(English) Evolutionary Epistemology and Scientific Psychology

Giampiero Arciero

[Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Sciences. San Francisco, 14-19 January 1989


In the AI magazine of winter ‘85 (as Varela has pointed out) a stimulating article was published by Bierre, entitled “The professor’s challenge”. The article tells us the story of a professor of robotics, Nokemoff, who faced with offering his grad students challenging thesis projects, began one semester by requiring a student to “build a robot that can sort two different parts coming down of a conveyor belt”. Six months later the student gave a demonstration or the requested skill and received a Ph.D. The next semester the thesis topic was a robot capable “of grasping a part out of jumbled bin of identical parts”. After nine months another Ph.D. was given, and the student received a lucrative job in the industry. The following semester, professor Nokemoff required as thesis project, a robot “that could assemble a 10 speed bicycle”. After a year the student presented his robot and received his Ph.D. and a job in the industry. The professor reflecting on the successes of his students began to doubt that the thesis topics that he was giving out were too easy. Another grad student, was looking for a project. This time, confident in his challenge, the professor said: “Build me a robot that can ride a bicycle across town and back, go down to Motor Vehicles and obtain a California drivers license, play six innings of baseball, cook a gourmet dinner, and finish up with a rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna” played on piano. The student offered sarcastically: “Anything else?”. “Oh…and when you think you’re finished, don’t call me, Have the robot come to tell me in person.”

The assignment issued by the professor is the challenge to a program that considered as the basic strategy of cognitive research, the isolation of instances of behavior and the problem solving. This program, grounded in a point of view of mental activity as manipulation of representations more or less exact, of a given reality (on the basis of rules) affected not only the development of cognitive sciences, but is so rooted in the common sense, that the perspective of the brain as processing information coming from an external world, has become a familiar perspective. The basic assumption of the representational point of view, moreover has remained at the heart of most versions of this current of thought developed in the last 5 years under the name of connectionism. Although, in fact, the analysis has shifted to the global properties of the system and so has brought the . “.,. mathematical modelization nearer to biological systems (Mahoney,..) also in this approach the essential postulate grounding the research, is an external given reality (Varela, 1987). Therefore it is not at all surprising that the cognitive sciences continue to ignore the most important dimension of human cognition, that is, that common sense that allows the versatility of our processes of knowledge; it is not surprising since bringing forth the context within which we unconceal the world as each or us does in every day life, implies that nothing is already, given, but what is prominent is always coemerging; that is, emerging in the very act of questioning, in the very happening of living.

To answer professor Nokemoff’s challenge therefore means to throw light on the problem of human happening in relation to that pervading background of practices that are the foundation of the belonging to a common world. The intrinsic circularity of this problem, and its advancement in concentric circles, has been carefully avoided by the classical traditions of thought; both the rationalism that reachs the apex through Hegel with the full transparency of self-consciousness, and the empiricism that passes through the last century speaking different languages until today’s information processing psychology, hampered every questioning of circularity. The rationalism denied it resolving it in the Hegelian Absolute Knowledge; the empiricism could not see it because to look at it meant to undermine the basis of the proceeding of science, of which it is the foundation. The epistemology of cognitive sciences therefore ,oscillated between these two polarities; each proposed version ended by translating the background of practices in terms of propositional knowledge, or systems of rules, or formalized procedures (Dreyfus 1985);through that proceeding the circle has been broken, but simultaneously cognition has been separated from that foundational and not formalizable element, that is the historical element in the social and personal aspects.


It is in clarifying the relations between theoretical and practical knowledge in antique philosophy, that my reflection on the professor’s challenge begins.Two words are at the center of my reflection, and they are the guiding threads that will allow me to 100m the horizon within which I place the problem; (and of course this proceeding is determined from what I see as a problem). The greek words are Poiesis and Praxis, translated in english as making and doing. More exactly, as Plato said to us in books 4 and 10 of The Republic, Poiesis is the activity of the craftsman or of the sculptor. This activity is characterized by the production of the artifact or of the statue, according to a definite idea. The idea is what guides the realization of the product, and the form taking of the product is correlated directly with the idea. The idea remains stable and rules the remaking of perishable products. The idea enlightens: this is the philosophical experience of Plato. It is from this point of view that Plato gives us the examples of the craftsman and the sculptor as similar to the “Episteme” of the philosopher. In fact both, the “Tecnè” and the “Episteme” are activities characterized by the unambiguous vision of the idea. Unlike Poiesis. Praxis is doing, acting; it is a way of life as Aristotle will say; and the human acting is ambiguous, unpredictable and temporal. This character of fragility of the action, that was considered the cause of the weakness of the city state (Polis),will make Plato say that: “Human things are not worthy of great preoccupation, and to have to take an interest in them, is an unfortunate thing”(Laws 803 b).

