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Heinz von Foerster 100
Organizing Institutions:
Heinz von Foerster Gesellschaft / Wien
ASC – American Society for Cybernetics
WISDOM – Wiener Institut für
  sozialwissenschaftliche Dokumentation und Methodik

Institut für Zeitgeschichte | Universität Wien
AINS – Austrian Institute for Nonlinear Studies
Graham Barnes

I Can Let My Soul Soar.
An Appreciation for the Idea of Heinz von Foerster and his Circle of Ideas


My lecture is an appreciation, an appreciation for the quality of ideas of Heinz von Foerster and for the apprehended value of his cybernetic circle of ideas that we consider fit for survival and for increasing in value, for generating new eigenbehaviors and creating new initial values out of which new eigenvalues might arise. These ideas exemplify circularity, connectedness, self-organization, closure, self-reference, and recursiveness, all within the complex interactions of the dance of cybernetics.
von Foerster nurtured ideas he considered worthy of survival within the conceptual garden of the evolution of ideas. And now he is becoming one of those ideas. He left behind a demanding body of work that invites careful study as an integrated, logical whole, a requisite body of work that gives centrality to circularity, the basic organizing idea of cybernetics which proposes its own epistemology; to autonomy and responsibility. Consider, among his second-order concepts, his inspired distinction between cybernetics (the cybernetics of observed systems) and second-order cybernetics (the cybernetics of observing systems); his explication of the three instances of circularity (the general case of circular closure, the reflexive case, and the form of self reference); his inclusion of observers as participants in whatever they are observing, of managers as members of the organization they manage, applying to themselves their managerial descriptions and acts; his idea that in a self-organizing managerial system each participant is also a manager of this system. (In self-organizing systems information constitutes authority, inviting each participant to be responsible for the survival of the system and of the self that is embedded within and that is, therefore, a participant in the system.) Consider also his idea of seeing through the eyes of the other; and his idea of our blind spots. All these ideas logically connect with von Foerster’s ethical imperative (Act always so as to increase the number of choices), leading to an ethical epistemology wherein epistemologists—experimental, cyberneticist or otherwise—become accountable for their epistemology, an epistemology that in dialogue remains implicit; his aesthetic imperative (If you want to see learn how to act); and his change imperative that presupposes obliterating rules of the past, freeing us to act to invent the future we desire (If you want to be yourself, change!).

I will build on these ideas and discuss how some have proved useful in my work with students, patients, organizations and leaders, among others, attending to the concept of self-organization in social situations.