A Fugue on the Theory of Knowledge


William P. Hall

Documentation Systems Analyst
Head Office - Engineering
Tenix Defence
Williamstown, Vic. Australia

National Fellow
Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society (ACSIS)
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Melbourne
Parkville, Vic. Australia

AS AT 15 March 2006

NOTE: This document is an incomplete hypertext. It offers more than the linear development of a classical academic "paper". If printed, the paper version provides a sequenced argument with notes and bibliography. However, the text is intended to be read on a computer connected to the World Wide Web, where every issue discussed in the core document has been hotlinked to additional facts and current debates. The core of the work provides a cognitive road map to the Web's much greater knowledge, and to fully appreciate the core arguments, follow and explore the links as you read the text. This literary fugue in four episodes is but one example of the evolutionary change in cognition fuelled by the Internet Revolution discussed in this document. Work on this progress ceased in 2002-2003 when I realized that I could not write my fourth episode, Organizations Develop Minds of their Own, until I reformulated the academic disciplines of organizational theory and organizational knowledge management. Progress that I and my students have made on this reformulation is reported on my List of Publications page.

Many of the hypertext links in the present work to the Web will have broken due to changes and reorganizations of the target web sites [actually, I am surprised by the number of links that still work]. However, most of the works referenced by broken links can still be found on the web using two strategies:

  1. Select and copy the complete URL to the broken link. Go to the Web Archive on http://www.archive.org. Paste the link into the WayBackMachine field. Click [Take Me Back]. Chances are good that the referenced web page will have been archived, and thus still available in its original form.

  2. If you don't find the page in the Web Archive, and I have given a proper title for the document in my Bibliography, copy this title to Google's search field, put quotation marks around the title and click [Google Search]. If the document is still on the Web, this should find it.

I plan to rewrite and complete the fugue based on my present research, when I should have completed a series of "reformulation" papers (see List of Publications for progress).


This hypertext explores the nature of knowledge and its evolution in living entities that include simple organisms, multicellular organisms, people, biological species and organizations. A major focus of the work is to elucidate and understand the the linkages between revolutions in human and organizational cognition and the developments of revolutionary technologies for managing the kinds of persistent human knowledge that forms the logical contents of books, libraries, computer memories, etc.

Here we will cross many disciplinary fields or domains from epistemology, thermal physics and evolutionary biology to theories and management of organizations and societies. The path we trace in this expedition explores revolutions in technologies, cognition and even concepts of of what it means to be living. Because I have mapped the terrain, I can highlight and explain pitfalls that would otherwise impede understanding as we travel through historical time and across disciplinary borders.

The pitfalls exist because each discipline we cross has its own worldview and theory laden language. Thomas Kuhn called these domain specific thinking patterns paradigms. His (1962) book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions provides some clues as to how to develop a metalanguage allowing us to consider the different worldviews without becoming metaphysical or irrational. In our exploration, I try to minimize paradigmatic confusions by using a fugal development, starting with simple and relatively mundane themes and then elaborating these themes through a series of variations and episodes crossing the different disciplinary domains to reach what I hope will be a climax of understanding.

The narrative of the expedition is at least partially autobiographical. By describing my own path to develop the insights presented here, I hope readers will find it easier to follow in my footsteps than they would confronted with what might seem to be a chaotic landscape of incommensurable paradigmatic worlds.

For example, knowledge workers using different productivity tools often become so heatedly involved in irrational arguments about which tools are best, that bystanders call such discussions "holy wars"1. This is symptomatic of historically unprecedented cognitive and technological revolutions that are fundamentally changing the nature of humanity. Such revolutions profoundly affect everyone. To explain what is behind these holy wars and its importance, I weave together a number of disparate themes as I have encountered them in my own life and experience, from revolutions in text processing technology, evolutionary biology and genetics, history and philosophy of science, military affairs, and technical writing and knowledge management in large organizations. Given that these revolutions collectively amount to a new Renaissance, I think it is appropriate to base the development of my ideas on one of the greatest cognitive artifacts of the last Renaissance - the fugue2.

