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Understanding Social Systems? / What Is Sociology? / Confusion of Reflective Domains? by Humberto R. Maturana

Understanding Social Systems?

Humberto R. Maturana

Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, Chile


Maturana H. R. (2014) Understanding social systems? Constructivist Foundations 9(2): 187–188.

In my commentary I reflect on conceptual and epistemological questions. In particular, I challenge the idea of trying to define social systems. I also wonder whether in many cases autopoiesis is carelessly used as a mere synonym for self-organization.

« 1 » Hugo Urrestarazu’s article is very interesting and very well thought through. Therefore, I shall not reflect on its contents directly. Rather, I only wish to ask some conceptual and epistemological questions that arose in me as I was reading it.

« 2 » Some 25 years ago, Niklas Luhmann invited me to visit him in Bielefeld to talk about his view of social systems as autopoietic systems of communication. I asked him then: “Why do you want to leave human beings out of your considerations about the fundamental constitution of social systems?” His answer was: “I want to make a theory of social systems that would permit me to treat them in formal terms so that I may compute what may happen with them. Since human beings are unpredictable, they cannot be part of it.” He invited me to participate with him in the seminar that he used to give on Wednesdays evenings. We did this for several weeks and had a great time reflecting on theories, formalisms and many aspects of human existence. Yet, I remained with the question: “What aspects of our daily living do we want to evoke when we use the word ‘social’ or speak of ‘social systems’ and about which we may wish to expand our understanding by asking if social systems are autopoietic systems?”

« 3 » We human beings, as all living systems do, live as valid whatever experience that we live in the moment that we live it, and act accordingly: our living follows the path that arises with what we live as valid. At the same time, we human beings (as all living systems do in the flow of their living) do not know whether an experience that we live as valid in the moment that we live it is one that we shall continue to accept as valid in relation to further experiences that we choose not to doubt: we do not know whether we shall validate the first experience as a perception or invalidate it as a mistake-illusion, according to whether we think that the second experience confirms or contradicts it. That is, we do not know in the moment that we experience something whether we are experiencing a perception or an illusion. And this is not a limitation or a failure of the operation of our nervous system, and this does not mean that we living beings are fallible, but it is our condition of biological existence as structure-determined systems; instruments are the same.

« 4 » As I accept as valid what I have just said, I act under the understanding that whenever we make a distinction what appears in our living is an operational entity together with its domain of existence as a totality that arises as an operational-conceptual abstractions of what is happening in our living with features specified by what we do as we distinguish what we distinguish, and not as some  preexisting  entity with features that are not determine by what we do in our distinction of it. As we human beings live our daily living in the coherences that arise as we do what we do as biological beings, we trust the domains of sensory, operational and relational coherences that arise with our distinction to be aspects of the realization of our living. And we do so reflecting on them and correcting our errors or mistake as we find them as we live our living as languaging beings. As we live in this manner, we put names to what we distinguish, but since we do not distinguish independent entities, but distinguish sensory-effectors configuration in our living, what we name are sensory-effectors configurations that pertain to the coherences of our living. Accordingly, that which we call social system is necessarily an aspect of the coherences of the our daily living. Therefore when we want to understand the system that we call social system, what we want to do is to abstract the configuration of sensory-operational-relational coherences of our daily living that we wish to evoke under that name, not something alien to our daily life that we may define in some arbitrary way.

« 5 » Our nervous system operates abstracting configurations of relations and configurations of configurations of relations of sensory-operational-relational coherences that happen in the realization of our living in our sensory-operational surfaces. So my question would be: “What configuration of sensory-operational-relational coherences am I abstracting when I name social system some particular aspect of the realization of my relational living?” or in other words, what sensory-operational-relational configuration of my relational living am I calling social system? The expression social system arises historically in the course of conversations about our human relational living, in an attempt to visualize some regularities that occurred in it, thinking that if we could grasp them we would be able to solve some difficulties that we were encountering in our living together, thinking that we could do so through formalizing them with some adequate theory that we would invent. But to do that, we have to abstract those regularities in our living together first; and to do that, we must respect ourselves accepting that naming is not a trivial aspect of what we do in our living: names have arisen in our history of living together as operational elements of coordination of our doings, and reveal regularities in that living. In these circumstances, if I want to understand how we do what we do I would begin by asking: “What configurations of sensory-operational-relations are realized and conserved in that aspect of the flow of our living that we call social relations, and that prompt us to speak of social systems when we see them occurring in some community of living beings? But, this is what Urrestarazu does when talking about autopoiesis. so I do not fully understand, unless this is a philosophical habit, why he proposes a definition of social systems instead of asking himself what configuration of sensory-operational-relational coherences we connote when in daily life we speak of social relations… and social systems. By the way, when I say that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, I am not making a definition. Rather, I am making an abstraction of the configuration of processes that constitute living systems as autonomous molecular systems that exist as discrete sensory-operational-relational entities in integration with their ecological niche as this arises with them.

