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Fam Proc 28:15-24, 1989

Reflections on the Circulation of Concepts between a Biology of Cognition and Systemic Family Therapy
FRANCISCO J. VARELAa
aCREA,

Ecole Polytechnique, Paris 1, rue Descartes, Paris 75005, France.

This article is a critical examination of the possible relevance of a specific approach to cognitive science for systemic family therapy. I provide a way of comparing the conceptual backgrounds for both these fields and, on that basis, propose some conclusions that underline the difficulty of the task. Why am I, a cognitive scientist, submitting this article to a journal like Family Process? Over the last couple years, I have been invited to numerous gatherings of family therapists, mostly of the systemic persuasion. These invitations presumably have originated from my contributions to the biology of knowledge, which is relevant to the systemic approach to family therapy. I have accepted these invitations and dutifully presented my work. I have witnessed interviews, participated in workshops, and had many informal discussions over coffee. I must confess that after all of this exposure the question is still with me: What is it in this brand of cognitive science that elicits so much interest in the family therapy community? On all of these occasions, I have stuck to my craft and presented straight science and its associated epistemology. On the present occasion, I wish to go one step farther. I will assume that most readers of this issue of Family Process have had some exposure to the basic concepts held dear by the "Santiago"school (at least in the sense of an overall orientation). If the reader is not familiar with this material, there are accessible, published sources (see especially 6, 7, 10). In this article, I shall reflect on the nature of the circulation between two fields as dissimilar as a biology of knowledge and systemic family therapy. The word "circulation" will appear several times in the following discussion. I use it in the sense of the highly complex dialogue and reciprocal influence between two disparate communities that share a new common ground. To borrow a metaphor from Serres (8), it is an attempt to chart the Northwest Passage, to negotiate a difficult voyage between two continents. To reflect upon circulation is not just to explain a notion or introduce a procedure. It also involves considering the social influences, the personalities involved, and, most importantly, the conceptual geography in which this circulation occurs. Furthermore, the task of reflecting upon this circulation is incumbent upon all of us who are concerned, including myself. It would be much easier for me, in my role as a cognitive scientist, to present concepts with which I am familiar. For me to explore this circulation demands more work and entails more risks which, however, I believe are worthwhile at this time; and only I should be held responsible for what follows.

CHARTING
On numerous occasions I have asked family therapists why our brand of the biology of cognition seems useful for their practice. I have gotten basically two kinds of answers: (a) because it is an important contribution to second-order cybernetics and (b) because it contributes to the growing understanding of self-organizing systems. I will use my admittedly impressionistic "survey" as a starting point, because it is important to clarify what each of these answers points to. Second-order cybernetics posits that it is important not only to describe systems (first-order cybernetics), but also to describe the describer (second-order cybernetics). To me, this means that one must conceptualize the source of descriptions in the following specific ways: 1. One must "bracket objectivity," that is, not assume that every described system or object contains its own conditions of validation. Instead, one must learn to see relevance or meaning as arising from an embodied history in which action and meaning are inseparable. We are speaking, more technically, of structural coupling. 2. One must abandon "representation" as the central concept for understanding cognitive mechanisms, and replace it with the notion of cognition as effective action, that is, an organism-centered compensation that allows an uninterrupted history. Readers unfamiliar with these concepts can consult, for example, the book by Maturana and Varela (7). Self-organization has multiple meanings today. For me, it means the need to move beyond linear and circular causality in order to achieve a better understanding of processes in which causes and effects are intertwined. Such processes provide clues for the passage from the local rules of component interactions to the emergence of a global configuration of the entire system. This passage from local to global is the core of self-organization. This is where the excitement of this field lies