An example of a fugue also demonstrates some of the capabilities of hypermedia. Click this link to access a sound file of J. S. Bach's "Little" fugue in G minor, BWV578 (hit Back to return to this page). This example is from John's Midi Files, http://www.nesys.com/midi/.  Bach's fugue as realised in MIDI by John Merchant may be short, but it's also pretty intense. It is the best version I have found on the Net and it illustrates some of the fugal properties I am trying to emulate in the construction of this hypertext.

My Subject explores theoretical foundations of knowledge and its growth: based on Karl Popper's epistemology, best expressed in his 1972 book, "Objective Knowledge", and the nature of scientific revolutions as described by Thomas Kuhn together with some concepts of evolutionary adaptation to elucidate some fundamental ideas about when evolutionary change becomes revolution. Nine critical revolutions in human history are reviewed, each of which triggered major grade shifts in the human species' ecological role in nature. Four revolutions are based on the invention of new kinds of technology. The other five are cognitive involving fundamental changes in the way information is processed into knowledge.

My Counter Subject deals with concepts originating in the disparate arenas of evolutionary biology and military affairs to explore categories of information along independent dimensions of quantity and epistemic quality as cybernetic processes transform data into power. The late Col. John Boyd's (1976) (O)bserve, (O)rient, (D)ecide and (A)ct adaptive feedback concept (the "OODA loop") is presented as a generic cybernetic process for generating evolutionary and revolutionary change in complex adaptive systems, ranging from individual organisms to competing corporations and warring states. Such adaptive changes are a form of knowledge in their own right.

Episode 1 reviews some ideas on how the invention of printing press enhanced and enabled the major conceptual revolutions of the Renaissance, Reformation and Science.

Episode 2 returns to computer technology, to consider the sheer magnitude and unprecedented speed of the microelectronics revolution and some of what this implies for processing, data, information and knowledge.

Episode 3 considers various "productivity" applications for individual use and their roles in current cognitive revolutions. Word processing, spreadsheets and relational databases quantitatively extend human cognition. These represent evolutionary changes in things humans already do. Structured authoring/content management, indexing and retrieval systems, the World Wide Web and knowledge management applications all have the revolutionary capacity to automate and add epistemic quality to cognitive processes which have been purely human activities until now.

Episode 4 explores the impact of technological revolutions on the acquisition and management of organizational knowledge. Extending concepts of knowledge to organizations requires a deeper theory of knowledge. Two partially incommensurable epistemologies of knowledge are applicable to organization theory. One is Karl Popper's (1972), "objective knowledge", followed in this work and by most scientists and academic philosophers. The other is Michael Polanyi's (1958) "personal knowledge", followed by many in the organizational knowledge management discipline, philosophers of religion and behavioral psychologists. Development of the themes in this episode owes much to Nelson and Winter's (1982) Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change and Maturana and Varela's (1980, 1987) ideas in Autopoiesis and Cognition, as further informed by my own background in evolutionary biology and genetics. (Autopoiesis is a term used to denote the fundamental properties of life. A system is considered to be alive if it has the properties of self regulation, self production and autonomy.) It follows from these discussions that organizations themselves form living entities and have cognitive capabilities that transcend the sum properties of their individual human members. Biology offers much more than just a metaphor for understanding how organizations work and compete. Organizational entities build objective knowledge to inform their adaptation to changing environments. Knowledge management tools facilitate conscious control over organizational cognition. Organizational managers need to understand and merge both Popperian and Polanyian epistemologies into an evolutionary epistemology to maximize their benefits from revolutionary technologies. Some practical examples of how cognitive applications can change the way organizations work are provided.

My Cadenza explores how a number of issues arising from the episodes affect the nature of knowledge and its impacts on individuals and organizations who need to use knowledge in a competitive environment.

A brief Coda considers the future. Is there a sting in the tale? Are the current revolutions a point of inflection in a logistic growth (sigmoid) curve or are we rising along a true evolutionary singularity (or spike) as some would claim?