Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Beyond Distinctions

Memories of a conversation on Rattlesnake Hill about George Spencer-Brown and mystics

It was in August of 1998. The sun was burning and made the cool breeze that was blowing from the Ocean and was rustleling in the trees more bearably. Two human beings who were sitting at the little table on the left side in front of the house that was being looked at with astonishment by the big old trees on Rattlesnake Hill were more and more unclear what they were talking about. The recordings on the tapes that I have from this conversation contain long breaks and noises of the wind that are undisturbed by voices—very unusual for the speed with which Heinz thinks and talks. It was the end of a long interview about George Spencer Browns book “Laws of Form.” Heinz had discovered this book for philosophy and written a review that had caused a sensation shortly after it was published in spring of 1969. “What exists beyond the domain that we create by our distinctions?,” I asked on this day in August into the silence that had been created. “Do you have an answer that is maybe also personal?”

Heinz said that only the distinction created the domain in which then my question about the domain and the world beyond this domain can be asked. We could never go beyond distinguishing and constructing.

But isn’t mystics—so I asked myself—exactly the attempt to transcend the distinctions? “You yourself” I said into the rustleling of the trees, “at the end of your review of ‘Laws of Form’ talk about a state of ultimate wisdom and the essence of a calculus of love in which the distinctions are suspended and everything is one’.

Heinz hesitated again and I believe we both had the feeling that we were now talking about something one shouldn’t necessarily talk about. It can only show itself. Or not. And maybe it doesn’t make any sense and Ludwig Wittgenstein is right that at the border of insight the silence must begin and everyone on its own handles experiences that cannot be talked about.

Heinz said: “The sentences” that you quoted are indeed by me. But this is sufficient already; with it everything I want to say is said. I would prefer if we wouldn’t pull them to pieces but would let them stand like this.”

“You have,” I responded, “developed a way of speaking that hints to what you then once the attention has been developed don’t talk about anymore.”

The breaks of our conversation became now longer and longer. After a few infinite moments of reflection Heinz said: “What matters to me is the invitation to see. If one sees one sees something but one has to see first. What the other sees is his business. Often the unanwerability and the being without an answer create the insight.”

I owe one of the most beautiful answers that Heinz gave me in our many conversations that we had in the last years to my repeated inquiry: “What you call being without an answer could also be the code of a mystic. In the domain of uncertainty something completely different could be imaginable.”

“Already the attempt to understand something of everyday life, Heinz said points one to mysteries and miracles that one always disregards in life. Much is in a serious sense not at all explainable, and I in my opinion one will never be able to understand it and with it to get rid of and destroy its wonderfulness. Our knowledge that we have of the world appears to me to be the top of an iceberg. It is as the little piece of ice that stands out of the water but our not knowing reaches the deeepest grounds of the Ocean.

With this contention that assumes the in principle unexlainable and wonderfulness I become indeed a mystic. I would be a metaphysic if I had an answer that would also explain the unexplainble.”

After these sentences we both sat together and somehow everything seemed to be clear in a marvellous way or unclear in a wonderful way. From far away one could hear very quitly the thundering waves of the Pacific Ocean. The wind rustled through the braids very high up in the trees. And nobody would speak.

Bernhard Poerksen

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift