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Book Review : Profundities of Human Condition Are Abundant

September 16, 1987|LEE DEMBART

The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela (New Science Library/Shambhala: $24.95; 169 pages)

One of the most striking differences between the sciences and the humanities is that the sciences are cumulative while the humanities are not.

Science builds on itself. It makes progress. In the areas of science and technology, the contemporary world is very different from early civilizations, but when it comes to human nature, there has been no change since the ancient Greeks.

Nearly all if not all of the important questions of philosophy were raised by Plato, and though many smart people have taken a crack at them in the 24 centuries since, there is still no consensus about what the right answers are.

No Right Answers

This is because in matters of fundamental principle, there are no absolutely right answers. There are only opinions, and each person's opinion is a reflection of the state of his or her head. When philosophers philosophize, they are saying more about themselves than they are about the world out there.

This, I think, is one of the points of Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela's "The Tree of Knowledge." I say "I think" because I am not really sure what their points are as I didn't really understand the bulk of the book. It is written in a language that impresses me as gibberish, but I fear that saying that is a reflection of my own inadequacies rather than the authors'.

"All knowing is an action by the knower," they write early on. "All knowing depends on the structure of the knower." So far, so good.

"When we examine more closely how we get to know this world," they say, "we invariably find that we cannot separate our history of actions--biological and social--from how this world appears to us." This is probably true, but such sentiments are often just one small step before solipsism--the notion that there is no world out there at all and everything I experience and believe about it is just a construction of my mind, a figment of my imagination.

Unclear Conclusions

I'm not sure whether Maturana and Varela go down that path because I'm not sure what they say after that. Here are some samples of what they do say:

"The close aggregation of cells descending from a single cell that results in a metacellular unity is a condition wholly consistent with the continuous autopoiesis of those cells."

"Every ontogenic variation results in different ways of being in the world, because it is the structure of the unity that determines its interaction in the environment and the world it lives in."

"A theory of knowledge ought to show how knowing generates the explanation of knowing. This situation is very different from what we usually find, where the phenomenon of explaining and the phenomenon explained belong to different domains."

"At the core of all the troubles we face today is our very ignorance of knowing. It is not knowledge, but the knowledge of knowledge, that compels."

Enough? Enough. I can only conclude that there is either something the matter with these writers or there is something the matter with me. I leave it to the reader to decide which. For, though I am of adequate intelligence and have wrestled with some philosophical issues in the past, I cannot make head or tail of what these authors are talking about.

I hesitate to draw the conclusion that I am right and they are not. My own temperament and biological structure undoubtedly impose blinders on my perceptions of the world, and anything that I do not see I am inclined to dismiss. (I am not alone in this failing, of course.)

Furthermore, I doubt that two authors with Ph.D.'s in biology have persuaded a publisher to publish a manuscript that lacks meaning. For all I know, this is one of the most profound books ever published, but it is so profound that it is not within my ken.

Perhaps the book is meant to demonstrate Maturana and Varela's point that our knowledge of the world is absolutely restricted by our biological structures. My biological structure and way of knowing is so different from theirs that we have made no contact at all. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult for philosophy to progress.

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