sitemap The Observer: Issue 13 (May 1997) Autopoiesis & Enaction


An Internet Newsletter / Journal on Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Edited and distributed by Dr. Randall Whitaker
1993 and continuing

Issue no. 13

Date of Issuance: May 13, 1997


This first Web issuance of The Observer was finalized on 13 May 1997 and posted to the Observer Web site during the last week in May 1997. It was not until late October 1997 that someone pointed out to me that this issue was missing. My best hypothesis is that a server crash "obliterated" the file, and this Web site was recovered from backup tapes which did not include this issue or the updated Observer pages. I apologize for the inconvenience.... -- Randy




A general overview of the major changes that have occurred in The Observer.


Selected items of interest to the global autopoiesis community.


Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis

John Mingers, Plenum Press, 1995.

Reviewer: Kevin McGee


The Uncertainty of Certainty

Jane Cull


Bateson, Capra, and Dell
Some Comments Motivated by Capra's The Web of Life

Phillip Guddemi



There have been much rethinking, reorganization, and refurbishment occurring since the last issue of The Observer was sent out. In that last issue (#12), I asked readers to give me feedback on how to proceed with the newsletter / journal -- especially with respect to whether or not I should move to the World Wide Web (WWW) as the primary publication / distribution venue. The response was considerably more voluminous than I expected (but I liked it!).

To make a long story short, there was effective unanimity among you that moving to the Web was the way to go. The only reservation expressed was that you had appreciated the convenience of having The Observer magically appear in your electronic mailbox whenever I could get an issue "out the door." I fully understand this (being a subscriber to several email-oriented discussion and distribution lists). However, this small measure of convenience cannot outweigh the merits of Web publishing -- e.g., greater sophistication in presentation, the opportunities for graphics, direct "hot linking" to relevant sites / sources, and the reduced burden on your faithful editor (relative to email broadcasting).

As a result...

This -- the 13th -- issue of The Observer is a transitional product. It is the last issue of the newsletter / journal that will be generally broadcast via email. It will be the first issue introduced via the Web.




1997 Symposium on Autopoiesis

Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG)
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
18 - 21 November 1997

There's going to be an international gathering on the subject of autopoiesis!

Here are some basic facts:

Cristina Magro (Department of Linguistics, UFMG) has been the driving force in securing support from her university to host this event. Many details are still being worked out.

A special symposium Web page has been established at The Observer Web. This will serve as a bulletin board for information on the symposium (as it becomes available). The URL for the symposium Web page is:




Self-Producing Systems:
Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis

John Mingers

Plenum Press, 1995

Reviewer: Kevin McGee

Outline of this Book Review

  1. Introduction
  2. Clarification
  3. Related Disciplines: Interpretations & Concerns
  4. Evaluation
  5. Conclusion

Outline of the Book

Autopoiesis in the Physical Domain

Theories of Cognition

Applications of Autopoiesis



In the preface toSelf-Producing Systems, Mingers begins with a statement of purpose:

The book should be seen not as a summation and evaluation of autopoiesis ...Rather, it is intended as an opening-up, as a facilitation of even more productive and well-founded work. Autopoiesis requires opening-up in a number of ways:
The original language of autopoiesis is opaque and convoluted and in a sense closed. It is hard to penetrate without much effort. I therefore try to re-export the ideas in more transparent language.
The theoretical work is also closed in that it makes almost no contact or reference with other bodies of ideas. Maturana, especially, may claim that it is radically new, but on examination it is considering some of the age-old questions. I therefore try whenever possible to point out possible connections and resonances with other areas.
The work has been taken up in many different disciplines, but each has its own interpretations, its own concerns, and its own applications. I think it is useful to bring each of these to the attention of the others.
The book is, therefore, largely expository rather than evaluative or critical. However, I have adopted a more critical stance in certain sections, such as those on philosophy and social theory, and I have indicated areas of debate in the final chapter. (Mingers, pps. ix - x)

This review evaluates Mingers' book largely in terms of his own objectives: his attempt to clarify the language and concepts of autopoiesis, to situate the theory in the context of other work, to highlight the alternative interpretations of autopoiesis and ensuing concerns of related disciplines, and to provide some degree of critical evaluation. The focus of this discussion will tend to center on my own areas of interest and expertise: epistemology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and philosophy. This does some disservice to Mingers, as his own domains are management and organization theory. However, the perceptive reader should be able to safely generalize many aspects of this review to Mingers' treatment of these topics and social systems, family therapy, and law.

In general, my response to this book is that it has a great deal of useful information, but many portions of it read like a draft manuscript. The rest of the review is a more detailed analysis of some of these difficulties, with the hope that these comments can help bring about a more elaborate, coherent, and generally useful revised edition.


First, let me state that I disagree with Mingers' assessment that the language of Maturana and Varela is opaque and convoluted. It is indeed difficult at times to read their material, but this, in my opinion, is largely the result of a tendency they have to move too quickly through concepts which are unfamiliar. If there is one thing that could be done to make their work more approachable, it would be greater elaboration: Mingers could have done us all a real service by carefully and clearly elaborating in detail some of their more difficult ideas. Indeed, this was the principle expectation I had of Mingers' book, and unfortunately, it is in this regard that the book is the most disappointing. Furthermore, the mechanics of the writing are often so frustrating that many, if not most, of my review notes were editorial comments, the kind one would make in shaping a draft manuscript. These editorial irritations fall into several broad categories: awkward and occasionally misleading sentence structure and language; excessive repetition; tangential material that interrupts the flow of exposition -- or is completely irrelevant to it; failure to elaborate; choppy style; inconsistency; and overall lack of coherent organization. I shall address each of these in turn.

