The third epistemology: Extending Maturana’s structure determinism
Cottone R. R. (1989) The third epistemology: Extending Maturana’s structure determinism. The American Journal of Family Therapy 17(2): 99–109. Available at http://cepa.info/3834
Table of Contents
Maturana’s basic ideas
Plastic structure and the emergence of language in a consensual domain
Objectivity in parentheses
Structure versus change
Extending Maturana’s structure determinism
The third epistemology
Implications for the social and behavioral sciences
A partial list of implications
This article is a critical analysis of Maturana’s recent works as applied to the social and behavioral sciences. It proposes that there is a major contradiction in Maturana’s “structure determinism” which prevents a consistent epistemological and ontological perspective. The concept of change is viewed as crucial to understanding Maturana’s work and to extending his ideas to form a consistent philosophical viewpoint, which is defined as the third epistemology for the social and behavioral sciences. Accordingly, the idea of structure is abdicated. It is proposed that the new perspective on Maturana’s work has practical application to the social and behavioral sciences, in general, and family therapy, in particular.
The ideas of Maturana (1970, 1978, 1980) and Maturana and Varela (1973) have been presented in the family therapy literature as epsitemologically significant (Dell, 1985; Efran & Lukens, 1985). Maturana’s ideas are revolutionary in the fields of cybernetics and advanced systems theory because he has challenged basic conceptions of how a system operates. For example, Maturana and Varela (1973) conclude that nervous systems in biological organisms are informationally “closed” systems. Such a position challenges Bertalanffy’s proposition that biological systems are “open” systems (1952, 1968).
This article is a critical analysis of Maturana’s and Varela’s ideas related to epistemology (theory of knowledge), ontology (theory of reality), and the social and behavioral sciences. It challenges Dell’s (1985) position that Maturana’s ideas contain “the ontology that Bateson never developed” (p. 5). It is argued that Maturana’s reliance on structure is ontologically inconsistent with the pervasive epistemological application of the concept of change in his work.
The major intent of this article is to demonstrate an epistemologically and ontologically consistent perspective and, subsequently, to develop an “epistemology of change,” which is defined as the third epistemology for the social and behavioral sciences.
Maturana’s basic ideas
Before proceeding with a critique of Maturana’s work as applied to the social and behavioral sciences, a summary of some of Maturana’s most significant ideas in regard to epistemological and ontological notions is presented. As a direct resource, the reader is referred to Maturana (1978), which is a concise presentation of his views on matters of relevance in this critique. The point to be made here is that Maturana relies heavily on the concept of change (or transformation) in defining the nature of perception, the operation of a living organism, and the definition of living structure.
The empirical foundation for Maturana’s theoretical work is a publication by Maturana, Lettvin, McCulloch and Pitts (1960), which identified the structural mechanism for perception in frogs. Maturana et al. (1960) concluded: “We have shown that the function of the retina in the frog is not to transmit information about the point-to-point pattern of distribution of light and dark in the image formed on it” (p. 170). Further they stated, “Transformation of the image [not transmission of the image] constitutes the fundamental function of the retina” (p. 170). Essentially, this means that an image is transformed according to the structure of the sense organ, and the message the organism receives is a result of the transformation and, subsequently, the “integrative ability” of the cells in the nervous system “to combine the information … into an operation” (p. 170). In other words, a frog perceives visually that which has been transformed by the retina in a way that is specific to the organization of the frog’s nervous system. If a frog is not organized to perceive something, it can’t.
In a later work, which detailed a biological theory of color coding in the primate retina, Maturana, Uribe, and Frenk (1968) concluded that the activities of a nervous system do not reflect independent environment and therefore, do not reflect an absolute external world. They further concluded that an animal’s interactions with an environment were best represented by the animal’s own organization and not by an independent external reality. Through this publication, Maturana extended his earlier ideas related to the visual perception of frogs to the perceptual process of primates, a class of animals which includes the human being. The 1968 work led to refinement of his position and to the conclusion that “the external world would only have a triggering role in the release of the internally determined activity of the nervous system” (Maturana, 1980, p. xv). This insight was a foundation for his epistemological position that a transcendental absolute reality is not knowable. He has also described reality as “subject dependent” (Maturana, 1978, p. 60). Hence, “we literally create the world in which we live by living it” (Maturana, 1978, p. 61), or, equivalently, our world is transformation, which we simultaneously live and create.
