DynaPsych Table of Contents


The Sameness of Difference:
Self-Organisation and the Evolution of Counselling Theory

Edward N. Drodge
University of Ottawa



The Santiago theory of cognition examines the issue of self-creation, the fundamental circularity of the living organism. This contextual, self-organizational model of being provides a framework for counsellor educators to examine the epistemological assumptions at the heart of counselling. Specifically, this paper will emphasize the importance of structural coupling, languaging, and embodied cognition as elements for critical reflection in counsellor education practices.


One effect of the growing contructivist discourse within the field of counselling has been renewed interest in the structure and content of counsellor education programs. The impact of constructivism may be seen, for example, in some of the restructuring efforts aimed at satisfying the calls for education reform (Hayes, Dagley, & Horne, 1996). Specific components of counselling such as career counselling, too, have been scrutinized under the constructivist viewing glass. For example, Peavy (1993) has articulated how he believes career counselling should look within the current context of changes that are occurring in the world of work. He refers to the importance of critical self-reflection, artistry-in-action, and wide-awakeness in learning as fundamental shifts in counsellor education curricula. Indeed, a whole genre of postmodern approaches to counselling has been spawned within the "constructivist" framework. Hayes (1994) for example, discusses the implications of a "constructivist developmental" approach for theory, practice, and research in counselling.

While few of these writers advocate the total discontinuation of skills training, the emphases on reflexivity, relational meaning, and notions of the constructed self implies that future counsellors will encounter fewer "method-driven" (Slife & Williams, 1997) components in the counsellor education structure. However, a central paradox of postmodernism is the attempt to avoid allying itself to any theoretical perspective while simultaneously espousing a theory. The difficulty with this, as Rorty (1979) so devilishly suggests, is "having to decry the very notion of having a view, while avoiding having a view about having a view" (p. 371). It seems inevitable that the range of viewpoints, such as constructivism, falling under the general rubric of postmodernism simply replaces much of the central dogma of counsellor education with another set of prescriptive principles. Perhaps this is what Bruner (1996) meant when he suggested that, "Eventually new genres become old banalities" (p. 139).

Nevertheless, the constructivist tendency to characterize psychological and counselling theory as a philosophical position, or a manner of describing phenomena, eschews the "privileged sets of descriptions" (Rorty, 1979, p. 377) so prevalent in contemporary psychology. In response to the proliferation of theory, Slife and Williams (1997) have called, ironically, for the establishment of a subdiscipline of psychology to be called "theoretical psychology" that would counter the fragmentation of psychology by exposing its theoretical premises. Fundamentally, their goal is a facilitative one aimed at fostering "informed discussion" about the widening territory between postmodern and the positivist positions at the close of the 20th century. In similarly ironic fashion, my paper proposes a theory, the Santiago theory of cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980; Maturana & Varela, 1987), in order to examine the theory-driven activities of counsellor education. Specifically, this paper will address the key explanatory concepts of embodied cognition, structural coupling, and languaging in order to examine the issues of narrative, power and dominance, and theoretical hegemony in counsellor education and counselling practice.

The Santiago Theory of Cognition

At the risk of inciting the wrath of a growing number of scholars who have devoted many years to writing about and discussing autopoiesis, it is necessary to give a brief introduction to the theory. Difficulties with nomenclature have been indicated by Whitaker (1997) who opts to use "autopoietic theory" in his discussions about the accumulating body of work that has its origins in the research of two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. While Kauffman (1995) correctly asserts that self-organization predates Maturana and Varela in Kant’s writing about holism, "autopoiesis" was coined to refer to the self-creative ability of all living organisms. At the time when Maturana and Varela’s (1980) book first attracted attention, both were working at the University of Chile in Santiago. This demographic detail has prompted Capra (1996, p.174) to refer to autopoietic theory as the "Santiago theory of cognition". In this paper I conform to Capra's naming tradition because the phrase "Santiago theory of cognition" pays homage to the physical homeland of the theory, and because it focuses on a key conceptual feature of autopoiesis, namely, the systemic unity of cognition and living-in-the-world.

