sitemap The Observer #1 -- 10 February, 1993

The Observer

Number 1: 10 February, 1993

"Everything said is said by an observer"

An electronic forum
Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Randy Whitaker


What are the problems in introducing people to this area?
How can I survey the available literature?
BOOK REVIEWS: The Embodied Mind, by Varela, Thompson, & Rosch
Review 1: Anand Rangarajan
Review 2: Randall Whitaker


Well, as you can see, I have finally managed to put together the inaugural "issue" of The Observer. Hopefully, this will enable us to generate an ongoing electronic forum for news and views on the subjects of autopoiesis, enactive cognitive science, and other related issues. I apologize for the delay in getting things underway; illness and the "post-partum" depression following my dissertation defense have significantly slowed me down.

My initial strategy will be to broadcast issues of The Observer to try and "bootstrap" discussions. Over time, I plan to maintain The Observer as a common "publication" medium for general news, discussions, viewpoints, etc. In parallel to this activity, I am establishing an electronic mail redistribution node here at Umea University. Once that node is "up and running", messages directed there will automatically be re-broadcast to everyone on the current mailing list.

Due to disk space and security considerations, I am not able to set up a fully automated mailing list (e.g., using ListServ software). As a result, subscription requests and other "administrative" messages should be routed directly to me at:


The general scope of the theory of autopoiesis and enactive cognitive science overlaps with a variety of other theoretical work, spanning a similar variety of research fields. Some of these theoretical neighbors and most of the pertinent research fields are already represented in "cyberspace" through news groups, mailing lists, and the like. I feel it is important to minimize unnecessary redundancy (and maximize fruitful cross-talk) by delineating a mutually agreeable scope for discussions in the proposed mailing list. This both helps us to determine what is appropriate material for our traffic flows, and to determine what should be shared elsewhere. Such a statement of focus would also help moderators of related groups (e.g., CYB-SYS) in cross- referring material to our network.

Some suggestions for items falling within a reasonable such scope:


Since this issue is aimed at "bootstrapping" things, it contains a collection of this'n'that. The set of offerings in this issue is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. Let's consider it a "prototype" subject to ongoing "drift". I am eager to get feedback on what sorts of things you folks would like to see addressed in future issues. Some of the general categories for contributions identified so far include:

And now -- let the forum begin......


What are the problems in introducing people to this area?

I have found it difficult to concisely explain to others what this area is all about. One problem is how to label the full range of work deriving from Maturana and Varela. "Autopoiesis" denotes the central principle developed in the earlier literature, but not all the derivative work (e.g., language as mutual orientation) relies directly on autopoiesis per se. As a result, I have taken to using the term autopoietic theory to denote the body of work deriving from Maturana and Varela's enquiry into the definition and phenomenology of living systems. It's not a particularly elegant solution, but it has proven useful.

A second problem is how to prescribe readings for newcomers to this area. My experience is that it takes an average academic reader approximately 2-3 months to "come up to speed" on autopoietic theory. I consider this point reached when the novice shifts from asking "What the heck does this mean?" to asking questions like "How does autopoietic theory's concept X relate to Someone Else's concept Y?" While my default introductory recommendation nowadays is The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela: 1987/1992), it seems that the newcomer is not ready to "dig into" autopoietic theory until she has continued (at a minimum) through Autopoiesis & Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980) or Principles of Biological Autonomy (Varela, 1979) -- or both. For those readers who insist on evaluating the whole theory on the basis of one book, I tend to go with Principles of Biological Autonomy, due to its broader scope and less (shall we say...) "rigorous" syntax.

A third problem is the novelty of the theory. Some novices (particularly those already strongly enmeshed in (e.g.) an objectivistic / cognitivistic orientation) have a hard time assimilating autopoiesis. Personally, my easiest "introductions" have involved persons with a strong background in general systems theory / cybernetics. Since autopoietic theory is highly "systemic", such people have little trouble getting a feel for it.

A fourth problem is what is in my experience an inevitable backlash on the part of newcomers concerning long-standing philosophical issues. The "foundation of reference" for the theory is neither the "macro" (cf. holism) nor the "micro" (cf. reductionism) -- it is instead the "intermediate" position of the cognizing observer. Readers expecting one of the typical extremes get confused, and often see recourse to the observer as evidence for Berkeleyan solipsism. At least here in Sweden, readers are likely to initially react this way. I found this one of the major stumbling blocks in using autopoietic theory as the basis for my dissertation. (The 1991 publication of The Embodied Mind finally provides a convincing line of arguments for those newcomers who need to be weaned from referential absolutism).

A fifth problem (my apologies) is terminology. There is a maddening tendency to use quite overused colloquial English terms for very specific, and unique, concepts. The two main examples are "organization" and "structure". These terms are already so heavily "loaded" (often "multi-loaded") that novices have to be carefully nursed through their incorporation with regard to their usage within autopoietic theory.

