In the past year, I have been thinking and reading, and trying to find out what other people have said on the subject that I wish to expand. I think I am now embarking on a different phase: pulling out all the ideas – like weeds 🙂 – and drawing them together into a narrative.
I have started on my dissertation “proper”. That is, I have set up the outline and am now in the process of filling in the blanks. You can check my progress if you like, but this comes with a warning. Some of the ideas should not be spread to security officers before I interview them, because it would render the interview useless. So, if you think you might be a candidate for interview on the meaning and implication of ISO norms on security, do not read my dissertation-in-creation. I trust you. Really. My dissertation-in-progress is on https://publish.obsidian.md/theartofmisunderstanding. It will ask you for a one-time password. If you want it, write to me, although you might guess it :-). The landing page will refer you to my progress page, and there you can see what I am working on at any particular moment. There is quite a bit of tooling behind the dissertation-writing process. I use Obsidian in combination with Zotero. If you are interested, ask me, or check out a showcase like this one. Also, videos by Brian Jenks are worth checking out. He uses Obsidian as an extended memory to manage his ADHD and has excellent structure and tips.
Meanwhile, my general progress report: I had a lot of fun finding out that the theory of speech acts which is at the basis of my research, has somehow escaped into the real world without language philosophers knowing about it. In fact, the ideas that have “got out there” are not just about language but about cognition and interaction in general—again, without philosophers being aware of it. I find this very amusing. On the one hand, you have these philosophers who are very seriously trying to work out what it all means, and then, on the other hand, normal, practical people borrow these ideas, and put them into practice, sometimes with astonishing success, but without any theoretical foundation whatsoever. And never shall the two meet ..
What kind of ideas? Well, the ideas about feedback being necessary to interaction. That particular idea originally came from biology, from two philosophers called Maturana and Varela, giving rise to such concepts as a PDCA cycle (Plan-do-check-act). The blanket term is “cybernetics”, and the underlying popular theory is known as “system theory”, which derives from autopoiesis. I was first introduced to this theory during my research master, and blogged about it here. The idea is that any system, whether a cell, an animal, or an organisation, will try to keep itself alive whilst engaging with the environment to increase its chances of survival. I am sure you find this idea, well, simple. This is how we commonly think. But we did not always think that way. It is something we learned to do, as a society, in the past 100 years, or even not much beyond 50 years.
The point is, this feedback-notion is an important philosophical idea which is rooted in a specific theory. Would you believe—this is for the IT people in my audience—that the agile and lean ways of thinking are derived from this, without any further theoretical grounding? I checked this extensively, and also talked about it with the Dutch cybernetics society. So, it appears that the philosophical ideas from the first half of the 20th century just went viral, and people tried them for practical purposes, adopting them if they seemed to work, and then of course went on from there to create more practices. Without there being any proper feedback loop to improve the initial theories. Incredible. How does anyone, philosopher or practical person, image we learn from this?
Did I intuit this before? Well, I did notice there was something going on, but I was not sure what exactly. I had previously noticed that frameworks like ArchiMate – a framework for describing organisational and IT structure—are, in spite of their claims, not derived from philosophy of language, just from practical application. Which is ok, but I do find the pretense of “scientific evidence” quite amazing in the absence of a proper theory and proper validation. And yet, the authors of Archimate tried—the same cannot be said of business concepts like “lean” and “agile” which are totally devoid of any theoretical basis whatsoever, and derive their strength from our natural tendency to work in small tribes, which we share with our chimp and bonobo ancestors. Which – for those of you that are agile-believers – does not necessarily mean the agile theory is wrong. Just that it caters to our cognitive disabilities as animals and apes rather than to any grand business theory ….
I had also noticed, in the work of Jan Dietz and his DEMO method for analysing business IT, that Dietz incorporated a notion of speech acts and commitment which went way beyond what was understood at the time and certainly had not found its way into other IT business or architecture thinking. That fascinated me. How did he manage this? So I interviewed Jan Dietz (a pleasant occasion at a café in Leiden) and found that indeed he had understood something that philosophers had not understood at the time. He told me wonderful stories about how his method saw the light, and what happened on his first projects. With respect to my search into the notion of “commitment” in his work, he referred me to the work of Winograd and Flores (1986). Both men are now nearing 80, but still very much part of the world, and, important to me, turned out to be willing to answer my questions.
