Publication 387

Froese T. & Stewart J. (2010) Life after Ashby: Ultrastability and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 17(4): 7–50. Fulltext at
The concept of autopoiesis was conceived by Maturana and Varela as providing the necessary and sufficient conditions for distinguishing the living from the non-living (and, by extension, the cognitive from the non-cognitive). More recently, however, there has been a growing consensus that their original conception of autopoiesis is necessary but insufficient for this task as it fails to meet a number of constructive, interactive, normative, and historical requirements. We argue that it also fails to satisfy crucial phenomenological requirements that are motivated by the ongoing appropriation of autopoiesis as a key concept in enactive cognitive science. The root of these problems can be traced to the abstract general systems framework in which the ideas were first formulated, as epitomized by Ashby’s cybernetics. While this abstract generality has helped the concept’s popularity in some circles, we insist that a restriction of autopoiesis to a radical embodiment in chemical self-production under far-from-equilibrium conditions is necessary if the concept is to live up to its original intentions.




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