sitemap The Observer #9 -- 15 March, 1994

The Observer

Number 9: 15 March, 1994

"Everything said is said by an observer"

An electronic forum
Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Randy Whitaker


George Spencer Brown's Laws of Form is being Republished!
John Mingers, Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis
I. Humberto Maturana (1980) on Social Systems
II. Zeleny (1985): Suggested Precursors to Autopoiesis and Social Systems


If I have another winter like this one, I'm going to disintegrate as a unity. In addition to the weather, a series of project presentations, proposal writing, the hassles of setting up a new collaborative design laboratory, the shifting sands of email and other information support infrastructures, the odd cold / flu bug, and a back injury have all conspired to make me want to tell the world to go couple with itself. ;-)

Nonetheless, organization is maintained.

There has been a major drop-off in correspondence during the last 2 months.This may in part be due to weirdness deriving from my workplace's migration from a VAX server to a LAN-based arrangement. With the exception of new subscription requests (some 50 since December, all routed to my Swedish email address [ ]), there have been few contributions or commentaries sent in. As a result of the LAN migration, there have been severe disruptions in my email "connectivity" since the first of the year.If anyone has sent in material for The Observer since December (and not heard from me), please advise me! I didn't get it. -- Randy (Your faithful editor)


The autopoiesis bibliography has been updated multiple times in the last 2 months. The last update was 11 March 1994. Many of the new citations have been collected from messages on the interactive mailing list, and John Mingers has graciously forwarded a mass of citations from his upcoming book.

The Spencer-Brown bibliography is unchanged since March 1993.

The subject index for Autopoiesis & Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980) is unchanged since its original distribution in / as issue no. 4 of The Observer.

These materials are available (as plain ASCII text files) over the Net. All anyone needs to do is contact me, and I will email the file(s). Due to security (and other) constraints at my new workplace and at Wright State University, I am still unable to establish and offer ftp or other interactive access to the ASCII resources.


To judge from inquiries and responses, the ASCII resources made available over Internet have been quite a success. The last new resource to be made available was the index to Autopoiesis & Cognition (spring 1993).I have been considering some other little "projects" aimed at developing similar resources (e.g., an expanded index for Varela's Principles of Biological Autonomy; an annotated lexicon of terminology with pointers to discussions in the literature, etc.). If any of you have any comments, suggestions, or (especially!!) contributions to make toward collecting and making available additional resources on autopoietic theory and enactive cognitive science, please let me know.

-- Randy (Your faithful editor)


NOTE: The following is being broadcast for informational purposes, and is not intended as a commercial solicitation. I am not associated with any of the parties mentioned. -- Randy

George Spencer Brown's "Laws of Form" is being Republished!

This book, long a point of reference in the autopoiesis community (cf. Varela's work on extending the "calculus of indications" in the 1970's), has been out of print for some time. There had been 4 editions of the book to data: 1969, 1972, 1978, and 1979. All are equally difficult to locate, and I've been "on the hunt" for my own copy of this book for about 3 years.

Picking up on a mention in the Internet news group "sci.logic", I have tracked down the following data:

Laws of Form is being republished by a "Tarati Press". I am unable to locate any further information on Tarati Press. According to the bookseller mentioned below, the book is in fact already in press.

A bookseller named "Bookmasters", based in Ohio, is currently taking advance orders for the book. According to Bookmasters, the book is due to be in stock by the end of March 1994. I checked with 2 local full-service book stores, but neither was able to take an order for the book. To the best of my ability to find out, Bookmasters is the only retail supplier currently offering the new printing of Laws of Form. All of this, of course, is based on my limited search, and it is all subject to change.

The price: $50.00 (US) + $5.00 for shipping and handling. (Ohio residents will end up paying an additional $3.00 for state sales tax).

Credit card orders are being accepted.

