Encyclopaedia Autopoietica: Autopoiesis & Enaction Compendium

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Source: Encyclopaedia Autopoietica: Autopoiesis & Enaction Compendium







The theoretical construct definitive of the manner of operation of that class of systems that includes living systems. This term, combined from the Greek auto- (self) and poiesis(creation/production), was coined by Maturana in (approximately) 1972 (Cf. Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. xvii). Often loosely translated as ‘self-creation’ or ‘self-production’, the term connotes the process or dynamic by which an autopoietic machine / system maintains its autopoietic organization (via intrinsic processes of production of components realizing this particular organization). More specifically, autopoiesis is attributed to a machine (delineated as a a network of processes) which through that network of processes produces the components that:

“(1) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and(2) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they [the components] exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.”

(Varela, 1979, p. 13)

In the primary literature, autopoiesis is not directly defined as a process. Instead it is defined indirectly, on the basis of how an ‘autopoietic machine’ operates. There are, in fact, very few instances in the primary literature where ‘autopoiesis’ is substantively treated in and of itself, and then only as a process characteristic of ‘self-production’ or ‘homeostatic organization’ — constructs themselves framed mechanicistically with respect to the subject system’s architectonics. For example, Varela (1979, pp. 24-26) comes closest to addressing ‘autopoiesis’ directly in the course of discussing productions of relations in a given system:

“What makes this system a unity with identity and individuality is that all the relations of production are coordinated in a system describable as having an invariant organization. In such a system any deformation at any place is compensated for …by keeping its organization constant as defined by the relation of the productions that constitute autopoiesis. The only thing that defines the cell as a unity (as an individual) is its autopoiesis, and thus, the only restriction put on the existence of the cell is the maintenance of autopoiesis.”(Varela, 1979, p. 26, emphasis in the original)

“…[A]utopoiesis may arise in a molecular system if the relations of production are concatenated in such a way that they produce components specifying the system as a unity that exists only while it is actively produced by such concatenation of processes. This is to say that autopoiesis arises in a molecular system only when the relation that concatenates these relations is produced and maintained constant through the production of the molecular components that constitute the system through this concatenation.”

(Varela, 1979, pp. 26-27)

NOTE: Given the above distinctions and qualifications about the nature and origin of the construct ‘autopoiesis’, the details on what makes a composite unity (system) ‘autopoietic’ are therefore to be found under the entries for autopoietic machine and autopoietic organization.

The strict, though indirect, definition of autopoiesis proposed in the early papers was intended to provide a basis for overcoming vague or problematical characterizations of living systems — particularly those which represented vitalistic explanation of biological phenomena. As Maturana (1980a, p. 45) put it, the construct of autopoiesis:

“…resulted from the direct attempt … to provide a complete characterization of the organization that makes living systems self-contained autonomous unities, and that makes explicit the relations among their components which must remain invariant under a continuous structural transformation and material turnover.”

This passage reinforces the viewpoint that it is the constitutive organization of an autopoietic system which is primary in delineating autopoiesis. This is reflected even in the less formal popular account given in The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1987, 1992):

“When we speak of living beings, we presuppose something in common between them; otherwise we wouldn’t put them in the same class we designate with the name ‘living.’ What has not been said, however, is: what is the organization that defines them as a class? Our proposition is that living beings are characterized in that, literally, they are continually self-producing. We indicate this process when we call the organization that defined them an autopoietic organization.“(Maturana & Varela, 1992, p. 43, emphasis added)

Having said that, Maturana and Varela proceed (as they have consistently done in the more formal literature) to delineate the autopoietic organization as the basis for ‘indicating’ the process of ‘autopoiesis.’

These last quotations illustrate a point which has proven somewhat problematical over the years. As mentioned at the outset, ‘autopoiesis’ has in fact been delineated and formally defined in terms of the constitution and operational character of an autopoietic machine or system. This definitional approach was entirely consistent with the mechanicistic perspective from which Maturana and Varela initially proceeded. To have invoked an ephemeral ‘autopoiesis’ (e.g., as a processual or qualitative referent) would have arguably entailed sliding into the sort of vitalistic explanation which they explicitly opposed and stringently avoided.

In other words, ‘autopoiesis’ is an abstract construct known solely in relation to a machine / system of a particular constitution which maintains its key constitutive character over time. Strictly speaking, autopoiesis has not been positively defined as a type of process in and of itself, even though it is clear in the context of its primary literature (e.g., Maturana & Varela, 1980) that it is the dynamic or process evidenced by, and reciprocally preservative of, the autopoietic organization / autopoietic machine. Nonetheless, it became common practice (even on occasion by Maturana and Varela themselves) to allude to ‘autopoiesis’ as a rhetorical shorthand connoting (in terms of process) the constitutive and operational details of a particular system. This is most evident when addressing the dynamics of an autopoietic system — i.e., when the processes manifest in the autopoietic network comprise the referential foreground, and the mechanics of the network itself are relegated to the background.

Given the above-cited conditions, it is possibly understandable, though definitely somewhat ironic, that this indirectly- or allusively-defined shorthand term should become the de facto label for the essence of Maturana and Varela’s work, as well as a common label for that work itself (Cf. 2. below). So long as such invocations retain (or at least can be linked to) the sort of mechanicistic context in which the process ‘autopoiesis’ is definitively framed, this is not problematical. What is problematical is explanatory invocation (and reliance upon) the process or dynamic of ‘autopoiesis’ absent this context. To invoke ‘autopoiesis’ (e.g., as ‘self-production’) without concomitantly explaining the constitutive elements of the system(s) for which such invocation is made, is to deny any basis for evaluating the applicability of the construct (as it was defined originally). The most well-known example of such an invocation would be that of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who adopted ‘autopoiesis’ as a processual construct in analyzing social systems, yet never (to date) bothered to explain what in his view are the key constitutive elements (e.g., ‘organization’, ‘structure’) by which such an application might be assessed in terms of Maturana and Varela’s clear-cut definitional criteria.

The explanatory risk in invoking ‘autopoiesis’ absent attention to the machine / system manifesting it has two distinguishable (but admittedly intertwined) components. The first is that an observer may simplistically project the feature ‘autopoiesis’ onto a unity with which she has insufficient or imperfect observational engagement upon which to base its ascription. Phrased another way, stripping the processual construct away from the machine manifesting it opens the possibility of its mistaken attribution to something only partially or indirectly observed. Varela (1979) provides some illustration for this type of risk in writing of recognizing an autopoietic system (as distinct from autonomous systems in general):

“In general, the actual recognition of an autopoietic system poses a cognitive problem that has to do both with the capacity of the observer to recognize the relations that define the system as a unity, and with his capacity to distinguish the boundaries that delimit this unity in the space in which it is realized (his criteria of distinction). Since it is a defining feature of an autopoietic system that it should specify its own boundaries, a proper recognition of an autopoietic system as a unity requires that the observer perform an operation of distinction that defines the limits of the system in the same domain in which it specifies them through its autopoiesis. If this is not the case, he does not observe the autopoietic system as a unity, even though he may conceive it.”(Varela, 1979, p. 54)

The second, but related, explanatory risk has to do with ascribing autopoiesis to systems with which the observer / explainer may have ‘proper’ observational engagement, but for which the observer ignores addressing the key features of the autopoietic organization by which the process of autopoiesis is defined. Varela (1979) also addresses this issue in passing, during his discussion of ascribing autopoiesis to other (autonomous) systems (i.e., systems of similar apparent constitution or apparent mode of operation, but not ‘living systems’). Varela notes that other systems, being autonomous, entail:

“…assertion of the system’s identity through its functioning in such a way that observation proceeds through the coupling between the observer and the unit in the domain in which the unity’s operation occurs.What is unsatisfactory about autopoiesis for the characterization of other unities … is also apparent from this very description. The relations that characterize autopoiesis are relations of productions of components. … Given this notion of production of components, it follows that the cases of autopoiesis we can actually exhibit, such as living systems or model cases …, have as a criterion of distinction a topological boundary, and the processes that define them occur in a physical-like space…

Thus, the idea of autopoiesis is, by definition, restricted to relations of productions of some kind, and refers to topological boundaries. These two conditions are clearly unsatisfactory for other systems exhibiting autonomy.” […of which Varela specifically mentions animal societies and human social institutions — Ed.]

(Varela, 1979, p. 54, emphasis in the original)

The difference between autonomy and autopoiesis is that autopoietic systems must produce their own components in addition to conserving their organization . Autonomous machines need only exhibit organizational closure, and they are not required to produce their own components as part of their operation.

Cf. : allopoiesisallopoietic machineautopoietic machinemachine.


A label sometimes used to denote the body of Maturana and Varela’s theoretical work.

Cf. : autopoiesis theoryautopoietic theorytheory of autopoiesis.


autopoiesis theory

A label for the body of Maturana and Varela’s theoretical work, occurring rarely in the writings of other authors alluding to their theories.

