Obituary: Heinz von Foerster
Glanville R. (2003) Obituary: Heinz von Foerster. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 20: 85–89. Available at http://cepa.info/3757
With the death, on October 2nd at his home in Pescadero, California, of Heinz von Foerster, cybernetics has lost its last direct link to its Heroic Age. Although the token for the start of cybernetics is usually given as Norbert Wiener’s publication of his eponymous book in 1948, that is just a token. Wiener, as becomes clearer through the passage of time, was not the inventor of cybernetics (nor did he claim to be). It grew, as has long been acknowledged, out of interdisciplinary discussions at MIT in the Second World War, involving amongst others Wiener, Arturo Rosenblueth, Vannovar Bush and Julian Bigelow: and from the meetings on ’Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems’ sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr Foundation in New York between 1946 and 1953, under the chairmanship of the neurophysiologist and ’experimental epistemologist,’ Warren McCulloch. These meetings, attended by those we now recognise as amongst the great stars of immediate post war scientific life in the USA, included anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, mathematician and computation theorist John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. Steve Joshua Heim’s book ’The Cybernetics Group: Constructing a Social Science for Post-War America’ (1991) gives us glimmerings of the significance of these meetings, in his subtitle. It was to these meetings that Heinz von Foerster found himself – through the action of McCulloch – attached as secretary and editor, shortly after he arrived in the USA in 1949.
Heinz von Förster (he later changed the spelling to Foerster) was born in Vienna on 13th November 1911, eldest child of Emil von Förster and his wife Lilith, nee Lang. There were two other children, a brother, Uzzi (Ulrich) and a sister, Erika, who survives Heinz. The von Förster family was well connected in the Vienna of the period: they were closely associated with the design and building of the RingStraße itself, and many of the buildings on it. Lilith’s family, the Langs, were artistic and included the renowned painter Erwin Lang, Lilith’s brother. Family connections included the playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal and the philosopher ’uncle’ Ludwig Wittgenstein – not a blood uncle but nevertheless, as a close family friend, called uncle (Nonnonkel) by the children. On one occasion, when Heinz had just passed an exam (by his own account he was frequently bored, not a good student), Wittgenstein asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Heinz replied ’a scientist.’ Wittgenstein said ’But then you must know a lot,’ Heinz replied ’I do know a lot.’ Wittgenstein’s reply, ’But you don’t know how right you are’ haunted Heinz all his life.
Heinz’s great companion in his youth was his cousin Martin Lang. Heinz and Martin roamed the mountains in summer and winter, enjoyed holidays on lake shores, but their most memorable undertaking was to study and then perform magic, becoming professional performers and members of the Magic Circle. What fascinated them was not how to perform the various tricks within the conventions of the physical world, but the amazement and wonder they could conjure up. From these experiments, von Foerster learnt about story telling and presentation, knowledge he put to good use in the more than 1000 lectures he was to give around the world. But he was also confirmed in seeing the world as a provider of delight and wonder to those who understood how to look for it.
After studying physics at Vienna’s Technical University while also attending the Vienna Circle through the University of Vienna to study philosophy and logic, he worked in research labs. He met and married Mai (Mathilde) Stürmer in 1939, and they moved to Berlin where they judged it was easier to hide the Jewish blood von Foerster insisted was part of the mix of which all Austrians are made (’Austrians are mongrels!’ I remember him saying). In the Second World War he worked on short wave and plasma physics. Talking of this time he would refer to the uncertainty, the small acts of kindness, the disappearances and the way he set questions and projects, quite unanswerable at the time, as his contribution to undermining the Nazi war effort: thus initiating a slightly subversive way of handling authority which he later practised in order to gain support during his university life. Simultaneously, in 1944 he completed his doctoral studies in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland).
Returning to Vienna after the War, he maintained two jobs. The first was with SchrackEricsson, working to rebuild the telephone industry. The second was as ’Dr Heinrich’ on the Austro-American Radio Station ’Rot-Weiß-Rot’. As chief editor for art and science, von Foerster would report on science and culture, often though radio interviews. At this time he worked on ’Memory: a Quantum Physical Examination’ which appeared as a short book. In the spring of 1949, book in hand, he sailed for the USA, where he was introduced to Warren McCulloch, the great neurophysiologist and self- styled ’experimental epistemologist.’ Von Foerster had virtually no English, so they communicated through the language of mathematics.
McCulloch had been chairman of the Macy Conferences in New York from the outset. With the theme ’Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems,’ these meetings were famously attended by luminaries such as anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (who were then married), mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann, and mathematical polymath Norbert Wiener, whose ’Cybernetics’ pulled together much debate into one unifying theme. McCulloch took von Foerster to the next meeting, where he presented his memory theory and, at the insistence of Mead and McCulloch, was immediately made secretary of the meetings and editor of the proceedings (there had previously been none), thus obliging him to learn English. The published proceedings of meetings 6 to 13 (the last meeting) demonstrate not only an amazing language learning ability, but also deep insight. Under von Foerster’s secretariat, the conferences were renamed. The old title became a subtitle to the new title: ’Cybernetics.’ Thus, cybernetics was at the outset identified with circularity.
McCulloch also promoted von Foerster in applying for the job of director of the Electron Tube Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana, and Mai and their three boys were imported from Austria into the academic mid-west in the autumn of 1949. They stayed there until Heinz’s retirement in 1976, when he moved to Pescadero, on the Pacific coast in California. Here, in a touching emulation of his ’Uncle’ Ludwig’s cabin in Norway, he built his own house, helped by his architect son Andy (Andreas). Years later, von Foerster was invited to talk about Wittgenstein at the site of the Norwegian cabin, where he picked up a few of Wittgenstein’s nails. I treasure the gift of one of them.
Perhaps related to his early interest in magic and his experience as a reporter, Von Foerster was an extremely good manager and impresario. (He often used the latter to hide behind, promoting the achievements and insights of others in order to avoid talking about himself.) He became adept at persuading the university and the US military that they should invest in the research topics that interested him. In 1958, von Foerster founded the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL), which allowed him to collaborate with scholars from other disciplines and which he directed until his retirement. In preparation, he spent 2 semesters with McCulloch at MIT, learning about the functioning of the nervous system. The work McCulloch, with coworkers Walter Pitts, Jerry (Jerome) Lettvin and Chicho (Humberto) Maturana were doing became known through the classic paper ’What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.’ A key element was the affirmation that our heads are not full of miniature idealisations of the so-called objects of the so-called real world (as Johannes Müller had argued over 100 years earlier).
The BCL housed an interesting and fertile mixture. It researched computer developments: the first parallel computer was built there (recognising opaque objects quick as a flash), and the importance of high speed switching was recognised and researched. At the same time, a number of key cybernetic concepts were investigated. One such was ’self-organisation’ (as a result of which von Foerster distinguished and often counter-posed the entropy of physical systems and information). Another was what von Foerster called the ’Non-trivial Machine’ (where machine is a synonym for system).[Note 1] The BCL became a home where advanced thinkers in cybernetics could find respite. Amongst those who held residencies were W. Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer; Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela; and Lars Löfgren and Gotthard Günter. And there were students: research students, visiting students, and the students von Foerster picked up when offering electives at the University of Illinois.
An outcome of one of his electives at the University of Illinois was a book, ’Cybernetics of Cybernetics.’ In the field of cybernetics, von Foerster is almost certainly best known for his invention of this term to capture his insistence that cybernetics itself be subject to examination by the methods of cybernetics. The Cybernetics of Cybernetics was not a new title when the book appeared in 1973. Von Foerster had given it to Margaret Mead when inviting her to present the keynote address at the founding of the American Society for Cybernetics in 1968. The book, recently republished though still hard to obtain, consisted of a collection of papers and other writings, many by the BCL’s star visitors, with commentaries, concept maps and so on made by the students, representing the connections of central concepts. It opens with an explanation: first-order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observed systems; second-order cybernetics (i.e., the cybernetics of cybernetics) is the cybernetics of observing systems. It even had its own meta-book.
