Humberto Maturana
Cybernetics And Human Knowing - vol11, no2, 12-20

the phenomenon of cognition
biology of cognition

The Philosophical Nature of Maturana's Theory of Perception
Seiichi Imoto

Abstract: This paper deals with the philosophical nature of H. R. Maturana's theory of perception. For such a purpose, one of his core concepts, structural determinism, was closely examined, which revealed that his theory of perception is not an ontological/metaphysical idealism as realist philosophers regarded.
My diagnosis is that his theory should be regarded as a version of epistemic idealism underpinned by what Maturana calls the substratum. Thus, he presented us a renewed view of objectivity based on our human biology of cognition, replacing the traditional view of objectivity. Keywords: Reality, objectivity, structural determinism, trigger, substratum

Humberto R. Maturana is originally a biologist, and he has been explaining cognitive phenomena from a biological basis. Even when he talked about philosophical implications of his studies, he rarely referred to traditional philosophy. This attitude might have led to some of the contradictory responses among philosophers with regard to the philosophical nature of his theory of perception. While Glasersfeld (1990), a radical constructivist, countenanced it, David K. Johnson (1991) and John R. Searle (1995) criticized it as contradictory from an external-realist standpoint, regarding Maturana as an ontological/metaphysical idealist.

...from Maturana's 1968 paper, co-authored with Uribe and Frenk: Although every visual interaction between the organism and the environment implies a physical interaction, in any visual interaction the cells in fact respond to the relations in which the physical parameters are given. This can occur only because, although for us, as observers, relations are abstract notions, the relations in the physical parameters to which the cells respond are embodied in the anatomical and functional organization of the system. The anatomical and functional organization or the functional states constitute an embodiment of relations that determine the course of the future interactions of the system. Thus, although in the strict physical sense all visual interactions are physical interactions, in the biological sense they are abstract interactions in which it is the relations of the parameters of light, and not their physical properties, that determine the response of the system. [ italics in original] (Maturana, Uribe, & Frenk, 1968, p. 29)

"It is the relations of the parameters of light, and not their physical properties, that determine the response of the system." The visual field is not a physical stimulus field; it is always and already composed of the constructs that were made through the visual processes by "the relations of the parameters of light." In this sense, what we see in front of us, for example, is neither a stimulus nor a cause for our vision, but an end result of our visual processes (Imoto, in press). On this basis, Maturana writes as follows:

We human beings exist only as we exist as self-conscious entities in language. It is ouly as we exist as self-conscious entities that the domain of physical existence exists as our limiting cognitive domain in the ultimate explanation of the human observer's happening of living. The physical domain of existence is secondary to the happening of living of the human observer, even though in the explanation of observing, the human observer arises from the physical domain of existence. Indeed, the understanding of the ontological primacy of observing is basic for the understanding of the phenomenon of cognition. (Maturana, 1992,p. 115)

Philosophical status of Maturana's theory of perception

I interpret Maturana's theory of perception or his biology of cognition as a critique on the nature of our traditional (commonsense) external realism, and I insist that he has presented an alternative view of objectivity. He writes:

Our daily experience is one of existing in an objective world, that is, in a world of objects whose existence does not depend on us. Accordingly, we usually dismiss any situation in which the presence of the objects that we experience seems to depend on our experiencing them, and call such objects and situations illusions and hallucinations.
In agreement with this, our language is a language of objects....Such an attitude about the objectivity of the world brings no difficulty unless we try to give a scientific explanation to the phenomenon of perception as a phenomenon of grasping an external objective world. Indeed, when we try to do so, we encounter several difficulties.
(Maturana, 1983, pp. 256-257)

Now let me summarize Maturana's theory of perception (Maturana, Uribe, & Frenk, 1968; Maturana, 1980; Maturana, 1992; Maturana, 2000). The observer's perceptual reality (e.g., hue) originates from the configuration of the sensory system, such as shape functions of hue coding, as these have evolved in a history of structural coupling between the living sytem and the medium. The hue expressed as a shape function in the collective, relative activity of the retinal ganglion cells, enters the recursion process of the nervous system, a closed system operating in structural determinism. Then, in the social, consensual domain of languaging (discourse and description), the hue as an aggregate of the neuronal activity acquires a name of color in the distinction of the observer. The hue exists now as a token in the domain of languaging, which treats the hue-token as if it exists independently of the observer. This is the lived reality of our everyday praxis in the consensual domain of languaging.

In Maturana's perceptual theory, the traditional external reality has been constituted as a structure-determined reality, in other words, a structure-dependent reality. It seems that the traditional external realism has turned out to be an idealism. Does this mean that all of the external world have been absorbed into the subjective world of the observer? No! There remains a world of what Maturana calls "substratum", with which the observer interacts, and from which he or she distinguishes simple and composite entities. With regard to the nature of this substratum, he writes: seems natural to us to ask for a substratum independent of the observer as the ultimate medium in which everything takes place. Yet, although it is an epistemological necessity to expect such a substratum, we constitutively cannot assert its existence by distinguishing it as a composite entity and characterizing it in terms of components and relations between components....And we lose the substratum as soon as we attempt to language [describe] it. We need the substratum for epistemological reasons, but in the substratum there are no objects, entities or properties. In the substratum there is nothing (no-thing) because things belong to language. Nothing exists in the substratum. (Maturana, 1992, p. 108)

Even if the substratum is "no-thing," it does not immediately mean that the substratum is empty, the no-thing as emptiness. Even if "we lose the substratum as soon as we attempt to language it," we can continue such attempts in order to keep languaging it. This is our endeavors that may be called science. On Maturana's account of science, we propose a generative mechanism to explain a certain phenomenon (our experience) (Maturana, 1990). Where does the generative mechanism come from? I would like to say that it comes from the substratum through our creative imaginations using language. The substratum could be regarded as a world of possible generative mechanisms, and in this sense it is not the no-thing as emptiness, but the no-thing as fullness. Through our interactions with the substratum, ...we can indefinetely increase the complexity of our cognitive domain.
What is the substratum for non-languaging animals? It should be the substratum for perception in such a sense that they lose it whenever their perception stands through their interactions with it.

Interestingly, realism and idealism are not necessarily exclusive of each other, because, as Nicholas Rescher wrote:

"It is not the existence but the nature of reality that the idealist puts in question. It is not reality but materialism that classical idealism rejects-and even here the idealists speak with divided voice. Berkeley's 'materialism' does not so much reject the existence of material objects as their unperceivedness". [italics in original] (Rescher, 1992, pp. 188-189)

Rescher continues: The three positions to the effect that real things just exactly are things as philosophy or as science or as 'commonsense' takes them to be - positions generally designated as scholastic, scientific and naive realism, respectively - are in fact versions of epistemic idealism exactly because they see reals as inherently knowable and do not contemplate mindtranscendence for the real.

The external realism of the above three positions, then, according to Rescher, can be regarded, simultaneously, as a version of epistemic idealism, or a braiding of external realism and epistemic idealism. If we were to apply this relationship to Maturana's theory of perception, then there would be no problem in asserting that Maturana's theory of perception is a version of epistemic idealism that is compatible with external realism. Here, of course, we have to be very careful. What Rescher calls "external things" are, for Maturana, realities in the domain of perception and language; the truly real in the external realist sense is, for Maturana, the substratum, as we discussed above.

Structural Determinism

Before drawing a conclusion, however, we need to pay close attention to the notion of structural determinism again. Maturana's structural determinism is defined as follows:
A structure determined system is a system such that all that happens in it or with it arises as a consequence of its structural dynamics, and in which nothing external to it can specify what happens in it, but only triggers a change in its structure, determined by its structure. (Maturana, 2000, p. 461 )

In Maturana's structural determinism, the organism's perception is not specified but triggered through interactions with the substratum, which I think will bring forth a medium through the interactions, and it is the structure of the organism that determines which structural configurations of the medium triggers a structural change in the organism.
The organism is primary, the medium secondary, in the venue of this perception, and in this situation there is a structural gap between the organism and the medium. If, to the contrary, the medium specifies the organism, that is, if the medium were to represent or reconstruct itself in the organism, there would be no such a gap. If the medium were to be primary, and the organism secondary, the organism would be completely subservient to the medium, and epistemic idealism would immediately become identical to external realism. However, according to Maturana, such a dominance of the medium over the organism is impossible; if it happened at all it would surely lead to a destruction of the organism's autonomous structure.

According to the definition of Rescher (1992), ontological/metaphysical idealism holds that there are none but thinking beings, and that everything there is, apart from minds themselves, either arises from, or is subservient upon, the operation of minds. If we take a mind for a structure determined system, then Maturana's theory of perception may become a version of ontological or metaphysical idealism, for the organism is primary, the medium secondary. David K. Johnson took this diagnosis and wrote: "He [i.e., Maturana] is simply a metaphysical idealist" (Johnson, 1991, p. 19). For Maturana's theory of perception, however, the existence of substratum is indispensable, even if it were no-thing.

Objectivity renewed

Johnson proposed his condition of independence that goes: I will argue that the following condition of independence (Cind) of the objects of thought from our thoughts of those objects must be satisfied in order to sustain a realist view of the external world:

Did Maturana "render the world an ineffable, inaccessible realm of unspecified objects"? I don't think so. He described the external world in terms of his biology of cognition, and diagnosed this external world as a fiction, but as the very fiction that we actually live (Maturana, 1980). While our lived reality is indeed located in the domain of language, our external world appears as if it were there independently of us. This fact, however, "does not render the world an ineffable, inaccessible realm of unspecified objects," rather it makes the world accessible and effable.

In a nutshell, Maturana's ideas of reality that were expressed in "Biology of Cognition" (1980, pp. 52 independent entities about which we can talk, is a fiction of the purely descriptive domain;" "we should in fact apply the notion of reality to this very domain of descriptions in which we, the describing system, interact with our descriptions as if with independent entities;" and "what we deem are sensory experiences of concrete entities" are "states of relative activity between neurons" which "generate new descriptions" in the linguistic domain as thoughts and further descriptions.

Maturana shifts the notion of traditional objective reality back into the domain of descriptions in language, which as a whole, comprise what he now calls the domain of interobjectivity (Maturana, 2000) or of shared objects or entities (Maturana, 2002). This can be said to be a renewed view of objectivity based on our human biology of cognition, replacing the traditional view of objectivity.