Humberto Maturana

(1928–2021), biologist, sociologist, philosopher and epistemologist

(1928–2021), biologist, sociologist, philosopher and epistemologist founded in his last years Instituto de Formacion Matriztica and was speaking to clinical psychologists. His most famous study has to do with the neuroanatomy and physiology of vision. He worked at the University of Chile with Francisco Varela and in Santiago founded the Laboratorio de epistemología experimental. Was a national prize winner of biological sciences in Chile and a staunch critic of objective realism. In 1969 he visited the BLC directed by HVF, there he sketched a first version of the autopoiesis theory.

Umberta Telfener: I remember a trip by train from Zurich to St Gallen in Switzerland. It was February 1987. We met by chance at the train station. We are both going to a systemic meeting organized by Gilbert Probst, systemic thinker and economist at the Ginevra University. It is a clear evening and Ciccio – Humberto Maturana –  tells stories to himself and me, looking at the full moon shining in the sky. With his soothing voice, full attention, intensity and wonder, he tries to explain the recursive dance among processes: the recursive process between what we see and how we organize what we understand, that implies a self-reflexive and participatory positioning. He talks about the reflexivity concept. Nearly at the arrival he ends with his favorite subject: Love. “Love is the emotion that gives foundation to the social, without the acceptance of the other in coexistence there is no social phenomenon” he tells “bio-evolutionarily we are because we love, Love involves a recursive dance.”
At the arrival Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask and Ernst von Glasersfeld had come to greet us. Four days together with never ending discussions, personal anecdotes and evidence of their cybernetic common passion. I felt very privileged to be with them.
He was a fascinating, mysterious, enveloping man. Skinny, a scarf always around his neck, thick glasses, a sly smile of someone who is focused on himself but welcomes you willingly into his space. I don’t think we systemic therapists understood well what he was saying, but we were all fascinated by his theory and we never missed an opportunity to go and listen to him, to try to add three-dimensionality to what we continue to do, which remains a mystery. He preached consent: perhaps as we listened to him – in an effort to understand – we all felt united in the same boat and came out of his lessons tuned to love.

Ray Ison: When driving Humberto from Heathrow to Oxford in 2004 to participate in a workshop called ‘Fundamentalism, Ethics and Leadership. A day with Humberto Maturana and the reflections that he offers’ ‘ we discussed God, with a capital G.  We came to agree that God is a human invention to avoid responsibility.

On love. We had several conversations. I came to embody his understanding of love: ‘Love consists in opening a space of existence for another in coexistence with oneself in a particular domain of interactions. As such love is expression of a spontaneous biological congruence and has no rational justification: love takes place because it takes place and lasts as long as it lasts.’

When Humberto visited the Open University we set up the possibility for him to participate in a filmed interview with Raul Espejo and myself. The interview was held in a deconsecrated church on campus. A fitting venue I thought.  The product is now edited and online.  I was particularly keen to have a conversation about the concept system.  Some Maturana enthusiasts have described him as a ‘bring-forthist’.  Listen to him talk about the concept system and decide if the practice of ‘bringing forth’ applies? It was not a term I ever heard him use. 

Humberto and I were both invited keynote speakers at a conference in Ecuador in 2005.  After my talk he expressed his satisfaction with what I had to say but suggested that rather than thinking of the systems practitioner as a juggler, that is a metaphor,  I use a term he had invented – that of isophor. An isophor is concerned not with displacement from one domain to another, as metaphors do, but is the shift in the same practice dynamics from one domain to another i.e. from juggling to systems practicing. I accepted his invitation.

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