Date: 7th April 2021

Speaker of the day: Evan Thompson

Article: Varela, “Not One, Not Two” (1976)

Abstract: In the lecture Evan Thompson illustrates a diverse background to Varela’s Not One, Not Two, explains various Star * frameworks that Francisco introduces in order to try to surpass the mind-body problem, and points out a number of topics that branched into the ideas and approaches that Francisco developed in the years to follow (for example, the concepts of enaction and sense-making, and establishing the field of neurophenomenology in the 90’s to further tackle the hard problem of consciousness). In the debate, topics such as the nature of dialectics, the role of the observer in indication, and the methodology of undoing are discussed.

Keywords: logic of paradise, undoing, self-reference, indication, enaction, nonduality of mind and body, observer, experience of mind, dialectics



The invitational paper that Gregory Bateson wrote to the participants of the conference on mind-body dualism that took place in 1976 gives a sense of a larger context within which Francisco was thinking about when writing Not One, Not Two, his position paper for the conference. Bateson’s paper included the ideas of recursive systems, the biosphere, the “information as a difference that makes a difference”, and the application of these ideas not just to the observed systems but to ourselves as investigators, and these are all taken up in Not One, Not Two in Francisco’s own way. Another important referential point is Reflections on the Chilean Civil War, a talk that Francisco gave in 1978 at Lindisfarne (sequentially published in the Association’s Newsletter 8), where he described the insight into the “LOGIC OF PARADISE“:

“The whole thing had an intrinsic logic that was essentially good, in that it gave me a handle on what paradise is, for the first time. I know that might sound strange, but that is what it felt like – that being rooted in the complete chaos and mass killing, out of what was emerging a completely inverse understanding. […W]e must incorporate in the enactment, in the projecting out of our world views, at the same time the sense in which that projection is only one perspective, that it is a relative frame, that it must contain a way to UNDO itself.”

In On Observing Natural Systems: Francisco Varela in Conversation With Donna Johnson, an interview that Francisco gave around the same time that he wrote Not One, Not Two, he said that:

“[S]ELF-REFERENCE is, for me, the nerve of this logic of paradise, that is, the possibility of a common survival with dignity of humankind. That paradise is something very concrete, founded on the logic of self-reference, on seeing that what we do is a reflection of what we are.”

Regarding the paper’s title, “not one, not two” is a stock phrase of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Francisco probably took it from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. In the first talk, Suzuki Roshi writes:

“Now I would like to talk about our zazen posture. When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. […] Our body and mind are not two and not one.”

Here and further in Suzuki Roshi’s talk, many themes that run through Not One, Not Two are noticeable: MIND AND BODY, singular and plural, dependence and independence, the invocation of actual experience, and bodily posture as expressing NONDUALITY. Francisco also mentions parenthetically that the Buddhist idea of the middle way comes close to what he calls the philosophical “superation”, the overcoming, of dualities that he is presenting.

In the paper, Francisco uses the STAR * framework to reframe dualities. The idea is that we place the whole (or what is holistic) on the left side of the /, and on the right side we put the corresponding processes or constituents. The dualities mutually specify each other and become a unity (as a second-order whole) when seen from a META-LEVEL. We have a procedure to shift our perception into this mode.

In the note on Epistemology, Francisco introduces the Star: conversational pattern/participants of the conversation. This gives us the mind/body pair as one form: MIND (CONVERSATIONAL PATTERN)/BODIES (PARTICIPANTS). Embodied participants are generative of the pattern, namely mind, in a self-referential, imbricating, asymmetrical way. The tendency, however, is for us as conversation participants to cut ourselves out and detach ourselves. That is to say, the bodies (with certain kinds of brains) give rise to conversational patterns but lose sight of this and fall back on themselves as isolated and rigid participants (through fixated belief systems, ideologies, neuroses, etc.).

In the note on Paradigm, Francisco highlights the paradigm shift that happens when we put side by side our understanding of nature and an understanding of the process through which we arrive at this understanding, in other words, when we refuse to bracket out the OBSERVER (and its actions). We now have to explicitly recognize that we must take responsibility for ourselves as observers (how we decide what boundaries are, how we chop networks, how we implement this in social practices and in technologies). Unless we do this, we cannot undo how we construct (enact) our worlds.

