One Idea: On the Path of F.J. Varela


This paper discusses the notion of the self or identity as central to the unfolding of F. Varela’s work. From the fundamental concept of autopoiesis to the neurophenomenology program, the view of identity as non- fixed, always virtual, acts as a guiding thread in his elaboration of a non-dualistic vision of mind and experience. The Buddhist notion of sunyata, or emptiness, elucidates this notion of the “selfless self”, and underlies the evolution of Varela’s work toward an embodied-enactive conception of mind.

“One idea”, Francisco always said, “you can only hope to communicate one idea in a public talk”. To make yourself understood when speaking to a group, you could only aspire to developing a single point, you could only say one thing. As I was thinking about what I could say to you today, I thought about all the talks I heard him give, here in Italy, and over the world, and I asked myself – did he himself ever manage to do this? did he ever say one thing? I suppose the answer to this question is double or paradoxical: like all passionate and incisive thinkers, the key ideas or discoveries that came to him seem, retroactively, or after the fact, quite luminous and even simple. But at the same time this was a hard-won simplicity.
The hard part lies in developing the mobility or flexibility of perspective that allows one not simply to understand his ideas but to integrate them completely. It is perhaps because of this “difficult simplicity”, that they have the capacity for a kind of infinite expansion, not necessarily in the sense that they can be “applied” to different domains, to the field that interests you, but because they can utterly transform your thought about and vision of yourself and your world. This is perhaps one of the main things that could be said about Francisco: he knew that it is one thing to grasp a concept as an object, intellectually, and it is quite another thing to inhabit your ideas and be inhabited by them.
I have mentioned his fundamental intuitions, the best-known of these is that of cellular autopoiesis, the paradigm for the notion of identity conceived as processes regulated by emergent dynamics. This vision of the emergence of identity or subjectivity from biological roots is what Francisco would call a strong metaphor in the sense that it destabilizes and maybe even transfigures the very notion of metaphor. Metaphors are figures which preserve the separation between realms or domains understood as heterogeneous or separate while at the same time juxtaposing them. The metaphor of identity as non-fixed, protean, can be followed in Francisco’s work like a continuous thread from autopoiesis to the neurophenomenology program. It is an epistemological reframing that provokes encounters between distinct fields or realms of thought. These encounters, in turn, generate new epistemological spaces, allowing for reciprocal exchanges of meaning that are transformative, that expand the scope of the fields they touch. The capacity Francisco had to develop his ideas from the inside, by embodying them with metaphors in order to make inroads into his experience rather than leaving them conceptual or disincarnate made of him, as most of you know, a very idiosyncratic scientist. While he always insisted on and maintained very rigourous experimental methodology, he also was quite fearless about exposing the subjective or interpretative origin and dimension of the questions he had to elucidate and of using his personal experience to impel his thinking. This intermingling of the dimensions of objectivity and subjectivity in the work of science is always there, even if it most often goes unrecognized or is denied: there is never any “purely” subjective nor “purely” objective model but, as we evoked in a paper on the relation or rather the “non-relation” between psychoanalysis and neuroscience, there is always a mixture of the two that is produced by the very dualism that attempts to foreclose it.
Bruno Latour, with whom Francisco felt a growing intellectual affinity through the last decade of life, proposes this notion of a mixed object, which he calls a “quasi-object”: it does not exclusively belong either to the natural, or to the subjective and social category of objects; with no core or “primary” determination, it presupposes reciprocal or mutual codetermination between its natural and subjective or social sources. It is easy to see why Francisco would be attracted to this image of a quasi-object: he was always acutely aware of the dichotomies between experimental work on the neural processes underlying consciousness and his everyday experience of himself once he walked out of the laboratory. The quasi-object provided him with one of the bridge-notions or “passages” necessary for dealing with what he called the “three-dimensionality” of the phenomena he studied.
So, to get back to Francisco’s recommendation, that is, to develop one idea, I thought I would try to evoke one of the matrix-notions that is actualized over all of his work, a basic theme leading to many variations upon it. This central, all-embracing idea, is contained in the Sanskrit word “sunyata”, more or less aptly translated in English as “emptiness”, and described by Francisco and his co-authors in “The Embodied Mind” as “groundlessness” . To capture something of this “one idea” that configured and propelled Francisco’s scientific imagination, it seemed appropriate to find a way to embody or, as Francisco would say, to enact it – and so I thought of this poem by Nagarjuna, a 2nd century Buddhist monk, that Francisco particularly loved. Nagarjuna is considered to be one of the most important figures of Buddhism, a central figure in the development of the Madhyamika tradition, which is also called the “centrist” or “middle way” philosophy . This poem comes from a work entitled “Verses from the Center”, a collection of poems that its English translator and commentator, Stephen Batchelor, calls “a meditation on emptiness”.


Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

What is mine
When there is no me?
Were self-centeredness eased,
I would not think of me and mine.
There would be no one there
To think them.

What is inside is me,
What is outside is mine,
When these thoughts end,
Compulsion stops,
Repetition ceases,
Freedom dawns.

Fixations spawn thoughts
That provoke compulsive acts.
Emptiness stops fixations.

Buddhas speak of “self”
And also teach “no self”
And also say “there’s nothing
Which is either self or not.”

When things dissolve,
There’s nothing left to say.
The unborn and unceasing
Are already free.

Buddha said: “it is real,”
And “it is unreal,”
And “it is both real and unreal,”
And “it is neither one nor the other.”

It is all at ease,
Unfixatable by fixations,

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them.

This is the deathless teaching
Of Buddhas who care for the world.

When Buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

“Recognizing mental and physical processes as ’empty of self'”, says Batchelor in his essay on this series of poems, “was, for the Buddha, the way to dispel the confusion that lies at the origin of anguish, for such a confusion configures a sense of self as a fixed and opaque thing that feels disconnected from the dynamic, contingent and fluid processes of life. Emptiness does not deny these vital processes. It challenges the insistent fixation about self that obscures them, thus rendering life flat, frustrating and repetitive. Emptiness is a cipher of freedom” (Batchelor, pp.8-9).

Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

This paradoxical zen koan-like manner of disclosing the non-localizability of the self – which is neither mind and matter nor not mind and matter- indicates that the emptiness or groundlessness of self , in Buddhist thought, is not a thing, an object to be reflected upon, or a goal to be reached, but a path or method for being in the world.
This necessarily paradoxical means of expression may also evoke for you the description of the self as virtual person that Francisco developed here in Italy in his lectures on ethics. He says: “I think that the radical novelty of our newly acquired and still fragmentary understanding of emergent properties in distributed network processes lies precisely in that they are strong metaphors for what is a selfless self: a coherent whole that is nowhere to be found and yet can provide an occasion for the coordinated activity of neural ensembles. I underline the strength of these metaphors because without the numerous examples worked out recently, this apparent paradox of non-localization liable to designation as a totality becomes a contradiction, and unless this apparent paradox is addressed on this constructive meta-level we quickly slide into the traditional debates about the existence versus the non-existence of the self and the person. The seeming paradox resides in a two-way movement between levels: “upward” with the emergence of properties from the constituting elements, and “downward” with the constraints imposed by global coherence on local interactions. The result (and the resolution of the paradox) is a non-substantial self that acts as if it were present, like a virtual interface.” (Varela 1999, pp. 60-61). This notion of the self as non-substantial or virtual, behaving “as if it were present” places Francisco’s thinking squarely in the aporia or paradox posed in the poem:

Buddhas speak of “self”
And also teach “no self”
And also say “there’s nothing
Which is either self or not.”

