interview with Heinz von foerster


Heinz von Foerster

Stefano Franchi, Güven Güzeldere, and Eric Minch


stanford humanities review: The primary goal of this special issue of SHR is to promote a multidisciplinary dialogue on Artificial Intelligence and the humanities. We think you are most qualified to facilitate such a dialogue since you have trotted along many disciplinary paths in your career, ranging from mathematics and physics to biophysics and hematology, to pioneering work on cybernetics, to philosophy, and even family therapy. One could even say that “transdisciplinarity” has been your expertise. . . .

heinz von foerster: 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.

My personal history has been different. If somebody asks me “Heinz, how is it that although you studied physics, mathematics, and all that, you are always with artists and musicians, etc.?” I think it is because I grew up in Vienna, at a fascinating time of Viennese history. I was born in 1911, looking back over almost the whole twentieth century, with just eleven percent missing at the beginning and a six percent missing at the end. So I had the pleasure of traveling through the twentieth century from its early stages. At that time — in the late nineteenth century — Vienna was an extraordinary place. It had a remarkable medical faculty, fascinating philosophers, it had great art (a new artistic revolution was taking place in Vienna under the name “Jugendstil” (or Art Nouveau, as it was then known in all of Europe); fascinating painters, an explosion of artistic activity, music, Mahler, dance, etc. In all fields there was a breakaway from the classic and from the standards of the nineteenth century perspective. I had the luck to be born into a family which was participating in all that activity. As a little boy I was already associated with them: I was sitting under the piano and listening while the grownups were talking with each other. It was always fascinating to listen to what they were saying. My mother’s and my father’s house was a very open house, but the really open house was the house of my maternal grandmother. She happened to be one of the early and leading feminists who published the first women’s journal in all Europe — Documents of Women. Politicians, writers, journalists, theater people, etc. were in my grandmother’s house. We, as kids, were of course always looking and listening; we were immersed in a world that had no specifics, no disciplines. I mean, everybody was connected and arguing about what art, politics, philosophy, should be. Growing up in such a world brings you into a state of affairs where you have difficulties looking at single disciplines. I see practically every sentence we are speaking as already like a millipede connected with five hundred — oh but a millipede, so a thousand — other notions. And to talk about a single notion has a built-in sterility which does not allow you to make the semantic connections to all those other concepts.

Continues in source: interview with Heinz von foerster