Humberto R. Maturana, Francisco J. Varela . The Realization of the Living (Originally: De maquinas y seres vivos 1972) . ISBN 90-277-1015-5 . 1980 . D. Reidel Publishing Company . Dordrecht: Holland / Boston: USA / London: England


A theoretical biology which is topological where the topology is self-referential from the point-of-view of the system itself and has no outside, ‘.. Leibnizian for our day’ (p v). Cognition is defined as a biological phenomenon and as the very nature of biological systems. Hence: ‘Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition’ (p vi).

Essay 1: Biology of Cognition

1) What is the organization of the living? AND 2) What takes place In the phenomenon of perception? Ad 1) No valid definition is available that accounts for all systems: we can recognize them when we encounter them but we cannot say what they are. What is the invariant feature around which selection operates? NB that this is similar to my question concerning the invariant in business change! Look at systems not as open systems, exchanging energy and information with their environment, but closed. In addition a language is needed to describe autonomy as a feature of the system specified by the description. As a consequence notions of purpose, intent, use and function must be rejected. The definition of these systems as unities through their self-reference is their autonomy. Living systems are defined as unities through the circularity of the production of their components. Ad 2) With this theory the activity of the nervous system can be treated as the activity of the system itself and not of its environment. The external world only has a triggering role in the release of the internally determined activity. Moreover the working of the nervous system can only be understood by closing it off: perception is not the grasping of but the specification of an external reality. This can be connected with the Wagensberg model, but some modifcations are required to clean it from thermodynamical arguments. The question changes from: ‘How does the organism obtain information about its environment’ to ‘How does it happen that the organism has the structure that permits it to operate adequately in the medium in which it exists?’ (p xvi).

It was in these circumstances that one day, while talking to a friend (José Bulnes) about an essay of this on Don Quixote de la Mancha, in which he analyzed Don Quixote’s dilemma of whether to follow the path of arms (praxis, action) or the path of letters (poiesis, creation, production), and his eventual choice of the path of praxis deferring any attempts at poiesis, I understood for the first time the power of the word ‘poiesis’ and invented the word that we needed: autopoiesis. This was a word without a history, a word that could directly mean what takes place in the dynamics of the autonomy proper to living systems’ (p xvii)

In a sense it has been my way to a transcendental experience: to the discovery that matter, metaphorically speaking, is the creation of the spirit (the mode of existence of the observer in a domain of discourse) and that the spirit is the creation of the matter that it creates’(p xviii). I would refer to this as the meeting of content and process: beliefs lead to decisions which in turn lead to behavior which lead to a new context which, given beliefs, lead to new action and perhaps to a change of the belief also.

Unity, Organization and Structure

Unity. An observer performs the cognitive operation of distinguishing an entity from its background. They are distinguished for the separability of the respective properties endowed them through this cognitive operation. If this operation is performed recursively by the observer then the components of the entity can be distinguished and the entity is defined by the properties of its components. The observer can also observe the entity as a single unity and distinguish it in the domain of its properties as a unity and not in the domain of the properties of its components. If an autopoietic system is treated as a composite unity, it exists in the space defined by its components, but if it is treated as a simple unity then it is defined in the domain of the distinctive properties of the unity.

Organization and Structure. The relations between the components of a composite unity that define it as a particular kind of a unity constitute its organization. Only those properties are considered and only to the extent that they participate in the constitution of the unity they integrate. The actual components and their actual relations, concretely realizing a system as a member of a class of systems in which it categorizes because of its organization, constitutes its structure. Any given organization may be realized by many different structures and different subsets of components and their relations in a given structure may be abstracted by an observer as organizations defining different classes of composite unities. The organization specifies the class identity of a system and must remain invariant for the class identity to remain invariant; if its organization changes then its identity changes and the unity becomes a unity of a different kind. Conversely because an organization can be realized in systems with different structures, the identity of a system can stay invariant while its structure changes within limits determined by its organization.

Structural coupling. Unity and medium as independent systems operate in each interaction by triggering in each other a structural change, and select in each other a structural change. If the organization in a composite system remains invariant while it undergoes structural changes induced by its medium, then its adaptation is conserved. The structural change in the unity follows the structural change in the medium through a process of structured coupling. Else the outcome of the unity is disintegration. If the unity is structurally plastic, then its conservation of adaptation results in a history of structural couplings to the medium that selects its path of structural change. The configuration of constitutive relations that remain invariant in the adapted composite unity determines the possible perturbations that the unity can admit; it is a reference for the selection of the path of structural changes that take place in it in its history of interactions.

Epistemology. If a composite unity is specified as a simple system then the phenomenological domain is specified by the properties of the simple unity. Because that differs from the domain of the properties of the components phenomenal reduction is not possible. The relations between the components of a composite system interact through a system of contiguity. Necessarily relations such as control and regulation are not of contiguity, but referential relations specified by the observer using their meta-domain by using their view of the whole. The observer creates a meta-domain of descriptions that allows them to speak as if a unity existed as a separate entity that they can characterize by specifying the operations that must be performed to distinguish it. Having characterized it as a distinguishable entity, in that meta-domain can he only cognize the entity in terms of that meta-domain.

Society and Ethics

(1) ‘It is apparent that natural social systems as systems constituted by living systems require these for their actual realization. What is not apparent, however, is the extent to which the coupling of living systems in the integration of a social system entails the realization of their autopoiesis’ (p xxiv). Why is the use of the term ‘autopoiesis’ in the sentence above with regards to the organization of the social system avoided? ‘If, however, the autopoiesis of the components of a natural social system were not involved in its constitution because the relations that define a system as social do not entail them, then the autopoiesis of the components (and hence their autonomy and individuality) would be intrinsically dispensable’ (p xxiv). This means that if autopoiesis of the components of a social system is not involved in the constitution of a social system, then the autopoiesis of the components is not required. Hence the autonomy and individuality of the components would be ‘intrinsically dispensable’. This seems to be a hint at the status of people making up a social group. It does not take into account the existence of memes as components of a memeplex that forms the social fabric of a group.

