Conversation and Complexity

Peter Bond
University of Liverpool, ENG


The aim of this paper to show that organizations are complex because the conversational or linguistic interactions between people, are complex. Because they are complex, conversations are a constant, inexhaustible but unpredictable source of difference, especially emotion, leading to a flow of creativity and the continuous generation of new meaning to words, and that to which they apply. The orthodox view of conversation is that of a discussion involving an exchange of information or transfer of knowledge from one to another. This paper explores an alternative theory of language, of conversations, and of complex systems from the biologist and cybernetician Humberto Maturana who claims the function of language is the mutual orientation and coordination of joint actions. This makes it not just a theory of language, but also a theory of organizing.


There several aims of this paper, primarily it is to show that organizations are complex because the conversational interactions between people are complex. It is also to build on a previous paper (Bond, ECO1) in which it was claimed that Maturana and Varela’s biology of cognition (BoC) is also a theory of complex systems. There is, also, a practical dimension to this paper, which is to develop a model of conversing that will underpin a radically different view of organizational dynamics. Organizations are claimed to be open networks of conversations, which, due to their inherent complexity, are continuously generating unexpected and unpredictable results, some beneficial some harmful. A significant source of uncertainty is the emotioning that conversing induces in the interlocutors..

Maturana, with his student and long-time collaborator Francisco Varela, are most widely known for their theory of living systems, usually referred to as autopoietic theory, but to its creators it is the biology of cognition (BoC). There is much more to the theory than autopoiesis and life, it is also a theory of everyday living, of cognition, language, and also of what makes we humans unique. Jim Meiss (2003)1 defines a complex system as a spatially and/or temporally extended nonlinear system characterized by collective properties or behaviors associated with the system as a whole, which are different from those of the constituent parts. In this definition, nonlinearity is taken as the primary defining property. If conversations are complex, it implies that a linguistic interaction between just two people is complex, seeming to challenging the commonly held belief that only systems with large numbers of components can be complex. (e.g. Cilliers, 1998; Heywood et al., 2007). For other approaches to defining a complex system see, for example, (Edmonds, 1999, Thrift, 1999; Harter, 2006; Wallis, 2008).

Bearing these two points in mind, the starting point for this paper will be a review of current approaches to language theory, together with some newer developments, before introducing Maturana and Varela’s interpretation. The following step is to discuss some of Maturana and Varela’s key concepts before finally tackling the main objective. Before all that, there will be a brief introduction to the clash of scientific paradigms that Maturana and Varela have had to contend with, even if implicitly.

A clash of paradigms

Broadly, there are two approaches to understanding the phenomenon of language. The cognitivist approach claims language is a mental function and therefore its origins lie with a specific functional area of the human brain, or perhaps the result of a gene like FOX-2P. The other is that language is a social phenomenon. Maturana and Varela’s explanation fits the latter, but differs from similar theories because their explicit starting point is that of second order cybernetics.

The word cybernetics is derived from the Greek kybernetes meaning steersman. The concept was revived and elaborated by Norbert Wiener who defined it as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Cybernetics grew as a new academic discipline through a series of high-powered interdisciplinary meetings known as the Macy Conferences, which were attended by leading theoreticians of the day, including mathematicians, anthropologists, and psychologists. Their goal was to develop a general theory of organizational control in designed and natural systems, including organisms.

Certain aspects of early cybernetics remain deeply ingrained in both the social and natural science of today and it continues to influence in subtle and unapparent ways, and not always to the good. What nowadays might be taken for granted, the modern sciences of control theory, computer science, information theory (especially as communication), artificial intelligence, neural networks, cognitive science (brain-as-computer), computer modelling and simulation science, dynamical systems, and artificial life, were all products of cybernetics. However, perhaps the most influential idea was, and continues to be, the brain-as-computer, a metaphor turned explanation (Gannt et al.), the roots of which are Claude Shannon’s (1948) mathematical theory of communication (see also Weaver & Shannon, 1963) the basis also of information theory applied to biology.

First order cybernetics provided the foundation for the broader scientific paradigm that today continues to influences much of the theory making in both the natural and social sciences, including language theory. Second order cybernetics also grew out of interest in the organism, in the autonomy of biological entities, self-organization, and cognition, but most crucially about the role of the observer in constructing explanations. It’s leading lights were Heinz von Foerster, an original participant in the Macy conferences, along with Margaret Mead, Gordon Pask, and Ranulph Glanville (see Glanville, 2008), and a young Maturana. Second order cybernetics recognizes that an observer cannot be separated from what is observed and so the exact details of a system construct will depend on their interaction with it. If the observer is a cybernetic entity trying to construct a model of another cybernetic entity, then to understand the process requires a cybernetics of cybernetics, hence, a second order cybernetics.

The belief that language is the property of an information processing or symbol manipulating brain remains a central tenet of cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics. In these, the purpose of language is invariably communication, which involves sending and receiving information, or encoding and decoding symbols or signs, processes ‘managed’ by a specific part of a brain. For example, Ray Jackendorf, (2003) says language is a ‘mental phenomenon’ associated with a specialized organ. Chomsky also refers to the language faculty as a mental organ analogous to the heart (Chomsky, 1980:39), and reaffirms this view in Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch, (2002) and in Berwick and Chomsky (2011), while others have suggested a single gene is the source of language, such as FOXP2 (e.g., Christiansen & Kirby, 2003, chaps. 2,11, 14; or Savage-Rumbaugh & Fields, 2011). One does not have to dig very deeply into works on how language evolved before finding references to information exchange, or storage (working and long-term memory), or the neural processing of information (e.g., see, Smith et al., 2008; Wynn & Coolidge, 2009; Botha & Knight, 2009; di Scuillo & Boecx, 2011; Schilhab et al., 2012).

There is, however, a growing dissatisfaction with such reductionist explanations that has led to more social forms of explanation. Amongst the anti-cognitivists are Stephen Cowley, who conceives the brain as a biosocial organ that has evolved with language (e.g., 2002), and who believes language cannot be reduced to either information processing or ‘symbolic computation’ of the kind proposed by, for example, Deacon (1998). Instead of the brain being the locus of symbol processing, Cowley sees the roots of language in action with others, which conclusion is shown later to echo Maturana’s view. Roy Harris (e.g., 2004) has led the development of the integrationist theory of language in which it is argued that the fixed code view of symbols is a myth (Love, 2004), and meaning is made in context through action and conversations, again echoing Maturana. The integrationist approach dovetails with ideas of distributed cognition (e.g., Cowley, 2009) and Clarke’s (2008) extended mind and similar (Cowley & Spurrett, 2003, Spurrett, 2004), leading to the growing field of distributed language theory. Kravchenko (2006, 2007, 2009) is essentially an integrationist but in particular has attempted to create links between distributed theories of language and the BoC. However, the cognitivist theory of language remains dominant, as do its definitions, which are explored next.

Definitions of language

For the purposes of distinguishing Maturana and Varela’s theory of language consider the following conventional definition: “Language is a system of symbolic communication where an arbitrary relationship between the sign (usually a word) and the signified is defined by convention” (Davidson, 1991). This makes language a denotative system of meaning, in which an utterance, or written word stands for, or is symbolic of, for example, a thing, an event, or a behavior. The purpose of ‘the system’ is communication of the ‘information’ embodied in the symbols. This makes natural language a kind of ‘symbolic schema’ a lexical framework of symbols each with specific or denoted meanings. When one speaks of, for example, the French language, or the German what is referred to, implicitly, is the lexicon of meaningful words generated within those cultures, which, as will be shown presently, emerge from porous networks of conversation. This is also how organizations come to have distinct cultures.

In contrast, in the BoC the phenomenon of natural language is described as:

"... the system of cooperative consensual interaction between organisms" What appears to happen, or what is observed is "...the creation of a cooperative domain of interactions between speakers through the development of a common frame of reference, although each speaker acts exclusively within his cognitive domain..." (Maturana & Varela, 1980:57)


Linguistic behavior is orienting behavior; it orients the orientee within his cognitive domain to interactions that are independent of the nature of the orienting interactions themselves. (Maturana & Varela, 1980:30)

These two definitions are brought together in Figure 1, which will be outlined shortly. The process of gaining mutual orientation, or the process of co-ordinating actions, Maturana calls languaging, which an observer, from their point of description, conceives as a flow of behavioral co-ordinations, but also as semantic interactions, which is how conventional concepts of language as symbol processing arise. However, it is the establishment of a common frame of reference that is of most interest in explaining conversation as a complex system. Frustratingly, neither Maturana nor Varela really expand upon this concept, and the intention here is to do so. Before this step some basic principles of the BoC need to be introduced.

Basic principles of the BoC

Maturana and Varela have studied the same interesting phenomena as many other scientists before them: life, cognition, language and biological evolution, but from an almost unique perspective, that of the observer. As a consequence, the form of their explanations, particularly the conceptual elements used, are unfamiliar and therefore require clarification in each and every article if it is to stand-alone. Inevitably, this leads all too often to very long papers that repeat the epistemological fundamentals. Missing these out, however, invites the risk of misunderstanding and, later, misrepresentation of the BoC, so here another attempt is made to capture its essence in more common parlance. This section will introduce some concepts that are fundamental to the BoC, but only in as much detail as needed to understand the models introduced below.

The Observer

“ [E]verything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be him- or herself." (Maturana, 1988a, p. 27)


This famous quotation from Maturana captures the essence of second order cybernetics. To fully explain any phenomenon requires an explanation of the explainer. Only we humans can describe and explain, so any explanation worthy of the label ‘scientific’ must explain what it is to be human. Thus truly scientific explanations, i.e., the fullest, most rigorous and most contested kind explanations, should account for the process of explaining the unique human capability of language. Observing is more than seeing, it engages all human senses. It is useful to either think of it as sensing the world around us, or as simply interacting with it in ways enabled by senses. It follows that for most of our species’ existence, our experience, and therefore knowledge of the world, was limited by the nature of our senses, although enlarged through intuition and imagination. This remains largely true in daily life today, and even in science, which cannot be as objective and rational as many claim (see Bond, ECO1). Accepting and accounting for the biology of observers, rather than undermining science, social and natural, can provide powerful new insights that strengthen it.

The organism-medium system

The second core concept, although more of an underlying and therefore implicit theme of Maturana and Varela’s works, is the organism-medium system (OMS). The OMS is a fundamental unit of analysis and is herein presented as the basis of a model of living and consequent behaviors, including conversing. The intention of this section is to run quickly through the OMS and then track back to explain in greater detail the key theoretical concepts involved.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The generic model of recursive interactions a) organism-medium system, b) body-nervous system, c) between autopoietic cells.

Referring first to figure 1. Three kinds of reciprocal interactions are depicted, all of which are recursive and complex. Figure 1a is of the organism-medium system. Figure 1b shows the recursive structural coupling of the operationally closed but open brain-nervous system, and figure 1c is of two structurally coupled and autopoietic neuronal cells. The OMS will be used to illustrate the principal interactions involved.

The very evident evolutionary changes in organism and medium require that the two remain in congruence as they change together, or co-evolve. The medium induces changes in the organism by a process of perturbing, and the organism changes the medium through behaviors (or actions/activities) triggered, but not determined by, events in the medium. This kind of circularity is a feature of Maturana and Varela’s explanations. In physics, to perturb is to induce, indirectly, a change in a system. In essence, an organism is disturbed by events it distinguishes (or senses) in its medium. Perturbations, which are changes to internal structure, are triggered continuously in an organism by virtue of its continuous interactions with its medium. Changes take place moment by moment. However, cause and response are only indirectly related, and results (the effect of behaving and perturbing) are unpredictable. In other words the OMS exhibits nonlinear behavior, which characteristic indicates the system is complex. The process will be addressed in detail below.

Referring to the OMS. It is implicit that all changes are structural and are made through a joint process of accretion and cumulation. Accretion refers to a gradual change through a layering process i.e., one change on top of another, while cumulation refers to gathering and combining of results. Both processes lead to an evolutionary change in the qualities of organism and medium. Because change is on top of change, successive changes are constrained by those previous. Time and processes go forward and are irreversible. Structural coupling, referred to above, is achieved over time as organism and medium change in reciprocal interactions. In figures 1b and 1c the brain-nervous system changes with the body that contains it, and in the neuron pair, the one is changed (perturbed) by changes in the other, also in a reciprocal but also recursive manner, noting of course that there are billions of neurons in a network of relationships.

