A review of Maturana & Varela’s “The Tree Of Knowledge” 

What’s the book about?  

The authors, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, were both Chilean-born biologists and philosophers. Varela was also a mathematician and neuroscientist. In this book they use systems theory to trace the roots of consciousness.

What did I learn from the book?

I learned that we can see the world differently if we look at it and ourselves through the lens of systems theory. And once I started to see this way, I saw systems everywhere. That’s because systems of varying structural complexity are everywhere, from single-cell organisms to complex human beings to multinational corporations. There are systems embedded within systems.

All systems are self-conserving, self-maintaining and self-generating. But each system is inherently limited in that each has a structurally determined range of potentials. The environment or medium in which the system exists does not determine what the system does, it merely triggers the change and/or provides the context in which the system’s structure determines what it can do. The system itself determines the range of structural variation it can accept without loss of its identity.

In this way all systems must be somewhat closed because they need to be able to reject what would bring about their structural disintegration. But they also need to be somewhat open because systems regenerate themselves by interacting with other systems.

In these interactions, known as structural coupling, the information that passes between two systems may be rejected or accepted by either one. A system is able to accept and adapt to the new information only within a range that is determined by its existing structure. That structure is itself a function of previous instances of structural coupling. As each system finds a way to fit with other systems, it redefines itself and reconfigures its relationships with other systems.  

Structural coupling between human beings takes place through the medium of language. Our common language systems generate the consensual domains out of which social phenomena arise. Through our human coexistence, and specifically through the use of language, we generate ourselves as observers and describers. Language gives rise to the phenomenon of self-consciousness or awareness or mind. It is through language that we create our reality.

How do I apply this to myself?

This book asks of me that I approach the world with a deeper systemic awareness, that I keep noticing the ways in which everything is connected, that I recognise the ways in which we mutually influence one another. 

The book reminds me of my personal responsibility as a human being because every action (or inaction) on my part has an impact somewhere. It reminds me that every interaction between human beings, between you and me, is potentially a sacred act of creation. And it also reminds me that what we are capable of doing together is a function of what is permitted by our individual and combined structures. As a result my sense of responsibility must be mediated by compassion, and my sense of optimism mediated by humility. 

The book also reminds me that we humans are a complicated combination of individuality and communion. We each see the world in a unique way and act in the world based on that perception. But by acting in concert with others we create our own reality. As the authors say, “Everyone sees not the world but a world which we bring forth with others.”

How do I apply this to my work?


My role is to help my clients achieve the change that they seek. But it is the nature of any system to simultaneously seek and resist change. I need to remain mindful that my change-seeking clients will naturally also resist change, as they should. I need to resist my urge to forcefully attempt to drive through the change that my clients seek so as not to inadvertently injure the part of my client that is intelligently resisting change. 


I best serve my clients when I orchestrate high quality conversation. The conversation is the context in which fresh possibilities can emerge and in which constructive change can occur. The conversation might also serve as a catalyst for change, but it is my client’s structure of interpretation that will determine the nature and extent of the change. My role is to respectfully flex my client’s structure of interpretation through conversation. Through language we bring forth a world, we open up a world of fresh possibilities.  


I must be mindful of the fact that both my client and I will be affected by our structural coupling. Because of the high degree of plasticity of the human nervous system, we are subject to continuous structural change. We are all modified in some way, however small, by every experience. The process that I take my clients through can be quite intense at times, and the intensity of the experience will have an impact on us both, sometimes in surprising ways. I need to remain open to being changed by my client as much as my client is open to being changed by me. In fact, I can influence my client’s willingness to be open to change only by my own willingness to change. This is integral to holding high quality conversations.


  • In what ways are you shaping the systems you inhabit?
  • In what ways are these systems shaping you?
  • What world do you seek to create? With whom? How?


  • The Tree Of Knowledge by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1987)