Looking Back in History: The Macy Conferences

It is said that the Macy Conferences were the most important meetings of minds for the purpose of understanding control of human behavior. They are also considered as the breeding ground for Cybernetics and breakthroughs in Systems Theory. In essence, they brought “systems thinking” to the awareness of a cross-disciplinary group of intellectuals.

The Macy Conferences were ten meetings of scholars from different academic disciplines held in New York between 1946 and 1953. They were initiated and organised by Warren McCulloch and the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. The main purpose of these meetings was to set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind.

Source: http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/foundations/history/Macy10Photo.htm

The first conference, which was entitled “Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems” was attended by an unprecedented network of great minds at the time:

  • William Ross Ashby; psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics
  • Gregory Bateson; anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist
  • Julian Bigelow; pioneering computer engineer
  • Heinz von Foerster; biophysicist, scientist combining physics and philosophy and architect of cybernetics
  • Lawrence K. Frank; social scientist
  • Ralph W. Gerard; neurophysiologist and behavioral scientist known for his work on the nervous system, nerve metabolism, psychopharmacology, and biological basis of schizophrenia
  • Molly Harrower; pioneering clinical psychologist
  • Lawrence Kubie; psychatrist
  • Paul Lazarsfeld; sociologist and founder of Columbia University’s Bureau for Applied Social Research
  • Kurt Lewin; psychologist, often regarded as the founder of social psychology
  • Warren McCulloch (chair); psychatrist, neurophysiologist and cybernetician
  • Margaret Mead; cultural anthropologist
  • John von Neumann; one of the foremost mathematicians of the 20th century
  • Walter Pitts; logician and co-author of the paper that founded neural networks
  • Arturo Rosenblueth; researcher, physician, physiologist and a pioneer of cybernetics
  • Leonard J. Savage; mathematician and statistician
  • Norbert Wiener; mathematician and founder of cybernetics

An incredible collection of guests attended the Cybernetics Group sessions during their seven years of existence. Among them were Max Horkheimer, the head of the Frankfurt School, and Claude Shannon, “the father of information theory”.

See this link for a more complete listing of the attendees and guests.

The foundation for the conferences was laid in May 1942, when the key participants met to exchange ideas, which created the enthusiasm and motivation to hold the Macy Conferences a few years later after the war. Attendance for the initial small meeting was by invitation only, and the two topics on the agenda were hypnotism and conditioned reflex. As soon as the war ended, Bateson contacted Fremont-Smith, pushing for some sort of conference to follow up on the concepts from the 1942 meeting.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of comprehensive documentation on the Macy Conferences. Part of this derives from the fact that the first five conferences were never formally documented with published proceedings.

Follow the links below to find out more in-depth information about the Macy Conferences (which also served as sources for this blogpost):

Summary: The Macy Conferences by the American Society for Cybernetics 

Macy Konferenzen (in German)

Macy Conferences on Wikipedia 

Book: Cybernetics | Kybernetik The Macy-Conferences 1946–1953

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