Autopoiesis, Structural Coupling and Cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition
My intent in this essay is to reflect on the history of some biological notions such as autopoiesis, structural coupling, and cognition, that I have developed since the early 1960’s as a result of...

Autopoiesis
Humberto Maturana Martes 8 de Agosto del año 2006 / 17:29

Autopoiesis, Structural Coupling and Cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition

This text was written by Dr. Humberto Maturana.

My intent in this essay is to reflect on the history of some biological notions such as autopoiesis, structural coupling, and cognition, that I have developed since the early 1960’s as a result of my work on visual perception and the organization of the living. No doubt I shall repeat things that I have said in other publications (Maturana and Varela 1980 and 1988), and I shall present notions that once they are said appear as obvious truisms. Moreover, I shall refine or expand the meaning of such notions, or even modify them. Yet, in any case, the reader is not invited to attend to the truisms, or to what seems to be obvious, rather he or she is invited to attend to the consequences that those notions entail for the understanding of cognition as a biological process. After all, explanations or demonstrations always become self evident once they are understood and accepted, and the purpose of this essay is the expansion of understanding in all dimensions of human existence.


Conceptual changes

In 1960 I asked my self what should happen in the manner of constitution of a system so that I see as a result of its operation a living system? This was a strange question in a period in which every scientist knew that to know something about something one should go and look what was already there without interfering with it. I was not making a hypothesis about how the system was. I was proposing that the relation between the internal dynamics of the system and the result of that internal dynamics in the domain in which I observed it, would tell me what the system was. I had to create the system to know it.

In 1965 when I was studying colour vision in pigeons I realised that I could not longer pretend that one saw the colours as features of an external world, and that I had to abandon the question, how do I see that colour? and ask instead, what happens in me when I say that I see such a colour? To do this change meant abandoning the notion that there was an external independent world to be known by the observer. And that I had to accept that knowing had to do with the congruent interactions of entities that were structure determined systems in which all that happened with them and to them was determined at every instant by the way they were made (their structure) at that instant.

To adopt the epistemological grounding entailed in these changes meant that henceforth I would not ask what is, but I would ask myself what criterion do I use to validate my claim that something is what I say that it is? Furthermore, to do this entailed a fundamental ontological change, namely, fundamental question was not more what is, what is the essence of that which I observe? , but how do I do what I do as observer in observing?

All that follows comes from that basic epistemological and ontological change in my thinking.
Keywords: Autopoiesis, structural coupling, cognition, explanations, self-consciousness.

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  • Humberto Maturana
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