Concept Alley


Cognitive constructivism of operationally closed systems is explained succinctly by Knorr Cetina:

‘Closed systems are systems which operate entirely within their own medium and machineries of world construction. An example is the brain, which the biology of cognition sees as informationally closed towards its environment. Perception, for example, is accomplished by the brain, not the eye, and the brain can only construe what it sees from signals of light intensity which arrive at the retina. In order to form a picutre of the nature of the source of these signals, the brain makes reference to its own previous knowledge and uses its own electro-chemical reactions. Phrased differently, in perception the brain only interacts with itself and not with an external environment. The brain reconstructs the external world in terms of internal states, and in order to accomplish this the brain ‘observes’ itself (Maturana and Varela, 1980).

… Closed systems cannot build, with the environment of interest to them, a shared life-world. They lack the possibility of co-presence postulated by Schütz (1970) as an important feature of fact-to-face situations. They equally lack co-temporality, the possibility of conjoint time, and the possibility of conjoint status of human agents with the status of nonhuman entities or objects.’

At the time of writing Knorr Cetina was researching the particular world of high energy expermimental physics as a closed system. For Maturana on the constructivism of science see here.


Knorr Cetina, K. ‘Primitive Classification and Postmodernity: Towards a Sociological Notion of Fiction’, 11 Theory, Culture and Society (1994) 1.


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