Francisco Varela, the Heterodox

Reading time: 9 minutes

Translation by AB – April 15, 2020


Francisco Varela

Francisco Varela was a Chilean biologist and philosopher, born in Santiago in 1946 and died in Paris in 2001, at age 54, following a hepatitis C. He is not well known by a large audience, but he has left indelible works and traces in the field of cognitive science. With his compatriot and colleague Humberto Maturana he developed the concept of “autopoiesis”, characterization of autonomous systems, and, later, that of “enaction” which will spread far beyond his immediate scientific field. These concepts are well known to those who work on “artificial life”, trying to define what it could be and what type of body it could depend on.

This first text dedicated to Francisco Varela aims to present these concepts starting from the man himself, his culture, his history. A concept is always born in a singular way and it is at its source that it is revealed in all its necessity. Then, as Varela might say, it is given to everyone, it is an offering, it becomes something else.

First, let’s set the scene.

Ambiance: american cognitivism

The sciences we know, as useful theories, essentially agree on the central premise of objectivism: reality exists independently of the observer. There is really no other way to do (rational) science than to consider the world as an object and to develop a system of concepts congruent with the observed reality. But we then vaguely feel that the body is going to raise a problem: where is it located? Is it part of observed reality or does it participate, if only through the activity of the senses, in the construction of our concepts?

The cognitive sciences, at least those which developed until the 1980s, did not really consider the philosophical “alerts” on this subject (fueled in particular by quantum theories) and purely and simply got rid of the body. The cognitive, “intelligent”, possibly “conscious” mind (About Artificial Consciousness), was a system in itself to model, and therefore had to be studied without other possible tools than symbols, a dynamic of these symbols (logic and mathematics), and finally a language “above ground” because considered as a representation of the real a posteriori.

At the time, Marvin Minsky saw intelligence (“cognition”) as a symbol manipulation activity. But why would it be so? Epistemologically, this definition remains, if one can say, “aggressive” and exclusive (by the way, as we have already observed in Liu Hui overcomes a Monster, the creation of symbols better characterizes authentic intelligence, that we all understand intuitively, than manipulation, which we can clearly feel is, to a certain extent, mechanizable). In the same vein, you must have tried to use concretely and stubbornly the “generative and transformational grammar” of Noam Chomsky to understand a) that strangely, it does not work, b) that it comes from a posture to say the least vindictive and conquering.

In short, the American cognitivist school had arrogated the mind, decreeing objectivism, reality without man, and consequently cognition as a subject in itself and residing in the ethereal world of symbols. Chemically pure Platonism 

This is where and when Francisco Varela arrives, and we can already guess that it will not be simple 

Varela, the theorist

With his master, Humberto Maturana, Varela goes back to cognition from the “bottom”, from the biological body, and in 1972, their work culminated in the key concept of “autopoiesis1, of which Varela will later formulate the following definition:

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of process of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. It follows that an autopoietic machine continuously generates and specifies its own organization.

At first reading, it is a bit obscure, but it must be remembered that Varela and Maturana were biologists and think at first of living systems on a small scale, cells for example, and use a vocabulary and representations of “systemic” nature.

Thus, an autopoietic system defines itself, in a way, and is fundamentally different from any artificial system prescribed from the outside (a programmed robot for example) and assigned to explicitly produce such effects according to such causes. In this sense, an autopoietic system, a fortiori living, does not have a specifiable behavior: it specifies itself. In principle, an autopoietic artifact could exist and therefore a form of “artificial life”. By definition, it is clear that this kind of artifact could only be specified at the level of its most basic “components” but that for the rest, it should define its own organization itself and would therefore largely escape us. An authentic artificial life should somehow pursue its own interests…

Going up to the level of cognition, the second key concept of “enaction2 proposed by Francisco Varela in the late 1970s (with others: Humberto Maturana, Gregory Bateson, etc.) characterizes cognition in an autopoietic system as embodied cognition, that is to say dependent on its own environment. So enaction faces…

… the problem of understanding how our existence, the practice of our life, is coupled with a surrounding world which appears filled with regularities which at every moment are the result of our biological and social history… to find a medium way to understand the regularity of the lived world which we experience at every moment, but without any other point of reference than ourselves which would give certainty to our descriptions and affirmations […]

Enact is a transitive verb which means: to represent the lived environment by the simple fact that our actions, our movements, our history, determine patterns and regularities. Thus, the famous “Umwelt” (lived world) of the tick described by Jakob von Uexküll (“Animal and human worlds“, 1956) :

This animal, deprived of eyes, finds the way to its guard post using a general sensitivity of the skin to light. This highwayman, blind and deaf, perceives the approach of his prey by his sense of smell. The smell of butyric acid, released by the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, acts on him as a signal that makes him leave his guard post and let go in the direction of his prey. If he comes across something hot (which a refined sense of temperature reveals to him), he has reached his prey, the warm-blooded animal, and only needs his tactile sense to find a place as hairless as possible, and sink to the head in the skin tissue thereof. He then slowly sucks in a stream of warm blood.

Ticks can thus wait for years: time is suspended. Their world is “enacted”, revealed step by step in the succession of their acts which constitutes their own history.

Varela, the Chilea

Francisco Varela carries with him a South American history, in the backdrop of the Cuban post-revolution, of desire for emancipation, including cultural and scientific, from the American “yoke”.

In 2006, during a series of lectures organized by the CNRS about the work of Francisco Varela, Frédéric Joignot republished an article which appeared in 1993 in the French magazine “Actuel” and recounting an interview with the researcher. The article sheds light on Varela’s personal story, and it’s fortunate to still have access to it; we allow ourselves to repeat here some extracts (original text in French)3.

I come from a farming background […] We raised animals, we rode horses, we planted trees. The vision of the mind as a sophisticated computer seemed to me too disembodied. As a young scientist, I was a rationalist and an atheist. But in Chile, including among the Marxist rationalists, there was a kind of perpetual music, an atmosphere of spirituality. I remember mystical experiences from the age of five, very carnal, in front of nature. There was nothing religious about them. No dogmatism in there. I would rather speak of rare moments, full of a feeling of celebration, openness to the world, expansion of the spirit, that children live spontaneously.

We find in him this double anchoring, this intimate and invigorating dialectic between a profane rationality and a consciousness of the sacred, as with other heterodox thinkers. It is clear that we are, at the time of Francisco Varela’s existence, far from Harvard and cognitivism. In 1964, at the age of 18, with his biology license, he joined the laboratory of Humberto Maturana. Varela tells:

With Humberto, we spent entire nights discussing this archidominant [objectivist] model, dissecting it to find its flaws. Something was bothering us in there, this too objective, mechanistic side, but we couldn’t find a solid solution. Anyway, Humberto Maturana was the first to question the dictatorship of this undisputed model.

In 1967, he won a scholarship to pass his doctorate at Harvard, determined to fight:

I had a passion, a consuming fire. I wanted to learn everything, I followed the courses of the stars of biology, artificial intelligence, math, anthropology. I was recording, to better fight for the independence of Latin America. I had nothing to lose. Whatever happened, I was going to go back to Chile and create another type of science, with other purposes.

Although invited to stay at Harvard, he therefore returns to Chile, highly motivated, alongside Maturana.

Finally, we wanted to build a strong theory that would render the metaphor of the computer brain obsolete. Show, through science, that knowledge is not a matter of representation, but rather of creation, of construction of reality! The brain builds its own world, that’s what we sensed!

So, they end up developing the theory of autopoiesis together. Later, when he returned to the United States, Varela continued to develop his research, focusing for some time on the observation of cockroaches. Here is another good illustration of the enaction:

Observe a cockroach, […] it runs on the ground, then, without transition, climbs a wall and finds itself on the ceiling. The concepts of horizontal, vertical, upside down, have absolutely not the same meaning for him as for us. His mental world has nothing to do with ours. Maybe he imagines it flat? This difference does not come from his tiny brain. To understand it, it is better to look at its legs. For years, I studied the two thousand fifty-three sensors of the second leg of the middle of a cockroach! The insect acts in the world without any forecast on the environment. He makes it, he builds it, and has adapted to it since the dawn of time.

Provisional conclusion

There is no cognitive center based in the brain and calculating models of reality. There is, for each living being, a world built by its own body, according to its possibilities, its contingencies, and its autopoietic patterns. Here is the contribution of biology, but also of South American culture and history to cognitive science, in the contingency window of the Cuban, Marxist and “anti-imperialist” revolution.

If the principle of an independent reality (which “ignores” us) seems natural to us, we often forget that it results from our Western culture. But this culture also knows how to think differently, but in the confinement of art and literature. The French writer Marcel Proust wrote in “Albertine disparue:

Intelligence is not the subtlest, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument to grasp the truth, it is only one more reason to start with intelligence and not with an intuitivism of unconscious, by a faith in ready-made presentiments. It is life that little by little, case by case, allows us to notice that what is most important for our heart, or for our spirit, is not taught to us by reasoning but by other powers.

Let us be grateful to Francisco Varela for never having sank in absolute relativism and to have given a voice and a scientific path to these “other powers.


1. Wikipedia – Autopoiesis
2. Wikipedia – Enactivism
3. Frédéric Joignot in Journalisme Pensif – July 11, 2006 – Francisco Varela : « L’esprit n’est pas une machine »

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