I wrote a historical analysis for the Systems Research and Behavioral Science special issue on the life and work of Francisco Varela. The final article is now available online.
Varela is well known in the systems sciences for his work on second-order cybernetics, biology of cognition and especially autopoietic theory. His concern during this period was to find an appropriate epistemological foundation for the self-reference inherent in life and mind. In his later years, Varela began to develop the so-called ‘enactive’ approach to cognitive science, which sets itself apart from other sciences by promoting a careful consideration of concrete experiential insights. His final efforts were thus dedicated to finding a pragmatic phenomenological foundation for life and mind. It is argued that Varela’s experiential turn—from epistemology to phenomenology—can be seen as a natural progression that builds on many ideas that were already implicit in second-order cybernetics and biology of cognition. It is also suggested that the rigorous study of conscious experience may enable us to refine our theories and systemic concepts of life, mind and sociality.
Note: This article can be seen as a continuation of my recent paper From Cybernetics to Second-order Cybernetics, which provides a more detailed analysis of the cybernetics movement. Also, for a more in-depth treatment of the early cybernetic influence on the biology of cognition, see the paper I wrote with John Stewart on Life after Ashby.