« 6 » In the Matriztic school, my colleague Ximena Dávila Yáñez1 and I think that much confusion has arisen with the not very careful use of the notion of autopoiesis, particularly as it is treated almost as if it were a synonym of self-organization. This is not the case with Urrestarazu’s article, and I congratulate him for his care in being im-peccable in this matter. Yet I would also like to add that Dávila and I want to emphasize that as living systems exist as molecular autopoietic systems, they occur in unity with the ecological niche that arises with them, and exist as ecological organism-niche unities as they operate as totalities.

1 | I mention my colleague because it is in our work together in the Matriztic school that we have reflected on these matters and find that we have to emphasize that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, and that as such, they exist as totalities as organism-niche integrated ecological unities.

« 7 » Although we do not usually see it in this way, we live immersed, so to say, in a flowing dynamic network of changing sensations in which from the moment we are conceived, we learned to abstract the sensory configurations that begin to guide the course of our living according to the manner of living that we learn-generate-create as we live. And in this network of sensations, what we distinguish is brought to existence as we distinguish it with what we do and name, much as a child in a sandy humid beach brings forth stars, triangles, flowers … with the moulds that he or she may happen to be playing with. So, names and words in general are not trivial artifices for indicating preexisting conceptual or physical entities, they connote what we do and feel as we use them. Without our always being aware of what we are doing, names and, in fact, all words that we use, constantly orient our sensory-operational-relational living, both illuminating and obscuring it, according to the emotions that they evoke in us.

« 8 » Thus, in depth my question to Luhmann was: What would be conserved with the word social if we were to accept that social systems are autopoietic systems? or, what would be lost from the psychic relational space of our daily living if we accept the claim that social systems are autopoietic systems of communications? After we give a name to something that we distinguish in our domain of living, whenever we later pronounce that name we bring forth into our present that something and the sensory-operational-relational domain that we are generating through it in our living.

« 9 » What would be added to our understanding of social systems and to how we now live our daily living if we were to find that that which we usually call a social system is an autopoietic system, besides the desire of getting out of social systems to avoid becoming robots that can only exist in them if all that they do is subordinated to their conservation, as Urrestarazu shows in his article? Maybe what is added is the awareness that if we are able to realize when a social system is about to become an autopoietic system, we can be wise enough to choose to live in such a way that it never occurs because we would know that whether that happens or not it would depend on us. I think that democracy is one attempt to live in that awareness so that we can avoid the temptation of the promised perfection of fundamentalist doctrines or theories that deny the possibility of reflecting about their fundaments in order to have the freedom of abandoning them.

« 10 » These were the reflections that I wanted to make, in addition to thanking Urrestarazu for his friendly reference to me. Thank you!

Humberto Maturana Romesín received a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University. He showed that living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, and that if one follows the consequences of the fact that living beings do not distinguish in their experience between perception and illusion, one can show that: language as a biological phenomenon occurs as a flow of living together in coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviors; and cognition as a biological phenomenon occurs when an organism operates adequately to the circumstances of its living, conserving its autopoiesis as a consequence of the operational-relational coherences with its niche that are proper to it in the present of its living as a feature of the history of evolutionary structural drift to which it belongs.

Received: 8 February 2014
Accepted: 10 February 2014

What Is Sociology?

Humberto R. Maturana

Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, Chile


Maturana H. R. (2015) What is sociology? Constructivist Foundations 10(2): 176–179.

I discuss the foundations of what I have said in my work as a biologist on autopoiesis, molecular autopoietic systems and social systems. I argue that the theme of sociology should be to understand how is it that we come out of the social manner of living that is the foundation of our origin as languaging and reflecting human beings.

