Maturana & Varela

Humbert R. Maturana & Francisco J. Valera  Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living D. Reidel, 1980.

Introduces the concept of autopoiesis (self realization and self-maintenance).


By Prof. Maturana.


Cognition is based on distinctions. One should look for unity of wholes. (xix) Systems have limits. If they change beyond these they become something else. (xx) Adaptation is a change of structure, which should be within these limits (“the ‘matrix’ of possible perturbations”). In autopoiesis these are selected, systematic, not ‘random’ or totally ad-hoc. (xxi) Autopoiesis is relative to the ‘medium’ (or environment) of the system. (xxv) (This is because the medium affects the possible perturbations.)

Society and Ethics

(3b) … The more varied the medium of selection, the greater the domain of stabilized relations in the society and, hence, the more fixed the structure of its components. If the society is a human society this takes place in a language-centred culture, and the stabilization of the human components is realized through a cultural stabilization of the relations that they must satisfy as social entities.

(5) What determines the constitution of a social system are the recurrent interactions of the same autopoietic system. … [The] fundamental ethical problem that a [person] faces as an observer-member of society is the ethical justification of the particular relations of surrender of autonomy and individuality that he demands from himself and from other members of the society that he generates and validates with his conduct. …

(6) A social system is essentially a conservative system. … A society … operates as a homeostatic system that stabilizes the relations that define it as a social system of a particular kind.

(7) … If some of these [component] properties change, because the structure of some of the components changes, then, while the system either changes its properties without change of organization, or disintegrates becoming something else, the change dcomponents either integrate the system in a different manner or uncouple from it. …

(8) … [Hypocrisy] plays an important role in the realization of human societies , permitting human beings under stress to feign having certain properties which they abandon as soon as the stress is removed. …

(9) … Social creativity is necessarily antisocial in the social domain in which it takes place.

(11) … [The] stabilization of human conduct always entails a restriction of creativity through a restriction of the possible interactions of the individual human beings outside those prescribed by the society that they integrate. … [The] spontaneous course of the historical transformation of a human society as a unity is towards totalitarianism …. . … If human beings were not observers, or capable of being so, the stabilization of their properties would not matter because they would not be able to desire something else.

(12) … A human being that through his interaction with other human beings participates in interactions proper to their social system in a manner that does not involve his autopoiesis as a constitutive feature of it, is being used by the social system but is not one its members. If the human being cannot escape from this situation because his life is at stake, he is under social abuse.

(13) [There] are certain experiences that cannot be fully specified in a human society without destroying the basic individual structural plasticity needed for the establishment of consensual domains and the generation of language and, hence, for human creativity in general. …

(15) A human society [in which one is not] demanding from [others] a larger surrender of individuality and autonomy than the measure that one is willing to accept for oneself while integrating it as an observer … is an artificial society that admits change and accepts every human being as not dispensable. [All] relations of order are constitutively transitory and circumstantial to the creation of relations that continuously negate the institutionalization of human abuse. Such a society is in essence an anarchist society, a society made for and by observers that would not surrender their condition as observers as their only claim to social freedom and mutual respect.

My comments

The anarchic society in (15) is not autopoietic, and Maturana presents a dichotomy between autopoietic systems, which tend to totalitarianism, and anarchy, which allows for creativity. But he starts by noting the role of distinctions. Thus we could consider a core autopoietic system (such as democratic institutions) with anarchic ‘extensions’, where creativity was allowed, or even encouraged. The boundary between the two could be negotiated, giving some of the advantages of an anarchic society.

More fundamentally, Maturana’s view seems similar to Whitehead‘s, except that he suppose that sustainable systems are necessary wholistic and ‘selected’, as against holistic and evolving. But the combination of a malleable core with anarchic extensions, above, can be seen as an approximation to a holistic approach. As an example, we may appreciate a government that has strict ‘rules of the road’, such as which side to drive on, but which allows total freedom about where to drive.

Biology of Cognition


It is noted that organicism regards parts as being subordinated to wholes (as in wholism).

Cognitive Function in General

The Observer

(7) The observer is a living system and an understanding of cognition biological phenomenon must account for his role in it.

The Living System

(2) … The circular organization in which the components that specify it are those whose synthesis or maintenance it secures in a manner such that the product of their functioning is the same functioning organization that produces them, is the living organization.

(3) .. A living system defines through its organization the domain of all interactions into which it can possibly enter without losing its identity, and it maintains its identity only as long as the basic circularity that defines it as a unit of interactions remains unbroken.

(5) … The circularity of their organization continuously brings them back to the same internal state (same with respect to the cyclic process). [The] circular organization implies the prediction that an interaction that took place once will take place again. [These] are not predictions of classes of interactions. Every interaction is a particular interaction, but every prediction is a prediction of a class of interactions that is defined by by those features of its elements that will allow the living system to retain its circular organization after the interaction, and thus, to interact again. This make living systems inferential systems, and their domains of interactions a cognitive domain.

