sitemap The Observer #11 -- 26 December, 1995

The Observer

Number 11: 26 December, 1995

"Everything said is said by an observer"

An electronic forum
Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Randy Whitaker


New WWW Resource
Status of ASCII Resources
Paper Available Via Internet
Journal of Possible Interest
Efran, Lukens, and Lukens, Language, Structure, and Change: Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy
Andrew Favell
Why You Won't Find "Autopoiesis" in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica
Workshop on "Groupware for Self-Organising Units -- The Autopoietic Turn in Organisation Science and its Relevance for CSCW"


New WWW Resource

The European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work '95 (ECSCW '95 --Stockholm, 10-14 September 1995) included a workshop on the topic "Groupware for Self-Organising Units -- The Autopoietic Turn in Organisation Science and its Relevance for CSCW". A report on the workshop is given later in this issue of The Observer. The workshop generated an opportunity for further proliferation of autopoietic theory on the Internet. One participant -- Keith Swenson of Fujitsu OSSI -- is also Vice-Chair of ACM SIGOIS (Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Organizational Information Systems). He offered me the opportunity to develop some Web pages on autopoiesis and its application to organizational studies, to be housed at SIGOIS' new Web site.

I constructed the Web pages under the title "Self-Organization, Autopoiesis, and Enterprises". They include:

These Web pages have now been "installed" at ACM SIGOIS's site on the Web. They can be accessed at the URL:

I'd like to thank Keith Swenson and ACM SIGOIS's "Webmaster" Stephen Hayne of Arizona State University for this opportunity to place a more "persistent" autopoiesis reference point on the Internet.

DISCLAIMER: The material in the Web pages is my responsibility (and my fault, if you don't like it!). The graphic formatting was done by the host organization. The graphic title "Randall Whitaker's Autopoiesis" was NOT my idea. I hope you readers don't get the impression that I'm trying to put a personal "designer label" on the resources. -- R.

Status of ASCII Resources

No new resources have been added since issue no. 10 of The Observer.

The autopoiesis bibliography was extended and updated to a new version on 11 September 1995.

The resource documents are available from 3 archives:

Paper Available Via Internet

The following is a general introduction to autopoietic theory and its application to social systems, with particular reference to Luhmann.

"Introduction to Autopoiesis Theory and Autopoietic Steering" M. van Twist & L. Schaap

[Paper no longer appears to be available on Web. KM 12/08/99]

This paper previously appeared in:

Veld, R.J. in't, L. Schaap, C.J.A.M. Termeer and M.J.W. van Twist (ed.),Autopoiesis and Configuration Theory: New Approaches to Societal Steering, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

NOTE: Would anyone care to review the book for The Observer?(hint, hint.....) ;-) -- R.

Journal of Possible Interest

The journal Cybernetics and Human Knowing: A Journal of Second Order Cybernetics and Cyber-Semiotics may be of interest to you readers. In the past, this publication has contained a number of papers concerning autopoiesis -- particularly Maturana's account of "languaging" and its relation to current thought in linguistics and semiotics. Cybernetics and Human Knowing is edited by Soeren Brier (in Denmark), who can be emailed at:

If you have access to the World Wide Web (WWW), you can learn more about the journal by pointing your Web browser at the URL:


EFRAN, Jay S., LUKENS, Michael D., and LUKENS, Robert J. Language, Structure, and Change: Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy New York: W.W. Norton, 1990. ISBN: 0-393-70103-4

Andrew Favell (

Coming as a response to what the authors consider a general and wide-spread confusion about theory and practice in the field of psychotherapy, Efran, Lukens, and Lukens offer an approach to psychotherapy that draws from the paradigm of meaning as a successor to the historical dominance of the Newtonian causal/objectivist paradigm. Efran, et al., note the 'conceptual morass' that underlies the majority of thinking in the therapeutic field: how concepts, theory, and technique are all too often thrown together with little or no regard for theoretical consistency and coherence; how therapy has 'inherited' concepts and models from medical science; and a general lack of coherent and clear understandings of how living systems operate. In their attempts to address some of these critical caveats, the authors advance and explore the applications, ramifications and therapeutic implications of Maturana and Varela's 'structure determinism' or autopoietic theory.

