Maturana's Party: Sense-making through everyday language

"We are constantly moving unknowns to knowns without noticing that this is so. While this is critical to our being able to function...this situation nonetheless renders us precarious beings who are always in the process of laying down the same path we are walking on"

Maturana's Party: Sense-making through everyday language


The following is an attempt at moving Maturana’s theory of language closer to practice. The intent of this article is to add another layer of insight to understanding sense-making that emphasizes the role of the everyday and unreflective use of language in making sense of the world around us so we can act in it (Snowden, 2008). Influenced heavily by the Cynefin framework and its supporting literature, Maturana’s work is used create a two-domain image of the flow of everyday sense-making elaborated upon by the work of Francisco Varela. It is hoped that this paper makes clear the importance of understanding the role of our quotidian use of language in creating a world that makes sense to us.

Maturana’s Theory of Language

Maturana is insistent throughout his work that human beings exist in language or what he refers to as “languaging.” The term languaging carries more meaning than “linguistic” as it refers to linguistic acts (e.g., gestures, spoken word, facial expressions) that stand for something other than themselves.

It is apparent from this that the lack of similarity between a particular linguistic behavior and the action it coordinates (e.g., there is no similarity between the word "table" and what we do in distinguishing a table)….In fact, there may be any number of ways in which recurrent interactions that lead to coordination of behaviors are established between organisms (table, mesa , Tafel), in that what is relevant is the coordination of action they bring about, not the form they adopt (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 209)

Beyond standing for something other than themselves, Maturana uses languaging to refer to linguistic behaviors that help one or more persons coordinate their behaviors (Maturana, 2000; Mingers, 1995). To Maturana then, language is very practical. This is captured by Mingers (1995) in his book synthesizing the early work of Maturana titled Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis:

Thus, language itself is ultimately rooted in cooperative practical activity and its effects rather than the abstract exchange of meaning and ideas (p.79).

The particular treatment of Maturana’s theory of language provided here emphasizes how language is used on an individual rather than a social basis. Focused on the running narrative of our lives, this perspective places emphasis on the implications of Maturana’s theory of language toward human-environment relations. Standing on biological experiments, Maturana from a number of angles including language seeks to dissolve the normative subject-object dichotomy and bring them back together. This is particularly apparent in his understanding of the nervous systems as well as his theory of language:

“We must be quite clear about the fact that the very idea of something given and existing, and the very reference to some reality or some truth, unavoidably involves language. Whatever we are able to say about that truth or reality is dependent on the availability of language. What is supposedly independent from us becomes describable only when language is available, emerges only through distinction by means of language (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p. 29).”

According to Maturana, only which we speak about exists as we talk about it through language.

To further focus on the individual level, in areas where Maturana discusses people talking among themselves it was read as if it was a person talking to themselves with all social dynamics removed (this is consistent with his theory as he acknowledges observers speak to themselves). Maintained was the nature of language standing for something other than itself and its purpose of coordinating behaviors as surely the above excerpt discussing the world table applies to us an individuals as well as members of social systems.


Distinction is the most fundamental element of Maturana’s theory of language. Distinctions arise out of operations of distinction, also known as acts of distinction, where someone draws a boundary around something, which does not necessarily have to be present at the time, and brings it forth by cleaving it from the background out of which it came (Maturana & Varela, 1987; Maturana &  Poerksen, 2011). A distinction can be thought of as the animate part of a page in a pop-up book – out of everything else our focus is this and this is emphasized out of everything else through the operation of distinction.

"The fundamental operation that an observer can perform is an operation of distinction, the specification of an entity by operationally cleaving it from a background. Furthermore, that which results from an operation of distinction and can thus be distinguished, is a thing with the properties that the operation of distinction specifies, and which exists in the space that these properties establish (Maturana, 1978, p. 55)."
"A distinction splits the world into two parts, 'that' and 'this', or 'environment' and 'system', or 'us' and 'them', etc. One of the most fundamental of all human activities is the making of distinctions. Certainly, it is the most fundamental act of system theory, the very act of defining the system presently of interest, of distinguishing it from its environment (Varela, 1979, p. 79)."