Whitaker (1997) has also expressed legitimate concerns about utilizing an "isolated portion of the theory at the expense of the total explanatory complex". It is not my intention to abstract a few neologistic bon mots from the highly complex and comprehensive theoretical corpus of the Santiago theory of cognition. Nevertheless, summarizing the central aspects of the theory is risky but necessary.

Structural Coupling, Self-organization, and Human Change

Maturana and Varela (1980) coined the term "autopoiesis" to describe the fundamental circularity of biological organisms, literally, the self-creating abilities of all living things. Their interest in biological systems led them to speculate about the changes that an organism undergoes in response to its encounters with the surrounding environment. Such encounters were described as "structural coupling" (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p.xx) between the organism and the environment, though they suggested that structural coupling could also occur within individual organisms. Organizationally, living organisms are closed. However, their structures permit changes to occur that allow the organism to adjust to perturbations to its system. The adjustments a system makes may be stimulated from outside its organization, but they are wholly self-generated encompassing a variety of individual structures and systems of structures. These biological functions are also cognitive functions: "Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition" (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p.13).

The Santiago theory of cognition does not separate behaviour, emotion, and cognition into discrete biological functions. Such distinctions are artifacts of the positivist tradition of reductionism, and reflect the powerful role of language in prescribing boundaries around concepts and perpetuating artificial categories. Autopoiesis represents a direct challenge to the Cartesian dualism implicit in the hermetically sealed concepts of behaviour, emotion, and cognition. As Maturana and Varela (1980) state, "As soon as a unity is specified, a phenomenal domain is defined" (p. xxi). While the autopoietic domain and the linguistic one are observed to influence each other as phenomenological entities, they do not intersect except as observations made by an observer. The changes that organisms undergo as a result of structural coupling are determined by their own organization. Maturana and Varela (1980) claim that, "The observer as an observer necessarily always remains in a descriptive domain, that is, in a relative cognitive domain. No description of an absolute reality is possible" (p.121).

A common criticism of the Santiago theory of cognition is that it makes epistemological claims that are confused with ontological ones (e.g. Held & Pols, 1987). This is an erroneous linkage of the Santiago theory with "radical constructivism" that asserts there is no independent reality accessible to human beings. The tradition of metaphysical inquiry asserts that there is a reality that is independent of the knower. The Santiago theory does not deny this, but claims that such a reality cannot be knowable. As Maturana (1978) indicates, "if a supposed transcendental reality were to become accessible to description then it would not be transcendental" (p. 462). Accordingly, the theory differentiates between two ontological domains: the transcendental and the constitutive. The constitutive domain suggests that existence is dependent on what the observer does, while the transcendental domain implies the existence of reality independent of the observer's actions or perceptions. The "domain of constitutive ontologies" (Maturana, 1988, p.32), then, is significant for counselling because both clients and counsellors bring many realities to each encounter between the two as a result of living in the world. Each participant in counselling is merely an observer.

Ontological claims are not confused with epistemological ones because there is no denial that an absolute reality is possible, only that our pattern of organization limits us to being observers. Human experiencing is not the "measure of all things".

Living organisms have the potential to perform many more structural couplings embodied within their own closed systems than with the external world. Biologically speaking, the human body is hardwired to a far greater extent with itself than it is with the environment. This recurrent neural network means that the system regards much (all?) of its own output as input in multiple complex feedback loops (e.g. Churchland, 1995). Recent brain research utilizing tools such as positron emission tomography (PET) helps confirm the claim that "Anything said is said by an observer" (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p.8).

Recursiveness, feedback loops, and patterning are significant aspects of the Santiago theory in that they describe the fundamental circularity of all organisms, not just human ones. Human cognition is intertwined seamlessly with acting and emotioning. There are no interstices between these concepts, other than linguistic spaces, because all are implicated in the process of living in the world. The innumerable contingencies of living in the world, commencing at the moment of birth, result in patterns of responses that shape future patterns of responding in a recursive process that continues until death. Separating the individual components of the web of connections, both within the closed system and outside it, is merely representational. That is, despite the increasing sophistication of research tools in brain research, the enormous complexity of the human mind continues to be a source of speculation. This does not mean to suggest that scientific efforts aimed at understanding this web of connections should cease in nihility. However, such investigations will necessarily be bound by each organism's unique pattern of engagement with the world, something that Capra (1996) calls "bringing forth a world" (p. 268).

The structural changes an organism undergoes as a result of its coupling with an environment implicate a role for the counselling enterprise. Structural coupling does not deny historicity; both an internal and external world are reflected in the behaviour of an organism, though the structure determines the world that is brought forth. Projection is unavoidable. However, behaviour is the physical manifestation of the pattern of past structural couplings. Counselling represents yet another type of structural coupling, one that attempts to disrupt the pattern of couplings in the partner identified as the client. Nevertheless, structural coupling is determined exclusively within the client, so the best that one can hope for is that recurrent encounters within the counselling milieu will trigger changes in the pattern. Human malleability is still possible within a framework of structural coupling despite concerns to the contrary (e.g. Thomas, 1996).

Structural coupling is at the heart of autopoiesis, but self-organization is the encapsulation of such couplings yielding the common elements of the biosphere that we humans recognize as reality. More specifically, self-organization is the "set of relations among its components that characterize the system as belonging to a particular class (such as bacterium, a sunflower, a cat, or a human being)" (Capra, 1996, p. 98). Self-organization has been observed or postulated to occur in molecular stews (e.g. Beloussov-Zhabotinsky reactions), Boolean networks (Kauffman, 1995), and animal play behaviour (Goodwin, 1994).

Self-organization theory appears to come close to a "theory of everything" that physicists have been pursuing for a long time. Indeed, Kauffman’s (1995) work, and research by his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute in a range of disciplines, suggests that the evolution of the universe adheres to self-organizational principles. Kauffman describes his own research using Boolean networks in an effort to discern how basic biological molecules may "autocatalyze" to create both more of themselves and other more complex molecules that eventually coalesce into a living organism. He also provides elaborate descriptions of the tremendous research efforts by economists, political scientists, physicists, mathematicians, and biologists that all funnel into this central notion of self-organization. Kauffman has coined the expression, "order for free", to suggest that evolution appears to be a combination of selection and self-organization, degrading the role that chance or random mutation may play in the unfolding biosphere and cosmos.

While Kauffman’s work on self-organization theory has not specifically highlighted the ramifications for psychotherapy or counselling, research on the related concepts of chaos theory and complexity has been connected to the helping professions (Abraham & Gilgen, 1995; Butz, 1997; Kiel & Elliott, 1996; Merry, 1995). Butz, for example, has been instrumental in the formation of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology, and along with a growing cadre of colleagues, has made the connections between psychological practice and chaos theory more mainstream through a number of sessions at APA conferences during the 1990’s. The lineage from autopoiesis, to chaos, to complexity and self-organization proceeds unabated and holds much promise for greater understanding of fundamental issues in psychological practice such as the nature of consciousness and human adaptability in the face of change. An increasing recognition and understanding of self-organization may yield its greatest rewards by emphasizing the connectedness of all life in the biosphere within a complex web of interdependent relationships. As Brian Goodwin (1994), a pioneer in the field of biological complexity suggests, "Life doesn’t need DNA to get started; it needs a rich network of facilitating relationships" (p. 174). This, of course, is central to counselling and all of the helping professions.

Languaging and the Autopoiesis of Consciousness: Fostering the Narrative

Capra’s (1996) "bringing forth a world" highlights the importance of language in all human living, but has particular significance for psychotherapy and counselling because these activities function exclusively within language. Our fate as counsellors and clinical researchers can be summed up by the statement: "The autopoietic space is curved and closed in the sense that it is entirely specified by itself, and such a projection represents our cognitive relation with it, but does not reproduce it" (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p.92). "Curved" suggests the ineffability of self-organization; cognition is paradoxical because, as a projection, it is simultaneously the subject and object of human cognition. Counselling is an ironic practice because it represents the engagement of two (or more) closed systems through language. Each requires the consent of the other to proceed toward a goal that is always shifting in a myriad number of ways and degrees. Maturana (1988) has called this a "domain of consensual coordination of actions" (p.46).

