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"Autopoiesis is the process that produces and reproduces systems. An autopoietic system autonomously produces and reproduces the element of which it consists (Kneer & Nassehi 1997 p. 63). In other words, the system does not exchange input and output with its environment as linear systems would."


Contextual Quote

"Zoologist and philosopher Donna Haraway also criticizes the usage of the term, arguing that "nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing", and suggests the use of Sympoiesis, meaning "making-with", instead."

- Paraphrased from Donna Harraway [1]


From the Wikipedia:

"The term autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-) 'self', and ποίησις (poiesis) 'creation, production') refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts and eventually further components. The original definition can be found in the 1972 publication Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to define the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells.[1] Since then the concept has been also applied to the fields of cognition, systems theory, architecture and sociology.

In their 1972 book Autopoiesis and Cognition, Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela described how they invented the word autopoiesis.[2]: 89 : 16 

"It was in these circumstances ... in which he analyzed Don Quixote's dilemma of whether to follow the path of arms (praxis, action) or the path of letters (poiesis, creation, production), I understood for the first time the power of the word "poiesis" and invented the word that we needed: autopoiesis. This was a word without a history, a word that could directly mean what takes place in the dynamics of the autonomy proper to living systems."

They explained that,[2]: 78 

"An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which

(i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and

(ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network."

They described the "space defined by an autopoietic system" as "self-contained", a space that "cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system on the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection."

Autopoiesis was originally presented as a system description that was said to define and explain the nature of living systems. A canonical example of an autopoietic system is the biological cell. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These structures, based on an internal flow of molecules and energy, produce the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these components.

An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory). However, if the system is extended from the factory to include components in the factory's "environment", such as supply chains, plant / equipment, workers, dealerships, customers, contracts, competitors, cars, spare parts, and so on, then as a total viable system it could be considered to be autopoietic.

Of course, cells also require raw materials (nutrients), and produce numerous products -waste products, the extracellular matrix, intracellular messaging molecules, etc.

Autopoiesis in biological systems can be viewed as a network of constraints that work to maintain themselves. This concept has been called organizational closure[4] or constraint closure[5] and is closely related to the study of autocatalytic chemical networks where constraints are reactions required to sustain life.

Though others have often used the term as a synonym for self-organization, Maturana himself stated he would "[n]ever use the notion of self-organization ... Operationally it is impossible. That is, if the organization of a thing changes, the thing changes". Moreover, an autopoietic system is autonomous and operationally closed, in the sense that there are sufficient processes within it to maintain the whole. Autopoietic systems are "structurally coupled" with their medium, embedded in a dynamic of changes that can be recalled as sensory-motor coupling.[7] This continuous dynamic is considered as a rudimentary form of knowledge or cognition and can be observed throughout life-forms.

An application of the concept of autopoiesis to sociology can be found in Niklas Luhmann's Systems Theory, which was subsequently adapted by Bob Jessop in his studies of the capitalist state system. Marjatta Maula adapted the concept of autopoiesis in a business context. The theory of autopoiesis has also been applied in the context of legal systems by not only Niklas Luhmann, but also Gunther Teubner.

In the context of textual studies, Jerome McGann argues that texts are "autopoietic mechanisms operating as self-generating feedback systems that cannot be separated from those who manipulate and use them". Citing Maturana and Varela, he defines an autopoietic system as "a closed topological space that 'continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components'", concluding that "Autopoietic systems are thus distinguished from allopoietic systems, which are Cartesian and which 'have as the product of their functioning something different from themselves'". Coding and markup appear allopoietic", McGann argues, but are generative parts of the system they serve to maintain, and thus language and print or electronic technology are autopoietic systems.: 200–1 

In his discussion of Hegel, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues, "Hegel is – to use today's terms – the ultimate thinker of autopoiesis, of the process of the emergence of necessary features out of chaotic contingency, the thinker of contingency's gradual self-organisation, of the gradual rise of order out of chaos."



From the Wikipedia [2]:

Relation to complexity

"Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment.

This generalized view of autopoiesis considers systems as self-producing not in terms of their physical components, but in terms of its organization, which can be measured in terms of information and complexity. In other words, we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. (— Carlos Gershenson, "Requisite Variety, Autopoiesis, and Self-organization")

Autopoiesis has been proposed as a potential mechanism of abiogenesis, by which molecules evolved into more complex cells that could support the development of life.

Comparison with other theories of life

Autopoiesis is just one of several current theories of life, including the chemoton[21] of Tibor Gánti, the hypercycle of Manfred Eigen and Peter Schuster, the (M,R) systems of Robert Rosen, and the autocatalytic sets of Stuart Kauffman, similar to an earlier proposal by Freeman Dyson.[28] All of these (including autopoiesis) found their original inspiration in Erwin Schrödinger's book What is Life?[29] but at first they appear to have little in common with one another, largely because the authors did not communicate with one another, and none of them made any reference in their principal publications to any of the other theories. Nonetheless, there are more similarities than may be obvious at first sight, for example between Gánti and Rosen. Until recently there have been almost no attempts to compare the different theories and discuss them together.