Any operation of distinction takes place in a particular context as emphasized by Segal (2001) in the following excerpt.

Normally, if you ask a scientist if unicorns exist, his first response will be to say no. His answer is predicated on objectivity. Only certain animals exist in reality. If you ask Maturana if unicorns exist, he will ask what operations of distinction are needed to observe one. If you reply that one needs to go to a museum and look at medieval tapestries, he will agree that under these conditions one can observe a unicorn. If one goes to the Bronx zoo, one will not observe a unicorn (p.54).

In addition to being made in certain context, operations of distinctions are made by a particular person with a biological and social history who is feeling a certain way at the moment the distinction is performed (Maturana & Varela, 1987). At the same time, while an operation of distinction is performed that which is distinguished is brought forth with its own context including history, meaning, and connections to other distinctions known collectively as the criterion of distinction (Maturana & Varela, 1987).  By consequence, different things are distinguished by different people in different ways. Differences in the size of boundaries as well as the meaning that which is distinguished is endowed with are evident throughout everyday life: Things hold different meaning to different people.

Of course I am not part of the object I am describing; I am not part of the glass here on the table when I am pointing at it. However, the distinction of the glass has to do with me; I am the one who uses the distinction. Or the other way round; If nobody makes this distinction then the material or conceptual entity that is specified and demarcated from an environment in this way does not exist (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, pp. 30-31).

As a distinction is made, the person who makes it becomes “tied to it through the operation of distinction” (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p. 31) that brings the object, process, person, or place into focus with a particular context as its background.

Only what is distinguished exists. Although it is distinct from ourselves, we are nevertheless tied to it through the operation of distinction. Whenever I distinguish something, the entity that is distinguished emerges together with some background in which the distinction makes sense, it brings forth the domain in which it exists (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p.32)

For example, imagine a child who touches the flame of a candle and exclaims “ouch!” as they swiftly retract their finger. What was once distinguished as an attractive, enchanting sight is now distinguished as a dangerous source of harm and pain. Suddenly, the candle is brought forth in a new way by the child. Tied to this distinction, moving forward the child is no longer attracted to the candle and refrains from placing their finger in it again (Merleau-Ponty, 2014).

It can be seen from this example how distinctions quickly become embedded in what people do in the flow of their daily lives. In addition to being the most fundamental element of language, distinctions are also a key, primordial sense-making dynamic. Before they can be explored in this capacity, Maturana’s domains of order and chaos must first be mapped.

The Domain of Order

One of the many footnotes in Maturana’s work are the domains of chaos and order (Maturana , 1988a; Maturana, 1995; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Maturana, 2011). While he approaches chaos in a unique way, his perspective on the domain of order is similar to the work of others, such as Snowden and Kurtz (2003). In Maturana’s work, the domain of order is the domain of all the regularities and coherences found across one’s still unfolding experience –  it is the domain of all our knowledge; it is the domain of where we know(Maturana, 1988a; Maturana, 1995; Maturana, 2000).

In terms of experience, the domain of order is associated with feelings of contentment and satisfaction emanating from a sense of understanding and control (Maturana, 1988a; Maturana 1995). To gain further phenomenological insight, Varela’s (1992a) microworlds and microidentities can be braided together with Maturana’s domain of order.

Our lived world is so ready-at-hand that we have no deliberateness about what it is and how we inhabit it. When we sit at the table to eat with a relative or friend, the entire complex know-how of how to handle our utensils, how to sit, how to converse, is present without deliberation. We could say that our having lunch-self is transparent. You finish lunch, return to the office, and enter into a readiness that has its own mode of speaking, moving, and making assessments. We have a readiness-for-action proper to every specific lived situation. Moreover, we are constantly moving from one readiness-for-action to another. Often these transitions or punctuations are slight and virtually imperceptible. Sometimes they are overwhelming, as when we experience a sudden shock or come face-to-face with unexpected danger. I call any such readiness-for-action a microidentity and its corresponding lived situation a microworld. Thus, “who we are” at any moment cannot be divorced from what other things and who other people are to us (pp.9-10).
The way we show up as is the way things show up to us (Varela, 1992b, p. 439).