Awkward language

Early in the book, Mingers writes:
This latter point, about producing boundaries, is particularly important when one attempts to apply autopoiesis to other domains, such as the social world, and is a recurring point of debate (Mingers, p. 16)

Perhaps other readers had to scan this line several times as I did. What is therecurring debate, I wondered, aboutproducing boundaries? Finally, I realized that therecurring debate was about the application of models from autopoiesis to other domains. Such a parsing difficulty is annoying once -- unfortunately, there are many similar situations through-out the book.

Further down the page, Mingers says:

It might appear that this description of relationsnecessary for autopoiesis has a functionalist, teleological tone. This is not really the case, as Maturana and Varela strongly object to such explanations (Mingers, p. 16).

This is not an argument. Mingers may mean thatMaturana and Varela have been very careful to define their model in non-functionalist, non-teleological terms, but this isn't what he says.

This kind of sloppiness, in the wrong situation, becomes more than linguistic and actually contributes to misunderstandings about the specific details of the theory. In particular, I believe this contributes to one of the most problematic aspects of this book: Mingers treatment of constructivism, which I will discuss in more detail below.

Excessive repetition

The reader encounters many examples of ideas and text repeated through-out the book, as if it were the result of cobbling together some journal papers. This is mildly annoying, but there is also another, less obvious, style of repetition which is more pervasive and distracting. This is in the form ofI will now tell you what I will tell you, I will now tell you what I am telling you, and I will now tell you what I told you. A certain degree of this is helpful in orienting the reader. Unfortunately, in this book it seems to be carried to extremes, with sections describing what the chapter is about, subsections describing the sections, and so on, ad tedium. It is an exaggeration to say that there is more time devoted to telling us what we will be told than to actually telling us -- but this exaggeration does express the way it occasionally feels.

Tangential material

The book is full of non-sequiturs, tangential comments and allusions, and distracting asides. For example, the book opens with a quote by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, emphasizing the difference between thebringing-forth of something by itself (poiesis) and thebringing-forth in another (en alloi). Those familiar with the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela will immediately recognize the linguistic parallel with their autopoiesis and allopoiesis.

So far, so good. Mingers has started us off by pointing to a potentially rich connection. However, this parallel isn't directly referenced anywhere in the rest of the first chapter, nor does it seem to be used to contextualize the chapter, let alone the book. In fact, the first chapter is a slightly unfocused set of thoughts on the questions that drove Maturana and Varela to formulate autopoiesis, and, for some odd reason, a brief detour (along with chart!) discussing the increase in number of works citing the work of Maturana and Varela. Mingers waits until well into the next chapter to make any reference to the Heidegger/Maturana connection, the reference is itself a non-sequitur, and it appears as though the most interesting thing about the reference is the (possibly coincidental) parallel use of termspoiesis andallo.

To be sure, Mingers later devotes a healthy number of pages to the work of Heidegger, but he doesn't seem to discuss the parallel to any significant degree. Is it not important, for example, that although they use similar terminology, Heidegger's major concern was ontology (being) and Maturana's is not? What implications do these divergent foci have on the otherwise similar use ofallo andpoiesis? Furthermore, why does Maturana sometimes share Heidegger's phenomenological orientation when alternatives might otherwise seem more natural? One must wonder why, for example, Maturana (and Varela, Winograd, and others) chooses to align himself with Heidegger in asserting that readiness-to-hand of precedes breakdowns, rather than with Piaget in which this readiness-to-hand is the result of breakdowns (Piaget, who was the champion par excellence of active, constructive epistemology). Mingers does not explore these issues.

It may seem petty to criticize the use of an opening quote, but the book is full of such examples of unnecessarily superficial allusions that break the flow of the writing. In his opening presentation ofThe Essential Idea of Autopoiesis, for example, Mingers takes time out for a one-line reference to the biologist Jacques Monod and thesimilar but not identical question of distinguishing between natural and artificial systems. (Mingers, p. 9). In general, Mingers sees many interesting and important parallels, but they are often treated in a cursory manner, rather than given the space they deserve.

This is not to say that all the detours are interesting. In fact, at times they are aggravating, since they distract from an issue about which the reader has a right to expect more information:

One would have expected that, given the importance and nature of its claims, autopoiesis would have had a major impact on the field of biology. In fact, for many years there was a noticeable reluctance to take the ideas seriously at all. In 1979, I wrote to an eminent British biologist -- Professor Steven Rose at the Open University -- querying the status of autopoiesis. He replied to the effect that he did not wish to comment on autopoiesis but that Maturana was a reputable biologist. (Mingers, p. 22)

Why are we presented with this anecdote about Rose? We want more insight into the forces that contribute to autopoiesis' minimal impact in the larger field of biology. Is it the failure of the theory? Is it the limited imagination of the established scientific community? Is it a lack of publicity? Perhaps Mingers does not wish to speculate on this (fair enough); if this is the case, however, he should not raise the issue in the first place.

Failure to elaborate

In the first section,The Essential Idea of Autopoiesis, of his first chapter,The Organization of the Living System, Mingers outlines one of the central problems of biology: what distinguishes living from non-living? Then he sketches some of the traditional approaches to this problem: vitalism (life is some non-material force), systems theory (life is a pattern of mechanisms), and the specification of necessary features. This brief review sets the stage for Maturana and Varela's big idea:
living systems are autopoietic -- they are organized in such a way that their processes produce the very components necessary for the continuance of these processes. (Mingers, p. 11)

This description of autopoiesis, although basic Maturana and Varela, is problematical. As stated, it makes autopoiesis sound like rank magic. In fact, one common criticism of autopoiesis is that it is borderline mystical: processes that produce the components necessary for those processes defies physical law. Of course, on careful reading of Maturana and Varela, it turns out that the autopoietic model of the cell is formally rigorous: it does take in nutrients and energy, and does release waste products. (Of course, this in itself raises another question: is the emphasis on self-production a fundamental insight or merely a change in perspective? If it is fundamental, how does it differ from existing models? If it is only a change of perspective, why is it important? To my mind, this is a perfect opportunity for Mingers to elaborate something about which Maturana and Varela are not always clear or elaborate enough. Unfortunately, Mingers does not take this opportunity.) It is almost certain that Mingers himself is clear on this, but there are occasional comments that do raise doubts and which can contribute to the confusion of readers turning to Mingers for clarification. In the next chapter, for example, he says:

autopoietic systems are autonomous -- they depend essentially only on themselves for their continued production (Mingers, p. 37).