Contact information for anyone interested:

Bookmasters, PO Box 2039, Mansfield OH 44095 USAVoice: (toll-free in USA) (800) 247-6553. (otherwise...) (+1) (419) 281-1802 Fax: (+1) (419) 281-6883

Bookmasters could not help me get in touch directly with Tarati Press, but they will be notifying the publisher that I would like any and all info on this new edition of Laws of Form. If and when this information shows up, I shall distribute it in The Observer.

New Book from John Mingers

John Mingers has consistently written some of the most cogent material on autopoiesis and its ramifications. That's why some of his articles are recommended in the Bibliography as introductions to the theory. John's latest effort is a book covering autopoietic theory -- the first such major work to appear in some time. John has sent in the following summary. -- R.

To be published by Plenum Publishing, New York, October 1994.

AUTHOR: John Mingers
Warwick Business School,
Warwick University, UK
phone: +203 523523 x2475


This book provides a comprehensive coverage of the work of Maturana and Varela on autopoiesis and cognition, and its applications. Section I covers autopoiesis in the physical domain including mathematical representations (such as the Laws of Form) and computer models. Section II develops the theories of cognition, including a chapter on the philosophical implications of Maturana's constructivist position. Section III provides detailed examination of the applications of autopoiesis in social and organisational theory (including Luhmann's approach), law, family psychotherapy, and cognitive theory and AI (covering Varela's theory of enactive cognition). A final chapter reviews the main areas of debate surrounding autopoiesis.

The aims of the book are first to open up autopoiesis, and its obscure terminology, to a wide audience in a comprehensive and authoritative way. Second, to cover its application in different disciplines to provide a comparative perspective. Third, to critically explore the many debates that autopoiesis generates.

This is the first book to provide such a comprehensive, and hopefully clear and understandable coverage of Maturana and Varela's work which is generating so much interest.


The issue of how (not to mention if) autopoiesis can or should be applied to social systems has been an ongoing topic on the interactive mailing list during the last few months. A good deal of this discussion has centered around Niklas Luhmann's application of autopoiesis to interpret social systems as networks of "communicative acts". While no appraisal of autopoietic theory and social systems can ignore Luhmann's work, there has been a substantial body of other writings in this area which have not found their way into the ongoing debates -- most conspicuously, the writings of Maturana and Varela themselves.

In an attempt to both broaden the scope and deepen the foundations for continuing the debates on autopoiesis and society, I shall undertake a series of articles in The Observer. These represent extracts from a number of older manuscripts, etc., which I've written over the last 5 years. My opinion is that they are sufficiently generic to serve as general discussion and introductory material -- so I'll dust them off and send them out.

This initial installment will review Maturana's 1980 article "Man and Society" and Milan Zeleny's 1985 paper on spontaneous social orders. Subsequent installments will address Varela, Luhmann, Braten, and Hejl. I have provided bibliographic citations at the end of the installment. Most, if not all, of the cited references, can be located in the autopoiesis bibliography (available via email on request). Because this material is extracted from a prior manuscript, I am obligated to state that it is copyright 1991 / Randall Whitaker. Having said that, here it comes....

I. Humberto Maturana (1980) on Social Systems

Maturana has written few articles specifically addressing societies as systems in and of themselves, but he has more directly addressed social phenomena. The single most direct, concise, and comprehensive independent treatment of social systems is Maturana (1980), in which he addresses issues as diverse as ethics, alienation, love and rejection, and politically-motivated exercises of power. The topics of totalitarianism and repression surface (even if only obliquely) repeatedly in Maturana's writings. One can only speculate about this as a reflection of the political climate in his native Chile. Maturana's approach is to delineate social systems by stating a definition and proceeding to illustrative cases. He does so in terms of collective interactions among the participating autopoietic entities, defining a social system as:

"...a collection of interacting living systems that, in the realization of their autopoiesis through the actual operation of their properties as autopoietic unities, constitute a system that as a network of interactions and relations operates with respect to them as a medium in which they realize their autopoiesis while integrating it..." (1980, pp. 11-12)

Maturana approaches social entities from the perspective of their participants, not from the perspective of themselves as a priori wholes. The participants must be autopoietic living systems, and their participation is circumscribed by those behaviors through which they realize their autopoiesis. Organisms may participate in multiple social systems, although within each one they function as if they were distinct. This means that within each social system, the participating organism is engaged in one distinct domain of interactions.

