This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
FRANCISCO VARELA: A NEW IDEA OF PERCEPTION AND LIFE
Francisco Varela: A new idea of perception and life*
Université Paris-1, Panthéon, Sorbonne, Paris, France (E-mail: email@example.com)
Abstract. Connections among Varela’s theory of enactive cognition , his evolutionary theory of natural drift, and his concept of autopoiesis are made clear. Two questions are posed in relation to Varela’s conception of perception, and the tension that exists in his thought between the formal level of organization and the Jonasian notion of the organism.
I would like to say first that, for about 10 years, the person and work of Francisco Varela has represented for me a fundamental reference point on the philosophical landscape owing to the fact that he embodies the convergence of a scientific exigency and a phenomenological concern; but also as a model of intellectual freedom and intellectual creativity. In fact, while a number of philosophers today take permanent leave of phenomenology and metaphysics in favor of analytical philosophy, in the name of a scientificity which they claim, all the more so since they are more often than not in the most complete ignorance of what science is, Francisco Varela starts from science, where he occupies an eminent place, to go to the encounter of philosophy and of phenomenology in particular. The interrogations and the hypotheses he works out in the scientific domain lead him to take into consideration other types of approaches, notably phenomenology, to which he finally brings his own contribution. By this creative liberty, controlled only by the demand of knowledge and supremely indifferent to all fashion as to all power, the work of Francisco Varela seems to me to be truly exemplary. I will be content to mention the aspects of his thought that represent to me several significant contributions and therefore arenas in which to sketch the horizon of an interrogation and possible debate. They concern the fields of cognition, evolution, and the philosophy of the living thing, which are, of course, closely interdependent. In the first place, in the field of cognition, Francisco Varela refuses the objectivist point of view, which conceives perception as internal reconstruction of a pre-given world, as much as the sub*Translated by John Cogan
jectivist point of view, which thinks the world as projected to the exterior or constituted by the subject. That is because he sees and contests the underlying presupposition of these two classical perspectives: that perception in particular, and cognition in general, would belong to representation. Reclaiming, on a neurophysiological basis, a fundamental thesis of Bergson from the beginning of Matter and Memory, he decides to think perception in terms of action, more exactly, enaction, rather than in terms of representation. This guiding thesis is nourished by the discovery of the essential relation between perception, as such, and the motor functions, i.e., of the inseparability between sensory processes and motor processes. All the while, Varela is aware that he is using one of the central intuitions of Merleau-Ponty, in particular from The Structure of Behavior: that of the dynamic constitution of the very object of perception by the living thing. It is the animal that circumscribes, in the physical world, that to which it will be sensitive and it does so according to a vital a priori. Varela develops and demonstrates what remains in Merleau-Ponty a general thesis. Such is the sense of the theory of enaction, which he specifies in this way: – “perception consists of an action guided by perception; – cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensory-motor schemes which allow action to be guided by perception” (1993, p. 235). In other words, as his favorite experiment, of kittens being carried by other kittens, shows, to see is not to extract visual traits of the object but to visually guide the action directed towards them. While the theory of representation was correlative to the initial position of a subject and object, as foreign to each other, the theory of enaction leads to the idea of a mutual specification of subject and object. To say that perception is contained or enveloped in an action is to admit that what is perceived is, to that extent, constituted. Here, Varela is in perfect consonance with an important bit of the post-Husserlian phenomenology of perception to which he brings a substantial contribution: it is not an exaggeration to say that in this he is the contemporary heir to E. Straus and V. Von Weizsäcker. This theory of perception gives place to an incursion into the field of the theory of evolution, which seems decisive to me. In fact, the theory of enaction leads to evolution since once one has defined perception in terms of action, which has a vital sense, it remains only to define the direction peculiar to life, to characterize what is standard action and therefore cognition. More precisely, it is necessary to take a stand vis à vis the dominant neo-Darwinian
FRANCISCO VARELA: A NEW IDEA OF PERCEPTION AND LIFE
theory, according to which the perceptive and cognitive activities imply a form of optimal adaptation to the world. But, just as the theory of representation is dependent on the presupposition of a pre-given world, that is to say, on the qualities of the object which the subject limits him- or herself to register, the theory of adaptation has for its presupposition the idea of pre-given dimensions of the environment, in regard to which the adaptation would be made and according to which the selection would therefore be accomplished. As Varela puts it:
In both cases the central problem is to know whether the evolutionary processes can be understood by means of the representationalist idea, according to which there is a correspondence between the organism and the environment, a correspondence established by the optimal constraints of survival and of the environment. To put it briefly, representationalism in the cognitive sciences is the precise counterpart of adaptionism in the theory of evolution because optimality plays the same central role in each of the two domains. It follows that all the empirical proofs which weaken the adaptionist point of view, ipso facto, place the representationalist approach of cognition in difficulty. (1993, p. 262).
We see here how Varela profoundly articulates the theory of perception and the thought of life under the species of the problem of evolution by placing the common philosophical presuppositions into evidence. Let us note that, just as Varela extends Merleau-Ponty as regards perception, he enters into consonance with Heidegger as regards the theory of evolution – Heidegger reproached the Darwinian scheme for presupposing a prior environment independent of the activities of living beings. From these insights, a theory of evolution such as the theory of “natural drift,” which is the biological counterpart of the theory of cognition as enaction, can be developed. This theory has its point of departure in the movement from a prescriptive logic to a proscriptive logic, that is to say, from the idea that whatever is not permitted is forbidden to the idea that whatever is not forbidden is permitted. In other words, selection brushes aside that which is not compatible with survival and reproduction, so that everything that is viable, that is, everything that constitutes an acceptable solution as far as survival is concerned, is conserved. It follows that the precision and specification of the physiological and morphological traits become compatible with their apparent lack of relevance in relation to survival. From thence, the extraordinary abundance of solutions produced by life. This first assertion clears the way for the second central thesis: one cannot retain the notion of a pre-given, independent environment; the notion of what is an environment is inseparable from what the organisms are and from what they do. In other words, the species specifies its own domain of problems to
be resolved and causes its own environment to emerge: we attend to a mutual specification, to a codetermination between the living beings and their environment (e.g., the color of flowers seems to have co-evolved with the vision of the bees, sensitive to ultraviolet light), which is the equivalent, on the evolutionary plan, to what enaction is on the cognitive plan. From there we get the Varelian definition of the gene: “an element which specifies that which, in the environment, must be stable so that this element is able to operate as a gene, that is, correlated in a predictable way to a result” (Varela 1993, p. 270). Apart from the fact that it certainly permits the removal of some dead ends in the standard model, this theory of natural drift comes to converge conjointly with the theory of cognition towards a new theory of the relations of the living things and the world, of the subject and the object, which refuses both monism and dualism (he speaks of “the middle road between monism and dualism”) and opens out into the same type of ontological problem which Merleau-Ponty encountered at the end of his life. These new perspectives on cognition and evolution have for a common base, a theory of living things which is, without doubt, the most indisputable theoretical contribution of Francisco Varela’s research and, in any case, the most well-known. He places stress on autonomy as the distinctive trait of the living and so defines it as an auto-poietic machine, that is, as a machine that has the distinctive feature of being able to continually generate and specify its own organization as it is constantly exposed to external perturbations. Varela defines an autopoietic system in this way: it is “organized as a network of production of components which: – continually regenerate the network which produces them by their transformations and their interactions, and which – constitutes the system as a concrete unity in the space where it exists, by specifying the topological domain where it fulfills itself as a network” (1989, p. 44). It is obviously within the limits of this autopoeticity that the mutual specification of the individual and the environment, as well as their dynamic interaction in cognition, are able to understand one another. In an article written in English a year ago with Andreas Weber (Weber and Varela, 2002) Varela resituates autopoieticity in a history of the theories of the immanent finality which stretches from Kant to Hans Jonas and his theory of the metabolism. It is clearly said there that autopoieticity must be understood as an incarnate teleology, which allows the authors to conclude that “autopoieticity is the empirical foundation necessary for the Jonasian theory of value”.
