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Issn 1782-348x  Volume 6 Number 3  July 2011


Foundations An interdisciplinary journal  

Special Issue

The Work of Humberto Maturana and Its Application Across the Sciences Editors: Alexander Riegler and Pille Bunnell

Editor-in-Chief Alexander Riegler Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium Advisory Board William Clancey NASA Ames Research Center, USA Ranulph Glanville CybernEthics Research, UK Ernst von Glasersfeld† University of Massachusetts, USA Vincent Kenny Accademia Costruttivista di Terapia Sistemica, Italy Klaus Krippendorff University of Pennsylvania, USA Humberto R. Maturana Institute Matríztica, Chile

Josef Mitterer University of Klagenfurt, Austria Karl H. Müller Wisdom, Austria Bernhard Pörksen University of Tübingen, Germany Gebhard Rusch University of Siegen, Germany Siegfried J. Schmidt University of Münster, Germany Bernard Scott Cranfield University, UK Sverre Sjölander Linköping University, Sweden Stuart A. Umpleby George Washington University, USA Terry A. Winograd Stanford University, USA

Editorial Board Mariaelena Bartesaghi University of South Florida, USA Pille Bunnell Royal Roads University, Canada Olaf Diettrich Center Leo Apostel, Belgium Ezequiel A. Di Paolo University of Sussex, UK Dewey Dykstra, Jr. Boise State University, USA Stefano Franchi Texas A&M University, USA Hugh Gash St. Patrick’s College, Dublin, Ireland Timo Honkela Helsinki University of Technology, Finland

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Maturana Across the Disciplines Pille Bunnell • Royal Roads University, Victoria, Canada • Alexander Riegler • Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium • ariegler/at/ > Context • Humberto Maturana has generated a coherent and extensive explicatory matrix that encompasses his research in neurophysiology, cognition, language, emotion, and love. > Purpose • Can we formulate a map of Maturana’s

work in a manner that is consistent with the systemic matrix it represents and that serves as an aid for understanding Maturana’s philosophy without reifying its representation? > Method • Our arguments are based on experience gained from teaching and presentations. > Results • We present a map that that represents Maturana’s main contributions as clusters of notions clustered according to how we see them to be related to each other as a projection of a matrix of ideas onto a two-dimensional space. We claim that there are many paths through these clusters of ideas. Though ideas relevant to individuals are obtained from various partial perspectives, a deep understanding of any element is dependent on an understanding of the whole matrix. Furthermore, we summarize the contributions to this special issue on Maturana. > Key words • Generative process, matrix of concepts, systemic, conceptual map, pedagogy.

Introduction For more than 40 years the work and ideas of Humberto Maturana has permeated the academic world and applied disciplines. What began as an answer to the question “What is life?” has become an encompassing explanatory network that includes living, cognition, languaging, and emotioning. In October 2010 we decided to collect contributions to find indications of the fruitfulness of Maturana’s work across disciplines. In our call for papers, we were looking for articles dealing with these questions: 1  | What are the applications of Maturana’s work in various domains of inquiry and action, including both the humanities and the natural sciences? 2  | What are the potential extensions and expansions of the notions and concepts implicit in Maturana’s work? 3  | What can be said about Maturana’s work in historical and cultural perspectives, i.e., how does his epistemology fit into a historic view, or fit with current cultural and ethical views? 4  | The result of our endeavor is a collection of papers that confirms our expectations. Many scholars have been and still are influenced by and concerned with Maturana’s insights. However, before we present a summary of these contributions, we would like to attend to the question of why Maturana’s insights are difficult to understand.

Understanding Maturana’s extensive body of work Maturana is one of the few contemporaries who has generated a “wide, complete, explicatory system” (Glasersfeld 1991). Given that indeed his work is extensive, as is evidenced by the currently most complete bibliography of his works (Whitaker, this volume), it is no easy task to provide an overview of his whole body of work. On the one hand, an adequate overview would far exceed the scope of this editorial introduction. On the other hand, an attempt to summarize key points risks not only superficiality, but also invites an inappropriate foreclosure of comprehending the integrated nature of the matrix. Because Maturana’s body of work is so extensive, it enables multiple perspectives based on subsets of that work, each of which has enabled valued insights for people in different fields and with different interests. However, what is obscured in any particular perspective, or even in a group of several perspectives, is the systemic, integrated coherence of this work. In this introduction we would like to address, reflect on, and illustrate Maturana’s “whole, wide, complete, explicatory system” as a matrix of concepts. According to our experience, one cannot wholly apprehend any such matrix instantaneously at first glance. One must traverse a path or progression through its constituent elements before the whole can be grasped. This is particularly relevant in

the case of Maturana’s work. Not only is his work extensive, the concepts and insights are not mutually independent. For example, one cannot grasp the notion of an autopoietic entity maintaining its organization homeostatically unless one understands Maturana’s specific usage of the term “organization.” Furthermore, these concepts were conceived, presented, and/or extended at different times. As a result, one may distinguish “periods” in Maturana’s work based on the movement of his focus from neurophysiology, to living systems, to cognition, to language, to evolution, to emotions, and most recently to concerns of human living. The insights newly arising in each period are valid in and of themselves but also inevitably deepen the understanding and implications of earlier ones. Maturana’s contributions are, in our view, individually valuable and unique due to his gift of stepping outside the limitations that are implicit in the usual way of formulating any given question. However, their power is amplified as their interrelationships and interdependencies are recognized and absorbed. As a result, we see the set of Maturana’s contributions as not just a matrix but as a systemic matrix – i.e., not just an assembled collection of static elements but an integrated network with dynamic and synergistic attributes. During the decades of Maturana’s original contributions, it took years for this systemic character to become apparent and increasingly clear.


explanation autopoiesis closed nervous system


autopoiesis structural coupling

sensorimotor coordination

Editorial Special Issue on Humberto Maturana



Figure 1: An example of the reciprocal dependency that pertains to the full understanding of a set of three notions from Maturana’s matrix of ideas. In this example, it helps to know what the anatomy of an explanation is as one listens to the explanation of a closed nervous system. Similarly, one understands an explanation in terms of the sensory motor coordination that a living system, including a languaging human being, must have lived, and lived without direct access to the world (closed nervous system), in order to deepen one’s understanding of an explanation..

We will now illustrate what we connote by the term “systemic” via three examples. First, a systemic matrix, whether of molecules or ideas, grows in a generative manner where the identities of the constitutive components that comprise the eventual matrix have remained conserved as their relations are in turn established and conserved. Thus the earlier basic notions of Maturana’s work are conserved within the whole, even where he has, over the decades, extended or refined how he explicates them.1 The second example arises from our pedagogical experience. Ideas that are dynamic in nature, that is, that consist of the dynamic relation among several elements, can only be understood through operating the dynamics. This is, of course, well known in the physical domain, and both experiential and case-study based teaching are based on this understanding. What is not as obvious is that many concepts also require a mental operation as a process in order for the understanding to arise Con1 |  However, it is not our intention to provide a documented historical development of Maturana’s work here; these comments are intended only as a general impression.

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evolution coordinations of coordinations

human origins

Figure 2: An example of the circular development of understanding of a notion such as autopoiesis. The initial understanding is deepened in each step in this process, until by the time one has completed the path, the understanding of autopoiesis has taken on a new character. A siImilar circular development pertains to other notions.

sider, for example, Maturana’s “consensual coordination of consensual coordinations.” This phrase does not make sense until one mentally operates the specified dynamics, so that one first comprehends consensual coordination as a process, and then operates that process recursively on itself. This is a task of the imagination that is not easy when first encountered. It represents an instance of result and process taking place in different domains. It is also one of the processes that underlie Maturana’s statement that “the student learns the teacher;” namely the student learns the manner of thinking that generates the relevant concepts. Our third example also comes from our pedagogical experience. The understanding of any part of a systemic matrix is systemic; namely a full understanding of any one part is dependent on an understanding of other parts. Thus the odd situation arises that in order to understand B, one needs to have understood A, but A in turn is not fully understandable until one has understood B; similarly B and C may have a reciprocal relation of illuminating each other. Fortunately, either A or B can be presented in such a way that it offers meaning on its own, thus providing a starting point from which a deeper

understanding can arise through a circular process. One example of such a relation is shown in Figure 1. Perhaps a better way to express this is that a partial, though useful, understanding of any given element expands and evolves as understanding of other elements develops. For example, autopoiesis is usually first regarded as a definition of life (in spite of Maturana’s explicit claims that it is not a definition2), and as other parts of the matrix are incorporated into one’s thinking, autopoiesis becomes an abstraction that refers to that dynamic that we distinguish uniquely in a system such that we can say it is living (Figure 2). 2 |  Maturana uses the term “abstraction” to specify what an observer does in distinguishing a consistent set of regularities, and the term “definition” as an agreed starting point with a priori premises that are often obscured. Hence he states “My assertion that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems is neither a definition nor an explanatory proposition, it is an abstraction of the operational coherences apparent in the actual living of living systems as molecular systems. Therefore, my assertion is that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems” (Maturana 2002: 11).


Maturana Across the Disciplines Pille Bunnell and Alexander Riegler

explanations changing the question

(objectivity) being and doing Reality and multiverse

premises ontology & empistemology natural laws mathematics time

mistake, illusion & experience

closed nervous system relativistc perception sensorimotor coordination

living systems autopoiesis behavior & adaptation constitutive domains ontogeny




coordination of coordinations generation of “objects” naming & distinctions observer & observing reflection self consciousness

conversation lineages of language lineages of emotioning matriztic & patriarchal cultural inertia


cognition knowing, understanding expansion of relational domains linear and systemic rationality learning, intelligence


structural coupling environment, niche historical explanations


human origins

plasticity & selection biosphere natural drift

neoteny, intimacy, pleasure conservation by children expansion as lineage rise of patriarchy

concerns responsibility autonomy, freedom ethical behaviour soul, spirituality mystery, beauty sustainability wisdom


systemic dynamics

circularity recursion

spontaneous constitution conservation and change structural intersection contextual inertia dynamic temporal architecture

relational domains

emotioning discrimination & preference love, trust, fear, anger mien & consequence


process & result

simple, complex unities boundary structure, organization structural determinism

Figure 3: A two-dimensional representation of a multidimensional matrix of some of Maturana’s contributions and related concepts. If the matrix were to be viewed from a different perspective, the apparent clustering would appear different. Terms in large font are labels for each cluster.

The notion of autopoiesis is a specific case of the general question of “what is it that we do as we operate as observers?;” namely autopoiesis is not a thing-in-itself that exists independent of us, although we, for the convenience of having a “shortcut” that relieves us of cognitive burdens (Riegler 2001) and for the satisfaction or pleasure in generating and engaging with the richness of conceptual world, treat it as if it were so. Having thus introduced and described how we see Maturana’s work as a systemic matrix, we would now like to proceed to illustrate it. We shall do so in the form of a diagrammatic representation that we shall call a “map,” i.e., a flat representation of a multidimensional matrix. Our map of notions relevant to Maturana’s body of work (Figure 3) is not exhaustive, and a few of the notions included (such as “epigenesis”) are not Maturana’s unique contributions. This

map is organized according to how we see clusters of ideas to be adjacent or related to each other as seen as a projection onto a two dimensional space. Hence this particular adjacency representation is only one of many possible ones.3 For any particular workshop or course, or for progress in self-directed studies, one has to begin somewhere on the map, and then expand the territory. Some routes are easier to follow than others, but an appropriate starting point can be offered if one knows the concerns, background, and implicit premises these entail, as well as the attitudes and emotions of the participants.

3 |  If we had the capacity to draw in three or more dimensions, the clusters and the topics within the clusters would appear to align differently according to the viewer’s perspective.

In our pedagogy we have explored many different routes through Maturana’s ideas. Some routes we have found easier to comprehend than others, and in part this is determined by the background of the learners. For example, in teaching people with a background in environmental management we have found it effective to begin with what is familiar for them, namely “systems” – they have after all been studying ecosystems and how we manage them. After a brief consideration of what an explanation entails, we turn to living systems, evolution, perception and cognition… all along the way evoking a new way of looking at these familiar things. Only quite late in this program are we able to effectively discuss epistemology, reality, and specific terms such as “objectivity in parentheses”… but having done so, the learners review all that preceded from a new perspective and see how this


Editorial Special Issue on Humberto Maturana 290

is relevant to their concerns in their respective experiential world (Figure 4 left). Alternatively, in teaching people who have been elementary schoolteachers and are concerned with pedagogy, we find it easier to begin with emotions and emotioning; what Maturana has to say about love immediately resonates with them (Figure 4 right). Clearly, there are many different paths through this map, but based on our experience, some paths are easier than others. This is due to an underlying “dependency structure” in which ideas depend, at least in part, on a comprehension of other ideas. As shown in Figure 1, this is a reciprocal dependency, with the implication that one needs to take care as to which aspects of an idea one tries to explain at any moment, and not insist on a full understanding until other ideas have been internalized. We would also like to point out that no book, paper, seminar or course can adequately transfer full understanding.4 Value for one’s living, both professional and personal, can of course be gained from one such source. This is clearly the case with Maturana’s work, since the “complete explicatory system” is extensive, the ideas are mutually modulating, and thus it is not just a system to be studied as such. Rather, it is a systemic network that is understood in a systemic rationality. This should not come as a surprise as our cognition is itself also a systemic generative process. We are using a systemic process to understand a systemic phenomenon that in itself includes the systemic nature of our own process. This is of course a radically recursive perspective. Based on our experience it usually takes years of living with and reflecting recursively throughout the entire matrix in order to incorporate this dynamic fully in one’s own thinking.5 As with many extensive theories, people and groups of people in different fields claim Maturana as the basis for their work, but their concepts of what this work entails or means differ from each other. We encountered this phenomenon when col4 |  Cf. the constructivist tenet that such media cannot transfer understanding to a passiv recipient (Glasersfeld 1995). 5 |  This is something we may call “slow thinking along the path of living.”

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lecting the contributions and peer reviews for this issue. This may be because subsets of the ideas are in themselves valuable to many people; and as they have followed the lineage of implications of some subset of the matrix, further ideas from the matrix may or may not resonate with what they have created based on their particular perspective. Furthermore, people with similar views begin to converse with others, and the result is lineages of understanding and even lineages of academic pursuit and writing that claim Maturana as their basis, even though they differ from each other. In Figure 5 we try to illustrate the notion of interconnectedness in a three dimensional matrix. The connecting lines are not arbitrary; each refers to a mutual modulation between two notions, either between the clusters as a whole, or between some of the sub-ideas in each cluster. Not all the relevant connections are drawn here as we can attest that an expansion of this figure into a more complex dependency diagram looks even more like a tangled web than Figure 5. The most relevant aspect, in this context, of Figure 5 is that there are different perspectives that have resulted in groups of people who focus on different aspects of the matrix. In some cases these looks are an emphasis within the whole; in other cases they entail a blindness to other parts of the matrix. Three such perspectives are presented: the “theory of autopoiesis,” the “biology of cognition,” and the “biology of love.” A fourth perspective is that claimed by Maturana and his colleague Dávila in the Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, namely the “biological and cultural matrix of human existence” – an operational understanding that is inclusive of the entire matrix that is based in Maturana’s life work.

Contributions to this issue Given the breadth of Maturana’s work it is not surprising to find that his ideas are applied in a great number of disciplines, ranging from his original field of biology to dynamical systems theory, linguistics, immunology, ethics, and psychotherapy. In what follows we provide a preview of the contributions to this special issue, ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities.

The collection starts with a text from Maturana himself. Some time ago, Alberto Paucar-Caceres and Roger Harnden approached us with their translation of Humberto Maturana’s Preface to the Second Edition of De Máquinas y Seres Vivos Autopoiesis: La organización de lo vivo. Although the Spanish version had already been published in 1994, it had not been published in English. In his three-part paper, Hugo Urrestarazu clarifies and amplifies the key characteristics of “autopoiesis” and aims at transferring its theoretical features to a more general phenomenological domain, thereby creating the opportunity for applications of autopoiesis in areas other than biology. In the first part, published in this issue, the author focuses on the terminology, presents a basic definition, and introduces conceptual tools relevant to systems of which autopoietic systems are a subset. In particular, he reviews the six validation criteria for identifying a system as autopoietic, as originally developed by Varela, Maturana and Uribe. Urrestarazu claims that these “VM&U Rules” are applicable to both biological and non-biological systems. Parts 2 and 3 of his paper will be published in future issues of Constructivist Foundations. Seiichi Imoto’s objective is to revisit Maturana’s writings in an attempt to distill and clarify his unique and original contribution to a biologically inspired philosophical world view. Imoto sets out to identify the logic of Maturana’s biology, which he claims is grounded in the notion of a structure determined system as an entity existing and operating in two non-intersecting phenomenal domains. Focusing on these fundaments, the paper stresses the novel understanding of systems proposed by Maturana and postulates the origins of his approach. The goal of Nelson Vaz’s paper is to apply Maturana’s epistemology to the field of immunology. The paper is critical of “classical immunology,” which focuses on the production of “antibodies” that protect the organism from attack by micro-organisms. Vaz first contrasts this with the work of Varela, Coutinho and Stewart, who conceived the immune system as a cognitive system. He then goes further and demands a wider view of the organism as a biological system and of the constitutive role of human observers in


Maturana Across the Disciplines Pille Bunnell and Alexander Riegler

explanations changing the question



explanations changing the question

(objectivity) being and doing Reality and multiverse

premises ontology & empistemology natural laws mathematics time

closed nervous system

autopoiesis behavior & adaptation constitutive domains ontogeny





coordination of coordinations generation of “objects” naming & distinctions observer & observing reflection self consciousness

conversation lineages of language lineages of emotioning matriztic & patriarchal cultural inertia


structural coupling environment, niche


historical explanations


human origins

plasticity & selection biosphere natural drift

neoteny, intimacy, pleasure conservation by children expansion as lineage rise of patriarchy




emotioning discrimination & preference love, trust, fear, anger mien & consequence




structural coupling environment, niche

historical explanations


human origins

plasticity & selection biosphere natural drift

neoteny, intimacy, pleasure conservation by children expansion as lineage rise of patriarchy




process & result

systemic dynamics

circularity recursion


spontaneous constitution conservation and change structural intersection contextual inertia dynamic temporal architecture

relational domains

1 emotioning

responsibility autonomy, freedom ethical behaviour soul, spirituality mystery, beauty sustainability wisdom

simple, complex unities boundary structure, organization structural determinism


cognition knowing, understanding expansion of relational domains linear and systemic rationality learning, intelligence




spontaneous constitution conservation and change structural intersection contextual inertia dynamic temporal architecture

relational domains

responsibility autonomy, freedom ethical behaviour soul, spirituality mystery, beauty sustainability wisdom



systemic dynamics

circularity recursion


autopoiesis behavior & adaptation constitutive domains ontogeny

coordination of coordinations generation of “objects” naming & distinctions observer & observing reflection self consciousness

conversation lineages of language lineages of emotioning matriztic & patriarchal cultural inertia

relativistc perception sensorimotor coordination

living systems




mistake, illusion & experience

closed nervous system



cognition knowing, understanding expansion of relational domains linear and systemic rationality learning, intelligence



ontology & empistemology natural laws mathematics time

relativistc perception sensorimotor coordination

living systems

being and doing Reality and multiverse


mistake, illusion & experience

3 9



discrimination & preference love, trust, fear, anger mien & consequence


process & result

simple, complex unities boundary structure, organization structural determinism

Figure 4: Two different paths through some parts of the matrix presented in Figure 3. The one on the left has been found appropriate for environmental managers and the one on the right for elementary school educators. Although the arrows indicate an apparently linear progression, in practice some notions in each cluster are not fully developed until another cluster has been introduced, and there is a lot of cross referencing as one progresses such that the interconnected nature of this matrix emerges. Thus the map is only useful as an outline if the matrix as a whole is already well understood. biological and cultural matrix of human existence

explanations changing the question

(objectivity) being and doing Reality and multiverse

theory of autopoiesis

premises ontology & empistemology natural laws mathematics time

mistake, illusion & experience

closed nervous system relativistc perception sensorimotor coordination

biology of cognition

living systems autopoiesis behavior & adaptation constitutive domains ontogeny




coordination of coordinations generation of “objects” naming & distinctions observer & observing reflection self consciousness

conversation lineages of language lineages of emotioning matriztic & patriarchal cultural inertia


cognition knowing, understanding expansion of relational domains linear and systemic rationality learning, intelligence


structural coupling environment, niche historical explanations


human origins

plasticity & selection biosphere natural drift

neoteny, intimacy, pleasure conservation by children expansion as lineage rise of patriarchy

concerns responsibility autonomy, freedom ethical behaviour soul, spirituality mystery, beauty sustainability wisdom


circularity recursion

spontaneous constitution conservation and change structural intersection contextual inertia dynamic temporal architecture

relational domains

emotioning discrimination & preference love, trust, fear, anger mien & consequence

biology of love


systemic dynamics


process & result

simple, complex unities boundary structure, organization structural determinism

Figure 5: Examples of some different partial perspectives taken in regarding Maturana’s systemic matrix of ideas. The connecting lines are neither random nor complete; each indicates a relevant connection between at least some of the ideas in a cluster. Although some aspects of the matrix are more apparent and treated as more relevant in each perspective, this does not imply that other clusters are necessarily invisible. The perspective of the biological and cultural matrix does not imply an external view; rather it indicates a comprehensive perspective. The notion of the “observer’s eye” is borrowed from Maturana.

Editorial Special Issue on Humberto Maturana 292

delineating experimental realities. For Vaz, Maturana’s biology of cognition provides this broader perspective. Given the controversy between these paradigms we asked one of the peer-reviewers, Alfred Tauber, to write an open commentary from the “classical” perspective. The commentary is published here, together with Vaz et al.’s response, in which they also try to posit the question of whether the Varela et al. paradigm has made any recent progress. In his contribution, Alexander Kravchenko aims at resolving a number of conceptual tangles between the modern orthodox views of cognition, language, and linguistics through an understanding of Maturana’s biology of cognition and language. The latter is conceived as the basis for a paradigm shift in the language sciences. The author relates the critique of orthodox linguistics offered by Roy Harris to a constructivist view of knowing, languaging, and meaning-making to provide an effective methodological tool in the study of language. Hugh Gash links Maturana’s two ideas on how we explain reality, namely objectivity in parentheses, and objectivity without parentheses to issues of personal, interpersonal, and societal ethics. He makes a connection between the emotion of love and our choice of how we explain reality, as reality in parenthesis requires cooperation and respect, which take place in love. Thus emotions and the manner of explaining are connected in a manner that determines the ethical implications of the accepted epistemology. Rossella Mascolo shows how Maturana’s epistemology dissolves the dichotomy between science and ethics that characterizes bioethics as it is traditionally understood. She does this by positing that the biological basis of human beings as a languaging species has embodied in it the biology of love, which is characterized by care for the other, which, in Maturana’s terms is the basis of ethics. She points out that the “naturalistic fallacy,” which she considers a problem for Cartesian ethics, is not an issue in Maturana’s work because as a self-declared biologist Maturana does not shun situating ethics as integral to human embodied existence, lived in languaging. Together with Humberto Maturana, Ximena Dávila founded the Matríztica School

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and has been a close collaborator with him ever since. In her paper she puts forth the suggestion that the cultures we live often lead us to generate worlds in which we are self-depreciating. In this stance we find ourselves undeserving of love because we are incapable of satisfying the expectations of others about how we should be. Her remedy for this condition is reflexive “liberating conversations” in which the individual finds herself understanding that she is a loving, biological, cultural being. In his personal essay, serving as a concluding afterword, Fernando González reflects on the significance of Maturana’s work in his own life and in general. He argues that one can live without the need to base anything on a reality independent of oneself and calls such a way of living “parenthesism,” alluding to Maturana’s “objectivity in parentheses.” Gonzales also touches upon the question of how science teaching commonly inculcates a perspective inimical to personal responsibility for one’s world, and he concludes by offering a list of important abstractions from Maturana’s body of work.

Conclusion Since the field of Maturana’s work is rich, enchanting, and sufficiently different from what most people begin with, anyone who seriously engages with it ends up with what we want to call an “intensely personal relation” with those ideas they have found to be relevant to their life or work. In some cases that personal view becomes a passion that directs what people do or alters how they do it. Also in the papers comprising this issue of Constructivist Foundations, we find different perspectives and different orientations. Even where people do not choose to pursue Maturana’s work explicitly after a thoughtful encounter with it, it often deepens the way they continue to pursue the work they were doing, or inspires them to look into the deeper implications of what they understand. Yet, what is constant is that each person sees Maturana’s body of work from a perspective that is fundamentally personal – their own view, their world, constituted in a manner that has been shifted or altered by what they have learned from him.

Acknowledgement to reviewers This special issue could not have been produced without the help of numerous reviewers. In alphabetical order these were: Stefan Artmann, Andy Bilson, Søren Brier, Eva Buchinger, Brent Cameron, Anthony P. Chemero, Tony Coates, Irun R. Cohen, Antonio Coutinho, Stephen Cowley, Jane Cull, Matthew Egbert, Lloyd Richmond Fell, Kathleen Forsythe, Tom Froese, Hugh Gash, Phillip Guddemi, Roger Harnden, Hiroyuki Iizuka, Seiichi Imoto, Ray Ison, Vincent Kenny, Alexander Kravchenko, Klaus Krippendorff, Miguel Maliksi, David Marshak, Koichiro Matsuno, Marek McGann, Barry McMullin, John Mingers, Alvaro Moreno, Jorge Mpodozis, Bernd Porr, Jose Rey-Ladino, Dennis Sandow, Fred Steier, John Stewart, Alfred Tauber, Randall Whitaker, Milan Zeleny, Jordan Zlatev, and Tom Ziemke.

Acknowledgement We would like to thank Miguel Maliksi and Randall Whitaker for there comments on this article.

References Glasersfeld E. von (1991) Distinguishing the observer: An attempt at interpreting Maturana. Methodologia V(8): 57–68. Available at http://www.vonglasersfeld. com/125.2 Originally published in German as: Glasersfeld E. von (1990) Die Unterscheidung des Beobachters: Versuch einer Auslegung. In: Riegas V. & Vetter C. (eds.) Zur Biologie der Kognition. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt: 281–295. Glasersfeld E. von (1995) Radical constructivism. Falmer Press: London. Riegler A. (2001) Towards a radical constructivist understanding of science. Foundations of Science 6: 1–30. Available at http://www.

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Preface to the Second Edition of De Máquinas y Seres Vivos Humberto Maturana • Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, Chile • hmr/at/ translated by

Alberto Paucar-Caceres • Manchester Metropolitan University, UK • a.paucar/at/ Roger Harnden • Independent Researcher • roger/at/ > Context • In 1974, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela published De Máquinas y Seres Vivos. Autopoiesis: La

organización de lo vivo in Santiago, Chile as a little book. A second edition of this publication was proposed in 1994, and the present document is a recent translation of Maturana’s reflections “twenty years after.” > Problem • The book clearly enunciates what it means to say that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, and this Preface reflects on the shift of understanding from earlier notions of self-referred or auto-referred systems to the concept of autopoiesis. > Implications • The Preface describes the systemic quality that is human living and human sensemaking. It marks what we can retrospectively see as the bridge between the explicitly biological studies of Maturana (and Varela), and the later, more anthropological and therapeutic work of Maturana with Gerda Verden-Zöller between 1989 and 1994 and, especially, with Ximena Dávila Yáñez since the year 1999. > Results • The underlying understanding implicit in this document outlines in great clarity the implications of Maturana’s fundamental insights. It presents both a logical and passionately argued case for mutual respect, grounded in scientific findings in biology. The Preface is a clear vision of why Maturana’s work has been so influential for reflexivity and constructivism. > Key words • Autopoiesis, constitution of the living, systemic, structural determinism, humanness.

Introduction by the translator: Translation, discourse, and languaging Alberto Paucar-Caceres and Roger Harnden came together for the purpose of translating Humberto Maturana’s Preface of the second edition of De Máquinas y Seres Vivos. Autopoesis: La organización de lo vivo from the original Spanish into English (Maturana 1994). One author is bilingual in Spanish and English; the other an expert on cybernetics, second order cybernetics, and the biology of cognition. Both have long been familiar with the ideas of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. However, this has not been a straightforward translation task, and in this introduction we wish to briefly touch on some of the issues entailed. We undertook this “labor of love” because we feel that the Preface is an important document in its own right, containing

fascinating original material. There are reflections by Maturana not readily available elsewhere – some biographical, some technical. We feel that the narrative evidences a turning point, both in the author’s life and in his intellectual development. It can be seen as representing a transitional moment in which the early biological work on autopoiesis moved through a preoccupation with cognition and languaging towards the focus of the later work – the emergence of humanness through the biology of love. In other words, the paper acts as a bridge. It helps the reader construct a unified picture of the relevance of an original and important figure for biology and evolutionary theory and for understanding just what it is to be human. Its absence in English until now has resulted in a sometimes schizophrenic understanding of Maturana – confusion in the face of what might appear to be a disconcerting step-change from biology into something else, with no apparent coherence between the two.

In undertaking this task our intention was to help address this somewhat fragmented understanding as much as to effect a simple “good” translation. Over the past thirty years there have been successful and unsuccessful translations of Maturana’s texts. For the present task, we saw the opportunity to deepen insight into the coherence of an original and great thinker, not merely by a routine word-by-word translation from one language to another, but perhaps by helping nudge into the light the meaning of the complex and sometimes startling insights. This required a good deal of trust from the author, for which we are extremely grateful. At several points we have added footnotes to comment on particular problematical issues or to point out what we think are interesting links to other bodies of knowledge. These footnotes are our own responsibility and stand outside the flow of the original Spanish preface, but we feel they may be of interest to the contemporary reader. We stress that these footnotes should not be tak-


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Alberto Paucar-Caceres


Roger Harnden

en to reflect Maturana’s views – they are our own personal comments from the sidelines, as it were. We have rigorously and consistently attempted to be true to the author’s conscious effort to mirror his scientific insights into the organization of life through a particular usage of style and syntax, best described as cyclical. Once again, we appreciate his willingness to allow us to relax occasionally the strict standards of literal translation at moments when we felt that the translation task itself was obscuring the core concepts and hindering their arising through the medium of the English language. Octavio Paz said words to the effect that the task of expressing ideas in language is itself one of translation. In a different context, Maturana has frequently made the point that the primary functioning of language is due to its connotative rather than denotative nature. The key point is that the connotation never ends by finally “pointing” to an object. Languaging is endless translation and making sense in the course of the endless translations that accompany human behavioral interactions in their social and operational reality (human living). In this task, we have

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holds a BSc (Honours) degree in Industrial Engineering (National University of Engineering, Lima, Peru); an MA in Systems in Management (Lancaster University); and a PhD (Manchester Metropolitan University). Before coming to England in 1987, Alberto worked as a Senior Operational Research Analyst for PETROPERU. He joined Manchester Metropolitan University in 1990, where he is currently a Principal Lecturer. Being Peruvian, his first language is Spanish. Alberto’s research interests are: management sciences methodologies, systems thinking, and the application of systems ideas to problematical situations. He has published extensively on management sciences/ operational research, systems, and in information systems journals. Alberto is also a poet, and has published six poetry books in Peru and has translated English poetry into Spanish.

is an independent researcher and author, working from his home town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales. Both his personal interests and his professional activities have been driven by issues to do with the intimate relationship between the experience of personal identity and the human creative urge. He believes that the presently massive proliferation and global distribution of mobile web enabled devices has enormous implications for this virtuous cycle, with far-reaching implications for all sectors of human social interactivity. In particular, this is linked to an exponential increase in recursions of recurrent coordination of interactions.

certainly experienced the creative tension of riding the wave of the rich, mysterious, and sometimes ambiguous play of language itself. Indeed, we may not have been able to point to (to denote) any fixed objective reality, but we feel quietly confident that our translation conveys Maturana’s deep insight that this “play” is not just one of language and living but is intrinsic to scientific insight into the biological dynamics of molecular life itself. We are extremely conscious that in the re-creation process that every translation entails, the translator has a particular responsibility. After all, it is easy to fall into the wrong path and get the wrong message: “traduttori traditore” is the Italian saying recalled by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. We firmly believe that we have avoided falling into that path and have conveyed the essence of Maturana’s powerful thinking. The present document is Maturana’s revision of our original translation. We wish to thank Humberto Maturana for giving us the space to carry out this task in the way we wished, and we trust that we have indeed laid down the correct path in our walking of it.

Acknowledgment This translation was funded by a small grant from the Research Institute for Business and Management (RIBM), Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, Manchester, UK. The authors of this translation are grateful to RIBM for making this project possible.

Reference Maturana H. R. (1994) Veinte años después. Prefacio de Humberto Maturana Romecín a la segunda edición. In: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1994) De máquinas y seres vivos. Autopoiesis: La organización de lo vivo. Second Edition. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile: 9–32.

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Humberto Maturana

Twenty Years After Preface by Humberto Maturana Romesín to the second edition of De Máquinas y Seres Vivos Humberto Maturana • Escuela Matríztica, Chile • hmr/at/

Background Francisco Varela and I wrote this book together. I have no doubt that if either of us had written it separately both content and style would have been very different. Under no circumstance can I claim to speak for him, whether about this book or about anything else. For this reason, in writing this new preface I will speak only for myself, presenting how certain ideas that arose in the writing of this book reflected aspects of my own life. I do not believe that it may be done honestly in any other way. Under these circumstances, when I say that Francisco was my student I do not pretend to diminish his stature or to subordinate his thinking to mine – I am just referencing the history of the ideas and our changing relationship. I am eighteen years older than Francisco, and in early life that age difference between a student and his teacher is enormous; however, it lessens or even disappears as the teacher’s scientific life nears its end.

History The original title of this book was About Machines and Living Beings. However, its topic is life organization, and I originally conceived the word “autopoiesis” precisely as an attempt to synthesize into one simple and evocative expression what seemed to me to be a critical factor in the constitutive dynamics of a living being. So the original title is not strictly speaking accurate, but it is not appropriate at this point to analyze the circumstances that determined it. However,

for this edition I would like to change it to reflect this central theme: Autopoiesis: organization of the living. What I would like to do in this new preface – over twenty years after the book was written – is describe and comment on how certain ideas, notions, and concepts arising in the course of my own life are reflected in this book. In 1960 I returned to Chile after a period of six years abroad. I had obtained a doctorate in biology at Harvard University in 1958. Ostensibly I returned to Chile in order to honor a previous commitment with the University of Chile, but intimately I chose to return because I wanted to give back something of what my country had given to me as I grew up in it. On returning, I was accepted as a second assistant to Gabriel Gasic, who held the Chair of Biology at the Medical School. After a long conversation with Gasic, I convinced him to let me teach a series of lectures on the origin and organization of living beings as a part of his biology course in first year medicine. He granted me five or six sessions, towards the end of the academic year, and I had the privilege of being able to deliver these with freedom to include the content I wanted to include. At the time I thought my whole life had more than adequately prepared me for those classes. After all, I had studied medicine, biology, anatomy, and genetics; I had tackled anthropology, archaeology, and paleontology; I had interests in ethnology and mythology; and I had undertaken detailed investigations in specific areas of biology (such as anatomy, neurobiology, and taxonomy) during my ten years as a student in Chile and abroad. Indeed, I had already

been interested in the phenomenon of life as a high school student when Gustavo Hoecker kindly accepted me as an apprentice in his laboratory at the beginning of my first year of medicine studies in 1948. At the end of the last session of the series of lectures, one of the students asked me: “Sir, you say that life originated on land more or less three thousand five hundred million of years ago. Please tell me what actually happened when life originated … what happened at the beginning of life so that you can say now that life began then?” As soon as I heard the question I knew I did not have an answer: I had prepared myself to answer it, certainly, but found I could not do so – in fact I had not myself reflected on the issue in the terms in which the question had been formulated. “What actually originated and has been conserved up to now from when living beings appeared on Earth?” was the question I heard. Indubitably I flushed – not just once but several times – and finally I answered: “I do not know, but if you come next year I will offer you an answer.” I had one year to find it. We do not always accept the questions that we accept, even when we say that we do. To accept a question consists of immersing oneself in the search for the answer that answers it. Furthermore, the question specifies the answer that it admits. So the first thing that I did was to reformulate the question for myself in a complete manner: “What began when living beings began on Earth and has been conserved ever since?” Or, in other words: “What kind of system is a living system?” In 1960 this was a question without an answer. Biologists simply did not seriously consider it. They skirted it by saying that much more knowledge was required; or they would simply list the properties or characteristics of a living being, proposing a list that necessarily remained indeterminate in the absence of some independent characterization of living that would permit one to say when the list was complete. Notable scientists such as Alexander Oparin and John Haldane, who had devoted their attention and experimental work to the question of life, had not proposed anything that could be considered an adequate characterization of the living. Other scientists, such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, adopting a systemic ap-


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proach in the quest for understanding living beings as totalities, spoke of an organismic vision, apparently thinking that to understand living beings it was central to attend to their constitution as open systems and to the way they processed energy. I thought differently. I thought that what was central to explaining and understanding living systems was to attend to their condition of being discrete, autonomous entities that live their life as independent unities. In fact, I thought (as I still do) that the most significant thing about biology as a science is the fact that the biologist deals with discrete and autonomous entities that in their individual operation generate general phenomena that are valid to all the members of the class of living beings: what is central in biology is what happens in the living of living beings as individualities. At the same time, I think that the most important thing in physics as a science is that the physicist deals with general laws and not with the particularities of the entities that, being subordinated to them, make the functioning of those laws apparent through their relations and interactions: what is central in physics are the general laws that define what is possible and what is not possible in the relations and interactions of entities in general, without caring for their possible individuality. It is in relation to all that I have just said that I thought, and still think, that the main task of a biologist is to explain and understand living beings as systems in which both what happens to them in the intimacy of their inner operation as autonomous beings, and what happens to them in their interactions as totalities with other unities, arises and takes place in them and with them through the individual realization of their living as autonomous entities. It was with this thinking that I dedicated myself in my reflections and lectures to the double task of answering the student’s question about the origin of living beings on Earth and of revealing the configuration of the internal processes that result in the arising and operation of a living system as autonomous entity in the relational space in which it exists as a totality. As far as I knew, nobody else had asked these questions in the way I was asking them, perhaps because nobody was fully willing to address the implications arising

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from accepting that all biological phenomena occur through the realization of the living of the living being itself. Besides, there was something else motivating and driving my enquiry. At the age of twenty (ten years previously), I had been ill with pulmonary tuberculosis. I was a patient in a sanatorium in the Andes and under strict instructions to remain absolutely at rest. However, I was secretly reading the great book by Julian Huxley, Evolution: A modern synthesis (1942). In this book, Huxley argues that the notion of evolutionary progress is valid as it refers to the historical process of increasing independence of living beings from the environment. And he says that we human beings are the culmination of this historical process as we are the organisms that are the most independent from the environment in which we live. I found myself thinking differently from Huxley as I reflected on the purpose of life and the meaning of living in the long intimacy of my inaction. My answer then, as it is now, was that life had no meaning outside of itself, no sense besides its actual occurring in living. So, I thought: the sense of the life of a fly is to live “fly” – to do the fly things that make a fly a fly; the sense of the life of a dog is to live dogging – to do the dog things that make a dog a “dog;” and the sense of the life of a human being is living humanness, to do the human things that make a human being be a “human being.” Differing from Huxley, I thought that living beings existed without purpose, without any value reference to anything outside themselves. Lying passively in repose for a year in a hospital in Santiago first, and for another year in the sanatorium in the mountains, these reflections led me to recognize and accept that any sense that my life might have was my own task and my own responsibility. However, they also led me to see that living systems were autonomous beings and that their autonomy rested in the fact that all the aspects of their operation as living beings had to do with themselves, with the realization of themselves as living beings, and that this operation could not be said to come from any external or internal purpose but was the result of their manner of constitution. Purpose, aim, and progress, I thought, are human notions that had to do

with humanness, with human living. And, of course, I asked myself what it was to be a human being, what was peculiar to humanness so that I might live accordingly and be human in the same way that a fly lives as a fly “flying.” My conclusion was that human beings were self-conscious, intelligent, sensitive, and capable of understanding their own living and the living of other living beings, and that I wanted to live as such. It was from this background of reflections that from 1960 onwards I begun to direct my thoughts to finding a way of speaking about living beings that captured their dynamic constitution as discrete autonomous systems, as systems in which all that happens with them in their operating as discrete units (entities) – both in their relational (external) and in their internal (constitutive) dynamics – refers to themselves alone, and occurs as a continuous, unbroken realization of a process that results in themselves as such dynamic entities. That is, my reflections led me think that all that happens to living beings takes place in them as though they operate as self-referring entities. With the above in mind, my task as a biologist became one of describing the inner operation of living beings that results in their existing as spontaneous discrete autonomous entities that produce themselves through their own operation. At that time this was not an easy task and my colleagues did not understand what I wanted to do, perhaps because I did not then know how to say what I wanted to say, or because I still did not have the conceptual clarity to do it or to express my understanding in a way that revealed the operation of the processes that resulted in the living of living beings. After receiving a PhD from Harvard University, I worked during 1958 and 1959 in the Department of Electrical Engineering of the Massachusetts Institute of Technological (MIT) in the neurophysiology laboratory of Jerome Lettvin. Within that department there was also an artificial intelligence laboratory. Every day, walking past that laboratory (without entering), I used to overhear fragments of the conversation of outstanding researchers in the robotics of that time, describing what they were doing in their attempt to model biological phenomena. Marvin Minsky was one of them.

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Humberto Maturana

However, the more I listened to them the more I felt that what they were doing was not imitating or modeling biological phenomena, but that what they were doing was modeling or imitating how what the living systems did appeared to them in their domain of observation. It was through being aware of such confusion that in the biological lectures I gave in the Medical School I always spoke in a manner such that my description of the processes that happened in them showed the way in which those processes constituted the living system as autonomous beings. I did not want to make the mistake that I thought was being made by those scientists working in artificial intelligence at MIT. Avoiding this error was not easy because the biological discourse of that time was a functional and propositional discourse. Biologists were talking about biological phenomena as if such phenomena were made visible in talking about the function that they were supposed to fulfill, and as if the description of such function would reveal the relational processes that gave origin to them. I thought that it was not adequate to talk of biological phenomena in functional terms, not even metaphorically, because such a manner of talking conceptually obscured the actual operations that constituted the biological phenomenon that one wanted to understand. In order to avoid such concealment, I began to distinguish between what I was saying as an observer, according to what I saw as I looked at the living system in its operation as a totality, from what I was saying had to be taking place in its internal dynamics when it was operating as a totality. To do this I began to describe, I thought adequately and without confusing them, the two operational domains in which the existence of a living being takes place, namely: a) the domain of interactions in which it exists as it operates as a totality; and b) the domain of operation of its components as these give rise to it as a totality through their interactions with no reference to the totality to which they give rise. It is in its operation in these two non-intersecting but complementary domains that the living being realizes its living as a relational totality. I wanted to describe the operation of the components of the living beings exclusively in local nonfunctional or non-purposive terms. In other

words, I wanted to show how a living being arises as a totality in a domain different from the domain of operation of its components as a simple spontaneous consequence of their operation when they concatenate in some particular form. That is, I wanted to describe the particular manner of spontaneous concatenation of the operation of the components of a living system that make it a living system, and I thought that to demonstrate that I had indeed done so, I had to show that all biological phenomena arise from that manner of operation when the adequate historical conditions are given. Accordingly, as I was thinking that the autonomy of living beings as I indicated above was an indirect expression of the concatenation of processes that constituted them as discrete entities, I began to talk about living beings as self-referring systems. That is, I began to speak of living beings as systems in which all that they do makes sense only in relation to themselves. And at the same time I began to differentiate living systems from systems that we human beings produce, systems in which, by design, all that happens to them makes sense only in relation to some product or something that is different from themselves, systems that I began to call allo-referring systems. However, talking about living beings as self-referring systems was not satisfactory to me because the notion of “self-reference” subordinates the dynamics of the components of a system to the totality that results from their operation, which was the very thing that I wanted to avoid when I talked about the local relations of the components of a living being, showing that the living being in its existence as a totality was a spontaneous result of that manner of operation. Indeed, I was aware that talking about living systems in terms of self-reference obscured the fact that I had not yet identified the operational dynamics that made a living being a self-referring entity. Then, at the beginning of 1964, while I was talking with my friend Guillermo Contreras, a microbiologist, about whether or not it was possible that information could flow from the cytoplasm toward the nucleus (at that time we still did not know about retroviruses), and as I wrote on the blackboard how DNA participates in the synthesis of proteins and how the proteins participate

in the synthesis of DNA – drawing a picture that showed the productive circular relation that existed among them – I suddenly realized that that circularity was the molecular productive dynamics constitutive of living beings. That is, at that point I realized that what defined and in fact constituted living beings as autonomous entities that result in selfreferring as a simple consequence of their operation was that they were discrete entities that existed as such in the continuous realization and conservation of the circular production of all of their components in such a way that all that occurred with them occurred in the realization and conservation of that closed circular productive activity. In this reflection I also realized that it is not the flow of matter and energy as a flow of matter and energy, and not any particular component as a component with special properties that defines and constitutes a living being as a living being. A living being consists of and occurs as a continuous dynamic realization of a network of molecular transformations and productions such that all the molecules transformed or produced in that network recursively participate in it in a way such that through their interactions they: a) generate the network of transformations and productions that produced them; b) give rise to the borders and extension of the network as part of its operation as a network in a way such that it closes upon itself, constituting a discrete molecular entity with dynamic borders that separate it operationally from the molecular medium that contained it; and c) at the same time operate as borders of the network that admit a flow of molecules that are incorporated and become components of it and a flow of molecules that leave the network and stop being components in it as they become part of the medium. To put it in another way, I became aware that the living being is not a collection of molecules but is a molecular dynamics; a network of processes that occurs as a discrete singular autonomous entity as a result of the operation of the different classes of molecules that compose and realize it; a closed network of interactions and relations of different classes of molecules that produces molecules of the same different kinds that produced them; a closed


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molecular dynamics that specifies its borders and extension. Moreover, it is to this network of productions of components that closes upon itself, because the components that it produces through their interactions (recursively) generate the same network of productions of components that produced them as a dynamic entity that determines its own borders and extension in the midst of a continuous flow through it of elements that become or stop being its components according to whether they participate or stop participating in it, that we refer to when we speak of autopoiesis in this book. Furthermore, what we also say in this book is that a living being is in fact a molecular autopoietic system, and that the molecular condition is central to its constitution because it determines the domain of operational relations in which it exists as a self-producing composite entity. If there were autopoietic systems that were not molecular autopoietic systems, that is, if there were closed networks of production of non-molecular elements that satisfy the relational dynamics of autopoiesis, they would exist in a different domain than living systems, yet, since such a system would have characteristics completely different than those of a living systems it would not be a living system.1 I have insisted on this not out of being repetitive but because it seems to me that the most difficult thing in relation to living beings is to understand and accept that: a) a living being is a particular relational molecular dynamics (molecular autopoiesis), not an assembly or collection of molecules of a particular kind; b) living is the continuous realization of that particular relational molecular (autopoietic) dynamics in a configuration of dynamic relations that 1 |  Author’s note: A culture occurs as a network of conversations; see Maturana & VerdenZöller (1993). If a culture were to become a closed network of conversations as an autopoietic system of conversation it would not be a living system, and the human beings in it would become subordinated to the conservation of the conversations that constitute the culture (that culture) or be eliminated from it as they reflect and begin to generate conversation that do not belong to it. In a culture that operates as an autopoietic network of conversations, human beings as reflective selfconscious beings that may choose whether they want or do not want to be part of it cannot exist.

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is conserved in a continuous flux of molecules through it; and c) to the extent that living is and occurs as a molecular dynamics, one cannot say that a living being has autopoiesis or uses autopoiesis to live – living beings are molecular autopoietic systems and molecular autopoiesis constitutes them as autonomous living beings.In 1965, I referred to this way of being autonomous of living beings, speaking of a circular organization of transformations and of molecular productions, claiming that a living being is and exists as a discrete molecular dynamic system in the continuous realization and conservation of such organization. As I did this I also became aware that my description of the living being as a system of circular organization was adequate because it in fact permitted me to show, in agreement with what I have already said above, how all biological phenomena take place and arise in the life of a living being as a system that exists realizing itself in a dynamics of continuous selfproduction. I spoke of this for the first time in a section about the organization of living in an article that I called “Neurophysiology of Cognition,” presented in March 1969 as part of an anthropology congress in Chicago whose theme was “cognition as a human phenomenon” (see Maturana 1970b). A year later I addressed the same theme as part of a more extensive article, the title of which was “Biology of Cognition,” first published as “Report N° 9.0 of the Biological Computer Laboratory” at the University of Illinois in 1970 (Maturana 1970a). The book that the reader has in his or her hands, initially published in Spanish under the title De Máquinas y Seres Vivos (About Machines and Living Beings), is an expanded version of the section on the organization of living beings in the article “Biology of Cognition” that I have just mentioned. This book that the reader is reading was written as a result of a conversation I had with Francisco Varela in 1970 when he returned to Santiago from the USA after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Francisco argued that if what I was proposing was an account of biological phenomena, and if that was all that was needed to completely characterize living beings as autonomous systems, it should be possible to propose a mathematical formalization of their circular organization. Francisco Varela was a distinguished math-

ematical thinker; I am not. For this reason I insisted that before attempting such a formalization, we had to have a complete description of the phenomenon or the system that we intended to formalize.2 We agreed to do this, and the result was this book.

The word “autopoiesis” Francisco Varela first arrived at my laboratory in April 1966, sent by Juan de Dios Vidal Correa after he was accepted as a student for the biology degree in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Chile. At the end of 1967, Francisco was accepted by Harvard University to undertake a Doctorate in Biology. Upon the completion of his doctorate he returned to Chile. Since he had previously been my pupil I knew in depth his abilities and accomplishments and I recommended and supported him so that he could be accepted as an independent researcher in the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile. This happened by the end of 1970. To insist on what I said above: I think that any formalization is necessarily secondary to the conceptual and operational understanding of what one wants to formalize, otherwise the formalism can become divorced from experience. Francisco agreed and we started working on what finally turned out to be the present book. It was a process in which I would write and then we would discuss the issues. Although this was always an interesting process, it was never simple, and sometimes it was painful. Soon it became obvious to me that we needed a word to describe the organization of the living that was more evocative than the expression “circular organization” that I had been using since the beginning of 1965. One day I was visiting a friend, José María Bulnes, a philosopher. While he was talking to me about the dilemma of the gentleman Quejana (later, Don Quixote de 2 |  Author’s note: One formalizes what one thinks, so what is fundamental to any formalization is the understanding that one claims to have of the phenomenon that one wants to formalize. This is why the first and necessary operation in any process of formalization is the abstraction of the operational and relational coherences that will constitute its fundaments.

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Humberto Maturana

la Mancha) in deciding whether to follow the path of arms – the path of praxis – or the path of the arts – the path of poiesis3 – it occurred to me that I might create a new word, autopoiesis, as the correct expression to capture and convey what I was connoting in talking of the circularity of the organization of the living. José María did not invent or suggest the word autopoiesis and could not have done so because he had no need of it; I invented and proposed it. Nonetheless I am grateful to Jose for the conversation that we had, and also to his wife, Verónica, who suggested an alternative word, “autopraxis,”4 which I rejected because in certain aspects it seemed a limiting word. The following day I proposed the word to Francisco, who liked it, and from then on we began speaking of autopoiesis in referring to the organization of living beings. Initially I thought that I could use the word autopoiesis exclusively to denote the organization of living beings. Yet, I soon realized that it was not adequate to do so because, in principle at least, one could imagine that such an organization could be realized in many different domains with different kinds of non-molecular components 3 | Translators’ note: This refers to Don Quixote, Part 1, Ch. 33, and also to Part 2, Ch. 6. In these two chapters, Don Quixote states that there are two ways of achieving honest promotion: the way of “arms” and the ways of the “arts.” For Don Quixote, both are equally fulfilling, whether the “practical” (praxis)  or the “intellectual” (poiesis). Thus is written: “There are two ways… by which men can go and achieve honor and richness: one is that of the arts; the other of arms. I have more of arms than arts, being born inclined to arms under the influence of the planet Mars” (Part 2, Ch. 6). It has been said that Cervantes, being an old soldier himself, had to choose arms for his hero. See also Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “Pierre Menard, the author of Don Quixote” (originally published in Spanish in 1939). 4 | Translators’ note: “The word autopraxis, as suggested by Verónica,would have not been adequate because that word would have referred to the actual happening of the molecular processes. But since my intention was to say that the living occurred as the continuous result of those processes, I considered that the word autopoiesis expressed that and was the adequate word.” (Maturana in personal conversation with Alberto Paucar-Caceres, Sardinia, May 2011)

giving rise to different kinds of systems that would not be living systems. Living systems are molecular autopoietic systems. For this reason, it seemed to me that it was necessary to be specific in each case regarding the properties of the components of the system that one might be talking about and that one may be willing to think may be autopoietic, because it is the properties of the components that determines in each system its domain of existence as a composite unity.5 For this reason, in later publications such as The Tree of Knowledge, which I also wrote with Francisco Varela, I stress that we living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, emphasizing that what defines us as the particular kind of autopoietic systems that we are is that we are molecular autopoietic systems that exist and live as human beings. In summary, what we purported to do in this little book, and what I still claim that we do, is to show how the systems that we distinguish as living beings in the biological world are molecular autopoietic systems and that all biological phenomena are a result of either the operation of molecular autopoietic systems or the historic contingencies of their operating as such. Therefore we claim in this book that being a living being and being a molecular autopoietic system are the same. From the time of the first publication of this book, questions have been asked about the possible existence of autopoietic systems in domains other than the molecular domain. This question cannot be answered lightly. It is certainly possible to distinguish between living systems and autopoietic systems of different orders according to the domain in which the autopoiesis takes place. In such a distinction, the cells are first order molecular autopoietic systems in that they exist directly as molecular autopoietic systems; we organisms are second order auto5 |  Author’s note: The central feature of autopoiesis is that it is the actual interactions of the components of the system that produce components of the same kind, and it is only in the molecular domain that this happens: molecules interacting with molecules give rise to molecules. So living systems exist as spontaneous autopoietic autonomous entities in the only operational domain in which autopoiesis can in fact take place spontaneously, namely, in the molecular domain.

poietic system in that we are autopoietic systems made up of cellular aggregates. When considering the case of a beehive, a colony, a family or some other social system as an aggregate of organisms, it could be possible to talk of third order autopoietic systems. Yet, in these latter cases, the third order autopoiesis arises as a result of an aggregation of independent organisms and is not a defining or intrinsic feature of the beehive, the colony, the family, or the social system as the particular kind of system that each one of them is. By highlighting or emphasizing the autopoietic character of such third order systems, when their autopoiesis is in fact something circumstantial related to their components rather than something intrinsic that defines them as the kind of systems that they are as a beehive, colony, family, or social system, we obscure the precise quality that defines each of them as the distinct kind of system that each of them is. For instance, even though social systems are autopoietic systems of the third order through being systems composed of organisms, that which defines them as what they are as social systems is not the autopoiesis of their components, but is the configuration of relations that these hold between them as individual organisms through their interactions: a configuration of relations that we connote in our everyday distinctions by calling such systems “social systems.” Nevertheless, what we must neither overlook nor forget is that whatever happens in these higher order autopoietic systems is realized through the autopoiesis of their components. In making the distinctions above about different orders of autopoiesis, it is important to bear in mind that there may well be autopoietic systems of a higher order that are at the same time autopoietic systems of the first order in their own right. For instance, this might be the case for many multicellular organisms if the transcellular and intracellular molecular processes that realize them constitute a first order molecular autopoietic network that intersects with the realization of the molecular autopoiesis of the cells that compose them. If this were the case, those organisms would exist as autopoietic wholes in two simultaneous but different phenomenal domains, and would be subject in their realization as such to the simultaneous conservation of two autopoietic


Historical Perspective On the Theory of Autopoiesis 300

dynamics: the conservation of the first order molecular autopoiesis of their cellular components, and the first order systemic molecular autopoiesis of their realization as organisms as they operate as totalities. Something similar would happen with social systems if these were also first order molecular autopoietic systems, which in my opinion they are certainly not. Neither are social systems autopoietic systems in some other domain different from the molecular one. Finally, it is not possible for social systems to be first order autopoietic systems in a communication space, as the distinguished sociologist Niklas Luhmann proposes, because in such a space the components of the alleged autopoietic system would be communications rather than the living beings, which would give rise to such communications as a manner of living together and that constitute it as the system that we call social in daily life. I think that all that one can say in relation to a system of human relations and autopoiesis is that what most resembles an autopoietic system is what we distinguish when we consider a culture in its constitution as a closed network of conversations. To the extent that it is the organization that defines the class identity of a system and the structure that realizes it as a particular case of the class defined by that organization (Maturana 1975; Maturana & Varela 1984), systems only exist in the structural dynamics that realize their organization. It is because of this that the operation of distinction that brings forth a system or connotes it with a name while pointing to the structure that realizes it both implies the organization that defines its class identity and that this is realized in that structure. The different words we use in daily life evoke different operations that we realize in our languaging living, and because they reveal the coherence of our relational living in our operation as human beings they are never arbitrary or trivial. It is for this reason that in everyday living in English we use different words to talk about living beings and social systems, indicating that we do not connote the same system when we use one word or another. In doing so we are also indicating that when we talk about living systems or social systems we are talking about different classes of systems because each class is defined by a different organization:

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the living systems by molecular autopoiesis and the social systems by the configuration of living together that we connote when we speak of them. Thus, if what makes a living being a living being is that it is a molecular autopoietic system, and if what makes a social system a social system is a manner of living together of a group of organisms, it cannot by any means be the same thing to talk about a living system and a social system, even if the realization of the social system occurs through the realization of the living of the organism that integrates it. Perhaps what is most difficult for us to understand is that the structural intersection of systems is the realization of two or more different systems by means of the same structure or through the same structural components. In such a structural intersection, the different organizations of the different systems that intersect do not intersect, they remain distinct constituting different systems that exist as different totalities in different operational domains. There are no intersections of organizations; nor could there be, because the distinction implies the organization of what is distinguished, and the organization implied in the distinction only arises in the operation of distinction. That is, the different organizations that we imply with the different words we use remain independent and distinguishable from each other in spite of the intersection of their different structural realizations. The class identity of a system is specified by its organization and not by the structure that realizes it as a particular entity. Since the organization of a system is not directly distinguishable but is implied in the act of distinction that brings forth a particular entity as a structural totality, and since systems interact through their structure, individual systems can only be discriminated and recognized by particular features of their structural realization. No doubt we know this from our daily living, because we know that we can realize different identities, whether simultaneously or successively, in the same bodyhood. But if in addition we are not aware that the words that we use imply the organization of that which we distinguish, we remain blind to the fact that it is not possible to ascribe any arbitrary organization that comes to our minds to a system that we distinguish because the system dis-

tinguished arises in its distinction with an organization implicit in it that is specified by the operation of distinction. Not seeing this has led to an indiscriminate use of the word autopoiesis. Finally, it is necessary to understand that the organization implied by an operation of distinction is not arbitrary. This is because of the structural determinism of the observer who can in every instant only distinguish what his or her structural configuration and the structural configuration of the circumstances of the medium permit,

An artificial case As Varela and I were completing the book, the idea of making a computational model emerged. What I wanted was to use the computer to generate processes equivalent to molecular processes in such a way that if one left them to operate without any reference to a totality in an exclusive relational dynamic of contiguity, the result would be a network of processes that would constitute an autopoietic system. We talked a lot about this possibility until one particular day, in November 1971, I arrived at the laboratory in the morning with a drawing, which I still have, that represented a dynamic of particles in the form of a small set of “chemical reactions of synthesis and of lysis” such that if they were taking place at the adequate rhythms (e.g., at an adequate temperature), would generate, as a spontaneous result that was not included as an aspect of the design of the “molecular” processes, an autopoietic unity in a twodimensional space, such as the screen of a computer. What we had to make was a program in order for the computer to generate those particles and their interactions and transformations in a graphic space. If we were able to do this at adequate rhythms, I said, autopoietic units would spontaneously arise in that two-dimensional space. Given that I did not know how to program, Francisco, with another friend, Ricardo Uribe Berenguer, was to take charge of the task, and we decided, at Francisco’s request, that he would be named the first author when the results were published (Varela, Maturana & Uribe 1974). The dynamic of reactions that I proposed was the following:

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Humberto Maturana

Let there be particles A, B, and M, and let them operate in the following manner: 1  | 2B+A à M+A 2  | M+Mà MM MM+M à MMM 3  | M à 2B 4  | The chain MMMMM … is permeable to B. 5  | The chain of Ms is flexible and movable, and it can close on itself. When the program was allowed to run it gave rise spontaneously to an autopoietic unity in the graphical space of the computer screen. My purpose with this model was to present a generative relation that spontaneously gave rise to an autopoietic unity as something new in a space quite different from the domain of operation of the interacting components. At the same time I wanted to show that an autopoietic unity was only the result of the spontaneous organization of a set of elements in a particular composite unity as a consequence of the operation of their properties, while none of those properties would permit an observer to deduce what would occur. Any novelty appearing as the result of a generative dynamic would arise as a historic novelty and would be intrinsically new (see Figure 1).

The present I consider that any phenomenon whose realization entails the realization of the living of at least one living being is a biological phenomenon. Thus, the synthesis of a polypeptide chain that occurs in a laboratory with the participation of ribosomes in a test tube outside of a cell’s context is a chemical phenomenon and not a biological one, whereas if the same synthesis occurs during the dynamic of cellular metabolism, it is a biological phenomenon, a situation usually recognized when talking about biochemistry. At the same time, since I claim that molecular autopoiesis characterizes and fully realizes the living, I consider that every phenomenon that implies the realization of the autopoiesis of at least one living being is a biological phenomenon. This book arose with the purpose of showing how all biological phenomena result, either directly or indirectly, as a consequence of different historical contingencies in the realization of

b b



2b M


b M


b b


M b

b b



M b



b b

Figure 1: A schematic representation of the autopoietic dynamic entity arising in the graphic space generated by the computer.

the autopoiesis of at least one living being. I think that this book fulfills that aim and that the expansion of biological understanding that has been produced since its initial publication confirms and does not refute this claim but confirms it instead. Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of this theory of the living (autopoiesis) lies in the fact that it shows that the living being is a systemic entity even when its realization is of a molecular character. This theory reveals that no molecule or class of molecules determines by itself any aspect or feature of the operation of a living being as such, and this is because all the characteristics of the living being occur in the dynamic of the realization of its autopoiesis. In effect, a phenomenon is systemic if it occurs as a result of the operation of the components of a system while they realize the relations that constitute it as such under circumstances in which none of them determines by itself the characteristics of the system even though its presence is strictly necessary. Thus, the ordering of amino acids in the synthesis of a protein according to a particular sequence determined by the sequence of nucleotides present in a partic-

ular strand of DNA is a systemic phenomenon because in order to occur it requires the dynamics of protein synthesis that takes place as a constitutive part of the cellular autopoiesis, and the sole presence of DNA is not sufficient. By claiming that all that happens with living beings occurs in a systemic dynamics I do not pretend to say something that has never been said before. What I claim is that when we do not fully accept in our in our reflections the systemic character of the cellular phenomena, we do not speak adequately about living beings and we generate a deceptive reductionist discourse, as is the case in the notion of genetic determinism, which clearly hides the systemic character of the generation of phenotypical features. The understanding that the theory of autopoiesis makes possible the systemic character of all the phenomena that entail the realization of the living of a living system permits us to explain the origin of living beings on Earth, or anywhere in the cosmos, as the spontaneous arising of a living being as a discrete entity at the instant that the molecular autopoietic dynamics take place as a systemic phenomenon. In the same way, the theory of autopoiesis permits us to un-


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derstand the phenomenon of inheritance as a systemic phenomenon of conservation of the living being/medium relational unity as its reproduction happens as a fracture (of the living being/medium relational unity) that occurs with conservation of its organization. And all this in a process that allows us to see that the reproductive conservation of the organization of a living being and of its relation with the medium does not depend on any particular molecule or class of molecules, even though they might seem at first glance to be central to the structural realization of the living being (Maturana 1980; Maturana & Mpodozis 1992). The theory of autopoiesis also permits us to understand the phenomena of cellular symbiosis, and of the formation of multi-cellular systems, as spontaneous phenomena of systemic conservation of a new organization when some aggregate of cells or organisms gives origin to some configuration of preferred relations that separates them as a totality from a medium that contains them. Anyhow, by understanding that the phenomenon of living is the molecular autopoietic dynamics, we can understand that: a) the flow of the history of living beings courses as a spontaneous process of conservation of old lineages and the generation of new ones through the systemic reproductive conservation of different manners of living (or ontogenic phenotypes) in an ontogenic and phylogenic natural drift; b) new lineages arise as epigenetic variation conserved through systemic reproduction of a particular organism/medium relation in a systemic and not molecular hereditary process; and c) what we usually connote when we talk about natural selection is a result of the differential conservation through systemic reproduction of the variations that occur in the diversification of lineages, and not their generative mechanism (Maturana & Mpodozis 1992).

Structural determinism We living beings are structurally determined systems and, as such, all that happens to us arises in us as a structural change determined in each instant according to our structure at that instant. Science only operates with structurally determined systems,

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and in both science and daily life we treat any situation that seems to us to violate structural determinism as an expression of a mistake or a fraud or as a miracle. The notion of structural determinism, however, does not arise as an ontological supposition nor as an explanatory principle, but it arises as an act of poetic synthesis as an abstraction of the regularities of an observer’s experience. Therefore, it has validity in each case only in respect to the domain of the regularities wherein it arises. For this reason, the different domains of the experiential coherences that the observer lives constitute different domains of structural determinism, each one defined by the experiential coherences that are proper to it and define it. There are two additional notions that we must not confuse with structural determinism when speaking about a structurally determined system, namely: predictability and predeterminism.


The fact that a system is structurally determined does not mean that an observer may be able to predict the future structural changes that may occur in it. Given that a prediction is an attempt to treat some particular situation as a structurally determined system in order to be able to compute its structural changes, the observer must first know the structure of the system that he or she is considering in order to then be capable of predicting or computing its structural changes. Accordingly, when an observer claims that a system is predictable or not predictable, what he or she is actually doing is connoting what he or she thinks is his/her knowledge or ignorance of the structure of the system that he or she is characterizing in that manner. All scientific understanding is founded on an implicit or explicit recognition that our explanations always deal with structurally determined systems, in whatever may be the domain of explanation we choose, in such a way that if the system does not fulfill the criteria of structural determinism we expect, we either assume there has been an error or else that we had insufficient knowledge. In addition, we are not always able to identify the structure of a system in the moment that we wish to compute its future

structural changes, either because we do not have full access to it, or because in our attempt to know it we destroy it, or because the structural dynamics of the system is such that it recursively changes as we interact with it as we attempt to describe it. In such cases, every time that we look for regularities in it, we find that its structure is no longer the same because it responds in unexpected ways. Living beings are precisely systems of this kind.


The notion of predeterminism makes reference to the supposed possibility that the initial state of a structurally determined system may specify through its own structure its future states regardless of unexpected contingencies. This indeed can never happen to a structurally determined system because the course of its history in the field of interactions in which it exists is, and can only be, an epigenesis precisely because it arises in the interactions. For the same reason I think that in the strict sense there is no genetic determinism, and it is not possible to say in a manner that makes sense in the operational dynamics of the organism that the phenotype is an expression of the genotype. The phenotype arises in an epigenesis. In a similar way, inheritance as a reproductive conservation of a manner of living or ontogenic phenotype is a systemic phenomenon and not a molecular one, as I mentioned above. The epigenetic character of systemic operation in general, and in particular of the natural course of the living of any living system, excludes any predetermination. In the same way, the constitution of a lineage in the reproductive conservation of an ontogenic phenotype (or manner of living, or particular epigenetic configuration, or particular living system/ medium relational unity) is a systemic phenomenon. And, finally, the constitution of a lineage, and therefore the reproductive conservation of any biological identity, and in particular speciation, is also a systemic phenomenon and not a phenomenon determined by a molecular genetic process. Belief in the possibility of a predeterministic dynamic in systems obscures the comprehension of epigenetic phenomena (Maturana & Mpodozis 1992).

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Humberto Maturana

Spontaneity versus purposefulness There is nothing more difficult than to understand and accept the spontaneity of biological phenomena in a culture like ours, oriented to explaining everything related to living in terms of goal-seeking or purposefulness. Thus, we usually do not see that molecular processes are spontaneous, whatever the place or circumstance in which they occur, including the metabolic cellular processes that involve the participation of so-called “high energy molecules,” such as ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Molecular processes occur in each moment as a result of the structural properties of molecules and not because something external to them is directing or guiding them. Also, it might frequently be difficult to accept that any given system, whatever it may be, arises in the moment when a particular set of elements begins to conserve a dynamic of interactions and relations that give origin to an operational cleavage that separates a subset of elements that become the system from other elements that remain excluded and that thus become its surrounding medium. The dynamics of interactions and relations that, as it is conserved as a relational configuration between elements separate a collection of elements from others, giving origin to a system, becomes the organization of the system, and elements and relations that realize that organization in an operational unity that arises as such as a singular entity dynamically separable from other elements that constitute its medium become its structure. That is, the observer sees that when a system arises, the medium also arises as that domain of operational complementarity in which the system operates as a discrete entity as long as its organization is conserved. The dynamics of the spontaneous arising of a system and its medium constitutes for the observer the arising of order from chaos since he or she cannot predict the appearance of a system because he or she cannot see the structural coherence from where it arises.6 6 | Translators’ note: To us, the word “chaos” in this context appears problematic in the English-speaking rendering. On the other hand, this has echoes with texts such as Carl Jung’s “Septem Sermones ad Mortuous” (1966), so we have left

Accordingly, everything arises from chaos to the extent that something becomes in the beginning of the conservation of an organization that did not pre-exist the moment in which it appeared and could not be deduced from the domain of operational coherence in which “new” had relational sense for the observer. When we speak of historical phenomena we speak of experiences of our present that we live as arising from chaos because the present is only understood a-posteriori in relation to the past, and we do so proposing a generative process as an explanatory relation that would relate two non-intersecting domains, conserving structural determinism. In other words, the notions of order and chaos are two aspects of the explanatory commentaries that an observer makes about what happens in the spontaneous systemic dynamics of the constitution of a system in a structurally determined domain that is presently unknown to him or her, and not two intrinsic conditions of what an observer could wish to call “the natural world.” In reflecting on what happens in the spontaneous dynamics of the constitution of systems, what an observer sees is that in distinguishing a system, three domains of order become apparent: (1) the domain of the structural coherences of the distinguished system; (2) the domain of the structural coherence of that which arises as the medium in his or her distinction of the system; and (3) the domain of the relational dynamics of the system and the medium. In addition, for the observer who beholds the domain from where a system arises, and beholds it from the perspective of the operational coherences of the operation of the system as a totality without being able to describe it, that domain is, strictly speaking, chaotic: that is, from the perspective of the operation of a system that arises in a manner in which it as the original Spanish suggests. We hope the intended meaning is clear from the context, and it is in line with the author’s previous suggestion as to the quality of structural determinism being a “poetic synthesis.” We ourselves are entirely happy with the evocative implication (which resonates, in a somewhat different context, with, for example, the words of Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers: “Order out of Chaos,” 1984). We are not suggesting these meanings map across on to each other – rather that they suggests the sense of episteme (Foucault 1970).

an observer is not able to predict its arising, the domain from where it arises previous to its appearance, is the chaos itself. Only afterwards, if the observer becomes capable of proposing a generative mechanism, is the chaos not chaos any more. What is perhaps surprising and seduces observers to think that there needs to be intentionality or purposeful processes in relation to the living being is the relation of the operational coherence of the living being with its circumstance in a behavioural dynamics that seems to occur as if the living being were intentionally adapting to an independently changing medium. I think that I must insist here that the fact that the notion of chaos should arise from the inability of an observer to predict or visualize the appearing of a particular system from a domain of structural determinism that he or she cannot describe but this does not mean that the organization of the system that arises in a distinction depends arbitrarily on the actions or desires of the observer. Without doubt what an observer distinguishes depends on what he or she does, and there is no doubt that what he or she distinguishes is associated with the operation of distinction that he or she does, but the observer distinguishes only what can be distinguished in the space of structural coherences that arises in the coherence of his or her experience. But there is yet something more. The spontaneous organization of a system as this arises in the conservation of a particular configuration of relations in a collection of elements that creates a cleavage with respect to the medium that arises with it has, among others, two basic consequences: the first is the arising of a new relational or phenomenal domain that did not exist before, in which the entity or system that arises as a unity defined by the organization that is conserved from then on, has properties in its operation as a totality that are not the properties of its component elements. Such a relational or phenomenal domain cannot be deduced from the previously existing properties of the components because the phenomenal domain arises with the composition of the system. The second consequence of the cleavage of a system and the medium is the arising of a sequential asymmetry in the flow of the happenings because each situation arises as a spontaneous composition of what was before, in which new relational or phenomenal domains ap-


Historical Perspective On the Theory of Autopoiesis



pear, which the observer distinguishes when he or she speaks of history and time. Time arises in an observer’s explaining of the distinction of the asymmetry in the happening of his or her experience in a situation that he or she distinguishes as reversible, because by doing such a thing the observer must distinguish his/her own experiential asymmetry in the before and after. Both time and historicity are explanatory propositions of the asymmetry in the happening of the experience of the observer, in which she or he connotes its intrinsic irreversibility.7 That is, the observer proposes the notion of time by distinguishing the historicity of his/her experience, and it is from that historicity that an observer can generate a reference from which things can be described in a way that suggests that there might be temporal reversibility in cyclic phenomena, even when the experiential happening of the observer as it takes place in an epigenetic dynamics is intrinsically irreversible and unidirectional. The processes that we describe as cyclical are only descriptive projections that the observer abstracts from the unidirectional flowing where they belong. Let us now consider the issue of purposefulness. The spontaneity of the arising of systems denies any dimension of intention or purpose in their constitution or in their operation. Notions such as purpose or intention belong to the domain of reflections of 7 | Translators’ note: Both Warren McCulloch and Maturana demonstrated the intrinsic cyclical dynamics of the nervous system in sensemaking. Both (as, more explicitly, did Gregory Bateson) also suggested the cyclical nature of any meaningful behavioral interaction.

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Humberto Maturana Romecín

Born in Chile in 1928, Humberto Maturana Romesín was interested in animals and plants from childhood and wanted to be a biologist to investigate life that dies. A long period of reflection, reading Frederic Nietzsche and Julian Huxley, occurred during three years of complete bed rest. Beginning medicine in 1950, in1958 he received a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University. His main contributions in biology related to showing that living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, and that if one follows the consequences of the fact that living beings do not distinguish in their experience between perception and illusion, one can show that: language as a biological phenomenon occurs as a flow of living together in coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviors; and cognition as a biological phenomenon occurs when an organism operates adequately to the circumstances of its living, conserving its autopoiesis as a consequence of the operational-relational coherences with its niche that are proper to it in the present of its living as a feature of the history of evolutionary structural drift to which it belongs. At least this is what he claims in the present moment.

the observer as commentaries that he or she makes when comparing and explaining his/ her distinctions and experiences in the different moments of his/her observing. Anyone who does not accept the fundamental spontaneity of molecular processes cannot accept the spontaneity of the operational coherences that take place between a living being and the medium that are proper to the realization of its living. According to structural determinism, once a system arises, its becoming necessarily consists in a history of recurrent interactions with the elements of a medium that arises with it and contains it. Moreover, such a history of recurrent interactions between the system and medium necessarily courses as a structural co-drift. Both the structure of the system and the structure of the medium necessarily change together in spontaneous congruence and complementarity as long as the system conserves both its organization and its operational coherence with the medium that allows it to conserve its organization. This happens in a dynamics of operational complementarity in which an observer sees the system sliding in the medium following the only path that it can follow in the conservation of its organization, in a process in which the structures of the system and medium change together congruently until the system disintegrates.8 In the story of living beings on Earth, this dynamics has taken place since sequential reproduction appeared, giving origin to the 8 | Translators’ note: The process being described here is similar to what we understand by the phrase “structural coupling” used in other places.

generation, conservation, and diversification of different lineages as the dynamics that has given origin to all the manners of living that we see on earth today. And it has taken place in a continuous interlacing of structural transformations in which the different classes of living beings begin to happen as a part of the medium of others. We, as current living beings, constitute the present of the spontaneous historical dynamics of the generation and conservation of the reproduction of autopoietic systems on Earth that, once arisen, initiated an operationally coherent coexistence among the distinct living beings that arise in part from local causal phenomena but primarily from historical coherences. In fact, terrestrial living beings exhibit, and must have exhibited at every moment in their historical co-drifting as a biosphere, an operational coherence with each other and with the abiotic medium of a historical character that cannot but appear incomprehensible for the observer that looks for local causal connections in the attempt to not fall into the trap of using goal-seeking, purposeful, explanatory arguments. The analysis I have made of the spontaneous dynamics of the constitution of systems, and what I have said about the co-drifting of living beings in their historical course as a part of the biosphere, shows that no additional argument is necessary for explaining the coherence of living that we see between living beings, even when their individual evolutionary histories appear to be totally independent of each other.9 The 9 | Translators’ note: This is a strong endorsement of other thinkers who have variously point-

Theory of Autopoiesis

Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis Humberto Maturana

operational coherences that arise in the encounter of living beings can be understood either as mere coincidences between systems that happen to share both evolutionary and ontogenic independent histories in the domain in which they encounter, or they are the result of their co-participation in a common historical process, in a manner similar to that in which the dynamic coherences of opposing points in a wave front are the result of a historical process initiated in the origin of the wave. Thus, it is not necessary to imagine a causal connection to explain how the cytoplasmatic contents of a lettuce cell result in its being nutritious to us, just as it is not necessary to explain how we are able to establish loving relations with dolphins. I have insisted on this point here because I consider that it is necessary to be fully aware of the fact that living beings are historical entities participating in a historical present in continuous transformation in order to understand what we show in this book when we say that we living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, and what we say when we say that living takes place in the realization of the molecular autopoiesis. However, it is also necessary to understand that living beings exist in the continuous resulting present of historical dynamics so that we may not be tempted to use the present as an argument to explain its origin.

Final Reflection To me this book has not lost its validity;10 perhaps what has happened is the opposite. The book is difficult, and much of what is said in it is unexpected, but it says what it intends to say. There are no second thoughts or intentions in it. As I wrote it I did not attempt to say or do anything different from what it says or does: (1) that living beings and the living take place in the realization of discrete molecular autopoietic systems; (2) ed out the co-evolutionary nature of life on Earth. 10 | Translators’ note: Remember that this was written in 1994, not the present. However, we are confident that the same applies today in 2011, particularly in the context of issues to do with the planet, climate change, and sustainable development.

that autopoietic molecular dynamics occurs as a spontaneous phenomenon in which all of the molecular processes occur in a local structural determination without any reference to the totality that they constitute; and, (3) that biological phenomena, as phenomena that arise in the realization of living, occur and have occurred in the contingencies of the historical realization of the molecular autopoiesis, in the discrete units that living beings are. Yet perhaps what results most unexpectedly is that in the spontaneous history of living should have arisen spontaneously also the observer, explaining, and this book itself, all as mere contingencies of the evolutionary course of transformation of the manner of living followed by the lineages of living beings. This preface is not the place to talk more about the nature of this historical process. I have many publications on the theme of cognition and language, and I have given origin to what has been called “the biological theory of knowledge,” published for the first time in two articles, one of them titled “Neurophysiology of Cognition” (Maturana 1970b), the other titled “Biology of Cognition” (Maturana 1970a). On a final note, it is proper to indicate that although Francisco and I wrote this book and another, titled The Tree of Knowledge together, after that our lives followed different paths.11 What has been has been. On many occasions we spent great moments together and on other occasions it was not so, but I want to thank him here, in this preface, for the manner on which my life may have been enriched in that dynamic of enchantment and disenchantment that we lived together while we were writing this book and as we were doing all the things that we did together, first when he was my pupil, and then when we worked as colleagues in the Faculty of Sciences in the University of Chile.

Lastly Why or for what do I wish to explain the living and the living being? We modern human beings live in conflict; we have lost confidence in the transcendental notions 11 | Translators’ note: Francisco Varela died tragically young after a long illness, in May 2001.

that previously enabled us to give sense to our human life under the form of different religious inspirations, and what remains with us now, namely science and technology, does not provide us with the spiritual sense that we need to live. There is frustration and anger in young people, who are trying to determine what to do in the face of a world that we, their elders, have taken along the path of destruction. What to do? I think that knowledge accompanied by reflections that make us aware of the possible consequences of both our doings and our desires make us responsible for what we do because we become aware that we can always act according to whether we want or do not want those consequences. At the same time that knowledge and those reflections make us free because they make us aware of what we know and what we desire, allowing us to decide whether we want or do not want to live the consequences of our responsibility for what we do.12 Although we living beings are structurally determined systems, we human beings, as living beings that live in language existing in the recursive flow of living together in consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of behaviors, generate the world that we live as a way of living together that arises at each moment according to how we are in that moment as reflective living beings that live in languaging. For that reason, knowing or not knowing how we are as living beings is not a neutral matter; and it is not the same thing to know or not know how we live being free. Also it is not the same thing to know or not know that we are free in reflection, and to know or not know that reflection permits us to come out of any trap, and, in fact, reflection permits us to transcend the structural determinism of our bodyhood in the responsible behavior that arises in choosing what one wants or does not want. It is through the responsibil12 | Translators’ note: We strongly feel that the issues raised in this preface of 1994 are highly relevant to the debate on sustainable development and globalization. Maturana’s insights can provide the foundations for a new paradigm to tackle proactively such issues through transcending the limits and filters imposed by traditional institutional processes and systems and pointing to a whole philosophy of inclusion.


Historical Perspective On the Theory of Autopoiesis 306

ity and freedom that reflection and knowledge make possible what I want, and that is what, in my view, gives sense to this book beyond its validity as an explanatory proposition of the living and of living beings.13 This has been my first inner motive to write this book. We living beings exist in two domains: in the domain of our physiology, where our body dynamics takes place; and in the domain of our relations with the medium where our living as organisms take place as the kind of beings that we are. Although different and not intersecting, these two domains modulate each other generatively in such a way that what happens in one changes according to what happens in the other. It is in the domain of the relation with another living being in language where the human living occurs, and it is in the domain of the relation with another where responsibility and freedom as manners of living take place as manners of living together. But it is also there that emotions take place as different manners of relational behavior with others, and it is there, where in the end exists the human soul, that the frustration and the irritation of youth occurs. We have wanted to replace love with knowledge as a guide for our daily living, both in our relations with other human beings and with nature as a whole, and we have made a mistake. Love and knowledge are not alternatives: love is our fundament and knowledge is an instrument. Furthermore, love is the fundament of our human living, not as a virtue but as the emotion that grounds the human social phenomena, and has made and continues to make possible humanness as such, in the lineage of bipedal primates to which we belong (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 1993). When love is denied in the attempt to give a rational fundament for all our relations and actions, we dehumanize ourselves, becoming blind both to ourselves and to the other. In this blindness we have lost in our daily living the vision that allows us to see the harmony of the natural world to which we belong, and we are almost unable to experience the aesthetic and poetic conception 13 | Translators’ note: We are reminded of the words of Richard Lovelace: “Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage…”

Constructivist Foundations

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that treats the natural world, the biosphere in its fundamental historical harmony, as the kingdom of God, and we live fighting with it. My awareness of all of this has been my second inner motive in the search for understanding living beings and the living, in the desire to recover the unity of body and soul in human daily living that the understanding of our biological nature makes possible through our consciousness of our responsibility as living beings that are free to live in whatever world that they wish because they can be aware of the consequences of what they choose.


Huxley J. (1942) Evolution: The modern synthesis. Allen & Unwin, London. Maturana H. R. (1970a) Biology of cognition. Biological Computer Laboratory BCL report N. 9.0, University of Illinois. Reprinted in: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition. The realization of the living. Reidel, Dordrecht: 5–58. Maturana H. R. (1970b) Neurophysiology of cognition. In: Garvin P. (ed.) Cognition – A multiple view. Spartan Books, New York: 3–24. Maturana H. R. (1975) The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization. International Journal of Man–Machine Studies 7: 313–332. Maturana H. R. (1980) Autopoiesis: Reproduction, heredity and evolution. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis, dissipative structures and spontaneous social orders. AAAS Selected Symposium 55. Westview Press, Boulder CO: 45–79. Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis M. (1992) Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (1992) Origen de las especies por medio de la deriva natural (Publicacion Ocasional no. 46). Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Santiago. English translation: Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (2000) The origin of species by means of natural drift. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 73(2): 261–310. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1984) El árbol del conocimiento: Las bases biológicas del entendimiento humano. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago. English translation: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1987) The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of human understanding. Shambhala, Boston & London.

Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (1993) Amor y juego: Fundamentos olvidados de lo humano. Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva, Chile. Varela F. J., Maturana H. R. & Uribe R. B. (1974) Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5(4): 187–196.

References in the translators’ notes Foucault M. (1970) The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. Pantheon Books, New York. French original: Foucault M. (1966) Les mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines. Éditions Gallimard, Paris. English translation: Jung C. G. (1966) Septem sermones ad mortuous. In: Jung C. G., Memories, dreams, reflections. Vintage Books, New York: 378–390. Originally published in German in 1916. Prigogine I. & Stengers I. (1984) Order out of chaos. Man’s new dialogue with nature. Bantam Books, Toronto. Received: 26 June 2010 Accepted: 10 July 2011

“De máquinas y seres vivos. Autopoesis: La organización de lo vivo” by Humberto R. Maturana & Francisco J. Varela. Lumen, Buenos Aires, 2004 ISBN 978-98700038-6, 137 pages

Theory of Autopoiesis

Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach – Part 1 Hugo Urrestarazu • Independent Researcher • hugo.urrestarazu/at/ > Context • This paper is intended for readers familiar with Humberto Maturana’s theory of autopoietic systems and

with the still unresolved debate concerning the existence of non-biological autopoietic systems. Because the seminal work of the Chilean biologist has not yet been fully and correctly understood in other disciplines, I consider that it is necessary to offer a more generalized concept of the autopoietic system, derived by implication from Maturana’s grounding definition. > Problem • The above-mentioned debate is rooted in a deficient application of some rigorous distinctions, definitions, and epistemological considerations introduced by Maturana when he coined the term “autopoiesis.” Some researchers think that social or economic organizations could be considered as autopoietic systems of a higher order because they appear to behave autonomously and be self-organized and self-producing. However, in practice some precise distinctions would need to be verified through observation in order to claim properly their autopoietic nature. These distinctions were defined by Varela, Maturana and Uribe in 1974 as a set of six decisional rules (“MV&U rules”) whereby an observer may possibly justify this stand. My aim is to pinpoint clearly the basic cognitive tasks that an observer should perform in order to ascertain such a claim. > Method • I accomplish this with a thorough analysis of the entailments derived from each rule when applied to the most general case – when the observational domain where the system manifests itself is not specified. A bottom-up approach is used to avoid referring to “apparent autopoietic behavior” as a starting point distinction (top-down approach): the aim is to distinguish “autopoietic behavior” as an outcome of more basic distinctions, not as a premise for these. These may be used as abstract tools to facilitate a rigorous description of observations and lead to precise explanations of the emergence of complex self-generated dynamic systems. In theory, this conceptual frame is not limited to the macro-molecular domain and may therefore be applicable to non-biological systems. > Results • According to MV&U rules, the most important distinctions are those that refer to intra-boundary phenomenology: this focus is necessary to explain how the key processes involved in the emergence of autopoiesis actually manifest themselves. These explanations are crucial to validating a claim about the “autopoietic nature” of an observed system. > Implications • This work could help multidisciplinary researchers to apply properly the theory of autopoietic systems beyond the realm of biology and to settle ongoing debates. It could also help investigations related to the specifications of software simulation processes for modeling a minimal artificial autopoietic system. However, the rigorous focus on the role of intra-boundary phenomenology and self-production of components reveals that our chances of detecting “natural” meta-molecular autopoietic systems are scarce. > Key words • Autopoiesis, self-production, autonomy, causation structure, artificial life, organizational knowledge. 307

Introduction This paper is intended for readers familiar with Humberto Maturana’s theory of autopoietic systems1 and with the still unresolved debate concerning the existence of non-biological autopoietic systems. The original authors of the concept of autopoiesis addressed the biological domain exclusively, and they described the concept 1 | The label “theory of autopoietic systems” is meant to refer to Maturana’s theoretical work on the organization of living systems. For a brief overview of the basic concepts see Maturana’s historical account (2002: 5–10) and the introductory sections 1.1 and 1.2 of Varela’s (1992) essay.

using rigorous distinctions, definitions, and epistemological considerations. In my opinion, the continuing debate derives from poor and incomplete application of these rigorous elements by those who seek to apply the concept to non-biological domains. Nonbiological domains2 could be the domains of existence of social systems, economic organizations, or artificial life simulation systems created by means of software engineering or robotics developments, for exam2 | What we call “domains” are social human constructs. In nature we observe the manifestation of an undifferentiated continuum of interlayered molecular, chemical, physical, biological, behavioral, and social phenomena.

ple. Some researchers in various disciplines feel that autopoiesis should be domain-free rather than domain-specific – regardless of Maturana’s and Varela’s opinions – and that only then could the concept of autopoiesis serve its specifics in different domains. In order to refer to a generalized notion of a realm in which autopoietic systems could be observed and identified as such, I use the term “observational domain.” Throughout this paper, the term “observational domain,”3 refers to any domain of perceived phenomena in which we, as hu3 | The meaning ascribed in this paper to the term “observational,” as derived from terms such as “observing” and “observer,” is meant to cor-


man observers, can perform sensorial and operational experiences through interactions with the observable entities under consideration. It is assumed that any observational domain is a physical domain and that ordinary physical laws are applicable in it. These interactions should occur as phenomena pertaining to our own biological domain (i.e., phenomena of our own direct sensory-motor perception capabilities) or as indirect biological effects resulting from the use of suitable transducers (measurement apparatus). Hence, the attention is focused on the occurrence of humanly observable and describable events occurring in what appears to us as the ordinary physical space. The identification of autopoietic systems by observers of phenomena occurring in a given observational domain is an abstract exercise that needs to refer to the notions and explanations introduced by Maturana when he coined the term autopoiesis. In the following I assume that the reader is familiar with the general concept of autopoiesis as an approach to explaining what distinguishes living beings from other dynamic systems observed in nature. My aim is to go beyond the original purpose of explaining autopoiesis for biological systems by broaching a generalization of the concept in order to make explanations applicable to different kinds of observational domains. This is a debatable subject and for years Maturana has been extremely cautious of pronouncing himself on the matter of deciding whether other observational domains do exist in which autopoietic systems could be observable. More recently, he concluded in a negative way by stating: “The molecular space is peculiar [...] I claim that neither the elements of the sub-molecular nor the elements of the supra-molecular domains can by themselves give rise to autopoietic systems,” Maturana (2002: 14). Nevertheless, the concept lends itself to an explicit generalization, provided that we avoid explanations relying on the nature of specific interaction mechanisms between components. I will show that even the peculiarities of the molecular domain can be stated respond to the notions explained by Maturana (1988a) in his paper “ontology of observing.”


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in abstract general terms, regardless of their possible applicability. My basic claim is that it is possible to explain what autopoiesis is about without explaining how this emergent property results from a particular interaction mechanism prevailing in a given observational domain. To do this I focus on the most common aspect of all possible types of dynamic interactions, namely on their causation structure, but not on explicit descriptions of particular physical interactions that link system components together.

The problem

The theory of autopoietic systems has been stated in terms that can be interpreted as encompassing a general class of autopoietic systems in which biological organisms may be considered as a particular case. In theory, an autopoietic system constitutes a particular case of dynamic system in which some observational distinctions need to be verified in order to claim properly its autopoietic nature. These distinctions were defined by Maturana, Varela and uribe as a set of decisional rules (Varela et al. 1974; hereafter “VM&u rules”), whereby an observer may provide the answers to six basic questions and possibly justify a positive claim by means of descriptions of observational experiences performed in the intersection of an observational domain with the system’s domain of existence.4 Inspired from observed biological macromolecular phenomenology, these rules were intended to characterize living beings in terms of described phenomena occurring in molecular dynamic systems. In fact, these proposed 4 | The “domain of existence” of an observed dynamic entity does not necessarily coincide with the observational domain in which the observer interacts with it because a system may operate through activities that do not involve biological interactions with the observer at a given moment. In this sense, the observational domain is restricted to phenomena that the observer has already experienced by interacting with the observed entity. The observer may “see” only a portion of the entity and of its operations because it could well happen that the observational domain that the observer is able to deploy could not be extended to the whole domain of existence of an observed entity. Some entities would thus remain only partially observable.

distinctions overtake the scope of the molecular domain and are theoretically applicable to other “meta-molecular”5 domains (i.e., where the observable entities need not be described at their molecular level of composition). However, many difficulties have been encountered in practice when applying these rules to other particular domains in which the existence of autopoietic systems has been suspected. This is especially the case for the social or economical domains, for example. discussions often focus on the question of identifying the boundaries of purported autopoietic systems as a way of discriminating the observed composite unities from their background and deciding if they are indeed members of a particular class of entities showing autopoietic behavior. I show that the identification of boundaries is a necessary but not sufficient step. By proposing a bottom-up explanatory approach based on some elementary distinctions, definitions, and conceptual tools, I intend to encourage the reader to consider the entailments of imposing compliance with all six decisional rules, taken one by one, on the most general case, where the nature of the observational domain is not specified. By “not specified” I mean that the physical mechanisms involved in the emergence of dynamic systems in an observational domain are either not known, or are voluntarily not referred to (for practical or theoretical reasons) although they are assumed to exist.


due to space limitations this paper has been organized into three parts that are not completely independent but are published separately. Parts II and III refer to 5 | By “meta-molecular” domain I mean any physical domain in which the dynamic entities being considered by the observer are not distinguished or described as individual molecules (taken in the usual sense employed in physics, chemistry, and/or biochemistry). The term “meta-molecular” connotes the notion of “more than simply molecular” and is used to signify that the observed interactions occurring between dynamical entities may be explained without referring explicitly to a ground level molecular phenomenology.

Theory of Autopoiesis

Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach – Part 1 hugo urrestarazu

terminology, concepts, and developments presented in the previous parts. Above all, Part I is essential to understanding the terminology used in the following parts and sections. The present paper corresponds to Part I, in which I discuss briefly the applicability of the VM&u rules to generalized meta-molecular domains, present the basic definitions and conceptual tools used in a bottom-up explanatory approach to understanding dynamic systems, and present an overview of the six VM&u rules (viewed as a validation test to qualify a system as autopoietic), explained and interpreted from within this explanatory approach. Part II is an expansion of the abovementioned explanatory approach, applied to the explication of the natural emergence of composite self-organized dynamic systems endowed with self-produced embodied boundaries. This is followed by an analysis of the requirements imposed on the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology for compliance with the self-production capabilities that autopoietic systems should show, according to Varela, Maturana and uribe. Special attention is given to the consequences derived from the application of the 5th and 6th component “production rules” with respect to the topology of the interaction structures resulting from the components’ coupling activity. Part III treats several issues: the “scale of description problem” posed when trying to identify a suspected autopoietic system; the relation between the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology and the fundamental notion of operational closure; and a discussion about the possibility of establishing a strict equivalence between the generalized notion of autopoietic system and the notion of a living being. These developments are followed by a “Self-critique” section, where I discuss the validity of my bottom-up explanatory approach, and a “New reflection perspectives” section with a discussion concerning the potential use of the proposed methodology to analyze existing complex systems, to design and build artificial self-organized and autonomous systems, and to attempt to overcome the debate about the purported existence of non-biological autopoietic systems.

Applicability of the Vm&u rules I will show that, given an observational domain in which a certain dynamic entity is being observed as a unity, if this entity belongs to the class of autopoietic systems it should be possible to describe it as bounded, composite, mechanistic, self-referential, selfproducing, and autonomous. This is a compact way of expressing the characterizing properties that the observer should be able to distinguish and describe in order to ascertain that the observed unity is autopoietic, as implied from the “(…) six-point key for determining whether or not a given unity is autopoietic,” (Varela et al. 1974: 192). I consider that the term “key” should be replaced by “validation test,” because it expresses better what the observer is expected to do when trying to identify the nature of the observed entity. This test consists of the six VM&u rules that the observer should apply while observing. Each rule consists of one or more questions that should all be answered positively in order to validate a claim. It is not my purpose to review and discuss these rules per se, but to use them as a guiding reference in the bottom-up explanatory approach to autopoiesis that I unfold in the next section and in parts II and III of this work. These rules represent in fact a very compact definition of the notion of the autopoietic machine, as it was initially conceived by Maturana four decades ago, and a full comprehension of their scope should be obtained by comparison with other developments on autopoiesis produced by Maturana and Varela ever since. According to Maturana (2002: 6–8), he developed the basic notion back in 1964, but did not coin the term “autopoiesis” until 1970. The rules sketched and published by Varela, Maturana and uribe in 1974 were seldom explicitly cited by Maturana or Varela thereafter, even though they never stated that this definition, as implied from the rules, was flawed or inadequate. In my opinion, they just left to others the task of exploring the entailments that can be derived from their “sixpoint key.” The VM&u rules’ “natural” domain of applicability is the biological domain, as they were purposefully devised to account for the observed phenomenon of the emer-

gence of molecular entities showing the specific properties that characterize living beings. However, because they were formulated in general abstract terms, their applicability is in principle not restricted to a specific observational domain as the authors explicitly admitted a domain-free interpretation: “For the purpose of explaining and studying the notion of autopoiesis, however, one may take a more general view as we have done here […] where physical space is replaced by any space […] and molecules by entities endowed with some properties.” (Varela et al. 1974: 191). Although in Maturana’s and Varela’s literature emphasis has been put mainly on physical spaces and molecular phenomenology, they nevertheless left the door open to the consideration of a “more general view,” and this is precisely what I intend to do here. But I intend also to show that some of these rules impose severe restrictions on the identification of autopoietic systems in meta-molecular domains. This analysis may lead someone to modify some rules, and produce a broader version that could satisfy aspirations for a theory of autopoietic systems that was domain-free not only in principle, but also in practice. The question would arise then of whether we could still call that modified version a theory of “autopoiesis,” or would need to qualify it with another name instead. The reader should be aware that unfolding the operational meaning of the VM&u rules from within my explanatory approach inevitably constitutes a particular interpretation of them. In the final section of this paper, “The VM&u validation test,” I present an overview of the rules and I explain how they relate, in my view, to the required characterizing properties mentioned above. More detailed discussions are also developed in Part II and Part III.

Bottom-up explanatory approach In this paper I intend to avoid referring to the distinction of autopoietic behavior as a starting point of discussion. My aim is to introduce this distinction as an outcome of some preliminary explanations, not as a premise for them. I begin with the explanation of what I understand as those necessary



basic distinctions that allow an observer to describe dynamic objects and their mutual interactions. From there I step into an explanation of more elaborated distinctions that allow us to describe a general composite dynamic system existing in a general non-specified observational domain. The global aim is to explain through which basic distinctions we may bring forth more elaborated descriptions that are essential to identify a structure determined dynamic activity compliant with the rules that define an autopoietic machine in a composite system being so far unknown as a member of the class of autopoietic systems. In other words, I intend to pinpoint the necessary cognitive steps that an observer should perform in order to focus on pertinent observations that would allow him or her to describe a possible autopoietic behavior. By following this explanatory path and applying the VM&u rules to validate a positive claim, I intend to show how a very general composite dynamic system can be “recognized” by the observer – step by step – as an autopoietic system. I impose the requirement that the resulting explanations should lead to the identification of three distinct sets of dynamic objects related to the suspected autopoietic system: a | a “boundary” (among other possible boundaries); b | the “body” (what is “inside this boundary”); and c | the “medium” (what is “outside this boundary”). By following the entailments of Maturana’s proposed distinctions concerning the nature of the dynamic components that constitute an autopoietic system, I show then that this task must be completed by focusing on what happens “inside the boundaries.” I discuss the terms whereby observers can describe the intra-boundary phenomenology in order to explain how the key processes (such as self-organization, self-production, and self-adaptation to varying environmental circumstances) manifest themselves. These explanations are vital to revealing what is determinant in general and applicable in particular to an observed system so that observers can validate a possible claim that it is indeed autopoietic.


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ontological and epistemological considerations

We will see that in the more general case, when we tackle the problem of “detecting” or “identifying” an autopoietic system in a non-specified observational domain, the “autopoietic nature” of the system may not appear as a directly observable physical feature of the observed entity, but as a conceptual construct based on multiple observations and descriptions. Even in the case of living cells or organisms, we may encounter difficulties in physically circumscribing the unity and differentiating its structure from the background as a compact physical object.6 on the one hand, we need to know what it means to say that an “autopoietic system,” its boundary, and its environment exist as physical objects and not as “views” of our minds. This is a typical ontological problem and we need to give an account of the terminology used to refer to the “real” observable entities that we call autopoietic systems and to refer to the abstract conceptual constructs that we may use as explanation tools. on the other hand, we need to clarify the relationships that the observer may establish with these observable entities and what he or she can learn from the act of observing. This is an epistemological problem that the above-mentioned conceptual constructs should provide as well. The criteria needed to generate the above-mentioned basic distinctions are not trivial, but I claim that they can be specified in general for any observational domain, provided that the formal relations used in the languaging domain7 to describe 6 | A biological example is the identification of the immune system as an autopoietic unity by Varela (Varela et al. 1988); this is not spatially fixed and is not limited by a “surface” acting as boundary, such as the membrane in the cell. “The immune system is not spatially fixed, it’s best understood as an emergent network” (Varela 1995: 213). 7 | The term “languaging domain” refers to the domain of human conversations in which language, conceived as a consensual coordination of consensual coordination of behaviors between humans, is the fundamental interaction used by scientific observers to express their descriptions of their experiences performed in the observa-

relations between dynamic objects existing in the observed domain express the occurrence of causal interactions between them, whatever the causation mechanism may be. I stress the issue of focusing on causality as it needs to be explicitly stated in order to choose the most appropriate abstract language capable of expressing the operations of distinction proposed in this explanatory path.

Causation and entailment relations

Before addressing the subject of the identification of a boundary, let me first discuss some basic distinctions concerning causality. I beg the reader to consider the following paragraphs as a non-trivial and necessary step to render the notion of causality explicitly distinct from the notion of entailment (or logical implication). This distinction is essential to avoid a common theoretical snare when appealing to abstract reasoning. The snare consists of confusing the phenomenological relationships that an observer can establish on observational grounds with logical inferences resulting from theoretical formalisms meant to model an observed phenomenology. ƒ entailment is a cognitive operation involving logical statements of the sort: “if A is true then B is true” (A implies B) for example; ƒ whereas causation is a description of observed phenomena involving statements such as: “I observe that whenever X happens, then Y happens consecutively within a finite time interval” (X causes Y). Both previous statements can be used to define abstract relations such as Re (A, B) (for entailment) and Rc (X,Y) (for causation), but the meaning of the word then is quite different in each case. In the first case it expresses an inference that has significance only in formal terms with respect to rules, axioms or theorems expressed within a formal mathematical system with a timeless logical validity. In the latter case, the word “then” can be replaced by the expression “it happens that,” which tional domain under consideration, to explain their operations of distinction, and to formulate their claims about phenomena observed within these domains.

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refers to an observed fact totally unrelated to any observer’s cognitive operation other than the act of observing/describing, and its validity is inter-subjectively established, circumstantial, and time dependent. This distinction between entailment relations and causation relations becomes crucial when describing reflexive and reciprocal relations between dynamical entities, because in the first case reflexivity or reciprocity relations are interpreted as timeless recursive functional applications leading to infinite regress, whereas in the second case, as the causation propagation time is explicitly taken into account, reflexive and reciprocal relations may be interpreted as succession of causation events with a restricted time dependent phenomenological validity, with no recursive entailment involved.

Time and causality

Causality refers to the notions of events occurring in time, of successions of such events and of observed regularities in those successions of events. In order to explicitly state what the word “time” connotes in this paper, I refer the reader to Maturana (1995), where he states that the notion of time is a notion that arises (for the observer) as an abstraction with no transcendental ontological status. For him, the word “time […] cannot refer to an entity that exists independently of what we do” as human observers. The notion of a causal relationship linking objects that have arisen in our experience as observers refers to the observation of repeated regularities in the successions of events concerning those objects, so that we are allowed to claim that we can distinguish relations that couple those objects together with respect to our perception of their dynamic activity. We humans act as observers of phenomena occurring in time by describing to other humans our experiences (by interacting with them in the languaging domain) while or after being involved in biological interactions with the outcomes of those observed phenomena. In order to make scientifically valid descriptions of our experiences we need to achieve what we could call “objectivity of description.” This is an outcome of the coherency of our experiences as observers in which a described phenomenological experience leads to the actual

realization of experiences of the same kind that can be described (in the languaging domain) in the same way by other observers. In this sense, objectivity of description does not refer to an observer independent reality, but to the coherence of the experiences of multiple observers as expressed by what they say about their own experiences. As such, the term “objectivity” connotes an “inter-subjective outcome” of our experience of living as biological systems and of our languaging activity as humans. Now, what do we mean by phenomena occurring in time? In this paper, all that needs to be inter-subjectively said about this notion in order to explain the notion of causal relationship is synthesized by Einstein’s famous (and provocative) phenomenological distinction: “time is what is measured by clocks.”8 As clocks are just extensions of our perceptive organs, conceived to help us to assign a value to the “size” of perceived intervals that “separate” observed events distinctly (for us as observers), it is clear that the word “time” cannot be invoked to connote anything independent from the observer’s experience. I consider that this reference to the notion of time used by Einstein in physics is in no way problematic with respect to the ontological considerations expressed by Maturana (1995, 1988a, 1988b) concerning the notion of time. In my interpretation,9 the expres8 | Einstein’s statement was completed by Lamaître: “[…] if a number of experiments are started and finished together, then the same experiments repeated elsewhere and started together must finish together. Any instrument that repeats endlessly the same experiments and counts their number is a clock” (Georges Lemaître, letter to Albert Einstein, 1947, quoted by Jean-Pierre Luminet (2004), my translation). The statement “must finish together” refers to an accepted “fact of nature” acknowledged by experiments performed by scientific observers. I mean by “fact of nature” an observable regularity agreed upon by scientific observers to be considered as a physical law: in the context of Lemaître’s remark, he refers to an invariant of the general theory of relativity. 9 | I acknowledge that Einstein also posed that time is a fourth dimension, mathematically similar to the other three spatial dimensions, proved to be relative in its quantity to the velocity of observers moving in physical space. My

sion “what is measured” could be better understood as “whatever is measured,” to emphasize that in physics there is no point in asking if Einstein’s “what” has a transcendental ontological status on its own or not. In this statement, Einstein purportedly bypassed this question and, independently from any personal metaphysical stand of his own, he equated “time = measure,” by stating implicitly that in physics, it is irrelevant to imagine what else it could be. This measure refers to the result of a biological experience of the observer when interacting with a device (a clock). This result is expressed as a number that corresponds to a count of clock events (a cognitive action of the observer). This number is an abstraction that exists only in the languaging domain, not in the observational domain, in agreement with Maturana’s considerations referred above. What we connote here by “time” arises from the observer’s doing when counting repeated events, be it in language (announcing consecutive numbers, aloud or silently) or by relying on a counting device. Phenomena occurring in time are, then, interactive events undergone by observers who are able to discriminate their occurrence in time by assigning them a measure with the help of a clock. The fact that our spontaneous perception of the occurrence of observable phenomena allows us to discriminate sequentially separated events without using an instrument and talk about what occurred before, simultaneously or after the occurrence of a referential event (because we are endowed with memory), is a cognitive ability of our species. This ability is efficient only within a biologically determined range of values. The use of a clock is a reinforcement needed to generate scientifically valid explanations in the languaging domain, especially for observational domains in which our natural perception is unable to discriminate successive events separated by extremely short time intervals. interpretation is based on the opinion that these notions of spatial/temporal dimension are all abstractions of the same kind, treated in an abstract mathematical model, and thereby they all pertain to the languaging domain of human observers. To discuss these considerations further is out of the scope of this paper.



Cause-effect relationships


The term “causally linked phenomena” refers to an association established by observers between events occurring regularly as a consequence of other events that occurred before and that do not occur if those causing events do not occur. This is a one-way “cause-effect relationship” with respect to the occurrence of “causing events” and of “effect events” as discriminated by an increasing counter of “clock events.” My purpose is to describe observable phenomena produced by the activity of dynamic entities, that is to say, of observable objects in which we can distinguish changes and consider those changes as events occurring in time. Those entities exist in an observational domain and are subject to changes as a consequence of their mutual interactions. These changes are considered as the causal outcome of those interactions. The phenomenon under investigation is the “emergence of interaction structures” giving rise to the observation of groups of interacting entities that can be distinguished as being mutually associated by cause-effect couplings while other entities existing in the same observational domain are not associated in this way.

The observer’s “point of view”

When observing a population of dynamical objects and differentiating a composite unity of such objects from the background, the observer needs to define some inclusion criteria in order to distinguish the said composition phenomenon. of course, in any theoretical approach, the inclusion criteria – used by the observer to decide whether some entities are to be considered as components of a system or not – define the boundaries of the referred system independently from any observed “(objective) reality.” Stated in this way, the operations of distinction should be understood as cognitive statements made arbitrarily by an observer. These proposed distinctions may facilitate or prevent the observation of an autopoietic system in action, and this is essential to judge on their pertinence. Furthermore, such inclusion criteria are not imposed a priori by the nature of a particular observational domain. Each possible set of inclusion criteria constitutes a hypothetical approach giving rise to interpretations of observable events


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that can be more or less useful for “detecting” the existence of a suspected autopoietic unity in the observed observational domain. In this sense, the “boundary” exists only in the languaging domain: it is the “observer’s point of view,” allowing him or her to talk about the existence of an observable composite unity, seen as clearly “distinguishable” from its environment and showing a possible autopoietic behavior in the considered observational domain. We need to keep in mind that some inclusion criteria may prevent observers from identifying such a composite unity as an autopoietic system at all. This is an important consideration because phenomenological descriptions depend strongly on those aspects of a phenomenology upon which we focus attention as observers. Therefore, the choice of pertinent inclusion criteria and their corresponding observation protocols is at the heart of the problem of identification of autopoietic behavior. Nevertheless, when the observed phenomenology allows us to describe the emergence of spontaneously generated structures of components involved in distinguishable mutual interactions – distinguishable from the interactions with other dynamical objects – we can say that it is the phenomenon of emergence itself that “defines” the boundary (for an observer). This is an outcome of considering the observed emerged unity as a structure determined system. The particular structure of the system arises (for an observer) only when the attention of the observer is focused on a particular type of interaction occurring as an observed phenomenon in the system’s domain of existence. This might sound in contradiction with the observer’s freedom to choose any set of inclusion criteria leading to the identification of a composite unity, of its boundary, and of its environment. But the contradiction is only apparent because the observer’s operations of distinction are just hypothetical approaches expressed in language and what the observer says about the observations performed on the system/environment interactions are descriptions of the observer’s experiences in the observational domain in which the system behaves as a unity. When observations do not match with expectations derived from a particular “point

of view,” the observer may always change it in order to search for a better match.


It is the confrontation of the theoretical operations of distinctions with the description of observational experiences that allows the observer to claim that there is a formal correspondence between the proposed distinctions and the descriptions of actual observational experiences. If the observer is not able to establish such a correspondence, he or she is free to modify the proposed inclusion criteria until a better match can be claimed. When a formal correspondence can be claimed and other observers agree to say that the claim is valid, “objectivity in parenthesis” (Maturana 1988a) allows us to say that the observed system (objectively) defines its structurally determined emerged boundaries. Briefly, I will show that in the most general case, “causal coupling relations” are the base level abstractions necessary to describe a proposed theoretical “boundary” for the system. However, in the practice of observing a particular domain, the consideration of a particular type of causation mechanism allows the observer to define specific observational protocols devised to verify that this theoretical “boundary” coincides with a particular set of physical components where each member is distinguished by the causal coupling relations in which it participates, based solely on the operation of the considered causation mechanism in the domain where the system arises as such (to the observer). When this is the case we can talk about an “embodied boundary.”

Explanations in the biological domain

Let us see how these considerations apply in the domain for which Maturana and Varela developed their theory of autopoiesis, namely the biological domain. Here, living systems are observed as biochemical dynamic systems capable of conserving their organization in continuous interaction with their biochemical environment. Maturana proposed that: systems are dynamic systems consti“tuted[…]asliving autonomous unities through being closed circular concatenations (closed networks) of mo-

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lecular productions in which the different kinds of molecules that composed them participated in the production of each other, and in which everything can change except the closed circularity of the concatenation of molecular productions that constitutes them as unities [...] Francisco Varela and I expanded this characterization of living systems by saying: first, that a composite unity whose organization can be described as a closed network of productions of components that through their interactions constitute the network of productions that produce them and specify its extension by constituting its boundaries in their domain of existence, is an autopoietic system; and second, that a living system is an autopoietic system whose components are molecules. or, in other words, we proposed that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems and that as such they exist in the molecular space as closed networks of molecular productions that specify their own limits. (Maturana 1988a)

The type of interactions considered in the macromolecular domain and observed in the physical space are those established between complex molecules giving rise to more or less stable macromolecular structures participating in the dynamics of the system that they constitute. These interactions are explained in terms of chemical couplings in which the spatial closeness and chemical affinity of the interacting entities (macromolecules) play a fundamental role. In physical terms, interactions occur according to the manifestation of electrochemical attractive or repulsive forces subject to three-dimensional Euclidean constraints. These constraints may be expressed in terms of distances between the interacting entities and of the mutual three-dimensional orientation of their spatial structure. The resulting structure of a composite system of interacting macromolecules is also a spatial structure occupying a volume in the physical space. Such structures have “natural boundaries” that can be described mathematically in terms of topological surfaces distinguished in an abstract three-dimensional “Euclidean space.” For example, the cell membrane is the embodied locus of the boundary for the most elementary structure of living beings: the living cell described as an autopoietic system. This boundary is (objectively) produced by the cell itself.

However, the distinctions made in the biochemical domain (i.e., the identification of the basic dynamic entities, called “macromolecules”) need to be stated with caution. For example, the scale of the observation is essential to bring forth the appropriate structures to be observed and described as components. When considering biochemical interactions, everything occurring in this observational domain is a succession of multiple biochemical couplings continuously linking molecules to other molecules. If the scale of observation is not chosen to be large enough to allow for the observation of the emergence of large scale structures, the identification of structure determined boundaries might become impossible. At a low scale of observation, a cellular membrane would be seen as a sieve and interacting molecules could not be classified as being part of an “inside” or of an “outside” volume. on the other hand, if the scale of observation is too large, the observer will not be able to observe interactions between basic components – only between large scale composite structures – nor explain the emergence of an autopoietic unity as a result of underlying interaction mechanisms. These examples of operations of distinction that depend on the scale of observation show how an observer can miss the identification of an autopoietic system and its boundary altogether or be unable to claim an explanatory path for the emergence of such a composite unity.

Explanations in a non-specified observational domain

In order to test the applicability of Maturana’s general definition of autopoietic systems in other observational domains, many authors have discussed the existence and the identification of such composite unities. This is especially the case with sociologists or economists, who consider the idea that some observed organizations perceived as possessing some traits of self-rule could be described as autopoietic entities existing in a social, political or economical domain.10 10 | As my purpose is to explain autopoiesis in general terms and not to discuss the applicability of autopoietic theory to social/political/ economical systems, I refer the reader to some authors that discuss the autonomous nature of these

When discussing the problem of identifying the boundary of such systems, a preliminary question arises: How should we distinguish the agents that constitute the system’s components? In other words, what inclusion criteria should be applied in order to differentiate the system components from other agents existing in the same observational domain? We will see that this question finds a natural answer when we focus our analysis on the natural emergence of causation networks, conceived as connected paths for the propagation of cause-effect events among a population of interacting dynamical entities. That autopoiesis is not an outcome of the internal properties of components but of the dynamic relations established between them is implicit in the definition of an autopoietic system compliant with the VM&u rules, though it has been repeatedly argued by Maturana and Varela. This consideration is essential to argue in favor of the need to stress the point explicitly in the definition of the notion of relation itself. I intend to show that in the case of a general (i.e., non-specified) observational domain, any pertinent operation of distinction made by an observer in order to discriminate the boundary of a suspected autopoietic system should rely only on the notion of causal propagation occurring among dynamic objects interacting in that domain. I focus on pure causation flow because it is the only common property left when we generalize the observational domain. If autopoietic behavior should be distinguishable and explainable in any observational domain, the specific prevailing causation mechanism should not be part of the explanation. The description of the nature of the underlying mechanism responsible for such interactions is needed only to verify the pertinence of the operation of distinction by carrying out observations in a particular observational domain.

systems and the role played by some basic notions used in autopoietic theory in the attempts to describe them (Beer 1972, 1980, 1995; Schwember 1977; dupuy 1982; Luhmann 1986; robb 1989; Zeleny & Hufford 1992).


Object A

Object B


changed state

propagation time

i ract on


state before interaction

triggering transition



state before interaction

caused transition

3 |

4 |

changed state

Figure 1: Observer’s description of a cause-effect interaction. This figure is an abstract schematic representation of a succession of events occurring in time (increasing time is represented by the left top-down oriented vertical arrow) as described by an observer. These events involve two observed objects A and B. The interactions between the observer and the objects are not depicted, but are assumed to have already taken place. This graphical representation is to be taken as an observer’s description of the occurrence of correlated changes in both objects. This correlation is represented by the arrow called “Interaction.” Note that an interaction occurs within a non null time interval. The triggering transition in object A occurs within a non null time interval, too, but the figure depicts the event as occurring when the observer perceives it. The interaction “Propagation time” is the time needed for the effect to manifest itself on object B. The latter depends on the interaction propagation speed, the distance separating the objects in physical space, and the caused transition delay in object B (reaction time). The figure depicts the caused transition event in object B as occurring when the observer perceives it. All these time intervals depend on the specific underlying interaction mechanism and the nature of the dynamic objects under observation. The occurrence of a transition in object A and its resulting arrival state is supposed to be absolutely independent of the starting state of object B (we are dealing with a one-way interaction only). The arrival state of object B may or may not depend on the starting state of object A, on its arrival state, or on both.

Cause-effect coupling The notion of cause-effect coupling between dynamic objects needs to be defined explicitly in order to be able to describe the emergence of interaction structures in general, i.e., without referring explicitly to the interaction mechanism that provokes the coupling.

Definitions and conceptual tools

In order to make this notion explicit, let me propose some brief definitions and statements that will be explained or justified later with more details:


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1 | I define dynamic objects as entities, agents, components (or whatever we want to name the dynamic objects existing in an observational domain) that are capable of performing changes of state. 2 | I mean by the state of a dynamic object the set of values ascribed to a number of variables11 or features that the observer 11 | A state does not need to be defined as an analytical function of the independent variables (in any case this is irrelevant for our explanatory purpose); it is just an identifier for a specific combination of values of the variables at a given time. The only feature retained here is that a state rep-

5 |

6 |

can associate with the object at a given time. The chosen variables, called state variables, should express quantifiable features that are subject to changes in the object’s dynamics. The values of the state variables should be describable and observable by the community of observers at any chosen time. A state transition (or change of state) of a dynamic object occurs when at least one state variable value changes in time. We distinguish a cause-effect coupling between two dynamic objects A and B if a state transition in object A (triggering or causing transition in A) is the condition sine qua non12 of a state transition in object B (a triggered transition in B). An interaction between dynamic objects is a cause-effect coupling that links them for us as observers of the evolution of their history of state transitions in time (see Figure 1). By definition, in a non-specified observational domain, the mechanism responsible for cause-effect coupling between dynamic objects is not specified, but it is assumed to exist as a causal influence of one object on another that the observer can distinguish as occurring in time (i.e., in any given (specified) observational domain, it would correspond to an observable phenomenon). The latter means that: (a) in the absence of any other cause-effect coupling between B and any other object different from A, the caused transition in B never13 occurs before the occurrence of the triggering transition in A; and (b) whenever objects A and B are in a specified

resented by the set of values of those variables at a given time should be distinguishable from a state represented by another set of values for the same variables at a later time. If this happens, the occurrence of this variation is called a state transition. 12 | It should be noted that in the most general case, to claim that an observed event A is the “condition sine qua non” (indispensable condition) for observing an event B is inevitably a hypothetical assertion, because observers could well be misled to associate their occurrences even if they are in fact unrelated. 13 | This is a strictly deterministic definition. We could have said “occurs with a nearly 0 probability” instead of “never occurs.”

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state and a specified triggering transition in A occurs, the same caused transition always14occurs in B, within a finite time interval. 7 | A cause-effect coupling can be represented formally as an oriented relation in a abstract multi-dimensional relational space (linking relational nodes with as many dimensions as the number of variables considered in the associated state variables’ set) 8 | We can define a general dynamic system as a set of dynamic objects linked together via cause-effect coupling (i.e., causal interaction). This set can be represented by a network of oriented relations existing in the multi-dimensional relational space where the relational nodes’ dimension is defined by the cardinal number of the state variables set associated to the linked objects.

Physical constraints

up to this point it is important to note that these definitions are applicable to any kind of interaction because nothing is said about the mechanism responsible for the production of transition events allowing observers to attribute a cause-effect coupling between dynamic objects. Nothing is said either concerning the nature of the “influence” of an object upon another, nor about the nature of the dynamic objects themselves. dynamic objects could be embodied by physical particles, molecules, cells, organisms, individuals, social organizations or even software processes, for example. The interactions could be embodied by physical forces, physical signals or any kind of mechanism capable of triggering changes of state in a dynamic object that is “sensitive” to it. The only thing being said is that the interaction is causal, in the terms defined above. I voluntarily neglect other considerations concerning some physical constraints necessary for an interaction to occur (i.e., energy transfer, for example), not because I believe that a physical interaction could occur without being subjected to those constraints, but 14 | This is a strictly deterministic definition. We could say “occurs with a nearly 1 probability” instead of “always occurs,” but let us stay simple (and classical) this time.


observed phenomenal domain abstract multi-dimensional relational domain

object a

object b

causal interaction

state of object a at time t


state of object b at time t

R(Sa(t), Sb(t))

oriented relation

Sa(t) ~ {v1(t), v2(t), …, vn(t)}a Sb(t) ~ {v1(t), v2(t), …, vn(t)}b

Sb(t) values of state variables

Figure 2: Causal interaction represented by an oriented relation. In this figure the ordered pair is denoted by the relation R(Sa(t), Sb(t)), where Sa(t) and Sb(t) are the states of objects a and b at time t. These states are labels for the n-tuples of values of their n ascribed state variables at time t: Sa(t) ~ {v1(t), v2(t), …, vn(t)}a Sb(t) ~ {v1(t), v2(t), …, vn(t)}b These n-tuples represent two n-dimensional points ascribed to objects a and b in an abstract n-dimensional space. It is to be noted that this abstract representation corresponds to the description that an observer can make of an already performed observational experience in which he or she was able to determine the values of the state variables as observed (measured) at time t, before actually observing the triggering and the caused transitions in objects a and b. This means that the observer is able to say a posteriori, that a and b were related at time t by an oriented relation R that represents a cause-effect interaction started at that moment. The observer can say this because he or she observed the occurrence of a triggering transition in a and a caused transition in b within a finite time interval. The reference to time point t is important in this description because the states of both objects change during the interaction propagation time interval and in their new arrival states they may not be related in the same way (for the observer). In this sense, the “arrow” that represents the observed interaction “exists” only when the state transitions are about to be observed (at time t). Afterwards, the situation is different: both objects may be either “connected” by an arrow or not connected at all.

because this consideration is not relevant for the explanatory path developed below. The only constraint that should be foreseen concerns the conditions needed to assure that interaction activity actually takes place within a finite time interval. This means that a “poised stasis situation”15 should not happen. A poised stasis situation occurs when: 15 | The term “stasis” connotes here the notion of “stoppage of a normal flow” as in medical terminology. In the context it refers to the stoppage of the “causation flow.”

a | cause-effect coupling triggered by other objects is the only way through which dynamic objects are observed to undergo state transitions (i.e., no spontaneous, internally generated transitions are observed), and b | interactions are never observed to occur because no triggered state transitions are observed on any object, albeit they are all poised (i.e., in states that the observer may qualify as of “readiness to react”), according to observations performed in other situations.


R(Sa , Sb)



emerged unity becomes apparent for an observer depending on the type of interaction considered while observing, whereas other emerged unities may be composed partially by the same dynamic components and remain unobserved as totalities.

R(Sb , Sd)


R(Sc , Sb)


R(Sc , Sd)


R(Sf , Sa)

Sd R(Sd , Se)


Abstract explanatory domain


Sf Figure 3: Example of a graph of nodes and edges representing a network of oriented relations.

In other words, if at a given time the values of the state variables of all existing objects are such that the underlying interaction mechanism does not produce any causal effect, a stasis with poised objects will occur and the interactive dynamics will stop (or never start). A situation of poised stasis cannot be completely avoided, since nothing prevents dynamic objects that exist in an observational domain from never encountering each other through cause-effect couplings. The necessary conditions for interactions to occur depend on the range of values of the state variables that allows the manifestation of a specific cause-effect coupling mechanism. To reduce this possibility we should admit that dynamic objects are capable of performing state transitions that do not depend on interactions with other dynamic objects. This could be the outcome of: a | global variations of the values of some state variables due to the action of underlying non-interactive causal mechanisms affecting synchronously or asynchronously all dynamic objects existing in the observational domain being considered;16 or 16 | In the case of the bio-molecular domain, thermal agitation (Brownian motion) affects all molecules simultaneously, thus reducing the probability of a poised stasis situation at suitable temperature ranges.


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b | spontaneous fluctuations in the values of some state variables affecting individual dynamic objects17 (internally triggered transitions). Thus, we should always keep in mind that the phenomenology of interacting dynamic objects might not be the only observable phenomenology in a given observational domain. In this explanatory approach attention is focused on phenomena due only to interactions because I want to show that this is the domain in which autopoietic behavior manifests itself. The existence of other phenomena that allow for the manifestation of state transitions is assumed, but they are not taken explicitly into account. Moreover, an observer may decide to discriminate specific interactions according to different underlying mechanisms responsible for cause-effect coupling occurring between dynamic objects. When different types of interactions occur in the same observational domain for the same dynamic objects, these may become components of distinct but intersecting interaction structures or unities with distinct boundaries and environments.18 In this sense, an 17 | In the case of the bio-molecular domain, some macromolecules are subject to spontaneous changes of state: protein folding is one example. 18 | In the case of the biological domain, we can differentiate normal cells from neurons, for example: neurons interact by means of the specific interaction mechanism of synapses and constitute

As the notion of cause-effect interaction refers implicitly to a causation mechanism observed in a particular observational domain, when generalizing the domain we need to express our reasoning in more abstract terms. An interaction between two dynamic objects can be represented as an oriented relation or, in other words, as an ordered pair of objects coupled by a non-specified causation mechanism. As each object is represented at a given time by its dynamic state, which is described by the instantaneous values of its associated state variables, it follows that a dynamic object can be represented by a point in a multi-dimensional space. An ordered pair of multi-dimensional points or oriented relation is an element of the power set or Cartesian product of this multi-dimensional space with itself (hereafter called the “multi-dimensional relational space”). The order of the pair is defined by placing the object undergoing a triggering transition first, followed by the object undergoing the transition caused (see Figure 2). Thus, a network of interactions between multiple objects can be described at a given time as a subset of the multi-dimensional relational space. This subset of oriented relations can be represented graphically as a graph made of nodes and edges (see Figure 3), in which the nodes represent the states of interacting dynamic objects at a given time and the edges represent the oriented relations established through observation. The graph corresponds to a network of relations defined in an abstract multidimensional relational space that is portrayed graphically in the n-dimensional space where the nodes are defined. The topological configuration of the relational a self-organized nervous system that intersects with the whole organism, a system composed of normal cells plus the neurons themselves.

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network represents the global state of all “connected” nodes at a given time and is isomorphic with the interaction network distinguished by the observer in a given observational domain. In my theoretical extension to a non-specified observational domain, the interaction network becomes the causation network. In Figure 3, the multi-dimensional points are drawn as circles with their associated state labels and the oriented relations established between them are drawn as arrows. Any dynamic object describable with a chosen set of n state variables can be represented in this abstract n-dimensional space (in the figure it is drawn flat, for convenience). An isolated circle represents a dynamical object in a particular state (a particular set of values of the state variables) in which it is not related to other objects (it does not trigger transitions on others nor is affected by any transition occurred in other objects). In this particular case, at the moment considered, the n-dimensional point is not a node of any graph, but by convention it is nevertheless represented in the figure as it may become a node at another moment. Formally, the oriented relations are not members of this space, but of its power set, the multi-dimensional relational space, but they are drawn conventionally in the same figure as one-way connectors relating the existing n-dimensional points at a given time. In my explanations I use a language containing terms pertaining to two interlacing explanatory domains: one pointing to an observational domain (in which particular observations are made) and one pointing to the above-mentioned abstract explanatory domain based on mathematical concepts (in which generalized explanations are produced). Both domains intersect through the doings of the observer, who is involved both in biological experiences in the observational domain and in cognitive experiences of “distinguishingdescribing-explaining” in the languaging domain. For a wider understanding, I avoid unnecessary rigorous mathematical definitions. However, some correspondences between terms need to be highlighted (see Table 1 on next page).

Causation structures

To advance my explanation, I will need to propose further definitions necessary to account for the emergence of observable causation structures: 1 | A chained cause-effect coupling occurs when a change of state of object A unidirectionally triggers a change of state of object B via the change of state of an intermediate dynamic object C linked by direct cause-effect coupling with A and B. In this sense, the interaction between A and B propagates via C. 2 | A dynamic structure is a set of dynamic objects linked together by direct causeeffect coupling or chained cause-effect coupling. In this sense, a dynamic structure can be described as a causation network emerged from the activity of dynamical objects interacting in the observational domain; it is a propagation path for causal effects between dynamic objects. 3 | A causation network is isomorphic19, with the network of relations (or graph) representing the dynamic structure in its associated multi-dimensional relational space. The linked dynamic objects of a causation network are represented by the nodes of the corresponding network of relations. 4 | A dynamic object X belongs to a dynamic structure if there are one or more dynamic objects coupled directly or chained to X and all of them are coupled in the same way to each other at a given time. A dynamic object that is member of a dynamic structure is called a component of the structure. 19 | In this explanatory approach I consider the network of interacting components (existing in the observational domain) and the network of oriented relations (existing in the multi-dimensional relational space) as isomorphic sets with respect to components and cause-effect couplings, that is to say: a) a relational network node always represents an existing component and every existing component can be represented by a node; b) an oriented relation linking two nodes always represents a cause-effect coupling between the corresponding components and every cause-effect coupling between components can be represented by an oriented relation linking the corresponding nodes.

5 | A dynamic object Y does not belong to an identified (observed) dynamic structure if there is no direct cause-effect coupling linking Y to any member of the identified structure at a given time. Such an object is said to belong (at a given time) to the environment in which the structure emerges. In Figure 3, this would be the case of the isolated point in state Sg 6 | Dynamic structures arise when identifiable subsets of more than one dynamic object within the global dynamic system emerge as distinct (observable) dynamic objects that can be represented as nodes of a network of oriented relations. 7 | We shall note that the emergence of dynamic structures is a “natural” outcome of the propagation of causal effects throughout the history of state changes experienced by all the dynamic objects existing in an observational domain. It is a phenomenon in itself and it does not depend on any observer criterion other than the choice of a particular type of interaction that the observer decides to observe and describe. 8 | Components of a dynamic structure may become environmental objects if they reach states in which they no longer interact with structure components (the case of Sg in Figure 3). Conversely, environmental objects may become components of a given dynamic structure if they reach states in which they do interact with at least one structure component. In other words, dynamic objects can enter and leave a dynamic structure in the history of state changes of its components. 9 | Dynamic structures may emerge and disintegrate, according to the propagation of causal effects through time. A causation network as defined above is an observable entity evolving in time. Its representation in an abstract multidimensional relational space is a network of oriented relations (a graph) whose topology changes continuously according to the changes induced by the causation flow (which depends on the underlying interaction mechanism) on the states of each system component, transition after transition. When considering different type of interactions in a given observational do-



Terms related to an observational domain


Corresponding terms related to an abstract explanatory domain

Dynamic object is an observable entity existing in an observational domain that an observer can interact with and associate to a set of well-defined state variables with values that can change in time.

multi-dimensional point (abstraction for a dynamic object) is an element of a multi-dimensional space and is defined by an n-tuple (a set of coordinates) corresponding to the instantaneous values of the state variables of a dynamic object.

State of a dynamic object is the set of observable instantaneous values assigned to each variable associated to a dynamic object (an n-tuple of values). A state transition occurs at a given time whenever a value of a state variable changes.

State of a multi-dimensional point (abstraction for the state of an object) is an identifier assigned to a particular n-tuple that defines the state of a corresponding dynamic object. A state transition occurring in the latter is represented by a different identifier. We need only a changing identifier to express that a transition has taken place

Interaction is the cause-effect coupling between dynamic objects described as the occurrence of a state transition on a dynamic object that provokes a state transition on other dynamic objects by means of an unspecified underlying interaction mechanism.

oriented relation (abstraction for an interaction) is defined as an ordered pair of multi-dimensional points; the order of the pair is established by the corresponding cause-effect timed sequence of triggering and caused state transitions observed in the corresponding interacting dynamic objects.

observational domain is any domain of perceived phenomena occurring in time in which we, as human observers, can perform sensorial and operational experiences through interactions with dynamic objects. Within an observational domain, observed dynamic objects may enter into observable interactions with each other and constitute groups of interacting objects (for us, as observers). An observational domain is delimited by the actual observational capabilities of the community of observers, but it can also expand as new observational means become available (tools and methods), enlarging thus the intersection with the domain of existence of the observed dynamical entities.

multi-dimensional relational space (abstraction for a general domain containing the observational domain) is the space of all possible oriented relations linking pairs of multidimensional points together: within this abstract space, any set of topologically connected oriented relations may be represented by a graph in which the relations are represented as edges (arrows) and the connecting multi-dimensional points as nodes (circles). These graphs are abstractions that represent groups of interacting dynamic objects, at a given time, in the corresponding observational domain. Its mathematical definition as the power set of an n-dimensional space entails that any pair of n-dimensional points would be a member. Among these, I consider only one-way related points (oriented relations) at a given time, and among the latter, only those oriented relations that correspond to observable interactions.

Interaction network is an observed set of dynamic objects acting as agents of interaction propagation within a dynamic system, where

network of oriented relations (abstraction for interaction network) is a graph made of nodes and edges: it is the isomorphic representation of an observed interaction network at a given time.

Dynamic system is the set of dynamic objects observed as a composite unity of mutually interacting dynamic objects. Component is a dynamic object pertaining to an interaction network; it is seen as an observable totality that participates in the constitution of a dynamic system by acting as source and receptor of causation flow.

node (abstraction of component) is a multi-dimensional point defined by the starting or arrival point of a relational arrow in a graph and is in isomorphic correspondence with a component of the interaction network represented by the graph.

Global state is the set of all values assigned to the variables of all components of a dynamic system at a given time.

Instantaneous configuration of oriented relations is the topological arrangement of the graph of a network of oriented relations at a given time depending on the state of each node at that time.

Table 1: Correspondence between terms of the observational domain and terms of the abstract explanatory domain.


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main, each type of interaction may produce cause-effect coupling configurations that are causally independent from each other. different types of interactions may depend each on different sets of variables, so that the corresponding cause-effect coupling overlapping configurations may be represented by distinct networks of oriented relations in multi-dimensional relational spaces with nodes of different dimensions. If the respective sets of state variables associated with each type of interaction do not have variables in common, the respective causation networks are independent and constitute different dynamic systems. Causation networks may produce particular cause-effect coupling configurations involving multiple dynamic objects that are recognizable to the observer as being repetitive in time or in space. These special causation flows may be distinguished as patterns of network activity or causation patterns that do not necessarily involve a fixed set of dynamic objects, but rather substructures of connected nodes (local graphs) showing internal topological arrangements that are recognizable by certain characteristic features. These causation patterns may be perceived as processes that are identifiable through observing the chronological and/or spatial regularities of their occurrence.

Example in the macromolecular domain

In very schematic terms, macromolecules interact through the establishment of chemical bonds between some of the atoms they are made of. The necessary conditions for the establishment of such bonds, which are the outcome of electromagnetic forces that bind macromolecules components together at the atomic level (this is the underlying interaction mechanism), are essentially those of distance and spatial orientation.20 If they are not close enough and/ or not adequately positioned in a three-dimensional mutual orientation allowing for 20 | For the sake of simplification I neglect other physical conditions that determine binding interactions between molecules such as the presence of a substrate environment (liquid water substrate) and of other catalytic molecules involved in complex macromolecular reactions.

a match between mutually interacting atom structures to occur, the binding or unbinding interaction may not take place. To each molecule an observer may assign at least two state variables: say spatial position and spatial orientation (expressed in any suitable coordinate system). Suppose that at a given time two macromolecules A and B are not interacting in this manner. Their states can be expressed by the values of their spatial position and spatial orientation at that moment. The physical constraints defined above in very general terms can be made explicit in this case: macromolecules are subject to thermal agitation in the substrate in which they exist. Within a suitable temperature range, thermal agitation implies global variations in the values of position and spatial orientations of all individual macromolecules. Macromolecules A and B will undergo non-interactive state transitions and the state variables position and orientation may reach values in which an interaction mechanism can take place. Let me be even more explicit. Suppose that A moves and rotates with respect to a previous situation in which no interaction with B occurred. The change of state of A is expressed by changes in the values of its position, its global spatial orientation, and its constituent atoms’ spatial configuration. That is to say, for example, that some values of its set of variables change in time in such a way that a) the distance between A and B allows the attractive or repulsive electromagnetic force to act by inducing a mutual movement, and b) the mutual spatial orientation of the nearest atoms produces a three-dimensional match of atom structures of A and B that facilitates a chemical interaction. The interaction mechanism produces a change of state in B: it may occur, for example, as B moves due to the action of attractive or repulsive electromagnetic forces (its position variable changes). After an observable time interval a chemical bond may be established or broken and a binding or unbinding interaction can be accomplished. dynamic interaction structures may arise in such an environment where macromolecules are free to move and rotate. It is important to note that the dynamic causation structure that we are talking

about is not to be confused with the spatial structure of the resulting bonded macromolecules. In fact, the dynamic causation structure is an abstract concept (expressed in the languaging domain) based on the notion of described oriented relations of cause-effect coupling between dynamic objects leading to the identification of a network of oriented relations where the dynamic objects are represented by the nodes: it is an entity existing in a multi-dimensional relational space that can be mathematically defined only within the languaging domain. However, the resulting spatial structure of bonded macromolecules is an observable conglomerate of macromolecules existing in the macromolecular (phenomenological) domain and represented as embedded in Euclidean space. Euclidean space is a mathematical construct expressed in the languaging domain, although isomorphic with a system made of observable threedimensional physical objects, separated by physical distances, oriented in the ordinary physical space of our experience as observers, and existing in an observational domain that we call the classical physical domain. For all practical purposes of observation, the macromolecular domain is usually considered as a particular case of the classical physical domain, even if quantum mechanical interactions are involved in the underlying interaction mechanisms. A similar analysis could be applied to the neuronal domain, the human social domain, the world economical-financial system domain, the animal societies domain, the robotic agents domain or the concurrent software processes domain, etc. The problems left to the theoretician-observer are those of describing the underlying interaction mechanism and defining the adequate state variables sets that will account for the changes of state that are determinant in order to explain the occurrence of an interaction between the corresponding basic dynamic objects (neurons, individuals, enterprises, animals, robots, processor threads, etc.). In most cases, these tasks are not trivial at all and any choice made by the observers should be handled merely as working hypotheses meant to guide the deployment of adequate observational protocols.



Interaction conditions


The nature of the underlying interaction mechanism determines the conditions in which cause-effect couplings can take place. These conditions affect the range of values of the state variables of dynamical objects that allow for the manifestation of an “influence” of an object on another. The range of values of the state variables of dynamic objects for which an interaction is possible is determined by the “laws” that apply to a particular type of interaction in a particular observational domain. It is important to highlight the fact that the set of variables associated with a dynamic object existing in a general observational domain may contain variables corresponding to any measurable feature that participates in the occurrence of an “influence” of an object upon another. In an ordinary physical domain the most likely variable to be included is the position of objects in threedimensional Euclidean space, since the most common “influence” is the action of a physical force produced by a force field that depends on the distance separating two physical objects. The generalization introduced by the abstract model proposed in this paper does not assume anything about the nature of the characterizing state variables. In particular, this means that ordinary physical distances may not appear as participating in the establishment of cause-effect couplings. Hence, the notion of spatial vicinity affecting dynamical objects may be considered as irrelevant for the existence of an interaction dynamics, provided that other mechanisms that do not depend on the spatial separation between objects are available to “transmit” the “influence” of a state transition of an object to other objects and provoke state transitions in them. For example, consider a situation in which dynamical physical objects are separated by distances for which no physical force can act as a direct interaction “support.” A simple “signal” carrying the information of the occurrence of a state transition in an object can trigger state transitions on other objects, provided that they are “sensitive” to the manifestation of a state change in the “signal emitting” object. The interaction thus established is a cause-effect coupling, even if the “signal emitting” object


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is light years away. The interaction is possible just because the underlying interaction mechanism is embodied almost completely by the nature of the dynamic objects that are capable of “reacting” to that kind of “signal.” This consideration implies that the notion of cause-effect coupling is so general that almost no conditions are to be imposed to assure that their occurrence is possible in physical terms. The minimal and unavoidable condition is that the “information”21 concerning the state transition occurring in the causing dynamical object should be able to propagate via a suitable substrate to the affected dynamical objects. I emphasize that, by definition, any observational domain is a physical domain and that ordinary physical laws are applicable in it. In particular, this means that any cause-effect coupling is possible only if an energy transfer occurs between the causing and the affected dynamical objects (in the minimal case considered above it is the energy of the “information” carrying signal, or transition triggering energy). But we must keep in mind that the total energy necessary for the accomplishment of the state transitions in the affected dynamical objects does not need to be provided entirely by the causing object itself: Except for the transition triggering energy, it can be provided entirely by energy reservoirs embedded in the affected objects themselves or available as “local” sources of energy related only to the affected objects.22 21 | Talking about “information” is a linguistic operation of the observer for commenting that there is a phenomenological connection or causation mechanism at work. It is just a suitable manner to name events in which the only observable “exchanges” can be described by means of ordinary physical concepts such as forces, energy transfers, etc. A dynamical object is not affected by any “informational contents” but by induced physical manifestations of phenomena occurring somewhere in its physical domain of existence. 22 | In the case of static objects, the notion of “interaction” comprises the energy transfer necessary to produce the “action” on the affected object since the effect depends on the energy that the causing object can provide. In the case of dynamic objects, the caused “action” can be performed almost entirely by the affected object by using local energy resources. In other words, it is a situation in which there is no observable direct

The Vm&u validation test This is an introductory presentation of the VM&u rules and for the sake of readability I interpret them in my own wording. However, I think that their overall meaning is preserved. Most issues derived from their precise meaning are discussed in Part II and Part III of this work. In the endnotes I reproduce the original wording of each rule (Varela et al. 1974: 192–193).The rules are presented as related to the adjectives bounded, composite, mechanistic, self-referential, self-producing, and autonomous. These are meant to synthesize the meaning of the rules as qualifications of the characterizing properties that the observer should be able to distinguish and describe in order to ascertain that an observed unity is autopoietic in the sense defined by these authors. The six VM&u rules constitute an operational validation test for any claim concerning the autopoietic nature of a dynamical system supposedly existing in a domain that intersects with a particular observational domain.


The first question to answer is the following:23 Rule 1: Is the observed unity circumscribable, which is to say, can we say where the unity ends and/or where its environment begins? If the answer is NO → the unity cannot be described and nothing can be said about it.

Hence, the first task is to identify the unity by distinguishing its boundaries. In the section, “The observer’s “point of view,” I discussed that, in order to differentiate a cause-effect relationship between the state transitions occurred in the causing dynamical object and the activation of the energy reservoirs that provide the total energy required to produce state transitions in the affected dynamical object. This fact entails important consequences for the thermodynamic analysis of the whole system, but this issue is outside the scope of this paper. 23 | “1. determine, through interactions, if the unity has identifiable boundaries. If the boundaries can be determined, proceed to 2. If not, the entity is indescribable and we can say nothing.”

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composite unity from the background, the observer needs to define some inclusion criteria based in its own interactions with the entities being observed. These criteria need to refer to some lower level distinctions related to the intrinsic nature of the unity that makes it appear as differentiated from any other entities observed in the same observational domain.


Assuming that the unity under examination is already described in terms of observational distinctions that allow observers to claim that there is a distinguishable object brought forth to our perception within the observational domain under consideration, the second question to answer is:24 Rule 2: Does the observed unity have constitutive elements, which is to say, can we distinguish components in the unity and see the whole as a describable set of parts? NO → the unity can only be analyzed as an undifferentiated whole. It is not an autopoietic system.

From within my explanatory approach, this composite unity should not appear as the description of an arbitrary collection of objects among other objects, but of a set of components related to each other by an observable feature that makes them appear to the observer’s perception as mutually related by the occurrence of a phenomenon in which they are dynamically involved. Even though Varela et al. 1974, talk just about “relations” and “mutual relations” without referring to dynamism, I consider, without loss of generality, that the relations between objects are always associations made by the observer that correspond to the observation of physical interactions occurring between objects in time (therefore I use the qualification of “dynamic” objects and “dynamic” relations). The distinction of a dynamic composite unity is related to the distinction of a particular kind of activity occurring between the dynamic objects that compose the unity. 24 | “2. determine if there are constitutive elements of the unity, that is, components of the unity. If these components can be described, proceed to 3. If not, the unity is an unanalyzable whole and therefore not an autopoietic system.”

This activity can be stated as an observable dynamic relation between them. In the practical case of a particular observational domain, the observer should distinguish mutually related objects from other dynamic objects that do not participate in the composition of the described unity. Again, from within my explanatory approach, the observable relation between dynamic objects should be describable as a physical interaction in which the activity of an object affects the activity of other objects by means of a particular interaction mechanism that the observer chooses to observe and describe. However, when considering a general non-specified observational domain, the description of these interactions becomes an abstract exercise that should rely only on distinctions in which the nature of the interaction mechanism is not to be taken explicitly into account. Hence, the observable links should be described only with respect to the characteristics of their occurrence within a causation propagation flow and not to their specific physical nature. In other words, what matters is how the components are causally connected (i.e., related) to each other, and not by which physical means. The theoretical problem of defining the boundary of a dynamic system is tantamount to specifying the preliminary distinctions necessary to bring forth a composite unity of dynamic objects or entities as described before. The task consists of specifying an observationally based operation of distinction that allows for the identification of two distinct classes of dynamic entities: those that belong to the observed unity as such (components) and those that belong to the environment in which the said composite unity supposedly behaves as an autopoietic system. Now, what would be a boundary between the unity and the environment? one would be tempted to consider a boundary as an “abstract frontier” that separates the two sets of dynamic entities (a sort of separation criterion, a point of view, existing only in the mind of the observer). Instead, my explanatory approach requires that the observer should be able to distinguish the boundaries by describing observable interaction phenomena involving, especially, components and non-components. obviously, this sup-

poses that the observer has already chosen an inclusion criterion in order to distinguish components from non-components. Now the aim is to distinguish “edge” components from other components. In other words, the observer should focus attention on a particular “material subset” of components that could constitute a boundary, seen as a “material entity” “specialized” in being related directly to non-components. This subset would be composed of those components that are “in contact” with the environment. In this logic, a boundary is the set of those components of the unity that are affected by observed direct interactions with non-components.This statement may appear to be a trivial definition, especially when we consider the basic biological case, where we easily see that the boundary is materialized by the cell membrane, which is indeed part of the cell and is in contact with the environment. We shall see that in the more general case this identification of a boundary with a particular subset of components of the unity is not trivial at all.


once the unity has been described as a composite dynamic entity clearly differentiated from its environment, the question of the explanation of its overall behavior arises. What makes the system behave as it does? In this regard, there is a third subtle question to answer25: Rule 3: Is the unity a mechanistic system, that is to say, are its properties the outcome of the relations between its components and not the expression of properties of the components themselves? NO → the unity is not an autopoietic system.

Here we need to clarify what we understand by property. In this explanatory approach, emphasis is given to dynamics, so this rule states that the dynamics of the whole system should be described only in 25 | “3. determine if the unity is a mechanistic system, that is, the component properties are capable of satisfying certain relations that determine in the unity the interactions and transformations of these components. If this is the case, proceed to 4. If not, the unity is not an autopoietic system.”



terms of the interactions between components seen as totalities in which the internal dynamics of each component is irrelevant for explaining the dynamics of the composite unity as a whole. Although there is no explicit claim by Maturana or Varela that the only properties to be considered are those related to a component’s internal dynamics, they consider that mechanistic systems are “specifiable only in terms of relations between processes generated by the interactions of components, and not by spatial relations between these components.” (Varela et al. 1974: 188, my emphasis). From our point of view this notion of “generated processes” argues in favor of considering the components’ properties as features ascribed to their intrinsic dynamic capabilities. In a particular observational domain, the actual interaction mechanism involved in the manifestation of the causal effects that constitute the relations between components should be considered only with respect to the results of this causation. This means that the explanation of the system’s history of state changes in time should rely entirely on the description of the mutual relational dynamics established between “atomic” objects that the observer does not need to describe in detail because they share a common and general behavior that accounts for the relational outcomes observed in the system’s dynamics. Within this explanatory approach, components should be describable as entities of the “same kind” that behave in a specified similar manner. This similitude does not mean that they show similar properties, but that they show reactions to causing events impinged on them (by other components) that are describable as state transitions that can be observed by using a set of state variables (see “definitions and conceptual tools” above) that is common to all components. In a non-specified observational domain, as the interaction mechanism is not specified but only assumed to exist, components can be described only as sources and receptors of causation, period. Hence, components should be describable as generalized dynamical entities that participate in causation propagation effects only as a result of effects impinged on them by other similar dynamical objects. Thus, the system’s dy-


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namics should be describable in terms of the evolution of “causation patterns” established between components (see “Causation structures” above).


As said before, within this explanatory path, the boundary of the system should be describable as the subset of components that interact with non-components. Furthermore, the origin and existence of the boundary should be describable as an outcome of the system’s own dynamic. For Varela et al. (1974), the boundary components should “constitute these boundaries through preferential neighborhood relations and interactions between themselves,” meaning implicitly “neighborhood relations” in physical space. Their wording does not include an explicit reference to the role of a boundary with respect to the relations of the unity with the background elements. I intend to be more explicit on this matter. This is expressed in the fourth question to be answered,26 which introduces the role of the observer: Rule 4: Do the components of the observerdescribed (apparent) boundary participate in that boundary as a result of their interrelationships with the other components of the system? NO → the boundary is specified by the observer, not by the unity itself. The unity is not autopoietic.

This identification rule states that the description of a boundary should be expressed in terms of the observed interaction activity between the dynamic objects that constitute the system and leads to the emergence of a special subset of components showing preferential neighborhood relations and interactions between themselves. A boundary should be describable as a continuous pro26 | “4. determine if the components that constitute the boundaries of the unity constitute these boundaries through preferential neighborhood relations and interactions between themselves, as determined by their properties in the space of their interactions. If this is not the case, you do not have an autopoietic unity because you are determining its boundaries, not the unity itself. If 4 is the case, however, proceed to 5.”

duction process of the system itself. In this sense, the identity of the system (distinction of what belongs to the system and what does not) appears to the observer as being independent from any prior observer-defined inclusion criterion used to differentiate the unity from the background. The unit differentiates on its own by producing a subset of boundary components as an outcome of its own activity, and in this sense we say that it is self-referential. In a non-specified observational domain, this description could be termed only by appealing to descriptions of distinct causation patterns (as they imply special neighborhood relations between components) that allow us to differentiate dynamical objects that act as system components from other objects that do not. Furthermore, these distinguished causation patterns should account for the identification of particular sets of components that constitute the “borders” or “frontiers” between the system and the environment. As a dynamic system evolves through time, this identification procedure should be applicable (at any moment) in order to identify the components that participate in the “frontier” set (at any moment) as an outcome of observed past causation patterns.


once the self-referential property is established, the question of the origin of the system’s components arises. The very nature of an autopoietic system resides in its ability to produce its own components.27 The two last VM&u rules deal in fact with some requirements of the component properties concerning the production of system components themselves. These intra-boundary related aspects are most important and specific to the task of identifying an autopoietic system. Rule 5: Are the components produced as a result of interrelations between components, either by transformation of previously produced components or by accreting noncomponents through the boundary? NO → the unity is not an autopoietic system. 27 | The term “autopoiesis” has been coined from the Greek words auto = self and poiesis = creation.

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This rule28 states that the observer should be able to explain the production of new components in terms of the system’s natural dynamics. In a particular observational domain this should be accounted for by explaining how the interaction flow between components results in: (1) the acquisition of non-components as fully qualified components (coupled to the interaction structure) and/or (2) the transformation of existing components according to the interaction mechanism prevailing in that particular domain. In a general non-specified observational domain this should be expressed only in terms of causation patterns and the components should be describable as entities capable of undergoing “productive transformations” under certain circumstances. This means that components of autopoietic systems must comply with certain specific behavioral properties that are determinant for the selfproduction of the system as a whole. The focus shall be put only on the causal outcome of the interaction patterns (components’ interaction activity) that result in component production, but not on the particular internal properties of components that allow them to act as “producers” of other components.

28 | “5. determine if the components of the boundaries of the unity are produced by the interactions of the components of the unity, either by transformation of previously produced components, or by transformations and/or coupling of non-component elements that enter the unity through its boundaries. If not, you do not have an autopoietic unity; if yes, proceed to 6.”

huGo urrESTArAzu

was a teacher-researcher for nuclear and solid state physics at the Universidad de Chile and conducted postgraduate Ph.D. research on semiconductors at Imperial College in England. He possesses 13 years of industrial experience in design and development of embedded real time operating systems and object oriented design and programming at Alcatel in France. He also worked as a consulting engineer in Central America and as a linguistic consultant in France. Back in 1972 he attended Humberto Maturana’s Biology of Cognition lectures and was Francisco Varela’s friend and colleague at the Facultad de Ciencias in Chile. Since 1990, he has been involved in independent interdisciplinary scientific extension activities concerning the theory of autopoietic systems.


Furthermore, it is required that the selfproduction interaction dynamics should involve the participation of all system components. We shall see that this requirement leads to a very strong constraint on the components’ interaction structure, namely the emergence of a highly complex and recursive causation network. This structural constraint results in a high level of system autonomy, which is the outcome of an internally closed causation dynamics where environmental interactions are to be considered just as external perturbations. The question to answer is: Rule 6: Are all components produced by the interrelations between other components and do all components participate in the production of new components? NO → there are components not being produced within the system and components not participating in the production of new components. The unity is not autopoietic. YES → the unity is an autopoietic system in the space in which its components exist.

This rule29 expresses a requirement related to the interaction configuration and 29 | “6. If all the other components of the unity are also produced by the interactions of its components as in 5, and if those which are not produced by the interactions of other components participate as necessary permanent constitutive components in the production of other components, you have an autopoietic unity in the space in which its components exist. If this is not the case and there are components in the unity not produced by components of the unity as in 5, or if there are components of the unity which do not

to the relational connectivity between components whereby the participation in selfproduction is verified for all components of the system. In a particular observational domain this should be accounted for by explaining the way in which the interaction propagation flows involve any single component in component production events. In a general non-specified observational domain this requirement should also be expressed in terms of topological constraints that are to be observed in the causation network, as required to assure that all system components are affected by component production events.

Acknowledgements Above all, I wish to thank my late dear wife, Anne-Marie Lopez del rio, for encouraging me through her immovable and loving support to transform the original manuscript into a publishable paper (done with love, in memoriam). I especially thank William P. Hall, Ph.d. (Evolutionary Biology of Species and organizations) for his valuable comments and suggestions expressed during several years of fruitful discussions. I also thank the anonymous Constructivist Foundations peer reviewers who helped me to improve the presentation of my views. Finally, I warmheartedly thank my former professor Humberto Maturana, who, 40 years ago, managed to enthuse my mind with a life lasting and meaningful reflection process that has been going on ever since. participate in the production of other components, you do not have an autopoietic unity.”



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Maturana H. R. (1988b) reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 25–82. Available at Maturana H. R. (1995) The nature of time. Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva, Santiago de Chile. retrieved from biology/nature.htm Maturana H. (2002) Autopoiesis, structural coupling and cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 9(3–4): 5–34. Robb F. (1989), Cybernetics and suprahuman autopoietic systems. Systems Practice 2(1): 47–74. Schwember H. (1977) Cybernetics in government: Experience with new tools for management in Chile 1971–1973. In: Bossel H. (ed.) Concepts and tools of computer-assisted policy analysis. Volume 1. Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel: 79–138. Varela F. J., Maturana H. R. & Uribe R. (1974) Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. BioSystems 5: 187–196.

Varela F. J., Coutinho A., Dupire B. & Vaz N. (1988) Cognitive networks: Immune, neural, and otherwise. In: Perelson A. (ed.) Theoretical immunology Part II. Addison-Wesley, reading MA: 359–375. Varela F. (1992) Autopoiesis and a biology of intentionality. In: McMullin B. & Murphy N. (eds.) Proceedings of the workshop “Autopoiesis and perception.” dublin City university, dublin. Available at ftp://ftp.eeng.dcu. ie/pub/alife/bmcm9401/varela.pdf Varela F. J. (1995) The emergent self. In: Brockman J. (ed.) The third culture: Beyond the scientific revolution. Simon & Schuster, New York: 209–222. retrieved from http://www. html Zeleny M. & Hufford K. D. (1992) The application of autopoiesis in systems analysis: Are autopoietic systems also social systems? International Journal of General Systems 21: 145–160.

received: 13 April 2011 Accepted: 5 July 2001

Biology of Cognition

The Logic of Maturana’s Biology Seiichi Imoto • Hokkaido University, Japan • s-imoto/at/ > Context • Maturana’s work is not easy to follow. Correct and full understanding of his work has still to be achieved in spite of its importance. > Problem • The objective of this paper is to investigate the core logic penetrating Maturana’s wide-ranging work and to place his work in the history of western thought. > Method • Through intensive reading of his wide-ranging work, I intended to grasp the core biological structure that he advocates, namely, his core logic. > Results • Maturana’s biology is the biology of structural determinism. It is embodied in a composite entity called a “structure-determined system” with two non-intersecting domains – the domain of interactions and the domain of the composition of components – which can be called the core structure or the core logic of his biology. From the perspective of the history of western thought, Aristotle and Schopenhauer can be regarded as good candidates as the precursors of Maturana’s work, and his work can be characterized as an advanced form of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, depicted on the horizon of Schopenhauer’s world of “Vorstellung” (bringing-forth). > Implications • This finding will be useful for understanding Maturana’s wide-ranging work and its place in the history of western thought. > Key words • Maturana, structural determinism, structure-determined system, non-intersecting, Aristotle, Schopenhauer.

Introduction The objective of this paper is to investigate the core logic penetrating Maturana’s wide-ranging work and place his work in the history of western thought. His work has attracted me for various reasons; the major reasons are: (1) the diversity of his work, (2) the difficulty of comprehending it, and (3) its originality in the history of western thought.

Diversity of Maturana’s work

Maturana’s work covers a diversity of areas, from chemical molecules, living systems, society, and the biosphere, to the cosmos, or from perception, knowing, language, culture, and education, to human relations and ethics, or from epistemology to ontology. He is a biologist, not a linguist, nor a sociologist, nor a philosopher. My question has been how he, as a biologist, could refer to such a diversity of areas. What made it possible for him to do so? What motivated him to do so? If the core logic that he applied to various areas of his work could be found, it would facilitate correct and coherent understanding of his wide-ranging work.

Difficulty in comprehension

His work is not easy to follow, as many readers have complained (e.g., Glasersfeld 1991; Mingers 1995; Kenny 2007). On the other hand, he too complained about “the

frequent mistake of using autopoiesis as an explanatory principle” (Maturana 2002: 34). Why is it so difficult to comprehend correctly what he meant in his work? Maturana himself (1985: 311) said that “it requires a conceptual jump.” If this means that there is not a common conceptual framework shared between Maturana and his readers, in other words, if there is a conceptual gap between Maturana and them, what should we do to fill that gap? To find out, it would be useful to find and understand his core logic. Generally, to understand and appreciate someone’s words is to have a vicarious experience of what he or she had in mind at the time that he or she expressed those words (Miura 1976: 27; Tokieda 2007: 46). In order to understand Maturana’s work, the reader must have a vicarious experience of what he had in mind at the time that he wrote it. In Maturana’s words, having a vicarious experience would mean that the author and his readers would have a common cognitive domain (a common domain of interactions). A fly walking on a painting by Rembrandt does not understand that it is walking on the painting made by Rembrandt, because the fly does not have a cognitive domain for the painting by Rembrandt (Maturana 1980a: 55). On the other hand, from the side of a describer, in order to have a listener or a reader experience vicariously what he or she de-

scribes, two things must be taken into consideration: (1) the contents to be described, and (2) the relation of the describer to the contents. The former can be anything. What I mean by the latter is that the contents may be describer-independent or dependent. Usually we treat them as describer-independent and describe them objectively. This is the case with ordinary sciences. However, in the case of art creation, the relation between a novel writer and the characters in his or her novel, for example, is different from this. The characters, the contents of the novel writer, are dependent on him or her, that is, describer-dependent. This situation is more complicated than the former. It requires of the describer more complex and skillful ways of description, and requires the reader to participate more actively than in the former in order to have a vivid vicarious experience of what the characters and the describer do. Maturana’s contents are describer-dependent. He treats his contents, i.e., the objects of his description, as dependent on a describer, in other words, he treats them as dependent on the describer’s biology, operation, consciousness, or subjectivity; generally as observer-dependent or as the objectivity in parentheses (Maturana’s term “in parentheses” means “dependent on biology, subjectivity, observer et al.,” as listed above. In contrast, the term “objectivity without parentheses” means “observer-independent


domain of the structural dynamics of the living system domain of the relations and interactions of the living system as a totality

Philosophical Perspective On the Biology of Cognition



Figure 1: Maturana’s core logic, a structuredetermined system with two non-intersecting domains. (After Maturana (1995: 149. The original title is “Fig. 7. The organism and its behavior.” The term “Medium” in the above figure is mine.)

objectivity” or simply “objectivity” in an ordinary sense.). This made his sentences very complicated and difficult to understand. For instance, he wrote: “A space is constituted in the praxis of living of the observer when he or she performed a distinction.” (Maturana 1992: 67) By the phrase of “in the praxis of living of the observer” he reminds the reader of the condition of subjectivity, namely of the biological and subjective nature of the content, “a space” in this case. In order for the reader to have a vicarious experience of what Maturana wrote through reading his complicated sentences, it would be necessary to acquire the core logic that penetrates his wide-ranging work.

Core logic

Figure 1 depicts what I abstracted as Maturana’s core logic, namely, his basic being, a structure-determined system with two non-intersecting domains. Although the two domains in the figure are named according to a particular case of the system, i.e., a living system, this scheme is generally applied to all the system. Later I will explain the architecture of the system in more detail.

Developed logic

Figure 2: A historically-developed form of Maturana’s core logic. This figure shows the observer on the upper right corner and his or her cognitive domain (domain of interactions). The observer, a structure-determined system, observes in his or her domain of interactions two organisms (structure-determined systems) interacting and transforming each other in a historical process, in which they also interact with the niche of the medium that is also a structure-determined system. (After Maturana (1995:155). The original title is “Fig. 10. When an observer sees two organisms in a flow of recurrent interaction that he or she can describe as consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of behavior, those two organisms operate in language.)

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Figure 2 shows a historically-developed form of his core logic. There, the observer, the two organisms, and the medium are all structure-determined systems. By putting the organisms and the medium into a historical process, Maturana develops his core logic of the structure-determined system, namely, he lets biological phenomena (for example, language) arise from them in the domain of interactions of the observer. Maturana’s biology is the biology in which a structure-determined system (the observer) observes the operations of other structuredetermined systems (the organisms and the medium in the case of Figure 2) in the historical processes. These two figures are fundamental and very useful images for interpreting Maturana’s sentences and making vivid vicarious experiences of them. It seems to me that they are the indispensable images that Maturana himself keeps in mind every time he writes his paper. My assertion that Maturana’s core logic consists in his basic being, the structure-determined system with two non-intersecting

domains, can be supported by his statements. In his interview with Poerksen (Poerksen 2004: 62), Maturana said “I could only give up my views if the structural determinism of living systems were no longer in force.” His structural determinism (which I will explain later) is embodied in his structure-determined system with two non-intersecting domains. He also said in the interview with Poerksen (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 187) that “I would prefer to call myself a biologist who is trying very hard to keep two different domains separate: the domain of the internal dynamics of a system and the domain of the interactions of that system.” These two domains are those given in Figure 1 above as the two non-intersecting domains of the structure-determined system.

From the perspective of the history of Western thought

Many philosophers, among others, Aristotle and Schopenhauer, helped me in my attempts to understand correctly Maturana’s work. For Aristotle, his notions of substance (a basic being: matter (dynamis, potentiality), form (energeia, actuality at work; or entelecheia, actuality in in-goal-state), and their composite) and hylomorphism, and his method of science were all useful in understanding Maturana’s work. Aristotle applied his notions of substance and hylomorphism to various areas of his study as Maturana applied his own core logic to his wide-ranging work. As I explain later, Maturana’s basic being, a structure-determined system, can be said to be an advanced or expanded form of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, which says that “ordinary physical objects are complexes of matter and form” (Shields 2007: 57). As for Schopenhauer, I learned much from his doctoral thesis Ueber die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde – Eine philosophische Abhandlung” (Schopenhauer 1997). His well-known book Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1966) was based on this dissertation. His “world of Vorstellung”1 is the same as Maturana’s domain of interactions (domain of cognition) of the observer and his “immediate object” 1 |  The word “Vorstellung” can be translated as “presentation,” “bringing-forth,” or “representation” according to the context. I choose “bringing-forth” in this paper.

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The Logic of Maturana’s Biology Seiichi Imoto

(the object not-mediated via Vorstellung, that is, our body) corresponds to Maturana’s domain of composition of components of the observer (domain of structural dynamics in Figure 2), and hence, Schopenhauer’s system of philosophy can be taken as a kind of hylomorphism (Imoto in press). Schopenhauer says about the distinction between ordinary sciences and philosophy (Schopenhauer 1966 Volume 2: 5) that the former assumes the objective world as positively and actually existing, but for the latter, consciousness alone is immediately given, hence the basis of philosophy should be limited to the facts of consciousness. Maturana’s biology is an observer-dependent or subject-dependent science, or more strictly the science that is dependent on the subject’s consciousness, as suggested before. His biology is the science that is limited to the facts of consciousness, that is, the facts of experiences. Maturana actually says (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 196; see also Maturana 1973) that “science is not a domain of objective knowledge but a domain of subjectdependent knowledge, defined and determined by a methodology.” According to the criterion of Schopenhauer, Maturana’s biology is philosophy, or, if anything, an extraordinary science. Thus, from the perspective of the history of western thought, Aristotle and Schopenhauer can be regarded as good candidates as the precursors of Maturana’s work. It may be possible to say that his work can be characterized as an advanced form of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, depicted on the horizon of Schopenhauer’s world of Vorstellung (bringing-forth). The similarity, however, does not deny Maturana’s originality, which I will explain below.

Maturana’s research career Maturana’s research career can be roughly divided into three periods: the first from 1954 to 1960, the second from 1960 to 1970, and the third after 1970. The work in the third stage contains a diversity of work as mentioned above. The work in the first stage was in neuro-anatomical and -physiological studies in vision. His papers were published in such popular and prestigious science journals as Nature and Science. They

were ordinary scientific papers written in the attitude of objectivity, so they are not difficult to read and understand if readers have objective knowledge proper to those areas. But this is not the case with his work in the third stage. The papers from this stage were not published in well-known science journals. The reason is clear: such journals only deal with papers written objectively and subject-independently. During the second stage he transformed himself from an ordinary biologist to an extraordinary one. His worldview, ontology, and epistemology changed from the ordinary commonsensical framework to one that could be thought of as extraordinary by almost all contemporary biologists or natural scientists in general, and even by some external-realist philosophers.

Shifts in ontology and epistemology In ontology, he changed his worldview from the commonsensical external-realist framework to the internal-realist one, or from the view “from without” to the view “from within,” as mentioned above in relation to Schopenhauer. It could be said that he became a self-conscious biologist instead of an object-conscious one. In relation to his 1970 paper “Biology of cognition,” he expressed his transformation as follows: In a sense [the paper] has been my way to “  transcendental experience: to the discovery that matter, metaphorically speaking, is the creation of the spirit (the mode of existence of the observer in a domain of discourse), and that the spirit is the creation of the matter it creates. This is not a paradox, but it is the expression of our existence in a domain of cognition in which the content of cognition is cognition itself. Beyond that nothing can be said. (Maturana 1980b: xviii)

The matter is the creation of the spirit, the spirit is the creation of the matter that the spirit creates, and the content of cognition is cognition itself; beyond that nothing can be said – this all is an explicit expression of the facts of consciousness as I referred to in relation to Schopenhauer. Ontologically Maturana became an internal realist instead of an external one.

Remarkable in Maturana is his transformation in epistemology, theory of knowledge. It turned out to arise as the change in his way of explanation. He changed the way of explaining from his and our longaccustomed causal and reductionist methods to his new method of explanation that uses what he calls a “generative mechanism,” which would give rise to the phenomena to be explained through its operation. This is the place where his “conceptual jump” that I noted above occurred, and this change was the main reason why I found it difficult to follow and understand his work from the third stage. This epistemological change of Maturana’s is related to his distinction of the two non-intersecting domains of the structure-determined system, which I will discuss again. The change in ontology from the external-realist view to the internal-realist one is not so difficult to attain. Even I, a veterinary physician and pathologist, could reach the internal realist view through my own study of perception (Imoto 2004). But the idea of the change in the way of explanation did not explicitly come upon me, which must have also been the case with other scientists and philosophers. Maturana derived his new epistemology from his basic being, the structure-determined system, especially from the non-intersectional nature of its two domains. This is the reason why he puts particular emphasis on the non-intersectional nature of these domains, as shown in the interview with Poerksen that was cited before.

Aristotle’s substance In order to understand Maturana’s basic being, the structure-determined system with two non-intersecting domains, it is useful to compare it with Aristotle’s basic being, substance, particularly in the case of the living system. In his De Anima (On the Soul) Aristotle says the following about substance: We say that substance is one kind of what is, “  and that in several senses: 1) in the sense of matter […], and 2) in the sense of form or essence […], and 3) thirdly in the sense of that which is compounded of both. Now matter is potentiality, form


Philosophical Perspective On the Biology of Cognition

Figure 3: Aristotle’s composite substance.


actuality [entelecheia, the being in in-goal-state] […]. Among substances are by general consent reckoned bodies [things] and especially natural bodies; for they are the principles of all other bodies. Of natural bodies some have life in them, others not; […]. It follows that every natural bodies which has life in it is a substance in the sense of a composite. Now given that there are bodies of such and such a kind, viz. having life, the soul cannot be a body; for the body is the subject [substratum] or matter, not what is attributed to the soul. Hence, the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality of a body as above characterized. (De Anima, II-1, 412a6–22; notes in brackets are mine)

In short, for Aristotle, a living system is a composite of matter and form, or of potentiality and actuality (as entelecheia), and the soul is the entelecheia as the principle of life. This situation is represented by the following figure. In Figure 3, the circle is the form of a living system with the arrow head indicating the soul’s living actuality, including the matter inside the circle. This figure does not include the domain of interactions and the medium, compared with Figure 1 for Maturana’s basic being. Indeed, according to Shields (2007: 84), Aristotle resists the suggestion that organisms derive their ends from the larger environment in which they find themselves; and as the soul is the form and the entelecheia as the principle of life, and the word “entelecheia” means “en telos” (the in-goal-state), thus, for the organism, its formal and final and even efficient causes are one and the same, or at least co-incide, which suggests that the level of the organism is itself the right place to stop. For Aristotle, the domain of interactions and the medium are not necessary to define the living system, according to his teleological worldview. This

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gives a great difference between Aristotle’s and Maturana’s basic beings. Having said that, how does Aristotle’s substance work in the medium? Aristotle’s term “form” has two modes of existence; one is “energeia,” the other “entelecheia.” (De Anima II-5: 417a10–417b9) Energeia is the mode of being at work. So, even if Aristotle did not mention the domain of interaction, the substance at work in the mode of energeia should be regarded as being in the domain of interactions.

Maturana’s structuredetermined system with two non-intersecting domains The notion of the “domain”

In advance of explaining the structuredetermined system, the term “domain” should be explicated. As far as I know, there is no direct definition of the term “domain” by Maturana himself. But, the following quote is enough to define it. A space is constituted in the praxis of living “  of the observer when he or she performs a distinction. The constitution of a space brings forth a phenomenal domain as the domain of distinctions of the relations and interactions of the unities that the observer distinguishes as populating that space. (Maturana 1992: 67)

From this quote, the “domain” is defined as a part of the space constituted with the relations and interactions of unities or their components that are brought forth by the distinction of the observer. (Note here that for Maturana relations themselves can be treated as unities.)

Maturana’s structure-determined system

Maturana explains the structure-determined system as follows: A system is a composite entity that exists si“  multaneously both as (a) a collection of components interconnected in a way such that if one acts on one of them one acts on all, and (b) as a singular entity that operates as a whole in a medium or domain of interactions that contains it and makes possible its operation or existence as a totality.

These two manners of existence or of operation of a system cannot be reduced one to the other; they occur in two non-intersecting phenomenal or operational domains. This double existence is a condition of constitution of systems in general, regardless of the nature of their components or the nature of the domain in which they exist as totalities. (Maturana 2005: 82; emphasis in the original)

In Figure 1, the domain (a) in the above quote is called the domain of the structural dynamics of the living system, and the domain (b) the domain of the relations and interactions of the living system as a totality, applied to a particular case, i.e., the living system. This distinction of the two domains, however, is applicable to all systems as such. Each domain of the system is variously named according to the contexts to be explained. The domain represented by the arrow-headed circle in Figure 1 is called the domain of composition of components, of components, of internal dynamics, of structural dynamics, or the domain of anatomy and physiology, according to the kinds of context. I will use the term “domain of composition of components” or simply “domain of composition” in this paper. The domain represented by the reciprocal arrows in Figure 1 is also called variously, for example, the domain of interactions, behavior, actions, doings, or existence. I will use “domain of interactions” here. The term “niche” points to the same domain as the domain of interactions when it is seen from the side of the medium (Maturana 1970: 10) or it can be said that the niche is the domain of interactions of the medium seen as a structure-determined system. In contrast to Aristotle’s composite basic being (Figure 3), Maturana’s positing of the domain of interactions is noteworthy. He says that “an entity is an entity if it has a domain of interactions” (Maturana 1970: 8) and treats a system as a unit of interactions (ibid.). By doing this, he included the domain of interactions into the system, or in other words, he internalized the niche and hence the medium. Thus, he enlarged the boundary of Aristotle’s hylomorphic being, and, hence, expanded the notion of hylomorphism. His core logic became an advanced form of Aristotle’s hylomorphism.

Biology of Cognition

The Logic of Maturana’s Biology Seiichi Imoto

By internalizing the domain of interactions, he also established the seat for the mind of the observer. Because the observer observing is an observer of his or her domain of interactions (Maturana 1970: 8), his or her mind or consciousness consists in his or her domain of interactions. Thus Maturana says that “the mind is not in the head, the mind is in the behavior” (Maturana 1985: 311), namely in the domain of interactions. This domain is tantamount to Schopenhauer’s world of Vorstellung (bringing-forth) as mentioned before. The organism as a structure-determined system has two modes of operations in totality in the domain of interactions or in the domain of sensory-effector correlations when it has a nervous system: the first-order description and the second-order description (Maturana 1970: 27–28), which I call horizontal and vertical coordinations, respectively (Imoto in press). Horizontal coordinations are the interactions of the organism with its medium; vertical coordinations are the interactions with its own internal states that are originally derived from the horizontal coordinations and then recursively coordinated through the nervous system as if they were another independent domain of interactions. The vertical recursive mode of coordinations is prominently developed in human beings due to the corresponding development of the nervous system, through which the nervous system of the human being becomes a “languaging brain” that makes possible our thinking and monologue. Now we have all the tools necessary to correctly understand and interpret Maturana’s wide-ranging work: the observer, the structure-determined system with its two non-intersecting domains, two modes of operations, history (time, historical processes), and the medium (space), as shown in Figure 2.

Structural determinism

Structural determinism is Maturana’s most important tenet, as he said, “I could only give up if the structural determinism of living systems were no longer in force.” (Poerksen 2004: 62). The structural determinism is explained based on his core logic, the architecture of the structure-determined system with two non-intersecting domains.

Thus his structural determinism says that “all that takes place in it [the system], or happens to it at any instant, is determined by its structure at that instant.” (Italics are mine; Maturana 2002: 15)

The prepositions “in” and “to”

When we read this sentence about structural determinism, it is important, at first, to take note of the use of the prepositions “in” and “to.” The preposition “in” in “in it” points to the domain of composition, and the preposition “to” in “to it” to the domain of interactions. Although Maturana has never spoken in any of his works about this subtle distinction between “in” and “to” when he defines structural determinism, it is a very important distinction because each of these prepositions points to a different domain of the structure-determined system. Sometimes he uses “with,” such as “a structure determined system – that is, a system in which all that happens with it and to it is determined at every instant by the way it is made (its structure) at that instant” (Maturana 2002: 5–6), or “we, as living systems, are structure-determined systems, and all that happens in us or with us is determined in our structure and in our structural dynamics (Maturana 2007:109). As these examples show, the meaning of the preposition “with” sounds ambiguous; it can be taken as connoting the meaning of “in” on the one hand, and that of “to” on the other hand.

The meaning of structural determinism

In relation to the above explanation of “structural determinism,” he usually adds the comment that “nothing external to the system can specify what happens in it, but only triggers a change in its structure, determined by its structure” (Maturana 2000: 461). These explanations of structural determinism can be rephrased by taking into consideration the distinction of the two domains, as follows: all that takes place in the domain of composition, or all that happens to the domain of interactions, at any instant, is determined by the domain of composition at that instant, and the changes (or external things) that happen in the domain of interactions trigger changes in the domain of composition, determined by the domain

of composition. This speaks about the determinate nature of the domain of composition over the domain of interactions and, at the same time, about the indeterminate or modulatory nature of the domain of interactions over the domain of composition. In relation to this point, Karl Marx’s insight into the relation between production and consumption is very illuminating. In The Grundrisse, he wrote: With a single subject, production and con“  sumption appear as moments of a single act. The important thing to emphasize here is only that, whether production and consumption are viewed as the activity of one or of many individuals, they appear in any case as moments of one process, in which production is the real point of departure and hence also the predominant moment. Consumption as urgency, as need, is itself an intrinsic moment of productive activity. (Marx 1978: 231)

In this quote, “a single subject” is comparable to the structure-determined system, “production” to the domain of composition, and “consumption” to the domain of interactions. Production and consumption are the two moments of one process of a single subject, and the former, as the real point of departure, is a predominant moment over the latter. This relation is just the same as described above for the relation between the two domains of the structure-determined system. Thus the relation that Maturana calls “non-intersecting” between the two domains of the structure-determined system is explained like this: both domains are relatively independent of each other and nonetheless inseparable, with the primacy of the domain of composition over the domain of interactions. The mode of existence of each domain is different, hence, nonintersecting.

Applications of Maturana’s core logic in his work He applies his core logic (Figure 1), together with its developed one including horizontal and vertical coordinations (Figure 2), to a diversity of areas, with the awareness that he himself is a structure-de-


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termined system with two non-intersecting domains. When it is applied to the living system, the notions of autopoiesis, structural coupling, organization and structure, simple and composite unities, conservations of organization and adaptation, natural drift and linage formation, the biosphere, and the cosmos, are all made possible. When it is applied to human beings, it makes it possible for him to explain the phenomena of distinction, perception and cognition, language, emotion, self-consciousness, culture, society, ethics, the origin of humanness, and so forth. He also applies his core logic to the way of explanation, and even to the writing style of his papers Why did he cover such diversity of subject-matters? What motivated him to do so? The answer should be this: he became an extraordinary scientist in the sense of Schopenhauer’s criterion noted above. He was transformed from an objective, externalrealist scientist into a subjective, internal-realist one. Since almost all our knowledge so far has been made by objective, external-realist people as objective knowledge, it would be natural that he was driven to re-write all objective modes of our knowledge from his new worldview of subjectivity or objectivity in parentheses. The book The Tree of Knowledge is the fruit of such his efforts as an internal-realist scientist. In the preface of that book, he wrote: “It is a complete outline for an alternative view of the biological roots of understanding.” (Maturana & Varela 1992: 11)

Maturana’s method of explanation

Since there is little room here to discuss every aspect of his wide-ranging subject matters, I will take one topic, his method of explanation, which is the expression of his newly acquired epistemology as mentioned above. For Maturana, a pair notion of question and answer, or explanandum and explanans, makes a unity or a whole, namely, a structure-determined system with two nonintersecting domains. Indeed, he says that “the notion of structural determinism is at the same time the conceptual and the operational fundament of all explanations.” (Maturana 2002: 20. italics in original) Questions lie in the domain of interactions, and answers in the domain of composition of components.

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Questions or phenomena to be explained are the properties observed in the domain of interactions, and answers or generative mechanisms are the organizations in the domain of composition of components. With regard to his distinction above, there are two important statements in his 1970 work, “The biology of cognition.” 1. “A cognitive system is a system whose organization defines a domain of interactions” (Maturana 1970: 13). This statement is another expression of his structural determinism. 2. “The great hindrance in the understanding of the living organization lies in the impossibility of accounting for it by the enumeration of its properties; it must be understood as a unity” (Maturana 1970: 5). This statement speaks of his need for the organization that lies in the domain of composition in the unity as a structure-determined system. Thus he turned himself to create the notion of the living organization known now as the autopoietic organization. Besides Aristotle and Schopenhauer, I learned much from Hegel, especially from his Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic. In the Preface of the former book, Hegel wrote the two well-known statements: (1) “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject,” and (2) “The true is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development” (Hegel 1977: 10–11). The first statement of Maturana in the immediately preceding paragraph sounded to me as if it reflects Hegel’s first statement because the domain of interactions is the place where the subject is as the mind, as noted before. The second statement of Maturana in the same paragraph sounded to me as if it reflects Hegel’s second statement because for Maturana the truth is in the whole developed in its historical process that is reflected in his core and developed logics mentioned before. Particularly, this second aspect is very important when we consider Maturana’s “scientific explanation,” which comprises four steps as follows: 1. The description of what an observer must do “  to experience the experience to be explained. 2. The proposition of a generative mechanism such that if it is allowed to operate the result would be that the observer experiences the expe-

rience that he or she wants to explain, presented in point 1. 3. The deduction from all the operational coherences implicit in point 2 of other possible experiences for the observer, as well as of what he or she should do to live them. 4. The realization of what has been deduced in point 3, and if it happens as deduced, point 2 becomes a scientific explanation. (Maturana 2002: 21)

Why does the observer need to proceed to points 3 and 4, instead of stopping at point 2 in Maturana’s method of scientific explanation? It is because the experience or phenomenon to be explained found in point 1 is a particular or a species, and, on the other hand, the generative mechanism proposed at point 2 is related to the general or the genus. The phenomenon to be explained in point 1 is only one of all the phenomena that the generative mechanism would produce in its operation. The phenomenon observed at point 1 does not exhaust all possible phenomena. That is why the observer needs to proceed further to points 3 and 4 to try to list and exhaust all possibilities and make a presumptively-general mechanism at point 2 a truly-general one. As quoted above from Hegel, “The true is the whole.” The following quote illustrates well the “particular-general issue” of Maturana’s method of scientific explanation. The question, ‘What is a social system?’ cannot “  be answered by simply describing a particular one because we do not know the significant relations that we must abstract when characterizing its organization. The question must be answered by proposing a system which, if allowed to operate, would generate a phenomenal domain indistinguishable from the phenomenal domain proper to a natural social system. (Maturana 1980b: xxiv)

By describing or listing the properties of one particular social system we do not know what the social system in general is. Instead, we should abstract significant relations as a generative mechanism to explain what the social system is. This is what Maturana said in the above quote. Note that this is the same method that was used for the understanding of the architecture of the living system. In passing, then, what is the generative mechanism for the social system? For Mat-

Biology of Cognition

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urana (2002: 14), autopoiesis is possible only in the molecular domain, not in the supramolecular domain, i.e., the social system; therefore, social autopoiesis cannot explain what the social system is. Now he asserts that the significant relation for the social system is love, as a desire for an ethical coexistence with other beings in the social domain of interactions (Maturana & VerdenZöller 2008: 7).

Emergent properties and Maturana’s two nonintersecting domains For Maturana, structural determinism that is embodied as a structure-determined system with two non-intersecting domains is a fundamental ground of his work, hence, his core logic, without which all his work will be demolished. As noted before, Maturana, in his interview with Poerksen (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 187), strongly emphasized the significance of the non-intersectional nature of the two domains of the structure-determined system. This may suggest, however, that there is controversy on this issue. Maturana disagrees with the notion of emergence or emergent properties. According to O’Connor and Wong (2006), emergent properties are roughly characterized as follows: emergent entities (properties or substances) “  ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them. (For example, it is sometimes said that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.)

Seiichi Imoto

Seiichi Imoto has worked as a veterinarian (DVM, PhD) majoring in internal medicine and pathology since 1973. In 2000, he began to study philosophy, seeking for different ways of thinking. He was lucky enough to encounter Maturana’s work but it was very difficult to follow; there was in it indeed a way of thinking that was very different from his long-accustomed scientific way of thinking.

Maturana disagrees with this notion because “it obscures the fact that systems exist as composite in two non-intersecting operational (phenomenal) domains.” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 167) He has been toiling hard for years to elucidate the non-intersectional nature of the two domains of the structure-determined system by using the metaphor of the instrumental flight in absolute darkness (Maturana 1970: 51) or the concepts of simple and composite unities (Maturana 1992: 67), by contrasting the state of molecular autopoiesis with that of the organism in totality (Maturana 2002: 15), or through the arguments of double or triple look (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 62 & 155). In the section on “the meaning of structural determinism” in this paper I expressed the non-intersectional nature of the two domains as “relatively independent each other and nonetheless inseparable, with the primacy of the domain of composition over the domain of interactions.” To put it concisely, “non-intersecting” is “inseparable but non-overlapping.” It may be said further in a Hegelian dialectic sense that the domain of composition of components contains many contradictory oppositions, for example, metabolism and anabolism, and processes toward life and death, and they are all sublated into synthesis in the domain of interactions. The modes of existence of the domain of composition of components and that of the domain of interactions are different. Recently he summarized his view of the system as “systemic laws” in Spanish (Dávila & Maturana 2008). Some of them can be found in his papers written in English. Regarding the non-intersecting nature of the

two domains of existence of a system, he states as follows: Systemic Law 3: ‘The result of a process does “  not ever participate in its genesis.’ We frequently forget this when we wish to see a purpose in a process, and we argue as if its result were an argument for its occurrence. (Maturana 2008: 84)

This systemic law says that the result of a process takes place in the domain of interactions, and the process of its genesis lies in the domain of composition of components, whose difference, Maturana complains, the notion of emergence obscures. And at the same time, he warns us against teleological explanations, frequently caused by confusing the two domains or by ignoring the different modes of existence in the two domains.

How did Maturana arrive at the notion of the dual domains of existence? How did Maturana arrive at the notion of the dual domains of existence of a system? Of course it came from his studies of the operations of the living system and the nervous system, particularly in the second stage of his research career. But how? With respect to the operation of the living system, its features such as reproduction, heredity, growth, irritability, or our abilities such as thinking and reasoning, do not tell us what the invariant organization common to all living systems is, although we can recognize living systems as living when we encounter them.


“In 1960 I asked myself ‘What should happen “  in the manner of constitution of a system so that

Philosophical Perspective On the Biology of Cognition

I see as a result of its operation a living system?’ […] I was proposing that the relation between the internal dynamics of the system and the result of that internal dynamics in the domain in which I observed it, would tell me what the system was. I had to create the system to know it.” (Maturana 2002: 5, my emphasis)


This quote shows why and how he created the system with two non-intersecting domains. When I, as a veterinary physician, diagnose a patient animal using some diagnostic name, I first examine the animal for symptoms with various diagnostic tools, and then select the most appropriate diagnostic name from among some differential diagnostic candidates. The mechanism of the disease so diagnosed is in the domain of internal dynamics, namely, in the domain of composition, and the symptoms from which my diagnosis is derived are in the domain of interactions. So I may say I had known of the existence of those two domains, but I treated them causally; I could not take them as non-intersecting. Another factor that led Maturana to the insight into the non-intersectional nature of the two domains can be derived from his insight into the operational mode and functional organization of the nervous system. Similarly to the case of the living system, he considered that “enumeration of the transfer function of all nerve cells would leave us with a list, but not with a system capable of abstract thinking, description, and self-description.” (Maturana 1970: 6) Then comes his idea that “only conduct itself can be considered as the functional unit of the nervous system.” (Maturana 1970: 19) Through this idea, he could set the domain of sensory-effector correlations as the domain of interactions and the central nervous system as the domain of composition of components, which made it possible for him to explain humans’ mental phenomena such as conceptual thinking, language, and self-consciousness.

Recent BCI technology

Although this finding about the nervous system was based on Maturana’s own neuroanatomical and -physiological studies of vision (cf. Maturana, Uribe & Frenk 1968), it

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must have been a quite strange idea at the time in 1970. Even now it might be treated as strange, but recent BCI (brain-computer interface) or BMI (brain-machine interface) technologies (e.g., Serruya et al. 2002; Wu et al. 2004) have begun to prove the validity of Maturana’s idea of the nervous system with two non-intersecting operational domains, and, hence, the validity of his idea of the living system with two non-intersecting domains of existence (Imoto in press), although Maturana’s work is still not known among researchers in these fields.

In the tradition of hylomorphism

Hylomorphism is a middle way between the two extremes of materialism and idealism, and also different from dualism – Platonic or Cartesian (Shields 2007: 285 & 402). It deals with a hylomorphic (matterform or body-mind) composite system as a composite. It does not treat matter and form or body and mind altogether separately. Maturana expanded Aristotle’s traditional hylomorphism by including the domain of interactions in it, and recent BCI or BMI technologies can be regarded as included with Maturana’s expanded hylomorphism. If researchers in those fields pay attention to Maturana’s work on the structure-determined system with two non-intersecting domains, they will get a deeper insight into their technologies, and hence, the system in general.

Conclusion: “The power of the pharmacologist” Maturana’s biology is the biology of structural determinism. It is embodied in a composite entity that is called a structuredetermined system with two non-intersecting domains: the domain of interactions and the domain of composition of components. This architecture of the structuredetermined system can be called the core logic of Maturana’s biology. Only through seeing and taking into consideration this logic of his biology will we be able to understand correctly the diversity of his work and overcome the difficulty that we feel when we read his work. From the perspective of the history of western thought, Aristotle and Schopen-

hauer can be regarded as good candidates as the precursors of Maturana’s work, and his work can be characterized as an advanced form of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, depicted on the horizon of Schopenhauer’s world of Vorstellung (bringing-forth). Interestingly, in two papers Maturana wrote about the bioassay once used by pharmacologists (Maturana 1978, 1983). In the final section of his 1983 paper “What is it to see?” he wrote about “The power of the pharmacologist”: In those days one could distinguish and de“  scribe (that is, perceive) estrogens in the urine of a pregnant female [rabbit] with the changes of state of the ovaries of a rabbit, and one could characterize the properties of the ovaries of a rabbit (that is, know them) with the urine of a pregnant female. (Maturana 1983: 268)

The estrogens in the urine are the result of the molecular processes in the ovaries of the rabbit used as a biological probe. The former phenomenon (the estrogens in the urine) is in the domain of interactions of the rabbit, and the latter phenomenon in the ovaries of the rabbit in its domain of composition. They are non-intersecting. So, this can also be an example of the operation of a structure-determined system with two nonintersecting domains. From this pharmacologist’s standpoint, each of us turns out to be a molecular biological probe, namely, a molecular structuredetermined system. Through the molecular changes of state in our domain of composition of components, we experience, in the domain of interactions, the world brought forth through the molecular changes in the former domain. In this perspective, Maturana says that “living systems are components or participant elements of a systemic, structuredetermined biosphere and cosmos (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 204). This is the reason why we can see and understand the biosphere and the cosmos as we see and understand them. Each of us is a molecular biological probe as a molecular structuredetermined system, resonating with other molecular structure-determined systems, including other persons, as one of the molecular components of the cosmos.

Biology of Cognition

The Logic of Maturana’s Biology Seiichi Imoto

References Aristotle, On the Soul (De Anima). Translated by J. A. Smith. In: Barnes J. (1984) (ed.) The complete works of Aristotle. Volume 1. Revised Oxford translation. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.: 641–692. Dávila X. Y. & Maturana H. R. (2008) Habitar humano: en seis ensayos de biología-cultural. J. C. Sáez, Santiago (Chile). Glasersfeld E. von (1991) Distinguishing the observer: An attempt at interpreting Maturana. Methodologia V(8): 57–68. Originally published in German as: Glasersfeld E. von (1990) Die Unterscheidung des Beobachters: Versuch einer Auslegung. In: Riegas V. & Vetter C. (eds.) Zur Biologie der Kognition. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt: 281–295. Available at Hegel G. W. F. (1977) Phenomenology of spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford University Press, Oxford UK. German original: Hegel G. W. F. (1807) Phänomenologie des Geistes. Verlag Joseph Anton Goebhardt, Bamberg & Würzburg. Imoto S. (2004) What is the external world? A cognitive science perspective. Tetsugaku (Annals of the Philosophical Society of Hokkaido University) 40: 29–44. Imoto S. (in press) What is H. Maturana’s “languaging”? In: Proceedings of the symposium for the cognitive dynamics in linguistic interactions, Irkutsk, Russia, 17 June 2010. Kenny V. (2007) Distinguishing Ernst von Glasersfeld’s “radical constructivism” from “Humberto Maturana’s “radical realism.” Constructivist Foundations 2(2–3): 58–64. Marx K. (1978) The Grundrisse. In: Tucker R. C. (ed.) The Marx-Engels reader. Second Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, New York: 221–293. Maturana H. R. (1970) Biology of cognition. Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0. University of Illinois, Urbana. Reprinted in: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel, Dordrecht: 1–58. Maturana H. R. (1973) Cognitive strategies. In: Foerster H. von (ed.) (1995) Cybernetics of cybernetics. Second edition. Future Systems, Minneapolis MN: 457–469. Maturana H. R. (1978) Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In: Miller G. A. & Lenneberg E. (eds.) Psychology and biology

of language and thought. Academic Press, New York: 27–63. Maturana H. R. (1980a) Autopoiesis: reproduction, heredity and evolution. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis, dissipative structures, and spontaneous social orders. Westview Press, Boulder CO: 45–79. Maturana H. R. (1980b) Introduction. In: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel, Dordrecht: xi–xxx. Maturana H. R. (1983) What is it to see? Archivos de Biologia y Medicina Experimentales 16: 255–269. Maturana H. R. (1985) Comment by Humberto R. Maturana: The mind is not in the head. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 8: 308–311. Maturana H. R. (1992) The biological foundations of self consciousness and the physical domain of existence. In: Luhmann N. (ed.) Beobachter: Konvergenz der Erkenntnistheorien? Second Edition. Wilhelm Fink, Munich: 47–117. Maturana H. R. (1995) Biology of self-consciousness. In: Trautteur G. (ed.) Consciousness: Distinction and reflection. Bibliopolis, Naples: 145–175. Maturana H. R. (2000) The nature of the laws of nature. Systems Research & Behavioral Science 17: 459–468. Maturana H. R. (2002) Autopoiesis, structural coupling and cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 9(3–4): 5–34. Maturana H. R. (2005) The origin and conservation of self-consciousness: Reflections on four questions by Heinz von Foerster. In: Riegler A. (ed.) Heinz von Foerster – in memoriam. Kybernetes: The International Journal of Systems & Cybernetics 34(1–2): 54–88. Maturana H. R. (2007) The biological foundations of virtual realities and their implications for human existence. Constructivist Foundations 3(2): 109–114. Maturana H. R. (2008) Time: An imaginary spatial dimension or: Life occurs in the no-time of a continuously changing present. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 15(1): 83–92. Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) From being to doing. Carl-Auer, Heidelberg. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1992) The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human

understanding. Revised edition. Shambhala, Boston. Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2008) The origin of humanness in the biology of love. Imprint Academic, Exeter UK. Maturana H. R., Uribe G. & Frenk S. (1968) A biological theory of relativistic colour coding in the primate retina. Archivos de Biologia y Medicina Experimentales 1: 1–30. Mingers J. (1995) Self-producing systems: Implications and applications of autopoiesis. Plenum Press, New York. Miura T. (1976) What is Japanese language? (In Japanese). Kodansha, Tokyo. O’Connor T. & Wong H. U. (2006) Emergent properties. In Zalta E. N. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Available at Poerksen B. (2004) The certainty of uncertainty: Dialogues introducing constructivism. Imprint Academic, Exeter UK. Schopenhauer A. (1966) The world as will and representation. 2 Volumes. Translated by E. F. J. Paine. Dover, New York. German original: Schopenhauer A. (1818) Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. F. A. Brockhaus, Leibzig. Schopenhauer A. (1997) On the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason. A philosophical essay. In: White F. C. (1997) Schopenhauer’s early fourfold root. Avebury, Brookfield VT: 1–70. German original: Schopenhauer A. (1813) Ueber die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde: Eine philosophische Abhandlung. Hof Buch und Kunst Handlung, Rudolfstadt. Serruya M. D., Hatsopoulos N. G., Paninski L., Fellows M. R. & Donoghue J. P. (2002) Instant neural control of a movement signal. Nature 416: 141–142. Shields C. (2007) Aristotle. Routledge, Oxon UK. Tokieda M. (2007) Japanese philology. Volume 1 (in Japanese). Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo. Originally published in 1941. Wu W., Shaikhouni A, Donoghue J. P. & Black M. J. (2004) Closed-loop neural control of cursor motion using a Kalman filter. Proceeings of the 26th annual international conference of the IEEE/EMBS, San Francisco CA: 4126–4129. Received: 21 January 2011 Accepted: 24 June 2011


Biology of Cognition

The Specificity of Immunologic Observations Biological–epistemological Concepts in the Biology of Cognition

Nelson M. Vaz • Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil • nvaz/at/


> Context • Immunity includes cognitive concepts: the organism is thought to specifically recognize foreign materials and develop a memory of these encounters. Vaccines are thought to work by enhancing this immunological memory. Lymphocytes are key cells and specific antibodies are key molecules in immune recognition. Antibodies are blood proteins called “immunoglobulins.” Spontaneously formed immunoglobulins are seen as “natural” antibodies to dietary components and commensal bacteria. Immune cognition is used simply as a didactic metaphor. > Problem • Do the cognitive aspects of immunology stem from the activities of cells and molecules, or are they ascribed by the immunologist operating as a human observer? (1) An immense variety of immunoglobulins may bind to the same antigen with different binding energies. It is the immunologist who arbitrates the boundary between those that are specific (and declared antibodies) and those that are not. Specific antibodies serve as functional labels pasted onto natural immunoglobulins, as if they were recognizing elements. Is this “arbitration” the true cognitive event ascribed to immunoglobulins and lymphocytes? (2) A major impasse exists between progress in experimental immunology and its translation into clinical results. A proper understanding of immunological activity demands a wider view of an organism’s biology and, also, of the interference of human observers in delineating experimental realities, such as the specificity of immune recognition. Maturana’s biology of cognition and language provides one such approach. > Method • Use of Maturana’s biology of cognition and language concepts to describe immunological activity. > Results • A whole new understanding of immunological activity is suggested. > Implications • A major change in the way of seeing is proposed that may eventually help the translation of this knowledge into clinical results. Furthermore, the immune system may also become a proper model for cognitive analyses. > Keywords • Immunology, antibody, immunoglobulin, specificity, observer, reality.

Introduction Immunology, a major biomedical endeavor, is framed in a cognitive framework: recognition, specificity, and memory, are keywords commonly used as simple didactic metaphors, but never discussed as cognitive issues. The body displays a rich “natural” immunological activity that includes the production of immunoglobulins, even when the body is isolated from external materials (antigens). There are always many (thousands of) different immunoglobulins able to bind to the same antigen with different binding energies and it is the immunologist who arbitrates (decides) which immunogobulins bind with enough energy to be declared antibodies. Antibodies may be seen as functional labels pasted onto natural immunoglobulins. Thus, does the cognitive aspect of immunology stem from the activities of cells and

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molecules, or from the immunologist operating as a human observer?

Biology of cognition and language The neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela are also well-known in the cognitive sciences. Maturana’s biology of cognition and language and Varela’s enactivism contain concepts related, yet not identical, to constructivism (Proulx 2008). However, Varela made an important contribution to immunology in collaboration with Coutinho and Stewart whereas Maturana barely mentioned immunological activity, and even then, only as parallel to neurobiological activity. There are important differences between Maturana’s and Varela’s approaches to cognition, of which I became aware only gradually. While still unaware of these differences, I published papers emphasizing the closure

of lymphocyte networks with Varela (Vaz & Varela 1978; Varela et al. 1988), as well as with Coutinho (Coutinho et al. 1984; Vaz, Martinez & Coutinho 1984) and Stewart (Stewart & Vaz 1990). Other considerations included in my later work are quoted in the text. A distinction between natural immunoglobulins and specific antibodies deserves serious consideration because it may reveal interferences of human languaging in determining experimental realities. My intention is not to review the history of ideas in immunology, but only to stress that spontaneous immunological activities were already present in theories published in the 1950s (Jerne 1951, 1955; Talmage 1957, 1959). However, these theories were conflated in the clonal selection theory (Burnet 1957) which neglected spontaneous lymphocyte activation. Secondly, I will show why Maturana’s ideas serve me better than Varela’s cognitive approach to immunological activity.

Biology of Cognition

The Specificity of Immunologic Observations Nelson M. Vaz

Immunity: The standard, Pasteurian view The traditional understanding of immunological activity as anti-infectious immunity has been available since the last decades of the nineteenth century in Pasteur’s germ theory. Diphtheria and tetanus toxins were isolated. Neutralizing substances (antitoxins) appeared in the blood of animals repeatedly injected with small doses of the diphtheria toxin. These were the first antibodies (Behring & Kitasato 1890). Antitoxins produced in animals were then successfully used to treat children with diphtheria (serum therapy). while other antibodies were used as specific reagents in the diagnosis of infectious diseases (serology). Immunology soon became a very important area of medicine and, to a large extent, this is how society at large as well as scientists still see it: a Pasteurian view. Immunological memory created by vaccination is thought to explain immunity. The activation of lymphocytes and the formation of specific antibodies are taken as a correlates of immune-protection (Silverstein 2009).

Demonstrations of a hidden complexity This highly simplified view of what happens faced several demonstrations of a much larger complexity that emerged very early in the 20th century. Ehrlich demonstrated that antibodies could be formed against virtually anything foreign to the body, including plant proteins and red cells of individuals of the same species (Ehrlich 1900). Many “natural” antibodies (agglutinins, lysins) were detected in animal sera (Besredka 1901), including in human sera, in which “blood groups” were characterized (Landsteiner 1901). This facilitated blood transfusions, but also raised many doubts about the nature of antibodies: “natural” antibodies were abundant but were not considered true antibodies (Silverstein 2009). Anaphylactic shock and other forms of allergic reactions, such as “serum sickness” in children treated with anti-infectious animal sera, showed that antibody-mediated reactions could also seriously damage the organism.

A main obstacle to the Pasteurian view of immunity was the repeated and frustrating demonstration that whereas immunization with infectious agents and their products was frequently associated with the development of antibody formation and progressive, “secondary-type” immune responses (memory), this was rarely accompanied by immune protection. The first half of the 20th century was dominated by “serological” studies on the nature of antigens and antibody formation, with few attempts to determine its cellular origins. This changed rather abruptly between 1951 and 1961. Before describing this intense period, I will mention what I call “the fallacy of univocality” and the diversity of immunoglobulins.

Unlimited flexibility and specificity? Dictionaries define immunology as the branch of medicine concerned with immunity (anti-infectious vaccines, etc.) and also as an advanced area of biological research dealing with cellular/molecular recognition of foreign materials. In biological research, immunity is generally studied as the performance of specific immune responses, described as the activation and multiplication of lymphocytes (clonal expansion), a class of white blood cells and the main cell type in the lymph and lymphoid tissues. The production of antibodies, understood as special proteins able to bind specifically to invading foreign materials (antigens), is an important part of immune responses. In addition, the organism usually develops a “memory” of the invasion, which enables faster and more vigorous responses in subsequent (secondary) encounters with the same invader. Anti-infectious vaccines are used to increase this immunological memory. Allergic and autoimmune diseases are understood as defects in the regulation of immune responses, either by excessive reaction to otherwise innocuous materials, such as foods or pollen grains (allergy), or by triggering damaging immune responses against the organism itself (pathogenic autoimmunity). Intentionally or not, these concepts are embedded in a cognitive framework, manifested in terms such as “recognition”

and “memory.” Specific antibodies and the memory enabling the body to form them faster are believed to display an enormous versatility. It can be triggered against virtually any foreign macromolecule invading the body, such as most proteins formed by other organisms, including those belonging to the same species, but most particularly, those of infectious agents such as microbes, viruses, and parasites. Antibodies are also formed to small molecules coupled to proteins, as in the case of penicillins. Surprisingly, this reactivity, able to be adapted to so many functions, is also highly specific. Used as reagents in clinical and research laboratories, antibodies can detect minute differences in similar materials; when formed against small molecules (haptens) conjugated to proteins, they can detect changes in the position of a single chemical detail in these molecules. How is this possible? How could a mechanism be immensely versatile and at the same time finely directed at each particular chemical detail? The catch is that this is not true: antibodies do not detect these differences by themselves, although, when properly used by human observers, they serve as if they were fine specific reagents.

The fallacy of univocality1 The difficulty in perceiving this stems from what I call “the fallacy of univocality,” i.e., imagining that each antigen, or each of their minute details (epitopes) is precisely met by a particular (specific) antibody molecule on a one-to-one basis (univocally). But this is not at all how it happens! There are actually many (hundreds, thousands of) antibodies, different molecules that nevertheless are able to bind to the same antigen (epitope) – with different binding energies (avidities). Like the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm,2 all the antibodies to a 1 | A tale of apparent unlimited, unambiguous, detailed molecular precision, which is a fallacy that hides the role of the immunologist as a human observer who interferes in what happens. 2 |  “In the Animal Farm, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (Orwell 1945)


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certain antigen are specific – but some are more specific than the others. More importantly, the decision of where to place the lower limit of this specificity is arbitrated by the immunologist, i.e., by a human observer operating in human language.

A large diversity of globulins Antibodies belong to a heterogeneous group of blood proteins called “globulins,” which the World Health Organization decided to call immunoglobulins, abbreviated to “Ig.” The terms antibody and immunoglobulin are usually understood as synonymous and applying to the same molecules; they are called “immunoglobulins” when biochemically defined, and named “antibodies” in functional studies. That this identity between natural globulins and antibodies may hide an illusion was first proposed by Niels Jerne. Jerne was one of the most important immunologists of the last century. During his professional life, he published three different theories on the mechanisms of antibody formation, but his main interest was already delineated in his PhD dissertation, published as “A study of antibody avidity,” i.e., the binding energy of antibodies to their specific ligands (Jerne 1951). Jerne was dazzled by the immense variety of antibodies that could bind to the same antigen. Some antibodies would bind very firmly, others only weakly, others almost not at all. Antibodies were also able to “cross-react.” i.e., react with many different antigens. All this suggested to him that the organism produced an immensely diversified collection of globulins that we may detect as antibodies. Many years later, Jerne told his biographer that the differences between antibodies and immunoglobulins “naturally” produced by the organism: “exist only in the mind of immunologists” (Soderqvist 2003). This remarkable comment, which seems to include the human observer in otherwise objective observations, is also present in the early work of Maturana on color vision, and I will trace a parallel between these two visions.

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The natural selection theory of antibody formation Four years later, in his “The Natural Selection Theory of Antibody Formation,” Jerne expanded this idea into one of the most important concepts in immunology. He claimed that specific antibodies were naturally produced globulins, spontaneously formed by the organism before the contact with the antigens with which they could eventually bind (Jerne 1955). This contra-intuitive idea conflict with the then prevalent instructive theories that argued that antibodies were formed using antigen molecules as templates – otherwise how could such an immense variety of antibodies with precise specificities be formed? From this conflict, Jerne’s theory turned out to be the winner (Silverstein 2009). Almost at the same time, a similar conclusion was reached by Talmage, who also published an important theory on antibody production (Talmage 1957). He also proposed an alternative to the concept of immunological specificity, saying that it derived from “unique combinations of selected natural globulins” (Talmage 1959). Years later, Talmage wrote: “There seemed to be such a wide spectrum of avidities that the boundary between antibody and nonantibody globulin was a matter of arbitrary definition.” (my emphasis). He also wrote: “It is probably not a coincidence that both of us (referring to Jerne), after studying the phenomenon of avidity, became convinced that antibodies were natural globulins selected by antigens.” (Talmage 1995: 35). I will now trace a parallel between this “matter of arbitrary definition,” i.e., of ascribing antibody properties to natural immunoglobulins, and the ascription of names to colors in the Maturana early work of as a neurobiologist.

Maturana and color perception The work of Humberto Maturana, usually known as the concept of autopoiesis and more properly as the biology of cognition and language, is a bold endeavor aiming to describe the biological basis of human understanding and the nature of experienced real-

ity (Maturana 1970, 1987, 2002; Maturana & Poerksen 2004). To summarize, in his own words, his task is not to decide what reality is, but rather describe “how can we do what we do,” even when asking what reality is (Maturana 1978, 2002, 2005; Maturana & Poerksen 2004). One of the main aphorisms in Maturana’s work is “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela 1984). A radical step in the development of Maturana’s approach was taken early in his career: when still studying the neurobiology of color perception, he included the ascription of names to colors in the mechanism of color discrimination. In doing this, he included the experiencing of the observer in experienced reality. Maturana had returned to Chile after successfully mapping four different types of receptors in the frog retina at the M.I.T. (Lettvin et al. 1959), and intended to map color receptors in the retina. After a few years of unsuccessful experiments, he concluded it was impossible to correlate patterns of activity of retinal ganglion cells with the quality of incoming radiation. However, in 1968, he realized it was perfectly possible to correlate the electrical activity of the retina with the name given to the experienced color (Maturana, Uribe & Frenk 1968). The color we call “green,” regardless of its spectral composition, which can vary widely, was associated with defined patterns of retinal activity. This bold step involved the (languaging) activity of the observer (still called a “beholder” in 1968) in creating the experimental phenomenon, a step taken years before the development of the notion of autopoiesis. This was important in the subsequent development of his theory on the nature of human cognition and living activities in general (Maturana 1969, 1970). I see a parallel between ascribing names to colors and ascribing names to immunoglobulins used as specific antibodies, as noted by Jerne and Talmage. In the last three decades, we have applied Maturana’s ideas to immunological activity (Vaz & Varela 1978; Vaz & Carvalho 1993; Vaz et al. 2003, 2006; Ramos, Vaz & Saalfeld 2006; Pordeus et al. 2009). This essay is meant as a comment on our interference as immunologists operating in human languaging in describing otherwise objective phenomena.

Biology of Cognition

The Specificity of Immunologic Observations Nelson M. Vaz

The odd years: 1951–1961 The basis of current immunology thinking was created rather abruptly between 1951 and 1961. On the one hand, this derived from experimental findings such as: a) the recognition of lymphocytes as the main players in immune activity; b) their recognition also as the cells important in the rejection of tissue grafts exchanged between members of the same animal species (allografts); and c) most importantly, the characterization of the phenomenon of allograft tolerance (Billingham, Brent & Medawar 1953). On the other hand, the change also derived from the emergence of selective theories of antibody formation proposed by Jerne (1955) and Talmage (1957), both conflated in Burnet’s clonal selection theory (Burnet 1957, 1959). In 1961, Miller introduced, quite unexpectedly, the importance of the thymus and T lymphocytes in graft rejection and antibody formation (Miller 1961).3 Thus, in a single decade,4 immunology changed completely. Herein, I can only briefly mention the important landmarks. My main interest is to point to differences between theories referring to a spontaneous immunological activity, and the clonal selection theory, which became the dominant idea. Working in rabbits, Medawar had demonstrated that the rejection of skin grafts from other rabbits (allografts) involved immunological mechanisms (Medawar 1944). In 1953, studying the rejection of skin grafts exchanged between mice of genetically homogeneous (inbred) strains, Medawar and co-workers demonstrated an important role of lymphocytes in skin graft rejection. More importantly, they showed that newborn mice injected with cells from another strain would become “tolerant” to tissue antigens (compatibility antigens) and, when adults, would be unable to reject skin from the donor strain, but rejected grafts from a third unrelated strain within the usual timing (Billingham, Brent & Medawar 1953). 3 | I refrain from explaining this and many other further complexities added to the performance of immunological activities. 4 |  1951, 1953, 1955, 1957, 1959, and 1961 were crucial years for immunology.

Immunological “memory,” therefore, could also be “negative.” The characterization of the lymphocyte as the key cell in immunological responsiveness triggered a great revolution in immunology that, surprisingly, did not evolve from the study of infections or allergic reactions, which had been the main subjects in all the previous decades. This revolution inaugurated what was later called “cellular immunology” (Lawrence 1970). Unfortunately, this also involved the neglect of spontaneous immunological activities.

A crucial difference Jerne (1967) pointed to an astounding variety of “natural globulins.” He said that there are approximately 1017 molecules of immunoglobulins per ml of serum; if a million (106) different types of these existed and these were uniformly distributed, 1011 molecules of each type would exist in each milliliter of serum. Virtually any molecule penetrating the organism would bind to a few of these immunoglobulins and would be multiplied, with the help of phagocytic cells (Jerne 1955). As I see it, the crucial difference between Jerne’s idea and the template (instructive) theories then prevalent, was not its selective aspect, as is usually highlighted, but the suggestion that globulin production was “natural,” spontaneous, and emerged as an aspect of the construction of the organism. In 1957, Talmage published a theory that insisted on a “cellular origin” for natural antibodies (Talmage 1957). In the same year, Burnet published “A modification of Jerne’s theory of antibody production using the concept of clonal selection” (Burnet 1957), where he suggested that: a) lymphocytes were the cells involved in “natural” antibody production; and b) that each cell produces only one, or a few types of antibodies (the dogma, “one cell, one antibody”). When stimulated by the specific antigen, these lymphocytes would multiply and form a “clone” of antibody-producing cells. To explain the enormous variety of antibodies produced, interpreted as necessary for an “anticipatory” mechanism, Burnet proposed a random “generation of diversity” (GOD), possibly based on a mu-

tational mechanism. Recently, answering questions about these theories, Talmage (see Cohn et al. 2007) said that the “cellular” and “clonal” points of view are essentially similar but “the word ‘clonal’ became fixed in the vocabulary of immunologists and the hypothesis is known as Burnet’s Clonal Selection Theory.” And he ends with an ironic remark: “My only consolation is the knowledge that Burnet’s theory is a ‘clone’ of mine” (see Cohn et al. 2007). There is an important difference between theories of “natural” spontaneous globulin production (Jerne 1955; Talmage 1957) and Burnet’s clonal selection theory. The clonal selection theory was framed in a stimulus/response/regulation model, and although proposing a selective explanation, it allows the penetration of instructive influences through the back door. It is a theory of body defenses, not a theory of spontaneous organism construction. The activity is restricted to antigen stimulation and selfreacting (forbidden) clones are eliminated (or permanently inactivated, or regulated). The remaining clones are believed to sit as idle elements waiting for antigens that may never come. The theory is intended to explain the episodic activation of lymphocytes, generally associated with pathological events, not their physiology. Physiology is a term rarely mentioned in classical immunology. Almost twenty years later, Jerne published another theory addressing the internal actions of lymphocytes in his idiotypic network theory (Jerne 1974a). This was expanded by many immunologists, including in the abundant work of Coutinho and co-workers (Stewart & Coutinho 2004) and more recently of Cohen and co-workers (Cohen 1992, 2000). But the clonal selection theory prevailed. After leading to the publication of several thousand experimental and theoretical works, the network theory was virtually forgotten, except by a few faithful followers (see Coutinho 2003) Contradicting Burnetian ideas, according to which lymphocytes require stimulation by foreign antigens, some aspects of the “natural” ongoing immunological activity remain unabated in “antigen-free” organisms, i.e., germ-free animals fed with macromolecule-free diets (Bos et al. 1986). In these animals the production of IgM (al-


Biological–epistemological Concepts in the Biology of Cognition

though not of IgG or IgA) remains at “normal” levels and displays the same profile of reactivity with complex mixtures of ligands (Haury et al. 1997); there are also “normal” levels of activated auto-reactive lymphocytes in the spleen (Pereira et al. 1986).


Conservation amid variation This ongoing “natural” immunological activity derives from sources internal to the organism and does not result from “responses” to specific “stimuli” (Vaz et al. 1996). As such, they are a perfect example of “systemic” processes “closed” upon themselves, although “open” for interactions with the medium. The main objective in the study of such processes is to describe their organization. i.e., the internal relations conserved as invariant while the rest of the organism is under continuous variation, as in the recent words of Ramos (2011a) and Mpodozis (2011), which I quote: The body remains conserved, but all its compo“  nents are continuously exchanged and reassembled throughout the animal’s life.(...) To generate form, to conserve it generated and to regenerate it are all related problems that deal with the most central question in biology – the construction of organisms. Even when we focus on what passes during microorganisms/host interaction phenomena, we are dealing with a co-developmental issue. (Ramos 2011a: 134–136)

and There is plasticity in the ways of development. “  The flux of development is plastic at all moments, and this is what allows this wonderful diversity of lineages of living beings. But the problem is not what is plastic, but rather what is conserved. If change is an essential condition of living, how is maintained that which is conserved? (Mpodozis 2011: epigraph)

In 1978, we proposed to describe the lymphocyte network as closed upon itself (Vaz & Varela 1978), something that Jerne also mentioned in his report as Director of the Basel Institute for Immunology. In a section entitled “Network notions,” he comments on the production of anti-antibodies

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(anti-idiotypic antibodies) to their own antibodies, and writes: Contrary to the notions of the 1960s, which “  regarded the huge set of paratopes (binding sites) of an immune system as an ‘open’ set of recognizing elements, most of which would never meet a fitting antigen, we must now accept that the immune system is essentially ‘closed’ or self-sufficient in this respect. (Jerne 1974b: 6)

Unfortunately, Jerne did not pursue these ideas of organizational closure or selfsufficiency, as we did a few years later (Vaz & Varela 1978).

The cognitive stance The idea of a generalized production of self-reactive immunoglobulins reinforced Jerne’s way of describing (spontaneous) immunological activity. Historically, antibodies were seen as episodic antagonists to invading agents, whereas Jerne saw natural immunoglobulins as arising spontaneously. In the idiotypic network theory (Jerne 1974a), the spontaneity of globulin production is closed on itself: immunoglobulins react permanently with each other and with the organism. Auto-immunity becomes physiology.5 After generating several thousand experimental and theoretical papers, the idiotypic network theory fell in disrepute (Eichmann 2008). Presently it is rarely even mentioned, except by a faithful group of Europeans (see Coutinho 2000, 2002, 2003). Over three decades, Coutinho and his co-workers produced an impressive amount of experimental data, mainly at the Institute Pasteur, Paris, in favor of what they called “natural immunological activity,” understood as processes internal to the organism that may take place in the absence of exposure to external antigens. I was quite aware of the importance of these data and much of what I understand of immunology 5 |  Furthermore, if all immunoglobulins are “auto”-reactive, the prefix “auto,” which gained its status with the clonal selection theory and the concept of “auto-tolerance,” loses its meaning because it no longer describes a special class of elements.

derives from what I learned from them. In this sense, what I say is not independent of what I shared with Coutinho from 1984–87, including a year-long visit to his laboratory. The experimental evidence they obtained grew in significance with the cooperation of Varela and Stewart, who participated in new experimental designs and also elaborated computer models of the immune system (Stewart & Varela 1989, 1990; Varela, Coutinho & Stewart 1991). In this new phase, their discussions were influenced by Varela’s ideas, which conceived the immune system as a cognitive system (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1995). In his own words, Varela’s main interest was the emergence of cognition, which he saw emerging everywhere: I guess I’ve had only one question all my life. “  Why do emergent selves, virtual identities, pop up all over the place creating worlds, whether at the mind/body level, the cellular level, or the transorganism level? […] As a consequence, I’m interested in the nervous system, cognitive science, and immunology, because they concern the processes that can answer the question of what biological identity is. How can you have some kind of identity that simultaneously allows you to know something, allows cells to configure their own relevant world, the immune system to generate the identity of our body in its own way, and the brain to be the basis for a mind, a cognitive identity? (Varela 1995: 210)

Randall Whitaker notices a difference between Varela’s and Maturana’s approaches and he writes: Although the principles underlying enactive “  cognitive science clearly derive (at least in part) from autopoietic theory (by way of Varela), there are actually few points of reference to Maturana and Varela’s earlier work. (Whitaker 1998)

For Maturana, cells, organs, etc. are totally blind (in cognitive terms) to their respective media; only organisms, as wholes, are capable of the “effective actions” he identifies as cognition (Maturana 2002). In his way of seeing, the presence of the human observer and the importance of human languaging in the construction of what is experienced as real, are always made explicit. The characterization of separate domains of

Biology of Cognition

The Specificity of Immunologic Observations Nelson M. Vaz

description, which are typical of the context established by Maturana in his biology of cognition and language is also minimized in Varela’s work. Describing a cognitive immune system is quite different from claiming that the immunologist arbitrates which phenomena are specific and which are not, tracing a boundary between antibodies and unspecific immunoglobulins, as Jerne and Talmage did in the past. As a consequence, descriptions of immunological activities based on Varela’s ideas and descriptions based on Maturana’s ideas may be significantly different.

The case of “oral tolerance” With the emergence of the clonal selection theory, the idea of a spontaneous immunoglobulin production preceding the encounter with antigens – which was Jerne’s main idea – vanished from sight. The fundamental tenet of Jerne/Talmage’s theories was replaced with a collection of lymphocyte clones, previously purged of self-reacting forbidden clones, waiting for possible activation (clonal expansion in specific immune responses) upon exposure to antigens to which they bind – and which might never appear. Also gone was the possibility to suggesting anything about the organism’s construction. Unstimulated organisms, therefore, would remain immunologically idle. There is no such a thing as a non-stimulated organism. Change is an essential condition of living (Mpodozis 2011). Organisms change immunologically by the simple act of eating proteins produced by other organisms, and also by existing in contact with an abundant commensal microbioma: they become “orally-tolerant” to these materials (Vaz et al. 1997). If subsequently exposed to these materials under otherwise immunogenic conditions, i.e., with adjuvants and by parenteral routes, they react much less than animals that did not contact them by the digestive route. However, what is presently called “oral tolerance” is nether immunization nor the development of tolerance (ignorance, neglect) to these materials. No form of “tolerance” is absolute. Animals submitted to treatments that result in “oral tolerance” still

form specific antibodies upon subsequent (parenteral) immunization, in magnitudes that are inversely proportional to the ingested (tolerizing) dose of the antigen. But these partially inhibited “immune responses” differ drastically from those resulting from parenteral immunization because they display no “memory”: they are not progressive; the levels of antibody formed are robustly stable even in face of repeated parenteral immunizations with adjuvant (Verdolin et al. 2001). A similar situation is present in the formation of “auto-antibodies” and the activation of “self-reacting” lymphocytes. There is a physiological “auto-reactivity.” Self/nonself-discrimination is a pseudo-problem. The real question is the robust, although dynamic, stability of immunological activity. We must define the organization of immunological activities, and contact with dietary materials is an excellent way to examine this problem.

Attempts to alter robust stable equllibria In a long trend of work, Carvalho and co-workers have shown that the exposure of “orally-tolerant” animals to “tolerated” antigens under otherwise immunogenic conditions inhibits the initiation of a variety of other immunological phenomena (Carvalho, Verdolin & Vaz 1996). It may alter the organization of granulomas (Carvalho et al. 2002), the pattern of healing of skin wounds (Costa et al. 2011), and inflammation resulting from the injection of carrageenan (Ramos et al. 2008). Thus attempts to interfere with the immunological status quo may trigger potent anti-inflammatory mechanisms. Furthermore, the immunological status quo of body components in the adult organism is not fixed, as proposed by the hypotheses of “self-tolerance.” Not only may it possibly break down as in “autoimmune” diseases, but, as shown by Ramos (2011a), it can be reinforced by artificial toleranceinducing protocols. Rats orally pretreated with an extract of rat heart, are less damaged by injection of super-high doses of isoproterenol, which triggers lesions similar to myocardium infarction (Ramos 2011b).

A large degree of redundancy The lymphoid system maintains an intense rate of replacement of cellular and molecular components, and yet maintains invariance in many parameters – such specific immunity and tolerance – with lifelong duration at times. This ceaseless replacement of components creates a situation that is almost the opposite of what is commonly imagined to happen in specific immunization. Different children immunized with the same vaccine are imagined to form the same protective antibodies, but the antibodies, although equivalent, are never the same. Even in the same child they keep changing; they are always being replaced by others. A second example is found in children born with congenital defects that block the production of immunoglobulins, such as in agammaglobulinemia. If diagnosed soon enough, many of these children can live near normal lives if they periodically receive injections of gamma-globulins collected from panels of blood donors. These globulins are not those the child would form by her/himself, but they are equivalent. This equivalence relies on the wide plurality of globulins and also on their “polyspecificity” (Wucherpfennig et al. 2007), which is probably necessary for healthy living.

Pathogenesis by disconnection Somehow, this plurality creates a form of beneficial coalition in the immunoglobulin network. This is further suggested by the association of expansions of lymphocyte populations with a sub-optimal degree of diversity (so-called “oligoclonal expansions”) with many forms of immunopathology, ranging from severe forms of infectious and parasite diseases (Finger et al. 2005; Fesel et al. 2005) to allergic diseases (Davies & O’Hehir 2004), diseases of autoimmune origin (Quintana et al. 2008), and some forms of congenital abnormalities (Leavy 2007). Thus, losing some form of global integration and allowing the expansion of a particular sector of the lymphocyte network may have pathogenic consequences.


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Prophylaxis by diversification This hypothesis suggests an alternative explanation for the efficiency of anti-infectious vaccination never considered before. Traditionally, vaccines are supposed to work by promoting and intensifying immunological memory. However, even facing virulent (strongly aggressive) infectious agents, only a proportion of the exposed population will suffer severe infectious diseases; the majority of hosts will display mild symptoms and some may even become temporarily or permanently “healthy carriers.” I suggest that the individuals that suffer severe symptoms are exactly those who display “oligoclonal” (i.e., restricted) lymphocyte expansions. If this were true, the protective effect of vaccination could depend on diversifying the lymphocyte and antibody responses, rather than on creating progressively stronger immune responses (memory). “Oligoclonal” expansions could represent departures from the physiologic highly-diversified and everchanging network of lymphocyte interactions.

Discovery or invention? Human observers and their languaging When the first antibodies were characterized late in the 19th century (Behring & Kitasato 1890), were they discovered or invented? This question seems awkward because it addresses an issue rarely examined by scientists: the existence of an observerindependent, objective reality, in which scientists discover entities and phenomena. It is easier to concede that the word “antibod-

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Nelson Monteiro Vaz

is retired Professor of Immunology at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He will be 75 next September. At NYU, with Bernard Levine, he devised a method of inducing prolonged intense IgE responses in mice at the beginning of the 1970s. This led them to stumble onto Ir genes. At CARIH, in Denver, he again stumbled onto “oral tolerance,” met Francisco Varela and started to believe that everything in immunology was upside down. He then returned to Brazil where he has been ever since, except for short periods in Antonio Coutinho’s laboratories in Paris and Oeiras, working on “oral tolerance,” natural immunoglobulins, and theoretical immunology in the 1990s and 2000s. He believes that contact between immunology and cognitive sciences will be beneficial to both.

ies” was invented to allow the coordination of actions among scientists. Thus, antibodies were not simply imagined but inventing a new word was necessary for subsequent co-ordinations of actions. This is in accordance to the approach that Maturana has to human languaging. For Maturana, human languaging is not the transmission of symbolic information, as usually understood: it is a way of living, typically human, in recursive coordinations of consensual actions and coordinations of these coordinations (Maturana 1978). Furthermore, Maturana refrains from using the concept of information (Maturana 1983), which he claims “is prone to generating confusion in the discussion of biological problems.” The coordination of coordinations of many similar actions by immunologists created modern immunology as a huge collective invention supported by several other keywords, consensually and recursively accepted, and used as the precise technical terms as they really are. “Natural,” spontaneously formed immunoglobulins and specific antibodies, usually seen as synonymous, are different entities because they arise in different domains of description. I am not the first one to believe this: Talmage claimed that immunologists arbitrate the boundaries between immunoglobulins and antibodies (Talmage 1995). This is probably more adequate than claiming, as Jerne did (Soderqvist 2003), that the difference exists “only in the minds of immunologists,” because antibodies obviously are not simply imagined by immunologists. But whereas natural immunoglobulins arise spontaneously as body components, specific antibodies arise in human languaging as functional labels ascribed to immunoglobu-

lins according to tests designed with the intentional and precise directionality required to detect and quantitate them. This does not diminish the immense importance of specific antibodies for medical practice and biological research in many areas. However, it raises a major question about the traditional orientation of research in immunology, which is mainly aimed at elucidating the production of antibodies and its regulation. But this is not what the organism does! And, of course, there is still a major question at stake, which is the interference (the arbitration) of human observers in what is otherwise assumed to be an observer-independent, i.e., objective, reality. This is a problem of broader scientific and philosophic relevance, on which I refrain from commenting. In summary, the semantic understanding of immunity is adopted by society and by the great majority of immunologists, who believe that the body defends itself through the production of specific antibodies and lymphocytes and who are presently living a transition from “tolerance” to the “regulation” of immunological activity. Only a handful of immunologists see immunological activity as an aspect of the construction of the organism and search for a definition of an immune “system” as a genuine system, rather than as a collection of isolated cells and molecules that respond specifically to immunogenic stimuli.

Conceptual traps We should avoid the danger of assuming that we can distinguish the “natural activity” of living entities, because we always act as observers in human languaging.

Biology of Cognition

The Specificity of Immunologic Observations Nelson M. Vaz

Thus, we cannot see differences between our constructions in languaging and how things “really are” in their “natural activity.” My intention is not to describe things as they “really are,” but rather to accept that the organism has invariant aspects in its self-maintaining physiology and that to describe these invariant aspects is our primary aim. Even without fully understanding the rules and patterns of this invariant organization, we may consider it a “natural activity.” On the other hand, specific immune responses resulting from antigenic stimuli that are imagined as induced (instructive) expansions of lymphocyte clones that otherwise are independent of other lymphocytes and of the organism at large are something that can hardly be considered natural or self-maintained. To properly understand the operation of the immune system as a component of the organism, which, at the same time, is instrumental in placing the organism in relation with its external, antigenic medium, we must be aware of two further conceptual traps. On one side is the trap of representationism, the tendency to imagine that the immune system operates with representations of the antigenic world, i.e., that each antigen activates a certain population of lymphocytes and triggers in them a certain kind of specific immune response. This blinds us to the epigenesis of the immune system, which actually operates moment to moment as a structure-determined system closed in its organization. It is the system that stipulates at each moment which configurations of its medium (i.e., of the organism) may trigger in it changes of state, i.e., which structures may actually function as antigens. In other words, it is the changing structure of the immune system itself that determines with which materials the system may interact. Antigens and body components do not determine (guide, drive) the nature or direction of these changes although they may and do constantly interfere with them. On the other side, we have the very common trap of supposing that the system operates in a vacuum in which anything is valid, a vision that denies the importance of the medium, an attitude that in classical philosophy corresponds to solipsism,

BOX 1: The differences between Varela and Maturana

Maturana only mentions the “immune system” en passant as an extension of his comments on the nervous system. Varela had direct experience with immunology in Coutinho’s lab for a decade, participating in experimental designs and discussions. Thus, the distinctions I make pertain to the differences between these two formidable thinkers concerning fundamental issues of language, cognition, and the nature of living systems. These differences are outstanding and can only be neglected by those that have not read Maturana directly. They are obvious in the separate prefaces they wrote for the second edition of the first book they wrote together (Maturana & Varela 1998) and are also transparent in Maturana’s Foreword, Introduction, and the 1970 text “Biology of Cognition,” which is reprinted in Maturana & Varela (1980). Varela’s formalizing effort treated immunological activity as a special kind of cognition, which he called “immuknowledge,” only half in jest (Varela & Coutinho 1991). For Maturana, not even the brain is a cognitive organ (Maturana 1985). The mind is in behavior. Whose behavior? The behavior of organisms and, very notably, in the behavior of human observers – not human organs, tissues or cells of metacellular organisms, which Maturana does not see as cognitive entities. The figure of the immunologist as a human observer operating in human languaging is nowhere present in Varela’s approach, whereas in Maturana this would be a primary objective. the claim that we exist in our own interiority, in which anything is possible. This also blinds us because it cannot explain the conservation of the congruence of the immune system with its medium (the organism), a congruence robustly conserved, as experimentally demonstrated for “natural” immunoglobulins (Lacroix-Desmazes et al. 1999). To avoid these two traps – one that sees the system moved by antigens, another that sees it as independently moved by itself – we have always to keep in mind that the immune system, as a compound unity (as a system), should be seen simultaneously in two domains. In one way of seeing we distinguish its structural dynamics, the operation of its components, its internal changes of state. In this operation, the organism, which is the medium in which the immune system operates, is irrelevant; the immune system is a network of interactions among lymphocytes and lymphocyte products in which relative states of lymphocyte activation can only lead to other relative states of lymphocyte activation. In the other domain of description, we distinguish the immune system as a whole, an entity configured as a complex lymphocyte network that is a component of the organism. In this second domain, we may describe the history of the interactions of this entity with

the organism as a recursive dance between changes in the organism and changes in the immune system, a history in which we may trace some correlations between changes in the organism and changes in the immune system. There are no major problems in seeing the operation of the immune system separately in each of these two domains. However, because as observers we may see these two domains simultaneously, we may run into problems if we do not keep them as separate domains. When we confound these two domains, we may be led to believe that the correspondences we may establish between structural (molecular/cellular) changes internal to the system, and immunological phenomena, such as immunity and allergy, participate effectively in the operation of the system and of the organism and are the explanation of immunological activity. In this (confounded) way of seeing, we are led to believe that antigens determine (instruct) the changes of state of the system, when actually what happens is almost the opposite: it is the structure of the system itself that determines, at each moment, which structures of the medium may trigger its changes of state. When we inadvertently trespass the boundaries between these two domains of descriptions, we may


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mistakenly ascribe specific protection or hypersensitivity to particular component molecules of the system, and call them, for example, specific antibodies. This is far from trivial. The doubly confounded notion, by which immunoglobulins and antibodies are treated as synonymous and are described as reacting with external antigens, has guided the construction of the whole discipline of immunology as a scientific endeavor. Thus, changing this central concept is bound to change the whole understanding of immunological activity. The first misunderstanding is to take immunoglobulins and antibodies as synonymous. The second misunderstanding is to believe that the immune system deals with materials external to the organism (antigens), when actually, as a part of the organism, the medium in which the immune system operates is the organism itself Thus, the system only interacts with materials present in the organism, even though these materials may include (temporarily or permanently) components of what we see as the external medium, such as dietary molecules and infectious agents such as viruses.

Conclusion Do the cognitive aspects of immunology stem from the activities of cells and molecules, or are they ascribed by immunologists operating in human languaging as human observers? Unlike every immunologist I know, except a few of my dearest students, I chose the second alternative. I see cognition as inherent in the human way of living and in the living of all organisms, but not in their component cells and molecules. Network immunologists, from Jerne’s network, to Coutinho’s “natural immunological activity,” to Cohen’s “homuncular” hypothesis, favored spontaneous processes of organism construction (development) and partially escaped from defensive models, including Burnetian clonal selection. But, for example, as explicitly claimed by Varela in his association with Coutinho and Stewart, they ascribe cognition to the lymphocyte network. The defensive outlook confounds processes of lymphocyte operations with a frequent result of these operations, which nevertheless may also damage or destroy the organism. Lymphocyte operations routinely assimilate dietary materials and products of

The Cognitivist Paradigm 20 Years Later Commentary on Nelson Vaz Alfred I. Tauber • Boston University • ait/at/ > Upshot • The cognitive paradigm organizes immune phenomena with an eye to-

wards understanding the immune system as a perceptive faculty, where examination of the basic regulation of unstimulated immune activity becomes the primary investigative focus. While a fecund research program organized around the hypothesized “autonomous network theory” has yielded important insight into the “conservative physiology of the immune system,” the theoretical basis for these studies offers little more than one set of metaphors (arranged around “cognition”) challenging another (“selfhood”). However, breaking the theoretical hold of protecting the immune self as the focus of immunology is no mean feat in terms of shifting research interest towards a key, but neglected aspect of immunity. Constructivist Foundations

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the microbioma, and attempts to interfere with assimilated elements trigger major antiinflammatory effects. A general mechanism of pathogenesis probably derives from failures of assimilation, leading to the expansion of lymphocyte populations with less than optimal clonal diversity. Effective anti-infectious vaccination possibly works by allowing proper degrees of lymphocyte diversity in encounters with potentially pathogenic agents. If seriously considered, these ideas demand a major revision of immunology teaching, research, and clinical applications.

Acknowledegement I am deeply grateful to Humberto Maturana, Jorge Mpodozis, and also to Gustavo Ramos, Claudia Carvalho, Archimedes Barbosa de Castro Jr., and Vitor Pordeus, who helped me to keep focused on the arguments. I also thank reviewers of the first format of this essay, who challenged me to write this version. Received: 13 January 2011 Accepted: 22 June 2011

To their immense credit, the VarelaVaz-Coutinho-Cohen continuum (Tauber 2009) – despite their very significant theoretical differences – share the conceptual orientation of, and authorship for, the “cognitive paradigm” (Varela et al. 1988; Varela & Coutinho 1991; Cohen 1992).6 Francisco Varela and Nelson Vaz were heavily influenced by Humberto Maturana; joining Varela and Vaz, Antonio Coutinho extended their orientation in response to Niels Jerne, who first drew analogies of immune functions with cognition and language (Jerne 1974a; Tauber 1994); Irun Cohen, independent of the Varela-Vaz-Coutinho “Paris School,” followed his own intuitions driven 6 | I do not use theory to describe the nest of ideas comprising the cognitive approach, and so bypass any discussion about its philosophical standing as a theory versus a model versus an orientation.

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The Cognitivist Paradigm 20 Years Later Alfred I. Tauber

by his interests in experimental autoimmunity. I have offered historical and scientific critiques of their efforts elsewhere (Tauber 1997, 2009, 2010), so before my extended comment, it suffices to make four initial observations: 1  | Fundamental theoretical differences separate Cohen from the Paris School, and here my comments will be directed solely at the latter. 2  | Only the “danger” model (Matzinger 1994) has been added to immunology’s library of theories since the work during the 1980s of the Paris School. However, as discussed below, this too falls within the cognitivist orbit, albeit in a very different way and from another experimental tradition. 3  | Neither “danger” nor “cognition” have eclipsed the dominance of the clonal selection theory (CST), and while those embracing the cognitive approach have gathered further experimental evidence, which they marshal into support for their respective cases, neither in my opinion, have been conceptually or theoretically advanced over the past 20 years. 4  | Correspondingly, no comprehensive assessment has been offered that provides a critical perspective of the cognitive idea and its advance, even though its authors continue to assess its strengths and weaknesses (e.g., Coutinho 1995; Vaz et al. 2006). Indeed, the cognitive paradigm has not moved beyond a fecund metaphor. To this last point, space forbids an extended discussion here, but I will update a commentary published two decades ago and, to my knowledge, never answered (Chernyak & Tauber 1991). Much like Alexander Dumas’ extended Three Musketeers saga, Twenty Years Later, my views, while matured, are essentially the same today as then. In April 1990, I organized a conference at Boston University entitled, “Organism and the Origin of Self,” and the conference proceedings, published in the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science series, included essays that treated the historical, evolutionary, developmental biological and immunological challenges of defining selfhood (Tauber 1991). Our paper, written with Leon Chernyak, a Russian philosopher, took aim at Maturana and the Paris School – not the

cognitivist orientation, per se – since we recognized that their assault on CST comprised the most sophisticated challenge to that prevailing thought collective. Yet we were dissatisfied with the conceptual foundations of the Paris approach, which applied Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis to immunology: An autopoietic system is organized (defined “  as unity) as a network of processes of production (synthesis and destruction) of components such that these components: i) continuously regenerate and realize the network that produces them, and ii) constitute the system as a distinguishable unity in the domain in which they exist. Thus autopoiesis attempts to capture the mechanism or process that generates the identity of the living… This identity amounts to a self-produced coherence. (Varela 1991: 81)

Given the centrality of “identity” to autopoiesis, the theory’s application to immune phenomena, in particular the problem of defining immune selfhood, was soon made. I have detailed problems with the experimental support for the Paris School’s claims elsewhere (Tauber 2009), and here I will outline the four principle tenets held by their “autonomous network theory” (ANT – Vaz, Martinez & Coutinho 1984; Varela et al. 1988) in order to identify its conceptual weakness: 1  | The immune system is “closed” or, in other words, as an autopoietic system, identity is generated by its own coherence, and self-identification must remain intact and integral to itself and within itself. 2  | The immune system knows only itself and to the extent that it recognizes an other, that other “appears” only as a perturbation or “cybernetic noise,” which in turn has prescribed limits (otherwise the system is disrupted). 3  | So unlike CST, where the self is a “negative space” (or a tolerant “hole”) in the immune repertoire, with ANT, “the self ” is the immune system itself, and autoimmunity, in its broadest conception, is the self. ANT, then, is ignorant of nonself, which appears as “nonsense” (or as above, “noise”). Simply, the other (nonself) does not exist in this closed system.

Antigenicity then is only a question of degree, where “self ” evokes one kind of response, and the “foreign” another, based not on its intrinsic foreignness, but rather because the immune system sees that foreign antigen in the context of invasion or degeneracy. There is no foreignness per se, because if a substance is truly foreign, it would not be recognized, i.e., there would be no image by which the immune system might engage it. Whereas CST protects integrity, ANT constitutes that integrity by self-referential (self-definitional) processes. ANT, locked into seeing only itself and blind to the other, fails to define the other as other, which then can only be identified as “foreign” from an exterior point of view. In other words, the system, insistently closed, not only fails to identify the other, but in its completeness fails to define itself as well, for it has no perspective on its selfness. The cognitivist paradigm locks onto a subject-object structure. A system that “knows” only itself cannot know itself, because to know requires a knower knowing a something. Consider, for example how the self-consciousness of our mental life is similarly entangled. Consciousness, the medium by which the self “knows” itself, serves as a monitoring system of choice and action. As such, the self-conscious I (that which is designated the seat of consciousness) observes (evaluates, assesses) some other, called “me.” So self-consciousness… contains a knower and “  a known, otherwise it would not be consciousness. For consciousness consists in knowing, but knowing requires a knower and a known. Thus, just as there can be no object without a subject, so there can be no subject without an object, in other words, no knower without something different from this that is known. (Schopenhauer 1969: 202)

More formally, “Anything that I ascribe to myself by using “I” is ipso facto a predicate or object of the I, not the I itself ” (Inwood 1992: 121). And the regression to the “true” I, the base of identity pursued by a recursive cycle, at least in the grammar of personhood, can never be reached. ANT suffers from the same imbroglio, because the identity function that would define itself cannot be defined from within the system.


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The designations of self and non-self arise strictly from the perspective of an outsider observer, for the system itself to make the self/non-self distinction requires openness to the other – “Ah, this is not me!” – and from that distinction, the “me” becomes an implicit product. When Jerne presented his analogous network theory (Jerne 1974a), Melvin Cohn rightly observed that self/non-self distinctions could not be made and hastily concluded that the theory could not account for immune phenomena. That critique has been amply debated (Tauber 1997; 1998; Podolsky & Tauber 1997), and it suffices to note that immune phenomena can be accounted for by adopting the altered “eigen states” (changed inner dynamics) predicted in these network models, but that the deeper question of selfhood remains problematic. Cohn argued that immune reactions can only be understood on the self/non-self template, which I deny (Tauber 2000). I suggest that we remove the self/non-self distinction, which has been applied to molecular events, as an unfortunate extrapolation from our everyday world of persons and their others. Instead of this anthropomorphism, let us simply examine the immune system solely in its own terms by characterizing its own

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Alfred Tauber

recently retired from Boston University as Director Emeritus of the Center for Philosophy and History of Science. Aside from his research on the biochemistry of the acute inflammatory response, with studies ranging from free radical chemistry to activation mechanisms of phagocytes, Tauber has published extensively on 19th and 20th century biomedicine, contemporary science studies, and ethics. Most notably, he is the author of numerous philosophical critiques and historical studies of immunology, including The Immune Self (Cambridge 1994) and (with Scott Podolsky) The Generation of Diversity (Harvard 1997). In 2008, he was the recipient of the Science Medal awarded by the University of Bologna, and in 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa.

dynamics. And in some sense, the systems analyses currently applied to immunity are doing just that as they face the dilemma of dealing with “self ” (Tauber 2009). In conclusion, the Paris School sought to offer a non-representational model of cognition, yet, ironically, ANT cannot rid itself of the self/non-self structure of “knowing.” ANT’s conceptual weakness is not cognition or network, but rather the notion of autonomy – invented by Kant for his moral philosophy and enjoying a rich history thereafter (Tauber 2005: 83ff.). Biological systems are open; physiological borders are filters; immunology is an ecological science defined at the interface of inter-relationships and exchange (Tauber 2008); and the idea of an “autonomous” system is prima facie inconsistent with the requirement of various life functions to integrate. The conceptual ladder has been climbed to help establish “systems biology” as the central concern of modern immunology, an effort that has diverse origins, and the Paris School may rightly claim co-authorship. Now their philosophical ladder may be thrown away leaving us to study a system as a system without metaphors. And indeed, that is happening. New methods – employing large panels of antigens, automatic data processing, and

the application of multi-parametric statistics – have been devised in order to assess the system as a holistic entity (Tauber 2009). Such studies have each offered a “snap-shot” image of the immune system as a whole, where antibody profiles depict immune reactivity over a wide array of antibody specificities. Examination of normal states reveal the on-going un-stimulated state of the immune system as it does its daily work, not against pathogens or damage, but according to its role in the normal body economy (e.g., Haury et al. 1994; Quintana et al. 2006). So instead of measuring elicited responses, these studies capture dynamics of on-going (normal) “auto-immune” reactions, and here we find the lasting legacy of the Paris School. In their search for experimental data to support ANT, they were among the first to use panels of antigens to create holistic profiles of immune activity (Coutinho 1995). Thus they fully embraced the challenge of characterizing the immune system as a system, which remains a major unfulfilled task of contemporary immunology.

Received: 10 June 2011 Accepted: 23 June 2011

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The Enactive Paradigm 33 Years Later Nelson M. Vaz

(Vaz & Varela 1978) and Coutinho (Vaz, Martinez & Coutinho 1984; Coutinho et al. 1984) in a period in which I still had not realized major differences between Varela’s and Maturana’s approaches. Today, I would not subscribe to those concepts. Actually, I did not participate in writing the 1988 paper (Varela et al. 1988). Varela quotes this 1988 paper without including my name as an author and my name is not included in the acknowledgements of this paper (see Varela 1991).

The Enactive Paradigm 33 Years Later Response to Alfred Tauber Nelson M. Vaz • Univ. Federal de Minas Gerais • nvaz/at/ together with Gustavo C. Ramos & Archimedes B. de Castro Jr.

> Upshot • According to the biology of cognition and language (Maturana’s ap-

proach), the immune system is not a cognitive system and the defining of a cognitive paradigm is not what we understand as a Maturanian approach to immunology. The true cognitive actions in immunology are performed by immunologists acting as observers, not by body organs or systems. Stimuli and responses are not adequate concepts in the description of systems. As a closed network of cellular/molecular interactions, the immune system yields patterns of activity, as is transparent in robust conserved profiles of reactivity of natural immunoglobulins, as investigated by Nóbrega et al. and Cohen et al., which offer the opportunity to unravel its natural, spontaneous activity. Dietary materials, products of the commensal microbiome, are the most abundant and common elements continuously incorporated into the network activity and, thus, also represent an important avenue of investigation.

At the outset, a word of warning on terminology. Cognitivism is that perspective emphasizing symbolization, representationalism, and the computer as a metaphor for a cognitive system. Connectionism (emergence) emphasizes behavioral/configurational emergence in parallel distributed networks, and this formal model is inspired by the neural system as a metaphor for a cognitive system. Varela presented himself as a defender (actually the founder) of a third, distinct cognitive approach, called “enactive,” as made clear by Randall Whitaker (2001) in his site on autopoiesis and enaction. Also relevant to the present distinction, Whitaker notes: “Although the principles underlying enactive cognitive science clearly derive (at least in part) from autopoietic theory (by way of Varela), there are actually few points of reference to Maturana and Varela’s earlier work.” Thus I feel it is improper to label the approach of the “Paris School” as “cognitivist”: it was really “enactive,” i.e., in line with Varela’s ideas. Maturana’s radical statements are impossible to summarize. Varela’s formalizing and modelling efforts aimed at the expression of biological phenomena in mathemat-

ical terms; Maturana goes in the opposite direction and centers his preoccupations in ethics and languaging. One makes biology a harder science; the other makes it softer. Let me also warn against expressions such as the “Santiago School” of cognition, “Paris School” of immunology, or “VarelaVaz-Coutinho-Cohen continuum” (Tauber 2009), which include quite divergent lines of thought. Cherniak and Tauber (1991) addressed heavy criticism to what they understand as the “Paris School” having “applied Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis to immunology” (my emphasis). However, they actually criticize “identity” and “immune selfhood,” which would never be included in Maturana’s approach to biological problems, which includes autopoietic organization in harmony with several other basic concepts. “Identity” is a comment made by an observer to another observer that may be her/himself. It only makes sense in languaging, i.e., consensual, recursive coordination of actions. Varela understood the emergence of identities as entities in themselves. A third problem, not so important but relevant to the present discussion, refers to my (Vaz) early publications with Varela

Has the enactive (“cognitive”) approach resulted in progress since 1978?7 Yes and No. Yes, there was progress because in the 1980s and 1990s Coutinho and co-workers generated massive experimental evidence incompatible with the clonal selection theory. Varela and Stewart’s computer model of the immune system indicated that stability derived from connectivity contradicting self/non-self discrimination (cf. Appendix 1). No, there was no real progress because of the lack of an adequate supporting theory. These data are as strong or as weak as the theory behind them. Experimental facts, by themselves, will not force change in paradigms (Kuhn 1965). Coutinho followed Jerne’s network theory and a patchwork of Varela’s ideas. Jerne’s theory was incomplete because idiotypic connections could not all be equivalent, and an organization should have been defined (Vaz & Varela 1978). Varela’s presence in his laboratory, participating in experimental designs, made him discuss “second-generation immune networks” (Varela, Coutinho & Stewart 1991) and “immuknowledge” (Varela & Coutinho 1991), “metadynamics,” etc., and placed him in contact with complex mathematical notions such as “shape spaces” (Stewart & Varela 1991). The term “immuknowlege,” for example, endows the immune system with cogitive identity and enables it to “enact.” To Maturana, cognition 7 | Taking “Self and non-sense” (Vaz & Varela 1978) as the starting date.


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is an effective action of a living organism in its medium. This action is also a distinction made by a human observer, rather than a comment about an ultimate reality experimentally revealed. I further believe that this vacuum, this necessity of defining an organization, is what led Cohen to his homuncular idea, i.e., a sort of internal hierarchy in the reactions of lymphocytes among themselves and with the body (Cohen 1992; see also Appendix 2). In our way of seeing, the solution is not hierarchical as in Cohen’s homunculus; it involves distinguishing what we do as immunologists as separated from what the immune system does as a component of the organism. Understanding “how do we do what we do” is the province of Maturana, the core of his biology of cognition and language and, most especially, his definition of human languaging (Maturana 2002; Maturana & Poerksen 2004).

A legitimate attack on the wrong target In short, Cherniak and Tauber’s (1991) efficient attack on the “Paris School” is philosophical and legitimate: notions such as “identity” and “selfhood” are profound philosophical issues and I strongly believe that immunology can indeed help to define them. But what they identify as the “Paris School” is Varela’s proposal of “enactive” science, not what the Varela-Vaz-CoutinhoCohen continuum (Tauber 2009), with their different outlooks, could offer. In his present answer, Tauber separates Cohen from this continuum – with which I fully agree – but does not identify our experimental work on “oral tolerance” and our reference to Maturana’s ideas as also separate from the “Paris School,” as I insist should happen.

Some of the history of immunological networks When I met Varela in Denver he was jobless and I invited him to my laboratory, I had just bumped into the phenomenon of so-called “oral tolerance,” a presumed inhibition of immune responsiveness to proteins previously ingested as food, and I was

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deeply overwhelmed by its meaning. Varela, who knew nothing of immunology, was not aware of the impact this finding was having on me. Understood as an inhibition, “oral tolerance” was the exact opposite of immunological memory: it was a kind of specific amnesia directed to an enormous array of proteins, including those in the intestinal microbiome. To Varela, who did not have to deal with the implied contradictions, “oral tolerance” was obviously part of the insertion of the organism into its antigenic medium. The combined effect of bumping into “oral tolerance” and meeting Varela’s cognitive ideas made me temporarily abandon the idea of being a scientist. I gave up my job as department head and returned to Brazil, where I have been ever since. Gradually, I returned to science and “oral tolerance,” which turned out to be not an inhibition, but a robust regulatory mechanism that includes specific antibody formation (Vaz et al. 1996; Verdolin et al. 2001). Seeing “oral tolerance” as assimilation, or insertion of the organism into its antigenic medium, stems from a vision of an autopoietic system that is “closed” in its organization but “open” for incorporating elements of the medium – as Varela saw it (see Vaz & Varela 1978). For Maturana, it is enough to understand that the system maintains an invariant organization. Although self-maintained/self-created, this organization is part of an organism and, among other sub-systems, it helps to build this organism in another domain of description in which effective actions of the organism take place: to know is to live. We cannot properly say that the immune system is “alive,” even though its component cells are alive and the organism to which it belongs is also alive, as long as it maintains its congruence (its adaptation) to its medium.

Where do we go from here? As we have explained elsewhere, our approach allows a new understanding of immune physiology and also of immune pathology based on the expansion of lymphocyte populations with a sub-optimal degree of diversity (oligoclonal expansions) (Vaz et al. 2003; 2006; Pordeus et al. 2009). The same approach explains anti-infectious

vaccination by the expansion of clonal diversity, rather than by enhancing immunological memory, and this suggests new avenues of research. Inflammatory activity can finally be reunited with immunological activity as aspects of biological development (Ramos 2011a). A few recent findings in the literature already suggest that classic autoimmune diseases are not primarily autoimmune, but rather derive from developmental defects (Liston 2008) or require the combined effects of several factors (Cadwell et al. 2010). Attempts to break immunological tolerance, such as the injection of tolerated proteins into tolerant organisms trigger anti-inflammatory phenomena (Ramos et al. 2008) that can affect phenomena ranging from Graft versus Host (GvH) reactions, to granuloma formation, to the healing of skin wounds (Costa et al. 2011). All these approaches derive from a new global understanding of immunological activity, rather than by enumerating cellular and molecular components underlying its performance. In the biology of cognition and language (Maturana 2002; Maturana & Poerksen 2004), immunological phenomena have correlates in patterns of clonal diversity rather than in the activation or regulation of individual clones. What takes place in one domain of descriptions cannot be reduced to another (“simpler”) domain of descriptions. The search for correlates of protection, or correlates of disease, should be replaced with a search for patterns or sets of elements that act together, as shown in immunoglobulin blots (Nóbrega’s) or microarrays (Cohen’s). As Mpodozis and Maturana have insisted, systems only change systemically. Probably that is why “tolerated” antigens injected into a “tolerant” organism have such strong effects (Costa et al. 2011). “Oral tolerance” is an excellent example of how the organism interacts with myriad of different epitopes and yet remains the same, assimilating by coherence rather than “tolerating” for convenience. “Tolerance” is closely related to protection (i.e., maintenance, remaining the same), which what is expected of an immune system. It is also a demonstration that the “self ” cannot be defined in molecular terms. It may seem acceptable to interpret “tolerance” as “assimilation” or “incorporation” (Parnes 2004).

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The Enactive Paradigm33 Years Later Nelson M. Vaz

But assimilation into what? Here, what is missing is the definition of the invariant, conservative organization of the immune system (Vaz et al. 2003; 2006; Pordeus et al. 2009).

Appendix 1: On Coutinho/ Varela/Stewart In the 1980–90s, Coutinho and coworkers produced a tremendous amount of experimental evidence in support of the network theory, evidence that cannot be explained by clonal concepts. I have selected just one of their publications per year in that decade to show this: ƒƒ minute amounts of IgM would trigger the production of many more immunogloblulins with the same specificity (Forni et al. 1980); ƒƒ suppression of a recurrent idiotype resulted in profound alterations of the whole B cell compartment (Bernabé et al. 1981); ƒƒ pretreatment of newborn mice with idiotypes also triggered changes in T cells (Holmberg, Ivars & Coutinho 1983); ƒƒ idiotypic determinants of natural IgM antibodies resemble self MHC determinants (Holmberg et al. 1984); ƒƒ there is a high frequency of natural autoantibodies in normal newborn mice (Dighiero et al. 1985); ƒƒ the high idiotypic connectivity of “natural” newborn antibodies is not found in adult mitogen-reactive B cell repertoires (Holmberg et al. 1986); ƒƒ autonomous activation of B and T lymphocytes also takes place in antigen-free mice (Pereira et al. 1986); ƒƒ (Ir-gene) low-responders could be turned into high-responders by manipulation of the developing immune system using antibodies’ (Martinez et al. 1987); ƒƒ the “natural” autoreactive B cell activation in the spleen of normal mice is Tcell dependent (Huetz et al. 1988); ƒƒ transplantation tolerance correlates with high levels of T and B lymphocyte activity (Bandeira et al. 1989). None of this can be explained by the expansion of isolated clones of lymphocytes, but Jerne’s theory lacked the concepts to

pull together all this evidence in a coherent framework. After Varela’s interventions, Coutinho’s laboratory published several important theoretical papers and further experimental evidence, such as: 1  | measuring the serum concentrations of four natural IgM antibodies, two of which showed idiotypic complementarity in in vitro assays, the injection of nanograms of these idiotypes triggered long-lasting changes in other idiotypes (Lundqvist et al. 1989); 2  | idiotypes in normal human sera and in patients with autoimmune diseases had different patterns of fluctuation (Varela et al. 1991); 3  | treatment by infusion with high doses of intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIg) was correlated with regaining normal patterns of idiotypic connectivity (Dietrich et al. 1993). A most relevant development was the introduction of “global” methods of analysis of antibody repertoires using a modified immunoblot (Nóbrega et al. 1993). This was also directed at the analysis of “spontaneous” lymphocyte activation, but had the additional merit of looking into immunoglobulin populations instead of analyzing “specific” clonal reactions. The “profiles” of reactivity generated by these “global” methods, subsequently much expanded by Cohen and co-workers (Madi et al. 2011), are “snapshots” of network dynamics that open up the possibility of observing a large sector of the immune system instead of clones that react with a defined antigen.

Appendix 2: On Cohen

tity that processes information from body tissues and the external medium, computes what is best for inflammation control in each organ, and decides which cells should be activated, etc. This is classic cognitivism: the connectionist side emerges as a systemic (collective) action of otherwise isolated cells. For Maturana, the distinction of a system is something made by a human observer that draws the limits of an entity, sees the invariance of its organization, and identifies it as a member of a class of systems. In this sense, Cohen’s homunculus derives from the organization of immune systems and would display the same patterns in every organism. Computing the inflammatory status of tissues and organs lacks a parallel in Maturana because it depends of the computer metaphor of living networks. However, computers follow their programs, whereas living systems follows their internal dynamics, which depend on what a structure allows at each particular moment. The analysis of invariant patterns of reactivity in natural immunoglobulins, inaugurated by Avrameas, expanded by Nóbrega (Nóbrega et al. 1993), and highly refined by Cohen and co-workers (Madi et al. 2011), is highly suggestive of an invariant organization, which, although genetically based (Vasconcellos et al. 1998), is determined epigenetically at each moment. If lymphocytes and immunoglobulins are ceaselessly changing, the maintenance of invariant profiles of reactivity is a strong argument for an invariant organization, which is also assembled in “antigen-free” organisms.

Computer models of the network

The description of maintenance as permanence/constancy of immune reactions with sets of autologous proteins (Cohen’s homunculus) emphasizes the need to define an organization (a “class identity”) for the immune system (Cohen 1992). But this requires a proper definition of terms such as (variable) “structure” and (invariant) “organization.” Cohen’s choice hides this otherwise major advance by using a patchwork of representationist terms, such as homuncular notions, and connectionist terms, such as “information” and “emergence.” He also sees the immune system as a cognitive en-

The possibility to analyze and interpret “global” data, however, depends on the kind of questions being asked. These methods are as good as the theory behind them. Working in Coutinho’s laboratory, Stewart and Varela produced quite a few papers on simulations of network behavior, mainly based on reactions in a set of newborn and adult non-immunized mice monoclonal globulins. They proposed mechanisms of “tolerance” based on internal connectivity and showed that autoimmune diseases are associated with changed patterns of connectivity.


