Key Theories of Humberto Maturana

Humberto Maturana (b.1928), a neurophysiologist from Chile, was a member of the second wave of cybernetics (1960–85) (Hayles 1999: 131), and has made a name for himself in developing a theory of autopoiesis, or the nature of reflexive feedback control in living systems. Maturana was also part of a research team which investigated the frog’s visual system in the late-1950s. This research was able to show that the frog did not so much represent reality as construct it: the frog sees what it wants, or needs to see – small, fast-moving flies rather than large, slowmoving cows. Such a discovery served as a spring board for Maturana’s investigation into epistemology and the nature of the observer’s role in investigating living systems. Like the frog, the observer, Maturana and his colleague, Francisco Varela proposed, does not discover a pre-existing reality, but creates it in the act of observation. In other words, the realist epistemology that is implicitly challenged here has to take a back seat to a notion of reflexivity which turns reality into the product of the dynamic interaction between observer and the system of which he or she is a part. For living systems, such as the human, Maturana and Varela found the real, external world is in fact part of the living system itself and is not something that can be proved to be external to it. The activity of the nervous system is thus a product of the structure of the organisation of the nervous system itself, and not the result of the impact on it of external reality. Before proceeding to look in detail at the way Maturana places biological imperatives in the front line of what it means to be human, we provide a summary of key concepts that underpin all of Maturana’s work.


Key Concepts in Maturana’s Work

Autopoiesis: This is the main concept in Maturana’s research into the relation between observer and system. It derives from the Greek where ‘auto-’ means ‘self ’ and ‘poiesis’ means ‘production’ or ‘creation’. The point for Maturana is to highlight the self-formative aspect of living systems. The latter are unities, or wholes, made up of a variable number of elements. As a unity, a system is more than the sum of its parts. Autopoiesis, which is about the maintenance of a unity’s organisation (see below), may be contrasted with allopoiesis, which is about realising goals other than the maintenance of organisation. That is, allopoiesis is means oriented, while autopoiesis is ends oriented, the end being the maintenance of the system itself as a unity.

Structure: This is the particular configuration of elements in a given unity (or system). Structure can vary to a certain extent without there being a change in the system. Beyond a certain point, however, further change will endanger the integrity of the system as a particular unity.

Structural Coupling: A living system’s structures are invariably situated in, and dependent on, an environment. Humans, for example, depend on the resources of the environment to continue to exist. But certain structures can also be dependent on other structures for their survival. Thus, a cell in my body is a system but is coupled to the body as a whole for its continued existence (Hayles 1999: 138).

Organisation: It is a crucial term in the debate about the way systems articulate themselves. It refers to the specific form of the relation between the elements of the system. Organisation also gives an insight into the kind of unity that a system is. It is used by Maturana and Varela to develop a definition of a ‘living system’. The latter is recognisable through its ‘autopoietic’ organisation, not through its capacity to reproduce itself. Reproduction is not part of the organisation of living beings. The reason is that reproduction presupposes an already existing organisation as its precondition.

As Whitaker suggests on his web site – in light of the example in The Tree of Knowledge (1998: 73) – the difference between structure and organisation can be illustrated by the famous proto-surrealist, sixteenth-century painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. In the artist’s work, the face and upper body are equivalent to organisation, while the material used to make the organisation is called structure. In other words, organisation refers to the unity (face, body) and structure refers to the material used to incarnate this unity (fruit, fish, books, flowers, bodies, etc). It is interesting to note, however, that, like surrealism a` la Dalı´, it is sometimes difficult to discern the unity of the picture (its form of organisation) because the structure is so dominant.

Autonomy: A system is autonomous ‘if it can specify its own laws’. It is a unity which regenerates the network of interactions which produced them. That is, an autonomous system is not generated, or regenerated by a factor external to it; it generates itself. Autopoiesis is what makes living beings autonomous systems.

Domain: A domain is a field with a specific set of properties defined by the unity which constitutes it. Domains include those of: language, phenomenology, cognition, consensus, interactions, relations.

Ontogeny: This is the history of structural change in a unity without change occurring in its organisation.


