A Tutorial

Part One

Kent Palmer, Ph.D

copyright 1996 Kent Palmer, all rights reserved

published on the email list 960116

1) Introduction

This tutorial will treat the ontological basis of Autopoietic Theory and its extension into the realm of social theory. It will implicitly treat epistemology as well, and will concentrate on the construction of a non-dual basis of theorizing about the phenomena of life, intelligence, social and psychological phenomena. These ontological considerations flow from the developments in this century in Continental philosophy which has had very little impact on scientific theorizing to date but which have a great potential for transforming the Theorizing of Western science especially in the area of the theories concerning life, cognition, and social phenomena. The lack of impact has several sources, one of which is the philosophical blindness of most scientific practice, to the extreme that this defect is generally seen as an advantage. All the while explanatory philosophy within science itself is rampant. Basically anything that cannot be tested, is philosophy. By this definition much of what goes on in science is implicitly philosophy on a naive basis. Philosophizing on the basis of a avowed ignorance of even the rudiments of Western philosophy is common. Another factor is the prevalance of nihilistic and extreme schools of thought within philosophy itself, such as Analytic Philosophy, Deconsructionism and other related Post-modernist movements. Most of these lines of thought are repugnant to scientists and reinforces their distrust of philosophy. However, without philosophy the meaning of scientific theories and facts remain obscured. And many of the implicit philosophical positions within science are just as nihilistic as the philosophical schools that cause folks that think of themselves as scientists to blanch. In fact the Krisis that Husserl pointed out in Western Science is still in full swing. Science has become detached from the lifeworld and teeters on the abyss of meaninglessness and nihilism through this disconnection from the consideration of meaning and the rise of instrumentalism. What we need to do is bring the best insights of recent Continental philosophy to bear on our scientific practice and use that as a context for understanding the phenomena that are addressed by autopoietic theory and its extension into the social realm. Thereby we will attempt to give a deeper context this important scientific theory which addresses some of the most crucial phenomena that appear within the world, and indeed it is a phenomenon that we are examples of ourselves. Thus in this we strive for self understanding.

2) Caveat

In this treatment we will not be attempting to second guess Maturana or Verela. Instead we will be taking our direction from them but attempting to produce an image of autopoietic theory that is more philosophically sophisticated. Maturana and Verela suffered from the same problem of most scientific theorists in that they did not realize the effects of their ontological suppositions on the interpretation and understanding of their theory. Thus there are many different interpretations of their seemingly paradoxical theoretical constructs. In fact, their theory appears to have a mystical quality from the point of view of traditional scientific theorists. Yet it has gained popularity due to the paradoxical nature of the phenomena that it attempts to understand by placing limits on our ability to know.

Autopoietic Theory is independent of any single author. And we are not attempting to reconstruct the view of any particular author on the subject, but instead attempting to construct another approach to the framing of a coherent autopoietic theory. Our approach is through the realization of the importance of understanding ontological and epistemological assumptions in the framing of autopoietic theory. Thus we start out by attempting to get a clear view of the ontological background for the theory, and then attempt to work out the best way to frame the theory given that context.

Of course, the ontological context of this particular theory applies to everything within our world, but it has special consequences for autopoietic theory, because of the fact that autopoietic theory is in part a description of the one producing the theory. Thus there is an important reflexive moment in autopoietic theory and the theorizing that goes on that culminates in the theory. The ontological context allows us to appreciate this reflexive moment and defuse some of its side effects which are the cause of so much of the misunderstandings surrounding the theory.

3) History

In our view the first systems theorist was Plato, not Aristotle, within the Western Tradition. In THE LAWS Plato produced a schema for a complete system of a city, and much of what was later thought of as Aristotle's systemizing thought may be seen as an embellishment of what Plato does in THE LAWS. In fact it is clear that what appears in THE LAWS is more like what was actually taught in Plato's Academy that what appears in the other Dialogues. What is of interest is that this is in fact a lost book, in the sense that philosophers normally ignore it and place it in the realm of political science. Political scientists tend to mention it in passing but basically think of it as an unworkable utopia with strange characteristics that are extremely unrealistic. So this longest and most systematic of all the dialogues has been essentially ignored by our tradition, even though it is clearly the earliest fully worked out systems theory, allbeit a theory of a human system.

I posit that the LAWS seems so strange to us, as a political system, because Plato was essentially describing an autopoietic system inhabited by human beings in the form of the city. So the first systems theory was at the same time the first known, well articulated, development of an autopoietic theory. And the irony is that this theory was projected on the human social relations, precisely the field denied as a valid application of the theory by Verela. So the quandery that we find ourselves in to day, in which autopoietic theory is haunted by the social dimension, is mirrored in the first known Western example of the theories articulation.

Autopoietic Theory represents a Road not taken within our Western Tradition. Philosophy ignored THE LAWS and the detailed description of the "second best city" in preference for the enigmas of THE REPUBLIC that was assumed to be the best city. But as we look at THE REPUBLIC it is clear that it is an inhabitable city for humans, similar to the comic cities produced by Aristophanes in his comedies. It is a city only fit for the Gods where there is no difference between the city and the household. In fact THE REPUBLIC was created by Plato only to show the effects of taking the road of dualism, and to point back toward the non-dual alternative and it's efficacy. But the Western tradition missed the import of this lesson and developed an extreme dualistic approach to everything. And so the city of THE LAWS became a curiosity, which was strange and unfamiliar, and somehow incomprehensible. But this first systems theory we now realize was an accurate image of the autopoietic system projected on the human city.

We realize that THE LAWS represented an autopoietic systems theory because we now have the theory of Maturana and Verela to compare it to, along with other examples developed by others influenced by the Chilean biologists remarkable work. That work establishes a different paradigm for understanding living and cognitive systems. It was done in response to the baffling nature of certain behavior of higher order dissipative, far from equalibrium, systems when looked at in the light of the normal view of biology. Part of this is the failure of stimulus response explanations of this kind of system. But inspite of this failure there is an aversion to the positing of a special living substance (elan vital ala Bergson), so the question became how do we theorize about a machine that cannot be understood by simple stimulus response explanations. Out of this simple quandery grew a sophisticated theory on a very different pattern than most other theories of the organism. What is interesting is that there are many direct parallels between this biological theory and the systematic view of the city Plato presents in THE LAWS.

Therefore, we do not see autopoietic theory as stemming from biology in recent times only, but view it as a submerged thread that runs through our tradition, and which surfaces occasionally. For instance, we can see signs of this thread in the MONADOLOGY of Leibniz. But it is interesting that there are very few instances where this thread can be seen to be fully manifested in our tradition, yet it appears to lurk as an essential possibility, continually suppressed or ignored, behind all that does manifest within our tradition. The paradoxes of the Animate Machine are continually there behind the extreme mechanistic interpretations of phenomena including organic phenomena. But teasing this strand out and finding clear examples, say in the Phenomenology of the Mind by Hegel, is a very difficult process. Yet ultimately Autopoietic theory must come to terms with its progenitors within the Western Tradition, because it is continually haunted by them.

In this work we will not attempt to tease out these hidden threads of autopoiesis within the tradition, but on the other hand we will not cling overly to the version of the theory proposed most recently. Instead, we will attempt to show how Western Ontology bears within it the hidden possibility of Autopoiesis and the paradoxes of it's extension to the social. We will do this by delving into the structure of Western ontology, and attempting to understand that as a context for the arising of autopoiesis as the rigorous definition of the nub of paradoxicality within the field of science but against the background of Western meta-physics.


For more details on the interpretation of the second best city in Plato's LAWS as an autopoietic systematic organization of a human city see THE FRAGMENTATION OF BEING AND THE PATH BEYOND THE VOID by Kent Palmer (Manuscript circa 1994). This manuscript contains a commentary on the first six books of THE LAWS that demonstrates the autopoietic nature of Plato's first systems theory.