Truth is the Invention of a Liar - Centenary of the birth of Heinz von Foerster by Detlef Lafrentz English Translation - Tim Nevill

heinzHeinz von Foerster (1911-2002) grew up in an affluent middle-class home in Vienna where he had early contact with artists and philosophers. Ludwig Wittgenstein became an honorary and much revered uncle, and Foerster knew his Tractatus logico philosophicus by heart. Foerster studied physics and completed his Ph.D at Breslau in 1944. Memory, the book he published in 1948, attracted the attention of neurophysiologist and cyberneticist Warren McCulloch who invited him to participate in the celebrated Macy conferences where cybernetics (as a meta-science above other forms of knowledge) saw the light of day. There he got to know the great scientists of the time: Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon …

From 1958 until 1975 he was director of the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Urbana, Illinois, where celebrated scientists with diverse specialisations pursued interdisciplinary research. Here he also worked with Umberto Maturana and published papers by Francisco Varela.

HvF had to retire at 65 but then carved out a niche for himself as lecturer on a wide range of topics. He was much in demand as a speaker at congresses of social scientists, family therapists, psychologists, and specialists in organisational development.

One day back in 1997 (during the Feldenkrais International Training Course at Strasbourg) I had the great good fortune to be sitting in the same car as Heinz von Foerster. He spoke enthusiastically about visiting Salzburg’s cathedral – especially about its portal, framed by four pillars to the left and right, each of which could be rotated so as to allow a choice between three different figures pointing forwards. That means the portal can look different every day for many months. Heinz von Foerster was passionate about multiplicity of possibilities, alternatives forms of action, and variants, which for him at the same time also signified freedoms. His ethical imperative was: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices”.

Here already parallels with the work of Moshe Feldenkrais are inescapable: “The mature human being has at least three alternatives for every action”.

Heinz von Foerster (HvF), one of the very first cyberneticists as well as a scientist and philosopher, was a friend of the Feldenkrais family. Moshe invited him to the 1977 training in San Francisco to participate in an Awareness Through Movement session and then talk about cybernetics and much besides. He gave the opening address at the 1989 conference of the American Feldenkrais Guild, and during the Strasbourg Feldenkrais training presented three days of talks on what he called Systemics. HvF thereby upgraded students into “Feldenkraisologists” serving genuine aspirations towards research in Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration.

What Are Systemics ?

The prefix syn signifies together. In a system all the elements operate together and are linked with one another. That contrasts with the prefix sci as in scissors or science. Here things are separated from one another. Reductionism is the classic example of that with its dissection of a phenomenon or system into component parts. This method has been highly successful in the natural sciences (the ‘hard sciences’). However HvF views its application to the social sciences (the ‘soft sciences’) as having been catastrophic: financial crises, unemployment, loss of meaning, ecological disasters, poverty, hunger … No living system can be understood in that way. HvF expressly affirmed his allegiance to a holistic viewpoint. “The hard sciences are so successful because they deal with the soft problems. The soft sciences have to struggle because they take on the hard problems”.

Systemics has three strands: cybernetics, constructivism, and ethics, but HvF did not talk about ethics since ethics were implicit in his language and his thoughts. “I fear that when ethics turn up and become explicit, its breath is suffocated in debates about morality”.


Today cybernetics are often seen in conjunction with computers, computer technology, artificial intelligence, etc, which is a fatal limitation. There are many definitions such as: a science of management, a philosophy, a way of life. The best-known is the definition by Norbert Wiener, often called the founder of cybernetics: Cybernetics is the science of regulatory and control systems in man and machine. A system is generally termed cybernetic if an effector (muscle, motor, wind) affects this system, a sensor (sense organ or technical sensor, sail) establishes the inner state, and a comparator (brain, computer programme) compares the actual-value with a previously determined target-value. This amounts to something akin to a programme for fulfilment of objectives.

A simple example. A room temperature of 20oC is set on a thermostat. A sensor establishes that the current temperature is 19oC and a comparator that the temperature desired has not yet been achieved. The heating starts to operate. The sensor registers 20oC. Comparator: objective achieved. Heating goes off. Only when the sensor establishes that the temperature has dropped does the heating start up again. This is the way in which millions of processes function in our organism, in nature, in society. Another (invented) example: My son is crying. Objective: He should stop. I say: A boy doesn’t cry. Reaction: My son cries even more. Actual-value comparison: Objective not achieved. Second attempt. Change of attitude, empathy: My son, what makes you sad ? (or something like that). Reaction: Child stops crying and tells you why. Objective achieved. In this connection we often speak of feedback.


Circularity is a crucial term in cybernetics. The outcome of a process is at the same time the starting-point for what follows. A – B – C – A or even A – A (self-referential). This way of proceeding is taboo within the scientific process since it opens the door to paradox. In a well-known example the Cretan says all Cretans are liars. If this Cretan is telling the truth then he is a liar. But if he is lying he is really telling the truth.

