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 Heinzs Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Either by Gordons hand or by mail, we in Gordons 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 Heinzs 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 Heinzs 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:
I think Heinzs 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 Heinzs 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 Fenelons wise words.
Fenelon (1982) Fenelons 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