maturana

From time to time, I have posted entries that superpose McGilchrist’s divided brain model on dichotomies that appear in others works. I have pointed to Thomas Kuhn’s two modes of science on several occasions. Today, my focus is on some writing from Humberto Maturana, whose work has been very influential on my thinking. Maturana, a Chilean biologist, with his co-worker, Francisco Varela, developed a theory of cognition (the Santiago theory) that claims to have overcome the Cartesian duality of mind/matter. The theory is too complicated and challenging to be elaborated here, but here is a brief summary from Wikipedia

The theory can be encapsulated in two sentences:

Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system. (Maturana, Humberto R./Varela, Francisco J. (1980): Autopoiesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht: Reidel, p. 13)

This theory contributes a perspective that cognition is a process present at other organic levels. . . . The Santiago theory of cognition is a direct theoretical consequence of the theory of autopoiesis. Cognition is considered as the ability of adaptation in a certain environment.

About 25 years ago, I wrote an unpublished working paper examining organizational behavior that, in part, was based on Maturana’s work. I happened upon it recently and was struck by the connection of Maturana’s theory and the divided-brain model of Iain McGilchrist. I wrote this in the paper:

According to Habermas’ theory of communicative action, the listener would assess the sincerity of the speaker before accepting the truth of such statements. Much of what is ordinarily spoken of as rational argument is a conversation involving the interposition of assertions. In the Cartesian model of transcendental reality, the argument is about winning and losing. Argument, itself, has the sense of establishing one claim as more truthful than another. Maturana makes a very strong argument that the Cartesian system is fundamentally repressive.

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies). . . In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation. . . In this explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience. (Maturana, H. R. (1988). “Reality: The Search for Objectivity, or the Quest for a Compelling Argument.” Irish Journal Of Psychology 9(1): 28-30., Not an exact extract)

His path of transcendental ontologies corresponds to the Cartesian way of seeing the world, and the constitutive path is more or less like the socially constructed world. Going even further and putting this view in the structuration context, one would say that the routine application of Cartesian or positivistic codes of signification will lead inevitably to social structures and practices that are dominating. Such is the critique of many who see the increased hegemony of expertise of all kinds in modern societies and are skeptical about the application of analytic methodologies to determine appropriate social choices.

If I had known about McGilchrist at that time, I would have lined up Maturana’s two paths with the different ways the left and right brain attend to the world. The left brain corresponds with what Maturana calls “transcendental ontologies,” and the right with “constitutive ontologies.” Maturana’s “demand for obedience” is virtually the same as McGilchrist’s use of “control” to characterize behaviors associated with left-brain mastery.

Further, Maturana goes on to argue that the transcendental (left-brain) way of holding the world (ontology) leads to domination both involving individuals and also in institutional structures, just as McGilchrist claims has happened to the modern world. How uncanny can you get!