Domains of Reality and their Dynamics

"We always live in one domain or other. Each domain is complete in itself, and only partial if we imagine a whole in which they all exist. Yet each is different in its internal coherence, its relevance, and its possibilities" -Bunnell "

Domains of Reality and their Dynamics


I have been thinking a lot about domains as they relate to reality as I continue to re-read portions of Humberto Maturana's work, namely the articles "The Nature of Time," and "Reality the Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument," his book The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love, and John Mingers' synthesis of Maturana's work through the late 1990s. Reading through the literature again I have been seeking to understand the domains of reality we live our lives through and in during the course of our daily life, or what Maturana calls the "praxis of living."  

My curiosity in this area has been longstanding, though it has been heightened by COVID-19. At work, my own experience during the early days of the pandemic included an apparent attempt to keep functioning in the same domain of "business as usual" despite signals we were collectively moving through or at the very least toward the boundary of that domain into one we had never been in before. Rather than switch domains and change our course of action preemptively we continued to occupy the same one to our own peril. Prior to experiences around COVID, working as a wildland firefighter brought forth the same concerns and introduced identical questions: "How do we know when it is time to switch domains?" "How do we then actually move from one to another?" "What is it like?" "If needed, how do we construct new domains?" I will attempt to answer some of these questions through a synthesis of Maturana's work braided together with elements of Francisco Varela's independent writing and my own thoughts.


To me, a domain of reality is a particular, bounded way of being in and understanding the world. Larger than a perspective, a domain of reality is a larger field of being situated in the world and way of being disposed toward it, they are modes of being and understanding.  The defining quality of any domain of reality is the collection of actions seen as legitimate (Maturana, 1988). Switching from one domain to another brings forth a new understanding of what it means to act in a legitimate way. The array of actions seen as legitimate is determined by the explanations we accept for our experiences from ourselves or others. In Maturana's work, an explanation is an answer to a “question that asks how things, events, phenomena, or in general terms, the experiences of [an] observer come about” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p. 147) and follows the form “if this and this happens, then the result is such and such” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, p.14, 2008).

Explanations, then, tell us how the world works through the ascription of causality to elements of our experiences. As a result, explanations tell us how we should and should not act in the world, thus creating a sphere of legitimate actions belonging to the domain where the explanations occurred. The situation is as follows: "If such and such is because of this and this then we ought to do X."  

Domains have different manners of explaining and as a consequence different actions seen as legitimate. This is because as domains change so do the criteria for accepting explanations and the coherences used to structure them. Although never defined by Maturana, Mingers (1995) offers coherences are how we have generally  found things to be through experience and expect them to work. So, we use our experience in a domain to formulate explanations in it and as a result define what actions are legitimate.

In Maturana's work, the criteria for accepting explanations is more important than the explanation itself. Known as the "informal  condition," (whereas the explanation for our experiences is known as the formal condition), "is what gives an explanation its character and defines its kind" (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, p.16, 2008). While the informal conditions change between domains, so do the coherences of our experience in each domain used to propose formal conditions. The actions seen as legitimate, the coherences, and the formal and informal conditions define the possibilities of any one domain including what action it can unfold into, how the world appears to work, what phenomenon it can explain, and what will be accepted as truth (Bunnell, 2008).

Insofar as domains bring together understanding and action, each domain contains any number of transparent readiness-es for action, termed "microworlds" by Varela, with corresponding "microidentities" we move through as we exist in one domain or another (Varela, 1992). Being in one domain then is not limited to maintaining any one identity or pattern of actions but several, provided they are coherent with the collection of legitimate actions defining the domain. Otherwise, there will be a transition to a new domain.


Every domain has a boundary. The boundary is constituted by the domain's capacity to generate satisfactory explanations that unfold into legitimate action. It could be said the boundary is formed by the coherences used to formulate explanations, but this disregards the important component of the informal condition that shapes and defines what explanations are acceptable.

Boundary Dynamics

A boundary is encountered when an experience is not readily explainable by the domain it is experienced from within. Meaning, an experience registers somewhere along a gradient of coherence to total incoherence (Maturana, 1995). If the experience can be characterized as being incoherent, it may be accompanied by feelings of awe, doubt, or strangeness. These feelings which will remain until an explanation is accepted (Maturana, 1988; Maturana, 1995). If the experience is within some degree of coherence with our present domain, it is easily explainable and does not require any more thought.

Maintaining Domains

When presented with an experience incoherent with the domain we are presently in, we may "force" an explanation out of the domain's coherences if our mood is to stay in our current domain and accept this explanation partially on the basis of wanting to stay put (Maturana, 1988). Like with all explanations, this explanation then becomes part of the coherences of that domain and will not need to be dealt with in the same way again. The dynamic of co-opting an experience into an the domain we already find ourselves in may be useful as it allows us to proceed in our general situatedness with its familiar recurrent microworlds and microidentities (Bunnell, 2008; Varela, 1992; Varela, 1999). On the other hand, this dynamic may be one of the most dangerous as it brings experiences with qualities beyond the boundary of the domain and brings them into it - it renders the abnormal as normal. Doing so allows us to stay in the domain of "business as usual" as we absorb foreign, incoherent experiences into the domain we presently occupy.  We may, in this case, be building up tension that may eventually lead to our descent into chaos (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003).

Transitioning Domains

Explaining the experiences that bring us toward the boundary may also provoke a transition to a new, pre-existing domain if mood allows (Maturana, 1988). If it is recognized the coherences of the present domain cannot propose a formal condition for the experience or one satisfactory to the domain's collection of informal conditions, a new domain may be entered into. To some degree, what domain is presently occupied may influence the one moved into next. At the same time, what is anticipated, what has already happened, and what is happening may also play a role in what domain is moved into (Yáñez  & Maturana, 2013).  

The transition from one domain to another may be seamless and imperceptible or have the phenomenology of a full breakdown of experience and require time to recover as we situate ourselves perhaps unexpectedly in another domain and its sphere of legitimate actions (Varela, 1992). This dynamic enables adaptability as the move between domains brings with it new ways of acting in and understanding the world. At the same time, switching domains too frequently may dissolve any difference between ourselves and the environment we are working in as we become a reflection of it. Adapting too frequently may cause us to lose our identity and become a mirror image of our environs as we have zigged to every zag (Cilliers,  2006).

Making New Domains

It is possible an explanation itself can serve as a boundary transition to the creation of a new domain without the boundary first being approached. If an experience is explained in a novel way a new domain may be opened with a new set of informal conditions for accepting explanations, a growing set of coherences for structuring them, and a new understanding of what it means to take legitimate action. Of course, the dynamic of the creation of a new domain may also occur if an experience first takes us toward the boundary of the domain (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Maturana, 1988). Although new, the recently opened domain contains in it traces of all other existing domains belonging to the one who created it. While not a problem per se, it is important to recognize the domain does not stand entirely "on its own" as something new (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008).  

This is the dynamic of current times and the general flow of professional life for emergency managers.  New domains might not need to be opened for every experience, but when it it time to "believe the unbelievable"(Power, 2007, p.33) and face challenges and experiences of new kinds, new domains and their new ways of understanding and acting are vital. At the same time, the creation of a new domain may become a case of "reinventing the wheel" if a domain of reality already existing that serves the same purpose could be borrowed.


Lastly, it is possible an experience provokes a trip to the boundary of the domain but triggers no further action. If an experience not readily explainable by the means of the current domain is distinguished, it may be disregarded as a "delusion or aberration"(Bunnell, 2008, p. xii). In the event the prior takes place, no explanation is offered and the experience itself is ultimately dismissed leaving the domain and the praxis of living unaffected. There is certainly value to this dynamic. Deja vu, mistakes of perception, and misunderstandings may not need to be responded to in our domains of reality. At the same time, the dynamic of stillness is dangerous as it pushes away or ignores a potentially important experience such as that of a weak signal. Even though the experience has not been inculcated into one of our domains of reality and become part of the world we bring forth does not mean it is to some degree important to the past, present, or future of the course of our living.  


Much more could be said about the domains of reality and the function of explanations found across Maturana's work. I view this is as a starting point for a larger project of understanding how we move through the routine, unexpected, and turbulent parts of our daily living. Presented earlier were four dynamics involved in how we move through and create domains of reality. As we flow or abruptly transition through these domains, we act in different ways and make and accept different statements about how the world works. Far from trivial, these domains determine how we act and understand. Moving from one domain to another allows us to act and understand in new ways whereas opening a new domain enables us to act in ways not previously thought of. While staying in one domain allows us to continue the direction of our praxis of living, it also runs the risk of complacency and missing the opportunity to change domains early.


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