Heinz von Foerster

(1911- 2002) Born in Vienna, invited in the United States by Warren McCulloch

(1911- 2002) Born in Vienna, invited in the United States by Warren McCulloch – Harvard neurophysiologist who had admired his physics dissertation on a quantistic point of view of memory (which came out in 1948) – where he arrived in february 1949, editor of the Macy’s Conferences with Margaret Mead and with her the inventor of the “second order cybernetic” concept. Epistemologist, magician for fun, has been the director of the Biological Computer Laboratory of the Illinois University in Urbana (1958-75, where we see the presence of Gordon Pask, Ross Ashby, Lars Lofgren, Gotthard Gunther, Maturana, McCulloch as a visiting professor).  interests were  the notion of “computation”, “self organizing systems”, “order from noise”, movement connected to a sensorimotor understanding, and the concept of “attractors”as eigen-values. Truth is the invention of a liar. HvF

Umberta Telfener: I met him the second time and deepened my relationship with him in Modena at a Congress organized by two systemic colleagues Bassoli and Mariotti in 1985 (“Theory and practice an inevitable bridge”). He was talking to a wide public with his heavy German accent, in an assertive and witty manner – very clear – and was trying to explain Popper’s falsifying concept, insisting on always questioning premises: ”When a street is wet, not necessarily it has rained” he was saying. The translator commented on what he was stating, declaring his hypothesis confused. The public got critical and I was picked to continue translating. I became his official translator in Italy and he became my mentor for all the rest of his life. He still is my never-ending teacher. What a chance!
We kind of recognised each other in the instant: I too have a harsh accent, a lot of energy, I am organized and curious. I remember that after the seminar we went to the park, he asked me who I was, he told me of his wife May in Pescadero, of his home built practically with his own hand with the help of one of his sons; he told me of the dears that arrive on his deck at sunset for food and company, of the Biological Computer Laboratory where he had welcomed innovative minds as Varela and Maturana – already my idols – and an Israeli young dancer, “because movement is fundamental in order to know”.

He taught me to consider systemics as a way of observing, a knowing attitude, since in the systemic frame concepts and positioning imbricate through the reciprocal definition of self and other. He taught me to act in order to see, hear, and feel.
He used to always be positive and generative. As a young woman I felt the right to complain and feel stubbornly unsatisfied; only now that I am older I understand his posture and thank him for having shown it to me, without criticizing me for my complaints.

In May of ‘89, Heinz had been invited by some Institute to give a Conference in Roma. He arrived from northern Europe and was dressed wintery. “Don’t you feel hot, Heinz?” I asked him, worried. He told me that he had suffered so much cold during the war that he had promised himself he would never again complain about the heat. And that was exactly what was happening, he was acting as if he was completely comfortable, and his mind seemed compliant with his intentions.

In 1990 Heinz started supervising a book of mine that came out in Italy in 1996, Systemics, paths towards complexity. Every time he was in Roma he would stay at my place and Luca Casadio and I (the co-author) would organize most of the day to ask him questions and tape his comments. He insisted on co-constructing a book that allowed discussion. He was pushing us not to put into it collusive and adherent concepts but ideas that were contrary to one another. He wished for a book that made people discuss and fight for their ideas, because discussion – according to him – was the core of the emergence of new ideas. Novelty was his aim on every occasion. Novelty with respect.

One of his strong points was the story of his grandmother Marie Lang, a forerunner of feminist. She and the whole class had a beloved teacher in school that one day disappeared without saying goodbye to her students. Marie investigated the reason and with difficulties found out that she had been sent home since she was pregnant. According to the imperial and royal austrian code her growing belly could embarrass the children and make them curious, asking embarrassing questions. In order to rebel against these discriminatory laws she organized a journal Die Dokumente der Frauen (The women’s documents) that appeared in 1880 to 1885 and had an european spread, twenty years prior to Mrs Pankhurst and the suffragettes. Only when Marie was 63 years old the imperial law was repealed!  

I also desire to tell his description of Warren McCulloch and Gordon Pask. Warren, head of the Neuropsychiatry department of the University of Illinois in Chicago (then Dean at Cambridge, Massachusset at the Institute of Technology, at the Electronic Lab, with Norbert Wiener) is the scientist who invited Heinz in the States, introduced him to the Macy Conferences inviting him to become the editor of the reports, together with Margareth Mead. “Warren was a tall man, with a goat beard, clumsy and refined at the same time. He spoke incredible English, a Shakespearean English, with such a rich vocabulary that people would ask him the meaning of some of his words. He would answer: “King Lear, third act, second scene.”
“Gordon Pask was a midget, with strange black hair, always dressed in shiny black with a cape down to the feet, white shirt, bow tie, a long holder for his cigarette. He spoke with a British accent, more like an actor than a scientist”.

One day I asked Heinz what, according to him, is the difference between scientific and individual knowledge. “I wouldn’t make a big distinction between the two, he told me, knowledge is in the heads of individuals, not in books but in the people who read them. The Sumerians wrote on tablets with a cuneiform script. When these tablets were discovered, they were believed to reflect the work of novice students as they appeared to report even naive mistakes. 2×3=8, 3×2=9. Fifty years after the first interpretation it was realized that the signs did not indicate “multiplication” but the symbol for “raising to a power”. 23 =8, 32 = 9. The tables contained sophisticated mathematical operations. There was knowledge in the tables but there was no understanding in those who interpreted them. Knowledge is in the head of those who do science and depends on the way they relate to themselves and to others”.

Sometimes he ended his lectures with a Taoist story, this one I remember: Master Chuan Tze, who lived around 1200 BC., is found near a stream of water with his disciples. Looking at the swimming fish he says: “Behold the joy of the fishes”. “How do you know? – one of the disciples asks him – You are not a fish. How can you know their joy?” Chuan Tze then concludes: “My joy is the joy of the fishes.”

Robin Routledge: In 1978, Heinz von Foerster gave a seminar to the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health where I was a Fellow in International Mental Health.  I took three pages of notes from a one-hour talk.  Nobody else took notes.  I did not realize he was a visitor from my future.  I enumerated 14 points, and they were vastly different from one another.  I recall my puzzlement and plan to review and understand, but I still do not understand sufficiently, even though I have been reviewing his points for 45 years and usually with the aid of subsequent innovators to help me.  A couple of examples are that I can know myself through interaction with a person who only knows through interaction with me, or to appreciate our visual blind spot: I do not see that I do not see it.  He delved into the epistemology of words and I have too, ever since.  I stopped taking notes, I noticed, because my head could not keep up.

Gianluca Bocchi: Before inviting von Foerster for the conference on the Challenge of Complexity in Milano (1980), I had already become curious about this individual who had inhabited nodal points of 20th century culture: Vienna, Berlin, Chicago and San Francisco. It seemed to me that he contained within himself a fullness of important experiences. I also liked that a global man lived in a small town – Pescadero – where artichokes imported by the Genoese are grown. I was in San Francisco and I decided to visit him, I was sincerely curious about his story. I arrived at his house and he was taking an outdoor shower on the hill behind his house, a shower that he had built himself. We embraced each other with enthusiasm and I believe that in that moment we both understood what a planetary culture meant. A moment of absolute intimacy.

He was more of an oral than a written type, he considered himself very Socratic. When it came time to send me the text of his conference in Milan (1985) to include in the book The Challenge of Complexity, he sent me a lot of his writings, telling me that he trusted me. I assembled the many notes that he had sent me, I felt that he had total belief in me. I felt that he trusted me blindly, probably because he understood that the common passion for complexity has common and deep roots.

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