In the Epilog on The Mind-Body Problem, Francisco nonetheless remarks that the above said does not solve the mind-body problem, because there remains a residue that is unaccounted for – the EXPERIENCE of mind. He lucidly articulates the problem in his later paper Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem: “In all functionalistic accounts what is missing is not the coherent nature of the explanation but its alienation from human life.” What is required is a direct experience of the interrelation of being and knowledge. The crucial point is that we cannot get this just by thought. A shift in experience cannot be achieved just by thinking about it. It takes some kind of pragmatics, some kind of practice. This brings us to Francisco’s statement that “a change in experience (being) is as necessary as change in understanding if any suturing of the mind-body dualisms is to come about.” Remember that the mind-body dualism is a certain kind of cut: an intellectual cut, embodied in certain cultural practices that have led us to various kinds of crises.


1) Andreas Weber: If you look deeper into Hegel, you will find that he was actually obsessed with the same problem that Francisco was dealing with. […] It is about the unfolding individuality of the living within the whole of reality – it has to do with DIALECTICS, inevitably.

Evan Thompson: I think that even Francisco himself would have said later the use of the term “Hegelian” in Not One, Not Two was limited and problematic, and indeed, in his later work – and this marks break also with the earlier work on autopoiesis, especially with Maturana – he is thinking about self-reference in the Hegelian sense, as constitutive of the living process. That is, not simply as having to look at the organism in that way (a regulation of perception of the organism in the Kantian sense). In earlier work on autopoiesis, the teleology, for example, is just a description from the domain of the observer.

2) Hanne de Jaegher: The idea of undoing seems so antithetical to the whole idea of Not One, Not Two, because it implies that we have to go back in time and everything will be the same. I think that the whole idea of Not One, Not Two is that we move forward after we have done something, having incorporated that, and then enact something on the basis of it, which will be changed by the DOING, but cannot be undone.

Evan Thompson: I do not think “undo” here means “going back” in a temporal and logical sense to a way things were before you enacted them. That is extremely problematic and of course cannot actually be done. I think it is rather the idea that if you make, e.g., a certain kind of cut, and you say, “this is a system and we are going to place value on it differentiated this way.” If you lose sight of your having done that, and all the motivations and values that went into doing that, then you reify it and you do not see that there are alternatives.

Sebastjan Vörös: This resonates with Merleau-Ponty’s thought that in human perception, and correlatively in human action and behaviour, every action is surrounded by the milieu of virtuality. This is precisely the possibility of undoing what you are doing, because there is always an implicit possibility of engaging with other possibilities.

3) Mareike Smolka and others: By making an INDICATION, the observer creates a universe which he somehow operates and is and he also co-creates himself by doing so. The interesting question here is about the concept of CONSTRUCTION vs. ENACTION: how contingent is the observer in making these distinctions? What does it mean that the observer is the one that indicates? To what degree is that a free act?

Evan Thompson: There is a sense in which it is always contingent, in that it is always in a context dependent on communities of practitioners, circumstances, procedures and methods available that have a history – that is a pile of contingencies. But contingencies go very deep, so just because something is contingent it does not mean that it might not be in some other sense mandatory or called-for. […] In Laws of Form Spencer-Brown writes that “a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart.” It is in the passive voice: he does not say, “when the observer makes a cut…,” so the system can individuate and sever a space and enact in that sense. And then, of course, there can be an observer involved in that as well.

4) Randolph Dible: We talked about the act of indication being at the very foundation of A Calculus for Self-Reference that was drawing on the ideas put forward by Spencer-Brown. So how does this then relate to later work on phenomenology and enaction where you also have perception and movement being mutually correlated and co-determined?

Louis Kauffman: If you go back to Spencer-Brown, the MARK is exactly like Francisco’s /. Just as the / is a self-reference, so is the mark in Spencer-Brown referential to the distinction that it makes between the two sides or to the joining of the two sides. So this is a more EMBODIED position about self-reference than the re-entering mark may appear to be formally. Thus you can indeed see something of the relation between those beginnings and the rest embodied mind neurophenomenology, etc.

Andreas Weber: To me, Francisco just followed his own suggestion that we need to become more and more experiential. What he is doing then is becoming more and more the embodiment or an enaction of the first more formal formulations.

5) Giuseppe Pagnoni: The koan about thinking about non-thinking by Dōgen in his Zazen shin is very much in line with Francisco’s allusion to going beyond the usual logical dialectic. Talking about this different level which goes above thesis, antithesis, and synthesis even, Dōgen says that “non-thinking is the mind-body practice of seated meditation that revitalizes both thinking and not thinking, and therefore promotes the creative interplay between the rational and the non-rational.”

6. Ezequiel Di Paolo: I think that dialectics is much more a practical matter. When you raise the questions about how to go to the meta-level, etc., I do not think that Francisco could propose a formal way of answering that question. Dialectics here serves more as a method that invites your thinking to change ADAPTIVELY and completely in the situation in which you are. In think we have to use it as a sort of “mental surfing”: we have to just learn it and use it. […] If you just jump to the meta-level, you will miss a segment of path that you need to walk in order to get there. […] But there is no rule for resolving the tensions that appear in the process: you as an observer, your skills, or the community you are working in will tell you what is “relevant” and what to skip as “less important”.

Evan Thompson: That speaks to the importance of having a capacity for empathetic perception or sympathy or sensitivity, and also understanding where you are actually attuned to the particularities of that situation that are not replacable by any other one.

Ezequiel Di Paolo: Here is an example of the dialectics at work, as applied to the question of AUTOPOIESIS. […] We have two conditions there: self-production and self-distinction. In the original literature, these two are just put there. But you may ask the question: does one imply another? Could I put there just one of them and not the other? A dialectical analysis reveals that they are not one, not two: […] maximizing either of the two thwarts the other one. Hence, to apply dialectics, you introduce TIME, and you realize that you can adaptively self-produce by taking advantage of some inputs from the environment, but stopping others so that you can self-distinct. Your self-distinction is also realized through adaptive processes that are maintained by self-production.

7) Sebastjan combines several questions: How would you see bringing this critical perspective – the idea of dialectics and cultivating this dialectics both with regards to the topics and objects of inquiry and also with regards to how one conducts one’s inquiry – and this idea of doing with undoing into the practicing communities and policy-making? There has been a lot of discussion about finding ways to produce contemplative researchers, scientists, inquirers.

Evan Thompson: I would resist a general kind of answer. I think that what is important is the kind of thing we are doing now, where we bring these ideas out for people to encounter, we have a conversation in which many different perspectives interact with each other, and then it is really up to individual scientists and philosophers how they are going to move forward with that. […] In this paper, there is this idea of a different way of knowing, that Francisco sees as embodied in MEDITATION. But if we are going to talk about this in a richer way, we would have to say that meditation is itself CONCEPTUALLY FRAMED: it is embodied in traditions that have certain intellectual understandings of what it is and what are its purposes – even if they are so-called “anti-intellectual” traditions.

Sebastjan Vörös: That is a very good point as well with regards to meditation because in all the traditions, meditation is embedded into a very variegated context which indicates many other practices of approaching the topics that one studies; and some of them are profoundly conceptual – very rational, say, in the Theravāda tradition and even in Zen, to a certain degree. Just having an idea of a scientist who does his own work, but in addition to this he also meditates and this will somehow miraculously add an embodied element to his work, is a bit naïve – but it may be a step in the right direction in the sense of thinking about different modes of knowing and how one could cultivate them.

8) Gábor Karsai: I find it very interesting when one is claiming that he or she is applying something. I think that it is important that with that statement you also include the possibility of not really applying it. We tend to fall into the traps of methods and applications very often and we tend to claim that we do or achieve something with that doing. But if we keep the learning of today’s discussion, the element of undoing with the doing – the way I would translate it is: questioning the doing while doing it – that questioning invites the open space of undoing, not necessarily claiming that you are doing something into the activity that you are doing. That dichotomy or dialectics is important to keep in mind, or otherwise we might get drawn in some fanaticism or quick solutions.

Sebastjan Vörös: It would seem that the criterium of what counts as a justified, authentic METHODOLOGY is founded on the idea of an algorithm. So this is why people are always on a lookout for TECHNIQUES, presupposing that, given a well-defined technique – which is in a certain sense algorithmic – if they do A and B, C and D will follow. The ideal we are facing with here is a sedimentation of the early modern philosophy that still permeates the present-day academic realm, serving as an implicit norm in light of which different methodologies are judged.