Varela adds that the already-established lived situations of microidentities, microworlds, constitute who we are – our pervasive mode of being.

Elsewhere in Varela’s work, microworlds are connected with Bordieu’s habitus given they have to do with the “recurrence of our lives” (Varela, 1999, p. 299). This recurrence gives way to the phenomenology of “immediate coping which is transparent, stable, and grounded in our personal histories” (Varela, 1999, p. 298). An example of this phenomenology is provided in the above quote from Varela (1992a) where he discusses eating lunch with a friend without any deliberation and reflection - the individual knows how to act and does not have to think about it. This “unreflective absorption” is captured by Varela’s use of the word “transparency” to describe “that which can be broken in the flow of experience” (Varela, 1999, p. 298)  of our daily lives. Transparency is a tendency, an “expectation about the way things in general will turn out” (Varela, 1999, p. 299).

Now braided together with Varela’s microworlds and identities, Maturana’s domain of order appears more wholly as a domain of the where we know how to act, have a general idea about what will happen next, and feel content as we imperceptibly flow from one transparent microworld and identity to the next in a steam of unreflective absorption.

The Domain of Chaos

In Maturana’s writing, the domain of chaos first appears as it typically does throughout the related literature.

Chaos is a dynamic domain of structural coherences that contains asymmetries (non-linear processes) that in its historical development may lead to continuous novelty or to stable singularities that arise in the conservation of some configuration of relations (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p. 172).

This more familiar understanding of chaos is not found throughout the rest his translated works, nor does it appear to be the key to understanding what the domain of chaos means to Maturana.  Interestingly, in a translated preface to the second edition of his book De Máquinas y Seres Vivos appearing in the journal Constructivist Foundations in 2011, translators Alberto Paucar-Caceres and Roger Harnden specifically note:

To us, the word “chaos” in this context appears problematic in the English-speaking rendering. On the other hand, this has echoes with texts such as Carl Jung’s “Septem Sermones ad Mortuous” (1966), so we have left it as the original Spanish suggests. We hope the intended meaning is clear from the context, and it is in line with the author’s previous suggestion as to the quality of structural determinism being a “poetic synthesis.” We ourselves are entirely happy with the evocative implication (which resonates, in a somewhat different context, with, for example, the words of Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle  Stengers: “Order out of Chaos,” 1984). We are not suggesting these meanings map across on to each other – rather that they suggest the sense of episteme (p.303).

While providing clarity (and another rabbit trail to pursue) Paucar-Caceres and Harnden (2011) suggest Maturana’s chaos does not map directly on top of the more conventional understanding. However, I, like them, do appreciate how Maturana’s use of the term chaos resonates with this more familiar conception found across the systems literature. In the same preface, Maturana provides a somewhat clear definition of what he in particular means by chaos:

I think that I must insist here that the fact that the notion of chaos should arise from the inability of an observer to predict or visualize the appearing of a particular system from a domain of structural determinism that he or she cannot describe but this does not mean that the organization of the system that arises in a distinction depends arbitrarily on the actions or desires of the observer. Without doubt what an observer distinguishes depends on what he or she does, and there is no doubt that what he or she distinguishes is associated with the operation of distinction that he or she does, but the observer distinguishes only what can be distinguished in the space of structural coherences that arises in the coherence of his or her experience (Maturana, 2011, p. 303; emphasis added).

Chaos, to Maturana, is not an “intrinsic [condition] of what an observer could wish to call the ‘natural world’” (Maturana, 2011, p. 303) but a domain that exists beyond the predictive, anticipatory qualities of our own ordered domain. This is to say that whatever arises out of the chaotic domain could not be predicted on the basis of the coherences and regularities of our still unfolding experience (what we know at that moment; Maturana, 1995; Maturana, 2011). That which arises from the chaotic domain can pierce or entirely shatter the transparency of presently occupied microworlds and microidentities, their readiness for action, moving, assessments, and their expectations about how things will continue progressing (Varela, 1992a; Varela, 1999). It appears that to Maturana, we find ourselves in the domain of chaos when we could not have anticipated that which is presently happening to us (Maturana,1995; Maturana, 2011).

To continue expanding on this understanding, in one of his latest books available in English translation, Maturana explains that the domain of chaos, or nothingness as he also refers to it, is a domain “about which the observer can say nothing before the appearance of the system” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p. 172). Once a system appears, we are moved back into the domain of order. However, the domain the system or entity came from remains a domain of chaos until we are able to explain its appearance. Explaining how an entity appeared, or rather how we experienced its appearance, resolves the chaotic domain and it then collapses into order (Maturana, 1995; Maturana, 2011). From the perspective of Maturana’s language, while we are in chaos we cannot say anything because we, from the foundation of our own knowledge, are unable to perform an operation of distinction we can then say something about (distinctions are the basis of all language). Said another way, in Maturana’s chaotic domain we cannot say something because we do not know how. Once we are able to distinguish something, we are no longer speechless and have moved out of the chaotic domain. To add this to the running understanding, we find ourselves in Maturana’s chaotic domain when we distinguish an experience that we could not have anticipated and exceeds the bounds of our knowledge the moment it happens. Once we fall into chaos, we are speechless until we can make further distinctions in a period marked by language such as, “Let me figure out what is going on here.” Leaving the domain of chaos is more a matter our knowledge finally becoming relevant than it is anything else.

Moving Between Chaos and Order Through Distinctions

As a sense-making dynamic, above the activity of the nervous system, distinctions are our first, primordial step in grabbing a hold and making sense of the world in our unique way drawing from that which we already know. The following excerpt from Schultz (2009) eloquently captures the sense-making dynamics of distinctions:

When we draw a distinction (for example, a circle), then the distinction cannot be neglected; it has affected the space in which it is written, and we are, as such, “in” the form. The first distinction literally is a first judgment, an Ur-teil, which determines everything coming after it. Once the distinction has been drawn, a “universe” is there, and the gates to return to a state of nothingness are closed; that world is the mere “nameless origin of heaven and earth,” the phenomenology of which is lost (p. 161).

Similar to Schultz (2009), while discussing Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form in the context of Maturana, Mingers (1995) provides another useful perspective:

To distinguish something is the most basic linguistic act we can perform. Before counting things we must be able to distinguish between them, and before distinguishing several different things we must be able to distinguish something. This is the foundation of all language: to be able to create from nothing (the void) one thing, or state, or space, that is distinct (pp.50-51).

Both Mingers (1995) and Schultz (2009) discuss moving from the domain of nothing, which is synonymous with the domain of chaos in Maturana’s work, to the domain of order.  At the same time, both authors bring to the fore an important aspect of distinctions not yet discussed: Distinctions are recursive. The recursiveness of distinctions means that distinctions serve as the basis for the distinctions that follow. In the words of Maturana (2000):

A recursion takes place whenever a circular or cyclical process is coupled to a linear one, that is, when a circular or cyclical process is applied to the consequences (linear relational displacement) of its previous application (pp.462-463).

Recursions have the potential to create issues when considering how distinctions can move us from chaos to order. As they are recursive, a first distinction serves as building blocks for all that follow. What arises is a situation where the operation of distinction that move us from chaos to order may be the equivalent of building the foundation of a house out of sand. All that has been said about the recursive nature of distinctions applies to explanations discussed in the next section.

Varela (1992a) provides an interesting point of entry for discussing transitions from the domain of order to chaos through distinctions. He writes in an earlier quote introducing microworlds and microidentities that we constantly move from one to the next. Often, these transitions are imperceptible like in the example of moving from the microworld of eating lunch with a friend to that of going to work that takes place without leaving the ordered domain. In this example, distinguishing the time as 1300 marks the end of lunch hour and begins the process of transitioning to the “work” microworld.  However, in instances where we are surprised or shocked, Varela explains that these transitions can be “overwhelming.” In the graphics below, the tapered boundary represents how far the event leading to our experience of the chaotic domain exists from our ordered domain (the distance the unknown exists from the known). At the same time, the thicker the boundary the more perceptible the transition from one microworld to the next is.

Crossing the boundary of chaos and order always involves a degree of breakdown – the thicker the boundary the longer the breakdown is likely to last.

Thus Heidegger leaves open a place for traditional intentionality at the point where this is a breakdown. For example, if the doorknob sticks, we find ourselves deliberately trying to turn the doorknob, desiring that it turn, expecting the door to open, etc. (This, of course, does not imply that we were trying, desiring, expecting, etc. all along.) (Dreyfus, 1991, p. 70).
The Boundary and Transitions 

In a breakdown where we slip into a chaos we become aware of what it is we are engaged in and surroundings as that transparent flow our everyday order life is broken (Winograd & Flores, 1986). Suddenly, what was immersed with us in the transparent flow of our microworld and microidentity becomes obvious and we stand however briefly at the precipice between one microworld and the next.

“It is at the moments of breakdown, that is, when we are not experts of our microworld anymore, that we deliberate and analyze, that we become like beginners seeking to feel at ease with the task at hand”(Varela, 1992a, p.18).

Consider the following example from Maturana, from which this paper derives its name.

"Just imagine the following situation. One evening you visit friends to celebrate a party. Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation with a couple people, someone touches you on the shoulder. You turn around and recognize a friend whom you have not seen for many years. You friend seems to emerge out of nowhere. ‘Oh,’ you say, ‘What are you doing here?’ You ask him where he comes from, who invited him, what his life is like, etc. In fact, you create a history, a domain of connections, a background giving meaning to his appearance. In this way, his sudden emergence out of nowhere loses its frightening strangeness” (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p.32).

In the above example, the subject quickly moves into the domain of chaos by the shock produced by unexpectedly distinguishing their friend. This implies their friend’s appearance was at that instant outside the transparent flow of their microworld leading to a brief breakdown in the flow of their experience of everyday life (Varela, 1992a; Varela, 1999). Or in Maturana’s language, the appearance of their friend fell outside the coherences and regularities of their still-unfolding experience (Maturana, 1995; Maturana, 2011). At that moment, the transparency of the microworld they are inhabiting is pierced and they are for a second without one (Varela, 1999). As the subject in the example continues to perform an operation of distinction, they begin moving back from the domain of chaos into the domain of order, though not immediately. Until the operation of distinction is complete, the subject in the example remains in the domain of  chaos. In this space, they continue to perform the operation of distinction that attaches to their friend a particular context (e.g., you must know so and so, you came here on a plane) that gives their appearance meaning. Once they have completed the operation of distinction their experience “loses it frightening strangeness” (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p. 32; Varela, 1992). As is the case in the present example, the subject is able to move from chaos back into order by performing an operation of distinction that makes their friend’s appearance make sense to them.

Making Sense through Distinctions

The situation just described is central to this paper: We are constantly moving unknowns to knowns without noticing that this is so. While this is critical to our being able to function, meaning we cannot think reflectively about each and every thing, this situation nonetheless renders us precarious beings who are always in the process of laying down the same path we are walking on. With each distinction the direction of our path changes while each also serving as a foundation for the ones that follow. We are constantly, yet unknowingly, creating the way things are in the world to us. The force and perilous nature of this situation are both greatly exacerbated when we find ourselves in a situation where we need to explain that which we have distinguished to in order make sense of it.

Chaos to Order Transitions and Explanation

So far, the running discussion of sense-making has been directed at smaller events that only temporarily and slightly pierce our transparent habitus (Varela, 1999). But what happens when this transparency is shattered and we are thrown forcefully into chaos and experience a major breakdown? What happens when we cannot make sense of that which we have distinguished? How do we begin to make sense of something when the chaotic domain is at a greater distance from our ordered domain? Maturana reserves the notion of explanation for instances where we must engage more intently to make sense of our experience.

In general terms, explanations are answers to questions that demand an explanation as an answer and which are accepted as such by a listener. In particular terms, an explanation is the proposition of a generative mechanism or process, such that that which the observer wants to explain arises as a result or consequence of its operation (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, p.14, 2008).

Explanations do the heavy lifting of sense-making. Whereas distinctions are the initial “grabbing a hold” of something we experience so that we can talk about it, explanations deal with how the things we distinguished came about. Or in other words, explanations handle questions about our experience of that which we have already distinguished.

