Glanville’s ‘Black Box’: what can an observer know?

  • Lance Nizami
Keywords: Glanville, Black Box, observer, mind, machine, von Foerster


A ‘Black Box’ cannot be opened to reveal its mechanism. Rather, its operations are inferred through input from (and output to) an ‘observer’. All of us are observers, who attempt to understand the Black Boxes that are Minds. The Black Box and its observer constitute a system, differing from either component alone: a ‘greater’ Black Box to any further-external-observer. To Glanville (1982), the further-external-observer probes the greater-Black-Box by interacting directly with its core Black Box, ignoring that Box’s immediate observer. In later accounts, however, Glanville’s greater-Black-Box inexplicably becomes unitary. Why the discrepancy? To resolve it, we start with von Foerster’s archetype ‘machines’, that are of two kinds: ‘Trivial’ (predictable) and ‘Non-Trivial’ (non-predictable). Early-on, Glanville treated the core Black Box and its observer as Trivial Machines, that gradually ‘whiten’ (reveal) each other though input and output, becoming ‘white boxes’. Later, however, Black Box and observer became Non-Trivial Machines, never fully ‘whitenable’. But Non-Trivial Machines can be concatenated from Trivial Machines, and are the only true Black Boxes; any greater-Black-Box (Non-Trivial Machine) may (within its core Black Box) involve white boxes (that are Trivial Machines). White boxes, therefore, could be the ultimate source of the greatest Black Box of all: the Mind.


Ashby, W. Ross (1961), An introduction to cybernetics, Chapman & Hall Ltd., London.

Glanville, Ranulph (1982), «Inside every White Box there are two Black Boxes trying to get out», in Behavioral Science, vol. 27, n. 1, pp. 1-11.

Glanville, Ranulph (1997), Behind the curtain, in Ascott, R. (eds.), Proceedings of the First Conference on Consciousness Reframed, UCWN (University of Wales College Newport), Wales, 5 pages, not numbered.

Glanville, Ranulph (2007), «A (cybernetic) musing: Ashby and the Black Box», in Cybernetics & Human Knowing, vol. 14, n. 2/3, pp. 189-196.

Glanville, Ranulph (2009a), Darkening the Black Box (Abstract), in Proceedings of the 13th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, International Institute of Informatics and Systemics, Orlando (FL).

Glanville, Ranulph (2009b), «Black Boxes», in Cybernetics & Human Knowing, vol. 16, n. 1/2, pp. 153-167.

Glanville obituaries:,

Holland, Owen (2003), «Exploration and high adventure: the legacy of Grey Walter», in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 361, n. 1811, pp. 2085-2121.

Holm, Elizabeth A. (2019), «In defense of the black box», in Science, vol. 364, n. 6435, pp. 26-27.

Mealy, George H. (1955), «A method for synthesizing sequential circuits», in Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 34, n. 5, pp. 1045-1079.

Moore, Edward F. (1956), Gedanken-experiments on sequential machines, in Shannon, Claude E., McCarthy, John (eds.), Automata Studies (Annals of Mathematics Studies Number 34), Princeton University Press, Princeton (NJ), pp. 129-153.

Nizami, Lance (2015), «Homunculus strides again: why ‘information transmitted’ in neuroscience tells us nothing», in Kybernetes, vol. 44, n. 8/9, pp. 1358-1370.

Nizami, Lance (2017), «I, NEURON: the neuron as the collective», in Kybernetes, vol. 46, n. 9, pp. 1508-1526.

Nizami, Lance (2018), «Reductionism ad absurdum: Attneave and Dennett cannot reduce homunculus (and hence the mind)», in Kybernetes, vol. 47, n. 1, pp. 163-185.

Nizami, Lance (2019a), «Too resilient for anyone’s good: ‘infant psychophysics’ viewed through second-order cybernetics, part 1 (background and problems)», in Kybernetes, vol. 48, n. 4, pp. 751-768.

Nizami, Lance (2019b), «Too resilient for anyone’s good: ‘infant psychophysics’ viewed through second-order cybernetics, part 2 (re-interpretation)», in Kybernetes, vol. 48, n. 4, pp. 769-781.

Rahwan, Iyad, Cebrian, Manuel, Obradovich, Nick, et al. (2019), «Machine behavior», in Nature, vol. 568, pp. 477-486.

Ramage, Magnus, Shipp, Karen (2009), Systems thinkers, Springer, New York.

Turing, Alan M. (1937), «On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem», in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, vol. s2-42, n. 1, pp. 230-265.

von Foerster, Heinz (1984), Principles of self-organization – in a socio-managerial context, in Ulrich, H., Probst, Gilbert J.B., (eds.), Self-organization and management of social systems, Springer Series in Synergetics, vol. 26, Springer, Heidelberg, pp. 2-24.

von Foerster, Heinz (2003), Understanding understanding: essays on cybernetics and cognition, Springer-Verlag, New York.

Walter, W. Grey (1950), «An imitation of life», in Scientific American, vol. 182, n. 5, pp. 42-45.

How to Cite
Nizami, L. (2020) “Glanville’s ‘Black Box’: what can an observer know?”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 14(2). doi: 10.4396/AISB201905.