Date: 21th April 2021

Speaker of the day: Tom Froese

Articles: Varela, “Autonomy and Autopoiesis” (1981) & “Steps to a Cybernetics of Autonomy” (1986)

Abstract: In this lecture Tom Froese presents two Varela’s papers, Autopoiesis and Autonomy and Steps to a Cybernetics of autonomy. The focus is on the distinction between the notions of autopoiesis and autonomy, how this distinction figures in Varela’s departure from the computationalist program, and how his conception of these notions might be viewed from the standpoint of contemporary enactivist research.

Keywords: autopoiesis, autonomy, computationalist cognitive science, organisational closure, enactivism, poetic objectivity, Whitehead’s processual philosophy



In Autopoiesis and Autonomy, Varela sets out to review the notion autopoiesis, which has become quite popular in a number of disciplines up until the 1980’s but might have lost some of its theoretical potency along the way. Autopoiesis should on his account be reserved for the metabolic processes taking place in the chemical domain of the living. Other kinds of systems might share some structural similarities, whence Varela’s term autonomy, introduced to encompass the broader scope of self-organizing systems. However, it is not readily apparent, why Varela places such importance on distinguishing these terms. Are there truly fundamental structural differences between the two kinds of systems, or is it simply a matter of its domain of application (chemical as opposed to, say societal)? This ambiguity is related to another, namely, how Varela’s approach stands in relation to classical computationalist cognitive science. Since Varela sees recursive functions and even general computations of any kind as instances of organisational closure (a key defining feature of autopoiesis), one might wonder, what differentiates his approach to that of computationalism or dynamical systems theory. There is a clear point of departure from traditional approaches for Varela in that he attempts to take into account the notion of distinction or the self-differentiation of the autonomous system from the environment. The relation between the organism and environment is therefore not one of correspondence as per computationalism, but one of consistency. The internalist position that Varela points to here is further clarified from the vantage point of phenomenology, that he adopts later on in his career.

In a later text titled Steps to a Cybernetics of Autonomy Varela makes a more decisive break with computationalism. Here, even his notion of autonomy precludes functionalist analysis and cannot be modelled by a Turing machine. The system can no longer be defined in terms its possible inputs and outputs, as the environment now plays the exclusive role of a background noise or possible perturbation for the autonomous system itself. Instead, the notion is now centred around self-determination and the emergence of meaning, which eludes to his later enactivist position and his conception of sense-making.  Ambiguities remain however, as Varela’s position here might be read along the radical constructivist or solipsist lines, or along the lines of currently predominant enactivist research, which construes sense-making as interaction between the organism and environment, and thus reaffirms the importance of external factors for cognitive science.


1) Sebastjan Vörös combines several questions: The “input-output” functionalist way of approaching living beings and cognition seems to have retained its central place in contemporary research. Why might this be the case? How does the enactivist alternative sit with evolutionary and ecological approaches, which also puts emphasis on the role of external environment?

Tom Froese: We might still be waiting for the next big breakthrough. In the field of robotics for example, it is becoming clear, that our current best models cannot be characterized as sense-making. Dynamical systems theory might be the best conceptual tool we have at the moment, but there is a strong sense among contemporary enactivist research of the need to move forward with our fundamental theoretical assumptions.

2) Sebastjan Vörös combines several questions: Could one adopt a “not one not two” attitude toward the autonomy/control dichotomy? Is there a middle ground to the two theoretical attitudes?

Tom Froese: Systems dynamics can be deterministic for a limited period of time and also undergo structural or qualitative shifts at others. As long as one limits oneself to these “pockets of stability”, dynamical systems theory is adequate, but in order to understand structural changes, one might need to adopt a different approach. This move might need to be quite controversial as it seems to necessitate a non-state-deterministic metaphysics.

3) Sebastjan Vörös: What about dissipative structures, which are said to be indeterministic in principle?

Tom Froese: One should not conflate non-determinism with non-predictability. A chaotic system for example, is non-predictable, but still deterministic (a chaotic program’s behavior is determinable once and for all for specific initial conditions). Non-determinism implies, that if one were to return to the same initial conditions, a system might spontaneously behave in a novel way. The only kind of physic that allows for this kind of non-determinism is quantum physics.

4) Andreas Weber: We have to invite lived subjectivity into our way of doing science. There is phenomenological and a Buddhist aspect at work already in Varela’s early preoccupations with autopoiesis and autonomy. There is a lived experience of autonomy that is omitted from the scientific attempts at its formalisation.

Tom Froese: Yes, one can notice Varela’s dissatisfaction in these texts, as he struggles move beyond the predominant way of posing the question of autonomy.

5) Timotej Prosen:  Is there a contradiction to Varela’s theses that (1.) one should take into account one’s own activity as a modeler of a given phenomenon, and (2.) that one should respect the autonomy of the phenomenon under scrutiny (at least concerning living beings). Could one say, that the concept of autonomy entails a kind of realism and if so, what would that mean for thesis (1.)?

Tom Froese: Constructing objects seems an easy game as opposed to constructing other people. The other (person) does not seem to depend upon our act of distinction. Our act only accounts for the fact, that the other differentiates herself from her environment. The otherness of the other is the strongest argument for realism that we can make.

6) Konrad Werner: The dichotomy between internalism and externalism need not be absolute. The boundary between the organism and environment might be seen as contextual; for example, the nervous system draws the boundary in one way and the immune system draws it differently.

Tom Froese: Yes, there are lots of different boundaries at play. We also need to include adaptive behaviour and environmental couplings into our conception of these kinds of boundaries. On the other hand, one needs carefully attend to the self-constructed nature of those boundaries so as to not conflate them with the arbitrary ones that the external observer establishes.

7) Natalie Depraz: In his late papers Varela adopts Deleuze’s notion of the fold for conceptualizing boundaries. This notion manages to encompass both the distinction and connection between the organism and its environment.

Tom Froese: It would be very interesting to include philosophical concepts such as Deleuze’s fold, or Merleau-Ponty’s chasm into contemporary cognitive science.

8) Andreas Weber: Varela in his late career shifts the emphasis from construction to interpretation or mutual specification.  Consider for example his statement that “Meaning is the experience of other in terms of self” (also the self in terms of other). Here, the self and the other are indeed real, but not graspable in themselves. They are involved in an ongoing process of mutual specification, which nicely relates back to Deleuze. I call this kind of realism poetic objectivity.

Tom Froese: I agree. In traditional hermeneutics there is still a sense of a kind of relativism, in the sense that the meaning is what the subject makes of it, independent of what exist “out there”. Your notion of poetic objectivity nicely resolves this issue. This is exactly the direction I am interested in. This direction has the potential of overcoming traditional dichotomies between realism and idealism, and thus also of bridging the gap between the natural sciences and the humanities.

9) Sebastjan Vörös: I agree, however, most people in the scientific community seem to underestimate the profound changes that need to be introduced to our notions of the world and objectivity in order to bridge the gap you mentioned. Here, authors such as late Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead and Deleuze can be very helpful.

Tom Froese: On the other hand, we still have to fit these philosophical ideas with our best physical models. Contemporary physics however does indeed struggle to fit the notion of observer into its theoretical vocabulary. So, there are still important contributions to be made in this regard.

10) Andreas Weber: The very notion of “the observer” is fictitious, it should have been phrased “the participant”.

Tom Froese: Yes, as soon as we adopt a world-involving realism of scientists as participants, interacting with observed phenomena, problematic fields such as quantum physics start to make much more sense.

11) Sebastjan Vörös:Whitehead’s processual philosophy is a good example of following the implications 20. Century physics rigorously, and arriving at anti-realist conceptions of time and subjectivity.

Tom Froese: I’m not comfortable with what I see as Whitehead’s panpsychism, where every physical individual is treated as a locus of experience. I would be interested if he could be read as a kind of world involving ontology of experience.

Gábor Karsai: I don’t think Whitehead is a panpsychist in that sense. He is interested in reframing the ontology of experience.

Natalie Depraz: Varela once told me that he would be interested to delve more into Whitehead’s philosophy.