Heinz von Foerster

Austrian-American scientist and cybernetician (1911-2002)

Heinz von Foerster (November 13 1911February 10 2002) was an Austrian-American scientist known for his pioneering research in the field of cybernetics.

Heinz von Foerster, 1963




  • All this (the early excitement of Cybernetics) is now history, and in the decade which elapsed since these early baby steps of interdisciplinary communication, many more threads were picked up and interwoven into a remarkable tapestry of knowledge and endeavour: Bionics. It is good omen that at the right time the right name was found. For, bionics extends a great invitation to all who are willing not to stop at the investigation of a particular function or its realization, but to go on and to seek the universal significance of these functions in living or artificial organisms.
    The reader who goes through the following papers which constitute the transactions of the first symposium held under the name Bionics will be surprised by the multitude of astonishing and unforeseen connections between concepts he believed to be familiar with. For instance, a couple of years ago, who would have thought to relate the reliability problem to multi-valued logics; or, who would have thought that integral or differential geometry would serve as an adequate tool in the theory of abstraction? It is hard to say in all these cases who was teaching whom: The life-sciences the engineering sciences, or vice versa? And rightly so, for it guarantees optimal information flow, and everybody gains...
  • Either Stone Age man was a technological wizard, who carefully removed his technological achievements so as not to upset his inferior progeny, or our population dwindled from a once astronomical size to the mere three billions of today.
  • The main theme of this report is a particular facet of the general problem of pre-organization in self-organizing systems, namely, the theory and circuitry of information processing networks. One may consider these networks as a special type of parallel computation channels which extract from the set of all possible inputs a particular subset which is defined by the internal structure of the network. The advantage of such operationally deterministic networks in connection with adaptive systems is the obvious reduction in channel capacity of the adaptors, if it is possible to predetermine classes of inputs which are supposed to be meaningful for those interacting with the automaton


  • The world, as we perceive it, is our own invention.
    • Heinz von Foerster (1988) The Invented Reality p.45–46

Notes on an epistemology for living things, 1981

Source: Heinz von Foerster (1981) "Notes on an epistemology for living things" in. Observing Systems, The Systems Inquiry Series, Intersystems. Publications (1981), p. 258-271.
  • While in the first quarter of this century physicists and cosmologists were forced to revise the basic notions that govern the natural sciences, in the last quarter of this century biologists will force a revision of the basic notions that govern science itself. After that “first revolution” it was clear that the classical concept of an “ultimate science”, that is an objective description of the world in which there are no subjects (a “subjectless universe”), contains contradictions.
    • p.258
  • To remove these one had to account for an “observer” (that is at least for one subject):
    (i) Observations are not absolute but relative to an observer’s point of view (i.e., his coordinate system: Einstein);
    (ii) Observations affect the observed so as to obliterate the observer’s hope for prediction (i.e., his uncertainty is absolute: Heisenberg).
    After this, we are now in the possession of the truism that a description (of the universe) implies one who describes it (observes it).
    • p.258
  • What we need now is the description of the “describer” or, in other words, we need a theory of the observer.
    • p.258


  • It seems that cybernetics is many different things to many different people. But this is because of the richness of its conceptual base; and I believe that this is very good, otherwise cybernetics would become a somewhat boring exercise. However, all of those perspectives arise from one central theme; that of circularity. When, perhaps a half century ago, the fecundity of this concept was seen, it was sheer euphoria to philosophize, epistemologize, and theorize about its unifying power and its consequences and ramification on various fields. While this was going on, something strange evolved among the philosophers, the epistemologists and, the theoreticians. They began to see themselves more and more as being included in a larger circularity; maybe within the circularity of their family; or that of their society and culture; or even being included in a circularity of cosmic proportions!
  • I don't know where my expertise is; my expertise is no disciplines. I would recommend to drop disciplinarity wherever one can. Disciplines are an outgrowth of academia. In academia you appoint somebody and then in order to give him a name he must be a historian, a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, a biophysicist; he has to have a name. Here is a human being: Joe Smith -- he suddenly has a label around the neck: biophysicist. Now he has to live up to that label and push away everything that is not biophysics; otherwise people will doubt that he is a biophysicist. If he's talking to somebody about astronomy, they will say "I don't know, you are not talking about your area of competence, you're talking about astronomy, and there is the department of astronomy, those are the people over there," and things of that sort. Disciplines are an aftereffect of the institutional situation.
    • Von Foerster (1995) "Interview Heinz von Foerster" S. Franchi, G. Güzeldere, and E. Minch (eds) in: Constructions of the Mind Volume 4, issue 2. 26 June 1995
  • Mein background bestand ja darin, daß ich ein Labor gegründet hatte, das Biological Computer Lab an der University of Illinois – da sind sehr viele freaks gewesen, also Leute, die nicht so denken wie alle anderen.

2000s and attributed from posthumous publications

  • Objectivity is a subject's delusion that observing can be done without him. Involving objectivity is abrogating responsibility – hence its popularity.
    • Heinz von Foerster cited in: Bernhard Poerksen (2004). The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism. p.3

Quotes about Heinz von Foerster

  • Heinz performs the magic trick of convincing us that the familiar objects of our existence can be seen to be nothing more than tokens for the behaviors of the organism that apparently create stable forms. These stabilities persist, for that organism, as an observing system. This is not to deny an underlying reality that is the source of objects, but rather to emphasize the role of process, and the role of the organism in the production of a living map, a map that is so sensitive that map and territory are conjoined.
  • Heinz von Foerster was a physicist and philosopher, who worked extensively in cybernetics, biology and family therapy, although he hated being categorised as belonging to a particular academic discipline. Indeed he once remarked that “I am. Viennese. That is the only label that I have to accept. I come from Vienna; I was born there, that's an established fact” (von Foerster and Poerksen 2002, p. 43)
    • Magnus Ramage, Karen Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers. p.179
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