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Francisco Varela

Francisco Javier Varela García (Santiago, September 7, 1946 – May 28, 2001, Paris) was a Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist who, together with his teacher Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology. His mother was from Syria and her father was son of the Spanish emigrant, Alejandro Varela and Greek emigrant Anastassia Karri.



Like his mentor Humberto Maturana, Varela studied first medicine then biology in Chile, then did a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. His thesis, defended in 1970 and supervised by Torsten Wiesel, was titled Insect Retinas: Information processing in the compound eye.

After the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, Varela and his family spent 7 years in exile in the USA before returning to Chile to become a Professor of biology.

In 1986, he settled in France, where he at first taught cognitive science and epistemology at the École Polytechnique, and neuroscience at the University of Paris. From 1988 until his death, he led a research group at the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique).

He died of Hepatitis C. "Intimate Distances - Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation" is his account of his 1998 liver transplant.

Varela had four children, including the actress and model Leonor Varela.


Varela was primarily trained as a biologist, and was fundamentally influenced by his teacher and fellow Chilean, Humberto Maturana, also a biologist with a strong philosophical orientation.

Varela wrote and edited a number of books and numerous journal articles in biology, neurology, cognitive science, mathematics, and philosophy. He was a founding member of the Integral Institute, a thinktank dedicated to the cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines.

Varela was a proponent of the embodied philosophy which argues that human cognition and consciousness can only be understood in terms of the enactive structures in which they arise, namely the body and the physical world with which the body interacts. He introduced into neuroscience the concepts of neurophenomenology, based on the phenomenological writings of Edmund Husserl and of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and on "first person science," in which observers examine their conscious experience using scientifically verifiable methods.

Varela became a Tibetan Buddhist in the 1970s, initially studying with the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala Buddhism, and later with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a Nepalese master of higher tantras.

See also

  • Autopoiesis
  • Cartesian anxiety
  • Embodied cognitive science
  • Humberto Maturana
  • Shambhala Buddhism
  • phenomenology

Writings by Varela

Comprehensive bibliography by Randall Whitaker.

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy. North-Holland.
  • 1998 (1987) (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press.
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press.
  • 1992 (with P. Bourgine, eds.). Towards a Practice of Autonomous Systems: The First European Conference on Artificial Life. MIT Press.
  • 1992 (with J. Hayward, eds.). Gentle Bridges: Dialogues Between the Cognitive Sciences and the Buddhist Tradition. Boston: Shambhala Press.
  • 1993 ( with D. Stein, eds.). Thinking About Biology: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology. Addison-Wesley, SFI Series on Complexity.
  • 1997 (ed.). Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying. Boston: Wisdom Book.
  • 1996-99. Invitation aux sciences cognitives. Paris: Seuil.
  • 1999. Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. Stanford University Press.
  • 1999 (with J. Shear, eds.). The View from Within: First-Person Methodologies in the Study of Consciousness. London: Imprint Academic.
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.


  • Franz Reichle, 2004. Film Monte Grande - What is Life?

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Francisco_Varela". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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