Heinz von Foerster. The form and the content
Glanville R. (1996) Heinz von Foerster. The form and the content. Systems Research 13(3): 271–278. Available at http://cepa.info/2918
Table of Contents
Heinz von Foerster’s writing
The reader – observing
Circularity and bootstrapping
Recursion and stability
Self-reference and paradox
Ethics and responsibility
Cybernetics, art and ideas
It is argued that the form in (at least some of) Heinz von Foerster’s writings is as important as, and reflects, their content; and that, in so doing, the papers move from being purely scientific towards art. It is further argued that the form, and the way the form requires the reader’s participation, embodies the content (the message) in these papers; that the form and the content match.
Key words: art, circularity, Eigen object, ethics, form and content, observer, responsibility
I remember being astonished when I first came across Heinz von Foerster (in a double act with Humberto Maturana). They were on their way back from the ‘L’Unité de L’Homme: invariants biologiques et universaux culturel’ colloquium in Royaumont, France, and stopped off to meet Gordon Pask’s Research Student Seminar at Brunel University. It was, I believe, late September 1972.
What astonished me in Heinz’s presentation was not the detail of the argument he made (the substance of which forms the notes section of his ‘Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things’; von Foerster, 1972), although I remain to this day as excited by what I understood of that as I was then. Rather, it was the form. As someone whose earlier studies had been architecture and music, I was astonished:
That you could make an (expansive) argument that ended up where it started, yet without standing still, and which nevertheless showed its own autonomy, individuality, distinctness, self-consistency.
I was astonished:
That ideas fit together and that they can make a cogent, convincing and individual whole, the wholeness of which is reflected in its form, and which, while, staying itself, moves on: time does not repeat (as the form of the argument does in this cyclic oscillation) – indeed, time is invented (or becomes a pre-requisite) – which stays itself to itself (I (have to) suppose) –
yet moves, is alive:
the next circle, for all it might appear the same, cannot be so.
What amazed me was that the form was considered as well as the content and, on that day and at that event, it was the form that mattered to me. As someone with an ‘arty’ background, I was excited that academic scholars understood and exploited this. Although, or perhaps because, I was a naive and inexperienced student, lacking formal academic experience, I was astounded and my eyes were opened to new worlds: scientific endeavour could, maybe, be as sensitively and as beautifully made as art.
Heinz von Foerster’s writing
There is something very special about reading a paper by Heinz von Foerster, and it is not just that the ideas are good, that the argument is profound and oh-so-well-made, or even that the expression is lovely. It is something more than this, which I believe reflects the truth he tells and which makes at least some of his work (and some of its expression) best considered as much as a work of art as a scientific paper. More precisely, is made at the point and in the manner where science and art meet. Von Foerster’s papers are effective, memorable and moving. My purpose in this festschrift offering is to point to some examples and show how they work.
And, just in case the reader might not realize it, I should like to add that this understanding stems directly from the body of the work of von Foerster: not so much from one particular place or another, but from all I have read: the lectures I have heard, the conversations and interviews: originating in and emanating from this man himself.
This appreciation has slowly formed in my mind from seeds you, Heinz, may not even know you have sown, and is my willingly paid tribute to you.
The reader – observing
When Heinz von Foerster writes a paper, at least of more recent times, he writes the reader into the paper. His writing (often intended to be spoken, or transcribed from speech) is always directed towards a reader who is an active listener. But, more than that, his writing is designed to include this listener – that is, to set up a dialogue or conversation. Von Foerster believes in the ethics of dialogic (von Foerster, 1973, 1992) and is a long-time supporter of Pask and his most dialogical of developments, Conversation Theory (e.g. Pask et al., 1973; Pask, 1975).
What exactly does he do in his writing? He does all that is within the power of the author to invite participation by the reader, that is, to make sure the reader (listener) is observing, and that there is a dialogue between the reader-observing and the author-observing through the text. He includes the reader as observer, creating an observing system.