In Maturana’s work, an explanation is always 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). Within this form, there are two components; the formal condition, also known as the generative dynamic, and the informal condition. The formal condition is that which, if it took place, would give rise to the distinguished experience. It is the formal condition that provides an answer to the question about how something we have experienced (and could still be experiencing) came about. Maturana writes that generative mechanisms are composed of the coherences and regularities of our experience, which can be taken to mean our ordered domain. In other words, we explain our experiences with our experiences (Maturana, 1995; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008)

We see, we touch, we measure, and so forth, and in the same way that we use the coherences and regularities of our seeing, our touching, and our measuring as we formulate, describe, or present what we want to explain, we use the regularities and coherences of our seeing, touching, and measuring to propose the generative mechanism that will be our explanatory proposition (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p. 15).

The informal condition on the other hand, also known as our or someone else’s listening, “defines the kind of explanation that an observer wants and accepts” (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, pp.149-150, 2008). After a formal condition has been proposed, it is accepted or rejected on the basis of the informal condition that is usually not made explicit and may not be fully recognized by whoever is listening to the generative mechanism, that may be the same person who proposed it in cases where we explain things to ourselves which is of course the focus here.

The informal condition is what gives an explanation its character and defines its kind. As a result, there are as many different kinds of explanations as there are different kinds of informal conditions that can be added by the observer in his or her listening as he or she accepts a particular generative mechanism as an explanation (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, p.16, 2008).

Maturana leaves the content of informal condition open to any possibilities. However, he does suggest that mood and the action the explanation entails may be common components (Maturana, 1988a; Mingers, 1995).

In an explanation, the informal condition is the dominant force. It shapes the explanation by determining what formal condition will be accepted. Contrary to what may be assumed, it is not the generative mechanism that matters but the informal condition of the listener (who may be speaking to themselves). In less specific terms, explanations are causal language we and other people use to talk about the world that is accepted as accurate on the basis of what we know, how we feel at the moment we hear it (including when we speak it to ourselves), and what action it may entail  (Maturana, 1998; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, p.16, 2008; Mingers, 1995).

As we try and explain our way out of the chaotic domain we have landed in with its feelings of strangeness, doubt, and awe, we reach across the boundary of order and chaos into the ordered domain where we use the coherences of our experience to propose a generative mechanism (Maturana, 1988a; Maturana, 1995; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). We then pull these coherences back into the chaotic domain in the form of a generative mechanism. If our generative mechanism successfully passes through the filter of our informal condition, we are able to exit out of the chaotic domain and what was once considered to be chaos becomes a domain of order retrospectively (Maturana, 2011). If our initial formal condition is not accepted on the basis of our informal condition, we may try again or ask someone else. This situation is very much the same if someone is explaining to us, with the only exception being that someone else's coherences and regularities formulate the generative mechanism instead of our own. However, these same regularities and coherences may still appear in our informal condition.

Making Sense through Explanations 

The implications of explanations toward sense-making surpass those of distinctions alone. To reiterate, distinctions deal with what we experience while explanations are concerned with why we are experiencing it (how it came about). While distinctions can transition us in and out of chaos, explanations have the capacity to further define the coherences and regularities of our ordered domain. Once an answer to the question about the origins of our experience is accepted, it becomes part of the coherences and regularities of our ordered domain. As this explanation becomes part of what we know, it serves as the basis for all subsequent formal conditions we propose to ourselves and others and influences those we accept from coming from someone else.

In most imaginable cases, we are continually building upon a foundation that has built into it some degree of uncertainty positioning ourselves for a “collapse” into chaos when one of our explanations that has served as a recursive building block for others turn out to have been incorrect (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). Maturana (2011) notes that a collapse into chaos, to use a Cynefin dynamic, can be avoided if “one is prepared to give up one’s certainties when something unexpected develops” (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p. 44). Doing so may lead to the opening of new perspectives not found in our own knowledge.