One of the most endearing aspects of this book to my mind is how the authors are not restrained from making waves in the psychotherapeutic orthodoxy, nor from challenging some of the most sacred of cows in therapeutic models that divide persons into discreet units of 'affect', 'cognition', and 'behaviour'. After explicating, in chapter one, what the authors call 'professional doubts' -- a summing up of the state of the field of therapy -- they provide a basic outline of what they consider to be the salient points of 'structure determinism' or autopoietic theory, these being:

(a) living systems are self-creating entities -- autopoietic;
(b) science can only study structure-determined entities;
(c) living systems are informationally closed;
(d) we manufacture what we think we know, and hence that 'objectivity' is to be restricted to use only with quotation marks;
(e) life is a purposeless drift;
(f) survival requires the maintenance of an adequate structural coupling with the medium or environment;
(g) all rational systems are derived from arational premises; and
(h) language is a specialized form of communal action, and results in the creation of domains of distinction.

The remainder of the book explores and expands on these eight points, and how these ideas can be applied to clearing up the inconsistencies and conceptual morass that is the field of therapy today. Interestingly enough, it is one of the few books on therapy that I've come across that makes mention -- albeit briefly -- of Spencer Brown's Laws of Form.

Language, Structure, and Change is a book that makes a rare combination between being both informative and amusing in parts. The thesis of the book is advanced with ample citations and references to everyday concrete experiences to explain some of the more difficult concepts, and actually, in my opinion, makes a better job of explaining autopoietic theory than Maturana and Varela do themselves!

According to Efran, et al., problems emerge from the clash that results from living simultaneously in a range or number of different domains or, as they prefer, 'clubs'. In ethnomethodology, this might have been referred to as "role confusion'. The authors suggest that the rules or agreements of one coupling run counter to the rules of another, thereby creating conflict. This is, in itself, not an original idea. The implications and real effects of so-called role-confusion have been explored in terms of cognitive dissonance, approach-approach, approach-avoidance, and avoidance-avoidance conflicts. The solution that Efran, et al., offer though is quite novel, drawing from Maturana and Varela's idea of distinctions and domains of differences: "The solution, like all solutions to apparent contradictions, lies in moving away from the opposition and changing the nature of the question to embrace a broader context"(Maturana and Varela, 1992; p.135)

That is, by expanding the frame or domain of distinction, different information and possibilities are brought forth that allow for original and non-problematic couplings to be entered into, bringing with them a diminishment of 'club' rule clashes.

By extrapolating on Maturana and Varela's idea that "... the linguistic domain becomes part of the environment in which linguistic coordinations of action take place" (Maturana & Varela, 1992; p. 211), Efran, et al., are able to explore human problems and the therapeutic endeavour in terms of agreements or contracts, especially in the failure to maintain such in good working order and clarity. Problems can thus be seen as the mismatching of the contractual agreements that underpin social consensus, and how these agreements are negotiated through the community practices of language. By way of illustration, Efran, et al., point out that:

"[y]ou cannot ... turn a chair into a table just by saying so. If you attempt to do this, the chair will remain a chair, but people will consider you deranged"(p. 44).

For example, in the case of marital conflict over the wife wanting to go out to work and the husband refusing to support her desire, the therapist may choose to elicit the couple's spoken and unspoken contractual agreements around the roles of men and women in marital relationships, looking for where there is the clash of agreements, assumptions that an agreement was in place when it actually had never been negotiated, and so on. This need not necessarily be about the man being a patriarch; it could quite well be that his wife was not behaving in ways that he had expected her to in terms of the contractual agreements he believed were in place. Therapy then is about renegotiating those agreements, dispensing with the old and examining if the couple were interested in expanding the range of possibilities. To coin one of the amusing illustrations peppered throughout the book, if cup manufacturers suddenly, and without telling the cup-using public, included in the cup design the ability to fly, many cup users would be noticeably upset when their cups of coffee took off from the tables on which the cups were expected to stay put. Once the manufacturers bring the public up to speed on new cup technology however, the public may well be irritated, but certainly will no longer think themselves crazy because the range of possible behaviours of cups had been increased and the public could well come to expect their cups to fly off tables without any apparent provocation.

