Volume 18 · Number 1 · Pages 005–011
The Organization of the Living: Maturana’s Key Insights

Fritjof Capra

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Context: Humberto Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis and cognition, developed in collaboration with Francisco Varela, forms the very core of a new systemic understanding of life, integrating life’s biological and cognitive dimensions. Problem: The divide between mind, matter and life has persisted through human history and led to endless schisms philosophically and academically. Though Maturana’s work provides the epistemological and ontological basis for a unification between these distinctions, this is not fully recognized or acknowledged. Method: I review the historical development of Maturana’s ideas, including his early collaboration with Varela. Thereby, I show the path from understanding the circularity of life to the necessary structurally mediated relationship with the environment as the basis of cognition. Also, I draw attention to parallels with the work of Gregory Bateson, Ilya Prigogine, and Geoffrey Chew. Results: Maturana’s great achievement is presenting a scientific theory that overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter, as it shows that, at all levels of life, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected. Implications: Maturana presented a path for the unification of mind, matter and life that will enable researchers in each field to support one another while reducing the fragmentation of the sciences. However, further work is required to determine the proper applicability of autopoiesis so that it can be used in various disciplines. Many details remain to be clarified and integrated, and many implications remain to be explored in depth. In particular, I encourage researchers interested in systemic, multidisciplinary approaches to explore the extensions of the concept of molecular autopoiesis to the cellular, social, ecological, and planetary levels. Keywords: Autopoiesis, cognition, mind, Santiago theory, structural coupling.


Capra F. (2022) The organization of the living: Maturana’s key insights. Constructivist Foundations 18(1): 005–011. https://constructivist.info/18/1/005

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