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Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology: Transforming Thinking through Cybernetic Epistemology and Anthroposophy
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Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology: Transforming Thinking through Cybernetic Epistemology and Anthroposophy


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(Please note that Slideshare translates the Greek letter Theta into the letter Q. This is unfortunate, because I used the Greek letter for its geometric shape. You can see the correct shape here: …

(Please note that Slideshare translates the Greek letter Theta into the letter Q. This is unfortunate, because I used the Greek letter for its geometric shape. You can see the correct shape here:


The complexity, subtlety, interlinking, and scale of many problems faced individually and collectively in today’s rapidly changing world requires an epistemology—a way of thinking about our knowing—capable of facilitating new kinds of responses that avoid recapitulation of old ways of thinking and living. Epistemology, which implicitly provides the basis for engagement with the world via the fundamental act of distinction, must therefore be included as a central facet of any practical attempts at self/world transformation. We need to change how we think, not just what we think. The new epistemology needs to be of a higher order than the source of the problems we face.

This theoretical, transdisciplinary dissertation argues that such a new epistemology needs to be recursive and process-oriented. This means that the thoughts about thinking that it produces must explicitly follow the patterns of thinking by which those thoughts are generated. The new epistemology is therefore also phenomenological, requiring the development of a reflexivity in thinking that recursively links across two levels of order—between content and process. The result is an epistemology that is of (and for) the whole human being. It is an enacted (will-imbued) and aesthetic (feeling-permeated) epistemology (thinking-penetrated) that is sensitive to and integrative of material, soul, and spiritual aspects of ourselves and our world. I call this kind of epistemology aesthetic, because its primary characteristic is found in the phenomenological, mutually fructifying and transformative marriage between the capacity for thinking and the capacity for feeling.

Its foundations are brought forward through the confluence of multiple domains: cybernetic epistemology, the esoteric epistemology of anthroposophy (the spiritual science of Rudolf Steiner), and the philosophy of the implicit as developed by Eugene Gendlin.

The practice of aesthetic epistemology opens new phenomenal domains of experience, shedding light on relations between ontology and epistemology, mind and body, logic and thinking, as well as on the formation (and transformation) of identity, the immanence of thinking in world-processes, the existence of different types of logic, and the nature of beings, of objects, and most importantly of thinking itself and its relationship to spirit.

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  • Substantiate Steiner’s basic epistemological project… which is the basis for anthroposophy as a whole
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    • 1. TOWARDS AN AESTHETIC EPISTEMOLOGY Transforming Thinking Through Cybernetic Epistemology And Anthroposophy Seth T. Miller California Institute of Integral Studies PhD Dissertation Presentation February 2014
    • 2. Structure of the Problem: Epistemology • Every action, every feeling, and every thought arises in the context of an epistemology, i.e. in the context of implicit functional patterns of knowledge construction that are largely unconscious. • We can only escape epistemology by being ignorant of the fact that we cannot escape epistemology. • Epistemology is the consequence of habits of distinction. • How do we get habits of distinction? • Through a recursion between thinking and being: • Changing thinking changes being; changing being changes thinking. • Rather than continue to act out old distinctions and thus ways of being, many of the world’s complex problems, as well as individual problems, call for solutions of a higher-order level. Such solutions do not re-instance the contexts that generate the problem in the first place, but are designed specifically to change those contexts so that the problem can no longer continue to be generated. Higher-order solutions remove the conditions of generation of the problem. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 2 of 29
    • 3. Goals of the exploration: • To illuminate higher-order structures at work in epistemology in order to give a theoretical context for how we can change how our knowing occurs, thus changing how we are in the world. • To reveal structural links between epistemology and ontology. • To explore how such links can be utilized as the basis for conscious participation in transformative processes. • To create concepts that can address how transformative processes are transformative. • To invite readers to participate in the process of making distinctions newly, to enter creatively into the recursive functional link between knowing and being, and to experience the content not only as a set of thoughts, but as a prescription for how to think transformatively. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 3 of 29
