Last modified July 13th, 2012 by hofkirchner

since i love thorough theorising, my achievements are to be found mainly in theory.

i have been carving out a framework of scientific thought going transdisciplinary. it consists of three items:
(1) the transcendence of science towards society,
(2) the transcendence of disciplinary domains, and
(3) the transcendence of methods.

items 1 and 3 are rather programmatic than representing results so far.

the transcendence of science towards society

this is commonly known as “mode 2 knowledge production” as Helga Nowotny et al. put it. in the context of my research, this means participatory design of social, environmental and technological systems because reorganisation and the build-up of world society have to include the agents that are able to change the world and come to grips with the global problematique.

theory has to be open for that and must reinforce that.

the transcendence of disciplinary domains

this includes the transcendence within social sciences and humanities and between social science, natural science, and engineering science, and the transcendence towards philosophy as well which i came to realise in different steps.

when i started my academic career at the interface of computer science and social cybernetics at the Vienna University of Technology, i delved into the information concept. as co-worker of Peter Fleissner i worked out an Austrian Science Fund (FWF) research project proposal on the genesis of information structures. in that project i could live up to my transdisciplinary, complexity, and theory preferences and became member of the then emerging Foundations of Information Science community. when my institute was host to the Second International Conference on the Foundations of Information Science in 1996, i shaped the topic of the meeting by addressing the quest for a unified theory of information. i was the editor of the proceedings. in the aftermath of the meeting, i began to gather co-workers from the FWF project for a research group, later on called, and we developed a framework for, and some cornerstones of, a “Unified Theory of Information” (UTI) which condensed in a series of publications like the German book Fenzl, N., Hofkirchner, W., Stockinger, G. (Eds.): Information und Selbstorganisation. Annäherungen an eine vereinheitlichte Theorie der Information. Studienverlag, Innsbruck 1998, 384 pages, up to an English monograph of mine to be published by the end of 2012. in 2002 we called that group the Unified Theory of Information (UTI) Research Group. theoretically, we followed attempts that linked the information concept to the concept of self-organisation which is a complex system theoretical concept.

in the context of that work, i came soon to the conclusion that a UTI would need a, say, unified theory of self-organisation too and me and my then co-workers in the UTI Research Group began to work out foundations for such a unifying system-theoretical approach. we had the chance to discuss this in another international research project on strategies in complexity. we called this kind of unified theory of self-organisation, in extension of the meaning it had worldwide until the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research Seminar in 1995, “Evolutionary Systems Theory” (EST) to comprise open, dynamical, nonlinear, complex, evolving and hierarchical systems. i consider EST as the today successor of General System Theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Anatol Rapoport and Kenneth Boulding. i developed principles of an Evolutionary Systems Methodology, of Evolutionary Systems Modeling, and of Evolutionary Systems Design a short overview of which you can find in my paper Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Forerunner of Evolutionary Systems Theory. In: Gu, J., Chroust, G. (eds.), The New Role of Systems Sciences For a Knowledge-based Society, Proceedings of the First World Congress of the International Federation for Systems Research, Kobe, Japan, CD-ROM (ISBN 4-903092-02-X), 2005, 6 pages.

as to philosophical implications of the EST, i developed the stance of “Praxio-Onto-Epistemology” (POE) by which i added the issue of norms and values as something worth stressing on the onto-epistemological approach so far coined by Hans Jörg Sandkühler and shaped by Rainer E. Zimmermann with whom i personally developed a close cooperation. i published this approach under the title Hofkirchner, W., Fuchs, C., Klauninger, B.: Informational Universe. A praxeo-onto-epistemological Approach. In: Martikainen, E. (ed.), Human Approaches to the Universe, Interdisciplinary Studies, Luther-Agricola-Society, Academic Bookstore, Helsinki 2005, 75–94.

as early as 1998 i started to apply a systems view that is compatible with the findings in self-organisation research to social systems and published in Hofkirchner, W.: Emergence and the Logic of Explanation – An Argument for the Unity of Science. In: Acta Polytechnica Scandinavica, Mathematics, Computing and Management in Engineering Series 91 (1998), 23–30, a first sketch of how to reconcile natural science thinking and social science thinking which, by the same token, is able to reconcile the chasm between theories that take the subject or actors or agents or agency as starting point, on the one hand, and so-called system, structuralist, or functionalist theories, on the other. the core of this is a basic concept of a macro- and a microstructure mediated via agency and downward causation. in this context, i want to mention that, on the basis of my understanding of social systems, i developed a framework for analysing subsystems of society that goes beyond Luhmann’s approach and gives a specification hierarchy of nested subsystems. i elaborated on this, together with members of my UTI Research Group, in a paper prepared for a systems sciences meeting part of the famous “Problems of…” conference series organised by the Dutch Systems Group being published only recently (Fuchs, C., Hofkirchner, W., Klauninger, B.: The dialectic of bottom-up and top-down emergence in social systems. In: de Zeeuw, G., Vahl, M., Mennuti, E. (eds.), Problems of Individual Emergence, Proceedings of a Conference held in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 16-20 April, 2001, Systemica, Vol. 14, 1-6, 2007, 127-150) and in Hofkirchner, W., Fuchs, C.: The Architecture of the Information Society. In: Wilby, J., Allen, J.K. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 47th Annual Conference, ISSS (The International Society of the Systems Sciences), ISBN 0-9740735-1-2 (CD-ROM), 2003, 10 pages. that is, in particular, important when addressing the environmental problematique. i developed a notion of sustainability as a systems property. while i have been focusing on commonalities and differences this approach shares with Luhmann’s theory of social systems resp. make it distinct from the latter, my co-worker in the UTI Research Group, Christian Fuchs, compared our approach to a number of other important contemporary sociological theories. i came to term this approach a “Critical Social Systems Theory” (CSST) approach (as in Fuchs, C., Hofkirchner, W.: Autopoiesis and Critical Social Systems Theory. In: Magalhães, R., Sanchez, R. (eds.), Autopoiesis in Organization Theory and Practice, Emerald, Bingley, 111–129). so EST applied to social systems would give a CSST.