Consider the start of ‘On Constructing a Reality’ (von Foerster, 1973):
The Postulate: I am sure you remember the plain citizen Jourdain in Moliere’s ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme’, who, nouveau riche, travels in the sophisticated circles of the French aristocracy, and who is eager to learn …[Note 1]
Aren’t you there, involved, absorbed, already going? I am.
For more than the last quarter century, von Foerster has been writing about the observer being involved in the system – being in the loop – for von Foerster believes that we are inextricably tied up in observing systems (von Foerster, 1974, 1981). He asserts that the ‘new’ cybernetics (also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics or second-order cybernetics) is the cybernetics of observing systems, not of observed.
What he has done at the start of ‘On Constructing a Reality’ is to convert what, ordinarily (and most especially within the tradition of scientific discourse, in spite of Medawar, 1963), would have been considered a flat text, coolly examined by an uninvolved observer, into a conversational domain, with the observer busily and actively observing and attached to the text, creating the meaning (and hence the text) as he or she must, him- or herself.
So it is that von Foerster writes in a manner that reflects what he is writing about: he writes about observing such that you, the reader, yourself, are observing. And this reflexive quality, in which what is said is reflected in how it is said, lies at the centre of focus of this paper.
In short, he brings observing into the description by explicitly enticing the reader of his description to actively and openly take part in observing (the description (of observing)).
Let us look, then, at more examples of how Heinz von Foerster does what he says and says what he does (and, Alice-like, means what he says and says what he means).
Circularity and bootstrapping
In his ‘Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things’, von Foerster (1972) develops an argument concerning the observer, or, more properly, the how of the observer (rather than the what). His task is to develop a theory of the observer which bootstraps itself: if it doesn’t do this, the observer must be an a priori and thus not subject to the theory. Von Foerster explains that observers are living and therefore biological: but, since biology is concerned with the living, a theory of an observer (a living being), being based in living must be concerned with making itself (autogenesis). The problem is to develop a description-invariant world that is a world which includes an observer (that must be there to make these judgements).
Inevitably this involves circularity: the object (i.e. intention) is to produce a system that grows in such a manner that it produces itself (returns to the beginning, thus completing the generative circle). Von Foerster sets about this in a rather unusual manner. His argument consists of a development in 12 stages, of which the twelfth is a reiteration of the first (thus, it is the completion of the circle). The circle generates a regress (and/ or it generates/reflects time – this should be crucial, given the workings of the paper, but will not be expanded on in this account). Going round the circle again, of course, changes things just as it completes and repeats them. Having been round the circle, one cannot go round the same one again, as Heroclytus tells us (we cannot step into the same stream twice).[Note 2] In this manner we have what later became referred to as organizational closure with informational openness (e.g. Pask, 1980; Maturana and Varela, 1980).
In his intimation of two cycles (there could be no less than two to show not only that it is a circle but also that the circle repeats and progresses), von Foerster elaborates on his 12 headings in two distinct ways. The main text (the notes) forms the second iteration and is formal: the first is made up of a sort of verbal gloss – as it were, both an explanation and an excuse – and is rather more tentative, as befits something that is in genesis! The transmutation from cycle to cycle is towards the refinement of the mathematically expressed (or Abstraction). Von Foerster talks of Abstraction in the paper: it is the computation of relations in his ‘object’ domain. He is doing what he is writing about. Re-reading his paper in preparation for writing mine, I found myself reading both texts together, in parallel, or one leading and then, moments later, the other taking the lead (i.e. alternating). In effect, making my own cycle(s). An involved observer!
In developing a theory of the observer that (continuously) bootstraps itself, von Foerster not only describes the argument (the circularity): he does it. As he says in ‘On Constructing a Reality’, cognition is doing.
Recursion and stability
Von Foerster regularly includes two graphic materials in his papers. The first is nerve bundles (drawn, typically – given von Foerster’s trans- disciplinary connectedness and cultural awareness and enthusiasm – by the distinguished architect- visionary and architectural draughtsman Lebbeus Woods III); the second is various forms of the Oreborus – the snake that eats its own tail, a mediaeval representation of self-reference-as-abomination.