    • 4. Context for the exploration The large-scale topic is a theoretical exploration of potential meeting points, congruencies, and suggestive complementarities between: •Anthroposophy (specifically its epistemology) •Cybernetic Epistemology (second-order cybernetics) •Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 4 of 29
    • 5. More specifically, it is an exploration of: • The difference between levels of order and the recursion between them, and how this recursion is transformative • The recursive link between methods and contents, between process and product, between thinking and thoughts • The nature of thinking: • • • • • Ideas about what constitutes mind, specifically in terms of its patterning (Bateson) The role of distinction in thinking (Spencer-Brown) The phenomenological process of thinking (Gendlin) What happens when thinking becomes recursive and what that means How the process of thinking changes when it becomes explicitly connected with our feeling life (Steiner) • The nature of logic in relation to thinking, and different kinds of logic • A theoretical foundation for the possibility of creating new sensory organs based on the integration of thinking and feeling capacities that operate at a higher -level of order than our physical sense organs • The way in which feeling-imbued thinking can become an aesthetic epistemology (not an epistemology of aesthetics) • The link between all of the above and esoteric practices and wisdom (specifically anthroposophy) February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 5 of 29
    • 6. Personal Background • As a philosophy major, I always had a personal interest in the big picture, in patterns, and in transformation • I have been involved with anthroposophy since 1999, having taken Dennis Klocek’s course in Goethean/Consciousness Studies • 6 years of teaching physics, math, philosophy, projective geometry, and other subjects in Waldorf high schools • Discovered the work of Eugene Gendlin via focusing in master’s program at JFK University • Introduced to cybernetics and second-order cybernetics in PhD program at CIIS February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 6 of 29
    • 7. The basic premise of the idea • I had an undefined, nebulous, but persistent sense that these three realms were exploring the same basic territory from their own unique angles, and I wanted to see what would happen if they met more directly. • Caveat: I initially had included the realm of alchemy (specifically spiritual alchemy) before deciding to include Gendlin’s work on the implicit instead of alchemy. However, alchemy also explores similar territory and is in large part very aligned with the other domains. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 7 of 29
    • 8. Methods (in practice) The work is essentially theoretical, which in my case meant: • Cycles of reading/thinking/writing/discussing • Meditatively-oriented practices • Experiencing the process of thinking, i.e. to think about my own thinking in a phenomenological way • How does thinking happen? What is the process like? How does the process of thinking change when the object of thought changes? How does the object of thought change when the process of thinking changes? • Utilizing/embodying a recursive loop across levels of order (process/product) – A training of my awareness to be sensitive to the properties of its occurring • Dwelling in an idea, learning its shape, its patterning, its modes of appearing • Taking ideas into sleep How did I decide to use these specific methods? February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 8 of 29
    • 9. An important methodological caveat • The content of the work is about recursion and mutual relations between process and product. • Therefore, I felt I had to not only speak about this idea, but put it into practice. • I thus took up specific methods of analysis and inquiry that existed in the major domains of exploration, and applied them to the content, in an effort to both utilize and demonstrate the recursion between levels of order. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 9 of 29
    • 10. Two Complementary Directions of Exploration • Methodologies  Methods  Topics of Exploration • A theoretical framework for exploring ideas yields: • Specific methods for exploration of: • A particular topic • Topics of Exploration  Methods  Methodologies • Exploration of a particular topic suggests: • Specific methods used to address the topic, which further suggests: • A larger patterning and ‘way of approach’ that can be applied to other topics, not just those from which it originated Both processes occur simultaneously in an inquiry, alternating complementarily, mutually illuminating each other. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 10 of 29
    • 11. Methodology (theoretical underpinnings) Basic hermeneutics with respect to major texts and ideas: • Anthroposophical writings of Rudolf Steiner (many and various) • Second-order cybernetics, particularly: • Gregory Bateson • Heinz von Foerster • Francisco Varela • Humberto Maturana • George Spencer-Brown • Also: Louis Kaufmann, Ranulph Glanville • Eugene Gendlin’s major works: • Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning • A Process Model February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 11 of 29