Given the primacy of our activities of drawing distinctions in bringing forth both ourselves and our world, Efran and his co-authors suggest that problems of living are often encountered in how distinctions are drawn in terms of the range of inclusions that such distinctions allow. Following Maturana and Varela's ideas that problems and available solutions are dependent on how certain distinctions are drawn -- that is how the 'world' is sliced -- Efran, et al., propose that many problems find their solution sets through an expansion in the frame or domains of distinction. Take for example, a person who in contemplating an early retirement does not trust that her pension will allow her to do so. If she does not expand her domain of distinctions to include other possibilities, such as partial retirement, or investment funds, or working a little longer to save up a 'nest-egg' then she will be stuck, and may possibly fall into apathy, despair and even depression.

Throughout their book, Efran, Lukens, and Lukens move between the advancement of autopoietic theory and its therapeutic applications and the experiences of being therapists and using autopoietic theory to explore various alternatives. Their approach is refreshing and internally consistent with autopoietic theory. It is written in predominantly non-technical language, and through continuous references to case examples, everyday experiences and humorous anecdotes, autopoietic theory becomes an approach that is relatively easy to come to grips with, at least in what aspects of this theory the authors draw from. Personally, I believe that students and veterans of therapy would benefit from paying close attention to this work, as would those persons seeking a clearer grasp of Maturana and Varela's often technical approach.


First -- Thank you, Andrew! -- for a well-done contribution. Writing a review on the Efran et al. book has been on my "backlog list" for far too long. Your review has provided a good service to The Observer's readers, and a similar good service to me, by prodding me into action. As such, I'd like to add a few comments on the Efran, Lukens and Lukens book.

This book didn't seem to get much publicity. I didn't discover it until 1994, and then only by accident -- I found it in a specialty psychotherapy bookstore in New York. It was a real treat to find a previously-unknown book focusing on autopoietic theory, and (I am glad to report...) the book itself is a treat to read.

Psychotherapy -- particularly family therapy -- has perhaps become the main "growth market" for Maturana and Varela's ideas in the last decade. It is my understanding (from personal correspondence) that Maturana's recent speaking engagements are primarily related to this area, and that he is supportive of this line of application. Varela, on the other hand, is more reluctant to embrace the application of autopoiesis to (e.g.) families, as he discusses in his 1989 paper "Reflections on the circulation of concepts between a biology of cognition and systemic family therapy", Family Process, Vol. 28, no. 1 (March 1989), pp. 15-24. This mirrors the alleged "schism" between Maturana and Varela concerning the application of autopoiesis to social systems in general (a focus for considerable discussion and debate over the years).

As some of you already know, I'm not a fan of Luhmann or others who would apply autopoiesis to supra-organism systems. I don't dismiss the idea out of hand, but feel that a coherent and compelling case for this approach simply has not (yet) been made. In my own work on human interactivity and supportive information technologies, I have found the most profitable approach to be applying the "phenomenological aspects" of autopoietic theory to devise frameworks for research and tactics for interventions.

This is the reason that I like the Efran, Lukens and Lukens book -- it proceeds in this same fashion. The authors maintain a focus on the individual, and outline their arguments with respect to autopoietic theory's "phenomenology of the living". The course and manner of individual behavior is explained and discussed on this basis. As such, even a "conservative interpreter" of autopoietic theory such as myself had no problem with the scope of Efran et. al.'s invocation and application of Maturana and Varela's ideas. This scope has always seemed to me to be the most clear, the most straight forward, and the most valuable way of using autopoietic theory to understand human interactivity. I am very pleased to see someone from the social sciences explore and use autopoietic theory without jumping to the conclusion that the principles definitive of unit living systems are unquestionably definitive of those living systems' composite collectives.

