Some Differences between Maturana and Varela’s Theory of Cognition and Constructivism

The theory of cognition of Varela and Maturana differs in specific aspects from constructivist theories and so should not be seen or interpreted as another form of constructivism. To encourage the emergence of a discussion on important differences between both theories, this paper aims at highlighting three of these specific aspects, namely the biological roots of cognition, its phylogenic and ontogenic basis, and the nature of reality and knowledge. In many regards, it is possible that the first two points were seen as extensions of constructivism, and had not been theorized previously as distinctions, as is done in the paper. The third point concerning the ideas of “bringing forth a world” represents a clear conceptual shift from the visions inherent in constructivism, and should not be neglected in discussions on epistemology and the nature of knowledge and reality. This third fundamental point brings us to see Varela and Maturana as being different than constructivists, rather seeing them as “bring forthists.”

It was my intention to elaborate on some aspects where Maturana and Varela’s theory diverged from constructivism, even if they do share many common cybernetic roots, to show that it should not be (mis-)interpreted as another form of constructivism. The intention was, however, not to sort out which is better and which is not, but mostly to prompt and encourage discussions and reactions around the differences (and even similarities) between both theories – to understand what makes each theory its own, and to make better sense of them. I hope to have succeeded in this and played the role of a “trigger” in that sense.


About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder 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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