Humberto Maturana - [PDF Document] (2024)

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Two arguments are unfolded against the viability and advisability of applying the notion of autopoiesis to third-order systems. The first argument comes from the domain of psychotherapeutic praxis and elaborates a critique of 'boundary' and 'family' as third-order phenomena. The second argument , coming from the domain of ethics, uses the paramount individuality of personal consciousness to demonstrate that any third-order human system configured on the metaphor of autopoiesis would necessarily be oppressive, inhuman, and parasocial.


Given the 'conversational' format of this journal issue, I want to begin by identifying some of the speaking and listening positions as they seem to be located at the outset. In their focal article Zeleny and Hufford1 have clearly delineated their intent to establish the applicability of the notion of autopoiesis for third-order systems. What they have remained almost silent about are the clear statements of objection to the depiction of third-order systems as autopoietic. Since it is my intention to propose a double argument against third-order autopoiesis (3°A), I want to breach the silence by quoting two passages which are relevant to the development of my doubled argument. The first quotation is a well-known one from Varela2 :

"Thus the idea of autopoiesis is, by definition, restricted to relations of productions of some kind, and refers to topological boundaries. These two conditions are clearly unsatisfactory for other systems exhibiting autonomy. Consider for example an animal society: certainly the unity's boundaries are not topological, and it seems very farfetched to describe social interactions in terms of 'production' of components. ... Similarly, there have been some proposals suggesting that certain human systems, such as an institution, should be understood as autopoietic ( Beer, 1975; Zeleny and Pierre, 1976; Zeleny, 1977). From what I said above, I believe that these characterizations are category mistakes:they confuse autopoiesis with autonomy"3

My first argument against 3°A will elaborate on the 'farfetchedness' of applying the notion of 'boundary' to third-order systems, and is an argument from the domain of psychotherapeutic praxis. My second argument against 3°A is an elaboration of the notion that, in third-order social systems, what is paramount is the individual properties of the components. This is an argument from the ethical domain, one which I will introduce by way of a lesser-known quotation from Maturana4 :

"There are not actual distinctions that could bring forth an autopoietic system in the domain of human social relations as relations through which human beings constitute a system in which they realize themselves as individual human beings through these relations. If human beings as biological entities would constitute an autopoietic system through relations of productions of human beings, such a system would not be a social system because such a system would not be defined in terms of the conservation of its human components but in terms of the conservation of the system as a whole. The individual characteristics of the components of an autopoietic system other than those through which they participate in its autopoiesis are irrelevant, while those are fundamental in a social system which is a system of individual realization of living beings" 5 .

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Taken together, my twin objections to 'autopoieticising' third-order systems (families, clubs, businesses, nations) arise from a basic inimicability and incompatibility between what I regard as constitutive to human social existence on the one hand, and what I take to be characteristic of autopoietic systems on the other. The rest of my paper will unfold this mutual exclusion.


There are major problems in attempting to transfer the notion of "boundary" from the first- and second-order to third-order systems. The biological cell (as the first-order system), has a clearly identifiable boundary, as does the individual person ( the second-order system being an aggregation of cells ), but the third-order system ( being an aggregation of individuals) is obviously different from these first two levels. The obvious shift from a tangible, physical, and generally self-evident boundary to something that is invisible, non-tangible, and generally not much in evidence stretches the capacity of the term 'boundary' so much that it might be better to take up Bateson's6 suggestion to use the term 'interface' instead - i.e., the surface that is formed where two domains (which may not be closed) meet in transaction, e.g., that between the 'old' and the 'young' generations.

The Boundaries Of Sense

If we define a 'boundary' as that which we first encounter when we bring forth a system, then what can we notice when a therapist first encounters a family referred for consultations? What he must do is try to establish what the 'family' consists of ; there is no tangible family 'boundary' to help him in his task. If there is such a 'boundary', it is certainly not the first thing he encounters with the new family. The interviewing therapist does not even know, without explicitly asking, how many constituting members are required to make this a family 'system'. Depending on the particular family therapy approach, we will find a different family 'system' defined by the operations of distinction of the therapist, and this includes a different specification of the constituting members and where the putative family 'boundary' must be drawn. Thus, in 'the family' as a third-order system, the 'boundary' and the 'system' brought forth are entirely observer-dependent. To paraphrase, " A boundary is what is distinguished as a boundary by some observer with an intent".

When we shift from identifying the boundaries of first- and second-order systems to those of third-order systems, the status of 'boundary' involves a shift from a 'self-saying' tangibility to a set of phenomena involving -

(a) observer-dependent intentions,

(b) generation of a consensual boundary through conversations among selected participants, and

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(c) falling out of existence (disappearance or non-continuity) of such a constructed 'boundary' when said participants are no longer interacting conversationally in the manner necessary for the constitution of the third-order system.

Delimiting The Family

In the same way that the notion of a third-order system 'boundary' can seem quite nebulous once we bring into question the observer's ontology, so too the 'solidity' and 'objectivity' of the notion of the 'family' is easily undermined by bringing into question the observer and his particular intents. The relativity of the concept of 'family' can be seen from the changes which it has undergone over the recent past as indicated by this passage from Jacoby7 :

"The bourgeois family - and monogamy - as instruments of authority are being eclipsed by more efficient means: schools, television, etc. The father, as the wielder of the absolute power of condemnation or inheritance, is being phased out. The erosion of the economic content of the family unit ultimately saps its authoritarian structure in favour of complete fragmentation. Important in this context is that the family in its 'classic' form was not merely a tool of society, but contained an anti-authoritarian moment"8 .

Where each of the various family therapy approaches assumes an objective status for its preferred version of the 'family', they all inevitably obscure the complex social oppressions which act upon each individual member of society, usually by reducing , and therefore trivializing, the larger third-order societal relations to the immediate nexus of the 'family'. Mistaking the 'boundaries' of the 'family' usually means mistaking (or replacing) the context of societal change with the praxis of psychotherapy. This is a very serious misdirection of effort.

The notion of 'family' is something which exists as a simple unity in a domain of social descriptions. This domain is a symbolic one within which we, as human actors, cannot enact anything. We do not move in this symbolic domain. From Maturana's point of view, a family is not a living system. We can only interact with the 'family' as a composite unity, i.e., only through its particular individual members. A 'family' cannot be 'spoken to' - only individual actors can listen to us. We cannot 'shake hands with', or 'give a kiss to' a 'family'.

The constructs of 'family' and 'boundary' are both observer-dependent. Their clinical usefulness is arguable, as we can infer from the diverse ways in which different therapists specify these concepts. New definitions arise because of dissatisfactions with earlier attempts. What relevance to family therapy can the concept of 'boundary' hold -

(a) when there is not some observer-independent entity which can help us initially to distinguish a particular family - ( accomplished only through entering into the conversational complex of the participants) ;

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(b) when it does not aid us in generating the therapeutic drift between therapist and 'family' - ( we can speak and listen only as individual intersubjective participants ); and

(c) when it does not help us in triggering therapeutic change in the 'family system' - (achieved only by the therapist focussing on the disintegration of the particular conversational organization sustained within this particular group of participants)

We may contrast this dubious relevance of a third-order 'boundary' with the immense significance that the notion of 'individual boundary' has for psychotherapeutic change at the second-order level. Much of the process of individual psychotherapy is taken up with the manner in which individuals generate their 'Self' by projecting and executing their idiosyncratic sense-making across a presumed 'boundary' between 'Self' and 'Other'.

That is, we each presume a particular location of the 'boundary' that delimits one's 'Self' from all else. By making recurrent experiments with 'self-generated' material (e.g., particular social anticipations) in the space where we locate the 'Other' we continually redefine our sense of 'Self' . The task of survival involves the dual conservation both of our organizational closure and of our structural coupling with the medium. This conservation is unified by the constructive transitions which we make back and forth across the presumed 'boundary' between 'Self' and 'Others'.

The type of phenomena presented in individual psychotherapy may be understood as problems of 'boundedness', from the 'anorexic' who says "I shrink therefore I am", to the 'schizophrenic' for whom there may be no delimitation of self from others at all. Many people experience psychological distress because their 'Self/Other boundary' has been erected in a non-viable position; e.g., in a place where it includes too little of a viable 'Self' (over-constriction), or where it includes too much of the non-self (over-dilation). Therapy at the second-order involves the specification and re-location of viable 'boundaries' as well as the reconstruction of the manner and means whereby the individual transacts across this presumed difference between 'Self' and 'Others'.

While the individual 'proves' his existence and existential location by enacting constructive 'boundary' transitions, it is difficult to imagine how a third-order system could do this. If we take as an example of a third-order system the case of a national identity e.g., being 'Italian', then to conserve the existence of this identity would involve the third-order system enacting transitions across its geographical 'boundary'. However, it is obvious that such transitions are something which only individuals can do - nations do not take vacations! It is individuals who cross and re-cross the state confines, and who generate in their national networks of conversations the on-going differences between 'Italians' and all others. Here we see the problematic nature of a third-order 'boundary' in its most simple form, and the dependence of the third-order system on its second-order constituents for its constant materialization and conservation.

Within initial therapeutic conversations, the notion of 'boundary' arises in the context of specific issues within the therapeutic enterprise: in terms -

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of 'confidentiality' (who is privileged to listen),

of revelations (who is privileged to speak),

of intent (why they are undertaking this therapy),

of loyalty (what may or may not be revealed to the therapist and to themselves),

of ethics (the legitimate ways in which they may attempt to coordinate relational changes), and so forth.

Once this superordinating context has been negotiated, the issue of 'boundaries' may never arise again. Does this mean that the therapist is now 'inside' the 'boundary' and so has become 'one of the family'? Indeed no! If such a thing should occur, the therapist will be unable to trigger any constructive changes in the problem system which is the 'family'.

From all that I have said so far, it is obvious that my preferred definition of 'family' is in terms of its predominant feature, namely, its languaging coordinations. What distinguishes a 'family' over time is its unique manner of mutual orientation and coordination of joint actions. In other words, I see the 'family system' constituted as a unity by its particular networks of conversations.

The ways in which these networks of conversations are composed, generated, and conserved allow us to construe them as being oriented either to the maximization of their mutual individual elaborations, or to their minimization , the ignoring or outright negation of individual elaborations. Minimization is achieved by twin conversational features :

(a) the development of ignorance, and

(b) the ignorance of developments.

The former involves oppressions for establishing the 'truth' of various lies in the networks of conversations. The latter, focussing on the 'preferred' invariances brought forth in the conversational system, involves the active negation and exclusion of changes that are ongoing in the system, changes which make it ever more difficult to recover and reproduce the 'preferred' invariances.

From the therapeutic point of view, therefore, it makes more sense to specify a 'family' as that 'conflict-generated conversational system' with which the therapist must conversationally interact, rather than as a system for which boundary delimitation, components, and ontological status are problematic.

My second argument now follows and elaborates the 'component' problematique in the sense of its uniquely individual properties.


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A major difference between a third-order social system and a first-order biological autopoietic system is found in the status of their individual components . For the autopoietic system the individual properties of its components are irrelevant beyond having the capacity to materialize the organization. However, for the genuine social system the opposite is the case: the properties of the individual components are paramount because a genuine human social system is a space for the realization of individual human beings.

The Proprietor Of Properties

Central to our individual development and realization is our capacity for self-consciousness, emphasised here by Verden-Zoller9 :

"Moreover, it is only if a human child attains self-consciousness ... that he or she can separate... with the actual bodyhood of a secure,self accepting and self respecting social individual. ... as a child grows in self-consciousness in the human domain of space and time relations, he or she has the possibility and is capable of growing as an adult that does not fear that his or her individuality will be lost or destroyed through his or her social integration" 10.

The disruption of this process of generating self-consciousness (as in many 'pathological families'), or the assault upon an already-established capacity for self-consciousness (as in many 'pathological societies'), produces not only individual suffering but at the same time a non-social community, i.e., one based upon parasocial relations. In contrast, the generation of genuine social relations requires the fostering of self-consciousness and the recurrent enactment of individual consciousness within a framework of intersubjective accountability. Giddens11 describes such enactment as follows :

"This view depends upon stressing the importance of the 'reflexive monitoring of conduct' as a chronic feature of the enactment of social life. In this conception, reasons and intentions are not definite 'presences' which lurk behind human social activity, but are routinely and chronically ... instantiated in that activity" 12 .

While I agree with Zeleny and Hufford that "judgmental social agents do not need physical 'walls' ( or barbed-wire fences) in order to establish strong social boundaries ", they do need to acknowledge the primacy of recurrent enactment of self-consciousness in the reflexive monitoring of interactions as Giddens describes above. It is my claim that a society based on the assumption of autopoiesis would eradicate just this human reflexivity.

The Parasocial System

From my point of view, a social system is characterised by the subordination of society's institutional structures and rules to the realization of the humans who constitute it. We find non-social or parasocial relations in its corollary, i.e., where

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humans undertake relations and interactions which do not give priority to their own individual realization but require only their behavior. Hence, most relations within the context of 'work' are not social relations. To quote Maturana once more:

"This is why I say that work relations as relations in which the only important element are the actions, as is apparent in the fact that in these relations the humans can be replaced by robots, are not social relations. According to what I say, in work relations the human condition of the workers is an impertinence, and that systems of work relations are always open to human abuse of the human beings that realize them" 13 .

Thus in defining third-order systems as "social" or "parasocial" we are making an ethical selection based on our valuing the realization of human properties as paramount. In terms of Kelly's personal construct psychology14 we are choosing between a 'psychology of understandings' (the search for novelty, differences, evolving relations) or a 'psychology of manipulation' (the search for certainty, control, final solutions). In so doing we elect as genuine social systems those evolving in a co-ontogenic structural drift, or we choose to reduce the living to a mere succession of disconnected events in parasocial systems constituted by what von Foerster calls 'trivial machines' 15 .

