Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review - Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Approaches to a Science of Life

Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) is at the forefront of a major and needed paradigm shift in the human sciences, part of the non-aristotelian socio-cultural-scientific revision that Alfred Korzybski long hoped to foment. 

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Approaches to a Science of Life, a book of correspondence between William T. Powers (the chief formulator of PCT) and his close colleague, the late Philip J. Runkel (social psychologist and research methodologist), will give the interested reader an irreplaceable inside view (and a very human one) of the developing work-in-progress in PCT over the last several decades and into the new millennium. 

It seems well nigh certain that Korzybski would have felt delighted to see the substantial  standing and growing structure that Powers and Runkel, two early and serious students of his work (see the Name Index), have produced on such korzybskian foundations. Let me explain. 

In his 1933 magnum opus, Science and Sanity, Korzybski presented his system of applied epistemology (labeled "general semantics") as his contribution to the foundations of a "science of man." As early as his first 1921 book Manhood of Humanity, he had expressed the importance of non-linear, circular ("spiral") causation for understanding human behavior. But his rough working intuition of circular mechanisms didn't line up with the psychology of his day, which mainly operated within the stimulus-response paradigm. So although he regretted the lack of what he considered a "scientific psychology" (an exact theory of the circular mechanisms of behavior didn't exist) he was forced when formulating his own work to make use of the best, though inadequate, studies of his day. 

Almost as soon as he became aware of the notion of feedback, which began to rise into public awareness after World War II under Norbert Wiener's rubric "cybernetics", Korzybski leaped on it as "a turning point in the history of human evolution and socio-cultural adjustment." But it took a long time after Korzybski's death in 1950 before William T. Powers' 1973 book, Behavior: The Control of Perception actually showed how negative feedback control, long touted by cyberneticists, might function as the core for an exact and overarching scientific theory for psychology. 

Powers is not just a psychological theorist—as an engineer he had intimate contact with the 'guts' of actual mechanical servomechanisms. He's had lots of experience with human servomechanisms too. The detailed research program for psychology entailed by Powers and colleagues, emphasizes human autonomy, a phenomenological perspective, and the rigorous modeling of behavior. Their program has already begun to get carried out, although acceptance has been slow by the larger social/behavioral  'science' which still operates under the burden of the outmoded but still pervasive stimulus-response, linear cause and effect, paradigm.

The editor of Dialogue... Dag Forssell had done a tremendous service by getting it into print, along with his excellent introductory discussion and supplementary material. Go to his  Living Control Systems  website , and if you don't get Dialogue... right away, get one of his other books on PCT to start with. (Dag also has a generous amount of free material to peruse.) For the serious student of Korzybski's work, interested in developing it further in 2011, mastering the basics of  PCT seems essential. When you are hooked, you will have to have Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Approaches to a Science of Life.  

1 comment:

pigeon toes said...

Thanks for the update.