Biological Processes as Epistemological and Meaning Determinants

The dissolution of a realist epistemology, exemplified in Maturana’s early work on the frog’s eye view, corresponds to the cybernetic notion that the boundaries of the human subject are constructed, not given. Not an objective, external reality, then, but biological processes necessary to the ongoing ‘praxis of everyday life’, or to life as ‘perturbations’, as Maturana also calls it, are at the heart of cognition and language. Cognition as a biological phenomenon is not ‘about’ anything: it is not a representation of the external world, for example.

As a crucial cognitive domain, language exemplifies, more than any other, how cognition and biology are intertwined in Maturana’s scheme of things. By ‘biology’, one should understand those processes necessary for the continued life of a system. Language – or ‘languaging’, as Maturana prefers – is not about the communication of knowledge and information, even if an observer understands it this way. Instead, language is internal and functional to the living system that is the human being. As living systems within language humans operate in a domain of reflexivity and reciprocal, consensual everyday actions that serve to instantiate their continued existence. By languaging, in effect, human beings are able to reflect upon their conditions of living and in so doing are able to conserve these conditions. Language objects are thus not reflections of external reality, but are those objects generally accepted as such by the language community: they are thus ‘consensual objects’. Prior to language there are no objects. For objects are essentially cognitive, tied ultimately to the biological imperatives of the system. This of course does prevent observers from acting as though an objective world were reflected in language. Indeed, it might be functionally necessary that this be so. Here, we have what could be called, after Lacan (see the mirror stage), a process of necessary misrecognition.

Language is also implicated in ‘structural coupling’. Put simply, each human as a living system is dependent for maintaining its qualities on ‘reciprocal consensual’ interactions with other humans. Or, more prosaically, language is essentially social. It needs to be social in the interests of the survival of the living system, not because communication implies more than one. Language activates a triggering short, have the power to induce reciprocal bodily changes. They are concentrations of meaning within structures of action. Such concentrations can initiate, or incite action. Here, we can think of words with highly charged emotional impact. Maturana goes so far as to say that languaging as structural coupling can serve to preserve the organisation of the living system; in effect, this implies preserving the life of the system. Body and language change reciprocally.

Self-consciousness and ‘observing’ arise only within language. For Maturana, this entails that the self and self-consciousness as selfidentity only exist in language. Also, since language coordinates language consensually and is essentially social, self-consciousness is alsosocial; it is not located in the body, but in the domain of social interaction as the coexistence of individuals.

Implications of Matura’s Work

A key aspect of the ‘observer theory’ is that what is observed depends on the position of the observer and not, as objectivist theory would have it, on the nature of the system observed. Moreover, a living system constitutes itself recursively as an observer through interacting with the representations produced. The point is that the observer, then, is constituted reflexively through the system observed. As Maturana explains:

We become observers through recursively generating representations of our interactions, and by interacting with several representations simultaneously we generate relations with the representations of which we can then interact and repeat this process recursively, thus remaining in a domain of interactions always larger than that of the representation. (cited in Hayles 1999: 144)

The insight that a realist epistemology is no longer viable when it comes to understanding the nature of living systems has implicationsfor the practice of science. For while the realist epistemology allowed the observing scientist to take a neutral position with regard to what was being observed, the notion that the observer is inextricably involved with what is observed opens the way for science to be directly connected to ethics. If the observer contributes to the formation or construction of the observed, there ceases to be a clear-cut separation between the theory and application of science. In the case of nuclear physics, for example, there is a link between the theory and development of nuclear weaponry and the ethics surrounding its use. The use of nuclear weaponry becomes an inextricable part of the social system understood as individual members interacting in the interest of coexistence. Action can no longer be understood in isolation, as many scientists have wanted to do, and this gives all actions an ethical status.

Strengths of Maturana’s Work

As well as alerting us to the ethical dimension of science, Maturana’s theories have the following strengths.

Maturana’s development of a non-realist epistemology based on the concept of an autopoietic system came at a time (1950–70) of thepositivist ascendency in science, and the accompanying scepticism towards any framework which emphasised a constructivist approach to knowledge and subjectivity. For positivism, truth, or validity, is decidedly not to be determined by the position of an observer; truth is not relative, but is based on the correspondence between language and reality. As such, Maturana’s work was a breath of fresh air, giving due weight to what might now be called the ‘subjective’ side of the epistemological equation, and he does this in an area of ‘hard’ science (neurobiology).