Autopoietic Phenomena

If we examine the phenomena of first-order autopoiesis, we find a system that is characterized by a very specific relationship to its components i.e., they are irrelevant beyond their capacity to realize the autopoietic organization. If we use this model for human social systems, then its necessary consequence is the irrelevance of component individuality in the 3°A system, along with individual properties and requirements for their realization. What type of living system would this be? The central feature of the autopoietic system in relation to its components is that it renders those components 'allopoietic'. The more a human system acts as if it is autopoietic, the more allopoietic its members become: the personal properties of the participants are ignored, abused, or actively negated.

Psychiatry can be viewed as a methodology for the curtailment of the autonomous self-specifying feature of humanity. When an individual's specification of his own identity comes into conflict with ( no longer 'fits' with ) the range of identities offered by the particular society he constitutes, then he is defined as 'disturbed' . Whether or not he feels disturbed , others who are disturbed by him will make requests that he should be 'helped'. The implementation of psychiatric interventions (diagnosis, medication, hospitalization, surgery, etc.) are aimed at limitation of the individual's powers of self-specification. This is primarily achieved by transforming the individual into an 'allopoietic machine' by virtue of making a legally-binding diagnosis ( "schizophrenia", etc.) which effectively states that this person is disqualified from self-specifications and that we may ignore any such further inventions on his part. Asylums are full of 'patients' who have been ex-communicated from participating in the ongoing generation of the observer community's consensuality. Asylums are not social systems, since the members are legislated out of any true social existence.

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Asylums are not constructed with the primacy of the individual's autopoiesis in mind. Rather, they are deliberately intended as mechanisms of social control - achieved through existential reduction of the inmates to mere ciphers.

It seems to me that this is an as if third-order autopoietic system. The members of such a 3°A system are necessarily "patients". According to Harre's16 definition, a "patient" is someone who must be prodded into action. In the absence of any perturbation, "patients" will remain quiescent. These allopoietic subjects must be specified and controlled in detail if they are to 'work' effectively. Such allopoietic subjects (who can neither manifest new properties within themselves nor trigger a change in anything outside themselves) cannot generate a genuine social system as long as they remain within the context of the third-order specifying system.

The alternative to being a "patient" is to be an "agent". An "agent" is defined as someone who will execute actions upon having restraints removed. An "agent" needs only to be released for self-specifying enactments to emerge. The capacity to act reflexively upon oneself and upon others is intrinsic to the generation of genuine social processes.

Autopoietic Asylum

The constitution of first-order autopoiesis in relation to its components is totalitarian, conservative, absolute, and invariant. It subjugates all of the activities of the system to its own production. Transposed to a human setting, this is a blueprint for a parasocial system of abuse. In order to generate a 3°A system, one must obliterate self-conscious self-specification. In a word, one must eradicate the agentic Self-Observer. The more a family attempts to act as if it were an autopoietic system, the more allonomously the participants must behave, and the less evident is reflexive monitoring of conduct . Laing17 pointed out the typical rules of family life which provide a mechanism for this simultaneous erosion of intersubjective reflexivity and increasing allonomy as follows:

Rule A: Don't.

Rule A1: Rule A does not exist.

Rule A2: Do not discuss the existence or non-existence of Rules A, A1, or A218 .

The pervasiveness of such rules for the destruction of subjectivity are obvious in many systems. When the participants follow them, they will 'forget' that these rules exist: their levels of consciousness are diminished. The continuous elaboration of such rule systems places extreme constraints on the limits of one's world. Coercive limits are quickly reached regarding what may be said and, eventually, what may be imagined. Laing comments:

"... it would never even occur to a perfectly brainwashed person to think certain unmentionably filthy thoughts. Such cleanliness, however, requires constant vigilance: vigilance against what? The answer is strictly unthinkable. To have clean memories,

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reveries, desires, dreams, imagination, one must keep clean company, and guard all senses against pollution. If one only overhears someone else talking filthy, one has been polluted. Even if one can forget one ever heard it, right away. But one has to remember to continue to forget and remember to remember to avoid that person in future" 19 .

Here we see the consciousness-paralyzing process in the allonomous subject. This process is characteristic of all third-order systems which pretend to be autopoietic, whether a family, an asylum, a business, a concentration camp, or a totalitarian state. The current slogan of the Chinese gerontocracy (those responsible for the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing last year ) is "Stability Before Everything". Thus governmental stability, the conservation of the power of those gerontocrats, "justified" the mass killings. In the Maoist era, 'mindless sloganeering' was systematically used to render consciousness impossible. Death, of course, is another method.

The Survival Of The Concentration Camp

Zeleny and Hufford make a distinction between 'autopoietic' social systems and 'engineered social designs', using the concepts of 'spontaneously emergent' versus 'deliberately engineered' and 'self-sustaining' versus 'sustained through coercion' to differentiate between them. From my point of view, neither of these constructs is particularly useful in attempting to distinguish between the 'autopoietic' social system and the engineered system. Furthermore, I would be inclined to think that these systems are fundamentally indistinguishable from the point of view of the participants who must sustain them. Since concentration camps are mentioned several times in the focal article, I will use them to illustrate my point.

To claim that a system is 'artificial' is to operate on an assumption which privileges non-intentional (non-subjective) developments , i.e., that are 'objective' in some way not requiring an observer. There seems to be a separating value that associates 'spontaneous/ natural' with an objectivity independent of the human observer, and that associates 'artificial/rational' with subjectivity ( intentionality) and human meddlesomeness.

However, since there is no 'natural nature', and since, from the constructivist point of view, we live entirely in a man-made languaging medium from which we can never escape, the use of the term 'spontaneous' must be construed with some suspicion.

We are 'spontaneous' as subject-agents in a way which is like the 'spontaneous' behavior of a post-hypnotic subject who suddenly executes a performance - but only following a careful and deliberate period of induction and forgetting. In order to appear 'spontaneous', the actor must have 'forgotten' the deliberate step-wise construction of his role. That is, he 'forgets' his subjective invention of the enactments, object, technique, tool, concept, environment, etc. . The performance, event, or object seems to have come 'out of nowhere', that is, as if it were always entirely present and needing no explanation: it is self-evidently true and genuine. Thus the subject appears to engage in the 'spontaneous assumption of roles' as Zeleny and Hufford claim, but this can occur only after many years of repetitive induction.

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Concentration camps emerged from the long history of conversations within German nationalism and followed the lethal 'immunological' logic of distinguishing 'self' from 'non-self' - in this case, a 'superior Aryan self' established by the active negation of its chosen opposite. The affirmed 'self-identity' required and prescribed the genocidal extinction of the German Jews. To argue that the 'boundaries' of these camps were 'artificial' fences, etc., is quite beside the point. These were clearly parasocial systems which were constitutive of the total Nazi network of conversations. From my point of view, these camps represent the maximal effort to construct a third-order autopoietic system, and the completely 'inhuman' nature of these camps is its inevitable result. Not only were they constructed on the principle that individual components were irrelevant with respect to the whole, but more: the national identity was to be conserved on the basis of extinguishing many of the individual participants. Of course, this was also a context in which the self-consciousness of the victims was brutally deleted. Survivors of this process can provide clinically precise descriptions of the destruction of consciousness, as illustrated by this quote from de Wind20 .

"The ex-prisoners can remember nothing of their very first days in the camp. The memory is lost. During that time, secondary-process thinking is switched off and the more sophisticated ego-functions, such as reality-testing, are suppressed, since to experience the whole reality at once would be overwhelming and would cause chaos. ... Sometimes the process of regression goes too far. Then there remains only what might be called a rudimentary psycho-motoric ego. If this state prevails, the end will soon follow. The most necessary reactions, every kind of warning and adaptive activity, have been lost " 21 .

Here were systems composed of human beings allopoietically specified within a terrifying metaphor of an as if 3°A system. No individuals are likely to have survived these circ*mstances in the sense of being the 'same' organizational identity. Once individuals undergoe the psychologically destructive changes of organization mentioned above, they become other types of system/identity. For the duration of the camps, such reduced psychological identities (e.g., the past and future cease to exist) functioned for the conservation of biological autopoiesis; after being released, the person could begin the re-construction of a human social identity, and most likely not what or who the person was before. Unfortunately, while individuals are unlikely to survive these camps, the 'camps' themselves have survived in their form and intent, and are to be seen in many places around our world at this present moment. Dangers lie in the types of conversational networks that we enter into and engage with in our daily praxis. These include our ignoring conversations which are explicitly for the abuse and reduction of other humans.

Bearing in mind the importance of context and timing for the emergence of particular theories, I have often wondered if the theory of autopoiesis - being generated within the conditions of Pinochet's Chilean dictatorship which included the murder of untold thousands of innocent men, women, and children - was not in fact a transformation and transposition of the living conditions of the inventors to the characterization of life itself. In any event, from my reading I would think that transposing this model of the living from first-order to third-order will inevitably produce something like a dictatorship.

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1. M. Zeleny and K.D. Hufford, "The Application of Autopoiesis in Systems Analysis." International Journal of General Systems, 00,1991, pp. 00-00.

2. F.J. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy . North Holland, New York and Oxford, 1979.

3. Varela, 1979, pp. 54-55.

4. H.R. Maturana , speaking in interview with Marianne Krull, "Basic Concepts of the Theory of Autopoietic Systems", Systemic Studies ,Vol. 1, 1989, pp. 79-104.

5. Maturana,1989, pp. 88-89 (my emphasis).

6. G. Bateson and M.C. Bateson, Angels Fear. Rider, London and Melbourne,1988.

7. R. Jacoby, Social Amnesia . Beacon Press, Boston, 1975.

8. Jacoby, 1975, p. 107.

9. G. Verden-Zoller, "Mother-Child Play: the Biological Foundation of Self and Social Consciousness". Unpublished Manuscript, 1989.

10. Verden-Zoller, 1989, p. 36.

11. A. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory . Macmillan, London, 1979.

12. Giddens, 1979, pp. 39-40.

13. Maturana , 1989, p. 85.

14. G.A. Kelly, The Psychology of Personal Constructs. 2 Vols. Norton, New York, 1955.

15. H. von Foerster, "Perception of the future and the future of perception" [1972]. In: Observing Systems, Intersystems Publications, Seaside, CA, 2nd. edition, 1984, pp. 192-204.

16. R. Harre, Personal Being . Blackwell, Oxford, 1983.

17. R.D. Laing, The Politics of the Family . Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976.

18. Laing, 1976, p. 102.

19. Laing, 1976, p. 103.

20. E. de Wind, " The confrontation with death", International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 49, 1968,pp.302-305.

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21. de Wind, 1968, p. 304.


Humberto Mariotti

The concept of autopoiesis has long surpassed the realm of biology. It has been used in areas so diverse as sociology, psychotherapy, management, anthropology, organizational culture, and many others. This circ*mstance transformed it in a very important and useful instrument for the investigation of reality. Years ago, Chilean scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed the following question: to what extent human social phenomenology could be seen as a biological phenomenology? The purpose of this article is to look for an answer to this question. However, before getting to it I think that it is necessary to review some of the fundamental principles introduced by these two authors.


Poiesis is a Greek term that means production. Autopoiesis means autoproduction. This word appeared for the first time in the international literature in 1974, in an article published by Varela, Maturana, and Uribe, in which living beings are seen as systems that produce themselves in a ceaseless way. Thus, it can be said that an autopoietic system is at the same time the producer and the product.

In Maturana’s viewpoint, the term "autopoiesis" expresses what he called "the center of the constitutive dynamics of living systems". To live this dynamics in an autonomous way, living systems need to obtain resources from the environment in which they live. In other words, they are simultaneously autonomic and dependent systems. So, this condition is clearly a paradox. This self-contradictory condition cannot be adequately understood by linear thinking, according to which everything must be reduced to the binary model yes/no, or/or. When dealing with living beings, things, and events, linear thinking begins by dividing them. The next step is the analysis of the separate parts. No attempts are made to look for the dynamic relationships that exists between them.

This autonomy-dependency paradox, which is a characteristic feature of living beings, is better understood when one uses a way of thinking that encompasses systems thinking (which examines the dynamic relationships between the parts) and linear thinking. This model has been proposed by French author Edgar Morin, who called it "complex thinking".

Maturana and Varela proposed an instructive metaphor that is worthwhile to recall here. In their viewpoint, living systems are self-producing machines. No other kind of machine is able to do this: their production always consists in something that is different from themselves. Since autopoietic systems are simultaneously producers and products, it could also be said that they are circular systems, that is, they work in terms of productive circularity. Maturana maintains that as long as we are not able to understand the systemic character of living cells, we will not be able to adequately understand living organisms. I reaffirm that this understanding can only be adequately provided by complex thinking. However, we live in a

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culture that is deeply formatted by linear thinking. This fact resulted in important consequences, some of which are very grave, as we will see later in this text.

Structure, organization, and structural determinism

As stated by Maturana and Varela, living beings are structure-determined systems. What happens to us in a given moment depends on our structure in this moment. These authors call this concept structural determinism. The structure of a given system is the way by which their components interconnect with no changes in their organization. Let us see an example related to a non-living system — a table. It can have any of its parts modified, but keeps being a table as long as these parts are left articulated. However, if we disconnect and separate them, the system can no longer be recognized as a table, because its organization is lost. Thus, we could say that the system is extinguished. In the same way, the structure of a living system changes all the time, which demonstrates that it is continuously adapting itself to the equally continuous environmental changes. Nevertheless, the loss of the organization would result in the death of the system.

Thus, organization determines the identity of a system, whereas structure determines how its parts are physically articulated. Organization identifies a system and corresponds to its general configuration. Structure shows the way parts interconnect. The moment in which a system loses its organization corresponds to the limit of its tolerance to structural changes.

The fact that living systems are submitted to structural determinism does not mean that they are foreseeable. In other words, they are determined but this does not mean that they are predetermined. As a matter of fact, since their structure changes all the time — and in congruence with the aleatory modifications of the environment —, it is not adequate to speak about predetermination. We should rather speak about circularity. In order to avoid any doubts about this issue, we would better bear in mind this detail: what happens to a system in a given moment depends on its structure in this very moment.