(2) ‘Accordingly, I propose that a collection of autopoietic systems that, through the realization of their autopoiesis, interact with each other constituting and integrating a system that operates as the (or as a) medium in which they realize their autopoiesis, is indistinguishable from a natural social system. Or, in other words, I propose that the relations stated above characterize the organization of a social system as a system, and that all the phenomena proper to social systems arise from this organization’(p xxv) This must serve as the connection of the autopoiesis theory with the theory of memetics. The autopoietic systems are the belief systems of the components of the social system, namely individual people. Their autopoiesis is realized through the existence of the autopoiesis of the autopoietic social system. The component autopoietic systems and the social autopoietic systems both are realized through the other’s autopoiesis. Implications of this proposition are: (i) ‘The realization of the of the autopoiesis of the components of a social system is constitutive to the realization of the social system itself’ (p xxv) (ii) ‘A collection of living systems integrating a composite unity through relations that do not involve their autopoiesis is not a social system, and the phenomena proper to its operation as such a composite unity are not social phenomena’ (p xxv). (iii) ‘Therefore, the domain of social phenomena, defined as the domain of the interactions and the relations that an observer sees taking place between the compnents of a society, results from the autopoietic operation of the components of the components of the society while they realize it in the interplay of their properties’ (p xxv) (iv) ‘In a society, at any instance of observation, the structures of the components determine the properties of the components, the properties of the components realize the structure of the society, and the structure of the society operates as a selector of the structure of its components by being a medium in which they realize their ontogeny’ (p xxv) NB: this is the notion of the connection between process and content in a social system (v) ‘An autopoietic system participates in the constitution of a social system only to the extent that it participates in it, that is, only as it realizes the relations proper to a component of the social system’(p xxv)

(3) ‘A society defines the domain in which it is realized as a unity’(p xxv) Such a domain constitutes at least an operationally independent medium that operates as: a) a selector of the path of structural change that the society follows in its individual history, and b) ‘if stable, a historical stabilizer of the structures that realize the selected invariant relations that define the society as a particular social system’ (p xxvi).

(4) ‘To the extent that human being are autopoietic systems, all their activities as social organisms must satisfy their autopoiesis’ (p xxvii) ‘In man as a social being, therefore, all actions, however individual as expressions of preferences or rejections, constitutively affect the lives of other human beings and, hence, have ethical significance’ (p xxvi)

(5) ‘What determines the constitution of a social system are the recurrent interactions of the same autopoietic systems. In other words, any biological stabilization of the structures of the interacting organisms that results in the recurrence of their interactions, may generate a social system’ (p xxvi). Gene >> Meme. Also Kevin and Gavin.

(6) ‘A social system is essentially a conservative system. This is so because it is generated through the interactions of structure-determined autopoietic systems and operates as a medium that selects the path of ontogenic structural change of its components, which, thus, become structurally coupled to it. In our case, we as social beings generate, through our structure-determined properties, our societies as the cultural media that select our individual paths of ontogenic change in a manner that leads each one of us to the structure that makes us generate the particular societies to which we belong. A society, therefore, operates as a homeostatic system that stabilizes the relations that define it as a social system of a particular kind’ (p xxvi- xxvii).

(7) The domain of states of a system as a composite unity is determined by the properties that realize its organization. It follows that a social change in a human society can only take place if the individual properties and hence conduct of its members change.

(8) ‘All that matters for the realization of a society is that the component autopoietic systems should satisfy certain relations regardless of the actual structures (internal processes) through which they realize them’ (p xxvii) Hypocrisy.

(9) ‘Interactions within a society are necessarily confirmatory of the relations that define it as a particular social system; if not, the organisms that interact do not interact as components of the society which they otherwise integrate. It is only through interactions operationally not defined within the society that a component organism can undergo interactions that lead to the selection, in its ontogeny, of a path of structural change not confirmatory of the society that it integrates. creativity, as the generation of novel social relations, always entails interactions operationally outside the society.. Social creativity is necessarily anti-social in the social domain in which it takes place’ (p xxvii-xxviii)

(10) ‘In general any organism, and in particular any human being, can be simultaneously a member of many social systems, such as family, a club, an army, a political party, a religion or a nation, and can operate in one or another without necessarily being in internal contradiction. .. An observer always is potentially antisocial’ (p xxviii)

(11) ‘To grow as a member of society consists in becoming structurally coupled to it; to be structurally coupled to a society consists in having the structures that lead to the behavioral confirmation of the society’ (p xxviii)

(12) ‘We as human beings exist in a network of social systems and move from to another in ou daily activities. Yet, not all human beings caught in the mesh of relations generated in this network of social systems participate in it as social beings’ (p xxviii-xxix). This means that if the interaction of someone in this social system does not involve their autopoiesis, is being used by the system but not a member or it is social abuse.

(13) (14) (15)

Biology of Cognition

1. Introduction

Man knows and his capacity to know depends on his biological integrity; furthermore he knows that he knows’ (p 5). This statement also explains the requirement of the existence of human beings as biological organisms for the existence of memes. ‘As a psychological, and hence biological function cognition guides people’s handling of the universe and knowledge gives certainty to their acts; objective knowledge seems possible and through objective knowledge the universe appears systematic and predictable. Yet knowledge as an experience is something personal and private that cannot be transferred, and that which one believes to be transferable, objective knowledge, must always be created by the listener: the listener understands and objective knowledge appears to be transferred, only if he is prepared to understand’ (p 5) Thus cognition is a biological function; it is known through knowledge.

(a) If an organism is a unity, in what sense are its component properties its parts? Has some property arisen from the properties of its organization or from its mode of life?

(b) ‘Organisms are adapted to their environments, and it has appeared adequate to say of them that their organization represents the ‘environment’ in which they live, and that through evolution they have accumulated information about it, coded in their nervous system. Similarly it has been said that the sense organs gather information about the ‘environment’, and through learning this information is coded in the nervous system [Cf. Young, 1967]. Yet this general view begs the questions, ‘What does it mean to ‘gather information?’ and ‘What is coded in the genetic and nervous system?’ (p 6)

III Cognitive Function in General

The Observer

(1) ‘Anything said is said by an observer’ (p 8)

(2) The observer can observe an object and its environment simultaneously. This allows them to interact with both independently and have interactions that are outside of the domain of the observed entity.

(3) An attribute of the observer is that they can interact both with the observed entity and with its relations. Both are units of interaction (entities)

(4) To the observer an entity is an entity if they can describe it. They can describe it if at least one other entity exists so as to distinguish the observed entity from in its description; the ultimate reference is the observer themselves.

(5) The set of all interactions of an entity is its domain of interactions and the set of all possible interactions with the observer (relations) is its domain of relations; the latter lies within the cognitive domain of the observer. ‘An entity is an entity if it has a domain of interactions, and if this domain includes interactions with the observer who can specify for it a domain of relations’ (p 8)

(6) The observer can define himself as an entity by specifying his own domain of interactions.

