Rogues Corner

Heinz von Foerster

Heinz von Foerster was born in Vienna in 1911 to an affluent family (his mother was an artist and his father an engineer) that counted Wittgenstein among their circle.

He took a doctorate in physics and from 1939 he worked for GEMA in Berlin on short-wave and plasma research which was considered important for the war effort. In that way he was able to avoid military service and to maintain employment despite being unable to prove ‘Aryan’ descent (the Nazi system would have classified him as ‘Mischling zweiten Grades’, or half-cast grade 2). He worked in Austria for a time after the war before emigrating to the United States. He took a position in the University of Illinois in 1949 and became professor of electrical engineering there in 1951. He is considered one of the father of cybernetics and was a founder member of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) (University of Illinois 1957). The BCL became a centre of excellence for cybernetics and cognitive sciences. It is thought that many of the problems experienced by the cognitive sciences in the 1990s were already major issues of research and innovation in the BCL several decades earlier. Under von Foerster’s stewardship, the centre focused on issues including homeostasis, self-organising systems, system-environment relationships, machine communication etc. His publications include:

Observing Systems (Seaside, Calif.: Intersystems Publications, 1984)
Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition (New York: Springer, 2003)
Understanding Systems: Conversations on Epistemology and Ethics (New York: Kluwer Academic, 2002)

Here is a link to a typically engaging lecture in which von Foerster discusses the familiar themes of western rationality and its problems, the impossibility of objectivity, the properties of the observer and of observation – in short, his constructivism: available here


Müller, A. ‘Heinz von Foerster: a Short Biography’. Available here.