Recursive processes and generation of complexity

Referring now to figure 2, which is an attempt to capture what Maturana et al. call a recursive process.

When a repeating circular process becomes (structurally) coupled with a linear one that displaces the circumstances of the repetition, the repetition of the circular process becomes a recursion, and a new phenomenal dimension appears. (Maturana et al., 1995:17).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Recursive process.

According to the definition, when the organism’s circular metabolic processes are structurally coupled with a linear process, recursion occurs. Changes that take place recursively create a new configuration of parts that occurs moment after moment in a flow of structural adjustments, forming what Maturana and Varela refer to as a new phenomenological domain (see Bond, ECO1). A domain is a physical space created by the interactions between parts of a system. The theoretical significance of new domains is that they potentially present the opportunity for something different to happen in the next moment. Changes are made on top of previous changes through accretion and cumulation (figure 1), a process that Maturana refers to as epigenesis. The term, as used here, has nothing to do with genes, but is about creation. It is derived from the Latin 'epi', meaning on top of, and 'genesis,' meaning creation—thus 'on top of creation' (Maturana, 2001). Epigenesis refers to nothing less than a continuous production of new starting conditions, of new beginnings, as modification is made on top of modification of the initial starting conditions. Thus recursion and epigenesis generates novelty, thus surprising and unanticipated results, in other words, uncertainty and unpredictability, the characteristics that indicate a system is complex.

The next step is to facilitate a more complete understanding of the OMS by addressing the concepts involved in more detail. First of these will be the organism.

Organisms: Operationally closed but open

Within the BoC, all organisms, from unitary to multicellular animals like we humans, are treated as operationally closed systems, meaning the results of the metabolic processes are wholly manifest within their boundaries. The operational closure of metabolic processes, sometimes referred to as organizational closure, also evokes the idea of circular causality, which leads to the notion of autopoiesis, meaning self-creation, which Maturana and Varela (e.g., 1980, 1992) contend is the defining characteristic of life. Operational closure of circular metabolic processes limits what an organism can absorb or subsume. Although energy and matter can be and is exchanged, an organism cannot assimilate or take-in just any substance from the medium, especially ones that purport to carry a set of instructions that determine how an organism behaves (see Bond ECO1). Critically, it implies conversation cannot be explained in terms of informational input, neither can an organism be programmed or instructed to behave in a particular way by an input such as a gene. In any case, even information theorists believe information is immaterial. If it is not physical it cannot be processed by any physical entity. The challenge is to explain how someone appears to become informed through conversations (see Bond ECO1 on the latter two points). Events in the medium, then, do not directly determine behavior but instead indirectly influence, or perturb, the structural configuration of the organism—moment-by-moment.

The operationally closed but open brain-nervous system

Referring now to figure 1b. The brain nervous system is taken as operationally closed and structurally coupled with a body. In the diagram, body and brain-nervous system are shown separated, but, of course, the other embodies the one. Moreover, the structural coupling between brain-nervous system and body is also recursive, the circular physiological process of the brain being coupled with the linear process of bodily actions. The interaction of these two systems is complex, and is manifest at the level of the whole organism. Further, the brain-nervous system is composed of different kinds of neuronal cells, counted in billions, and integrates the sensing organs, which are components of both body and brain-nervous system (Maturana, 1997). Each neuronal cell is itself operationally closed and exists in a physical medium comprised of molecules and other neurons (see Maturana & Varela, 1992). As discussed later, it is structure that constrains or determines the behavior or possible processes that can take place moment-by-moment and it is physical, material and concrete. Structure conserves autopoiesis and the cohesion of the organism. What disturbs our senses, heat, light, sound, smell, touch, perturbs the brain-nervous system via the sense organs, which process leads to, as stated above, adjustments to structure. Again, complexity is manifest at the whole system level through novel and unexpected behaviors, in, for example, everyday creativity.

Treating, what has been called here, the brain-nervous system, as operationally closed has far-reaching implications for a theory of conversations, the most significant of which it helps account for the very evident experience that all humans share, the ability to talk to ourselves in what we refer to as our ‘imagination’ or mind (more on this to follow).

Environment, medium, and niche

Collectively, these terms refer to the context in which an organism is deemed to exist. As with many other commonplace terms, environment, medium and niche take on a slightly different significance in the BoC.

The environment is the context in which an organism is distinguished by an observer. Medium and niche are defined from the point of view of an organism. A medium is that part of an observer conceived environment in which an organism’s living is supported. The medium is created through the interactions that maintain a particular manner of being in the world, bearing in mind that some events will jeopardize living. A medium would appear to be specific to an organism but mediums overlap and interweave as evidenced in symbiotic relationships and ecological systems. Since organism and medium co-evolve, the sensing apparatus of each species will be ‘tuned’ into their respective mediums. Medium as described here would more commonly be associated with the idea of niche, but in the BoC niche has a more specific meaning.

Niche is a space (or domain), contiguous with the nominal boundary of an organism, where, it might be said, physiological processes extend into the medium (after Scott Turner, 2000, 2004). Life sustaining physico-chemical interactions occur at the niche, for example, the exchange of oxygen/carbon-dioxide within the lungs. But our senses also operate at the niche. Our sense of smell is based on chemical/molecular interaction at the quantum level, our human sense of touch involved heat transfer across the skin. And we are all now familiar with the symbiotic role bacteria plays in the human digestive systems to breakdown ‘food’ into its constituent parts ready to be assimilated or taken up in the blood stream. Very importantly, for living entities the niche marks the notional boundary, albeit a fuzzy one, between what Maturana and Varela refer to as the physiological and relational domains.

Phenomenal domains and explanations

The OMS integrates two phenomenal domains, which are differentiated by the kind of processes that occur within the spaces created by them. One being biological, or physiological, and the other Maturana and Varela refer to as the relational or behavioral phenomena. The behavioral domain is the space in which the observer observes using normal senses. What he or she senses/observes is adjustments in relationships between whole organisms within their observer conceived environments. Take tool-using behavior as an example. What an observer sees is the action of tool on an object, but only infer there are physiological processes involved. The scientific relevance of dividing the system into two phenomenal domains is that what happens in one domain cannot be described, and more importantly explained, in the same terms. Results of processes that occur in the physiological domain should only, and can only, be explained in terms of physico-chemical interactions. That’s one reason why information cannot be processed.