(7) ‘The observer is a living system and an understanding of cognition as a biological phenomenon must account for (the existence of DPB) the observer and his role in it (the phenomenon DPB)’ (p 9)

The Living System

(1) ‘Living systems are units of interactions; they exist in an ambience. From a purely biological point of view they cannot be understood independently of that part of the ambience with which they interact: the niche; nor can the niche be defined independently of the living system that specifies it’ (p 9)

(2) ‘Living systems as they exist on earth today are characterized by .. a closed circular process that allows for evolutionary change in the way the circuitry is maintained, but not for the loss of the circuitry itself. .. This circular organization constitutes a homeostatic system whose function is t produce and maintain this very same circular organization by determining that the components that specify it be those whose synthesis or maintenance it secures’ (p 9)

(3) ‘It is the circularity of its organization that makes a living system a unit of interactions, and it is this circularity that it must maintain in order to remain a living system and to retain its identity through different interactions’ (p 9)

(4) ‘Due to the circular nature of its organization a living system has a self-referring domain of interactions (it is a self-referring system), and its condition of being a unit of interactions is maintained because its organization has functional significance only in relation to the maintenance of its circularity and defines its domain of interactions accordingly’ (p 10)

(5) ‘Living systems as units of interactions specified by their condition of being living systems cannot enter into interactions that are not specified by their organization. The circularity of their organization continuously brings them back to the same internal state (same with respect to the cyclic process). Each internal state requires that certain conditions (interactions with the environment) be satisfied in order to proceed to the next state’ (p 10). The circular organization implies the prediction that an interaction will take place again. If it does not then the system will disintegrate, if it does it will maintain its integrity (identity vis a vis the observer) and move on to the next prediction. In a continuously changing environment the system can only remain intact if the environment does not change in that which is predicted. The predictions implied in the organizations are not predictions of particular events but of classes of interactions; interactions the features of which allow the organization of the system and hence its identity to remain intact. This makes living system inferential systems and their domain of interactions a cognitive domain.

(6) A niche is defined by the classes of interactions into which a system can enter. The environment is defined as the classes of interactions into which an observer can enter; they treat it as a reference for their interactions with the system. The observer considers the niche of a system the set of interactions that they observe to lie in its part of the domain of interactions of the environment. For the observer a niche is a part of the environment, for the system it is the entire set of possible interactions. As such a niche cannot be ‘part’ of the environment which lies exclusively in the cognitive domain of the observer. ‘Niche and environment, then, intersect only to the extent that the observer (including instruments) and the system have comparable organizations, but even then there are always parts of the environment that lie beyond any possibility of the intersections with the domain of interactions of the organism, and there are parts of the domain of the niche that lie beyond any possibility of intersection with the domain of interactions of the observer. Thus 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’ (pp. 10-11) This is relevant for the observation of the firms by people as observers and vice versa.

(7) ‘Every unit of interactions can participate in interactions relevant to other, more encompassing units of interactions. If in doing this a living system does not lose its identity, its niche may evolve to be contained by the larger unit of interactions and thus be subservient to it. If this larger unit of interactions is (or becomes) in turn also a self-referring system in which its components (themselves self-referring systems) are subservient to its maintenance as a unit of interactions, then it must itself be (or become) subservient to the maintenance of the circular organization of its components’ (p 11). This is possibly relevant concerning acquisition of firms by other firms (DPB): cells >> bees >> beehive; cells >> people >> firms >> larger firms &c.


(1) Evolutionary change is an aspect of the circular organization that preserves the system’s basic circularity. ‘Reproduction and evolution are not essential for the living organization, but they have been essential for the historical transformation of the cognitive domains of the living systems on earth’ (p 11)

(2) For a change in a unity without losing its identity with respect ot the observer, it must suffer an internal change. If an internal change occurs without the identity of the unity changing then the domain of interactions must change.

(3) After reproduction the new unity has the same domain of interactions as the parent if it has the same organization.

(4) Predictions about the niche are inferences about classes of interactions. Particular interactions may be of the same class and not distinguishable for the system but they may be to the observer.

(5) Aspects of the organization that are subservient to the maintenance of the basic circularity but do not determine it change from generation to generation. The system maintains its organization and its identity through interactions. The basic circularity remains unchanged, the way it is maintained changes. ‘The evolution of the living systems is the evolution of the niches of the units of interactions defined by their self-referring circular organization, hence, the evolution of the cognitive domains’ (p 12)

The Cognitive Process

(1) ‘A cognitive system is a system whose organization defines a domain of interactions in which it can act with relevance to the maintenance of itself, and the process of cognition is the actual (inductive) acting of behaving in this domain. Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition’ (p13)

(2) ‘If a living system enters into a cognitive interaction, its internal state is changed in a manner relevant to its maintenance, and it enters into a new interaction without loss of its identity’ (p 13)

(3) The function of the nervous system is subservient to the necessary circularity of the living organization.

(4) The nervous system has expanded the domain of interactions and hence has transformed the unit of interactions and had subjected interacting to the process of evolution.

(5) This expansion of the cognitive domain (into the domain of ‘pure relations’) allows for non-physical interactions between systems such that the systems orient each other towards interactions within their respective domains. ‘Herein lies the basis for communication: the orienting behavior becomes a representation of the interactions toward which it orients, and a unit of interaction in its own terms. .. there are organisms that generate representations of their own interactions by specifying entities with which they interact as if these belonged to an independent domain, while as representations they only map their own interactions. .. a) 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.. b) We become self-conscious through self-observation; by making descriptions of ourselves (representations), and by interacting with our descriptions we can describe ourselves describing ourselves, in an endless recursive process’ (p 14)


(1) A living system is an inductive system: what happened once will occur again. Its organization is conservative and repeats only that which works. The present state is always specified by the previous state that restricts the field of possible modulations by independent concomitances.

(2) For the observer any one of the system’s behaviors appears as an actualization of the niche, that is, as a first order description of the environment (denoted as Description); this is a description in terms of the behavior (interactions) of the observed system, not representations of environmental states. The relation between behavior and niches exists in the cognitive domain of the observer only.

(3) A living system can modify the behavior of another system by: a) interacting with it in a way that directs both toward each other such that the following behavior of the one depends strictly on the previous behavior of the other. In this case the two systems can be said to interact. b) By orienting the behavior of the other system to some part of its domain of interactions different from the present interaction but comparable to the orientation of the orienting system. This takes place if the domains of interactions of both systems are coincident; no interlocking chain of behavior takes place because the systems’ behavior is based on parallel but independent behavior. In this case the systems can be said to communicate; this is the basis for linguistic behavior. The first generates a Description of its niche that orients the second within its cognitive domain to an interaction, which ensues a conduct parallel but unrelated to the first. The orienting behavior to the observer is a second order behavior, denoted in italics as description (linguistic utterance DPB), that denotes whatever denotation they assign to it: ‘.. that which an orienting behavior connotes is a function of the cognitive domain of the orientee, not the orienter’ (p 28).

