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  STUDY PLAN / SYLLABUS:
Autopoiesis and Enaction

Enola Gaia
 
Copyright © 2000 Randall Whitaker

This material may be freely cited, copied, and/or distributed, so long as the author attribution is included.

 



 

  I have introduced people to, and tutored them on, the biology of cognition / autopoietic theory for a number of years. Based on these experiences, I have assembled this Study Plan. It is intended to provide a specification for literature to be employed in exploring the biology of cognition / autopoietic theory.

The real difficulty in approaching Maturana and Varela's theories lies not in their complexity but in their novelty. Because it takes a while to catch onto and shift into these thinkers' perspective, the listed readings are ordered so as to provide a 'graduated' progression.

Also here at the Observer Web are other resources which can help support study on these topics. These resources include:

 


A Helpful Hint:

I especially recommend that people exploring autopoietic theory take the time to read:

Letelier, Juan-Carlos, Leniz, Fernando, and Francisco Bascuñan, Pitfalls, Risks and Challenges in Teaching Biology of Cognition, paper presented at Biology, Language, Cognition and Society: An International Symposium on Autopoiesis, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, November 18-21, 1997.

Available via WWW here at The Observer Web.

This paper, derived from years of experience in teaching autopoietic theory / biology of cognition, lists some of the key issues which have proven problematical in learning and understanding the theory.


 

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 Light / Brief Overviews
 

 

 

The four books listed below are the best places to start if you only want to get a taste for autopoietic theory, or if you have problems finding the main literature.

None of these books are sufficient to give you a solid grounding in the theory's details. Even The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1987; 1992) lacks detailed explanation of the core concepts in the theory.

 


Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela
The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Boston: Shambhala / New Science Press, 1987. Revised edition 1992.

This popular press book summarizes Maturana and Varela's ideas. Many of the basic concepts are introduced here, but some of them (including the key concept of autopoiesis) are not defined with the sort of rigor one finds in Maturana & Varela (1980), Varela (1979), or the seminal 1970's-era articles. In other words, The Tree of Knowledge will give you a basic taste of Maturana and Varela's ideas, but not enough to critically analyze or apply them. I don't recommend stopping after having read this book alone.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

Segal, Lynn
The Dream of Reality: Heinz von Foerster's Constructivism, New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Second printing (Revised edition?): Springer-Verlag, 2001.

This book concentrates on von Foerster and epistemological constructivism. However, Segal relies heavily on Maturana and Varela's work to introduce the relationships between observers' biological constitutions and their constructivistic mode of operation. A good introduction to constructivism generally and von Foerster's (otherwise difficult to obtain) work specifically.

I love this book as an introduction to constructivism. Given its extensive attention to Maturana's theories, I personally prefer The Dream of Reality over The Tree of Knowledge as the first book to recommend to someone beginning their exploration of this area.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

Capra, Fritjof
The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems , New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

Capra, well-known author of prior provocative books on science (e.g., The Turning Point), now turns his sights on life and living systems. This book offers his synthesis of the concepts delineating an emerging perspective on living systems and, by extension, self-organizing systems in general. Capra reviews the last three decades' most significant theoretical innovations (e.g., dissipative structures, complexity studies) on the way to a summary overview which prominently highlights Maturana and Varela's work.

By his own admission, Capra intends this book to be an update to Erich Jantsch's Self-Organizing Universe -- a classic book on self-organization written before autopoietic theory had been fully formed. In addition to providing summary introductions to some of autopoietic theory's main tenets, this book contextualizes Maturana and Varela's work with respect to other streams of more popularly known work. This contextualization may be the most important contribution of this book to those already familiar with autopoietic theory. The repeated emphasis on Maturana and Varela could well make this book the catalyst to a (long-overdue) proliferation of interest in autopoiesis.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

von Krogh, Georg, and Johan Roos
Organizational Epistemology, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

A recent (and well-informed) application of autopoietic theory to enterprise knowledge building. This book has a broad scope, and the authors bring a wide variety of the relevant literature to bear on the issues they address. There's enough material here to constitute a minor tutorial on autopoiesis, but it's organized with respect to the authors' theme of organizational knowledge processes. If this is the only relevant book you can obtain, there's enough here to give you much of the theory's basic tenets, especially with respect to interaction and language. I don't recommend stopping after having read this book alone.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

Winograd, Terry, and Fernando Flores
Understanding Computers and Cognition, Norwood NJ: Ablex, 1986.

