CEPA eprint 1486 (EVG-198)

A cybernetician before cybernetics

Glasersfeld E. von (1997) A cybernetician before cybernetics. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 14(2): 137–139. Available at http://cepa.info/1486
Many have remarked that there are several Heinz von Foerster’s. This impression, I think, is largely due to the fact that he is not only a good listener but also interested in very many things. Whatever we individually discuss with him is, at that moment, what interests him most. Thus, all who have had the good fortune of knowing him for a certain length of time, come to believe that they have grasped what makes him a unique human being. I say this to make quite clear that what I am going to talk about is my Heinz – the one I have experienced subjectively and affectionately.
My Title says that Heinz was a cybernetician before cybernetics. This is the sort of thing one can say only in retrospect. Heinz could not have known it before the discipline was founded. And as for me, I could get that idea only very much later, well after someone had explained to me what cybernetics was. But looking back sometimes helps to clear up a hazy notion.
It was Gregory Bateson, who revealed to me the aspect of cybernetics that suited me best. I found it in something he had written.[Note 1] Cybernetics, he said, differs from the other sciences because it does not operate and explain by means of causal relations, but by specifying constraints.
Cybernetics, as we all know, can be described in many ways. My cybernetics is neither mathematical nor formalized. The way I would describe it today is this: Cybernetics is the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints.
It may be that there is something rather Austrian about this definition. This may indeed be quite appropriate, given that the inventor of cybernetics was called Wiener. But let me explain. In the rest of the world, situations are often said to be serious but not hopeless, in Austria the situation is forever hopeless but not serious.
This goes back a long way. In the 15th century, when most of the courts in Europe were fighting wars to increase their power, a Latin bon-mot began to circulate: Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube (Others make war, you, happy Austria, marry.) The Austrian court was extending its territory by a succession of clever marriages.
Even then, Austrians seemed to have a knack for discovering possibilities in the face of constraints. This knack was partly responsible for their reputation as a charming people – at least until they committed the fatal error of considering Hitler a possibility.
But let me repeat my description of cybernetics: Cybernetics is the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints. I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician, and I like this description of cybernetics because it embodies a principle that teaches us to live.
As I don’t have to tell you, Heinz is the outstanding professional in that art. He has at times chided me for saying that I consider myself naive. But I know I am – because I continue to learn simple truths from him. And this is part of what I want to talk about.
I met Heinz for the first time at a dinner at the California Institute of Technology some 30 years ago. It was the time when Chomsky was being celebrated as the Messiah of psycholinguistics. Heinz was one of the few who did not follow the Chomsky fashion. He knew that language begins, not with syntax, but with the formation of concepts and semantic connections. A few years later, he visited our project in Athens, Georgia, and gave much needed support to my work in computational linguistics. Then, in 1970, I saw him again at a meeting in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where he, Ross Ashby, and Maturana explained the foundations of 2nd-order cybernetics. But it took several more years before we really got together and talked.
One evening at his lovely house on Rattlesnake Hill in Pescadero, we discovered that we both loved mountains. That night he gave me a short story to read by Kurt Maix, a once well-known Austrian writer. It was the author’s recollection of a climb on one of Austria’s most difficult mountains. Maix was leading the party of four. When they were close to the top he made a mistake and fell the length of the rope, knocking his head against the rock-face. The rest of the tale describes how Heinz and the two others managed to retrieve him and bring him down some 3000 feet of vertical rock, while he himself was mostly unconscious.[Note 2]
The next evening we talked about mountains. Heinz had not only been a great rock-climber but also, ever since his teens, a skier – and I had spent most of my youth on skis.
As we talked, it became clear that there were probably several glaciers in the Alps on which we skied within the space of a few days. But we never met. But during those years we were both photographed by the Austrian photographer who was the first to become famous for his pictures of downhill skiers. At different times he took shots of both of us that were so similar that when I showed Heinz one of mine he thought it was a shot of himself. Mountains were very much part of both our lives.