With this one move, making cybernetics reflexive, von Foerster effectively changed the rules of the game for cybernetics – and for systems theory. Systems that had previously been examined only as de facto, remote objects under the inscrutable eye of the classical observer, were suddenly opened up to the notion that the observer matters. Maturana, who developed much of the conceptual apparatus from which Autopoiesis sprang while at the BCL, wrote in several places including Maturana and Varela 1980 ’Everything said is said by an observer’ (so there is no observation without an observe[Note 2] ). Von Foerster commented ’Everything said is said to an observer.’ (von Foerster, 1979)
Von Foerster’s move made a general and cohesive sense of the work of the various scholars who were BCL intendents and which they developed while enjoying residencies there, or in the periods immediately after. As well as Autopoiesis, Pask’s Conversation Theory of circular interaction and the generation of the new, Loefgren’s autologics and approaches to self- reference and Günther’s modal, transjunctional logics, as well as von Foerster’s own Eigen Objects, all cohere under the banner of the cybernetics of cybernetics.
The consequences for the type of examination that could be undertaken were considerable. One such was held to be a validation of the constructivist position, such as long taken by von Glasersfeld, although von Foerster never accepted the label ’constructivist’ for himself. In fact he was deeply wary of the notions of labelling and categorisation, believing they undermine our ability to think clearly and freely. Another was the understanding that cybernetics is based on and develops an ethical position: that we are responsible for our thoughts and actions, and that our real freedom to decide occurs where a question is “undecideable”. Thus, given that we cannot escape from our involvement in making our observations, we are left in an in principle undecideable position. If there is to be a choice, the choice is ours! Either we chose to accept the notion of a real world external to us; or we deny it solipsistically; or we hold that we will live with the undeddeabffity (constructivistly). Von Foerster chose to choose the first. I had not understood how he made this choice until he explained it in this way, when I visited him shortly before he died.
The point is, it is our choice, and we must therefore live by it. It is not a truth. And from this come two consequences. Firstly, the responsibility already mentioned above. And, secondly, a sense of wonder. Wonder because in spite of the undecideability of the question we can make a choice and live by it: and that choice can be used as a starting point from which to investigate, to find pattern and meaning, to explore ourselves and the wonder that we are. This is, I believe, the most significant thing von Foerster did, and what, in the end, he cared most about. It is also what divides his deeply humane, human and humanist (second-order) cybernetics from the mechanical control systems that so often still parade as cybernetics.
Heinz von Foerster gained may honours including Guggenheim Fellowships (1956-57 and 1963-64), presidency of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (anthropology) (1963-65), and of the Society for General Systems Research (1976-77) and Fellowship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1980). These were capped when in 1996 the University of Vienna made him an honorary professor and in 2001 he was awarded the Ehrenring of the City as well as the first Viktor Frankl Prize.
Von Foerster published about 200 papers during his life. There are still books in the pipeline, translations being made. He made many contributions to our knowledge and to the quality of our lives (he has even been credited with the work that made the microwave cooker possible).
The example of his incursion into demography is particularly illuminating. This incursion caused what was said to be the largest ever response in the Journal ’Science.’ Von Foerster was unhappy at the naive modelling that was used in 1960 demographics and chose to show this by taking things to an absurd extreme. In his co-written paper ’Doomsday: Friday 13 November, AD 2026,’ he argues that the inhabitable surface of the Earth would be covered by people at the density of one per square meter on Friday 13 November 2026 (naturally, von Foerster’s 125th birthday). The whole point, that this was absurd, was missed at the time by most correspondents who attacked von Foerster for the inappropriateness of his calculations. Heinz was, of course, delighted: they were making his very point, though they’d missed it in his work. The result has been a radical shift in both the models demographers use, and the certainty with which they present their ideas. Extrapolation may not hold! (Robbin Hough wrote elegantly in praise of this paper in the von Foerster Festschrift I edited for Systems Research: see references.)