The world in which we live is the world that we build out of our perceptions, and it is our structure that enables us to have these perceptions. So, our world is the world that we have knowledge of. If the reality that we perceive depends on our structure — which is individual —, there are as many realities as perceiving people. This explains why the so-called purely objective knowledge is impossible: the observer is not apart from the phenomena he or she observes. Since we are determined by the way the parts of which we are made interconnet and work together (that is, by our structure), the environment can only trigger in our organisms the alterations that are determined in the structure of these organisms. A cat can only perceive the world and interact with it by means of its feline structure, not with a configuration that is does not have, as for instance the human structure. By the same token, we humans cannot see the world the same way as a cat does.

Thus, we do not have adequate arguments to affirm the reality of this objectivity which we use to be so proud of. In Maturana’s viewpoint, when someone says that he or she is objective, it means that he or she has access to a privileged worldview, and that this privilege in some way enables he or she to exercise an authority that takes for granted the obedience of everybody else who is not objective. This is one of the basis of the so-called logical reasoning.

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Our conditioning leads us to see the world as an object, thus we think of ourselves as separate from it. And we go even further: through the ego, we see ourselves as observers separate from the rest of our own psyche. In order to operate such an objective proposal, it is necessary to establish a boundary between the ego and the world, the same way we did between the ego and the rest of our totality. So, since we are divided the same will happen with our knowledge, which will also result divided and limited.

This is the final result of our alleged objectivity: a fragmented and restricted worldview. It is from this position that we think of ourselves as authorized to judge everybody who does not agree with us, and condemn them as "non-objective" and "intuitive" people. In other words, departing from a fragmented and limited viewpoint, we think that is possible to arrive to the truth and show it to our peers — a truth that we imagine that is the same for everybody.

Structural coupling

According to Maturana and Varela, living systems and the environment change in a congruent way. In their comparison, the foot is always adjusting to the shoe and vice versa. This is a good manner to say that the environment triggers changes in the structure of systems, and systems answer by triggering changes in the environment and so on, in a circular way. When a system influences another, the influenced one answers by influencing back, that is, it develops a compensatory behavior. The first organism then proceeds to act again over the second one, which replies once more — and so on, as long as the two systems keep going in this coupling condition.

We already know that living systems are determined by their structure. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that when a system is in structural coupling mode with another one, at a given moment of this relationship the conduct of one of them is a constant source of stimuli for compensatory answers from the other. These are, therefore, transactional and recurrent events. When a system influences another, the influenced one sustains a structural change — a deformation. On replying, the influenced system gives to the influencer an interpretation of how this influence was perceived. A dialogue is therefore established. In other words, a consensual context is started, through which structurally coupled organisms interact. This interaction is a linguistic domain.

To put it in another way, in this transactional ambit the conduct of each organism corresponds to a description of the behavior of its partner. Each one "tells" to the other how its "message" has been perceived. This explains why there is no competition between natural systems. What exists is cooperation. However, when culture meets nature — as happens with human beings — things change.

I reaffirm that there is no competition (in the predatory sense of the term) between non-human living beings. When men refer to some animals as predators, they are anthropomorphizing them, that is, projecting on them a condition that is peculiar to humans. Since they do not compete between themselves, non-human living systems do not "dictate" each other norms of conduct. If natural conditions keep unchanged, there are no authoritarian commandments nor unconditional obediency between them. Living beings are autonomous systems. Its conduct is determined according to their own structures, that is, according to the way they interpret

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influences that come from the environment. They are not subdued systems, that is, they are not unconditionally obedient to outside determinations.

In the case of human societies, in which the prevailing conditions are not only those provided by nature, this is exactly what marketing and other means of mass conditioning try (and in many cases succeed) to do with entire populations. Thus, it is possible to reach to mass-production of subdued people, provided conditioning stimuli are widespread and constant. This is what psychoanalyst Félix Guattari calls subjectivities production. With this concept, he introduces the idea of an industrial, mass-produced, capitalism-formatted subjectivity. This is the result of the operation of huge conditioning systems, by means of which capital (today in its neoliberal triumphant phase) builds and maintains its immense market of power. In other words, all these efforts are directed to the consolidation and continuing operation of violence against the most basic of the characteristics of living systems — autopoiesis.

The notion that living systems are structurally determined is of utmost importance for many areas of human activity. In psychotherapy, for instance, transference and countertransference can be understood as manifestations of this structural coupling, in which changes sustained by the client are determined only by his or her structure. They cannot, therefore, be considered as caused or produced in any way by the therapist. As a consequence, it is very important to keep in mind that the consensual domain that results from structural coupling of autopoietic systems is indeed a linguistic context — but not in the mere sense of transmission of information.

Sociocultural extension

Maturana and Varela pointed out that Darwin’s evolutive theory transcended the simple diversity of living beings and their origin and extended to many areas, as for example the culture. As we know, this theoretical proposal emphasizes the dimensions of species, aptitude and natural selection. These notions are nowadays the basis for social darwinism, which is the utilization of Darwin’s ideas to justify predatory competition between men. In this sense, it is a fundamentalist interpretation.

In the same way, the idea of transcendence has been used to justify social exclusion and allied phenomena, as political and economic exploitation. On account of this, individuals would have a very small meaning and value as compared to species. As a consequence, people are supposed to give everything (which includes their lives) for the benefit of perpetuation of species — but the opposite is by no means always true.

When speaking about this issue, Maturana and Varela recall the following arguments, which have been largely applied to our societies:

a) the evolution is the evolution of human species;

b) according to the law of natural selection, the more fit will survive;

c) competition leads to evolution, and this applies to the human beings too;

d) those who did not survive were not able to contribute to the history of human species.

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Summing up, individuals should let natural phenomena evolve and stay in a kind of passive attitude — everything for species sake.

However, the same authors state that these arguments should not prevail when one needs to justify the subordination of the individual to the species, because biologic phenomenology occurs in the individual, not in species. In other words, these arguments should not prevail because biologic phenomenology belongs to the part, not to the whole. Since the way of being of a given individual is determined by its structure — which is autopoietic —, there should not exist discardable individuals, either in relation to species, society, mankind, and any other instances, important or transcendent as they may be.

Ordinations, societies and individuals

In nature — as stated by Maturana and Varela —, there is a tendency to the constitution of increasingly complex autopoietic systems. This occurs through the coupling of simpler autopoietic unities to build up more complex organizations, in which the hierarchy principle is the rule: a system is inside another one, that is superior to it; this one is, by its turn, inside another one, that is superior to it; and so on. This happens in multicellular organisms and, according to Maturana and Varela, maybe in the cell itself.

The main question is to know whether this circ*mstance could be applicable to human societies. If so, they could be seen as first-order autopoietic systems. In this line of reasoning, people’s autopoiesis would be subordinated to the autopoiesis of the societies in which they live. Thus, it could be ethically justifiable the sacrifice of individuals for the sake of societies. In these circ*mstances — as Maturana and Varela say —, it would very much difficult for human beings to act on the autopoietic dynamics of the societies to which they belong. I certainly agree with this argument, and also think that it is possible to reinforce it with some more considerations. In order to be able to develop them, I will stay in the domain of biology.

We know that an autopoietic system produces itself utilizing resources from the environment. In order to be able to go on with this process, a human organism, for instance, keeps discarding its worn-out cells. These dead parts are continuously replaced for new ones, and so the process continues while the organism keeps alive, that is, autopoietic. However, as far as it is alive, no autopoietic unity discards any of their living components. There are no prescindible parts in natural systems.

As a result — and always keeping the focus on the biologic context —, a society could only be considered autopoietic while satisfying the autopoiesis of all the individuals that constitute it. Thus, a society that discards young and productive individuals (by means of strategies as production of subjectivities, wars, genocide, social exclusion and other forms of violence) is a self-mutilating and therefore pathologic system.

If men were only natural beings, their autopoiesis would obviously be operated only in the natural way. The fact that men are also cultural beings lead them to operate their autopoiesis in a different manner — different and pathologic, because it is a self-aggressive one. Culture conditions individuals, which by their turn reciprocate, and so on, in a circularity that cannot be understood in terms of linear thinking. Why is this so? We know that there are no single-caused phenomena in nature — and this case is no exception. Even so, one can affirm that the

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main cause of this dysfunction is the prevailing mental model of our culture — linear thinking. We are deeply conditioned by this model, which stimulates immediatism and assign a high value to war and competition. This is the main reason by which our societies are pathologic living systems.

It is very important to repeat that what makes our societies behave like this is not the cultural dimension in itself, but the kind of culture under which we live, that emphasizes the belief that predatory competition is a good, healthy and ethically justifiable way of life. Its most visible practical manifestation is competitivity — the compulsion to not only winning, but also eliminating our opponents, the compulsion of leading to the last consequences aggressivity, implacability and the need to exclude.

All of us are to some extent influenced by the unidimensionality of linear thinking, which leads us to think that the most pleasant side of a victory is to defeat someone. This the so-called zero sum game: an interaction in which for someone’s victory to be satisfactory the defeat of the opponent is an indispensable condition. In a climate like this, people, things, and events cannot be complementary: something must necessarily be removed and discarded so that something else could be put in its place. This situation may even be inevitable in some specific contexts, but it certainly does not have the wideness that we imagine.

In any case, the idea of the other as an invariable adversary, as an enemy to exterminate, is one of the fundamental features of the competitivity of our culture. Through it — and specially in the domain of business and corporations —, we live our daily paranoia. It is a worldview that excludes the possibility that the other could be momentarily defeated by one’s competence, but preserved in order to be capable, in the future, to learn how to win, that is, to learn how to be competent. The ideal of competitivity, however, is to win in such a way that the winner could be always the first and the only one — as if we could exist without our human fellows, and, even worse, as if anybody could be the first and the only one without being also the last one.

Let us say the same thing in another way. Some paragraphs ago, I wrote that in nature there is no competitivity. What exists is competence. As noted by Maturana, when two animals meet before the same piece of food and only one eats, this happens because in that specific moment one of them was the most competent to do so. But this does not mean that the animal that was unable to eat is doomed to be, from that moment on, forever forbidden to eat until death arrives. This does not happen in nature.

However, when circ*mstances involve the competitivity of human culture, the individual who succeeds to eat do not satisfy himself with this fact: he or her needs to make sure that the one who was not able to eat must cease forever to be a threat. In other words, competitive men usually do not feel sure of their competence, so they have the need to get rid of whoever could jeopardise them. In other words, when men cannot trust in themselves as living beings, their peers must be eliminated as soon as possible. But even so — let us insist on this point —, this cannot be ascribed to the cultural dimension in itself: it plays such a role in a culture like ours, which do not know how to deal with aleatority and ceaseless change. And these conditions, as we know, constitute the very essence of life. In other words, we do not know how to deal with autopoiesis — that is why we feel ourselves in need to aggress it and to deny its reality.

It is obvious that these considerations do not invalidate the concept of autopoiesis. On the contrary, it stands even more validated by the demonstration of its efficacy in once more

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diagnosing the self-aggressive condition of we humans — a condition that we have extended to our societies. Let us recall now the question asked by Maturana and Varela: to what extent human social phenomenology may be seen as a biological phenomenology? The above reflections have already answered it: social phenomenology can surely be seen as a biological phenomenlogy — but it is a pathologic condition.

Values and depreciations

Let us add some more reflections. Martin Heidegger, among others, states that individuals have the tendency to alienate themselves to the things of the world. This makes them forget the Being. This alienation leads us to value things in an excessive way and then to depreciate ourselves and, by extension, do deny the humanity of our peers. In other words, people see each other as trading goods. This is a well-known social feature.

In this same direction, our need for transcendence is also depreciated. Let us consider the quest for spiritual values that could guide and justify human existence. In societies as ours, in which people are seen as mere objects, such values tend to be excessively idealized, and this further increases the distance between them and ordinary people. As a result, we will do everything we can to preserve such values, which includes an increased contempt for the lack of transcendentality of our peers, and they will answer in the same way. Psychologist Emílio Romero has an illustrative phrase about this issue: "It is not easy to love simple, limited, contradictory, oscillating, flesh and bone mortals like ourselves. It is easier do admire distant idols, maybe protectors in their unattainable majesty".

As history shows, this attitude has produced regrettable results. Everybody knows about societies in which the marked inclination toward spirituality has produced and still produces legions of socially excluded. On the other hand, we know that the excessive tendency toward materiality has produced and still produces the same legions of indigents. It seems that the excess of non-linearity of thought is as noxious to autopoiesis (that is, for life) as the excess of linearity (that is, of rationality).

Furthermore, a new phenomena has appeared and consolidates itself at a fast rate. I am referring to over-idealization of money. As we know, the capital has been since a long time the basic value of our culture. For the past several years, however, it has been very easy to idealize it even more. This is due to the ascent of the so-called "volatile money", represented by the intangible ciphers that circulate electronically through the global markets. This enhanced "transcendentalization" of money has been adding, now in a vertiginous way, more fuel to the bonfire in which the socially excluded are mercilessly burned out. This discardability of people — which is the basic manifestation of the pathology of our culture — is quickly increasing as years go on. Thus, a truly autopoietic society cannot coexist with the predatory competition which is the outstanding mark of our culture.

Summing up, these reflections lead to the following conclusions:

a) As proposed by Maturana and Varela, autopoiesis is indeed a concept that resolve and clearly defines the problem of biologic phenomenology.

b) According to this viewpoint, social phenomenology can be seen as a biological phenomenology, because society is composed of living beings. As a consequence, the idea of autopoiesis, when applied as an instrument of social analysis, confirms the conclusion already

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established by other means of investigation — that our societies are self-mutilating, pathologic systems.

c) A sizeable part of this pathology may be explained by the fact that the mind of our culture is formatted by linear thinking, which states that causes stand immediately before effects or are very close to them, and maintains that these relationships always occur in the same context of space and time.

d) This mental model is obviously necessary for the understanding and the practice of the mechanical circ*mstances of life (material production, ingestion, processing, excretion, and exchange of tangible goods), but it is not sufficient to understand and to deal with the events of life that involve feelings and emotions.

e) As a result, the linear mental model is only adequate as a basis for the conventional market economy, that underestimates or simply discards the non-mechanical dimensions of human existence. As a consequence, this economy keeps creating scenarios in which the integral human being (that is, the complex human being) is always divided, used and finally excluded.

f) Therefore, we are talking about the consequences of an oversimplification of human condition, which pretends that it is possible to resolve systemic problems by means of a linear and unidimensional mental model.

g) As a result, increasingly morbid societies have been built, which insist in disrespecting the autopoiesis of their components. We live in communities that describe themselves as always looking for a good quality of life. However, when observed with a more rigorous look, what can be seen is that this quality is accessible only to a minority. Furthermore, the costs of this quality are dangerously (and increasingly) high, because it keeps generating a dreadful series of by-products — which begin with social exclusion and end in death.