Von Foerster is fascinated by this metaphorical animal. But it is not, I believe, the Oreborus per se that fascinates him, it is the metaphor. And he has his own version of this: the eigen function producing the eigen value.
The eigen function is a procedure (function) that, applied to itself, tends towards a value that repeats itself when it is fed back as the input to the procedure. An early form is his definition of cognition, which has:
(This definition is, itself, the outcome of a definition that, applied to itself, reduces to the above. Thus:
Observe that not only is the definition itself a recursive procedure, but the way this definition is developed is also recursive. What we have here is, eventually, circular, producing itself. It is self-productive, self-reproductive, self-referential. It is also, at bottom (and in the limit), stable, for what it makes is itself (so ‘it’ ‘is’ ‘always’ ‘there’). And that is what it continues to make. It is doing being.
He gives, as an example of eigen function, the following:
take any number, divide by two and then add one.
Start with any number you care to think of, and apply this operation taking the output as the input to the operation for the next iteration. Your result, after at most a few iterations, will always tend to the number 2. (Try it and see!) The eigen function gives the eigen value of 2. No matter what you do, in our conventional mathematical world, you will produce the (unchanging) number 2 (take 2 and divide by 2 and then add 1, and you will see why the answer is 2: just feed it back in to the procedure again). At this point, we have arrived at an eigen function that has the eigen value 2. The whole caboodle is set up to produce the same value by operating only on that value, without variation, and it tends visibly towards this value (no matter what initial number-value you put in) very fast indeed – a matter of a few iterations (von Foerster, 1976).
Here is an example of the Oreborus: the snake that eats its own tail: the (numerical) value that produces itself from itself. This is the form of stability, and von Foerster compares it to Piaget’s notion of the constancy of objects computed by the child (Piaget, 1955).
The metaphor is extended. Von Foerster likes to give another example: things which are literally what they say, so, naturally, his example is verbal: the sentence that has as many letters as it says it has. (Thus, when speaking English, the sentence ‘This sentence has … letters’ can have the two values thirty one and thirty three, while the sentence ‘This sentence consists of … letters’ can only have the value thirty nine. These values must, of course, be spelled out in letters.)
In all cases, the sentence is exactly what it says it is. A form of self-reference, as von Foerster tells us, in which the content of the sentence exactly matches the form through which it is expressed, and in which the explanation of the object (i.e. sentence) does what the object is. This is, of course, what happens at the final resting point of a recursion where an eigen function is found generating an eigen value and, consequently, constituting what von Foerster calls a token, an eigen object (von Foerster, 1976; cf. Glanville, 1975).
And, in this case, not only is recursion the form of the writing, it is the form through which the examples are derived and the form of the examples, as we see them, ‘in themselves’.
Self-reference and paradox
Von Foerster brings his examinations to the point of self-reference: the monster of logic, circularity. For, in his own terms, that is what his recursively applied eigen functions add up to.
But he ‘introduces’ the idea through the observer. In ‘Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things’ he writes:
While in the first quarter of this century physicists and cosmologists were forced to revise the basic notions that govern the natural sciences, in the last quarter of this century biologists will force a revision of the basic notions that govern science itself. After that ‘first revolution’ it was clear that the classical concept of an ‘ultimate science’, that is an objective description of the world in which there are no subjects (a ‘subject- less universe’), contains contradictions. To remove these one had to account for an ‘observer’ (that is at least one subject) …
In insisting on the presence of the observer, von Foerster creates his own paradox.[Note 3] The paradox is that the observer, once included, becomes his own subject. He is both subject and object (to use the old words and the old distinction). Thus, the observations are also both subjective and objective, presumably at one and the same time.
The inclusion of the observer creates its own type of circularity, a circularity that often becomes vicious (and, therefore, is usually treated as such).