In cybernetics and systems, although he addressed many critical issues (e.g. memory without record, the construction of reality, the epistemology of living things, and so on), he has been celebrated for the invention of the cybernetics of cybernetics, the second-order cybernetics that examines itself according to its own premises. Crucially, this means the subject takes itself seriously enough to examine itself: and thus cybernetics attains a certain maturity. Now we can see that this, in itself, is an ethical pursuit: judge as you would be judged. He expressed this concern in these two imperatives:
aesthetic imperative: if you desire to see, learn how to act.
ethical imperative: act always so as to increase the number of choices.
And so our appreciation of his work shifts to the ethical matters of responsibility, care, and living by our own standards. But there is, I believe, a further step to take in our appreciation of his work. He was a magician. Deep in him was a sense of wonder and mystery, of the impor‑tance not so much of our descriptions and explanations, but of the amazingness of being able to make such things, of the sort of experience we can have, and of the greatest of all human joys: the joy of wonder. He wanted us to value and appreciate the mystery of our lives. We will come to look on him as the man who brought wonder back into science, and allowed science once again to see itself as joyful and reflecting the most wonderful of human characteristics: wonder. I shall look into the sky at night, seeing ever more stars, with wonder renewed. And I shall wonder which star is my friend Heinz’s.
Heinz von Foerster was born 13 November 1911 in Vienna and died at home in Pescadero, California, 2 October 2002. He is survived by his wife, Mai, his sister Erika, two sons (Andreas and Thomas) and three grandchildren. In 1996 he was the subject of a festschrift in a special issue of Systems Research, volume 13 number 3, which celebrated his 85th birthday.
Foerster H. von (1948) Das Gedächtnis: Eine quantenmechanische Untersuchung, Wien, Franz Deuticke, presented in English as Quantum Mechanical Theory of Memory in Foerster H. von(ed.) (1950) Cybernetics: Transaction of the Sixth Conference, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, New York.
Foerster H. von (ed.) (1950 to 1955) Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems. Published proceedings of meetings 6 to 10 of the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation Conferences held in New York 1949 to 1952, various publishers.
Foerster H. von (ed.) (1975) Cybernetics of Cybernetics, Champaign/Urbana, Biological Computer Laboratory, republished (1995) Future Systems Inc. Minneaoplis.
Foerster H. von (1979) Cybernetics of Cybernetics. In: Communication and Control in Society, Krippendorff K (ed.) Gordon & Breach: New York. http://cepa.info/1707
Foerster H. von Mora P, Amlot L. (1960) Doomsday: Friday 13 November AD 2026, Science November: 1291–1295. http://cepa.info/1596
Glanville R (ed.) (1996) Heinz von Foerster, a Festschrift. Systems Research 13(3)
Heims S. (1991) The Cybernetics Group: Constructing a Social Science for Post-War America. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.
Hourh R. (1996) Doomsday, The Internet, Diversity and Sustainability, Systems Research, Vol. 13 no. 3 (von Foerster Festschrift)
Lettvin J, Maturana H, McCulloch W, Pitts W. (1959) What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain. Proc. IRE 47, reprinted in McCulloch W (1965) Embodiments of Mind. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.
Marurana H, Varela F. (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition. Kluwer: Dordrecht.
Mead M. (1968) Cybernetics of Cybernetics. In: Purposive System, Foerster H. von et al. (eds.) Spartan Books: New York. http://cepa.info/2634
Wiener N. (1948) Cybernetics, or Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.
The non-trivial machine is distinguished from the trivial machine in the following way: the trivial machine is a simple input/output machine in which the output is predictable from the input; whereas the non-trivial machine has some internal structure that modifies the input output relationship that typifies the trivial machine in such a manner that the connection between the two is not predictable as a constant input/output relationship.
The status of the observer has been a matter of constant change during the Twentieth Century. Von Foerster’s formulation is not the first. But the insistence that the criteria and methods of a subject should be applied to the subject itself is unusual, although some might claim Hilbert’s metamathematics program is a precedent. My wish is not to argue such matters, but to indicate the insight and some of its value and consequences.
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