‘The Tree of Knowledge’ by Maturana and Varela

The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Humberto R Maturana and Francisco J Varela (Shambhala, 1992)

Reviewed by Robert M Ellis

This book was first published in 1987, but I have only come across it myself recently, thanks to the recommendation of Marc Lewis.  Written as a kind of alternative textbook of systems biology for non-specialists, I have found it invaluable in helping to clarify the biological conditions for the Middle Way. More than anything it helps to explain how the development of both absolutised and provisional thinking is rooted in the biological conditions from which we emerge, and can be traced from the cell level upwards.

Maturana and Varela are pioneers of systems theory, the originators of the term ‘autopoiesis’, which refers to the self regulation or autonomy of living beings (within certain limitations) as distinct from their environment. They were also originators of the Santiago Theory of Cognition, which specified that cognition is inseparable from the autopoietic activity of living beings. From as early as the 1970’s, then, they were challenging representationalist assumptions about meaning (though they tended to do so under the heading of ‘cognition’ which is still the main one under which it is discussed academically). In line with their engagement with systems theory, they also focused on the ongoing causal relationships between systems (such as between an organism and its environment) rather than the more traditional linear way of describing causal relationships (A causes B causes C etc.). So the development of knowledge, they argued, is a change of habit, not a verbal picture of the world found in our heads. This book offers a systematic introduction to that perspective.

Two things stand out in the way this book is presented. Firstly, it is full of diagrams, pictures and text boxes of the kind one would normally associate with a textbook – even though it lacks the rigid conventionality of most textbooks. These illustrations include odd little endearing cartoons of the authors that appear at regular intervals, perhaps as a reminder of their embodied input into the work. Secondly, it is organised in a circular form, with the book both beginning and ending with a reminder of uncertainty as the basic condition of embodied human investigation. From the basic conditions of knowledge, the book traces a journey through the development of living beings first as single-celled organisms which reproduce by division; then into multi-celled organisms, their evolution and behavioural change; then finally into the neural, social and linguistic conditions for human knowledge. Given those conditions, we are reminded by the end, uncertainty is our lot, and so we return to our starting point.

The conditions of autopoiesis provide a structural continuity that is revisited at differing levels throughout the book, and can provide the basis of the relationship between this information and the Middle Way. When life begins at the most basic single-celled level, it is due to autopoiesis: that is, the relative autonomy of the system of the cell from the surrounding environment, so that it maintains and reproduces itself. By the time we have worked up to the complexity of the human level, that relative autonomy is maintained not only at the level of individual cells in the human body and in the co-ordination between those cells to maintain a ‘metacellular’ (multi-celled) organism, but also through the maintenance of autonomous systems of ‘knowledge’, which are linguistically represented and socially shared with others. At the same time, the autonomy of a cell, or of a multi-celled organism, or of knowledge, is never absolute or fixed, because these organisms exist in a wider environment and relative to other organisms. Because our environment keeps changing, our form, behaviour, and assumptions need to keep adapting. Organisms thus always need to strike a balance between continuity and openness to change, and their optimal operation as organisms will be at a point that strikes that balance most effectively so as to respond most adequately to the environment.

Of course, the way in which we as humans maintain that balance is a good deal more complex than the way in which a single-celled organism does so, and that is the basis of the distinction between the Middle Way as a human (or sentient) practice and mere homeostasis as a balance-point between organism and environment. Maturana and Varela do effectively discuss the Middle Way in relation to human knowledge and ethics, talking about the ‘razor’s edge’ and the ‘via media‘:

Again we must walk on the razor’s edge, eschewing the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism). Our purpose in this book is to find a via media: to understand the regularity of the world we are experiencing at every moment, but without any point of reference independent of ourselves that would give any certainty to our descriptions and cognitive assertions. (p.241)

I felt there was quite a lot of philosophical unclarity here, because the meanings of terms like ‘objectivism’ and ‘solipsism’ potentially raise lots of issues that need to be clarified to avoid misunderstandings of the Middle Way approach of the type that may turn it into another metaphysics. However, a charitable interpretation of this book would lead to me imagine that Maturana and Varela are effectively talking about balanced judgements at each point in our experience, rather than simply a ‘middle’ theory between specific metaphysical extremes. I would have liked more exploration of the relationship between this and environmental issues in human experience, perhaps with an acknowledgement of the likelihood of a basic instability in the extent to which humans insist on autonomously organising their environment at the expense of the rest of the system. We could be following the ‘via media’ in relation to judgement (effectively doing the best we can to adapt) without necessarily reaching a point of balance in our relationship to our wider environment.

Maturana and Varela’s acknowledgement of ethics is brief but nevertheless important:

…Everything we said in this book… implies an ethics that we cannot evade, an ethics that has its reference point in the awareness of the biological and social structure of human beings, an ethics that springs from human reflection and puts human reflection right at the core as a constructive social phenomenon. If we know that our world is necessarily the world we bring forth with others, every time we are in conflict with another human being with whom we want to remain in co-existence, we cannot affirm what for us is certain (an absolute truth) because that would negate the other person. If we want to coexist with the other person, we must see that his certainty – however undesirable it may seem to us – is as legitimate and valid as our own…. (p.245)

It is most refreshing to find this recognition of the importance of ethics coming from a scientific source, challenging both the entrenched fact-value distinction and the tendencies even amongst some of the most thoughtful scientists to reduce ethics either to social conformity (e.g. Jonathan Haidt) or well-being (e.g. Sam Harris). It is the effectiveness of human reflection as part of human judgement itself that is ethical (and thus not separate from scientific judgement), and Maturana and Varela have obviously grasped this at an early stage. They also discuss such ethics in terms of love in the broadest sense.

Though I highly recommend this book, it does have a number of limitations. One is that it often treats very important points very briefly, so that one could go away with insufficient awareness of their full implications. I appreciate that this is hard to avoid in the format adopted. Another limitation is that the amount of specialised biological language it uses is sometimes a little at odds with its accessibility as a textbook, and some people may find it hard going for that reason. Another is that this book precedes the development of embodied meaning theory by Lakoff and Johnson, and there is no mention of the role of meaning, cognitive models, or metaphor as developed in their work – which could have greatly enhanced the closing chapters.

The lack of discussion of meaning – or indeed any recognition of it having a separate role from that of ‘cognition’ or ‘knowledge’ also links me to my biggest reservation about this book, which lies in its title, ‘The Tree of Knowledge’. The term ‘knowledge’ throughout is used in a way that is specified to be uncertain, yet remains at odds with the way in which the term ‘knowledge’ is most often used (as a propositional representation of justified true belief). The sceptical arguments of both Greek and Indian philosophers, going back more than 2000 years, show that we can make no justifiable pretensions to such ‘knowledge’. The same point also applies to the use of the term ‘cognition’, which presupposes that the object of investigation is ‘knowledge’. As always, the authors (and the many other academics who still use the terms in this way, talking about ’embodied cognition’ as though it was not a contradiction in terms) are entitled to their stipulation, and when reading them one needs to provisionally accept their use of terms. However, almost nothing about the general meaning of the term ‘knowledge’ in English suggests any recognition of uncertainty or encourages provisionality. I continue to think, then, that this is not the most helpful use of terms.

We already have a term for supposed representations that we use confidently but which remain uncertain, and that term is ‘belief’. We also have a term for symbols or metaphorical assemblages recognised as meaningful (and imagined) even before the level at which we employ them in practice – that term being ‘meaning’. Despite the brilliant case that Maturana and Varela make for the continuity of the balance that needs to be struck running all the way up the tree of biological development, the apex of that tree in human experience cannot consist of ‘knowledge’, but rather of the possibility of imagining scenarios that we do not yet believe in, and that provide an alternative to our current assumed ‘reality’. It is this that makes us such massively adaptable organisms, and that makes the Middle Way possible.


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