This popular book includes a brief introduction to the basics of autopoietic theory, at least with respect to perception, cognition, and communication. This entry point is not the best, but it is very accessible owing to the popularity of the book. I don't recommend stopping after having read this book alone.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop

 


 

RANDY'S
RECOMMENDATIONS

Randy Whitaker
(Light / Brief Overviews)

 

 
  • The most important recommendation is that you not become overconfident of your understanding after reading one or more of these light introductory books.

  • As I stated above, none of these books is sufficient to give you a solid grounding in the details of autopoietic theory.

  • If you are only willing to read one book on the subject, it should be one of the more substantive (and the more difficult) volumes listed in the next section.

  • If you must limit yourself to the light stuff, I'd recommend giving priority to the combination of The Tree of Knowledge (for basic notions) and The Dream of Reality (to place Maturana and Varela's work in the context of constructivism in general).

  • If you go this route, I strongly recommend you augment these light readings with the Tutorial at this Website and the other materials available in the Online Reading Room.

 

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 Serious / Substantive Introductions
 

 

 

These books are the place to start if you want a serious introduction to Maturana and Varela's work.

 


Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela
Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science [ Cohen, Robert S., and Marx W. Wartofsky (eds.) ], Vol. 42, Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1980.

(THE MAIN RESOURCE)

This has to be considered the main published reference on autopoiesis. The book contains two key papers reprinted with an extended introduction by Maturana and a preface by Stafford Beer. Short but painstakingly detailed, this is the theory in a concentrated form. Navigating the book can be greatly facilitated with the extensive Topical Index I've compiled and made available.

This is the one book to get if you're only going to read one book on the subject.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop

NOTE:

If you are having trouble accessing this critical book, you have a way to access at least some of the material which is in it. The book consists of reprints of two key papers. The first is Maturana's Biology of Cognition, Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0., Urbana IL: University of Illinois, 1970. This early paper was reprinted as the first section within Autopoiesis and Cognition, pp. 5-58.

You can now access this important paper as an Observer Web Archive Edition -- a Web-based presentation of the material in its original format. Because this paper is very difficult to obtain in the form of its original BCL Report, it is primarily known via its appearance in Autopoiesis and Cognition. As a result, I have formatted the BCL Report document to reflect the pagination of its appearance in that 1980 book. This allows you to reference and cite the material with respect to the book's page numbers.

You can access it here at The Observer Web:

http://www.enolagaia.com/M70-80BoC.html

In addition, Stafford Beer's preface to Autopoiesis and Cognition has been posted (with permission of the publisher) on WWW by John Hicks (Centre for Cognitive Science, University of Edinburgh). Thanks, John!

The URL is: http://www.cogsci.ed.ac.uk/~jwjhix/Beer.html


 

Varela, Francisco J.
Principles of Biological Autonomy, New York: Elsevier (North Holland), 1979.

(THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE RESOURCE)

This book is the most comprehensive reference on autopoietic theory, autonomy, and the application of George Spencer Brown's calculus of indications. It is also the primary reference for Varela's distinction between autopoiesis and the more general feature of autonomy (which he considers applicable to social systems).

NOTE: This book has been out of print for some time now. Your only choices for access to it are (a) search / purchase through used book dealers and (b) inter-library loan.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

Mingers, John
Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis, New York: Plenum Publishing, 1994.

This book's strength is contextualizing the origin and the proliferation of autopoietic theory. It is a good resource for researching what happened after Maturana and Varela's original publications (cf. above). It covers the basics of autopoietic theory, plus the many uses and critical analyses to which the theory has been put.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop

 


 

RANDY'S
RECOMMENDATIONS

Randy Whitaker
(Serious / Substantive Introductions)

 

 

  • There is no substitute for the original sources -- i.e., the primary literature.

