I had a thread for Francisco Varela on the old version of this forum, and after coming across a couple websites this weekend with some good resources on his work, I decided to recreate a thread for him here.  His work developing the enactive model of cognition, of course, has had a significant impact on the articulation of integral postmetaphysical theory.


Laying Down a Path in Walking  (Click "Open the Francisco Varela player and site")


From Autopoiesis to Neurophenomenology: A Tribute to Francisco Varela

  (Audio and Video links)




"Francisco Varela was born September 7, 1946 in Chile. As a child and teenager, he received a strong classical education from the German Lyceum in Santiago, which instilled in him a deep and lifelong appreciation of literature, art, philosophy, and science. He received his M.Sc. (Licenciatura) in Biology in 1967 from the University of Chile in Santiago, where he studied with the neurobiologist Humberto R. Maturana (well known for his classic work with Jerome Lettvin on the neurophysiology of vision in frogs and for his subsequent work with Varela on autopoiesis). According to the story Francisco was fond of telling, as a young undergraduate he one day burst into Maturana's office and enthusiastically declared that he wanted "to study the role of mind in the universe." Maturana responded, "My boy, you've come to the right place."

From 1968 to 1970 Francisco followed in the footsteps of his mentor Maturana by pursuing graduate studies in Biology at Harvard University. His doctoral thesis, "Insect retinas: information processing in the compound eye," was written under the direction of Torsten Wiesel (who shared a Nobel Prize with Davd Hubel in 1981).

With his Ph.D. in hand at the young age of twenty-three, Francisco declined a position as researcher at Harvard and another as Assistant Professor at another American university, choosing instead to return to Chile to help build a scientific research community. It was during these years of 1970 to 1973 that Varela and Maturana, now colleagues at the University of Chile, formulated their famous theory of autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela 1973, 1980; see Varela 1996a for a personal recounting of this time and work). According to this theory, living systems are autonomous systems (endogenously controlled and self-organizing), and the minimal form of autonomy necessary and sufficient for characterizing biological life is autopoiesis, i.e., self-production having the form of an operationally closed, membrane-bounded, reaction network. Maturana and Varela also held that autopoiesis defines cognition in its minimal biological form as the "sense-making" capacity of life; and that the nervous system, as a result of the autopoiesis of its component neurons, is not an input-output information processing system, but rather an autonomous, operationally closed network, whose basic functional elements are invariant patterns of activity in neuronal ensembles (see Varela 1979). These ideas, dating back to the early seventies, not only anticipated but laid the groundwork for ideas that were to become prominent much later in the nineties, in scientific fields as diverse as the origins of life (Fleischaker 1994), the chemical synthesis of minimal living systems (Bachman et al. 1992), artificial life (Varela & Bourgine 1991), theoretical immunology (Varela & Coutinho 1991), dynamical neuroscience (Varela et al. 2001), and embodied cognition (Varela et al. 1991).

When Francisco returned to Chile, he arrived on September 2, 1970, two days before the election of Salvador Allende (the first Marxist politician ever elected in a free election). Three years later Chile was in turmoil, and Francisco, a strong supporter of the Allende government, was forced to flee with his family after the military coup of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende goverment on September 11, 1973. They fled first to Costa Rica, and then eventually to the United States, where Francisco took up a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. There he taught and pursued his research until 1978. In 1978-79, he spent a year in New York at the Brain Research Laboratories of the NYU Medical School, and as scholar in residence at the Lindisfarne Association, and then returned to Chile in 1980, staying there until 1985 (with a year spent in 1984 as a Visiting Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt). In 1986 he moved to Paris, where he was based at the Institut des Neurosciences and at CREA (Centre de Recherche en Epistemologie Applique). In 1988, he was appointed to be a Director of Research at CNRS (Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique), a position he held until his death.

Francisco's years in Paris, up until the very month of his passing, were remarkably full and productive by any standard; that he suffered from Hepatitis C from the early 1990s onward, including receiving a liver transplant in 1998, makes his life and work during this time truly wonderful and inspiring.

During these years Francisco pursued two main complementary lines of work: experimental studies using multiple electrode recordings and mathematical analysis of large-scale neuronal integration during cognitive processes; and philosophical and empirical studies of the "neurophenomenology" of human consciousness (see Varela 1996b).

