sitemap The Observer #12 -- 24 July, 1996


The Observer

Number 12: 24 July, 1996

"Everything said is said by an observer"

An electronic forum
Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Randy Whitaker


New WWW Resources
New Enactive Cognition Web Site
New 'Laws of Form' Web Site
News about ThinkNet -- home of the autopoiesis discussion listserv
Should The Observer change venues?
In Search of the Mind by Jane Cull
Why You Won't Find 'Autopoiesis' in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2



The autopoietic theory resources I have developed over the years are now (finally!) available for browsing on the World Wide Web (WWW). I have consolidated the materials into a feature section of my personal Web pages at Ume Universitet in Sweden. The Observer Web now provides the largest single Internet 'nexus' on the subjects of autopoiesis and enaction, offering:

 The construction, testing, and announcement of The Observer Web has taken up much of my time during the last several months. This effort has been rewarded with many compliments and new contacts since the pages were opened up for general access on Midsummer's Day.

Additional resources under construction include:

 The main entry point to The Observer Web is the URL:

 As of the date of this writing, The Observer Web appears in the AltaVista search engine database
( -- the best of the current WWW search facilities), and it should be appearing in a number of other Web search indices (e.g., Lycos, WebCrawler, InfoSeek) during the coming weeks.

The Observer Web is constructed in accordance with the draft HTML 2.0 standards, and is best viewed with NetScape 2.0 (or later). The pages are constructed so as to be accessible and interpretable to those of you using non-graphic and other browsers.

Now that it is 'up and running', The Observer Web will now serve as my primary Internet platform for supporting the global community interested in Maturana and Varela's work.

The construction of The Observer Web constituted a major update for much of the materials. The earlier ASCII text versions of the resources (still available upon request) have been similarly updated.

The Bibliography and other resources are now rather sizeable Web pages. The disadvantage is that you might have to wait a while (depending on the speed of your machine and your Internet connection) to download the HTML file. The (hopefully counterbalancing) advantage is that once having downloaded the HTML-formatted file(s), you can save the material to your local disk and use them interactively via your Web browser software.

I invite The Observer's subscribers to check out The Observer Web. Any and all feedback is welcome, as are contributions to the resources available there.

Your faithful editor



Kevin McGee contacted me early in 1996 to suggest that The Observer would be a good candidate for conversion to HTML and posting on the World Wide Web. Kevin graciously volunteered to convert the original ASCII text files into HTML format. The back issues of The Observer, along with a bibliography and Internet resource guide, have been set up at Kevin's MIT Media Lab site:

[Note: this is now located at KM, 02/20/99]

It was Kevin's enthusiasm and efforts which motivated me to go ahead and attempt the major conversion of my accumulated resources into The Observer Web. I think we all owe Kevin a rousing "Thank You" for his work.



In 1991, David Keenan of Australia initiated a collaborative Internet effort to compile a bibliography of materials relating to George Spencer Brown's work as presented in his book Laws of Form. A year or two ago, that bibliography was updated and expanded, with the product being posted on a WWW site at Stanford University. That Web site has once again expanded -- this time into a full-blown overview of Spencer Brown's 'calculus of indications'. This newly added material finally provides an introduction to the calculus online. The URL for the (freshly renamed) Laws of Form Web Page is:



The following is excerpted from an announcement broadcast by Kent Palmer (ThinkNet administrator) on 19 July. The situation(s) and changes mentioned will affect the interactive autopoiesis discussion group there. 

The Thinknet lists have been down for about two weeks due to technical problems and my vacation. If you sent anything to this or any other thinknet list in that time and it has not appeared then please send it again. 

Thinknet lists are moving to a new UUCP provider and this may cause some further disruption of the lists. Also I intend to test out and perhaps change listservers in that time. Thus, service may continue to be sporadic for the next few weeks.

But the good news is that for the first time the thinknet BBS now is available to be called to look at the backlog on the lists. It is available most of the time at 714-638-0876.

We are in the process of opening a WEB-BBS using the wildcat 5 software. This new BBS will echo all the dialognet lists and may other lists of interest from around the internet on philosophy, literature, systems theory, and other subjects of interest. You can telnet to that web-bbs when it is back up using the domain name DIALOG.NET. It will be awhile before it is populated with materials from the lists as we are still waiting on the domain name we need to do that.

We are hoping you will continue to participate in thoughtful conversation in cyberspace through the medium of dialognet. Our homepage is at URL

If there is an emergency situation on any of the lists you can call 714-638-1210 to leave voice mail.

You can always reach the administrator at thinknet@netcom.

Kent Palmer



 Should The Observer change venues?

Now that The Observer Web is 'up and running', one must ask if the format and distribution of The Observer should be modified to allow for the new affordances of the wildly-popular World Wide Web (WWW). The construction of each issue of The Observer is not such a big deal. The transmission of the newsletter to over 300 email subscribers worldwide is, however, a major pain in the 'structure'. I do not have the necessary access privileges at any of my Internet 'platforms' to permit me to automate the broadcast of each edition of the newsletter. The fact of the matter is that I must manually subdivide the mailing list into several 'clusters' of addresses, then remotely command my broadcast site server to ship the ASCII file, cluster-by-cluster.

In addition, the workload of maintaining the subscriber list can sometimes become a frustration. In particular there is the issue of no one ever notifying me of changes or termination of email addresses. In the nearly four years of The Observer's existence, only 2 people have ever taken the time to notify me of changes. In 99% of the cases, circumstantial shifts in the subscriber population are evidenced only by the return of 'bounced' email transmissions (each of which I make an effort to check out and correct).

This is quite enough of a hindrance for a one-man volunteer effort. During this last winter, health and work problems prevented me from even attempting broadcast of any new issues (even if anyone had contributed any material -- hint, hint.... ;-) ). Those dark months emphasized to me the fragility of my current 'production process'.

Ironically, it is much more straightforward for me to construct an HTML version of the newsletter and simply upload it once to one or more Web sites. Above and beyond this, the formatting and graphics options available in HTML provide the possibility of a nicer (and more informative) product -- one that can now include tables, graphics, and interactive links where appropriate.

The current situation is one of 'double effort' -- I construct an ASCII text version of the newsletter, wrestle with two separate systems to get it sent out to all of you, convert the original into an HTML file, and upload it to the Web (currently to Kevin McGee's site).

I've been debating the notion of making The Observer a primarily WWW-based effort, and de-emphasizing the prior ASCII text format. This plain format was not a default -- it was actively chosen back in 1992 as the most viable 'least common denominator' vehicle for distributing the information to a worldwide audience with widely-divergent degrees of Internet access and computing 'horsepower'.

I am torn between (a) wanting to provide the most 'generic' type of support to a varied autopoiesis 'community' (i.e., the ASCII / email format) and (b) wanting to expand the presentational possibilities and reduce the email workload by exploiting the Web.

It appears to me that there are 2 main issues to be considered. The first is ensuring that the subscriber population can continue to avail themselves of the material -- i.e., that any new procedure does not cause exclusion of anyone. The second issue is more subtle -- how to notify subscribers that a new (WWW) version of The Observer is available. In the current email procedure, you know it when you see it. In a purely WWW procedure, I could for example: (a) leave it to you to check occasionally; (b) broadcast a new issuance announcement on the ThinkNet autopoiesis email discussion channel; and/or (c) directly broadcast an announcement message to an ongoing email subscriber list.

There will be no change without consulting you, the subscribers, so....

Talk to me!

I'd like to get feedback on the following issues:

I want to make it clear that I have no intention of discontinuing my efforts to promote and maintain an internet ‘community of interest’ on autopoiesis and enaction. Kent Palmer (ThinkNet) and I have worked hard for the last few years toward this end, and things are progressing nicely. On the other hand, the explosive growth of the World Wide Web opens up new and interesting possibilities for evolution of this Internet 'community'. I am simply wondering if it's now time to take a step beyond the original 'least common denominator' approach of ASCII text and electronic mail.

Of course, if any of you would like to seriously discuss any other options, I'd be happy to consider them.

Please give me feedback via email to:

I am more concerned about universal access than anything else, so I most definitely want to hear from anyone / everyone who would be disadvantaged by a conversion of The Observer to a mainly (or wholly) WWW-based product.





by Jane Cull


Over the centuries we have had a paradigm of thinking that the mind is in the head. That the mind exists somewhere in the brain and that it processes and stores information. On a closer inspection of the brain you would find that the entity we call "mind" is not actually there, but is used as a metaphor for the process of thinking. A metaphor is a description of something that we want to explain that exists in our experience; thus a metaphor is not an explanation. 