And here we have one of the central shortcomings of the book: Mingers simply doesn't take the time to elaborate fundamental concepts. Mingers may not mean that autopoietic systems completely produce themselves, but without further elaboration, the reader is in risk of being left with this impression. It is essential for the reader to have a firm grasp on self-production -- especially in a book with the titleSelf-Producing Systems.

Another area where Mingers skims too quickly (as do Maturana and Varela) is on the notion of change.

Living things are continually changing and developing, and these changes are determined by their own structure. Some changes, such as growth, leave the organization the same; other changes result in a new organization -- for example, a caterpillar developing into a butterfly or an egg into a chicken -- while others, such as death, lead to the loss of both the organization and the unity (Mingers, pps. 30-31).

The question of change has a very long pedigree in philosophy. To what extent does the new vocabulary of Maturana and Varela help resolve some of the age-old problems? Why is the example of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly a change of organization whereasgrowth is not?

Other examples of Mingers' failure to elaborate are more obvious, though no less distracting:

As adults we are so immersed in and successfully coupled to our environments that we forget the enormous structural developments (ontogenetic structural drift, in Maturana's words) that must have occurred in us, although observing the helplessness of young babies quickly brings this home. It is still easy, however, to imagine that the environment caused us to become adapted to it, but this is as mistaken as to believe that the existence of tree tops caused the development of giraffes (Mingers, p. 76).

Mingers neither elaborates on why this is a mistaken (though common) belief, nor on why this is an appropriate analogy for mistaken models of childhood development.

This brevity of Mingers' even extends to his use of citations:

Through this self-reflexive self-description lies the possibility of escape from predeterminism (Mingers, p. 47).

What? The whole debate between determinism and free-will may be resolved through autopoiesis? How? What are the details? Surely news this momentous deserves more than a brief assertion.

This cursory treatment of deeply important controversies happens several times. For example:

this global characteristic, in turn, specifies or constrains the components to be of certain types (specification), in certain places (constitution), at certain times (order) (Mingers, p. 194).

This concept, sometimes calleddownward causation in the field of Artificial Life, is one of the most controversial, as it confronts one of the most deeply held views in the scientific tradition: the properties of elements specify large-scale phenomena, but the opposite is not true. Here again, Mingers does us all a disservice.

In the end, as readers we expect Mingers, the commentator, to provide substantial elaboration of the pertinent issues by highlighting any shortcomings as they exist in the original work of Maturana and Varela (and others), and by clarifying their use of language, and by providing more information and less assertion.

Choppy style

In general, Mingers' style is very choppy. Sections and chapters end abruptly as if he is not comfortable with his ability to fully discuss the topic at hand. For example, he ends chapter 3:
People develop similar cognitive structures because they undergo similar experiences in developing within a culture or society and because of the structural coupling that occurs among them within the consensual domain of language. This position, which Maturana terms subject-dependent cognition, is an example of a constructivist philosophy (Segal, 1986). (Mingers, p. 48)

Constructivism isn't further elaborated, according to the (woefully inadequate) index, until some 40-odd pages later. Of course it is not possible to fully elaborate all concepts when they are initially presented. However, the roughness of the transitions, together with the scattered organization and poor index, do not make this any easier on the reader.


At times Mingers seems to fall back into the very frameworks which he successfully critiques. For example, after a discussion (on page 37) about why autopoietic theory avoids functionalist descriptions and models, in the later chapter on language he states:
It is important to note that the driving force behind these developments is the evolutionary advantage they provide by permitting co-operative and coordinated activity (Mingers, p. 79).

Does this reflect a difference between Mingers' own opinions and those of Maturana and Varela -- or poor editing? We are left to wonder.

Lack of organization

Occasionally there are comments that suffer from lack of organization or persistence. For example:
I shall argue later that it is better to retain the more conventional use of cognition. (Mingers, p. 68)

Unfortunately, this argument never seems to materialize. To be sure, there is the sustained critique of Maturana's constructivism, but are we to take his championing of Bhaskar'scritical realism as an example of a more conventional use of cognition? Alternatively, Mingers may actually make an argument for retaining a more conventional model of cognition, but the fact that I failed to find it after several attempts is, in itself, not a good sign.

Related Disciplines: Interpretations & Concerns

Mingers book does everyone interested in autopoiesis a favor by collecting a great deal of information in one place, and by situating the work on autopoiesis in the larger context of other work. The book devotes large sections to the use of autopoiesis in theoretical discussions about organizations, law, family therapy, and cognitive science, and this in itself is valuable.

Although the book does to some extent explore the ways in which different disciplines have attempted to incorporate ideas from autopoiesis, Mingers' major contribution is to make readers aware of some of the difficulties associated with using self production as a model for systems other than the biological cell. In fact, it seems fair to say that this issue is the core of the entire book, and Mingers uses it to focus the strongest parts, namely Part III, which deals with the applications of autopoiesis. In the beginning of the chapter, Autopoietic Organizations and Social Systems, Mingers writes:

The central problem is that the autopoietic definition specifies the production of the components constituting the entity and the production of a boundary separating the entity from its environment. The definition does not specify that these must be physical components, but if they are not, then what precisely is their domain of existence? This chapter is structured by different responses to this central question (Mingers, p. 120).

And, indeed, this chapter proves to be his most sustained and detailed. It is Mingers at his best, and one is left wanting the rest of the book to be this good. Examining the number of pages devoted to each chapter is somewhat revealing: Autopoietic Organizations and Social Theory receives the most extensive treatment and is roughly twice as long as the other chapters. (Actually, the chapter on Philosophical Implications is nearly as long as the longest chapter. Unfortunately, most of this chapter is devoted to his critique of Maturana's constructivism. Why doesn't Mingers treat a wider range of philosophical implications? It would have been interesting, for example, to have an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the organization and structure of Maturana and Varela and the ideal and the real of Plato -- a parallel so obvious that one is at a loss to understand why Mingers avoids it entirely, instead making the curious and misleading statement that the essential distinction between organization and structure is between a whole and its parts (Mingers, p. 15).)

In his element, Mingers is remarkably clear, insightful, and helpful. His treatment of his own areas, organizations and social systems, is thorough and well-balanced. He can also be illuminating when discussing other aspects of autopoiesis, as when he describes the motivation behind Varela's extension of Spencer Brown's calculus for self-reference:

Self-reference is also of central importance in the domain of living systems (Varela, 1977a), and particularly human beings, who have the capacity to build images of themselves, to be self-reflective. Varela was motivated to undertake his study because of his work on autopoiesis, in which epistemology must be self-reflexive since it is, itself, part of the area that is its subject, that is knowledge (Mingers, p. 56).

Bravo! Clear, concise, and helpful. Unfortunately, there are not enough of such moments.

Although, in general, I have less to say about the exposition of autopoiesis as it relates to social theory, family therapy, and law, these sections of the book seem fairly competent. However, for what it's worth, the treatment of these topics didn't excite my interest in them. This may reflect my own prejudices, the possibility that these topics are not ultimately amenable to rich treatment in the context of autopoietic theory, or a certain dryness in the presentation; whatever the case, it does not seem to reflect well on Mingers' stated intention of making practitioners in related fields aware of each others work. Superficially, of course, I am more aware of the work in these areas after having read the book, but I have no deep appreciation for why the problems in those fields are difficult or even interesting.


As Mingers says, his book includes minimal critical evaluation of autopoietic theory. However, to the extent that it is present, it is chiefly in his solid critique (noted above) of the ways that different disciplines have appropriated concepts from autopoiesis (and the ensuing theoretical difficulties), and his rather scattered critique of what he takes to be Maturana's constructivism. This is a very strange aspect of the book, because Mingers himself does not adequately make certain key distinctions in his presentation of constructivism, and because it feels as though he is using this as an opportunity to champion the critical realism of Bhaskar, rather than accept the structurally-determined consequences of the autopoietic model.

After reading Self Producing Systems, perhaps the deepest substantive concern I have is that the sloppiness of presentation occasionally raises doubts about Mingers' own understanding of the material. Let me hasten to say that I believe he does understand it, but that the rough quality of some of the writing sometimes obscures this. In order to delineate this issue, I will present in more detail Mingers' treatment ofconstructivism, which is characterized by two salient features: the sloppiness of the presentation and the fact that he provides no argument for why he would like to assimilate Maturana's constructivism to Bhaskar's critical realism.

Let's begin by looking at some of the positions.

First, there is the strong realist position, in which there is a real world, with real objects, and the knowing of this world is possible. Mingers is clearly not interested in this position, and (correctly, I believe) assumes that Maturana isn't either.

Second, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is extreme subjectivism, in which there is nothing (ontologically) real except what the individual constructs. This seems to be how Mingers (incorrectly, I believe) characterizes Maturana:

an antirealist position, according to which we can have no claim to objectivity, in the sense of subject-independent truths -- we have no access to an objective reality. Our beliefs and theories are purely human constructs which constitute rather than reflect reality. This position has been termed constructivism (Mingers, p. 85).

[Constructivism]refers to the more radical idea that our theories and, indeed, our experience of the world are essentially constructed by us; we construct the world that we experience, either as individuals or as communities, and as our theories change so does the world we experience (Mingers p. 88).
it is not just that we cannot access an existing external reality, but that our realities [emphasis in original] are brought into existence through our activities as observers. (Mingers, p. 91)

A third model is thecritical realism of Bhaskar, which

accepts the epistemological criticisms that observations are theory-dependent and that we cannot have pure access to an independent world. It asserts strongly, however, that such a world does exist and that it is populated by objects and entities, some of which may be in principle unobservable, which have causal powers or tendencies. (Mingers, p. 88).

This is Mingers position, and he devotes some energy to asserting that Maturana should be thought of in these terms.

However, there is a fourth position, and the very fact that it is not explicitly articulated as such by Mingers is cause for concern. This fourth version is the result of distinguishing betweenontological constructivism (individual creates the real world, i.e., the constructivism described above) and phenomenological constructivism (the world of an individual is brought forth by that individual as a result of his/her unique features and/or history). These two are very different, and Mingers seems to slide between them without noting the distinction.