The solution that he proposes is the extension of his philosophical system to politic, and through the figure of the philosopher king the elimination of doing from the organization of the city state. In the Statesman he says: “The true science of the king infact does not have to act directly, but to direct those that are capable to act, and to have the knowledge of when it is right or wrong to begin the great enterprises in the states, while others must execute the orders”(305 d). The king is he who has knowledge; he is not required to act; the impredictability, the ambiguity and the temporality of doing are taken under the quiet order of the idea; knowing is separated from doing, and doing is transformed in making(Arendt 1959). The city state is transformed into “a workshop in which everything and everybody are defined means to predefined ends”(pag.139 Taminiaux,1987). It is especially in the Nicomachea Ethics, and in the book 9 of Metaphysics that Aristotle reacts to this Platonic view, reconsidering the Praxis, and therefore bringing back to the center of reflection the ambiguity and the productivity of human acting. Aristotle defined the Praxis in his biological researches, as the actualized nature of the living(Ritter 1984);as the viability of the living, that lives his or her life in a certain manner; the praxis means a way of life. But it is only with the ethics that Aristotle draws the distinction between man and animal. Whereas infact the animal realizes his existence by nature, and it is only by nature that it becomes what it can, the man exceeds the order of necessities through the organization of acting and speaking together.

That is the city state, the Polis; it is grounded in man’s nature, but at the same time transcends it, becoming the condition for the actualization of the man. That is, the man becomes man, discloses his or her own individuality, reveals his or her own being, by becoming accustomed to the organization of acting and speaking together; this is the great turn in relation to the platonic thought. Aristotle discovers the actualization of human nature in the concrete existence. The right, the virtuous, the good are not immutable ideas, but are intertwined with customs and tradition; with Ethos. It is the belonging to the tradition of the city state that determines the actualization of the individual; and it is the individual in the concrete situation that participates and therefore sets in motion the ethical principles of the city state. But this ethical knowing how, that Aristotle calls Fronesis, is something completely different from the theoretical knowledge of the episteme. It is true that it is a knowing how that is grounded on general principles as is the Episteme, but the general principles are co-determined continuously in the concrete situations in which the individual finds him or her self. Aristotle underlines this point saying: “Of the voluntary or of the involuntary we must always speak in relation to the moment in which we act”(Et.Nc.3 1110 14-15a). This kind of knowing implies as mediator, he who is involved in the situation; that is it implies choice and deliberation; it is a knowing that implicitly requires an application, a “how to be applied”, to the concrete situation, and as such implies a responsibility that can never be eluded (Gadamer 1987). This mediation that always presupposes ethical attitude, contributes to develop this attitude and to perfect it. Praxis therefore is an acting that does not rest on the realization of an end outside the agent, or fixed by a prior knowledge; but the end is at stake in the very acting. The activity of seeing, for example presupposes a potentiality (the ability of seeing), but the activity has its comp1eteness in the seer”(pag. 148, Taminiaux 1987). Praxis therefore in addition to being temporal is self-referential. Aristotle underlines it speaking of “se1f-knowing”,that is a knowing how as “unfolding of” personal know1edge within the intimacy of a given situation”(Gadamer, pag. 123,1987); it is a knowing that is experiencing; it is a knowing that is acting. These are the foundations from which the reflection on the practical knowledge is disclosed; it will be called until the tractease of Christian Wolff “Philosophia Practica”. Practical philosophy is a research path which begins from human happening, unfolds itself as an interpretation of that acting, and returns to human existence. Within the realm of human affairs there configures a view of knowledge different from the one depicted by cognitive scientists; cognition appears as a moment of mediation between a preexistent understanding and the concrete situation; so understanding as experiencing reveals intrinsic temporality.

