| Ernst von GLASERSFELD |


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Partial Memories
Sketches from an Improbable Life
by Ernst von Glasersfeld

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Ernst von Glasersfeld
by Theo Hug, Karlheinz Töchterle (eds.)
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Remembering Ernst von Glasersfeld

by   Vincent Kenny – 01 December 2010.


Ernst died peacefully in his own bed on Friday 12th November, 2010 around 7am Amherst (USA) time. He had arrived to the great age of 93 years.


“And howelse do we hook our hike to find that pint of porter place?  Whence. Quick lunch by our left, wheel, to where. Long Livius Lane, mid Mezzofanti Mall, diagonising Lavatery Square, up Tycho Brache Crescent, shouldering Berkeley Alley, querfixing Gainsborough Carfax, under Guido d’Arezzo’s Gadeway, by New Livius Lane  till where we whiled while we whithered.
Old Vico Roundpoint. 

James Joyce – Finnegans Wake  


You would have to have lived in Dublin for a long time in order to really understand what James Joyce is describing here. For an Irish person it is clearly and obviously funny, but to an outsider it remains obscure and mysterious. However, Ernst had the opportunity to become Irish in the ten years or so that he lived in Ireland from 1939 onwards, and even carried an Irish passport from 1946 until he died a few weeks ago. The Irish passport replaced his expiring Czech passport which he held because at his birth his father was cultural attaché at the Austrian embassy in Munich, but when Czechoslovakia was created after the First World War his father became a Czech citizen automatically. Constructions and reconstructions! 

As part of his becoming Irish (I used to introduce him to my students in Dublin as Ernst O’ Glasersfeld) he had delved into the texts of James Joyce, and of course came to know the streets and roads of Dublin and its environs both by using the map provided by Joyce and by driving around on the territory itself on his way up and down, to and from, Dublin city and to the Dublin hills where he had his farm. It was through Joyce’s humorous use of these Irish roads that Ernst discovered who this often-mentioned ‘Vico’ was. Right from the opening lines of Finnegans Wake we have a description of a trip around Dublin “by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”.  

Prompted by his participation in literary discussions of Joyce’s masterpiece in Dublin Ernst found in the Dublin library that there was an Italian philosopher called Giambattista Vico who had proposed a circular theory of history, and realised that Joyce had many references to Vico’s work embedded in his book. From there Ernst went on to learn about Vico’s theory of knowledge, and thence to discover also Berkeley’s works at Trinity College Dublin. His studies on Berkeley paved the way for his eventual espousing of the works of Jean Piaget and Silvio Ceccato.  

I had the good constructivist fortune to know Ernst in three different countries – First in Ireland, then in Italy and then in America, often visiting him in Amherst where he had built his house – twice – because after a fire about 10 years ago he had his house rebuilt exactly as it had been before the fire. One of his great regrets was losing much of his extensive philosophy library in that fire and of not having the time to reconstruct it.  

Recalling one of our trips through the Dublin and the Wicklow mountains – described as the Joycer would have it as “an immaginable itinerary through the particular universal”, and of course ‘to find that pint of porter place’, we once wandered around in those hills in the company of a great friend of ours called Bartley Sheehan, in whose immensely comfortable Volvo we were voyaging; visiting pubs, peat bogs, and various hang-outs of Ernst when he lived in Ireland from 1939 through the war years, and eventually locating where he had had his farm with his first wife Isabel and his only daughter Sandra, who was born, he was often pleased to note, just two weeks after Hitler’s suicide.  

Unfortunately, one of his most painful experiences in life was the suicide of his daughter Sandra in Christmas of 1991. He often expressed profound puzzlement about how she had become first a rebel against any form of rules, later becoming a heroin addict, and finally taking her own life. The gnawing anguish of guilt would appear in our conversations every so often as he would ask if his relationship with Isabel hadn’t been so close as to make their young daughter feel excluded from their magic circle. He worried that their closeness as a couple had made Sandra feel ‘triangulated out’ so that she was not able to use the common survival strategy where kids occasionally make a coalition with one parent ‘against’ the other one, to obtain some favour, privilege or desire that the other parent has already refused. Ernst had the disturbing conviction that as a consequence of not being able to do this Sandra had felt lonely and even an ‘outsider’.  

