Heinz von Foerster

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Heinz von Foerster, 1963 photo from the Biological Computer Laboratory, University of Illinois

Heinz von Foerster (born November 13, 1911 as Heinz von Förster in Vienna , † October 2, 2002 in Pescadero , California ) was an Austrian physicist , cyberneticist and philosopher.

Heinz von Foerster was professor of biophysics and long-time director of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) in Illinois. He is considered to be the co-founder of cybernetic science and, philosophically, can be assigned to radical constructivism . His best-known word creations include second-order cybernetics , lethology , curiosity , and cybernetic ethics . He also coined the term ethical imperative .


Since the father, engineer Emil von Förster (1877–1944; son of the Austrian architect Emil Ritter von Förster , 1838–1909), was drafted at the beginning of the First World War and became a prisoner of war for many years, von Foerster was mainly taken from his mother Lilith (1891 –1952; daughter of Marie Lang ) and her circle of friends made up of artists and philosophers. He also developed a close relationship with his uncle Erwin Lang , husband of the dancer Grete Wiesenthal , and her son Martin Lang, with whom he pursued his hobby, magic. Playing with the audience's expectations and their perception fascinated him even then.

Heinz von Foerster studied physics at the Vienna University of Technology from 1930 . Strongly influenced by his nominal uncle Ludwig Wittgenstein , he already had contacts with philosophers of the Vienna Circle during his studies , in particular Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap are among his influences. Before the end of his studies, von Foerster began working as a representative for the Leybold company in Cologne. However, he lacked research in this activity and so he switched to Siemens in Berlin. In 1939 he was given a position at GEMA , which saved him from military service because of its importance to the war .

In 1939 he married the actress Mai Stürmer (1914-2003), with whom he had three sons. In 1944 von Foerster submitted a dissertation to the University of Breslau in order to obtain a formal degree in physics - he had not completed his studies in Vienna because of his involvement with Leybold. Although von Foerster also took the necessary exams, he was formally denied the doctorate as a " second degree hybrid " (von Foerster had a Jewish grandfather and therefore could not provide a so-called small Aryan certificate ) .

Shortly before the end of the Second World War he returned to Austria. After a brief stint in politics - the US occupation temporarily installed him as mayor of Ebbs-Oberndorf - von Foerster worked in Vienna for the Schrack company and on the side at the US radio station Rot-Weiß-Rot , where he later became head of the science department has been.

He published his first monograph as Heinz Förster in 1948 under the title Das Gedächtnis . From 1949 on he published his works under the name Heinz von Foerster. This first publication paved the way for him in the USA, as it fell into the hands of the American neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch , who did not speak German, but understood the content of the book using the mathematics and immediately contacted Heinz von Foerster.

Through McCulloch's recommendation, von Foerster became head of the Electron Tube Lab at the University of Illinois in 1949 , where he taught as a professor of telecommunications technology until 1975 . From 1962 to 1975 he was also Professor of Biophysics and from 1958 to 1975 Director of the Biological Computer Laboratory . He was also a Guggenheim Fellow for two research years from 1956 to 1957 and from 1963 to 1964 . From 1963 to 1965 he was President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. In 1976 von Foerster retired and moved with his wife Mai to Pescadero on California's Pacific coast.

Foerster died in 2002, leaving behind his wife Mai, two sons (Thomas von Foerster, former editor of the American Institute of Physics journals , and Andreas von Foerster), three grandchildren (Lilith Fowler, the well-known New York artist Madeline von Foerster and Nicholas von Foerster ) and his sister Erika de Pasquali. His brother, the well-known Viennese jazz musician and actionist Uzzi Förster , had already died before him in 1995 in Vienna.

During his lifetime he was in close contact with John von Neumann , Norbert Wiener , Ernst von Glasersfeld , Humberto Maturana , Francisco Varela , Gordon Pask , Gregory Bateson , Lawrence J. Fogel (1928–2007), Margaret Mead , Ivan Illich , Paul Watzlawick and Gotthard Günther .

