Humberto Maturana

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Humberto Maturana (2013)

Humberto Romesín Maturana (born September 14, 1928 in Santiago de Chile ; † May 6, 2021 ) was a Chilean biologist and philosopher specializing in neurobiology .


Maturana studied medicine at the Universidad de Chile from 1948 and from 1954 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation biology / anatomy at the University College in London . It was there that a theory about the existence of living systems as autonomous dynamic units was first developed.

From 1956 he completed a doctoral degree at Harvard University , USA, where he completed a doctorate in biology in 1958. Until 1960 he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge (Massachusetts) , USA, in a postdoc position on research from the eye ( blind spot ) to epistemological questions.

In 1960 he was offered the chair of biology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Universidad de Chile , Santiago de Chile . There he specialized in studies of visual perception , especially color perception, and in the basics of differentiating between living systems and non-living systems.

In 1968 he traveled to Urbana at the invitation of Heinz von Foerster and was visiting professor at the University of Illinois from 1969 to 1970 .

From 1970 to 1973 he worked in close cooperation with Francisco J. Varela in Santiago de Chile. From 1970 he devoted himself above all to the further development of the “biology of knowledge” and, as a neurophysiologist, dealt with epistemological problems via the path of the “biology of knowledge”.

Maturana lived in his native city of Santiago de Chile and ran the Instituto Matriztico there together with Ximena Dávila.


Together with Francisco J. Varela , Maturana introduced the term autopoiesis and is considered to be one of the founders of radical constructivism , although he rejected the term constructivist for himself, for example in an interview from 2002.

Maturana's theories influenced Heinz von Foerster and Niklas Luhmann , among others .

Biology and Epistemology: The Mind as a Process

Maturana studied the teachings of the biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll at an early age and, influenced by them, turned his attention to the organism and its environment. It led him to the question: What is “cognition” as a biological phenomenon?

In the 1960s, this gave rise to more comprehensive questions:

  • What is life
  • What properties does a system have to have in order to be able to call it truly living?
  • Can we clearly distinguish between living and non-living systems?

With his realization that the answer lies in understanding the "organization of the living", he was able to unite two traditions of systems thinking:

  • organismic biology, which studies the essence of biological forms, and
  • Cybernetics, which deals with targeted processes of regulation and control in systems.

Maturana then equated cognition with the process of life. He published his ideas in 1970 and began working with Francisco Varela, a younger neuroscientist. Together they developed the term autopoiesis and published its first description two years later.

The concept of autopoiesis is an integral part of the biological theory of cognition , which Maturana and Varela formulated comprehensively in The Tree of Knowledge (Orig. El árbol del conocimiento , 1984). This says goodbye to a conception of the world as a collection of observer-independent objects to be recognized and interweaves the processes of autopoiesis and the sensorimotor relationships ( correlations ) of the mobile organism established by the nervous system into a constant act of creating a world in the ongoing process of life. Objects appear as continuously generated constants or regularities of the states of the nervous system of a human organism in its especially linguistic (social) actions in relation to its environment ( "operational closedness of the nervous system" ).

According to Maturana and Varela, the term autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems. Together with Varela, Maturana developed a systems theory of cognition (also known as the Santiago theory). In it, cognition, the process of knowledge, is equated with the process of life. Communication is therefore not a transfer of information, but a coordination of behavior between living organisms through mutual structural coupling. According to Maturana, we can only understand human consciousness through language and the entire social context in which it is embedded.

Maturana's approach was subsequently inter alia. taken up by Niklas Luhmann , and autopoiesis became an essential part of his sociological systems theory .

Maturanas Instituto Matriztico

Maturana's way of thinking and working was not only reflected in the interdisciplinary thinking between biology, philosophy, psychology and sociology. The founding of the Instituto Matriztico in Santiago de Chile with Ximena Dávila Yañez was also part of his life's work. There Maturana practices interdisciplinary work with Davila and employees of the institute, including philosophical, psychological and sociological issues and for a better understanding of the biological foundations of humanity.