In a 1998 study published in Nature, Francisco and his colleagues in Paris showed for the first time that the human perception of meaningful complex forms (high contrast faces or "Mooney figures") is accompanied by phase-locked, synchronous oscillations in distinct brain regions (Rodriguez et al. 1998). In an important review article published one month before his death, in the April 2001 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Francisco and his colleagues presented a new viewpoint on what they call the "brainweb": the emergence of a unified cognitive moment depends on large-scale brain integration, whose most plausible mechanism is the formation of dynamic links mediated by synchrony over multiple frequency bands (Varela et al. 2001). In addition to these studies, Francisco published numerous technical, experimental and mathematical papers on the nonlinear dynamical analysis of brain activity, including groundbreaking studies on the prediction of seizures in epileptic patients prior to the onset of symptoms (Martinerie et al. 1998; see also Schiff 1998).

Francisco also firmly believed, however, that such scientific research needs to be complemented by detailed phenomenological investigations of human experience as it is lived and verbally articulated in the first person. To this end, he published a number of original and innovative phenomenological studies of aspects of human consciousness (e.g., Varela 1999; Varela and Depraz 2000), including a profound and moving meditation on his own illness and the phenomenology of organ transplantation experience (Varela 2001). He also co-edited two important collections, one on phenomenology and cognitive science (Petitot et al. 1999), and the other on first-person methods in the science of consciousness (Varela and Shear 1999).

Since the mid-seventies, Francisco was a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and a student of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. His conviction that this tradition and Western cognitive science have much to gain from each other provided another, ultimately spiritual and existential dimension, to his work. This dimension was the subject of his 1991 book (co-written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch), The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. He was one of the key members of the Advisory Board of the Mind and Life Institute, which organizes private meetings between Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and Western scientists (see Varela 1997). The ninth and most recent of these meetings was held May 21-22, 2001, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on the theme of "Transformations of Mind, Brain, and Emotion: Neurobiological and Bio-Behavioral Research on Meditation," directed by Professor Richard Davidson. This meeting was a dream-come-true for Francisco: the best of Western brain science and Buddhist meditative practice and psychology brought together in the context of cognitive neuroscientific research on the cognitive and emotional effects of meditation evident in long-term practitioners. Francisco was to present his studies and findings using EEG and MEG methods at the morning session of May 22, but sadly was unable to be there because of his illness. His Ph.D. student, Antoine Lutz, presented the material in his stead, and a live web-cam was set up so that Francisco could watch the proceedings from his apartment in Paris.

Although the passing of Francisco, especially at a time when his rich and diverse research program was coming to such fruition, is an immeasurable loss, the spirit of his unique and exemplary style of research has never been stronger, and will continue to inspire many of us for years to come.

Francisco was an active and enthusiastic supporter of many interdisciplinary groups devoted to the study of consciousness. In the seventies and eighties, he served on the faculty of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and was a Fellow of the Lindisfarne Association in New York City. He was a founding member of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) and was actively considering hosting the 2002 ASSC meeting until shortly before his death. He was a strong supporter of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona at Tucson, and served on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He was also instrumental in the creation of a new journal, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, and was to serve as its Consulting Editor." ~ Evan Thompson

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There is a quality to experience where you need a mode of access that you might want to call the first-person access. That doesn't make it private. It's just as social as everything else. And that's something it took me a long time to discover. I had a blind spot on that like everybody else.

This is also something to which I alluded in the James thread, with the transpersonal psych and kennilingus focus on the "personal" experience devoid of its 2nd person matrix. And explained by L&J in the real and false reason thread as to why it is so hard to discover.

Here's an interesting article which further discusses some social extensions and applications of the different phases of Varela's work:


Beyond Autopoiesis: Inflections of Emergence and Politics in the Wo...





I also quoted this article by Thompson in the Rifkin thread, "From intersubjectivity to interbeing." Just a quick quote for now, related to the kennilingus notion above about an individual having a strict boundary and dominant monadic agency:

“The lived body is not limited by the skin, for it includes the world beyond the biological membrane of the organism. The lived body is intertwined with the environment and with the other in the interpersonal human world.”

well on this I would say that KW had already written in the same way by quoting and discussing the norwegian deep ecology philosopher Arne Naess (LL) and also the german sociologist Nilklas Luhmann (LR), the past works of Melanie Klein, R.D.Laing (family dynamics and the individual), Greg Batson (steps toward and ecology of the mind), the french sociologist Pierre bourdieu and of course Michel Foucault´s works "surveilling and punishing" on the jailed body, "the birth of the clinic" on the clinically treated body, and the writings of Habermas on intersubjectivity and communicative action.

Maybe that has to do with his academical referential style, the quoting of works already done in that agentic/community dialectic discursial field.

And sorry to add that but Varela is far away from having reached such density in scope and extensivenes of readings in different fields. He is mostly a biologist using old phenomenology mosttly speaking from a URQ vantage point. I dont´see any trace of post-structuralism in what he wrote.




Wilber has written on this topic in the same way as Varela? And because he name drops without actually understanding the works of those whose works he reinterprets to fit his narrow agenda? Come on.

But let's be specific. Wilber is quoted in this thread commenting on Varela. Is it accurate and how? Balder and I are making a case that it is not, and that Varela's intersubjectivity is far more in depth. And Habermas? He was a huge fan of Mead, who also had some of the same insight as Varela, and which insights were completely ignored by Wilber. And on and on.

That´s rather anahronical, sir, arela has certainy been influenced by Habermas and not the opposite. Where was Varela when Habermas wrote "knowledge and its interest", developing his critical hermeneutics in 1971? teh answer= nowhere, he was just an illustrious unknown. KW is quoting that work alreassy in his "Eye to Eye" espistemology tentative.


Kw is not just namedropping as you suggest him doing it, I would notice it quickly as college teacher if it was only so in his writing process.  On the contrary, I would say that he has a good overall understanding the work of for example Foucault which is a conditin sine qua non to get the role of the postmodern on spiritual writing. So I don´t buy your critique on that.

Habermas is not only George Mead, the symbolist interactionist, but in his critique of the philosophy of the subject, he used the US sociologist Talcott Parsons´ AGIL structure-functionalism, that model serves as a basis for the model of wilberian AQAL, the works of Emil Durkheim and also Max Weber, and Marx, plus a very in-depth analysis of language, going back to Saussure and Austin. 


On that again, KW has intelligently analyzed this community of ideas, the dudes named aboved, and adapted them to a system including greater depth, I mean the inclusion of transpersonal scope. It is apparent when you are dissecting carefully the content of his footnotes of his SES book. It is the best way to check the inconsequences, the errors, etc..

I can recall Sean Hargens writing a very good synoptic  essay a decade ago or something, defending KW against the erroneous attacks of Christian de Quincey´s interpretation of KW´s interpretation of intersubjectivity (de Quincey is  a fine author by the way),


And KW made it  clear when he says that Habermas´"God" is only Reason which is obvious. The intersubjectivity of Habermas is found in language structures senior to subjectivity, but in KW´s discourse it already arising from nondual consciousness prior to anything linguistic which Habermas don´t recognize existing at all.

The autopoiesis of the biologist Varela is of the domain of Bios and I don´t agree with his too quick extrapolation to the domain of Theos, which is a daring ump bypassing several intermediate levels.


Tell me what Varela has written on existentialists like Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Niezsche or Sartre ? And I mean in several extensive treatises, not just by quoting some references here and there to their works just in order to fit in an ad hoc manner his own speculative model?

I haven´t.

And now, why should KW write a book on each of the thousands of sources he quotes. It is quite useless to me to expect reading an essay of Wilber on a classic of Derrida "Writing and difference" and then waiting another essay of him on Foucault "madness and civilisation" and another on "Facts and Norms" of Habermas or his cirtique of Karl Otto Apel or Peter Sloterdjik, and exhausted going on at integrating Lacan´s work with the synthetic work of Otto Kernberg for psychoanalysis. This is the domain of the "specialist".


What was remarquable with KW at the beginning of his career was his uncommon ability to link domains which where considered as hermetic to each other. What sort of relevance a KW discussion on Milton Friedmann´s "microeconomics" or on the logical empiricism of the Wiena school or Quine had for the becoming of transpersonal theory for a psychiatrist like Stan Grof or a psychologist like Daniel Goleman, and so on?

Tell me?














So kennilingus was quoting Habermas in 1971. That fact makes his understanding superior? What he was doing was quoting select aspects to fit his own agenda, which is as you correctly note is "structure-functionalism." Varela was quite aware of this trend in philosophical literature but just because he didn't put it in their own terms doesn't mean he wasn't. See for example Thompson's article linked about about enaction, "from intersubjectivity to interbeing." It notes the developmental stages of cognitive science, from cognitivist to connectionist to enaction. There is a close correlation between those stages and the cognitive levels of formal and postformal operations, i.e., orange, green, teal etc. The structure-functionalist approach is associated with the connectionist, which accepted that “emergent phenomena--higher-level phenomena that arise through the interaction of lower-level elements according to so-called learning rules--is fundamental.” It went beyond the strict correspondence theory of the cognitivist but still retained from it those structural rules that separate the interior from the exterior, the one from the many, without seeing their P2P relations, as does the enactivist.

The enactivists, while aware of these distinctive levels, didn't spend time on framing all this in structure-functioionalist terms because they were too busy enacting the next wave. If you recall Jeniffer Gidley (2007) said there is a difference between research that identifies postformal operations (PFO) from examples of those that enact PFO. And that much of the research identifying PFO has itself “been framed and presented from a formal, mental-rational mode” (109). Plus those enacting PFO don’t “necessarilty conceptualize it as such” (104), meaning the way those that identify it do, i.e., from a formal operational (FO) mode. Which is of course one of my key inquiries: Is the way PFO is identified through FO really just a FO worldview interpretation of what PFO might be? Especially since those enacting PFO disagree with the very premises of the FO worldview and its formally dressed PFO? It the terms above, the enactivists don't accept the frame of the structure-functionalists and hence do not use their language games.

However the enactivists more certainly frame their paradigm in post-structuralist ways without using those terms or necessarily citing some of those authors like Derrida or Focault. They are part of that zeitgeist that was expressing in all fields and they are certainly enacting it. And not only that but enactivism is going from intersubjectivity into interbeing, a phase beyond the former.

Granted kennilingus has aspects of all of those 3 cognitive approaches in his model. So what he got from Habermas was a form of reason beyond the formal, as well as the different value spheres with different validity criteria. But what he did not incorporate from Habermas, and what Habermas didn't completely incorporate either but went further than Wilber, is Mead's type of intersubjectivity. It is Mead's type that was a strong influence on all of the cogsci enactivists, because it shows the continuity of process between the value-spheres (quadrants), not just their structural differences. It shows how they interrelate, and those types of P2P relations are entirely absent from Wilber's ineffective notions of intersubjectivity. This is in part because Wilber didn't get the initial aspects of this from Habermas through Mead, and Habermas himself didn't take the next step in enactivism as did the cogcis.

Nonetheless, kennilingus does though include some aspects of enactivism. He acknowledges that at least in the relative realm there is no given and that perspectives are enacted. However it misses the mark in that the residual structuralist rules keep rigid separation between domains and thus have ineffective means to coordinate and relate said domains, other than gigi-glossaries that see the differences which are then “synthesized” in a Hegelian logic. And it also retains some of the cognitivist metaphysical and correspondence theories in separating the absolute from the relative, also not seeing a more inherent, post-structural tension between them. Hence we get kosmic addresses in the relative realm depending on ineffable principles from the absolute realm for their enaction. Granted Wilber at least tries to deal with these different aspects from all 3 levels but there are specific examples of where he gets them confused with resultant inaccuracies.

I give him all the credit in the world for trying to address and integrate them all into a meta-paradigm. We need such big pictures to make meaning. And he does get a lot right with which I have never been reticent to acknowledge. But when he gets it wrong, like it the above, he needs to be called out. And it we wish to accept the appellation of integral we should be open to developments leading in that direction, like Varela, Lakoff and Rifkin. (Rifkin, by the way, does not only enact but put all of this in structural terms, noting the levels of development and his case is that P2P is the next wave.)

Gidley, J. “The evolution of consciousness as a planetary imperative. Integral Review 5, December 2007, 4 – 226.

matter of style yes

I am french, and I prefer reading the french poststructuralists, too bad i was "indoctrinated" at school to lean on the so called classical greek-roman and "continental philosophy" instead of the anglo-saxon way.

If KW was aware of Habermas´work in his first productionsm, well good for him, who cares?

superiority? nada, you mentioned it.

Being a psychology and philosophy study in those years, you couldn´t not avoid not knowing all that "armada" I quoted above, that was the daily meal in our student talks.

actually I am not a fan of his late writing style, all that circonvoluted effort for telling anything tkan old stuff like the social construction of knowledge.


postformal stages?

well we are still far way from a good empirical demonstration. Commons´examples are too naive to be taken seriously. I have asked colleagues in mathematics departements working on topology and logic how they look at these theorems, they couldn´t even figure out what sort of definition domain these operations were based on. The psychologist Commons needs much more effort on that.


and talking about the colours of the  level of the developmental model given by Beck et al., I told Balder many years ago about the lack of empirical verifications and research of the SD claims, as well as the value of the construct validity of how they operationally defined their categories and their measurement reliability.


KW has no discursive monopoly on accumulated knowledge. He has questionably used sources like that old T.V.R Murti´s "central philosophy of Buddhism" while there are plent of postmodern scholars on asian studies  like Halfblass or Faure including critiques of latent orientalism and gender bias in their analyses. Kind of embarassing for KW here.











 I am not specially fond of the cognitive sciences school ´s terminologies.

It bores me to read a dude like Dennet and his sometimes silly experiments.

Kw is not a structuralist he has already critic

As one example of kennilingus on this issue let's look at Mark Edwards' critique in part 2 of "the depth of the exteriors." Although Edwards didn't use the enactivist terms above, Wilber focused on Piaget's (and neo-Piagetian) structuralist approach to the exclusion of Vygotsky's more P2P approach. Granted Vygotsky didn't seem to go all the way into enactivism but rather was more like the transition into it. Nonetheless, it's a transition that Wilber hasn't seemed to make as yet. Per Edwards:

"The AQAL model of quadrants and stages lacks a dynamic that connects the development of the individual with the collective and the Left Hand with the Right hand quadrants (which are topics covered in depth in my "through AQAL Eyes" series). The Vygotskian notion of social mediation seems to me to be a starting point in the identification of this connection.

"Vygotsky assumes that mind is 'distributed' throughout a collective rather within separated individuals."

For our purposes it's a good thing that V was also a developmentalist and hence spoke the language of the different levels, unlike perhaps Varela. Nonetheless we can see that V is enacting the referenced level.

By the way, Edwards is no kennilingus basher. Before going into a detailed analysis of what's missing from AQAL in these terms he says:

"First, I want to state that I believe that Wilber's Integral theory is probably the most comprehensive attempt to collate and integrate all the world's major knowledge traditions and understandings of reality."

Also see the relationship between Merleau-Ponty and Derrida I drew in page 2 of the "what 'is' the difference" thread. There is also a link to MP's IEP entry showing the relation of Derrida and MP. Note that Thompson is drawing on MP in his article, showing MP's insights as befitting to the enactive paradigm. Hence there is an explicit continental philosophical connection.

postformal stages?well we are still far way from a good empirical demonstration.

I too have my doubts about the formal methods used to delineate postformal stages (see real and false reason thread). So to put my thesis in less postformal stage terms*, the P2P meme is obviously here and will only continue to ascend, while the egoic-rational meme will continue to wane, both enacted within specific socio-cultural contexts showing this inexorable shift. And there will be hybrids in between during the transition.

Kw is not a structuralist he has already critic

Yes, he has criticized it with poststructuralism and is accurate as far as he goes. But he is also inaccurate in some ways and still retains some elements of structuralism unbefitting to the pomo criticism. All of which has been discussed at length in sundry threads (including above in this thread) in this forum which I have not the time to reference at present. (Exception, see the referenced thread below.)

*Edwards doesn't see the neglect of Vygotsky in developmental but rather typological terms, i.e., Wilber's focus on Piaget is neglecting a complimentary trend in Vygotsky, not an advanced developmental frame. Edwards also sees this in the distinction between constructive and deconstructive postmodernisms. (See this thread. I agree and disagree.)

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

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