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Maturana on Self as Distinction

With respect to the self, Humberto Maturana makes the following observations (in his essay “Biology of Self-Consciousness):

The distinction of the self is an overwhelming experience . . . once it takes place the distinction becomes the referential ground for all other distinctions . . .

And perhaps most critically, he observes that the “experience of the self as an object obscures its original constitution as a relation . . . ”

What we call the “self” is a distinction that is made in experience. In the same way I distinguish a coffee cup from what is not a coffee cup, I distinguish the “self” from what the self is not.

On this view, what we are calling the self is simply a kind of experience that arises in organisms capable of reflection. It is a sort of primal distinction, in that it enables all other distinctions.

That is, the cosmos comes into being in reference to the self for whom the cosmos comes into being.

So far we are not making any spiritual observations. We are simply seeing the way human perception and cognition work, which is a way of contextualizing our own perception and cognition.

We are what sees and, critically, we are also what we see. Our observations – be they of chickadees, children or chocolate cakes – are not separate from us. The appearance of separation is an effect to which we acclimate (like not seeing the blind spot that is in our eye). But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule; it’s not real.

Maturana emphasizes that tremendous power of this primary distinction. The self is overwhelming, so much so that it obscures its own origins. It might even go scurrying off after those origins, sometimes under the guise of a spiritual quest. What am I? What is Truth?

If you want to correlate this to the separation in A Course in Miracles you can, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to bring God into it at all. Indeed, bringing God or Jesus or Heaven into it is often just a way of sustaining the obscuration. Why make this harder than it has to be?

You are that which obscures what you are: you are that which asks what you are. Give attention to the distinctions that appear (what is this, what is that) and give attention to how they appear (in time and space, and in language). Separation is an appearance contingent on a mode of thinking that can – if one wants and is otherwise amenable – be undone.

But it is not a mystery. No supernatural origins or causes or methods apply. It is as simple as climbing down the ladder we climbed up, or retracing our steps on a path. And it can begin with this insight: “ladder” and “path” are analogies, and the use of analogy is separative.


{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Sean March 11, 2019, 3:36 pm

    I’d like to add – as a sort of afterthought a few hours later, this insight of von Glasersfeld. In his book Radical Constructivism, he observed that the “self as the operative agent of construction, the self as the locus of subjective awareness seems to be a metaphysical assumption and lies outside the domain of empirical construction.”

    “Metaphysical assumption” – I like that phrase very much. I’d like to walk it to the river and spend a long time there pondering the currents with it.

    Maturana always turns me back to experience, back to the actual living that is happening. How is it appearing? What is that’s appearing? The living – rather than the thinking about the looking – seems to be what matters most.

    And von Glasersfeld reminds of this aspect of Maturana’s work. “Metaphysical assumptions” are not inherently bad. They can be fun and interesting; they can certainly yield helpful insights into our living. But again – it’s the living to which our attention is directed. In an important sense, how could it be directed anywhere else? There is nowhere – and nothing – else.

    Hence the balance of the quote (which precedes the fragment quoted above): “As to the concept of self, constructivism as an empirical epistemology can provide a more or less viable model for the construction of the experiential self.”

    Yes, that. That is always there: that is the fundament. And, because that self arises in love – that is to say, adaptation, collaboration, cooperation, communication – there is no other self that truly matters.

    Here we are: shall we save each other?

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