Identity as Self-Generation: An Autopoietic Process of Reciprocal Maintenance

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

We Know the World First  by Our Assessments, and only Then by Our Identity


We make assessments about life.  What we say is subjective, grounded in how we make sense of living in the world.  It is how we know what we know, based on our sensations, knowledge, and relationships. All of these occur as processes, but we label them as objects as we form our identity in relation to them.



Central to our all of assessments is the implied question;

“Do we like the life we are living.”

Even if we do not ask this question directly, it is already and always present in the domain of how we describe an experience.  We either like or dislike something, and we have that experience.   Freud called it pleasure and pain, so this is not a new idea. Humberto Maturana also asks this same question saying that the source of our cognition is our biology.


In either theory, we experience life automatically through our identity, which determines our point of view.  In identity, "we are” that we like or dislike something. That is essentially a definition of identity. It is a state of being, and it is manifest in languaging. Who we know our self "to be" is an assessment of our own inner state, which we express as our way of being and acting in the world.


The World as a Construction Based on Experience and Beliefs


One can say, that the world occurs for us.  Its occurring happens in our inner state and is the source of our identity and also our behavior.  Self is always automatically assessing its experience, resulting in a world that we see being constructed by our own assessments and interpretations. It is this construction that has the world makes sense to us.  It provides us with a stable view of reality.  We know this reality in the coherence of our experience body, emotion, and language. This threefold coherence is our natural state. It is also the biological and cultural vehicle for the experience of humanness and for our ways of being and acting.

Human beings always act consistently to their understanding.  Our beliefs determine our actions.  What we do is always sourced in our identity. We cannot separate our identity from either our actions or our understanding. Behavior then is always justified by beliefs that something is true.


An Observer Observing the Action of Observation


It is the perspective of being an "observer observing" which makes an understanding of identity possible. Identity and belief actually observed. Absent this perspective we can only see according to the perceptual constraints of our beliefs. These are invisible without the consciousness of being an observer observing and including the act of observation in the process of observing. This is what Gregory Bateson called 2nd order observation.


When we observe what we do, we reveal our way of being.  A way of being is not an identity but arises from an identity.  It is transitory and yet can be persistent. As a behavior, its persistence arises inside a consistency of interpretation.  A fixed point of view is formed by historic assessments and influenced by the culture that persists as the structure of personal identity. However, both identity and ways of being are transitory, because they change given time and experiences.  It is the nature of living that everything that happens passes in the moment and disappears into the past. However, persistence occurs either because of being repeated by force of habits or by recurring circumstances in the world, which seem to validate our assessments of ourselves and of the world.


The Ontological Distinction at the Source of Meaning Arises in Language


Every language says what can be said.  Without it, there could be no identity, because there would be no self-reference. Once acquired, it is automatic and part of our structure for life.  It is through language that we construct meaning. Without language, we could not make any distinctions. These are all facts about language.


Through language, we distinguish the dynamics of life.  Maturana identifies sensorial, operational and relational dynamics as processes for living beings generating their existence in a living environment. He talks at length about these dynamics. which provides our access to understanding our environment, by providing answers to the linguistic questions at the root of language;  Who, What, When, Where, and How. Understanding these fundamental questions in relation to these dynamics enables us to make more meaningful distinctions.

Identity is the result of distinction in language that answers the linguistic question 'who?'. The action of distinction in self-reference alters identity. It also establishes the basis for the relationship between people.  Identity is fundamental to the grammatical construction of language. Without Identity, there is no time, and therefore no answer to the linguistic question 'when?'.  One can only conclude that we cannot separate sensorial, operational, and relational dynamics from the formation of identity.


Body, Emotion, and Language Give us Our Embodiment as Identity


Our experience is known in body emotions and language.  This is the basis for our ability to make distinctions that determine how any experience that occurs through our embodiment.  With words, we alter the meaning of the experiences of the body and emotion which we know by sensation.


The embodiment of experience gives us our point of view about it. We can make predictions about the future, and understand the story of what has happened in our past experience.  Our identity thus is adaptive in response to the perturbating impact of what happens and of how it occurs for us.  We move then from the unfamiliar to the familiar. Our recognition of events occurs completely automatically in our cognition. We form impressions, which means that we now recognize the similarities or differences of what we experience in the present moment by comparison to our memory of the past. The result is identification.


Autopoiesis is Self Generation


George Ivanovich Gurdjieff described a 'formatory apparatus' as a mechanism for our automatic thinking by which we recognize the similarity or difference between objects and processes that we perceive.  At the same time, he pointed to these mental processes which automatically operate in our sensation, feeling, and thinking and are based on this automatic source of recognition.


Forms or impressions are what is distinguished either by recognition or by the creation of new distinction.  The process of cognition that involves these forms or impressions is an automatic biological process. It happens simply as a function of our biological structure. This includes the automatic way that we generate identity.  Self-generation is the process by which we persist in existence as a living being. It is based on the structure of life interacting with its environment.  Humberto Maturana is credited with creating this distinction, which he calls Autopoiesis.


Self Generation is also the process in language by which meaning is created in reference to the perceiving self. By virtue of it, identity is formulated or altered.   The process of higher intellectual reasoning becomes possible when we add the capacity to observe as an "observer observing"  including the action of observation.  These ideas of Maturana and Bateson also have a correlation in the ideas of Gurdjieff.  Central to Gurdjieff's methods is what he referred to as "self-observation" and the finer distinction of "self-remembering". These distinguish between a simple first-order observation, and the more universal 2nd order observation.


Integrating Gurdjieff and Maturana


Our living in the world is accomplished by the manner in which both we and the environment mutually and reciprocally adapt to one another. This occurs in such a way that the overall system of life is maintained.  To Gurdjieff, this was a Cosmos.  To Maturana, it is a system that is living.  The difference, in my opinion, is largely just the words and the context that is used in using them. Gurdjieff was a mystic who talked about cosmology and Maturana is a scientist who talks about biology.


Despite this difference, there is a fundamental correlation also between Maturana’s Autopoiesis and the idea of Reciprocal Maintenance which is a key idea in the Gurdjieffian system. I am not saying that there is an actual connection between Maturana and Gurdjieff. In the 20th century, there are many people who independently thought about the same things in different ways.  My intention is to suggest simply that are complementary and this understanding could be useful to us now in our times.  It is worth noting and accounting for the fact that Humberto Maturana is a modern or even post-modern scientist and philosopher, and George Gurdjieff was both a traditionalist and a mystic with a somewhat modernistic bend for his era. Despite these differences, the commonalities are fascinating.


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