Returning to figure 1a, behavior is what is observed to occur between organism and medium. Maturana points out that many so-called scientific explanations, especially neurological phenomena, are made in terms that can only pertain to the behavioral domain. In such cases the metaphors and analogies, such as the computer brain, information and symbol processing, or the storage of information, become uncritically accepted as explanations (see also Gantt et al., 2012 for how metaphors become explanations). In the latter case, for example, storage is not an observable phenomenon, but the ability to recall a past experience is. Uncritical use of computer analogies, such as a memory bank and hard-wiring, undermines and diverts scientific study down what will ultimately prove to be a dead end. It is, therefore, a fundamental error to conflate physiological and behavioral domains. The solution to this problem is to treat organism and medium as a single system consisting of two phenomenal domains. This is what makes Maturana and Varela’s explanation of language and conversing so radical. Before addressing this topic some further principles need to be introduced.

The observer, Structure, structural determination and complexity

The aim of this lengthy section is to connect the nature of observing to what is determined by an observer to be complex. The link between the two is structure, and how we observers are constrained to create it.

Distinguishing structure and explaining

The distinctive interpretation of structure used by Maturana and Varela emerges directly from their accounting for the role of the observer in making explanations. The crucial first step of of observing is the act of distinguishing. All organisms distinguish. Distinguishing is taken for granted but for Maturana and Varela it is a fundamental act of cognition, indeed of living (see Varela, 1979; Maturana, 1988b). Dogs distinguish grey pigeons from grey squirrels, and cats from other dogs, by using, simultaneously, a combination of senses: sight, sound and smell. The difference with humans is that we name our distinctions. The whole concept of structure arises out of a fundamental act of living in conversation, of which more presently.

Distinguishing leads directly to the concept of a system. A system is composed of components that an observer distinguishes and names. "Behind the simplest idea of a system, stands the basic act of splitting the world in what we consider separable and significant entities." say Varela & Goguen, (1978:293). Immediately a distinction is made, a background is created, and when multiple parts are distinguished so too must their relations. Explanations of any kind of phenomenon, whether life or lightning, can only be in terms of a mechanism, an operation, or the dynamics of interactions involving changes in relations between actual parts as suggested in the following definition: “[T]he structure of a particular [system] is the manner in which it is actually made by actual static or dynamic components and relations in a particular space…” (Maturana, 1988b:6.iv.)

This would apply equally to engineered machines (allopoietic systems). The workings of a clock, for example, can only be explained with reference to parts and relations between them. Hopefully readers can now begin to appreciate more easily why the physiological and behavioral domains cannot be conflated: their components are of a different nature, and relations of a different kind. Note also that it is only since the augmentation of normal human senses by the invention of modern microscopes in 16th century that it has been possible to even attempt to describe physiological and similar micro level processes.

Since drawing distinctions and therefore recognizing parts of, especially of complex systems, are subjective, all system descriptions, including their dynamics, are abstractions of observer experience. There are two approaches to their acceptance as ‘true.’ The first is to build them, putting together actual parts in actual relations, as is done in scientific experimentation. Or, if this is not possible (as in astrophysics) agreement or consensus must be gained amongst recognized experts, with or without the use of mathematical modelling. Gaining consensus on theories is perhaps one of the principal activities of scientists and scholars, which is only achieved through conversations. See Maturana (1978, 1988a) for a discussion of scientific method and how science evolves through consensus or ‘compelling arguments.’ However, as philosopher of complexity Edgar Morin (2008) has pointed out, there are some systems that are so ‘complicated’ they are impossible to reduce to their individual parts, and reductionist scientific methods fail, these are ‘really’ complex systems (see also Bond ECO1).

Complex systems and limits to explaining

It follows from the discussion on structure, that there is only one approach to explaining and that is through structure and the dynamics thereof. From the observer point of view, behavior has to be determined by structure, designed or natural, and that to explain a function is to describe, as far as one can, the changes in relations between parts of something deemed to be a system, which is the mechanism that produces the result associated with it. If a system can be defined as:

[A]collection of elements that interact and relate with each other in such a way that the interactions that any of those elements have, and the results of these interactions, depend upon its relations with the others. (Maturana, Mpodozis & Letelier, 1995:16).

It follows that in relation to a really complex system, as Morin (2008) might express it, it is beyond an observer’s biological capability to distinguish between all the elements and so relations cannot be revealed. This implies that an observer cannot describe the underlying dynamics of structure of a truly complex system, and therefore cannot explain the specific process through which a particular result is produced. Uncertainty about behavior, the inability to predict a particular result, is what characterizes a system as complex. Nevertheless, Maturana and Varela provide a generic model of a recursive process involving structurally coupled components that helps further to explain the unpredictability of complex systems, a corollary of which is the generation of novel results, which is what human creativity is. Finally, it follows also that even though structural dynamics cannot be known, whatever result is distinguished will be determined by this same dynamic structure, because this is how we humans explain results, which point leads to the idea of structure determined behavior.

Structural determinism

The formal definition of structurally determined system, sometimes called a structure specified system, is:

[A] system in which all that happens happens as a structural change determined in it at every instant by its structure at that instant, regardless of whether this structural change arises in it in the flow of its own internal dynamics, or contingent on its interactions. (Maturana, 1988a:36)

The operation of a system can be conceived as a continuous transformation of relationships between parts that only interact as system components for fleeting moments, and that, in those particular moments, the actual relations between the actual components of the system produce a particular result. Apropos an operationally closed, autopoietic living entity, the result of its processes is itself, because it is self-creating, Part of the reason why such systems are classified as complex is because they are beyond the limit of our ability to deconstruct, and so reconstruct a description and model of their operation, except in general terms. For example, by building mathematical models from probability theory. However, there is another degree of complexity in social systems, because each component is itself complex. And in organisms, like we humans, another source of nonlinear dynamics lies in the recursive structural coupling of body and brain-nervous system, which makes understanding language and conversing a true scientific challenge. The next basis concept to be considered is structural coupling?

Structural coupling

Structural coupling takes the reader a step closer to a model of conversing. It is defined as follows.