BOHM, David. Thought as a system. London: Routledge, 1994.

BOHM, David. On dialogue. London: Routledge, 1998.

GUATTARI, Félix. Chaosmose; un nouvel paradigme esthétique. Paris: College International d’Études Transdisciplinaires, 1991.

GUATTARI, Félix, ROLNIK, Suely. Cartografias do desejo. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1996.

HEIDEGGER, Martin. Being and time. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

MATURANA, Humberto. El sentido de lo humano. Santiago: Dolmen Ediciones, 1993.

MATURANA, Humberto. Emoções e linguagem na educação e na política. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 1998.

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MATURANA, Humberto, VARELA, Francisco J. Autopoiesis and cognition; the organization of the living. Boston: Reidel, 1980.

MORIN, Edgar. Introduction à la pensée complexe. Paris: EST Éditeurs, 1990.

MORIN, Edgar. La complexité humaine. Paris: Flammarion, 1994.

ROMERO, Emílio. O inquilino do imaginário; formas de alienação e psicopatologia. São Paulo: Lemos, 1997.

RUIZ, Alfredo. Humberto Maturana e a psicoterapia. Thot (São Paulo) 70: 61-69, 1999.

VARELA, Francisco J. Sobre a competência ética. Lisboa: edições 70, s.d.

VARELA, Francisco J., THOMPSON, Evan, ROSCH, Eleanor. The embodied mind; cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1997.

VARELA, Francisco, MATURANA, Humberto, URIBE, R. Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5:187-196, 1974.

Humberto Mariotti is a pychiatrist and psychotherapist. He is also the coordinator of the Studies Group of Complexity and Systems Thinking of the Palas Athena Association, in São Paulo, Brazil.

by Vincent Kenny

Roma October 2, 1985

{Revised version of an Invited paper presented at the Istituto di Psicologia, Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. * }




Several important phenomena arise with language

Conversations as Structural Perturbations

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Problems with Perception: How is it that we make mistakes?

Operations of Distinction

Complementary Relationship between Components and Unity

There are two types of structural changes possible

To summarise to this point

Brief Example: The Family as a System


Maturana's notion of Structure Determinism -

Implications of Maturana's Theory for Psychotherapy

Concluding comments -


ABSTRACT This chapter introduces the central concerns of Humberto Maturana's theory of autopoiesis as they relate to the domain of psychotherapy. Several common terms which are redefined within his theory in an unusual manner are unpacked as to their idiosyncratic significance including the expressions, 'linguistic behaviour', 'languaging', 'structure determinism', 'organisation', 'structure' and others. The source material used for this exposition include not only the cited texts but also several workshops from which verbatim transcripts are often used in the form of brief quotations. I have attempted to stay as close to the original material as possible in order to convey both the meaning and the texture of Maturana's work. This is not an easy theory to grasp ranging as it does across several specialist fields from the neurophysiology of perception through social communication to epistemology. Nor are the implicative transitions from a theory of biology to the praxis of psychotherapy without complexity and controversy. Nonetheless, Maturana offers a novel theory of

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conversations which could form the basis of a much needed new paradigm for personal change.


Maturana used to use the phrase 'biological stickiness' to describe how any two systems, upon encountering one another, stayed or 'stuck' together. They fit together and remain together and continuously interact recurrently with each other. More recently he has used the more dangerous word 'love' to describe this happening of living. Love is a phenomenon which takes place a priori, without precedent, and without prior justification. Maturana claims that if you tell someone that: "I love you because you are so beautiful / intelligent etc." then either you do not really love that person or you are pretending to have reasons for something for which there are no reasons. 'One simply falls in love and every love is love at first sight even if it arises after living together for 20 years.' In other words love is an expression of a particular structural configuration in the two participants such that they stick together with no reason. Love is a primary constitutive condition and is fundamental if social phenomena are to arise.

Being in love means making a space for one another so that each becomes part of the domain of existence of the other, and within their continuous recurrency of interactions they form a system in which they have a co-ontogeny. It is the recurrency of interaction within the medium that creates the conditions for co-ontogeny. If they fit, one with respect to the other, then they form a path of (structural) drift together. Within this co-ontogenic drift new phenomena will arise immediately.

Without love there would be no social phenomena. This is an important point since for Maturana many crucial human phenomena are social e.g. language, self-awareness, mind, self etc. By ontogeny is meant the living system's history of structural drift in which its course of structural changes is contingent upon the interactions it undergoes in its medium. Each interaction triggers a particular change and the next interaction triggers another particular change and so forth.

The living system and its medium are operationally independent and so whatever changes of structure take place are determined by the structure of the system itself at every moment. The path of change is contingent upon the history of interactions in the medium. When we look retrospectively we can see that the system and the medium are in correspondence, i.e. they are in congruence with one another.

"Every system is where it is, in a present, in congruence with its medium, and cannot be anywhere else." This is a typical statement by Maturana whereby he means to underline the coherence and congruence of each system in its domain of existence. A human system may not like where he is in the medium, and may feel extremely badly about what "life" has doled out to him, but he is where he is through a coherent series of structural interactions and changes in his ontogenic drift. It is interesting that we apply the word "drifter" in a pejorative manner to those folks who most obviously exemplify the human condition of structural drift, as if we , by our 'rootedness' were

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escaping this essential constraint and thereby exerting 'control' or 'steering' over our lives in a determining way.

Both the living system and the medium change in congruence with one another. They change their structure / shape so that they fit together in a drift. The concept of drift does not imply a chaotic situation because it is being determined on a moment-to-moment basis by the interactions. The path of drift is contingent upon the interactions. So unilateral steering is an illusion. This path of drift is a path without any choices. It is a path of conservation of (a) the organisation of the living system and (b) of congruence with the medium. This is the paradigm for survival.

When we have two living systems (A and B) interacting with one another each one forms part of the medium of the other. Within their co-ontogenic structural drift A's structural drift is contingent upon its interactions with B in the medium and vice versa. From an observer's point of view you could describe this co-ontogeny as the co-ordination of actions between A and B, since there are consequences for A/B of each others actions in the medium. Further, we can say that without this co-ontogeny, certain behaviours between A/B would not have arisen. Within the co-ontogeny the behaviours of A/B become consensual - i.e. they have created a consensus about the coordination of their behaviours).

Consensual behaviour is behaviour between two systems as a result of living together. These would not have appeared had they not lived together. The behaviour is contingent upon their ontogenies. These behaviours can be described as interactions in the medium. This consensual coordination of behaviour is what Maturana calls LINGUISTIC BEHAVIOUR. Examples of linguistic behaviour can be easily observed occurring between humans and their pets. One instance being the consensual coordination of a cat scratching a door to be let out of the house by its owner. Another may be seen if you inadvertently move to stand on your dog's tail, it moves its tail out of the way of your foot. These behaviours arise because of their co-ontogeny, of living together.

An observer could describe these interactions in semantic terms, i.e. one could ascribe meanings to the elements in the coordination of behaviour e.g. "the cat is telling his owner that he wants to go out". However Maturana is keen to point out that there is no intrinsic meaning in the linguistic behaviour. What is happening is that the two systems (person + cat) trigger various structural changes in one another. Maturana gives the following example of structural changes triggered by interactions to underline the absence of meaning; In the process of lens-making two pieces of glass are ground together. By using certain rotating movements you will produce one concave and one convex lens. We could either say that these two fit together or that the concave is meant to contain the convex.

However, this ascription of meaning (of purpose/intent) is not a feature of the geometrical correspondence. What we have are changes of structure contingent upon their interactions. We have two congruent structurally dynamic entities such that the changes of structure of one trigger congruent changes of structure in the other which in turn trigger changes in the first which are congruent with it. By sticking to structural descriptions Maturana aims to empty out all other types of symbolic explanations. The starkness of Maturana's position is ameliorated by Varela (1981)

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who, while agreeing with Maturana that notions of purpose, information or code cannot play any logical role in the description of autopoietic systems , points out that our human cognitive capabilities will remain unsatisfied unless such explanations are also complemented with carefully constructed symbolic explanations.

The coordination of action in relation to interactions in the medium is called Linguistic Behaviour or Linguistic Interaction. This always takes place when two living systems live together and have structural plasticity in the domain of their recurrent interactions. Structural plasticity is necessary, in that the systems must be able to change their structures when triggered by one another.

" The plastic splendour of the nervous system does not lie in its production of 'engrams' or representations of things in the world; rather, it lies in its continuous transformation in line with transformations of the environment as a result of how each interaction affects it." ( Maturana and Varela,1987, p. 170).

Given sufficient structural plasticity and the continuation of recurrent interactions then we may observe the coordination of behaviour - not only in relation to interactions in the medium but also in relation to these coordinations of actions. That is they coordinate their behaviour in relation to the coordination of behaviour. We observe consensual behaviour about consensual behaviour. We see linguistic behaviour about linguistic behaviour. This is what Maturana calls "Language".

When we get a recursion in the coordination of consensual behaviour, so that there is consensual coordination of behaviour of consensual coordination of behaviour then we have this new phenomenon which is language.

" So, we can also say that language is a domain of recursive linguistic co-ordinations of actions, or a domain of second-order linguistic co-ordinations of actions. We human beings also co-ordinate our actions with each other in first-order linguistic domains , and we do so frequently with non-human animals." (1988;p 48).

For Maturana several important phenomena arise with language including -

(a) The Observer (b) Humanity (c) Meaning (d) Self-awareness / consciousness, and (e) Objects

What makes us human is languaging. "Humanity arises in the social dynamics in which languaging takes place". This is difficult to prove but Maturana cites examples of feral children brought up by wolves so that what we find are wolves with the genetics of hom*o Sapiens. They never learn to speak (although they may know a few words).

It is important to note that no particular behaviour or movement or gesture or sound constitutes languaging. Rather, it is an ongoing process because it is defined in the history of the coordination of actions. Just a word or gesture does not constitute

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languaging. Furthermore, languaging is not an abstract phenomenon, we are not dealing with abstract entities.

Languaging becomes part of our medium and so anything we say is not trivial since it becomes part of the domain in which our co-ontogenic structural drift takes place. That is, our co-drifts are contingent upon our languaging. Languaging interactions are as powerful as a physical interaction e.g. pushing someone hard. If I say "How beautiful you look" - this has certain consequences in terms of a "particular configuration of structural perturbations." This statement is like a caress. Equally, if I say "you look terrible" this is another particular configuration of structural perturbation. Such an interaction Maturana calls "like hammerings in the head", i.e. it is painful.

"Thus we say that the words were smooth, caressing, hard, sharp, and so on: all words that refer to body touching. Indeed we can kill or elate with words as body experiences. We kill or elate with words because, as co-ordinations of actions, they take place through body interactions that trigger in us body changes in the domain of physiology." (1988:p 48).

Structural changes triggered here include changes in blood pressure, blood flow, hormone flow production, brain synapses undergoing different changes etc., all depending on what is said. These changes take place unavoidably as a process of structural change contingent to the interactions and hence as a drift because the course of structural change is being specified on a moment-to-moment basis in the interaction.

However, DRIFT will only go in the direction that the circ*mstances will allow. Drift will not go in any imaginable direction. The example here is to consider the path of a boat which has no rudder, oars, engine, or mast etc. being generated as a drift.. Even if we could specify and compute the structure of all the systems involved and were thereby able to predict the direction of the drift (which we cannot do) it would still be a drift, because the system flows in its own dynamic of structural changes. This is not to say that we cannot alter the direction of the drift for example by what we do in languaging since this (languaging) defines conditions in which the drift takes place. If we language one way ("you're beautiful") the drift goes this way rather than that way ("you look terrible"). The human dilemma is that we want to pretend to control our lives (and others' lives) as if we could specify the outcome of the drifting pattern.

The notion of control arises in the context of productivity. Maturana talks about 3 main modes in which we can act and these 3 are distinguished largely in terms of differences of intent.

Firstly, the Science mode - the intent here is explanations. Secondly, the Technology mode - the intent here is production. Thirdly, the Art mode - where the intent is Aesthetic.

Within the Science Mode the approach is to introduce variety in order to be able to generate more comprehensive explanations of phenomena. That is, novelty is introduced as a means to an end.

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The Art Mode is to amplify free creativity to generate a self-saying aesthetic phenomenon which needs no further explanation. The artistic piece is self-producing‚and self-sufficient in its final form. Here novelty is produced as an end in itself.

In the Technological mode we intend to achieve a particular result and so we specify certain constraints on the variability of the components of the system, with the result that the drift can follow only one particular course. Here novelty is excluded by systematic controls. This applies equally to technological supervisors in a car factory ( ensuring that each car is produced with minimal variation), as well as to fascist dictatorships whose technological supervisors serve to control and eliminate any dissenting voices.

Although we cannot control our co-drift since its path is formed by moment-to-moment interactions, and although the concepts of choice and free will become redundant in this regard, we must still be extremely careful about our actions since whatever we do forms part of the medium in which we drift, and therefore we drift in a different way to how we would drift if we did nothing. So what we do is not irrelevant to our drift, even if we cannot actually control the dynamics of the drift mechanism. Thus, whatever we do in languaging is not trivial because languaging is a manner of moving in a co-drift which makes it possible for us to complexify our human lives together.

The amount of complexity we can generate in human behaviour in terms of the recursion of coordination of actions about the coordination of actions is open or infinite. But nothing that we do in it is trivial.

