Heinz von Foerster Festschrift


I met Heinz in Leiden, in 1962. We talked about many things, and became friends along the playfulness of our encournter. This resulted in Heinz coming to Chile for four months of his sabbatical in 1964, to learn whatever I could teach him about neurobiology. He came with Mai, and they rented an apartment. Heinz would come to my laboratory in the morning, and then in the afternoon go visiting the city with Mai. This was a year of campaign for presidential elections, and one of the candidates was Salvador Allende — an occasion in which he was not elected. One day Heinz told me that he had been visiting the gardens around the parliament buildings. Some Chileans who were also visiting these gardens asked him something, and when he answered they realized that he was not Chilean. So they began calling him a Gringo. Heinz answered them saying "No, No Gringo! Austrian!" Then they took photographs of each other. I have seen this photo where Heinz the Austrian appears with all these Chileans in the gardens of the Parliament.

In 1968-69 I visited Heinz in Urbana, Illinois for almost a year. Every day I would arrive at his home at about midday, and from there Heinz would drive us to the BCL. On one occasion he had to do some errand downtown, and he drove down and parked his car exactly in front of the police station, where it said "Parking with permit only". Heinz got out of the car with absolute confidence and as I followed him I asked him whether he had a permit. He answered "No." Then I asked "Then how can you park there?" And told me "No-one would park there unless they had a special permit. If the police saw me parking there, they would think I have a special permit, and do nothing." I said "My goodness, if I were to park there they would immediately stop me!" And he answered to me "That is because you think you do not have the right to park in that place."

For me this was an interesting conversation. On the one hand it revealed Heinz' understanding of the systemic situation involved with the police station, the police and the parking permit, and how one could behave in these circumstances. On the other hand it revealed to me that my lack of confidence in my doing would be immediately apparent to the policeman. The police would immediately recognize me as a person who did not have the right to be doing what he was doing. So I thought, you must not only understand a system, but also be able to move through it in full trust of your knowledge and understanding.

In 1978 I was at Stanford as a visiting professor. Heinz and his son had just finished building the house on Rattle Snake Hill, but they did not have heating for the house, and there were several aspects of the interior, particularly Heinz' office, that required to be completed . I went to visit Heinz at his house. When I arrived I found that Heinz and Mai were living in two places only, the kitchen and the bedroom - because of the lack of heating. I said "Heinz, you don't have a stove." And he answered, "Yes I have one, but I am so exhausted that I cannot install it." So I immediately proposed to help him. We managed to put together the stove and make it function during the three days I stayed there with them. After that occasion I went to see Heinz every weekend for the three months I was staying at Stanford, and helped him with whatever he had to do at home - bookshelves, the cutting of wood - what ever.

During one of my visits I was helping Heinz by doing things with his little tractor. I was on top of the hill, manipulating its brakes, which I somehow managed to put in a position so I could not activate them. The tractor began to roll down hill in the direction of the house, going faster and faster down the hill. It was a narrow path that was flanked on the left by a very steep down-slope, and on the fight by a steep up-slope with trees. The end of the path was, of course, Heinz' house. As I was rapidly rolling down in the tractor on a course of direct collision with the house, I thought to myself "What a shame, to come from Chile to visit Heinz and smash his house with his tractor, leaving my brains dispersed on the walls of the house! What a shame!" But in the process of hurtling down the hill, I managed to guide the tractor towards the right side slope, and instead of colliding, I went between the trees among some bushes which stopped me, leaving a path of broken branches. Heinz was running down the hill after me. He told me afterwards that he was thinking "Le hazard, c'est la necessité! Le hazard, c'est la necessité!"—which is the title of a book by Jack Monod. When all was over, he decided to call the path that I had opened with the tractor, Chicho's Promenade.

On every occasion when I arrived Mai would call Heinz, saying "Heinz your playmate is here!" and of course we played doing the house chores that had to be done by two men. When we were done with the chores we would go and have a shower. Heinz had made an outdoor solar shower out of black tubing, and the two of us would go under it together. Heinz said that this was to invigorate us, but I preferred the warm water. So we had this game of first de-vigorating and then invigorating. Of course, it would have been more pleasant to have the de-vigoration last, but that is not how a solar shower operates.

Heinz is a playful and very caring friend. He was always taking care of the possibilities for others to work — arranging grants, going off to Washington, and such. This meant he often had to do his own work in the middle of the night.

Humberto Maturana April 29, 2000

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift