Seiichi Imoto
Nothing as Plenum:
Lao-Tsu's WAY and Maturana's SUBSTRATUM
Cybernetics and Human Knowing vol11, no4, 2005

DVM/Ph.D. Graduate School of Letters (Philosophy), Hokkaido University, NIOW7, Kita, Sapporo 060 Japan. Email:

I was brought up in the Japanese culture where the mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism appeared as natural and transparent as the air I breathed. Consequently I had not been motivated to read any of the original documents. Recently, however, I had an occasion to read through Lao-tzu's Tao-TeChing for the first time. To my surprise I found that Lao, which promptly reminded me of Maturana's Substratum as Nothing. At the same time, I found Lao was quite similar to my own. Namely I distinguish a duality of a world as end results of our perceptual processes (i.e., our phenomenal or mental space) and a world as a source of causes of our perceptual processes (Imoto, 2004a). I find a similar duality in H. R. Maturana's worldview, as I will explain below.

My interest in this short paper is to compare the structures of Lao-tzu's and Maturana's worlds with special reference to the Way and the Substratum, both of which are No-thing or Non-Being. Through this analysis, I hope to deepen my understanding of one of Maturana's fundamental notions, namely structural determinism. Finally, on the basis of this consideration of the Substratum as No-thing.

Lao-tzu's Way

In order to roughly sketch the structure of Lao-tzu's world, I will begin with quoting some phrases of Lao-tzu's Tao-Te-Ching from a recent English translation by a Japanese scholar, T. Izutsu (Izutsu, 2001).

There is Something imperceivable but real, born before heaven and earth. Silent and void, it stands alone, never changing.
It goes round everywhere, never becoming exhausted.
It may be considered the Mother of all under heaven.
I know not its name.
Forging a pseudonym, I call it the Way.

Man models himself on earth.
Earth models itself on heaven.
Heaven models itself on the Way.
And the Way models itself on (its own) spontaneity. (Chapter XXV)

The Nameless is the beginning [the ultimate source] of heaven and earth.
The Named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Verily, in the state of eternal Non-Being one wouid see the rnysterious reality of the Way.
In the state of eternal Being one wouid see the determinations of the Way. (Chapter 1)

The space between heaven and earth is indeed like a bellows. (Chapter V)

As revealed by the quotes above, the Way is a way of referring to the Something imperceivable but real, Non-Being, or the Nameless. Thus I cannot really say the Way is a name, but rather it is an evocation of understanding. Lao

G. Spencer-Brown's motto

Here, I would like to make a particular reference to G. Spencer-Brown because he directly quoted Lao"The Nameless is the beginning [the ultimate source] of heaven and earth." This choice shows a conceptual resonance between Lao-tzu and him, which Spencer-Brown further substantiates in the preface to the 1994 limited edition of "Laws of Form," (Spencer-Brown, 1994, p. ix):

All I teach is the consequences of there being nothing. The perennial mistake of western philosophers has been to suppose, with no justification whatever, that nothing cannot have any consequences (Footnote 5). On the contrary: not only it can: it must. And one of the consequences of there being nothing is the inevitable appearance of "all this." No problem! In Footnote 5, p. ix, he elaborates: The idea that the creation must be a consequence of 'something' is moronic. No thing can have any consequence whatever. If there were onginally something, it wouid poison the whole creative process. Only nothing is unstable enough to give origin to endless concatenations of different appearances.

It appears that the "nothing" of Spencor Brown is a source or plenum, as is the Nothing of Lao-tsu.

Maturana's no-thingness
As I understand it, Maturana also holds the notion of No-thing as plenum. He writes:
Nature, the world, society, science, reiigion, the physical space, atoms, molecules, trees, etc., indeed all things, are cognitive entities, explanations of the praxis or happening of living of the observer. And as this very explanation, they only exist as a bubble of human actions floating on nothing. (Maturana, 1992, p. 116)

The substratum that we need for epistemological reasons is the nogness from which we bring forth things, without needing to talk about it. (Maturana 2000a. p. 150)

These quotes clearly show the foundation of Maturana's worldview. All things are cognitive entities that we bring forth from the substratum into the phenomenal world. This substratum is considered to be the No-thing as plenum by its generative nature as seen in the above quotes (cf. Imoto, 2004b, pp. 16Thus, we can see a close similarity between the world structures of Lao-tzu that is the beginning (i.e., the ultimate source) of the Named. 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)

For epistemological reasons, we ask for a substratum that could provide an independent ultimate justification or validation of distinguishability. However, for ontological reasons, such a substratum remains beyond our reach as observers. All that we can say ontologically about the substratum is that it permits all the operational coherences which we bring forth in the happening of living as we exist in language. (Maturana, 1992, p. 110)

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