theoretical pedagogy


excerpts from the introduction to
System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange.
Second edition
ANTHONY WILDEN 1972 & 1980

The reader will already have noted that, if there is one constantly recurring question for a critical and ecosystemic viewpoint, it is the real and material question of context. Obviously, the academic discourse, as well as the dissenting academic discourse, has signification only in terms of the real context in which it occurs. As has been pointed out, the systemic characteristics of this context, with its recognized and unrecognized codings of goals, are ultimately dependent on particular types of socioeconomic organization in history.

One hypothesis of these essays is that the assumption or goal of ‘pure’ knowledge is an outworn rationalization. ALL KNOWLEDGE is INSTRUMENTAL. In the terms of modem communications theory, information (coded variety) is everywhere, but knowledge can occur only within the ecosystemic context of a goalseeking adaptive system peopled by goalseeking [individuals] required to ask how the knowledge has been coded and filtered; and what it is being used for, and for whom.

Thus one of the contexts of knowledge is the temporal context: past, present, and future. But the ideology of pure or objective knowledge to which the academic is expected to owe allegiance – besides protecting teachers and researchers from questions about the actual use value of their work – cannot deal adequately with time and place. It is an absolutist, non-contextual, non-temporal morality akin to that of a fundamentalist religion.
This is a fundamentalism that depends first on the misconstruction of closure and context; second on the correlative lack of understanding that contexts have levels; and third on its inability to deal with the real questions of logical typing in biological and social systems.

For example, the necessary abstraction of a system from its context in order that it may be studied – which should of course be accompanied by an overt attempt to avoid decontextualization by understanding the potentially paradoxical effects of such an abstraction – is quite commonly used, implicitly, to justify the pretended and actual abstraction or isolation of researchers from THEIR many contexts: from their socioeconomic status in a heterarchy of academic privilege, for example; from their actual functions in a system of liberal indoctrination; and from their spoken and unspoken commitments to ideological and political views – all of which the student may expect to find in one transformation or another in their work and in their teaching.

[…] We used to be warned by people who called themselves the ‘Old Left’ in the 1960s not to ‘politicize’ the university – a warning that made little sense to those of us newly arrived in the academic propaganda machine.

As has been pointed out in part, context, whether in theory or praxis, is a question of punctuation or closure – both AT a given level of relationship and, more importantly, BETWEEN levels of relationship.

Moreover, besides its historically peculiar attempts at closure from its real context and indeed from and between many of its own parts, the scientific discourse appears to have been composed by the inhabitants of Flatland (Abbott, 1884). We know that the discourse displays a dogged incapacity to deal adequately with system-environment relations (both practical and theoretical), even when they are considered on a single plane. But this incapacity becomes almost insignificant when understood within the context of the extraordinary ingenuity with which the scientific discourse persistently fails to recognize the realities of LEVELS OF RELATION and of RELATIONS BETWEEN LEVELS in open systems, in their environments, and, above all, between system and environment.

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