A sixth problem (and one for which neither Maturana nor Varela should be blamed) is the extreme difficulty in coming up with graphic illustrations to help get across the concepts. Time and again I've been asked if I can explain something via a diagram on the blackboard, only to fail miserably (i.e., embarrassingly). While there are occasional illustrations in the foundational literature (especially The Tree of Knowledge), autopoietic theory seems generally resistant to graphic support.

How can I survey the available literature?

An extensive ASCII (raw text format) bibliography is available over Internet by request to: I try to maintain this as a "public" resource, and corrections / suggested additions are always welcome.

Also available is an ASCII compilation of bibliographic material relating to George Spencer Brown's "calculus of indications" (cf. Laws of Form, 1969, and Varela's extensive review in Principles of Biological Autonomy). This resulted from a collective search over Internet in autumn 1991.


One useful component of a newsletter / mailing list would be pointers to relevant literature and/or reviews of the same. Below is a review of The Embodied Mind (from the artificial life mailing list, 1992), plus some additional comments from yours truly. Similar reviews (as well as suggested relevant literature) are welcome.

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience {Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch} The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991. xx + 308 pp. $25.00. ISBN 0-262-22042-3.

Review No. 1

The following was originally distributed in the Artificial Life (ALife) digest over internet (Number 076 Sunday, May 17th 1992). It was submitted by (Anand Rangarajan)

The Embodied Mind starts with the examination of a fundamental circularity in the relationship between cognitive science and human experience. The authors take the position that any scientific description of behavior is itself a product of the structure of our collective cognitive apparatus. Too often, they claim, when an abstract, theoretical attitude is taken towards the study of the mind, this fundamental circularity gets ignored leading to a belief that our self- understanding which is based on experience is false and will someday be replaced by a calculus of behavior. The tension between the abstract attitude and experience is heightened in a field where the mind itself is the focus of investigation, namely, cognitive science.

The authors review the current state of cognitive science. They classify all of cognitive science into three categories; cognitivist, emergent and enactive. Cognitivism is described as "no computation without representation." The world is pregiven with fixed objects and properties. The self in turn carries around an internal representation which is used in perception and in action. The emergent school is based on the paradigm of self-organization. Here, the self is constantly adapting and changing its internal representation in the face of a non-stationary environment. The authors claim that both the emergent and cognitivist schools are operating on tacit beliefs about the self and the world.

They argue that the basic idea of a world with a fixed set of properties and a self which has an internal representation of these properties is common to both schools. The authors plight their troth with the enactive school which dispenses with the assumptions of a world with fixed properties and with a self which is a constant reference point for representation. The main point stressed here is that there is no ground to be found in the world or in the self. Unlike arguments by Searle and Dreyfus which are strongly humanistic, the authors do not retreat into a solipsistic viewpoint from which cognitive science is criticized. Instead, mutually structured coupling between organism and environment now holds the key to understanding perception and action. All foundationist theories of mind and nature are strongly criticized including the belief that there are no foundations, namely, nihilism. The authors refer to the craving for ultimate realist foundations of self and world as "the Cartesian anxiety" since without foundations, we would drown in a morass of skepticism, nihilism, insanity, depression, darkness and chaos. The alternative offered is enaction as embodied cognition. Meaning spontaneously emerges via a history of structured coupling between an organism and an environment. The authors cite Rod Brooks as paradigmatic of enactive cognitive science.

After describing enactive cognitive science as meeting human experience half way, the authors then take up the task of the investigation of human experience itself. Buddhist mindfulness/awareness meditation is offered as a way of experiencing the examination of experience. The authors point out that a key insight arising from the practice of meditation is the extent to which our minds are occupied in unmindful, and disembodied reflection on experience. They equate this abstract activity with the general abstract attitude which is so pervasive in approaches to cognitive science. The method of mindfulness/awareness is described in detail along with several pointers to the Buddhist tradition and doctrine of no self.

An example of the mindfulness/awareness approach to the examination of experience can be seen by a three-way review of the book: cognitivist, emergent and enactive. In what is to follow, the three positions have been caricatured. The cognitivist review is disembodied. The book is treated as an object in the "real" world with fixed ideas and properties which can be objectively described. The simplistic three-way distinction of approaches to cognitive science follow from this standpoint. The emergent review is describing the book as a deep object which has resulted from a historical process. Likewise, the reviewer (also the result of a long process) is reviewing the book with unavoidable bias. The enactive review is not a review of the book but a view of the book in the process of embodied reflection.