    • 12. Methodology cont. • Transdisciplinarity: Basarab Nicolescu • Levels of Reality – mutually constitutive, integrated • Logic of the included middle (embracing paradox, avoiding duality) • Creative Inquiry: Alfonso Montuori • Inquiry as transformative practice, not as a finding of objective facts • Goethean phenomenology: Goethe and Steiner • Empirical practice that massages the subject-object boundary • Makes the whole human being commensurate with the object of perception – in this case the object of perception is the activity of thinking • Steiner extended and utilized Goethe’s ideas, connecting them with the expansion of capacities into the realm of the spiritual (which he connects with thinking) • Philosophy of the implicit: Eugene Gendlin • Direct reference: the wisdom of the becoming of “the body” • Feeling the vague but precise sense of “the situation”: the “felt sense” • Practices to explore the felt sense and let it function in the creation and discovery of new experiencing (“focusing”) February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 12 of 29
    • 13. Conclusions: Basic Compatibilities • Anthroposophy, cybernetic epistemology, and Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit are indeed compatible. • Specifically, each deals with the activity of thinking in a process-oriented way, but from very different contexts: • Anthroposophy brings a spiritual context (including a spiritually-based ontology, cosmology, and epistemology). Basic tenet: thinking is spiritual. • Originating in the early decades of 20th Century Germany/Europe • Cybernetic epistemology brings a very modern context closely associated with constructivism (even radical constructivism), logic, systems-theories, and relations between biology and cognition. Basic tenet: the observer is part of the observed system; distinction is fundamental. • Originating in 1960’s-70’s in America • The philosophy of the implicit brings the phenomenological context of the living organism in relation to concept formation. Basic tenet: concepts are an expression of the intricate, more-than-conceptual way of living in a situation. • Originating in 1960’s in America February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 13 of 29
    • 14. Conclusions: The Fundamental Pattern • A basic pattern: q (The “fundamental pattern” – Theta) • This pattern is the distinction between levels of order (product/process, what/how, content/method, thought/thinking, the “it”/process leading to the “it”… generically expressed as: N/N+1) and: • The recursion between levels of order • Level N+1 is the process out of which the content at level N arises, so we have the directionality from N+1  N • However, this movement from process  product is not the only way that these two levels can relate. Level N can change level N+1, when level N+1 is reflexively open with respect to level N. The product can change the process: N  N+1. So: each level modifies the conditions of realization of the other. • This obviously doesn’t work with all processes. The production of a physical widget doesn’t change the processes of its production. • But some processes are or can become specifically sensitive to what they produce, so that the process is open to change by virtue of what it yields. The most important process of this type is thinking February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 14 of 29
    • 15. Conclusions: More about q • It is a way of describing the activity of thinking when it becomes recursive, taking itself as its own object • It reveals that epistemology and ontology (knowing and being) are recursively connected: • How we distinguish structures what becomes distinct for us • What we distinguish structures how future patterns of distinction are likely to occur (or, equally, not occur) • It is a metapattern – a pattern of patterns, or a higher-order pattern. As such, it finds differentiated expression in many lowerorder patterns, unifying them at the higher level. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 15 of 29
    • 16. Conclusions: Thinking and Distinction • Thinking is the activity of distinction; distinction is the activity of thinking. • This is a very broad claim about the nature of cognition. I am claiming that systems which are constituted so as to be able to make functional differentiations through the realization of their activity demonstrate the most essential aspect of thinking. • We can call such systems beings. I will continue with the term system to emphasize that the concepts here apply very broadly and fundamentally, but every time I say “system” read it also as “being.” • Every next action of a system that could be otherwise because of a distinction made by the system involves cognition. • Distinction makes specific, limited options for next steps available to the system. This is the basic underlying requirement for all types of evolution and development. • Importantly, for evolution and development to occur requires that the consequences of the making of a distinction be relevant to the potential next steps of the system making the distinction. Distinction must be recursive – the system must be sensitive to the distinctions it makes for those distinctions to be relevant for its potential next steps. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 16 of 29
    • 17. Conclusions: Sense-organ creation • The way a system becomes recursively sensitive to the distinctions it makes is the basis for the forming of a sense-organ. • A sense-organ is formed by functionally closing the loop between the system's ability to distinguish and its sensitivity to the consequences of the distinctions it makes. • This recursion is an example of the pattern q: a process that yields a content which changes the process. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 17 of 29
    • 18. Conclusions: Sense-organs, cont. • Distinction affords the possibility of sensation. Every distinction creates the potential for sensitivity to the domain of differences specific to that distinction, not just to the single distinction itself. • No sensation without distinction. (Direction: explication) • Sensation is a way to make distinctions relevant. • Sensation affords the possibility of new or changed distinctions. Every sensation has the potential to trigger new distinctions, or changes in the patterns of distinction already functionally embodied by the system. • No distinction without sensation. (Direction: implication) • Distinction is a way to make sensations relevant. • The closed loop between distinction and sensation is the recursive foundation for the creation and evolution of a sense-organ. • A sense-organ is thus an epistemological-ontological recursive unity. The knowing process and the known are simultaneously, co-dependently arising. q is a way of describing this at the pattern-level. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 18 of 29
    • 19. Conclusions: Non-physical sense organs • We often think of sense-organs as a mostly passive receptors for differences in the physical environment. This is wrong in two senses: • Sense organs are not passive, but arise within (and require) recursion with the act of distinction. Changes of distinction change sensing. • Sense organs do not have to be sensitive only to differences in the physical world. They are sensitive to whatever domain of differences is brought forth by the act of distinction. (Second-order cybernetics: draw a distinction; know a world.) • Distinction is not a physical event; rather, physical events are distinctions. That is, distinction is more primary than the physical. • Indeed, it is the way a system makes distinctions that form the basis for whether or not what it senses is made relevant as physical or not. The distinction between physical and non-physical is a very high-level distinction, not a primary one. We have to see how the distinctions form relevantly, not project distinctions “back” as if what they distinguish were somehow already always there independently of the distinguishing process. We must include the process of observing in the observed result. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 19 of 29
    • 20. Conclusions: Non-physical sense organs, cont. • We can thus speak of non-physical sense organs, which are the result of distinctions that yield to sensation a domain of differences not necessarily or explicitly physical, but still within the realm of experience, considered in the broadest possible sense. • Just as physical sense organs are sensitive to differences in the physical realm, non-physical sense organs are sensitive to differences in the nonphysical realms that they distinguish. For example, once we distinguish the domain of imaginary numbers from that of the real numbers, that difference can be functionally utilized in the creation of further distinctions. • Distinction brings forth precisely those differences that sensation makes recursively relevant. Such differences can be of any logical type. • Distinction is not physical, and the differences distinction yields are also not physical. Being relations, differences are of a higher logical type, just as the class of all chairs is not itself a chair. • Sensation is thus not dependent upon physical differences. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 20 of 29
    • 21. Conclusions: Reality • Not all distinctions yield equally relevant sensations. The distinguishing system cannot determine beforehand or arbitrarily whether a distinction it makes will be made relevant to it through sensation. The system must discover whether such relevance occurs through the act of further distinction. • “Reality” is whatever resists the distinctions of a system. More precisely, “reality” arises as patterns of resistance made relevant to a system through sensation in accordance with the distinctions it makes. • This resistance happens via the recursive loop between distinction and sensation. The content of sensation for a system, and thus the possible patterns of resistance there, can only be discovered, not determined a priori. • We can say that “reality” is a form of relevanting relative to the particular system’s patterns of distinction. • The system discovers itself newly changed through sensing the relevance of the distinctions it makes. Thus reality and the self—whatever its form—co-dependently arise. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 21 of 29
    • 22. Conclusions: A peculiar sense organ • Aesthetic epistemology is a way of knowing about our knowing. It relies upon the building and utilization of a specific type of non-physical sense organ. • Every sense organ is keyed to the realm of differences made available to it through the distinctions with which it is recursively linked. However, in almost all cases this recursive link between distinctions and the activity of the corresponding sense organ is not itself the subject of distinction. In such cases the system is not aware of how it senses (the process of sensing), only that it senses (the contents of sensation). • Aesthetic epistemology focuses on the unique case when a system recursively distinguishes (higher-order, N+1) the recursive link between distinction and sensation (lower-order, N), bringing forth the domain of differences of distinction as the basis for its particular realm of sensation. • Aesthetic epistemology utilizes a sense organ created out of the domain of differences brought forth through the distinguishing of distinction. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 22 of 29