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This was an advance toward “systemic” definitions; however, without a more encompassing biological theory, it remains incomplete. Varela saw the immune system as a cognitive system and aimed to define its “identity.” However, the interference of human observers and human languaging in constructing immunological realities was never mentioned. Subsequent efforts led by Stewart (Stewart & Coutinho 2004; Rohde & Stewart 2008) invoked Maturana’s ideas but also failed to mention human observers and their languaging. Received: 17 June 2011 Accepted: 24 June 2011

Combined References Bandeira A., Coutinho A., Carnaud C., Jacquemart F. & Forni L. (1989) Transplantation tolerance correlates with high levels of T and B lymphocyte activity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 86: 272–276. Behring E. von, Kitasato S. (1890) The mechanism of immunity in animals to diphteria and tetanus. In: Brock E. T. (ed.) Milestones in microbiology. American Society of Microbiology, Washington: 138–140. Bernabé R. R., Coutinho A., Cazenave P.-A. & Forni L. (1981) Suppression of a recurrent idiotype results in profound alterations of the whole B cell compartment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 78: 6416–6421. Besredka A. (1901) Les autohémolysines naturelles. Annales d’Institute Pasteur 15: 785–807. Billingham R. E., Brent L. & Medawar P. B. (1953) Actively acquired tolerance of foreign cells. Nature 172: 603–606. Bos N. A., Benner R., Wostmann B. S. & Pleasants J. R. (1986) “Background” Ig-secreting cells in pregnant germfree mice fed a chemically defined ultrafiltered diet. Journal of Reproductive Immunology 9: 237–246. Burnet F. M. (1957) A modification of Jerne’s theory of antibody production using the concept of clonal selection. Australian Journal of Science 20: 67–69. Burnet F. M. (1959) The clonal selection theory of acquired immunity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Biology of Cognition

How Humberto Maturana’s Biology of Cognition Can Revive the Language Sciences Alexander Kravchenko • Baikal National University • sashakr/at/

linguistic Concepts in the Biology of Cognition

> Purpose • This paper demonstrates the conceptual relevance of Maturana’s biology of cognition for the theoretical foundations of the language sciences. > Approach • Stuck in rationalizing, rather than naturalizing, language, modern


orthodox linguistics is incapable of offering a comprehensible account of language as a species-specific, biologically grounded human feature. This predicament can be overcome by using Maturana’s theory to stress that lived experience gives language an epistemological “lining.” > Findings • The key concepts of Maturana’s biology of cognition provide a more coherent theoretical framework for the study of language that can give new life to the language sciences by stressing languaging and the importance of connotation. > Conclusion • Maturana’s concept of “languaging” allows the language sciences to depart from the view of language as a system of symbols. Instead, focus should be placed on how the relational dynamics of linguistic interactions trigger changes in the dynamics of the nervous system and the organism as a whole, and how their reciprocal causality is distinguished and described by the languaging observer in terms of mind, intelligence, reason, and self-consciousness. > Keywords • Linguistic orthodoxy, observer, consensual domain, languaging.

Introduction The sciences depend on knowledge, which is the product of humans as a biological species. All knowledge is generated by human beings in language as humans operate as unities of interaction in a consensual domain. As the features of our existence that constitute our humanness “pertain to our relational domain and occur in our ‘languaging,’ not in our bodyhood” (Maturana, Mpodozis & Letellier 1995: 24), knowledge can be traced to its biosocial functions, which lie in relational dynamics. Indeed, as long as these dynamics are not identified, one cannot fulfill the purpose of scientific inquiry. Humberto Maturana’s (1970) Biology of Cognition marks a key point in the rise of biologically oriented cognitive science. While interest in his ideas has attracted many followers in various fields of theoretical and empirical research, his theory (also known as “autopoiesis”) is still often seen as exotic, if not esoteric (cf. Cashman 1989; Harnad 2007). This is explained by Margaret Boden: The vocabulary of autopoiesis is unfamiliar to “  most biologists […] On the one hand, they reject

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theoretical terminology that is common in both biology and psychology. On the other hand, they speak of knowledge and cognition in many contexts where psychologists and most cognitive scientists would not. (Boden 2000: 132f.)

However, the problem is that most cognitive scientists persist in talking about a twenty-first-century problem (the nature and essence of cognition as a biological phenomenon) in an outmoded mid-twentiethcentury vocabulary based on the computational metaphor. Departure from tradition, even when it is an unproductive tradition, can be a very slow process in academia. Luckily, as a consequence of my personal developmental history as a scholar, I was not burdened with this computational tradition at the beginning of my linguistic career. As a result, the understanding of language and grammar that I constructed differs from that offered by orthodox linguistics in the course of standard instruction (for a related discussion see Dykstra 2005). Early on in my teaching career (I taught English as a foreign language) I realized that grammars were not giving a full picture of linguistic phenomena, often offering explanations that were of little practical value,

and even misleading in regard to certain facts of language use. That aroused in me curiosity tinged with suspicion, and triggered a change in my state of mind that, through a series of thorough perturbations, eventually got me deeply involved in empirical research on English grammar. While working on my first thesis, I realized that, as a phenomenon, indexicality had a much wider scope than was traditionally believed, and it could not be properly understood or adequately described without reference to a special pragmatic parameter, the observer. As a matter of fact, any comprehensive analysis of language must prioritize the observer over the speaker. This line of analysis was pursued in a series of publications (Kravchenko 1992, 1993, 1996) showing the methodological efficacy of the premise: the key to understanding various linguistic phenomena as they are identified and described in traditional, text oriented linguistics, lies precisely in this contrast. Although a speaker is always an observer who makes distinctions in a consensual domain of interactions, in written texts the observer, identified with the help of various lexical and grammatical means known as indexicals, is not always or necessarily the speaker/

Biology of Cognition

How Biology of Cognition Can Revive the Language Sciences Alexander Kravchenko

writer, even though this other-than-thespeaker observer – that is, his experience on which the speaker/writer draws – does prompt the latter what to say/write. This contrast was effectively put to practical use in a cognitive English grammar for speakers of Russian (Kravchenko 1997). However, the idea that linguistic analysis should make recourse to the novel concept of the observer seemed strange, dubious, and weird to many linguists in Russia. In 1997, my friend Victor Vinogradov, from Moscow, gave me a recent book with select abridged translations of some works published abroad. There I read for the first time Maturana’s Biology of Cognition, which contained the famous thesis, “Every­thing said is said by an observer to another observer who can be himself or herself.” This was a pivotal point in my research. By then, the pragmatic shift in research on linguistic meaning was already obvious and, with this move, semantic analysis could be tied to concepts such as “perceiver,” “experiencer,” “viewpoint,” “vantage point,” and so on. Human perception had inconspicuously become part and parcel of how many linguists conceptualized problems of meaning, categorization, conceptualization, and communication. It had become clear that meaning draws on perception and, by extension, categorization processes (Schyns 1997). Even object recognition and categorization is largely an on-going process, affected by experience of our environment (Wallis & Bülthoff 1999). Such findings were in conflict with the theoretical foundations of orthodox linguistics in that they treat language as inseparable from our biology and the praxis of the living. Accordingly, using Maturana’s (1978) Biology of Language, I argued for a new linguistic epistemology (Kravchenko 2003). By contrast with the orthodox view, which separates identification of form from identification of meaning and posits that forms enact (denotative) functions, it emphasized the necessity of viewing sign, meaning, and knowledge as intrinsically interdependent and codetermined. This view was further elaborated in a more recent work (Kravchenko 2008) showing that Maturana lays out the foundations of a theory whose epistemological potential can transform the study of language. In this paper, I begin by outlining the predicament

of orthodox linguistics and, having done so, show how Maturana’s theory can resolve some of its major problems.

The impasse of mainstream linguistics Modern linguistics builds on the idea that language as a symbolic system (an arbitrary code) can be separated from an “objective reality” that is not constituted in language and is thus “represented” in it. As a result, linguistics is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of two main conceptual-theoretic trends. One is the offspring of analytic philosophy with its propensity for analyzing language phenomena down to the limit of analyzability and proclaiming atomistic truths about language that, it claims, are all that is needed to understand linguistic facts. Different schools within this tradition may be labeled as “modern orthodox linguistics” (Harris 1981). As a result of separating language from non-language, most schools view language as a fixed code. It is taken to depend on determinate forms with underlying meanings that are exchanged in the process of communication. In contrast to this, the linguistics of mainstream (first-generation) cognitive science (Chomsky 1966) treats the mind as akin to a von Neumann computer and views language as a special symbolic system for translating thought. In this version of the code view, therefore, thinking is computation: symbol use is governed by a set of rules that predict what possible sentences can be generated in a given language. Thus generative linguistics (grammar) aims at providing an analysis of human grammar-forming capacity (the so-called Universal Grammar). Instead of positing a parallel with an external code that is learned, it is supposed that a built-in universal code enables each human being to acquire their native language. Both versions of the code view focus on rarefied abstractions that have little to do with living language or human experience. In assuming that languages resemble a fixed code, they sustain what Roy Harris (1981) calls the language myth: the doctrine that languages consist in sets of determinate forms that are used to “send” messages from sender to receiver. In this context, I lack the

space to critique the claim that language consists in determinate forms (but see: Rumelhart 1979; Harré & Harris 1993; Love 2004; Port 2010). However, it is important to recognize that it is not only institutionalized by orthodox linguistics, but also in our education systems. It gives rise to the publicly shared illusion that language is a tool for the transfer of thought. Thus language and thought become ontologically independent of each other and, as explained below, this gives rise to the vicious circle problem – one that can be removed by taking the biology of cognition view seriously. The code model of communication emphasizes speakers. These are seen as agents that “encode” information about the world in linguistic forms (which become “symbols”), and, in normal circumstances, “transfer” it to the receiver as “meanings.” This model draws on two basic assumptions: first, we casually speak about verbal communication as an activity, second, we take a more or less mechanistic vision of communication, where concepts such as “symbol,” “communicate,” and “meaning” are treated as depending on objects or physical operations (the precursor to ubiquitous computational metaphor). Because we express thoughts by looking for and finding the right words, and because the goal of speaking is often seen as getting meanings across, giving and taking ideas or giving someone a piece of our mind, etc., it is not really surprising that the so-called common-sense view of language treats it as a kind of tool, or medium, for transferring thoughts from one head to another. However, common sense is not science. On the contrary, it is often the job of the latter to show how and why common sense views of certain phenomena are misleading or downright false (Love 1998; Spurrett 2004). Paradoxically, as far as understanding of the role and function of language goes, linguistics as a self-defined “scientific study of language” has offered little to refute these layman common-sense assumptions. Both modern orthodox linguistics, institutionalized in educational practices, and first-generation cognitive linguistics, institutionalized in contemporary theory, fail to overthrow the “sender–receiver” model of communication (Reddy 1979). The alleged analyticity of language, where linguistic


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analysis is compared to the chemical analysis of molecules into atoms (Wierzbicka 2004), is a fiction. In fact, language is not reducible to the sum of its parts. Although the written language bias in linguistics (Linell 2005) tempts many to view language as a system of manipulable things (symbols), it fails to clarify language as a whole – just as knowing the molecular structure of water (H2O) fails to explain its properties, which are radically different from those of the constitutive atoms. As for generativism, its blind infatuation with computer science as the “paradigm” for explaining language and cognition is unproductive. This is, first, because the brain is not a computer, and, second, “the suggestion that we should think of ourselves as computer programs is not coherent” (Bennett & Hacker 2002: 432). Linguistics has also profoundly misconstrued language through its myths about autonomy, systematicity, and the rule-bound nature of language (Sinha 1999, Pennycook 2008). Language is persistently portrayed as something locked inside the black box of the “mind” (Pinker 1999), from which mental content is transferred over space/time to another such black box in the process of what Roy Harris (1981, 1996) sarcastically refers to as “telementation.” The professed goal of cognitive science is to understand how the mind works (Pylyshyn 1999; Ritter 2005). The belief that language “is in the mind,” or that “mind creates language” (Pinker 1995) implies that the scientific study of language should be able to tell us important things about the architecture of the mind (Culicover 2005). In the internalist, “centralist” account of first-generation cognitive science (Chomsky 1975; Pinker 1995; Fodor 1998; Harnad & Dror 2006 inter alia), cognition takes place entirely within the brains of cognizers. The picture drawn by internalists is very straightforward: there is an independent (objective) world to be “cognized” by an autonomous cognizer in the course of interactions with the world. Far from regarding these interactions, or structural couplings, as the basis for language and cognition, these are seen as “performance capacity” arising from the processes that go on in the brain. By accepting an internalist account of mind and language, “centralist” cognitive science is obliged to face the methodological consequence of “segregat-

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ing” language from the so-called “external” physical world (Harris 2004). Quite simply, it loses sight of how language appears to observers. Since the classical view of language lies at the root of the classical view of mind, the latter also is segregated from the world. Such segregational or dualistic logic results in a profound theoretical and conceptual tangle. Instead of recognizing the key role of the observer, the code view assumes that there are “mechanisms” that link language as activity and as product. In ways that are never specified, these are assumed to allow it to function both as a sign system for “representing knowledge” and as a communicative activity. If emphasis is given to “symbolic” aspects of language, the focus of attention shifts to intrasystemic relationships between different types of signs and structures for representing knowledge (whatever those may be). Inevitably, this opens up controversies about the nature and character of categories, concepts, representations, etc. Meaning becomes information (Fodor 1998) – that is, symbolically recorded and transmitted messages – with linguistic structure as its vehicle. The theory of meaning developed within this framework is burdened with logical formalizations aimed at providing an explicit well-defined theoretical (as opposed to empirical) model of semantics governed by sets of rules that ultimately constitute the so-called I-language as a biologically based feature of the brain (Chomsky 1965; for a critique, see Hutton 1998). However, such issues are readily avoided if, instead of focusing on inner concepts, one turns to the interactional features of language that enact joint activity (H.Clark 1996). From this view, language consists in the continuous making of linguistic choices from a wide and unstable range of variable possibilities in a manner that is driven by highly flexible principles and strategies. In this, one can move beyond the vicious circle problem – that of trying to explain language systems in terms of use and, at the same time, use in terms of systems. However, in so doing, it also becomes necessary to explain how communication is possible (Verschueren 1999). This is what really scares the traditional linguist who does not want to admit that understanding text as structure amounts to not understanding language at

all. For these reasons, “a more comprehensive view of language as a system of signs must also include the human ‘conceptualizer’ and the world as it is experienced by him” (Dirven & Verspoor 1998: 14). For Maturana, the scientific explanation of language as a bio“  logical phenomenon consists in the proposition of a generative mechanism that gives rise to the dynamics of interactions and co-ordinations of actions that an observer distinguishes as languaging. (Maturana 1988: 45, my emphasis)

To emphasize this fundamental shift from a focus on inner concepts to interaction, Maturana introduces the term “languaging” to stress the dynamics of linguistic behavior that arises in a consensual domain of interactions, opposing this to language in its etymological sense – something done with the tongue (Fr. langue + ‑age “pertaining to”). In focusing on languaging, he shifts the emphasis from patterned acoustic sequences produced by human individuals and their alleged denotational “meanings.” Second-generation cognitive science draws on the notions of “radical constructivism,” “embodiment,” and “enaction” (Glasersfeld 1984; Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991; Zlatev 1997; McGee 2005a, 2005b) in moving beyond purely internalist accounts of language and cognition. It views perception as consisting in perceptually guided action, and cognition not as problem solving based on the (symbolic) representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind, but rather as the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs. In Ernst von Glasersfeld’s terms, “cognition serves the subject’s organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality” (Glasersfeld 1995: 51). However, enactivism fails to take a strongly defined position in regard to the nature of mind. Rather, it links two important claims. First, “knower and known, mind and world, stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or dependent coorigination” (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991: 150). Second, the role of intersubjectivity is crucial because “interactions between people are codependently defined, experienced, and acted out” (Rosch 1999: 72). While the

Biology of Cognition

How Biology of Cognition Can Revive the Language Sciences Alexander Kravchenko

claims are clear, what is left in doubt is how these are to be reconciled: though making mind dependent on codependent relations is a clear advance on the computer model, the mind remains strangely embodied, even though co-originating with the world. In second-generation cognitive science (Lakoff & Johnson 1999), while we are coupled to the world through our embodied interactions, the biology of language and reason is still taken to depend on the naked brain. In this, there is a contradiction: on the one hand, cognition is interaction with the environment, yet on the other hand it “takes place within the brain.” The notions of distributed cognition (Hutchins 1995; Spurrett 2004) and distributed language (Cowley 2009) take cognitive explorations conceptually still further, representing what might be called thirdgeneration cognitive science. From the distributed view, language and cognition, being operational domains, are not entirely embodied; cognitive processes, especially in living systems, exploit and are interconnected with bodily and environmental resources. However, contemporary cognitive linguistics remains, essentially, centralist in its understanding of cognition and language. Following Marvin Minsky (1975), first-generation cognitive science continues to view mind as built from many “mindless” processes going on inside the brain, and language as a neural function of the brain, which “computes” language (Feldman & Narayanan 2004; Feldman 2006). Not surprisingly, dissent is brewing within the cognitive science community, especially among those who have first-hand experimental knowledge of how living organisms function, and who have ample empirical evidence that this functioning is essentially different from an algorithmic script followed by a machine – that is, biologists. A new, non-Cartesian approach to cognition has emerged (Maturana & Varela 1980; Glasersfeld 1995; Clark 1997; Deacon 1997; Rockwell 2005; Wheeler 2007), setting the stage for a biologically oriented cognitive science. This approach calls for a revision of initial epistemological assumptions in mainstream linguistic research, especially in view of the fact that, so far, linguistics as a science has not been able to provide revolutionary insights into the nature and

function of language and its relationship to mind. An existing impasse in the study of this relationship cannot be overcome as long as the problem itself is not reformulated to rid it of the intrinsically dualistic assumption that there is, in fact, a phenomenon called “language” that is ontologically independent of the phenomenon called “mind.” As has been suggested elsewhere (Kravchenko 2009), in the spirit of Vygotsky (1987) and Maturana (1978), mind cannot be understood without and outside of language as a manner of operating in consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of behavior. Because a human organism is a structure determined system, what happens in language also becomes, as part of the relational space, part of the domain of transformation of the human nervous system, giving rise to what appears as mind/ body mutual modulations. Yet the notion of mind, along with the notions of consciousness, thinking, and intentionality “correspond to distinctions that we make of different aspects of our relational dynamics in our operation as human beings, and as such they do not take place in our bodies, nor are they functions localizable in our brains” (Maturana, Mpodozis & Letellier 1995: 24). An understanding that, in the case of humans, cognition and language are biological processes that characterize living systems as unities of interaction calls for a biology of cognition and language developed by Maturana. In the context of what has been said above, the study of language aiming at understanding its structure and function must naturally and necessarily have an epistemological “lining.” I use this expression to refer to a set of epistemological assumptions about science and explanation that Maturana proposes in order to understand language as a biological phenomenon, and above all, to the concepts of observer (a living system capable of making distinctions), unity (an entity specified by operations of distinction and characterized by the properties assigned to it by such operations), organization (a composite unity), structure (the actual components of a unity and the relations they must satisfy as such), property (a characteristic of a unity specified and defined by an operation of distinction),

structural determinism, and structural coupling (Maturana 1978). And of course, the concept of observer is at the core of Maturana’s epistemology, just as it is crucial in understanding the biology of language.

Biology of language and its implications for the language sciences According to Maturana (1970), cognition (in the broad sense of the word) is not a means to acquire knowledge of an objective reality. Knowledge is instead entirely dependent on what an observer distinguishes or brings forth in language. The process of cognition, as sensory motor coordination, is made evident through the actual acting or behaving in the domain of interactions and is made possible by the organization of the living system. Thus, “as a basic psychological and, hence, biological function, cognition guides [man’s] handling of the universe” (Maturana 1970: 1). This reflection may be extended by adding that, in the case of languaging human beings, cognition serves an organism in its active adaptation to the world of experiences, without which there may be no “handling of the universe.” This crucial distinction, in my opinion, is the reason why in the vast cognitivist literature the biology of cognition is rarely mentioned – despite the fact that it has been around and elaborated for several decades (Maturana 1975, 1987, 2006, 2007; Maturana & Varela 1987; Maturana, Mpodozis & Letelier 1995; Maturana & Poerksen 2004). To take it seriously “would be to undermine many concepts and theories familiar within cognitive science” (Boden 2000: 141). Yet such undermining is inevitable in the evolutionary development of science (Kuhn 1962). In the biology of cognition, living systems are unities characterized by circular organization and operating as units of interactions. In the case of living systems, their circular organization effectuates a homeostatic system by producing and sustaining the components that instantiate and integrate this circularity of organization. All the particular features of various kinds of organisms overlay and support this fundamental circularity by sustaining its unin-


linguistic Concepts in the Biology of Cognition

terrupted continuity in sequences of interactions with the constantly changing medium. A detailed exposition of Maturana’s views on linguistic interactions is given in his 1978 seminal paper “Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality.” He begins with some initial epistemological assumptions necessary for a scientific explanation, emphasizing the role of the observer without whom scientific explanations do not exist, and who brings them forth in language:


Science is a closed cognitive domain in which “  all statements are […] valid only in the domain of interactions in which the standard observer exists and operates. […] It is only when we want to consider the observer as the object of our scientific inquiry […] that we encounter a problem if we do not recognize the subject dependent nature of science. (Maturana 1978: 29)

Therefore, to give a scientific description of the observer as a distinction made in language, the subject dependent nature of science must be taken as a starting point. This basic assumption is in sharp contrast with the theoretical principles of linguistics as an “objective” science. Even though it was natural scientists who began to speak of the necessity to take into account the observer when formulating their scientific outlook on the physical world (Neumann 1955, Chardin 1956; Schrödinger 1959), paradoxically, in modern linguistic orthodoxy the subjective nature of science continues to be dispensed with, and science itself continues to be looked upon as a body of “truths” about the physical (“objective”) world to be “expressed,” with the help of language as simply a tool or “conveyance” for such truths. No wonder that anything else that Maturana’s theory has to offer becomes – to orthodox thinkers – inconsequential because of the “absurdity” of the starting premise. Maturana (1978) sees “normal” science as continuing to remain in the grip of vitalistic reductionist explanations for observed phenomena in the world in its quest for the ultima ratio, to which he opposes his own approach based on non-reductionist mechanistic explanations:


The reality described through mechanistic explanations [...] implies the possibility of an end-

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less generation of nonintersecting phenomenal domains as the result of the recursive constitution (organization) of new classes of unities through the recursive novel combinations of unities already defined.” (Maturana 1978: 30).

There can be no science or scientific explanations without the observer, as explanations, realities, worlds are dependent on what the observer brings forth in language. How does Maturana define language, though? Rejecting the denotational nature of language as a fallacy, he focuses on the notion of the consensual domain as the domain of interlocked conducts that results from ontogenetic reciprocal structural coupling between structurally plastic organisms: Linguistic behavior is behavior in a consensual “  domain. When linguistic behavior takes place recursively, in a second-order consensual domain, in such a manner that the components of the consensual behavior are recursively combined in the generation of new components of the consensual domain, a language is established. (Maturana 1978: 50).

An understanding of language as behavior in the consensual domain gives a new perspective on natural language grammar. Since the behavior of organisms in a consensual domain is a set of recursive operations, the surface structure or grammar of a given natural language may be only a description of regularities in the structural coupling between the elements of consensual behaviors made by an observer. This surface syntax may be whatever, since its development would be a matter of historical contingency, not of structural necessity determined by a particular physiology of an organism. In this context, the ‘universal grammar’ of which linguists “  speak as the necessary set of underlying rules common to all human natural languages can refer only to the universality of the process of recursive structural coupling that takes place in humans through the recursive application of the components of a consensual domain without the consensual domain. (Maturana 1978: 52)

To an observer, linguistic interactions appear as semantic and contextual interactions. Yet what takes place in the inter-

actions within a consensual domain are strictly structure-determined, interlocked concatenations of behavior. Therefore, the context on which the outcome of a linguis“  tic interaction depends is completely determined in the structure of the interacting organisms, even if this is unknown to the observer. The overheard sentence, ‘They are flying planes,’ is ambiguous only for the observer who wants to predict the outcome of the interaction with insufficient knowledge of the structural state of the speaking organism. (Maturana 1978: 53)

Taking the consensual domain of interactions of organisms as fundamental in the construal of a new epistemology allows Maturana to make the next step and define reality as a “domain specified by the operations of the observer.” Finally, “all that remains is the observer” with his unique “ability through second-order consensuality to operate as external to the situation in which he or she is, and thus be observer of his or her circumstance as an observer” (Maturana 1978: 60f.). The key to understanding language is the observer and the observer’s descriptions of interactions with which he, in his turn, interacts by means of language. Once this is acknowledged, it leads to a dramatic change of the entire view of language as a system of arbitrary symbols: the “symbolism” of linguistic signs becomes a second-order phenomenon, derivative from their intrinsic indexicality. Charles Peirce used the term index for a sign… which refers to its object not so much “  because of any similarity or analogy with it, nor because it is associated with general characters which that object happens to possess, as because it is in dynamical (including spatial) connection both with the individual object, on the one hand, and with the senses or memory of the person for whom it serves as a sign, on the other hand.” (Peirce 1932: 170, my emphasis)

However, Peirce’s famous trinity of icon, index, and symbol has been somewhat misinterpreted in linguistic semiotics as a rigid hierarchical system of sign vehicles (i.e., linguistic signs, such as words, are defined as either symbolic, indexical, or iconic), while Peirce’s approach was based on how a sign

Biology of Cognition

How Biology of Cognition Can Revive the Language Sciences Alexander Kravchenko

vehicle was to be interpreted in a particular instance of its use. The symbolic function of linguistic signs is made possible by their groundedness in indexical reference. As Terry Deacon points out, [S]ymbolic reference is often negatively de“  fined with respect to other forms of referential relationships. Whereas iconic reference depends on form similarity between sign vehicle and what it represents, and indexical reference depends on contiguity, correlation, or causal connection, symbolic reference is often only described as being independent of any likeness or physical linkage between sign vehicle and referent. This negative characterization of symbolic reference – often caricatured as mere arbitrary reference – gives the false impression that symbolic reference is nothing but simple unmediated correspondence. (Deeacon 2011a: 394)

For a child learning language, linguistic structures (signs) function, first and foremost, as icons and indices, thus ensuring perceptual groundedness of language as an orientational activity in a consensual domain of interlocked conducts. For that matter, all nervous systems support iconic and indexical reference as a meaning-making process of interaction with the environment. However, organisms with a nervous system cannot go beyond their limited realm of first-order consensual domain; to do so requires language as a second-order consensual domain not limited by the here-and-now of the physical context of communicative interactions. This freedom – as it appears to an observer – from the here-and-now of the cognitive niche is a distinctive property of symbols as coordinations of coordinations of behavior. The symbolic function of linguistic signs, viewed as artificial entities in orthodox linguistics, is an emergent property, arising with the establishment of language as a second-order consensual domain in which elements of the first-order consensual domain (linguistic signs perceptually grounded in the physical context – icons and indices) are used without the consensual domain. Since indexicality is, to use the terminology of the biology of cognition, a consensual property by definition, the concept of “sign” approached from this perspective leaves no room for the idea of coded equivalence as unmediated correspondence

(Kravchenko 2007), thus making the “fixed code” doctrine void. As with any idea that revolutionizes a particular area of knowledge, and exactly because it serves this particular purpose – to set a new direction in thinking about things that appear to be well-known because they have been the object of scientific inquiry for a substantial period of time – the biology of cognition may not offer a complete picture of cognition and language in the minutest detail. After all, Maturana is, originally, a biologist, and he has been explaining cognitive phenomena from a biological basis. This is probably why, while speaking about the biology of language, he seems to leave open the question of meaning-making, which is the core issue in cognitive science. Although Maturana himself denies “teleology” as an intrinsic attribute of both autopoietic systems and mechanistic explanations, according to Di Paolo (2005) autopoiesis provides a systemic language for speaking about intrinsic teleology. As argued by Deacon and Sherman (2007), the current conception of causality based on mech­anistic metaphors is incompletely specified even for very simple biological systems; this can be traced to a conception of the natural selec­tion process that tacitly assumes, but systematically ignores, essential relationships and requirements of this process. However, there is an emergentist, constructivist alternative. Deacon and Sherman out­line a biological approach to adaptive function that taps into new insights about the organic processes recruited by natural selection, and their findings allow them to argue that adaptations involve irreducibly teleological features and yet emerge from evolutionary and selforganizational processes that are themselves non-teleological.1 Di Paolo (2005) suggests that the original formulation of autopoiesis needs to be elaborated further in order to explain meaning-making. This has been attempted by Weber and Varela (2002), who, as Di Paolo describes it, tried to link autopoiesis and sense-making through “the instauration of a natural perspective from which encounters with the world are intrinsically meaningful for the organism” (Di Paolo 2005: 429). 1 |  For a detailed account of teleodynamics see Deacon (2011b).

While describing this effort as a “promising starting point,” Di Paolo points out Weber and Varela’s “unspoken reliance on apparent implications of autopoiesis which are not elaborated in the theory and do not immediately follow from the original formulation” (Di Paolo 2005: 433). By examining the primary formulation of autopoiesis and the distinct concepts of robustness and adaptivity, Di Paolo concludes that autopoiesis implies only the former while sense-making needs the latter. However, even though it may appear that structural coupling is overplayed in the autopoietic tradition because human cognition is not just biological but biocultural, the very idea of reciprocal structural coupling cannot be divorced from the concept of consensual domain of interactions in which this coupling occurs and in which consensual coordinations of coordinations of behavior emerge, giving rise to language and culture in the case of humans. The role of culture is not denied by autopoiesis, as autopoiesis is linked with the niche through structural coupling; the role of culture in conserving adapation is implied, even though not elaborated. Socio-cultural aspects of language and meaning-making have recently been addressed by Maturana and Verden-Zöller (2008), as well as by researchers in the biology and dynamics of cognition (Tomasello 1999; Zlatev 2003; Tomasello & Rakoczy 2003; Cowley 2004a, 2004b; Cowley, Moodley & Fiori-Cowley 2004; Rusch 2007; Deacon 2010 inter alia).

Biology of cognition as a theoretical framework for the study of language The advantage the biological approach to cognition and language has over the orthodox Cartesian framework is that it resolves the “vicious circle” problem in explanation (that is, circularity that traditionalists despise) by proposing an explanation of an organism as a living system with a circular organization. This allows one to reconcile the two approaches to language – as a system of signs (a “thing,” a “product” of human semiotic activity) and as communication activity (a “process,” which consists in producing and using signs). Because living systems are characterized by circularity of


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their organization, and because they exist as unities of interaction in a consensual domain of coordinations of behavior, language may be defined not as a capacity, but as a relational (behavioral) domain sustained by the use of linguistic and non-linguistic signs in the course of such coordinations.2 It is not surprising, therefore, that circularity of the organization of a living system finds its manifestation in the relational domain of language. It becomes strikingly obvious in semantics as the study of meaning of linguistic signs: all attempts to provide a hierarchically organized linear system of relationships among signs that would explicitly and sufficiently demarcate their meanings have invariably turned futile, incapable of resolving the so-called Frege’s puzzle (Salmon 1986). The crucial difference between the traditional and biology of cognition views of language is that the latter, building on an approach that emphasizes interactional dynamics, assumes its connotational, rather than denotational, nature. The notion of the consensual domain, in which languaging takes place, allows us to ascribe a function to language, namely: to modify an organism’s environment by modifying other organisms’ behavior via consensual coordinations of coordinations of behavior. Since representation, meaning, description, and other similar notions apply only and exclusively to the operation of living systems in the consensual domain of observers living in language, the entire problem of meaning takes on a new perspective, calling for a revised dialectics of knowledge. Meaning in the biology of cognition is not something that exists “out there” waiting to be discovered, identified, and “harvested” – an undertaking that semantic theories developed within analytic

2 | Any entity, whether linguistic or nonlinguistic, is identified and categorized as such only in the course and as a result of an organism’s interactions with the environment, through the observer’s operation of distinction. What linguistic orthodoxy has become so much used to calling linguistic signs (words, utterances), opposing them to non-linguistic (non-verbal) signs, to an observer are just another variety of components of his domain of interactions with which he may interact, just as with any other entity.

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philosophy have notably failed to do. Instead, as emphasized by Francisco Varela, living beings and their worlds of meaning “  stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or co-determination. Thus what we describe as significant environmental regularities are not external features that have been internalized as the dominant representationalist tradition in cognitive science... assumes. Environmental regularities are the result of a conjoint history, a congruence which unfolds from a long history of co-determination. (Varela 1992: 14)

The core tenet of the biology of cognition, “Everything said is said by an observer to another observer who can be himself or herself,” implies that every distinction, by virtue of being a sign, requires an interpretation based on the interpreter’s (= observer’s) experience in general, and experience of linguistic signs in particular. On the one hand, as phenomena perceived/ distinguished by an observer, linguistic signs are components of the always changing environment insofar as “the observer beholds simultaneously the entity that he considers (an organism, in our case) and the universe in which it lies (the organism’s environment)” (Maturana 1970: 2). On the other hand, as verbal patterns, linguistic signs are constitutive of an organism’s particular (communicative) behavior as a (first order) description of the environment, so they are subject to change to the extent that the organism and the environment are in a state of reciprocal causality (Kravchenko 2007): a change (as a result of interactions) in the organism effectuates a change in the environment, modifying the environment, which, in turn, exerts a modifying influence on the organism, and so on in recursive order. Languaging is a circular interpretative process in the course of which a human organism tries to maximize the effects of its enaction of the environmental niche it occupies in order to better adapt to the environment. Therefore, any empirical entity capable of producing enactive effects is viewed as meaningful, and the circle of interpretation includes both linguistic and non-linguistic entities, whose ontologies are different but which epistemologically stand to one another in a relation of reciprocal causality. In the course of knowledge

acquisition as a life process, cognitive “processing” (interpretation) of linguistic signs as elements of a communicative description of representations of enactions depends on the interpretation of enactions themselves. However, any representation presupposes categorization in the sense that, being an operationally closed structure determined system, the nervous system may be viewed as a network of productions (and disin­tegrations) of relational components because “the nervous system enlarges the domain of interactions of the organism by making its internal states also modifiable in a relevant manner by “pure relations,” not only by physical events” (Maturana 1970: 5). These relational components (i) recursively participate through their interactions in the realization of the network of productions (and disintegrations) of relational components that produce them; and (ii) by realizing their boundaries, constitute this network of productions (and disintegrations) of components as a unity in the space they specify and in which they exist. Thus, relative neuronal activity is constitutive of categorization (individuation) processes that are largely determined by interpretation as a kind of interaction with communicative (orientational) representations. Therefore, in the case of languaging as a domain of cognitive activity (consensual coordinations of coordinations of behavior), it is appropriate to speak of interpretation of interpretation. As a cognitive phenomenon, the meaning of linguistic sign cannot be defined other than as a certain associative potential that is basically a person’s memory of the previous uses of a particular sign (Allwood & Gärdenfors 1999). The meaning of a sign is specified and co-determined in the course of interactions in a consensual domain. An entity becomes a sign by acquiring value that emerges as the result of such cognitive interactions. Consequently, just as a word (a linguistic sign), which itself is a physical entity, can be a sign of another entity, any physical entity can be a (non-linguistic) sign of a word. Circularity and reciprocal causality as specifying properties of a living human organism result in the semiotic multiplication of the world. The reality of these multiple worlds is something that modern theories of knowledge should take into account.

Biology of Cognition

How Biology of Cognition Can Revive the Language Sciences Alexander Kravchenko


The biology of cognition and language, rejecting certain maxims in thinking about language, offers solutions to a number of problems that have been plaguing orthodox linguistics. (1) The conceptual contradiction between the two approaches to language (the product approach vs. the activity approach) is eliminated since language evolves in the consensual domain of interactions of autopoietic systems: the biology of language resolves the vicious circle problem in linguistics, taking circularity as a fundamental principle in the organization of living systems. Epistemologically, circularity in the organization of living systems (and, by extension, of language) is a necessary consequence of the metaphysical approach to reality, which aims to explain the fundamental nature of being and the world. (2) Because, from the point of view of the epistemology of reality, “all that remains is the observer,” the traditional understanding of language subjectivity and egocentricity, based on the paramount importance of the speaker as the ultimate point of reference, takes an about-face turn. The speaker acquires the status of a secondary factor, yielding the “right of birth” to the observer, with all the entailed consequences, whose number and degree of significance linguists will yet have to determine. (3) The notion of “universal grammar,” rather than a purely linguistic conceptual construal, acquires a phenomenological status, si­multaneously validating (at least, in part) recently articulated claims about the experiential nature of grammar (Bod 1998; Deacon 2003; Geeraerts 2006). As far as understanding and explaining grammar goes, the biology of language has an advantage over the traditional theoretical frameworks

Alexander V. Kravchenko

is Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages at Baikal National University of Economics and Law. He holds degrees in English linguistics and in theoretical linguistics, and his current research interests lie in the area of the biology of cognition and language, encompassing semiotics, philosophy of language, grammar, and applied linguistics.

inasmuch as it fully meets the standard criteria for theory adequacy formulated by Kuhn (1977) – accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness. As an example, the use of the observer as a point of reference in analyzing the cognitive underpinnings of various linguistic “structures” as traditional objects of linguistic analysis – such as the grammatical categories of tense, aspect, and voice, nominal gender, pronominal reference, etc. – allows perceptually grounded, and thus much more accurate and coherent, accounts of their meaning and function to be provided. Because of their simplicity (as compared to orthodox “semantic” accounts), such accounts possess a greater explanatory power (Kravchenko 2008). (4) The sense-meaning problem appears in a new light; once we subscribe to the idea that language is connotational, the issue loses its crucial importance to language, on which philosophers and linguists traditionally insist. The bio-cognitive understanding of communication as orientational interactions of organisms in a consensual domain necessitates a rethinking of such notions as “information” and “knowledge,” that is, whether they are, as it is believed, objects of exchange among humans (Kravchenko 2007). (5) As entailed by the previous inference, the biology of cognition is of great importance to semiotics as it allows for a new approach to the problem of linguistic signs: rather than artifacts used to encode “meanings” found in “objective reality,” they should be viewed as empirical phenomena (environmental components) that emerge in the process, and become part of, the observer’s cognitive activity of adapting to, and, ultimately, controlling the human environment largely constructed by and in language.

Conclusion As observed by Thomas Kuhn (1962: 12), “the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual development pattern for mature science.” The time has come for the traditional science of linguistics to prove how mature it is. However, the impending change is not going to be easy. Scientists are often intolerant of new theories invented by others (Barber 1961), particularly so when such a theory lies outside the currently accepted and practiced paradigm, and “the perpetrators of innovation tend to be treated as heretics” (Glasersfeld 1988). Yet there are signs that cognitive science is in the process of working out a more comprehensive and coherent picture of language and cognition. The epistemological “lining” in the study of language provided by Maturana’s biology of cognition opens up a fascinating perspective for revived inquiries into the nature of language – not as a system of arbitrary symbols for the exchange of information – but as a manner of operation of human organisms in the praxis of the living. One of the most important consequences of adopting the biology of language is the relational turn in approaching the mind/ language problem. Much of what an organism does and experiences is centered not on the organism but on events in its relational/ experiential domain, one that crosses the boundary of skin and skull. In its endeavor to answer the question “How does the brain compute the mind?” the neural theory of language overlooks the incoherence of the proposition that mind is a complex computational function of the brain. In the biology of cognition there is no such thing as “the mind” in the operation of the nervous sys-


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tem, and “the mind” is nothing but an explanatory notion: “language, self-consciousness and mindedness are different forms of existing in the relational domain in which a living being lives, not manners of operation of the nervous system” (Maturana, Mpodozis & Letelier 1995: 25). We as humans “happen in language,” that is, the features of our existence “pertain to our relational domain and occur in our “languaging.” Maturana’s concept of languaging as a relational domain allows the language sciences to depart from the outdated view of language as a system of symbols (a fixed code) to be explored by analyzing it into constitutive components such as sentences, words, morphemes, and phonemes (the “atoms” and “molecules” of language). Instead, language scientists should focus on how the relational dynamics of linguistic interactions trigger changes in the dynamics of the nervous system and the organism as a whole, and how their reciprocal causality is distinguished and described by the languaging observer in terms of mind, intelligence, reason, self-consciousness, etc. The explanatory potential of the biology of cognition and language applied to the core issues in linguistics, semiotics, and cognitive science in general – with other areas of research by no means excluded – is yet to be appraised (Kravchenko 2006), and it is going to be some time before traditionalists’ criticisms of Maturana give way to a reanalysis of basic theoretical assumptions on which exploration of humans and humanness is currently based. Hopefully, one will not have to wait too long.

Acknowledgments I express gratitude to Terry Deacon and Seiichi Imoto for their apposite comments and valuable suggestions received while working on the paper.

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Received: 15 January 2011 Accepted: 1 July 2011

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Maturana’s Theory and Interpersonal Ethics Hugh Gash • St Patrick’s College, Ireland • hugh.gash/at/ > Context • Maturana’s views on cognitive processes and explaining have ethical implications. The aim of this paper is to link ethics and epistemology to facilitate thinking about how to promote respect between different viewpoints through mutual understanding. > Method • Maturana’s views on ethics are outlined in three domains: the personal, the interpersonal, and the societal. > Results • The ethical implications that emerge around the notion of reality with or without parenthesis, the concept of the legitimate other, and Maturana’s conjectures about the origins of human social groups. Social groups in which cooperation is more important than competition are based on love in the sense that others are accepted as legitimate members of the community. An epistemology that responds to the biological origins of human cognition is one that is more open to cooperation, honesty, responsibility, and respect than an epistemology that takes reality as given and the task of human cognition to represent truth. > Implications • This framework for thinking about cognitive processes provides a way of approaching disagreements so they become opportunities for discussion rather than for power assertion of one reality over another. In a world where strongly held viewpoints on ethics and reality lead to conflict, promoting viable models of cognitive process that link cognition and ethics may lead to insights that promote tolerance. Ideas from attribution theory in social psychology are presented as a means of facilitating the emergence of the concept of the legitimate other in discussion about disagreements. > Key words • Ethics, constructivist epistemology, legitimate other, reality in parenthesis.

Introduction The purpose of this paper is to consider aspects of Maturana’s writings that have profound implications for the ways we live together on this planet. His biologically based theory offers a singular perspective on how we can think about cognitive differences. My aim is to link the epistemological considerations with their implications for interpersonal relations. Ethical relationships with other people, in Maturana’s theory, are closely related to his ideas about objectivities: about ways we deal with our varying interpretations of our experiences of the world. One view of objectivity places reality as experienced apart from us, and in this case the problem of knowledge is presented as a problem concerning how we can be sure that knowledge matches what is in our environment. Another constructivist view presents “reality” as being a result of our cognition. The epistemological problem here is to describe and explain what we observe, recognising that we cannot match what we know with something outside our experience. Explaining works only when a listener accepts the explanation according to criteria that vary depending on the domain

of the phenomenon. In this paper I discuss the ethical implications resulting from this constructivist formulation. Implications arise in three domains: the epistemological domain of explaining realities; the interpersonal domain of the legitimacy of the other in discussions; and the societal domain, where implicit social values need to be made explicit to avoid escalating conflict or environmental damage.

Language and what it conceals, and Maturana’s theory Understanding epistemologies requires appreciating their beginnings and what they assume about how knowledge comes about and how personal knowing is related to experience. René Descartes introduces his philosophy with his “cogito ergo sum,” which emphasises personal thinking but does not immediately deal with the relation between thought and reality. Humberto Maturana begins with observation that is immediately placed in a social context of description and explanation (1988). In approaching Maturana’s work I am reminded of a comment

Silvio Ceccato (1961) made about cognition. Ceccato pointed out that understanding what it is to know was distorted because the activities involved in observation are acquired early in infancy and so it is difficult for adults to observe these activities. Closely associated with this observation he made another, that philosophy first began to ask questions about observation when the tradition of speculative philosophy was firmly established. Under these conditions observation was studied as the observation of objects, which were assumed to exist prior to their observation. So questioning the independent existence of reality or the relation between ideas and reality was not possible. While considerable progress has been made in understanding observation since Ceccato made these comments, the comments illustrate for me two central issues in working with Maturana’s theory. First, they highlight Maturana’s recognition that once objects are created, the process of creating them is obscured. There are times when the process is vitally important, especially in those essential moments when people come to understand something in a new way. Wonder and reflective moments provide access to processing as does the activity of problem


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solving. However, at times it is important not to concentrate on the process in all sorts of activities, because to do so will interfere with the smooth execution of these activities. At the level of speech, stuttering will occur if one focuses on the process inappropriately. Tightrope walkers need to avoid focussing on aspects of what they are doing so as to stay on the rope. Process is also obscured in language use as we tend to take the meanings of words for granted. Second, there is a difficulty that is central for readers coming to any well-formed theory for the first time. Many groundbreaking theorists, it seems to me, develop a form of linguistic expression in order to be as precise as possible with their ground-breakingly novel ways of describing and explaining experience. As a student I remember struggling with John Dewey and Jean Piaget, and later as a young academic in Dublin I read and met Maturana. Each of these thinkers was concerned with similar topics and saying similar things but with very different forms of language that incorporated important theoretical insights. However, understanding and exploring these differences in forms of language is crucial to grasping the insights that are special to the theorist. While part of this paper on Maturana’s work refers to his constructivist epistemology and to other constructivist thinkers, I want to focus on some of the implications of his writings on epistemology for our relations with each other. This is because I have felt that this is a central recurring theme in his work and indeed one that has potential implications for conflict resolution at the interpersonal level and for the development of ecological responsibility at the level of society. Constructivism has varied meanings, so to be consistent I am following Piaget (1970) and present cognitive processes and products in constructivist terms as (1) developing systems that (2) seek to identify regularities in experience using existing ideas in an iterative manner; and where (3) these emerging regularities are constrained by intra-individual and perceived inter-individual consistencies that are central to two of the domains I am concerned with here. Then, following Ernst von Glasersfeld (1995), it is important to note that all cognitive products are constructions and are built from experience and cannot be compared with “reality;”

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rather their constraints are wholly dependent on internal comparisons with previously constructed ideas. Like von Glasersfeld in his article on Maturana (Glasersfeld 1991), I want to state that I am presenting my own interpretations in what follows. While this general account of how thinking works appears similar in different constructivist thinkers, including Maturana, there are the nuances I mentioned in the phrasing and emphasis of different writers. In addition, Maturana’s writing is often difficult when it is first read and for this reason I place his work in the context of other thinkers who have similarly constructivist theories. Dewey’s account of cognitive process was essentially one where thinking was described as a form of experiment. One plans an action to assess the result and this result informs about the adequacy of the planned action. The iterative nature of cognition in Dewey is very apparent and this type of circularity is also apparent in Maturana’s theory. At times Dewey (e.g., 1960) also expressed the radical idea that knowledge is always changing and that knowledge is assessed by the results of experiments rather than being matched with reality. In Piaget’s (1970) account of process, the emphasis is more biological: it is one of assimilation and accommodation under the guidance of an equilibration process. Some recent criticisms of this account in Piaget have their origins in the difficulties encountered in modelling this process. In such modelling it becomes difficult to decide which aspect of the problem to focus on (Mareschal & Westermann 2009). Humberto Maturana’s constructivist epistemology also is influenced by his biological background. In Maturana’s case the internal circularity of the reasoning is very much part of his style of writing and thinking. For example, in discussing how experience comes from “nowhere,” Maturana writes: “We do not usually realise that because we normally collapse the experience upon the explanation of the experience in the explanation of the experience” (1988: 27). In addition, Maturana (1997) emphasises that living systems are structuredetermined systems and learning has a secondary place. For example, “Living systems have a plastic structure, and the course that their structural changes follows while they stay alive is contingent to their own internal

dynamics of structural change modulated by the structural changes triggered in them by their interactions in the medium they exist as such” (Maturana 1997, part 1). So the emphasis here is principally on intra-individual consistencies even though we exist in the flow of recursive coordinations of language, which is naturally social. This quality of connection and interconnection is central to the theory and its implications. Importantly, both initial and later accounts of this theory refer to the ethical implications of the theory. I will focus on the iterative nature of knowing in Maturana, then move to his account of explanations and ways this prioritises the ethical implications of his constructivist epistemology. The ideas we have about individual identities, that is, both our own and that of others, are central to this discussion. So it is important to notice how the idea of self might be understood in a constructivist sense. Self is a conservation or a constant with some variation from time to time or according to changing context. Von Glasersfeld wrote about the self concept as a construction that “..resides in no place at all, but merely manifests itself in the continuity of our acts of differentiating and relating and in the intuitive certainty we have that our experience is truly ours” (Glasersfeld 1979: 113). Significantly, our perception of discontinuity in another person’s acts of continuity may lead to the immediate realisation that this other self is not the self we anticipated. How we consider self and other is vitally important in disagreements. In what follows I allude to the difficulties in changing ones’ view on different others and the important role of discussion in facilitating the emergence of awareness and respect.

Cognitive processes, mistakes, and different points of view Ethics often arises when people encounter different points of view or different accounts of experiences that are shared. Such differences invite discussion but the basis of discussion may or may not be respectful. In my view the ethical quality of the discussion depends on the extent that the hidden assumptions made in the accounts of thinking

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differ and whether these assumptions can be shared. Each of the writers mentioned above – Dewey, Piaget, Glasersfeld and Maturana – have emphasised process in their epistemology and their account of thinking. In the main they have been concerned with the generation of correct rather than incorrect knowledge. However, cognitive processes are not immune to error generation because the items that are used in the process may not necessarily be viable, and also cognitive processes take shortcuts. These shortcuts account for some of the ways in which people construe their worlds differently and these differences may be focal points for interpersonal conflict. In explaining the processing and origins of these differences, Shweder (1977) has argued that faulty thinking arises from the limitations of the mind. Central to the success and failure of the cognitive system are its processes or “heuristics.” Errors may arise from intra-individual activity such as shortcuts or from previous knowledge structures. These may be inaccurate or inappropriate. Nemeroff and Rozin (2000) show that in children’s thinking, moral and physical causes may be confused so allowing the emergence of the idea of magical contagion, for example the idea that I might be made holy by wearing a religious relic. Indeed, the belief in the power of religious relics depends on this confusion. While identifying errors and mistakes may facilitate the emergence of novel ways of thinking, they remain potential sources of disagreement between people. We learn not just from creative interaction with our experiences, but also from what we hear from other people. In the educational domain the constructivist epistemology is closely associated with facilitating the emergence of new viable knowledge in students and pupils. So much so that direct instruction has tended to be viewed as a form of pedagogy that is in opposition to constructivist instruction (Tobias & Duffy 2009). This neglect of the role of providing information was highlighted by Harris and Koenig (2006), who wrote about the ways children learn from testimony about all sorts of things from germs to God. In their analysis of learning in all its complexity it is shown that children learn from what is not said as well as from what is said via nonverbal messages.

However, what can we say about “error”? Error, whether it arises from intra-individual or inter-individual sources is often noticed in the inter-individual context after actions or thoughts are made public. And it is in the public domain that ethics arises. In what follows, Maturana’s account of realities in parenthesis provides a framework for analysing the differences in assumptions or reasoning that often arise when people disagree, whether or not this be in a domain where there are agreed procedures for deciding which view is viable. In today’s world we are aware of many conflicts. Some arise on account of differences that are matters that are decidable through investigation. Others are differences that depend on religious texts or views and these may remain differences after discussion but discussion about the basis for these differences implies the possibility of respect for the different views. So having insight into ways to examine differences in points of view is an epistemological contribution with enormous importance. The challenge is to persuade people with different views that there is value in discussion! As Maturana (1997) put it, ways of emotioning are configured early in our development in childhood and cannot be imposed but he would like to contribute to a form of living in which love, mutual respect, honesty, and social responsibility arise spontaneously in our coexistence. Comments made by Humberto Maturana with direct implications for ethical relations between people are considered for three domains: (1) his discussion of explanation in the domain of the individual’s thinking; (2) in the domain of interpersonal behaviour there is the concept of the “legitimate other;” and then (3) in the societal domain his comments about matristic societies resonate with comments made recently about the need in contemporary society for more cooperation and the need for what is termed “social capital.”

1. Ethics and intra-individual-level explaining

Maturana’s 1988 article raises issues of ethics in the context of the quest for a compelling argument that is linked to objectivity and reality. Maturana’s account of epistemology here and elsewhere begins with observation. Humans observe and make distinc-

tions in language and we make descriptions and explanations that are secondary to this observation. Further, and importantly, he remarks that: “whatever happens to us, happens to us as an experience that we live as coming from nowhere” (1988: 27). Given that observation is primary, Maturana (1988) has discussed explanations of what is observed in terms of two forms of objectivity: objectivity “in parenthesis” or without “parenthesis,” depending on the attitude of the person who is observing or explaining. Traditional philosophical discussion of epistemological issues was about the grounds and validity of knowledge, and reality was assumed and without parenthesis. In constructivist writings it is argued that this traditional approach assumed that truth was a question of matching or comparing what one knows with reality. So constructivist knowing is about reality in parenthesis. Indeed the idea that knowledge is the result of a process of learning was ignored by traditional epistemology, as was the critical issue of how to compare what one knows with anything other than experience. In addition, while presumably philosophers realised that childhood involves considerable learning, the key epistemological questions about knowledge were about completed knowledge rather than knowledge in process (Hamlyn 1978). Objects were assumed to be there and whatever gaps there might be between what we know and reality were not considered a fundamental problem as they were in constructivist approaches. The idea that how knowledge is acquired over time in, for example, childhood has any relevance to epistemology was referred to as the “genetic fallacy” and this was not important to what many considered mainstream epistemology (Hamlyn 1978). This strong view of the rigid distinction between the construction of knowledge and the justification of knowledge began to change in the following years. Kitchener (1987) has argued that this strong position was based on a mistaken view that psychology was irrelevant for genetic epistemology. Further, he argues that knowledge may be based on temporal, causal or rational-logical sequences, and that the genetic fallacy depends on the failure to distinguish between two ways one comes to hold knowledge ( causal sequences without understanding and sequences that


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are rationally understood). He argues that only the third sort of genetic sequence, the rational-logical, is relevant to epistemological issues. On this basis some of the criticisms of mainstream epistemology argued in Glasersfeld (1974) are less applicable to more recent philosophical writings on genetic epistemology. The absence or presence of the assumption that observation is observation of reality is linked to Maturana’s two notions of objectivity. As pointed out below, this is important for the ethics implicit in constructivist epistemology. Maturana (1988) has argued that it is possible to choose a position where we accept that what we know is not a representation of reality but rather a model of our human and limited experience of reality. It is based on what we knew when we came to (or made) our understanding. All this implies that we are aware that our understandings are our own generated models. Accepting these limits and taking personal responsibility for this process has implications for ethical relationships with others. So where there are differences between what we understand and what others understand, these differences present opportunities to think about how these differences arise and how we may talk about them and understand them. Differences become opportunities to discuss and to search for the origins of these differences. The ethical implications are that differences present an opportunity to understand different points of view in a context of mutual respect. So adopting the constructivist epistemology entails a way of relating to the world and to others. This becomes even clearer when we notice that if we forget that what we know is an interpretive model, differences imply that someone is wrong. One position then is illegitimate, is invalid – is wrong! Differences become an opportunity for power assertion. So appreciation of the mystery of what we know and its approximate nature is an invitation to a sort of spiritual awareness that allows consideration of other interpretations. Maturana emphasized that our greatest spiritual danger was to believe we had a truth, which made us blind to our circumstances and led us to fanaticism, and our next greatest danger was to forget our responsibility for our acts or for desiring/ not desiring their consequences.

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I consider that the greatest spiritual danger “  that a person faces in his or her life is to believe that he or she is the owner of a truth, or the legitimate defender of some principle […] because he or she immediately becomes blind to his or her circumstance, and enters into the closed alley of fanaticism. (Maturana 1990: 34)

In a similar vein Bertrand Russell (1950) emphasised the difficulties that arise when people rely on authority rather than on reason.

2. Ethics and the inter-individual level – the legitimate other

When two people discuss a particular issue, how might one examine such differences in understanding that might arise between them? Maturana’s writings deal with this issue in a number of ways, including his views on explanations about realities and the concept of the legitimate other. Explanations are part of our culture of conversation. When a person explains, the explanation only works as an explanation when it is accepted by the listener, and this acceptance depends on certain criteria. Maturana (1988) provides these criteria in the case of scientific explanations, but explains that other criteria apply in other domains such as religions, philosophical systems, and ideologies. Here the ethical considerations are approached in two ways: first on the basis of the explanations and second in terms of the criteria in the different domains. Maturana presents two types of explanations as introduced above: one based on reality in parenthesis and the other based on reality without parenthesis. When we consider how two people are going to discuss a topic, another key concept of Maturana’s plays an important role: that is, the notion of the legitimate other. In Maturana’s theory, love is a way of relating with others who are considered legitimate and so do not have to justify themselves to us. In this sense the word “love” is not a virtue but rather it refers to the behaviours by which social behaviour is conserved (Maturana & VerdenZöller 2008). Maturana does not explicitly associate these two views on reality with the notion of love and of the legitimate other, but there is a link because explaining based on reality in parenthesis requires cooperation and respect.

From a psychological point of view it is important to try to understand how one switches from one position on reality to another. To my knowledge this is not an issue that Maturana has written about. It seems central to an understanding of the dynamics of attitude change. What do we know about the conditions favouring the emergence of a switch from one position to another? Knowing how to approach this is critical to any educational or psychological plans to facilitate a respectful and ethical resolution of disagreements. As far back as 1954, Gordon Allport put forward four conditions that need to be filled to reduce prejudice in contact between different groups : (1) that the groups have relatively equal status in the contact; (2) that the groups have common goals; (3) that there be little or no competition between the groups; and (4) that their meeting be supported by those in authority. These conditions for reducing prejudice appear consistent with the development or emergence of the concept of the legitimate other. There are many research studies supporting the importance of Allport’s conditions. A number of studies have been published showing how it is possible to invite children to reconsider their prejudices concerning children who are “different” (Gash 1993, 1996; Gash & Coffey 1995). These studies were designed to provide experiences in class to children to facilitate the emergence of mutual respect and positive attitudes towards children with different types of learning disabilities based on constructivist considerations (Gash 1992). As part of this work in Dublin I observed contact between primary school children from two schools: a regular primary school and a school for children with learning difficulties. The school staff involved in planning these encounters were meticulous in seeking to avoid any possibility of negative attitudes emerging. For example, I was interested at the time in assessing the attitudes of the primary children in the regular school to see to what extent their experience in these joint sessions facilitated the emergence of positive attitudes towards children with learning difficulties. I was not permitted to do this. I understood later that this was not possible because the assessment questionnaire might allow the emergence

Biology of Cognition

Maturana’s Theory and Interpersonal Ethics Hugh Gash

of negative attitudes that were perhaps just below the surface. At the time I felt frustrated. However, looking back at this years later, and following the research studies I cite here, I am aware of the difficulty of changing pupils’ attitudes towards children who are different and so appreciate more fully how difficult this process is to achieve. There were, however, at the time some moments of changed awareness that illustrate well how the notion of legitimate other may emerge. In one instance a teenager played table football with a boy with Down syndrome who was very good at table football. In discussion later the teenager said that during the game he realised how specific the difficulties of the boy with Down syndrome were, how good he was at table football, and indeed how similar we all are one to another. The concept of the legitimate other cannot be considered in isolation from its context. As Maturana puts it, humans are social animals so we are naturally inclined to feel sympathy for others. However, in some circumstances we reject others and do not consider them legitimate. Therefore, understanding how to approach disagreements with other people seems enmeshed with acceptance of the other as a person. Again social psychological research is relevant to understanding the conditions in which acceptance or rejection of people occurs. The research on attribution theory has a direct bearing on this issue. In this case, it is the attribution of the concept of legitimate other. Fritz Heider (1958), often regarded as the originator of attribution theory, showed that people tend to focus on the person (internal attribution) and ignore the circumstances in which the person acted (external attribution). This developed to incorporate context in Kelley’s (1973) co-variation model concerned with variation of behaviour across situations in terms of the relative importance of internal and external attributions. For example, to explain how a child is unkind one refers to consensus (how do other people behave in this situation?), distinctiveness (how does this person behave in other situations), and consistency (how does the same person act in similar situations across time?). Internal attributions tend to be made when consistency is high (child is mean regularly) and consensus (other children don’t) and distinctiveness (child isn’t mean with

classmates) are low. People make external attributions when they are all high. Redirecting attention through questioning about consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency may be a useful or effective way to facilitate attitude change. In the context of Maturana’s views on the legitimate other, these considerations originating in the domain of social psychology provide ways to think about how to promote ideas of mutual respect and how we may understand our human differences. If discussions can be encouraged to examine contexts and to understand why people make the choices they make in particular situations, then it is possible to hope that empathy may emerge and the other may be considered as a legitimate other, in Maturana’s phrasing.

3. Ethics at the societal level: Matristic societies

Bearing in mind that the main aim of this paper is to invite a reflection on social relationships, the most important part of this reflection concerns the implications of this reflection on society. Maturana’s (1997) comments about society arise in his considerations about early human societies from his biological point of view. These ideas relate closely to Putnam’s (2000) work emphasising the importance of human groups in the maintenance of the social fabric. For many people in western society today, life is so focussed on work that it is hard to find time to devote to important societal dimensions of living. Maturana’s views on how conflicts arise, and how they may be resolved, have implications for group conflicts. His work invites us to reflect on what it means to be human and on the significance of respect in human relationships, and indeed on the need for relationships. Ethics must be more than philosophical discussions about human relationships, it arises in the ways we view each other and whether we care or we do not care for each other. Ethics is about taking responsibility for our actions and being aware of the ways we treat each other. Maturana’s discussions on the origins of human societies are also associated with his views on human relationships and on relationships of mutual respect or support. He viewed early hunter gatherer societies as matristic. There is a nostalgia, I think, in the way Maturana described these

societies and the way he viewed the ways people related one to another. Key features of such societies were their mutual interdependence with each other and nature. People killed the animals they needed to eat. There was a particular type of harmony between people, animals, and plants. Once societies began to keep herds this harmony was broken. People now wanted to protect “their flocks” from predators. In such a society, relationships between people were also altered as some groups had flocks to meet their needs and others didn’t and so were in danger of starvation. So power and war emerged in societies where hierarchy, leadership, and associated values were important. Acquisition was a key feature of these emerging patristic societies. Maturana (1997) deplores the ways we relate with each other in relations of domination, mistrust, dishonesty, greed, appropriation, and manipulation. In a similar vein, Putnam (2000) has shown that there have been declines in civic and political engagement, in the informal ties people have with other (whether we are talking about being in choirs or bowling), and people trust each other less. All these issues are vital to the ways people relate to each other at the local and global level. Putnam has attributed this decline in our human interconnections to changes in family structure, suburban sprawl, and electronic entertainment. A key issue in Putnam’s work is the documentation of the importance of human groups to the maintenance of civic behaviour in society. In Maturana’s writings, matristic societies were ones where people lived in harmony with nature and where people in the group were dependent on each other. In such societies, cooperation was more significant than competition. Maturana (1997) hoped that his work would facilitate the reemergence of this type of society, one where patterns of social co-existence allow relations of love, mutual respect, honesty, and social responsibility to flourish. This is what we desire when we desire spiritual well-being, that is, life as we learned to live it when we were children. This links to the idea of social capital, which can be accounted for by the connections between social networks in society (Putnam 2000). Putnam has demonstrated the positive consequences for civic life in communities where social network-


Ethical Concepts in the Biology of Cognition



ing is vibrant, particularly networks fostering relationships of engagement, trust, and equality. In this special issue of Constructivist Foundations dedicated to Maturana’s work, it is reasonable to hope that greater awareness of the interconnectedness of people and nature is timely in today’s society. This particular vision of being human in Maturana’s work is one that may facilitate the emergence of such types of community associations that support greater social engagement and responsibility. I hope this article will draw attention to these social implications of his work.

Conclusion We live in a time when competitive procedures in banking practices have created financial disasters in a number of countries, when differences in religious positions lead to terrorism, when industrial procedures from mining to hydroelectric schemes have enormous ecological consequences, and where considering people as apart from nature appears more and more irresponsible. Maturana’s biological viewpoint with its epistemological implications shows in a number of ways how awareness of our connectedness with our past and with our communities may provide a way towards cooperation. The choice is ours. Maturana’s influence seems to this writer to be somewhat muted through the systemic prose that is characteristic of his writing. Even so there are signs that his work or parts of it are being taken up and used more and more broadly. However, as the theory is adopted it is inevitably adapted and thus the message is less clear. This is a consequence Matu-

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Hugh Gash

has worked at St Patrick’s College Dublin for many years. He is interested in constructivism and its applications in psychology and education and has published in these areas. He met Ernst von Glasersfeld in 1973 when he went as a post-doc to the University of Georgia to work with Charlie Smock. Ernst’s thinking had a major influence on Hugh’s work, details of which may be found on his website,

rana is clearly anxious to avoid. My own hope is that ways can be found to develop his discourses about objectivities that may be helpful in conflict resolution. Ideas about realities and about how the emergence of the concept of the legitimate other could be facilitated seem very hopeful in a world where extreme viewpoints demanding obedience are enforced with violence.

References Allport G. W. (1954) The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley, Reading MA. Ceccato S. (1961) The machine which observes and describes. Milan: University of Milan (Mimeo). Dewey J. (1960) The quest for certainty. Capricorn, New York. Originally published as Dewey J. (1929) The quest for certainty: A study of the relation of knowledge and action. Minton, Balch & Co, New York. Gash H. (1992) Reducing prejudice: Constructivist considerations for special education. European Journal of Special Needs Education 7: 146–155. Gash H. (1993) A constructivist attempt to promote positive attitudes towards children with special needs. European Journal of Special Needs Education 8: 106–125. Gash H. (1996) Changing attitudes towards children with special needs. European Journal of Special Needs Education 11: 286–297. Gash H. & Coffey D. (1995) Influences on attitudes towards children with mental handicap. European Journal of Special Needs Education 10: 1–16. Glasersfeld G. von. (1974) Piaget and the radical constructivist epistemology. In: Smock C. D. & Glasersfeld E. von (eds.) Epistemology

and education. Follow Through Publications, Athens GA: 1–24. Glasersfeld E. von (1979) Cybernetics, Experience and the concept of self. In: Ozer M. N. (ed.) A cybernetic approach to the assessment of children: Toward a more humane use of human beings. Westview Press, Boulder CO: 67–113. Glasersfeld E. von (1991) Distinguishing the observer: An attempt at interpreting Maturana. Methodologia V(8): 57–68. Originally published in German as: Glasersfeld E. von (1990) Die Unterscheidung des Beobachters: Versuch einer Auslegung. In: Riegas V. & Vetter C. (eds.) Zur Biologie der Kognition. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt: 281–295. Available at Glasersfeld E. von (1995) Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. Falmer Press, London. Hamlyn D. W. (1978) Experience and the growth of understanding. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London & Boston. Harris P. L. & Koenig M. A. (2006) Trust in testimony: How children learn about science and religion. Child Development 77: 505–524. Heider F. (1958) The psychology of interpersonal relations. Wiley, New York. Kelley H. H. (1973) The process of causal attribution. American Psychologist 28: 107–128. Kitchener R. (1987) Is genetic epistemology possible? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 38: 283–299. Mareschal G. & Westermann G. (2010) Mixing the old with the new and the new with the old. In: Johnson S. (ed.) Neoconstructivism: The new science of cognitive development. Oxford, New York: 213–228. Maturana H. R. (1988) The search for objectivity, or the quest for a compelling argument. Irish Journal of Psychology 9: 25–82.

