Explaining Maturana's Concept of Autopoiesis
55 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2014
Date Written: April 26, 2012
This document is the printed version of a PowerPoint presentation screened during a talk given by the author at a Seminar in the University of Essex, UK, 26th April 2012. In this occasion, reference was made to the fundamental ideas and discussions presented in a series of 3 papers published by the author in the "Constructivist Foundations Journal" (Ed. Alexander Riegler), aimed at a rigorous explanation of Humberto Maturana's Concept of Autopoiesis: a) "Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach - Part 1": Vol 6, No. 3, pp. 307-324, July 2011; b) "Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach - Part 2": Vol 7, No. 1, pp. 48-67, November 2011; c) "Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach - Part 3: The Scale of Description Problem": Vol 7, No. 3, pp. 180-195, July 2012.
A 4th paper on the subject is under press and will be published in "Constructivist Foundations Journal" 2014, under the title: "Social Autopoiesis?": The Problem - Under which physical and components’ relational conditions can some social systems be properly considered as autopoietic unities compliant with the six Varela-Maturana-Uribe's rules?
The three abovementioned papers are intended for specialists of different disciplines interested in Theory of Autopoiesis and in particular by the still unresolved debate concerning the existence social or economical organizations that could be considered as autopoietic systems like the molecular autopoietic systems existing in the biological domain. As the seminal work of Humberto Maturana has encountered some problems in being fully and correctly understood in scientific domains other than theoretical biology or cognitive sciences, I intend to propose some general systemic distinctions that I consider as necessary to explain the notion of autopoietic system, as implied from the grounding definitions proposed by Maturana and Varela. In my opinion, the above mentioned debate is rooted in a poor and incomplete application of the rigorous distinctions, definitions and epistemological considerations introduced by Humberto Maturana when he coined the term "autopoiesis."
The theory of autopoietic systems was stated in cybernetic terms whereby biological organisms can be considered as particular cases of a more general class of dynamic systems, namely the class of autopoietic machines. Broadly, an observed system may appear as behaving autonomously and as being self-producing like a biological autopoietic machine, but in practice some precise distinctions need to be verified through observation in order to properly claim its autopoietic nature. These distinctions were defined by Maturana, Varela and Uribe as a set of decisional rules whereby an observer may provide the answers to six basic questions and eventually justify a positive claim by means of descriptions of observational experiences performed in the system‟s domain of existence.
The entailments of applying the six decisional rules one by one in the most general case - when the nature of the phenomenal domain is not specified - are analyzed thoroughly. The purpose of this exercise is to explain through which basic distinctions an observer may bring forth more elaborated descriptions that are essential to identify a structure determined dynamic activity compliant with the rules that define an autopoietic machine in a composite system being so far unknown as a member of the class of autopoietic systems.
In all three papers are successively presented and discussed in details the necessary cognitive steps that an observer should perform in order to focus on pertinent observations that would allow him or her to describe a suspected autopoietic behavior shown by an observed composite dynamic system.
By following the entailments of Maturana's proposed distinctions concerning the nature of the dynamic components that build up an autopoietic system, it is shown that this task must be completed by focusing our attention on what happens “inside the boundaries”, how observers can describe the intra-boundary phenomenology in order to explain how the key processes (like self-organization, self-production of components and self-adaptation to varying environmental circumstances) do manifest themselves. These explanations are vital to reveal what is determinant in general and applicable in particular to an observed system so that observers can validate an eventual claim about it being autopoietic.
This approach could be valuable to tackle the application of Autopoiesis Theory beyond the realm of Biology and settle ongoing discussions in Social Sciences and Economics on this subject. Extensions of this analysis to other Cognitive Sciences disciplines, like Knowledge Management in Organizations, for example, are also envisioned.
Keywords: autopoiesis, Maturana, Varela, dynamic systems, self-organization, autonomy, boundary, operational closure, structural determinism, causation, interaction networks
JEL Classification: A12, A29
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation