Autopoesis and the Viable Systems Model


Autopoesis and the origins of the Viable Systems Model (VSM) are very much linked. Autopoesis was developed by two Chilean biologists Humbert Maturana and Francisco Varela and described in their joint work Autopoesis and Cognition (Maturana and Varela, 1972). Maturana had worked with some of the most prominent cyberneticians whilst in the USA, co-writing ‘What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain’ (Lettvin,et al, 1959). Maturana has reflected how his experiences in the transforming effects of the 1968 social struggles at the University of Chile. He then became involved with “second order cybernetics” working alongside Heinz von Foerster (Maturana 1980). He was working on the concept of Autopoesis with his student Francisco Varela when Stafford Beer was arrived in Chile to work on the Project Cybersyn. Beer was developing his concept of the Viable Systems Model, of which he gave a an incomplete outline in the first edition of The Brain of the Firm (Stafford Beer 1972).

Soon Stafford Beer, Maturana, Varela and von Foerster were all participating in the Group of 14, a Chilean cybernetics study group (Medina E., 2011). By 1980 the English translation of Autopoesis came out with an introduction by Stafford Beer. He also published an extended second edition of Brain of the Firm (Stafford Beer 1980) where he acknowledges his intellectual debt to Maturana and Varela.

This illustrates the importance of intellectual commoning: at the broader level of the social struggles of the Chilean students in 1968 – part of a broader global questioning of the role and function of higher education. Then it can also be seen in teh fruitful work of the Group of 14 study group. Rather than seeing intellectual enquiry simply as being the work of an idealised individual, shorn of their interactions with their colleagues, it is rather the collaborative working environment of an intellectual commons which enables all to participate in making substantial steps forward


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Lettvin, J.Y; Maturana, H.R.; McCulloch, W.S.; Pitts, W.H., ‘What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain’, Proceedings of the IRE, Vol. 47, No. 11, November 1959

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1972), De Maquinas y Seres Vivos, Santiago: Editorial Universitaria S.A.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1980), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Vol. 42 of Series: Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company,

Median E. (2011) Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press

Stafford Beer A. (1972) Brain of the Firm (First edition) London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press

Stafford Beer A. (1981) Brain of the Firm (Second edition) London: John Wiley


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One Response to “Autopoesis and the Viable Systems Model”

  1. victoriaevbuomwan Says:

    Brilliant work

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