    • 23. Conclusions: Distinguishing Distinction • The question of aesthetic epistemology is: How am I distinguishing? • To ask this question is to invite new distinctions about the process of distinguishing. • The domain of differences brought forth through this higher-order recursion becomes a way of facilitating changes in how we distinguish. • Because every act, every feeling, and every thought involves distinction at some level, changing how we distinguish (and therefore what we distinguish) is very potent. • Aesthetic epistemology is the study of how our distinctions can change when we distinguish our distinction. • This is the process of the making and subsequent crossing of a boundary between levels of order (N and N+1). Through an act of distinction we make the boundary that we then cross in order to discover how that crossing changes our distinguishing. • This process does not replace other types of cognition, but is in addition to them. It can take place as a higher-level form of cognition within cognition. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 23 of 29
    • 24. Conclusions: Aesthetic Epistemology • Why is this recursive process, which may seem very oriented towards logic and abstraction, aesthetic? • The domain of differences that this process yields are not only cognitive or conceptual in nature, although they are that too. They are differences that are felt. Aesthetic epistemology is feeling our thinking as well as a feelingthinking. • The practice of aesthetic epistemology generates domains of new possible felt experiences that are not explainable only in already-existing terms. Aesthetic epistemology is not reductive, but generative. It modifies old terms, connects terms together newly, and creates completely new terms organically in order to become commensurate with the new experiences. This is precisely the same process at work in the creation of poetry and many other forms of artistic expression. • It is recognized that the process of generating new terms changes the experiences that those terms were supposed to explicate. Indeed, it utilizes this relation as the basis for further transformation. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 24 of 29
    • 25. Importance of the Work • Shows compatibilities between anthroposophy, second-order cybernetics, and the philosophy of the implicit. This illuminates potential avenues for continued exploration and mutual fructification between these realms, which have heretofore not been explicitly connected. • For anthroposophy, it provides a philosophical foundation for how we can possibly conceive of spiritual sense organs that do not require the ontological assumptions of Steiner, while at the same time supporting his basic project. • It fulfills a need to connect anthroposophical ideas with current scientific and philosophical ideas, to keep anthroposophy from becoming dogmatic. • It demonstrates how it is possible to utilize esoteric practices as an active part of academic research, rather than only as an object of research. • It indicates a way to avoid dualisms and fundamentalisms of all types through utilization of the fundamental pattern q. • It gives an outline of transformative indications that, if followed, can yield new domains of experiencing. In this sense it is “testable” in the experience of the reader. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 25 of 29
    • 26. Potential Applications • Aesthetic epistemology can be applied to any problem in experience that seems intractable, too complex, too subtle, or too undefined to admit of any solution. • It can help clarify patterns of problem-construction by revealing associated epistemological assumptions. • It can help bring forth alternative distinctions and different ways of knowing in relation to a problem. • It provides a phenomenologically-sensitive context for evaluating different potential solutions to problems through utilization of the recursive interaction between distinction and sensation. • It adds a unique perspective to current debates in anthroposophy, cybernetic epistemology, and the philosophy of the implicit. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 26 of 29
    • 27. Directions for Future Research The ideas in the dissertation are essentially outlines only. There are many areas that can be explored further or more deeply: • Theoretical directions: • Fleshing out more directly a way of thinking about the “spiritual” that avoids many of the ontological assumptions and confusions that normally attend that distinction. • Anthroposophical connections: • The nature of spiritual beings • Cosmic involution-evolution • The future of anthroposophy • Connecting principles of aesthetic epistemology more directly and closely with recent research in cognitive science, biology, philosophy of mind, and consciousness studies, for example, Hofstadter and Sander’s claim that thinking is analogy. • Connecting principles of aesthetic epistemology more deeply with the specific elements of Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit, such as his stages I-VIII in A Process Model and ideas in Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning such as recognition, explication, metaphor, comprehension, relevance, circumlocution, symbolization, “instance of itself” and so forth. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 27 of 29
    • 28. Directions for Future Research, cont. • Practical directions: • Exploring ways of making the principles and practices associated with aesthetic epistemology more easily communicated. • Exploring new realms of application for aesthetic epistemology and experimentally demonstrating its use there. February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 28 of 29
    • 29. Finis February, 2014 Towards an Aesthetic Epistemology, by Seth T. Miller 29 of 29