« 1 » I am writing this commentary because the contents of Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold’s target article and its title evoke a criticism of what I have written about living systems and about social systems. I find that the article is misleading because it does not represent what I have said in my writings. For these reasons I want to reflect on sociology in detail here. This links in particular to the Results and Implications in Cadenas and Arnold’s abstract.

Living systems?
« 2 » As a biologist, my purpose has been and is to describe, explain and understand biological phenomena as I see them happening in the realization of the living of at least one living being as they appear to me as aspects of my daily living from one morning to the next in whatever domain of doings I may find myself.

« 3 » Accordingly, in what follows I present my reflections standing on a reflective ground defined by three basic unavoidable biological facts:

  • ƒThe first basic biological fact is that we, like all living beings, do not know and cannot know that which we, calling valid at any particular moment in the experience of what we live, shall devalue later as a mistake or illusion or shall confirm as a perception when we compare it with another experience, the validity of which we choose not to doubt.
  • To accept this first basic biological fact leads me to accept the second basic biological fact: We cannot claim to be able to say anything about anything that we distinguish as if that which we distinguish had any property or feature independent of what we were doing in the moment that we distinguish it.
  • The third basic biological fact is that living beings as molecular entities are structure-determined systems. As such, anything that is external to a living system and that impinges upon it cannot specify what happens in it, and only triggers in it some structural change determined in its structure according how it is made at that moment. As a result of this third biological fact, whenever two or more living beings participate in a dynamics of recursive interactions, they enter in a process of coherent transformation, which I have called “structural coupling” (Maturana 1978). It gives rise to ontogenic and phylogenic evolutionary histories of congruent structural and behavioral transformations between the organisms and their ecological niches that arise with them. These histories last until the organisms separate.

« 4 » All this happens spontaneously in the biological domain, and all this constitutes the foundation of all that we do in our living as biological-cultural human beings from one morning to the next, whatever we may be doing, thinking, desiring or reflecting. Therefore, I shall take our daily living as the operational and epistemological grounding of all that we human beings can say and that I shall say as I describe and explain my understanding of living systems and of the operation of what we call “social systems” in our daily living in our cultural present. I begun to think, speak and act in this understanding in 1965, when as a result of my work on color vision (Maturana, Uribe & Frenk 1968) I came to realize that which I described above as the first biological fact.

« 5 » From this reflective starting point, I, together with Francisco Varela, referred to a living system as a molecular autopoietic system (Maturana & Varela 1973). The word autopoiesis was proposed to indicate and evoke a closed network of recursive processes of production of the molecular components of a system that specifies its borders in its operation as a discrete entity in the relational space in which it exists as a totality. Thus, when we first referred to living systems as “autopoietic systems,” we were claiming that they existed as networks of molecular productions that were closed in the sense that they produced their own borders determining their extension as discrete entities. However, at the same time they are open to the flow of molecules through them. It seems to me that this was well understood by Niklas Luhmann but that he wished to use the notion of autopoiesis in an operational domain different from the molecular one, as is apparent in his proposition that “social systems were autopoietic systems of communications.” When we talked in 1991, I pointed out to him that the notion of au-topoiesis does not apply in the way that he wanted because communications do not interact and thereby produce communications like molecules. I asked him why he leaves human beings out of his proposition, knowing that human beings are the foundation of human social systems and that what we call “communications” occur as a reflective operation of human beings in conversations about what they do. He replied that he wanted to propose a predictive theory of social phenomena, and that human beings were unpredictable in their behavior. So I told him that I did not want to propose a sociological theory, especially if the theory would leave out human beings as he proposed. Rather, I wanted to understand the spontaneity of the operation of those communities of living beings of any kind that in our daily life in our culture we would call “societies” or “social systems.”

« 6 » The word “social” and the expression “social system” were used in daily life to refer to some manner of living together of organisms already long before Varela and I proposed the notion of autopoiesis to speak of the molecular constitution of living sys-tems as discrete entities. In the domains of biology and of our daily life, many different words were used and are still used to refer to the distinctions that we make between the different manners of living together that the different kinds of organisms may adopt. For example, we speak of symbiosis, parasitism, social systems, commensalism and commu-nities. What kinds of things are we distinguishing with such different names?

