Autopoiesis as in the contextualist root metaphor | Mancing, Marston-William (2022)

Autopoiesis, as coined by Humberto Maturana, is in the contextualist root metaphor of Stephen C. Pepper, rather than the organismic root metaphor, say #HowardMancing and #JenniferMarstonWilliam @PurdueLibArts .

The reference to Pepper comes through Diane Gillespie, working in cognitive psychology.

In place of mechanism, Gillespie proposes the worldview Pepper calls contextualism. The root metaphor of contextualism, she notes, is the historical event:

  • For the contextualist, experience consists of total events that are rich in features… . Because the event takes up the knower in the known, contextualism is an interactive, dynamic worldview. Moreover, nothing in the event is permanent or immutable because each particular changes with the flux of time. The contextualist focuses on the richness of experience and on shared meanings that arise out of interaction with others. Truth lies in the process of taking up the whole context of the event … And so meaning is embodied in our experience of the world. (18)

In contrast to Gardner’s (1985) definition of cognitive science, with its emphasis on empirical methods and its strong cognitivist orientation, Gillespie defines the field as one which “poses fundamental questions about knowing and acting, about how we come to understand our experiences in the world” (1). [p. 283]

The philosophical orientation is clarified.

Contextualism is always explicitly situated in the real world and in the actual activities of living organisms; as Pepper indicates (1942, 141), it is closely associated with pragmatism. If cognitivism ignores or removes context to isolate mind from body and body from environment, a contextualist approach does exactly the opposite. contextualism always maintains a sense of the past, both the historical past and the past of an individual’s personal experiences. [pp. 283-284]

Referring to the inspiration for autopoiesis by Matarana, the contrast with an organismic root metaphor is described.

Pioneering proponents of our embodied reality were the neurobiologists Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela. Following up on their earlier collaborative work (1980; originally published in Spanish in 1973), the two collaborated on The Tree of Knowledge (1992), an introduction to the biology of understanding built around the concept of autopoiesis. Maturana has described how he coined the term that became central to his and Varela’s work:

  • It was in these circumstances that one day, while talking with a friend (José Bulmes) about an essay of his on Don Quixote de la Mancha, in which he analyzed Don Quixote’s dilemma of whether to follow the path of arms (praxis, action) or the path of letters (poiesis, creation, production), and his eventual choice of the path of praxis deferring any attempt at poiesis, I understood for the first time the power of the word “poiesis” and invented the word that we needed: autopoiesis. This was a word without a history, a word that could directly mean what takes place in the dynamics of the autonomy proper to living systems. (1980, xvii) [p. 285]

It is interesting that this Contextualist biologist finds inspiration in literature, something that no bona fide Cognitivist would consider doing.

For Maturana and Varela, the paradigmatic model of an autopoietic system is the living cell, which constantly makes and remakes itself in conjunction with its surroundings. In contrast to most traditional work in biology, Maturana and Varela contextualize the organism within its environment. The result of this contextualization, they propose, is the need for the autopoietic (i.e., self-organizing, or self-making) organism to “bring forth” its cognitive world; that is, to create its own pragmatic understanding of its relation to external reality. Thus cognition becomes self-defining action: “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (1992, 26); “to live is to know (living is effective action in existence as a living being)” (174). As we will see below, these ideas echo throughout the recent work of numerous contemporary biologists, psychologists, and philosophers. Further, the similarity between this concept of biology and Bakhtin’s contextualized, dialogic, emergent approach to language also becomes clear.

An animal, unlike a machine, is an “autopoietic system” in the sense that “it pulls itself up by its own bootstraps and becomes distinct from its environment through its own dynamics, in such a way that both things are inseparable” (46–47). This organism-environment inseparability comes about by means of a process Maturana and Varela call “structural coupling,” the result of “recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (75).1 For human beings, everything we do is part of “a world brought forth in coexistence with other people” (239). Maturana and Varela insist—completely obviating the validity of any subject-object, mind-body, self-other, or nature-nurture dualism—that knowledge is “enactive,” that “human cognition as effective action pertains to the biological domain, but it is always lived in a cultural tradition … for cognition is effective action; and as we know how we know, we bring forth ourselves” (244; see also Varela 1992). [p. 286]

Philosophically, autopoiesis in a contextualist root metaphor illustrates how an authentic systems approch is not reductive.


Mancing, Howard, and Jennifer Marston William. 2022. “Contextualism.” In Restoring the Human Context to Literary and Performance Studies: Voices in Everything, edited by Howard Mancing and Jennifer Marston William, 281–306. Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance. Cham: Springer International Publishing. .


#autopoiesis, #root-metaphor, #stephen-c-pepper, #world-hypotheses