(6) [For] every living system its organization implies a prediction of a niche, and the niche thus predicted as a domain of classes of interactions constitutes its entire cognitive reality. If an organism interacts in a manner not prescribed by its organization , it does so as something different from the unit of interactions defined by its basic circularity, and this interaction remains outside its cognitive domain, although it may well lie within the cognitive domain of the observer.


(5) What changes from generation to generation in the evolution of living systems are those aspects of their organization which are subservient to the maintenance of their basic circularity but do not determine.


(i) [The] analysis of a unit into parts by the observer destroys the very relations that would be significant for their characterization as effective components of the unit. Furthermore, these relations cannot be recovered through a description which lies in the cognitive domain of the observer … .

(v) A living system is not a goal-directed system; it is, like the nervous system, a stable state-determined and strictly deterministic system closed on itself and modulated by interactions not specified through its conduct. These modulations, however, are apparent as modulations only for the observer … .

(vi) … What occurs in a living system is analogous to what occurs in an instrumental flight where the pilot does not have access to the outside world .. .

(vii) [An observer] both creates (invents) relations and generates (specifies) the world (domain of interactions) through which he lives by continuously expanding his cognitive through recursive descriptions and representations of his interactions. … [The next state] cannot be a strict repetition of any previous state; creativity is the cultural expression of this unavoidable feature.

(viii) The logic of description and hence of behaviour in general is, necessarily, the logic of the describing system … no contradiction can possibly arise in it as long as the latter [describing system] remains unchanged by intercurrent interactions. If a change in the frame of reference takes place while a given behaviour develops, a new one appears .. . If the new sequence of states (behaviour) appears to an observer as contradicting the previous ones, this so because he provides an independent and constant frame of reference in relation to which the [behaviours] are contradictory.

(x) An example of Bernal is cited. A client may look at a description of a building with no idea of how it is to be built. A worker on the builder may understand how to build it, but have no overall conception of the building. The building instructions and descriptions are complimentary.

(xi) There are different domains of interactions, and these different domains cannot explain each other .. . An explanation is always a reproduction, either a concrete one through the synthesis of an equivalent physical system, or a conceptual one through a description from which emerges a system logically isomorphic to the original one, but never a reduction of one phenomenological domain to another.

Living systems in general … are not made to handle a medium, although it has been through the evolution of their handling of their medium that they have become what they are, such that we can say what we can say about them.


No scientific work should be done without recognizing its ethical implications; in the present case the following deserve special attention:
(i) Man is a deterministic and relativistic self-referring autonomous system … ethic and morality arise as commentaries that he makes on his behaviour through self-observation. [Man] changes and lives in a changing frame of reference in a world continuously created and transformed by him. [No] absolute system of values is possible and all truth and falsehood in the cultural domain are necessarily relative.

(ii) [Language’s] role is the creation and development of a cooperative domain of interaction between speakers through the development of a common frame of reference, although each speaker acts exclusively within his cognitive domain where all ultimate truth is contingent to ultimate experience. [Linguistic] behaviour cannot but be rational, that is, determined by the frame of reference within which it develops. Consequently, no one can ever be rationally convinced of a truth which he did not have already implicitly in his ultimate body of beliefs.

(iii) Man is a rational animal that constructs his rational systems as all rational systems are constructed, that is, based on arbitrarily accepted truths (premises) .. . [The] unavoidable task of man [as] an observer of its own cognitive processes is to explicitly choose a frame of reference for his system of values. This task has always been avoided … . The ultimate truth on which a man bases his rational conduct is necessarily subordinated to his personal experience and appears as an act of choice expressing a preference that cannot be transferred rationally … .

Autopoiesis: the organization of the living

By Maturana and Valera


By Stafford Beer.

In General

We are the inheritors of categorised knowledge; therefore we inherit also a world view that consists of parts strung together, rather than of wholes regarded through different sets of filters. Historically , synthesis seems to have been too much for the human mind … the historic revolts against the scholastics did not shake free from the shackles of their reductionism … they became lost in mechanism, dualism, more and more categorisation; and they ended in denying relation all together. But relation is the stuff of system. Relation is the essence of synthesis. [In empiricism] relation survived – but only through the concept of mental association between mental events. The system ‘out there’, which we call nature, had been annihilated in the process.

In Particular

[An] autopoietic system is a homeostat … the critical variable is the system’s own organization.

Hume considered that causation is a mental construct projected onto changing events which have … associated probabilities of mutual occurrence. [But] purpose is a mental construct imported by the observer to explain what is really equilibrium phenomenon of polystable systems.

… The subordination of the individual to the species cannot be supported. ..

In Contention

… scientists can no longer claim to be outside the social milieu within which they operate, invoking objectivity and disinterest … .

… Any cohesive social institution is an autopoietic system .. .

[Every] social institution … is embedded in a larger social institution, and so on recursively .. .

… Stupid politicians do not understand why social institutions do not lose their identities overnight when they are presented with perfectly logical reasons why they should; and these are helped by bad scientists who devote their effort to developing that irrelevant logic.