  • You should read either Autopoiesis and Cognition or Principles of Biological Autonomy to obtain a strong foundation in autopoietic theory.

  • I've often been asked which one should be read if there's only time to read one. That's a good question, but I've never decided on a final answer. Autopoiesis and Cognition is more difficult reading, and its early terminology can be confusing. Nonetheless, I find that this is the book I always return to when I want definitive explanations. On the other hand, Principles of Biological Autonomy covers much of the same material (and much, much more...) in a more readable fashion.

  • My advice is that you will be well-served with either book. Owing to their relative rarity, your choice will probably be made based on which one you can obtain most readily.

  • Then there's Mingers' book Self-Producing Systems. Mingers' explanations of the basic theoretical points is sound, and he does a good job of laying out the key issues upon which autopoietic theory has been debated. On the other hand, the book offers a number of Mingers' own conclusions which I feel may bias the newcomer to the theory.

  • As such, I recommend Mingers' book as a secondary reference, after the reader has read at least one of the 2 primary books (Maturana & Varela, 1980; Varela, 1979). Don't get me wrong -- if this is the only book you can access, it will provide you with a substantive introduction to the theory. I would only caution that you should defer judgement on Mingers' conclusions until you have read and digested either of the two main references.

  • In any case, I recommend you augment these readings with the Tutorial at this Website and the other materials available in the Online Reading Room.

 

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 Secondary / Follow-On Literature
 

 

 

The following secondary resources are listed in alphabetical order. For a comprehensive listing of additional literature, consult the Bibliography.


 

Benseler, Frank, Peter M. Hejl, and Wolfram K. Köck (eds.)
Autopoiesis, Communication, and Society: The Theory of Autopoietic Systems in the Social Sciences, Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1980.

A general collection of essays with particular regard to communications and social systems. This is a very good volume to seek and explore if your interests are focused in the realm of the social sciences.


 

Maturana, Humberto R.
Biology of Cognition, Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0., Urbana IL: Univ. of Illinois, 1970.

Reprinted in Maturana and Varela (1980), pp. 5-58.

This paper was the seminal working manuscript for Maturana's original formulation of the issues and positions that became the biology of cognition / autopoietic theory. So important was this paper that it was reprinted as the first of two sections in the central book on the subject: Autopoiesis and Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980).

With the permission of Professor Maturana, I have generated an HTML transcription of this key document as an Observer Web Archive Edition. It is formatted to reflect the pagination of its appearance in Autopoiesis and Cognition.

Even though some of the terminology is not identical with that used in the later papers and books, this may be the most critical single online resource available on the biology of cognition / autopoietic theory.

You can access it Here at The Observer Web


 

Maturana, Humberto R.
Biology of language: The epistemology of reality, in Miller, George A., and Elizabeth Lenneberg (eds.), Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg, New York: Academic Press, 1978, pp. 27-63.

The key essay on Maturana's account of linguistic interaction as 'languaging'. This paper is now available (with the gracious permission of Academic Press) as an Observer Web Archive Edition -- formatted to precisely replicate the layout and pagination of the original publication. You can access it:

Here at The Observer Web

OR:

At the original / mirror site for The Observer Web:

http://www.informatik.umu.se/~rwhit/M78BoL.html


 

Maturana, Humberto R.
Cognition, in Hejl, Köck, and Roth (eds.), Wahrnehmung und Kommunikation, Frankfurt: Lang, 1978, pp. 29-49.

This 1978 paper is one of the best papers to read if you need a quick introduction to Maturana's perspective on living systems, their cognition, and their phenomenology. Unfortunately, it is also the single most difficult Maturana article to obtain.

The volume in which it was published is a hard-to-find collection of papers given at a conference in April 1978 on the theme of 'The Theory of Autopoietic Systems as a New Foundation for the Social Sciences'. All the papers are in German, with the exception of Maturana's contribution, entitled 'Cognition'. It is a very concise article on issues of cognition, making it a highly-recommended paper for the beginner (if he/she can find it).