This review is not the place to engage in a debate of what Maturana does and does not believe. My main concern is that Mingers clearly and thoroughly articulates a consistent interpretation and then derives his conclusion based on it. This consistency seems to be lacking in the presentation of Maturana as a constructivist, as a later description by Mingers makes him out to be a phenomenological constructivist:

Maturana's theory provides a coherent explanation (or generative mechanisms, in his terms) that blends a number of philosophical ideas. But is clear that he is neither an empiricist, in that he maintains that experiences are not independent of the observer, nor a realist, denying access to or the existence of independent reality. He argues that what primarily exists for us human beings are the phenomena of our experience rather than an independent reality (phenomenalism). However, these phenomena are not necessarily the same for all, but are subject-dependent, generated by the operation of a structure-determined but plastic nervous system within a consensual domain. As such, we construct the world we experience (constructivism). These constructions are not purely individual, but reflect the intersubjective nature of language and action. Different domains of experience give rise to different domains of reality. As observers, we describe and explain our experiences as part of our practical daily existence, and our explanation are judged valid if they satisfy listeners according to the criteria appropriate to their domain, rather than by virtue of being true or false (pragmatism). (Mingers, p. 93

This description can be reconciled with earlier ones (if one squints enough), but why should the reader have to work this hard to decode what Mingers means when he calls Maturana a constructivist? In fact, on the very next page he writes:

The central tenet of Maturana's ideas -- that the world we experience is a subject-dependent creation. (Mingers, p. 94)

Is this subject-dependent creation that of an extreme subjectivist (as one version of Mingers' description would have us believe) or that of a structurally-determined constructivist who believes that the phenomenological world is, of necessity, created by the observer (as Mingers' alternative version seems to imply)?

On the subject of Bhaskar and critical realism, Mingers, on the one hand, is very clear in his understanding that Maturana's non-realist model is a direct consequence of the formal specification of autopoiesis:

I accept that his [Maturana's] ideas lead inescapably to the view that we cannot directly access a world independent of our perception and language. This does not, however, prove that there is no such world (Mingers, pps. 111-12).

On the other hand, his treatment of this seems to consist entirely in asserting that there could be an objective reality, and that Maturana's position can be reconciled to accepting it (if only it is framed within critical realism). Ultimately, Mingers does not so much present an argument as he simply asserts that Maturana's position feels wrong:

epistemologically I do not accept Maturana's conclusions that there is no independent reality accessible to us (Mingers, p. 183).

This is far from satisfying, given the passion and concern Mingers obviously feels about this topic.

The initial reason for examining Mingers' treatment of constructivism was not to resolve the surrounding confusions and debates in this short space, but to illustrate how sloppy language can have problematic consequences. However, the example of constructivism also raises another curious issue. Namely, the relative contributions, and current beliefs of the two principals of autopoiesis: Maturana and Varela.

It would have been very helpful for Mingers to outline the history of these two individuals: which parts of autopoietic theory did each develop, what are their current areas of focus, on which crucial issues do they agree and disagree, etc. This is more than an idle desire for gossip. Some such information (or speculation) informs a great deal of Mingers' book, and personally, I would have preferred it was made explicit, rather than have their positions be implied. For example, all discussion about the internal inconsistencies of the autopoietic model takes place with reference to Maturana, not Varela. Furthermore, one is left to infer from scattered comments in the book that Maturana may be a (solipsistic) constructivist whereas Varela is not. This may be true (I doubt it, but then I have not been following Maturana's recent work), but it would have been useful to contextualize this.

Furthermore, there is a strange sense that Mingers slights Varela's work. Indeed, Varela is hardly ever acknowledged, except for his work on extending Spencer Brown's calculus and his latest research on enactive cognition. Why, for example, is the review of philosophical implications devoted entirely to Maturana? Why does Mingers attribute the phenomenological constructivism that has always been present in Maturana and Varela to the enactive model of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch? (An attribution made all the more odd since enactive cognition is an attempt to substantially extend phenomenological constructivism.)

In fact, the aspect of the book I personally found most disappointing is Mingers' meagre treatment of Varela's most recent work in enactive cognitive science. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Mingers has brief, lucid moments, and it is unfortunate that there simply wasn't more of it on a topic about which I genuinely care. Like Mingers, I agree that:

Varela's work on enactive cognition, developing from autopoiesis and synthesizing connectionism, phenomenology, and current neuroscience, is very exciting (Mingers, p. 201).

Unlike Mingers, however, I do not feel that one can say, after devoting a scant 10 pages to his ideas, that the outlines sketched here of Varela's work are sufficient (Mingers, p. 201). Personally, I would have appreciated him devoting the same space and care to this evaluating topic (and others) that he brought to his treatment of organizations and social systems.


In the end, the reader is left wondering who the intended audience is for this book. And what does Mingers wish to communicate to this audience? Unfortunately, the book's opening statement of purpose feels more like an afterthought as opposed to acting as a guide during the actual writing of the book. Even worse, the book conveys none of the excitement of the theoretical ideas. Oddly enough, one gets more of what's important about Maturana and Varela from Fritjof Capra's new book,The Web of Life.

This is not to say there isn't genuine insight and understanding here. There is. But the overall impression is that this is a short-story writer attempting a first novel.

In conclusion, Self Producing Systems needs several more years worth of work: elaboration, editing, organization; it should be twice as long and half as repetitive. By providing elaborate and detailed exposition of the concepts which have traditionally proved to be stumbling blocks, by updating the ideas of Maturana and Varela in the light of their own recent work and that of related researchers, and by highlighting the big ideas and interesting problems of the field, this book could have been a valuable resource. We can only hope that with time, and stronger editorial assistance, Mingers will produce such a book.

About the Author

Kevin McGee is currently Project Leader for the Interactive Discovery Learning initiative, at the Institute of Systems Science in Singapore. Kevin's "home base" contact information goes as follows:

Källvägen 11
640 60 Åkers Styckebruk


Thanks, Kevin, for the most in-depth book review ever to run in this venue! Your comments are all the more important at this time, when this book is one of the only primary resource publications to be in print.

If you readers would like to check out Mingers' book, you can purchase it now through the Observer Web Book Shop.




The Uncertainty of Certainty

Jane Cull

Life's Natural Solutions (Australia)

Copyright 1996 Jane Cull

This material may be freely copied and reused, provided the author and source are cited. However, the author would appreciate being contacted should you wish to copy or reuse the material.

All of us at one time or another have had the experience of wanting certainty in our lives; that what we want to happen will turn out exactly as we had imagined it. But how often does it turn out that way?

My experiences have shown that no matter how determined I am at wanting something to happen exactly as I expect it to, the events rarely turn out that way. Sometimes they do, but I have to admit it is a rarity. I can't begin to tell you how disappointed, frustrated and angry I used to get and still get when what happens is not in line with my expectations.

So why is it that I can't determine what happens in my life? Why is it that after using various visualisation and affirmation techniques, I still can't get my life to turn out the way I want it to? Well, the answers to these questions lies in the biology, because biology has to do with life and being human.

Certainty as I understand it is about determining the outcomes we want in our lives; what our experiences are going to be. We want to be certain about what is going to happen. That somehow if we imagine a certain outcome, it will turn out exactly the way we want it to.

For example, we imagine in our thinking what we want to do for the day - what our experiences are going to be - so we set our intentions, goals or objectives. We may even prioritise them. But all of this is carried out with certainty; the expectation that these experiences will happen exactly the way we want it to as specified by our original thoughts and intentions, goals etc.

Uncertainty on the other hand is a term I use to explain why our lives dont turn out quite the way we imagine it and expect it to through our thoughts and intentions etc. So what is the source of uncertainty?

Uncertainty as it turns out, arises as a result of biological processes; processes that generate our experiences. As a result our experiences happen to us and we live our lives in this manner; in the happening of our experiences. Thus, we can't be entirely certain about what is going to happen as this is determined by the biology.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. There appears to be a contradiction between what we live, uncertainty, and what we culturally believe, certainty. So we will be exploring the source of this contradiction along with the biological processes of uncertainty, as well as some of the consequences in human relations. For the moment, however, lets take a look at the biological processes of uncertainty

To put it simply, these biological processes stem from a vast interconnected cellular network. A network that is constantly changing as a result of all the interactions that are happening in it. These changes are self producing, i.e. the changes are generated by what is happening in the network.

All of these changes lead to different kinds of experiences that happen to us in our living. However, the changes we undergo in every moment of our living happen not only as a result of the network which I will call the "structure", but also further changes occur in the structure as a result of our interactions. Every interaction that we do in our living (with our environment and people) triggers changes in the structure (the network). Thus, interactions only trigger changes in the structure, they do not determine or specify what will happen in the structure.

Every change that we undergo as a result of what is happening in the structure generates different kinds of experiences in which change is constant. As a result our experiences happen to us. Every experience that we live in any given moment cannot be any other way than what it is, because that is the experience. We may not like it (a preference based on our dislikes), but that is an entirely different situation from what is literally occuring in the moment. So we can choose to accept the moment and influence it through our thinking, or we can resist it through control and manipulation.

To control or manipulate what we want to happen is to force something or someone to do something usually through a demand which is a command for obedience A demand is a form of self negation because a person is complying with what is being demanded. In other words they will obey and do what is being demanded, even when they do not want to do it.

Normally, we will try to control experiences we don't like through our thinking. We will try and force the moment to be different to what we want or like, through our intentions and preferences which arise in thinking. But it is not our thoughts, intentions or preferences that generate our experiences, it is our structures. Thus, we can only influence our experiences, we cannot control or determine what will happen in the experience.

As we can see it is the biology that generates our experiences and not what we think. This explains why our lives don't turn out the way we imagine and expect it to. What we imagine and expect takes place as a preference in our thinking and so does not determine what happens, but only influences.

Our lives as it turns out, unfolds in the happening of our experiences, thus we live a certain amount of uncertainty about what is going to happen. But there is also another important factor to be considered in the equation of uncertainty; the question of perception.

How do we know that what we experience as perception is actually real or true? Alot of people claim the "truth" about reality, but what they do not take into consideration is that the notion of reality is something that we construct in language. There is not "a reality out there", but a multitude of realities that we live as experiences. What is true for one person can also be true for another and that will depend upon their own reality, their experience.

But, can we be certain about what we know if what we know stems from our experiences? Well, yes and no. We can be certain about our experiences because that is what happens to us, but we can't be certain about what we believe to be real or true. Why? Because we cannot in the moment distinguish between perception and illusion. This is because of the changing nature of our structures which generates our experiences.

For example, a practical joke. A practical joke is when an individual will live what is happening in the moment as a perception and will later dismiss the perception as an illusion when the individual is told that it was just a joke. Another example is the mistaken identity of someone or an object.

This is our daily experience, it happens to me all the time. I hear a noise and I think its someone knocking on the door. I go and investigate and there is no one there. I think, "thats funny, I could have sworn someone was there". I later find out it was a venetian blind banging against the wall. There are hundreds of other examples that I experience on a day to day basis. But this is a good example: that what appears as a certain perception in one moment turns out to be an illusion in another moment, uncertainty. We cannot be certain about what we believe to be true or real, because biologically we live uncertainty.

Yet, if we live uncertainty biologically, how come we live a world where certainty is the norm and yet at the same time is a contradiction in biological terms?

I would say that the notion of certainty arises from our cultural world view where certainty is imbued with absolute truths about how the world is.

In Chapter one of The Tree of Knowledge, Knowing How We Know, Maturana and Varela sum up the situation perfectly:

"We tend to live a world of certainty, of undoubted, rock-ribbed perceptions: our convictions prove that things are the way we see them and there is no alternative to what we hold as true. This is our daily situation, our cultural condition, our common way of being human." (1987)

An absolute truth implies that things/objects are the way they are. That the perception and existence of things/objects are in themselves and arise independently of what we say and do; informing us as to what "it" is, as if "it" were there in itself. This implies that things/objects can specify and determine what our experiences will be. Thus, we can be certain about what the experience will be, because it is specified by its independent existence.

For example, we imagine a particular outcome we want and we assume that the outcome is there independently, because we have imagined it that way. We are certain and hence, we expect the outcome to happen. All we have to do is to make it happen exactly as we imagine it, or we go looking for the outcome as if "it" had an independent existence.

If this outcome involves another person and the person does not meet the expectation, disappointment, frustration and anger can arise; as if the person were at fault for the outcome not turning out the way it was expected to. If anger and frustration appears the other person may want to control the situation by demanding that the expected outcome must be met, i.e. wanting certainty.

However, it is important to remember that expectations are generated by imagining what we want to happen, a preference. Thus, we are responsible for our expectations and not the other person, after all we are the ones that generated it.

As we can see wanting certainty has consequences in our lives. If we have to force, push, control or manipulate what we want to happen, we will spend most of our lives being unhappy or dissatisfied when our expectations are not fulfilled.

If however, we take our biological processes seriously, where change is constant and uncertainty is the norm, then we are free to experience our life as it happens; as it changes and evolves from one moment to another. Not knowing how our lives are going to turn out, but trusting in the process of life as a biological process that determines the happening of our experiences in every moment. Knowing that we are secure in the uncertainty of certainty.


The Tree of Knowledge by Humberto R. Maturana & Francisco J. Varela. Copyright 1992. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc., 300 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, MA., 02115.

About the Author

Jane Cull is an Educational Consultant on personal and social change. She specialises in the work of Chilean Biologist, Prof. Humberto Maturana; the connections between biology, human relations and culture. Her other specialities include four methods which are designed to understand and change cultural behavioral patterns in four key influential relationship areas - personal, family, business and social.

You can contact her at Life's Natural Solutions:




Bateson, Capra, and Dell

Some Comments Motivated by Capra's The Web of Life

Phillip Guddemi

Copyright 1997 Phillip Guddemi

The following is the text of an extended message sent by Phillip to me and to the ThinkNet autopoiesis discussion list. Because I was impressed by the amount of thought that had gone into this position statement, I asked Phillip if I could run it in The Observer, given that he didn't get much feedback from the ThinkNet subscribers. With only minor stylistic editing motivated by HTML concerns, here it is -- reprinted with Phillip's permission. -- Randy

The recent publication and popularity of Fritjof Capra's book The Web of Life has brought into circulation again the arguments of Paul F. Dell dating back to 1985, comparing Bateson's epistemology against Maturana's ontology. Capra goes so far as to provide an appendix, "Revisiting Bateson," in which he recapitulates Dell (while not saying in that space that he is doing so). I was annoyed by what looked like a belittling of Bateson, and wrote a rather involved rant, which I posted to a WELL discussion on autopoiesis. I have not received any response from readers of the WELL.

I have subsequently read a number of Dell's papers on this issue. Dell is a family therapist; family therapists have perhaps the oddest history of any discipline regarding Bateson because they consider him a founder. Family therapy is probably the only discipline therefore which has used (what it considers to be) a Batesonian paradigm and also the only discipline where scholars can have an Oedipal feeling of ambivalence towards Bateson. In other disciplines, such as my own discipline of cultural anthropology, or the various disciplines of biology, Bateson is still a marginal figure. In biology he is not respected while in cultural anthropology he is respected but not used much.

But I do not really sense an Oedipal desire to "overthrow Bateson" in Dell. (I have noted it in other family therapists such as one "feminist" whose name I've forgotten whose book I picked up off a New Books shelf in a library). Dell's articles are very thoughtful and potentially useful, especially "Beyond Homeostasis: Toward a Concept of Coherence" (1982).

Dell's 1985 comparison of Bateson and Maturana, "Understanding Bateson and Maturana: Toward a Biological Foundation for the Social Sciences," was published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. I like his listing of different meanings of "epistemology." A similar listing needs to be done of his different meanings of "logical type." This is a concept which I think is invariably confusing to non-Batesonians. In his later work, particularly, "logical type" lost some of its hierarchical connotations -- especially when he was engaging in non-written "loose thinking."

I believe Dell (and Capra) are probably right when they find that Maturana's structure-determinism is more rigorous than Bateson's late formulations. In many ways Maturana's work as Dell describes it is a stronger ontological/epistemological grounding for Bateson's late position than he himself provided. On the other hand, Bateson cast a wider net than Maturana and was trying to deal with a number of issues which I have not seen addressed by autopoietic theory (though I am not yet particularly well-read in it yet).

There are problems with the purported incompatibilities however.

In The Tree of Knowledge Maturana and Varela are very clear about the need to walk on the knife's edge between representationalism and solipsism (see pages 133-4 and the illustration on page 134). Dell's position tends more toward the solipsistic side. In anthropology today the solipsistic view is attributed to "postmodernism" by the latter's opponents, who counter by characterizing the representationalist view of objective science as "scientism." Maturana and Varela are very clear in The Tree of Knowledge that the solipsistic trap is "denying the surrounding environment on the assumption that the nervous system functions completely in a vacuum, where everything is valid and everything is is a trap because it does not allow us to explain how there is a due proportion or commensurability between the operation of the organism and its world." (1992(1987):133-4) Dell himself notes that "we exist in the physical world" (1985:8) and that "the organism is structurally coupled to its medium" (p. 12). How then does Dell (or Capra) get standing to criticize Bateson for implying (in words Dell puts in Bateson's mouth, by the way) that there is an objective world "out there" even though it is impossible for any observer to perceive it as such? What is the "physical world" or the "medium" then? It is not possible to present anything short of patent solipsism without recourse to some locution of the sort however baroque. Let's not forget that Bateson in his last years was inhabiting Esalen, a whirlpool of solipsism, and may have been reacting more to that environment than to that of folks like AI researchers (or dogmatic family therapists?!), who were trying to tame the monster of representation. Bateson in any case never forgot, and always emphasized, the fact that descriptions were always relative to an observer and that "there are no palm trees in the brain."