« 7 » We human beings propose theories as systems of explanation of what we distinguish as happening in what we observe or do in the realization of our living. Theories are systems of logical deductions that we propose in order to follow the consequences that would arise in a particular situation if we transformed everything in it around the conservation of some set of basic premises that we choose to adopt – either because we accept their validity according to some logical argument or, a priori, because we like them. Yet, we cannot properly make a theory before having some notion of what characterizes the kind of systems or situations that we may be considering while everything else is changing around the basic premises that we think define the theory and that we have chosen to conserve.

« 8 » Accordingly, I want to ask the question: What do we wish to mean with the word “social”? More precisely, I want to address the common features that those systems that we call “social” in our daily living have in common – systems that we wish to conserve while everything else is allowed to change around them as we operate with the theory that we are proposing in order to understand the manner of operating that is evoked when we speak about those manners of living in human or in insect communities that we call social systems.

 Social systems?
« 9 » If we attend to the different kinds of manners of coexistence that we may observe in living systems, we will see that they differ in the nature of the biological processes that keep them near each other in the different degrees of closeness or of distance as they happen to come together. Expressions such as “multi-cellular,” “symbiosis,” “commensalism,” “parasitism,” “colonies” and “social systems” are used to distinguish those different classes or forms of nearness. And we know also that those different forms of living in nearness or distance entail different inner feelings and different relational doings and emotions. Furthermore, in our daily living we act as if we are aware that not all human relations are of the same kind, and that their nature as different manners of relating and of closeness depends precisely on the inner feelings and emotions that define them. Thus we speak of relations of work, authority, domination, subordination, alliances, etc. and we know that they differ from collaboration, friendship, etc. in the in-ner feelings that, as I just said, define them. Accordingly, this is why I have claimed that not all human relations are social relations. Rather, the inner feelings, emotions and doings that constitute social relations are those of mutual care, collaboration, honesty, equity and ethics, not as declared values, but as spontaneous manners of relating that result from our biological constitution as basically loving beings. Furthermore, we human beings can also consciously choose to adopt explicitly those manners of relating in our living together that we call democracy.1 Yes, as reflective languaging beings we human beings can negate and reject, support and approve our feelings, emotions and doings, being consciously or unconsciously guided by some theory of our choice that we may have adopted according to what we may want or not want to do.

1 | Ximena Dávila Yáñez and I claim that there are five manners of relating, which we intentionally adopt for living together, that constitute what we want to be the case when we declare that we want to live in democracy. These are: mutual respect, honesty, collaboration, equity and ethics (Maturana & Dávila, in press).

« 10 » As I just said above, that which we call “social” in our daily living in our cultural present is our spontaneous biological coexistence in relations of mutual care and collaboration that are sustained by inner feelings of love. If we accept our understanding that the biological nature of social phenomena is collaboration in mutual care, what do we need a sociological theory for? What are our concerns that we feel that we need a special sociological theory to speak of our spontaneous biological living in mutual care and collaboration under the inner feelings of love? Let us reflect.

« 11 » The basic statement that love is the emotion that constitutes social relations was made in Maturana (1985). The following reflections have been developed by Ximena Dávila Yáñez and me during our work together over the last fifteen years in Escuela Matríztica de Santiago. This is why in what follows what I write is the product of us both, and “we” refers to her and me.

« 12 » We may say that an organism acts as an autonomous individual when we think that it does what it is doing without emotional contradiction in the pleasure of doing what it is doing, whatever it may be. In the case of those insects that we call social insects, the manner of living together occurs in the doings of each member of the community as a spontaneous result of its individual growth in the nurturing circumstances of the care given to it by the older members of the community that it integrates with them as they act themselves as autonomous individuals. This manner of living is the evolutionary result of a history of conservation of the mother-offspring relation of care prolonged in the ontogeny of each insect and conserved from one generation to the next in their historical coexistence in communities that became extended networks of collaborative mutual upbringing in mutual care. This collaborative mutual upbringing and care was established and is sustained by a flow of hormones, neuropeptides, nutrients and many other kinds of molecules that act in the process of growth and cellular differentiation of each insect through an interchange of food. At every instant and circumstance, it determines in each of the insects the course followed by the physiological and the anatomical changes that the insect may be undergoing at that instant-circumstance according to its participation in the realization of the dynamic architecture of the social community that it integrates at that instant. Nothing that an observer could call a plan, blue print, purpose or aim is involved in this process. In other words, every organism member of the community does what it does at every moment according to its structure or dynamic architecture as it is arising according to its present participation in it. This particular manner of generating and conserving instant after instant the sensory, operational and relational coherences in a community of social insects through a food interchange that continuously results in the realization of the adequate dynamic architecture of each insect and of the social community at every instant is called tropholaxis.

« 13 » An insect becomes a member of the social community to which it belongs, as it grows in it as an individual that participates in a recursive fashion in its realization and its conservation, through caring for the growth of other individuals in the same manner that it was cared for. Is what occurs with social insects very different from what occurs in the human communities that we call “societies” or “social systems” to which we belong? No, and at the same time, yes. No, what happens with social human beings is not very different from what happens with social insects in the sense that in both cases a “social system or social community” is generated and conserved through relations of collaboration and mutual care that arise in the evolutionary expansion of the mother-offspring love relation. But, yes, it is very different because what happens with social insects is a living in spontaneous collaboration in mutual care sustained as a dynamic loving relation through a network of interchange of hormones, neuropeptides and nutrients; while the mutual care that realizes and conserves us as social human being members of the social community or social system into which we may integrate arises in the expansion of the mother–child relation of loving care for the whole life. This care relation arises as the continuous result of living in the recursive flow of coordination of feelings, doings and emotions in the creation together of the worlds of daily living that they generate as they live as languaging and reflective beings in networks of conver-sations, through a languaging process that we, Dávila and I, call “logolaxis.”2

2 | In social insects the coherence of their behavior is obtained through the flow of hormones, peptides, nutrients and other molecules transmitted from one insect to the other while they share food – a process that is called tropholaxys; the same occurs between human beings through language in a process that we have chosen to call logolaxys. Dávila and I have written about this in a book that is in the process of being published, called The Tree of Living (Maturana & Dávila, in press).

« 14 » Logolaxis is the flow of the networks of conversations that in us human beings play the same role as tropholaxis in insects for the generation and conservation of the harmony of the acting dynamic architecture of the individual organisms and the social and non-social systems and communities into which they integrate at any moment of their living. That is, we reflective human beings live the networks of our conscious and unconscious coordinations of inner feelings, doings and emotions in a logolaxis of mutual care and collaboration that constitutes our body and “soul” as loving social beings. So, the networks of conversations through which we generate and realize the worlds that we live as human beings coordinate and guide unconsciously the course of the continuously occurring anatomo-physiological transformation of the dynamic architecture of the ecological organism–niche unity of our social and non-social living, depending on the inner feelings, doings and emotions that guide us in all that we do while our living lasts.

« 15 » We are usually not aware of the extent to which our inner feelings and emotions that guide the nature of our doings in the networks of conversations that constitute the realization of our living guide the course of the continuous transformation of our anatomy and physiology according to the living that we are living. In social insects, tropholaxis guides the forms of living that are basically conservative in that they appear to repeat from community to community within each species that we recognize precisely due to such repetition. In humans, logolaxis can in principle exhibit unlimited variation. Humans can generate an open-ended diversity of networks of conversations, which may be changing continuously. This diversity of conversations in our human existence – our social conversations as conversations of mutual care and collaboration under the inner feelings of love – makes our existence possible as the evolutionary result of conserving the conversations through our children’s learning from one generation to the next. This has been the case since the origin of our living in languaging in a family of bipedal primates, i.e., for at least some three million years in the mutual care of sharing food in the loving tenderness of sexual intimacy.

« 16 » The different kinds of social insects occur as different manners of living together in mutual care that occur in the same manner in the different communities of each species because the kinds of individuals that compose them repeat through their manner of upbringing and their participation through tropholaxis in the generation of their behavior as individual organisms. All this makes the behavior of the individual members of any particular insect social community essentially predictable, easily replacing each other in their operation in the social community because they are basically similar. Contrariwise, our manner of living as languaging and reflective human beings that learn the particular form of living together in the loving mutual care of the social community in which they grow in logolaxis may be different in the different kinds of social living that we may generate in our cultural-biological existence. We human beings as reflective languaging beings live in a continuous openness to live in different manners our individual lives through reflections in which we can always ask ourselves if we want to do or think what we are doing or thinking. Also, if we dare to do that, we can also always look at our inner feelings, doings and emotioning, and change them through our reflections in the knowledge that our bodyhood will also change accordingly.

What about our molecular autopoiesis?
« 17 » Our human anatomy and physiology occur in the realization of our molecular autopoiesis in the ecological organism-niche unity that we integrate; yet our humanness as persons that exist as totalities operating as social beings interacting with each other happens in the relational space. And we, as we speak about ourselves, exist in the relational doings of a reflective conversation as persons that explain the nature of their existence as observers to other persons that listen as observers too. Whenever we reflect, whenever some elements form a totality through their interactions, an intrinsically new sensory, operational and relational domain arises that could not have been deduced from what was before. It is because new sensory, operational and relational domains appear in our living from our doings, from the independent happenings that occur in our ecological niche unity, and from the new domains that arise in our reflections in a manner that cannot be deduced from what was happening to us before, that it is intrinsically impossible to create a predictive theory in relation to what will happen in the course of our social living as we operate in it according to our desires. If we want predictive behavior in a human domain, we must agree on a common project, or submit, either unwillingly or willingly, to some tyranny.

What is sociology?
« 18 » I feel that I do not fully understand what is the actual concern of sociologists as they do their sociological reflections; I also feel as a biologist that if I were to declare myself a sociologist my concern would be to understand how can we contribute as human social beings to overcoming our fundamental addiction to the pleasure of being served and to recovering the pleasure of mutual respect, collaboration, honesty, equity and ethical social living.3 Furthermore, as a result of our reflections on tropholaxis and logolaxis, Dávila and I think that if we were to declare ourselves sociologists, our concern as such would be to understand the origin of the rational-emotional contradiction that has interfered with the conservation of the basic harmony of our social existence in the loving relation of collaboration and mutual care that was the ecological organism-niche unity in which we arose as languaging and reflecting human beings.

3 | In Maturana & Dávila (in press) Dávila and I claim that democracy, as a manner of living, not as a political declaration, is the human manner of social living. As such it entails the daily presence of mutual respect, honesty, collaboration, equity and ethical living, not as principles but as a matter-of-course coexistence in mutual care. And we claim that if any of these manners of relating fails, all fail.

« 19 » In other words, if social beingness appears spontaneously in our biological history as a manner of living together in recursive mutual care as a result the expansion of mother-offspring care, then the theme of sociology cannot be to understand the nature of the social phenomenon. This is because we know that when we speak about social systems, we are speaking about sensory, operational and relational biological communities of organisms that live in collaboration and recursive mutual care. The theme of sociology should be to understand how is it that we come out of the social manner of living that is the foundation of our origin as languaging and reflecting human beings.

« 20 » How was it possible and is it still possible in our human social history that we have repeatedly fallen and we are still repeatedly falling out of our social beingness, even though we are aware and know that our social beingness is the basic foundation of our humanness?


Maturana H. R., Uribe G. & Frenk S. (1968) A biological theory of relativistic colour coding in the primate retina: A discussion of nervous system closure with reference to certain visual effects. Archiva de Biologia y Medicina Experimentales Suplemento 1: 1–30.

Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1973) De máquinas y seres vivos: Una teoría sobre la organización biológica. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago.

Maturana H. R. (1978) Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In Miller G. A. & Lenneberg E. (1978) Psychology and biology of language and thought: Essays in honor of Eric Lenneberg. Academic Press, New York: 27–63.

Maturana H. R. (1985) Biología del fenómeno social [Biology of social phenomena]. Revista Terapia Familiar 7(13–14): 53–70.

Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (in press) El árbol del vivir.

Humberto Maturana Romesín received a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University. He showed that living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, and that if one follows the consequences of the fact that living beings do not distinguish in their experience between perception and illusion, one can show that: language as a biological phenomenon occurs as a flow of living together in coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviors; and cognition as a biological phenomenon occurs when an organism operates adequately to the circumstances of its living, conserving its autopoiesis as a consequence of the operational-relational coherences with its niche that are proper to it in the present of its living as a feature of the history of the evolutionary structural drift to which it belongs.

Received: 4 January 2015
Accepted: 12 January 2015

Confusion of Reflective Domains?

Humberto R. Maturana

Escuela Matríztica de Santiago, Chile


Maturana H. R. (2016) Confusion of reflective domains? Constructivist Foundations 11(2): 213–214.

I shall not address directly the article on which I am supposed to comment, and that I find very interesting, but I shall make four commentaries on the general subject of the confusion of domains in our reflection on biological and cultural phenomena.

« 1 » Science is a conceptual and operational instrument that we use for explaining any experience that we may live through proposing some process or mechanism such that if it were to operate, it would give rise in us to the experience that we are explaining in the domain of our living in which we live it. As we do science, we explain the coherences of our living with the coherences of our living. The fundamental care in doing science is not to confuse domains, that is, not to try to explain the coherences of what occurs in one domain with the coherences of what occur in a different, not intersecting domain.

« 2 » When we speak of biological phenomena, we refer to all that occurs in the operation of living systems in the continuous realization of their existing as molecular autopoietic systems. When we speak of cultural phenomena, we refer to all that happens in the domain of the realization of human beings as a person as they participate in reflective conversations with others or with themselves. The biological and the cultural phenomenal domains do not intersect and what occurs in one cannot be deduced from what happens in the other. No doubt the biological processes and the interpersonal relations operate through molecules as they occur in their realization of the molecular autopoiesis of the living beings, and they affect each other in their realization, but the biological processes and the interpersonal relations are different kinds of phenomena and to confuse them is a conceptual mistake. Accordingly, notions of purpose, finality, intentionality, etc. do not apply to the happening of the molecular biological processes; they apply and make sense only in the domain of human relations as distinction of particular aspects of human behavior in the domain of the co-ordinations of living in reflective conversations.

« 3 » When living systems arose on the earth some 3.8 billion years ago as discrete molecular autopoietic entities, they arose together with the molecular ecological niche that made them possible as organism-niche ecological unities. Living systems, as mo-lecular entities, are structure determined systems; and in their interactions with other molecular entities, all that takes place is a reciprocal triggering of structural changes that results in the arising in them of dynamic configurations of molecular architectures that constitute the ecological organisms unities in which they exist, are conserved and transformed or disintegrated. So, when living systems arose as organism-niche unities integrating the ecological domain that made them possible, they arose as dynamic components of a dynamic molecular architecture that became the biosphere in which, and in coherence with which, they have been continuously conserved and transformed since their origin millions of years ago. The fundamental result of this historical process is that every living system exists only in operational coherences with the molecular architecture that constitutes the dynamic biosphere that makes possible the realization of its molecular autopoiesis in its individual ontogeny as a manner of living that can be conserved as the same or with transformations from one generation to the next. In other words, the biosphere occurs as an extended molecular architecture that exists in continuous change and transformation around the conservation of a network of intercrossing ecological organism-niche unities in which each organism realizes its molecular autopoiesis following a path of change and transformation defined at every instant in its locality by the coherences of its inner sensations in the processes of its actual realization. When this process stops happening, the organism-niche ecological unity disintegrates as the organism dies. The extended molecular architecture that is the biosphere in which we now live is the present of the conservation and transformation of the one that arose with the origin of the network of ecological organism-niche unities that began with the origin of living beings near 4 billion years ago.

« 4 » In this manner, the evolution of living systems has occurred in the changing dynamic molecular architecture of the biosphere in the never-interrupted conservation of molecular autopoieisis through a process of reproduction of manners of living that, at the same time as they have conserved it, have give rise to variations in the form of their realization in the constitution of branching lineages of intercrossing ecological systems of organism-niche unities of which every living system now living is a present case. When this process of reproduction stops happening in any given lineage, the lineage becomes extinct.

« 5 » In other words, the result of all this is that all living systems living now occur in sensory, operational and relational ecological coherence in the locality of the dynamic molecular architecture of a biosphere that is continuously arising with realization of the network of interrelated ecological organism-niche unities that they spontaneously integrate while they realize their living. That is, we human beings, as living systems, exist today as a spontaneous result of the history of transformation of a biosphere that begun as a molecular architecture integrated and conserved in the uninterrupted realization of living system that arose spontaneously as discrete molecular autopoietic systems with the ecological medium that made them possible millions of years ago.