The Observer

HvF, often called the Socrates of Cybernetics, points to the fact that the principles of circularity and self-reference conflict with the deepest principles of scientific observation: objectivity and the separation of observer and observed. The meaninglessness of that demand is very quickly clear to us. If the observer’s characteristics are supposed to be excluded, then so too should his capacity to describe be set aside. But description is precisely what an observer does. These thoughts led HvF to develop cybernetics still further. He then called description of observed systems first-order cybernetics and description of observing systems second-order cybernetics.

With description of the observer we have now reached what HvF calls the greatest discovery of the 20th century. Anyone who uses a camera knows that he changes the situation. People behave differently from usual. When I as a Feldenkrais teacher walk through the room during an Awareness Through Movement lesson I change something, particularly when I stop near someone. However if I take into account that human perception, which underlies every observation and description, is subjective, then any observation must be treated with caution. HvF went further: The problem lies even deeper. It is not just that we do not know. It is also the case that we do not know that we don’t know. That is double ignorance or second-order ignorance. Every observation first says something about the observer him- or herself. Anyone who claims to speak the truth says something about himself but not about the truth. That is the meaning of HvF’s sentence: “Truth is the invention of a liar”.


This is based on a theory of knowledge (also known as Radical Constructivism, see Ernst von Glasersfeld and Paul Watzlawick) which takes as its starting-point the individual’s construction of his own world. HvF even says that each person calculates his/her own world. This entails that human perception is not a depiction of reality but instead created out of one’s own inner resources. The biology of human perception shows that a large part of what we perceive has nothing to do with what is happening “out there”. HvF is not saying there is no world “out there”, only that we don’t know what it looks like. The observer would do well to be aware of that.

The Feldenkrais Teacher as Observer

For us as Feldenkrais teachers that involves a great challenge. It’s easy to evaluate a pupil (colleagues, the Feldenkrais Association, etc) without becoming aware that we are part of this process. There is a difference between coming to an inner conclusion regarding someone in one of my classes (He’s so stiff, in too much of a hurry, clumsy, will never catch on …) and finding space in myself for appreciating each person within their process. In conversations with colleagues it’s often confirmed that pupils also make visible progress after the teacher has become more inwardly free and tolerant.

Of course the teacher’s influence is even more direct in the one-to-one encounter of Functional Integration. Here I directly share my state of being by way of touching the pupil. If I’m dissatisfied or unclear about something, then I communicate that feeling. I also find the client’s limits very clearly and confirm them. In that situation I’m easily inclined to attribute lack of progress to the client. But if I’m clear and receptive I allow the client to improve his capacity for learning. I consciously structure a joint process. In the first case we are more concerned with problems, in the second with solutions.

The Humanist

If all perception is subjective, then where do I have something to say ? To begin with I can of course always say something about myself, my feelings, my opinions. In that context HvF uses the term self-referential operator: I think, I believe. In contrast the existential operator says: It is, there exists. That usage raises a claim to truth. This involves a description in which the observer removes himself from the observation. Of course always only deploying the self-referential operator is a huge challenge. In one of HvF’s courses he made a deal with his students that they had to put a dollar into the class kitty for any use of the existential operator. After a short time this agreement had to be rescinded since students very quickly went bust.

However there exist questions which we can answer. HvF separated questions into those which are in principle decidable and those which in principle are undecidable. We don’t need to answer decidable questions since they have already been answered somewhere. There already exists a framework in which these questions have been raised and answered. One such question asks whether 3, 536, 294 can be divided by 2. We don’t need to answer that question since mathematics provide rules which say Yes it can be divided by 2. The questions that cannot in principle be answered include: “How did the universe come into existence ?” There are many answers but no-one was present. We can only respond to this kind of question with such answers as: There was a Big Bang fifteen milliard years ago; or God spoke and there was Light; or there was a tortoise and on the back of that tortoise …

Nevertheless if we answer such questions we must take on responsibility for what we say. We have a possibility of choice and are free to answer or not. But there too we are responsible. In his lectures HvF never tired of emphasising the connection between knowledge and conscience, freedom of choice and responsibility. He had enormous trust in development of human potential and encouraged people to pursue their thoughts and ideas. Time and again he spoke about the power of dialogue in the development of knowledge and castigated an education system where children and adults are constricted and trivialized.

A Personal View of Consequences for Feldenkrais Work:

1. We are faced with an ongoing task of developing humility regarding the snares of language and thus of our own thinking as responsible self-referential operators. We should know that we have blind spots and be aware of our own ignorance.

2. We need to develop healthy distrust of everything that calls itself scientific. What science? What foundations in theories of knowledge ?

3. HvF’s trust in the development of human beings can encourage us. We shouldn’t teach anything but rather get out of the way of people’s learning-process.


Detlef Lafrentz’s article first appeared in Feldenkraisforum 75/2011, the journal of the German Feldenkrais Association

The Heinz von Foerster Page:

Radical Constructivism: