The basic consequence of the autopoietic organization is that everything that takes place in an autopoietic system is subordinated to the realization of its autopoiesis, otherwise it disintegrates.

from The Organization of the Living (1974)

Portrait of Humberto Maturana

Humberto Maturana

Biologist and Philosopher
September 14, 1928 – May 6, 2021

Humberto Maturana Romesín was a Chilean biologist and philosopher. Many consider him a member of a group of second-order cybernetics theoreticians such as Heinz von Förster, Gordon Pask, Herbert Brün and Ernst von Glasersfeld. Maturana, along with Francisco Varela and Ricardo B. Uribe, was known for creating the term "autopoiesis" about the self-generating, self-maintaining structure in living systems, and concepts such as structural determinism and structural coupling. His work was influential in many fields, mainly the field of systems thinking and cybernetics. Overall, his work is concerned with the biology of cognition.

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Cover image for Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living

Autopoiesis and Cognition

The Realization of the Living

What makes a living system a living system? What kind of biological phenomenon is the phenomenon of cognition? These two questions have been frequently considered, but, in this volume, the authors consider them as concrete biological questions. Their analysis is bold and provocative, for the authors have constructed a systematic theoretical biology which attempts to define living systems not as objects of observation and description, nor even as interacting systems, but as self-contained unities whose only reference is to themselves. the consequence of their investigations and of their living systems as self-making, self-referring autonomous unities, is that they discovered that the two questions have a common answer: living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. The result of their investigations is a completely new perspective of biological (human) phenomena. During the investigations, it was found that a complete linguistic description pertaining to the "organization of the living" was lacking and, in fact, was hampering the reporting of results. Hence, the authors have coined the word "autopoiesis" to replace the expression "circular organization." Autopoiesis conveys, by itself, the central feature of the organization of the living, which is autonomy.

The Organization of the Living

A Theory of the Living Organization

What makes something alive? This bold theory argues living systems are like machines that build themselves. Called “autopoietic,” they constantly churn out parts that self-assemble into a whole. Likewise, the nervous system loops activity back into more activity. We don’t compute information, but structurally couple to the world. Cognition emerges from how our nervous system meshes with reality, not from complex symbol manipulation as commonly believed.

Mentioned in 6 documents

Heinz von Förster

Interview on Cybernetics

Francis Heylighen and Shima Beigi

Mind Outside Brain

We approach the problem of the extended mind from a radically non-dualist perspective. The separation between mind and matter is an artefact of the outdated mechanistic worldview, which leaves no room for mental phenomena such as agency, intentionality, or feeling. We propose to replace it by an action ontology, which conceives mind and matter as aspects of the same network of processes. By adopting the intentional stance, we interpret the catalysts of elementary reactions as agents exhibiting desires, intentions, and sensations. Autopoietic networks of reactions constitute more complex super-agents, which moreover exhibit memory, deliberation and sense-making. In the specific case of social networks, individual agents coordinate their actions via the propagation of challenges. The distributed cognition that emerges from this interaction cannot be situated in any individual brain. This non-dualist, holistic view extends and operationalises process metaphysics and Eastern philosophies. It is supported by both mindfulness experiences and mathematical models of action, self-organisation, and cognition.

Michael Levin

The Computational Boundary of a “Self”

All epistemic agents physically consist of parts that must somehow comprise an integrated cognitive self. Biological individuals consist of subunits (organs, cells, and molecular networks) that are themselves complex and competent in their own native contexts. How do coherent biological Individuals result from the activity of smaller sub-agents?

Francis Heylighen

The Global Superorganism

The organismic view of society is updated by incorporating concepts from cybernetics, evolutionary theory, and complex adaptive systems. Global society can be seen as an autopoietic network of self-producing components, and therefore as a living system or “superorganism”.

Erich Jantsch

The Self-Organizing Universe

The evolution of the universe—ranging from cosmic and biological to sociocultural evolution—is viewed in terms of the unifying paradigm of self-organization. The contours of this paradigm emerge from the synthesis of a number of important concepts, and provide a scientific foundation to a new world-view which emphasizes process over structure, nonequilibrium over equilibrium, evolution over permanency, and individual creativity over collective stabilization. The book, with its emphasis on the interaction of microstructures with the entire biosphere, ecosystems etc., and on how micro- and macrocosmos mutually create the conditions for their further evolution, provides a comprehensive framework for a deeper understanding of human creativity in a time of transition.

Timo Järvilehto

The Theory of the Organism-Environment System

In any functional sense, organism and environment are inseparable and form only one unitary system. The organism cannot exist without the environment, and the environment has descriptive properties only if it is connected to the organism. Separation of organism and environment cannot be the basis of any scientific explanation of human behavior. The theory leads to a reinterpretation of basic problems in many fields of inquiry and makes possible the definition of mental phenomena without their reduction either to neural or biological activity or to separate mental functions. According to the theory, mental activity is activity of the whole organism-environment system, and the traditional psychological concepts describe only different aspects of organization of this system.