To propose that the mind or the process of thinking exists in the head or brain is only descriptive and is misleading in several ways.

For example, if you were to open up the brain not only would you not find a mind, you would not see words or pictures floating around in there either. Nor would you see a storage place or some mechanism that stores all these words or pictures.

Generally, the operation of the brain/mind and it's processes are described as a computer. The brain receives the message from the outside (the environment or someone else), decodes and stores the message for use at some other time. Other metaphors to describe this process of processing and storage, are the "unconscious" or "sub-conscious".

If the brain/mind processes are described as a computer, then how do the words and pictures get into the brain? How are these downloaded to the mind and stored for later use? Do the words somehow float in through our ears? Do the pictures pass through the retina of the eye? Do the words and pictures pass through nerve fibres to the brain and the nervous system?

Having given these questions some serious consideration, I came to the conclusion that to explain the brain/mind processes in this way is completely non-sensical. And I would like to offer another perspective.

That the system that we call the brain, is a vast network of cells that are interconnected with the rest of the nervous system and operates according to its own interconnected internal dynamics, its structure. Whatever happens in the brain or nervous system is determined by this structure. A structure that is dynamic; constantly undergoing states of change. These changes are due to the operation of its internal dynamics as well as the interactions that the organism participates in it's environment or medium, which also trigger changes of state in the brain and nervous system. 

...for the operation of the nervous system, there is no inside or outside, but only maintenance of correlations that continuously change....
The Tree of Knowledge, 1987. Maturana and Varela 

From what I have just stated, means that the brain and nervous system is operationally closed, because its operation depends on what is happening in its structure. Anything that is external to the nervous system and brain can only trigger or influence states of change in it. It is the structure that determines what happens in it. Hence, we begin to see that the notion of information is impossible from this view.


.....the nervous system does not "pick up information" from the environment, as we often hear. On the contrary, it brings forth a world by specifying what patterns of the environment are perturbations and what changes trigger them in the organism. The popular metaphor of calling the brain an "information-processing device" is not only ambiguous but patently wrong."
The Tree of Knowledge, 1987, Maturana and Varela

So how does the external environment influence the brain and nervous system? We human beings have a body with sensory surfaces; the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin. When we interact with our environment or other people, our sensory surfaces are triggered. These sensory surfaces are also part of the sensory and effector cells of the nervous system and the brain. When our sensory surfaces are triggered, the sensory and effector cells are triggered also, leading to changes of state in the nervous system and the brain. As these interactions are repeated and repeated over a period of time, the changes of state that are triggered by the interactions will be adapted by the structure of the nervous system and the brain. These repetitions are what will become laid down or conserved as sensory motor co-relations. Sensory, meaning the sensory surfaces; motor, meaning the actions performed as a result of the changes in the structure. These repetitions of sensory-motor co-relations are not stored in the mind, but rather become conserved as part of the structural dynamics of the network as patterns of activity. This is how the environment influences the nervous system and the brain and why we find ourselves in repetitive actions or patterns.

Thinking is part of the process of sensory motor co-relations that takes place in the relations of the observer as languaging. Thinking requires the nervous system and the brain but does not take place there. Thinking takes place in the interactions or relations of the observer as part of the languaging process as co-ordinations of co-ordinations of behavior. In fact, the process of thinking requires further recursions on the languaging process. And as languaging takes place in the interactions, it can only trigger the structure. It cannot determine what happens in the structure.

It is the observer that describes this process of thinking and generates a metaphor to describe the process and becomes confused with a supposed entity that actually exists in the head, the mind.

The mind is not in the head, the mind is in the behavior.
The Mind is Not in the Head, 1985, Maturana

It is also interesting to note that when the mind is used to explain behaviour, it is generally talked about in terms of "the mind controls what we do" and "if we control our mind or thoughts, then this will lead to changes in our behaviour".

As I mentioned before that thoughts or thinking, can only influence or trigger what happens in the brain or nervous system, because thinking takes place in the relations or the interactions of the observer. It is the structure that determines what happens in us, not the mind.

So perhaps from this perspective we can gain an understanding that is different and yet enlightening. For me, this structural view of myself as a human being has had enormous consequences in my life. I no longer control, suppress or deny what is happening to me structurally, but rather acknowledge, accept and learn to love my amazing structure and the consequences that that entails. All in all my new worldview has been an amazing journey in understanding what it is to be human. 


Jane Cull is an Educational Consultant on personal and social change. She has specialized in the work of Chilean Biologist, Prof. Humberto Maturana; the connections between biology, human relations and culture. Her other specialities include four processes which are designed to understand and change cultural behavioral patterns in our everyday relationships.

You can find her home page on the Internet:

or you can contact her at Life's Natural Solutions (Australia):

612 9979 5531 (phone/fax)







In our last episode (issue 11), Professor Emeritus Hans-Erik Nissen had contacted the offices of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to suggest that 'autopoiesis' was an appropriate and timely addition to that august compendium's contents. The response (from a Mr. Davis) was, unfortunately, "No". It appears that the EB's staff had decided the notion of 'operational closure' was contrary to the encyclopaedia's current statements that biological systems were by definition not 'closed' (apparently in the conventional sense of that term as used in cybernetics four decades ago...).

 Our story continues with Hans-Erik addressing the EB's grounds for denial of the suggestion. He responded:


Dear Mr. Stephen Davis,


I have waited until now with my reply, when a presentation of the theory of autopoiesis has appeared on the net. I will give a reference to it below.

To me your decision to exclude the concept of 'autopoiesis' from the EB, even in 1995, seems based on a gross misunderstanding of the concept of 'operational closure'. Let me quote a somewhat more elaborate explication than the one you quoted from Principia Cybernetica.

"This more general class of autonomous systems are defined by their organizational closure:

'That is, their organization is characterized by processes such that (1) the processes are related as a network, so that they recursively depend on each other in the generation and realization of the processes themselves, and (2) they constitute the system as a unity recognizable in the space (domain ) in which the processes exist.'

(Varela, 1979, Priciples of Biological Autonomy, p. 55)

It is important to note that this property of 'closure' does not make autonomous systems 'closed' in the classic cybernetic sense of 'isolated from the environment; impervious to environmental influence'."

My quotation I have taken from a presentation of "Self-Organization, Autopoiesis, and Enterprises" by Randall Whitaker, PhD. It can be accessed from . From there you only have to go to "Illuminations" to find the presentation quoted above. Please read it and give your decision another thought. In addition to this I can inform you of the fact that the concept of 'autopoiesis' has found its way into the Danish encyclopaedia Den store danske encyclopaedia.

Looking forward to hear your decision after having read the material by R. Whitaker. Maybe you should not only discuss the matter with biologists, who seem not to share the ideas of Maturana and Varela. It could be rewarding to discuss it also with people knowledgeable in systems science, cognition, and organizational theory.


Looking forward to your decision after reconsidering this matter.


Sincerely yours,


Hans-Erik Nissen


Unfortunately, dear readers, Hans-Erik's renewed effort with supporting citations seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The response from the EB offices was as follows:

Dear Mr. Nissen:

We are sorry for our delay in responding to your message to Stephen Davis, who is no longer with this department, suggesting a discussion of autopoiesis in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

We are aware that autopoiesis has been covered in recent works, not only in the Internet sources that you cite but also in books by Gail Fleischaker, Lynn Margulis, and Dorion Sagan. In the opinion of most researchers, however,the concept of autopoiesis remains controversial, and, as we stated previously, most authoritative sources on biology do not discuss it. Currently we have no plans to include a discussion of autopoiesis; as Britannica is a general reference source, it would be impossible to include an entry on every conceivable topic of interest.

Comments from our readers are always welcome, and, although we are unable to provide a discussion of autopoiesis at this time, we do appreciate the documentation which you have taken the time to provide. For your own purposes, you may be interested in consulting Margulis and Fleischaker's 1987 book on the concept of autopoiesis, Autopoiesis and the Origin of Life. This is, of course, a much more specialized work than Britannica.


Sherman J. Hollar
Editorial Division


...And that, dear readers, is why you won't find "autopoiesis" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica today, nor in all likelihood within our generation. ;-)

Thank you, Hans-Erik, for your efforts. You have ‘fought the good fight’. (Note: I have no intention of mentioning The Encyclopaedia Britannica in the forthcoming Encyclopaedia Autopoietica WWW reference compendium. ;-))