He who understands, he who is always in the tradition of sense, is the mediator between a common and shared understanding, and that which, coming from nowhere, acquires sense in the encounter. As mediators we always create a meaning against this background that so, we contribute to modify and to bring forth. The rediscovery of practical philosophy points out a questioning that leads to the roots of every psychology; the clearing that is opened is dominated by the problem of meaning, and the task that is viewed from afar is the more fundamental questioning on the problem of reality. We will see how the path that philosophical hermeneutics unconceals widening the aristotelic reflection to ontology, will allow us to clear the intimate connection between the problem of the meaning and the question of reality.


“We go back therefore to the question defined by professor’s challenge, that guided our proceeding. The professor assigning his last topic, comprehends that knowing can not be formalized a model of objectivistic knowledge, but must be understood in eventful nature and then in temporality and historicity. ln the same time he comprehends that the novelty acquires sense within a background of common practices. The event namely makes sense within a context, and the context is defined with regard to the event; the structure of understanding emerges as a system of circular relations between parts and whole; between the familiar and the alien. The greek myth of Hermes is the powerful game of thought that speaks of this relation. Hermes, the mediator between man and gods, the god that Homer greets as “he who loves to be, companion to a mortal”, is sculpted by Phidias coupled with Hestia, the goddess of the navel of the house, of the hearth. (Vernant, 1970). The action of Hermes is untied in this reciprocal referral between god and man, between the familiar and the alien, between the tradition and the novelty. We will attempt to clarify the ontological character of this circularity in a language that developing from the Heideggerian meditations, for the first time in the history of thought faces this circularity and puts it thematicly. Heidegger and later Gadamer who urbanized the Heideggerian philosophy, define being as the “thrown project”. What does the “thrown project” mean?

An example may be helpful in understanding this point. As clinicians one of the most extreme situations in which we find ourselves, is when a client speaks a language incomprehensible to us; in that moment it is as if we were in a foreign land where somebody is speaking our language and we don’t understand; what is happening? Our comprehension collapses. On what was this understanding founded, that until then we embodied without gaining the distance that emerges only in its absence? Here we encounter the meaning that Heidegger attributes to being as thrownness. The being that we always are, is thrown in to a world of practices and sense, that is our common world; the realm of intersubjectivity. This domain, that constitutes the “social matrix” within which the individual finds him or her self and acts is first of all not a system of beliefs or values, but ways of being of social relations, mutual actions. As C. Taylor states: “the meanings and norms implicit in these Practices are not just in the minds of the actors, but are out . there, in the practice themselves… “(pag.57, Taylor 1987). This belonging that is established again and again through co-acting in a world, is in the same time an emotional disclosing. The one is not separable from the other. An emotion as anger, for example, is referred to a certain situation, e.g. the mother who does not fulfill, the request of the baby, and to the, child way of demanding e.g. crying or throwing of objects. The point is that in order to identify anger as such, it must be related to a certain situation; but in turn, the situation can only be identified related to the emotion by which it is contextualized. This belonging that is established through coacting in a shared world, is therefore to enter in a world of sense that is a world brought forth intersubjectively. From this perspective then, as belonging to a tradition, being is ontologically historical; in fact it can no t escape the ontological condition of “always already having a finite temporal situation as the horizon within which the beings he understands have their initial meaning for him”. It is therefore this historical belonging, the place where our understanding is rooted; and in this being rooted it is thrown.(Understanding in this sense is inseparable from being.)But in the same time understanding is to project; in fact that world of practices and meanings of interactions “the anonymous comprehension” the familiarity within which being is thrown, is simltaneously the determination of the future. Understanding is in this sense always already a choice of the possibilities that is, understanding is always already a project. And in this sense the historical horizon ” of the observer or of the interpreter, is always already a finite horizon. For this intrinsic historicity, the implicit criterion of the detached observer that lead the scientific proceeding, it is no longer sustainable. The historicity of understanding points out the historicity of the horizon of the observer and so the inseparability of the observed; understanding always opens itself from a tradition and it is with the eyes of this tradition that meaning emerges. It is here that the creative nature, the productivity of the hermeneutical circle, reveal essentially itself as an historical productivity. How is this productivity articulated? Belonging to a tradition shapes, our anticipations of I sense and therefore it guides our comprehension; the interpretations that we renew continuously are the explications of the possibilities projected in the comprehension.

