Beyond autopoiesis: Inflections of emergence and politics in the work of Francisco Varela

Francisco Varela’s work is a monumental achievement in 20th century biological and biophilosophical thought. After his early collaboration in neo-cybernetics with Humberto Maturana (“autopoiesis”), Varela made fundamental contributions to immunology (“network theory”), Artificial Life (“cellular automata”), cognitive science (“enaction”), philosophy of mind (“neurophenomenology”), brain studies (“the brainweb”), and East-West dialogue (the Mind and Life conferences). In the course of his career, Varela influenced many important collaborators and interlocutors, formed a generation of excellent students, and touched the lives of many with the intensity of his mind, the sharpness of his wit, and the strength of his spirit. In this essay, I will trace some of the key turning points in his thought, with special focus on the concept of emergence, which was always central to his work, and on questions of politics, which operate at the margins of his thought. I will divide Varela’s work into three periods – autopoiesis, enaction, and radical embodiment – each of which is marked by a guiding concept; a specific methodology; a research focus; an inflection in the notion of emergence; and a characteristic political question which specifies a scale of what I will call “political physiology,” that is, the formation of “bodies politic” at the civic, somatic, and “evental” scales. These terms refer to, respectively, the formation of political states, of politically constituted individuals, and their intersection in political encounters.

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About Giorgio Bertini

Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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