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Existing Cybernetic Foundations

While traditional disciplines develop a single consistent theory, or perhaps multiple competing, yet still internally consistent, theories within them, cybernetics and systems theory has not generally been successful at this task. The foundations of cybernetics and systems theory show a frightening lack of serious attention, and are marked by semantic squabbles, and (as a result of both ignorance and turf fighting) an inexcusable separation of "camps" from each other.

Few have even attempted to address foundational theoretical and methodological issues in anything other than an ad hoc manner. Some conceptual "frameworks" exist at the formal, mathematical level \cite{KLG85c,MEMTA88}. Some researchers have presented integrated conceptual frameworks for major areas of systems science \cite{JAE80a,ODH83,POW73,TUV77}, and there have been some attempts to develop the foundations of the philosophy underlying cybernetics and systems theory \cite{BUM74,LAE72}. Yet these works focus specifically on cybernetics and systems theory from the perspectives of the traditional fields of mathematics or philosophy respectively; they are still locked into the traditional forms of development of academic work. There is as yet no systems theory of systems theories.

There is at the same time a lack of researchers who are willing or able to address themselves to the general problems and theories encompassed by cybernetics and systems theory. The lack of a coherent terminology and methodology is reflected in a lack of basic textbooks and glossaries, (with some exceptions \cite{ASR56,KLG91a,WEG75}) and further in a failure to establish even primary educational programs to instruct upcoming generations. What little interdisciplinary work has prospered has profited from the developments in cybernetics and systems theory over the past few decades while either ignoring or deliberately avoiding any reliance on cybernetics and systems theory (e.g. cite{SFI,WOS88}).

The lack of a strong foundation for or consensus within cybernetics and systems theory extends to the very basic information about the field. How do we describe ourselves, what can we tell new students and outsiders? Cybernetics and systems theory has been alternatively described as a science, a point of view, a world-view, an approach, an outlook, or a kind of applied philosophy or applied mathematics. There are those in our community who approve of and even champion this state of affairs. They focus on the creativity of the maverick academics who are drawn to cybernetics and systems theory, and decry any attempts to structure or build a solid theory.(Again, with some notable exceptions \cite{UMS90}.) Clearly this lack of balance has led to rather poor review standards in systems journals and conferences, and a low "signal to noise ratio".

What can account for the current state of affairs in cybernetics and systems theory, the lack of a consensually held fundamental theory? Is it inherent in the field, and necessary in any broad interdisciplinary studies? Or is it an historical accident, exacerbated by the personalities and careers of individual researchers? The Principia Cybernetica Project holds that there are in fact fundamental and foundational concepts, principles, and theories immanent in the body and literature of cybernetics and systems theory which do hold to general information systems, including all living and evolving systems at all levels of analysis. We contend that the lack of a fundamental theory is due to a lack of investment in the field. Support for and investment in a field are mutually reinforcing. A lack of either will lead to a lack of the other.

Copyright© Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

C. Joslyn,

Aug 1993 (created)


Reference material

Cybernetics and Systems Theory

What are Cybernetics and Systems Science?

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