It is this need to include the observer that leads to the circularity of form of the ‘Notes…’, but which also appears in a much earlier paper where the need for the inclusion of the observer has not yet reached the forefront of von Foerster’s preoccupation: ‘On Self Organizing Systems and their Environments’. Here, the presence of the observer is to be found in the demons that von Foerster proposes, developed from Maxwell’s original little marvels. These demons co-ordinate the apparent and particularized increase of order (reduction of entropy) that von Foerster designates as the characteristic of self-organizing systems. They are capable of observing what is going on, and acting accordingly, to ‘interfere’ with the anticipated behaviour of the system in its environment. The observer (in the form of the demons) is already in the system. And herein lies a paradox. With the demons around and active (being busy organizing), what happens to the idea of self-organization?
But, then, the whole of this paper is designed around a paradox. Having seduced us – without, of course, patronizing us in any way at all – into the paper with his gestures, courtesy Moliere, to our sophistication and culturedness, he takes us through an argument of paradox and the paradox of argument, bringing into doubt the whole matter of the possibility of self-organization, to the point where we willingly accept his strange demons and the result he brings us. A piece of masterly story telling that uses the very paradox he presents to move the story on, and bring the observer into the argument without, perhaps, von Foerster even noticing it, himself.
Or, in a quite different manner, consider the form of ‘Notes …’. Repetition involves a sameness, but doing something twice is not, in this case, the same as doing it once then and again because we, at least, are different: we have been and continue to be involved. To repeat an argument is to confront something which is both the same and different. And that difference is expressed in the way the material is presented (Glanville, 1980).
In bringing the observer in, von Foerster finds he has an observer who is both object and subject, who is both the same and different to himself, a paradox, self-referential, circular, but, nevertheless, essential, as we develop our understanding of who – and how – we are. The self-reference links with the recursion and the stability, and paradox, bootstrapping and circularity and, in the end, with the observer – the reader. The introduction of the observer generates its own circle.
Ethics and responsibility
At the end of ‘On Constructing a Reality’ von Foerster, (1973) brings to the front the consequence of the inclusion of the observer. This is the (second-order) cybernetic requisite of Ethics. Above all else, second-order cybernetics, the result of the inclusion of the observer, carries an obligation which is ethical. (This may explain why the attempts – and there have been many – to make it useful have tended to end up in a sort of vacuous talking shop.) In this case, it is expressed in terms of the Principle of Relativity.
According to the Principle of Relativity which rejects a hypothesis when it does not hold for two instances together, although it holds for each instance separately …, the solipsistic claim falls to pieces when besides me I invent another autonomous organism. However it should be noted that since the Principle of Relativity is not a logical necessity, nor is it a proposition that can be proven to be either true or false, the crucial point to be recognized here is that I am free to choose either to adopt this principle or to reject it. If I reject it, I am the centre of the universe, my reality is my dreams and my nightmares, my language is monologue, and my logic mono- logic. If I adopt it, neither me nor the other can be the centre of the universe. As in the heliocentric system, there must be a third that is the central reference. It is the relation between Thou and I, and this relation is IDENTITY:
Reality = Community.
What are the consequences of all this in ethics and aesthetics?
The Ethical Imperative: Act always so as to increase the number of choices.
The Aesthetical Imperative: If you desire to see, learn how to act.
This is the end of ‘On Constructing a Reality’. You will notice that no judgement is made. The ethical consideration that arises is responsibility (and freedom). There is no attempt at obligation, even by presenting a strongly convincing argument, a preferred position that the reader can feel von Foerster would like him to take. There is no forcing, converting, coercing. Because to force, convert, coerce reduces and ultimately removes that responsibility and that freedom (and can only work through the acceptance of the reader, even though (s)he might choose to deny it). The way von Foerster expresses the result of his prolonged argument, at the basic level of how we might choose to behave (for we have that freedom), reflects exactly what the message is: the content is perfectly mirrored in the form. And the same is true in his ‘Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics’ (von Foerster, 1992), where he ends with what I take to be his own translation of Martin Buber (1969) (‘Das Problem des Menschen’), introducing dialogics:
Contemplate the human with the human, and you will see the dynamic duality, the human essence, together: here is the giving and the receiving, here the aggressive and the defensive power, here the quality of searching and of responding, always both in one, mutually complementing in alternating action, demonstrating together what it is: human. Now you can turn to the single one and you recognize him as human for his potential of relating. We may come closer to answering the question: what is human? When we come to understand him as being in whole dialogic, in his mutually present twogetherness, the encounter of the one with the other is realized and recognized at all times.
