Core Enaction Semester 1


Semester 1 (Fall 2022): Genealogy

In the 1990s Francisco Varela wrote the words quoted above as an introduction to the work that a philosopher dedicated to the genealogy of early embodied approaches to the cognitive sciences (Ceruti, 1994). Since then, for those who are familiar with Varela’s work, these words continue to resonate as a compelling proposal for the future of the cognitive sciences. More than a generic tribute to the systematic reflection on scientific evolution, they are an invitation to develop an unconventional way of practicing scientific research. In short: it is essential to explore the roots of the approaches at play in frontier research, as only by understanding the emergence and evolution of these approaches can we realize the full expression of their potential, which relies on creative reinterpretations of them, or transformative filiations.

The idea of opening the Core Enaction Program with a semester on genealogy constitutes in itself a positive response to the above invitation – an invitation that Francisco Varela expressed implicitly in his publications, always showing a profound interest in the genealogy of the frameworks proposed. This first semester of the Core Enaction Program therefore seeks to apply Varela’s ‘genealogical’ way of doing science to his scientific work, by undertaking a participative exploration of the origins of his enactive approach, with the ultimate goal of catalyzing and preparing its generative future developments. In Varela’s words: “An exercise of creative foresight”.

Concretely, this first semester of the Core Enaction Program is broken down into seven sessions, in which the invited speakers, the participants and the organizers will study and discuss together important segments of the research path through which Varela elaborated the enactive approach.


In the first session, the organizers will introduce the Core Enaction Program, and in particular its Genealogy Semester. We like to think of this first encounter as a moment of reciprocal presentation, and an occasion to start building the Core Enaction community.

The second and the third sessions will be dedicated to the cybernetic origins of Varela’s enactive approach, and will respectively host, as keynote speakers, Bruce Clarke and Juan Carlos Letelier.

The forth and the fifth sessions will focus on autopoiesis, through lectures by Tom Ziemke and Juan Carlos Letelier.

The sixth session will be dedicated to Varela’s work on autonomous systems, presented in Principles of Biological Autonomy (Varela, 1979), and will be articulated around a lecture by Evan Thompson.

The last session will articulate the content of the Genealogy Semester with the next semester of the Core Enaction Program, through a structured discussion between the participants and the organizers.



Session 1: "Introduction" by Prof. Luisa Damiano


Watch the recording here!


Readings related to the Introduction:

Ceruti M. & Damiano L., Plural Embodiment(s) of Mind. Genealogy and Guidelines for a Radically Embodied Approach to Mind and Consciousness,

Dupuy, J. P. (2009). On the Origins of Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Further readings, related to the Introduction and to the next sessions:

Cordeschi, R. (2002). The Discovery of the Artificial. Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer. doi: 10.1007/978-94-015-9870-5

Lettvin, J., Maturana, H., McCulloch, W., and Pitts, W. (1953). “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” in Proceedings of the IRE, (Monterey, CA: IEEE), 230–255.

Maturana, H., and Varela, F. (1987/1998). The Tree of Knowledge. London: Shambala.

McCulloch, W. (ed.). (1965). Embodiments of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Riegler, A. (2012). “Costructivism,” in Paradigms in Theory Construction, ed. L. L’Abate (Berlin: Springer).

Varela, F. (1986). Experimental epistemology. Cahiers du CREA 9, 107–121.

Varela, F. (ed.) (1979). “Principles of Biological Autonomy,” in The North-Holland Series in General Systems Research, Vol. 2, (New York, NY: Elsevier North-Holland, Inc).

von Foerster, H. (1960). On Self-organizing Systems and their Environments. Urbana, IL: Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois, 1.

von Foerster, H. (1974). Notes on an Epistemology for Living Beings. New York, NY: Springer, 247–260.

von Foerster, H. (1977). Objects: tokens for (Eigen)-behavior. Cybernetics Forum 8, 261–272.

von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical Constructivism. London: Falmer Press. doi: 10.4324/9780203454220

Ziemke, T. (2016). The body of knowledge. Biosystems 148, 4–11. doi: 10.1016/j.biosystems.2016.08.005


To top

Session 2: "The cybernetic origins of Varela's Enactive Approach" by Prof. Bruce Clarke


Watch the recording here!