FRANCISCO VARELA: A NEW IDEA OF PERCEPTION AND LIFE
It is from the perspective of this connection with Jonas that I will formulate the two questions which Varela’s theory brings to my eyes. The one concerns living things, the other is of an ontological order. In the first place, I wonder whether, as it is in fact claimed in this article (Weber and Varela 2002), it is truly possible to account for cognition in all its dimensions from this model of the living thing, and this applies equally to Jonas and to Varela. By starting from autonomy, Varela gives himself the living thing as an individual constituted as such, self-centered as a self. Life is, in that case, the act by which it maintains its organization and its concrete unity against the vicissitudes of the environment. In other words, life remains the realization of its needs, that is, self-maintenance, survival. But, it seems to me that it becomes difficult in these conditions to account for the dimension of transcendence which characterizes perception as such. Perception is in fact a relation with an immaterial being, seized as such, and not in relation with what is going to satisfy the need by reestablishing homeostasis; it is a relation to the other and not only to oneself in the other. This difficulty is obvious in the Jonasian theory of metabolism, but it seems to me that it continues in Varela: the object of cognition is subjugated to biological necessity rather than the biological being thought of at a level such that it can allow a disinterested perception, so to speak. It seems to me that we could achieve this by thinking of the living as auto-realizing rather than as auto-conserving, that is to say, as essentially lacking an account of itself, and by itself. Such a point of departure leads to placing desire rather than need at the center of vital activity as a relation to what exceeds all finite satisfaction, as desire of nothing, in the sense that nothing satisfies it, that is, as that for which satisfaction is impossible. It is, on my view, on this sole condition that one can establish the true transcendence of the perceived at the level of the vital. There is another difficulty of an ontological order. In Principles of Biological Autonomy, Varela situates himself at the formal level of organization, that is, of the relations between the elements. But, in Weber and Varela (2002), the reference to Jonas leads to placing emphasis on the incarnated dimension of autopoieticity, and the authors cite the fundamental text where Jonas affirms that “man is after all the measure of all things – not indeed through the legislation of his reason but through the exemplar of his psychophysical totality which represents the maximum of concrete ontological completeness known to us” (Jonas 1966, p. 23). From this positive anthropomorphism, it follows that the question of the sense of the being of Nature, of physical reality, as a living thing can arise there, becomes central. For Jonas, it is clear that one needs to think materiality from the point of view of the interiority peculiar to the living thing of which it shelters the possibility. As Jonas puts it, we
must, without doubt, “take the presence of purposive inwardness in one part of the physical order, viz., in man, as a valid testimony to the nature of that wider reality that lets it emerge” (1966, p. 37). So it is the gap itself between the living and the inert which is at stake, and the status of nature as life arising there which is in question. If life must precede itself in any way in Nature, it bodes well for philosophy of Nature that the recognition of the specificity of vital phenomena orients us. But this obviously leads to calling into question the legitimacy of the formal point of view on the living thing, which was Varela’s point of view, at least in his first writings. So, I think that we can ask ourselves, in the light of Francisco Varela’s works, about the effect that the conception of life as autopoieticity has on the ontological status of Nature. References
Jonas, H. 1966. The Phenomenon of Life. Towards a Philosophical Biology. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Varela, F. J. 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York: Elsevier/North-Holland. Varela, F. 1989. Autonomie et connaissance. Paris : Seuil. Varela, F. 1993. L’inscription corporelle de l’esprit. Paris : Seuil. Weber, A. and Varela, F. 2002. Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1: 97–125 (this issue).