Understanding the structure and organization of an organism is absolutely necessary to understanding the organism. According to Maturana (1978), “behavior … is necessarily determined by the structure of the nervous system at the moment at which the behavior is enacted” (p. 42). Maturana’s analysis of the nervous systems of living organisms is quite detailed in his work, especially as related to the operation of nerve cells, or neurons. Maturana and Varela (1973) concluded that neurons “are not static entities whose properties remain invariant. On the contrary, they change” (p. 126). Although Maturana has described a learning nervous system as a structurally closed system, changes in the nervous system may occur from external (outside the structure) or internal (inside the structure) perturbations. Perturbations are simply interactions which trigger internal changes. Regardless, perception by the organism does not, in and of itself, allow identification of the external or internal source of perturbation. In the operation of the nervous system, hallucination and external perception are indistinguishable (Maturana, 1980). What is perceived is always a result of transformation within the structure of the organism. Furthermore, the continuous transformation within the organism during the perceptual process promotes recursive interactions within the organism’s structure and actually produces changes of the state or structure of the nervous system of the organism. According to Maturana (1970), “the nervous system is continuously changing through experience” (p. 18). Further, he states, “The learning nervous system … must be able to undergo a continuous transformation,” which he described as “structural dynamism” (p. 36). Essentially, he views a structure-determined, learning nervous system as having “plastic structure” and “plastic interaction” since there are “changes in state which involve structural changes in its components” (Maturana, 1978, p. 35). Structure, therefore, is foundational to his theoretical position, and structure changes.
Plastic structure and the emergence of language in a consensual domain
Maturana’s position is that the learning nervous system is essentially a closed structural system, one that changes, and then reacts not only to its own changes, but to changes perturbed in a social/consensual domain, which, in the case of humans, involves language. Maturana’s (1970) picture of a structure-determined nervous system “interacting with some of its own internal states as if they were independent entities” (p. 29) biologically links organic function and cognitive product. That is to say, within the nervous system, our thoughts have a mind of their own, and they can interact with the structures that produce them.
In essence, Maturana has given a biological rationale for the emergence of language. Language arises simultaneously through: (a) a complex, structurally closed nervous system which allows recursive interactions; (b) internal or external nervous system perturbation; and (c) a social/consensual domain which simultaneously perturbs the nervous system. And, ultimately, it is through the relationship between the nervous system and the social/consensual domain that language emerges and reality is defined. If two people view an apple, and they can’t agree that they see, in fact, a real apple, then what is it that they see? The people in this situation will probably continue to interact until there is consensual behavior about the “apple,” hence, a reality will be defined. The activities of the nervous system, in this example, are simultaneously perturbed by retinal transformation of the image of the apple and by mutual interactions in a social domain with a linguistic tradition.
Objectivity in parentheses
Maturana believes his findings have placed “objectivity in parentheses” (see Simon, 1985, p. 37). Accordingly, for a human being what is real results from simultaneous relationships among what is observed (which results from perturbation which may or may not be externally triggered), the observer’s neuronal network (which is defined as structurally closed, but is constantly changing through experience), and consensus (in a social/interactive domain which involves language). Therefore, hallucination and external perception are only distinguishable by means of simultaneous nervous system perturbation in a social/consensual domain. Maturana (1978) states, “Although every internal or external interaction of an organism is mapped in the relations of relative neuronal activities of its nervous system, where they cannot be distinguished as individual experiences, they can be distinguished socially in terms of behavior within a consensual domain” (pp. 56-57). Consensual behavior serves as a context for perceptual interpretation. Therefore, the operative consensual domain of interacting organisms, their context, is the parenthetical boundary of objectivity.