With regard to an observer, the distinctions among the social systems are linked to distinctions in the behaviors of the participating organism. Such distinctions (to an observer) can be construed as roles which delineate the organism's activity within each of the respective social domains. Additionally, since these roles are descriptions, the participant (as an observer) may recursively distinguish among them, allowing her to differentiate among (and realize) multiple such roles within one such social domain.

The character of a social system is dependent on the specific interactions among its participants, and that character changes with changes in those interactions (e.g., frequency, connectivity, membership). As a medium, the social system exerts influence upon individual participants through structural coupling, and this influence is recursive exercised upon the social system through the ongoing interactions of the participants. This accounts for the apparent stability of a social system (in terms of exhibiting regularity over time), because it "...operates as a homeostatic system that maintains invariant the relations that define it." (1980, p. 14)

Any participant maintains its membership only so long as it is capable of fulfilling the role defined by its structure and the network of interactions comprising the social system. Finally, over time the stability of the social system is a function of the ongoing consistency in the relations among interacting participants, not a function of any continuing consistency on the part of individual participants taken in isolation.

Another relevant point is Maturana's claim that social systems are realized primarily in linguistic (consensual) domains. "(L)inguistic interactions in general, and language in particular, operatie in a human social system as fundamental recursive selectors of the parths of structural changes of its members..." (Ibid., p. 15) This means that social phenomena are "linguistically centered" (Ibid., p. 17). Furthermore, it implies that all human social systems are ideological -- i.e.:

"...defined in some domain of semantic relations, that can be religious, political, mythical, or any others that human beings may specify, but ideological in the sense that the system of relations that their members must realize through their interactions are systems ... that an observer can best describe as systems of ideas." (Ibid., p. 17)

This does not mean that social systems are intangible or illusory. They are realized through concrete interactions among their participants, and the result are concrete structural adaptations in those participants. Although Maturana continues to elaborate this vision, I will stop here for the sake of brevity. It suffices that we have seen his focus on the participants rather than on the system itself. This demonstrates that the application of autopoiesis to societies per se is not in accordance with Maturana's views as stated in the 1980 paper.

II. Zeleny (1985): Suggested Precursors to Autopoiesis and Social Systems

Milan Zeleny follows the lead of Maturana (1980) in asserting the primacy of "bottom-up" influences in delineating and determining social systems. He considers the spontaneous, self-organization emanating from individuals' activity as the main creative force in society (Zeleny, 1985). With regard to Niklas Luhmann's application of autopoiesis to social systems, Zeleny claims his theory is compatible with autopoietic theory to the extent that it emphasizes self- reproduction, but he does not go into any detailed analysis. It would appear that Luhmann's focus on communicative acts as elementary social constituents is not the same as Zeleny's own analysis, which defines the organization of social systems in broader terms of "...interactions, relations and processes..." (Ibid., p. 127). By way of apparently distinguishing the two approaches, Zeleny (1985, p. 126) refers to Luhmann's fundamental components as "events". On balance, Zeleny's 1985 paper is more an affirmation of Maturana's 1980 treatise on social systems than an attempt to extend it.

Zeleny (1985), attempts to list some intellectual precedents for autopoietic treatment of social systems, relying on correspondences in terms of systemic and/or organismic metaphors, self-organization, and self- reproduction. For the sake of clarity, I omit those additional intellectual precedents Zeleny (1980) had previously listed with regard to systemic/holistic thinking and concentrate on those cited with exclusive regard to social organization. The earliest citation is Adam Smith's concept of the "Invisible Hand", taken as a spontaneously realized organizing principle deriving from collective activity but controlled by no single actor. Smith's insight was to shift perspective from a static description of socioeconomic features to a dynamic model -- a vision whose potential value in social analyses has yet to be fulfilled. For a particularly pertinent discussion of Smith's "invisible hand" and its implications for social systems, see Dupuy (1984).

"Smith realized that the seemingly inchoate flux of phenomena and events possesses self-ordering properties well beyond the wildest dreams fo most assertive social engineers; he first realized that chaos is unstable and more; that chaos is a particular structural manifestation of an order not yet perceived or understood by human observers."
(Zeleny, 1985, p. 118)

Zeleny goes on to cite Carl Menger's (1883) application of natural and organismic characteristics to social orders. Of particular interest is Menger's observations on the spontaneous means by which ordering seems to occur in societies. Many of the recognized structures of society (e.g., money) are not constructs willfully manufactured; they are the products of historical events rather than conscious design. The highly elaborated refinements enacted over centuries have masked the essentially spontaneous and self-organizing manner in which these structures presumably originated.

The most extensive connection between autopoiesis and social analyses, according to Zeleny, is that to Friedrich von Hayek (e.g., 1966; 1975). Von Hayek contended that the actions of individuals produced the patterns and relations we term "society". As a result, analyses focusing on the resultant regularities as a composite a priori entity are doomed to inadequacy. Zeleny draws links between von Hayek's sociological viewpoints and the autopoietic concepts of closure and self-reproduction. He even goes so far as to state the "...modern theory of autopoiesis has its roots in theories of social systems. It is in studying social systems where the spontaneous self-production was first observed and studied." (1985, p. 121)


DUPUY, J., Shaking the Invisible Hand, in Livingston, P. (ed.), Disorder and Order: Proceedings fo the Stanford International Symposium (Sept. 14-16, 1981), Saratoga CA: ANMA Libri, 1984, pp. 129 - 145.

MATURANA, H., Man and Society, in Benseler, F., P. Hejl, and W. Kock (eds.), Autopoiesis, Communication, and Society: The Theory of Autopoietic System in the Social Sciences, Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1980, pp. 11-32.

MENGER, C., Untersuchungen uber die Methode der Sozialwissenschaften und der Politische Okonomie insbesondere, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1883. [Also published in English as Problems of Economics and Sociology, Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1963.]

VON HAYEK, F., Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

VON HAYEK, F., Kinds of Order in Society, Studies in Social Theory, no. 5, Menlo Park CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 1975.

ZELENY, M. , Autopoiesis: A Paradigm Lost?, in Zeleny, M. (ed.), Autopoiesis, Dissipative Structures, and Spontaneous Social Orders, AAAS Selected Symposium 55, Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1980., pp. 3-44.

ZELENY, M., Spontaneous Social Orders, International Journal of General Systems, Vol. 11 (1985), pp. 117-131.


That's about it for this issue of The Observer. Given the recent interest in autopoiesis and social systems, I hope the beginning of the series on this topic will (re-)generate discussion and correspondence.

I look forward eagerly to getting my very own (legal) copy of Laws of Form, and I similarly anticipate John Mingers' forthcoming book. The (re-)release of these publications makes 1994 a significant year for those interested in autopoiesis and enactive cognitive science.

Remember -- this is a forum / journal / newsletter / bulletin board / etc. It's not intended to be a monologue. Let's start hearing from each other a bit more frequently -- OK? ;-)

Any and all correspondence, comments, and contributions are welcome. Book reviews, personal introductions, general queries, etc., have all appeared in prior issues of The Observer. Anything and everything is fair game, so long as it either (1) deals directly with autopoiesis / enactive cognitive science or (2) the contributor / author takes the time to state the connections or relevance to these central foci. -- Randy