Publication 5260

Pörksen B. (2014) The ethics of epistemology: The work of the Constructivist and cybernetician Heinz von Foerster, From the Vienna Circle to the Cybernetic Circle. In: Arnold D. P. (ed.) Traditions of systems theory: Major figures and contemporary developments. Routledge, New York: 149–169. Fulltext at
When anyone asked Heinz von Foerster, whom people described as the “Socrates of cybernetics,” whether he considered his work or himself constructivist, as a rule he answered with a joke. The constructivist label appeared to him to be unsuitable-a key concept for a taxonomy that would tend to divert one’s attention from an examination of his work and provide an occasion for narrow academic disputes between realists, relativists, and solipsists. Perhaps one could call him a “curiositylogist”; in any case, he was Viennese. The latter really cannot be denied. He was born in Vienna; he simply had to accept that label. Perhaps this reference to his own origins in the Vienna of the turn of the century and the reference generally to his own biography in fact provides a decisive key for understanding and classifying the work of the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster and for deciphering the principles of his inter-and transdisciplinary epistemology. As various biographical sketches note, he was raised in Vienna at the turn of the century in a world of artists and creative minds. 3 His great-grandfather, an architect, provided Vienna with its urbanistic identity. His grandmother, Marie Lang, was among the fi rst representatives of the women’s movement in central Europe. Already as a youth he had come into contact with the Bohemians of the city. After taking his high school exams, when he began to study physics in Vienna, he came into the Vienna Circle. This experience, which made it possible to combine diverse worlds of thought and perception into a stimulating panopticum, was again manifest here, in the salons of the von Foerster’s home. Heinz von Foerster’s own refl ections have only a little in common with the views of the Vienna Circle, which on the eve of an outbreak of bloody irrationalism promoted clarity of thought and decisively rejected metaphysically contaminated argumentation. The later views of Foerster have nothing more to do with the ideas of the logician Rudolf Carnap, who thought there was something like unshakable connections between symbols and the world, knowledge and reality. But as a student he became acquainted with this form of thought, and it accompanied him his entire life, providing a measure of his own intellectual position: it can be transcribed with the terms inter-and transdisciplinarity and means in the last analysis the ability to perceive the internal validity of diverse paradigms, methodologies, methods, and models, the ability to view perceptible differences primarily as enriching, and the ability then to emphasize the connections (and not primarily the differences) in discussions in transdisciplinary cooperation with other thinkers.

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