Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

“Everything is now and here”
On a dwarf’s difficulties to get a hold of a giant

In the past couple of years I was more than once occupied with a lot of thoughts on what Heinz von Foerster means to me personally. But when I—to my surprise for I never had the opportunity to meet him in person—got invited to put these thoughts to paper for a collection of personal notes to celebrate Heinz, I felt this notorious inability to simply dare write things down, just like I felt at the beginning of my dissertation, only far worse.

So obviously I could do nothing but lean back trying to remember. Remember the path I had been following for the past four or five years, which led me away from the well charted intellectual territory of dwarfs right into the land of giants. Remember the bends of the road and the crossings until I encountered strange dark pits along the path: the giant footprints of Heinz von Foerster.

But recalling my first contact with Heinz and his thoughts and notes just did not seem to work, until… yes, until one small phrase came back to my mind. It’s from one of these wonderful little books Heinz had published over the years where it says: “everything is now and here.” I suddenly felt great relief, because to me it meant that there is no recalling of “facts”, no describing history, only building legends, because all I can know is what I recall right now and does not represent how it really was. Everything is now and here.

Therefore the following thoughts are my most personal construction of what I learned from “my uncle Heinz.” Although I am fully aware of the fact that everything said can only add to the further creation of legends about legendary Heinz, I write them down in order to say “thank you” for giving me the confidence that his magic ideas and his philosophy of approaching life will always be present for me.

Blinded by observation—observing blindness

As an ambitious doctoral student in business & management I was blinded by observation, or I should say the effort to observe; the more objective the better. With Heinz I learned a new meaning of observing blindness, my own blindness rather than a company’s blindness, or a manager’s inability to see, that he does not see what he does not see. And I also learned that although there is no final solution to the problem of one’s own blindness, it’s accepting the challenge that counts. I started to realize that there is a new quality of freedom of thinking once you abandon the paradigm of objectivity and the pursuit of “undeniable truth” through observation. But there was also great pressure for me, deriving from a so far unknown need for humbleness which becomes necessary once you said farewell to ontological reasoning. Maybe it’s Heinz’s own legendary humble attitude one suddenly feels urged to practise, an attitude so characteristic for his writing, which comes always with a wink and where he takes everything more important than himself.

The eternal choice, or “we are damned to be free”

With Heinz I further learned the principle of choice, in a fairly radical, in the sense of consequent, way of thinking. Thus he offered a basic attitude, or you could say a tool, which of course is quite tricky to handle because at a closer look it is truly double edged. First you face the difficulty to consequently stick to the principle of choice in daily life. Besides that one always has to master the art of extracting remaining choices even in apparently locked room situations with none of these familiar, friendly illuminated exit signs. Plus, one is always forced to accept personal responsibility for the choices made. On the other side there are the rewards for this attitude of personal responsibility. I assume that Heinz’s message is that the secret lies in one’s individual ability to see every opportunity to choose as a gift of life rather than a burden one has to get rid of.

“Act always as to increase the number of choices”

Heinz’s ability to express complex thoughts and elaborated insights in single phrases are to me a major part of the fun and the challenge studying his texts. There is one famous phrase, and although I read it again and again over the past years I am still not sure if I got a proper hold of it yet: “act always as to increase the numbers of choices.” Well, I was fairly occupied with the principle of choice anyway, so obviously there was no room for doing laborious calculations with numbers of choices. But then there was this awkward feeling that you cannot have the one idea without the other, especially after you have realized that probably it’s more about the choices of the involved and affected people around you rather than your own choices. To me it is this (hidden?) implication that lends the phrase its importance and makes the injunction a true challenge. Because there are so many who are involved and/or affected daily, like the family, friends, colleagues etc. That was when I started to doubt if I was able to handle all this responsibility that was about to pile up in front of me and I tried to find a way out of this dilemma through constructing an interpretation of Heinz’s injunction where I can only hope he’ll let me get away with it: it’s not so much about having to feel responsible for everyone around me, what primarily counts is feeling responsible for the numbers of choices of the ones around me. A job tough enough for a beginner like me.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Winter
International Management
University of Cooperative Education Heidenheim
Herrsching am Ammersee, Germany
November 2001

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift