On What is Always Before Our Eyes: The Uncharted Depths of Francisco Varela’s Thought

Sebastjan Vörös[1]

What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of man; not curiosities, however, but rather observations on facts which no one has doubted & which have only gone unremarked because they are always before our eyes. (Wittgenstein, 1956, §141)

The Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, and philosopher, Francisco Javier Varela (1946–2001), was arguably one of the most creative and versatile thinkers of the twentieth century. A polymath in the age of ever-growing specialization, his interests spanned multiple fields and disciplines, and his multifaceted work garnered interest not only among natural scientists and philosophers, but also among artists and therapists. One of the qualities that made Varela’s work so unique was his capacity to creatively integrate rigorous, specialized scientific research with broader, open-ended philosophical reflection. Thus, while making many important, even groundbreaking, contributions to different scientific fields (especially biology, cognitive science, and consciousness studies), Varela had been, throughout his rich career, equally zealously struggling with the age-old philosophical conun­drums, especially those pertaining to the mind–body problem, the place of mind/consciousness in nature, the relationship between scientific knowledge and lived experience, etc. To appreciate the breadth of Varela’s research interests, I include, for the sake of illus­tration, an alphabetical, and somewhat Borgesian, list of the most pertinent research topics he was engaged in (the list, of course, is neither comprehensive nor are the enumerated topics mutually exclu­sive): (i) autonomous systems; (ii) autopoiesis and organization of cellular life; (iii) calculus of self-reference; (iv) colour perception; (v) contemplative (wisdom) traditions; (vi) embodied and enactive cog­nitive science; (vii) evolution as natural drift; (viii) first-person (phenomenological) methodologies and consciousness studies; (ix) immunology; (x) neurophenomenology; and (xi) self and emergence.

As is to be expected from such a diverse assortment of interests, the reception of Varela’s ideas varied substantially, with some (e.g. auto­poietic theory of life and embodied/enactive cognitive science) gain­ing considerably more recognition than others (e.g. his work on neuro­phenomenological and first-person research). All of them, however, shared a similar fate, in which the interest they evoked tended to be quite selective: specialists in a given field focused primarily on ideas pertinent to their particular work, while showing little interest for other aspects of Varela’s oeuvre. Although perfectly understandable from a pragmatic standpoint — there are only so many subjects we can invest ourselves into during our comparatively short lifespans — this selective engagement has had at least two negative ramifications. On the one hand, it has often led to one-sided, and partly misinformed, interpretations of Varela’s central ideas (an interpretative/theoretical problem); on the other hand, the inter- and even transdisciplinary scope of these ideas has been ignored and/or diminished (an applica­tive/pragmatic problem).

This special issue purports to mitigate some of these hermeneutical challenges. More specifically, it aims — if I may be permitted a touch of metaphorical flair — to blow off the dust from the concepts that have accumulated in the enactivist and neurophenomenological base­ments, and allow fresh rays of light to descend onto them. What do I mean by that? In his earlier works (see, for instance, Varela, 1975; 1979), Varela was quite fond of using Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote mentioned at the beginning of this short essay. A similar idea resounds even more clearly in another quote by the same author: ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes)’ (Wittgenstein, 2001, §129, italics added). There is a common thread running through both quotes: once a certain idea, doctrine, or conceptual framework becomes entrenched in a given community, it has a tendency to turn into a ‘blind spot’. Since it no longer functions as the object of one’s enquiries, but rather as the vehicle by means of which one carries out one’s enquiries, it becomes transparent for, and thus unnoticed by, the members of the said community. That is, not unlike the anatomical blind spot, it takes on the role of that which allows for the vision to occur, but which, precisely because it enables vision, becomes invisible for the visibility it makes possible.

In an important sense, the special issue wants to de-familiarize us from the familiar, to awaken the awareness of that which we are unaware of — not because of its foreignness or remoteness, but pre­cisely because of its familiarity, because of its constant, unrelenting (omni)presence. For, absent this unceasing, unscrupulous self-scrutiny, the words we use, originally overflowing with expressive fecundity, turn into terminological talismans, which get pulled out whenever we want to ward off dissenting voices or enchant the more appreciative ones — and terms like ‘enaction’, ‘neurophenomenol­ogy’, and ‘lived experience’ are no exception.

For this reason, the special issue pursues a twofold strategy. To begin with, it wants to creatively interlink different segments of Varela’s oeuvre not only among themselves but also with ideas developed by other thinkers and/or other schools of thought, both those explicitly referenced by Varela and those that might have escaped his mention. Just as the colour red acquires a different quality and significance if grasped in the context of a thing whose property it is (e.g. a dark-red carpet), or a background against which it stands out (e.g. a pastel-grey wallpaper), so too the seemingly self-evident notions acquire fresh vibrancy when they are perceived as segments of a larger totality — as dimensions of a more encompassing philo­sophical project or a broader ideational tradition. Secondly, and relatedly, the special issue aims to show, by means of concrete examples, how Varela’s ideas have been, or could be, applied to different subjects and areas of research. For, as it often turns out, it is in its concrete manifestations — in its anticipated yet not fully articulated realizations — that the depth of an idea discloses itself. More often than not, a theory — especially if it is of a truly novel, revolutionary kind — does not consist of a set of propositions, safely hovering above their concrete instantiations; instead, it is more akin to an indeterminate field of possibilities, which acquires clear, deter­minate contours only in and through its expression in the realm of the actual. In other words, its being lies in its becoming, and to know it means to participate in its unfolding.

In short, we might say that the goal of the special issue is to revisit Varela’s central ideas and, by examining their philosophical under­pinnings and their practical applications, to provide the reader with a cursory glance into their uncharted depths — both the depths of horizons enclosing them from ‘without’ and the depths of fecundity suffusing them from ‘within’. To this end, the special issue has brought together a group of authors from diverse backgrounds, each of whom has shed light on one or more of these un(der)examined aspects in their own distinct way. The end result is an array of interesting, multifaceted contributions, which, for pragmatic purposes, have been organized in an approximately chronological manner. Thus, the articles follow roughly the progression of themes in Varela’s oeuvre: they start with mathematical subjects and autonomous systems, con­tinue with topics related to enaction and embodiment, and conclude with more phenomenologically oriented topics: lived experience, affectivity, and compassion. To assist the reader in navigating this rich assortment of contributions, I offer a brief, tentative guidepost to illuminate their central themes and insights. The overview is far from exhaustive and cannot do justice to the wealth of ideas contained within each individual article, so I warmly invite the reader to delve into them first-hand.

In the first essay, Sebastjan Vörös explores the question of whether there is a common denominator underlying Varela’s vastly hetero­geneous body of work, suggesting that one such unifying factor can be found in what the early Varela referred to as the act of distinction. According to Vörös, Varela sought theoretical and practical means that would allow us to study phenomena not as objects or things — i.e. as already constituted distinctions — but rather as processes or operations — i.e. as distinctions in their constitution, in the very process of distinguishing. In Varela’s view, this shift from ‘things’ to the ‘cradle of things’ could help us avoid the epistemological and existential pitfalls that have been plaguing modern science and philosophy — bifurcation and disenchantment of nature, respectively — and provide grounds for an alternative, non-dual style of thought. In his paper, Vörös argues that this dynamic, active conception of differentiation serves, in its various guises, as an oft-overlooked bridge between Varela’s later and more well-known ideas (e.g. enaction and neurophenomenology) and his earlier, and considerably less known, formal works (e.g. calculus of self-reference and arith­metic of closure).

Since it delves into these relatively obscure earlier dimensions of Varela’s legacy, the next essay emerges as a particularly welcome contribution to the special issue. In it, Louis Kauffman explores the classical article on autopoiesis authored by Varela, Maturana and Uribe (1974) — Varela’s initial foray into the field of autopoietic and autonomous systems — through the lens of two mathematical notions rooted in the cybernetic tradition: ‘eigenform’ and ‘fixed points’. In doing so, Kauffman seeks to continue, and significantly expand upon, a project that Varela himself initiated but arguably failed to bring to a satisfactory conclusion — namely, to develop and explore a more robust formal account of autopoiesis that would be capable of bridging the gap between mathematics and natural sciences, between formal analysis and empirical investigations. Kauffman’s contribution not only rekindles this oft-forgotten question, but also provides an important, if tentative, step towards its resolution.

As a vivid testament to the fertility of Varela’s thought, Miriam Kyselo’s paper, although still drawing on Varela’s earlier works, takes the discussion in a significantly different direction. Kyselo argues that, if the non-dual epistemology propounded by Varela in the famous ‘Not One, Not Two’ (1976) article is taken seriously, it entails nothing less than a full-blown paradigm shift — an ‘epistemological earth­quake’, as Varela calls it (ibid., p. 63) — towards a co-embodied, intersubjective, and therefore ultimately social understanding of the self. This conception stands in clear opposition to some of the earlier and more individualist/constructivist readings of Varela’s project, and is more closely aligned with recent developments in the field, especially so-called participatory sense-making as expounded by De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) and elaborated on in some of the other papers in this special issue (see below). Kyselo addresses and dispels some of the ambiguities present in Varela’s works regarding the role of sociality in human selfhood, arguing that the minimal self-organization of the self is not only contingently, but constitutively social.

Kyselo’s conclusion serves as a natural bridge between Varela’s earlier work on autonomous systems and his later ideas about enaction and embodied cognition. Thus, in their article, Rodrigo Benevides, Tim Elmo Feiten and Anthony Chemero critically examine two recent developments in the enactivist tradition: the heritage of Hans Jonas (2001) on the one hand, and the so-called ‘social turn’, related especially to the already mentioned work by De Jaegher and Di Paolo, on the other. Focusing their analysis on the age-old problem of other minds, the authors argue that these two heritages are mutually incompatible, and that the Jonasian tradition should be ultimately discarded — or at least substantially modified — due to its residual solipsism. In an attempt to find a more appropriate conceptual frame­work, one that would allow for a more direct (ap)perception of the other, the authors hone in on the later work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968; 2010), especially his ideas of ‘flesh’ and ‘expression’. In this regard, their contribution, although stemming from a different per­spective and providing different emphases, ties in nicely with Kyselo’s article.

The meta-philosophical questions related to the notions of enaction and embodiment are taken up and further developed by Konrad Werner. In his thought-provoking piece, Werner explores a subject that is not only chronically understudied in contemporary enactivist circles, but has even acquired a somewhat dubious status in what occasionally feels like a stiflingly anti-metaphysical atmosphere — namely, the question about the broader metaphysical underpinnings and implications of ‘enaction’. To this end, Werner first situates enaction within the context of traditional metaphysics — a valuable endeavour in its own right — and then puts forward a creative reinter­pretation of some traditional metaphysical themes, rendering them more amenable to enactivist insights. Werner’s analyses, centred around the notions of ‘productive cognition’ and ‘situated meta­physics’, are thus a very welcome, and much needed, contribution to a better philosophical articulation and grounding of enactive approaches.

In a similar, if thematically more focused, manner, Ezequiel Di Paolo’s rich contribution tackles yet another important ambiguity in the enactivist tradition: the idea that cognition means en-acting, or bringing forth, a world. This idea has famously attracted significant — both positive and negative — attention in philosophy and cognitive science, giving rise to various interpretations as to its onto-epistemological status, ranging from radical constructivist to repre­sentationalist extremes. Di Paolo attempts to steer a middle path between these two interpretative polarities by tying the notion to the process of fact-production — or what he calls ‘f/acts’ — which span(s) the subject/object divide. Drawing on a vast array of classical and modern resources, Di Paolo fleshes out a view which allows for a plurality of worlds but doesn’t slide into an anti-realist, constructivist extreme. According to Di Paolo, the world is not brought forth ex nihilo; however, neither does it stand for a monolithic, unchanging reality — instead, and in line with the impetus of Varela’s own ideas, it is much more akin to a dynamic meshwork of groundless grounds.

The next three articles are more pragmatically oriented, aiming to demonstrate how Varela’s ideas — especially those developed in his later years — either have been, or could be, implemented in concrete settings. To begin with, Tom Froese and John J. Sykes advocate for a closer interpenetration between the enactive approach and neuro­phenomenology, highlighting that many current neurophenomenol­ogical studies fall short of fully utilizing the conceptual resources made available by the enactivist tradition. In the authors’ view, the neurophenomenological programme has yet to convincingly demonstrate that the first-person perspective is important not only as a source of correlations for third-person data, but also as a domain which, in its own right, influences the functioning of the living body. To address this gap and, as they put it, ‘reboot’ neurophenomenology by placing it on a more robust foundation, new research protocols should be designed to effectively demonstrate how experience can actively shape neurophysiological dynamics during embodied action.

Taking the discussion one step further, Hanne De Jaegher focuses on a claim made by Varela in one of his latest texts (1999), namely that, after enaction and neurophenomenology, the next stage in developing a comprehensive account of life and mind would entail what he termed a ‘science of inter-being’. To elaborate on Varela’s suggestive, yet admittedly vague, hints about the nature of such a science, De Jaegher puts forward an intriguing proposal. She suggests that an emerging science of inter-being could gain valuable insights from recent autism research, which highlights strong connections between autistic experience and intersubjectivity. Building upon the work of Jo Bervoets and Kristien Hens (2020), who advocate for seamlessly integrating theory and ethics in autism research (thus making it an inherently theor-ethical enterprise), De Jaegher argues that a similar approach — an approach in which the participatory sense-making between scientists and their research subjects takes centre stage — could provide fertile ground for establishing the Varelian science of inter-being.

Not unlike De Jaegher, Natalie Depraz also anchors her multifaceted discussion primarily in Varela’s later works. However, her emphasis lies elsewhere — on the phenomenon of surprise, which most readers will probably not immediately associate with Varela’s thought. Depraz initiates her exploration by delineating structural similarities between the ideas of autopoiesis, enaction, and co-generativity — i.e. notions Varela was working on at different stages of his intellectual journey — and brings them into stronger hermeneutical contact with Varela’s later, and significantly less well-known, research on affect, valence, and intersubjectivity. On the one hand, Depraz demonstrates how Varela’s earlier ideas resonate within his later concepts and, with the help of her insightful philosophical analyses, forges fruitful con­ceptual bridges between them. At the same time, she makes a com­pelling case about how what may superficially seem like mere ‘side concepts’ — especially, but not exclusively: creativity, novelty, and unpredictability — actually assume a central role in Varela’s thinking, making him, as Depraz puts it, a ‘philosopher of surprise’ par excellence.

Finally, in the last essay of the series, Andreas Weber provides a valuable complement to Vörös’s first piece. Much like Vörös, Weber too is on the lookout for the common thread in Varela’s thinking, only in his case the focus is not on the act of distinction but rather on compassion. More specifically, Weber seeks to elucidate the tacit threads woven by Varela between his scientific work on life and cog­nition and Buddhism. According to Weber, it is only by understanding the role that the Buddhist direct, ‘hands-on’ approach to the explora­tion of one’s mind — one’s lived, experiential domain — had on Varela’s thought and practice that we can hope to gain a compre­hensive insight into Varela’s views on vitality and mentality. Thus, Varela’s training under the renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Urgyen Rinpoche allowed him to apprehend the non-dual nature of life — the dynamism of vital selflessness in which outwardness (‘matter’) and inwardness (‘mind’) are not separate but deeply inter­meshed. In Weber’s view, compassion is what gives us access to, and appreciation for, this primordial ‘nature of mind’, this ceaseless ‘activity of giving life’.

I have noted previously that the papers in the special issue have been organized in a roughly chronological fashion. We now see that they are also — at the very beginning and the end — girded by two essays providing a meta-reflection on Varela’s work as a whole: the first piece by focusing on a notion of ‘distinction’ that featured prominently in Varela’s early writings, the second by underscoring an idea of ‘compassion’ that played a key role in Varela’s later writings. But doesn’t this mean that the special issue ends in contradiction? If two meta-analyses lead to two different phenomena, surely we have ventured into a paradoxical terrain? Maybe so. If by ‘paradox’ we mean ‘creative tension’, which keeps the hermeneutical flame — the dialectical movement of an idea — alive, then I have no qualms with this remark. However, I would like to add that superficial (terminol­ogical) differences can, and often do, blind us to deeper (epistemol­ogical and existential) commonalities. Thus, there is a strong case to be made that, unfortunately, cannot be developed in this short intro­ductory treatise — namely, that the two notions point to the common origin — to that productive abyss, or groundless ground, which Varela, at different times, referred to by a plethora of different names: circularity, co-determinacy, recursivity, loopiness, groundlessness, emptiness. And since, in Varela’s thought, this non-dual abyss per­tains to our whole reality — it is, we might say, a distinct existential rhythm reverberating not only thorough our intellectual and volitional but also our emotive, affective, even visceral intertwinings with the world — there are many conceptual paths leading to its silent core.

Ultimately, as Varela puts it, every description, in its attempt to express something that seeks to be not only articulated but also lived — or, more precisely, something that is understood only if and when en-lived — is ultimately ‘a speechless finger containing, rationally, the complement of its rationality’ (Varela, 1976, p. 67). As such, that which is described as the matrix of primordial distinction — the birth­place of non-dual gnosis — can also simultaneously be described as the cradle of boundless compassion — the birthplace of non-dual inter-being. And while perhaps inadequate in the ultimate sense, the two descriptions can be said to have served their purpose, if they manage — even if haltingly, fragmentarily — to hint at that dynamic whole, that ongoing interweaving of living and knowing, with which Varela grappled throughout his life’s journey.

References

Bervoets, J. & Hens, K. (2020) Going beyond the catch-22 of autism diagnosis and research: The moral implications of (not) asking ‘what is autism?’, Frontiers in Psychology, 11, art. 3015.

De Jaegher, H. & Di Paolo, E. (2007) Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (4), pp. 485–507.

Jonas, H. (2001) The Phenomenon of Life, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston, IL: North­western University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2010) Child Psychology and Pedagogy — The Sorbonne Lectures 1949–1952, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Varela, F.J. (1975) Calculus of self-reference, International Journal of General Systems, 2 (1), pp. 5–24.

Varela, F.J. (1976) Not one, not two, CoEvolution Quarterly, 12, pp. 62–67.

Varela, F.J. (1979) Principles of Biological Autonomy, New York: Elsevier.

Varela, F.J. (1999) Steps to a science of inter-being: Unfolding the Dharma implicit in modern cognitive science, in Watson, G., Batchelor, S. & Claxton, G. (eds.) The Psychology of Awakening, York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc.

Varela, F.J., Maturana, H.R. & Uribe, R. (1974) Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model, BioSystems, 5, pp. 187–196.

Wittgenstein, L. (1956) Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.

[1]      Aškerčeva 2, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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