch is tasked to write a final summarization of the consensus achieved during the 10 Macy Conferences. This proves difficult, because by this time it's clear that the cybernetics group is moving (and has always moved) in several different directions. McCulloch writes in part: "Our most notable agreement is that we have learned to know one another a bit better, and to fight fair in our shirt sleeves." (Transactions, p. 69)

    As chairperson for all 10 Macy Conferences, McCulloch no doubt desired to portray the series as having produced something. His concession of what can only be called a social networking outcome illustrates how the Macy Conferences could not even then be construed as having produced a unified theory or meta-discipline of the sort to which Fremont-Smith had aspired.

PART 2: Dupuy's Analysis of the Macy Conferences' Thematic Foci

ABOUT THIS ANALYSIS   On page 79 of his book Mechanization of the Mind, Jean-Pierre Dupuy offers a cursory taxonomic analysis of the topics discussed during the 10 Macy Conferences. He does this by employing what he terms a 'unit of discussion' - roughly speaking, a presentation and its attendant debate(s). Dupuy is careful to admit that his categorization is his own. Still, his effort represents the sole attempt to lay out a thematic map for the conference series.

The table below is a capsule overview of Dupuy's taxonomic breakdown. Only the category titles are listed, because the titles are the extent of Dupuy's explanation of what the categories may be.

The categories are presented here in descending order with respect to number of discussion units as assigned by Dupuy.

Applicability of a Logic Machine Model to both Brain and Computer 17
  • NOTE:  Dupuy associates this topic with the personal interests and orientation of conference chairperson Warren McCulloch.
  • 7 units were more specifically focused on anatomical and physiologial issues.
  • 4 units were more specifically focused on the problem of Gestalten.

'Human and Social Communication' 11
  • 6 of these units specifically addressed language
  • 1 unit addressed the theory of games

Analogies between Organisms and Machines 7
  • NOTE:  Dupuy associates this topic with the personal interests and orientation of Norbert Wiener.
  • 2 of these were more specifically focused on experimental psychology.

'Neuroses and Pathology of Mental Life' 7

'Cybernetics Machines'

  • NOTE:  Dupuy notes the irony of this small number of discussion units, given the fact that such automatons would become popular icons of 'cybernetics' in the popular mind.

Information Theory 4
  • NOTE:  Dupuy notes these might well be added to the 7 cited above ('Analogies between Organisms and Machines') as representative of Wiener's (as contrasted with McCulloch's) interests.

'Abnormal Communication' 2
  • NOTE:  Dupuy does not explain what this category might denote, and he offers no examples to illustrate what he includes in this category.

'General Epistemology' 1

  • In this category Dupuy lists only the Kubie presentation at the 6th conference which touched off a debate on the role of the 'observer'.

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on the shoulders of giants