Publication 8138

Lechte J. (2008) Humberto Maturana. In: Fifty key contemporary thinkers: From structuralism to post-humanism. Second edition. Routledge, London: 339–345. Fulltext at
Excerpt: Humberto Maturana, a neurophysiologist from Chile, was a member of the second wave of cybernetics (1960–85) (Hayles 1999: 131), and has made a name for himself in developing a theory of autopoiesis, or the nature of reflexive feedback control in living systems. Maturana was also part of a research team which investigated the frog’s visual system in the late-1950s. This research was able to show that the frog did not so much represent reality as construct it: the frog sees what it wants, or needs to see – small, fast-moving flies rather than large, slowmoving cows. Such a discovery served as a spring board for Maturana’s investigation into epistemology and the nature of the observer’s role in investigating living systems. Like the frog, the observer, Maturana and his colleague, Francisco Varela proposed, does not discover a pre-existing reality, but creates it in the act of observation. In other words, the realist epistemology that is implicitly challenged here has to take a back seat to a notion of reflexivity which turns reality into the product of the dynamic interaction between observer and the system of which he or she is a part. For living systems, such as the human, Maturana and Varela found the real, external world is in fact part of the living system itself and is not something that can be proved to be external to it. The activity of the nervous system is thus a product of the structure of the organisation of the nervous system itself, and not the result of the impact on it of external reality.

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