Volume Introduction

The American Society for Cybernetics is honored and proud to be able to present to the public The Collected Works of Warren S. McCulloch (second edition).

McCulloch was a seminal figure in psychology, neuroscience, and cybernetics. His work with Walter Pitts on neurons paved the way for much of the smart technology that powers our present twenty-first-century world. Despite McCulloch’s importance to the history of science and thought, much of his work has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. When Rook McCulloch (Warren’s wife) gathered his works together and commissioned an immense four volume set (the first edition), she had no idea that her chosen publisher was in the throes of financial difficulties. When Intersystems Publications failed, a mere 300 copies of the collected works had been printed. For more than 30 years, that is where things stoodimportant work lost to the much of the world due to a bankrupt publisher.

The McCulloch family reached out to the American Society for Cybernetics two years ago in a “hail-Mary” attempt to rescue this critical work. At the ASC, we worked tirelessly to gather the requisite permissions, scan and re-typeset the papers, and then to develop a means of placing the works in context. The first part of our efforts begins now with a four-part series of issues of E:CO. It will be followed by the online and print-on-demand publication of the entire collected works, and then continued with a third edition in which we hope to include papers from those whose work has been influenced by McCulloch’s work and ideas. Rook McCulloch had a similar thought when she edited the first editionit contains more than two dozen pieces by scientists whose work McCulloch influenced.

In each of these four issues of E:CO we wanted to place each McCulloch piece into a context whereby readers have easy access to the works of others who have cited the particular article they are reading as well as related books and articles whose contents amplify and extend the content of the article. To do this we used technology the American Society for Cybernetics was gifted when the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence (the original sponsoring entity for E:CO) closed in 2018. The epi-search technology allows its user to build a search on the full text of a given work (not keywords) and retrieves related material from the web and related books from both the ISCE Library (now operated by the ASC) and Google Books. The concept behind it reflects work done by both McCulloch and his colleague Donald McKay. Unlike Claude Shannon, McKay defined information as “the change in a receiver’s mind-set, and thus with meaning” and proposed that it should be seen as some kind of vector in a space defined by concepts the nodes of which were best analogized by McCulloch’s neurons. This has been operationalized by the many flavors of latent semantic analysisthe key idea of which is that meaning is represented by “find more like this” and not as some set of discrete definitions.

In using epi-search to place the McCulloch articles in context, we believe we are honoring the very intellectual tradition which McCulloch started as one of the founders of the American Society for Cybernetics. The list of related articles and books were not selected by a human; they were produced by algorithm. We encourage readers to follow the links and to explore the lists. Doing so will give you a broad perspective on the richness of McCulloch’s work, the depth of his insights, and their continuing relevance to contemporary scientific practice.

Warren S. McCulloch was an intellectual giant. We are grateful for the opportunity to help others appreciate his contributions.