Terry Winograd is the inventor of the Google search engine and the initial driving force behind the idea of artificial intelligence. I wrote to him, but as I expected, his particular expertise was not language and normativity but IT. That language bit, he said in a private message to me, had come from his co-author, Fernanda Flores, whom he was still seeing regularly.
Fernando Flores is a person in his own right: a former minister of Finance in Chili, a philosopher, and a successful businessman; his communication advice costs about a million per piece. However, there was nothing in Flores’ writings that explained where he got his ideas from, so I wrote to him and managed to obtain an interview via Zoom. Amazing! We spoke for almost two hours. The idea of “speaking = acting = incurring commitment” is at the basis of the new Chilean plan-economy in the early 1970s, at the instigation of Flores himself. His communication-with-commitment ideas were shaped by Stafford Beer, the father of organisational management, who took Maturana’s original theory and applied it – without his consent – not to biological cells, but to organisations, i.e., treating businesses as living organisms. Flores himself spent years in jail after the right-wing coup—being visited by, yes, Maturana, amongst others. Cybernetics became associated with communism, which did not help its academic stature much. I recall being at school, as a teenager, at the time that all of this happened, and not understanding much. My parents were very right-wing, and I was told that anything to do with communism and socialism was bad. I remember getting a geography essay on Chili back with my teacher remarking that “I might have invested more effort”. Quite! Well, here is my karma, after all. There is a great book on this; see Medina, E. (2011). Cybernetic revolutionaries: Technology and politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
I also found that psychologist Watzlawick’s ideas about communication, which I blogged on before and liked very much, stem from the very same cybernetic tradition, the idea that our social connections form a system within which we interact-much like a living system that strives for survival and expansion and interaction. The idea is, do not just look at the message. Look at the whole context. By the time I had found all of these cybernetic applications of a single under-developed philosophical idea about the connection between speech acts and commitment, I was getting quite excited. I wondered what had gone wrong with cybernetics and why the connection to philosophy had been lost? So I searched high and low and eventually came across a book by Novikov, which shows the entire area of application of cybernetic theory.
If, from the picture above, you get the idea that artificial intelligence is also not rooted in philosophical theory, you would be quite right. AI is all practice and practical application without any theoretical basis in language or philosophy whatsoever. But don’t tell anyone, because no one wants to know. Everyone wants funding and an audience.
Right. So now the only thing I have to do is to connect cybernetics back to its philosophical roots 🙂 and then, for language understanding, reconnect it to philosophical moral theory and cognition. Not exactly simple to do, but needs must, as they say. The problem, is that there is no system or consistency to the application of cybernetics to its operational fields. It literately escaped from the philosophical laboratory. So I would have to start either from the original theory of cybernetics from its inception by mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (1948) and work my way forward. Or I should posit my own theory and try to fit practical results from real life applications of the theory into my new theory. It will have to be the latter as I am not a historian, but it is daunting nevertheless.
I am leaving you to ponder over my new insights into cybernetics, but also with a book suggestion for which I thank both Husband and my friend Teja. Two female philosophers have written a book about four courageous women philosophers at Oxford at the time of the 2nd world war: Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley. See the review in the Guardian. (Dutch people: do not read the NRC review because it is pretentious clap-trap, sorry to say, just order it from here.) Anyway, such a great book! Finally, I understand why my many questions were not answered when I was there (at the time I blamed myself). The main pleasure comes from knowing why and under what conditions the important analytical theories were produced, as well as how the great philosophers interacted and how any other ideas were excluded. Lots of insightful gossip about horrible men and passionate quests for understanding. I love it. I’m halfway through the audiobook now. I am going to write to the authors when I finish, to thank them for putting analytical philosophy and my own Oxford experience into perspective for me. It is a delightful read, highly recommended.
My next journey is into agency, the connection between roles and norms and understanding. I will keep you posted.
PS. Did you see my post on LinkedIn about my son graduating in Law and moving to philosophy? For those of you that know us personally, you know we went to hell and back. So grateful it all ended well. I thank all of you that liked and/or commented. The young need our encouragement, as we left them so many problems to solve that we could not.