Returning to our trip on this particular day we managed to visit the farmhouse where he had lived in Kilternan, and the gentle farmer’s wife who now lives there invited us in for freshly-baked scones and Bewleys’ Earl Grey tea, while Ernst explained to her how the house used to be organised when he lived there all those 60 years earlier. For Ernst that serendipity visit was quite an emotional event, and as we repaired to a local country pub he recalled all the friends and acquaintances that had been sheltering in Ireland during the war, including great minds such as Schrodinger, at whose house in Dublin they were often to tea.  

His death comes after years of illness, which however had not prevented him from continuing to write, communicate and speak at conferences right up to a few weeks ago. One of his recent talks (August 2, 2010) which was a dinner speech given to the C:ADM2010 (Cybernetics. Art, Design, Maths) conference can be found at this link: http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/2010/?p=2700  

Over the past year notwithstanding the fact that he became ever more deaf and blind he continued to stand up to give congress presentations. Last year in Vienna when he was honoured by the City he gave a complete full-length presentation. The only difficulty was with the questions from the floor afterwards, because he could neither hear what people were asking, nor even in which language they were speaking. This in effect led to a number of amusing interactions where some English questioners received their replies in German. We could note that with the increasing problems of hearing and seeing that his presentations were ever-briefer, perhaps resulting in something of a record of brevity a month or so ago when he gave a 3-minute talk to another cybernetics gathering. Briefer, but always interesting and with admirable lucidity. Perhaps we should have conferences where people are allowed to give only 3 minute presentations!  

We spoke very little together about his experiences with cancer largely because he regarded such conversations as ‘giving too much importance’ to the phenomena. The past decade of his illness experiences coincided with the even more painful experience of seeing his wife Charlotte developing Alzheimer’s disease – which had a devastating effect on their ‘close togetherness’ of the previous twenty five years. So apart from a cursory “how are you’s” we agreed to not give emphasis to illness experiences in our conversations. This is of course in line with his radical constructivist approach of ‘keeping in perspective’ and ‘limiting one’s attention’ to certain themes. Ernst always emphasised our human talent for deciding where to put our attention, and he gave numerous examples of the importance of this - one of which related to skiers surviving a snow avalanche and which I wrote up in an article called ‘Anyone for Tennis’ which can be seen here http://www.oikos.org/Anyonefortennis.pdf   

Ernst was one of the last great gentlemen which could be seen in his deep embodiment of all the better human values, and of his embodiment of a cultural background of the great middle-European cultures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The words to describe him are words which are actually falling out of usage in modern times, partly because of the commercialisation and brutalisation of human relationships, and partly because there are so few people left who can carry the import of these words – which include terms such as courteous, polite, gracious, genteel, humble, self-aware, decent, moral and honest. In other words, a person my mother used to call ‘well-bred’. His loss is made all the more painful in a world that promotes the opposite attitudes, a world of increasing rudeness, manipulation, crude self-seeking, ill-will, arrogance, self-inflated pomposity, wilful ignorance, and plain dishonesty. Unfortunately no-one has to look very far to find bodies which easily carry these epithets.  

Even in the face of such ignorance Ernst continually re-presented his phenomenally lucid intelligence and enormous patience – especially with those who repeatedly failed to listen to what he was saying in his theory of radical constructivism – and with those who continued to repeat misconstruals and the miss-taken criticisms based on these misconstruals. In his final paper published a few days after his death he was still patiently attempting to correct such misconstruals. His exposition of radical constructivism was always simple to the point of stating the obvious – and yet people continued to misunderstand what he was affirming – including many so-called experts.  

Ernst always treated other people in the same way – that is, he did not change his mode of relationship depending on which type of person he was with. He was always courteous, clear, kind patient, and honest. I never saw him behaving any differently, not even when he was under extreme pressure for whatever reason. I did see him once in Rome  - speaking in Italian – getting a little impatient with himself because he could not find certain words quickly enough in his memory.  

Last November (2009) we spent a week together in Vienna when he was awarded the Gold Medal of the city of Vienna in a formal ceremony at the town hall, with string quartet, speeches, and a wonderful reception in sumptuous settings. This happened during the week of the congress in memory of his great friend Heinz von Forester with Ernst also giving the opening address at that conference. So we combined the cybernetics of the congress with the personal honours bestowed on him by the city of Vienna, and of course many an hour sitting in Freud’s personal favourite hang out (and Marlene Dietrich’s) the Café Landtmann on the Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring in front of the University building. There Ernst showed his spirit of bon viveur and held international court where we met several of the current luminaries of the cybernetic world, entering and exiting continuously into complex but variously fascinating conversations while sampling all the best that Landtmann’s has to offer – especially the Gebackene Topfen-Torte, and the freakily good Landtmann’s sausages with sauerkraut! Adding in the right tot of spirits there was always a lot to be involved in.  