The importance of structure as related to Maturana’s ideas is clearly demonstrated in his concept “structure determinism.” The term “structure determinism” derives from Maturana’s ideas about cause and effect. Maturana does not view cause and effect as linear (A causes B). This is so whether the objects of study are interacting components or systems affecting each other. He believes that systems “couple,” and, during coupling, they are mutually perturbed, changing each other in a recursive link. Changes, therefore, always occur through perturbation. However, since learning nervous systems are closed structures, a system’s changes through perturbation are primarily a result of the system’s structure and not the properties of perturbation entities. This means that “cause and effect” is primarily within the boundaries of the system. As Efran and Lukens (1985) have described this point of view, “Toasters ‘toast’ and washing machines ‘wash’ because of how each is built or structured” (p. 25), even though both a toaster and a washing machine can be plugged into and stimulated by the same electrical outlet. Since organisms react differently to what appear to be similar stimuli, a simple linear cause and effect perspective is precluded. Behavior, then, is structure determined, and it is the structure of that which is perturbed that primarily defines the outcome of perturbation.
Given the preceding summary of Maturana’s ideas, the discussion will shift to an analysis of structure, which is a fundamental concept to Maturana’s structure determinism.
Structure versus change
As is evident, Maturana’s work relies heavily on concepts such as transformation and change to describe the basic processes of living systems. In fact, Maturana’s focus on relationships between and involving processes makes his work unique. But, at the same time, a critical reader of Maturana’s work must question his definition of structure, a concept that implies stability and stasis, but, as applied in his work, actually reflects plasticity and change.
Maturana and Varela (1973) define structure as “the actual relations which hold between the components which integrate a concrete machine in a given space” (p. 138). This definition appears to imply that structure represents relations between components or “things” in the physical sense – tangible objects with properties held constant over time. Yet the operative definition of “components” of living things offered by Maturana and Varela does not reflect static or structural entities. Rather, Maturana and Varela define components of living things as processes which are process generated (see also Varela, 1979). Maturana’s use of the term “structure” implies that some “thing” exists, when, in fact, the definition actually refers to processes in relation to processes – change in relation to change.
In effect, the definition of structure offered by Maturana and Varela (1973) is disputable, which makes the theory vulnerable. The vulnerability of Maturana’s ideas derives not only from the conceptualization of structure as changing, but from his position that reality involves consensus. In effect, without consensus about the term “structure,” Maturana’s theory is self-contradicted. In other words, he has defined structure non- consensually, as if it exists as a given. And his theory depends on consensus on his definition of structure, which, when analyzed, appears only to imply structure in the physical sense.
The vulnerability of his position is compounded by recent philosophical expositions, arising from theory in the physical sciences, which depict a dynamic or everchanging universe (e.g., Capra, 1975, 1982). As Capra (1975) has stated, even atoms are “nothing like the solid objects of classical physics” (p. 55). And of subatomic units, Capra states, “Depending on how we look at them, they appear sometimes as particles, sometimes as waves” (p. 55). Even in physics, structure is not a clearly agreed-upon fact.
Given Maturana’s reliance on transformation and change as a focus of study (his epistemology), his concurrent application of terms like “concrete machine” reveals ontological inconsistency. This inconsistency, which is left unreconciled in his work, leads to questions about the validity of his definition of structure, especially as applied to the social and behavioral sciences. For example, family “structure” is not tangible or even observable in the physical sense, and consensus (spoken or unspoken) is critical to the definition of a social system’s structural boundaries. As related to the social and behavioral sciences, these questions over validity of his definition of the term “structure” reflect nonconsensual behavior, which ultimately questions the application of his work in social and behavioral contexts. However, by modifying his ideas so that structure is not the focus, an epistemologically and ontologically consistent perspective emerges. Modification and extension of his ideas allow a new framework for viewing social and behavioral systems.
Extending Maturana’s structure determinism
Structure, using Maturana’s own ideas, cannot be assumed to exist as a given. Structure does not exist outside of relationships to changes around it, including the changes in a perceiving organism operating, in the case of humans, in a continuously changing social/consensual domain. Given these formulations, the idea of structure can be, and should be, abandoned; it stands in the way of an epistemologically and ontologically consistent perspective for the social and behavioral sciences. What is “real” is change in relation to change as defined in an everchanging social/consensual domain.
The third epistemology
Maturana’s scientific findings are impressive in their own right. But his propositions regarding natural social systems (Maturana, 1980), and the conclusions of Dell (1985) regarding the epistemological and ontological soundness of Maturana’s formulations for the social and behavioral sciences are at issue here.
