Date: 19th May 2021

Speaker of the day: Ezequiel Di Paolo

Articles: Varela, “Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves” (1991) & “Patterns of Life” (1997)

Abstract: In the papers covered, Varela develops a non-foundational approach to thinking about biological self and its relation to the surrounding environment. He does this by introducing the dialectics of (i) identity and (ii) knowledge. While the former considers the biological process in terms of the processes which constitute it, the latter points out important consequences the processual notion of identity has for understanding of the genesis of knowledge. The behaviour of a biological ‘selfless’ self is thus not a computational but rather structural or organisational response to an environmental perturbation. These environmental factors need not be inorganic, as the self can interact with other selves; every self is therefore a regional self, without an absolute authority over the behaviour of other regional selves.

Keywords: dialectic of identity, dialectic of knowledge, behaviour, regional self



The two papers considered should not be taken as self-contained, fully formed entities. Quite to the contrary, they belong to a long, drawn out, fluid development of ideas originating in early autopoietic understanding of life and vying for its enactivist understanding alive today. Accordingly, frequent terminological ambiguities should not be considered theoretical shortcomings, but rather as focal points for a relational understanding of the history of Varela’s thought.

Papers investigate two dialectics, with which a researcher is meant to understand the complex processes constituting autopoietic phenomena. The first concerns the establishment of an identity out of a particular mechanism, the second an emergence of knowledge, established through identity’s relationship with the environment.

The DIALECTIC OF IDENTITY consists of two terms: (a) a dynamic term and (b) a global term. The dynamic term considers assemblies of mechanisms capable of constituting emergent organisation (such as metabolic pathways and neuronal assemblies), yet do not organize it by themselves alone. The global term, on the other hand, denotes an emergent property by virtue of which the elements of the dynamic term enter into an organisation capable of maintaining, thus creating itself (such as cellular membranes and sensory-motor body); nevertheless, it needs the elements of (a) to be able to sustain itself. A particularly pertinent example might be the following: (a) metabolic networks produce metabolites that constitute (b) the membrane boundaries, which in turn permit the bounded dynamics of (a) metabolic networks.

The DIALECTIC OF KNOWLEDGE similarly consists of two terms: (a) a significance term and (b) a coupling term. The coupling term refers to the embeddedness of a self into its surrounding environment, since only out of regular and lawful interaction with it meaningful relations can arise. The significance term denotes an emergence of surplus meaning by which the perspective of the self is intuited. Varela once again provides us with an example: (a) interneuron network generates neuronal ensembles underlying (b) sensorimotor coupling, which in turn modulates the dynamics of (a) interneuron network

Varela maintains that BEHAVIOUR is therefore a change an organism undergoes while maintaining its autopoiesis. However – as di Paolo is quick to point out – this characterization is too broad: while standing in the rain I get wet, but getting wet is hardly something we would call behaviour. Nevertheless, this way of conceptualizing self provides us with an important perspective on organic phenomena. Since there are many different levels of organisation, we should consider every self as a REGIONAL SELF operating on its own level of organisation. In mainstream cognitive science and philosophy of mind a great many problems arise when researchers are not conscious of this fact. Varela is very cautious with his language, but di Paolo is of the opinion that he need not be, as an autopoietic self can be a fully real and not just an illusory, as-if self.

Out of this starting point some very interesting ideas follow. Firstly, the history of coupling is not secondary, but rather an intrinsic dynamic of organized systems. Secondly, there is no computation as the self is its own implementation. Accordingly, the emergence of the original (micro)world is more like jazz improvisation than an execution of a programme. Third, human linguistic self is inherently social, because its components by which it is structured are only available out there in the interpersonal world. Lastly, viewing the organism is nothing less than viewing a fractal of operational closures.


1) Natalie Depraz: Might the term selfless not be an absolute, but rather a modal, relative term – not substantial, but contingent?

Ezequiel Di Paolo: The use of the term is definitely not a mistake. But one might also understand it as saying how a self might be constituted – but then Varela explains the emergence of a self-full self – the self is at the end of the day materially, actually real! This emergent self can of course be completely contingent and is always in the state of becoming.

2) Andreas Weber: Out of this framework a new idea emerges: there is an inner aspect of identity, which is a consequence of the one that needs an identity. There is no ground, no foundation. The self might be even considered as a force… Furthermore, Varela gave us an important definition of life: “Life is a process of creating an identity.” Could this amend the ambiguity between terms selfless and groundless?

Ezequiel Di Paolo: A title talking about “groundless selves” would be completely acceptable and the emergent self would still be completely materialistic, without submitting to bare mechanisms. Accordingly, there is nothing above or below the material, however biology should not just follow chemistry, but rather understand life. But he is not the only one proposing this; there is a myriad of thinkers grappling with the definition of life.

3) Adnan Sivić: When we consider an insect colony, it seems to line up with the autopoietic understanding of emergent organization. Where exactly is the difference between a superorganism and an individual organism?

Ezequiel Di Paolo: We have to be careful about the use of terms with which we think and verify their use empirically, as the wholes operate on different levels, yet is not (and never) a complete and finished totality.

Bruce Clarke: The term holobiont is nowadays preferable to superorganism; one has to take the notion of regional self seriously, as every self exists within a plethora of different holobionts. Even evolutionarily such a view is important. Furthermore, the concept is amenable to autopoietic treatment.

Ezequiel Di Paolo: I very much agree with you. One question worth considering might be: we have to separate constitution from interaction. Systems are never completely constituted, but only when constituted start to participate as autopoietic wholes. There is always a possibility of a new, bigger whole emerging and changing our perspective on the phenomena. In our agency there are many autonomous, emergent realities, which cannot be completely constituted by their lower/smaller parts. Habits, for example, are self-sustained emergent wholes. The theory of autopoiesis would be considered more of a tool than a complete theory.

4) Mathis Trautwein: Are there any autopoietic approaches that try to understand the constitution of linguistic self?

Ezequiel Di Paolo: There are different kinds of social agencies that we have to impact. Example: there are completely social acts, like shaking hands. Conditions of fulfilment imply more than one agent. Only with these kinds of acts, we become people.

Mathis Trautwein: This might have serious implications for psychotherapy, education, mathematical education.

5) Shaun Gallagher: Notion of surplus of significance. It is more about taking away than adding to mechanisms… But there first has to be a surplus which can be taken away.

Ezequiel Di Paolo: If there is any surplus, it is out there in the world. We make sense by narrowing it down. Varela is implicitly accepting the poverty of stimulus. Di Paolo maintains that meaning comes from the world. The influence of the poverty of stimulus is definitely a starting point.

Ezequiel Di Paolo: Significance is an activity that can fail, etc. We are participating in it… There could be situations in which I find new meanings. The notion of information brings a certain static character to phenomena. By dispelling it, we might try to understand the system in a more dynamic way. There is no need for the addition of meaning.

Evan Thompson: When Varela uses the term the surplus of meaning, he is considering it from a certain analytical perspective of a chemist or a physicist. But how are we to think about this relational use of the term? From a philosopher’s perspective, the concepts in a sense break down, since it is not meant to be used as a philosophical term. The issue of colour is precisely something which is not only an addition but rather a relational surplus.

Ezequiel Di Paolo: We need to resolve the complicated structure of the relational nature of the surplus. Questions concerning the creation of new meaning, might produce interesting avenues of thought in this direction. If meaning is something that arises anew, the language of addition might make sense.

Sebastjan Vörös: The problem might lie in the notion of creation. A similar problem occurred in the work of Merleau-Ponty, when he replaced the notion of constitution with that of institution. The latter rests on the notion that there is a certain dimensionality of the world which creates a relational meaning with an organism that interacts with it.

7) Toma Strle: How could one approach the investigation of psychological pathologies without losing sight of the important role that the history of interaction plays in the constitution of autopoietic organization?Di Paolo: This is a very important question. We need to start looking at the levels of organization and try to integrate them with the use of the autopoietic framework. The difficulty lies in the fact that particular research projects cannot look past their own preconceived notion of acceptable and unacceptable investigations. The task of integrating these diverse fields is much more important than just bringing in the phenomenological approach.