Heinz von Foerster has died - 02 - 10 - 2002




In Memoriam H.v.F.

When Heinz von Foerster was in his teens, he and his cousin Martin  spotted the twenty volumes of Johann Christian Wiegleb's  Natuerliche Magie in the window of an antiques shop. This work was the classic textbook of the professional magicians' craft. The boys rushed home, borrowed the 40 shillings the dealer asked for it (today about $25), and took the books home.

A few years later they both passed the official examination of the guild and graduated as Master Magicians. The diploma saved Martin from the trenches during the Second World War, because he was detailed to entertain the troops.

For Heinz, the profound understanding of the magician's attitude merged with his passion for physics and became the source of a kind of wisdom that is usually alien to science.

Wittgenstein was a friend of the family, and when Heinz became a student in Vienna, he heard lectures of Carnap, Reichenbach, Waismann and others who belonged to the Wiener Kreis. The unorthodox views that flourished there had a profound influence on him. As he said later, the  Vienna Circle was not really a school of thought, but a school of thinking. It was more like a discussion group whose members were highly original thinkers who happened to agree on certain points. Heinz listened to them and then proceeded to adapt his interpretation of some of their ideas in the construction of his own picture of the world.

Throughout his studies of physics and his subsequent research on shortwave transmission and signal theory, a problem from a different field intrigued him: what sort of mechanism could possibly underly our memory?
Because remembering historical dates had always been difficult for him in school, he created a chart for himself on which he marked all the dates that seemed important. He discovered that the further you went back in time, the fewer were the events you learned about. He conjectured that this was because things tended to be forgotten. His work with electromagnetic signals and the technical notion of information triggered the idea that forgetting might be caused by the physical decay of molecules in the brain.
In his spare time, while working for the Austro-American radio station in Vienna, he started to develop this idea and found that the figures psychologists had compiled about forgetting could be considered a perfect match with those that physicists had measured for the decay of large molecules. He wrote it up, a monograph of 40 pages. It became his first post-war publication and though he quickly gave up the molecular theory it turned a visit to the United States into the beginning of life-long emigration.
In 1958 he founded the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where he had been in charge of microwave  research until then. He directed the BCL for almost twenty years, providing a peaceful and stimulating work place for temporary co-researchers such as Gordon Pask, Ross Ashby, Humberto Maturana, Gothard Guenther, and others.
In an intensely interdisciplinary atmosphere he generated a way of thinking that he aptly called «Second-Order Cybernetics». If first-order cybernetics revolutionized the world we observe by introducing the notions of circular causality, feedback, and self-organization, the step to the second order challenged the very concept of observation.
Heinz put the new view into a nutshell: «Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.» Instead of worrying about an inaccessible external reality he focused attention on the world we build in the course of interactions with others in the domain of our experience. Though this experiential world is a social construction, it is also individual because each constructs it according to his or her own experience. And because there is always more than one way of constructing, we are all responsible for the world in which we live.

He was well aware of the fact that these ideas are not popular. But he was encouraged by people all round the world who had been inspired by his writings and begun to form a network of individuals swimming against the stream of epistemological tradition.

We are mourning the loss of a friend, an irreplaceable intellectual companion, and a truly great thinker. We are determined to make sure that his insights will not be forgotten.

Ernst von Glasersfeld

October 25, 2002
Heinz von Foerster
Early exponent of cybernetics and 'circular causality'

AS A youth in Vienna, Heinz von Foerster's first claim to fame was as a magician. But more important, and to some people just as magical as his tricks, was his transformation of cybernetics (in the decade around 1970) by insisting that the observer must be taken into account in the description of any system, because he may affect the processes being observed. From this he went on to develop systems to modify the formulation of the systems of classical cybernetics, in an extension of the field that became known as «the cybernetics of cybernetics» or «second-order cybernetics».

Heinz von Foerster (originally Förster) was born in Vienna, the eldest son of Emil von Förster and his wife Lilith, and educated in philosophy and logic by the Vienna Circle, and in physics at Vienna's Technical University. He completed his doctorate at the University of Breslau in 1944. His family was distinguished and held a prominent position in the intellectual life of Vienna: friends and relatives included the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal, the painter Erwin Lang, and the Wiesenthal family.

The family supported Josef Matthias Hauer, the inventor of an alternative to Schoenberg's 12-tone technique. His grandfather was architect of the Vienna Ring. He had a brother, Ulrich, and a sister, Erika, and was especially close to his cousin Martin Lang, with whom he studied magic and roamed Austria's mountains in winter and in summer. In 1939 he married the actress Mai Stuermer, with whom he had three sons.