Given the above scenario, three epistemologies can be defined as related to the social and behavioral sciences. The first epistemology is that of studying people or groups that exist as their own natures are antici‑pated by observers in a specified type of observing relationship. In the social sciences, the boundaries of the first epistemology are clearly defined by the traditional study of psychology. The second epistemology is the study of people in relationships. Relationships are critical as people in relationships are studied through observers of such relationships. This has been the realm of early social systems theory, as is clearly manifest in the early works of Bateson and his associates (1956). Maturana’s ideas, as modified and extended here, lead to a third epistemology for the social and behavioral sciences. The third epistemology focuses on change in relationship to change as defined in an everchanging social/consensual domain. According to the third epistemology, what is observed, the observer, and “objectification” in a social/consensual domain are all linked conceptually through “change.” This is an epistemologically and ontologically consistent position.
Implications for the social and behavioral sciences
Once the idea of structure has been abandoned, there are significant implications for the social and behavioral sciences. It is no longer an issue whether therapists work with individuals, families, or even larger social systems, because each is understood as “change.” An observer’s definition of each, in a structural sense, is a result of simultaneous nervous system perturbation and objectification through behavior in a social/consensual domain. In effect, the third epistemology unites psychological and sociosystemic thinking at a higher theoretical level, thereby providing a critical link between two systems of thought. Whether therapists “see” individuals, families, or cultures, all are viewed as change in the context of a social and consensual framework.
Also, Maturana’s work is confusing, because the idea of structurally closed systems prevents a reasonable perspective of cause and effect. As stated earlier, Maturana assumes that “cause and effect” is structure- determined. Human interaction occurs through mutual perturbation of closed nervous systems coupled within a larger domain. Given the third epistemology, interpersonal “cause and effect” has a clearer interpretation. Humans are changing anyway, and interactions affect already progressing change. The theoretical works of Watzlawick and his associates (1967, 1974) on communication and change are significant in this regard.[Note 1] Necessarily, the third epistemology is based on abdication of structure. Perceiving organisms are viewed as changing (“structurally dynamic” or “plastic,” using Maturana’s, 1970, own terms), and attention must be focused on the everchanging social/consensual domain, which is crucial to understanding the third epistemology.
From a social systems perspective, whether dealing with larger social systems (Buckley, 1967; Parsons, 1951) or specialized social systems such as family systems (Hoffman, 1981), or from a traditional psychological perspective, that which treats the individual as a system, the fact that systems are “change” in relation to an observing dynamic system is such a reasonable conclusion that it may be viewed as a reprieve from earlier concerns that Maturana’s ideas lead to a conclusion of inability to influence in an interpersonal way. According to the third epistemology, we cannot help but observe changes in others (and at the same time changes in ourselves). From a therapeutic standpoint, the issue becomes how a therapist links the changes in the client-system to the changes in the larger systems with which the client-system interacts (through the therapist’s own changes). This occurs with recognition that a changing individual or family might perceive changes quite differently than the therapist, and that reality derives from simultaneous changes occurring in a social/consensual domain.
Change is all around us, between us, within us; it only becomes structure in relationships among us.
From the perspective of the third epistemology, families do not exist as structures. You cannot touch a family, although, obviously you can touch the individual members. A family exists because it is distinguished perceptually by components (the relationships cannot be perceived without the individuals) and consensually (by the actions of individuals). By the same token, governments, agencies, cultural groups, ethnic groups, etcetera, do not exist as structures, but are real in the context of perceptual distinction and interpersonal interactions, which demonstrate the “realness” through a spoken or unspoken consensus. This is consistent with Maturana’s ideas. However, there is a critical difference between the third epistemology and Maturana’s ideas. According to the third epistemology, once a structure is identified, it is redefined as a perceptual phenomenon for the transmission of change. Any structure is viewed as fleeting in the context of changes occurring around it, including changes in the perceiver and in his or her social/consensual domain.
Family therapists must support or challenge consensus about the perceived structures that are significant to clients. By doing so, therapists can direct client changes consistent with those changes in the larger domain in which the family or individuals interact. The therapist can also assist individual family members to link with outside relationships that will aid in the establishment of an appropriate consensus for change, according to the rules of the system directing the family therapist.
Families are changing. Therapists are changing. And the system of thought of family therapy is changing. All of these interact from the perspective of observers who act as if families, therapists, and family therapy exist.
