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Stuart A. Umpleby
Department of Management
The George Washington University
Washington, DC
An early transition in our
conception of knowledge
• Robert Boyle was part of a luncheon club in
London in the mid 1600s, which was called the
“invisible college”
• This group became the Royal Society of
London for the Improvement of Natural
Knowledge in 1663
• This is one indication of a transition in the mid
1600s from theological knowledge to natural
(scientific) knowledge
Robert Boyle (1627-1691)
A current transition to
reflexive knowledge
• Many people have contributed to the current
change in thinking
• Heinz von Foerster, second order cybernetics
• George Soros, reflexivity theory in economics
• Karl Mueller, second order research
• Vladimir Lefebvre, ethical cognition
• Louis Kauffman, knot theory
• Klaus Krippendorff, the reflexive turn
Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002)
George Soros
Karl Mueller
Vladimir Lefebvre
Louis Kauffman
Klaus Krippendorff
The basic idea
• Science can be expanded by adding the
observer to what is observed
• We could shift our thinking from viewing
science as creating descriptions of systems to
viewing science as an active part of social
• We would think about the co-evolution of
theories and society
How we think about social science
• It is easy to accept that theories affect society
• We create theories because we hope that
people will accept them, act on them and
society will perhaps operate better
• However, when we do science, we pretend
that theories do not affect what is studied
• We act this way because we think this is the
way to create objective descriptions
• But we can expand our conception of science
Three conceptions of Science 2
• Meta-science: combining the results of many
studies in order to create more holistic, more
useable knowledge (K.H. Mueller)
• Take advantage of the internet to cooperate in
scientific research and sharing of data (Ben
• Take account of the observer and examine the
co-evolution of theories and phenomena,
particularly in the social sciences
Four models underlying science
• Linear causality – many statistical methods are
available, e.g., correlation and multiple
• Circular causality – inherent in regulation,
system dynamics models
• Self-organization – Adam Smith, Charles
Darwin, complex adaptive systems
• Reflexivity – von Foerster, Soros, Lefebvre
Observe, decide, act, observe…
A circular process
The observer is included
Operates on two levels of analysis –
observation and participation
Examples from several fields
• Management
• Sociology
• Economics
Including the observer is not
completely new
• The field of management is largely a collection
of methods
– How to improve a manufacturing process
– How to conduct a strategic planning exercise
• But little attention has been paid to
connecting this form of knowledge to the
philosophy of science
• Reflexivity theory makes this possible
Second order knowledge in
• In management there is a large literature on
how to do things, on how a manager should
• The most useful literature has often been
created by consultants rather than academics
• But most professors of management attempt
to emulate the physical sciences
• Managers often say that the management
literature is not helpful to them
Should knowledge in the field of management be
constructed in the form of theories or methods?
Is there a difference between the
natural sciences and the social
Popper’s doctrine of
the unity of method
Should we reject the
philosophy of science?
What should take its place?
How should knowledge be
Expand the philosophy of
science to include knowing
Should methods be for the use of
individuals or groups?
“Think like this”
“Act like this”
Sociology of knowledge
• Our position in society influences what we
• If we are rich, society is working well
• If we are poor, society is not working well
• Culture, religion, and educational background
all shape what we see and how we think
• Hence, there is an interaction between society
and what we think
The nature of knowledge in
• Economics is the social science that has been
most successful in imitating classical science
• Quantification has been easier in economics
than other social sciences
• Economics is now defined primarily by its
methods rather than its subject matter
Equilibrium theory in economics
• Physicists at first dealt with small numbers of
objects – planets, pendula, billiard balls
• But gases involve many millions of particles
• So, to create thermodynamics physicists
looked at gross parameters – pressure,
volume, temperature
• Economists adopted this model – imports,
exports, savings, GDP
Behavioral economics
• Equilibrium theory in economics uses the
concept of self-organization – elements of a
system go to their stable, equilibrial states
• When there is a disturbance (e.g., a new
technology or new legislation), people seek to
return to equilibrium
• Several assumptions – they seek to maximize
personal profit; people are rational; they have
equal and complete information
Progress in recent years
• Behavioral economics has challenged the view
of human beings in economics
• Several people have won Nobel Prizes by
showing that people do not always seek to
maximize profit, that they are not always
rational, and that they that they do not have
the same information
Additional assumptions in economics
• There is another, more philosophical, set of
assumptions that economists have not yet
• The classical philosophy of science assumed
– The observer is not included in what is observed
– Theories do not affect what is observed
• Do these assumptions fit the social sciences,
or do we create theories in an effort to change
social systems?
Kaletsky in Capitalism 4.0
1. A laissez faire approach to macroeconomics
followed the stock market crash of 1929
2. An interventionist period, based on the
theories of Keynes began during the 1930s
3. A move toward fewer state-owned
enterprises and less government regulation
was influenced by Hayek and Friedman
4. Lately there has been a return to the belief
that some regulation is necessary
The history of economic theories
• In the physical sciences theories get better
over time
• However, in economics there are fluctuations
between the belief that markets will solve all
problems and the belief that government
intervention is necessary
• Perhaps this is why the history of economic
thought is no longer taught in many
universities in the U.S.
The loss of history in economics
• “There is not time enough to teach the old
ideas, since there is so much new stuff to
• The old theories, which were verbal rather
than quantitative, are seen as inferior to
newer ideas
• But there seem to be fluctuations in economic
Need for second order theory
• Current economic theories are elements in the
regulation of an economy
• A second order theory is needed to describe
how first order theories are to be used
• A current economic theory can be viewed as a
partial description or a temporary description
or a context dependent description
• A second order theory of economics would be
a cybernetic theory, a theory of control by
using ideas
Correcting underlying assumptions
• Behavioral economics is an effort to correct
specific assumptions underlying equilibrium
theory or the idea of an economy as a selforganizing system
• Reflexivity theory challenges assumptions
about science -- that theories do not affect the
operation of an economy and that older
theories can be discarded
Second order science
• The idea of second order science is more
relevant for the social sciences than the
physical sciences
• Science itself is a social process
• Cybernetics is a theory of information and
regulation in somewhat the same way that
physics is a theory of matter and energy
How to do second order science
• An academic discipline requires methods
which can be practiced
• What are some methods for doing second
order science?
Several methods for second order
• The influence cycle is similar to the credit
cycle and the leverage cycle
• Interaction between ideas and society, an
historical approach (shoelace model)
• Examine social activities in terms of ideas,
groups, events, and variables
• A comparative approach
Amount of
Collateral Debt
Economic +
The credit cycle
opportunities for
deregulation of +
business activity
belief in the +
value of markets
The influence cycle
abuse of asymmetric
A reflexive theory operates at two levels
Why practice second order science?
• It is more realistic
• We cease pretending that social systems are
like physical systems
• New scientific theories and methods will be
• With a larger conception of science we will be
able to explain and to influence processes we
could not otherwise
Reasons not to do second order
• Giving up a claim of objectivity means giving
up a claim to special authority
• The informal fallacies caution against errors in
language, emotion and thought
– Circular reasoning, language
– Ad hominem fallacy, emotion
– Fallacy of accent, thought
• Self-reference leads to paradox and hence
logical inconsistency
Coping with self-reference
• In practical affairs we routinely deal with the
logical problem of self-reference
• We seek to eliminate conflicts of interest
• The Fifth Amendment prohibits selfincrimination
• We let juries decide whom and what to
• When we do science we try to construct
logically consistent theories
Why should we not be deterred?
• In practical affairs we have learned to cope
with self-reference
• We commonly see ourselves as participants in
a multi-player game
• We lose nothing by adding a new dimension
to science
• The science we practiced before we can still
The Correspondence Principle
• Proposed by Niels Bohr when developing the
quantum theory
• Any new theory should reduce to the old
theory to which it corresponds for those cases
in which the old theory is known to hold
• A new dimension is required
• By applying the correspondence principle to
the philosophy of science, we change not just
one theory or one field but all of science
New philosophy of science
Old philosophy of science
Amount of attention paid to the
An Application of the Correspondence Principle
The effect on science policy
• Science policy today is mostly an exercise in
• An alternative approach is to study the history
of science
• Study science as a social activity – history,
philosophy, cognitive science, sociology of
• What practices have been helpful? How has
the most innovative science been produced?
• Include the observer in what is observed
• In the social sciences theories can change the
phenomenon observed
• Knowledge can be organized as methods as
well as theories (instructions to participants)
• Add the dimension of time to resolve
problems involving self-reference
• Study cognition and incorporate what is
learned into our understanding of knowledge
and epistemology (Heinz von Foerster)
• Study high performing research teams
(Hollingsworth, Mueller)
• Create and use methods for doing second
order science
• Model cycles in preferred theories
• View first order theories as being part of social
control processes
• Chart the interaction between ideas and
society (e.g., shoelace model)
• Create multi-disciplinary descriptions using
ideas, groups, events, and variables
• Do cross-cultural studies
A key question: Do human activities
change systems?
• Human beings change social systems by
changing laws and theories
• As technology improves, human beings are
even changing the natural environment – soil,
fish, climate
• We are learning to think about ourselves as
participants in the systems we study
• But to do that we need to change our
conception of science
Contact Information
Prof. Stuart Umpleby
Department of Management
School of Business
George Washington University
Washington, DC 20052 USA
[email protected]
Presented at Café Scientifique
Arlington, VA
September 10, 2012