It is presented as an Observer Web Archive Edition -- formatted to faithfully replicate the layout and pagination of the original publication. You can access it here at The Observer Web:

http://www.enolagaia.com/M78bCog.html


 

Maturana, Humberto R.
The neurophysiology of cognition, in Garvin, P. (ed.),Cognition: A Multiple View, New York: Spartan Books, 1969, pp. 3-24.

This is where it all began (at least as far as English publications go). A remarkably lucid and well-written paper. Because much of the terminology (including 'autopoiesis') was yet to be delineated, it may be difficult to relate this paper to the central publications listed above. Still, this remains one of my all-time favorite essays.


 

Maturana, Humberto R.
The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Vol. 7 (1975), pp. 313-332.

Perhaps the most lucid and concise exposition on the subjects of living systems and structural coupling. Because the journal (IJMMS) is widely available through university libraries, I would strongly recommend this article as something to be sought if you are having problems accessing the core books.


 

Maturana, Humberto R., and Gloria D. Guiloff
The quest for the intelligence of intelligence, Journal of Social and Biological Structures, Vol. 3 (1980), pp. 135-148.

A discussion of 'knowledge' and 'intelligence', as those terms are commonly used, and their reinterpretation in terms of autopoietic theory. This article is one of the few papers specifically addressing these issues, and the only one focused upon them. This paper is not critical to a general exploration of autopoietic theory, but it is highly recommended if your interests lie mainly with (e.g.) psychology, learning, personality, etc.


 

Maturana, Humberto R. [1988a]
Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument, The Irish Journal of Psychology, Vol. 9 (1988), no. 1, pp. 25-82.

A more recent paper which concentrates on the epistemological problems of scientific enquiry as well as social behavior and some comments on ethics. This and another 1988 paper ('Ontology of observing') are the key Maturana essays of the late 1980's. This paper concentrates on 'explanatory paths' more so than the other 1988 article.

This paper is now available (with the gracious permission of The Irish Journal of Psychology) as an Observer Web Archive Edition -- formatted to precisely replicate the layout and pagination of the original publication. You can access it:

Here at The Observer Web

OR:

At the original / mirror site for The Observer Web:

http://www.informatik.umu.se/~rwhit/M88Reality.html

In addition, Jane Cull (Life's Natural Solutions, Australia) has posted an HTML version of this article on the World Wide Web at:

http://www.ozemail.com.au/~jcull/articles/reality.htm


 

Maturana, Humberto R. [1988b]
Ontology of observing: The biological foundations of self consciousness and the physical domain of existence, in the conference workbook 'Texts in Cybernetic Theory', an In Depth Exploration of the Thought of Humberto R. Maturana, William T. Powers, and Ernst von Glasersfeld , American Society of Cybernetics, Felton CA, October 18-23, 1988.

This paper, like the 1988 "Reality..." essay, is a synopsis of Maturana's latter-day theories. However, the subject matter of this particular article concerns the observer and the observed more so than the epistemological issues in that other publication.

An HTML version of this paper, edited by Alfredo Ruiz, is available via WWW at:

http://www.inteco.cl/biology/ontology/index.htm


 

Maturana, Humberto R.
Man and society, in Benseler, Hejl, and Köck (1980: cited herein), pp. 11-32.

A key essay on social systems from an autopoietic perspective. This is the only paper in which Maturana has focused directly on social systems as a subject. As such, it is a necessary item for your reading list if your interests have to do with societies, social systems, etc.


 

Ulrich, Hans, and Gilbert J. B. Probst (eds.)
Self-Organization and Management of Social Systems: Insights, Promises, Doubts, and Questions, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1984.

Although not specifically dedicated to autopoietic theory, this collection contains a number of interesting and relevant papers concerning social systems.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

Varela, Francisco J., Humberto R. Maturana, and R. Uribe
Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model, Biosystems, Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 187-196.

This paper and Maturana (1975) are the original / seminal references on the organization that characterizes living systems -- i.e., autopoiesis.

