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The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding Paperback – March 31, 1992

4.7 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This book was originally a series of lectures by the Chilean coauthors, sponsored by the Organization for American States. It applies science, especially what is known of neural systems, to philosophical questions about human perception and understanding. The arguments are built up methodically, beginning with the origin of life and continuing through the the development of language in humans. The main virtues of the book are its logical approach and its use of examples. However, the style is in many places unnecessarily abstruse. The book will yield profitable discussion for philosophers, social scientists, and some lay readers. Margery C. Coombs, Zoology Dept., Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A refreshing and new approach to cognition—one which has dramatic cultural, social, and ethical ramifications. . . . While stimulating the imagination of readers it has, however, not received the scholarly acclaim it richly deserves."— Journal of Religion and Psychical Research

"A book with great breadth and ambition . . . In the age of specialization, it is refreshing to come across a book with conceptual breadth and originality."— Contemporary Psychology

"An important milestone in our current efforts to recognize that science is not value-free, and that fact and value are inevitably tied together."—Morris Berman, author of Coming to Our Senses

"A beautiful and clearly written guide to thought and perception—something that, like life itself, we take for granted but do not understand. The authors were the pioneers and are now the authoritative figures in the science of cognition: their book is rewarding, thorough, and very readable to anyone curious about the mind and the way that it works."—James Lovelock, author of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

"The ideas presented in this book are radical and exciting, disturbing and challenging. For the first time we are shown the outlines of a unified scientific conception of mind, matter, and life. The fruits of Maturana and Varela's Tree of Knowledge include the central insight that cognition is not a representation of the world 'out there,' but rather a 'bringing forth of the world through the process of living itself,' and the stunningly beautiful conclusion: 'We have only the world that we can bring forth with others, and only love helps bring it forth."—Fritjof Capra, author The Tao of Physics

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 269 pages
  • Publisher: Shambhala; Revised edition (March 31, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0877736421
  • ISBN-13: 978-0877736424
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #63,470 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

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I came to this book years ago through, of all things, a two-year course in business and sales, for which it was required reading along with "Computers and Cognition", another eye-opener; the latter anticipated the current transactional nature of the Internet. You might ask how a work as theoretical and speculative as "Tree of Knowledge" could be part of a pragmatic and hardnosed business course, and that is one key to its attraction for me: as intellectually intriguing as the ideas and assertions in this book are, even more engaging is how they might actually change the way we act in the world.

The authors drill down to molecular biology and then carefully build upward their premise that we construct the worlds we live in out of language. Each of us exists inside a story we tell ourselves about the way the world is, and we are completely contained within that story. In that sense, we interact with other people through the way our stories talk to their stories. And the success of our relationships and the effectiveness with which we act in our world is dependent on how well we can recognize the stories of others and understand the nature of our own story.

This is good news, once we recognize it, because we are a narrative species. On my way to work in the morning, I am telling myself a story about the way I want my day to go: what I expect, what I want to accomplish, how I will confront the challenges along the way. The story I tell myself about my life has heroes and villains, goals and challenges, grand themes and petty foibles.
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By A Customer on May 19, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book, a foundation piece of "New Thought," is required reading for college courses at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and at California's Humboldt State University. Its reputation is well-deserved.
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, two Chilean scientists, lucidly establish HOW we know WHAT we know, as they engage the reader in a series of perceptual experiments designed to present the case for each entity's absolute right to its own "reality."
According to Maturana and Varela, an individual's "reality" is constructed from his or her (or its) perceptions, and these perceptions are interactive with the environment. The authors use the graphic analogy of a raindrop which falls on the mountainside and, as it courses downward, both affects and is affected by the slope down which it rolls. That raindrop's experience is its incontrovertible truth, though rain falling on an opposite slope finds quite a different path.
Thus, our "reality" is interactive. Moreover, our reality is mutually constructed. Our commonly agreed-upon view of reality is in fact a shared set of assumptions/perceptions. You and I see what we see because we have agreed that this is what is "out there." Together, we bring forth the world we experience as objective reality.
The implications of this idea are profound. We cannot afford to scorn another's views, for they are just as valid as our own, and without them our greater "reality" is incomplete.
This compelling book will challenge your assumptions about science and philosophy. But if you stay open to these ideas, you will not see the world, nor your fellow beings, in the same limited way again. And you will more deeply appreciate your own part in bringing forth the dream.
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Format: Paperback
This book was my introduction to the concept of autopoesis, the process of self-creation.
The book is constucted in a circular path taking the reader from the beginning of the big bang, and working up from atoms to molecules, molecules to organisms, organisms to multicellular life forms and from there into the linguistic domain and language.
Each of these shift to the next level is a result of the interplay of the forces of structural integrity to keep the organism together and whole, and adaptation to the surrounding environment. Like the Escher drawing of one hand drawing the other in a chicken-and-egg creation loop, conservation of structure and adaptation to environment each give rise to the other.
The universe is self created -- no God required!
The authors present biology in the most beautiful poetic prose. If high school biology were this eloquent I may have taken a different path, i.e., my ontogenic drift would have been altered.
Reading their words, I had the same response as I do to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. The show clearly how language is something we "do" and a medium in which we exist. How language gives rise to mind, consciousness and self-awareness. It brought new meaning to Steven's line, "Man made out of words."
Part of their narrative drift is an explanation of the workings of the neurosystem. How it is neither representational or solipsistic. We are not "like" computers at all. We do not repond to "reality" out there, but to the neural electrical impulses the external reality triggers on our membrane. From these impulses to the brain, we create a model of the world and respond to that.
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