During the war von Foerster lived and worked in Berlin, where he moved to disguise the Jewish element in his ancestry, and did research in short-wave and plasma physics. At the end of the war he found a way back to Austria, where he worked in the telephone industry while also reporting on art and science for the Austro-American radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot, his communication skills and showmanship flourishing.

Meanwhile, he was working on his book Memory: A Quantum Physical Examination. To promote this, he moved to the United States in 1949, where (with barely a word of English) he was taken up by the mathematician, neuroscientist and philosopher Warren McCulloch, with whom he communicated in the language of mathematics.

The trip was a turning-point. McCulloch was then chairing the Macy Conferences on «Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems» in New York, which were attended by the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, the computation theorist John von Neumann and the mathematician Norbert Wiener.

To improve his English, von Foerster was made secretary and editor. His first act was to add «Cybernetics» to the conference title. Together with Wiener's book Cybernetics (1948), these conferences gave form and substance to the emerging discipline. The study of «circular causality» can now be said to be the real heart of cybernetics.

McCulloch arranged for von Foerster to become director of the University of Illinois tube laboratory. Von Foerster imported his family and lived
in Champaign until his retirement in 1976, when he moved into a house that he built himself, with his architect son, above the Pacific outside Pescadero, California.

In 1958 von Foerster founded the Biological Computer Laboratory, attracting considerable funding. As well as a cohort of students, he hosted most of the distinguished scholars in cybernetics for residencies, and the laboratory became the world's most advanced centre for the development of cybernetic thinking. The first parallel computers were built there, and crucial research was carried out on the fast electronic switching that is critical to today's computers.

Although von Foerster is known in some circles for his excursion into demographics (when he started lively debate in the journal Science), he was most important for sponsoring radical work in such subjects as the organisation of the living and the foundations of mathematics and logic. He tended to hide his own contribution behind the work of others, but his understanding of the reflexive nature of systems led to profound changes in the understanding of knowledge and of our connection with the world in which we find ourselves. For many he reintroduced the amazement of wonder.

Having held Guggenheim fellowships in 1956-57 and 1963-64, von Foerster won many honours. He was president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, 1963-65, and of the Society for General Systems Research, 1976-77. He was elected to a fellowship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1980, and in 1996 the University of Vienna made him an honorary professor. Last year he won the first Viktor Frankl Prize. He published some 200 scientific papers and several books, and gave more than a thousand lectures around the world.

He is survived by his wife, Mai, and two sons.

Heinz von Foerster, cybernetician, was born on November 13, 1911. He died
on October 2, 2002, aged 90.

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.

On a cold day between Christmas and New Year 1961, in search of a place to study, I met Heinz in his office at the Biological Computer Laboratory.  I knew of him through a network of designers who, like me, were interested in issues that conventional curricula did not address.  Heinz greeted me, a total stranger, with the enthusiasm usually reserved for an old friend.  To my surprise, he knew of the place where I had came from (the Ulm School of Design, an avant-garde institution now extinct but reproduced everywhere - much as cybernetics is now), and he suggested that I come to the University of Illinois to study with W. Ross Ashby.  This short encounter enrolled me into cybernetics and defined my intellectual focus for years to come.

Heinz was an amazing orator.  He used the language of mathematics to ingeniously demonstrate the profundity of simple ideas.  In 1974, now a professor of communication, I organized an American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) conference on cybernetics in society at the University of Pennsylvania.  He had just finished teaching his famous course on the cybernetics of cybernetics and brought a carload of students from Urbana to Philadelphia.  He was the key note speaker, of course.  I can still see him addressing the audience with his usual Viennese charm: “Ladies and Gentlemen…”  Calling our attention to the axiomatic phrase “Anything said is said by an observer,” he named it Humberto Maturana’s Theorem Number One, and suggested a “modest” extension: “Heinz von Foerster’s Corollary Number One: ‘Anything said is said to an observer’.”  In a stroke of genius, by changing only one two-letter word, he shifted our epistemologic attention from Maturana’s acts of observation to acts of communication and proceeded to show that such acts entail responsibilities that we must not transfer to others. 

Heinz accomplished rhetorical feasts like that often and with the ease of a magician: asking questions that others had not thought of; turning conventional beliefs into puzzling opposites; leading his audiences to consider alternative ways of thinking - always moving recursive constructions of human activity into the center of the conversations.  Heinz’ greatest strength undoubtedly was his ability to encourage others to be audacious as well, to have the courage to ponder radical questions.  Doing this was his cybernetics and it has now become ours.