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Maturana’s Theory and Interpersonal Ethics Hugh Gash

Maturana H. R. (1990) Science and daily life: The ontology of scientific explanations. In: Krohn W., Küppers G. & Nowotny H. (eds.) Selforganization: Portrait of a scientific revolution. Kluwer, Dordrecht: 12–35. Maturana H. R. (1997) Metadesign. Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva. Available at http://www. Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2008) The origin of humanness in the biology of love. Edited by Pille Bunnell. Imprint Academic, London.

Nemeroff C. & Rozin P. (2000) The makings of the magical mind: The nature and function of sympathetic magical thinking. In: Rosengren K., Johnson C. & Harris P. (eds.) Imagining the impossible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1–34. Piaget J. (1970) Piaget’s theory. In: Mussen P. H. (ed.) Carmichael’s handbook of child psychology. Wiley, New York: 703–732. Putnam R. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American Community. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Russell B. (1950) Unpopular essays. George Allen and Unwin, London. Shweder R. A. (1977) Likeness and likelihood in everyday thought: Magical thinking in judgments about personality. Current Anthropology 18(4): 637–658. Tobias S. & Duffy T. D. (eds.) (2009) Constructivist instruction: Success or failure? Routledge, Taylor and Francis, New York. Received: 20 January 2011 Accepted: 20 June 2011

The Creation of Reality

A Constructivist Epistemology of Journalism and Journalism Education

Bernhard Poerksen

ISBN 9781845402099 (Paperback), 250pp. In this book, Bernhard Poerksen draws up a new rationale for constructivist thinking and charts out directions for the imaginative examination of personal certainties and the certainties of others, of ideologies great and small. The focus of the debate is on the author’s thesis that our understanding of journalism and, in particular, the education and training of journalists, would profit substantially from constructivist insights. These insights instigate, the claim is, an original kind of scepticism. “This is the right way to present constructivism to a critical scientific community as well as to a broader critical public.” Armin Scholl, Professor at the Institute for Communication Science in Münster, Germany, in: Constructivist Foundations, Volume 6 Number 2 March 2011 p. 277.

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Bernhard Poerksen

ISBN 9780907845812 (Paperback), 200pp. This book presents the views of the founders of constructivism and modern systems theory, who are still providing stimulating cues for international scientific debate. The conversations of Heinz von Foerster, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Humberto R. Maturana, Francisco J. Varela, Gerhard Roth, Siegfried J. Schmidt, Helm Stierlin, and Paul Watzlawick with Bernhard Poerksen, display a kind of thinking that steers clear of rigid fixation and reveals the ideal of objectivity to be a myth. “The Certainty of Uncertainty introduces us to a breadth of debate and unpacks for us the paradoxes that might result from acknowledging the observer.” Leonardo – Volume 40, Number 1, February 2007, p. 93.

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Biology of Cognition

The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought Rossella Mascolo • Independent Researcher • ross.mascolo/at/

ETHICAL Perspective On the Biology of Cognition

> Context • Introduced in 1970, bioethics is now more and more commonly used since it applies to a variety of concepts


belonging to traditional Western thought. Just like other dualisms that are typical of traditional Western thought (e.g., mind/body, subject/object, philosophy/science), bioethics is developing in areas that are mostly isolated from each other, with each argument restricted to its specific space, without affecting the general concept of bioethics. It is also characterized by the dualism ought/being. > Purpose • I maintain that the definition of a relevant moral criterion should include the whole scope of thinking and the whole adopted perspective. Consequently, the current conception of bioethics should be changed. Such an alternative view objects to the fragmentation of knowledge. In this way, specifically in bioethics, our way of living and life itself acquire an ethical dimension. Maturana’s theory is expected to be a useful instrument for dealing with the difficulties that the concept of “bioethics” brings. > Method • First, traditional bioethics and its way of dealing with some of its typical problems are discussed. Then, Maturana’s epistemology, including his emphasis on the observer, his biology of cognition located in “languaging,” and his ethics of love are described. Its features, such as trust and respect, will be highlighted, taking into account his modality of speaking as a biologist, exposed to the risk of “naturalistic fallacy” but dispelling it thanks to – I argue – the radical difference between Maturana’s theory and the traditional Western epistemology. > Results • Maturana’s definition of ethics leads to the conclusion that the whole of living is ethics, the whole of life is ethics, and there is no separation existing between the “ought” and the “being.” Bioethics, and also ethics, dissolve themselves in the circularity of the living, which operates in the living-acting of each human being in the systemic texture they belong to and which they contribute to creating in an open-ended process of “languaging.” > Key Words • Bioethics, ethics, post-Cartesian theory of knowledge, love, facts/values, ought/being, naturalistic fallacy, autopoiesis, traditional Western thought, observer.

Introduction The core focus of this paper is to provide an alternative to the current concept of ethics and bioethics in recognition that the concept of bioethics depends on the underlying, often implicit, epistemology of the persons concerned. The proposed alternative concept of bioethics is made possible through an understanding of Humberto Maturana’s1 epistemology, sometimes re1 | I also wish to acknowledge the contribution to ethics by Maturana’s former student and colleague, Francisco Varela. Varela published specifically on ethics, e.g., his book Ethical KnowHow: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition (1999). Despite sharing many of the same principles, Varela’s approach differs from Maturana’s, as the former includes reference to Eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism; hence Varela’s contributions should be examined separately. Furthermore, Maturana himself emphasizes their differences, rather than underlining their com-

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ferred to as the biology of cognition and the biology of love. This epistemology enables a different framework to host the current issues in ethics and bioethics. Within this framework some current bioethical issues may be taken into account and dealt with. However, I first wish to provide a comprehensive description of the wide fabric that is necessary to facilitate an enlarged vision of ethics and bioethics as a new way of living–acting–knowing, a way that is not limited by artificial boundaries and that transcends the dualistic Cartesian epistemology.2 I begin with a review of some current ideas about bioethics in Cartesian terms mon traits. In this paper I decided to examine how Maturana’s epistemology is useful in coping with my idea of bioethics, as I also intend to do with Varela’s at another time. 2 |  Cartesian epistemology refers to the separation between objective world and subjective experience (e.g., Riegler 2005: 4).

and then propose an alternate view, seen from a different epistemological basis. I base this view on my understanding of Maturana’s body of work. Maturana has indeed developed an inclusive and extensive epistemology and ontology. As Ernst von Glasersfeld (1991) wrote, “Maturana is undoubtedly one of those thinkers who, in past centuries, would have been led to the pyre without recanting.” Undoubtedly, Maturana has a personal epistemological view, which he brings forth, discarding opposing opinions, by means of ex novo epistemological instruments. His body of work helps us conceive our whole existence as a place not constrained by boundaries, where one is always responsible for his or her actions. Could therefore his thought be ethics in itself? What I am proposing is a bioethics of complexity that extends through the whole human being by dissolving boundaries and thus coinciding with human living. In that ambience each action of each person will be ethical in his/her living.

Biology of Cognition

The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought Rossella Mascolo

What is “bioethics”?

First, what do we mean when we talk about “bioethics”? Is it consistent to distinguish ethics from bioethics? Or do the two concepts collapse onto each other? Van Rensselaer Potter, then Professor of Oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, coined the term “bioethics” in the early 1970s. As he explained in his book Bioethics: Bridge to the Future (1971)3, the word bioethics includes the whole area of ethics, not only medical ethics, but also environmental and agricultural. He claims that this is implicit in the term, as the prefix “bio” refers to the implementation of ethics to all life domains. But soon, to his surprise, “bioethics” became popular and was “seized upon by the medical profession which has overlooked its original scope and breadth” (Potter 1996). According to the journal Bioethics, nowadays bioethics is generally perceived as encompassing public health, infectious disease, AIDS, managed care, genomics and stem cell research, genetic testing, and cloning, all of which give “human beings new power to improve our health and control the development processes of all living species.”4 According to philosopher Hugo Tristram Engelhardt Jr., bioethics refers to moral life in the domain of health care (Engelhardt 1996); he refers to the so-called human bioethics, which he has only recently extended to environmental ethics. In general, bioethics “refers to the normative questions which inhere in the application of medical knowledge to specific problems like euthanasia, abortion, genetic and behavioral modification and the like” (Pellegrino 1975: 213). This definition was published right after Potter began to use the word “bioethics,” but these kinds of considerations are still regarded as valid today and it is generally accepted that ethics coincides with bioeth3 |  He dedicated the book to Aldo Leopold who, according to Potter, would have the honour to anticipate “the extension of ethics to bioethics.” 4 |  Webpage of the UNESCO on bioethics at

ics only when it provides moral authority for health care policy (e.g., see Engelhardt 1992: 3) Other current trends consider bioethics to include animal and environmental ethics (see, for example, Tallacchini & Terragni 2004). Piergiacomo Pagano, an Italian biological researcher who wrote a book entitled Environmental Philosophy (Pagano 2006), invites us to consider environmental issues within bioethics; however, he is not able to transcend the Cartesian division between disciplines and he preserves an anthropocentric attitude when he also suggests a bridge between humanities and natural sciences, considering their a priori existences as separated areas (Pagano 2003). Furthermore, these are isolated attempts, sealed off from each other, and the notion of human bioethics continues to predominate with its strong anthropocentric vision. Figure 1 depicts the modern view of bioethics as being divided into different branches. In this view bioethics is developing in separate areas, each argument located in its specific branch, which barely communicates with the other branches with the consequence that there is no development of bioethics in general (Mori 2003: 551–552). This kind of isolation is not unusual in Western society, where Descartes’ influence is strong and reductionism prevails. Reductionism is implicit in all theories of traditional natural sciences: it is the philosophical position according to which a complex system is but the sum of its parts and it is possible to reach an understanding of the nature of complex things through a study of the interactions of their parts or their fundamental elements; hence it is a mechanistic view of the world (cf. Bohm 1980). With this kind of cultural substrate, bioethics is conceived in a patchy way, where the classical separations – mind/body, subject/object in the process of knowledge, natural sciences/ human sciences, rationality/emotionality – are clear. Others have also been concerned with this separation. For example, Mori (2003: 552) noted that determining a relevant moral criterion for ethics should not be considered a purely internal problem in relation to a single area, but should involve the whole horizon of thought and the whole perspective adopted.

human bioethics environmental ethics

animal ethics


Bioethics in the Cartesian tradition

Figure 1: Bioethics in the Cartesian tradition.

Facts and values; science and philosophy

Traditional bioethics is sometimes presented as a philosophical discipline, separated from the scientific area so that facts and values are separated. For example, Engelhardt says that bioethics is plural, that it goes beyond the borders of individual cultures, including Western culture, and thus there are reasons and arguments that everyone should accept (Engelhardt 1991: 12–13). He claims that such acceptance is possible for impartial people who are without prejudices and not influenced by their culture, involved in the power of their rational argumentation (ibid: 17). Nevertheless the difficulty, as Engelhardt explains, is that as facts and values are located in different domains, moral concerns are not scientific facts that can be proven through reference to an independent reality. In the case of moral conflicts, where we have not only “facts” but also evaluations of “facts,” he calls for an objective point of view. In his opinion, we are not compelled to follow the suggestions of natural sciences, which can provide factual verification of empirical theories (ibid: 29–30). As we will see, in Maturana’s epistemology, Englehard’s reasoning is not valid as it is impossible to access any objective point of view. Depending on the separation between facts and values, and between the criteria of validation of knowledge for science and philosophy, ethics (or bioethics) falls into the vexata quaestio of “naturalistic fallacy”


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(Mori 2003: 550). This concept is connected to Hume’s law, which is related to the distinction between statements of fact and utterances with an “ought” in them, the latter never being logically derived from the former, but often misinterpreted as a separation between facts and values. In general terms, we can consider two fundamentally different types of statement: statements of fact that describe the way that the world is, and the statements of value that describe the way that the world ought to be. We commit the naturalistic fallacy by inferring a statement of the latter kind from a statement of the former kind because we cannot establish any value judgment from factual premises: we cannot get an “ought” from an “is.” Vice versa, with a sharp distinction between factual statements and value judgments, only the former can be regarded as stating anything and as being true or false, the latter having some meaning different from stating something, e.g., expressing attitudes (Mori 2003: 550). Consequently, in order to avoid the naturalistic fallacy, we could, by separating science and philosophy, stay on the side of philosophy as Engelhardt does. Even better, we cannot deny the fact/value distinction, or that ethical facts are sui generis in nature, without absorbing all knowledge into the knowledge of traditional natural sciences. This separation between science and non-science with respect to ethics is not a new concern. Within the traditional Cartesian culture, for example, Potter (1971, 1979) asserted that bioethics was intended to bridge “two cultures.” He stated that “If there are ‘two cultures’ that seem unable to speak to each other – science and the humanities – and if this is part of the reason that the future seems in doubt, then possibly we might build a ‘bridge to the future’ by building the discipline of Bioethics as a bridge between the two cultures” (Potter 1971: vii). He proposes that we can achieve a new wisdom through using biological knowledge and human values (ibid: 2), as according to him “ethical values cannot be separated from biological facts” (ibid: vii). As I understand this, he appears to be proposing a unifying principle for bioethics that is seen through an ecological lens, such as “survival of the total ecosystem” (ibid: viii). His task is quite ambitious: according to

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him “Bioethics should attempt to integrate the reductionistic and mechanistic principles with the holistic principles” (ibid: 5), being based on biological knowledge (ibid: 1). Bioethics should be conceived as a new cross-science within disciplinary boundaries and “susceptible to objective verification in terms of the future survival of man and improvement in the quality of life for future generations” (ibid: 6).

Intuition and respect as potential foundations for bioethics

From the traditional epistemological point of view, knowledge cannot be conceived without foundations (Feyerabend 1999: 50–77). The problem that arises from this is that it is necessary to establish on what foundations bioethics can be constructed. We could attempt to base bioethics on a universal principle valid for everyone, or an authority that establishes the values of our behaviors, or on a transcendental principle, such as those deriving from religious creeds. Potter, in trying to provide an appropriate foundation for bioethics, highlights the role of intuition in the process of generating knowledge. He claims that what we accept as knowledge arises “from communication to a sufficient number of open-minded individuals who at some point have an intuition that the message can be believed” (Potter 1996). Engelhardt, on the other hand, claims that we cannot appeal to intuitionism. Rather, he states, “if one is not to appeal to God […], then it might appear that one can determine who is a moral authority and who is in moral authority by determining what it is reasonable to do” (Engelhardt 1989a). Engelhardt further denies that we can secure a secular surrogate for the Christian God through rational argument alone in order to justify the general guidelines of Western morality. “If anything characterizes the post-modern period, it is the loss of this pretense” (Engelhardt 1989b). In order to avoid nihilism, unconstrained relativism and pluralism, and to create a non-coercive society without a primary appeal to force, Engelhardt claims we can base ethics on the solid principle of respect, that is, “mutual respect in the process of negotiating points of collaboration” (ibid). He admits that it cannot be justified on rational bases and that it has a

“self-referential character.” Engelhardt’s reasoning shows some convergence of thought with Maturana, both with respect to his acceptance of circularity and with his concern for mutual respect.

Biology as an alternative foundation for bioethics

Potter, the father of bioethics, proposed to built it “on an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary base” (Potter 1988). We can argue that when Potter proposed the term “bioethics” over forty years ago, even though he intended that field to be an intersection of ethics and the biological sciences, he had in mind a classical taxonomy among the disciplines, located in the traditional Cartesian epistemology. However, despite his traditional position, Potter wrote of “biological knowledge” as that which refers to all life, not only human life, and thus he provides an opportunity for reflection. He wrote, “as we face the twenty-first century and the third millennium, bridge bioethics is called upon to deal not with just two cultures, but with a host of ethics specialties, to each of which it must say, ‘Get out of the ghetto.’” He suggests that “biological knowledge is the possible bridge between the specialties that will enable them to come out of their isolated ghettos” (Potter 1999). So, how can we get out of Potter’s ghetto? Is biological knowledge the possible bridge to the future? I claim that whether this escape can be accomplished or not depends on what we mean by “biological knowledge.” The consequences can be quite different if we consider “biology” not as a discipline, but rather as the condition for our existence (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 18). This conception differs from Potter’s in that he was attempting to build a bridge between what he accepted as separate disciplines. Is it necessary to maintain the various disciplines of study as separate fields? Is it possible to conceive an alternative view that brings these and ourselves together as a whole while still avoiding “some degree of neurosis [and that] many individuals [could be] classified as paranoid, schizoid, psychotic, etc” (Bohm 1980: 2)? Can we conceive areas of knowledge without rigid boundaries between them, so that bioethics is not a separate discipline but rather a manner of living that pertains to all the

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The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought Rossella Mascolo

circumstances of our living? I will address these questions below, but in order to do so I will first outline some relevant aspects of Maturana’s work.

Maturana’s work as a foundation for bioethics Many unsolved problems in traditional bioethics suggest the need for a conceptual change. This is why I present Maturana’s body of work here as relevant for a new way of understanding knowledge and ethics, a way that offers the potential to solve previously unsolvable problems. As von Glasersfeld (1991) says, “Maturana is one of the few authors that nowadays engage with the construction of a wide, complete, explicatory system, comparable to those of Plato or Leibniz.” His epistemological position appears completely new, and in my opinion is not comparable with any other. His epistemological framework seems, with Feyerabend (e.g., Feyerabend 1975), incommensurable with the traditional ones. Maturana – and also Varela – can be connected to the so-called “New Biology,” which is “flowing out of the work of both Gregory Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, and connecting with the original work of Warren McCulloch at M.I.T.” (Thompson 1987: 12). A connection with Bateson is acknowledged in the declaration of intents of the Escuela Matriztica de Santiago,5 where it is stated that, as early as the 1960s, Bateson had proposed a way of understanding the epistemological basis of the whole of human knowledge, starting from biology. One way to summarize Maturana’s thought is his well-known statement “Everything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be himself” (Maturana 1970a: 4). This means that the starting point of the question of cognition is the observer operating in language; thus being observers, we make distinctions and explanations, and further, in so doing, “we use cognition to analyze cognition” (Maturana 1978: 30). Maturana developed his way of conceiving of perception and knowledge from his empirical studies of the nervous system or, as I prefer to say, through regarding those 5 |

experiments under the light of the epistemology that emerged throughout his life; that is, an epistemology that is characterized by a circular manner of thinking (Mascolo 2011). He used that way of thinking in his experimental studies and found that it worked better than the traditional way of thinking. As he wrote in 1983, he found he could not operate with the concept of perception in a traditional way, because that word literally means “obtained through grasping or capture,” coming from the Latin “per capiere.” His experimental work demonstrated that perception does not consist of grasping the features of an outside world of objects, but that, according to an observer, an organism exhibits perception in bringing forth “a world of actions through sensory motor correlations congruent with the perturbations of the environment in which he or she sees it to conserve its adaptation” (Maturana 1983: 256). This presages the entangled relationship between living, perceiving, and acting, in which I am claiming that knowledge arises in a manner that is inherently inseparable from ethics or bioethics. But first I wish to return to the observer as per Maturana. Is this observer the same thing as the traditional observer?

The observer according to Maturana

Maturana specifies that an observer, that is a living system living in language, “operates in two non-intersecting phenomenal domains. As a living system an observer operates in the domain of autopoiesis. As an observer, he operates in a consensual domain that only exists as a collective domain defined through the interactions of several (two or more) organisms” (Maturana 1978: 44–45). Since cognition is a biological phenomenon, and living systems are cognitive systems, and living is a process of cognition, observers are living cognitive systems. We cannot reduce the processes that take place in the domain where a person is a living system to the processes that take place in the domain where the person is an observer. However the two phenomenal domains modulate each other and the observer always lives with this interlaced continuous change that results from the structural coupling between its medium and its operation

as an autopoietic system. We also know from Maturana that “if a living system enters into a cognitive interaction, its internal state is changed in a manner relevant to its maintenance and it enters into a new interaction without losing its identity” (Maturana 1970b: 13). This is also the case for an observer, who is also a living system in structural coupling with its medium, which includes other observers. Hence observers are always in reciprocal modulation, and it is thus impossible to identify a point from which knowledge begins, because the distinctions that arise in this reciprocal languaging (Maturana 1988) process are always changing, so that any absolute knowledge is unattainable. This notion of endless reciprocal changes among observers introduces the idea of our continuous involvement through all our actions, and thus the impossibility of separating a subject and object as the who and what of knowing, as is assumed for a traditional observer. From such foundational reflections, we come to a different way of thinking about knowledge and ethics. This also implies that ethics is necessarily bioethics, as ethics has to do with the biology of living. Furthermore, I claim that this means that it makes no sense to specify separate areas of bioethics – e.g., human bioethics, animal bioethics or environmental bioethics – because any individual’s cognition arises in a systemic dynamic process, and is thus a systemic phenomenon. Maturana’s observer can make distinctions in language (Maturana 1988); without the operation of distinction in which another arises, the observer cannot distinguish him or herself. Any object that is distinguished in language, even the self, arises through the reciprocal relations between languaging beings; that is, living systems interacting with each other as observers. Maturana’s observer is able to discriminate among different domains of distinctions, marking different boundaries. In this perspective the observer seems to be the traditional one, because he can look at both a living system and his environment. But it is not precisely the same situation, because it is the point of view of an observer, not of the observer in an absolute point of view – as God’s eye –, and we can have at least as many points of view as there are observers.


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The observer arises while he describes a system that generates a system that he is able to describe, therefore, to an observer, which the observer himself can be. Maturana (1970b) said that the observer has his or her particular point of view in his or her conceptual descriptive domain and the observer produces the world where he or she lives through a creative process; but without distinguishing another, who can be himself or herself, the observer cannot recognize him/ herself. Anything, even the other self, arises in the reciprocal determinations of two living systems interacting with each other as observers. This domain of discourse is a closed domain; it is not possible to step outside of it. Everything arises in relation, and we are always in it as it arises. So, as in the phenomenological way of thinking, we can give up asking questions such as “What is – ” or “What is the essence of that which I observe?” and instead begin to ask, “How do I do what I do as an observer in the praxis of observing?” This implicitly brings up a reflection on whether we can separate our acting from the consequence of acting itself; as I will continue to claim in my view of bioethics, we cannot. This means that we cannot define what an observer “is” in any absolute terms; rather we can reflect on what it is that we do when we distinguish ourselves as observers. We are in the circularity of distinguishing observing as we are observing. There is a peculiar logic underlying this question, which appears similar to Bertrand Russell’s Paradox or Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which showed that within a system there exist certain clear-cut statements that can be neither proved nor disproved. Through contemplating such quandaries we enter the realm of second-order cybernetics, or the cybernetics of observing systems, where it is impossible to decide on the basic properties of any system. Our capacity for knowing is always determined by our being living systems and we constitutionally cannot get out of this cognitive circle. Since there is no pre-given world, prior to our being with-the-world, knowledge is not a mirror of nature, and there is no clear separation between experiential and conceptual knowledge. As Fleischaker (1984: 48) put it, with “the definition and operation of the principle of operational closure, the traditional duality of

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external object and reflected internal representation is denied.” With regard to bioethical thinking, I claim that we can similarly affirm that our acting or not acting cannot be separated from the consequences of our acting or not acting. Why should we decide to adopt this new point of view? Varela suggests that “we will make this background of knowledge into a theoretical assumption, and then proceed to apply it to several domains and prove its validity by means of its usefulness” (Varela 1981: 17). Thus we can accept the interesting concept of the observer, which works better than the traditional way of seeing science, as evidenced by the experiments on color vision, but applicable broadly. As Varela says, there are many natural systems that exhibit organizational closure; “the notion of selfreference (circularity, indefinite recursion) is […] truly a circulus fructuosus, and that we must rehabilitate its formal usefulness” (ibid: 19). Another interesting answer is based on the classical Ockham’s razor (“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate,” plurality should not be posited without necessity), because Maturana’s observer perspective comes out more parsimonious, while the traditional perspective supposes mirroring and representation of fea“  tures which are relevant and visible to us as observers, and requires, in some form or another, an agent which designs [Maturana and Varela’s] perspective states that out of many possible paths of tinkering, the particular one we observe allows us to see what is a world for the system, that is, the particular way in which it has maintained a continuous history of coupling with its medium without disintegration. (Varela 1987: 52–53)

Maturana’s ethics from a biologist’s point of view

In his concept of the observer Maturana has evoked a circular notion, since he “wanted to explain knowing without coming out of it.” In doing this he makes a metaphysical shift.6 This was pointed out to him by his col6 |  Cf. Maturana’s “history of a metaphysical change in my thinking, in my feelings and my way of understanding life and the world I live” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 17).

league, Ximena Dávila Yánez, and through this reflection Maturana realized that he was moving from the traditional metaphysics where “the world we live pre-exists our living in it, to a metaphysics in which the world we live exists as it arises with our doing it” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 20–21). Maturana does not make any reference to some independent domain of existence in the process of knowledge; rather by remaining within the circularity of the process, he sees knowledge as an attribution of adequate behaviour that requires no external foundation. In this view the only possibility we have for creating and preserving knowledge, without reference to any ontological assumption, is the coherences of our living (ibid: 23). This differs from the traditional point of view, which rejected the possibility of knowledge without foundations. Maturana does not accept the idea of transcendence, rather he thinks that in his metaphysical shift, and so in his metaphysics, realities arise in the living of the living systems, who appear in “the domain of the transitory where the transcendental is a notion about something of which we cannot speak because any attempt to do so rejects it, and leaves us in the domain of our daily living which is where the transcendental does not exist.” But then that is not a problem, because “all that is good in human life belongs to the domain of what is not permanent, and it is in that domain that love exists as our fundament as human beings, and as our source of wellbeing” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 23–24). He foregrounds his repudiation of “the metaphysical of the transcendental reality,” which characterizes our patriarchalmatriarchal culture, where it is implicit and sometimes explicit “accepting as a matter of course that existence occurs in a background of essences that exist independently of what we human beings do.” With respect to those “essences,” we should be able to verify what is “true” or “false.” But in this way, we are going to face some problems (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 17–18): ƒƒ risking continuously falling “into total skepticism about our possibility of understanding ourselves as self-conscious languaging systems,” ƒƒ refusing the body “as the fundament of human knowledge, human understanding, and human consciousness,”

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The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought Rossella Mascolo

ƒƒ falling into “a sort of theological thinking to justify our biologically unexplainable existence as human beings.” He proposes to reject a priori the existence of a transcendental reality, but to accept, implicitly or explicitly, “that a human being arises through his or her body dynamics in the conservation of living in interactions with the medium that makes it possible.” So we could be able, leaving the metaphysics of the transcendental reality, to adopt “a new one that takes as starting point for any explanation or rational argument the acknowledgment that we are living systems and do all that we do in the realization of our living.” It is in that metaphysical view that “our biology is our condition of possibility. And as a matter of fact it cannot be otherwise since the observer disappears as his or her bodyhood is destroyed” (ibid: 18–19). According to me, with knowledge and ethics being inseparable, I maintain that we are able to create a new kind of knowledge for which the concept of interdisciplinarity is nonsensical because the traditional disciplinary separation is not relevant. For this we can adopt a manner of thinking that incorporates a particular attitude about what knowing entails, wherein the boundaries among hypothetical disciplines fluctuate with context (Lévy 2002: 208). Indeed, this fluctuation can itself be considered as the relative idea of interdiciplinarity. In this view, our acting within and moving among the various domains of knowledge that arise in our living would be unencumbered by artificial boundaries, and each domain would arise and disappear according to our acting-living-knowing, which is itself ethics. I claim that Maturana’s body of work supports this idea. Usually Maturana highlights that he speaks from the point of view of a biologist and from inside the scientific-biological dimension. Why does he do so? Is he a scientist or a philosopher? Is his biology the hard science of the Cartesian tradition? In order to answer these questions it is important to understand what Maturana means by “biology.” With his frequent reference to biology as our fundament, Maturana may be accused of “naturalistic fallacy.” I maintain that this is not the case: first, we have to consider the specific space-time ho-

rizon where the concept of the natural fallacy originates; and second, we have to take into account Maturana’s ideas of “biology” and “living system.” The naturalistic fallacy was originated in the horizon of analytical philosophy by George Moore. For example, Moore’s pillars of thought are his faith into the existence of Reality, the separation between subject and object, and his believing that scientific facts are real while ethical problems are not; he considers them equally “objective,” so being able to distinguish between facts and values (De Bartolomeo & Magni 2001: 333–334). According to Maturana’s notions on the constitution of realities, a separation between subject and object is a construct wherein “reality” is presented as a compelling argument for compliance. Thus the naturalistic fallacy does not apply in the terms in which it was conceived. The second accusation of a naturalistic fallacy originates in a misunderstanding of biology, as if Maturana were using that as an alternative transcendentally true referent. According to Maturana, “biology is our condition of possibility” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 18). He maintains that “life, cognition, and consciousness are biological phenomena to be explained as such with the features of the coherences of living without additional assumptions” and that a biologist can do that (ibid: 17). He is not using biology as a fallacious alternative to “reality.” Maturana is aware of being a philosopher, but he prefers to avoid calling himself that because he does not want “to obscure the listening of [his] colleagues about the scientific nature of [his] research” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 21). Furthermore, he does not accept the separation between science and philosophy; he considers that to be just “a classificatory artifice” that separates reflection and doing and so prevents us from understanding our doing as “human beings in our living as such,” fragmenting ourselves. That separation, according to him, would have also “obscured our understanding of the different worlds that we bring about in our living, and of what happens to us and in us as we live these different worlds” (ibid: 22), in our daily living. He highlights that “Natural Philosophy,” as he says, is the best expression to use when scientists and philosophers want to begin “to

listen to and look at each other in mutual respect and not mutual devaluation” (ibid: 22), and considers himself to have been fortunate “growing up as a boy who was in some way an unaware natural philosopher interested in understanding the spontaneous dynamic architecture of living beings seduced by their anatomical beauty” and to have been fortunate also because he never saw himself “as different from all those marvellous beings that [he] observed” (ibid: 23). These statements exemplify the ethical meaning of his way of feeling, namely open to the other, without discrimination.

Love and bioethics

Maturana’s philosophy can cope with the demands of the post-modern condition of our society, which, as described by Engelhardt (1999), is the obvious result of the attempted philosophical-theological synthesis of the Western Christian Middle Ages. It offers an effective alternative to the failure of various attempts to reach a global secular bioethics by means of rational-discursive philosophy. Maturana addresses the question of why we human beings continue to have ethical concerns, “even though we live now, and have lived for the last five or six thousand years of our history in a manner wherein we frequently deny each other through competition, war, abuse, and mutual manipulation” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 11). His answer is that we are love dependent animals and the whole of humanness has arisen in the biology of love. Thus we can suppose that it is from biology, not the traditional hard sciences, that we can begin to understand our ethical living, and our relations with all others including the biosphere. Now we can clarify how biology is related to love. Maturana claims that love is the biological basis of humanness (Maturana 2006: 87–88). In the evolutionary history that originated us, like the other living beings, the expansion of the loving living together in cooperation, the sharing of food, playing, and caressing could happen when our progenitors began to conserve those behaviors as an aspect of daily living together through the integration of the young in the flowing of the adults’ living together. In this manner our lineage arose,


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as a conserved manner of living where our language could arise through the continuous flowing of the consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of actions. This was supported by the sense of well-being of reciprocal nearness such that language would have arisen, from the beginning, interlaced with the emotions of that living together (ibid: 7–8). What we have is a biology of love (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008). We evoke this same biological process of lineage formation when we choose between conserving a manner of living as Homo sapiens-amans or one as Homo sapiens aggressans; thus our continued evolution is also a matter of emotion, and desire, even as was our origin (ibid: 83). According to Maturana, love is that domain of relational behaviors in which the other arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself. From this reasoning arises what I consider to be a bioethical principle, namely that the love of the other is not limited to human beings. Thus I claim that ethical concerns can be gathered in this explicitly declared ethical conception, which is love, and that Maturana’s idea of love is a synthesis of many related concepts. First of all, as I understand this, for him love, including the usual meaning of it, is principally the “respect” for the other; namely a kind of respect that can manifest itself through concern about the other without imposing our fears and our desires and without us relating to them through these. Indeed, the concern about the focus on our own desires is the basis for Maturana’s criticism of one of the most classical teachings of the Christian Church, according to which one must not do to others that which “you would not have done to you.” This amounts to opportunism, whereas Maturana says: “All I am saying is: We bring forth the world we live by living it.” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 208). When referring to human-kind, Maturana considers love as “a feature of human co-existence.” Through love we are able to reflect and to have “a form of perception that allows the other to appear legitimate.” Thus a space can arise where cooperation appears and where we can transcend our loneliness as we accept the presence of the legitimate other (Maturana & Poerksen

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2004: 197). Love appears here as a sort of metaphysical principle, as in Engelhardt; but Maturana keeps his metaphysics with our bodyhood and thus negates transcendence, which itself would destroy our bodyhood and so ourselves. Another of the concepts inherent in love is trust, since love also entails trust as the fundamental condition of existence. In the language of autopoiesis, “biologically, trust is the spontaneous manner of being of any living system when in comfortable congruence with the medium” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 215). In one of Maturana’s stories (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 198–199) we can see that he considers contemporarily “a butterfly, a seed and a baby” to provide examples of trust. In this view I claim that love and trust are so intended in an encompassing manner and so his ethics is inherently a bioethics as it concerns all forms of life. The consequences of a loss of trust are materialized in the bodyhood of anyone and lead to a disharmony “inside the organisms and in the relation with their existential circumstances,” which increases “susceptibilities to infections and somatic and mental illnesses” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 199). In order to retain wellbeing we need to preserve our spontaneous systemic coherences with the biosphere and the cosmos to which we belong as natural members, otherwise, in our patriarchal cultural blindness, we run into suffering (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 214–215). In this sense Maturana’s ethical horizon expands into an integrative ethical perspective, underpinned by his systemic sensitiveness, and the observer’s eye opens to the other, creating a never-ending openness to receive the other while they are creating each other. Trust and nearness together constitute another important component of love, which is “intimacy,” which is the base we need “for doing things together in the pleasure of doing them with another” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 68). Intimacy has its roots in the mother/child relation and expands itself in neoteny; that is, through the perpetuation into adulthood of the relational dynamics of the mammalian basic emotioning between mother and child, that is, love (ibid: 69). Thus the ethical relation begins with the first instant of our living.

Generally speaking, Maturana highlights the importance of the emotions in our living. They are dispositions for action and determine the acceptance or rejection of a rational system, the foundation of which is non-rational. In all kinds of reasoning or behaviors we follow basically “our personal predilections,” without rational foundations; in Maturana’s epistemology, rationality is only “an instrument of justification” and, according to him, “humans are emotional animals that use their minds and their rationality for the purpose of denying or justifying emotions” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 205). When Maturana uses the word “understand,” that should be always located in the emotional environment; we do not try to search the fundament of the knowledge, but we can understand love while we are using it. The circularity of Maturana’s thought appears again. We could infer from all that that each decision in the bioethical area is exclusively ours or at least that of the community of acceptance where the ethical problem arises (Maturana 2006: 112). Furthermore, we are not able to justify our decisions by reason because the rational domain in which we move is brought forth through acceptance of the basic premises that define it as an emotional act (ibid: 110); thus knowledge is generated through a circular process without foundations and so is bioethics.

Ethics and responsibility without “moralism”

Maturana has proposed two possible paths of thinking and explaining that place those people he calls moralists on one side, and those who act on the basis of ethically aware reflection on the other side. The first path, the path of objectivity without parentheses, imposes the authority of universally valid knowledge, based on the belief that objects exist independently of the observer. This creates the possibility of an external validation of statements; and evokes the emotion of authoritarianism and the submission or negation of others if they do not agree with the “objective” facts (Poerksen 2004: 55). On this path, people cannot be aware of proper choices because they are required to behave according to pre-given rules and so are not responsible

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The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought Rossella Mascolo

for the consequences of their actions. An example is belief-based adherence to religious doctrine or to some other authority that has established a priori laws. The second path, the path of objectivity in parentheses, has, as an emotional basis, the enjoyment of the company of other human beings. On this path, objects are created through the observer’s operation of distinction such that the observer, that is each one of us, is the source of his or her reality. We may embark on this path as we accept the validity of a particular question: namely, “How do we do what we do?” Further, this path is revealed as possible as we realize that during the experience we are not able to distinguish between illusion and perception, and that we accept as an explanation only that which is coherent with our criterion of coherence (Maturana 2006: 55). As a consequence, we become aware that along this path of explanation there are numerous possible realities, each of which is livable, “although, of course, not equally desirable.” We realize that our “reality” is no better than the others; so we cannot impose our particular point of view and we have to listen to the other, thus seeking cooperation and conversation as we accept them existing like us (Poerksen 2004: 55–56). Furthermore, we are responsible for our doing in our living together with other human beings and with nature that supports and nourishes us (Maturana 2006: 53). However, is there a particular justification for choosing one path rather than another? If it there was, we would relentlessly fall into the path of objectivity without parentheses and thus into acting as moralists. However, we are not compelled through any justification and we can choose the second path for pleasure because proceeding from our “own experience and not from an external reality, can have a profoundly liberating and comforting effect” (Poerksen 2004: 54). We can simply accept our experiences, without doubting them and without producing emotional conflicts linked to the problem of considering some of them unreal or illusory. Furthermore, we choose the path where we live more comfortably. Maturana chooses the path of objectivity in parentheses because he feels well living in that perspective, following what he calls an “aesthetic seduction” (ibid: 56).

At this point we can reflect that it could seem as if Maturana is advocating an epicurianism of “doing what you like,” adopting the ethical principles that one likes. But we have to remind ourselves that what one “likes” is within an epistemology of love; Maturana’s concept of love makes the other appear legitimate in co-existence, in a space where “cooperation seems possible and our loneliness is transcended: The other is given a presence to which we relate with respect” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 197), in the other we can recognize ourselves. All that obviates any idea of choosing ethics that are merely self-interested. That is attested by the fact that we can choose for love the path where love is the disposition for acting because we do not want to live in the prevarication of the other that results from appealing to Truth as derived from comparison with Reality. This is not because love has a positive value for itself; it is not an essence, “it is only the relational domain in which social life, trust, cooperation, and the expansion of intelligent behavior take place” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 80). Our choice is made by our ethical propensity, reflecting on the consequences of each path of knowledge. This is possible only where we can doubt the “Reality,” along the path of “objectivity in parentheses.” Recently, at the “Escuela Matrítztica,”7 Maturana and Dávila highlighted that both views of knowledge arise from the observer, but it is reflection that allows each observer choose the view of love. In this, the link between ethics and knowledge appears once again. Ethical behaviour emerges when we are self-aware and it happens because of love, “which includes the responsible reflection of the consequences of actions” and “it occurs in language because only language enables us to reflect our choice of action” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 205). Without self-awareness and autonomy it is not possible create a social manner of living, that is, a social system. A social system arises when a collection of individuals begins to live together on the basis of the fundamental emotion of love. “In their interactions they create something new that 7 | Held in Alghero – Torre del Porticciolo, Italy, 24–27 May 2011.

cannot simply be attributed or even reduced to merely one of the involved persons” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 203). Living together, individuals transform each other, while at the same time preserving their autonomous dynamics. An army cannot be considered a social system because its elements are only agents, executors of planned actions, without autonomy. Maturana’s also states that should the individuality of some people “actually be diminished or lost completely, e.g., due to an illness, they will no longer be fully responsible members of a social community” (ibid: 203). That may appear paradoxical in an ethics based on love. A soldier does not contribute to the social system because he/she renounces his/her autonomy. But a person who is unconscious due to illness also cannot be able to contribute to the construction of the social community. There are, possibly, no emotional interactions between him/her and other people. So, are they in an ethical dimension? Are the other animals? Is the Earth? Even though Maturana also affirms that “the biology of love, through the operation in trust that it entails, opens our intelligence and expands our vision as components of the network of systemic coherences of the biosphere and cosmos that we integrate as living and languaging animals” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 139), this, in my opinion, remains an issue in Maturana’s thought to be solved. Can we use some pre-given ideals to justify our moral choices? In Maturana’s opinion, in nature nothing is good or bad, but things simply are and the evaluations and distinctions such as good or bad arise only in the human domain of the justification and rejection. Since Maturana speaks as a “biologist,” he refuses to give any kind of recommendation or to create a situation that he calls “morality” as quite different from ethics. He specifies that we are coping with a “moralist” when there is a person who adheres unconditionally and without awareness of his own responsibility “to rules, which they consider as the external reference lending authority to their statements and strange ideas.” A moralist is not able to see his/her “fellow human beings,” being fully “occupied by the upholding of rules and imperatives.” This kind of person “know[s] with certainty what has to be


ETHICAL Perspective On the Biology of Cognition



done and how everybody else has to behave. People acting ethically, on the contrary, perceive others, consider them important, and see them (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 206–208). As Maturana emphasizes, in the social desire to evoke ethical behavior we have created a Charter of Human Rights. How would one enforce ethical behavior ethically? How can one convince others to accept and behave according to this charter? Again, language is necessary to speak about human rights and again the role of the emotional substrate emerges. It would be interesting see how Maturana would be able to solve hard bioethical issues such as euthanasia or abortion; indeed, although ethical reasoning is usually based on rationality, he denies its power. But, as he says, rational arguments can convince only the people who are already convinced through prior emotional choices. This is so because rationality is a manner of operational and conversational coherences that are based on a set of fundamental premises accepted a priori through emotions. Not all emotions are valid to live ethically; what could be considered really ethical is the reasoning that lives and grows in the love, because ethics has an emotional basis, not a rational one (Maturana 2006: 85–86). To the difficult bioethical issues of nowadays, Maturana’s possible response is that language is necessary to solve any conflict and it does so if the people who speak with one other, in order to resolve their concerns, reciprocally respect and trust each other. When trust prevails or has been restored, people can admit mistakes, apologize, and affirm the intelligence of the others, and develop “a new common emotional dynamics” where “people will listen to each

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Rossella Mascolo

graduated in natural sciences, biological sciences, and philosophy. Furthermore, she has a D.Phil in history, philosophy and didactics of sciences from the University of Cagliari (Italy). As a contract professor in the faculty of MFN Science at Sassari University (Italy), she teaches bioethics in the biotechnology course. As an independent researcher, she is interested in the construction of an epistemological “complex” perspective, which could build an originally and radically nondualistic process of knowledge. Her research activity is particularly focused on the subject of Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis theory as constituent of the space-time network of the ideas.

other in a way that grants validity to what is said in the relevant domain of reality. […] The old certainties are abandoned” and finally the particular kind of behavior that he calls “love” can appear (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 206). I wish to highlight that in Maturana’s ethics/bioethics, conscious people cannot be without social responsibility. Also scientists know that their research always has consequences for other people and “they must, therefore, make clear the connections between their work and the ethics of the world they live in” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 196). Responsibility is only typical of human beings, not of living systems in general, because only human beings exist in language, which allows them to assume responsibility in the domain of relations. We could wonder if Maturana’s perspective puts humankind again in some way at a superior level than the other animals, again in a kind of anthropocentric vision. Perhaps we human beings can just be considered as the only actively moral subjects. Anyway, according to him, we are “languaging animals” who can live in the domain of love, where only ethical concerns, responsibility, and freedom can exist (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 80). This statement has at least two consequences. One is that only we, as human beings, are able “to reflect and distinguish the consequences of our actions for other living beings and to classify them as responsible or irresponsible” (Poerksen 2004: 72). Ethics can be distinguished as a reflexive conversation, where each one sees and cares for the consequences of his or her actions on others (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 81). All this is possible only for the human species,

even though humans are structure-determined systems, because only through language can we reach a meta-perspective in a meta-domain where we can make ourselves aware of an event and its consequences (Poerksen 2004: 72–73). This reasoning can be useful for justifying why only we human beings are active moral subjects. For Maturana, though, responsibility does not mean causation; responsibility is simply a question of awareness. In his view, “being responsible simply means to be in a certain state of attention and mindfulness: one’s activities match one’s desires in a reflected way, that is all” (ibid: 74–75). In a nutshell, Maturana’s definition of ethics would appertain to each human being who reflects upon the consequences of his or her actions (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 196; Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 81); we are human beings only in language, and, since we are human beings, through reflection we think about what happens to us. All that leads to the other important consequence. In order to have ethical concerns “we must live in self-respect and respect for the other, that is, in the biology of love” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 82). Vice versa, even though we are not forced to be ethical, if we choose the biology of love to live in “as human beings, we sooner or later begin to have ethical concerns in relation to those other human beings whose living matters to us.” But that is not an obligation to live in love, nor to have ethical concerns. We can also live without them, but each one, like a social person, can exist only “in the biology of love and have ethical concerns,” not becoming “trapped in the culture of domination and submission or in the culture of indifference” (ibid: 82).

Biology of Cognition

The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought Rossella Mascolo

Conclusion: Maturana’s epistemology implicates bioethics As pointed out, bioethics was introduced in the 1970s by Potter as “a mix between basic biology, social sciences, and the humanities” (Potter 1971: 2). The word was quickly coopted by other authors in a variety of different situations, especially in biomedical areas. Some thinkers, such as Engelhardt and Pagano, define a more open idea of bioethics, namely a pluralistic bioethics and environmental philosophy. However, they can all be regarded as implementing the traditional way of thinking of Western thought. Even when they try to solve the separation between the humanities and natural sciences, the risk of naturalistic fallacy arises. This is the case for Potter and Pagano whenever they use biology to justify human behavior. Many other authors, such as Engelhardt, continue to maintain the separation between facts and values, or “being” and “ought,” siding with “humanist philosophers.” Paradoxically, going back to Potter’s idea of bioethics would be a step forward. Indeed, he regarded bioethics as referring to the whole ecosystem to keep together biological knowledge and human values – even though he interpreted biology in the traditional way. Furthermore, he thought it was possible “to integrate the reductionist and mechanistic principles with the holistic principles” (Potter 1971: 5). His endeavor was to offer a new wisdom, based on ecology, as a “bridge to the future” to improve the quality of human life (ibid: 2) now and for future generations” (ibid: 6). This new wisdom was intended to connect all the areas of knowledge together, whose foundational laws he recognized. If we decide to embrace Maturana’s thought, we can reach Potter’s objective and escape the paralyzing framework of traditional epistemology so that a sense of wellbeing and freedom embraces us, even though we cannot disregard our earthly responsibility in our living. According to Maturana’s way of thinking, dualism is an unnecessary logical trap; we can just continuously distinguish numerous interacting domains that arise during our living. So here we do not need to bridge independent areas as Potter was constrained to do, given his implicit acceptance of the du-

alistic epistemological frame assumed by the founders of bioethics. In Maturana’s epistemology, biology is our condition of existence, not the hard science of the Western tradition, The process of living, like “a manifestation of adequate behaviour in the domain of existence,” is an expression of knowledge, as in Maturana’s aphorism: “In the living of living beings living entails knowing, and knowing entails living” (Maturana & Poerksen 2004: 67). Besides, there is “inseparability between a particular way of being and how the world appears to us” and this circularity “tells us that every act of knowing brings forth a world. […] All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela 1988: 25–26). In this indissoluble interlaced design among knowing, acting, and living, our human beingness arises. Thus in Maturana’s epistemology we cannot conceive the separation between facts and values. Indeed, Maturana’s new epistemology cannot be considered separated from ontology, but it becomes – as Pille Bunnell said – an “ontepistany,” i.e., an “awareness of the grounds for one’s understanding” (Bunnell 2005: 83). This perspective enlightens the intrinsic inseparability between “ought” and “being,” which once again surpasses the perspective of the traditional ethics (see for example Lecaldano 2002: 124). Hence, we can see that Van Potter’s original proposal of the term “bioethics” as an application of ethics to all life – bioethics as ethics of life – has no raison d’etre anymore because it turns into the concept of ethics and vice versa. Ethics and bioethics dissolve into each other in the circularity of the living-knowing-acting. There is no longer any need to set up bioethics, as Engelhardt wished to do, using respect as a metaphysical principle. In Maturana’s theory, respect arises while the observer speaks to another observer in the circularity of “languaging” and of knowledge, in the biology of love. This explains why Poerksen called his chapter on Maturana “The knowledge of knowledge entails responsibility” (Poerksen 2004: 47–83). This responsibility operates in any living-acting of human beings in the systemic texture of which they are part and that they contribute to create, in perpetual “languaging.” When I used concepts such as “the observer,” “trust,” “respect,” and “love,” I made an epistemological mistake. This is not

because I was not aware of it but because I needed to describe a new epistemology using the instruments of the traditional one. What I should have asked myself was not what that particular concept was, but only how that particular concept could operate in our human existence as autopoietic systems. We cannot question anything about the “essence” of the observer because, by doing that, we rest on the traditional epistemology that believes in the possibility of objects existing independent from the subject’s knowledge. If we decide to accept Maturana’s thought and his observer, in an ethical process, as we know, we can just jump inside the circularity of his process of knowing and accept the unavoidable role of circularity in maintaining our awareness. In Maturana’s epistemology, we can choose whether or not we live as loving beings. If we do not choose love we face disharmony, which in the end can destroy our living. By living in the biology of love, we live in a neotenic extension of the mammalian mother/child relationship, where respect is “spontaneously realized in the Homo sapiens-amans manner of living as a cultural living that involves our whole life” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 120–123). At this point we can decide to accept the systemic explanation from Maturana, despite the unsolved problems deriving from the impossibility of putting into relationship through languaging ourselves and all other non-human beings and the possible situations of un-awareness and not-autonomy among them. So, maybe again in some kind of anthropocentric attitude, expanding our intelligence through the biology of love, we can assume responsibility for the other, planet Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves, living together in the biology of love, today for the future, just as Potter envisioned. When Maturana met Dávila she showed him “the interplay of the biology of cognition and the biology of love in a reflective conversation with the result that the persons who consulted her recovered self-love and self-respect, and felt liberated of their pain and suffering” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008: 6). From this they together developed the notion of the “biological-cultural matrix of human existence” and founded the Matriztic Institute in 2000 “as a place to work and do research in the domain of the art and science of constitutive ontological thinking and doing” (ibid: 7).


This clearly highlights how we, as human beings, live in the unity of body and mind through the integration of our emotions. We live and act in love as “loving languaging relational-reflective beings.” Our whole existence is anchored to “the deep desire of an ethical coexistence” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller 2008). Ethics, like ethics of living, is itself bioethics and pervades all our dimensions of being human beings from their roots.

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Bohm D. (1980) Wholeness and the implicate order. Routledge, New York. Bunnell P. (2005) Reflections on the ontology of observing. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 11(4): 72–84. De Bartolomeo M. & Magni V. (2001) Filosofia. Filosofie contemporanee. Tomo 5. Atlas, Bergamo. Engelhardt H. T. Jr. (1996) Bioethics reconsidered: Theory and method in a post-Christian, post-modern age. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 6(4): 336–341. Engelhardt H. T. Jr. (1989a) Fashioning an ethic for life and death in a post-modern society. The Hastings Center Report 19(1): 7–9. Engelhardt H. T. Jr. (1989b) Can ethics take pluralism seriously? The Hastings Center Report 19(5): 33–34. Engelhardt H. T. Jr. (1991) Manuale di bioetica. Il Saggiatore, Milano. Engelhardt H. T. Jr. (1992) The search for a universal system of ethics: post-modern disappointments and contemporary possibilities. In Kjellstrand C. M. & Dossetor J. B. (eds.) Ethical problems in dialysis and transplantation. Kluwer, Dordrecht: 3–20. Engelhardt H. T. Jr. (1999) Bioethics in the third millennium: Some critical anticipations. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9(3): 225–243. Feyerabend P. (1975) Against method. Verso, London. Feyerabend P. K. (1999) Knowledge, science and relativism. Philosophical Papers Volume 3. Edited by John Preston. Cambridge University Press, New York. Fleischaker G. R. (1984) The traditional model for perception and theory of knowledge: Its metaphor and two recent alternatives. Behavioral Science 29(1) 40–50.

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Glasersfeld E. von (1991) Distinguishing the observer: An attempt at interpreting Maturana. Methodologia V(8): 57–68. Available at Lecaldano E. (2002) Dizionario di bioetica. Editori Laterza, Roma-Bari. Lévy P. (2002) L’intelligenza collettiva. Per un’antropologia del cyberspazio. Feltrinelli, Milano. French original: Lévy P. (1994) L’intelligence collective. Pour une anthropologie du cyberespace. La Découverte, Paris. Mascolo R. (2011) L’emergere della biologia della cognizione. La complessità della vita di Humberto Maturana Romecín. Aracne Editrice, Roma. Mascolo R. (in preparation) Dalla biologia della cognizione all’autopoiesi. Fra R. Maturana e Francisco J. Varela. Maturana H. R. (1970a) Neurophysiology of cognition. In: Garvin P. (ed.) Cognition: A multiple view. Spartan Books, New York: 3–23. Maturana H. R. (1970b) Biology of cognition. Biological Computer Laboratory BCL Report Nº 9.0. University of Illinois, Urbana IL. Reprinted in: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel, Boston: 1–58. Pagination follows the reprint. Available at M70–80BoC.html Maturana H. R. (1978) Cognition. In: Hejl P., Koch W. & Roth G. (eds.) Wahrnehmung und Kommunikation. Peter Lang, Frankfurt: 29–49. Maturana H. R. (1983) What is it to see? Archivos de biologia y medicina experimentales 16: 255–269. Maturana H. R. (1988) Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 25–82. Available at http://www.univie. Maturana H. R. (2006) Emozioni e linguaggio in educazione e politica. Con Dávila Ximena. Editore Eleuthera, Milano. Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) From being to doing. Carl-Auer Verlag, Heidelberg. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1988) The tree of knowledge. Shambhala, Boston and London. Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2008) The origin of humanness in the biology of love. Edited by Pille Bunnell. Imprint Academic, Exeter UK.

Mori M. (2003) Il linguaggio della bioetica. Lessico e argomentazioni in un recente “Dizionario.” Iride XVI(40): 543–553. Pagano P. (2003) La filosofia ambientale come interazione dialettica tra scienze umane e scienze naturali. Systema Naturae 5: 193–217. Pagano P. (2006) Filosofia ambientale [Environmental philosophy]. Mattioli 1885 Editore, Fidenza. Pellegrino E. D. (1975) Moral agency and professional ethics: Some notes on transformation of the physician-patient encounter. In: Spicker S. F. & Engelhardt H. T. (eds.) Philosophical medical ethics, its nature and significance: Proceedings of the third transdisciplinary symposium on philosophy and medicine. Reidel, Dordrecht: 213–220. Poerksen B. (2004) The certainty of uncertainty: Dialogues introducing constructivism. Imprint Academic, Exeter UK. Potter V. R. (1971) Bioethics: Bridge to the future. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs NJ. Potter V. R. (1988) Global bioethics: Building on the Leopold legacy. MSU Press, East Lansing MI. Potter V. R. (1996) What does bioethics mean? The Ag Bioethics Forum 8(1): 2–3. Available at jun.96pg2.html and http://www.bioethics. Potter V. R. (1999) Bioethics, biology and the biosphere. The Hastings Center Report 29(1): 38. Riegler A. (2005) Editorial. The constructivist challenge. Constructivist Foundation 1(1): 1–8. Available at constructivism/journal/1/1/001.riegler Tallacchini M. & Terragni F. (2004) Le biotecnologie. Aspetti etici, sociali e ambientali. Bruno Mondadori, MilanoThompson W. I. (ed.) (1987) Gaia: A way of knowing. Lindisfarne Press, Hudson NY. Varela F. J. (1981) Autonomy and autopoiesis. In Roth G. & Schwegler H. (eds.) Self-organizing Systems. Springer, New York: 14–23. Varela F. J. (1987) Laying down a path in walking: A biologist’s look at a new biology. In: Thompson W. I. (ed.) Gaia: A way of knowing. Lindisfarne Press, Hudson NY: 48–64. Varela F. J. (1999) Ethical know-how: Action, wisdom, and cognition. Stanford University Press, Stanford CA. Received: 31 January 2011 Accepted: 4 July 2011

Biology of Cognition

Liberating Conversations Ximena Dávila Yáñez • Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, Chile • xdy/at/ > Context • The cultural worlds that we generate in our living are worlds in which we frequently live in a self-depreciating relational pain. This arises when we feel that we do not deserve to be loved and respected because we think that we are intrinsically incapable of satisfying what we think are legitimate cultural expectations about how we should be. > Problem • Can we find an answer to the general question, “How is it that our life is so frequently painful?” > Hypothesis • The pain for which a person asks for relational help is always of cultural origin, and arises from some experience in which she has not been loved and has accepted that she deserved not being loved because as a result of that experience she began to feel that she is intrinsically deficient. I propose that that person will come out of her pain – and will recover her self-love and self-respect as she reconnects with her fundamental loving nature as a biological-cultural human being – when she becomes able to realize that she is not intrinsically defective and that the expectations put on her are only arbitrary cultural demands. > Results • I show (a) that the recovering of self-love and self-respect occurs as a result of a conversation that opens a relational space for the interplay of the conscious and unconscious reflections in which the person in pain finds that she is an intrinsically loving biological-cultural human being; (b) that this occurs through the reflexive evocation of the inner feelings of self-love and self-respect in the consulting person as she reflexively contemplates her life while she is revealing it to a caring reflective listener in a conversation that flows without expectations, demands or judgment. In such reflective “liberating conversations,” the consulting person finds herself in self-love and self-respect, not through a rational argument but through her spontaneous connection to her unconscious constitutive human inner feelings as a loving being. > Implications • We do not need to suppose any reality independent of the operational coherences of our living to explain and understand the different worlds that we generate in the realization of our living. > Key words • Love, self-depreciation, reflexive conversation, self-love, languaging, structural determinism, predictability.

Introduction Living is spontaneous. We find ourselves living when we ask ourselves what living is and how we live our living alone and with others. The operational and relational domain in which we realize our living alone and with others is our niche. As organisms, we realize in our living interlaced with our niche the dynamic organism-niche unity in which occurs all that we do as persons (human individuals) with other persons that are in fact part of our niche while we are part of theirs. We human beings are born as loving beings (Davila 2006) with an anatomy and a physiology that entails the implicit trust that we will be received in a human domain that will care for and protect us. Sometimes the cultural ambiance that receives us does not care for us with tenderness and betrays us with abuse and demands that deny us love. We might then submerge into the cultural pain and suffering of the self-depreciation and lack of self-respect of feeling not loved because we

cannot satisfy social demands that we believe to be legitimate. The reflections that I present in this essay happen in the domain of our living as persons that can be conscious of what they do in the organism-niche unity that they integrate with other persons with whom they can reflect, observe, and explain their living, alone and together. We human beings live as persons that can generate beautiful cultural worlds of well-being in the domain of love, or ugly cultural worlds that give rise to the relational pains of self-depreciation that arise when they live in the denial of love. In the course of these reflections I have asked myself about what life is, what living is, and what it is to live, In this process I have learned the art of reflecting on my reflecting as well as the art of listening to my own reflecting, particularly when I ask myself such basic questions as: How do we do what we do as living human beings and as persons? How is it that although we live a culture that gives rise to conversations that generates pain, we can also generate conversations through which we come out of it?

For Maturana (1990), in science we explain what we do in our living with the operational coherencies of what we do in our living, so our living in the many forms that it adopts in the many worlds that we generate is always our subject. Furthermore, he emphasizes that to understand any subject of our concern in its locality we must be able to consider the broad systemic constellation of relations in which it is embedded. This essay arises as a scientific reflection on the operational, relational, and reflective processes involved in a therapeutic relation in which two persons are involved in a changing dynamics of feelings, emotions, and actions. The way it is presented here aims at consciously involving that systemic multidimensionality. It is in this context that I present my reflections about the sensory, operational, and relational circumstances of our daily living that give rise to conversations that free us from the cultural relational pain and suffering that we live. These conversations, which sometimes seem to arise accidentally because they take place unexpectedly, are never fully so, because there is always a


Ethical Perspective on the Biology of Cognition

BOX: Terminology


Domain of love: The domain of human coexistence lived without demands, expectations or prejudices Networks of networks: Living beings in their constitution and in the flow of their living operate as networks of processes embedded in networks of processes that can be conceptually abstracted but not necessarily operationally separated. Recursively systemic: In living systems most processes operate recursively on the consequences of their operation, and it is this that makes them historical systems. Relational pains: Relational situations that are lived painfully because one feels that one is unjustly not fully respected or loved Sensorial-operational-relational coherences: All processes occur through the operation of the dynamic structures involved in their realization, regardless of the nature of the domain in which they take place. Systemic-systemic-systemic: In nature and in most of what we do, all that we distinguish arises as a local abstraction in some systemically interconnected network of processes and relations of processes.

particular reciprocal orientation of the inner feelings of those persons that participate in them. Whichever the case, when one of these conversations takes place, conversations that I call “liberating conversations” (Dávila 2008), the person that was in pain lives the awe of finding herself in well-being again through having recovered her inner feelings of self-love and self-respect in the course of it. The unexpected reflective conversation that I describe below is a case of this kind. In this case one can see that it is the process of its happening that leads the person to recover self-love and self-respect as she connects with her intimate inner feelings that constitute the fundaments of the intrinsic ethical nature of the biological-cultural human living since its arising in the ancestral family.1 1 |  Maturana and Verden-Zöller (2008) argue that humanness arose some three million years ago in some ancestral family of bipedal primates with the beginning of living in languaging and its conservation from one generation to the next in the learning of the children. Maturana and I think that since the basic emotion for the origin of language in an ambiance of doing the things of living together in the pleasure of doing it must have been love, human initial coexistence must have been spontaneously ethical (Dávila & Maturana 2008).

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How do I do what I do in a liberating conversation? The reflexive question that concerns me now has somehow been in my mind since my youth under the form: “How is it that our life is so frequently painful?” As humanity we have advanced in knowledge, in technology, in abilities to do practically all that we may want to do, and yet there is always so much pain and suffering. This question, which accompanied me during my studies, and my own experience of pain, led me to realize in my observations and my reflections that all the relational pain and suffering for which one asks for relational help is always of cultural origin (Dávila 2007). I say this in the understanding that a culture occurs as a closed network of conversations that one generates, realizes, and conserves in one’s own living by living it. A conversation that frees us from a cultural pain in any domain of our living alone and with others is not a technique, not a methodology, not dependent on some theory. Its roots are in our daily living, in the understanding of the biological-cultural matrix of human existence (human manner of living), and in whether or not we care for the well-being of all human beings as persons. The following case illustrates the nature of liberating conversations.

A case: An unexpected conversation In a café in Madrid I observe a young woman taking her place at a neighboring table. I feel that she is not in well-being and that she is suffering. She is centered in herself, and while she begins to eat what she has asked for, I see, feel that there is no pleasure in her as she eats what she eats and drinks what she drinks, and I feel that she eats as a sad being just to survive. She is no longer alien to me as she takes up her cell phone and I begin to drink my coffee; I feel and hear in the tone of her voice, in the sound of her words, that I am unwillingly listening to a dispute, a quarrel. I feel moved, I halt for a moment, and as I listen, listening from where she was saying what she was saying, I hear a desperate appeal: Please listen to me, listen to what I am saying! Father! Can you for once put yourself in my place? In the middle of my coffee, my reflections, and my conversation with the friend that is accompanying me, I feel moved in front of a growing pain that I am listening to unwillingly. My friend, almost by accident, obscures my vision with his body in an unintended desire that we concentrate on our conversation. However the psychic space in that cafe shop has changed, a moment of silence appears. She turns off her cell phone, my gaze and her gaze cross, and I feel her somewhat defiant; she immerses again in her inner feelings, in her inner conversation, in her soliloquy, and I can feel in her the denial of love lived. I say to my friend that I will go to fetch something, and as I pass by her side I stop, we look at each other, and I say to her, “My girl you are in great pain; you are in great suffering.” Now I am no longer alien to her world. The young woman looks at me with her great brown eyes, agreeing at the same time with a movement of the head, and in that instant a magic space opens for our meeting. She accepts that I may sit beside her, and says to me: “Yes, I am in great pain, my father is very hard on me. I live with him and my mother.” “How old are you, what is your name?” I ask. She says that she is thirty years old and that her name is María. I say, “My name is Ximena.” We continue our conversation and I ask her if she depends on her father and if she is working. She answers yes

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and that she is working. Then she goes on to say that with her earnings she helps her father to pay the mortgage for his house because he recently lost his business and owes money to the bank. As María speaks she reveals to me, with what she says and in the way she says it, her place in the sensory, operational, and relational matrix of her family living. What I had heard previously as she spoke through the phone was her asking her father: “Give me some breathing space to live!” I feel that she is living under a great and unbearable demand, and as I sit beside her I say: “Do not try to change your father, do not go on pushing him to change; the person who has to reflect and change is you, according to how you want to live, and according to what you want to preserve in your living, whether alone or with others.” As I listen to her I feel that something is changing in the way she looked, as if what has just been said has been heard and listened to for the first time. After a moment I ask her, “Do you depend now on your father to live? Do you work to help him pay his debts? Which are your domains of autonomy?” She listens, halts for an instant, and says: “I cannot come out of this situation because I have to continue helping my father, and besides the doctors have said that I have a mental illness.” “What mental illness?” I ask. And she answers, “The doctors have told me that I have a borderline illness, that I am mentally borderline.” I feel her trapped in the feeling of guilt for wanting to do something for herself when she has learned that one should not care for oneself when in the face of a social obligation or social duty that says one must always help others first, particularly the parents. And she adds: “I cannot live my life because I cannot leave them alone … and they cannot leave me alone.” What María tells shows me that her pain is of cultural origin, and it pains and moves me to confirm once more that with the words that we use to explain our pains, with the diagnoses that we make and accept as valid, we jail our souls, obscuring our vision of the cultural nature of our living together. I answer her, saying that she does not have an illness of the mind but that she has a pain of the soul that arises out of feeling that she is not seen and not heard. I feel that as she listens to me something changes

again in the configuration of her intimate inner feelings, and that the possibility of reflection opens for her, and therefore also the possibility of living a process that may lead her out of her pain and suffering. We talk for a while about the attachments that do not let us change the manner of living that we wish to change. She agrees with a movement of the head, and I say: “If you want to come out of that painful manner of living with yourself and others, and if you indeed want a more autonomous manner of living, now is the moment to act, now is the moment in which all can be improved because now you and your father are destroying each other.” And then I add: “Your mother and your father love you in the way they know, they love you very much, and they do what they do, the best that they can do it, because that is what they learned to do.” She cries, takes my hands and asks me whether I am a psychologist. In that moment there is no longer an illness of the mind that limits her; there is a pain of the soul that weighs on her heart, a pain of the soul that is a way of living in self-depreciation that can be changed, if one wants to do so, because it is a learned cultural pain. I feel at that moment that we have changed together in the course of our conversation. She smiles, and I feel that our inner feeling has shifted and changed. She asks me if I see people that wish to consult me; I answer that I live in Chile. She asks: “How do we continue?” I give her my e-mail address. She then takes a small heap of sweets from her tray and puts them in my hands closing my fingers on them, in an act of the greatest tenderness. We said goodbye with a close, friendly embrace. I can feel that María is now “a different person,” agile, upright, and more free. What will happen with her? I do not know. Will she take a way of seeing-feeling-reflecting with her that was not there before her visit to the café? 15 minutes had passed. This unexpected conversation was a spontaneous happening in my professional activities, not an accident. What this episode of daily living reveals is that seeing, listening, feeling in the relational opening that love makes can free us from the pain of any cultural trap. Indeed, this episode also shows us that the path that leads to

the recovery of well-being alone and in the company of others is the path of recovery of self-love and self-respect. One can see in liberating conversations all that has to occur in the flow of a conversation for the liberating consequences of a liberating conversation to happen. In these circumstances what I intend to show in what follows is an evocation of the processes that took place spontaneously in the conversation just described, and in doing so I want also to show that these are processes that always occur in a liberating conversation, regardless of whether this conversation arises by accident or whether it is desired. Moreover, I wish to show also that this is an evocation of the actual processes that occurred in the encounter described in the little story presented above, and I do this fully aware that the explanation of an experience never replaces the experience lived, and that the description of the inner feelings lived never replaces the inner feelings lived while they were being lived.