Relation to cognition

An extensive discussion of the connection of autopoiesis to cognition is provided by Evan Thompson in his 2007 publication, Mind in Life. The basic notion of autopoiesis as involving constructive interaction with the environment is extended to include cognition. Initially, Maturana defined cognition as behavior of an organism "with relevance to the maintenance of itself".  However, computer models that are self-maintaining but non-cognitive have been devised, so some additional restrictions are needed, and the suggestion is that the maintenance process, to be cognitive, involves readjustment of the internal workings of the system in some metabolic process. On this basis it is claimed that autopoiesis is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for cognition.[36] Thompson wrote that this distinction may or may not be fruitful, but what matters is that living systems involve autopoiesis and (if it is necessary to add this point) cognition as well. It can be noted that this definition of 'cognition' is restricted, and does not necessarily entail any awareness or consciousness by the living system. With the publication of The Embodied Mind in 1991, Varela, Thompson and Rosch applied autopoesis to make non-representationalist, and enactive models of mind, brain and behavior, which further developed embodied cognitive neuroscience, later culminating in neurophenomenology.

Relation to consciousness

The connection of autopoiesis to cognition, or if necessary, of living systems to cognition, is an objective assessment ascertainable by observation of a living system.

One question that arises is about the connection between cognition seen in this manner and consciousness. The separation of cognition and consciousness recognizes that the organism may be unaware of the substratum where decisions are made. What is the connection between these realms? Thompson refers to this issue as the "explanatory gap", and one aspect of it is the hard problem of consciousness, how and why we have qualia.

A second question is whether autopoiesis can provide a bridge between these concepts. Thompson discusses this issue from the standpoint of enactivism. An autopoietic cell actively relates to its environment. Its sensory responses trigger motor behavior governed by autopoiesis, and this behavior (it is claimed) is a simplified version of a nervous system behavior. The further claim is that real-time interactions like this require attention, and an implication of attention is awareness."



Jonas Andersen: Technological systems are causal and linear, social systems are dynamic and autopoietic.

"This means that a medium such as speech organs, air, and hearing, telephones, and the Internet cannot be classified as ‘dynamic’ in itself. What may or may not be dynamic is the way we use the media. So, there is a basic difference between linear input-output based systems and dynamic autopoietic systems. The linear systems, Luhmann refers to as autarchic (Luhmann 1984 p. 185, 473). This is the fundamental difference between technological and social systems. But if social systems are operationally closed, and do not have input-output interaction with its environment, how do they interact with anything? The answer is cybernetics. Or in other words: they don’t. Not at the cybernetic level of the system itself, anyway. Interaction between two autopoietic (psychic, social, or societal) systems will form another autopoietic system of a higher cybernetic order. For instance, interaction between two psychic systems will inevitably happen through communication. This will result in the emergence of a social system in the environment of the two psychic systems. The social system is therefore a system of a higher cybernetic level than the psychic subsystems."


More information

  • Maturana, Humberto R.; Varela, Francisco J. (1972). Autopoiesis and cognition: the realization of the living. Boston studies in the philosophy and history of science (1 ed.). Dordrecht: Reidel. p. 141. pdf
  • Capra F (1997). The Web of Life. Random House. ISBN 978-0-385-47676-8. – general introduction to the ideas behind autopoiesis

* Article: The Roots of Reality: Maturana and Varela's the Tree of Knowledge. By Morris Berman. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 29, Issue 2, 1989.


"The Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, is a landmark attempt to integrate biology, cognition, and epistemology into a single science, reversing the dualism of fact and value, and of observer and observed, that has haunted the West since the seventeenth century. The authors see perception as a reciprocal and interacting phenomenon, a "dance of congruity" that takes place between a living entity and its environment. This, they argue, implies a relativity of worldviews (there are no certainties), as well as the existence of a biology of cooperation going back millions of years. Recognition of a lack of absolutes, and of the nature of perception itself, they assert, make it possible for us today to change things for the better, as a deliberate and conscious act. What is overlooked in this discussion, however, are the origins and nature of conflict. By being pointedly apolitical, the authors wind up implying that one worldview is as good as the next. Cognitively speaking, the substitution of Buddhism for politics is a serious error, leaving, as it does, too many crucial questions unanswered. It is thus doubtful whether the biological argument being advanced here can stand up to serious scrutiny, and whether the dualism of modern science has indeed been overcome. Yet The Tree of Knowledge remains an important milestone in our current efforts to recognize that science is not value-free, and that fact and value are inevitably tied together. We are finally going to have to create a science that does not split the two apart, and that puts the human being back into the world as an involved participant, not as an alienated observer."