"All that takes place in human life is languaging, and all that takes place in languaging is conversations".

"These are continuous mutual grooming interactions. We immerse ourselves in structural drift contingent to the conversations in which we participate and which we generate through our structural dynamics".

Note that language does not take place in the brain but rather in the social dynamics. Languaging is a way of being together in a collective, it is a way of co-ontogenically drifting. [Without the brain there is no language, but language does not exist in the brain]

Self-consciousness arises in languaging as a manner of consensual coordination of distinctions about the consensual coordination of distinctions in which the participants (i.e. those who are distinguished) are distinguished. In languaging we can reflexively describe ourselves, and describe ourselves describing ourselves and so forth. We do this through linguistic distinction of linguistic distinctions.

" Self-consciousness arises in language in the linguistic recursion that brings forth the distinction of the self as an entity in the explanation of the operation of the observer in the distinction of the self from other entities in a consensual domain of distinctions." (1986:p 80).

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So we see that self-consciousness depends upon languaging as a phenomenon of linguistic recursion. Self-consciousness, self-awareness, and mind are social phenomena because they take place in languaging, in the social domain.

Another importance of language within Maturana's system is that prior to language there are no objects. That is, objects arise with language. Objects are entities specified in the coordinations of coordinations of consensual actions.

"...the participants of a consensual domain of interactions operate in their consensual behaviour making consensual distinctions of their consensual distinctions , in a process that recursively makes a consensual action a consensual token for a consensual distinction that it obscures." (1986:p 55).

What this means is that the object we bring forth obscures the operation of distinction it stands for. When I use my pen to ink marks onto this piece of white paper , the action of writing or 'inking' is an operation of distinction whereby I bring forth the inked words on the page. So 'inking' as an action is the operation of distinction I can consensually enact and the inked words are the object I bring forth with my actions. The object is a consensual distinction which obscures the action it stands for.

So objects arise in languaging and at the same time obscure the operations of distinction for which they stand. Hence we are left with these entities which seem to exist independently of everything. This illusion of independent existence is achieved because the objects obscure the operations of distinction that constitute them. In this way objects are reified. "In the recursion of consensual distinctions of consensual distinctions we continually transform notions/concepts into objects".

Prior to human beings there were no objects, since objects arose with language. If we see a cat chasing and catching a mouse, then for Maturana the 'cat' is (not) eating the 'mouse'. Rather "it is flowing in the structural dynamics of its structural coupling/congruence in its domain of existence". The 'cat' does not exist as a 'cat' for the 'cat'. It cannot exist until somehow language arises for the cat.

"We humans also 'do' many things without doing them. We 'walk' without walking. We perform many actions which we can talk about afterwards, but which do not pertain to the domain of languaging while we are performing them. So we are not doing them."

Many of Maturana's ideas, including the distinction between the domain of experience and the domain of explanations, and the impossibility of instructional interactions because of the structure-determined nature of living systems, can be read as echoes of Lao Tsu's work "Tao Te Ching", as the following passages from the Tao illustrate.

"A truly good man is not aware of his goodness, And is therefore good. A foolish man tries to be good, And is therefore not good.

A truly good man does nothing, Yet leaves nothing undone.

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A foolish man is always doing, Yet much remains to be done."

"In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired, In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped. Less and less is done Until non-action is achieved. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering."

In his presentations of this year [1985] Maturana has said that we are not in languaging all the time, referring to the previous comments of doing things without doing them. One intention is to distinguish between the two non-intersecting domains which he calls the Domain of Experience and the Domain of Explanation. In postulating that we can never have less than these two dimensions Maturana claims that his approach is not reductionistic.

While, as observers, we are all in languaging all the time, language is not the only means we have of operating in consensual co-ordinations of actions. As we have seen, prior to the development of language are the linguistic co-ordinations of actions. So the decision as to whether or not we are in languaging when we are alone depends on whether or not the actions we are undertaking belong to some implicit domain of consensual co-ordinations of actions within our observer community. With this in mind we can understand that certain individuals are called 'mad' or 'eccentric' because they are seen to be enacting languaging but outside of any implicit or explicit domain of consensuality.

Conversations as Structural Perturbations

As humans we dwell in language, and are realised in the social domain through languaging, through our constitution of conversations in which we bring forth objects as if they were fixed entities. It is as if these objects exist independently of any observer (i.e. we assume that we 'discover' reality).

" In daily life we call conversation a flow of coordinations of actions and emotions that we observers distinguish as taking place between human beings that interact recurrently in language....the different systems of co-existence, or kinds of human communities that we integrate , differ in the networks of conversations ( consensual coordinations of actions and emotions ) that constitute them, and therefore, in the domains of reality in which they take place. Emotions are not conversations, but we flow in our emotioning through the flow of our conversations." (p. 53, 1988).

Not all conversations elicit emotions, as we know . Maturana outlines a (non-exhaustive) list of six classes of conversations which we can distinguish among human interactions. These are defined in terms of differences in the pattern of coordinations of actions and emotions which are variously invoked and are as follows:

1. Conversations of coordinations of present and future actions; Such conversations are for the actual coordinations of actions which take place in relation

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to a particular domain. The conversational participants are only listening for the coordinations of actions here and there is no particular emotional content.

2 Conversations of complaint and apology for unkept agreements; These coordinations of actions, within the frame of emotions of righteousness and guilt are concerned with demands and promises.

3 Conversations of desires and expectations; These are coordinations of actions undertaken by participants whose attention is oriented to future descriptions and not to the current actions through which they are being constituted as humans in the present.

4 Conversations of command and obedience; Such coordinations of actions take place within an emotional frame of negation. That is, by complying with commands to do as he otherwise would not do, the one obeying the commands both negates himself and the person commanding ( by attributing to him a characteristic of 'superiority'). The one commanding also engages in this dual negation.

5 Conversations of characterisations, attributions and valuing; Here the coordinations of actions are embedded in an emotional flow of acceptance and rejection, together with the experience of pleasure and frustration depending on whether or not the listeners feel they have been correctly recognised or not by the speakers.

6 Conversations of complaint for unfulfilled expectations; In this case the listener feels frustrated by being accused of not fulfilling a promise that he did not make, while the speaker feels frustrated that the listener has dishonestly not kept a promise made.

" we human beings participate in many different conversations simultaneously or in succession , our actual community coexistence courses as the changing front of a network of conversations in which different criss-crossing coordinations of present and future actions braid with different consensual emotional flows." (p. 53,1988)

By emphasising the interweaving of languaging and emotioning, Maturana unpacks further his notion that conversations are structural perturbations which have far-reaching effects on our bodyhoods. Our 'self' or 'identity' is defined by the totality of all the systems of social interactions in which we participate. In this sense our bodyhood is the time/space location of structural intersections of the many different systems which we constitute or participate in bringing forth through our actions.

Anyone familiar with John Searle's (1969) work on speech acts will note a strong similarity between these conversational types outlined above and Searle's five categories of illocutionary point, namely, assertives, directives, commissives, expressives and declarations. These outline varying patterns of commitment coordinated by speakers and listeners.

To close this section on conversations it is important to recall that languaging does not connote or denote independent objects, but is rather a system of orienting

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behaviour whose function is to generate a consensual domain of actions. It is to orient the listener within his own cognitive domain.



Problems with Perception: How is it that we make mistakes?

It is constitutive for Maturana that at the moment of experiencing we cannot tell a perception from an hallucination. From his analysis, the science of neurophysiology has failed to generate a mechanism which could explain our hearing/seeing objects external to us, independent of us. Maturana asks "How come we make mistakes in perception if it is the case that we directly see an objective reality?. He points out that at the moment of perceiving we never know that we are making a mistake - this awareness of a 'mistake' is always post-hoc. It is only afterwards that we can say it was an illusion, hallucination or mistake. These two are indistinguishable in the experiential domain. Hence the differentiation of a perception from an illusion is a social distinction formed in consensus with others, (usually in conjunction with some authority who has an instrument). We believe the external source of authority. "Illusion" is seen therefore as an explanatory principle to 'explain away' a distinction which is experientially impossible .Social confirmation does not constitute proof of an independently existing reality.

In other words, if we take seriously the fact that in the experiential domain this distinction is impossible, then it follows that we cannot cannot rely- for the validation of our arguments - on any assumption that entails having a privileged or direct access to 'outside' objects. The external object cannot be the source of validation for what we say. Hence, Maturana sees the assumption of an objective reality as a "miss-take", i.e. erroneously taking as independent of us entities which we ourselves bring forth. The willingness to make this miss-take he finds to be based on a search for certainty. However he warns that "certainty blinds, the more certainty the less you see".

Instead of certainty we need social coherence. This is for example what science is. Every ideology, game, club etc. is a domain of social coherences defined by the consensus criteria for acceptability of statements.

" Coherence and harmony in relations and interactions between the members of a human social system are due to the coherence and harmony of their growth in it, in an ongoing social learning which their own social ( linguistic) operation defines and which is possible thanks to the genetic and ontogenetic processes that permit structural plasticity of the members." (1987, p.199)

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In abandoning the certainty of having a privileged access to objective reality Maturana puts objectivity into parentheses, thus (objectivity). In this way we have two very different explanatory pathways which he refers to as

a) The path of objectivity without parentheses (= the way of the Transcendental Ontologies), and b) The path of objectivity in parentheses (= the way of the Constitutive Ontologies ).

In the first way the observer assumes that existence takes place independently of what he does, that objects have independent and separate existence, and that these can be known directly through processes of perceiving and reasoning. The criteria for acceptability of the truth of statements refers to some independently existing source of validation (e.g. God, rationality etc.).

This way of explaining necessitates the observer to further assume a single reality , a Universe ( the Transcendental referent ) which is the source of validation for all explanations, and hence for the way we explain our praxis of living. Disagreements among competing observer explanations necessarily involve claims of privileged access to what is 'really real' and consequent mutual negation.

In following the second path the observer assumes, quite differently, that the starting point must be the constitutive biological phenomena of being unable to distinguish perception from illusion in daily living. In the absence of being able to make statements about independently existing objects to which one has privileged access, this pathway focuses on the ontology of the observer, on what the observer does to bring forth objects in a domain of existence through consensual operations of distinction. The criteria for acceptability of statements shifts therefore to observer community agreements and away from objectivity. Both 'objects' and 'domains of existence' depend upon the observer. Thus the observer is the source of all realities and existences and can bring forth many different legitimate domains of reality through the operational coherences of his praxis of living.

While the universum is the ultimate reference cited for the validity of any statement in the transcendental path, the Multiversa is entailed by the parenthetic path, and implies that a multiplicity of realities can be brought forth depending only on the distinctions of the observer.

" each versum of the multiversa is equally valid if not equally pleasant to be part of, and disagreements between observers, when they arise not from trivial logical mistakes within the same versum, but from the observers standing in different versa, will have to be solved ...through the generation of a common versum through coexistence in mutual acceptance. In the multiversa coexistence demands consensus, that is, common knowledge." (p.14, 1986).

The social consequences of both positions are completely different.

At this point it should be clear that for Maturana there is no objectively existing reality. Whatever reality we experience it is one of our own creation, i.e. we bring it forth through our operations of distinction. For Einstein, scientific theories were seen as the free creations of the human mind which we used to explain the world - but for

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Maturana, what needs explaining is precisely this "free creation of the human mind", i.e. the way in which the observer brings forth his world. Thus, central to Maturana's theory is the ontology of the observer. "Languaging takes place in the happening of living of the observer. To explain languaging, I must explain the living of the observer". Languaging is therefore Maturana's instrument for explanation and also his central problem.

Operations of Distinction -

Q. What is an 'Observer'? A. An observer is any being who can be in language speaking with another ( or to himself) and making distinctions.

Q. What does an observer do? A. He makes distinctions.

Q. What is a distinction? A. Any operation that we may enact which results in the separation of an entity from a background, i.e. which simultaneously distinguishes a unity in its domain of existence. Thus we see that the existence of all phenomena is brought forth through making the appropriate operations of distinction. For example, I may bring forth a chair by making the operation of distinction of 'sitting-down'. To give another example, if we want to know how many people there are in a room we will make the operation of distinction of counting them.

We may distinguish two types of unity or system , namely a Simple Unity or a Composite Unity. When we bring forth a Simple Unity we bring forth an entity characterised as separable from its domain of existence in terms of its properties. It is totally characterised by its properties which distinguish it from its background, [i.e. we don't analyse it or decompose it] Its properties are the dimensions that specify or characterise its distinction from all else. These properties arise because they are constitutive.

With the composite unity we do something more. Firstly, we distinguish a simple unity and then we decompose it and separate its components and relations. In the Universe we would claim that the composite unity composed itself, independently of us and what we do. We would assume that the components were either there or not there, and that its characteristics were intrinsic, inherent and eternal. However, in the multiverse it is we who separate out the components and when we do this, we find that the components we bring forth have a peculiar relationship with the simple unity that they integrate, i.e. we say that the "whole is greater than the sum of its parts". Maturana finds this expression somewhat obscure because it does not reveal what this "greater" is which is brought forth.

What is meant is that the composing of this unity takes place in a very peculiar and particular manner and that this is to do with the relations which the components must hold between them so that they constitute the original simple unity that we have decomposed.

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Complementary Relationship between Components and Unity:

Note that the components are components only to the extent that they compose the composite unity. That is to say, a component is a component only as a component. There are no free (spare) components hanging about the world. Nothing is a such a component. Something is a component only in composition. In composition the relation between components and the unity that they compose is always unique - they are complementary. It is to this that Maturana refers when he makes his distinction between the Organization and the Structure of a system.

Composite unities have Organization and Structure. Organization refers to the manner of composition that defines the unity. Organisation refers only to the relations between components that must always be present so that the composite unity will be a unity of a particular type. Organization refers to those relations which when present identify the unity as a particular type. Hence, the Organization of a system is necessarily invariant because if you change it you create something else. If the relations that constitute the unity changes, the identity of the unity changes.