Counselling, then, represents recurrent encounters for the purpose of expanding the initial domains of coordination of actions. A basic premise of counselling is that clients are assisted so that they are better equipped to help themselves. This has a parallel in the Santiago theory of cognition that says, "every change that an organism undergoes is necessarily and unavoidably determined by its own organization" (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 120). This statement contains both the challenge and the promise for the counselling profession. Simplistic prescriptions for behaviour change must be abandoned. The awareness that language is a door through which consciousness escapes, and either encounters itself or not, points to the necessity of fostering the narrative in counselling practice. It is interesting to note the overlap between an inherently biological, systemic view of human conduct and humanistic psychology. Szasz (1998) asserts: "It is a priori impossible to marshall objective evidence to support or refute claims about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of psychotherapy. The validity of this assertion is intrinsic to the ontological character of psychotherapy as discourse" (p. 17).

In the Foreword to Luhmann's (1995) book, "Social Systems", the position of the observer is made clear: "Whatever is observed is observed by an observer who cuts up reality in a certain way in order to make it observable. Whatever distinction is selected, others remain possible. Each cut highlights certain aspects of reality and obscures others" (p.xxxiv). Furthermore, while Luhmann makes few direct references to counselling, he contends that its professionalized status and permeation through society warrants its characterization as a subset of the larger social system. Luhmann claims that an "enormous therapeutic industry tries to create consciousness precisely where consciousness fails because of its own latencies" (p.336), and "communication can be used to extend consciousness and to bring into it themes that can be formulated" (p. 336). It is this last point that holds so much promise for counsellor education. In its simplicity, the counselling relationship is about two people meeting to explore who is present in the relationship. It is about the pursuit of identity through the establishment of a "viable narrative".

Varela (1991) has discussed the emergent self supported by counselling when he states, "This narrative self becomes a world for a subject in its most traditional and literal sense, the full autonimization of the imaginary register" (p.101). The term "narrative" has acquired magical status in contemporary social science lore, and I want to avoid facile usage of the term that might serve to reify yet another concept within counsellor education. Therefore, I prefer to say that through conversation with another individual stories come to illuminate and embody the possibility for extending consciousness into hitherto unknown regions. The complexity of the autopoiesis of consciousness is irreducible and paradoxical. Luhmann (1995) describes it in terms of the apprehension of an external world:

"Reality as such, the unity of the observing system and its environment, the paradoxical sameness of difference, of inside and outside, remains inaccessible; it is what 'one does not perceive when one perceives it', the 'blind spot' that enables the system to observe but escapes observation" (foreword to Luhmann, 1995, p. xxxiv).

In other words, both counsellor and client have unacknowledged blind spots, lacunae of consciousness that do not easily permit self-reflection. However, through intense reflection on the stories shared in a counselling relationship, there is greater possibility for the establishment of a "workable identity" that individuals can "sell to themselves and others" (Efran, Lukens, & Lukens, 1990, p. 170).

Most theories of behaviour change have adopted metapsychological language to describe the autopoiesis of consciousness, concepts such as repression, defenses, and the unconscious. But what is the unconscious if it is not an automatic response that by-passes all conscious awareness as a result of early and frequent use? Enactivists Davis and Sumara (1997) state that, "the unconscious is not afforded an objective status here. We use it in reference to that category of (inter) action that generally escapes notice: the embodied, the enacted, the unformulated" (footnote, p. 120). In the unconscious lies the seed for acts of creativity and leaps of consciousness. Narratives, stories, conversation all provide the context for the unformulated to be elaborated upon and assume shape. Counselling can provide that contextual place where stories are woven and rewoven if counsellor educators resist a pedagogy that serves to distance people from each other.