So then, it is within the context of the comprehension always projected that the connections which we make acquire a sense. But this global anticipatory meaning becomes explicit understanding as well as parts that are determined from the whole determine with their turn this whole”(Gadamer pag 340,1987).It is here that Heidegger discovered the centrality and the productivity of the circularity of understanding. Within this very circle, that Is, within the experience of confrontation between the familiar And the alien, in the encounter between pre-judgments, pre-cognition, pre-disponibility that we always are and what we do not grasp, the awareness and the renewal of the original project is generated. That which is in front of us and which is observed ” provokes on the one hand the effort of comprehension and on the other hand determines the direction of the renewal of this comprehension. The knower and the known virtually define themselves in their reciprocal happening. Therefore, the continuous movement of the horizon of understanding which we mediate in our happening is realized always and continuously within a give concrete situation; the co-determination of the knower and the known is always an act that must be acted. And because as mediators between a pre-existent understanding and the alien, we are, in our situation of renewing finitude, given the concrete responsibility of what we must do. In this continuous temporalization of understanding, the meaning cannot be other than contextual, because it is historical; its unconcealment is founded on the concealment as the present is founded on what is not anymore there (the past),and what is not yet there (the future) i.e., on the absent.


I mentioned that the problem of meaning and more generally of cognition, is linked to the problem of reality; now perhaps I can explicate the sense of the this assertion. The implicit criterion that had lead the research in cognitive sciences has been the criterion of objective reality. The representational approach saw, for example, mental activities as a set of rules, and the representations as a set of symbols, the meaning of which was assured by reference to an objective given reality, independent of what we do. It is clear that the premises of this approach could not allow as thematic object the observer and observing; not only but the very access to the objective reality, access guaranteed by perception and cognition, is explained by referring to this single domain of reality; doing so, this approach precludes the chance of understanding the personal, social, historical element that is the vital element of cognition. It is this element that is at the center of the second perspective that we defined as ontological. Here cognition configures itself as acting, that is concurrently a way of being. Reality in this vision coemerges with the observer; it is the observer who remains historical, who sets the context in which the object emerges and the object emerged as such, defines the context by which it is defined. The knower in this way brings forth a world, a reality of objects which are endowed with his or her acting and with his or her history of actions. The one is defined related to the other. To the Chilean School we owe most of all for the widening of these reflections to include the study of cognition as a biological phenomenon. In this way, Maturana and Varela brought to the forefront of natural sciences the problem of the observer.

From an historical point of view, according to Stangers (1985),the problem that information coming from the environment does not allow us to explain the behavior of a system, is the gap that divides the cybernetic of the first order or of the observed systems, from the cybernetic of the second order, or of the observing systems. This cybernetic of cybernetic, freed from concepts such as control or regulation poses the problem of how, a system “as observing, must be capable of stipulating its own criteria of distinction and of action”(Stangers, 1985, pag. 39). This line of thought was brought forth primarily from the fifties through the Biological Computer Lab of Illinois University. Moving on the background of official science, it was defining, as a field of research, the self-organizing systems. At the beginning of the sixties there were three conferences on the subject of self-organizing systems and here the self-organization appeared as a problem and as an invitation for a program of research toward which orient the future of cybernetics. Following this first phase it is not until the early seventies that the analysis was again taken up. I here refer to the studies Heims, Dupuy, Stangers and by l’Ecole Politecnique for the history of the different perspectives developed on self-organizing systems, focusing this time on the view of the Chilean School. The Chilean School formulates the problem of the observer within biology and in this way “reformulates the questions of biology so that they take in account the fact that all the activities of the organism refer to that organism as autonomous, as treating his or her environnement at his or her own condition”. (Stangers pag. 54,1985).

