the organization of “living”


origin of a word

(this is another version of the story on page 97 of From Being to Doing)

“I went to visit a friend, José María Bulnes, who was both a historian and a philosopher. He was writing an essay about the dilemma of Don Quixote de la Mancha who had to decide for himself whether to become a wandering knight or a writer of novels of knighthood. Don Quixote decided to become a wandering knight, and, as my friend put it, he chose the praxis of being a knight over the “poiesis” of writing. At that moment I said aloud: “That is the word I need, that is the word I was looking for.” Living systems are molecular systems that produce themselves, namely, they are molecular autopoietic systems. Autopoiesis is a perfect Greek neologism, not a mixture between Latin and Greek. In youthful vanity I thought I had invented this term, but it turns out that Aristotle had also used it. Next day I told to Francisco that I had found the word that I needed to refer to what made living system autonomous entities.

And this is when my second conversation with Francisco took place. He said to me: “If you are right in what you say about living system we should be able to express it all in formal mathematical terms.” At the time of this conversation our ages had changed, I had become 42 and Francisco 26 and he was no longer a young student. Just the same I said to Francisco “No, one does not formalize what is there, one formalizes what one thinks is happening. Formalizations are attempts represent what we see as a phenomenon, not what is actually happening in what we think that we observe. What I see is what I think is there, what I think is happening in what we see.” I continued: “If we want to formalize what happens in living beings, we need first to write a full description of the processes that we claim are taking place in them such that the result is that we see living systems appearing in front of us. ” And then I added: “I invite you to write this with me.” The result of this endeavor is what we published as the little book, De Maquinas y Seres Vivos (About Machines and Living Systems). I wanted to name the book “Autopoiesis, the Organization of the Living”, but I was not there at the moment of its publication, and Francisco thought that the title that was eventually used was better for the circumstances of its publication.”

Fundamentally Different: My History with Francisco Varela

Maturana, 2012.  in press Constructivist Foundations

what is living?

definition v/s abstraction

Autopoiesis is not a definition of life or of living.

Definitions are starting points that we agree on.  When we refer to the definition of a word, it is in reference to some description and perhaps some examples, as in a dictionary.  When one writes a paper, or a technical book one is asked to provide a definition of terms as they are intended in that usage.

Maturana never intended autopoiesis to be agreed on, but rather he conceived of it as an abstraction -- that is a grasped generality that always and only pertains to the process being described.  In this case he has addressed what is unique about the process that we recognize as “living” that does not apply to other processes. 

Some people feel that “abstraction” is too closely related to the idea of “abstract” in the sense of not having to do with daily life things like living systems.  The word “eduction” as been proposed as an alternative.  However, educe is sometimes used as a synonym for deduce, which is clearly not intended here.

asking the question

How we pose a question determines what sort of answer we will accept. 

When people ask “What is life” they are drawn to trying to provide a characteristic, an essence, or perhaps a description of what this “thing” is.  

You have been introduced to several ideas that are useful in reconsidering the question of life.  First, there is the relation between process and result; the result we wish to explain is “life” ... so what is the process that generates that result?  Further, you’ve been asked to consider how anyone determines what serves as a valid answer to a question that asks for an explanation, that is a process. And more, what criteria should we apply to determine whether an explanation can be considered a scientific explanation.

a spontaneous poesis of autonomy

Referring to the circularity between DNA and Cytoplasm, Maturana  (2002) writes:

This is the minimal expression of the closed dynamics of molecular productions that makes living systems discrete autonomous molecular entities”  

structure and organization - again

Living systems conserve the organization of the living such that their structures are open to change.  This is what has indeed happened!  Theres is a multitudinous amazing diversity of forms. They have all conserved the inner organization of autopoiesis and the relational organization of connection and adaptation.

Remember, a generative organization is always invisible per se.  We only see the result and abstract the organization as we observe what the relations between components.

In Maturana’s story (p. 95, From Being to Doing) of the question asked by his student “what began four thousand million years ago so that we can now say life began then” turned his own thinking back to the processes he had been contemplating since childhood. how did it start? 

What are we interested in?

Poerksen and Maturana,
courtesy of Poerksen

life works


a closed network of molecular productions
that produces the same network of productions
while constituting its operational boundary
as a system

Maturana as a young man.