Bruce Clarke

Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professor of Literature and Science
Department of English
Texas Tech University

Core Enaction presentation on September 28, 2022:
"Francisco Varela’s Cybernetic Genealogy from the Biological Computer Lab to the Systems Counterculture"

This presentation will focus on Francisco Varela’s relation to the seminal cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster. For Varela, von Foerster was both a mentor from whose work he drew support and inspiration for his own scientific projects, and a sponsor who promoted Varela’s career, especially during the difficult years of Varela’s exile from Pinochet’s Chile during the 1970s. To appreciate the depth of this relationship, we will review von Foerster’s own precarious progress toward a scientific career as an Austrian survivor of Nazi Germany whose emigration to the US and academic establishment at the University of Illinois were strongly assisted by one of the key figures of the original cybernetics, the psychiatrist and brain scientist Warren S. McCulloch. McCulloch not only helped von Foerster to gain academic employment in the US at the turn of the 1950s, but also drew him into the ongoing series of Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, for which McCulloch was the director. By this singular stroke of good fortune, von Foerster found himself in the company of formidable thinkers from Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and John von Neumann to Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. Moreover, with collaborator Walter Pitts, McCulloch developed a method of doing cognitive science that he termed experimental epistemology, a kind of mathematical neurophysiology that would be carried forward by von Foerster at his Biological Computer Lab (BCL), established in 1958, and then by Varela in his development toward The Embodied Mind. The other key connection here was Humberto Maturana’s collaboration with McCulloch at MIT and subsequent close connections with von Foerster. Thus, as Maturana and Varela were developing the first drafts of the autopoiesis concept, von Foerster was one of its first readers and most stalwart supporters. And once Heinz and Francisco had established their own intellectual conversation, they found a mutual enthusiasm for George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form and the related discourses of recursion and self-reference we now associate with the emergence of second-order cybernetics. Through von Foerster’s connections with the systems counterculture centered around Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly, during Varela’s American sojourn in the mid-to-later 1970s, he reached the eclectic audiences that received his seminal early statements, such as “A Calculus for Self-Reference,” “On Observing Natural Systems,” and “Not One, Not Two,” on the way to his first masterwork, Principles of Biological Autonomy. Throughout this period as well, he collaborated with von Foerster on projects related to their shared convictions regarding the ethics of epistemological constructivism.

Clarke, Bruce. “From Information to Cognition: The Systems Counterculture, Heinz von Foerster’s Pedagogy, and Second-Order Cybernetics.” Constructivist Foundations 7:3 (2012): 196–207.
———. “Francisco Varela,” and “Immunity at Lindisfarne,” in Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020, pp.125-32, 229-35.
———. “Heinz von Foerster’s Demons: The Emergence of Second-Order Systems Theory,” in Clarke and Hansen, Emergence and Embodiment, 34–61.

———, and Mark B. N. Hansen, eds. Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009.

Cope, Bill, and Mary Kalantzis. “The Cybernetics of Learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory (2022): DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2022.2033213.
Franchi, Stefano, Güven Güzeldere, and Eric Minch. “Interview with Heinz von Foerster.” Stanford Electronic Humanities Review 4 (1995): 288-307.
Kay, Lily. “From Logical Neurons to Poetic Embodiments of Mind: Warren S. McCulloch’s Project in Neuroscience,” Science in Context 14:4 (2001): 591-614.
Müller, Albert and Müller, Karl H., eds., An Unfinished Revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory | BCL 1958-1976. Vienna: Echoraum, 2007.
Varela, Francisco J. “A Calculus for Self-Reference.” International Journal of General Systems 2 (1975): 5–24.
———. “Not One, Not Two.” CoEvolution Quarterly 11 (Fall 1976): 62–67.
———. Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York: Elsevier North Holland, 1979.
———. “Introduction: The Ages of Heinz von Foerster.” In von Foerster, Observing Systems,
———. “The Creative Circle: Sketches on the Natural History of Circularity.” In Paul
Watzlawick, ed. The Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? Contributions to Constructivism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984, 309-23.
———. “The Early Days of Autopoiesis: Heinz and Chile.” Systems Research 13:3 (1996): 407-16. Republished in Clarke and Hansen, eds., Emergence and Embodiment, 62-76.
———, with Donna Johnson. “On Observing Natural Systems.” CoEvolution Quarterly 10 (Summer 1976): 26–31.
Von Foerster, Heinz. “Laws of Form.” In Brand, Whole Earth Catalog (Spring 1970): 14.
———. “On Constructing a Reality [1973].” In von Foerster, Understanding Understanding, 211–27.
———. “Objects: Tokens for (Eigen-)Behaviors [1976].” In von Foerster, Understanding Understanding, 261–71.
———. Observing Systems. Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1981; 2nd ed. 1984.
———. “Cybernetics.” Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence. Vol. 1. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1990.
———. Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. New York: Springer, 2003.



Session 3: "The Cybernetic Origins of the Enactive Approach" by Prof. Juan Carlos Letelier


Watch the recording here!



In this session, we will review: a) the early history of the concept of autopoiesis, b) the early contributions of Francisco Varela toward simulating and formalizing metabolic closure and self-reference. The crucial years (1968-1974) will be presented with some detail, like the Technical Report #9 (Biology of Cognition, by Maturana) including some unique moments like the famous project SYNCO or the “best course on Cybernetics” which was given in July 1973 at Santiago by von-Foerster, Maturana, Varela and others in the context of project SYNCO. The impact of  the years 1974-1980 will also be analyzed as well as the 1980-1984 period when Varela returned to Chile and published, with Maturana, the first edition of the The Tree of Knowledge. Also we will focus on his research concerning neuroscience, in particular his fundamental (and unrecognized) contributions to the idea of neural synchronization and the science of consciousness studies. Varela was instrumental in developing tools to measure neural synchronization and, little by little, he morphed his mathematical analysis into a conception of “perceptual frames”. Varela used a great part of his stay at Paris (as a CNRS researcher) trying, before almost anyone else, to mix modern quantitative neuroscience with contemplative studies. A fundamental aspect of his (and Maturana´s) research was concerned about how living systems create the objects they encounter in their world. For this creation they used different words, Enaction (in the case of Varela) and Structural Coupling (in the case of Maturana).  Both concepts are similar and are also related to more classic concepts like Umwelt (von-uexkull) and affordances (Gibson). Interestingly, all these ideas can be expressed in terms of autopoietic networks interacting with their medium using Bayesian inference.



Session 4: "Autopoiesis" by Prof. Tom Ziemke


Watch the recording here!


The lecture discusses the concept of autopoiesis, its different interpretations, and the connections to related concepts and theories that came before and after. More specifically, we will discuss work in philosophy and theoretical biology (Kant, von Uexküll, Jonas), work on computational models of autopoiesis (e.g., McMullin, Beer), and recent work in cognitive science (e.g., Bickhard).

Selected bibliography

  • Beer (2015). Characterizing autopoiesis in the Game of Life. Artificial Life, 21(1):1–19.
  • Bickhard (2009). The biological foundations of cognitive science. New Ideas in Psychology, 27(1), 75–84.
  • Froese & Ziemke (2009). Enactive artificial intelligence: Investigating the systemic organization of life and mind. Artificial Intelligence, 173(3–4), 466–500.
  • McMullin & Varela (1997). Rediscovering Computational Autopoiesis. In: Husbands & Harvey (eds.) Proceeedings of the Fourth European Conference on Artificial Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Thompson (2004). From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology: A tribute to Francisco Varela. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 3, 381–398.
  • Weber & Varela (2002). Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1, 97–125.
  • Ziemke (2001). The Construction of ‘Reality’ in the Robot: Constructivist Perspectives on Situated Artificial Intelligence and Adaptive Robotics. Foundations of Science, 6, 163–233.
  • Ziemke & Sharkey (2001). A stroll through the worlds of robots and animals: Applying Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of meaning to adaptive robots and artificial life. Semiotica, 134, 701–746



Session 5: "Autopoiesis" by Prof. Juan Carlos Letelier


Watch the recording here!


In this session Dr. Juan Carlos Letelier will review the initial core problem: to understand metabolism and to understand metabolic stability. A review of the modern attempt mixing autopoiesis and various ideas will be provided. A special chapter will explain the cryptic ideas from Robert Rosen and their unexploited potentialities. Also he will confront the various metaphorical usages of the concept of Autopoiesis ranging from the AUTOPOIESIS OF LAW to the AUTOPOIESIS OF WARFARE. Dr. Letelier will introduce the concept of STRUCTURAL COUPLING, an idea that he thinks is central to the overall theory. As this is a mysterious idea he will spend some time explaining it. Finally, in another mysterious “coup de main” he will discuss a fundamental idea about language.