Remembering Varela

Four articles (and more) of interest to theorists interested in enaction:

1. Tom Froese’s new article in Adaptive Behavior:

Critics of the paradigm of enaction have long argued that enactive principles will be unable to account for the traditional domain of orthodox cognitive science, namely “higher-level” cognition and specifically human cognition. Moreover, even many of the paradigm’s “lower-level” insights into embodiment and situatedness appear to be amenable to a functionalist reinterpretation. In this review, I show on the basis of the recently published collection of papers, Enaction, that the paradigm of enaction has (a) a unique foundation in the notion of sense-making that places fundamental limits on the scope of functionalist appropriation; (b) a unique perspective on higher-level cognition that sets important new research directions without the need for the concept of mental representation; (c) a new concept of specifically human cognition in terms of second-order sense-making; and (d) a rich variety of approaches to explain the evolutionary, historical, and developmental origins of this sophisticated human ability. I also indicate how studies of the role of embodiment for abstract human cognition can strengthen their position by reconceiving their notion of embodiment in enactive terms.

2. Autopoiesis, Systems Thinking and Systemic Practice: The Contribution of Francisco Varela by Alberto Paucar-Caceres, Roger Harnden & André Reichel introduction to a special themed issue Systems Research and Behavioral Science:

This special issue of Systems Research and Behavioral Sciences (SRBS) is a memorial issue to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic early death of Francisco Varela (7 September 1946–28 May 2001). A truly remarkable ‘renaissance man’, his wide spectrum of interests encompassed biology, mathematics, neuroscience, epistemology, cognitive science, ethics and philosophy. His early death could not mask an amazingly productive life nor the creative and open way he approached all his activities. Because his ideas have been extremely influential and inspiring, we wanted to remember him with a tribute issue composed of papers reflecting and highlighting his influential work in contemporary science, particularly with regard to systems thinking and system practice.

3. Another Froese article From Second-order Cybernetics to Enactive Cognitive Science: Varela’s Turn From Epistemology to Phenomenology

Varela is well known in the systems sciences for his work on second-order cybernetics, biology of cognition and especially autopoietic theory. His concern during this period was to find an appropriate epistemological foundation for the self-reference inherent in life and mind. In his later years, Varela began to develop the so-called ‘enactive’ approach to cognitive science, which sets itself apart from other sciences by promoting a careful consideration of concrete experiential insights. His final efforts were thus dedicated to finding a pragmatic phenomenological foundation for life and mind. It is argued that Varela’s experiential turn—from epistemology to phenomenology—can be seen as a natural progression that builds on many ideas that were already implicit in second-order cybernetics and biology of cognition. It is also suggested that the rigorous study of conscious experience may enable us to refine our theories and systemic concepts of life, mind and sociality.

4. Pier Luigi Luisi’s recollection of Varela in Systems research and behavioral science:

I review here my personal and scientific interactions with Francisco Varela, starting from our meeting in 1983 in Alpbach, Austria, a momentous meeting, which was also the place where the Mind and Life Institute and independently the Cortona week were conceived. Later on, the scientific cooperation focussed on autopoiesis and permitted to arrive at the experimental autopoiesis on the basis of the self-reproduction of micelles and vesicles. I then briefly describe how Francisco, based on the complementary notion of cognition, was able to draw the bridge between biology and cognitive sciences. The main keywords here are enaction and embodied mind. From here, and towards the end of his life, Francisco focussed mostly on neurobiology, where he introduced the notion of neurophenomenology centred on first-person reports. However, his seminal work on autopoiesis was instrumental to conceive the new field of research on the minimal cells, which is briefly described. I conclude with an overview of the meaning of the work of Francisco for life sciences at large.