Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Walking His Talk

When Monika asked me to write about Heinz for this festschrift I immediately said "yes". "Yes", because Heinz is one of those people in my life I would love to give something back to. Not only has spending time with him been deeply inspiring for my thinking and my work, I was equally touched by his humble generosity as a human being.

I will never forget the warm welcome at Heinz's house on Rattlesnake Hill when I first came to visit in November 1997. I was spontaneously taging along with a young man, who had been visiting the Mental Research Institute (MRI) and now wanted to interview Heinz. When we arrived, the table was already set for the traditional 4pm coffee and cake. Since we where both complete strangers, this was unexpected. So, there we were, two "nobodies", having coffee with Heinz.

I was amazed by Heinz's sharp perception during the following interview, how fast he detected what was not understood yet and how simple he put complex topics. My first impression was confirmed many times later in other situations: Heinz does not loose sight of his partner during a conversation, nor does he take off for an ego-trip during autistic monologues. Heinz looks for the interaction.

Not all of those brilliant minds out there "walk their talk". Heinz does. His interest in people and ideas is genuine and independent of "name" and "rank". Heinz looks at the whole person, not only at the socially acknowledged parts. When Heinz talks about science and systemics, it is not just another theory, it is a way of being in the world. In a similar way, conversations with him become fertile, as he tries to get a feeling for ideas beyond what can be said in proper words at the moment. Fresh and fragile thoughts are not cut by reasons razor. In this sense Heinz has been a "midwife" to me. With his concentrated listening and interested questions, I developed and modified ideas as we discussed my research project, which I was conducting at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto.

Why was this man so engaged in that first interview with a stranger, in our discussions? Why was he always so eager to understand and make himself understood? Why was he so willing to help out and jump down the stairs to his basement more then once to find an article or make a copy of something needed? Why does he take time for strangers over and over again and even keeps a space for those who return? Why is Heinz, with over 80 years, still so attractive to all kinds of species of visitors? No one seems to mind finding a way to conquer remote Rattlesnake Hill for a visit.

Heinz's hospitality is definitely not based on loneliness or boredom out there in the "Pescadero Mountains". He has a wonderful wife, more then enough people visiting and many famous brilliant friends to choose from. Not to mention all the wood that needs to be chopped... Neither can his popularity be dew to his professional achievements only. In my eyes the source for Heinz's abundant energy and his fascination lies even deeper then his curious spirit with an interest for everything alive. The source is a heart which is just as open as his mind. This combination of brilliant intellect and human compassion makes Heinz so special.

Dank Dir Heinz.

Ilka Hoffmann

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift