Posts Tagged ‘autopoiesis’
Knowledge and the communication of knowledge are critical for self-sustaining organizations comprised of people and the tools and machines that extend peoples’ physical and cognitive capacities. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed the concept of autopoiesis (“self” + “production”) as a definition of life in the 1970s. Nicklas Luhmann extended this concept to establish a theory of social systems, where intangible human social systems were formed by recursive networks of communications. We show here that Luhmann fundamentally misunderstood Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis by thinking that the self-observation necessary for self-maintenance formed a paradoxically vicious circle. Luhmann tried to resolve this apparent paradox by placing the communication networks on an imaginary plane orthogonal to the networked people. However, Karl Popper’s evolutionary epistemology and the theory of hierarchically complex systems turns what Luhmann thought was a vicious circle into a virtuous spiral of organizational learning and knowledge. There is no closed circle that needs to be explained via Luhmann’s extraordinarily paradoxical linguistic contortions.
We begin by describing the importance of emergence and the need, in certain situations, to move away from a reduction mind-set to a more holist approach. We define the term emergence in context of self-organizing systems, autopoiesis and chaotic systems. We then examine a field that is commonly used to explore emergence and selforganization, namely agent and multi-agent systems. After an overview of this field, we highlight the most appropriate aspects of agent research used in aiding the understanding of emergence. We conclude with an example of our recent research where we measure agent emergent performance and flexibility and relate it to the make-up of the agent organization.
Knowledge-based communities are important but poorly understood systems for helping enterprises maintain their organizational integrity and address organizational imperatives. Based on an autopoietic theory of organization, we examine the emergence and development of knowledge-based communities at different scales up to large distributed enterprises and industry clusters. Knowledge-based communities are highly complex systems that evolve and mature through the phased emergence of new features and capabilities. Development and support of successfully sustainable communities needs to be based on a better understanding of how these features and capabilities emerge. To comprehend the impact of emergent behavior within and beyond organizational communities requires an understanding of the social or sociological aspects of a system in relation to the explicit formal/physical structures in the organization.
Humberto Maturana. My purpose in this article is to present a theory of the organization of living systems as autonomous entities, and a theory of the organization of the nervous system as a closed network of interacting neurons structurally coupled to the living system to whose realization it contributes. The fundamental feature that characterizes living systems is autonomy, and any account of their organization as systems that can exist as individual unities must show what autonomy is as a phenomenon proper to them, and how it arises in their operation as such unities. Accordingly the following is proposed. That autonomy in living systems is a feature of self-production (autopoiesis), and that a living system is properly characterized only as a network of processes of production of components that is continuously, and recursively, generated and realized as a concrete entity (unity) in the physical space, by the interactions of the same components that it produces as such a network. This organization I call the autopoietic organization, and any system that exhibits it is an autopoietic system in the space in which its components exist; in this sense living systems are autopoietic systems in the physical space.
Luhmann’s autopoietic theory offers a theory without a priori defined drivers of novelty. Such assumptions has led to claims that Luhmann’s theory is relevant only to the study of routines and not to innovative processes, and that it prevents a satisfactory understanding of the phenomenon of innovation. We would argue differently, and say that autopoietic theory offers a way of conceptualizing how systems reproduce themselves in the face of novelty, further that it is the expected possibility of connecting to novelty that drives systems forward. The possibility of novelty is a central part, both of reproducing central features, and producing features for future operations. Possibilities for novelty arise as systems, as part of their recursive reproduction, draw distinctions amid a changing environment. The system reproduces itself recursively, pointing forward to possible connections, and at the same time connecting to previous operations. It is in this sense that a system may be understood as a ‘‘historical machine’’, or a ‘‘system-in-an-environment-with-a-history’’. We would argue that an autopoietic theory of organization is in fact also a theory of innovation. Without the possibility of novelty, autopoietic organization is hardly possible.
We believe that the organization of the future needs an epistemology (i.e., a theory of organizational knowledge) which is radically different from epistemologies that have guided organizational thinking hitherto, and that autopoiesis theory, with due adaptations, can furnish such an epistemology. In this chapter we begin by providing a brief overview of the key tenets of autopoiesis theory applied to organizational settings. Next, we discuss the organization of the future, starting with the external pressures that are increasingly being exerted on social organizations of all types and inducing them to undertake new kinds of transformations. This chapter identifies important challenges facing organizational thinkers, now and in the foreseeable future, that exist not only as the result of the external pressures, but also as a consequence of internal developments in organization science and theory. The chapter concludes with an overview of the topics addressed by the contributors to this volume.
Autopoiesis and Organizations: A Biological view of Social System Change and Methods for their Study
For many years we have been concerned with the role that autopoietic theory can play in resolving what is often termed the micro-macro problem in social science. The “micro-to-macro problem” concerns our capacity to explain the relationship between the constitutive elements of social systems (people) and emergent phenomena resulting from their interaction (i.e. organizations, societies, economies). To this end we have argued, for a synthesis of autopoietic and complexity theory, where autopoietic theory provides a basis for understanding the characteristics of the micro-level agents that make up social systems (human individuals), whilst complexity theory provides a basis for understanding how these characteristics influence the range and type of macro-level behaviours that arise from their interaction. Implicit to this view is the assumption that it is biology which specifies the characteristics and qualities of human agents. Therefore it is also biology which constrains the range and type of interactions these agents can generate, and hence the form of structure which emerges from that interaction. This approach differs considerably from the disembodied sociological path taken in Luhmann‘s application of autopoietic systems. The main contribution of Maturana and Varela‘s autopoietic theory has been to provide a concise specification of the defining characteristics of biological agents including humans. It serves therefore to advance our understanding of the micro facet of the micro-macro problem. Before his death, Varela began to explore further the implications of autopoiesis for understanding social macro phenomena drawing increasingly on a complex systems view. We seek to extend this offshoot of the original contribution. In this chapter we attend in particular, to some of the practical implications that result from a social extension of autopoiesis. Principle amongst these is our understanding of the basis for and nature of organizational change. We begin by giving a brief overview of the micro-macro problem and an outline of our approach to its resolution. We then draw on this approach to develop a perspective on stability and change in organizations. We illustrate this using two cases and in so doing also provide examples of methods which can be used to map the interplay of micro and macro behaviour in particular organizational contexts.
Humberto Maturana. I claim that the most central question that humanity faces today is the question of reality. And I claim that this is so, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, because every thing that we do as modern human beings, either as individuals, as social entities, or as members of some non-social human community, entails an explicit or implicit answer to this question as a foundation for the rational arguments that we use to justify our actions. Even nature, as we bring it forth in the course of our lives as human beings, depends on our explicit or implicit answer to this question. Indeed, I claim that the explicit or implicit answer that each one of us gives to the question of reality determines how he or she lives his or her life, as well as his or her acceptance or rejection of other human beings in the network of social and non-social systems that he or she integrates. Finally, since we know from daily life that the observer is a living system because its cognitive abilities are altered if its biology is altered, I maintain that its not possible to have an adequate understanding of social and non-social phenomena in human life if this question is not properly answered, and that this question can be properly answered only if observing and cognition are explained as biological phenomena generated through the operation of the observer as a living human being. Accordingly, my purpose in this essay is to consider the question of reality, and to do so dealing with the observer as a biological entity. To attain this end, I shall initially present some reflections upon the biology of observing, language and cognition, and then I shall pursue the consequences that I see that the contents of these reflections have for our understanding of social and ethical phenomena. In this endeavour, I shall proceed presenting these reflections under five themes: the ontology of explaining; reality, the ontology of cognition; social phenomena; and ethics. Finally, this essay is written in a way that allows for these different themes to be read to some extent independently.
Ontology of Observing – The Biological Foundations of Self-Consciousness and of the Physical Domain of Existence
Humberto Maturana. My purpose in this essay is to explain cognition as a biological phenomenon, and to show, in the process, how language arises and gives origin to self-consciousness, revealing the ontological foundations of the physical domain of existence as a limiting cognitive domain. In order to do this I shall start from two unavoidable experiential conditions that are at the same time my problems and my explanatory instruments, namely: a) that cognition, as is apparent in the fact that any alteration of the biology of our nervous system alters our cognitive capacities, is a biological phenomenon that must be explained as such; and b) that we, as is apparent in this very same essay, exist as human beings in language using language for our explanations. These two experiential conditions are my starting point because I must be in them in any explanatory attempt; they are my problems because I choose to explain them; and they are my unavoidable instruments because I must use cognition and language in order to explain cognition and language. In other words, I propose not to take cognition and language as given unexplainable properties, but to take them as phenomena of our human domain of experiences that arise in the praxis of our living, and that as such deserve explanation as biological phenomena. At the same time, it is my purpose to use our condition of existing in language to show how the physical domain of existence arises in language as a cognitive domain. That is, I intend to show that the observer and observing, as biological phenomena, are ontologically primary with respect to the object and the physical domain of existence.
In Niklas Luhmann’s social theory, autopoiesis is the repeated work of human self-construction through which social and cultural forms are maintained against a background of their continuous dissolution and disappearance. Autopoiesis in this sense is the production and reproduction of the human world through which the human body constitutes and reconstitutes itself by making the raw material of the world fit the requirements of the body and its organs. Human production thus makes the world present to the human body and its parts such as we see in the examples of the supermarket which brings together the products of the world in one space for our visual and manual convenience and the domestic television set which literally brings home to us the distant happenings of the world. Human systems and institutions can thus be seen as means for making the world’s materials fit the human mind and body and for ensuring their continuous presence as meaningful forms. But, significantly, the production of presence depends on absence, disappearance and decay. Absence has to be seen as a major force in human production; it is the missing presence that haunts all human work and which helps us to understand the development of such modern production methods as mass production and information technology.