[The] architects of change are making the same kind of mistake all over the world. It is that they perceive the system at their own level of recursion to be autopoietic, which is because they identify themselves with that system and know themselves to be so; but they insist on treating the systems their system contains, and those within which their system is contained, as allopoietic [having external products].

My Comments

Beer, I think correctly, notes the problems due to categorization and reductionism, and the need for an approach that can deal with relationships between real systems ‘out there’. It may be true, in a sense, that cohesive social institutions are autopoietic. Alternatively, it may be that they have an autopoietic core, with the rest being more tolerant. Thus a system may be ‘cohesive’ without being cohesive in every dimension. (Compare Maturana, above.)

Beer’s comments on the architects of change resonate with my own experience. I would go further, and say that they view their part of the system as central, and frame and view it in the light of their experience and disciplines, fitting everything else around that. For example, hospitals may have ‘IT projects’ involving doctors, rather than health projects involving IT.


Maturana and Varela quote Henderson’s The Fitness of the Environment:

So long as ideas of the nature of living things remain vague and ill-defined, it is clearly impossible, as a rule, to distinguish between an adaptation of the organism to the environment and a case of the fitness of the environment for life, in the most very general sense. Evidently to answer such questions we must clear and precise ideas and definitions of living things. Life must by arbitrary process of logic be changed form the varying thing which it is into an independent variable or an invariant, shorn of many of its most interesting qualities to be sure, but no longer inviting fallacy through our inability to perceive clearly the questions involved.

On Machines, Living and Otherwise

[The] significant properties of the components must be taken in terms of relations, as the network of interactions and transformations into which they can enter in the working of the machine which they integrate and constitute as a unity.
The relations that define a machine as a unity, and determine the dynamics of interactions and transformations which it may go as such a unity, constitute the organization of the machine. The actual relations which hold … constitute its structure. [The] organization of a machine is independent of the properties of its components … .
The use to which a machine can be put by man is not a feature of the organization of the machine, but of the domain in which the machine operates, and belongs to our description of the machine in a context wider than the machine itself.

Overall Comments

Related work


As well as evolution one needs to consider co-evolution. For example, sheep and grass have not evolved separately, and in art the products and its conception may co-evolve, and this can be an essential part of the creative process and the products. Similarly for families and many other social institutions.

Sustainable human systems

Systems can be roughly categorised as follows:

  • Those with rigid constraints, imposed by a minority. This is ‘an abuse’. Creativity is necessarily limited.
  • Those with rigid constraints, self-imposed. These will tend to be seen through and the self-regulation will ‘break down’. Creativity is necessarily limited.
  • Constraints are continually debated and evolve, with a minimum of ‘groupthink’ and intolerance. The sustainability or otherwise of this approach depends on the quality of debate, co-operation and decision-making.

This seems useful. The role of language and logic is clearly critical. Neither should be ossified or taken for granted.


Wikipedia‘s interpretation of Kant is:

Practical rationality is the strategy for living one’s best possible life, achieving your most important goals and your own preferences in as far as possible. Practical rationality has also a formal component, that reduces to Bayesian decision theory, and a material component, rooted in human nature (lastly, in our genome).

This purports to present absolute standards for a form of rationality. From Maturana and Valera it would seem that rationality is logical coherence to some framework, which must necessarily include arbitrary assumptions and which should always be open to revision. Thus a process can be rational, but a decision – divorced from its process – is not.


Kant is a friend of mathematics and Bayesian decision theory – as a mathematical theory – is mathematical. So are Maturana and Valera denying mathematics as some suppose? Like Whitehead, Keynes, Russell and Good (actual mathematicians) they emphasise that cognition and decisions take place within a framework or context, and that there is no universal context. Thus Wikipedia’s ‘practical rationality’ reduces to supposing that – in practice – one can identify a suitable framework. This is often reasonable, but not always. But it is not ‘mathematical’. On the contrary, the mathematical approach is to seek to uncover hidden assumptions. For example, according to Wikipedia:

In its primary sense, rationality is a normative concept that philosophers have generally tried to characterize in such a way that, for any action, belief, or desire, if it is rational we ought to choose it. … A rational decision is one that is not just reasoned, but is also optimal for achieving a goal or solving a problem.

Maturana, Valera and logic agree that in this sense only strictly logical or mathematical goals and problems can be known to have been solved rationally.

Wikipedia also gives a more general notion:

According to the philosophical theory of justification, it refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.

Maturana and Valera do not preclude this type of rationality, which is relative to the logic by which one connects evidence, assumptions and conclusions. Mathematicians (as above) would want to put some severe constraints on the logic to be used. For example, for the kinds of systems discussed by Maturana and Valera, ‘Bayesian logic’, which assumes a fixed framework, will not do.

If the classical view is conceived of as absolutist and Maturana and Valera as relativistic, then Russell’s view is that we should seek a minimum of relativism, and that this is useful and possible. We should seek the maximum of constraints which is not abusive, which (according to Maturana and Valera) is the same as maximising the freedom for creativity and self-expression without endangering those core values. But what are they?

David Marsay

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