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The art of conversation: design cybernetics and its ethics

Claudia Westermann (Department of Architecture, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 3 February 2020

Issue publication date: 28 August 2020




The purpose of this paper to discuss ethical principles that are implicit in second-order cybernetics, with the aim of arriving at a better understanding of how second-order cybernetics frames living in a world with others. It further investigates implications for second-order cybernetics approaches to architectural design, i.e. the activity of designing frameworks for living.


The paper investigates terminology in the second-order cybernetics literature with specific attention to terms that suggest that there are ethical principles at work. It further relates second-order cybernetics to selected notions in phenomenology, pragmatism and transcendental idealism. The comparison allows for conclusions about the specificity of a second-order inquiry. In line with the thematic focus of this journal issue on the framing of shared worlds, the paper further elaborates on questions relating to the activity of designing “worlds” in which people live with others.


The paper highlights that a radical openness toward the future and toward the agency of others is inscribed in the conception of second-order cybernetics. It creates a frame of reference for conceiving social systems of all kinds, including environments that are designed to be inhabited.


The paper identifies an aesthetics grounded in the process of living-with-others as an ethical principle implicit in second-order cybernetics thought. It is an aesthetics that is radically open for the agency of others. Linking aesthetics and ethics, the paper’s contributions will be of specific value for practitioners and theoreticians of design. Considering second-order cybernetics as a practice generally dealing with designing, it also contributes to the wider second-order cybernetics discourse.



Westermann, C. (2020), "The art of conversation: design cybernetics and its ethics", Kybernetes, Vol. 49 No. 8, pp. 2171-2183.



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