Like Maturana (1975: cited herein), this is a concise and lucid paper on the basics of autopoiesis. Similar to that 1975 Maturana paper, this one is a good 'alternative selection' if you are having problems in accessing the core books.


 

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch
The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991.

The book in which an enactive cognitive science is outlined and promoted. This book can be read on its own. However, owing to its lack of strong links to Varela's earlier work, it cannot be used as an entry point to autopoietic theory. It is strongly recommended that the reader digest some of the primary literature listed above before reading this book. Some readers report being 'turned off' on the first reading by the extensive allusions to Buddhist philosophy in this book. Most folks report to me that they appreciated the book much more on a second reading.

You can pursue this book now through the Observer Web Book Shop


 

Zeleny, Milan (ed.)
Autopoiesis, Dissipative Structures, and Spontaneous Social Orders, AAAS Selected Symposium 55 (AAAS National Annual Meeting, Houston TX, Jan. 3-8, 1979), Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1980.

A good collection of papers on autopoiesis and related theoretical approaches.


 

Zeleny, Milan (ed.)
Autopoiesis: A Theory of Living Organization, New York: North Holland, 1981.(Vol. 3 in the North Holland Series in General Systems Research).

An excellent collection of papers from writers (primarily from systems science) contextualizing and/or critiquing autopoietic theory. This is a central source of responses / reviews to Maturana and Varela's theories.

 

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 Suggested Syllabus: Introductory Course: One Semester
 

 

 

In my experience, newcomers to autopoietic theory require between one to three months of reading and discussion to 'catch on' to the gist of these novel ideas. If possible, a study circle approach (small reading group with lots of focused discussion) will yield the best results. Below, I've sketched some suggested course syllabi for exploring autopoietic theory. Some variations are offered because some of the key literature can be difficult to obtain.

You can supplement the suggested syllabi with the Tutorial and other resources available at this Web site, such as The Observer Web Online Reading Room, the Observer Web Focus Files, and, of course, the Encyclopaedia Autopoietica.

 


 OPTION A: Full Literature Availability
 

 
Primary Course Textbook


 
 
Secondary / Supporting Literature


EITHER:

Autopoiesis and Cognition
(Maturana & Varela, 1980)

OR:

Principles of Biological Autonomy
(Varela, 1979)

There are no substitutes for one or both of these books!

 

 


 OPTION B: Partial / Problematical Literature Availability
 


This listing is qualified with respect to current widespread availability of published materials. As such, this listing is a 'default' recommendation offered with a nod to pragmatic constraints.



Primary Course Text(s)


 
Secondary / Supporting Literature



In Order of Preference:

  1. Autopoiesis and Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980)

  2. The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1987; 1992)

    PLUS

    Maturana (1970) *

    and / or

    Segal (1986; 2001)

    and / or

    Mingers (1994)

 
  • Maturana (1978a) *
    [language / epistemology]

  • Maturana (1978b) *
    [cognition]

  • Maturana (1988a * ; 1988b) *
    [latter-day epistemological clarifications]

  • Encyclopaedia Autopoietica
    [Comprehensive lexical reference]

  • Maturana (1975)
    [basic formulation of living systems]

  • Mingers (1994)
    [issues and applications of the theory]

  • Varela, Maturana & Uribe (1974)
    [Elegantly concise intro to the construct of autopoiesis]

    * = Available in the Reading Room

 


 

HELPFUL HINT:

I especially recommend that people exploring autopoietic theory take the time to read:

Letelier, Juan-Carlos, Leniz, Fernando, and Francisco Bascuñan, Pitfalls, Risks and Challenges in Teaching Biology of Cognition, paper presented at Biology, Language, Cognition and Society: An International Symposium on Autopoiesis, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, November 18-21, 1997. Available via WWW here at The Observer Web.

This paper, derived from years of experience in teaching autopoietic theory / biology of cognition, lists some of the key issues which have proven problematical in learning and understanding the theory. This paper can provide both (a) a "checklist of obstacles" to help students in exploring the theory, as well as (b) a "checklist of pedagogical issues" to aid teachers.

 

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