The Embodiment of Life: Francisco Varela (1946-2001)
On Wednesday I will be attending a conference to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Francisco Varela, organised by the Centre for Real World Learning, and hosted at City University in London. There are still places available for those who wish to attend.
Have you heard of Francisco Varela? If not, I envy you, because you have the chance to experience the excitement of his singular contribution to knowledge for the first time, while I can only read him again, and again, and again.
I was introduced to Varela by my Phd supervisor, Guy Claxton, who is one of the main organisers of Wednesday’s conference. It is difficult to do justice to Varela’s thought with a standard academic description. ‘Cognitive Scientist’ is a good start, but there are thousands of those. What makes Varela particularly special is the confluence of three main strands of thought: Biology, particularly Neuroscience, European Philosophy, particularly the Phenomenological and Existential strands, and Tibetan Buddhism, particularly his own sustained practice of meditation.
What these perspectives gave him was a view of consciousness from third(objective/impartial), second(inter-subjective/relational) and first(subjective/embodied) person perspectives. He was a scientist, philosopher and meditator. He had a unique ability to understand human beings simulatenously as bodies, relationships and minds. His experience in contemplative practice also brought a strong ethical dimension to his work- he was always thinking about the ethical implications of our understanding of what it means to be human.
I enjoyed his classic texts The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (co-written with Maturana) and The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience(co-written with Thompson and Rosch), but the book that made the deepest impression was a small book comprising three lectures called: “Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition.”
When I came upon this book I was at a low point in the process of thesis writing, struggling for a fresh perspective on the concept of wisdom, and disenchanted with the main theoretical perspectives available, including those of Robert Sternberg at Yale and Paul Baltes at the Max Plank Institute of Human Development. These proto-canonical models were basically sophisticated psychometric measures, reducing wisdom to a form of advice-giving expertise. They succeeded in making the concept of wisdm more tractable and amenable to empirical measurement, but could only do so by cutting it off from the embodied, situated nature of wisdom, which is what I most valued, and wanted to understand better.
Varela’s view of wisdom was very different, because it presents it as a form of ethical know how in action. There is no point in being wise in abstract if you cannot act wisely in complex situations when called upon to do so. Varela doesn’t give the particular example that follows, but his perspective helped me to understand this kind of wise action:
There is a classic story of Mahatma Gandhi hurredly boarding a train that was pulling away from the platform. As he boarded, one of Gandhi’s sandals fell onto the track. With no time to retrieve it, and with the train gathering speed, he instantaneously took off his other sandal and threw it down, so that whoever came upon the first sandal would now have a pair of sandals to wear.
What struck me about this example, and what I wanted to understand better, is the difference between thinking of doing such a thing, perhaps five minutes later when it would no longer be effective, and being ready, willing and able to act wisely in an immediate problematic situation, as Gandhi was in this case.
Varela’s view of ethics helped me considerably in this regard,because he has a highly sophisticated view of virtuous action arising from extended inclinations and dispositions, usually cultivated through sustained ethical or spiritual practice, in which we gradually decentre from our egoic impulses by becoming aware of our fragile or ‘virtual’ selves. In the small book I mentioned(p73) he puts it as follows:
“The means of transformating mental constiuents into wisdom is intelligent awareness, that is, the moment-to-moment realisation of the virtual self as it is-empty of any eogic ground whatsoever, yet filled with wisdom. Here one is positing that authentic care resides at the very ground of Being, and can be made fully manifest in a sustained, succefful ethical training. A thoroughly alien thought for our nihilistic Western mood, indeed, but one worthy of being entertained.”
There is lots more to say about Varela, who was originally from Chile and became the Director of Research for the French National Research Council. I hope to report back after the event on Wednesday, but for now, you can get a glimpse of the person and his thought by watching the following video.