Forgers understand this principle very well because in trying to present a painting as a 'Renoir' what they do is to carefully maintain as invariant as possible (as resistant to scrutiny as possible) those critical relations ( brushstrokes, texturing etc.) among specified components (colours, oils, aged canvas etc.) which will identify it as that class of production called 'Renoir'. Experts attempt to distinguish fakes" and "the genuine article" by decomposing the artistic unity into its components and relations. The artist's "style" is that peculiar way in which he composed the constituent parts. The way he organised his painting. This Organization must remain invariant for the unity to conserve its class identity.

‘Structure’ refers to the actual components and the actual relations that realise a particular composite unity. While the organization is necessarily invariant (to conserve identity) structure is not. Structure is in continual change. Structure entails many more dimensions, more relations than organization. Organization can therefore be seen to be a subset of structure. The Organization is always realised through Structure. We all structurally change continuously in our co-drifting. Living is a structural drift and lasts as long as Organization and correspondence with the medium is conserved.

Whenever we have a composite unity we have an organisation that defines that unity as being of a particular class and we also have structure which refers to the actual manner in which that particular unity is material-ised.

There are two types of structural changes possible: -

1- Changes where the organizationalinvariance is conserved

2- Changes without conservation of organisation

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A living system will last as long as its organisation is conserved and as long as it can be realised in its domain of existence. The structure of a system specifies the following four domains:

1) Domain of changes of state; all possible structural changes which the system can encompass while at the same time conserving its organisation. 2) Domain of disintegrative changes; all structural changes a system can undergo but where the organisation is destroyed. 3) Domain of perturbations; all interactions which trigger changes of state. 4) Domain of disintegrative interactions; all perturbations which trigger destructive changes in the system ( loss of organisation).

Since systems are endlessly structurally changing these four domains are never fixed for all time but will change congruent with the changes of the system. Also, since there is this peculiar relation of composition between the components and the unity that they constitute, it follows that whatever properties that a composite unity has depends on how it is composed and hence depends on its Organization and Structure. Further, since Organization is realised (or material-ised) only through Structure, it depends on the actual Structural configurations of that unity. So, Composite Unities are unities whose characteristics depend on their Structure i.e. depend on how they are made!

Much of the aesthetic and constructivist concerns here can be seen in the early writings of Vico whose 'verum-factum' principle - that what is true is what we ourselves have made or constructed - went alongside his vision of the nature of the human mind as that "..which rejoices in the highest degree in that which forms a unity, comes together, falls into its proper place;...that just as beauty is the due proportion of the members, first each to each and secondly as a whole, in any outstandingly lovely body, so knowledge should be considered as neither more nor less than the beauty of the human mind..."( P 239,1732).

To summarise to this point we have the following: -

(1) The observer arises with languaging. (2) Languaging becomes part of our medium. (3) Our co-ontogenic structural drift is contingent on languaging. (4) Languaging interactions are powerful perturbations. (5) These trigger structural changes. (6) We cannot control or predict our structural drift. (7) Prior to languaging there are no objects. (8) Objects obscure the operations of distinction they stand for. (9) Objects appear therefore to exist independently of our operations of distinction, of our bringing them forth. (10) It is constitutive that we cannot distinguish an illusion from a perception. (11) The central issue for Maturana therefore is the ontology of the observer. (12) We must move away from the delusory 'certainty' of the Uni-verse to the freedom of the Multiverse.

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To further summarise we also have the following:-

(1) By making operations of distinction we can specify simple unities and composite unities. (2) A Composite unity may be decomposed into distinguishable components. (3) Such components only exist as components to the extent that they compose the composite unity. (4) There is a particular relation of composition between the components and the unity they constitute. (5) This concerns the relations that must obtain between the components in order to constitute the simple unity. (6) These relations are the Organization of the system. (7) This is distinguished from the Structure of the system which refers to the actual components and their actual relations which realise the organization. (8) Organization is necessarily invariant, while structure continually changes. (9) There are two types of Structural change: Firstly: "Changes of State" which conserves organizational invariance. Secondly: "Destructive Changes" which destroys the Organization. (10) The characteristics of a Composite Unity depend on its Structure.

Brief Example: The Family as a System

For any system there are four initial questions which we may ask:

(1) What type of System is it? How is it defined? (2) What is its Organisation and Structure ? (3) Am I interacting with it as a Simple or Composite unity? If I am in the domain in which the system is a simple unity, I interact with the system through its properties as a totality , as a simple unity. However, if I am dealing with a composite unity I can only interact through the properties of the components. (4) In what ways can I interact with the structure so that I may trigger some change which will either conserve the organisation or will destroy it?

To begin answering these questions in relation to family systems we see that, according to Maturana, families exist as simple unities in a peculiar domain, i.e. a social-descriptive domain. This is a domain in which we do not move or structurally couple. Therefore we interact with the family as a Composite unity, that is, only through its components (individual members).

To further elaborate our beginning questions we look to which relations among these components define it as a family of a particular type, i.e. having a particular oranization. The family organisation brought forth as problematic must be disintegrated so that the members can do something different. So we must look for the network of conversations which contain the relations of constitution of the family. The only way to disintegrate the organization of the system is through interactions which do not pertain to relations of constitution of the system, but rather encounter the components (individuals, meaning systems ) in an orthogonal manner (i.e. in a way that does not pertain to the constitution of the system). The way in which the

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family interacts with the therapist reveals their network of conversations and the interactions they enter into in order to constitute a certain type of system they call 'family'. That is, they reveal their constitutive relations. The complaints from family members arise out of the conflict between (a) the 'passion for being together' and (b) the negative emotions they trigger in one another. The only solution is to destroy one of these conditions. If the family wants to say together then we must change the structures so that the recurrent interactions cannot continue. This means destroying the organisation of the family as found in its networks of conversations.

Since any system must conserve its organisation if it is to remain identifiably the same system, it is obvious that psychotherapy is essentially an anti-social enterprise geared to the destruction of invariance and traditions.


By now Maturana's emphasis on Structure is clear.

(1) Organization is realised only through structure. (2) All psychotherapy must be aimed at structural changes, since it is not possible to change organization directly. (3) The characteristics of a Composite Unity depend on its structure (how it's made). (4) Structure continually changes. (5) Drift is constituted by the moment-to-moment changes in structural interactions in the medium. (6) Languaging triggers structural changes. (7) Whatever happens during interactions depends on the system's structure.

This brings us to Maturana's notion of Structure Determinism -

(1) Interactions in the medium only trigger structural changes of composite unities. (2) The structure of the system fully determines its interactions by specifying the variety of interactions it can undertake. (3) The structure of the system specifies what it will accept as an interaction and! what will be ignored. (4) A major implication of these ideas is that "information" does not exist, and that instructional interactions cannot take place. You cannot by acting externally on a system specify what happens in that system. (5) You can trigger certain changes and you may know what will happen when you do this triggering by knowing the structure of the system but you cannot specify what happens in the system because that is specified or determined in the structure of the system.

Science can only deal with structure-determined systems, with composite entities, i.e. with systems whose structures determine what will happen. [In proposing a generative mechanism as an explanation for the phenomenon to be explained science always proposes a structure-determined entity]

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Since we are structure-determined entities, then whatever happens to us is determined by our structures and is never determined by whatever we encounter in our medium . It may be triggered by perturbations but not determined by them"

Maturana gives the example of hitting someone on the head with a hammer. It is not the hammer which determines that you will die, it is the thickness of your skull. If your skull was made of rubber, the hammer would simply bounce off. The notion of instructive interactions belongs in the Universe of linear causality. Maturana quotes the story of King Midas the man with the golden touch who had asked for this power of instructive interaction . That is, he could determine completely the structure of other systems (from the outside). Maturana points out that the tragedy of Midas was that he could not be an analytic chemist. Midas could not do science because to do science you must claim that the characteristics of the system you analyse depend on the structure of the system and not on what you do to it.

"It is constitutive for science that we can handle only structure-determined systems and that instructive interactions do not take place".

This structure-determinism does not entail predictability. We are determined but not pre-determined. Determinism means that the structural coherences between systems are satisfied.

"Co-ontogenic structural drift takes place as a structure-determined phenomenon because it takes place in the domain of structure of the interacting composite unities".

Thus the Autonomy of the system is paramount. The system can only do what it does at any particular moment of doing. There are no other choices in the system. A system is always in its proper place and cannot be mistaken.

'Structural Coupling' is a term ( like adaptation ) which is used to refer to the systems structural correspondence with its medium. A structure-determined system is coupled to its domain of existence (medium) as long as its organisation is conserved and also as long as it conserves its congruence with the medium. Survival therefore consists in the simultaneous twin conservation of class identity and adaptation. If one of these conditions is lost then at that moment so is the other one.

From all of this we can see that to speak of a living system implies: -

(1) That this system is a structure-determined dynamic system. (2) That its organisation is being realised, and (3) That it is being realised in a domain in which it undergoes reactions which trigger only changes of state (perturbations) (i.e. which retains organizational invariance) and does not undergo destructive interactions.

Maturana defines the living as ‘autopoietic’. Autopoiesis is a very particular type of organization characterised be a recursive self-production where it is impossible to distinguish the product, producer or production. It is this recursive self-production which constitutes the so called ‘organizational closure’ of the living system.

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Implications of Maturana's Theory for Psychotherapy -

I will conclude this introduction with some brief and general implications.

1. How should we as therapists describe ourselves and what we do? Since causality is ruled out by virtue of the impossibility of instructive interactions then we can no longer think of ourselves as 'change agents' who operate on others to directly change them. This is in line with Kelly's ideas on psychotherapy as providing an experimental context within which the person can productively ask questions through actions and thereby reconstitute or reconstruct himself. Furthermore, people do not 'begin' to change just because they have arrived in therapy, people are in the flux of change continuously. We must get into a co-ontogenic structural drift with the client but we cannot control this drift. The structural changes which arise in all the persons undergoing a co-ontogenic drift have particular implications for the therapist who is not excepted from these unpredictable transformations.

2. 'The system can only do what it does', means that the system can only learn what it is set up to learn. Teachers, for example, are familiar with the difficulty of trying to give "information" or "answers" to children who have no "questions" about the issue which happens to have importance for the teacher. Whenever we say "I find it difficult to hold his interest" we are in this domain of answers without questions.

3.‚For therapists believing that there is a 'right' way for the complainant to become and a 'right' way for therapists to behave in order to get him there, then Maturana's concept of the miss-taken nature of independently existing entities, such as a 'proper way to behave', forces you to move towards the Multiverse. Within the (objectivity) of the Multiverse and the concomitant need to validate statements through criteria of social consensuality, we can no longer usefully speak of the 'reality principle' or 'reality testing', but must speak in terms of 'participation in the construction of consensuality'.

4. Equally, since we exist as multi-selves in multi-verses then there is no 'right outcome' for psychotherapy, since there is no 'natural nature' for us to reach or achieve. In effect the emphasis shifts from getting the client 'back on his feet again' to triggering movement within the client system. A shift from 'problem-solving' to active participation in the creation of the observer-community coherences and to changes in co-ontogenic structural drift.

5. Individual responsibility becomes the centre of attention within the framework of 'everything said is said by an observer' and that 'no-thing exists without an observer'. That is, we are fully responsible for what we bring forth in our lives. Events have no separate existence apart from our distinguishing them in words and symbols.

6. Related to this idea of the organizational closure of the observer is the fact that everything is necessarily transference. (Hence it's not something to be 'cured'). While Kelly would say that an observers constructions say more about himself than about the events he is describing, Maturana goes further and says that the observer's utterances can only be a commentary about the observers own organisationally closed system. The closure of the system determines everything through system structure.

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7. For family therapy there is now even more of a dilemma to define what 'family' means. When a family presents for therapy there are as many families sitting in your consulting room as there are observer/participants. Each person will describe the family he brings forth differently. The therapist's descriptions/diagnosis is just one more set of observer distinctions bringing forth a system in a domain of existence. It is important to note that it is not the one (same) family which is being variously interpreted or construed by each individual observer. Rather, each observer brings forth a different reality by his operations of distinction. From the therapist's point of view he will distinguish what he regards as the structural dynamics which are constitutive of the family and to which each member contributes from his repertoire of multi-selves. It is through the redundant dimensions (i.e. those not constitutive of the family system) that the therapist must orthogonally interact. Furthermore, we cannot have a "family problem" since the 'family' can't speak (since it has no mouth). It is the individual speaker who complains and who constructs (or invents, or brings forth) the 'problem' through his languaging. Thus the processes of languaging brings forth an 'object' which is the family problematique and which becomes solidified as 'a problem-family'. This object obscures the operations of distinction which all the family members coordinate in, in order to continuously re-create the problem. Thus the family ( and all families ) have a problematique, i.e. an a priori set of starting conditions, which are never brought into question and which form the basis of the conversations which in turn material-ise the family organization.

8. Aetiology (in terms of specifying causes for the development of problems) becomes irrelevant since simple linear cause-effect statements can only be a trivialization of the person's entire history of co-ontogenic structural drift. Outside languaging "there are no starts or stops, beginnings or ends, causes or effects". Different observers, through different operations of distinction, will bring forth different 'pathologies'. 'Pathology' is in the eye of the beholder, who is an observer with specific intents, and who operates within the consensual confines of his own observer community. Thus there is no "cause" we can usefully "discover" for anorexia. Such a search must remain an attempt to be reductionistic regarding the anorexics history ( reducing it to a set of abstracted professional constructs or category of explanation). Anorexia is the situation reached by the sum total history to date of her co-ontogenic structural drift).

9. Maturana's theory also indicates that we must abandon causal concepts such as those of the "purpose" of symptoms: the "function" of disorders: the "resistance" of this complainant etc. All of these are attributions of an observer. As Kelly pointed out the notion of 'resistance' has more to do with the puzzlement of the therapist than with the obduracy of the client.