Having said that.........

There are a few points at which these authors would make some of us more formally-oriented autopoiesis fans wince. The introduction to autopoietic theory is limited to (e.g.) structural determination, structural coupling, the organizational / operational closure of the nervous system, and the phenomenology of the observer. This is fine, because Efran et al. make it clear from the beginning that their focus is the intersection of Maturana / Varela with their profession -- psychotherapy. However, their use of the term "informationally closed" (cf. Andrew's listing of points above...) opens up an old wound from the debates of the late 1970's / early 1980's (cf. the Zeleny(1980; 1981) collections on autopoiesis).

One of the initial criticisms of autopoiesis was the claim that organizational and/or operational closure was synonymous with "closed system" as that term had been used in first-order cybernetics. A deeper exploration reveals that the allusion is inappropriate, and that autopoietic systems are "organizationally closed, but informationally open". I think Dupuy first elucidated this point as quoted, and it is laid out (if only implicitly) in Varela's 1979 Principles of Biological Autonomy. Efran et al. make it clear in their discussion that they are not making a claim of "informational closure" in the sense that irritated systems theorists years ago. They are therefore consistent with the more illuminated view (a la Dupuy / Varela). Nonetheless, I suspect their choice of terminology would induce resistance in some readers with a systems theory background.

(NOTE: For an illustration of such resistance, see the item below entitled "Why you won't find 'autopoiesis' in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica" -- ed.)

The difficulty of Maturana and Varela's work lies not in its complexity, but in its novelty. It takes a while to absorb and understand the radical realignment autopoietic theory requires in our approach to studying and influencing living systems. The debates of the last 20 years have been concentrated on the formalization itself. In the long run, the "proof" of this theory's value will lie not in its rhetorical elegance but in its utility when applied to actual phenomena. Efran et al. provide an example of such a movement beyond formalization to application. I think the book is a success, and that it should provide a useful entry point into autopoietic theory for the psychotherapy community. -- Randy


EDITOR'S NOTE: It's been a while since we had a personal introduction in The Observer. Such introductions help us learn about each other in the autopoiesis / enactive cognitive science "community", and serve to open up new lines of potential collaboration. Andrew Favell is a new subscriber who's given us a well-done review of an autopoietically-oriented book in his field of interest -- psychotherapy. Below is Andrew's introduction of himself and his interests (along with an open query....). -- Randy


I am a therapist very much influenced by the works of, inter alia, social constructionism, post-structuralism, and post modernism (as represented by the assorted works of: Maturana & Varela, Deleuze and Guattari, Michael White, Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Mikhail Bakhtin, Foucault, et al.) and wish to explore some of the ramifications of M & V's work to therapeutic endeavours more specifically. Some of the ideas that appear to translate well into clinical practice are: structural coupling, informational/organizational closure, and operations in the linguistic domain.

The [Efran, Lukens, & Lukens (1990) book] does not however make any explicit mention of the other works cited above, and I -- being one interested in syntheses -- am attempting to weave an approach that involves the (apparently similar) works of those thinkers mentioned above.

If anyone has any bright ideas about ways to do this, things to watch out for, etc., etc., then PLEASE either email directly ( or send info to The Observer. ALL input will be read, considered and examined.

Thank you.

Andrew Favell ( )


The following came to me via email from Professor Emeritus Hans-Erik Nissen in Sweden. As an illustration of the confusion between "organizational closure" and "closed systems" (cf. my comments in the book review section above...), it is very timely.

As an anecdote, I wonder if you find it as wryly humorous as I do.-- Randy ;-)

Why You Won't Find "Autopoiesis" in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Hans-Erik writes:

...(begin excerpt)...

For about a month I have had a large part of the 1995 version of Encyclopaedia Brittanica on CD. Early on, I checked to see what they had on "autopoiesis". You will guess the answer: "Nothing".

I sent my observation to them. [before a trip to Spain -- ed.]

