Francisco Varela

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Francisco Varela

Francisco Javier Varela García (born September 7, 1946 in Santiago de Chile , † May 28, 2001 in Paris ) was a Chilean biologist , philosopher and neuroscientist who, together with Humberto Maturana, was best known for coining the term autopoiesis .


Varela received his Master of Science degree in biology from the University of Chile in Santiago de Chile in 1967 . In 1968 he received a PhD scholarship from Harvard University for his achievements in biology . There he obtained his doctorate ( Ph.D. ) in biology in 1970 . After a three year return to the University of Santiago, Varela moved back to the United States against the background of difficult working conditions due to the military coup in Chile, this time to the medical faculty of the University of Colorado Denver , where he was able to conduct research from 1974 to 1978 and also the Wrote much of Principles of Biological Autonomy . After Varela returned to his homeland for the last time in 1980 , he only worked in Europe from 1984 when he became a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt.

In 1987 he was the scientific coordinator and moderator of the first Mind-and-Life- Dialogue of the Mind and Life Institute , officially founded in 1990 , which took place in October in the rooms of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala a . a. took place with Eleanor Rosch . General topics from cognitive science were presented at the conference .

In 1988 Varela was appointed Research Director of the Neurodynamics Department of the CNRS in Paris, where he remained until his death. He was also head of the neurodynamics unit at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris. Varela gave his last scientific lecture on March 24th, 2000 at the 8th Mind-and-Life Conference, which was held in Dharamsala under the direction of Daniel Goleman . The topic of the lecture was Scientific Research into Consciousness .

In 2001 Varela died of cancer. Under the title Monte Grande - What is Life? began Franz Reichle in 2004 with a documentary trilogy about the life and work Varelas. In addition to Varela himself, numerous of his colleagues and friends have their say in the film, including the Dalai Lama, Heinz von Foerster , Evan Thompson , Anne Harrington and Humberto Maturana. Part 2 and 3 of the documentary film trilogy were also realized by January 2017.

Francisco Varela has been married several times and has three children, including the actress Leonor Varela .


Francisco Varela's works deal with the general areas of biology, neurology and philosophy. In general, he is interested in the origin of the perception of living things, cognition, language, the organization of living things and their effects on human worldview. Some of the basic concepts of his work are:

Enactive approach to cognition

According to Varela, perception is a perception- guided action (acción perceptualmente guiada). Perception can only be understood as the action of the animal on its environment. The perceived world is inseparable from the human sensory-motor capacities. Varela therefore criticizes the representationalist insight, which regards perception as a process of adaptation of the living being to its environment. According to this insight, the world of the living being would be a world with certain properties (e.g. color, tone, movement, etc.) which the living being recovers in its mental representations. According to Varela, the environment is by no means something given that is to be represented in the head of the living being, but a process of co-determination (co-determinación) between the living and the environment, in which subject and object are inseparable from each other. There are no organisms without an environment, and there is no environment without organisms. The environmental concept cannot be separated from what the organisms are and do. The metaphor chosen for perception is a mirror. But what the living being sees in the mirror is not the real 'world', it is itself. Our relationship with the environment is the same as what we have with a mirror. “The mirror does not show how the world is or how it is not. It just shows that it is possible that we are who we are and that we act as we have acted so far ”.

Reason and emotion

Reason is not a separation of the living from their reality. Reason and emotion are not opposites. According to Varela, “Rational and abstract thinking are an application of very general cognitive processes - focusing, scanning, overlapping, inversion, background, foreground, etc. - to the conceptual structures. The fundamental idea is that the incarnate (sensory-motor) structures are the core of experience, and that the structures of experience 'motivate' conceptual understanding and rational thinking. ”Unreason does not contradict reason, on the contrary, it is their real reason. Thinking, for Varela, doesn't happen in the head. Thinking is visible in every sensory impression. There is no “pure” experience on the one hand and interested and willing thinking on the other. Every impression of the world is already the result of an interpretation of the world. The gaze of the living being is a questioning look. To see something d. that is, to ask a question about the world. No one lives in the world, but in micro worlds (micro mundos) . The visible can change dramatically from situation to situation. The example given by Varela is someone walking in the street. According to Varela, he has a certain emotional readiness (disposición), e.g. B., rest. He sees the trees, the faces of the people, the sky. Then, suddenly, when he puts his hand in his pocket, he realizes that his wallet is not with him. His world has changed. The trees were placed in the background, the faces of the people became undifferentiated. All his attention is on his return home. The world has changed because his emotional tone (tonalidad emocional) has changed. There is no reason without emotion. "The reason is something that from the emotional tone is produced (emerge), and it is something that the body is connected. Reason is the top of the mountain, while emotions are the reason. "