One of the greatest concerns in psychotherapy is how to generate enough space for the creative positioning of experiential explorations within the domain of therapeutic conversations, so that it becomes possible for the client system to spontaneously produce novel experience inconsistent with the frame of the client's problematique. From Maturana's theory we can abstract three very potent constructs which allow the

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therapist to do exactly this. While their abstraction from his theory is easy, their implementation is not and many therapists need to continually have observers of their conversationalist praxis with clients in order to successfully enact these three principles for the generation of space for novelty. These three are as follows:

ORTHOGONALITY: To be orthogonal means to interact with the client system in such a way as to not become enmeshed in the existing organization of the system as yet one more constituting component. When this occurs you become part of the problem and hence cannot be part of a solution. Acting orthogonally means selectively interacting with peripheral structure, i.e. components which are not actively involved in the constitution of the organization. The 'alien' nature of the therapist as a provoking stranger must therefore be conserved. Orthogonality is focused primarily in the experiential domain where the individual refuses to intersect in relations of constitution of the problematique of another individual.

PARENTHESISING : This clearly emerges from Maturana's theory concerning the ontology of the observer and underlying the fact that no objective reality exists independently of some observer. This view moves us to bracket or parenthesise all speaking and listening, all explanations, all descriptions, and to keep in the foreground the phenomenon of how objects come to obscure the operations of distinction of some observer who enacts these from a particular vantage point and with a particular intent. Wide-scale opportunities for the application of this principle can be found in the domain of referential objects, i.e. those objects (facts) which constitute what Waddington (1977) humorously called C.O.W.D.U.N.G., namely, the Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group. In other words, to be parenthetic is to deconstruct the unquestioned and apparently unquestionable reality of a given observer community.

CIRCULARITY: This principle we may derive from Maturana's emphasis on structure-determinism, and on the circularity and recursiveness of all organizationally closed systems. This moves us away from simplistic linear cause-effect sequences and towards the generation and appreciation of complexity and autonomy. Thus the elaboration of the original complaint-complainants network of conversations is conducted by many family therapists using a method of 'circular questioning'. This obviously occurs in the domain of conversational interactions. There are several complex aspects to the application of these three principles, but to select one of the most important as my final comment here I will say the following. Acting in orthogonal, parenthetic, and circular modes can be seen to be a necessary approach to deconstructing various forms of authority to which we otherwise make ourselves subject, and thereby help to generate obscurity and constriction within the three domains. Our possible personal experiential space, our actual social conversational interactions, and our unquestioned reality-fabric can, and must, all be radically elaborated, and transformed by a thoroughgoing involvement and embodiment of the notions of being experientially orthogonal, conversationally circular, and referentially parenthetic.

Orthogonality asserts individual autonomy and simultaneously brings into question the problematique of another. Circularity asserts system autonomy ( the larger whole ) and simultaneously questions simplifications and the notion that some one person has the authority or vision to really know best what is going on. Parenthesising

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asserts the creative autonomy of alternativism and simultaneously questions and undermines the invariance of pre-emptive past laws or rules for specifying reality. All three expand the flexibility of each domain and the possibilities of what may transpire within each. Finally, we may note a correspondence between the experiential domain and structure-determinism, the conversational domain and the Multiversa, and the referential domain and the ontology of the observer.


LAO TSU (1972). TAO TE CHING. ( London: Wildwood House).

MATURANA, H. R. (1986). The Biological Foundations of Self Consciousness and the Physical Domain of Existence. (Unpublished Manuscript).

MATURANA, H.R. (1988). Reality; The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument. Irish Journal of Psychology, Special Issue on "Radical Constructivism, Autopoiesis and Psychotherapy", Vincent Kenny (ed.), Volume 9, no. 1.pp25-82.

MATURANA, H.R. AND VARELA, F.J. (1987). THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. (New Science Library; Boston).

SEARLE, J. (1969).SPEECH ACTS. (Cambridge: CUP).

VARELA, F.J. (1981).DESCRIBING THE LOGIC OF THE LIVING. In Zeleny, M.(ed.), Autopoiesis; A theory of living organization. (Oxford: North Holland).

VICO, G.(1732). ON THE HEROIC MIND. Published in Tagliacozzo, G., Mooney, M., and Verene, D.P. (eds.), Vico and Contemporary Thought,(1976), (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press).

WADDINGTON, C.H.(1977). TOOLS FOR THOUGHT. (Herts: Paladin).

*A revision of this paper was published as - Vincent Kenny [1989]. Life, the multiverse and everything; An introduction to the ideas of Humberto Maturana. In ‘Self-Organisation in Psychotherapy’, [ed.] A.L. Goudsmit, Springer-Verlag: Heidelberg.

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Distinguishing the Observer: An Attempt at Interpreting Maturana

Ernst von Glasersfeld

Humberto Maturana is one of the few authors that nowadays engage the construction of a wide, complete, esplicatory system, comparable to those of Plato or Leibniz. His "autopoietic" approach includes also the origin of the observer, meant as a methodological prius who provide itself a view of the world. Here I try to follow the way Maturana sees the birth of res cogitans (entity which gains awareness of what it's doing). I try to demonstrate that the basic activity of distinguishing can certainly lead to the distinction with which the observer is separated from anything observed. But I conclude that - at least for this interpreter - the origin of active consciousness remains obscure, that is, what works as the agent of distinguishing.

If there is no other, there will be no I. If there is no I, there will be none to make distinctions.

Chuang-tsu, 4th Cent., B.C. (*)

"Languaging", as Maturana occasionally explains, serves, among other things, to orient. By this he means directing the attention and, consequently, the individual experience of others, which is a way to foster the development of "consensual domains" which, in turn, are the prerequisite for the development of language. - Although the sentence (you might say, the languaging) with which I have here begun is at best a pale imitation of Maturana's style, it does perhaps represent one important aspect of Maturana's system: The circularity which, in one way or another, crops up again and again.

In my interpretation, it is absolutely indispensable that one diligently repeats to oneself, every time one notices circularity in Maturana's expositions, that this circularity is not the kind of slip it would be in most traditional systems of our Western philosophy. It is, on the contrary, a deliberately chosen fundamental condition that arises directly out of the autopoietic model. According to Maturana, the cognizing organism is informationally closed. Given that it can, nevertheless, produce descriptions; i.e., concepts, conceptual structures, theories, and eventually a picture of its world, it is clear that it can do this only by using building blocks which it has gleaned through some process of abstraction from the domain of its own experience. This insight, which Maturana expresses by saying that all cognitive domains arise exclusively as the result of operations of distinction which are made by the organism itself, was one of the points that attracted me to his work the very first time I came across it.

On the basis of considerations, far from those that induced Maturana to formulate the biological idea of autopoiesis, I had come to the same conclusion. My own path (some-what abbreviated and idealized) led from the early doubts of the Pre-Socratics via Montaigne, Berkeley, Vico, and Kant to pragmatism and eventually to Ceccato's "Operational School" and Piaget's "Genetic Epistemology". This might seem irrelevant here, but since Maturana's expositions hardly ever refer to traditional

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philosophy, it seems appropriate to mention that quite a few of his fundamental assertions can be substantiated by trains of thought which, from time to time, have cropped up in the conventional history of epistemology. Although these trains of thought have occasionally irritated the official discipline of philosophy, they never had a lasting effect and remained marginal curiosities. I would suggest, that the reason for this neglect is that throughout the occidental history of ideas and right down to our own days, two requisites have been considered fundamental in any epistemological venture. The first of these requisites demands that whatever we would like to call "true knowledge" has to be independent of the knowing subject. The second requisite is that knowledge is to be taken seriously only if it claims to represent a world of "things-in-themselves" in a more or less veridical fashion'

Although the sceptics of all ages explained with the help of logical arguments that both these requisites are unattainable, they limited themselves to observing that absolute knowledge was impossible. Only a few of them went a step further and tried to liberate the concept of knowledge from the impossible constraints so that it might be freely applied to what is attainable within the acting subject's experiential world. Those who took that step were branded outsiders and could therefore be disregarded by professional philosophers.

A Closed Experiential World

It is not my intention here to examine why the philosophical climate has changed in the past twenty or thirty years. The fact is that today one can defend positions that take a relativistic view of knowledge without at once being branded a nihilist or dangerous heretic of some other kind.

It is fortunate for Maturana, and for us, that he survived the last two decades in spite of his opposition to the reactionary Chilean dictator Pinochet. I say fortunate, because Maturana is undoubtedly one of those thinkers who, in past centuries, would have been led to the pyre without recanting.

In philosophy the authoritarian dominance of the realist dogma (be it materialistic or metaphysical) has certainly been shaken by the manifested unreliability of political and social "truths" as well as by the revolution in the views of physics. But the aversion against models of cognition that explain knowledge as organism-dependent and even as the product of a closed circuit of internal operations, has by no means disappeared.

The comprehensive conceptual flow-chart that Maturana often shows during his lectures, has on the left (from the audience's point of view) the break-down of explanation with objectivity, and on the right side, explanation without objectivity. Whether, in one's own describing, one chooses to be on the left or the right side is, according to Maturana, a matter of emotion. As far as knowledge and language are concerned, the left side must cling to the belief that knowledge can capture objective reality and that language can refer to and signify it. The concept of objectivity that Maturana has in mind, is dependent on this belief. Maturana himself, if I have understood him correctly, does not share it, and places himself unequivocally on the

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right side, where objectivity is discarded ("put in parentheses") and the only realities possible are realities brought forth by an observer's operations of distinction.

It seems to me that the left side of the schema was added only to explain the misguided paths of conventional philosophy and does not have the same didactic functions the right. That it is to be understood in this way, seems unquestionable to me, because the belief in the possibility of acquiring knowledge about an objective reality, a world-in-itself, as Kant would have said, can be demolished without biology or autopoiesis by the arguments formulated by the sceptics. What then remains, from my point of view, is the necessity to substitute a new explanation for the relation between our knowledge (i.e. every conceptual structure we use successfully) and the "medium" in which we find ourselves living. This new explanation must be one that does not rely on the assumption of an isomorphy that can never be demonstrated.

In this context it is crucial to remember that Maturana set out to describe and explain all the phenomena that are called "cognitive" from a biological foundation. Insofar as his project is successful, he can afford to disregard the traditional theory of knowledge and to refer to it only for the purpose of emphasizing the difference of his way of thinking. By departing from the history of philosophy without entering into it, however, he runs the risk of being misunderstood by all those whose notion of cognition is still tied to the conventional idea of knowledge. Maturana therefore often finds himself having to face misconceptions of the same kind as Piaget had to face, who also reiterated that, in his theory, cognition is not a means to acquire knowledge of an objective reality but serves the active organism in its adaptation to its experiential world.

What Murana calls "operational effectiveness" corresponds, in my constructivist perspective, to "viability" and coincides in the history of philosophy with the slogan launched by the Pragmatists at the turn of the century: "True is what works". Maturana's "operational effectiveness", however, is more successful in its application than the Pragmatists "functioning". All operations and their effectiveness, according to Maturana's definition, lie and must lie within a domain of description that is determined by the distinctions the particular observer has made. The generalized "functioning" of the Pragmatists, in contrast, fostered the temptation to look for an access to an "objective" world, on the basis that certain ways of acting "function", while others do not. Maturana's model thwarts any such temptation in the bud, because it makes clear that "effectiveness" is a judgement made within a domain of experience which itself was brought forth by an observer's activity of distinguishing.

That experiential worlds and their domains can be brought forth only by an acting observer is, I believe, the one insight Hans Vaihinger lacked when he wrote his brilliant Die Philosophie des Als Ob (The Philosophy of As If) - and because of this lack he was unable to close his system without shifting the theory of evolution into an ontic reality.4

The Birth of the Observer

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For me, one of the most difficult points in Maturana's conceptual edifice was his oft repeated assertion that the observer, too, could be derived, without further assumptions, from his formulation of the basic biological conditions governing the interactions and the linguistic activity of autopoietic organisms. It took me more than a decade to construct for myself an interpretation of this derivation. If I present it here, I do so with the emphatic warning that it is, indeed, a personal interpretation that makes no claim whatever to authenticity.

According to Maturana, all linguistic activity or "languaging" takes place "in the praxis of living: we human beings find ourselves as living systems immersed in it". Languaging, for Maturana, does not mean conveying news or any kind of "information", but refers to a social activity that arises from a coordination of actions that have been tuned by mutual adaptation. Without such coordination of acting there would be no possibility of describing and, consequently, no way for the distinctions made by an actor to become conscious. To become aware of distinctions, is called observing. To observe oneself as the maker of distinctions, therefore, is no more and no less than to become conscious of oneself. Maturana has recently described this very clearly:

...if we accept that what we distinguish depends on what we do, as modern physics does, we operate under the implicit assumption that, as observers, we are endowed with rationality, and that this need not or cannot be explained. Yet, if we reflect upon our experience as observers, we discover that our experience is that we find ourselves observing, talking, or acting, and that any explanation or description of what we do is secondary to our experience of finding ourselves in the doing of what we do.

The salient point in this closed circle is the basic condition that Maturana repeats so frequently, namely that what is observed are not things, properties, or relations of a world that exists "as such", but rather the results of distinctions made by the observer himself or herself. Consequently, these results have no existence whatever without someone's activity of distinguishing. Just as Vico, the first constructivist thinker, said, the cognitive subject can know only facts, and facts are items the subject itself has made (Latin: facere). The observer, thus, arises from his or her own ways and means of describing, which is to say, by distinguishing him-or herself.

Here, then, I do see a connection to Descartes, but it is not the connection to Cartesian dualism that was mentioned by Volker Riegas in his "Conversation with Maturana". Descartes, set out to defeat scepticism by using doubt as the tool to separate all that was dubious from the certain truths he hoped would be left. He found at the end of his endeavor that there was only one thing he could be certain of, namely that it was he himself who was engaged in the reflective activity of doubting. Since his investigation had been motivated by the hope that, in spite of the sceptics' arguments, a way could be found to reach an ontic reality, he now formulated the certainty of his own doubting as an ontological principle: cogito ergo sum.

