Heinz von Foerster Workshop

Timo Honkela
UIAH Media Lab
Fall 1999


Heinz von Foerster is a prominent thinker and an early cognitive scientist whose work has covered several areas of importance. His bibliography starts in 1943 and according to my knowledge he is still active, at the age of 87. Among other things he can be considered to be one of the forefathers of constructivism that is, for example, an important theoretical basis in many up-to-date approaches to education and cognitive science. You can even consider Future Learning Environment as one example.

Austrian Society of Cognitive Science has devoted a web page for Heinz von Foerster.

Preliminary timetable


During the workshop, three articles will be considered. Below you can find some quotes that hopefully wake up your "intellectual appetite".

On disciplines

Von Foerster is strongly against the idea of dividing the world into separate areas of study as is normally done in the scientific community. His comment below is very illuminating in this sense. The excerpt below is from his interview by Stanford Humanities Review.
"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."

Development of science

Fransisco Varela has written a prologue "the scientist, the man" to von Foerster's interview. Varela mentions, for instance,
"... the reader should be aware that over the many years when he directed the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1960-1975) Heinz was directly or indirectly a creative contributor to some key ideas that have stayed for good. Perhaps the most famous one is that the role of noise in a complex system might well lead to further organization, in a paradoxical effect Heinz dubbed the order-from-noise principle."

Related thinkers and themes

Themes in artificial intelligence and cognitive science

Timo Honkela, Nov 22, 1999