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Humberto Maturana: 5 Language
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Biosphere, Homosphere, and Robosphere: what has that to do with Business?
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Pille Bunnell

Humans began when language began. Let me explain by first telling you what I understand by language. We usually speak about language as a system of communication, saying that we communicate to each other with language. We say language is a system of symbolic communication. I think communication is not a fundamental phenomenon, rather I claim it is a commentary that one makes about the course of interactions. Imagine the following scenarios of making a telephone call:
  1. "Hello John! Hello! John! John? John?" .... click
  2. "Hello John! No, no... I did not mean that. No, John, not that way. No!" .... slam
  3. "Hello John! Yes, this is Humberto! Yes, let us have lunch today. No, let's go to the usual place, same as last week. Good, see you at one o'clock! Bye!"
If someone were listening to you they would comment on the first two scenarios saying that you could not communicate -- but the third one is different. What happened in the third conversation? You engaged in a coordination of your behaviour. We speak of communication when the result of a particular interaction is the coordination of behaviour, that is a coordination of doings, a coordination of operations. Language is not a system of communication, yet communication occurs through language.

Let me give you another example from daily life. Imagine you are in a big city, say London. You're on the street and want to take a taxi. Taxis are going by, but all the ones going in your direction are taken. So you flag one going the other way, and then, when the driver notices you, you gesture him to turn around. (In London they manage to turn around no matter how narrow the street - I suppose that is why they have very short cars.)

What has happened in this scenario? Something very interesting has happened, and you would see what that is if the taxi came and stopped, but you stepped into another taxi. What would the first taxi driver say? If he transformed his utterance into polite words, what kind of complaint would he make? He would say something like "You had already hired me!" or "You promised me!" What happened that he could say that, and you would know his complaint was appropriate? Something very simple and very basic took place. When you made the first gesture, your gazes met, and from that moment onward you and taxi driver were not independent. You were coordinated for a while. That this is so is revealed through the complaint referring to breaking something that should have lasted a while. The second gesture coordinates your coordinations. It took place on top of the first gesture. It happened based on the relational displacement that had already taken place with the first interaction.

That the taxi driver has a valid complaint if the sequence is broken shows that this situation is a coordination of coordinations of behavior. Not a coordination AND a coordination, but a coordination OF a coordination. Put in other words, what you have is a recursion in the coordinations of behaviour.

Whenever there is a recursion, something new appears. For example compound interest is recursive, and what appears is the explosive increase of something, in this case, money. Walking is recursive. If I move my legs as if I were walking, but do not progress, that is not walking. Maybe I am suspended in the air, maybe I am good at mimicking walking, but the movement of my legs is not enough. When the circular movement of my legs is coupled with a linear displacement of the floor, walking arises. Whenever a cyclical dynamic is coupled with a linear one, you have a recursion, and something new arises. When a cycle of coordinations is coupled with the consensual flow of living the new thing that arises is language. Thus the example of flagging the taxi is a minimal operation in language.

Language, as a phenomenon, is thus a manner of flowing in living together in a path of coordination of the coordinations of coordinations of behavior. Language happens as a consensual behaviour, it arises in the living as a feature of living together in the particular life that one is living. I'm not denying that you need a brain to participate in language. What I am saying is that the phenomenon of language does not occur in brain, rather it occurs in the recursive coordination of interactions in the flow of living together. One cannot claim that such languaging behaviors are inherited, they have to grow. There are coordinated behaviours such as courtship dances among animals that one can claim are inherited, but they are not coordinations of coordinations. These behaviors are sequences, coordinations AND coordinations.
Language is not abstract. Language has the concreteness of doings, it is the coordination of doings. Symbols are commentaries about what is happening in language; they are not primary. This is why words are never trivial. The same word used under different flows has a different meaning, and different words used in the same way have the same meaning. Just the same, different words belong to different histories of coordinations, they are not innocent. This is a very fundamental thing: language is not abstract, that is, it does not pertain to an abstract domain, it pertains to the concrete domain of doings.

This is what was involved in the transformation of Shell Oil. Phil Carroll opened spaces of conversation, and as conversations are about doings, he opened a space for changing the doings, and as we change our doings, we change - and new doings become possible. This is something we all know but we do not necessarily act according to what it implies. I shall make it explicit. We do not have a fixed structure. We have a plastic structure, we are continually changing, and we never come back to the same structure, ever. It is a continuous flow of transformations in which we sometimes conserve certain relationships, and then we change around what we conserve. Because of the continuity of some relation or other being conserved, we have a sense of sameness, we do not become suddenly alien to ourselves. For example when SOL has the second general member's meeting, it will still be a SOL member's meeting like the first one, but it will be a different meeting, with a different history. It will be the same, but not the same.

Figure 4 Two living systems in recurrent interactions change together coherently with each other and their medium. If they lose congruence with each other, they each follow a new path of changes, or they disintegrate.

Since language is a manner of flowing together in recurrent recursive interactions, we change in our languaging. Because of this what we say, or what we hear, is not trivial. We hear something and we are not the same afterwards. We say something and we are not the same afterwards. We come to this meeting and we change according to the flow of languaging. We change, and as we change according to our languaging, the homopshere transforms along one path, or another. And we are changing anyhow. If we hadn't come, we would have changed according to whatever else we were living. But if we participate in a particular languaging situation, we change according to it. We open a space of conversation as interactions in language, or we restrict it, and what happens is entirely different. To open a space for conversations means that one is in fact open, one is not attempting to control what happens. When the space is open, autonomy in human beings appears.

Though we change according to our structure and according to our interactions, this does not mean that what happens to us has nothing to do with choice or freedom. As we exist in language, we can reflect. As we reflect we can look at our circumstance and move this way or that, and we can be responsible for our behaviour.

Now reflection is a very interesting operation. We frequently are inclined to think in terms of properties. But we know that nothing happens unless there is some operational dynamics that makes it possible. For example we know that if I want to be on the third floor, I need a procedure to put me there. This procedure could be going up the stairs, or taking an elevator, or jumping out of the window and climbing up the vines. In any case I need a procedure. This is so for reflection, I need a procedure. Reflection is not a property, it is an operation.

Reflection is an operation that consists of treating the circumstances in which one is as an object and looking at it.
And language constitutes the procedure for doing that. As languaging beings we create objects, and in doing so we can treat our present as an object and look at it. I can look at my circumstance here and say "Oh my goodness here I am giving this talk, and I am so daring inventing this story of a robosphere". This is reflection. Then I think about what I am going to do, and this I say like an aside in the theater: "How am I going to get out of this mess in which I have put myself?"
So, with human beings as languaging beings, reflection appears, and with reflection responsibility arises.
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