For Maturana this formulation is not acceptable, precisely because the "sum" asserts existence in the ontological sense. Had Descartes seen - as Maturana explicitly does - that the doubting he was so certain of, rested necessarily on distinctions which he himself was making in his own experimental world, and not in any ontic reality, then

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he might have said: " by distinguishing, I create myself as observer." - If I have understood Maturana, he could easily accept this new formulation of the Cartesian principle.

From my perspective, Maturana supplies, as it were, the ladder which a consciousness must ascend in order to become observer. About the origin of that consciousness he says nothing. That I, as a living organism, "find myself immersed in language", means to me that I have the capability to find myself, and this capability, which involves a kind of reflection, belongs to what I call consciousness.

Representation and Memory

In "The bringing forth of pathology", an article Maturana recently wrote together with Carmen Luz Mendez and Fernando Coddou, there is a section about language and the various forms of conversation. Two of these forms are described in some detail:

The first we shall call conversations of characterisation if they entail expectations that have not been agreed upon about the characteristics of the participants. The second we shall call conversations of unjustified accusations and recriminations if they entail complaints about unfulfilled expectations about the behaviors of the participants that were not previously agreed upon7. (p. l55)

Given that Maturana, at various places in his writings, makes it very clear that he considers unacceptable the concept that is usually linked with the word "representation", it may surprise one at first that, in the passage quoted here, he bases a discrimination of conversations on "expectations". In my analysis, to have an expectation is to use one's imagination in order mentally to compose something out of distinctions made earlier in the flow of experience, but not available in the actual, present perceptual field. To imagine such compositions, however, requires the ability to represent to oneself at least parts of past experiences. The apparent contradiction disappears, however, if one considers that the English word "representation" is used to designate several different concepts, two among which are designated in German by the two words Darstellung and Vorstellung8. The first comes to the mind of English-speakers whenever there is no explicit indication that another is intended. This concept is close to the notion of "picture" and as such involves the replication, in a physical or formal way, of something else that is categorized as "original". The second concept is close to the notion of "conceptual construct", and the German word for it, Vorstellung, is central in the philosophies of Kant and Schopenhauer.

Maturana's avversion against the word "representation" springs from the fact that, like Kant and Schopenhauer, he excludes conceptual pictures or replications of an objective, ontic reality in the cognitive domain of organisms. In contrast, re-presentations in Piaget's sense are repetitions or reconstructions of items that were distinguished in previous experience. As Maturana explained in the course of the discussions at the ASC Conference in October 1988, such representations are possible also in the autopoietic model. Maturana spoke there of re-living an experience, and from my perspective this coincides with the concept of representation as Vorstellung, without which there could be no reflection. From that

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angle, then, it becomes clear that, in the autopoietic organism also, "expectations" are nothing but re-presentations of experiences that are now projected into the direction of the not-yet-experienced.

This consideration leads to another question that often remains unanswered in the context of Maturana's theory: the question of memory and the mechanism that makes it possible to remember. As Maturana reiterates, also in this context everything one can say lies on the level of descriptions, a level that is determined by the fact that one makes certain distinctions and not others. Maturana discards - as does Heinz von Foerster - the notion of a "storage" in which impressions, experiences, actions, relations, etc., could be deposited and preserved. I fully agree with this. From my point of view, however, it is nevertheless clear that the observer who describes something as re-living, must have some indication that the experience referred to is one that has been lived at least once before; and this realization of the repetition requires a mechanism that plays the role of what one calls "to remember" in ordinary English.

In an autopoietic organism, every perturbation, every experience, every internal event changes the structure of the network that constitutes the organism. These changes, of course, are not all of the same kind. Some could be the forming of new connections and thus of new pathways in the network; others could be what one might call "lubricating" or facilitating an already existing path. The observer, who speaks of re-living, must be able to distinguish a path that is being generated for the first time, from one that uses connections made at some prior occasion. This would seem necessary, regardless of whether the description concerns the operations of another organism or the observer him -or her - self. But the repetition of an experience can be ascertained only if the observer is able, at least temporarily, to step out of the stream of experience, in order to distinguish the use of an already trodden path from the opening of a new one. In my terminology that means the observer must be capable of reflection.

Maturana makes it clear that in his model all acting and behavior of an organism is fully determined by the organism's structure and organisation; hence it requires no reflection. On the level of descriptions, however, where what can be described is brought forth by nothing but the observer's operations of distinction, one cannot, as far as I can see, manage without reflection. To my knowledge, Maturana says nothing about this point. I assume, however, that the observer generates his or her own ability to reflect simply by distinguishing him - or herself as the acting, observing, and eventually reflecting subject in the particular domain of experience.

The Excluded Reality

The question concerning the origin of the observer in Maturana's theory is answered for me by continually keeping in mind that not only the entire experiential world must be considered the product of distinctions one makes oneself, but also that the flow of experience is brought about by one's own distinguishing oneself as the observer. This, of course, is not a metaphysical answer that purports to explain t~ genesis of an entity which "exists" as ontic subject capable of "knowing" an ontic world. Maturana

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does science and is careful to do it in a scientific manner. This entails that he refrains from smuggling metaphysical assumptions into his model, assumptions that cannot be justified because they are logically unjustifiable. He has expressed this in various ways:

... an observer has no operational basis to make any statement or claim about objects, entities or relations as if they existed independently of what he or she does.9

And in the interview with Riegas he says: "nothing can be said about a transcendental reality", (p. 53).

This position is by no means new. One cand find it in Vico, Kant, Schopenhauer, and recently in Richard Rorty. New, however, is the biological interpretation of the experiential world, which lays out the circ*mstances under which an observer can be brought forth. If one takes this interpretation as working hypothesis, it has far-reaching consequences for our conceptual relation to the experiential world. Like all scientific models, Maturana's "explains" the how of the phenomenon it deals with - the genesis of the observer - not the why. This is par for the scientific course. Physics for example explains how it comes about that heavy objects "fall", by means of the concept of gravity; that heavenly bodies exert a gravitational pull, can perhaps be reduced to the curvature of space; but why space should be curved in an ontic world is a question to which the physicist neither has nor needs an explanatory answer - he may merely observe that the assumption of curved space makes possible some useful calculations and predictions. Those physicists who have become aware of the epistemological foundations of their science, have said this quite clearly, because, like Maturana, they have realized that it is their own concepts, their own operations of distinction that bring forth the experiential world which they describe in their science.

Coherence instead of Foundation

At the beginning I spoke of the circularity in Maturana's theory, and then I tried to explicate, from my perspective, some sectors of the conceptual circle. If I have been at all successful, it should now be easy to dismantle one of the major objections that are made from more than one side against Maturana. Gerhard Roth's precise formulation may serve as an example.

The conception of such a cyclical theory raises the problem of the foundation and of the beginning. Either one begins with the epistemological explication concerning the observer, the conditions and the objects of his observations (distinction of objects, system-parts, etc.) in order, then, to reach a constructivist theory of living systems; or one begins with an objectivist explanation of the organisation of living systems which then leads to a theory of the brain, of cognition, and eventually to a theory of the observer. Maturana attempts both simultaneously...

This conception must fail, because it gets entangled in the contradiction between the constructivist and the objectivist approach.10 (p.88).

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The problem of foundation and the problem of beginning, as becomes clear already from this introductory passage of his critique, are in Roth's view closely interwoven with one another. This may be adequate in the treatment of traditional theories of knowledge, but in the critique of an epistemology that explicitly excludes knowledge of an objective world-in-itself, such interlinking seems to me inadmissible.

This lack of ontological foundation is a criticism that has been voiced by quite a few readers of Maturana. Interestingly, it is identical to the main criticism made by the anonymous reviewer of Vico's De antiquissima Italorum sapientia in the Giornale de' letterati in 171111. Vico, the review said, had produced an excellent exposition of his philosophy but had not furnished a proof of its truth. For a constructivist who has deliberately discarded the notion that knowledge should correspond to an independent ontological "reality", the request of such a proof is an absurdity because he could not supply it without contradicting the central thesis of his philosophy, namely that knowledge cannot and need not reflect an ontological world but must be judged by its function in the experiential world and by its coherence.

Maturana, even more explicitly than Vico, says that knowledge manifests itself in "effective action". Re also makes it clear that his theory is deliberately circular. Thus it inappropriate to demand a beginning. A circle is characterized by, among other things, the fact that it has no beginning. In Maturana's edifice every point arises out of the preceding one - much as when, in thick fog on an Alpine glacier, one places one foot in front of the other without ever seeing what lies further ahead or further behind one; and as sometimes happens in such a fog, after hours of walking, one realizes that one is walking in one's own footsteps. The fact that one has begun the circle at a specific place could be perceived only from a higher vantage point, if the fog had lifted and made possible a comprehensive view. But the fog that obstructs our view of ontic reality cannot lift, because, as Kant already saw, it is inextricably built into our ways and means of experiencing. For that reason, a meticulous investigation such as Maturana's, can only show that, regardless of where we step into the circle, we can neither come to an end of the path, nor, if we retraced our steps, to a beginning. At best we could perhaps recall the point we distinguished as a presupposition at the beginning of our search.

If everything said is said by an observer on the basis of his or her operations of distinction, this must be considered valid not only for particular domains of the experiential world but for everything we do, think, or talk about. In Maturana's view of the world, one can request neither external ontological foundations nor an "absolute" beginning. Both demands are not only meaningless but also superfluous. "Foundation" in the ontological sense presupposes that one considers access to an observer-independent world possible. Maturana denies that possibility, and it is therefore quite consistent that he does not specify an obligatory external starting-point, for this would be equivalent to an "unconditional metaphysical principle" which would have to be considered valid without experiential justification. On which the theoretical edifice could be erected by pure logic. The critics' misunderstanding may have originated from the fact that Maturana, like the rest of us, is obliged to use a language in his expositions that has been F;. shaped and polished by more than two thousand years of realism - naive or metaphysical - a language that forces him to use the word "to be" which, in all its grammatical forms, implies the assumption of an ontic reality. An attentive reader of Maturana, however, can hardly help noticing that

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almost everything he says, is intended to "orient" us away from that inevitable implication.

Insofar as my interpretation of Maturana's autopoietic theory is a viable one, I cannot discover any inconsistencies in it that would destroy its coherence.

From my point of view, however, coherence is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion for the evaluation of an all-comprehensive philosophical system. Leibniz' monadology, for example, left nothing to be desired with regard to coherence; nevertheless it did not succed as an applicable view of the world. In the final analysis, the value of Maturana's work will depend on whether the success, which its applications in the praxis of our experience are having at present, will turn out to be a lasting one. And finally - what to me seems "emotionally" more important - we shall have to see whether the beginnings of an ethic he has recently brought forth will help to fulfill the hope that a consensual domain can be created on our endangered planet, a domain established around the consensus on collaboration that might make possible the survival of a human culture.


(*) Fung Yu-lan, Chuang-tzu: A new selected translation. Shanghai: The Commercial Press, 1933. Quoted by Alan Watts in The Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books, New York, 1975, p.52.

1. One difference is that, for me, with the activity of distinguishing, there arises the activity of relating, without which there would be no construction of more complex conceptual structures. That all knowing begins with making distinctions, was said not only by the ancient Chinese philosopher, but in our days also by George Spencer Brown (cfr, his Laws of Form, London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).

2. Cf. my "Wissen ohne Erkenntnis", in Gerhard Pasternak (Ed.), Philosophie und Wissenschaften: Das Problem des Apriorismus, Frankfurt/Bern: P. Lang, 1987.

3. Objectivity, in Maturana’s texts, does not indicate the opposite of the "subjectivity" of a single individual, but is used in the sense of classical philosophy, namely to signify the intention or requirement to represent the world as it is "in itself", without any additions, subtractions, or distortions caused by the experiencer.

4. Hans Vaihinger, Die Philosophie des Als Ob. Berlin: Reuther & Reichard, 2nd edition, 1913. In the "Preliminary Remarks" to the introduction to his brilliant work, Vaihinger reproaches Pragmatism because, as he says, it sinks to "Utilitarianism of the worst kind" (p. XI), when it calls true "whatever helps us to put up with life". Some 300 pages later, however he writes: "... today’s set of categories is merely the product of natural selection and adaption". He is referring to "categories" in Kant’s sense. With this statement he clearly places Darwin’s theory of evolution into an ontological reality and turns the "categories", i.e., the key elements in our conceptualisation of the experiential world, into "utilitaristic" tools of survival.

Humberto Maturana - [PDF Document] (51)

5. Cf. Humberto Maturana. "Ontology of observing: The biological foundations of self-consciousness and the physical domain of existence". Texts in Cybernetic Theory, American Society for Cybernetics, 1988; p.36.

6. Cf. Humberto Maturana, "Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument". The Irish Journal of Psychology, 1988, 9 (1), p. 26.

7. Carmen Luz Mendez, Fernando Coddou & Humberto Maturana. "The beginning forth of pathology", The Irish Journal of Psychology, 1988, 9 (1), 144-172.

8. Further discussion of the conceptual muddle arising from the word "representation" will be found in my "Preliminaries to any theory or representation", in C. Janvier (ed.), Problems of representation in the teaching and learning of mathematics. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Earlbaum, 1987 - Here I would merely mention that it would be quite wrong to conclude from this example that German is a richer or more precise language. Coincidences of different concepts can be found in the other direction as well. (e.g., the two English words "to isolate" and "to insulate" are invariably translated with one and the same German word, in spite of the fact that there is a clearly specifiable conceptual difference).

9. Humberto Maturana, "Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument". The Irish Journal of Psychology, 1988, 9 (1), p.30.

10. Gerhard Roth, "Wissenschaftlicher Rationalismus und holistische Weltdeutung". In Gerhard Pasternak (Ed.), Rationalitaet und Wissenschaft, (Vol. 6), Bremen: Zentrum Philosophische Grundlagen der Wissenschaften, 1988.

11. Vico’s De antiquissima was published with an excellent Italian translation by Francesco Saverio Pomodoro and the discussion in theVenetian journal by Stamperia de’ Classici Latini, Naples, 1858.


I am indebted to Heinz von Foerster for useful critical comments on a draft of this paper.

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