(4) In an orienting interaction the orienter’s behavior as a description generates activity in the orientee, which then, in turn makes a Description of its niche connoted by the orienting behavior of the first.

(5) ‘If an organism can generate a communicative description and then interact with its own state of activity that represents this description, generating another such description that orients towards this representation…, the process can in principle be carried on in a potentially infinite recursive manner, and the organism becomes an observer: it generates discourse as a domain of interactions with representations of communicative descriptions (orienting behaviors). Furthermore, if such an observer through orienting behavior can orient himself towards himself, and then generate communicative descriptions that orient him towards his description of his self-orientation, he can, by doing so recursively, describe himself describing himself .. endlessly. This discourse through communicative description originates the apparent paradox of self-description: self-consciousness, a new domain of interactions’ (p 28-9).


(1) Thinking is the neuro-physiological process of interacting with some of its own internal states as if these were independent entities. From thinking behavior emerges in a deterministic manner. The difference with a reflex action is that the concerning the latter a signal can be traced back to the sensory system. In thinking the signal begins with a distinguishable state of activity of the nervous system itself (2) This process above is independent from language.

Natural Language

(1) ‘Linguistic behavior is orienting behavior; it orients the orientee within his cognitive domain to interactions that are independent of the nature of the orienting interactions themselves. .. Only if the domains of interactions of the two organisms are to some extent comparable, are such consensual orienting interactions possible and are the two organisms able to develop some conventional, but specific, system of communicative descriptions to orient each other to cooperative classes of interactions that are relevant for both’ (p 30). These are the interactions as per Knorr-Cetina.

(2) –

(3) ‘Behavior (function) depends on the anatomical organization (structure) of the living system, hence anatomy and conduct cannot legitimately be separated and the evolution of behavior is the evolution of anatomy and vice versa; anatomy provides the basis for behavior and hence for its variability; behavior provides the ground for the action of natural selection and hence for the historical anatomical transformations of the organism’ (p 31).

(4) ‘However, when it is recognized that language is connotative and not denotative, and that its function is to orient the orientee within his cognitive domain, without regard for the cognitive domain of the orienter, it becomes apparent that there is no transmission of information through language. It behooves the orientee, as a result of an independent internal operation upon his own state, to choose where to orient his cognitive domain; the choice is caused by the ‘message’, but the orientation thus produced is independent of what the ‘message’ represents for the orienter. In a strict sense then, there is no transfer of information from the speaker to his interlocutor; the listener creates information by reducing his uncertainty through his interactions in his cognitive domain. Consensus arises only through cooperative interactions in which the resulting behavior of each organism becomes subservient to the maintenance of both. .. The cooperative conduct that may develop between the interacting organisms from these communicative interactions is a secondary process independent of their operative effectiveness. If it appears to be acceptable to talk about transmission of information in ordinary parlance, this is so because the speaker tacitly assumes the listener to be identical with him and hence as having the same cognitive domain which he has (which never is the case), marveling when a ‘misunderstanding’ arises’ (p 32-3).

(5) –

(6) ‘If one considers linguistic interactions as orienting interactions it is apparent that it is not possible to separate, functionally, semantics and syntax, however separable they may seem in their description by the observer. This is true for two reasons: a) A sequence of communicative desriptions (words in our case) must be expected to cause in the orientee a sequence of successive orientations in his cognitive domain, each arising from the state left by the previous one… b) An entire series of communicative descriptions can itself be a communicative description; the whole sequence once completed may orient the listener from the perspective of the state to which the sequence itself has led him’ (p 33)

(7) ‘Linguistic behavior is an historical process of continuous orientation’ (p 34)

(8) –

(9) ‘Orienting behavior in an organism with a nervous system capable of interacting recursively with its own states expands its cognitive domain by enabling it to interact recursively with descriptions of its interactions. As a result: a) Natural language has emerged as a new domain of interactions in which the organism is modified by its descriptions of its interactions.. b) Natural language is necessarily generative because it results from the recursive application of the same operation (as a neurophysiological process) on the results of this application c) New sequences of orienting interactions (new sentences) within the consensual domain are necessarily understandable by the interlocutor (orient him), because each one of their components has definite orienting functions as a member of the consensual domain that it contributes to define’ (pp. 34- 5)

Memory and Learning

(1) ‘Learning as a process consist in the transformation through experience of the behavior of an organism in a manner that is directly or indirectly subservient to the maintenance of its basic circularity’ (p 35)

(2) ‘Learning occurs in such a manner that, for the observer, the learned behavior of the organism appears justified from the past, through the incorporation of a representation of the environment that acts, modifying its present behavior by recall; notwithstanding this, the system itself functions in the present, and for it learning occurs as an atemporal process of transformation. An organism cannot determine in advance when to change and when not to change during its flow of experience, nor can it determine in advance which is the optimal functional state that it must each; both the advantage of any particular behavior and the mode of behavior itself can only be determined a posteriori, as a result of the actual behaving of the organism subservient to the maintenance of its basic circularity’ (pp. 35-6)

(3 tm 7) –

(8) ‘Past, present and future and time in general belong to the cognitive domain of the observer’ (p 38)

The Observer

(1) The cognitive domain is the entire domain of interactions of the organism. It can be enlarged if new modes of interactions are generated or instruments are applied.

(2) –

(3) The observer generates a spoken description of his cognitive domain (which includes his interactions with and through instruments).

(4) ‘The observer can describe a system that gives rise to a system that can describe, hence, to an oberver. A spoken explanation is a paraphrase, a description of the synthesis of that which is to be explained; the observer explains the observer. A spoken explanation, however, lies in the domain of discourse. Only a full reproduction is a full explanation’ (p 39)

(5) ‘The domain of the discourse is a closed domain, and it is not possible to step outside of it through discourse. Because the domain of discourse is a closed domain it is possible to make the following ontological statement: the logic of the description is the logic of the describing (living) system (and his cognitive domain)’ (p 39) This bears a relation with the Wolfram statement that natural processes are the same as the processes that produced the human powers of perception and analysis.