What is striking about this is how , as in the first verse of the poem, it poses the terms of dualistic thinking, while at the same time pulling the rug out from under them, not allowing any solid truth to be grasped onto, forcing you into a kind of aporia. The resolution of Nagarjuna’s paradox is not that there is nothing – it is not an neither/nor or a both/and : on the contrary, what is important for approaching groundlessness is the way he positions the terms so as to leave the tension between them entirely intact. Francisco, throughout all his last work, and in particular in his development of the neurophenomenology program as what he called a “methodological remedy for the hard problem” of consciousness, insisted unceasingly on the necessity of keeping together the “two poles”, on the one hand the neural and somatic, on the other, the pole of experience, and “never letting one nor the other out of sight”. His creativity came from his capacity to tolerate and maintain the very tension that makes reduction, falling to one or the other side of the dualistic balance, so very easy. Groundlessness, once again, does not mean that there is nothing; the “selfless self” is not an empty mind. On the contrary, if I might use psychoanalytic experience to make a parallel, one can say that the mind is never empty, but that experiencing groundlessness, if I can allow myself to use this word in an analytic context, presupposes the progressive dismantling of the imaginary constellation of identifications, fantasies and the fixations they entail that compose what Lacan called the “armor” of the ego. As we wrote with Francisco in a paper many years ago:
“Our hypothesis is that we inhabit a body that is the continual reconstitution of its emergent identities. But the movement that defines this condition is always animated by the lack of something: identity resides nowhere, except in its autonomous constitution, in its own circular processes that self-affirm. Inevitably this autonomous world is always close to breakdown. If life always consists in an activity in relation to what is lacking, [this lack] is also its impulsion, its desire to continue.” (Varela and Cohen 1989, p. 209).
Groundlessness, as it might be viewed through an analytic lens, is thus the movement working through resistances that reveals the self, or ego as an imaginary construct, constantly parasitized by the unconscious. The necessity of creating new possibilities, “the desire to continue”, is thus inscribed, along with death or the threat of non-existence (and there is another paradox here!), at the very origin of life. Psychoanalytic experience bears witness daily to this “need for new needs”. We witness, as analysts , in our clinical work, the suffering of repetition, which is, in fact, the stemming or obstruction of this necessary, proliferating activity.
But to return to the groundlessness as at least one of the essential seeds or matrices for reading Francisco’s work, I will go back to the quotation from the Ethics lectures and underline, as Francisco himself does, the fact that he refers to dynamical systems theory or emergent processes as metaphors for the “selfless self”: “I think”, he says, “that the radical novelty of our newly acquired and still fragmentary understanding of emergent properties in distributed network processes lies precisely in that they are strong metaphors for what is a selfless self”. I note that he adopted the term metaphor to describe the scientific tools he used to develop the enactive view in cognitive science (he sometimes called enaction “constrained imagination”, a meaning-making activity). It was this perspective that then allowed him to specify the notion of reciprocal causality in the neurophenomenology program. So, the epistemological shift that he made in his early work with Maturana from a control or objective model to an autopoietic or natural information model was redoubled by the jettisoning of the syntactic information-processing or computer model in favor of a dynamical one. But more important for the point I want to make here, is that his apprehension of the real, or reality, was driven by these metaphors, which embody the often tacit yet fundamentally omnipresent perspective of groundlessness which he held dear. His intuition and experience of groundlessness, certainly sharpened by the sense of contingency that comes with life-threatening illness, provided him with an exemplary methodology for (paradoxically) resolving paradoxes by maintaining the contradictory terms of the paradox in constant tension.

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them-

Contingency is a correlate of groundlessness: it is through the recognition of the shifting impermanence of both self and world that the sense of the emptiness of both arises and becomes stabilized. “Each chapter of Nagarjuna’s Verses from the Center , says Batchelor in his introductory essay, is an audacious excursion into the sublime landscape of contingency along the track of emptiness”. I refer you to the chapter in The Embodied Mind entitled “The Middle Way”, for a detailed discussion of the relation between sunyata, or emptiness, and of Nagarjuna’s logic in refuting the independent existence of the self, the world and of the relation between them. Mind and world make up an interdependent continuity. The authors say, “there is nothing extra on the side of mind or on the side of world to know or to be known further” (Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991, p.225).
Very early in Francisco’s work, in the final section of Principles of Biological Autonomy we can see the outlines of the process of groundlessness that he had begun to develop in his statement on the codependency of experience and knowledge. A first distinction or cut, as he calls it, must be made between oneself as experiencing subject on the one hand, and experience on the other…”
But, he says, this cut can under no circumstance be a cut between oneself and an independently existing world of objective objects. Our “knowledge”….must begin with experience, and with cuts within our experience- such as, for instance, the cut we make between the part of our experience that we come to call “ourself” and all the rest of our experience, which we then call our “world”. Hence, this world of ours, no matter how we structure it, no matter how well we manage to keep it stable with permanent objects and recurrent interactions, is by definition a world codependent with our experience, and not the ontological reality of which philosophers and scientists alike have dreamed. All this boils down, actually, to a realization that although the world does look solid and regular, when we come to examine it there is no fixed point of reference to which it can be pinned down….The whole of experience reveals the codependent and relative quality of our knowledge, truly a reflection of our individual and collective actions” (Varela,1979, p. 275).
This notion of co-dependent arising or origination of selves and worlds was the basis for the radical reframing of the problem-space along non-dualistic lines that allowed Francisco to consistently work on the brink, on the very edge of the breakdown of classical philosophical oppositions such as subject/object, mind/body, inside/outside, “first” and “third” person.
He affirms in his discussion of structural coupling in The Embodied Mind (Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991, p.202):
The extreme opposite of dualism is a monism. We are not proposing monism; enaction is specifically designed to be a middle way between dualism and monism.
This same idea is put another way in a quotation he particularly liked from the work of the philosopher of science, Hans Jonas:
…life does not bear distillation; it is somewhere between the purified aspects [of dualistic thought]-in their concretion…The dualistic antithesis leads not to a heightening of the features of life through their concentration on one side, but to a deadening of both sides through their separation from the living middle (Jonas 1966, p.22).
It was by starting from this “living middle”, to which groundlessness provides access, that Francisco was able to extend or expand the enactivist perspective into the realm of intersubjectivity in the neurophenomenology program. The naturalization of phenomenology seeks not to reduce phenomenological descriptions or subjective accounts to biological correlates, but to see how this data links up with brain and body explanations, creating a circulation between them in order to produce what he calls a “three-dimensional view of mind and experience altogether”, whose ambition is to englobe subjective understanding and objective explanation and exceed the limits of them both (Varela 1997, p. 360).
This movement of expansion starting from the “living middle” is continued in the last paper Francisco wrote with Evan Thompson , in which they refute the notion of the existence of “neural correlates of consciousness” which considers consciousness, in their words, a “brain-bound event”. In its place they propose what they called the “radical embodiment approach” to the neuroscience of consciousness. I refer you to this paper for the details, too lenghty to discuss here; but I want to underline now the relocating of consciousness, through the conception of brain, body and environment as mutually embedded systems, in the very processes of circulation between these systems. This proposal is presently being unfolded in a forthcoming book entitled, Why the Mind isn’t in the Head, the material of which was conceived and prepared by Evan Thompson and Francisco in the last years of his life. It seems to me apt for Francisco to conclude with a conception of mind that is a radically “open” mind, based on what he and Evan call processes that extend or “cut across” the brain/body/world divisions. Francisco might have said that this “open mind” of the radical embodiment approach is a “strong” metaphor for sunyata.
To take another metaphorical turn, and to conclude: “open mind” is also an undogmatic mind, one that eschews orthodoxy.

When Buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

Batchelor interprets this verse as Nagarjuna’s expression of the incompatibility with any orthodoxy of the Buddhist path of emptiness. Following this idea, I have translated it as a plea for the openness or provisional nature of theoretical frames. As those of you who knew him are aware, Francisco always held fast to an anti-reductionist position: he chose to realize it by accompanying complexity in spite of, or rather because of, the precariousness it presupposes, since generative precariousness is a fundamental property of life. The path he laid down is grounded in a fundamental exigency, that theorization should never cease to espouse personal experience: the way he proceeded in his thinking actualized his ideas themselves by mobilizing and progressively expanding the field of the self. I have tried to evoke here this expansive movement: how he welcomed “what bursts forth by itself”, how he took pleasure in the unpredictable, and how the experience of the changes brought about by these surprises was not threatening for him, but wonderful.


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Thompson, E., Varela, F.J. (2001) “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 5, n. 10.
Varela, F.J. (1979) Principles of biological autonomy (New York: Elsevier /North Holland).
Varela, F.J. and Cohen, A. (1989) “Le corps √©vocateur: une relecture de l’immunit√©”, Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, 40, pp. 193-213.
Varela, F.J., Thomson, E., Rosch, E. (1991) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press).
Varela, F.J. (1997) “The Naturalization of phenomenology as the transcendence of nature”, Alter, 5.
Varela, F.J. (1999) Ethical know-how, Action wisdom and cognition (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press).

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