Furthermore, Maturana’s theory attributes to language a dynamic role in the understanding of human life, rather it being a neutral system of mediation facilitating pure communication. Such a theory gives weight to the e´nonciation (statement as enacted) over the e´nonce´ (statement made). In short, through being enacted – as ‘languaging’ – rather than in being referential, language is important for Maturana. And in this, Maturana’s theory even has links with certain avant-garde poets and linguists (cf. Mallarme´ and Benveniste).


Despite its strengths, Manturana’s work throws up the following problems due, at least in part, to the neurobiologist’s almost dogmatic determination to reject anything even hinting at a realist epistemology. Broadly speaking, as there is an almost total scepticism regarding objectivity, the very idea of externality is expunged from Maturana’s version of systems theory. There is more, however.

1. Autopoietic systems are constructed as though the external environment acts only as a trigger for the system’s own activity and development. In short, there is no real ‘outside’ of the system.  This could be described as the ‘autistic’ aspect of the theory (see Hayles 1999: 148).

2. Related to the above, we can see that, with the construction of perception, and with language functioning as a mechanism for the self-constitution of unity rather than as a vehicle of inter-subjective communication, there is a risk of solipsism. The latter implies that, again, there is no valid external domain, only the system’s own self-representation.

3. Knowing, says autopoietic theory, occurs through doing: ‘all knowing is doing and all doing is knowing’ (Maturana and Varela 1998: 27). The circularity of autopoietic theory is thus reinforced by such a principle. A similar circularity is reinforced through the definition of the key concept, organisation. The implication of this circularity is that once organisation changes, the system’s unity collapses. For it to exist, change in organisation –if not in structure – must be kept to a minimum. As a self-contained mode of organisation, the unity is impervious to historical contingency, including linear, evolutionary change in biology. In short, there is an in-built resistance to change in autopoietic theory itself.

The truth of the matter is that any theory that promotes its own qualities to the exclusion of all other theoretical perspectives begins to undermine its own credentials. Thus despite its innovation in challenging validation through reference to an independent objective reality, autopoiesis, in ruling out external, independent reality, perhaps goes too far in the other direction. It is almost as though, for the autopoietic system, there were no externality other than what passes as such in the interests of the continuation of the everyday life of the system. Even if Maturana says that, for the observer in a living system, the distinction between internal and external makes no sense, and that perception is functional to the living system rather than objective, what remains to be seen is exactly how the system would deal with entirely chance occurrences. Chance occurrences would qualify as those events essentially external to and outside of the current purview of the living system. Not to be able to adjust to them would amount to putting the system in jeopardy. Such is the risk that the solipsistic tone of autopoiesis brings into view. For in Maturana’s general account, there is no room for such radical externality. Such a deficit is precisely what other systems theorists, such as Luhmann (1995), have endeavoured to overcome.

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Hayles, N. Katherine (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Luhmann, Niklas (1995), Social Systems, New York: Columbia University Press.
Maturana H.R. and F.G. Varela (1998 [1987]), The Tree of Knowledge, Boston and London: Shambhala, New Science Library, revised edition.

Maturana’s major writings
(1980) with Varela, Francisco J., Autopoiesis and Cognition Dordrecht: Reidel.
(1978) ‘Biology of language: epistemology of reality’, in G.A. Miller and Elizabeth Lenneberg, eds, Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought, New York: Academic Press.
(1975) ‘The organization of the living: a theory of the living organization’, International. Journal of Man-Machine Studies 7: 313–32.
(1969) ‘The Neurophysiology of Cognition’ in Garvin, P. ed., Cognition: A Multiple View, New York: Spartan Books.
(1960) with Lettvin, J., McCulloch, S. and Pitts, W., ‘Anatomy and physiology of vision in the frog’, Journal of General Physiology, 43: 129–75.

Further reading
Mingers, J. (1994), Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis, New York: Plenum Publishing.
Roth, G., and Schwegler, H., eds.  (1981a), Self-organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag.
Zeleny, Milan ed.  (1981b), Autopoiesis, a Theory of Living Organizations, New York: North Holland.



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