Much later, when I had come to have some idea of what cybernetics was, it struck me that coping with mountains was a good preparation for it. If you are a rock climber, like Heinz, and you spend much of your time hanging by your fingertips and toes on the vertical face of a mountain, your movements are severely constrained. Yet, you want to move – and move upwards. So you are constantly scanning the rock-face above for ways to create a possibility where there does not seem to be one.
On skis it may have seemed less dramatic, but essentially it was not very different. In those days there were no ski-lifts, chair-lifts, or cable-cars. If you wanted to ski down, you first had to climb up. And there was a lot you had to learn. When you are on the slope of a mountain that is covered in several feet of snow, the constraints are not as obvious as on a rock-face, but they are no more forgiving. They are hidden constraints, and if you don’t heed them, they can be deadly. The dangerous crevasses in a glacier are the ones you can’t see. And avalanches you don’t see either until they happen – and then it is too late to do anything about them. You have to learn to infer these constraints and then find a possible path up or down the mountain that avoids them. You have to fit your path into the space between them.
I was introduced to all this by my mother, who was a great skier. Heinz learned it on his own and from other mautaineers. He lived in Vienna, and the way he sometimes managed to finance his trips to the mountains was inspired and quite unique. Most people dabble in all sorts of things as a hobby. When Heinz becomes interested in something, he becomes a professional. In his teens, like many of us, he and his cousin Martin became intrigued by the tricks of magicians. But they knuckled down and studied the craft and eventually graduated with a an official diploma in the art of magic.
When they had passed their master’s exam in magic, Heinz and his cousin, found another use for their skill. Every now and then they wanted to go to the mountains. They lived in Vienna, and to go and spend a few days in the Alps cost money. They often did not have enough. So they saved a bit to buy the train tickets to where they wanted to go. Then they climbed up to one of the refuge huts of the Alpine Club and announced that they were magicians and would give a performance in the evening. And because they were very good, they made enough to pay for a couple of day’s stay. It was an inspired way to get around a constraint that kept most other mountain-loving youths in the city. – So much for what I would call dealing with sensorimotor constraints.
You may not have noticed it, but Heinz frequently practices what he learned about the magician’s psychology. When a conference threatens to turn nasty, he pulls a remark out of his sleeve and, suddenly, the animosity subsides.
Others are far more competent than I am to review the many insights that Heinz von Foerster’s work has provided to cybernetics, systems theory, neuropsychology, and several other disciplines. But I want to stress what, in my view, binds them all together. More elegantly than anyone else, Heinz has formulated the notion that knowing happens in the minds of knowers.
Objectivity, he said, is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer. I have used this statement as epigraph in my recent book, because it expresses as succinctly as possible the fact that knowing is a human activity whose results are and remain relative to the individual actor who constructs them. Heinz has reinforced this with a powerful empirical argument that confounds the traditional idea that knowledge exists in itself and should be considered a representation of an independent “reality”.
About a hundred and fifty years ago, a simple fact was discovered by Johannes Müller: the neural signals that reach our cortex from the sensory organs are qualitatively all the same. This fact has been kept well hidden from psychologists and philosophers. Heinz picked it up and laid to rest the illusion that the picture we construct of the world we live in could be a picture of the world as it might be without us. From a neurophysiological point of view, it makes no sense to claim that we are gathering “information” about the world as such.
But as Johannes Müller’s finding was largely disregarded, so are its epistemological implications that Heinz made clear. I do not think this disregard is due to stupidity. Rather it is due to one of the consequences that Heinz stressed: If we ourselves construct our picture of the world, then we are responsible for what we think and do. We can no longer blame a clockwork universe for our fate. The universe does not determine what we do, but only what we cannot do.
For me, this is the profound cybernetical insight that Heinz has helped to bring about: Our lives are hemmed in by constraints that lie beyond the reach of our knowing. The space between them, however, is ours to play in and to choose what we do. – This is why I feel cybernetics provides an attitude for living and, as Heinz has so often said, it offers a new ethical imperative: To generate new possibilities rather than beat our heads against constraints that we cannot change.
Bateson, G. “Cybernetic explanation”. In Steps to an ecology of mind, New York: Ballantine Books, 1972; p. 399.
Maix, K. Im Banne der Dachstein-Südwand. Salzburg: Begrland Verlag, 1955 (?); p.284-308.
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