General configuration of a liberating conversation In what follows I present in a somewhat systematized manner what I saw, observing my own reflexive observing as I abstracted from the happening of the liberating conversation presented above the configuration of the sensory, operational, and relational coherences that constitute and realize the happening of that kind of conversation. A liberating conversation occurs between a person A and a person B. A is the observer reflecting on what she is doing. She knows that B is in pain, and she also knows how to listen, being present without intruding. A liberating conversation occurs when: »» A has the knowledge, the talent, and the intimate disposition for the art of listening to another person in a manner such that the other person spontaneously feels seen and present in her full legitimacy. »» B’s presence reveals to A, who has the ability to see this, that she is living in a profound pain of self-depreciation arising from not loving her self. »» A and B meet and look and listen to each other. And as this happens, A sees that the pain of self-depreciation that B lives


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arises from an experience of negation of love that she has lived. »» A knows that the pain that person B lives is always a pain of cultural origin that arises when one believes that the negation of love lived is justified because it shows an intrinsic limitation of her personal identity. »» A knows that human living always occurs in a sensory, operational, and relational dynamics that is of a recursively systemic2 nature; therefore she also knows that all that occurs in human living necessarily occurs systemically interrelated. In these circumstances, A also knows that the self-depreciation that arises when the negation of love lived is accepted as valid by B in some particular circumstance of her living is never lived in its particularity only, and will appear consciously or unconsciously in all that person does or feels in all aspects of her living. »» A also knows of herself that if she does not in fact care for all people in humanity she cannot properly listen or see anyone in depth because sooner or later she will find herself trapped in some theory that for her will justify a discrimination. »» A knows that B, like all people, only listens to what happens to her with what she hears when another person speaks, and she knows as well that she, A, cannot specify what B hears. A knows, understands, feels that her fundamental trust in her listening lies in that she knows that B will reveal in her conversation the sensory, operational, and relational matrix in which her living takes place and that she (A) will only see that matrix if she is looking, feeling, and listening while being in the domain of love. »» A also knows that she will listen in the domain of love only if she is present in the center of herself without demands, without expectations, without prejudices, opening the space for B to also open her listening in 2 |  We frequently speak of systems or of systemic processes in a way in which it is not clear that we refer to the dynamic multidimensional interconnectedness of all processes in the worlds that we bring forth with what we do in our living as human beings observing and explaining our living. The two expressions “systemic-systemicsystemic” and “recursively systemic” are used to evoke a systemic reflection so that we remain aware of the interconnections among the many dimensions of our living.

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the domain of love, if she so wishes. And if B does this, she will in turn be able to seelisten to herself as she sees-listens to A actually immersing in the art of the liberating conversation as she listens. »» If all of the above happens, A will be able to show in a way that B can accept spontaneously that she (A) sees that B has all the capacities in her feelings-doings to live and act in self-respect in the path of love in self loving. »» At the same time, A understands, comprehends, and feels that the pain and suffering for which a person B asks for relational help always arises in a cultural negation of love that she lived as a negative characterization of her identity that she accepted as valid because the culture validates it, even though she unconsciously knows in the depth of her inner feelings that such characterization is not valid. »» Furthermore, A also understands, comprehends, and feels that B unconsciously “knows” the relational matrix in which the negation of love occurred that she lived. She also understands, comprehends, and feels that B also “knows,” without knowing it, which is the relational matrix in which the way out of the cultural depreciation that she is living is to be found. And A knows as well that B also knows unconsciously that that way out is through her recovery of her self-respect and self-love. B reveals this unconscious knowledge of hers without being aware that she does so, and reveals it in the way that she moves and in the words that she chooses as she talks in her conversation with A, who understands, comprehends, and feels the feelings of B as she looks and sees her in the domain of love. »» A also understands, comprehends, and feels that B can only find the path out of her self-depreciation if she sees herself in self-love and self-respect in the reflexive mirror that A presents her as she hears her, listening to her in the flow of their conversation. »» Finally, A must know, and indeed knows from her understanding, comprehending, and feeling of human living – as she carries out liberating conversations as an aspect of her counseling profession – that the act of reflection as an act in the emotion that release certainties and attachments is the only thing that permits a person to come

out of any psychic-corporeal trap. And it is due to this knowledge that A knows, and should know, that the art and science of the conversation that liberates a person B from her cultural pain and suffering is possible only, and can take place only, in the listening of love. In summary: For the liberating conversation to happen, person A must: a) understand, comprehend, and feel that reflection is an act of self-respect and self-love in which one observes what one does without prejudices, without expectations, and without demands; b) understand, comprehend, and feel that the person that reflects on what she feels, thinks, and does lives a spontaneous transformation of the configuration of her inner feelings and emotions that frees her from the hold of her certainties and attachments; c) understand, comprehend, and feel that the act of reflection as an actprocess of seeing-listening in the domain of love is the only act-process of self observing that permits a person to come out of any psychic and bodily trap; and d) understand, comprehend, and feel that a liberating conversation can only occur in the domain of listening-seeing without prejudices, without demands, and without expectations, that is, the domain of love. Now the reader can see that the answer that I propose to the general question, “How is it that our life is so frequently painful?” that I asked above, is: “Our lives become painful when we become trapped in living, accepting as valid, a culturally validated negation of love.” Liberating conversations are a way of escaping this trap because: ƒƒ The art and science of liberating conversations is the art and science of seeing and listening in the domain of love. ƒƒ A liberating conversation can only occur in the art and science of a conversation that takes place in the listening and seeing of love.

Reflections What I have done in this essay is attempt to evoke a vision of the intimate unconscious processes of congruent transformation that occur with the participants of any conversation, particularly in those that have to do with the pains of the “soul.” The

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Liberating Conversations Ximena Dávila Yáñez


conversations of this last kind are in general called “therapeutic” because they attempt to ease the pain of some illness. I originally called my work “reflexive conversations with therapeutic consequences,” but the persons that consulted me at some final point began to move and act with a self-confidence and autonomy that they had not shown before, and frequently said to me, “Thanks, I feel liberated.” So I begun to call what I did “liberating conversations with therapeutic consequences.” I do not pretend under any circumstance that my work constitutes a therapeutic panacea, or that it represents a new therapeutic discovery, and this is why I do not use the word “therapy” to refer to what I do. In his work, Maturana has shown that languaging occurs as a flow in living together in consensual co-ordinations of coordinations of behaviors (Maturana 1978). I add that that happens in a flow of consensual co-ordinations of co-ordinations of consensual inner feelings and emotions that are what, in fact, guide all that we do alone or together with others, regardless of the kinds of conversations in which we live. What I also see in what Maturana says, and what I also discovered in my work, is that languaging as a biological-cultural process does not designate objects. Instead it evokes, without describing what happens in the flow of the congruent transformations, that we live as we dance together the conversations that generate the worlds that we live in a changing unity with what we feel and do as well as with the changes of what we feel and do in the flow of the congruent transformations of our bodies and souls.

Ximena Dávila Yáñez

Ximena Dávila Y. studied human and family relations, specializing in work relations at the Instituto Profesional Carlos Casanueva (IPCC). In 1998 she was a student of Humberto Maturana at the Faculty of Sciences of the Universidad de Chile, graduating under him in experimental epistemology. Following this theme over the last eleven years, she has developed her vision of the biological-cultural nature of humanness as a foundation of all that we human beings do as languaging reflective beings, which she calls “unitary epistemology.” She has worked for various companies as well as for the Chilean government. In particular, her preoccupation in the domain of human relations has been to understand how relational pain and suffering arises and how a person can come out of it. Following this path and based on the comprehension of the biology of cognition and biology of loving, she has developed the understanding and praxis of liberating conversations. In 2000, together with Maturana, she founded the Instituto Matríztico, now Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, as a center of research and reflection on the biological-cultural nature of humanness. There she works as researcher and as a professor.

In these circumstances, what I want to reveal now in this essay is the processes that occur in our intimate being as we pass from a painful living without self-love and without self-respect, to a not painful living in which both self-love and self-respect are recovered as a manner of living in which they are natural manners of being alone and with others. Yet, in all that I have said I am not presenting a new therapeutic procedure; if anything I am rather suggesting, from my own understanding of my work as a Family Counselor with people that ask for relational help, that in general all effective therapeutic experience occurs only when the people that have lived such an experience live the inner feelings of the processes of recovery of selflove and self-respect that I have evoked and connoted in this article without attempting to describe them. According to Maturana (e.g., Maturana 2008), we human beings are structure determined living beings. Hence we cannot specify what somebody else hears from what we say and so we are not responsible for what another person listens to in what we say. However, we are responsible for what we say and for the circumstances in which we choose to say what we say. The conscious art and science of liberating conversations arises in understanding of living together that only happens as a living together when living together occurs in listening others and listening oneself, without prejudices, expectation or demands in the non-competitive relational domain. That is what love is as a biological happening of co-existence.

Accordingly, what I have described above is not a method, not a procedure to obtain a liberating conversation as a result. It is the presentation of the flow of the processes that constitute a central aspect of the harmonization of the conversation that the person who understands, comprehends, and feels how the art and science of liberating conversations occurs must consciously generate when he or she receives and accepts a petition for relational help. One never helps anyone because one never knows what another person wants, wishes or feels that she needs. Yet if one listens in the domain of love and understands the biological-cultural nature of human existence alone or with others, and if one also knows how to understand, comprehend, and feel what one sees and listens in that domain, one can participate with the other person in a dance of generating together a world of well-being without the pain that arises when one believes that one is guilty of not having some social relational capability that one believes that one should have. Due to structural determinism we are not responsible for what others see or hear in what we say or do, but we are totally responsible for what we say or do and for the opportunity in which we say or do what we say and do. Also, we cannot describe or point to a “reality” that exists independently of what we do as we distinguish it and that, as a result of being independent of what we do, would be equally accessible to all living beings in general and to all human beings in particular. This knowledge has led to constructivist thinking as a way of admitting that we “construct” the worlds that we live


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as we live together according to what the background of the “real in itself,” although inaccessible to us, permits us to do. Since we cannot describe an independent reality, we do not and cannot know if an experience that we live as valid in the moment that we live it is something that we will later invalidate as an illusion or if we shall confirm it as a perception when we compare it with another experience, the validity of which we do not doubt at that instant. In these circumstances, what this work shows, if one is willing to follow the sensory, operational, and relational consequences of what I have just said, is that the worlds that we live, alone or with others, have only to do with the operational coherences of what we do in the realization of our living as human beings. They are not to do with any supposed reality that would exist independent of what we do as we operate as an observer making distinctions in our living. We can imagine a domain of existence that is transcendent to what we do as human living beings that we choose to call “the real in itself.” Yet if we want to speak of what happens in that transcendent world, we find ourselves dealing only with the sensory, operational, and relational coherences of the realization of our living as biologicalcultural beings. The different worlds that we live in all their diversity are networks of networks of systemic-systemic-systemic sensory, operational, and relational coherences of the realization of our human living that as networks of conversations constitute and realize all that we do, whether we call them fantasies, poetic creations, philosophies, religions, art, cooking … or … quantum mechanics. 3 3 |  In these circumstances, and as an invitation for reflection for personal answers, we can still ask ourselves: “How do the worlds that we live arise in all their diversity, complexity, and splendor as different domains of sensory-operational-relational coherences as well as independent operational domains? How do the worlds that we live appear as not intersecting operational domains of existence if they arise from the same operational relational domain that is the realization of our living? Do we construct them? What do they have in common? What is the origin of the operational coherences that arise in our living together in conversations?

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We do not generate the worlds that we live as conscious or unconscious intentional acts of construction or creation. Nor do they preexist to our living them. The worlds that we live arise as we live them as the spontaneous domains of sensory, operational, and relational coherences in which we realize and explain our living with the sensory, operational, and relational coherences of the realization of our living. And what all of them have in common as domains of sensory, operational, and relational coherences or worlds that we generate in our living, is that all of them arise in all that we do as we live them and explain them as domains of structural determinism, whatever the nature of the elements and processes that compose them as they arise as we live them. However, the different worlds that we generate in our living do not intersect in their operation due to the different nature of their components, and it is not possible to deduce what happens in one from what happens in another. Yet what we can do as observers that contemplate from the broader perspective of our external observing is to make historical correlations between them as we compare the flow of their independent happenings because all of them exist as domains of structural determinism that become accessible to our reflections as soon as we discover their structural regularities. The human sensory, operational, and relational domain in which occurs and operates a liberating conversation is structurally determined, and the participants cannot predict what will happen with each other in their encounters because none of them can specify what the other listens to. Person A moves in the understanding of the deep inner feelings and emotions that guide the living of human beings as loving beings, and she also understands, comprehends, and feels the course of congruent transformation that she and person B must have undergone along their conversation. Therefore, person A can, from her full unconscious-conscious understanding of the congruent present that she and the person B live, participate without effort or intent in the spontaneous arising of the liberating “reflexive mirror” as she listens to her listening of person B’s listening in the flow of their conversation.

The recovery of self-love and self-respect occurs without mystery in a liberating conversation, and the possibility that this should occur is in the biological-cultural constitution of our humanness. Love and willingness to listen in a domain in which we care for the well-being of all people is all that is needed. Love and listening in love with understanding, comprehension, and sensitivity in the domain of a human coexistence that is guided by inner feelings, desires, and purposes that can be contradictory, when it happens, arises from the fundaments of our humanness. We know that as we ask a question to a person we trigger in him or her a change that we cannot predict, and strictly we never know what will happen, and it is because of this that a conversation that flows as a transformation in living together that generates harmony in our coexistence is an art, the art of human living, the art of loving.

Conclusion In summary, I argued for the following four points: 1. We human beings exist as living beings in languaging, and as singular individuals we exist as persons in conversations and in networks of conversations. 2. As human beings we are born, due to our biological constitution, in the implicit (anatomical and physiological) trust that there will be a world that will receive and care for us in tenderness and respect for our existence, in which it will be possible that we conserve the basic configuration of intimate feelings proper to us as loving beings. 3. However, the cultural manner of living that we unconsciously and consciously generate and conserve now in our daily living frequently destroys that fundamental trust along our life through situations that deny love, trapping us in realizing and conserving, without being aware of this, a manner of living grounded in the pain of a continuous unconscious self-depreciation that leads us to search for relational help. 4. Yet it is possible for a person that is in this trap to come out of it, recovering her self-respect if she enters with another person into a reflective conversation that permits her to realize that the self-depreciation in which she finds herself after the negation of love lived is not

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valid because it arose through her acceptance of a cultural negation that does not represent his or her intrinsic being. While the work described here cannot be considered a direct continuation of his work, Humberto Maturana has influenced me in various ways. He gave me the understanding of how living systems operate as molecular systems and of how the nervous system operates as a closed system. The comprehension of this understanding liberated my way of thinking in a such way that in my work as Family Counselor first, and later in my reflections and work as an epistemologist oriented to “think thinking,” as Gregory Bateson (Bateson 1991) invited us to do: a) I could become conscious and aware of the fact that the pain for which one asks for relational help always arises in some cultural experience of negation of love; b) I could see that in the people that consult for a cultural pain, their inner feelings of pain are active at every moment of their continuously changing present, giving form at every instant to the way they act in their

relational living; and c) I could realize that the people that ask for relational help have conserved and conserve as a valid manner of daily living since the moment in which it took place the self-depreciation that evoked in them the pain of the negation of love that they lived. And as I realized all this in my many reflections, and as I observed in my work that this actually occurred, I begun to generate, almost as a spontaneous happening in my work, the liberating conversations as an expression of a deep understanding of the poetry of love.

References Bateson G. (1991) Sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind. Edited by R. E. Donaldson. Harper Collins, New York. Dávila X. Y. (2006) Educación desde la matriz biológica de la existencia humana. PRELAC, Los Sentidos de la Educación Proyecto Regional de Educación para América Latina y el Caribe 2: 30–39.

Dávila X. Y. (2007) La gran oportunidad: Fin de la psiquis del liderazgo en el surgimiento de la psiquis co-inspirativa. Revista Chilena de Administración Pública December 2007: 101–124. Dávila X. Y. & Maturana H. R. (2008) Habitar humano en seis ensayos de biología-cultural. JC Sáez, Santiago de Chile. Maturana H. R. (1978) Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In: Miller G. & Lenneberg E. (eds.) Psychology and biology of language and thought. Essays in honor of Eric Lenneberg. Academic Press, New York: 27–63. Maturana H. R. (1990) Science and daily life: The ontology of scientific explanations. In: Krohn W., Küppers G. & Nowontny S. (eds.) Self-organization: Portrait of scientific revolution. Kluwer, Dordrecht: 12–35. Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2008) Origin of humanness in the biology of love. Edited by Pille Bunnell. Imprint Academic, Exeter. Received: 19 February 2011 Accepted: 23 June 2011

ASC Annual Conference 9-15 August 2011 in Richmond, Indiana, USA

Second Announcement The American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) is pleased to make a second announcement of our conference, to be held in Richmond, Indiana, 11 to 13 August 2011, focussing on the theme of Listening. We take listening to be a metaphor for attentively attending to others, to understand their intentions and wishes in the most generous manner. We hold that listening is the key to conversation, making conversation possible in the first place while also providing the mind set in which conversation can succeed, including (for instance) generosity towards others and being non-judgmental, without which we just impose our own ideas and understandings of our conversational partners. We use both the terms listening and conversation in ways expanded from their original, aural forms. The conference is based in holding conversations in small groups around given themes. These conversations are reported back to all groups in plenary sessions. There are possibilities to present papers in a number of ways. We are currently building a list of workshops and performances, which will be posted on the conference web site. There will be evening events some of which will be preplanned, but many of which will arise as a result of conference conversations. Our aim is to be responsive to possibilities. We are also offering pre-and post-conferences, which are without fee for those attending the main conference. The pre-conference will be concerned with a discussion arising from the Cybernetics of Cybernetics Competition recently sponsored by the ASC. The post conference will provide an opportunity to study selected papers by Heinz von Foerster (whose centenary we are celebrating) and Ernst von Glasersfeld (who died shortly after addressing our conference last year). A number of very distinguished people with major international reputations have already expressed a wish to attend. There is a second early bird rate which holds until 7 July. We ask those who wish to attend to register and then make a Statement of Interest (which allows us to assemble the conference booklet). If you have any question regarding this procedure, please contact Ranulph Glanville (Conference Co-Chair and President of the ASC)

Venue The conference will be held at the Quality Inn Hotel and Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana. Accommodation will be available there, too. Paper Refereeing and Proceedings Although this is a conference that values conversation between participants above all, we have made arrangements for those who need or want to submit papers. This conference is expected to generate a set of proceedings published after the conference by one of several journals and publishers with which the ASC is well connected. The process of refereeing and publishing is a cumulative one that allows for continuous improvement of each paper, especially in reflecting discussions at the conference. Papers will be accepted in the first instance by blind refereeing of 400 word extended abstracts. There are 2 submission dates, giving a chance to rework abstracts. Authors of accepted abstracts will be asked to post drafts on the conference website for open refereeing by conference participants. All comments and responses will be visible to all conference attendees. This is the second level of refereeing. Paper presentation consists of listening to and including benefits from comments, encouragements and criticisms made at the conference, as well as incorporating new material found by authors as a result of their participation. After the conference, authors will be expected to rework their papers. Reworked papers will be subject to rigorous, traditional blind refereeing processes, after the conference. For the latest details and submission deadlines, please visit the conference website.


Biology of Cognition

Living in Parenthesis A Layman’s Experiences of Knowing Maturana

Personal Essay on the Biology of Cognition

Fernando González • Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa • fergon/at/


> Problem • Starting with his personal experience the author pursues the question: How can we alter our way of living, sensoriality and reflective skills so that we can handle today’s information flows, which nowadays are so large that they create confusion and ineffective educational actions? > Method • The approach to follow is called “parenthesism,” a practice based on Maturana’s theoretical frameworks of the “biology of cognition” and the “biology of love.” > Results • One of the findings when a person lives in parenthesism is the ability to see their own dogmatism and stubbornness when that person would otherwise be blind to his/her own convictions. > Implications • Many aspects of this essay, and this manner of thinking, are circular and tautological, and hence may appear illogical to the reader. However, the author claims that existence is not solely logical, and that in a complex matrix circular and recursive relationships are common, and that these can best be understood through circular and recursive logics. Furthermore the relevance of parenthesism for UNESCO’s view on learning paradigms is reviewed in this light. > Key words • Explanations, science, experience, education paradigms.



This is an almost pure laymen’s presentation and a proof by itself1 of how it is possible for higher education to reach the vast majority of people in the world, once the educators change their paradigmatic postures on general topics such as what are, and what is the purpose of, science, philosophy, history, and other skills such as the practice of conscious reflection of the observer upon his/her own experiences of making observations. This presentation is rather experiential and a testimonial of my personal relationship with my friend, Humberto Maturana. Consequently, the paper will be written mostly using the first person singular pronoun, “I,” and also the reflective form, “one.” The pronoun, “he,” normally refers to Maturana. Finally, it is written as a friend of a biologist.2

1 | As the reader might notice later in the essay, the expression “itself ” is used colloquially given that nothing is by itself. See Conclusion. 2 |  Please do not confuse my experiences and sayings about Maturana with what Maturana himself says as I do not represent him. I speak only of my experience as an observer.

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During the mid-1980s, being in business in Arizona pertaining to a family business, I was requested to find solutions to the various typical problems that this kind of organization experiences. I asked the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for help in their Family Business Department and hired a couple of coaches for a one-year program. One of the coaches, Pontish Yeramyan, was using a manner of directing and interacting with the members of the business that was so attractive to me that I asked her where she had learned it. She recommended us to take a workshop called est Training, from Werner Erhard and Associates. One of the associates was Fernando Flores, who “designed”3 several courses. In one course Humberto Maturana was introduced as a lecturer, who presented several of his distinctions such as structural coupling, structural drift, and learning as a biological phenomenon. By the end of that decade, the country of Mexico was entering a severe economic crisis and many businesses collapsed. On of them was ours, including with it damage to the family relationships. By 1992, I had to go back to the country and worked for the Mexican Federal Government. During that year, 3 |  Flores liked this word a lot.

I started reading El Árbol del Conocimiento (Maturana & Varela 1984). I believe it is important to mention that the original book in Spanish includes a preface called “Al pie del árbol” by Rolf Benhcke, the absence of which in the English version is a loss. It is a reflective and critical presentation of the book, which I had to understand word by word – it took me around 45 days to rewrite its 25 pages by hand. This effort took me away from a depressive stage. Fortunately, the reading of the book and eventual phone calls to Chile to converse with Maturana opened up possibilities that were not otherwise available. Humberto Maturana, after listening to my questions arising from the reading of the book, recommended that I read another librito (little book): Emociones y Lenguaje en Educación y Política (Maturana 1989). – Yes, Fernando, I recommend that you read this librito, Emotions and Language in Education and Politics. – But, Doctor Maturana, what if I don’t find it here in Mexico. Could you send me one? – Yes, I could. – Do you promise? – Well – he replied – yes, I promise, but only if I don’t lose my freedom. I had taken several courses and training sessions about speech acts, as promises, declarations, commitments, etc., but to me,

Biology of Cognition

Living in Parenthesis Fernando González

his answer gave me a huge lesson: beyond everything there is freedom. I went to the library, got the book, and read it. These two books altered my understanding of life. I had a sense of opening a wide spectrum of possibilities. I started practicing conscious reflection, that is, being aware of what I was doing while I was reflecting. After a couple or more months, I learned that Maturana was coming to the Institute of Physiology of the University of Puebla for a two week seminar and he invited me to attend. The scientist and manager of the course didn’t want me to enroll because he considered that I had no business being at such a seminar. He said that I was a layman and working for the government, so he didn’t see me fitting in. I insisted because Maturana insisted on inviting me. Finally, I was accepted. Maturana presented his “Ontology of Observing.”4 During his stay, he told me on several occasions that it was very important to initiate, or at least to present, this subject as soon as possible to avoid a lot of discussions. I have to clarify to the reader that I volunteered to act as an official chauffeur for him and his wife for the two weeks, but a chauffeur with the right to converse. It will be my pleasure! – he replied. During those many times and hours he offered to teach me how to make a cursito (a little workshop) to explain observing and the observer. I was such a layman and naive observer at that time that my questions showed my personal low level of understanding through my beliefs and my unreflective and uncritical practice from them. For example, I was not able to distinguish that non-human animals do not communicate as we do. This is of utmost importance given that I had already graduated from one of the most prestigious business schools in Latin America. This absence revealed society’s educational policies because those phenomena were not considered pertinent, as we can still see in pseudoscientific television programs about non-human animal life. This is pervasive and perverse broadcasting because it confuses or comingles the lives of human with non-human animals, giving to the second some traits that belong to first. One of the most impor4 | Available at ontology/

tant is the generalized belief that competition is a natural phenomenon. This is why I usually recommend to my students and friends that they watch such programs but in mute, that is, with the commentary turned off. In my experience, educational systems are developed in a way in which paradigms or fundamental beliefs are not questioned. For example, when I was working for the Mexican Federal Government, I was at an educational official institution where we were teaching the practice of reflection in order to “fight” poverty levels, based upon State Reform and Social Liberalism. However, when I asked the dean of the institute to open up reflections on the topics of State Reform and Social Liberalism, he said that we could reflect and question every thing else, except those two basic principles of our educational programs for “fighting” against poverty. He said this was because they were the basic substance, les raisons d’être of the programs, the institution, and what was wanted to happen. After this incident, I thought that reflecting, conscious reflection was a not a very welcomed practice. I understood right there why sometimes Maturana says that words don’t fit as such and that we have to add an adjective to them. For example, note that I added to the word “reflection” the adjective “conscious,” as he does. The way he presents his distinctions, descriptions, and explanations is reflective, but involves knowing what one is doing while doing it. This is in short what he refers to as “conscious reflection.” I could say that he metalogues, to use the creation of Gregory Bateson (1973).

The “cursito” I cannot resist the temptation of sharing an illuminating5 experience that I had whilst I was learning how to present the Ontology of Observing: 5 |  The author considers it extremely important for the reader to remember that his aim in learning and sharing Maturana’s body of knowledge is to be able to share it with the general public, that is, the “less-educated.” He has spoken of the idea of making a “Maturana for beginners” or a “Maturana for children” or even a “Maturana in parenthesis.”

– Have you watched the movie The Crying Game? – No, I don’t remember. What is it about? – asked Maturana. – Well, what I really wanted to ask you is about a story told in the movie. – What is the story? – One of the characters is telling another a story about a frog and a scorpion. The scorpion wants to cross a river and asks the frog for help. The frog replies that it is afraid of being stung while crossing. The scorpion promises that the frog does not need to worry. The frog accepts and, while crossing the river carrying the scorpion, the scorpion stings the frog. While drowning, the frog asks why; the scorpion responds, “It’s my nature.” Is this dialogue possible? – I asked. – Well, – Maturana replied – is this a recent story? – Yes, it’s from a recent movie, and it’s about a topic of the present time. – Oh! – he exclaimed. – No it’s not true. – No? – No, because in the present time, the scorpion and the frog would set up a business. The frog would catch several insects and the scorpion could collect a fee. – Really? – I asked, and suddenly I was struck. – Oh, my god! Then, Maturana laughed as strongly as he does while his wife Beatriz looked at me with tenderness. – Of course it is not true, dear Fernando. They do not interact as we do in language. My learning about the cursito had started.

The parenthesis When one reads or listens to Maturana’s distinctions, the invitation is to be aware of what he is presenting, not over there but over here; that is, to notice what is happening in one’s experience. In this paper I am making a similar invitation as I ask the reader to look into what he or she is living while following these lines. Another invitation Maturana makes is to be somewhat candid while listening or reading, in other words to be open to saying and seeing rather than relying on past beliefs or expectations. The fine point is that these explicit recommendations or invitations reveal the operational conditions necessary to make happen


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whatever may appear in the experience of the observer as a consequence of reading or hearing his ideas and distinctions. Observing, that is the act or operation that enables us to see, to understand, to report, to notice – in one word, to distinguish – has to be present, has to be brought forth as continuously as possible. I normally say that the most important act of the observer is to observe, and that most basic action of observing is to distinguish, and the most important distinction is to distinguish him or herself as a distinguishing being that is an observer who brings forth everything in his or her experience. This is the fundamental circular operation, the tautology of the tautologist. Maturana has told me that math is full of circularities or tautologies and that I should not be afraid of them. Once the observer is present, and again, this is an observer that observes him/herself observing, a question can be effectively posed: How is it possible that the observer (we) can make observations? This is the question that splits the ocean and creates a loose rope to walk across. The acceptance or rejection of the question is an act that generates highly opposite consequences derived from the most important one: either the observer operates as if there were a preexisting independent reality, or he accepts that he/ she brings forth reality with his/her distinctions. The first choice is distinguished as the explanatory path of objectivity, and the second one as the explanatory path of objectivity in parenthesis. The first path, in short called “number one,” is based on one reality universally valid to everyone, and the second, called in short “number two,” is constitutive of many realities equally made and therefore equally valid, although an observer could prefer a particular one over any other. During one of my many phone calls to Maturana, I was wondering about a name for my cursito, and since one is able to place a parenthesis to objectivity after following the question of how we make distinctions and observations, I told him that we should name our explanatory path parenthesism. He laughed, he liked the ring of it, but it is not an official name. We are adding the parentheses in order to remember some of the conditions that pertain to this explanatory path, namely: explanations are valid

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because of our acceptance of them, they are not inherently valid, we cannot distinguish between illusion and perception in our experience, our bodies are not an obstacle but a condition of possibility, our nervous system does not represent the medium, other people’s realities are as valid as mine because they are made by accepted explanations, etcetera.

The way we teach science I mentioned above being a layman. Regardless of having a degree in Personnel Management and a Master’s degree in psychotherapy, I am still a layman who about a year ago embarked on a program to become a lawyer, which at my age of sixty-one has been a unique opportunity because I can see how we teachers are teaching at the higher education level. I have also been able to witness that our university is following many of the recommendations that UNESCO has made concerning higher education in a way that does not serve to attain the desired goals, given the underlying accepted beliefs concerning science. In the World Declaration On Higher Education for the Twenty-first Century: Vision and Action, UNESCO (1998) made a declaration about the purpose of higher education. This declaration posts several challenges that cannot be solved from the present dominant higher education paradigms, especially on teaching science and reflective abilities. In the context of this essay, I would like to expand on two of these, namely article 6.b and 6.d. Article 6 – Long-term orientation based on rel“  evance […] (b) Higher education should reinforce its role of service to society, especially its activities aimed at eliminating poverty, intolerance, violence, illiteracy, hunger, environmental degradation and disease, mainly through an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach in the analysis of problems and issues. […] (d) Ultimately, higher education should aim at the creation of a new society – non-violent and non-exploitative – consisting of highly cultivated, motivated and integrated individuals, inspired by love for humanity and guided by wisdom. (my emphasis)

The first refers to serving society and the second to the creation of a new society. I agree with the view of the world that points to several of its conditions that motivated UNESCO’s goals such as: high levels of pollution of water, land and air, uneven distribution of wealth, urban violence, international wars, civil revolts, unequal distribution of jobs, income and real property among man and woman, etcetera. I would like to bring your attention to a characterization of violence I read in an essay entitled “Biology and Violence,” … in my opinion, we speak of violence in daily “  life to refer to those situations where one moves in relation to another in the extreme of demand of obedience and submission, which ever may be the manner how this happens in terms of softness or hardness and in whatever relational space it may take place. (Maturana 1997: 71, my translation)

This is why he says that not every human relation is a social relation. Human relations in the classroom, at work, political relations, are not social relations because they are not based on the only emotion that generates sociability: love. “Love is the emotion which constitutes the actions of acceptance of the other as a legitimate other in coexistence without exigency” (Maturana 1989: 74, my translation). In my view, the way we currently teach science is failing to achieve the purposes of UNESCO, rather it serves to maintain the status quo that UNESCO calls to be altered. I assess that the way science is being taught cannot contribute to change or solve the problems that have been produced by the way science has being taught. I also assessed that science is not being properly taught because it is not oriented to alleviating human suffering; rather it treats suffering only as a secondary effect. Humanity knows and owns enough science to transform the current world and reach the goals depicted by UNESCO. What is then happening that we have not achieved such an improvement? What kind of beings are we human beings? How is it that we do not do what we know we could and should do to achieve our stated purpose? We don’t see that we are continuously denying our evolutionary origins. We don’t see that we turned into patriarchy only re-

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Living in Parenthesis Fernando González


cently and we believe that we have been always how we now are. I recently asked historian Jean Meyer how he could explain how, if we humans and chimpanzees hold a common ancestor, we are so different from them, or why, if in Europe one cannot find signs of war older than 8,000 years, war is now so pervasive. I remember once listening to a prominent scientist, Ruy Pérez Tamayo, lecturing on seven principles of the scientific method. Three of them were: (1) a scientist explains reality; (2) a scientist has to detach from his/her emotions; and (3) the path of science is long and expensive. In the Q&A session I stood up and asked him to review at least three of his conclusions: namely I countered that the scientist doesn’t explain reality, he/she cannot detach from his/her emotions, and the path of science is neither necessarily long nor expensive. At the end of the lecture, I approached him and asked for a copy of his presentation. He picked up his papers, bent his arms holding them against his chest and replied to me with a sonorous and dry: “No!” After that I waited for him at the door and insisted on a copy because I liked the introduction and I was sincere. This time he replied, without looking at me while passing by: “Find it in my books.” I see and converse quite frequently with scientists, philosophers, scholars, and professors, listen to lecturers, read books and essays about science and now law, and have not found not even an insight that could take me out of the dominant belief that is based on the classic books of Lewis Morgan (1877) and Friedrich Engels (1884). Every time I experience a class about human origins, I encounter myself, along with rest of the present audience, deeply trapped in such an impenetrable hard rock bottom.

Fernando González

was born in Mexico in 1949 into a family with many children, dedicated to business. He graduated from Monterrey Tech with a master’s degree in psychotherapy and having followed an ontological coach program. Presently, he is studying law at Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, where he also teaches a class on “Biology of Cognition” and “Biology of Love” in the School of Philosophy and Spanish Literature in the Department of Sociology. (Picture taken by the author’s wife Mariza Peña)

“Do you see now? We’ve been always as we presently are” –an ethereal voice seems to tell me. Every time yes, except when I listen to Maturana. I agree with my peers’ blindness and deafness to this explanatory path of how we can make observations and what had to take place in our evolutionary path to become the kind of beings we humans are, but I cannot agree with UNESCO’s apparent blindness and deafness in not opening a space of reflection for these topics as soon as possible, given Maturana’s present age. Could it be that UNESCO is acting as a protecting agent of the world’s status quo? Can UNESCO see that the way science is taught, with so many different theories, descriptions, characterizations, definitions, components, classifications, etcetera, only obscures the doing of science? Studying about science doesn’t make science. I learned from him that one uses the notion of reality as a compelling argument to control others (Maturana 1988). It is easy to see that the notion of reality becomes a superfluous and manipulative notion when doing science because what the scientist does is explain his or her experiences with coherences of his/her experiences (Maturana 1990). On the whole we are not insensible to the pain and suffering inflicted on so many people in the world. Yet do we consider how much of the suffering is caused by religion, economy, and politics? I wonder if the ways we think about ourselves influence the ways we relate to each other. Is there any difference in how we act based on how we explain our presence on the Earth by creation or by evolution? What happens in terms of how we relate to those who believe in one religion or another? Or, as mentioned above, if competition is not natural but only cultur-

ally human, will an acceptance that we have invented competition as a justification for what we do reveal our responsibility and thus shift our behaviors in doing business and the distribution of wealth? If we accept that our nervous system does not capture external objects, will that make a difference to our educational systems? In his introduction to the Spanish edition of Maturana and Varela’s Tree of Knowledge, Rolf Benhcke poses many questions concerning many aspects of our civilization that will be touched and altered upon reading and understanding the abstractions and reflections presented by Maturana. One of these is about learning. Benhcke puts it this way: Do our economists (of any ideology) know “  why psychiatry, psychology, sociology have failed (until now) in giving an adequate explanation of the process of learning as a part of the biological nature of human beings? Why don’t we know that? Are there any among the powerful authorities of the world (of any government) in any part of the world, interested in knowing that? (Benhcke 1984: vii, my translation)

Relevant abstractions Maturana makes a distinction between a definition and an abstraction. He considers a definition to be a starting point, a declaration or an assumption that one accepts and from which one proceeds. An abstraction, on the other hand, consists of a distinction of regularities as pertaining to a specific domain. “[A]bstractions… do not arise as definitions; they arise in the same way the laws of conservation in physics arise, that is, as poetic creation made by an observer of


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his or her operation as a living system living in languaging.” (Maturana 2005: 62). As we constitute our lived worlds from our understanding of regularities in our experiences, the abstractions that we accept as fundamental determine what else we experience and live. Thus even though no abstraction is irrelevant for the experience of the observer, some abstractions are very important to know if we are to remain observers of our own observing: 1  | Not being able to distinguish between illusion and perception in our experience is not a problem. The composition of our nervous system enables us to be loving and caring human beings who do not need to make such a distinction. Not being able to distinguish between illusion and perception only impedes us when we wish to refer to an independent reality in order to validate our explanations and reasons. Problems arise when we pretend to validate our reasons and explanations based on an independent reality to which we or some authority is deemed to have privileged access. 2  | Explanations do not exist by themselves. They are constituted by the acceptance of the observer. Two conditions have to be present for an explanation to take place. One is the presentation of a generative mechanism or process that gives rise to the experience or phenomenon to be explained, and the other is the acceptance of such a mechanism or process as the mechanism or process that he or she considers to be the adequate mechanism or process that explains the experience or phenomenon being explained, and he or she does this in accordance with a criterion of acceptability that she or he puts in his or her listening. 3  | In order for a human being to exist, it is necessary to have both the biology of Homo sapiens and a human manner of living. Once you have both you have a human being. A human being is not a natural being; we have to nurture it humanly, that is, lovingly. A human body without a human manner of living doesn’t make a human being; neither

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does a human manner of living in a nonhuman body makes a human being. 4  | A culture is distinguished as a network of conversations and a conversation is distinguished as flow of emotions and language modulating each other. The conversations we nurture, and the doings we promote and value will shape the culture we live in. Our world is a product of our living; this is why it is not trivial if we live in one manner or another. In which world we would like to live?

Conclusion I would be pleased if this essay opens up some curiosity in the readers so as to establish a dialogue or a conversation to reflect on some of the issues touched on here or any other essay of this kind in order to or with the desire to further additional distinctions to see if we could alter the general conditions of living of our cultural way of living. I would like to leave a final distinction for the reader: we humans behave as cultural beings in the dominant culture that has been generating the world UNESCO would like to change, not because of our nature but because of our culture. In other words, the nasty and painful traits of our civilizations have to do with our cultural way of being and not of our biological way of being. When Maturana starts speaking or writing, he usually starts by saying, “I will speak as a biologist…” and I once asked him, “What am I going to say when I start explaining the observer? ‘I will be speaking as a personnel administrator’?” and he replied: “Well, you could say that you have a friend who is a biologist.” So, I have written all this paper as a friend of a biologist.

References Bateson G. (1973) Steps to an ecology of mind. Paladin, New York. Benhcke R. (1984) Al pie del árbol. Introduction in: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1984) El

árbol del conocimiento. Editorial Universitaria, Chile: i–xxviii. Engels F. (1884) Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats. Hottingen, Zurich. English translation available at works/1884/origin-family/index.htm Maturana H. R. (1988) Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 25–82 Available at http://www.univie. Maturana H. R. (1989) Emociones y lenguaje en educación y política [Emotions and language in education and politics]. Editorial Hachete, Chile. Maturana H. R. (1990) Science and daily life: The ontology of scientific explanations. In: Krohn W. & Küppers G. (eds.) Selforganization: Portrait of a scientific revolution. Kluwer, Dordrecht: 12–35. Maturana H. R. (1997) Biología y violencia. In: Maturana H. R., Coddou F., Montenegro H. Kuntsmann G. G. & Méndez C. L., Violencia en sus distintos ámbitos de expresión. Second Edition. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago. Maturana H. R. (2005) The origin and conservation of self-consciousness: Reflections on four questions by Heinz von Foerster. In: Riegler A. (ed.) Heinz von Foerster –in memorian Kybernetes: The International Journal of Systems & Cybernetics 34(1–2): 54–88. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1984) El árbol del conocimiento. Ed. Universitaria, Chile. English transalation: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Shambala, Boston. Morgan L. H. (1877) Ancient society. MacMillan, London. Available at ancient-society/ UNESCO (1998) World declaration on higher education in the twenty-first century: Vision and action. Available at http://www.unesco. org/education/educprog/wche/declaration_eng.htm Received: 28 January 2011 Accepted: 27 June 2011

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana compiled by

Randall Whitaker • Independent Researcher • randy/at/ > Context • Maturana’s published corpus is vast, and his publications span multiple venues, formats, and languages. For these and other reasons, the corpus is as complex as it is daunting in its scale. > Problem • Over the last two de-

cades, bibliographic data on Maturana’s publications had proliferated in terms of available resources, scope of coverage, and accessibility. However, as of 2011 the degree of accessibility was not matched by the inclusiveness, detail, and accuracy of the relatively few dedicated bibliographies upon which most such resources relied. It had become time to update, consolidate, and better validate the core bibliographic data. > Method • The five most comprehensive electronic bibliographies were merged and collated. The merged listing was then validated using the available evidence and a three-tiered set of evaluation criteria. Finally, the resultant merged and validated listing was augmented with previously unrecorded entries and data, subject to the same evidentiary constraints and evaluation criteria pertaining to the validation phase. > Results • None of the five bibliographies in the starting set was comprehensive. All five contained ambiguities, missing details, discrepancies, and outright errors. The updated and consolidated listing presented here is the largest, most comprehensive, and most accurate compiled to date. > Implications • The resultant bibliography offers a more complete and more reliable reference resource to both veteran Maturana scholars and newcomers to his work than previously existing bibliographies. > Key words • Maturana, biology of cognition, autopoiesis, bibliography, publications.

Introduction Humberto Maturana’s vast published corpus documents the progression of his research and theoretical work from the 1950s to the present. Key elements of this work achieved publication in disparate forms, diverse locations, and different languages during the course of the last six decades. In some instances, these publications’ dates or sequencing do not clearly reflect the contemporaneous state or progression of his work. As such, Maturana’s published corpus is as problematical in its complexity as it is daunting in its scale. My first contribution relevant to the biology of cognition was a bibliography of Maturana’s English language publications, compiled more than two decades ago, and distributed via Usenet and email. It was generated to help other scholars overcome a lack of comprehensive and reliable bibliographic resources. In the 1990s my bibliography became a webpage, soon joined by similar resources in cyberspace. By 2011, bibliographic data on Maturana’s publications, as well as certain of the publications themselves, had become widely accessible

online. It appeared the impediments I had set out to overcome in the late 1980s had been largely eliminated. Nonetheless, there continued to be problems. Different bibliographies sometimes portrayed the literature with differing scopes of coverage based on (e.g.) language of publication, disciplinary or thematic foci, authors represented, and types of publications included. Furthermore, all of us who maintained bibliographies were challenged to keep up with Humberto’s continuing prolific writing. As a result, no one bibliography could be claimed to be absolutely current or comprehensive. Finally, bibliography stewards (myself included) had recurrently incorporated data from others’ listings at face value, with the inevitable result that none of us could be absolutely certain of our listings’ accuracy. The time was ripe to update, consolidate, and better validate the core bibliographic resources. When editors Alexander Riegler and Pille Bunnell approached me with the idea of compiling an updated, consolidated bibliography for this special issue of Constructivist Foundations, I readily agreed. The basic objectives were to achieve currency

and consolidation for the available bibliographic data. I further undertook to make the intended product as comprehensive and as accurate as time, energy, and the available evidence would allow.

Compiling the new bibliography: Procedure and results I assembled a starting set containing the five electronic bibliographic listings I considered to be the most substantive: ƒƒ Theodore Correl’s “Primary Sources” bibliography from ƒƒ The “official” bibliography compiled by Maturana’s Universidad de Chile colleagues circa 1996 and subsequently disseminated on the Internet ƒƒ A bibliographic listing maintained by Escuela Matríztica de Santiago ƒƒ The publications listing maintained by the Biology of Cognition Lab (Universidad de Chile – Santiago) on their website ƒƒ My own Observer Web bibliography and related documentation


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These five listings’ entries were then merged into a single working document. Entries were transferred into the working document whenever they (a) differed from any already included entry with respect to a given publication and/or (b) represented a publication not already incorporated. Once the consolidated working document was complete, each individual entry was evaluated for validity and accuracy. In those surprisingly numerous cases where multiple disparate versions of an entry remained from the merger process, this evaluation began with analysis and “detective work” to resolve discrepancies. Such discrepancies ranged from minor ones (e.g., precise page numbering) to significant ones (e.g., authors, titles, publishers, and publication dates). Similar “detective work” was necessary to resolve ambiguities and omissions in single (i.e., non-conflicting) entries. For the sake of consistency and coherence in my validation phase work, I established a three-tiered relative ordering of evidentiary criteria: ƒƒ Primary evidence – The original publication per se (including a photocopy or electronic image). Primary evidence was considered to be definitive in and of itself, although ambiguities might still require other evidentiary types to reasonably resolve them. ƒƒ Secondary evidence – Bibliographic data from sources for whom the literature is a professional concern. This category included (e.g.) publisher catalogs, journals’ own archives or indices, university library indices, professional or academic indices, indices or listings formally compiled and published as scholarly works, and the most highly detailed and well-organized bookseller listings. Secondary evidence was taken to be decisive if multiple samples agreed without conflicting with other evidence. ƒƒ Tertiary evidence – Citations or descriptions in publications or documents (other than the one at issue) as well as most bookseller listings. Tertiary evidence was considered decisive only in those cases where primary or secondary validation was unavailable, and then only if the preponderance of such evidence was in agreement.

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3

Primary evidence was available or obtained for the majority of the known corpus. By my estimation, circa 90% of the publications listed here have been effectively validated at the level of secondary evidence or higher. Only about 10% of the listed items have been finally judged as validated, and/or had their entries’ details specified, on the basis of tertiary evidence. Only one entry from the starting set was found to be spurious, and then only in terms of having been attributed to a volume that was not actually published until a decade later by a different set of editors. The resultant merged and validated listing was then augmented with previously unrecorded entries and data, subject to the same evidentiary constraints and evaluation criteria pertaining to the validation phase. Most of these additional entries had been discovered during the course of my validation phase “detective work,” and the remainder surfaced during the augmentation phase. Interviews and conversations not recorded in a formal publication, as well as videos and other non-print items, were generally excluded. Two previously unknown citations found during the augmentation phase were rejected. In both cases, the alleged publication was cited in a single tertiary source, the citation lacked any publication details beyond a purported title, and no additional evidence could be found for such a title. The augmented listing was then annotated to (a) explain certain issues pertaining to the entries and (b) note interrelationships among entries (e.g., translations and republications). As requested by the editors, the augmented listing also includes URLs for publications available online. This listing includes only URLs linking to online copies known or presumed to be legally authorized and to established document sharing sites (primarily with authorization protocols. Many more of Maturana’s publications are posted on the Web without clear or presumptive authorization, and the readers are invited to seek them out if they so desire. I would summarize the results of this project as follows: ƒƒ The five most substantial extant bibliographies contained a surprisingly large number of inaccuracies, misat-

tributions, omissions, and missing details. ƒƒ Because each of the five had borrowed data from one or more of the others, many such deficiencies had proliferated throughout the set. ƒƒ Bibliographic citations in formal publications – including those made by the cited publication’s own author(s) – were not reliably correct at face value. Same author citations – initially presumed to have secondary evidentiary status – were eventually demoted to tertiary status in light of recurring occasional invalidation by primary evidence. ƒƒ The “better” bookseller inventory listings (e.g., from specialist, scholarly, and antiquarian vendors, especially in Europe) consistently proved to be at least as detailed and reliable as other secondary sources, and I promoted such sellers’ listings to secondary evidentiary status. ƒƒ The majority of the deficient entries identified in the merged listings were resolved via the validation phase work. A small minority continued to present ambiguities, which are noted in the final listing. ƒƒ The final annotated listing is substantially larger, more inclusive, and more reliable than any of the bibliographies included in the starting set. ƒƒ Nonetheless, it represents no more than the set of entries the available evidence afforded and validated at the time of this compilation.

Acknowledgements I would like to express my appreciation to the editors for offering me the opportunity to undertake this project; to Pille Bunnell for collecting and forwarding so much ‘primary evidence’ on the non-English publications my collection does not include; to Alexander Riegler for his aid and advice in organizing the list to facilitate its usefulness to readers; to Sebastián Gaggero for supplying the most recent Matríztica bibliographic listing; and – above all – to Humberto Maturana for generating a published corpus so deserving of our attentions.

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana Randall Whitaker

Bibliographic entries 1955

1955a Maturana H. R. (1955) Cell territories in the cerebral cortex of the rat. Journal of Anatomy 89(4): 572.


1958a Maturana H. R. (1958) Efferent fibres in the optic nerve of the toad (Bufo bufo). Journal of Anatomy 92(1): 21–27. 1958b Maturana H. R. (1958) The fine structure of the optic nerve and tectum of Anurans. An electron microscope study. Ph.D. dissertation. Harvard University, Cambridge MA.


1959a Lettvin J. Y., Maturana H. R., McCulloch W. S. & Pitts W. H. (1959) What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain. Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) 47(11): 1940–1951. ƒƒ Reprinted in: McCulloch R. (ed.) (1989) The collected works of Warren S. McCulloch. Volume 4. Intersystems Publications, Salinas CA: 1161–1172. ƒƒ Reprinted in: McCulloch W. S. (1965) Embodiments of mind. MIT Press, Cambridge MA: 230–255. Second printing in 1989 with original pagination preserved. ƒƒ Also reprinted as Chapter 7 in: Corning W. C. & Balaban M. (eds.) (1968) The mind: Biological approaches to its functions. Wiley, New York: 233–258. A copy of this republication is available at ƒƒ German translation: 2000d

1959b Maturana H. R. (1959) Number of fibres in the optic nerve and the number of ganglion cells in the retina of Anurans. Nature 183 (4672): 1406–1407. 1959c Maturana H. R., Lettvin J. Y., McCulloch W. S. & Pitts W. H. (1959) Evidence that cut optic nerves fibers in a frog regenerate to their proper places in the tectum. Science 130 (3390): 1709–1710.


1960a Lettvin J. Y., Maturana H. R., McCulloch W. S. & Pitts W. H. (1960) Two remarks on the visual system of the frog. United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) Technical

Report 60–77: 1–25. 1960b Maturana H. R. (1960) The fine anatomy of the optic nerve of Anurans – An electron microscope study. Journal of Biophysical and Biochemical Cytology 7(1): 107–120. 1960c Maturana H. R., Lettvin J. Y., McCulloch W. S. & Pitts W. H. (1960) Anatomy and physiology of vision in the frog (Rana pipiens). Journal of General Physiology 43(6): 129–175.


1961a Lettvin J. Y., Maturana H. R., McCulloch W. S. & Pitts W. H. (1961) Two remarks on the visual system of the frog. In: Rosenblith W. A. (ed.) Sensory communications. MIT Press, Cambridge MA and Wiley, New York: 757–776.


1962a Maturana H. R. (1962) A study of the species of the genus Basiliscus. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College 128(1): 1–34. 1962b Maturana H. R. (1962) Functional organization of the pigeon retina. In: Information processing in the nervous system: Vol. Ill of proceedings of the International Union of Physiological Sciences: XXII international congress Leiden: 170–178.


1965a Boycott B. B., Lettvin J. Y., Maturana H. R. & Wall P. D. (1965). Octopus optic responses. Experimental Neurology 12(3): 247–256. ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files.

1965b Maturana H. R. & Frenk S. (1965) Synaptic connections of the centrifugal fibers in the pigeon retina. Science 150(3694): 359–361. ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files. pdf


1968a Maturana H. R., Uribe G. & Frenk S. (1968) A biological theory of relativistic colour coding in the primate retina: A discussion of nervous system closure with reference to certain visual effects. Archiva de Biologia y Medicina Experimentales Suplemento 1: 1–30. ƒƒ German translation “Eine biologische Theorie der relativistischen Farbkodierung in der Primatenretina” in 1982a: 88–137.


1970a Maturana H. R. (1970) Biology of cognition. Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) Research Report BCL 9.0. University of Illinois, Urbana. ƒƒ Reprinted as the first section in 1980e: 5–58.


1963a Maturana H. R. & Frenk S. (1963) Directional movement and horizontal edge detectors in the pigeon retina. Science 142(3594): 977–979.

A transcription formatted to reflect this republished version’s pagination is available at–80BoC.html ƒƒ Other transcriptions (without precisely correlated pagination) are available at http://www.

ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files. and http://www.scribd.

com/doc/56165334 and




ƒƒ First German translation: “Biologie der Kog-

1963b Maturana H. R. & Sperling S. (1963) Unidirectional response to angular acceleration recorded from the middle cristal nerve in the statocyst of Octopus vulgaris. Nature 197(4869): 815–816.


1964a Maturana H. R. (1964) Especificidad versus ambigüedad en la retina de los vertebrados. Biológica 36: 69–96. ƒƒ Reprinted in 1993a: 107–146.

nition” 1974d. Subsequent German translations (possibly republications of 1974d) appear in 1982a: 32–80 and 1998a: 22–92. ƒƒ Russian translation “Биология познания”: 1996f

1970b Maturana H. R. (1970) Neurophysiology of cognition. In: Garvin P. (ed.) Cognition: A multiple view. Spartan Books, New York: 3–23. ƒƒ Reprinted in: Foerster H von. (ed.) (1971) Interpersonal relational networks. CIDOC Cuaderno No. 1014. Centro Intercultural


as: De máquinas y seres vivos: Autopoiesis: La

(Mexico): 3/1-3/21.

organización de lo vivo. New prefaces added by

ƒƒ Reprinted in: Foerster H. von (ed.) (1974)

both Maturana and Varela, under the combined

Cybernetics of cybernetics. Biological Computer

title “Veinte años después” [Twenty years later].

Lab (BCL) Report 73.38. University of Illinois,

English translation of Maturana’s preface: 2011a

Urbana: 112–122.

ƒƒ Fifth edition (1998) available at http://www.

ƒƒ Reprinted in: Foerster H. von (ed.) (1995) Cy- and http://www.

bernetics of cybernetics. Second Edition. Future

Systems, Minneapolis: 112–122.

ƒƒ Sixth edition (2006) available at http://www.

ƒƒ Spanish translation “Neurociencia y

cognición: Biología de lo psíquico” in 1996a:


ƒƒ German translation of 1970a by W. K. Köck,


ƒƒ Publisher indices and first edition used book

P. M. Hejl and G. Roth.

listings often indicate this was first published

ƒƒ Publication year 1974 is the earliest cited.

in 1972, not 1973. The reason for this common

Reprinted in 1975 and 1977 with same format

discrepancy is unclear, unless the 1972 copy-

and page length. The 1977 issuance is cited in

right date was mistaken for the initial publica-

indices as “authorized version.”

ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files.

tion date. Copyright pages in subsequent edi-

ƒƒ May be the original source for the 1970a Ger-

tions state the first edition dates to April 1973,


and this same date is cited in Varela’s preface to

Bibliography Humberto Maturana

1970c Varela F. J. & Maturana H. R. (1970) Time courses of excitation and inhibition in retinal ganglion cells. Experimental Neurology 26(1): 53–59.


current problems in psycholinguistics, Paris, 13–17 December 1971. Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. 1974d Maturana H. R. (1974) Biologie der Kognition. Instituts für Wissenschafts- und Planungstheorie im Forschungs- und Entwicklungszentrum für objektivierte Lehr- und Lernverfahren (FEoLL), Paderborn.

de Documentacion (C IDOC), Cuernavaca

the revised second edition.


1971a Bloch S. & Maturana H. R. (1971) Oil droplets distribution and colour discrimination in the pigeon retina. Nature New Biology 234(52): 284–285. ƒƒ This paper is universally misattributed to Volume 239 and pages 284–295. This entry has been verified against the journal’s own listings.


1972a Maturana H. R., Varela F. J. & Frenk S. (1972) Size constancy and the problem of perceptual spaces. Cognition 1(1): 97–104.

ƒƒ This 1973 Spanish language publication is often attributed as the source for the text published as the second portion of 1980e.


1974a Maturana H. R. (1974) Cognitive strategies. In: Foerster H. von (ed.) Cybernetics of cybernetics. Biological Computer Lab (BCL) Report 73–38, dated May 1974. University of Illinois, Urbana: 457–469. ƒƒ Reprinted in: Foerster H. von (ed.) (1995)

man translations published in 1982a and 1998a.

1974e Varela F. J., Maturana H. R. & Uribe R. (1974) Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5(4): 187–196. ƒƒ Republished as 1982h

ƒƒ German translation “Autopoiese: Die Organisation lebender Systeme, ihre nähere Bestimmung und ein Modell” in 1982a: 157–169


1975a Maturana H. R. (1975) The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 7(3): 313–332.

Cybernetics of cybernetics. Second Edition.

ƒƒ This is a later version of a paper presented at

Future Systems, Minneapolis: 457–469.

the Conference on Biologically Motivated Au-

ƒƒ German translation “Größenkonstanz und

ƒƒ Transcription available at http://www.scribd.

tomata Theory, MacLean VA, 19–21 June 1974.

das Problem der Wahrnehmungsräume” 1982a:

com/doc/946678 and http://biologyofcognition.

ƒƒ Republished as 1999a


ƒƒ German translation “Die Organisation des


Lebendigen: Eine Theorie der lebendigen

ƒƒ French translation: 1974b

Organisation” in 1982a: 138–156.

ƒƒ German translation “Kognitive Strategien” in

ƒƒ Spanish translation “La organización de lo

1982a: 297–322

viviente. Una teoría de la organización de lo

1972b Varela F. J. & Maturana H. R. (1972) Mechanism and biological explanation. Philosophy of Science 39(3): 378–382. ƒƒ Available at doc/30176742 and http://biologyofcognition.


1973a Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1973) De máquinas y seres vivos: Una teoría sobre la organización biológica. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago. ƒƒ This book represents the initial formal publication of a manuscript originally written in English under the working title “Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems,” cf. 1975b. ƒƒ Second (revised) edition (1994) retitled

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3

1974b Maturana H. R. (1974) Strategies cognitives. In: Morin E. & Pattelli-Palmarini M. (eds.) L’unite de l’homme. Volume 2: Le cerveau humain. Seuil, Paris: 156–181.

vivo” in 1996a: 226–252.

as it appears in Vol. 2 of 3-volume set. Page

1975b Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1975) Autopoietic systems: A characterization of the living organization. Biological Computer Lab (BCL) Research Report 9.4. University of Illinois, Urbana.

numbers are 418–442 within the combined

ƒƒ This is apparently the original English

single-volume version.

manuscript (or a revised version thereof) first

ƒƒ French translation of 1974a. Pagination cited

1974c Maturana H. R. (1974) The origin of language: A biological problem. In: Mehler J. & Bresson F. (eds.) Problemes actuels en psycholinguistique: Proceedings of international symposium on

published in Spanish translation as 1973a. ƒƒ It was subsequently republished as the second section in 1980e: 63–134 under the title “Autopoiesis: The organization of the living,” with a preface by Stafford Beer. The arrangement of

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana Randall Whitaker

the 1980 republication indicates the Stafford Beer preface and Glossary were components of this paper. Citations and annotations by Milan Zeleny and Albert Müller indicate Beer’s preface first appeared in this 1975 publication. ƒƒ German translation “Autopoietische Systeme: Eine Bestimmung der lebendigen Organisation” in 1982a: 170–235.


1978a Maturana H. R. (1978) Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In: Miller G. & Lenneberg E. (eds.) Psychology and biology of language and thought: Essays in honor of Eric Lenneberg. Academic Press, New York: 27–63.

munication, and society: The theory of autopoietic systems in the social sciences. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt: 11–32. 1980d Maturana H. R. & Guiloff G. D. (1980) The quest for the intelligence of intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 3(2): 135–148. ƒƒ Spanish translation “En busqueda de la inteligencia de la inteligencia” in 1993a.

1980e Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel, Boston.


1982a Maturana H. R. (1982) Erkennen: Die Organisation und Verkörperung von Wirklichkeit. Ausgewählte Arbeiten zur biologischen Epistemologie. [Knowledge: The organization and embodiment of reality. Selected works on biological epistemology]. Translated by Wolfram K. Köck. Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig & Wiesbaden. ƒƒ This collection includes an introduction by Maturana (see 1982b) and German translations of 1970a (32–80), 1972a (81–87), 1968a

ƒƒ This volume reprints (in order of appear-

(88–137), 1975a (138–156), 1974d (157–169),

ance) 1970a and a second paper labeled as

1975b (170–235), 1978a (236–271), 1974a

Maturana & Varela (1973; Autopoiesis: The

(297–322). Also includes first publication of

ƒƒ Available at

organization of the living), along with an ex-

1982c (272–296). 1970a’s appearance here may


tended introduction by Maturana. The second

represent republication of 1974d.

ƒƒ German translation “Biologie der Sprache:

paper includes a preface by Stafford Beer and

ƒƒ Second revised edition was published in

Die Epistemologie der Realität” in 1982a:

a glossary.

1985 with same article pagination as the first

236–271 and 1998a: 93–144.

ƒƒ The characterization of the second paper is

edition. This second revised edition was reis-

1978b Maturana H. R. (1978) Cognition. In: Hejl P., Köck W. & Roth G. (eds.) Wahrnehmung und Kommunikation. Peter Lang, Frankfurt: 29–49.

anomalous, because no English language publication with this title was published in 1973. This volume’s front matter states the paper was originally published as De máquinas y seres

sued in 1996.

1982b Maturana H. R. (1982) Einleitung des Autors zur deutschen Ausgabe [Author’s introduction to the German edition]. In: 1982a: 14–31. 1982c Maturana H. R. (1982) Repräsentation und Kommunikation. In 1982a: 272–296.

ƒƒ Available at

vivos 1973a. However, that 1973 book rep-

M78bCog.html and

resented a Spanish translation of an original

doc/959135/Cognition-Maturana and http://bi-

manuscript in English, finalized in 1972 and

presumably first appearing in its original Eng-


lish as Autopoietic systems 1975b. Owing to the

ƒƒ German translation and publication of an

ƒƒ German translation “Kognition” in 1987f.

fact that no translation is credited, the most

“in press” English manuscript whose originally

reasonable interpretation is that this second

intended publication was delayed until 1987


1979a Maturana H. R. (1979) The wholeness of the unity: Conversations with Heinz von Foerster. Cybernetics Forum 9(3): 20–26.


1980a Maturana H. R. (1980) Autopoiesis: Reproduction, heredity and evolution. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis, dissipative structures and spontaneous social orders, AAAS Selected Symposium 55 (AAAS National Annual Meeting, Houston TX, 3–8 January 1979). Westview Press, Boulder CO: 45–79. 1980b Maturana H. R. (1980) Introduction. In: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition. Reidel, Boston: xi–xxx. 1980c Maturana H. R. (1980) Man and society. In: Benseler F., Hejl P. M. & Köck W. K. (eds.) Autopoiesis, com-

paper derived from that English manuscript (perhaps by way of the 1975 BCL report) and not the 1973 Spanish translation per se. ƒƒ The organization of the 1980 volume indicates the Stafford Beer preface and glossary were components of the second paper. Notes by Milan Zeleny and Albert Müller indicate Beer’s preface appeared in the 1975 BCL publication.


1981a Maturana H. R. (1981) Autopoiesis. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis: A theory of the living organization. Volume 3 in the North Holland Series in General Systems Research. Westview Press, Boulder CO: 21–33. 1981b Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1981) Introductory remarks. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis: A theory of the living organization. Westview Press. Boulder CO: 18–19.

