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Dr. Randall Whitaker

Randall Whitaker
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  INSIDE VERSUS OUTSIDE:
Observing Unities as Either Simple or Composite

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An Observer Web  Focus File

Copyright © 2001 Randall Whitaker
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Throughout the course of developing the biology of cognition / autopoietic theory, Maturana and Varela made it clear that the phenomenal domain of an observer observing a system as a whole (simple unity) is not the same as that established in observing the same system as a network of components (composite unity).

The mode of an observer's engagement with a composite unity is therefore dependent upon how she discerns the boundaries of the observed -- the overall system boundary (simple unity) or a set of component boundaries circumscribed by the extent of the componential network (composite unity).

In his 1979 book Principles of Biological Autonomy (and a 1978 paper co-authored with Joseph Goguen) Varela presented the most explicit discussion of this distinction between perspectives and their ramifications.

One or the other mode of observer engagement realizes a cognitive point of view (also termed cognitive viewpoint). When addressing a system (composite unity), an observer may adopt a behavioral view  (addressing the system as a simple unity) or a recursive view  (addressing the system as a composite unity).

This Focus File  provides instructional illustrations of these concepts.

 

 


 

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 Cognitive Point of View (CPOV)
 

 

"...[T]he establishment of system boundaries is inescapably associated with what I shall call a cognitive point of view, that is, a particular set of presuppositions and attitudes, a perspective, or a frame in the sense of Bateson ... or Goffman ...; in particular, it is associated with some notion of value, or interest. It is also linked up with the cognitive capacities (sensory capabilities, knowledge background) of the distinctor. Conversely, the distinctions made reveal the cognitive capabilities of the distinctor."

(Varela, 1979, p. 85)

 

 
 
A CPOV, therefore, circumscribes the particular 'layout' or 'topology' of an observer's observing situation. This circumscription specifies the focus of observational engagement (i.e., where the observer's 'referential cross hairs' are targeted), and this in turn specifies the topology of the observer's immediately-accessible domain of referentiality.

These constraining or qualifying features are best illustrated in the context in which the CPOV was originally introduced. In Goguen and Varela (1978), the discursive focus was on "...the role which distinction plays in the creation and recognition of systems." (Goguen & Varela, 1978, p. 32) As such, they introduce and employ the notion of CPOV in the course of delineating how such observational constraints set the stage for a hierarchy of system levels (of discernment). This in turn set the stage for Varela's discussion of issues such as the dichotomy between autonomy and control.

A summary illustration of this construct with respect to the two canonical CPOV's one may adopt when addressing a given system, is given in Figure CPOV below.

 

 


Figure CPOV

Figure CPOV: The two cognitive points of view in observing a system


  As illustrated in Figure CPOV, an observer may focus her attention (i.e., 'place her referential crosshairs') either inside or outside the system (composite unity).

If she focuses outside, she 'sees' the system as a whole (simple unity) in its environment. This CPOV Varela (1979) calls the behavioral view.

If she focuses inside, she 'sees' the system as a set of components (composite unity) embedded in the referential 'environment' of the operational system. This CPOV Varela (1979) calls the recursive view.

The following sections provide a deeper exploration of these two views.

 

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 Behavioral View of a System S: Addressing It as a Simple Unity
 

 

The behavioral view "...reduces a system to its input-output performance or behavior, and reduces the environment to inputs to the system..." and the "...effect of outputs on environment is not taken into account..."

(Varela, 1979, p. 86)

 

 



 
A Step-by-Step Illustration of the Behavioral View:

 

 
  Referential Focus:
 
 
  The 'focus' or 'referential crosshairs' are set in the medium of engagement, in what would be the environment for any system S in that medium.
 
 
In Terms of Description ...
 
 
  With the focus set in the environment, system S is apprehended and engaged as a simple unity. Dynamic transformations are apprehended as such in the environment, and in terms of this environment (e.g., as distortions in the environment's referential matrix, vis a vis the observer).
 
 
  In Terms of Explanation ...
 
 
  The dynamic transformations are explained as phenomena framed with regard to the environment. The relationship of system S to these phenomena can not be explained except in terms of "import / export". System S remains opaque to explanation, and is attributed the character of a processor of the phenomena 'imported' and/or 'exported' (which are themselves re-framed as 'inputs' and/or 'outputs' to/from system S).

 

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 Recursive View of a System S: Addressing It as a Composite Unity
 

 

The recursive view "...emphasizes the mutual interconnectedness of its components..." and "... arises when emphasis is placed on the system's internal structure."

(Varela, 1979, p. 86)

 

 



 
A Step-by-Step Illustration of the Recursive View:

 

 
  Referential Focus:
 
 
  The 'focus' or 'referential crosshairs' are set within the system S.

As such, the referential scope for the observer has a horizon which terminates in the vicinity of the system's extent. In other words, the environment beyond the system's boundary is not accessible to observation.
 

 
In Terms of Description ...
 
 
  With the focus set within the system S itself, this system is apprehended and engaged as a composite unity.

Within the system (as a composite unity), components are observable as simple unities.

Dynamic transformations are apprehended as perturbations imposed by the system's environment (e.g., as distortions in the system's referential matrix, vis a vis the observer).
 

 
  In Terms of Explanation ...
 
 
  Dynamic transformations are explained as phenomena framed with regard to the system's components and their configuration.

These phenomena can not be explained in terms of "import / export" processes to and from the environment, which lies outside the referential matrix specified by this particular cognitive point of view.

Any 'environing factor' remains opaque to explanation, and is attributed the character of a source of perturbations impinging upon system S.

Within the system, dynamic interactions of the components (seen as simple unities) are treated from a behavioral view.

 

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