Back from Spain (nice trip) I found the following reply:

"Dear Mr. Henissen:

We hope you will pardon our delay in responding to your message regarding the possibility of including an article on "autopoiesis." We have no plans to include an entry on the term, which is not discussed in any of the botanical dictionaries, indexes, or other scholarly sources at hand.

It might be noted that treatment of "autopoiesis" is given at non-authoritative sites on the Internet. For example, one site [Note: I believe this is here now. KM, 02/20/99] includes a definition that is allegedly quoted from F. Varela. [NOTE: this is the Principia Cybernetica Web site. -- ed.] According to that treatment, "autopoiesis" is "the process whereby an organization produces itself." It refers to any self-reproducing system that is operationally closed...with no apparent inputs and outputs. A cell, an organism, and perhaps a corporation are examples of autopoietic systems.

In biology, many systems are described as self-reproducing (this point is illustrated by a Britannica CD search "self ADJ reproducing"); however, the notion of a closed system is generally refuted by biologists. The Britannica article "Life: Definitions of life" states: Living systems are not closed but rather open. Most life on Earth, for example, is dependent on the flow of sunlight, which is utilized by plants to construct complex molecules from simpler ones. One could also imagine several ways in which corporations and other self-perpetuating entities require both "inputs and outputs." We hope that this information is of use to you."

[And that, dear readers, is why you won't find "autopoiesis" in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. ;-)]

Hans-Erik's email message continues:

I will come back to them with some comments on the position they have taken. In the first instance they seem not to make any difference between "operationally closed" and simply an entirely closed system. I understand biologists find the latter an unacceptable model for any living being. Further, "autopoiesis" -- so first invented to give a strict criterion for distinguishing living beings --also has started to become important in cognitive and in systems science. None of this context has been mentioned by the Encyclopaedia Brittanica editor. Before I send them a second note, suggesting they reconsider the position they have taken, I would like to hear what main arguments you would suggest for inclusion of the concept of 'autopoiesis' in Encyclopaedia Brittanica. ...

To me it seems astonishing to ignore this idea entirely after a life of more than 30 years. They might criticize it (Mingers could give them some arguments)but to ignore it does not recommend Encyclopaedia Brittanica to me any more. I thought it would be the best encyclopaedia in a Western language.

Maybe I could as well go back to the Encyclopaedia by Diderot, d'Alembert from 1751. Hans-Erik

...(end excerpt)...

Do you readers have any suggestions for Hans-Erik's campaign to get "autopoiesis" into the Encyclopaedia Brittanica? He can be emailed at:


Randy Whitaker

The European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work '95 (ECSCW'95)was held in Stockholm 10-14 September 1995. One of the conference events is of specific relevance to the autopoiesis community. This was a workshop on the topic "Groupware for Self-Organising Units -- The Autopoietic Turn in Organisation Science and its Relevance for CSCW", organized by the German researchers Micheal Paetau (GMD), Peter Mambrey (GMD), Wolfgang Prinz (GMD),and Volker Wulf (Univ. of Bonn). The prospectus for the workshop read:

"To cope with differentiated and dynamic environments, self-organising work groups will play and increasingly more important role in modern organisations. We will discuss to which extent groupware is an enabling technology for this type of organisations. Furthermore, requirements of self-organising units concerning the design and application of groupware will be worked out."

This all-day workshop was held on Sunday, 10 September, at KTH (the Royal Institute of Technology), with some 12 researchers presenting their ideas and work.

Autopoietic theory was the primary theoretical base cited in the formulation of the event's thematic base -- particularly the Luhmannian approach of viewing organisations as self-organizing unities. The goal of the workshop was to review this line of development and to compare notes on how best to blend self-organization into practical applications. Partly by plan, and partly by circumstances, the workshop divided itself into two major sections. The morning sessions were theoretical and practical discussions of how to address enterprises as self-organizing systems. The afternoon sessions focused primarily on the class of groupware termed "workflow systems" -- information technology (IT) configured as the embodiment of the enterprise's essential network of production processes.