A partial list of implications
Some implications of the third epistemology for the social sciences, behavioral sciences, and systems theory are outlined below. This is a partial list.
1. The idea of circular causality must be abandoned along with structure. Circularity implies a return to a previous (or same) condition, state, or structure. Circular causality would require that some “thing” would have to remain static while its own changes were redirected back upon it. According to the third epistemology, there can be no return to a previous (or same) condition, state or structure. According to the third epistemology, all change affects all other change in an ongoing process. Systems theorists have emphasized “agreement” on defining structure, which is necessary before there can be agreement about circular effect.
When two people interact, their relationship is a changing process, as the individuals, too, are changing. Their mutual interaction is consensus, and defines their reality. Their interaction only looks circular to observers who consensually define the limits of the relationship as a structural boundary.
2. There are no such things as open or closed systems, since there is no structure to be opened or closed. The open or closed nature of a system is nothing more than agreement that there is a lack of change across perceived boundaries. The classic example of the closed system, a chemical reaction in a test tube, can be examined from the perspective of the third epistemology. If observers, with or without the aid of instruments, could see at the atomic or subatomic level, the test tube would be seen to be changing, and the changes in the test tube would appear to repulse much of the encroachment by the chemical reaction. Such a perspective would allow a consensus that the interaction between the chemical and the test tube would be, in fact, occurring across otherwise agreed-upon boundaries.
Some systems will appear to human observers to be more closed, and others will appear to be more open, but always at the level of consensus through interaction.
3. Homeostasis is better understood as a consensus of lack of interchangeability across agreed-upon boundaries of defined dynamic systems.
4. The implication for family therapy is a philosophical foundation that allows interventions at the individual or social system level. Family therapists who value the psychological point of view will no longer have to be on the fence between a systemic and psychological perspective. As long as interventions direct changes consistent with changes occurring in the defined larger systems of significance, and in the ethical best interests of client-systems (consensual ethics), then the interventions are consistent with the third epistemology.
This article has extended the works of Maturana and Varela in an effort to develop an epistemologically and ontologically sound foundation for the social and behavioral sciences. Unlike Maturana’s ideas, “change,” not structure, is everything. The third epistemology is defined as an epistemology of change. “Change” conceptually links the behavioral and social sciences. It incorporates developments in the biology of cognition, and it is partially based on the scientific conclusions of Maturana regarding the structural changes that occur through, and subsequent to, perception.
The weakness of the third epistemology, of course, is its assumption that change exists as real, even beyond perception. This assumption becomes a fact only in scientific consensus. It can be argued that the basic “structures,” or “building blocks,” that make up what is real are not known as yet, that, in fact, they exist outside of experience and are yet to be discovered, and that there will be clear consensus on that issue. The third epistemology assumes structure will prove to be fleeting as scientists continually change from relative agreement to relative disagreement as to the nature of reality. This is an assumption that is dialectically vulnerable, but it remains an assumption that is epistemologically and ontologically consistent. It also assumes that the epistemology of change, as a theoretical position, will change and develop in interaction with other changes of a scientific or philosophical nature. In this sense, it is a position that can be expected to yield, and, consequently, its vulnerability may ultimately become its strength.
It is also assumed that consensus is not structure, even though structure derives, ultimately, from consensual behavior. Consensus is viewed as an ongoing interactive process.
In summary, according to the third epistemology, an epistemology of change, “change” is everything as human beings relate to their world. In this sense, the third epistemology is a contextual epistemology (cf. Pepper, 1942; Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1986). Structure derives from consensus in an everchanging social/consensual domain. An external reality does in fact exist, but it exists as structure only in relationships among us. In this sense, objectivity is interpersonally embraced. Therefore, what is, what perceives, and the objective reality that results in a continually changing social/consensual domain are all conceptually linked by “change.”
Special thanks to Laura Perkins Cottone, Ph.D., of Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville, for her critical reading and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. R. Rocco Cottone, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Studies and Coordinator of the Marital and Family Counseling Sequence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Request for reprints should be addressed to Dr. Cottone, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Department of Behavioral Studies, 8001 Natural Bridge Rd., St. Louis, MO 63121-4499.
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Watzlawick’s work and the third epistemology are similar in focusing on change. However, Watzlawick’s work focuses on how structure changes, while the third epistemology focuses on how change is structured.
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