When two or more structure determined systems enter in recursive interactions and undergo structural changes without losing their respective class identities, their structures change together congruently, and there is structural coupling. We call structural coupling both the dynamics of coherent structural changes that occur in such a case, and the condition of structural coherence that takes place as a result of that dynamics. (Maturana & Mpodozis, 2000:48)

Without going deeper into BoC theory, readers can take it that the reference to retaining class identity means, essentially, that interactions are not destructive. The idea of perturbing organism structure applies primarily to non-destructive interactions.

The organism-medium system of figure 1, helps illuminate the idea of structural coupling. When organism and medium interact over extended periods of time, some structural changes occur, whether through being perturbed or acting on (behavior), and can be retained, a process Maturana and Varela (1992) refer to as drifting. For example, when two organisms interact, the structural changes of state in one are manifest in subsequent behaviors which in turn become perturbations for the other, and vice versa, in a manner that establishes what Maturana (1978) has described as an interlocked, mutually selecting, mutually triggering domain of structural or state trajectories (structural drift).

When two or more autopoietic systems interact recurrently, and the dynamic structure of each follows a course of change contingent upon the history of each's interactions with the others, there is a co-ontogenic structural drift that gives rise to an ontogenically established domain of recurrent interactions between them… (Maturana, 1988b:8.ii.a)

There are numerous examples from more mainstream research with human subjects showing how whole body changes occur through repetitive interactions with other people, and between things and people. Support is found in an increasing number of papers suggesting that the development of specialist physical and so-called mental skills of professionals is associated with persistent, but not necessarily permanent, changes to the morphological structures of brain and body brought about by repeated interactions. Evidence comes from studies of wide ranging occupations such as musicians (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003), London cab drivers (Maguire et al., 2006), dancers (Hänggi et al., 2010), sports and other professionals (Debarnot et al., 2014).

Not least of such structural changes involves love. Maturana’s concept of love flows from the question: ‘What is it to be human?’ which he and Gerda Verden-Zoller (2008) consider in their book The Biology of Love. Love arises in the structural coupling of two people. Each perturbs the other, primarily in positive ways, such that love is the “spontaneous dynamic condition of acceptance by a living system of its coexistence with another living system……..”, “ [L]ove is a spontaneous dynamic reciprocal fitting,……….” Maturana (1985), cited in Whitaker (1998). In other words, love is the name of the feeling that arises when two people react positively to the way each perturbs the other to such an extent that the interaction is sought time and again, so intensifying it. Now, we readily understand love is a feeling, an emotion. Love is a phenomenon of the physiological domain, but is manifest in the behavioral, which prompts others to infer the physiological change. Love is induced within an organism through interaction with what comprises its medium, such as another person or even a context (a set or pattern of relationships between things, such as a place, a home). It follows that if interaction induces changes in emotions, so too must the interaction we name conversing (see below). Emotions are yet another dimension of language that conventional linguistic science seems to ignore and which makes the BoC a radical alternative theory. So what is an emotion?

Emotions and emotioning

As Maturana and Varela define them, all animals have emotions, but we humans not only distinguish them as an experience of one’s body, we also name them. In doing so we make them abstract concepts and therefore, somehow, make emotions metaphysical. However, in the BoC, emotions are unquestionably physical phenomenon and constitute particular structural states of the body that determine, or dispose individuals towards, the action actually taken in any moment. Such actions as arise impact upon the kind and quality of relations possible with other things that constitute the medium, e.g., tools, or other actors, human and nonhuman. In Maturanian terms:

What we distinguish in daily life as we distinguish emotions are kinds of relational behaviors, not particular doings. And what we connote biologically as we speak of emotions referring to ourselves or to other animals, are body dynamic dispositions (involving the nervous system and the whole body) that determine what we or they can do or not do, in what relations we or they can enter or not enter, at any moment. As a result, different emotions can be fully characterized as different domains of relational behaviors or as dynamic body dispositions for relational behaviors. (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008)

With regard to ‘different domains of relational behavior’, and ‘dynamic body dispositions for relational behaviors’, one can readily appreciate that in a moment of anger, one cannot feel love: in a moment of sadness one cannot feel happiness. In other words, in the moment of structural configuration from which anger arises, a relationship based on love is not possible. However, as readers will appreciate, emotions swing. Everyday living involves a flow of emotions, hence emotioning. Moreover, because of the recursive and complex nature of relating, of interacting, of simply doing, emotions can, and do, change abruptly and unexpectedly. The carpenter gets angry with her tools, because making is an emotioning process. However, making is not just an emotioning process, it is also a conversation with one’s self triggered by, for example, the unexpected braking of a tool, the unanticipated resistance of a material being carved or sculpted, or the delight in an unanticipated result of acting. No other animals have conversation with themselves. According to Maturana, other creatures live only in the flow of their changing bodily dispositions for action, their emotioning. We humans, Maturana says, live in our conversations with ourselves and others (Maturana, 1989; Maturana & Bunnel, 1998).

A model of conversing

Almost all of the elements necessary to create a model of conversing are in place, except one, the reasons why we humans learned to converse.

Why converse?

Maturana says ‘conversing’ has two Latin roots; cum, meaning ‘with,’ and versare, meaning ‘to turn around,’ indicating that to converse means to turn around with the other, which is to orient those involved (Maturana, 1989). Conversing is an aspect of natural human living and arises without purpose, as all natural systems do. The function is not to create consensual domains or common frames of reference, they happen as results which we observers distinguish and name. Historically, as an aspect of our specific manner of living, we humans do what ever we do with intent, with purpose, with some kind of improvement in mind. Maturana says the

The conditions under which a conversation takes place (common interest, spatial confinement, friendship, love, or whatever keeps the organisms together), and which determine that the organisms should continue to interact until a consensual domain is established, constitute the domain in which selection for the ontogenic structural coupling takes place. Without them, a consensual domain could never be established… (Maturana, 1978:55)

A grouping of organisms is implied here so let a group of human actors be the specific case. The conditions, although not exhaustive by any means, can refer to the circumstances or factors affecting the coherence of a social group and well-being of its members. We solve problems together, and we seek and make improvement to living our lives, collectively, and do so because of the mutual benefits that follow. It therefore seems reasonable to infer that conditions refer to problems. Solving problems demands attention be focused on what is deemed to be problematic, and a solution requires co-ordinated or joint action, and a common language helps expedite the project. However, once again, Maturana introduces a different and insightful twist to commonly held views, saying that problems, rather than being just ‘technical’ and existing in the behavioral phenomenal domain, lie in the domain of human emotions, implying they are felt and therefore physiological phenomenon. He says: “[H]uman problems belong to the emotional domain as they are conflicts in our relational living that arise when we have desires that lead to contradictory actions” (Maturana, 1997:16). It follows, also, that what is, and what is not, felt to be problematical, is a personal or subjective matter.