Once an explanation is formed, accepted, and our emotionally tonality shifts from some sort of strangeness to contentment as the chaos we experienced is resolved, we may inhabit a newly created microidentity and microworld that the new explanation is a part of or fold the new experience into a microworld and identity that already exists (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Maturana, 2011; Pille, 2008;  Varela, 1992a). Whatever the case, the causal linkages we have established allow us to speak declaratively and definitively about that which has happened for the ultimate purpose of allowing us to continue progressing in the content, absorbed flow of our everyday life. It seems the emphasis is placed on what happens in the breakdown while we exist in the chaotic domain that defines whether or not a new microworld and identity will appear.

Sense-Making our Way into New Worlds

In Maturana’s work, sense-making can change the way we live. While this may be given throughout his theory of language, there are two places where it becomes explicit:

New domains of existence arise in us languaging beings in two basic ways: through the distinction of new kinds of experiences and through the adoption of new manners of explaining experiences (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p. 107)
“Explanatory propositions entail different manners of living” (Maturana, 1998b, p. 27)

It seems Maturana is indicating that operations of distinction and explanations have the capacity to change our flow of existence. Of course, distinctions are sin qua non for anything to be experienced so explanation itself entails distinctions. Looked at independently,  distinctions of new experiences may lead to new ways of living insofar as they first involve a breakdown where there is a crossing of the boundary of order into chaos and back again so that a new microworld and identity may be created leading to a change in “our pervasive mode of living” (Varela, 1992b, p.439). The creation of a new microworld and identity is also contingent upon whether or not the experience is distinguished as new. This depends more upon the coherences and regularities of the ordered domain and criteria and operation of distinction than it does on the experience itself. Under certain circumstances, the distinguished experience may be found unremarkable and treated like other experiences to be co-opted into an already-constituted microworld and identity (Bunnell, 2008; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Varela, 1992).

The situation become somewhat clearer when it comes to explanations. If new formal conditions become acceptable for new and old events the ordered domain itself changes character. To connect with Varela’s (1992a;1992b) language, changing how phenomena are explained alters existing microworlds and identities and changes the very material new ones will be constructed out of. Given Maturana’s expansive writing on explanation, for a change in what formal conditions are accepted to take place there would first have to be a change in informal conditions (Maturana, 1988a; Maturana, 1988b; Maturana, 1995). Earlier, it was briefly mentioned that Maturana considers emotion to be a regular component of informal conditions (Maturana, 1998a, Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). In an address given at the fifth Relating Systems Thinking and Design symposium, Maturana offers the following related insight:

The act of designing consists in specifying a particular configuration of processes conceived as an instrument to obtain certain results in some desired social domain which we may wish to inhabit. The impact that an act of design will have will depend always on what feelings it evokes in the persons that live in or with it (Maturana, 2016, p.2; emphasis added).

This quote could be interpreted in any number of ways and connected to his other writings in just as many. However, for present purposes, this quote will be interpreted to mean that as it relates to the designed world, that which we interact with has the capacity to change how we explain the world or let others explain it to us if our emotional tonality is affected enough. As design influences how we experience the world, this approach has direct implications toward how events themselves are experienced and moved from one domain to the next (Maturana, 2016; Verbeek, 2006). It appears then that if our emotional tonality is changed significantly enough by what we interact with our informal conditions may change and by consequence the explanations we are willing to accept for past, present, and future events as well. To connect with Varela’s (1992a) notion of microworlds, a considerable shift in affect may lead to the emergence of a new microworld and a change in the very material they are constructed out of.


The initial premise of this paper came to me while  preparing a conference presentation this past Spring for a wildland fire conference discussing perception. Then this winter while I was traveling around Norway by train, boat, and plane I finished the thought while moving back and form between a collection of Maturana’s books and Snowden and Kurtz's (2003) article “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world." Of course, it was not until I finally sat down to write this after many failed attempts that I actually understood it.

It is my hope that this paper clearly communicated that we are always making sense of the world around us through language. By the time we engage in some purposeful kind of sense-making, we have already unreflectively created a world that makes sense to us that we must now contend with. I do not believe this is new insight, it is just another way of getting there.

Both explanations and distinctions point to the importance of moments where we are confronted with something new as it is in these moments where we have an added propensity toward changing our existence or at the very least the flow of our course of action in the coming moments.  It is also in these moments where we can co-opt new experiences into those we have already had causing them to lose their potential for creating new ways of being.


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