The (Dis)Appearance of Purpose

On: September 6, 2009
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About Inge Ploum
- MA New Media @ University of Amsterdam - Research: mashing aesthetics and media philosophy to question every cultural object related to digital technology. Particular emphasis is placed on the construction of images of the future. - Spare Time: founder Science Denied (, independent film director/producer, graphical artist & musician 'Die Samplemännchen' & 'Guitar & the Melodies'


We think that the domain of teleology should be extended as widely as possible at the present time, and science runs the danger of bifurcation if “purpose” is tied down to the as-yet-poorly-defined concepts of consciousness and intention. […] But we feel obliged to add that an important problem of experimental teleology is to define consciousness and intention; that is, we need experimental schemes for studying these concepts as much as we need schemes for studying purpose.” (Churchman & Ackoff, 1951: 38)

“The (Dis)appearance of Purpose” is dedicated to the significance of teleology in the study of human-computer behaviour by tracing the disappearance of the concept purpose. To demonstrate how we can think of purpose in order to understand our contemporary media ecology, I will draw on the cybernetics-Taylor dispute published in the journal Philosophy of Science in 1950. This dispute, I will argue, illuminates how our contemporary thought is haunted by an imaginary ideology of purpose. By reconstructing the socio-historical context of 1940’s America, in which purpose for the study of inanimate behaviour appeared, I will place purpose back into discussion. Rather than obscuring the topic in intellectual discussions, I propose to rethink and redefine purpose. By enmeshing cybernetic and Taylorian purpose (while not disregarding their obstacles), I will conceptualize purpose as affective fold. This reappearance of purpose will release the computer as technology and the computer as science from its hidden functional ideology. It will create a guideline to imagine a critical perspective on the study of (in)animate acts, performances and interactions.

After having explored the work of those who are now considered to be the pioneers of cybernetics, I became fascinated by a discussion between Norbert Wiener, Arturo Rosenblueth, Julian Bigelow and Richard Taylor. Although various works on the history and development of cybernetics mention this debate, its relation with our contemporary view on the philosophy of technology has largely been neglected. To my knowledge, no exhaustive accounts on this dispute exist, even though it examined the profound question: how to understand acts whether human or non-human. I saw it as my challenge to become involved in this debate in order to demonstrate that its impact has sadly been obscured and even forgotten in our deliberations on the contextualities of acts. That is, to remove purpose from the atmosphere of ambiguity and let it re-appear.

Because this thesis traces two different schemes on how to link the achievement of a goal to a system, its structure needed to reflect my intention to address the disappearance of purpose. To guide the readers through this mysterious quest, the story crystallizes past and present. This will help accentuate the tensions created by the invisibility of purpose and will introduce purpose as problematic. Our search for the evaporation of purpose begins in the America of the early 1940’s. It concentrates and contextualizes what some acknowledge as the groundwork of cybernetics: “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology”. Chapter 1 sets up the background for the publication of this essay. It presents the cybernetic concept of purpose and describes how this concept transformed Aristotelian teleology. After having outlined cybernetic purpose, we will fast forward to 1950. It was in this year that philosopher Richard Taylor threatened the cybernetic teleology with desires and beliefs. Chapter 2 traces how Taylor’s publications in Philosophy of Science touched on the cybernetic obstacle to neglect the impact of human subjectivity. The conflict between the cybernetics and Taylor triggered a double change of movement; (1) the change from a relatively static towards a dynamic concept of purpose, and (2) the change from the visibility towards the invisibility of purpose. Chapter 3 lays out the plan of action to let purpose re-emerge; that is, to re-conceptualize purpose for the study of (in)animate behaviour. Cybernetic and Taylorian purpose are folded by re-conceptualizing purpose as reflexive embodiment and as affectivity. Purpose then emerges as mobility. It cannot be found either in- or outside itself, but rather in the movement of intentional potentials. This changes how we make sense of the world, ourselves and our performances. It places purpose back into the focus of our attention.

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