Wittgenstein and Autopoiesis:

In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote the following:

“The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.”

He also noted that, if a lion could talk, we would not understand him.

As a person very interested in cybernetics, I am looking at what Wittgenstein said in the light of autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is the brainchild of mainly two Chilean biologist cyberneticians Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela. Autopoiesis was put forth as the joining of two Greek words, “auto” meaning self, and “poiesis” meaning creating. I have talked about autopoiesis here.  I am most interested in the autopoiesis’ idea of “organizational closure” for this post. An entity is organizationally closed when it is informationally tight. In other words, autopoietic entities maintain their identities by remaining informationally closed to their surroundings. We, human beings are autopoietic entities. We cannot take in information as a commodity. We generate meaning within ourselves based on experiencing external perturbations. Information does not enter from outside into our brain.

Let’s take the example of me looking at a blue light bulb. I interpret the presence of the blue light as being blue when my eyes are hit with the light. The light does not inform my brain, but rather my brain interprets the light as blue based on all my previous similar interactions I have had. There is no qualitative information coming to my brain saying that it is a blue light, but rather my brain interprets it as a blue light. It is “informative” rather than being a commodity piece of information. As cybernetician Bernard Scott noted:

…an organism does not receive “information” as something transmitted to it, rather, as a circularly organized system it interprets perturbations as being informative.

All of my previous interactions/perturbations with the light, and others explaining those interactions as being “blue light” generated a structural coupling so that my brain perceives a new similar perturbation as being “blue light”. This also brings up another interesting idea from Wittgenstein. We cannot have a private language. One person alone cannot invent a private language. All we have is public language, one that is reinterpreted and reinforced with repeat interactions. The sensation that we call “blue light” is a unique experience that is 100% unique to me as the interpreter. This supports the concept of autopoiesis as well. We cannot “open” ourselves to others so that they can see what is going on inside our head/mind.

Our interpretive framework, which we use to make sense of perturbations hitting us, is a result of all our past experiences and reinforcements. Our interpretive framework is unique to us homo sapiens. We share a similar interpretive framework, but the actual results from our interpretive framework is unique to each one of us. It is because of this that even if a lion could talk to us, we would not be able to understand it, at least not at the start. We lack the interpretive framework to understand it. The uniqueness of our interpretive framework is also the reason we feel differently regarding the same experiences. This is the reason, as a happy person, we cannot understand the world of a sad person, and vice versa.

Our brain makes sense based on the sensory perturbation and the interpretive framework it already has. A good example to think about this is the images that fall on our retina. The images are upside down, but we are able to “see” right side up. This is possible due to our structural coupling. What happens if there is a new sensory perturbation? We can only make sense of what we know. If we face a brand-new perturbation, we can make sense of it only in terms of what we know. The more we know, the more we are further able to know. As we face the same perturbation repeatedly, we are able to “better” experience it, and describe it to ourselves in a richer manner. With enough repeat interactions, we are finally able to experience it in our own unique manner. From this standpoint, there is no mind-body separation. The “mind” and “body” are both part of the same interpretive framework.

I will leave with another thought experiment to spark these ideas in the reader’s mind. There has always been talk about aliens. From what Wittgenstein taught us, when we meet the aliens, will we be able to understand each other?

I recommend the following posts to the reader expand upon this post:

If a Lion Could Talk:

The System in the Box:

A Study of “Organizational Closure” and Autopoiesis:

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was When is a Model Not a Model?

8 thoughts on “Wittgenstein and Autopoiesis:

  1. Interesting when put in the context of seeing problems and waste on the genba. We need not only see the situation (probably multiple times); it also requires the interpretive framework built over time through learning and reinforcement by others that went before us and now accompany us (physically) on the shop floor.


  2. Thanks. Always love to use words Wittgensteinian.
    Wittgenstein noticed that meaning of a word comes from its correct use. You cannot sit on the word “chair”, so the use of the word chair doesn’t come from sitting on it. You’ve been instructed how to sit on a chair. AND able to use the chair as a ladder, for instance, to reach for a book on the top shelf. Applying this to the use of words in philosophy: you’ve been instructed on the correct use of a word, but you can use it in a different way to reach another concept. And then – in a Wittgensteinian sense – get rid of the word.

    Paradoxically, using a word incorrectly – you’ll notice this when people start to correct you by saying: “this is only semantics” – or rather, using it in an uninstructed way – induces new understanding.

    Words, like chairs, are constructed. The structure makes them useful. Making sense with sentences. That’s why we also call these lines “rules”.

    As you can only sit in a chair by sitting in it, so you can only have meaning while constructing (it). In language, constructing is being called “grammar”. You’re grammaticalizing meaning. Assembling words figuring out meaning – together. I sometimes call it “configurating” and made a method of it.

    And I’m not implying, that you should “deconstruct” meaning. You cannot, like you cannot “deconstruct” a chair without destructing it. Also, because meaning follows use, I consider meaning not to be a social construct. You need a group or culture to grow (“culture”) meaning, like you need a brain to think.

    In line with Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by M. R. Bennett, P. M. S. Hacker (https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Philosophical+Foundations+of+Neuroscience-p-9781405108386) and autopoiesis, I speak of human beings interpreting “blue light”. You’re using your senses and brain in making sense, but neither a brain nor senses have “any sense”. Words don’t make sense either 🙂 .

    Also, you don’t have an “image” falling on your retina, you’re “imagining” so; like there is an image on your screen. You’re constructing “images” – there’s no image to be found in the brain – as you’ve got to use it “correctly” or rather, to correct your use of the constructed image “in your mind”.

    When using words like “Organizational closure”, normally, we’re referring to a metaphor about “open” and “closed”. In reality, closed (a closed door) implies “not open” and open “not closed” (kicking in an open door). Auto-poetic beings organize themselves as being both open AND closed. That’s the trick to (re)construct your self).
    Thanks for reading this.


    • Thank you Jan. I also think of Tractatus Wittgenstein as being more first order (picture theory) and Investigations Wittgenstein as second order (meaning is in use).


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