The most known aphorism of the Chilean School is: “Everything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be him or her self”; but because the observer is a human being, “the” observing and the observer must be explained in the explanation of the operation of the human being as an observer”. (Maturana, in press). Circularity as self-reference is at the core of this view. The premise on which this perspective is grounded is the act of distinction as the basic cognitive operation of the observer (Spencer Brown 1969, Varela 1979). Through the act of distinction what has been indicated, and so, the phenomenology considered prominent, emerges contemporaneously as well as the perspective of the one who is observing. That is, the existence of the observed is not referred to a given objective reality, but the observer emerges in the very act of distinction, and reality therefore is referred to what the observer does. The specified domain of reality, as a result, is inseparable from the act of distinction of the observer and in this sense the objects that the observer brings forth in his or her operations of distinction arise endowed with the properties that realize the operational coherence or stability or viability of the system. From that we derive that although the domains of realities specified by the observer are different, the all are equally legitimate. In fact from this perspective a priviledge access to reality cannot exist; the observer is always closed within a circle with the reality that he or she unconceals and that then is always referred to the maintenance of his or her identity as an observer. The awareness of self-reference implies that the explanation, as reformulation of acting in the language can cannot be accepted related to its own operational coherence because it cannot be validated by an objective reality. The . community of sense, that is consense, is therefore referred to the fact that several observers accept and use the, same criteria of explanation as reformulation of acting; in this sense the sciences are the domain of the consense defined by the criteria of ” acceptability of explanation (Maturana, 1983,1987,in press) underlines four conditions that an explanation must satisfy to be considered a scientific explanation. 1) The specification of the phenomena to be explained. 2)The proposition of a mechanism capable of generating the phenomena to be explained. 3)The deduction from the mechanism proposed in 1) of other phenomena not explicitly considered in that proposition. 4)The actual experience by the observer of those deduced additional phenomena. The phenomena that Maturana specifies is cognition as effective action of a living being in its environment and the generative mechanism that he proposes is the structural determinism(or operational closure)of the living being in its coupling with the the environment.

He demonstrates how this mechanism can generate not only cognition but social phenomena, language, self consciousness and ethics. We will limit ourselves to the description of the mechanism able to generate the specified phenomena that is cognition, referring to the work of Maturana and Varela for a deeper analysis of the other phenomena rising from this mechanism. ” To understand this mechanism we must specify the notion of unity. Maturana states that as observers we can distinguish two kinds of unities; simple and composite unities. Laying aside the first, the composite unities are defined as a whole that integrates the components that constitute it. The relations between the components that define a composite unity as a unity of a given kind, constitute its organization. And, the actual components and relation that actually realize a particular unity constitute its structure. Therefore a composite unity, as for example, a living being, exists in the space specified by its structure; and its existence in time is specified by structural changes without loss of organization, that is, without 10ss of identity of the system. Indeed, if the possible changes of structure that a composite unity may suffer are specified by its structure, i.e. are structure determined, the medium where the system exists cannot specify the nature of the change; “they cannot receive instructions from the environment in the form of information to be processed”(Aboitz 1985).Instead the unity giving itself continuous form through structural changes distinguishes contemporaneously the possible environmental perturbations meaningful for the maintenance of its own identity as a system.

This is a process that happens again and again. Maturana calls this necessary complementarity between a system structure determined and its medium, structural coupling. It is evident as in line with evolutionary biology, this vision shifts the evolutionary explanation to the internal dynamics of every animal group and to the history of structural trans- formation of the lineage related to an environmental perturbation. Adaptation, hence, becomes the invariant which must be maintained in order to exist. The organism environment relation is therefore maintained only if the organism responds to environmental changes by making viable changes in its own internal dynamics. The historical dimension of this process, as the history of the structural changes of the unity congruent with the structural changes of the environment is the cognitive domain of the unity. From this point of view, knowing is founded on an historical correspondence between patterns of activity of the unity and structural environmental changes. This patterns of activity that the unity generates are brought forward trough the happening of a path of existence. “The basic notion is therefore that the cognitive capabilities are inextricably linked to the lived history, as an inexistent path that takes form as it is travelled. Consequently, the aim of cognition is not to solve problems trough representations, but it is a creative aim of putting forward a world in with the only required condition is it’s effective action: to allow the continuous integrity of the co-involved system”(Varela 1987). As Heidegger says: “In this way the man is he who walks on the frontiers of what does not have frontiers. There walking, he searches the mystery of frontiers.”