Heinz von Foerster was also an enthusiastic and good mountaineer. The well-known mountaineer and book author Kurt Maix described in his book Im Banne der Dachstein Südwand the attempt of the third ascent of the Rauchkarwand on Torstein together with Heinz von Förster, Richard Perner and Nora Igler. The ascent failed because Kurt Maix fell. Kurt Maix wrote about Heinz Förster: “Heinz became a great mountain companion that you could rely on in every situation. He hated phrases and grandiose words. He would never have pronounced the word comradeship because one does not talk about things that are taken for granted ... "

Works (selection)

"True to his insight that most books only contain cheese, although they never have the courage to write 'cheese' on top of it, he never wrote his own monographs , but wrote articles for conferences and edited conference proceedings." ( Dirk Baecker )

  • The memory: a quantum physical investigation. Franz Deuticke Verlag, Vienna 1948 (introduction by Otto Pötzl ).
  • Sight and Insight: Attempts at an Operational Epistemology. Braunschweig 1985, ISBN 978-3896700940 (new edition: Heidelberg 1999).
  • Knowledge and conscience: attempting a bridge. 7th edition. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 9783518284766 .
  • Cybernetic ethics. Merve Verlag , Berlin 1993, ISBN 3883961116 .
  • The beginning of heaven and earth has no name. Vienna 1997. New edition. Berlin 2006
  • Truth is a liar's invention. Conversations for skeptics. Heidelberg 1998, ISBN 978-3896702142 ; 8th edition 2008; together with Bernhard Pörksen
  • 2 × 2 = green . Original sound recordings, ed. v. Klaus Sander. 2 CD set. supposé, Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-932513-08-8 .
  • Short cuts. [Series: Short Cuts; 5]. Frankfurt a. M., two thousand and one, 2001. ISBN 3861503050
  • Heinz von Foerster, Bernhard Pörksen : Truth is a liar's invention: Conversations for skeptics . Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, 7th edition 2006. ISBN 3896702149 .

Reception, awards


  • Truth is a liar's invention - conversations for skeptics : Interviews with Bernhard Pörksen, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, 2001.
  • Conversation with Heinz von Foerster in: "The certainty of uncertainty - Conversations on constructivism", Bernhard Pörksen, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, 2001.
  • Systemics or: Seeing the connections - A conversation with Christiane Floyd , in: Bernhard von Mutius (Ed.), The other intelligence. How we will think tomorrow . Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta 2004.
  • with Monika Broecker "Part of the world. Fractals of an ethic - a drama in three acts." Carl-Auer-Systeme-Verlag, 2002.
  • das Netz (2004) , documentary by Lutz Dammbeck about the development of the Internet and the Unabomber
  • Monte Grande - What is life? , Documentary by Franz Reichle about the life and research of Francisco Varela
  • Obituary from ORF ON Science
  • Ranulph Glanville: Heinz von Foerster † (PDF; 22 kB) In: Soziale Systeme 8 (2002), Issue 2, pp. 155–158, Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart.

Literature on Heinz von Foerster

Web links

Further web links, also to the person, in the Lemma BCL

Individual evidence

  1. Bundesdenkmalamt Austria: "Find yourself a simply rich man" Oskar Kokoschka and the girl Li. Protection of an estate bundle from the property of Lilith Lang, married von Förster (1891 - 1952)
  2. ^ Albert Müller: Heinz von Foerster in Vienna 1945 - 1948 . In: Heinz von Foerster, Albert Müller, Karl H. Müller: Radical Constructivism from Vienna . Library of the Province, edition seidengasse, Weitra 2011, ISBN 978-3-99028-029-4 , p. 18-50 .
  3. Cf. Foerster, Heinz von : Truth is the invention of a liar: Conversations for Skeptics, 3rd edition, Heidelberg: Carl-Auer-Systeme, 1999, p. 96.
  4. See Müller, Albert: Heinz von Foerster (1911–2002), in: Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswwissenschaften (ÖZG), 13th year, no. 4, 2002, p. 142. online (PDF file; 6.3 MB) on the website of the Heinz von Förster Society
  5. Albert Müller: A Brief History of the BCL. In the Austrian Journal of History 11-1 (2000), pp. 9-30, fn. 9. online here .
  6. ^ Cf. Förster, Heinz: Das Gedächtnis: a quantum physical investigation, Vienna: Franz Deuticke , 1948.
  7. Prize winner ( Memento from February 12, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) at the Viktor Frankl Institute (viktorfrankl.org); Retrieved May 9, 2012
  8. ^ Gregory Bateson Prize of the Heidelberg Institute for Systemic Research 2002 . In: eineoseisteinerose.de , International Society for Systemic Therapy e. V., accessed on July 22, 2011.
  9. "Truth is the invention of a liar" The physicist Heinz von Förster and reality , Deutschlandfunk from October 6, 2012