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and the immune system (see 10. the nervous system.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ today. Our orientation is at the outer edge. The radial axis indicates three alternative orientations of research. The Santiago school is definitely located at the periphery. The circular (or angular) axis indicates the different contributing disciplines. rather. the center contains the dominant "cognitivist" approach. this is relevant to understanding the self-organizing quality of the living entity as the explicit manifestations of its autonomy and. The radial axis charts a departure from the cognitivist orthodoxy located in the center. as the result of the autopoietic organization. From my perspective. the autonomy of the living entity can be reformulated for other levels such as the body. rather. more specifically. This map is not intended to be an exhaustive classification but. I present a conceptual map of the three basic. Our approach to the biology of cognition represents an alternative approach to cognitive science in general. In Figure 1. the two typical answers to the questions I have asked about the relevance of our biology of cognition for family therapy express in systems-theoretical terms something that is both more precise and more central. while the more peripheral circles represent more deviant and 2 . (Note that autopoiesis is neither a paradigm nor a universal recipe but. current orientations to the study of cognition. 11 for an extensive discussion of this point of view). a tool to facilitate our reflection here. I have placed various representative researchers in their corresponding conceptual loci (see 12 for a more extensive discussion of this map).) In fact. and where I spend a significant amount of my research time. This approach is at odds with the dominant one wherein representation and information-processing mechanisms play the central rolean approach that can be labeled as "cognitivism. a particular mode of autonomous organization. Figure 1." More recent developments in the study of self-organizing mechanisms in cognition are in a stage of transition in the so-called "connectionist" approaches. Along the circular axis are the various disciplines comprising cognitive science today. in a "fringe" position. A cartography of current trends in the cognitive sciences. Thus.

The basis for Foucault's map is the idea that the modern world (that is. toward the end of the 18th century) was founded by the realization of man's finitude: the realization that neither knowledge nor action can be conceived outside the limitations imposed by human dimensions and. In order to do just that. This double face of cognitive science gives rise to two extremes of its relation with the world of human affairs in general and with family therapy in particular. I am implying that a true circulation should avoid both these extremes. The extreme of incommensurabilitywould be to assume that there is nothing to be circulated between the two vastly different worlds of natural sciences and human affairs that is worth the effort. (The reader may also try to find a place for his or her favorite example in this Figure. Typical figures here could be Freud versus J. or for solid grounding on fundamental characteristics of man's subjectivity or transcendental categories. Thus. Origin/retreat: In this doublet. Fodor. yet. Rather than attempting a conceptual map. the answer for the origin of man's world is sought in either an identifiable historical series or based on the impossibility of finding such an origin. respectively. the choice is to stress the unconscious nature of the human mind and its irrational aspects. one confronts the choice of either searching for foundations based on raw experience and immediate perceptions. could represent typical figures for this doublet. CIRCULATION Why does the issue of circulation between cognitive science and family therapy arise at all? Why not between quantum physics or immunology? Because it is natural to regard man's cognition in continuity with other cognitive processes in nature and in man's artifacts. and provide a chart for the human sciences. I will present a parallel analysis. or to trust its linguistic/ rational modes as the basic reference points.) 3 . 1. Cogito/unthought: In this doublet. This chart is quite different from the one I have proposed for cognitive science. Obviously. describing the family as an autopoietic system. as I have done above. Darwin versus Jacques Derrida. Hume versus Kant. This attempt gives rise to at least three essential tensions between tempting extremes: 1. would represent a "retreat" into a directionless future. modernity is the attempt to surmount man's finitude on the basis of finitude itself. Empirical/transcendental: In this doublet. that both knowledge and action have to be given a foundation based upon these limitations. the leader of the MIT school of cognitive psychology. one of which looks at natural or artificial cognitive processes in the external. observable behavior. A. The extreme of application would be to take concepts and methods from cognitive science (and other sciences) and attempt to apply them directlyfor example. the French spokesman for post-modern philosophy. which. Typical figures for this doublet could be. I find it useful to follow Foucault's (4) advice and chart the human sciences through the tension of three unresolvable doublets (see also 1). Thus.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ recent views. the other of which looks at human cognition as intertwined with its lived experience. These three doublets are interesting because we can follow Foucault into the realization that virtually every school within the human sciences can be seen in terms of its attempt to ground an answer on one or the other of these doublets (see Figure 2). 2. 2. 3. in effect. cognitive science has two faces. respectively.

