Observing the Observer: Exploring a Cybernetic Epistemological Recursion
All epistemologies are observer-dependent; i.e. there is no single epistemology that applies to all possible observers, because every observer is unique in some way. The necessary inclusion of the observer in any description of the world is a deeply obvious and yet profound principle. It was neatly expressed in Heinz von Foerster’s article Cybernetics of Cybernetics, where he builds off of Humberto Maturana’s phrase “Anything said is said by an observer,” by indicating that “Anything said is said to an observer” (2003, p. 283) (figure 1). This is in contrast to the view that anything said is simply… said, as if into a vacuum. This older view, championed by the scientific revolution, took up the principle that statements could simply be true or false, and were about the world but not really of the world (the roots of these two views can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle). Cybernetic epistemology modifies this assumption by re-introducing the observer as a part of the world.
(Side note: it is important to indicate that perspectives on just what this word “observer” might mean can be helpfully explored also through esoteric methods. In an significant way a central—perhaps even the central—aspect of esoteric practice involves the closing of the loop of observation. Esoteric practice in general (always with caveats) can be thought of as the experiential exploration of the cybernetic epistemological injunction that no description of reality can be complete without an integration of the describer in the description.)
While von Foerster links the principle explicitly to the social realm (2003, p. 284) by distinguishing the observer of Maturana’s phrase (a self) with the observer of his phrase (an other), it is important here to point out that it is also possible for these observers to be the same (figure 2). In this case, the observer that initiates the activity of describing is also the one to whom that activity is directed, forming a closed loop. Of course this is just a way of pointing out that in some sense all description is also a description of the observer, a fact which can be noted—and more importantly, utilized—when the loop is closed and the description is not given only to another, but to one’s own self.
The situations depicted schematically in figures 1 and 2 are simultaneous and not mutually exclusive. The observer that initiates the activity of describing is also one to whom that activity is directed, generating a closed loop, but the second observer is not obviated (a path that would lead to solipsism):
It should be noted that the relation between levels of order N and N+1 [see this series of posts for more detail] is active in this case of the Observer (1,2), where the self (1), perceiving itself as other (2) in its own description (importantly, regardless of the content of the description), is a kind of boundary crossing that opens up the possibility of a second-order recursion, indicated by the dotted arrow from Observer 2 (in red) to the 2 of Observer (1,2) (in blue). This line is dotted because the link is implicit in the nature of the self as other, indicated by the 2 of Observer (1,2). This is all to say that the self as self is also implicitly self as other.
It is precisely this link that is utilized in the Goethean phenomenological method. In Goethean beholding, the nature of the other as other is incorporated directly into the self, both as self and as other.
But the fascinating result of carrying out this kind of procedure is that the very distinction between self and other undergoes a complex transformation. The recursive web operationally linking the two observers as self and other is mirrored, such that each observer intrinsically participates both in their own self creation and the creation of the other:
In this way the constructed duality between the self and the other is experientially transformed. It is not simply dissolved in a mystical sort of oneness or obviated outright, but is rather complexified: the distinction (first order, N) is utilized for its own reorganization and transformation at a higher level (second order, N+1) by virtue of a recursion between those two levels. Thus the original Observer 1 (simply as self) now complexly includes Observer 2 (self as self-other), while the original Observer 2 (simply as other) now recursively includes Observer 1 (other as other-self). The whole set of relations recursively crosses the boundaries erected implicitly by the original distinction, but now explicitly; that crossing is the transformation of the original distinction through higher-order self-relation.