(see 1987i).

1982d Maturana H. R. (1982) Reflexiones: Aprendizaje o deriva ontogénica. (Reflections: Learning or ontogenetic drift). Archivos de Biología y Medicina Experimentales 15(3–4): 261–271. ƒƒ Reprinted in 1993a

1982e Maturana H. R. (1982) L’illusione della percezione ovvero la chiusura operativa del sistema nervoso [The illusion of perception or the operational closure of the nervous system]. La Nuova Critica, XVI Série (La vita e la scienza), Alfamedia, Rome: 2(64). 1982f Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1982) Color-opponent responses in the avian lateral geniculate: A study in the quail (Coturnix coturnix japonica). Brain Research 247(2): 227–241. ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files.


1982g Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1982) Size constancy and accommodation. Perception 10(6): 707–709. 1982h Varela F. J., Maturana H. R. & Uribe R. (1982) Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Cybernetics Forum 10: 7–14. ƒƒ Republication of 1974e

ƒƒ Available at

Bibliography Humberto Maturana


fenómeno social.” Available at http://www. · http://www.scribd. com/doc/55309765 · http://www.scribd. com/doc/30176591 · doc/50046254

ƒƒ The volume is apparently an unedited collec-

ƒƒ Spanish translation published in: 1993a;

tion of papers from various authors. only rarely cited, and it is included solely on the

1983a Maturana H. R. (1983) Comment by Humberto R. Maturana. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 6(2): 155–159.

man Development); retitled “Biología del

ƒƒ Presumably a republication of 1983b

ƒƒ This 1984 edition by Editorial Universitaria is




1984b Maturana H. R. (1984) Fenomenología del conocer. In: Del universo al multiverso. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago.

basis of tertiary citations. See 1985c entry for the more commonly cited edition from Editorial Edith Contreras.

1984c Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1984) El árbol del conocimiento: Las bases biológicas del entendimiento humano. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago.

1995a: 3–18; 1999b: 21–38.

1985b Maturana H. R. (1985) Comment by Humberto R. Maturana: The mind is not in the head. Journal of Social and Biological Structures. 8(4): 308–311. 1985c Maturana H. R. (1985) Fenomenología del conocer (1985) In: (Various authors) Del universo al multiverso. Editorial Edith Contreras, Santiago. ƒƒ Presumably a republication of 1983b

ƒƒ Maturana’s response to: Fedanzo A. J. Short

ƒƒ Multiple subsequent Chilean editions

ƒƒ The volume is apparently an unedited collec-

articles on unsolved problems: All things

have been printed. Multiple international /

tion of papers from various authors.

are full of gods – Or information. Journal of

translated editions have been introduced (and

ƒƒ The volume’s authorship is cited in diverse

Social and Biological Structures 6(2): 135–138.

reprinted) as well. Examples of these addi-

and conflicting ways, including: F. Cruz et al.;

Often cited as “On the misuse of the notion of

tional editions include: Danish: (1987) Kund-

Cruz, Medina & Maturana; Humberto Mat-

information in biology,” even though this title

skabens trae. Ask, Aarhus; English: 1987k;

urana & others; and simply “various authors.”

appears nowhere in the original publication.

German: (1987) Der Baum der Erkenntnis.

ƒƒ A 1986 edition has been cited, but could not

1983b Maturana H. R. (1983) Fenomenología del conocer. Revista de Tecnologia Educativa (Departamento de Asuntos Educativos Organización de los Estados Americanos) 8(3–4): 228–252.

Scherz, Munich; Italian: (1987) L’albero della conoscenza. Garzanti Editore, Milan; Japanese: (1987) 知識の木. Asahi Press, Tokyo; Spanish republication: (1990) El Arbol del Conocimiento. Editorial Debate. Madrid; Slovenian:

ƒƒ Presumably republished as 1984b; as 1985c;

(1998) Drevo spoznanja. Studia Humanitatis,

and in 1999b: 73–108.

Ljubljana; Dutch: (1989) De boom der kennis.

1983c Maturana H. R. (1983) What is it to see? (¿Qué es ver?) Archivos de Biología y Medicina Experimentales 16(3–4): 255–269.

Uitgeverij Contact, Amsterdam; French: (1994) L’arbre de la connaissance. Addison-Wesley France, Paris; Portuguese: (1995) A árvore do conhecimento. Editorial Psy. Sao PaulGreek:

be adequately verified.

1985d Maturana H. R. (1985) Reflexionen über Liebe. Zeitschrift für Systemische Therapie und Beratung 3(3): 129–131. 1985e Maturana H. R. & Simon R. (1985) An interview with Humberto Maturana. The Family Therapy Networker 9(3): 36–37, 41–43. 1985f Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1985) Autopoiesi e cognizione: La realizzazione del vivente. Translated by Alessandra Stragapede. Marsilio Editori, Venezia.

ƒƒ The paper was originally presented in the

(1992) To lentro tes gnoshs. Katoptro, Athens;

International Symposium on Comparative

Russian: (2001) Древо познания. Прогресс-

ƒƒ Italian edition of 1980e; several subsequent

Neurobiology of Vision in Vertebrates (Punta

Традиция, Москва. Перевод с английского


de Tralca, Chile, November 1982).

Ю. А. Данилова. [Tree of Knowledge.

ƒƒ Presumably republished in, or providing

Progress-Tradition, Moscow. Translated from

thematic focus for 1994c

English by Y. A. Danilov]

1983d Varela F. J., Letelier J. C., Marín G. & Maturana H. R. (1983) The neurophysiology of avian color vision. Archivos de Biología y Medicina Experimentales 16: 291–303.

ƒƒ The first Argentinian edition (Lumen, Buenos Aires; 2003) is available at http://www. ƒƒ The first Brazilian / Portuguese edition (Editorial Psy, São Paulo; 1995) is available at http://


1984a Budnik V., Mpodozis J., Varela F. J. & Maturana H. R. (1984) Regional specialization of the quail retina: Ganglion cell density and oil droplet distribution. Neuroscience Letters 51(1): 145–150.


1985a Maturana H. R. (1985) Biologie der Sozialität. Delfin 5: 6–14. ƒƒ Republished as 1987g ƒƒ Spanish translation circa 1990 for Talleres

ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files.

de Investigación en Desarrollo Humano

(TIDEH: Workshops in Research in Hu-

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3


1986a Maturana H. R. (1986) Information – Mißverständnisse ohne Ende. Delfin 7: 24–27. 1986b Méndez C. L. & Maturana H. R. (1986) La enfermedad crónica como trastorno epistemológico. Revista Chilena de Psicología 8(2): 3–4. ƒƒ Some citations list the above-cited title as a subtitle to “El pecado original.” ƒƒ Republished (perhaps in revised form) in 1993a.


1987a Guiloff G. D., Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1987) Cytoarchitecture

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana Randall Whitaker

of the avian ventral lateral geniculate nucleus. The Journal of Comparative Neurology 264(4): 509–526. 1987b Krüll M., Luhmann N. & Maturana H. R. (1987) Grundkonzepte der Theorie autopoietischer Systeme: Neun Fragen an Niklas Luhmann und Humberto Maturana und ihre Antworten. Zeitschrift für Systemische Therapie 5(1): 4–25. ƒƒ Krüll posed a set of nine questions to both Luhmann and Maturana, then collated their

Radikalen Konstruktivismus. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main: 89–118. ƒƒ German translation of 1978b

1987g Maturana H. R. (1987) Biologie der Sozialität. In: Schmidt S. J. (ed.) Der Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main: 287–302. ƒƒ Republication of 1985a

1987h Maturana H. R. (1987) Amore e autopoiesis. MicroMega (Rome) 1: 179–192.


1998a Maldonado P. E., Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1988) Frontal and lateral visual systems in birds. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 32(1): 57–62. 1988b Maturana H. R. (1988) Elemente einer Ontologie des Beobachtens. In: Gumbrecht H. U. & Pfeiffer K. (eds.) Materialität der Kommunikation. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main: 830–845. 1988c Maturana H. R. (1988) Ontología del conversar. Revista Terapia Psicológia VII(10): 15–23.

answers and her own commentary. Citations

ƒƒ A response to: Danilo Zolo (1986) Autopoi-

vary on author attributions; many list Krüll as

esis: Un paradigma conservatore, MicroMega

ƒƒ Republished as 1989c

sole author.

1: 129–173.

ƒƒ Republished in: 1993a and 1995a: 19–36.

ƒƒ English translation: Krüll M., Luhmann

ƒƒ Available at

ƒƒ German translation “Ontologie des Konversi-

N. & Maturana H. R. (1989) Basic concepts


of the theory of autopoietic systems: Nine questions to Niklas Luhmann and Humberto R. Maturana and their answers. In: Hargens J. (ed.) Systemic therapy: A European perspective (Systemic Studies Vol. 1). Borgmann, Broadstairs Kent UK: 79–104.

1987c Maturana H. R. (1987) The biological foundations of self-consciousness and the physical domain of existence. In: Caianiello E. (ed.) Physics of cognitive processes: Proceedings of the international symposium. World Scientific, Singapore: 324–379.

1987i Maturana H. R. (1987) Representation and communication functions. In: Piaget J., Mounoud P. & Bronckart J. P. (eds.) Psychologie (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade 46). Gallimard, Paris. ƒƒ Multiple authors clearly had access to the manuscript years before this – the originally planned publication – actually appeared. Often mistakenly cited as published in 1975 or 1978. Unpublished manuscript listed as “in press” in

erens” in 1998a: 361–379.

1988d Maturana H. R. (1988) Ontology of observing: The biological foundations of self-consciousness and the physical domain of existence. In: Donaldson R. E. (ed.) Texts in cybernetic theory: An in-depth exploration of the thought of Humberto Maturana, William T. Powers, and Ernst von Glasersfeld. American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) conference workbook.

The Biological Computer Laboratory author

ƒƒ Available at

index (U. of Illinois, 1976) and assigned BCL


document number 267.

ƒƒ Republication of 1987c

ƒƒ Retitled “Ontology of Observing” and repub-

ƒƒ First published in German translation as

ƒƒ German translation “Ontologie des

lished as 1988d and in 1990g: 47–117.


Beobachtens: Die biologischen Grundlagen

ƒƒ Spanish translation “Los fundamentos biológicos de la autoconciencia y el dominio físico de la existencia” in 1996a: 96–169.

1987d Maturana H. R. (1987) Everything said is said by an observer. In: Thompson W. I. (ed.) Gaia: A way of knowing. Lindisfarne Press, New York: 65–82. ƒƒ Book translated into Spanish and listed as: Lovelock J., Bateson G., Margulis L., Atlan

1987j Maturana H. R. (1987) Individuo y sociedad entre la guerra y la paz: La opinion de un cientifico. In: Politica mundial hacia el siglo XXI. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago. 1987k Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1987) The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Shambhala, Boston.

H., Varela F. & Maturana H. (1990) GAIA:

ƒƒ English translation of 1984c. Revised edi-

Implicaciones de una nueva biología. Edited by

tion, with afterword by Varela, published as

W. I. Thompson. Barcelona: Kairós. Multiple subsequent editions have been issued. ƒƒ Book translated into Italian as: Thompson W. I. (ed.) (1988) Ecologia e autonomia – la nuova biologia: implicazioni epistemologiche e politiche. Feltrinelli, Milan. Multiple subsequent editions have been issued.

1987e Maturana H. R. (1987) Preface to “The chalice and the blade” by R. Eisler. Harper and Row, New York. 1987f Maturana H. R. (1987) Kognition. in: Schmidt S. J. (ed.) Der Diskurs des


1987l Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (1987) Percepción: Configuración conductual del objeto. Archivos de Biología y Medicina Experimentales 20(3–4): 319–324. ƒƒ Republished in 1993a and in 1996a: 170–180.

1987m Maturana H. R. & Luzoro J. (1987) Diálogo con Humberto Maturana Romesín sobre psicología. Revista Chilena de Psicología. 9(1): 77–86. ƒƒ Republished in 1993a.

des Selbst-bewußtseins und des physikalischen Bereichs der Existenz” in 1998a: 145–225. ƒƒ Italian translation: 1993c

1988e Maturana H. R. (1988) Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 25–82. Available at html and ƒƒ Reprinted as 1991b ƒƒ Reprinted in the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) 1992 conference workbook “Language, emotion, the social and the ethical: An in-depth exploration of the cybernetics of Herbert Brün and Humberto R. Maturana” ƒƒ Spanish translation “Realidad: La búsqueda de lat objetividad o la búsqueda de un argumento convincente” published as 1996c and in 1996a: 11–95. ƒƒ German translation “Realität: Die Suche nach Objektivität oder der Kampf um ein zwingen-


des Argument” in 1998a: 226–319.

1988f Méndez C., L., Coddou F. & Maturana H. R. (1988) The bringing forth of pathology. Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 144–172. ƒƒ Spanish translation “La constitución de lo patológico: Ensayo para ser leído en voz alta

ƒƒ Republished (perhaps in revised / extended

por dos” in 1993a: 147–182. Available (perhaps

form) in 1991g: 141–145. This latter ver-

in draft form) at

sion is available at



ƒƒ This paper is apparently derived from an earlier unpublished Spanish text entitled “Cómo se engendra la patología: Ensayo para ser leído en voz alta entre dos.” This text is documented as a “file” or “unpublished paper” distributed among members of the Sociedad Argentina de Terapia Familia (SATF), which has made it available online at archivos/Maturana – C%F3mo se engendra la

Bibliography Humberto Maturana

ƒƒ Also republished in 1996a: 279ff.

1990c Maturana H. R. (1990) Neurociencia y cognición: Biología de lo psíquico. In: Bocaz A. (ed.) Actas primer simposio sobre cognicion, lenguaje y cultura: dialogo transdisciplinario en ciencias cognitivas. Programa de Estudios Cognitivos, Universidad de Chile: 39–56. ƒƒ Republished in: 1996a: 181–207 and in 1999b: 167–196.



1990b Maturana H. R. (1990) ¿Cuando se es humano? Reflexiones sobre el articulo de C. R. Austin (1990) “The significance of fertilization.” Archivos de Biología y Medicina Experimentales 23(4): 273–275.

ƒƒ The SATF version may not be the earliest version. It apparently dates to circa 1987, whereas multiple authors have attributed dates as early as 1980 to the title. This unpublished text noticeably differs from the subsequent English and Spanish publications.


1989a Maturana H. R. (1989) Lenguaje y realidad: El origen de lo humano. Archivos de Biología y Medicina Experimentales 22(2): 77–81. ƒƒ Reprinted in 1993a.

1989b Maturana H. R. (1989) Donde esta la mente? Revista Terapia Psicologica 12: 15–23. 1989c Maturana H. R. (1989). Ontología del conversar. Persona y Sociedad 3(2): 9–28. ƒƒ Presumably a republication of 1988c


1990a Maturana H. R. (1990) Emociones y lenguaje en educacion y politica. Ediciones Hachette, Santiago / Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago. ƒƒ Multiple subsequent editions have been published ƒƒ Available at doc/19688025 and doc/37261154 and doc/23557440 and doc/55396857 ƒƒ Portuguese translation: 1998f ƒƒ Italian translation: 2007d

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3

1990d Maturana H. R. (1990) Biología de la cognición y epistemiologia. Ediciones Universidad de la Frontera, Temuco (Chile). 1990e Maturana H. R. (1990) Science and daily life: The ontology of scientific explanations. In: Krohn W., Kuppers G. & Nowotny H. (eds.) Selforganization: Portrait of a scientific revolution. Kluwer, Dordrecht: 12–35. ƒƒ Republished as 1991f ƒƒ German translations: 1990f and 1998a: 320–360 ƒƒ Spanish translation: 1995a. ƒƒ Portuguese translation: 2001e.

1990f Maturana H. R. (1990) Wissenschaft und Alltagsleben: Die Ontologie der wissenschaftlichen Erklärung. In: Krohn W. & Küppers G. (eds.) Selbstorganisation: Aspekte einer wissenschaftlichen Revolution. Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig &Wiesbaden. ƒƒ German translation of 1990e

1990g Maturana H. R. (1990) The biological foundations of self consciousnes1s and the physical domain of existence. In: Luhmann N., Maturana H., Namiki M., Redder V. & Varela F. (eds.) Beobachter: Konvergenz der Erkenntnistheorien? Wilhelm FinkVerlag, Munich: 47–117. ƒƒ Original publication: 1987c

1990h Maturana H. R. (1990) Ein Gespräch mit Humberto R. Maturana. In: Riegas V. & Vetter C. (eds.) Zur

Biologie der Kognition: Ein Gespräch mit Humberto R. Maturana und Beiträge zur Diskussion seines Werkes. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main: 11–90. ƒƒ Paperback second edition: 1991. Third edition: 1993.

1990i Maturana H. R. (1990) Respuesta a la crítica de Berman de “El árbol del Conocimiento.” Revista Chilena de Psicología 11(1). ƒƒ English translation: 1991d

1990j Verden-Zöller G. & Maturana H. R. (1990) Spiel: Ein vernachlässiger Weg. Delfin 13: 23–32.


1991a Maturana H. R. (1991) The origin of the theory of autopoietic systems. In: Fischer H. R. (ed.) Autopoiesis: Eine Theorie im Brennpunkt der Kritik. Carl Auer, Heidelberg: 121–123. 1991b Maturana H. R. (1991) Reality: The search for objectivity, or the quest for a compelling argument. In: Leser N., Serfert J. & Plitzner K. (eds.) Die Gedankenwelt Sir Karl Poppers. Kritischer Rationalismus im Dialog. Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg: 282–374. ƒƒ Original publication: 1988e

1991c Maturana H. R. (1991) Scientific and philosophical theories. In: Leser N., Serfert J. & Plitzner K. (eds.) Die Gedankenwelt Sir Karl Popper: Kritischer Rationalismus im Dialog. Carl Winter UniversitatsVerlag, Heidelberg: 358–368. ƒƒ Additional pages of discussion follow the paper

1991d Maturana H. R. (1991) Response to Berman’s critique of The Tree of Knowledge. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 31(2): 88–97. ƒƒ Translation of 1990i

1991e Maturana H. R. (1991) Response to Jim Birch. Journal of Family Therapy 13(4): 375–393. ƒƒ Available at doi/10.1046/j..1991.00435.x/pdf ƒƒ This is Maturana’s reply to: Birch J. (1991) Reinventing the already punctured wheel: reflections on a seminar with Humberto Maturana. Journal of Family Therapy 13(4): 349–373. ƒƒ Spanish translation in 1996a: 255–278.

1991f Maturana H. R. (1991) Science and

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana Randall Whitaker

daily life: The ontology of scientific explanations. In: Steier F. (ed.) Research and reflexivity. Sage, Beverly Hills: 30–52. ƒƒ Republication of 1990e

1991g Maturana H. R. (1991) El sentido de lo humano. Editorial Dolmen, Santiago.

ƒƒ French translation: 1999e ƒƒ English translation: 2001f

1992e Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1992) The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Revised Edition. Shambhala, Boston. ƒƒ Revised edition of 1987k, with an afterword by Varela.

ƒƒ Multiple subsequent editions printed by Dolmen and Editorial Hachette, including: second, third, and fourth editions (1992); fifth edition (1993); sixth edition (1994); seventh edition (1995); and eight edition (1996) ƒƒ Fourth edition available at http://www.scribd. com/doc/48528752 and http://www.scribd.


1993a Maturana H. R. (1993) Desde la biología a la psicología. Editing and prologue by Jorge Luzoro. Editorial Mitech Ltda. / Ediciones Synthesis, Santiago. ƒƒ Contains translations of 1980d, 1982d, 1993d,

ƒƒ Eighth edition available at http://www.scribd.

1987l, translation of 1985a, 1988c, 1989a, 1986b,

com/doc/39784408 and http://www.scribd.

1964a, translation of 1988f, 1987m.


ƒƒ Further editions: Second edition 1995, Edito-

1992a Maturana H. R. (1992) Cognition and autopoiesis: A brief reflection on the consequences of their understanding. In: Teubner G. & Febbrajo A. (eds.) State, law and economy as autopoietic systems: regulation and autonomy in a new perspective. European Yearbook in the Sociology of Law Giuffre, Milan: 125–142. 1992b Maturana H. R. (1992) La objetividad: Un argumento para obligar. Comunicaciones y Ediciones Noreste Ltda, Santiago. Edited by J. C. Sáez. ƒƒ Second edition published in 1993 and reprinted in 2007. ƒƒ Republished by Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago in 1997 as that publisher’s first edition.

1992c Maturana H. R. & Ludewig K. (1992) Conversaciones con Humberto Maturana: Preguntas del Psicoterapeuta al Biólogo. Ediciones Universidad de la Frontera, Temuco (Chile). ƒƒ Revised German translation: 2006a.

1992d Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (1992) Origen de las especies por medio de la deriva natural (Publicacion Ocasional no. 46). Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Santiago.

rial Universitaria, Santiago; Third edition 2004, Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago; Fourth edition 2006, Editorial Universitaria, Santiago, available at; Fifth edition 2008, Editorial Universitaria, Santiago; Fourth Argentinian edition 2004, Editorial Universitaria & Grupo Editorial Lumen, Buenos Aires, available at doc/11522094

1993b Maturana H. R. (1993) Biology of the aesthetic experience. In: Titzmann M. (ed.) Zeichen(theorie) und Praxis. Proceedings of the 6 internationaler Kongreß der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik, October 1990. Wissenschaftsverlag Rothe, Passau. 1993c Maturana H. R. (1993) Autocoscienza e realtà [Self-consciousness and reality]. Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milano.

published in parallel. This is not a translation of the other volume, and vice versa.

1993g Córdova F., Doggenweiler C., Maturana H., Mpodozis J., Letelier J. C. & Moyano A. (1993) Alternativas de automatización para el guiado autónomo de vehículos cargadores frontales en una mina subterránea. Automática e Innovación 2: 67–63.


1994a Maturana H. R. (1994) La democracia es una obra de arte. Cooperativa Editorial Magisterio, Bogotá. ƒƒ Often listed with a 1995 publication date, which presumably reflects a second printing.

1994b Maturana H. R. (1994) Prefacio de Humberto Maturana R. a la segunda edición. In: 1994d: 9–33. ƒƒ English translation: 2011a

1994c Maturana H. R. (1996) Was ist Erkennen? Piper, Munich. ƒƒ This volume consists of two major sections. The first is a record of a lecture in six parts entitled “Was ist Erkennen?” presented by Maturana during the winter of 1991/1992 at the University of Oldenburg. The lecture was based on Maturana publications translated into German by H. G. Holl. The second section is a record of discussions held in the subsequent colloquium “Systemtheorie und Zukunft” (Systems theory and the future), in which Maturana participated. The volume is edited with an introduction by Rudolf zur Lippe. ƒƒ Revised edition issued in 1996. Additional

1993d Maturana H. R. & Luzoro J. G. (1993) Herencia y medio ambiente. In: 1993a. 1993e Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (1993) Liebe und Spiel: Die vergessenen Grundlagen des Menschseins. CarlAuer, Heidelberg. ƒƒ This volume and its Spanish counterpart (1993f) derived from a single set of draft materials. The volumes were developed, translated, and

is19921.pdf and

published in parallel. This is not a translation of

ƒƒ Republished in 1995a

als. The volumes were developed, translated, and

may not be the first Italian edition or printing.


(1993e) derived from a single set of draft materi-

ƒƒ Italian translation of 1988d. This 1993 version

ƒƒ Available at http://biologyofcognition.files.

ƒƒ This volume and its German counterpart

ƒƒ Portuguese translation: 2004h



olvidados de lo humano. Editorial Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva, Santiago.

the other volume, and vice versa.

1993f Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (1993) Amor y juego: Fundamentos

edition issued in 2001. ƒƒ Presumably included, or was based on, 1983c

1994d Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1994) De máquinas y seres vivos. Autopoiesis: La organización de lo vivo. Revised second edition. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago. Revised edition of 1973a, with new prefaces by both Maturana (1994b) and Varela. 1994e Maturana H. R. & Ludewig K. (1994) Reflexiones y conversaciones. Coleccion Instituto de la Familia, Editorial Fundación para la Investigación (FU.PA.L.I.), Córdoba (Argentina).



1995a Maturana H. R. (1995) La realidad: ¿objetiva o construida? I: Fundamentos biológicos de la realidad. Editorial Anthropos, Barcelona / Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City / Instituto Technológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO), Mexico. ƒƒ First of two volumes (cf. 1996a). ƒƒ Contains republications of previous works as follows: 1985a (Translated as “Biología del fenómeno social,” 3–18), 1988c (19–36), 1993d (Translated as “Biología de la experiencia estética,” 38–62), 1990e (Translated as “La ciencia y la vida diaria: la ontología de las explicaciones científicas,” 63 ff), and 1992d (105 ff). ƒƒ First reprinting: 1997.

Bibliography Humberto Maturana

1995b Maturana H. R. (1995) The nature of time. Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva, Santiago.


ƒƒ Available at nature.htm ƒƒ Available at Transcription also available at

1995c Maturana H. R. (1995) Biology of self-consciousness. In: Tratteur G. (ed.) Consciousness: Distinction and reflection. Bibliopolis, Naples: 145–175. 1995d Maturana H. R. (1995) Biología y violencia. In: Coddou F. et al. (1995) Violencia en sus distintos ambitos de expresion. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago: 69 ff. ƒƒ Available at doc/19116143 ƒƒ Maturana’s contribution to a series of semi-

UNICEF Chile / Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago. Known subsequent editions: Second (1997); Third (2001); and Fourth (2002). ƒƒ Available at doc/7092086

1995h Mpodozis J., Letelier J. C., Concha M. L. & Maturana H. R. (1995) Conduction velocity groups in the retino-tectal and retino-thalamic visual pathways of the pigeon (Columbia livia). The International Journal of Neuroscience 81(1–2): 123–136. 1995i Mpodozis J., Letelier J. C. & Maturana H. R. (1995) Nervous system as a closed neuronal network: Behavioral and cognitive consequences. In: Mira J. & Sandoval F. (eds.) From natural to artificial neural computation: International workshop on artificial neural networks, Malaga-Torremolinos, Spain, June 7–9, 1995 (Lecture Notes in Computer Science: 930). Springer Verlag, Berlin: 130–136.


1996a Maturana H. R. (1996) La realidad: ¿objetiva o construida? II: Fundamentos biológicos de la conocimiento. Editorial Anthropos, Barcelona / Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City / Instituto Technológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO; Mexico).

ƒƒ The following chapters represent republicaous works: 1988e (Translated as “Realidad: la búsqueda de lat objetividad o la búsqueda de un argumento convincente”): 11–95; 1987c (Translated as “Los fundamentos biológicos

the authors’ names. The order cited here is as

de la autoconciencia y el dominio físico de la

given on the front cover of the first edition.

existencia”): 96–169; 1987l: 170–180; 1990c:

1995g Maturana H. R. & Nisis S. (1995) Formación humana y capacitación.

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3 and


1996f Матурана У. (1996) Биология познания В кн.: В. В. Петров (сост. и вступ. статья). Язык и интеллект. Издательская группа “Прогресс,” Москва: 95–142. Перевод с английского Ю.М.Мешанина. [Maturana H. (1996) “Biology of cognition” In: Petrov V. V. (ed.) Language and intelligence. Progress Publishing Group, Moscow: 95–142. Translated from English by Y. M. Meshanin.] ƒƒ Abridged Russian translation of 1970a

tions (in translated or revised form) of previ-

ƒƒ Citations often disagree on the ordering of

ƒƒ Transcriptions available at http://www.

doc/26725346 and

ƒƒ First reprinting: 1997. Second edition: 2009. and http://

1999b: 215–228

doc/30176663 and

ƒƒ Second of two volumes, cf. 1995a

ƒƒ Transcriptions available at http://www.enol-

ƒƒ Spanish translation (Biologia del amor) in


the Instituto de Terapia Familiar de Santiago.

1995f Maturana H. R., Mpodozis J. & Letelier J. C. (1995) Brain, language and the origin of human mental functions. Biological Research 28(1): 15–26.

ƒƒ Spanish translation of Maturana 1988e.

1996d Maturana H. R. & Bloch S. (1996) Biologia del emocionar y alba emoting: Bailando juntos. Ediciones Dolmen, Santiago. 1996e Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (1996) Biology of love. In Opp G. & Peterander F. (eds.) Focus Heilpädagogik [Focus: Therapeutic pedagogy]. Ernst Reinhardt, Munich.

ƒƒ Available at

nars commemorating the tenth anniversary of

1995e Coddou F., Kunstmann G., Maturana H. R., Méndez C. L. & Montenegro H. (1995) Violencia en sus distintos ambitos de expresion. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago.

Ein Lesebuch aus Philosophie, Naturund der Humanwissenschaften. Piper, Munich: 134–143. 1996c Maturana H. R. (1996) Realidad: La búsqueda de la objetividad o la persecución del argumento que obliga. In: Pakman M. (ed.) Construcciones de la experiencia humana. Volume I. Gedisa Editorial SA, Buenos Aires: 51–138.

181–207; 1970b (Translated as “La neurofisiología del conocimiento”: 208–225; 1975a (Translated as “La organización de lo viviente: una teoría de la organización de lo vivo”): 226–252; 1991e (Translated as “Réplica a Jim Birch”): 255–278.

1996b Maturana H. R. (1996) Zusammenprall zweier Prinzipien. In: Bohnet-von der Thüsen H. (ed.) Denkanstöße ‘97:


1997a Maturana H. R. (1997) Metadesign: Human beings versus machines, or machines as instruments of human designs? Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva, Santiago. ƒƒ Available at metadesign.htm

1997b Maturana H.R (1997) La objetividad: Un argumento para obligar. Ediciones Dolmen, Santiago. ƒƒ This appears to be a limited reprinting of 1992b

1997c Maturana H. R. (1997) El observador en su observación: Tres conferen-

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana Randall Whitaker

cias y unas reflexiones sobre la biología del conocer, la biología del amor y la constitución sistémica de la identidad del ser. Revista Systémica 2: 13–54. 1997d Maturana H. R. (1997) Biologische Grundlagen von Moral und Ethik in der Erziehung. Vierteljahresschrift für Heilpädagogik und ihre Nachbargebiete 66(2): 206–224. 1997e Maturana H. R. (1997) A ontologia da realidade. Editora UFMG, Belo Horizonte. 1997f Maturana H. R. (1997) Die Natur der Zeit. In: Gimmler A., Sandbothe M. & Zimmerli W. C. (eds.) Die Wiederentdeckung der Zeit: Reflexion Analysen Konzepte. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt: 114–125. 1997g Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (1997) What is wisdom and how is it learned? Paper presented in abridged form at the North American Association for Environmental Educators conference, July 1997. ƒƒ Unabridged manuscript of October 1997 available at doc/23002157

1997h Maturana H. R. & Nisis S. (1997) Human awareness: Understanding the biological basis of knowledge and love in education. Edited by Jane Cull.

1998b Maturana H. R. (1998). Biosphere, homosphere, and robosphere: What has this to do with business? (Recreation by P. Bunnell of Maturana’s unpublished presentation at the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) Members’ Meeting, Amherst MA, June 1998). ƒƒ Available at wp/maturana/index.html and http://www. ƒƒ Revised version published in two parts as 1999c and 1999d

1998c Maturana H. R. (1998) Seres humanos individuales y fenómenos sociales humanos. In: Elkaim M. (ed.) La terapia familiar en transformación. Ediciones Paidós Iberica, Barcelona: 122 ff. 1998d Maturana H. R. (1998) Implications of Sacred Pleasure for the deep past. World Futures 53: 61–79. 1998e Maturana H. R. (1998) Prefacio a la edición Español In: Eisler R., Placer Sagrado Volume 1. Editorial Cuatro Vientos, Santiago: xi–xxii. 1998f Maturana H. R. (1998) Emoçoes e linguagem na educaçao e na política. Editora UFMG, Belo Horizonte. Multiple reprintings. ƒƒ Third reissue (2002) available at Humberto%2520Maturana%2520-%2520Emo




ƒƒ Paper originally presented at the 6th Confer-


ence of the International Association for Cogni-


tive Education, Stellenbosch, South Africa, June

ƒƒ Portuguese translation of 1990a

cognitive education for the empowerment in the information age for developing and developed countries


1998a Maturana H. R. (1998) Biologie der Realität. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main. ƒƒ A collection of selected Maturana papers, translated into German by Wolfram K. Köck and Gerda Verden-Zöller, consisting of the translations of 1970a (22–92), 1978a (93–144), 1988d (145–225), 1988e (226–319), 1990e (320–360), and 1988c (361–379).

73–108), 1990c (“Neurociencia y cognición,” 167–196) and translation of 1996e (“Biología del amor,” 215–228).

1999c Maturana H. R & Bunnell P. (1999) The biology of business: Transformation through conservation. Reflections: The SoL Journal 1(1): 82–86. ƒƒ First installment of revised republication of 1998b (cf. 1999d).

ƒƒ Available at http://www.lifesnaturalsolutions.

and July 1997. Original title: The challenge to

21–38), 1983b (“Fenomenología del conocer,”


1999a Maturana H. R. (1999) The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 51(2): 149–168. ƒƒ Republication of 1975a. Available at http://biologyofcognition.files.wordpress. com/2008/06/maturana1975organizationlivingtheorylivingorganization.pdf

1999b Maturana H. R. (in collaboration with S. Nisis) (1999) Transformación en la convivencia. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago. Second edition: 2002.

ƒƒ First paperback edition: 2000.

ƒƒ The following chapters (at least) appear to

ƒƒ Appearance of 1970a here may represent

represent republications of prior works: Trans-

republication of 1974d.

lation of 1985a (“Biología del fenómeno social,”

1999d Maturana H. R & Bunnell P. (1999) The biology of business: Love expands intelligence. Reflections: The SoL Journal 1(2): 58–66. ƒƒ Second installment of revised republication of 1998b (cf. 1999c).

1999e Maturana H R. & Mpodozis J. (1999) De l’origine des espèces par voie de la dérive naturelle. La diversification des lignées à travers la conservation et le changement des phénotypes ontogéniques. Translated by L. Vasquez and P. Castella in consultation with J. Mpodozis and J. C. Letelier. Presses Universitaires de Lyon, Lyon. ƒƒ French translation of 1992d


2000a Maturana H. R. (2000) The nature of the laws of nature. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 17: 459–468. 2000b Maturana H. R. (2000) La dimensión del otro. In: Saavedra A. M. (ed.). DebatePaís-2000. Editorial Cuarto Propio / Ministerio de Educación / Universidad de Chile, Santiago: 135–136. 2000c Maturana H. R. (2000) The effectiveness of mathematical formalisms. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 7(2–3): 147–150. ƒƒ Available at C&HK/vol7/maturana.PDF

2000d Lettvin J. Y., Maturana H. R., McCulloch W. S. & Pitts W. H. (2000) Was das Froschauge dem Froschgehirn erzählt. In: McCulloch W. S. Verkörperungen des Geistes. Springer-Verlag, Vienna: 195–217. ƒƒ German translation of 1959a within German edition of McCulloch’s Embodiments of Mind.


2001a Maturana H. R. (2001) Comments on Professor Serani’s article. Biological Research 34(3–4): 191–194.


A. (2001) Biophilosophical and epistemological

Freiheit – Noch sind wir keine Roboter – Biology of business Teil 2. LO Lernende Organisation (ISCT Journal on Systemic Management and Organization) 2: 36–41.

problems in the study of living beings: Reflec-

ƒƒ German translation (by S. Radatz) of an Eng-

tions on the views of Humberto Maturana.

lish manuscript entitled “Reflection, responsi-

Biological Research 34(3–4): 179–189.

bility and freedom; We are not robots.”

ƒƒ Available at =S0716–97602001000300006 ƒƒ This is Maturana’s response to: Serani-Merlo

2001b Maturana H. R. (2001) Fundamentos de la Ética: Conferencia dictada por el doctor Humberto Maturana al ser distinguido, en la Universidad de Talca, con la medalla “Abate Juan Ignacio Molina.” Revista Universum 16: 457–467. ƒƒ Available at

Bibliography Humberto Maturana



2001c Maturana H. R. (2001) La Maldad: ¿Responsabilidad Cultural o Individual? Revista Psiquiatría y Salud Mental 18(1): 51–57. 2001d Maturana H. R. (2001) Metadiseño (Metadesign) In: Vera Lara J. M. (2001) La bioética de una disciplina adolescente. Ediciones del Instituto Milenio de Estudios Avanzados en Biología Celular y Biotecnología, Ñuñoa (Chile): 133–154. 2001e Maturana H. R. (2001) Cogniçao, ciéncia e vida cotidiana. Translated by Cristina Magro & Victor Paredes. Editora UFMG, Belo Horizonte.

ƒƒ Republished as 2003d

2001i Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (2001) Die Fehlerkultur als Grundlage des Lernens – Biology of business Teil 3. LO Lernende Organisation (ISCT Journal on Systemic Management and Organization) 4. ƒƒ German translation (by S. Radatz) of an English manuscript entitled “Making mistakes: Blindness and the expansion of vision.” Title arrangement not consistent within available evidence. ƒƒ Republished as 2003e

2001j Pörksen B. (with Maturana H. R.) (2001) Das Erkennen des Erkennens verpflichtet: Humberto R. Maturana über Wahrheit und Zwang, Strukturdeterminismus und Diktatur und die autopoiesis des lebendigen. In: Pörksen B. Die Gewissheit der Ungewissheit: Gespräche zum Konstruktivismus. Carl-Auer, Heidelberg: 70–111. ƒƒ This book contains a series of interviews

ƒƒ Portuguese translation of 1990e

Pörksen conducted with significant thinkers on

ƒƒ Available at http://livrosdamara.pbworks.

the subject of constructivism. Chapter 3 is the


report of his interview with Maturana.


ƒƒ English translation: 2004g

pdf and

ƒƒ Second edition issued in 2008.

2001f Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (2000) The origin of species by means of natural drift. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 73(2): 261–310. ƒƒ English translation of 1992d ƒƒ Available at–


2002a Maturana H. R. (2002) Autopoiesis, structural coupling and cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 9(3–4): 5–34.

078X2000000200005 and http://biology-

ƒƒ This paper is based on a working draft

entitled Autopoiesis, structural coupling and


cognition, a copy of which is available at http://

2001g Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (2001) Die Welt entsteht durch Sprachen – Biology of business Teil 1. LO Lernende Organisation (ISCT Journal on Systemic Management and Organization) 1: 34–37. ƒƒ German translation of an English manuscript

2001h Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (2001) Reflexion, Selbstverantwortung und

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3

2002b Maturana H. R. & Pörksen B. (2002) Vom Sein zum Tun: Die Ursprünge der Biologie des Erkennens. Carl-Auer, Heidelberg. ƒƒ English translation: 2004a ƒƒ Spanish translations: 2004b and 2005c

2002c Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (2002) Bewahren verändert – und Wünsche

erzeugen unsere Welt – Biology of business Teil 4. LO Lernende Organisation (ISCT Journal on Systemic Management and Organization) 5. ƒƒ German translation of an English manuscript


2003a Maturana H. R. (2003) On the Biol Res issue dedicated to F. Varela [Letter to the Editor] Biological Research 36(2): 141–142. ƒƒ Available at– 97602003000200002&script=sci_arttext

2003b Maturana H. R. (2003) Das System in seiner Ganzheit betrachten und danach handeln. LO – Lernende Organisation 11. 2003c Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (2003) Biología del tao o el camino del amar. Revista Philosophica 26: 125–144. ƒƒ Available at doc/12948840 and doc/58178154 and doc/23502286

2003d Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (2003) Reflexion, Selbstverantwortung und Freiheit – Noch sind wir keine Roboter. In: Radatz S. (ed.) Evolutionäres Management: Antworten auf die Management- und Führungsherausforderungen im 21. Jahrhundert. Verlag Systemisches Management, Vienna: 136–151. ƒƒ Republication of 2001h

2003e Maturana H. R. & Bunnell P. (2003) Die Fehlerkultur als Grundlage des Lernens. In: Radatz S. (ed.) Evolutionäres Management : Antworten auf die Management- und Führungsherausforderungen im 21. Jahrhundert. Verlag Systemisches Management, Vienna: 222–234. ƒƒ Republication of 2001i


2004a Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition. Translated by Wolfram K. Köck and Annemarie R. Köck. Carl-Auer, Heidelberg. ƒƒ English translation of 2002b ƒƒ Excerpts published as separate articles: 2004c, 2004d, 2006d

Biology of Cognition

The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana Randall Whitaker

2004b Maturana H. R. & Pörksen B. (2004) Del ser al hacer: Los orígenes de la biología del conocer. Comunicaciones Noreste Ltda, Santiago. ƒƒ Spanish translation of 2002b. Available at

2004c Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) Varieties of objectivity. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 11(4): 63–71. ƒƒ Excerpt from 2004a

2004d Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) On the autonomy of systems: A conversation – The limits of external determination. Revue Européenne de Systémique (Res-Systematica) 4(2). Available at http://www.res-systemica. org/afscet/resSystemica/V4–2004/autonomy1.pdf ƒƒ Excerpt from 2004a

2004e Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) Without the observer, there is nothing. Constructivism in the Human Sciences 9: 9–18. 2004f Maturana H. R. and Poerksen B. (2004) The view of the systemicist: A conversation. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 17(44): 269–279. ƒƒ Available at doc/36550491 and doc/36550399

2004g Poerksen B. (with Maturana H. R.) (2004) The knowledge of knowledge entails responsibility: Humberto R. Maturana on truth and oppression, structure determinism and dictatorship, and the autopoiesis of living. Chapter 3 in: Poerksen B. (2004) The certainty of uncertainty: Dialogues introducing constructivism. Imprint Academic, Exeter: 47–84. ƒƒ English translation of 2001j

2004h Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2004) Amar e Brincar: Fundamentos esquecidos do humano – Do patriarcado à democracia. Palas Athena, São Paulo. ƒƒ Portuguese translation of 1993f.

2004i Maturana H. R. (2004) Introduction to the English edition. In: Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004) From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition. Carl-Auer, Heidelberg: 12–15. 2004j Maturana H. R. (2004) Prefacio a la

edición española. In: Maturana H. R. & Pörksen B. (2004) Del ser al hacer: Los orígenes de la biología del conocer. Comunicaciones Noreste Ltda, Santiago: 9–16.

ƒƒ Revised German translation of 1992c. According to this electronic edition, the 1992 article was translated to German by J. RamaSouto in 1994. This 2006 edition represents Ludewig’s completely revised version of that 1994 translation.


ƒƒ Available at

2006b Maturana H. R (2006) Reflexiones sobre terapia y mis conversaciones con Ximena Dávila sobre la liberación del dolor cultural. In: Roizblat A. (ed.) Terapia, familiar y de pareja. Editorial Mediterráneo, Santiago: 21–36. 2006c Maturana H. R. (2006) Self-consciousness: How? When? Where? Constructivist Foundations 1(3): 91–102.


ƒƒ Available at

2005a Maturana H. R. (2005) The origin and conservation of self-consciousness: Reflections on four questions by Heinz von Foerster. In: Riegler A. (ed.) Heinz von Foerster – in memoriam. Kybernetes: The International Journal of Systems & Cybernetics 34(1–2): 54–88.


2005b Maturana H. R. (2005) Warum Pläne immer wieder scheitern LO – Lernende Organisation No. 23 (January / February). 2005c Maturana H. R. & Pörksen B. (2005) Del ser al hacer: Los orígenes de la biología del conocer. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago. Edited by J. C. Sáez. ƒƒ Original German publication: 2002b

2005d Letelier J. C., Marin G., Fredes F., Sentis E., Vargas S., Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (2005) Travelling waves of visually induced very fast oscillations in the optic tectum of the pigeon. Journal of Physiology. 565P: C115. 2005e Marin G., Mpodozis J., Letelier J. C., Sentis E. & Maturana H. R. (2005) Sub-millisecond synchronization of spike activity in the ithsmi nuclei of pigeons (Columba livia). Journal of Physiology 565P: C53. 2005f Mpodozis J., Fredes F., Sentis E., Tapia S., Marin G., Letelier J. C. & Maturana H. R. (2005) A detailed study of the rotundo-entopallial projections in the pigeon (Columba Livia). Journal of Physiology 565P: C116.


2006a Ludewig K. & Maturana H. R. (2006) Gespräche mit Humberto Maturana. Fragen zur Biologie, Psychotherapie und den “Baum der Erkenntnis” oder: die Fragen, die ich ihm immer stellen wollte. Systemagazin. Onlinejournal für systemische Entwicklungen. ƒƒ Available at bibliothek/texte/ludewig-maturana.pdf


2006d Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2006) The paradox of education: A conversation. Journal of Aesthetic Education 40(1): 25–33. ƒƒ Excerpt from 2004a: 127–137.

2006e Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (2006) Desde la matriz biológica de la existencia humana (Biología del conocer y biología del amar). Revista PRELAC, Los Sentidos de la Educación Proyecto Regional de Educación para América Latina y el Caribe. 2: 30–39. ƒƒ Available at doc/52664527 · doc/52296489 · images/0014/001455/145502s.pdf ƒƒ English translation: 2006f

2006f Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (2006) Education as viewed from the biological matrix of existence. PRELAC Journal 2: 30–39. ƒƒ Available at images/0014/001455/145502e.pdf ƒƒ English translation of 2006e


2007a Maturana H. R. (2007) Systemic versus genetic determination. Constructivist Foundations 3(1): 21–26. ƒƒ Available at

2007b Maturana H. R. (2007) Interview on Heinz von Foerster, autopoiesis, the BCL, and Augusto Pinochet. In: Müller A. & Müller K. H. (eds.) An unfinished revolution? Edition Echoraum, Vienna: 36–51.



Bibliography Humberto Maturana

2007c Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (2007) La gran oportunidad: Fin de la psiquis del liderazgo en el surgimiento de la psiquis de la gerencia co-inspirativa. Revista Chilena de Administración Pública 10: 101–124.


ƒƒ Available at doc/57247177

2007d Maturana H. R. (with X. Y. Dávila) (2007) Emozioni e linguaggio in educazione e politica. Reédición de Editorial Elèuthera, Milán. ƒƒ Italian translation of 1990a

2007e Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2007) Autopoiesis and social theory: A conversation. Journal of Sociocybernetics 5(1–2): 68–73. ƒƒ Available at


2008a Dávila X. Y. & Maturana H. R. (2008) Habitar humano: En seis ensayos de biología-cultural. Edited by Juan Carlos Sáez, Santiago. ƒƒ Available at Preface available at http://www. ƒƒ Portuguese translation: 2009a

2008b Maturana H. R. (2008) Anticipation and self-consciousness: Are these functions of the brain? Constructivist Foundations 4(1): 18–20. ƒƒ Available at

2008c Maturana H. R. (2008) Comments on the occasion of this award (Remarks presented at the award of the 2008 American Society for Cybernetics Wiener Medal). ƒƒ Available at http://www.asc-cybernetics. org/2008/HM-08WienerComments.pdf

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3

Randall Whitaker

is a senior human factors analyst in the defense sector, currently specializing in cognitive work analysis and work-centered design (of which he is a co-originator). His academic path proceeded from studies in anthropology and psychology, through computer science and cognitive psychology, to a Ph.D in informatics (1992; Umeå Universitet). His dissertation applied Maturana and Varela’s work to group decision support systems. Since then, he has continued to research their work and to promote their theories as creator and manager of “The Observer Web” at

2008d Maturana H. R. (2008) The biological foundations of virtual realities and their implication for human existence. Constructivist Foundations 3(2): 109–114. ƒƒ Available at

2008e Maturana H. R. & Dávila, X. Y. (2008) ¿Educador social o simplemente personas adultas, amorosas, serias y responsables? In: Batalloso J. M. & Aparicio G. P. (eds.) Figuras y pasajes de la complejidad de la educación: Experiencias de resistancia, creacion y potencia. Ediciones CreC: Publicacions Instituto Paulo Freire &, Valencia. ƒƒ Catalan translation: 2008f

2008f Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (2008) ¿Educador social o sencillazament persones adultes, amoroses, serioses i responsables? In: Batalloso J. M. & Aparicio P. (eds.) Figures i paistges de la complexitat en l’educació: experiències de resistència, creació i potència, 2008, Edicions del CReC, Colecció Omega Pràctica i teoría d’educació contínua, Valencia. ƒƒ Catalan translation of 2008e

2008g Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2008) The origin of humanness in the biology of love. Edited by P. Bunnell. Imprint Academic, Exeter.


2009a Dávila X. Y. & Maturana H. R. (2009) Habitar humano: Em seis ensaios de biología cultural. Ed. Palas Atenas, Brasil. ƒƒ Portuguese translation of 2008a

2009b Dávila X. Y. & Maturana H. R. (2009) Hacia una era post posmod-

erna en las comunidades educativas. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación 49: 135–161. ƒƒ Available at doc/54071987


2011a Maturana H. R. (2011) Origins and implications of autopoiesis. Preface to the second edition of “De Maquinas y Seres Vivos Autopoiesis.” Translated by Alberto Paucar-Caceres and Roger Harnden. Constructivist Foundations 6(3): 293–306. ƒƒ English translation of 1994b (revised by Maturana) available at

Received: 4 July 2011 Accepted: 11 July 2011

Constructivist Approaches

Publication Review Recent books and articles related to constructivist approaches > Upshot • This section lists publications related to constructivist approaches – constructivism, second-order cybernetics, enactivism, non-dualism, biology of cognition, etc. – that recently have been published elsewhere, and which the reader of the journal might find interesting. The entries are ordered alphabetically and clustered according to their respective primary disciplinary backgrounds. The increasingly extending bibliography can be consulted at http://www.

Communication science > Scholl A. (2011) Der unauflösbare Zusammenhang von Fragestellung, Theorie und Methode. Die reflexive Bedeutung der Methodologie (nicht nur) in der Journalismusforschung [The inextricable connection between research question, theory and method. The reflexive implications of methodology (not only) within journalism research]. In: Jandura O., Quandt T. & Vogelgesang J. (eds.) Methoden der Journalismusforschung. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden: 15–32. >>  Universal theories, such as system theory, cultural studies, and critical theory, are often applied to journalism research. However, these theories are less often used for empirical research than are middlerange theories, such as news values, news decisions or news bias. This chapter reinterprets the role of methods and methodology within universal theories and for doing empirical research within the framework of universal theories. The author discusses methods of data collection, sampling procedures, and methods of data analysis from a (radical) constructivist perspective in order to overcome the shortcomings of critical rationalism, which is still the dominant epistemology and methodology within empirical social science. > Scholl A. (2011) Konstruktivismus und Methoden in der empirischen Sozialforschung [Constructivism and methodology in empirical social research]. Medien und Kommunikationswissenschaft 59(2): 161–179. >>  In the field of communication science, constructivism seems to be important

for theoretical development only. The relevance of constructivism for methodological reflections is often neglected. However, a constructivist way of thinking has also implications for the relationship between theory and methods, methodology, or empirical research. Exploring the consequences of constructivist thinking will cause some disturbances in methodological matters: it is neither necessary to bind a certain methodology (e.g. quantitative or qualitative methodology) to a certain epistemology (e.g. realism or constructivism), nor do we need a realist epistemology to do research in the sense of critical rationalism. Furthermore, the constructivist re-interpretation of the research process and of the relationship between theory and empirical research does not imply that we have to reinvent the established empirical methods within the discipline of communication studies. Rather, the constructivist way of thinking enables us to reflect phenomena of latency and to irritate empirical research in a productive manner.

Computer science > Dodig-Crnkovic G. (2010) Constructivist research and info-computational knowledge generation. In: Magnani L., Carnielli W. & Pizzi C. (eds.) Model-based reasoning in science and technology. Springer, Heidelberg/Berlin. >>  It is usual when writing on research methodology in dissertations and thesis work within software engineering to refer to empirical methods, grounded theory, and action research. The analysis of constructive research methods, which are fundamental for all knowledge production and especially for concept formation, modeling, and the

use of artifacts, is seldom given, so the relevant first-hand knowledge is missing. This article argues for introducing the analysis of constructive research methods as crucial for understanding research processes and knowledge production. The paper provides characterization of the constructive research method and its relations to action research and grounded theory. The illustrative example of the Blue Brain Project is presented. Finally, the foundations of constructive research are analyzed within the framework of info-computationalism, which provides models of knowledge construction by information processing in a cognizing agent.

Education science > Wilkins J. L. M. & Norton A. (2011) The splitting loope. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 42(4): 386–390. >>  The article describes a quantitative analysis that utilizes Piaget’s structuralist approach to mathematical development. Results affirm Steffe’s models of students’ constructions of fraction schemes and operations, particularly regarding the construction of the splitting operation.

Interdisciplinary > Schmidt S. J. (2011) Worlds of communication. Interdisciplinary transitions. Peter Lang, Oxford. >>  The book presents a collection of articles that S. J. Schmidt has published in English over the last 40 years. It documents his way to constructivism and its application


Publication Review Constructivist Approaches

in philosophy, literary studies, culture, and media studies.


> Rafieian S. (2011) A biosemiotic approach to the problem of structure and agency. Bisemiotics (Online First). >>  I argue in this paper that by taking a biosemiotic point of view, human “agency” may be defined as the ability of an individual to direct the incoming and internal streams of semioses and the ability to create an integrative and superordinate new stream of semiosis in addition to the upwardly and downwardly component ones, and I argue how such a view might open a new door for research into the concept of human “personality” and “agency.” Obviously, these are key concepts in constructivist approaches and a better understanding of them can shed light on other aspects.

Philosophy > Herrnstein Smith B. (2010) Natural reflections: Human cognition at the nexus of science and religion. Yale University Press, New Haven. >>  A critical assessment of current evolutionary-cognitive explanations of religious belief from the perspective of a constructivist-pragmatist epistemology. Smith argues that crucial aspects of belief – religious and other – that remain elusive or invisible under dominant rationalist and computational models are illuminated by views of human cognition that stress its dynamic, embodied, and interactive features. She also demonstrates how constructivist understandings of the formation and stabilization of knowledge – scientific and other – alert us to simi-

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 6, N°3

larities in the springs of science and religion, which are elsewhere seen largely in terms of difference and contrast. > Mascolo R. (2011) L’emergere della biologia della cognizione. La complessità della vita di Humberto Maturana Romecín [The emergence of Biology of Cognition. The complexity of Humberto Maturana Romecín’s living] Aracne Editrice, Roma. >>  With a preface by Pier Luigi Luisi, this book sketches the complexity of Humberto Maturana’s life, through his early works, his studies in England, his doctoral thesis at Harvard, and leading towards the publication of “Biology of Cognition” in 1970. The author includes anecdotes and the poetry in Maturana’s works that contribute to the development of his ideas. She presents the theoretical web he and his student and coworker Francisco Varela were weaving. In particular, the book focusses on aspects of visual perception and the theory of knowledge designed in “dialogue,” including with classical philosophical authors such as Nietzsche. By anchoring itself in the turning points in his biography and by using the inherent redundancies in Maturana’s language, the book wraps in on itself again in a way that reveals the inescapable circularities of living.

Psychotherapy > Levold T. (2010) Systemtheorie und Konstruktivismus. Ein Daumenkino für Psychotherapeuten [Systems theory and constructivism. A flip-book for psychotherapists]. Person 14(2): 89–98.

>>  In the second half of the last century different variations of systemic and constructivist thinking emerged that not only have been important for the development and differentiation of systemic therapy but are increasingly becoming attractive for other psychotherapeutic approaches. This article explains some essential notions of all the theoretical models presented (complexness, self-organization, context sensitivity, and process orientation, as well as pattern generation and detection). Subsequently, basic ideas of the following theory models are presented: first order cybernetics, theory of autopoietic systems, theory of social systems (N. Luhmann), theory of problem determined systems, social constructionism, theory of self-organized systems (synergetics), and person-centered systems theory.

Social science > García O. & Laulié L. (2010) The CLEHES-MOOD: An enactive technology towards effective and collaborative action. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27(3): 319–335. >>  The paper shows the creation of an enactive technology of self-observation that facilitates the search for effective and collaborative action strategies for any observer that belongs to an organization or human activity system, with the experience of the user as the cornerstone of design. What is called “enactive technology” are tools that help different users to look for the improvement of actions and personal performances in a systemic view from their own experience, in the assumption of knowledge as enaction (sensu Varela).


Acknowledgment to Reviewers of Volume 6 The quality of a journal can only be maintained by thoughtful, careful, and constructive reviewing of both board members and external reviewers. We thank the following people for taking the time to review manuscripts submitted to Constructivist Foundations between 16 June 2010 and 15 June 2011.

Stefan Artmann Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany

Sebastian Deterding Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research in Hamburg

Dirk Baecker Zeppelin University, Germany

Ezequiel A. Di Paolo University of the Basque Country, Spain

Mariaelena Bartesaghi University of South Florida, USA Giulio Benedetti Independent Researcher Marco C. Bettoni Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences Andy Bilson University of Central Lancashire, UK Paul Braffort Independent Researcher Søren Brier Copenhagen Business School, DK Eva Buchinger Austrian Institute of Technology Brent Cameron SelfDesign, Canada Peter Cariani Harvard Medical School, USA Anthony P. Chemero Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, USA Tony Coates Independent Researcher Irun R. Cohen Weizmann Institute, Israel Antonio Coutinho Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Portugal Stephen Cowley University of Hertfordshire, UK Jane Cull Independent Researcher

Ray Ison Open University, UK

Jose Rey-Ladino Griffith University, Australia

Vincent Kenny Accademia Costruttivista di Terapia Sistemica Rome, Italy

Nils Roll-Hansen University of Oslo, Norway Stuart Rowlands University of Plymouth, UK

Gordana Dodig-Crnkovic Mälardalen University, Sweden

Alexander Kravchenko Baikal National University of Economics & Law, Russia

Therese Dooley St Patrick’s College, Ireland

Klaus Krippendorff University of Pennsylvania, USA

Dewey Dykstra Jr. Boise State University, USA

Miguel Maliksi Lund University, Sweden

Matthew Egbert University of Sussex, UK

David Marshak Seattle University, USA

Arne Engström Linköping University, Sweden

Koichiro Matsuno Leslie P. Steffe Nagaoka University of Technology, University of Georgia, USA Japan Fred Steier Marek McGann University of South Florida, USA University of Limerick, Ireland

Lloyd Richmond Fell Independent Researcher Kathleen Forsythe SelfDesign, Canada Tom Froese University of Sussex, UK Hugh Gash St. Patrick’s College, Dublin Phillip Guddemi Independent Researcher Roger Harnden Independent Researcher Inman Harvey University of Sussex, UK Theo Hug University of Innsbruck, Austria Hiroyuki Iizuka Graduate School of Information Science & Technology, Osaka, Japan Seiichi Imoto Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan

Barry McMullin Dublin City University, Ireland John Mingers Kent Business School, UK Alvaro Moreno Universidad del PaÌs Vasco, Spain Jorge Mpodozis Universidad de Chile Heinz-Jürgen Niedenzu University of Innsbruck, Austria Bernadette O’Sullivan Independent Researcher Paul Pangaro Pangaro Incorporated Bernd Porr University of Glasgow, UK Jonathan D. Raskin State University of New York at New Paltz, USA

Gérard Sabah LIMSI-CNRS, France Stanley N. Salthe City University of New York, USA Dennis Sandow Independent Researcher Armin Scholl University of Münster, Germany

John Stewart University of Technology Compiegne, France Alfred Tauber Boston University, USA Pat Thompson Arizona State University, USA Stuart Umpleby The George Washington University, USA Eckart Voland University of Gießen, Germany Randall Whitaker Independent Researcher Milan Zeleny Fordham University, USA Tom Ziemke University of Skövde, Sweden Jordan Zlatev Lund University, Sweden




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Citing in the text

ƒƒ Surname of author(s) no comma Year

ƒƒ More than three authors: use the the first

synthetic (formal or computational mod-

author’s surname followed by “et al.”

els); survey (guiding summary of a field);

ƒƒ All quotes have to be accompanied by a page

200 words (see right), up to 6 key words

Background(s): Which is the disciplinary back-

ƒƒ Every page specification must be preceded by

contact between author and reader, and should

cognitive; computer science; education


perspective (of senior researchers)

Introduction: The first chapter initializes the

ground of your paper? Choose from: biological;

be guided by the question: “Why should the

physiological; psychological; sociological;

sequence ► “Is there a clearly defined progres-

add a new discipline if necessary.

smoothly into the next?”

argue in your paper? Choose one from: biology

Perspective: From which perspective do you

sion of information? Does one paragraph lead

The writing style should be simple, using as few

of cognition; constructivist evolutionary

words as possible. Conciseness and brevity are

Conclusion: Provides a summary ► “What main

of experience; first-person research; non-dualizing philosophy; radical

Discusses the paper’s relevance ► “How is my

constructivism; second order cybernetics;


Alphabetical list of references. References must not be included as foot-/endnotes

Biographical note and photo of each author. List of at least 5 potential reviewers.



ƒƒ Overall length: 3000–9000 words

ƒƒ The paper must be written in English. If English is a foreign language for you, please ask

a native speaker of English to proofread your article before submission

ƒƒ Use simple single-column format

ƒƒ To emphasize, use italics type (no bold)

ƒƒ For quotes and expressions always use “double quotes.”

ƒƒ As few footnotes as possible

ƒƒ Submission format: .doc, .rtf, .html. Do not

theory of autopoietic systems.

Structured abstract Context: What is the current situation in your

discipline with regard to the topic of your paper? Why is it a problem in your discipline at the moment?

Problem: Which problems do you want to solve? What are the reasons for writing the paper or the aims of the research?

Method: What is the approach to the topic and

what is the theoretical or subject scope of the

paper? How are the objectives achieved? What are the main method(s) used for the research?

Results: What was found in the course of the

argumentation? What is the solution to the problem you pose?

Implications: What is the value of the paper?

For whom are your insights beneficial? What

do you suggest for future research? Are there

submit papers in PDF or PostScript.

identifiable limitations in the research process?

graphs should have at least 300dpi

applications and consequences are identified?

ƒƒ For each graphic use a separate file; photoƒƒ The paper must be original work and must not have been published elsewhere

ƒƒ The copyright remains with the author and is licensed under a Creative Commons License,

ƒƒ If you use copyrighted material (long quotes, photographs, figures, etc.) you must obtain

the permission from the respective copyright holder before submitting the final version of your paper.


cognitive science; epistemic structuring

points did I make, what did I show?”

could be done next?”

ƒƒ Langley et al. (1987: 103) showed that…

epistemology; cybersemiotics; enactive


Optionally it may provide an outlook ► “What

ƒƒ “… text.” (O’Regan & Noë 2001: 940)

historical; philosophical; physics;

Main text: Ideas should be presented in a logical

a colon in both text and reference part.

ƒƒ Glasersfeld (2006) argued…

science; engineering; epistemological;

reader get involved with my paper?”

paper related to constructivist approaches?”


What outcomes and implications for practice,

What changes to practice should be made as a result of this paper?

Constructivist content: What is the connection

with constructivism? Does the paper link to

one of the constructivist perspectives covered

List of references

ƒƒ As a rule, use a simplified Harvard-style

ƒƒ Except for the first word paper and book titles are not capitalized

ƒƒ Journal titles are capitalized

ƒƒ No comma between surname and initials

ƒƒ Page specifications are preceded by a colon ƒƒ Always list all authors (no “et al.”)

Examples of books

Langley P., Simon H., Bradhaw G. L. & Zytkow J. M. (1987) Scientific discovery. MIT Press, Cambridge. Piaget J. (1954) The construction of reality in the child. Ballantine, New York. Originally published in French as: Piaget J. (1937) La construction du réel chez l’enfant. Délachaux & Niestlé, Neuchâtel.

Examples of book chapters Foerster H. von (1984) On constructing a reality. In: Watzlawick P. (ed.) The invented reality. Norton, New York: 41–62. Maturana H. R. (1978) Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In: Miller G. A. & Lenneberg E. (eds.) Psychology and biology of language and thought. Academic Press, New York: 27–63.

Examples of journal articles

Glasersfeld E. von (2005) Thirty years radical constructivism. Constructivist Foundations 1(1): 9–12. O’Regan J. K. & Noë A. (2001) A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24(5): 939–1031.

Example of electronic sources

Brook A. (2008) Kant’s view of the mind and consciousness of self. In: Zalta E. N. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from on 31 July 2008.

by the journal? Do you argue in favor of a new

Reprints and translations

Key words: What are the six most important

you quote or which you actually read and add a

constructivist perspective?

Please cite the reprint or translation from which

concepts and notions in the paper? Don’t repeat

note about the original publication.

key words already used in the meta information.

Issn 1782-348x  Volume 6 Number 3  July 2011


Foundations An interdisciplinary journal  

Special Issue

The Work of Humberto Maturana and Its Application Across the Sciences Editors: Alexander Riegler and Pille Bunnell 287 Pille Bunnell & Alexander Riegler Maturana Across the Disciplines 293 Humbert Maturana, Alberto Paucar-Caceres & Roger Harnden Origins and Implications of Autopoiesis. Preface to the Second Edition of De Maquinas y Seres Vivos Autopoiesis 307 Hugo Urrestarazu Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach – Part 1 325 Seiichi Imoto The Logic of Maturana’s Biology 334 Nelson M. Vaz The Specificity of Immunologic Observations 342 Alfred I. Tauber The Cognitivist Paradigm 20 Years Later. Commentary on Nelson Vaz 345 Nelson M. Vaz The Enactive Paradigm 33 Years Later. Response to Alfred Tauber 352 Alexander Kravchenko How Humberto Maturana’s Biology of Cognition Can Revive the Language Sciences 363 Hugh Gash Maturana’s Theory and Interpersonal Ethics 370 Rossella Mascolo The Bioethical Dimension of Maturana’s Thought 381 Ximena Dávila Yáñez Liberating Conversations 388 Fernando González Living in Parenthesis. A Layman’s Experiences of Knowing Maturana 393 Randall Whitaker The Constructivist Foundations Bibliography: Humberto Maturana 407 Publication Review

409 Acknowledgment to Reviewers of Volume 6

The work of Humberto Maturana and its application accross the sciences  

The work of Humberto Maturana and its application accross the sciences

The work of Humberto Maturana and its application accross the sciences  

The work of Humberto Maturana and its application accross the sciences