  • H. Maturana, F. Varela: The tree of knowledge . The biological roots of human knowledge . Translated by Kurt Ludewig , Munich, Goldmann, 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 .
  • F. Varela: Cognitive Science-Cognitive Technique. A sketch of current perspectives . 3. Edition. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 3-518-28482-7 .
  • F. Varela: Ethical skills . Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main / New York 1994, ISBN 3-593-35039-4 .
  • F. Varela, E. Thompson, E. Rosch: The middle way of knowledge: the relationship between the ego and the world in cognitive science - bridging the gap between scientific theory and human experience . Goldmann, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-442-12514-6 .
  • JW Hayward, Francisco Varela: Daring Paths of Thought: Scientists in Conversation with the Dalai Lama . 2nd Edition. Piper Verlag, Munich / Zurich 1998, ISBN 3-492-22115-7 .
  • Francisco Varela: Sleep, Dream and Death . Diederichs, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-492-23014-8 .


  • F. Varela: Principles of Biological Autonomy . Appleton & Lange, 1979, ISBN 0-444-00321-5 .
  • H. Maturana, F. Varela: Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living . D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht / Boston / London, 1980, ISBN 90-277-1016-3 .
  • F. Varela, J. Shear (Eds.): The View from Within: First-Person Methodologies in the Study of Consciousness . Imprint Academic, London 1999, ISBN 0-907845-25-8 .
  • D. Stein, F. Varela (Eds.): Thinking About Biology: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology . Perseus Books, 1993, ISBN 0-201-62453-2 .
  • J. Petitot, F. Varela, B. Pachoud, JM. Roy (Ed.): Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science . Stanford University Press, Stanford 2000, ISBN 0-8047-3610-3 .



  • Franz Reichle : Monte Grande - What is life? - Documentary trilogy part 1 about the life and work of Francisco J. Varela , 2004 DVD and VOD (Vimeo On Demand)
  • Franz Reichle: Mind and Life - Early Dialogues - Documentary Trilogy Part 2, Conversations with the Dalai Lama , 2017 - DVD and VOD (Vimeo On Demand)
  • Franz Reichle: Francisco Cisco Pancho - Documentary Trilogy Part 3, autobiography by Francisco J. Varela and oral anthology, 2011 - DVD and VOD (Vimeo On Demand)

Web links

Commons : Francisco Varela  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Francisco J. Varela: Principles of Biological Autonomy. , North Holland, New York / Oxford, 1979. ISBN 0-444-00321-5 . P. 19
  2. ^ Mind and Life Institute: Mission , accessed January 17, 2019.
  3. Daniel Goleman : Dialogue with the Dalai Lama / How we can overcome destructive emotions. See details of the participants in the 8th conference at the beginning of the book.
  4. a b c Franz Reichle , DVD and VOD: Monte Grande - What is life? - Francisco J. Varela , 2004 (see also web links )
  5. Monte Grande - What Is Life? at , accessed on February 23, 2019.
  6. a b F. Varela: Fenomeno de la Vida. Santiago 2016. p. 211.
  7. a b F. Varela: Fenomeno de la Vida. Santiago 2016. p. 213.
  8. a b c d F. Varela: Fenomeno de la Vida. Santiago 2016. p. 204
  9. a b F. Varela: Fenomeno de la Vida. Santiago 2016. p. 203.
  10. a b F. Varela: Fenomeno de la Vida. Santiago 2016. p. 224
  11. a b Varela, F. Fenomeno de la Vida. Santiago, 2016. p. 225