This author’s interpretation of Maturana’s declaration is that when negative feelings make one want to be elsewhere, then that situation is deemed problematical, and the ‘other place’ is the solution. A situation, of course, is a context, a set of relationships between people and ‘things’ that are passive or dynamic, i.e., a system. A negative feeling or experience is one that induces a desire to change the relationship in a way that reduces or removes the negative feelings. On the other hand, a relationship that perturbs in a positive way, friendship and love being examples, makes one motivated to conserve it, or desire more of the same. The latter becomes problematical when the desire to conserve and intensify is thwarted, or the positive effect lessens in intensity on repetition. In a modern organizational setting, negative emotions are significant assets in that they are a necessary incentive to improve, to invent and innovate (says Järvilehto, 2000).

The conversing process

What is proposed below is a model process designed to show the creation of what, in Maturana’s view, are two key determinants of the natural language phenomenon, which are the creation of a cooperative domain of interactions between speakers through the development of a common frame of reference. The underlying assumption is that the aim of conversing is to obtain mutual benefits from joint actions.

Complexity of Conversational interaction

Turning now to figure 3. Building on figure 2, it is an attempt to represent a conversation as a recursive biological process. It depicts two interlocutors engaged in conversation. As in figure 2 the circular physiological processes of each person involved are coupled to a linear process, which is the flow of conversation, of utterances, co-ordinated, consensual behaviors, facial and bodily gestures from which an observer might distinguish a flow of emotions. This is the phenomenon that Maturana says an observer observes when two or more people are in conversation and to which he believes the term ‘language’ properly applies, which he describes as a recursive mutual modulation of behavior. Each interlocutor is also an observer and observes the behavioral responses of the other, while simultaneously being perturbed by them. It was established earlier that recursive interaction between organism and medium is the source of novelty and unpredictability, and thus complexity. Here, the interlocutors are active in the medium of the other, and are each involved in a recursive process independently of the other, although becoming structurally coupled. This recursive process generates the characteristics associated with a complex system, as discussed with reference to figure 2.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Conversing as a recursive process

Formation of a consensual domain

Referring now to figure 4. The extended ellipsoid around each speaker represents their respective mediums of operation, They are different as they are constructed through a unique history of experiences. Identity, the perceived ‘qualities’ of the individual, emerges from their respective histories. An individual history is woven from the connections or relations to things and people accumulated through a lifetime of interactions. It is suggested that during a conversation some of these connections or relationships begin to be shared (such as when we seek common interest, such as hobbies or friends in common). The degree of sharing and medium overlap will depend entirely on the purpose and circumstances of the interaction. The diagram shows two kinds of result emerging simultaneously from the process.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Emergence of a consensual domain and ‘objects’ from a conversation.

The first result is the creation of a consensual domain, shown by the merging of the respective mediums at the far right of the diagram. This is also known as the domain of co-ordinations (the space in which co-ordinations of behavior take place). The second result is the ‘Maturanian object', which is shown to emerge gradually to become a ‘pivot point’ around which the consensual domain forms and which comes to represent, becomes a token for, a particular experience of co-ordinated behavior. It might also be conceived as an anchor point for a possible relationship, or a pivot point where a conversation changes direction, or what has been called a boundary object (Star, 1998, 2010). The term ‘Maturanian object’ has been used to avoid confusion with the word object as it is usually applied and will be shortened to ‘M-object’. This is not a label used by Maturana or Varela. The diagram suggests the two interlocutors become anchored in a shared domain of co-ordinated actions around this ‘object’. The next step is to take a closer look at it and the so-called ‘frame of reference’.

M-objects and frames of reference

The main intent of this section is show that Maturana’s frame of reference is formed by the so-called M–objects. Despite the similar character of M-objects, language is not about symbol processing, it is fundamentally a biological process.

Maturana describes the emergence of what has been referred to above as an M-object as follows.

We bring forth a world of distinctions through the changes of state that we undergo as we conserve our structural coupling in the different media in which we become immersed along our lives, and then, using our changes of state as recurrent distinctions in a social domain of co-ordination of actions, we bring forth a world of objects as co-ordinations of actions with which we describe our co-ordinations of action. (Maturana 1983. Cited in Whitaker, 1998 under ‘object’)


Objects are, in the process of languaging, consensual co-ordinations of actions that operate as tokens for the consensual co-ordinations of actions that they co-ordinate. (Maturana, 1988b:8.ii.b.).

These are very difficult ideas to grasp because the style of expression is unfamiliar and will appear to most readers as overly jargonistic when all that needs to be stated is that we co-ordinate and collaborate using words. However, Maturana is always asking where do words come from. Let it be known from the beginning that words are M-objects, or rather the sound of the word is, and explore from there.

Perhaps even longer ago than 250,000 years ago, the time when paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer (2012) says ‘language’ probably began to emerge, our ancestors vocalized their feelings, a growl of anger, a laugh of happiness, or the whine of a hungry child. To become words with ‘the power to move’ such vocalizations first have to become part of a characteristic pattern of linguistic interaction, by which stage they must have gained utility value in the process of initiating and maintaining joint–action toward a common goal, from which success they also gain meaning.

The reference to ‘token; in the second extract is the nearest Maturana’s explanation of language comes to the more conventional idea of a symbol. A token being a ‘thing’ that serves as a visible or tangible representation of a fact, a quality, or a feeling. It’s the last of these that’s most pertinent to an understanding of the M-object. First, what is the normal interpretation of an object? Objects are all around us; they make up a significant part of the human medium. They are also generally accepted as concrete and real. In second order cybernetics they are not, at least, there’s no denying they are real, but their characteristics are created within the observer. The M-object, then, is not a real concrete object, but refers to it. It is a name, a sound, an utterance, a vocalization that has meaning within the context in which it was created. To be useful in precipitating relationships and enabling co-ordinated actions, it must be shared. Sharing starts at an early age. To paraphrase Maturana, we humans bring forth a world of objects through our conversations, which begin at birth when the mother plays with the child. Things are brought into the child’s consciousness through conversing; their attention is drawn to them by speaking their names. The child, provided they can distinguish both objects and the parent’s vocalizations, will repeat them, validating the success of bringing the child into an on-going conversation. With repeated interactions their frame of reference expands to be common with the mother’s.

Real objects and M-objects

As indicated in figure 5, with regular interaction a domain of co-ordinated behavior is created and parent and child become structurally coupled and begin to share the same medium, even though the child will lay down a unique path through it, making its own connections, building its own relationships with the people and things it engages with. In effect, parents and immediate family members help a child bring forth a world, which Maturana and Verden Zöller (2008) refer to as a domain of interobjectivity. Regrettably there is no further explanation of this, and as is commonly the case in Maturana’s works, there are no references to where this idea might have come from. However, a wider investigation reveals the term is used in psychology and sociology. For example, “…interobjective phenomena are those that exist only in the joint and coordinated interaction between members of a group.” (Sammut et al., 2018). Bruno Latour uses the term when formulating the basis of what was to become actor network theory (ANT). Latour (1996:235) says (concrete) objects form an infrastructure made up of non-human actors, which is “…a continuous material base over which the social world of representations and signs subsequently flows.” He further claims that the infrastructure holds in check human interaction. This implies it is referred to when making choices, and as a structure, it will both constrain and enable simultaneously. Incidentally, such an understanding of the role of objects resonates with concepts such as the extended mind (Clarke & Chalmers, 1998), in which objects are said to support ‘thinking’ and problem solving (Scribner, 1985) even act as extensions of biological memory (Donald, 1993). The one very significant difference between these conceptualizations of object-human relations is that Maturana’s ‘objects’ are NOT actual concrete objects, but only ‘the sense’ we humans have of them.

We observers do not have direct access to reality, the ‘world’ we deal with and make decisions on, is one we create with our senses and our physiological capacity for speaking (e.g., see Falk, 1975). Our position, once-removed from reality, although very difficult to except is hinted at in with individuals who have conditions such as synesthesia and color blindness. The world they bring forth, is different to what is deemed to be normal. Properties or qualities of objects, such as color, shape, size, surface texture, hardness, softness, thermal properties are distinguished and named through repeated interactions in slightly different circumstances by different observers with different emotional states in a network of conversations. Somewhat different sets of qualities are created through interactions with people, and the constituent parts of the natural world we humans share with other organic and inorganic entities. Each of these named qualities becomes an M-object through sharing via vocalization and the result is an intangible but reference framework that is created and sustained or conserved through networks of conversations triggered by events in the medium. The common reference framework must therefore coincide with the reality of the common medium. The same networks of conversation also modify M-objects, changing their meanings.

M-objects, meaning and mind

Maturana alludes to the symbolic nature of his ‘object’ by referring to it as a token of consensual co-ordinations, hinting that it might stand for something. In this author’s opinion, in the Maturanian sense the M-object stands for a shared result of conversation. For example, take the property of a flint tool distinguished, named and vocalized as ‘sharp,’ which is an M-object that probably first arose from, let’s say, a childlike conversation an ancient human had with herself while sifting through some broken flint stones. Let an M-object be represented with two exclamation marks like so !SHARP! For its inventor !SHARP! is connected to cut, and, perhaps to pain and blood, and also to the other properties of the stone that is sharp and cuts: it is heavy and cold to the touch, and so on, and on. Some, if not all of these connections are shared with others during conversations, and so meaning is also shared. Thus, Maturana’s reference framework begins to resemble more and more, Latour’s interobjective infrastructure, except much much richer, with a different theoretical underpinning.

The limited space of a journal paper does not allow for much deeper explorations, but, essentially, all named distinctions, vocalized and shared through conversations are M-objects, all nouns, for example. Two of the most crucial in understanding humanness, are ‘self’ and ‘other’ and ‘love.’ Names of musical notes, gestures, such as a thumbs-up, a nod and a wink, are all M-objects. Another important category consists of word-sounds alluding to a goal: such as: intention, purpose, aim, ambition, objective, and desire. Because we humans are natural systems, goals are not innate, they are not built in, there is no purpose in being human, we just are. Contrary to conventional ideas, goals arise in conversations. They have arisen over millennia triggered by results that have brought mutual benefits, but also results that have fallen short of collective and individual ambition. Not only do we humans live in conversations, we live in conversations about intentions. They are the most powerful of M-objects because they are the principal triggers of conversations about organizing, a subject that is explored a little in the next and penultimate section.

Pace, mind and supracritical conversations

The model conversational process presented here is a mere building block. The activities of families, organizations, societies, and civilizations are organized, conserved and adjusted through interweaving and overlapping networks of conversations. Each conversation is complex, capable of generating difference and unpredictable results. Moreover, and evident to all we observers, is that we talk to ourselves. We observers carry on conversations we may have had with others, we reflect upon their results, we rehearse alternatives and how different outcomes might be produced next time. This capacity, it is suggested, is enabled by a continuously active, ever cycling, operationally closed brain-nervous system, which is complex in itself. This latter implies that what it generated during an internal dialogue or monologue cannot be predicted and the process cannot be controlled. However, the process is not random, because the structure of brain-nervous system at any moment constrains and enables what can happen in the next. In other words, change can only occur on top of a previous change. Moreover, new conversations, and the directions they take us (not where we take them), are perturbations triggered by events distinguished in the medium. The capacity to reflect on the continuously perturbing flow of results distinguished during a conversation appears as a regulation in the pace of interaction. Interlocutors are not driven into staccato-like instantaneous responses. Our physiological structure, no less, allows for reflection, for a slowing down of pace.

However, it must not be forgotten that conversing is a braided flow of co-ordinated or reciprocating behavior AND emotioning. The latter is not only the regulator of conversational pace, but is also, arguably, the principal source of unpredictability manifest in the creativity and innovativeness so characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens. Each of us knows from experience that conversations are roller coaster rides of emotioning, and that they are especially positive when brand new ideas are being generated. It’s at this time of quicker pace that conversations can and do become chaotic, which brings the discussion to Kauffmann’s idea of supracriticality.

Supracritical conversations

Stuart Kauffmann (1995) coined the term supracritical when describing the Earth’s biosphere, which he conceived as a chemical production factory that continuously produces a high variety of new and novel chemicals through catalytic reactions. A supracritical system is one in which novelty and variety is produced on an explosive scale, a process that has the potential to develop unpredictably very rapidly, like a nuclear fission chain reaction that feeds off itself. Favorable conditions might lead to the precipitation of sub-critical subsystems, which might also be autocatalytic sets; i.e., capable of catalyzing their own production. According to Kauffman, living systems are autocatalytic sets. For Maturana and Varela, living systems are, of course, autopoietic, but not autocatalytic. It matters little here whether living systems are called autopoietic or autocatalytic, what matters is that they are sub-critical, that they are relatively stable constituents of a bigger system. According to Kauffman, the existence of sub-critical systems within an otherwise supracritical system has a stabilizing effect on the whole, so slowing down the processes that would otherwise lead to an explosion of novelty and variety.

It is suggested that Maturana’s networks of conversations are potentially supracritical. The M-objects emerging from overlapping networks of conversations, which are both concrete and imagined, are equivalent to new chemicals, and can be treated as potential catalysts. The explosive production of novel M-objects is virtually guaranteed due to the recursive epigenetic nature of conversations, whether they occur between interlocutors, or within someone’s imagination. As with the biosphere, networks of conversation generate what brings order and stability, namely, Maturanian objects. As briefly discussed above, M-objects such as goals, visions, intentions, are crucial to organizing, the result of which, of course, is a system, a specific pattern of relationships. It might also be said that relationships precipitate or form around M-objects, as indicated in figure 5. M-objects, especially those referring to concrete objects, anything manufactured, works of art, vending machines and water coolers, are potential anchors for relationships, therefore of structure, the platform for functionality. The idea that relationships form around, or are precipitated by, concrete things, is at the heart of SCOT, the social constructivist theories of technology (Bijker et al., 1987) and especially the actor-network theory of John Law (e.g., Law 2000). According to Law, objects perform relations, but actually, it’s the sense of the object together with its distinguished and named qualities, that perform relations. So, although conversational networks may be inherently supracritical, what is generated by them, be it new products or new ideas, helps to precipitate, to catalyze the formation of subcritical systems, newly configured parts of a network that bring stability, until new conversations disrupt it. Such patterns are also characteristic of complex systems. The evolutionary and revolutionary stages of human cultures, the punctuated equilibrium evidenced in biological evolutions, business cycles, economic long waves or Kondratiev cycles (Freeman & Perez, 1988), stock market crashes, cat videos going viral on the Internet, all seem to follow the same pattern, stability followed by the unanticipated rapid onset of chaos, an amplification, in many cases, of a simple utterance or incidental result during one dialogue of many in a network of conversations.

Concluding remarks

The explicit aim of this paper has been to show that organizations are complex because the conversational interactions between people are complex. A more implicit aim was to show that Maturana and Varela’s theory of life, cognition and language, especially the latter, is also a theory of complex systems. Hopefully both aims have been met and in doing so the reader is left with a new perspective on organizational dynamics, about which some concluding thoughts follow.

Organizations are not complex because of the number of simple parts (e.g., Cilliers), or number of employees or the number of their interactions (e.g., Heywood et al., 2007). It might be argued that they are complex because the people who form them are individually complex. The paper shows the source of complexity lies deep in the biology of interlocutors. Conversation, as Maturana points out, is a biological process, and emphatically not one of information or symbol processing, although M-objects appear to come close. Moreover, conversing is a two-way process, it is not telling, but a consensual collaborative process—a negotiation. Conversing is also an inherently, and inescapably, an emotioning process. Maturana and Varela’s theory of language pushes emotions to the fore of understanding organizational dynamics, and of all human social systems.

The underpinning theory of language and conversing is firmly established on the concept of a fluid form of structure, which at an organizational or whole social system level, acts to constrain future actions while enabling those in the present. Conversations drive changes in structure, the actual relations between the actual components, and can generate seeds of structural disintegration, as well as seeds of stable growth. These seeds have been labelled M-objects.

Because they are complex, conversations are a constant and inexhaustible supply of difference, especially emotion, leading to a flow of creativity and continuous generation of new meanings to M. It has been suggested that new relationships, which amounts to new structure, can be precipitated by M-objects, they need not be new, but if not they will probably have arisen in a new context (set of relationships). Like the famous butterfly’s wing, the effect of an M-object might be amplified sufficiently to shift an organization toward supracriticality, in which state might be expected an exciting wave of innovations, which might form the platform for new businesses, or, on a global scale, new stable growth based on wholly new and unforeseen industries, as manifest in economic long waves or Kondratiev cycles (Freeman & Perez, 1988).

Managing organizations is also a conversation. Nothing happens without talk, which raises an interesting question, can something complex be managed by something else complex? The answer depends on how managing is interpreted. If a manager’s raison d’etre is control, then it’s not possible to manage. If managing is about regulating, about directing, about orienting, about organizing concerted actions in response to ‘perturbing events’ from inside and outside, then it is possible, especially if the role of emotions in organizational life is fully recognized and addressed.

Instead of thinking of organizations as open systems, it might be useful to think of them as open conversations. But open to whom; to customers, suppliers, potential customers, or to competitors? If conversations, but especially open conversations are encouraged and facilitated, who will look out for the unexpected consequences, beneficial and otherwise?

The final point concerns what has been called the common reference framework, which was compared to Latour’s idea of an interobjective infrastructure. Latour’s infrastructure is limited to concrete objects, while Maturana’s is not. Latour claims his infrastructure holds in check human actions, traffic lights and white lines on a freeway being examples of this restrictive guidance by objects. Maturana’s frame, constituted by M-objects, is much more comprehensive and its creation, through an extensive network of conversations, is the basis of a new explanation of culture as a complex system, which will be outlined in the third of this series of papers.


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1 This definition of a complex system appears in many places on the internet. It’s source is the website maintained by Prof. Jim Meiss at