Psychoanalyst Marshall Edelson (1993) has urged his psychotherapy students to foster the telling and enacting of stories by "loosening the stranglehold of theory", by "eschewing the vague and general", and by focusing on the "immediacy of the therapeutic moment". These instructions strike me as a good starting point for encouraging narrative competence in counsellors while simultaneously discarding the theoretical plurality that often makes counselling such a contrived practice.

The Hegemony of Theory In Counsellor Education

One of the chief arguments for the teaching of counselling theories in most (if not all) counsellor education programs is to give shape to the activities that counsellors engage in. It is alleged that counsellors must have a knowledge base that allows them to generate insights about the client, form hypotheses, and make decisions. The theories become templates through which to view the client, providing a measure of prediction and control over what the counsellor sees and hears. Theories, then, are an attempt to create objectivity, rationality, and linearity in a domain where this may not be possible. Counselling theories ignore the continually changing, kaleidoscopic contingencies that constitute the life of both the counsellor and the client. Gary Thomas (1997) sums up the influence of theory in general by stating, "I argue that theory of any kind is a force for conservatism, for stabilizing the status quo through the circumscription of thought with a hermetic set of rules, procedures, and methods" (p. 76).

Expanding the plurality and diversity of an individual's imagined world cannot occur when there is a parallel process of theoretical expansion. Such expansion serves to confuse the issue by entangling new counsellors in a deceptive parody. Counsellor education might heed the implications of autopoietic theory by de-emphasizing the foundational role that counselling theories now occupy so that a more genuine understanding of the individual as a self-organizing process can occur. Unfortunately, counsellor educators have been deceiving themselves and their students by teaching multiple versions of therapeutic reality. Counsellor education programs have, until this point, refused to consider a major implication of autopoiesis that "knowledge is descriptive conduct" (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 119). Writing from a humanistic psychological perspective, Szasz (1998) comments: "In my view, there are as many authentic types of psychotherapies as there are authentic persons using words to help. I respect every one of these methods, provided their practitioners eschew force and fraud" (p. 18).

I define counselling as a relationship between a trained helper and a client (or clients) for the purpose of assisting the client to get more out of life. Immediately this definition creates a power imbalance by designating one of these individuals as the "counsellor", the person who guides the relationship. This issue of power is the source of the most significant criticism of the helping professions to emerge in the postmodern era. Many counsellors and therapists have been pursuing an objective, rationalist perspective in their work with clients. The value of the client's life is frequently measured against what was assumed to be the transcendent ontological perspective of the counsellor. However, this ignores the authenticity, vitality, and non-linearity characterizing human life. Contemporary counsellors must acknowledge and embrace the de-centering of the individual and the contextualization of experience, both their own and that of the clients with whom they work. Thomas (1996) has written that counsellors must "critically acknowledge the extent to which their role contributes to practices that contradict the genuinely preventive and emancipating values they endorse" (p. 535). Counsellor education programs that continue to endorse simplistic models of behaviour change are perpetuating power imbalances in the relational world of their students and in the future relationships between those counsellors and their clients. Counsellor educators who adhere to a vision of counselling as a scientifically valid method with linear strategies for behaviour change are stifling real progress and inviting criticism.

Efran, Lukens, & Lukens (1990), in one of the few books focusing on the implications of autopoietic theory for psychotherapy, contend that "all spheres of activity - including the abstract, the linguistic, and the intellectual - are founded on a-rational preferences" (p.177). But primitive urges for the real and the true run deep in human beings and inevitably lead to the claim that constructivist approaches in psychological theory and practice have resulted in a miasma of relativism. Such positivist arguments seem increasingly irrelevant as the convergence amongst diverse disciplines towards a unified view of life point to the necessity for openness to the possibility of change and disparate points of view. As Butz (1997) speculates, "Scientists, like the culture that follows them, will have to become more modest, thereby describing their limitations. They will have to explain that there is a harmony, a balance that exists, between order and chaos" (p. 238).


In reviewing the Santiago theory of cognition, and describing its connections to chaos theory, self-organization, and complexity, this paper represents an exploration of the theoretical foundations of counselling and counsellor education. Slife and Williams (1997) sparked this paper by calling for a subdiscipline of theoretical psychology, "so that people engaged in the discipline can themselves decide how the discipline should be conducted" (p. 121). It is apparent that a theoretical discussion focusing on the Santiago theory of cognition and its applicability to fundamental issues in counselling is a significant task consonant with the aim of informed disciplinary engagement. The basic issue of human change and the role of language, power, and theory is central to both the practice of counselling and the training of new counsellors. The Santiago theory of cognition is helpful in identifying the dominant theoretical motifs and difficulties in counselling. Research in the related area of complexity theory posits the importance of "phase transitions" at the root of organizational change. Something new, and presumably better, arises when the ratio of connections to discrete entities rises beyond a critical point. Something similar to a phase transition may be on the horizon within counselling as similar themes and forms of discourse coalesce. Ultimately, such theoretical discussions are vital for continuing the dialogue about the presuppositions we bring to our encounters with others in our role as counsellors.







Abraham, F.D. & Gilgen, A.R. (1995). Chaos theory in psychology. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Butz, M.R. (1997). Chaos and complexity: Implications for psychological theory and practice. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis.

Capra, F. (1996). The web of life. New York: Anchor Books.

Churchland, P. M. (1995). The engine of reason, the seat of the soul : A philosophical journey into the brain. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press

Davis, B. & Sumara, D.J. (1997). Cognition, complexity, and teacher education. Harvard Educational Review, 67, 105-125.

Edelson, M. (1993). Telling and enacting stories in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 48, 293-325.

Efran, J.S., Lukens, M., & Lukens, R. (1990). Language, structure, and change. New York: Norton.

Goodwin, B. (1994). How the leopard changed its spots: The evolution of complexity. London: Orion.

Hayes, R.L. (1994). Counseling in the postmodern world: Origins and implications of a constructivist developmental approach. Counseling and Human Development, 26, 1-12.

Hayes, R.L., Dagley, J.C., & Horne, A.M. (1996). Restructuring school counselor education: Work in progress. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 378-384.

Held, B.S. & Pols, E. (1987). Dell on Maturana: A new foundation for family therapy? Psychotherapy, 24, 455-461.

Kauffman, S. (1995). At home in the universe: The search for laws of self-organization and complexity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kiel, L.D. & Elliott, E. (1996). Chaos theory in the social sciences. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Luhmann, N. (1995). Social systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Maturana, H.R. (1978). Biology of language: Epistemology of reality. In, G.A. Miller & E. Lenneberg (Eds.), Psychology and biology of language and thought. New York: Academic Press.

Maturana, H.R. (1988). Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9, 25-82.

Maturana, H.R. & Varela, F.J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition. Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Maturana, H.R. & Varela, F.J. (1987). The tree of knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.

Merry, U. (1995). Coping with uncertainty: Insights from the new sciences of chaos, self-organization, and complexity. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Peavy, R.V. (1993). Envisioning the future: Worklife and counselling. Canadian Journal of Counselling, 27, 123-139.

Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Slife, B.D. & Williams, R.N. (1997). Toward a theoretical psychology: Should a subdiscipline be formally recognized? American Psychologist, 52, 117-129.

Szasz, T. (1998). The healing word: Its past, present, and future. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38, 8-20.

Thomas, G. (1997). What's the use of theory? Harvard Educational Review, 67, 75-104.

Thomas, S.C. (1996). A sociological perspective on contextualism. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 529-536.

Varela, F.J. (1991). Organism: A meshwork of selfless selves. In, A.I. Tauber (Ed.), Organism and the origins of self. Dordecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Press.

Whitaker, R.D. (1997, November). Exploring and employing autopoietic theory: Issues and tips. Paper presented at Biology, Language, Cognition and Society: International Symposium on Autopoiesis, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.