Von Foerster, two-gether with Buber writing on two-getherness, with you and I, two-gether, to be the readers with whom the author is two-gether.
You cannot force an ethic, least of all the ethic that comes from the inclusion of the observer that is the keystone of von Foerster’s derivation of second-order cybernetics: and you do not need an ethos if you are not two-gether.
You cannot oblige responsibility.
Cybernetics, art and ideas
The purpose of the examples I have given above is to demonstrate the importance of form as well as the obviously recognized importance of content in von Foerster’s work and, especially, in how he presents it.
Science is deeply tied up in explanation. Explanation is, of course, an aspect of representation. Explanation, although it uses a ‘thing’, is never that ‘thing’ that is explained (it is of that ‘thing’), always refers to another ‘thing’, is in its nature regressive. The nature of the normal scientific paper is to explain without becoming part of the ‘thing’, that is, to remain remote and talk of the ‘thing’ as if it were, regardless of the talking. Thus, the conventional scientific paper is organized to pre-empt and scorn self-reference, for it acts always at a distance and it always refers to the ‘thing’.
But what von Foerster talks of is no such ‘thing’. It is not a ‘thing’ that exists independent of the observer, nor does it lie outside the explanation
And so we might come to hope that his papers would tell less of a conventional story: that is, would be somewhat less part of the traditional narrative of science.
And that is exactly what we find.
In von Foerster’s work (as represented by the papers presented here), the form matches the content. There is no ready-made form for the content to be fitted into: as we have discovered, the form mirrors the content, the content mirrors the form, each forming the other.
But when the form and the content match each other so well as to become at most almost indistinguishable facets of the same, we have objects such as von Foerster’s eigen objects. In the eigen object, the form (the procedure) and the content (the output which becomes the eventually unchanging throughput) match and marry, to form the whole in a self-referential manner. Under these circumstances we have what I have termed ‘Objects’, which differ from eigen objects in the manner of their derivation: eigen objects stabilize out of the description made by the observer, Objects grow from the inclusion of the observer within the circle as that which is observable (von Foerster, 1976; Glanville, 1975, 1977, 1978). I believe the difference is one of source and path of derivation, rather than of intent. Eigen objects and Objects match in much the way same that form and content do, reflecting each other and forging a new and ‘better’ whole.
I do not introduce this homomorphism, as I see it, in order to reduce admiration for von Foerster’s eigen objects. I introduce it to generalize and thus provide better coverage (the Ethical Imperative), and because the slant of Objects makes it easier for me to take my final step.
For it is in this marriage of form and content, seen most explicitly in Objects[Note 4] (Glanville, 1975) which are (taken to be) self-observing and self- observed, that we can find the answer to why, I believe, we find von Foerster’s papers so involving and so special. It is not just the ideas and the exposition, the content and the form. It is the matching of both, so that they become ‘indistinguishable’.
For when we achieve this, we may have art (Glanville, 1995).
Art, as well as science, perhaps, but anyway art.
For what we say of art is that it is so perfectly formed, that the content is so beautifully and exactly contained. It is what it says it is. Art may occur when the form of the art work matches its content. Then the work can be taken to stand by itself, on its own, in our representational world of as if (Glanville, 1994); and can be understood as autonomous, existing without and apart from intention, and to be given meaning, interpreted by each of us observers. Not that it is ‘there’ (or it is not) – we can only make assertions about this, as von Foerster cannot prove the solipsist’s error, if that is what it is – but we can take it to be as if it
were there because we can assume the sort of structure that is redolent in self-reference, where the form and the content do match and marry. Here, then, is the art of Heinz von Foerster: the art that, at many levels, matches the form and the content to make something very special, beyond the bounds required of science, able to (be taken to) stand on its own two feet and to provide us with endless opportunity to wonder and delight, knowing we have no alternative but to make our own meanings.