« 6 » Living in reflective conversations is our human cultural manner of living to-gether; and living in language in reflective conversation is our particular ecological niche. Language is a manner of living in recursive co-ordinations of inner feelings, of doings and of emotions, in reflexive conversation. and living in recursive co-ordinations of inner feelings, doings and emotions is our manner of making distinctions in our living that constitute the entities, processes and relations of the cosmos that arises as we explain the coherences of what we do and of what happens to us in our living with the coherences of the realization of our living. Notions such as purpose, aim, intentions, adaptation, adequacy, progress, thoughts, reflections, etc. belong to what we do as we recursively co-ordinate our inner feelings and emotions as we operate in the recursive co-ordinations of our feelings, doings and relations as they arise in the course of our reflexive conversations as we coordinate our doings – thoughts, desires, fears, concerns, explanations as well as the doings that we do as we live them.

« 7 » None of the notions that we use as we reflect about the happening of what we do in our conversations as we describe the orientation of our reflections or our doings apply to what occurs in the spontaneous realization of the dynamic molecular architecture of the biosphere. As we use our reflective notions as if they applied to the processes of the molecular architecture of the realization of living systems in the biosphere, particularly if we use them metaphorically, we confuse operational and conceptual domains in a manner that interferes with our understanding of the worlds that we generate as we explain the coherences of our living with the coherences of our living, obscuring our understanding of our own living in reflective conversations. And when that happens, we lose sight of how we are responsible as conscious human beings for the worlds that we generate in the dynamic architecture of the biosphere that we integrate with all the sensory, operational and relational dimensions that arise with our living as we are in reflective conversations.

« 8 » I appreciate the references and use that the authors make of my work, which i consider they do in a very adequate way, and I agree with them in their fundamental conclusions. Now i would like to add the following reflection. Perhaps the expression “experience” is too anthropomorphic in itself because it entails an implicit act of abstracting a configuration of feelings as some kind of psychological entity about which we can talk as something that occurs independently of our distinguishing it. In our conversations, my colleague Ximena Dávila Yáñez and I have come to the conclusion that in our human case, when we speak of an experience, we always refer to something that we distinguish that happened or is happening to us in our living (Maturana & Dávila 2015). For example, walking is not lived as an experience unless we refer to it in our re-flections: an experience in our human living is something that we are aware is happening or did happen to us. In the present development of robotics, with the design of many automatic systems that have inner sensors to accommodate to the changing circumstances in which they are made to operate, imitating what happens with living systems, would we say that they have experiences like we do? Would we compare what we think is happening in them with their inner sensors guiding their movements with what is happening in an animal searching for its food?

« 9 » A living being exists as an organism in dynamic sensory coherence with the circumstances in which it lives as a result of the never-interrupted evolutionary history of transformation of the biosphere that arose as the ecological niche of the first organisms in the origin of living systems near four thousand million years ago. As a result of the continued operational, relational and sensory coherence of the living systems with the molecular architecture of the biosphere since its origin, every organism appears as if it operated with a purpose in the ecological medium in which it happens to live in sensory, operational and relational coherence as a result of such evolutionary history. Similarly, a robotic system appears to act with a purpose in the medium in which it operates as the result of a human design, but there is no purpose in its operation.

« 10 » I think that the target article is very valuable because it opens a reflective space in relation to how to understand the increasing evolutionary complexity of the inner sensors and operational abilities of the organisms that has resulted in the social living that constituted the space in which our living in language arose with the arising of our humanness and of our awareness that we are responsible of the worlds that we generate together. Ximena Dávila and I think that we human beings are a spontaneous result of an evolutionary history. This history is guided by the conservation of the well-being of living together in the intimacy of coordinating the doings of the daily chores that created a loving relational space. It is this space in which arose our manner of living in conversations in which we

  • ƒ can reflect about our origin, ƒ
  • have ethical concerns, ƒ
  • are aware that we are not the product ofƒ some mysterious design,
  • ƒfeel responsible for what we do and do not do,
  • and think, that this is very wonderful.


Maturana H. R. & Dávila X. Y. (2015) El árbol del vivir. Edited by Mauricio Vlastelica Panel. MVP Editores, Santiago Chile.

Humberto Maturana Romesín showed that living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, and that language as a biological phenomenon occurs as a flow of living together in co-ordinations of co-ordinations of consensual behaviors; and cognition as a biological phenomenon occurs when an organism operates adequately to the circumstances of its living, conserving its autopoiesis as a consequence of the operational-relational coherences with its niche that are proper to it in the present of its living as a feature of the history of the evolutionary structural drift to which it belongs.

received: 12 February 2016
accepted: 17 February 2016


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