(6) ‘This logic demands a substratum for the occurrence of the discourse. We cannot talk about this substratum in absolute terms, however, because we would have to describe it, and a description is a set of interactions into which the describer and the listener can enter, and their discourse about these interactions will be another set of descriptive interactions that will remain in the same domain. Thus, although this substratum is required for epistemological reasons, nothing can be said about it other than what is meant in the ontological statement above’(p 39)

(7) ‘We as observers live in a domain of discourse interacting with descriptions of our descriptions in a recursive manner, and thus continuously generate new elements of interaction. As living systems, however, we are closed systems modulated by interactions through which we define independent entities whose only reality lies in the interactions that specify them (their Description)’ (p 40)

(8) ‘For epistemological reasons we can say: there are properties which are manifold and remain constant through interactions. The invariance of properties through interactions provides a functional origin to entities or units of interactions; since entities are generated through the interactions that define them (properties), entities with different classes of properties generate independent domains of interactions: no reductionism is possible’ (p 40)

Post Scriptum

(i) ‘.. That is, man changes and lives in a changing frame of reference in a world continuously created and transformed by him. Successful interactions directly and indirectly subservient to the maintenance of his living organization constitute his only final source of reference for valid behavior within the domain of descriptions, and, hence, for truth; but, since living systems are self-referential systems, any final frame of reference is, necessarily, relative. Accordingly, no absolute system of values is possible and all truth and falsehood in the cultural domain are necessarily relative’ (p 57)

(ii) ‘Language does not transmit information and its functional role is the creation of a cooperative domain of interactions 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 personal experience. Since a frame of reference is defined by the classes of choices which it specifies, linguistic behavior cannot be but rational, that is, determined by relations of necessity within 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’ (p 57)

(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); being himself a relativistic self-referring deterministic system this cannot be otherwise. But if only a relative, arbitrarily chosen system of reference is possible, the unavoidable task of man as a self-conscious animal that can be an observer of its own cognitive processes is to explicitly choose a frame of reference for his system of values. .. ‘ (p 58)

Essay 2:

Autopoiesis – The Organization of the Living

Preface (Stafford Beer)

General: knowledge is categorized and so is our world view. Not wholes seen through different filters but parts derived through analysis and categorized.

The stuff of systems is relations between components. Relation is the essence of synthesis. During categorization the relations between the components are not included. Relations are discarded and alienated and distantiated from. ‘It is an Iron Maiden in whose secure embrace scholarship is trapped‘ (p64).

The world develops exponentially because it is a complex system. Knowledge is developed at a categorically at a linear pace and so in effect the understanding of the world is receding. This book is important in a general sense in that its meaning in a meta-systemic level and not at a interdisciplinary level. And so what appears is not classifiable under the old categories.

Particular: autopoietic systems are homeostats: the variable that keeps a critical system stable is the system’s own organization. Anything can change about the system but as such it survives.

Beer states that human societies are biological systems: ‘..any cohesive social institution is an autopoietic system – because it survives, because its method of survival answers the autopoietic criteria, and because it may well change its entire appearance and its apparent purpose in the process. As examples I list: firms and industries, schools and universities, clinics and hospitals, professional bodies, departments of state, and whole countries’ (p70).

If this view is valid, it has extremely important consequences. In the first place it means that every social institution (in several of which any one individual is embedded at the intersect) is embedded in a larger social institution, and so on recursively – and that all of them are autopoietic. This immediately explains why the process of change at any level of recursion (from the individual to the state) is not only difficult to accomplish but actually impossible – in the full sense of the intention: ‘I am going completely to change myself’. The reason is that the ‘I’, that self-contained autopoietic ‘it’, is a component of another autopoietic system’. These last statements also bear a relation to the experience with change management. It is related to the idea of a funnel resulting from the Western belief in the idea of progress (aka capitalism, aka free-market mechanism).

BELANGRIJK regarding social systems: the authors claim: ‘Our purpose is to understand the organization of living systems in relation to their unitary character’. This formulation of the problem begs the question as to what is allowed to be a called a living system, as theey themselves admit. ‘Unless one knows which is the living organization, one cannot know which organization is living’. They quickly reach the concusion however (Subsection (b) of Section 2 of Chapter 1) that ‘autopiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems’. THEN they display some unease, quoting the popular belief: ‘… and no synthetic system is accepted as living.’(p71). This is an important connection with memetics: now it is possible to claim that social systems (that is to say the memetic systems that bring them about) are natural systems and so they are not synthetic by design. I have argued that because it evolves it must be alive so as to be able to define the subject of evolution via the concept of living systems.

AUTOPOIESIS – The Organization of the Living

Systeem causaliteit


Common experience is that living systems are autonomous and they can reproduce. Conversely if something shows signs of autonomy then it is naively often deemed to be alive. Autonomy is exhibited by living systems through their self-asserting capacity to maintain their identity through the active compensation of deformations. The endeavor of the authors is to disclose the nature of the living organization. Their purpose is to understand the organization of living systems in relation to their unitary character. Their approach is mechanistic: no forces or principles will be adduced which are not found in the physical universe. Their interest is in processes and relations between processes realized through components, not in the properties of components (p75). It is assumed that an organization exists that is common to all living systems, regardless the nature of their components (p76). It is assumed that living systems are machines: a non-animistic view, relations are the pivot, not the components, dynamism is a feature of many machines also. The research question is: ‘What is the organization of living systems,, what kind of machines are they, and how is their phenomenology, including reproduction and evolution, determined by their unitary organization?’ (p76).

Chapter I – On Machines, Living and Otherwise

1. Machines

The properties of the components are irrelevant apart from those that participate in the interactions and transformations that constitute the system. The relevant properties determine those relations that determine the working of the machine which they integrate and constitute as a unity.

The organization of the machine is constituted by the relations that define it as a unity and determine the dynamics of the interactions and the transformations it may undergo as such a unity. The structure of the machine is constituted by the actual relations holding between the components integrating the machine in a given space. In this way a given machine can be realized by many different structures (p77).

‘Purpose’ is a means to explain more efficiently the workings of a machine: by using this concept, the imagination of the listener is invoked to reduce the task of explaining of the organization of a particular machine. It is not one of the constitutive properties of such a machine.

2. Living machines

a) Autopoietic machines

Machines can maintain some of their variables constant or within a limited range. This is expressed in the organization of the machine such that the process occurs within the boundaries of the machine which the very organization specifies. These machines are homeostatic and all feedback is internal to them. If there is a machine M with a feedback loop external to it such that a change in the output changes the input, then a M’ exists that includes the feedback loop in the organization that defines it. This is how autopoiesis is defined by the authors: ‘An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network’ (p79). In this way the autopoietic machine generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components in their endless turnover under conditions of perturbations and compensation thereof.

The relations of production of components are given as processes; if these processes stop then the production stops. In an autopoietic system these relations must be regenerated by the components which they produce such that the system remain autopoietic.