We stayed in touch by phone, exchanged papers, and met at many conferences and on his beloved Rattlesnake Hill.  For the last couple of years, he was not well, he told me.  But as a second-order cybernetician, this did not prevent him from applying his own principles to himself and carrying on against all medical predictions, always positive, curious, interpersonally engaged, fascinated by new ideas, and excited about even the smallest accomplishments.  The last time I saw Heinz was in June 2002, with a friend.  He greeted us with his characteristically animated, “Hello,” inquired about our plans for the forthcoming cybernetics conference in Santa Cruz, asked about the people in our lives, wanted to know of any breakthroughs, and showed us the latest books about him.  He was full of live and present against all odds.

Reading interviews of him or transcripts of his talks, those who knew him cannot but help hearing his exuberance, sensing his energy, and enjoying his playful juggling of ideas – even through translations.  We will miss him, but his voice will continue to be heard.

Klaus Krippendorff
Gregory Bateson Term Professor for Cybernetics, Language, and Culture
The Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania


From: jli@davis.com (Jon Li)
SF Chronicle Obituary for Heinz

Heinz von Foerster - population theorist, cybernetics trailblazer

Heinz von Foerster, an internationally influential physicist, philosopher and cybernetician who did groundbreaking studies of population growth and scientific cognition, died of heart failure at his Pescadero home Wednesday.

He was 90 years old.

Mr. von Foerster was already a pioneer in the study of biophysics and had founded the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois when he published his widely read "Doomsday Formula" in 1960.

The formula, printed in the journal Science, predicted that the world's population would reach infinity by the year 2026 -- on Mr. von Foerster's birthday, Friday the 13th of November -- barring offsetting circumstances.

It drew immediate criticism from some demographers and was lampooned in the "Pogo" comic strip, but in the years since it has become a valuable reference in the study of population growth. In addition, Mr. von Foerster's theory of "doubling time" laid the groundwork in the early 1960s for the decade's popular concept of population explosion.

Mr. von Foerster's doomsday formula touched off "the most controversial and delightfully acerbic debate ever to appear to in the pages of Science magazine," Stuart A. Umpleby, a George Washington University professor who has written on the subject, said Monday.

Even more important than Mr. von Foerster's population study was his research into how the brain works, Umpleby said, particularly how cognition affects scientific study. Mr. von Foerster was a pioneer in proving that the observations of two people will differ because of their individual interpretations -- not a radical concept to lay people, but somewhat revolutionary at the time to objectively minded scientists.

"He modified the philosophy of science in a way that modified all scientific disciplines," Umpleby said.

Asked if Mr. von Foerster was ahead of his time, Umpleby laughed and said, "only by decades."

Mr. von Foerster was born in Vienna in 1911 to Emil and Lilith von Foerster, whose family included the painter Erwin Lang, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal.

In his youth Mr. von Foerster was a mountaineer and a professional magician, but after earning a doctorate in physics at the University of Breslau, he worked in various industrial laboratories.

He married Mai Stuermer in 1939, and the couple had three sons. After working as a science correspondent for the Radio Free Europe station Rot-Weiss- Rot after World War II, he moved to Illinois to become head of the Electrical Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

After arriving in America, Mr. von Foerster -- jointly with Margaret Mead and H.L. Teuber -- edited the proceedings of a series of influential conferences titled "Cybernetic: Circular and Causal Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems."

He then founded the biological computer laboratory at the university's electrical engineering department, which became a renowned interdisciplinary center for research in cybernetics and related fields including computational technology. He remained director there until 1976, when he moved to Pescadero to be near relatives and in better weather.

Right up until his final days, he remained an intellectually questing man who took life full bore, said his son, Thomas.

"He was always 'on,' " said Thomas von Foerster, who is the publisher of journals for the American Institute of Physics. "Everything he did, he enjoyed and did as fully as he could -- from detailed mathematical investigations to ripping out the poison oak that grows wild on the hillside at his home."

Mr. von Foerster was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1956-57 and 1963-64 and was president from 1963 to 1965 of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. In 2001, he received the Ehrenring award from the city of Vienna, as well as the first Viktor Frankl Prize.

Mr. von Foerster is survived by his wife, Mai; two sons, Thomas of New York and Andreas of Oregon; three grandchildren, Lilith Fowler of Wisconsin, Madeline von Foerster of New York and Nicholas von Foerster of Oregon; and a sister, Erika de Pasquali of Illinois.

Private services were held Sunday at the family home in Pescadero.




Home | Ecology of Mind | Mind-ing Ecology | Co-ordination Page | Search 
Bateson | Kelly | Maturana | von Glasersfeld | Laing | Antipsychiatry | Links
Ecology in Politics | Eco-logising Psychology | Sustainability | Environment & Nature