My workshop notes and documentation are somewhat uneven. Not everyone provided a paper in support of their presentations, and I was having too much fun (being in a group knowledgeable in autopoietic theory) to write much. The following is my best reconstruction of events.

  1. Peter Mambrey (GMD) presented a paper entitled "Experiences with Self-Organisation of Work in a Software Development Project", co-authored with Mike Robinson. The theme was to illustrate the self-organizing aspects of work (and IT support) in a large German government agency. The four specific areas discussed were:
    (a) Formal procedures vs. tacit knowledge
    (b) Self-organization in patterns of access to newly-introduced media
    (c) Groupware effects on discourse and agreement among users
    (d) Coexistence of formal and "opaque" procedures in the workplace
  2. Michael Paetau discussed the well-known paradox that formal and rigid organizational hierarchies can only accomplish their (allopoietic) missions through breaking, augmenting, and/or creatively (re-)interpreting the official rules. The ongoing adaptation of a formal enterprise to everyday circumstances can be seen as a process of self-organization. The key focus for analyzing such adaptation is to address networks of enterprise communication as self-organizing(and potentially autopoietic) systems.
  3. Kurt Keller (Univ. of Copenhagen) presented a paper entitled "Sociotechnical Systems and Self-Organization". He analyzed some of the points upon which an autopoietic account compares with the sociotechnical approach to work and design. In particular, he focused on the manner in which autopoietic theory provides a means for discriminating concrete work systems, whereas the sociotechical approach presumes two classes of abstract system (social and technical) which are the mandatory "lenses" for enterprise analysis. Keller's own work has concentrated on the application of phenomenological philosophy to workplace issues, and he sees autopoietic theory as a profitable approach along this line.
  4. Georgio de Michelis (Univ. of Milan) discussed the analysis of enterprise systems as patterns of business processes. He emphasized the interactions between enterprise "performers" and their "customers" (both within and outside the enterprise). De Michelis claimed there is a need to re-orient enterprise analysis to focus on subject organizations as "communities of practice". Appropriate and effective IT support for such "communities of practice" should take the form of "common virtual spaces" which define the possibilities for both communication and action (cf. consensual domains; domains of interaction).
  5. I presented a paper entitled "(Re-)Design of Self-Organizing Enterprises." I began with an overview of the recent interest in "self-organization" and cautioned against using the concept without rigor. I then introduced a procedure called "niche-picking" which I had developed to aid a management group in delineating their "niches" (i.e., domains of interaction) as a referential framework for policy formulation and planning.

The afternoon sessions concerned specific projects and products in terms of self-organization of production process networks (i.e., "work flows"). These included presentations by:

All in all, it was a very interesting and constructive workshop. Not since the 1992 Conference on Autopoiesis and Perception (Dublin City University) had I been in a meeting with so many folks conversant with the ideas of Maturana and Varela. I was surprised to find that there was a nearly-unanimous suspicion of Luhmann's application of autopoiesis to social systems themselves. The consensus was that the most profitable avenue for research and development was to apply the phenomenological aspects of autopoietic theory (e.g., the observer, structural coupling, languaging, domains) to enterprise analysis and IT innovations.

The workshop also generated an opportunity for further proliferation of autopoietic theory on the Internet. Keith Swenson of Fujitsu OSSI is also Vice-Chair of ACM SIGOIS (Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Organizational Information Systems). He offered me the opportunity to develop some Web pages on autopoiesis and its application to organizational studies, to be housed at SIGOIS' new Web site. These pages are now on-line and available at the URL:


Well, that just about does it for this issue of The Observer -- the quasi-journal that refuses to die...........

Items planned for future issues include:

  1. A review of John Mingers' 1994 book Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis
  2. A review of Georg von Krogh and Johan Roos' 1995 book Organizational Epistemology

If any of you readers would like to contribute to these reviews, please let me know. If any of you are unfamiliar with either of the books, I can safely recommend them to you -- the Mingers book as a substantive introduction and overview of autopoietic theory, and the von Krogh / Roos book as an interesting analysis of Maturana and Varela's ideas applied to the area of corporate knowledge acquisition and maintenance.