In contrast. it is necessary to accept that mankind. the natural tendency is to seek solid grounding by leaning toward one or the other. mostly implicitly) among the three doublets: empirical. for example. our biology of cognition is critical of such approaches and is critical of this "spontaneous" pre-understanding: it brackets objectivity and stresses the emergence of meaning through effective action in the natural world. The dominant trends in cognitive science (the two central circles of Figure 1) are basically insensitive to concerns that are central for the human sciences and for human life. rather.) In other words. These choices express the usual pre-understanding of most natural scientists. and Foucault. this is already half the answer as 4 . as discussed in the text. This is the heritage of thinkers such as Heidegger. Stated more bluntly. the existence of mankind is "bracketed. clearly. and it is not surprising that most current approaches to cognitive science can hardly address the problems of the human sciences. origin. including Bateson. Notice. in its most "hard" manifestationsfor example. among others. localized. Rather. Nietzsche. This basic map for the human sciences is. taken in isolation.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Figure 2. What is most interesting about this map is that it makes apparent an intuition shared by many today: A central characteristic of the human sciences is that such extremes are unstable and that each of these poles entails its opposite. for reasons that issue from research itself. In my opinion. the dominant cognitivist orientation makes some definite choices (to be sure. Yet. our approach to cognitive science casts the questions about biological foundations of knowledge precisely in a form that makes them commensurate with the human world. The three unstable doublets for the human sciences proposed by Foucault. Thus. but. This is because the human practices and actions that constitute meaning tend to become invisible or transparent when the focus is on cognitive mechanisms in the natural world or in machines." enclosed within a local frame. cogito. however. is evidence of the Janus-faced character of cognitive science. and historical. and it has been carried into the social arena by various authors. as an aggregate of historical and subjective dimensions. hence. is not grounded on any stable reference point. each person is constituted within a field of practices or actions that is always embedded. basically ungroundedwhence the perennially problematic nature of human sciences. that it does so not for reasons that stem from the study of the human world. (This. or exists only as a local texture. It naturally addresses the concerns of the three unstable doublets. distinct from the one I presented for cognitive science. The whole point is to realize that. and it is important that we understand how and why they differ. each position is unstable because it is incomplete and. again. Given these unstable doublets. the failure of artificial intelligence to produce truly intelligent artifacts.

But there can hardly be stable agreements in the unstable. the human actions that are entailed in the description must slip unnoticed into the background. in question. anthropology. This is also why our arguments are circular. This point can be reformulated more sharply in what I like to call the Observer-in/System-out Principle. It can serve as our marker. organisms. one of complex circulation wherein concepts have a resonance and passages must be negotiated. For a system to exist as a stable description. an immune network. rules of generation. Once we bring the describer/observer fully into the picture. When extrapolated to the human realm. This. This is an inescapable condition. we start with the everyday knowledge.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ to why the fields of family therapy. Social systems involve human actions and practice. Social events and not social systems should be our concern in any examination of the human world.1 I believe that one of the interesting contributions of the Santiago school is thatit provides a natural bridge between the human and biological worlds by putting the biological roots of knowledge in a context that avoids (or makes it possible to avoid) falling into any of the Foucaultian doublets. is my first conclusion: The circulation between our approach to the biology of cognition and family therapy is possible because our orientation is in a "fringe" positondistal to both cognitive science and family therapyso that an interlock is feasible. then. purely scientific context because there can never be a description of a system about which the entire community of scientists could agree. FAMILIES It is clear that what we call structural coupling for a natural system is a concept familiar to any "hard"scientist. the relation between cognitive science and family therapy is not a simple one of direct application of concepts from one to the other but. and natural drift) are. I have used the two maps as metaphors of this possibility. eigenbehaviorstable patterns in natural systems. as a watchdog (see Figure 3). it means that we cannot observe both the system and its environment at the same time. explore natural processes. 5 . they are never stable because they constantly generate responsive actions that differ from the events that elicited them. this is only half of my response to my initial question. Again. law. However. But we cannot behold the system or analyze it in a bias-free. insect colonies). sociology. management. shifting world of human actions. ipso facto. They all depend for their significance on relatively stable agreement as to what the "system" is (for example. and economics are interested in these ideas. Such events are always situated in and brought forth by human actions within a human domain or space. and then come back to everyday knowledge. The Observer-in/System-out Principle stands at the threshold of the difficulties in the circulation we are examining here. rather. and one of the reasons why social sciences are never "normal" in the Kuhnian sense. This background of human practices (linguistic and nonlinguistic) is what corresponds in the human sciences to the structural coupling of a system in the natural world. I will now discuss some of the consequences that follow from the stage as I have set it. then the very notion of a system founders. Corollary: The whole gamut of notions necessary for a stable description (for example.

The domains we inhabit as humans are in fact groundless in the sense that nowhere is there a fixed reference point from which to classify. these domains have an apparently separate existence. economies). and their existence is not separate from human action. At the same time. for example. a management flow chart. makes it apparent that no thing or no one is responsible for their emergence. 6 . a source of a sense of alienation. but let me mention two as illustration: 1. as if they were external "things"and.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Figure 3. 13). The nature of these human spaces. for their participants. for example. The identity of these institutions are constantly brought about through the local actions of the participants. 2. hence. The most clear example is the historical emergence of an entity known as "the patient. The domain of business and management can be seen as the result of or constituted by specific kinds of human actions: speech acts such as declaration. requests."as a result of the establishment of and actions performed in hospitals (3. The domain of medicine and the hospital is brought forth by various specific actions or micropractices that encompass the treatment of human illnesses. Examples of social events seen in this light abound. rearrange. so diverse and shifting. 5). Humans inhabit a shifting set of domains or spaces that we loosely describe as institutions (hospitals. or ascertain their origins. families. This is quite different from seeing an enterprise as a "system"described through. Summary cartoon of the central ideas of this article. nor do they have a separate existence. and commitments (see.

I have sketched a space or domain within which certain actions can happen. are one of such human "institutional" spaces. whereas in 20th-century. children. back-and-forth movement between a dedicated and serious concern for their actions and.2 3. a task that would be comparable to Fleck's (2) documentation of the medical entity known as syphilis. in contrast to any "state"-bound concept of sanity. verifiable. This claim is one and the same as assuming that any form of human clearing is. They have arisen over the same historical period as have hospitals. that is. But that basis is not universal. in my view. play space for children versus adult space the body itself: washing and dressing. "good" therapists can both share in and understand. as in a hologram. Italian monastery was a form of sanctity. toilet training. this view entails a continuous. entails abandoning the hope to arrive at a final theory and an explicit. as opposed to a fixed technique based on a grounded perspective. as if they were outside of the situation. 2. schools. or grounded. guaranteed. Instead. fixed approach to therapeutic practice. But it certainly does have. anorexia in a 15th-century. and economies. I should add that. and the reader is referred to the relevant literature for further discussion of this topic. It seems to me that for therapists to see themselves in this light is more demanding than is a continuous search for an explicit theory or procedural description of what they do daily. A de-emphasis of speech and a stronger emphasis on "home economics" (that is. the involvement of the actors. and. It is partly in accord with this declared concern that the specific actions that constitute the family appear. Interventions: It does seem possible to understand the effectiveness of coupling with a family directly by participating in and making evident some of the relevant constitutive practices. By proceeding on the basis of the path created by our own actions. Effective therapists must be able to diagnose the relevant actions and practices. that the family can regard their actions as constitutive and not as an external given. at the same time. There is little point in trying to find where the family "really" is. In fact. the ability to create a space where they can let go of all their seriousness in a way that makes apparent the lack of solidarity in and solidity of their approaches. second. the concept of the family as a "system" is quite questionable insofar as it will not easily permit circulation of other concepts unless it is appropriately transformed. for example: • • the distribution of space and time: rooms and their location in a house. in every case. True. better still. This is the key to human sanity. This. Therapists: From this point of view.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Families. daily micropractices) may seem closer to a feminist view of therapy (9). They also define their subjects (parents. wage-earners) in a constitutive manner. therapeutic. families are not "natural" objects or unities. in itself. and where certain kinds of subjects live. are that common space) in order to provide some basis on which to proceed. one fruitful understanding of what therapists are lies in the middle way of avoiding two extremes: First. Instead. a detailed coherence and texture. to let go of a fixed viewpoint. The extreme approach to family therapy: From what I have said thus far. That viewpoint may be more important than it seems at first glance. urban America it is a serious pathology. feeding routines CONSEQUENCES The consequences of what I have outlined can be traced in various directions. its entire 7 . yet distance themselves from. then. Therapy is possible only to the extent that we have some common spaces with others (we. there is certainly an interesting and specific one: the subsistence and nurturance of the young. they must make choices that are pragmatically guided in reference to situations. Thus. The basic idea is to identify the very act of cognition. transcendental. I suspect that nonverbal modes of interaction as such have only peripherally been taken into account in theoretical studies. The endless mill of speech: In my exposure to family therapy. they are spaces of concern wherein human actors are defined as subjects of their own actions. or. linguistic interactions are not enough to bring forth a family because. then. One can only know the facts about a family if one knows the history of its emergence. I have been shown that there are some outstanding exceptions. In fact. therapists do not simply provide a commentary on meanings that are shared by everyone. but they do not abound. sleep schedules. This point of view has come into Western discussion mostly through the influence of contemplative approaches to the human mind. we literally and materially contribute to the embodiment of a form of life that has no fixity and no hidden or underlying significance. to be sure. or where the "real" person in the family is. there is a host of other actions and micropractices involving. as in other human domains. together. 4. Examples of this kind of study and analysis can be found in modern primatology and studies of the early relationship of mother and infant. I have come across an almost exclusive reliance on linguistic practices as the basis of theorizing. I would suspect that the most effective mode of such coupling is to reveal the groundlessness of the entire situation so that a degree of "clearing"is achieved. they do not seek some "intrinsic" or fundamental meaning for the actors or the family. Notice that I have eschewed defining the family as a system. Among the declared concerns of families.3 I do not deny that when a family comes into consultation that it carries. but let me at least note a few that are of particular interest to me: 1.

Paris: PUF. F. 1988. H. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 12. and Rubinow. Foucault. For instance. 1986. 1984. self-organizing rules may appear similar to human micropractices. Accepted February 19. 1987. 1978. However. 10. 1967. REFERENCES 1. Dupuy (eds. Luhman. Reidel. 5. 11. Soziale Systeme. In closing. 1984. 7. 2. 1988. F.. This passage will not be a simple bridging. 9... et Desordres. 1967. M. At least. Boston: New Science Library. M. F. Autopoietic Law: A New Approach to Law and Society. Before Speech: The Beginning of Interpersonal Communication. Paris: Editions du Seuil. See. The Observer-in/System-out Principle serves as a guideline to negotiate the difficulties of passage. and Varela.. Paris: Editions du Minuit. P. Dupuy. Paris: Editions du Seuil. Paris: Gallimard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Colorado. 8 . F. Varela.. local. H. 1982. H. New York: Longmann. 2. Ordres "How wild chimpanzee babies trigger the onset of mother-infant play. which develop this point of view in detail. For instance. The establishment of scientific fact." in M. The science and technology of cognition: Emergent trends. Transformation of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Studies. Teubner (ed. 1983. CONCLUSIONS To recapitulate. see Winnograd & Flores (13) as well as the following volumes: J. New York: Elsevier North-Holland. these are areas that need further exploration. 1982. G. Understanding computers and cognition. 8. Serres. Effective therapy is a form of coupling that avoids the extremes of either simple commentary or the search for deep rules. La naissance de la clinique: Une histoire du regard medicale. 1986. F. 3. Winnograd. Bol-Iowa (ed. 1980. 6. L'Autorganisation: De la physique au politique. 13. This is the spirit in which my ideas are offered.. but we cannot simply and directly export or import such notions. Maturana. it also seems to me that more detailed studies of micropractices of time.). F. An excellent recent study is that by K. for example. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Principles of biological autonomy. 3 A fascinating example of this kind of work is the study of intimacy in chimpanzees and humans. 4. New York: Viking Press.). Boston: D. 1986. J.. and Flores. Brown. in the eyes of this outsider to the field. 1982. Re-thinking and the family: Feminist perspectives.P. and D. Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press. Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living.). it has to be negotiated in the form of a circulation of concepts. 1987. but the differences between them are profound. my arguments have followed the following logic: 1. and nonverbal connecting in the family homefollowing the example of the ethnologist and anthropologistwould increase an understanding of the relevant dynamics and sharpen therapeutic insights. 2See the series of clinical and theoretical articles published in the Naropa 1For examples of these repercussions. Medical nemesis. 1982. Thorne. space. 3. Norwood NJ: Ablex Publications. F. N. I. Self-organization: Beyond appearances and into the mechanism. 1979.. stable patterns in natural systems (eigenbehaviors) have a clear resonance with the establishment of human institutions. Foucault. Fleck.. Varela. and Yalom. the ideas expressed here are the results of my tentative exploration of a fascinating dialogue that I take seriously enough to respect it in all its complexity. Michel Foucault: Beyond hermeneutics and phenomenology.. In P. Engler.. Dreyfus. It does little service either to the further understanding of the biology of knowledge or to family therapy to ignore the delicate nature of the task. and that it makes sense to work (as most therapists do) in offices and away from family homes. Boulder. M. Our specific approach to the cognitive sciences (also giving specific content to second-order cybernetics and self-organization) provides a natural passage between human and natural sciences in general. Les mots et les choses. Illich. Revisions submitted April 21.. Maturana. The tree of knowledge:The biological roots of human understanding.______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ domain of concerns. and between cognitive science and family therapy in particular. Manuscript received October 15. Dumouchel & J. Plooij. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Munich: Suhrkamp.. and Varela. 1980. B. Wilber. but here the differences are also profound. Varela. Hermes V: Le passage du nordouest. 1987. M. Institute Journal of Psychology. Circulation of concepts between diverse approaches is reciprocal. L. Families appear in this light not as systems but as domains of human action constituting subjects and actors. T.P. Boston: New Science Library. 4.

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