And this is the substance of perhaps his greatest contribution, the Cybernetics of Cybernetics (von Foerster, 1974) – that form matches content just as content makes form.
There are many other themes in von Foerster’s work that I might have chosen for this paper. I leave those to you, the reader, and your sense of, and delight in, enquiry and art.
Buber M. (1969) Das Problem des Menschen, Lambert Schneider, Heidelberg.
Glanville R. (1975) A cybernetic development of theories of epistemology and observations with reference to space and time, as seen in architecture, PhD thesis, unpublished, Brunel University. Also known as ‘The object of objects, the point of points – or something about things’.
Glanville R. (1976) What is memory, that it can remember what it is? In Trappl R. et al. (eds.) Progress in Cybernetics and Systems Research (Vol. 7), Hemisphere Press, Washington DC.
Glanville R. (1980) Consciousness, and so on. Journal of Cybernetics 10, 301–312.
Glanville R. (1980) The same is different. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis, Elsevier, New York.
Glanville R. (1994) As if (radical objectivism). In: Trappl R. (ed.) Cybernetics and Systems Research ‘94, World Scientific, Singapore.
Glanville R. (1995) The cybernetics of value and the value of cybernetics: Marking the value. In: Glanville R. & de Zeeuw G. (eds.) Problems of Values and Invariants (Conference Proceedings), Thesis, Amsterdam.
Maturana H. & Varela F. (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Reidel, Dordrecht. http://cepa.info/556 http://cepa.info/556
Medawar P. (1963) Is the scientific paper a fraud? The Listener, 12 September.
Pask G. (1975) Conversation Theory, Hutchinson, London. Pask G. (1980) The organisational closure of potentially conscious systems. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis, Elsevier, New York.
Pask G., Scott B. & Kallikourdis D. (1973) A theory of conversations and individuals (exemplified by the learning process on CASTE). International Journal of Man Machine Studies, 5.
Piaget J. (1955) The Child’s Construction of Reality, Basic Books, New York.
von Foerster H. (1960) On self-organising systems and their environments. In: Yovitts M. & Cameron S. (eds.) Self-organising Systems, Pergamon, London.
von Foerster H. (1972) Notes on an epistemology for living things, BCL fiche 104 / 1, University of Illinois at Urbana. http://cepa.info/1655
von Foerster H. (1973) On constructing a reality. In: Preiser F. (ed.) Environmental Design Research’, Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Stroudberg. http://cepa.info/1278
von Foerster H. (1974) The cybernetics of cybernetics, BCL report 73.38, University of Illinois at Urbana.
von Foerster H. (1976) Objects: Tokens for (eigen-)behaviours, Cybernetics Forum (Vol. 8, Nos 3 and 4). http://cepa.info/1270
von Foerster H. (1981) Observing Systems, Varela F. (ed.) InterSystems, Seaside CA.
von Foerster H. (1992) Ethics and second-order cybernetics. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 1(1). http://cepa.info/1742
There are very many more examples. Many can be found in von Foerster’s collection of papers ’Observing Systems’. I have determined to discipline myself to not flood my paper by giving large numbers of examples.
My Architecture Theory teacher, Thomas (’Sam’) Stevens, added a powerful rider: you cannot, either, step into the same stream once!
It is not really his own: it’s the age-old paradox that lies at the heart of the age-old Western objection to the inclusion of the observer and which drives the great white hope of objectivity.
By Object, I do not mean a physical thing, nor even something ’out there’. Etymologically, the word Object, in English, has inverted its meaning so that it carries traces of its original in (what is now referred to as) subjectivity and of intention. I mean by Object the structure we might propose such that we can both make observations, and, in spite of being distinct (and thus making distinct observations) we may come to believe we are observing the same ’thing’. This is a rather tricky concept and is frequently misunderstood, especially since we do talk using a metaphorical shorthand, without always adding, or taking account of, the ’as if -ness of what we say. Nor is this brief description quite how I first explained the concept, which was, as Ernst von Glasersfeld pointed out to me, much more conventionally ’Realist’.
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