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Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition (Writing Science) Paperback – June 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews


"Varela's work, in general, and this book, in particular, offer many enduring and insightful perspectives to scholars in the field of education and the complexiity sciences."—Complicitiy: An International Journal of Complexity and Education

From the Inside Flap

How can science be brought to connect with experience? This book addresses two of the most challenging problems facing contemporary neurobiology and cognitive science: first, understanding how we unconsciously execute habitual actions as a result of neurological and cognitive processes that are not formal actions of conscious judgment but part of a habitual nexus of systematic self-organization; second, creating an ethics adequate to our present awareness that there is no such thing as a transcendental self, a stable subject, or a soul.
In earlier modes of cognitive science, cognition was conceptualized according to a model of representation and abstract reasoning. In the realm of ethics, this corresponded to the philosophical tenet that to do what is ethical is to do what corresponds to an abstract set of rules. By contrast to this computationalism, the author places central emphasis on what he terms “enaction”—cognition as the ability to negotiate embodied, everyday living in a world that is inseparable from our sensory-motor capacities.
Apart from his researches in cognitive science, the bodies of thought that enable Varela to make this link are phenomenology and two representatives of what he calls the “wisdom traditions”: Confucian ethics and Buddhist epistemology. From the Confucian tradition, he draws upon the Mencius to propose an ethics of praxis, one in which ethical action is conceived as a project of being rather than as a system of judgment, less a matter of rules that are universally applicable than a goal of expertise, sagehood.
The Buddhist contribution to his project encompasses “the embodiment of the void” and the “pragmatics of a virtual self.” How does a belief system that does not posit a unitary self or subject conceive the living of an “I”? In summation, the author proposes an ethics founded on “savoir faire” that is a practice of transformation based on a constant recognition of the “virtual” nature of ourselves in the actual operations of our mental lives.

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Product Details

  • Series: Writing Science
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1 edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804730334
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804730334
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #530,666 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

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This is an astonishing book, for its brevity, readability, depth, and importance for our time. In the short space of only 75 pages, Varela turns on its head most of today's common sense about where ethical behavior comes from, how we prepare for ethical action, and how wise and ethical people learn to be that way.
The exploration Varela reports in the three lectures reproduced here are based on recent biological evidence. In this regard, he speaks not as writer, journalist, or gifted amateur, but as one of the leading authorities on the science of mind in the world - a giant. For those who may be tempted to ignore this book because of another reviewer's dismissive comments, I recommend a quick visit, through Google, to one of the many web sites that speak of his education, accomplishments, and world-wide reputation. Try: [...]
In the second major inquiry that the book reports, Varela takes his question about ethical behavior from an inquiry into scientific and Western Philosophical traditions and connects them to an informed examination of Eastern Wisdom traditions. He is an authority there as well, a practicing Buddhist for many years, and also for many years one of the chief scientific advisors to the Dali Lama.
Varela is better known for two other important contributions - as co-author with Humberto Maturana of the ground-breaking Tree of Knowledge, in which they construct a radically new interpretation of biology that makes sense of language and cognition as biological, not metaphysical phenomena, and as the lead co-author of The Embodied Mind, in which the authors offer a new foundation for studies of the mind. The lectures offered here do not go over the same ground as the two other books, although Varela is standing on what he did before. This book is asking more sweeping questions about the construction of the human condition than did the others.
I give this elegant little book my very highest recommendation.
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Format: Paperback
Varela's 3 chapters are a clear, direct read on a philosophy of virtuous human development, apparently well-translated from the Italian lectures (from a Chilean thinker). I'm compelled to review because of the unfair treatment by another reviewer, who criticizes Varela not on the originality of his message, but on two points of his background. To rebut 1) Varela's depth and publication in biological cognition is well-regarded in both hard science and philosophy - and even then he can't be expected to know of every source in other disciplines (e.g., Rosen). 2) His experience with spiritual practice, as revealed in lecture, is not for anyone to judge - (which, by the way, he acknowledges tribute to his teacher C. Trungpa.) And finally (3) for he should not be expected to reveal such references in a time-bound lecture, and
Varela's mastery is in the simplicity of the message - in under 100 pages of clear analysis he challenges us both to understand the biological foundations of virtuous behavior and the development of ethical cognition. One sees in his view the possibility of self-awareness of ethical motivation, leading to an ethical consciousness. In a complex world of continual emergent choices and uncertain outcomes, a new type of conscience may be required. Varela points out such a path through both Western and Eastern perspectives - in non-academic terms.
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Format: Paperback
a book about a different way of thinking, a different epistamology, a different world view. A short read - he has several longer books also - but easy to understand and very enlightning. The author, along with Gregory Bateson and Humberto Manturana, offer ways of thinking that our culture would be helped and changed by if we would attend to.
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This slim volume is a collection of Varela's lectures where he attempted to expand his philosophy of self-organization and cognition, detailed in "The Tree of Knowledge", by exploring its similarity with other traditions. He also expanded on some of the more pragmatic questions about 'how' it might work to logical conclusions. This book definitely assumes that the reader has some background knowledge and I would suggest the previously-mentioned work as the best place to start.
There are some interesting aspects to the lectures, particularly when Varela attempted to show similarities between his theories and some of the Eastern "wisdom traditions", notably Buddhism. However, it seems obvious that Varela became infatuated with aspects of his philosophy and then ended up in a rather untenable state by taking it to its logical conclusion.
Varela, unfortunately, seems to have been unaware of Rosen's work on anticipatory systems. I say this since anticipatory systems would appear to be what Varela's theory is all about and would provide some level of conceptualization beyond mere words. On a deeper level, Varela has a certain "stink of Zen" to his work - it is apparent that he has an intellectual's view of Buddhism and not one of experience.
Varela simply becomes caught by the very web he has been trying to avoid - he ends up 'anchoring' experience back on the shaky foundation of empty concepts. It is too bad he never spent time actually practicing something like Zen or read further afield. In the end the book is interesting as a footnote to a small step in the right direction but that is all.
I would recommend someone interested in this topic to find Rosen's books and Ekdahl's latest papers where he combines anticipation with the concept of pure induction.
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