The Embodied Mind starts with the examination of a fundamental circularity in the relationship between cognitive science and human experience. The authors take the position that any scientific description of behavior is itself a product of the structure of our collective cognitive apparatus.........
This book is an important collaboration between veterans Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch and newcomer Evan Thompson. For about two and a half decades now, Varela has been arguing for a mature phenomenology. This book is a passionate and richly detailed argument warning us that the fate of human experience might be in the hands of people who ignore the fundamental circularity between cognitive science and human experience. While it is not easy for me to see the progression of Eleanor Rosch (not having read her Buddhist papers), it's clear that Varela has achieved a personal synthesis of phenomenology, cognitive science and Buddhism.......
Varela, Thompson and Rosch seem to be intent on smashing the myth of representation. "I" like it but it's too aggressive. Maybe Varela is tired of not getting his message across. After all, "we" are trying to find a formalism for perception and action into which "we" can bury ourselves. Looking for a formalism is half the fun. The enactive approach seems to be not amenable to a formalism but that might be because the examples like Brooks are quasi-formalism free. Takes potshots at the transcendental self like atman, the soul etc. Very radical and "I" like it but makes "me" uneasy. Formalisms are not closed, cognitivism yields quite gracefully to emergent. Emergent to enactive becomes difficult if prior sense of independent self and world are taken as absolute. Instead, why not focus on self-organization which is common to enactive and emergent? Wonder if these guys realize how radical they are. After all, with no self and world, shouldn't their enactive cognitive science actually be enactive science with a closed loop between physics and perception.......

Notice that the enactive review is a view of the thoughts of the reviewer in the process of reviewing the book. I decided to review the book and then sat down and wrote down the thoughts as they occurred. Consequently, the enactive review does not break the review down into first person or third person. Hence, it is possible to extract an objectivist or subjectivist review from the enactive review but not vice-versa.

Review No. 2

I (Randy) don't wish to get into a comprehensive review of The Embodied Mind, but I would like to offer some comments about the book and its relationship to earlier literature on autopoiesis.

The most striking thing I noticed was the unusual degree to which principles and concepts from autopoietic theory crop up in The Embodied Mind, but without elaborated attribution to Varela's earlier work. The only "hard-core" autopoiesis works cited herein are The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1987) and Principles of Biological Autonomy (Varela, 1979). The term "autopoiesis" never appears, although the more general concept of "autonomy" is treated. The most clear adoption of terminology from the earlier work is the invocation of "structural coupling". The lingering impression I get is that the discussion of enactive cognitive science is heavily dependent on principles carried over from autopoiesis / autonomy, but one would never cipher this out without already being familiar with the earlier work and literature.

I was occasionally disturbed by the, shall we say, surface or editorial features of The Embodied Mind. The writing shifts perceptibly in places, and it is clear that multiple people wrote the various sections of this manuscript. The illustrations are of variable quality. I found multiple (jarring!) spelling errors during my first reading of the book. All in all, the "production values" did not seem to live up to the content. A couple of colleagues who have read the book agree with me that (at least to someone already of a phenomenological bent and/or conversant with autopoiesis) the exposition is less commendable than the ideas conveyed.

Nonetheless, I feel that this is an important book, for the following reasons:

So what's my overall verdict on The Embodied Mind? Anyone interested in autopoietic theory should read it, because I believe the ideas presented therein will largely determine the "future" for this work. Its blemishes aside, I suspect that in the long run folks may cite and discuss this book more than (e.g.) Principles of Biological Autonomy. This book provides a wider audience with more breadth of scope and contextualization for the general issues of the earlier work (even though that work is not emphasized).

My two colleagues who read the book both complained that the Buddhist "tie-in" / "angle" got a bit wearisome after a while. I note that the material addressing Buddhism doesn't take up an unusually large proportion of the total book, but that it makes up a majority of the "dense" material the reader has to engage. In other words, I think the correlation of the Buddhist allusions with conceptually "dense" stretches of text makes them seem more wearisome than they need be.

NOTE: If the Buddhist connection with cognitive science interests you, I recommend the book:

Hayward, J., and F. Varela (eds.), Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, Boston: Shambhala, 1992. ISBN = 0-87773-613-8.

This book is explained by its title. While not exceedingly "dense" or "technical" (with respect either to Western cognitive sciences or Buddhism), the easy-going conversational give-and-take makes it interesting reading. The summary statements by the Western cognitive scientists have proven to be good material for distribution to students wanting an overview of these areas. Francisco's contributions are not phrased with particular regard to his previous work on autopoiesis / enaction, so this book is not a resource for autopoietic theory per se.


Well, that's all for this inaugural issue of The Observer. I hope you find it useful and interesting. More importantly, I hope you find that it stimulates you to active participation. In the immediate future, The Observer will be the primary vehicle for this forum. As the mail redistribution node comes "on-line", I will certainly advertise the fact.



  1. you know of others who would be interested in The Observer;
  2. you would like to contribute to The Observer; or
  3. you have any feedback about The Observer, its form, its format, its contents, etc.


-- Randy