Bateson's concept of a difference that makes a difference is echoed in G. Spencer Brown's concept of "drawing a distinction." It is a hypothesis of a mechanism by which cognition works, and is meant to distinguish mental activities from those of simple energetics. Bateson was obsessed with energetics, by the way -- to understand him again with reference to his "medium" or environment of his time -- because of his experience with Freudians who believed in an ego dynamics on a physical analogy. Rightly understood any "difference that makes a difference" always "makes a difference" to someone, viz. to an observer, such as the organism itself/herself. The "out there" world is a source of an infinity of potential differences; thresholds can determine whether a particular difference, i.e. in sound waves at a certain frequency, will be a difference for one type of organism but not another. A project of specifying all the differences and potential differences in the world so as to specify an objective world would seem contradictory to Bateson precisely because it is always an observer who "makes the difference" i.e. draws the relevant distinctions.

Bateson himself changed the statement of his fifth criterion for mental process, which is inconsistent in Mind and Nature. On page 102, in the phrasing criticized by Dell, he states that "in mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e. coded versions) of events which preceded them" (1979:102). But on page 121 which is the section in which he discusses the implications of this criterion, he uses the phasing "transforms (i.e. coded versions) of the difference which preceded them." This change is toward a Maturana-ish direction, i.e. from a concern with "events" (which are out in the unknowable ding-an-sich world) to "differences" which are relative to the observer/organism. But it is true that Bateson was looking for a theory of coding, a natural history of representations-by-organisms always relative to themselves but always relative to interactions with the (at some level) not-me. The quest for this sort of theory leads to Peircian semiotics or to the theory of tropes. Which leads us to Mark Johnson and his theory of metaphor as the basis of language, a theory which at least our Internet autopoiesis folks like to put on reading lists. So how far off could Bateson have been on this?

The sixth criterion for mental process is the other bugaboo for Capra and Dell. "The description and classification of these processes of transformation discloses a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena" (Bateson 1979:127). First let us observe that he is already an outsider describing and classifying these "codings." For the organism there may be an undivided experience, a nonhierarchical moment-by-moment. It is only observers who get caught up in recursive meta- phrasings, such as the following classic from Dell himself: "An organism which can make distinctions (because it coordinates conduct about coordination of conduct with other organisms) is an observer." (Dell 1985:16). Coordinates conduct about coordination of conduct! How many logical types are there here? (That is a trick question because you can't count logical types any more than you can count double binds, cf. Bateson 1972:272.) I won't go into how Dell got into this formulation of coordinating conduct about coordinating conduct; I invite the reader to do so. But there is definitely a hierarchy of logical types immanent in his phrasing. Conduct about conduct: there is activity to be reckoned with -- conduct that is "meta". Such as second-order learning, perhaps; or play? Certainly animal play is conduct about conduct, rather than simple conduct. Whether or not Dell, or Maturana, intended it, they have hooked bigger fish here than merely human language. And the fish looks to me like a Pisces batesoniensis.

(Capra does recognize that a hierarchy of logical types emerges from "communication about communication", even in a Maturanan view, but he perversely denies that this occurs among nonhuman organisms (Capra 1996:308). He conflates "communication about relationship," as Bateson usually called it, with human language. Bateson did a great deal of work which demonstrated that the former exists among at least mammals and birds, and clearly wished to extend it to all mental systems.)

I do think that Bateson could have done better, in his sixth criterion, than "immanent in the phenomena." An earlier Bateson might have said, "immanent in the stuff," just to remind himself that he was engaging in loose thinking at that moment. (See Bateson 1972:84.) From his examples I think he was moving toward something like "immanent in the relationships of the observer/organism with its environment and particularly with other observer/organisms." At least that is how I understand it.

But I hope I have shown that we can do better, with Bateson's work, than consigning it to the dustheap of history as an inferior autopoietic ontology. We can accept that in many ways Maturana's phrasing is more exact and that it may serve us better to think about many aspects of the world of living things. But Bateson's range is still greater than Maturana's, and it would be so easy to cut ourselves off from important insights in his work by dismissing him as the earlier version, the superseded product.

"There may be some among my readers who tend to regard such concepts as `structure' as concrete parts which `interact' in culture, and who find, as I did, a difficulty in thinking of these concepts as labels merely for points of view adopted either by the scientist or by the natives." The citation is Bateson 1958:262; but the words were first published in 1936. Capra and Dell would have it that Bateson was too wedded to a concept of cognition as representation of an "out-there" world. I don't think so.


Bateson, Gregory, 1958, Naven, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bateson, Gregory, 1972, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballantine.

Bateson, Gregory, 1979, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, New York: Bantam (paperback edition).

Capra, Fritjof, 1996, The Web of Life, New York: Doubleday.

Dell, Paul F., 1982, "Beyond Homeostasis: Toward a Concept of Coherence," Family Process 21:21-41.

Dell, Paul F., 1985, "Understanding Bateson and Maturana: Toward a Biological

Foundation for the Social Sciences," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 11(1):1-20.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela, 1987, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Boston, Shambhala.

Thank you, Phillip, for allowing me to make your thoughtful essay available to my readers.

NOTE:For those of you wishing to delve further into Dell's writings, refer to the listings in the Observer Web Bibliography. If you'd like to explore this recent Capra book, you can purchase it right now through the Observer Web Book Shop.


GO Back to Observer Archive