Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Co-Creators: To Heinz from Bernard

I first met Heinz von Foerster through his writings. I was privileged to be working with Gordon Pask at a time when both he and Heinz were going through a particularly creative and fruitful period. In a series of papers, Heinz was developing a cybernetic constructivist epistemology; Gordon was developing his cybernetic theory of conversations. Gordon was a frequent visitor at Heinz’s Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Either by Gordon’s hand or by mail, we in Gordon’s research group, System Research Ltd, Richmond, Surrey, England, received BCL reports and papers hot off the press, often as preprints. There was a real sense of excitement. There was a synergy between the two groups as what Heinz eventually christened “second order cybernetics” came into being. As well as papers by Heinz, I was reading the latest from Ross Ashby, Gotthard Gunther, Humberto Maturana and others.

In a grand gesture born of youthful confidence, I set about writing a series of papers on the “Founding Fathers of Cybernetics” for the International Cybernetics Newsletter, edited by Paul Hanika. I managed two papers and I still hope, one day, to complete the series. The first paper was about Heinz (Scott, 1979); the second, quite naturally, was a two part tribute to Gordon Pask (Scott, 1980, 1982). In the tribute to Heinz, I commented on the elegance of his writings and his talent for pithy aphorisms. It seemed quite in character then that I eventually received a telegram from the great man himself, saying, “Congratulations! You have reversed evolution. Now the sons are creating the fathers!”

For many years I remained unsure of the thrust of Heinz’s comment. Had I treated his work fairly or not? In due course I received some reassurance that what I had written was reasonably acceptable. My paper, in translation, was used as the introduction to a collection of Heinz’s papers published in German (Scott, 1993). Together with a copy of the book, I received the following note from Heinz (I had the previous year sent him another paper which I thought he might find of interest, containing a collage of quotes from a number of “great thinkers”; Scott, 1983). I quote:

“April 25th, 1994

Dear Bernard,

Ever since your wonderful story about H.v.F. appeared in the Grandfather Department of the International Cybernetics Newsletter years and years ago, my name will forever be linked to yours. My response to your infinitely dear letter of last February comes so late, because proof of my “Linkage Theorem” of above (see attached, page 9!) arrived only yesterday (after persistent prodding of the publisher).

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading your papers, where you reach into the hearts, the brains, and into the guts of great men to bring us some of their profundities that show us what it is all about.

After Mai’s falling ill a few years ago, corresponding has become difficult for me, but conversing is pure pleasure. I wish we could be geographically closer! I could learn from you “where it’s at”!

Most gratefully and cordially yours,

Heinz.”

I think Heinz’s comments about my papers and what he might learn from me should be noted with some caution. I remain very much one of his students. What I do appreciate are his extravagant generosity and humility.

I did meet Heinz face to face but only twice. In the early 1970s, Heinz visited System Research Ltd and joined in one of the “Conversation About Conversation” seminars at Brunel University, jointly convened by Gordon Pask and Laurie Thomas. What impressed me about Heinz was the sense of freshness and enthusiasm that he brought to every encounter and his evident modesty, gentleness and courtesy. I met him again in 1996, at the Einstein Meets Magritte conference at the Free University, Brussels. Heinz was one of the prestigious plenary speakers and gave a wonderful, inspiring talk on ethics and second order cybernetics (for Heinz on this theme, see von Foerster, 1993). I managed just to exchange a few words of greeting but once more I was impressed by Heinz’s presence: there was energy, enthusiasm, freshness and, dare I say, a profound simplicity of being. Lest I am misunderstood, let me quote from another great thinker, the Abbé Fenelon (b. 1651); I hope that if Heinz sees this he will enjoy Fenelon’s wise words.

“Simplicity is an uprightness which checks all useless dwelling upon one’s self and one’s actions. It is different from sincerity which is a much lower virtue. We see many people who are sincere without being simple; they say nothing but what they believe to be true, and do not aim at appearing anything but what they are; but they are always in fear of passing for something they are not ….

Such simplicity shows in the outward appearance and makes people natural and unaffected: they act without thinking of themselves or of their actions by a sort of uprightness of will, which is inexplicable to those who have not experienced it. This true simplicity has sometimes a careless charm and irregular appearance, but it has the charm of candour and truth, and sheds around it an indescribable artlessness, sweetness, innocence, cheerfulness and peace; a loveliness that wins us when we see it intimately and with pure eyes.” (Fenelon, 1982, pp. 215, 220).

References

Fenelon (1982) Fenelon’s Spiritual Letters, Christian Books Publishing House, Augusta, Maine.

Foerster, H. von, (1993) Ethics and second-order cybernetics, Psychiatria Danubia, 5, 1-2, pp. 40-46.

Scott, B. (1979) Heinz von Foerster: an appreciation. Int. Cyb. Newsletter, 12, pp. 209-214.

Scott, B. (1980) The Cybernetics of Gordon Pask, part 1. Int. Cyb. Newsletter, 17, pp. 327-336.

Scott, B. (1982) The Cybernetics of Gordon Pask, part 2. Int. Cyb. Newsletter, 24, pp. 479-491.

Scott, B. (1983) Morality and the cybernetics of moral development. Int. Cyb. Newsletter, 26, pp. 520-530.

Scott, B. (1993) Heinz von Foerster: eine Würdigung. In: Heinz v. Foerster: Wissen und Gewissen, edited by Siegfried J. Schmidt. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, pp. 9-16.

Bernard Scott August, 2001

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift