von G. Memory of Ceccato

(To appear in Cybernetics and Systems, 1998)


In Memory of a Pioneer (Silvio Ceccato, 1914-1997)


Silvio Ceccato, the founder and director of the first Center for Cybernetics in Milan, Italy, died at the beginning of December at the age of 83 years. Exactly five decades earlier he had been the first in Europe to apply the cybernetic principle of self-organization to the domains of concept formation and language. This was a heretical undertaking in those years because the psychology of language was dominated by the two incompatibly opposed schools of Skinner and Chomsky. The kind of analysis of mental operations which Ceccato had developed on the basis of Bridgman’s suggestions of operational analysis were thoroughly ignored by other researchers in the field. The final report of Ceccato’s project that was sponsored by the Air Research and Development Command of the US Air Force, Linguistic analysis and programming for mechanical translation, was published as a book by Gordon and Breach in 1962, but only some twenty years later similar ideas began to crop up in the psycholinguistic literature; e.g. the notion of conceptual networks as foundation for the formation of sentences and the essentially semantic underpinnings of syntax.

One of the reasons why Ceccato remained little known in the English-speaking world was of course the fact that none of the dozen books he wrote in the seventies and eighties was translated. A deeper reason, however, was the fundamental incompatibility of his epistemological position with the dogma of knowledge as a representation of reality. Not until now that the idea of cognitive construction has gained a certain amount of ground, will it be possible to recognize Ceccato as an inspired pioneer of a truly cybernetic theory of knowledge.

Ceccato was a brilliant speaker and his many appearances in Italian TV as well as his countless articles in the popular press gave him the reputation of a fascinating and somewhat mysterious scientist. His serious writings, on the other hand, are not easy fare and few readers took the trouble to follow a way of thinking that went against accepted beliefs of traditional philosophy. At a conference in Turin in the 1960s, a famous Italian philosopher was overheard to comment: "If Ceccato were right, all of us would be fools." - Ceccato’s intellectual fate, one could say, was not unlike that of Giambattista Vico, the first constructivist thinker at the beginning of the 18th century.

All who worked at the Milan Center for Cybernetics some thirty or forty years ago, will remember Ceccato as an uncommonly farsighted, original, uncompromising teacher and friend.


Ernst von Glasersfeld


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