Autopoietic organization means that processes interlace a network of processes of production of components which constitute the network as a unity as they realize it. Every time this organization is realized as a concrete system in a given space, the domain of deformations, which this system can withstand without loss of identity as it maintains its organization constant, is the domain of changes in which it exists as a unity (p80). Autopoietic machine:

(i) are autonomous because they subordinate all change to the maintenance of their own organization

(ii) have an individuality because they keep their organization as an invariant through its continuous production. This represents their identity which is independent of their interactions with an observer

(iii) are unities because of their autopoietic organizations and their operations specify their own boundaries in the processes of self-production

(iv) have no inputs or outputs because even though they can be perturbed by independent events and they can repeatedly undergo structural changes to compensate these. These changes are always subordinated to the maintenance of the autopoietic organization of the machine

The actual implementation of the organization in physical space depends on the properties of the physical materials that embody it. A machine will disintegrate if it is perturbed such that the organization would have to compensate outside of its domain of compensations. The actual way a machine is realized determines the particular perturbations it can suffer without disintegrating.

b. Living systems

In other words we claim that the notion of autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems’ (p82).

Chapter II – Dispensability of Teleonomy

Teleology means to describe things by their apparent goal or purpose. Teleonomy means the quality of apparent purposefulness or goal-directedness in living organisms. Both are unnecessary for the understanding of the living organization.

1. Purposelessness

Ontogeny is generally considered as an integrated process toward an adult state following some internal project or program. At different stages certain structures are attained that allow it to perform certain functions. Phylogeny is viewed as the history of adaptive transformations via reproductive processes aimed at satisfying the project of the species with complete subordination of the individual to this end. Purpose or aim and function are not functions of any machine (allo or auto) but they belong to the domain of our actions, namely the domain of descriptions. When applied to some system independent from us, they reflect our considering the machine or system in some encompassing context. Define a set of circumstances that lead the machine to change following a certan path of variations in its output. The connection between these outputs and the corresponding inputs in the selected context is called the aim or purpose of the machine. This aim is necessarily in the domain of the observer. Function can be treated in the same way. Neither aim nor function of the machine constitute its organization and so they are not part of its operation. ‘Living systems, as physical autopoietic machines, are purposeless systems’ (p86).

2. Individuality

In fact, a living system is specified as an individual, as a unitary element of interactions, by its autopoietic organization which determines that any change in it should take place subordinated to its maintenance, and thus sets the boundary conditions that specify what pertains to it and what does not pertain to it in the concreteness of the realization’(p87). In its history as an autopoietic organization, change in a living system can only take place so the extent that it does not interfere with the system’s functioning as a unity; the autopoietic organization remains invariant. Ontogeny in this sense is an expression of the individuality of living systems and the way it is realized; it is a process of the becoming of a system that is fully autopoietic, at every point, the unity in its fullness and not a transit from an incomplete to a complete system. The notion of development (or even progress) is relevant from the perspective of the observer and belongs to their domain.

Chapter III – Embodiments of autopoiesis

The assertion that physical autopoietic systems are living systems requires the proof that all the phenomenology of a living system can be either reduced or subordinated to its autopoiesis .. This proof must consist in showing that autopoiesis constitutes or is necessary and sufficient for the occurrence of all biological phenomena..’(p88).

1. Descriptive and causal notions

The existence of an autopoietic system requires the existence of components with properties that determine their relations such that these realize its organization as a unity. The components are defined by their role in this organization; the domain of the relations of an autopoietic organization is closed. And in this way the autopoietic organization defines a ‘space’ in which it can be realized as a concrete system; the dimensions of this space are the relations of production of the components that realize it, namely Relations of:

(i) Constitution, that determine that the components produced constitute the topology in which the autopoiesis is realized

(ii) Specificity, that determine that the components produced be the specific ones defined by their participation in the autopoiesis

(iii) Order, that determine that the concatenation of the components in the relations of specification, constitution and order be the ones specified by the autopoiesis.

Notions that apply to all autopoietic systems are:

(i) energetic and thermodynamic considerations are not part of the design of autopoietic systems. They are however in vigor implicitly: if the components and their properties, including the relational ones, can be realized then the autopoietic system can be realized.

(ii) Specificity and Order are referential notions in the sense that they carry meaning only in the context of their part in the autopoietic organization of the system under review.

(iii) An autopoietic organization acquires topological unity via its embodiment in a concrete autopoietic system. ‘Furthermore, the space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system upon the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection… Our description, however, follows the ensuing change of the projection of the autopoietic system in the space of our description, not in the autopoietic space’ (p90)

(iv) Concepts such as coding and transmission of information do not refer to actual processes in an autopoietic system. They do not enter in the realization of the autopoietic system. And so the notion of specificity as described above does not imply coding, information or instructions, but it describes relations between components determined by and produced by the autopoietic organization. The notions of coding and regulation are cognitive and they represent interactions of the observer, not phenomena in the observed domain.

2. Molecular embodiments

(i) Production of constitutive relations; these relations determine the topology of the autopoietic organization including its physical boundaries: ‘There is no specification in the cell of what it is not’(p91)

(ii) Production of relations of specification; these relations determine the identity (properties) of the components of the autopoietic organization and as a consequence its physical factibility. There is no production in the autopoietic system (such as a cell) of relations of specification that do not pertain to it.

(iii) Production of relations of order

These relations determine the dynamics of the autopoietic organization by deteminning the concatenation of the production of relations of constitution, specification and order, and hence its actual realization. This occurs via the production of components that realize the production of relations the production of relations of constitution, specification and order.’There is no ordering through the autopoietic organization of the cell of processes that do not belong to it.’ (p92)

Compensation of deformation keeps the autopoietic system in the autopoietic space.’(p93)

3. Origin

The geometric properties of molecules determine their relations of constitution, namely the topology. Their chemical properties determine their possible interactions hence their relations of specificity. Taken together they determine the sequence and concatenation of the molecular interactions, namely their relations of order. An autopoietic system can exist if its relations of order, is produced and remains constant, concatenate the relations of constitution and specificity in such a way that the system remains autopoietic. Asa consequence, the question about the origin of an autopoietic system is the question about the conditions that must be satisfied for the establishment of an autopoietic space: ‘This problem (of origin DPB), then, is.. a general one of what relations .. any constitutive units should satisfy.’(p93). This leads to the following considerations:

(i) ‘An autopoietic system is defined as a unity by and through its autopoietic organization.’ (p93) ‘Without unity in some space an autopoietic system is not different from the background in which it is supposed to lie, and, hence, can only be a system in the space of our description where its unity is conceptually stipulated’ (p94)

(ii) ‘The establishment of an autopoietic system cannot be a gradual process; either a system is an autopoietic system or it is not’ (p94). ‘Accordingly there are not and there cannot be intermediate systems.’ (p94)

(iii) ‘Auto-catalytic processes do not constitute autopoietic systems because among other things, they do not determine their topology.’ (p94) A unity is defined by operations of distinction as provided by the autopoietic system; .. its origin is co-circumstantial with the establishment of this operation’(p94)

(iv) Two aspects concerning the origin of autopoietic systems: a) factibility and b) the possibility of their spontaneous occurrence. a) the establishment of a system depends on the availability of the components that constitute it and the proper concatenation of their interactions. If these occur then the system is realized. b) given factibility and given the existence of factual autopoietic system, natural conditions exist for the occurrence of autopoietic systems.

Chapter IV – Diversity of Autopoiesis

Reproduction requires the existence of a unity to be reproduced. This is necessarily secondary to the establishment of such a unity. Evolution requires reproduction and the possibility of change and it is necessarily secondary to the establishment of reproduction.

1. Subordination to the condition of unity

Unity is the distinguishability of a unity from a background, hence from other unities. It is the sole necessary condition for existence in a given domain. Its nature and the domain in which it exists are specified by the process of its distinction and determination. ‘Unity distinction is .. an operative notion referring to the process through which a unity becomes asserted or defined: the conditions which specify a unity determine its phenomenology. In living systems, these conditions are determined by their autopoietic organization. In fact, autopoiesis implies the subordination of all change in the autopoietic system to the maintenance of its autopoietic organization, and since this organization defines it as a unity, it implies total subordination of the phenomenology of the system to the maintenance of its unity’ (p97). Consequences of this subordination are:

(i) the establishment of a unity defines the domain of its phenomenology, but the structure of the unity determines the realization of the phenomenology in that domain.

(ii) if the new unity is autopoietic then its phenomenology depends on maintenance of the autopoiesis, which in turn may or may not depend on the autopoiesis of its components

(iii) The identity of an autopoietic unity is maintained while it is autopoietic: as long as it is a unity in physical space and it is a unity in autopoietic space, regardless of the extent to which it is otherwise transformed.

(iv) Only after the autopoietic unity as such is established can it reproduce as a biological phenomenon.

2. Plasticity of ontogeny

The ontogeny means the history of the structural transformation of a unity; in the case of an autopoietic system, it means the history of the maintenance of its identity through continuous autopoiesis in physical space. Comments:

(i) Different classes of autopoietic systems have different classes of ontogenies

(ii) Given that it does not have inputs or outputs, the organization of an autopoietic system determines which changes the system may undergo without loss of identity

(iii) The way the autopoiesis is realized during ontogeny may change, but it should take place without loss of identity meaning uninterrupted autopoiesis

(iv) The changes that an autopoietic system may undergo without a loss of identity are a consequence of deformations; the sequence of the compensating of the deformations is determined by the sequence of the deformations. Nota bene: ‘Although in an autopoietic system all changes are internally determined, for an observer its ontogeny reflects its history of interactions with an independent ambience.’(pp. 98-9)

(v) An observer may distinguish internally and externally generated perturbations even though these are intrinsically indistinguisshable to the autopoietic system itself.

(vi) Changes that an autopoietic system can undergo while maintaining identity can be: a) conservative change in which only the relations between the components change and b) innovative changes, in which the components themselves change. In the first case the system remains positioned on the same point in the autopoietic space, because its components are invariant. In the second case, the interaction leads to a change in the way the autopoiesis is realized and to a change in the position in the autopoietic space, because its components have changed.

3. Reproduction, a complication of the unity

Reproduction is operationally secondary to the establishment of the unity: it cannot be a defining feature of the organization of a unity such as a living system. Living systems are characterized by their autopoietic organization and as a consequence reproduction must be a complication of the autopoietic organization during autopoiesis. ‘.. and its origin must be viewed and understood as secondary to, and independent from the origin of the living organization… in order to understand reproduction and its consequences in autopoietic systems we must analyze the operational nature of this process in relation to autopoiesis’(p100)

(i) Replication – a system generates unities different from itself but in principle identical to each other. Copy – an object or phenomenon is mapped upon a different system so that an isomorphic object or phenomenon is realized in it. Self-reproduction – a system produces another system with a similar organization through a process that is coupled to the process of its own production. ‘It is apparent that only autopoietic systems can self-reproduce because they are realized through a process of self-production (autopoiesis)’ (p101).

(ii) Only in self-replication is the mechanism of reproduction internal (in principle identical) to the pattern reproduced.

(iii) In terrestrial living systems currently known autopoiesis and reproduction are directly coupled. In them reproduction is a moment in autopoiesis and the same mechanism that constitutes the one also constitutes the other, and consequentially: a) self-reproduction must take place during autopoiesis, b) the individuals produced are self-contained and no external self-reproduction is a form of autopoiesis; variation and constancy in each reproductive step are part of the reproductive mechanism but an expression of autopoiesis c) variation of the way autopoiesis is realized can only arise as a modification from a pre-existing autopoietic structure. As a consequence, to maintain autopoiesis constant, variation can only arise from perturbations that require further homeostatic complications d) Replication takes place independently from autopoiesis, copy takes place in heteropoiesis, self-reproduction is exclusive for autopoiesis and its origin is bound to it as a historically secondary phenomenon e) coding, message or information are not applicable to the phenomenon self-reproduction: ‘Thus, in self-reproduction there is no transmission of information between independent entities; the reproducing and the reproduced unities are topologically independent entities produced through a single process of autopoiesis in which all components have a constitutive participation’ (p102).

4. Evolution, a historical network

A state in a sequence of states arises as a modification of a previous state and not as an independent state. The notion of history may refer to the antecedents of a given phenomenon as a succession of events leading up to it or it may be used to characterize the phenomenon as a process.

(i) Evolution is the history of change in the realization of an invariant organization embodied in independent unities sequentially realized through reproductive steps while the structural realization of the unity at each step arises as a modification of the previous one which constitutes its sequential and historical antecedent.

(ii) Reproduction by replication or by copy of an unchanging model implies an uncoupling of the organization of the unities produced and their producing mechanism.

(iii) Ontogeny and evolution are completely different phenomena: in ontogeny the identity is never interrupted, while in evolution a succession of identities is generated through sequential reproduction. Only unities have ontogenies.

(iv) ‘Selection, as a process in a population of unities, is a process of differential realization in a context that specifies the unitary structures that can be realized’ (p105). This is illustrated by the genotypical space and phenotypical space, the first via variation ‘offering’ possibilities to the second as an experiment to select the ones for survival in that specific context a/p quote above.

(v) Evolution takes place as a history of change in the realization of an invariant organization embodied in the realization of successively generated unities. Reproduction must allow for change in the structure of the sequentially reproduced unities.

