Francisco J. Varela (19462001) studied biology in Santiago de Chile, obtained his doctorate 1970 at Harvard University with a thesis on the insect eye, and worked there for for some time in the laboratory of Torsten Wiesel, the later Nobel Laureate for medicine. From his scientific beginnings as a researcher in biology, he did not only study and practise biology but, resisting the dominating mainstream, pursued a research programme that ignored and broke down traditional disciplinary boundaries.
This research programme is best characterised as experimental epistemology, a concept introdoced by the neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician Warren S. McCulloch. Varela's great aspiration was to examine and answer the philosophical ur-question of cognition with scientific precision and with the help of the best possible theoretical framework. Having obtained his doctorate, he went back to Chile to work as a professor of biology together with Humberto R. Maturana. He contributed to the writing of the theory of autopoiesis which was to cause a furore in the world of science as a universally applicable explanatory model. After the overthrow of Allende and the installation of the dictatorship by the putsch general Pinochet, Varela first escaped to Costa Rica, then became professor at the American universities of Colorado and New York, and finally returned in 1980 to the University of Chile in Santiago for five years. Temporary positions as guest professor for neurobiology, philosophy, and cognitive science in Germany, Switzerland and France led him to Paris, in the end, where he worked as a research director of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique until his death on 28 May 2001.
In his research work embracing cognitive science, evolutionary theory, and immunology, Varela, constantly inspired by his fundamental interest in the key questions of epistemology, gave the epistemological debate a new orientation.
In his thinking, he refuses to accept the strict separation of subject and object, of knower and known, which as a rule unites realists and constructivists alike. Varela rejects the fundamental dualism dividing mind and world, which had shaped Western philosophy from its earliest beginnings. He does not subscribe to the idea that human individuals can invent their own realities blindly and arbitrarily, and without experiencing any resistance from the external world and all other things given. He equally distances himself, however, from the diametrically opposite position that overstates the inherent power of the world of objects. The external world and all other things given cannot determine what happens in an organism. Francisco J. Varela's claim is that individual and world create each other.
Action,Wisdom, and Cognition
Stanford University Press 1999
Basic Ideas -
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Dialogues Introducing Constructivism
Imprint Academic 2004
DAS GEHEN IST DER WEG
Francisco Varela/Humberto Maturana
DER BAUM DER ERKENNTNIS
Scherz Verlag 1987
KOPPELUNG + KO-ONTOGENESE 196