For example, the institute offered an introductory course in the biology of knowledge (“biologia del conocer”) and the biology of love (“biología del amar”). Maturana describes both aspects as circular, mutually influencing foundations of the biological existence of humans. Interdisciplinary course titles in analogous German translation read, for example, The art and science of constitutive ontological thinking - the biological basis of human existence. It is taught that terms like biology and culture are linked and intertwined and that biological questions of human existence need to be expanded to include social, ethical and cultural aspects. Terms that were systematically strictly separated for centuries become productive as a whole that belongs together, e.g. B. biological-cultural; Evolution - morals, ethics; Humanism - science, technology.


In December 2009 Maturana received an honorary doctorate from the Universidad de Santiago de Chile (USACH).


  • Biology of Cognition. University of Illinois, Urbana 1970.
  • with Francisco J. Varela : Autopoiesis and Cognition. Reidel, Dordrecht 1980.
  • with Francisco Varela: El árbol del conocimiento. 1984, 1987.
  • Knowing: The organization and embodiment of reality. Selected works on biological epistemology. Vieweg, Braunschweig 1982, ISBN 3-528-18465-5 .
  • with Niklas Luhmann, Mikio Namiki and Volker Redder: Observer. Convergence of the theories of knowledge? 3rd edition, Fink, Munich 2003. ISBN 3-7705-2829-8 .
  • Volker Riegas and Christian Vetter (eds.): On the biology of cognition: A conversation with Humberto R. Maturana and contributions to the discussion of his work. 1990.
  • with Kurt Ludewig : Conversaciones con Humberto Maturana. Preguntas del psicoterapeuta as a biólogo. Universidad de La Frontera, Temuco (Chile) 1992. ISBN 956-236-041-5 .
    • Translation: Conversations with Humberto Maturana. Questions about biology, psychotherapy and the “tree of knowledge” , 2006. ( online , PDF, 479 kB)
  • with Gerda Verden Zöller : Love and Play: The Forgotten Basics of Being Human . Carl Auer Systems, Heidelberg 1993, ISBN 3-927809-18-7 .
  • Biology of reality . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1998, ISBN 3-518-58146-5 .
  • What is recognizing With an essay on the introduction by Rudolf zur Lippe . Piper, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-492-03594-9 .
  • with Bernhard Pörksen : From being to doing. The origins of the biology of cognition . Carl Auer Systems, Heidelberg 2002.
  • Astrid Kaiser "I'm not a constructivist ..." In: PÄD Forum. Vol. 31 (2003), H. 2, pp. 109-111 (interview).
  • Fundamental Relativity: Reflections on Cognition and Reality / Fundamental Relativity: Reflections on Cognition and Reality . Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich / Berlin, 2013, ISBN 978-3-422-07138-4 .
  • with Ximena Dávila: Habitar humano en seis ensayos de biología-cultural . 2008
  • with Ximena Dávila: El árbol del vivir . MPV Editores, Santiago, 2015. ISBN 978-956-9133-06-0
  • with Ximena Dávila: Historia de nuestro vivir cotidiano . 2019


  • Helene Exner: An attempt to understand Maturana. Thesis. University of Vienna, Vienna 1988.
  • Conversation with H. Maturana in: Bernhard Pörksen : The certainty of uncertainty - Conversations on constructivism. 2nd Edition. Carl Auer Systems, Heidelberg 2008, pp. 70–111.
  • Alexander Riegler, Pille Bunnell (Ed.): The Work of Humberto Maturana and Its Application Across the Sciences (= Constructivist Foundations . Vol. 6, H. 3). 2011 ( online ).

Reviews of Maturana's works:

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. The assignment to Radical Constructivism (RK) is based on the correspondence of central statements. Von Glasersfeld ( The Radical Constructivism , Frankfurt, 1996) does not refer to Maturana in his portrayal of the emergence of the RK. See also the discussion about the article on the RK.
  2. On Maturana and Varela's influence on Luhmann's system theory only recently Christoph Türcke, more! Philosophy of money. Munich, CH Beck, 2015, pp. 207f.
  3. a b c biography sketches: Humberto R. Maturana (* 1928). ( Memento from May 23, 2012 in the Internet Archive )
  4. Humberto R. Maturana , Francisco J. Varela : The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of knowledge. Goldmann, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 , p. 31.
  5. Universidad de Santiago de Chile condecorará con grado de Doctor Honoris Causa a Humberto Maturana , accessed on September 13, 2015.