CSST gives also the basis for Technology Assessment and Design Science. technology is then defined as a social system – termed “technosocial” system –, by which it is clear that designing technology means designing social systems in the sense of system theorist B. H. Banathy. the relationship of technology and society, seen from a CSST perspective, is therefore a relationship of mutual shaping (see Herdin, T., Hofkirchner, W., Maier-Rabler, U.: Culture and Technology: A Mutual-Shaping-Approach. In: Hongladarom, S., Ess, C. (eds.), Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives, Idea Group, Hershey PA, 2006, 57-64) and makes a case for a “Critical Design Theory” (CDT). when starting my work in Salzburg i applied these ideas to ICTs which results in an integrative approach towards the assessment and design of ICTs and their social context (see the approach of my e-theory Unit at Salzburg in Hofkirchner, W., Fuchs, C., Raffl, C., Schafranek, M., Sandoval, M., Bichler, R.: ICTs and Society – The Salzburg Approach. Towards a Theory for, about, and by means of the Information Society. In: ICT&S Center Research Paper Series, No. 3, Dec. 2007,, 57 pages; see also Hofkirchner, W.: A Critical Social Systems View of the Internet. In: Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 37, No. 4, Dec. 2007, 471-500, where i characterise the Internet as a techno-social system).

a CDT is in need of criteria. in contrast to the ideology of value-free science, normatve criteria have to be included. a state of future society is envisioned in which the criteria are met. in 2004 i cast the normative vision of the “Global Sustainable Information Society” (see Hofkirchner, W.: ICTs for a Good Society. In: Eriksson, D., Mirijamdotter, A. (eds.), Festschrift for Gunilla Bradley, …, 2010 [in print]). a Global Sustainable Information Society is a society in which ICTs are applied to make society sustainable on a global scale. sustainability turns out to be the key value, incorporating technological, environmental, and social compatibility – the latter tantamount to inclusiveness/justice/fairness, indicating solidarity, freedom, and equality, on the economic, political, and cultural level. the main argument is that not only a society that exploits nature but also a society that does not abide by technology assessment or does not meet the criterion of social compatibility because of the exclusion of (information) have nots will not be sustainable and in the long run break down. given that contemporary society undergoes a critical phase of evolution – marked by global challenges – which might end up in devolution, i conceive of this phase in system theoretical terms: there is a bifurcation between a breakthrough towards a stable path of societal development that is based upon a novel principle of organisation of society, on the one hand, and a breakdown of the system at all, on the other. this is what i call the Great Bifurcation. furthermore, since information, in system theoretical terms as well, is defined as that which is functional for the orderliness of the system in question and a means for reducing frictions in self-organisation processes, it is the inherent potential of ICTs to facilitate the generation of innovative information that might enable society to trigger its re-organisation onto the sustainable path provided by the Great Bifurcation. this is what i call a “Critical Information Society Theory” (CIST), based upon a critical view of social systems and of technosocial systems design. this will be dealt with in another book just in progress. being critical means in that context that in a critique of abundant theories of contemporary society, i have developed a classification scheme that allows for taking up what is of importance while discarding the one-sidedness of any theory. this makes me capable of offering integration potentials between different theories. the two dimensions along which theories are classified are the factors that are said to determine or influence the nature of contemporary society and the eutopian, dystopian or pro-active value-ladenness (which e.g. was published in the transactions of the Class of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Leibniz Society in Berlin in German; for an english version see Hofkirchner, W.: A Taxonomy of Theories about ICTs and Society. In: triple-c, vol. 8, no. 1, Special issue on “Approaches towards ICTs and Society – Theories and Methodologies”, 171-176).

so i have arrived so far at a theoretical framework that is made up of POE, EST, UTI, CSST, CDT and CIST and that may serve as heuristics for further research while being open to refinements and corrections.

the transcendence of methods

i am a strong advocate of the position that sciences of complexity is that ingredient that enables theory best to lay the transdisciplinary foundation for dealing with the global challenges (which are complex as to their nature), that is, in a way that does justice to their nature. but complexity science methods are not exclusive, for they apply a system-theoretical principle themselves – the principle of “Unity through diversity”. “Unity through diversity”, the title of the Festschrift for Ludwig von Bertalanffy – one of the founding fathers of General System Theory –, is acknowledged to be the leitmotif of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s thinking. so, in my view, it is not some specific methods or approaches science should make use of by excluding other specific methods or approaches. it is my conviction that every method or approach has strengths and weaknesses and that it is possible to combine them in a system we are able to construct. this way of thinking was applied when Robert Flood and Michael Jackson in 1991 dealing with the variety of approaches in the systems movement came up with their so-called System of Systems Methodologies which they called “complementarism” and, after slight modification in the tradition of their critical systems thinking, was, e.g., termed “discordant pluralism” by Gregory in 1996. complementarism or discordant pluralism does not mean that anything goes. a discourse needs to be established about which methodology is suitable under which circumstances. it is a way to recognise the legitimacy of each position but at the same time it might render illegitimate some elements of a position. a system of methods can yield as much cohesion as is needed to prevent the methods from falling apart and can allow for as much a range of methods as is possible to investigate the subject matter from different perspectives. so the position i endorse is carrying on the joint construction of such a system of methodologies but extending it so as to make it include, besides system methodologies, methods of social sciences and humanities as well as methods of natural and engineering sciences, albeit in a modified manner if need be, and formal science and philosophy: an integrated system of a scientific methodology.