More than Wicklow, Dublin, Amherst or Rome, Ernst was truly at home in Vienna, and not only in Landtmann’s – and not only because the old world charm of Vienna coincided precisely with the old world charm of Ernst - but more so because Vienna was the amazing focal node of explosive creativity of the last century – recalling just a few such as Freud, Adler, Buber, von Frisch, Frankl, Lorenz, Hayek, Popper, Schrödinger, Wittgenstein, Heinz von Foerster, Feyerabend, et alii – and this also produced the phenomenal creativity that characterised Ernst’s mind. He was truly an important part of one of the most amazing manifestations of human creativity of the last century. I am very glad that the last time we spent together was in Vienna.  


Vincent Kenny                         Roma  01 December 2010



"As a metaphor - and I stress that it is intended as a metaphor - the concept of an invariant that arises out of mutually or cyclically balancing changes may help us to approach the concept of self. In cybernetics this metaphor is implemented in the ‘closed loop’, the circular arrangement of feedback mechanisms that maintain a given value within certain limits. They work toward an invariant, but the invariant is achieved not by a steady resistance, the way a rock stands unmoved in the wind, but by compensation over time. Whenever we happen to look in a feedback loop, we find the present act pitted against the immediate past, but already on the way to being compensated itself by the immediate future. The invariant the system achieves can, therefore, never be found or frozen in a single element because, by its very nature, it consists in one or more relationships - and relationships are not in things but between them.

If the self, as I suggest, is a relational entity, it cannot have a locus in the world of experiential objects. It does not reside in the heart, as Aristotle thought, nor in the brain, as we tend to think today. It resides in no place at all, but merely manifests itself in the continuity of our acts of differentiating and relating and in the intuitive certainty we have that our experience is truly ours."

Ernst von Glasersfeld - p.p.186-7: ‘Cybernetics, Experience and the Concept of Self.’ [1970] 


Ernst von Glasersfeld is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, Research Associate at the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute, and Adjunct Professor in the Dept. Of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is a member of the Board of Trustees, American Society of Cybernetics, from whom he received the McCulloch Memorial Award in 1991; and a Member of the Scientific Board, Instituto Piaget, Lisbon.

Philosopher & Cybernetician he spent large parts of his life in Ireland [1940s], in Italy [1950s] and the USA [current]. Elaborating upon Vico, Piaget’s genetic epistemology, Bishop Berkeley’s theory of perception, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and other important texts, Ernst developed his model of Radical Constructivism - which is an ethos shared by all of these writers to one degree or another, sometimes it is difficult to see where their epistemological agreements begin and end - but that is part of the fun.


No matter how long the talk or lecture, has never been seen to use any notes; Likes drinking Guinness in Co. Wicklow.

In Memoriam H.v.F.  Obituary for Heinz von Foerster by Ernst von Glasersfeld [11.04.02]


The Constructist View of Comunication by Ernst von Glasersfeld [31.03.08

An Exposition of Constructivism: Why Some Like it Radical by Ernst von Glasersfeld [08.04.03

The Incommensurability of Scientific and Poetic Knowledge by Ernst von Glasersfeld [01.15.98] 

In Memory of a Pioneer (Silvio Ceccato, 1914-1997) by Ernst von Glasersfeld [01.15.98] 

Distinguishing the Observer: An Attempt at Interpreting Maturana  by Ernst von Glasersfeld [12.19.97]

Homage to Jean Piaget by Ernst von Glasersfeld [12.12.97]

The Conceptual Construction of Time  by Ernst von Glasersfeld [10.06.97]

Cybernetics and the Art of Living by Ernst von Glasersfeld [10.06.97] 



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                                                                                                                                 Many Thanks
                                                                                                                                 Vincent Kenny
                                                                 June 2012







Ernst von Glasersfeld [1995]. Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning. The Falmer Press - London & Washington. ISBN 0 7507 0387 3

Ernst von Glasersfeld [1987]. The Construction of Knowledge: Contributions to Conceptual Semantics. Intersystems Publications - Seaside, California 93955.



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