Gordon Pask, 1928-1996

This text was written at the request of the Whole Systems Design Program at Antioch University Seattle, and it was also distributed to the membership of the American Society for Cybernetics. The goal was to express the meaning of Pask's work to a community of cyberneticians, some of whom knew him only by reputation - Paul Pangaro


Andrew Gordon Speedie-Pask, M.A. D.Sc., Sc.D., lived many lives in the span of one. Over the course of his nearly-68 years, he stayed up for 36-hour days, published 6 books and 270 papers, soldered machines into behaving like learning organisms [1], and developed a comprehensive theory of human cognition [2]. If the worlds of psychology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science knew his work better, they would never be the same: for then they could hold the human and the rational, subjective and objective, in the same frame [3].

I knew Pask near his height of fanatical mental energy, manic public lectures and uncompromising one-on-one sessions with students like me. I was lucky: he was first introduced to me as a man of the theatre (producer of musical shows, master lyricist). Our common interests made it easy for me to enter his intricate world of ideas. But so many found his prose too dense, his personal flair too confusing, his claims for his theory too good to be true. I found in Gordon a man of style, intellect and difficulty, whose thinking about the nature of thinking vastly clarified my own. His theory made it easy to write software that nurtured individual learning styles (try that with psychology) [4a, 4b]; provided a human, subjective approach to the representation of knowables inside machines (try that with artificial intelligence) [5]; and gave me beautiful, powerful ideas that have guided me ever since.

Others may have known him better or less well, but Pask never failed to be remembered as an eccentric and a genius, both. His world-wide recognition is not inconsiderable but seems, for those close to him and even those not so, to be far short of what is appropriate. I often heard members of his audience volunteer that they figured they understood about 10% of what he said - and that if the other 90% were as good as the 10, then this guy is really important. Of course most of that 90% is as good as the 10 - Pask knew that and wanted to get it all in, whether it was comprehensible or not. This commitment to completeness, whether in his theory or his talks or his sentence structure, was a source of frustration for his audience. That made it hard to engage with the material fairly. Pask wanted to bring everyone else's theories into his theory, making it the most encompassing; but that led to competition and complication. I was often told that Pask, as the major author of Conversation Theory, did not always prove his contribution by being good at conversation. It was as if, to him, that was our problem (not his).

We can expect a rush of interest in things Paskian, now that Gordon isn't here to confuse us with the facts of his work as he preferred them. Much of the reappraisal will be possible because some of the world has moved toward his innovations. He didn't invent the World Wide Web but he specified a (still unused) logic for representing individual knowledge in a global repository [6]. Conversation Theory, of which he was primary driver and author, defines the conditions required for agreement [7] and delineates an architecture in which understanding can occur [8]. He warned about confusing mere "communication" (exchanging messages containing what is already known) with "conversation" (a generative activity that gives identity to participants and leads to what is new) [9]. Pask's was a prolific voice in the development of "second-order" cybernetics, where the subjectivity of the observer is a critical element in the describing processes of science [10a, 10b]. He was serious about making "a theory of everything." Although he mirrored the structure of great scientific theories, his content was unique; for example, insisting that what is conserved in conversation is consciousness - that which is shared among the participants [11a, 11b]. To put it another way, nothing that has ever been thought is fully lost.

Whether the worlds he affects will know the name Pask is a question similar to whether cybernetics will be recognized for the shift it brings to science: the embrace of the subjective as an explicit part of every human endeavor. At least in the world of cybernetics, we will not lose the irreplaceables that Pask has brought to us.



The author is Pask unless otherwise noted.

[1] "The theory and practice of adaptive teaching systems". In Teaching Machines and Programmed Learning, Vol. 11, "Data and Directions", ed., R. Glaser. Washington: Nat. Educ. Assoc., 1965, 213-266. (Lewis, B. N. and Pask, G.)

[2] "Developments in Conversation Theory - Part 1". In International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 13, 1980, 357-411.

[3] Pangaro, P: "Pask as Dramaturg". In Systems Research, Vol 10 No 3, 1993, 135-142.

[4a] "Conversational Techniques in the Study and Practice of Education". In Brit. Jrl. Educational Psychology, Vol. 46, I, 1976, 12-25.

[4b] "Styles and Strategies of Learning". In Brit. Jrl. Educational Psychology, Vol. 46, II, 1976, 128-148.

[5] "The Representation of Knowables". Intl. Jrl. for Man-Machine Studies, Vol. 17, 1975, 15-134. (with Kallikourdis, D. and Scott, B. C. E.)

[6] "An essay on the Kinetics of Language as illustrated by a Protologic Lp". Proceedings, 2nd Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Vienna, 2-6 1979, workshop on "Fuzzy Formal Semiotcs and Cognitive Processes". Reprinted in <<Ars Semiotica>>, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1980, 93-127.

[7] "A Theory of Conversations and Individuals (Exemplified by the Learning Process on CASTE)". Intl. Jrl. Man-Machine Studies, Vol. 5, 1973, 443-566. (Pask, G., Scott, B. C. E. and Kallilourdis, D.)

[8] "Artificial Intelligence - a Preface and a Theory". Preface to chapter on Machine Intelligence, in Soft Architecture Machines, ed., N. Negroponte. MIT Press, 1975.

[9] "The Limits of Togetherness". Proceedings, Invited Keynote address to IFIP, World Congress in Tokyo and Melbourne, ed., S. Lavington. Amsterdam, New York, Oxford: North holland Pub. Co., 1980, 999-1012.

[10a] "A Converstion Theoretic Approach to Social Systems". In Sociocybernetics: An actor oriented social systems theory, eds., F. Geyer and J. van der Zouwen. Martinus Nijhoff, Social Systems Section, Amsterdam, 1979, 15-26.

[10b] "Against Conferences" or "The Poverty of Reduction in Sop-Science and Pop-Systems", Proceedings, Silver Anniversary International Meeting of Society for General Systems Research, London, August 1979, Washington: SGSR, xii-xxv.

[11a] "Organisational Closure of Potentially Conscious Systems and Notes". Proceedings, NATO Congress on Applied General Systems Research, Recent Developments and Trends, Binghamton, New York 1977 and Realities Conference, EST Foundation, San Fransisco 1977. Reprinted in Autopoiesis, ed., M. Zelany. New York: North Holland Elsevier.

[11b] "Consciousness". Proceedings, 4th European Meeting on Cybernetics and System research, Linz, Austria, March 1978, in Journal of Cybernetics, Washington: Hemisphere, 1980, 211-258.


Web Materials related to Pask:

Web Resources related Second-Order Cybernetics (short list):