(vi) ‘Of the two possible mechanisms that can give rise to sequential reproduction, the only one which is accessible to autopoietic systems in the absence of an independent copying mechanism, is self-reproduction, because of the coincidence between the reproducing mechanisms and the reproducing unity. Sequential reproduction through copy takes place a present only in relation to the operation of living systems in their domain of interactions, particularly in cultural learning; cultural evolution takes place through sequential copy of a changing model in the process of social indoctrination, generation after generation’ (p106)

(vii) ‘A species is a population or a collection of populations of reproductively connected individuals which are thus the nodes in a historical network’(p106)

Strictly, a historical network is defined by each and every one of the individuals which constitute its nodes, but it is at any moment represented historically by the species as the collection of all the simultaneously existing nodes of the network; in fact, then, a species does not evolve because as a unity in the historical domain it only has a history of change. What evolves is a pattern of autopoietic realization embodied in many particular variations in a collection of transitory individuals that together define a reproductive historical network. Thus, the individuals, though transitory, are essential, not dispensable, because they constitute a necessary condition for the existence of the historical network which they define. The species is only an abstract entiry in the present, and although it represents a histoorical phenomenon it does not constitute a generative factor in the phenomenology of evolution, it is its result’(p107)

5. Second and third order autopoietic systems

If the conduct of two or more unities is such that is a domain where the conduct of one or more of them is a function of the conduct of the others then the unities are said to be coupled. Coupling arises as a result of mutual modifications undergone by the unities in the course of their ongoing interactions while their identities remain intact. If the identity of a unity is lost then a new unity may be generated as a result of it, but no coupling takes place.’.. coupling leads also to the generation of a new unity that may exist in a different domain from the domain in which the component-coupled unities retain their identity’ (p107)

The nature of the coupling is determined by their autopoietic organization:

(i) Autopoietic systems can interact without loss of identity as long as reciprocally inflicted perturbations lead to compensable disturbances in their structures. They can couple and constitute a new unity while their individual paths of autopoiesis become sources of the specification of each other’s ambience. To persist as a unity the disturbances must remain in the domain permitted by their organizations. As a result the coupling can become invariant while the coupled systems undergo structural changes as a consequence of it. In this way a composite system can develop in which the autopoiesis of the individual systems is subordinate to the ambience defined by the autopoiesis of all the other autopoietic components of the composite unity. Such a system will be defined as a unity by the coupling relations of its component autopoietic systems. A system whose autopoiesis entails the autopoiesis of the coupled unities which realize it, is an autopoietic system of a higher order.

(ii) ‘An autopoietic system can become a component of another system if some aspects of its path of autopoietic change can participate in the realization of this other system’ (p110)

(iii) ‘If the autopoiesis of the component unities of a composite autopoietic system conforms to allopoietic roles that through the production of relations of constitution, specification and order, define an autopoietic space, the new system becomes in its own right an autopoietic unity of the second order’ (p110) An example on earth is the multicellular pattern of organization.

Chapter 5 – Presence of Autopoiesis

1. Biological Implications

.., hence in a living system, loss of autopoiesis is disintegration as a unity and loss of identity, that is, death’ (p112).

(i) ‘The phenomenology of living systems, then, is the mechanical phenomenology of physical autopoietic machines’(p113)

(ii) ‘A biological explanation must be a reformulation of in terms of processes subordinated to autopoiesis, that is, a reformulation in the biological phenomenological domain’ (p114)


(iv) ‘.. the biological phenomenological is not less and not more than the phenomenology of autopoietic systems in the physical space’ (p114)

2. Epistemological implications

(i) ‘As a result, the biological domain is fully defined and self-contained, no additional notions are necessary, and any adequate biological explanation has the same epistemological validity that any mechanistic explanation of any mechanistic phenomenon in the physical space has’(p116)

(ii) ‘.. an autopoietic system .. must be explained through autopoietic mechanical relations in the mechanical domain, the phenomena generated through interactions of the autopoietic unities must be explained in the domain of interactions of the autopoietic unities through the relations that define that domain’ (p117)

(iii) ‘The organization of the individual is autopoietic and upon this fact rests all its significance: it becomes defined through its existing, and its existing is autopoietic. Thus biology cannot be used anymore to justify the dispensability of the individuals for the benefit of the species, society or mankind under the pretense that its role is to perpetuate them. Biologically the individuals are not dispensable’ (p 118)

3. Cognitive Implications

The domain of all the interactions into which an autopoietic system can enter without loss of identity is its cognitive domain; this is the domain of all the descriptions it can possibly make. The particular mode of autopoiesis determines its cognitive domain hence the diversity of its behavior.

(i) knowledge (its conduct repertoire) is relative to the cognitive domain of the knower. If the way in which the autopoiesis is realized changes then the knowledge of the unity changes. In that sense knowledge is a reflection of the ontogeny of an organism, because it is a process of continual structural change without loss of autopoiesis and a continual specification of the behavioral capacity hence of its actual domain of interactions.

(ii) Autopoietic systems may interact with each other under conditions that result in behavioral coupling. Autopoietic conduct of A is the source of a deformation in B. The compensatory behavior in B is the source of a deformation in A, whose compensatory behavior for B is the source ..&c. These interactions occur in a chain while A and B interact independently based on their internal structure. Their behavior however is a source of compensable deformations to the other which can be described as meaningful in the context of the interactions in light of the coupled behavior. These are communicative interactions. This consensual domain of communicative interactions where behaviorally coupled organisms orient each other with modes of behavior based on their internal structure is the linguistic domain. Communicative and linguistic interactions are non-informative; organism A does not determine the conduct of organism B; that is determined by their proper organizations.

(iii) ‘An autopoietic system capable of interacting with its own states, and capable of developing with others a linguistic consensual domain, can treat its own linguistic states as a source of deformations and thus interact linguistically in a closed linguistic domain’ (p121). Properties of such systems are: a) An autopoietic system can treat some recursively generated states as objects of further interactions. This can give rise to a meta-domain of consensual distinctions appearing to the observer as a domain of interactions with representations of interactions. The system now operates as an observer. This can occur at any time and so the domain of these recursive interactions with its own states is in principle infinite, unless autopoiesis is lost b) A living system capable of being an observer can interact with descriptive states of itself in the sense of interactions with its own self-linguistic states. It is now an observer of itself as an observer, which can be repeated in an endless manner. The domain is called self-observation and consider self-conscious behavior is self-observing behavior, namely in the domain of self-observation. The observer as an observer remains in a descriptive domain as no description of absolute reality is possible. Some such description would require an interaction with the absolute by the autopoietic organization of the observer, not by an agent of it.

Living systems are an existential proof; they exist only to the extent that they can exist. The fantasy of our imagination cannot deny this. Living systems are concatenations of processes in a mechanistic domain; fantasies are concatenations of descriptions in a linguistic domain. In the first case, the concatenated unities are processes; in the second case, they are modes of linguistic behavior’ (p122)