Books : reviews

Heinz von Foerster, John D. White, Larry J. Peterson, John K. Russell.
Purposive Systems: proceedings of the first annual symposium of the American Society for Cybernetics.
Spartan Books. 1968

Heinz von Foerster, Bernhard Poerksen.
Understanding Systems: conversations on epistemology and ethics.
Kluwer/Plenum. 2002

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 22 February 2020

How real is reality? Are our images of the world mere inventions, or does an external reality correspond to them? Is it possible to know truth?

These are the questions that physicist and philosopher Heinz von Foerster and journalist Bernhard Poerksen debate about in their conversations. Together, they explore the borders of our capacity for knowledge. They discuss the seeming objectivity of our sensual perception, the consequences of “truth terrorism” and the connections between knowledge and ethics, sight and insight.

Foerster was one of the original cyberneticians. This book is an in-depth conversation between him and Poerksen, a journalist, probing his early life, life under the Nazis, later life in the US, but mostly his systems thinking and ((alleged) lack of) epistemology.

As I was reading this, I was firmly agreeing with parts, firmly disagreeing with others, and going do what? with the rest. The main thrust of Foerster’s personal philosophy seems to be that he wants to be epistemology free. Since everything is mediated through the senses, nothing can be known with certainty, and having arguments about whether something is “right” or not is fruitless.

[p40] If one just stops for a moment and says, “The person who is producing this view of the world is you. It isn’t outside, and it isn’t some so-called objective reality that I can relate to,” a very unusual emphasis on the respective personality of the person speaking occurs. All of the general statements that begin as “This is the way it is!” begin turning into statements that start with “I think that…” To return to rather lofty terminology, one uses the self-referential operator “I think” and decides not to use the existential operator “it is”. In so doing, a completely different relationship emerges that permits a dialog that is free and actually quite nice.

Although on the one hand this seems reasonable (I started writing “is clearly true”, but decided that was against the spirit of the passage itself), on the other hand, there are some things for which we at least have better evidence than others, even if that evidence is mediated through our senses and potentially unreliable. I have more evidence that I read this book (the notes I made while reading it, for example) than evidence that I understood it (the density of question marks in those notes, for example). We may be mistaken about the quality or provenance of the evidence (maybe somebody else made those notes; maybe I am hallucinating them), but if we treat everything on the same level, we would probably soon be hit by a car, or starve to death.

And what do you say when your conversational partners asks why you think X, asks for that evidence? If you always say “Oh, I have no evidence, I just think X”, your partner will soon stop arguing with you; you have to lay out your evidence. But Foerster doesn’t seem interested in presenting evidence, only in engaging in dialogue. I’m not sure what the purpose of the dialogue is, in that case. (This is presumably one of the bits I have not understood.) It also assumes that the person you are in conversation with is arguing in good faith, which is not always the case.

Anyhow, there is a lot of this sort of discussion, but at one point Poerksen calls him a constructivist, and Foerster replies:

[p43] No, no. 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. Of course, you are correct when you say that there are a few people who claim that I am a representative of a certain epistemology. But that just isn’t right. I don’t have any epistemology at all.

Umm. How can Foerster claim that the “fact” of him being born in Vienna is “established”, or that Poerksen is “correct”, if he doesn’t “have any epistemology at all”? At first, I assumed this was a going to be a little joke, but it was never picked up on.

Despite these occasions of apparent self-contradiction (and who doesn’t do that?), there is a lot of food for thought in here, and interesting material on the dawn of the cybernetic age.

Heinz von Foerster.
The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: seven days with second-order cybernetics.
Fordham University Press. 2014

Heinz von Foerster was the inventor of second-order cybernetics, which recognizes the investigator as part of the system he is investigating. The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name provides an accessible, nonmathematical, and comprehensive overview of von Foerster’s cybernetic ideas and of the philosophy latent within them. It distills concepts scattered across the lifework of this scientific polymath and influential interdisciplinarian. At the same time, as a book-length interview, it does justice to van Foerster’s élan as a speaker and improviser, his skill as a raconteur.

Developed from a week-long conversation between the editors and von Foerster near the end of his life, this work playfully engages von Foerster in developing the difference his notion of second-order cybernetics makes for topics ranging from emergence, life, order, and thermodynamics to observation, recursion, cognition, perception, memory, and communication.

The book gives an English-speaking audience a new ease of access to the rich thought and generous spirit of this remarkable and protean thinker.