Cf. : autopoiesis (2.)autopoietic theorytheory of autopoiesis.


autopoietic closure

A term invoked by Maturana (1978) in summarily characterizing autopoietic systems. He states autopoietic closure “… is the condition for autonomy in autopoietic systems in general, and that it “… is realized through a continuous structural change under conditions of continuous material interchange with the medium.” With regard to the thermodynamic constraints relevant to the physical space, “… autopoietic closure in living systems does not imply the violation of these constraints, but constitutes a particular mode of realization of autopoiesis in a space in which thermodynamic constraints are valid.”

This term is used only within one paragraph in this paper, and as such it’s somewhat difficult to discern whether it is being used as (a) a summary term for the ‘mode of closure’ evidenced in autonomous / autopoietic systems generally, or (b) a specific analogue to more clearly delineated constructs such as operational closure or organizational closure. Because the term is invoked specifically to discuss autonomy , one might make a case that it connotes organizational closure. However, there is no evidence beyond this to suggest such a linkage between the two constructs.

Cf. : closureoperational closureorganizational closure


autopoietic machine (system)

machine / system which is a member of the class of autonomous systems and which meets the requirement of being organized (defined as a unity ) as a network of processes of production, transformation and destruction of components that produces the components which:

(i) through their interactions and transformations regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it as a concrete unity in the space in which they exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 135, Cf. : Varela, 1979, p. 13)

Any unity meeting these specifications is an autopoietic machine / system, and any such autopoietic system realized in the physical space is a living system. The particular substantiation of a given unity — its structure — is not a sufficient factor for making the system “living”. The key feature of a living system is maintenance of its organization, i.e, preservation of the relational network which defines it as a systemic unity. Phrased another way, ‘…autopoietic systems operate as homeostatic systems that have their own organization as the critical fundamental variable that they actively maintain constant.’ (Maturana, 1975, p. 318)

Varela, Maturana & Uribe (1974) provide a concise set of criteria for autopoietic machine, arranged as a 6-point key by which one may proceed step-by-step in evaluating autopoiesis for a given unity. This key is illustrated in Table AutoKey below.

A Six-Step Key for Determining Whether a Given Unity is Autopoietic
(Varela, Maturana & Uribe, 1974, pp. 192-193)

1. Determine if:

The unity has identifiable boundaries (via interactions)

If so:Proceed to 2.
If not:“The unity is indescribable and we can say nothing.” (p. 192)

2. Determine if:

“…there are constitutive elements of the unity, that is, components of the unity.” (p. 192)

If so:Proceed to 3.
If not:“…the unity is an unanalyzable whole and therefore not an autopoietic system.” (p. 192)

3. Determine if:

…the unity is a mechanistic system, that is, the components properties are capable of satisfying certain relations that determine in the unity the interactions and transformations of these components.” (p. 192)

If so:Proceed to 4.
If not:“…the unity is not an autopoietic system.” (p. 193)

4. Determine if:

“…the components that constitute the boundaries of the unity constitute these boundaries through preferential neighborhood relations and interactions between themselves, as determined by their properties in the space of their interactions.” (p. 193)

If so:Proceed to 5.
If not:“…you do not have an autopoietic unity because you are determining its boundaries, not the unity itself.” (p. 193)

5. Determine if:

“…the components of the boundaries of the unity are produced by the interactions of the components of the unity, either transformation of previously produced components, or by transformations and/or coupling of non-component elements that enter the unity through its boundaries.” (p. 193)

If so:Proceed to 6.
If not:“…you do not have an autopoietic unity.” (p. 193)

6. Determine if:

“…all the other components of the unity are also produced by the interactions of its components as in 5.

If so:“…you have an autopoietic unity in the space in which its components exist.” (p. 193, emphasis in the original)
If not:“…and there are components in the unity not produced by components of the unity as in 5., or if there are components of the unity which do not participate in the production of other components, you do not have an autopoietic unity.” (p. 193)

Autopoietic machines are the opposite of allopoietic machines, which are defined in terms of a purpose other than maintenance of their own organization. However, an observer can ascribe allopoietic ( allo-referred) status to an autopoietic machine within a subsuming context. Autopoietic machines may be described or manipulated as components of “…a larger system that defines the independent events which perturb them … [and] can in fact be integrated into a larger system as a component allopoietic machine, without any alteration in its autopoietic organization.” (Varela, 1979, p. 16) (See Also: higher-order, second-order, third-order) Conversely, an observer may analytically decompose an autopoietic machine, treating each of its “…partial homeostatic and regulatory mechanisms as allopoietic machines (submachines) by defining their input and output surfaces.” (Varela, 1979, p. 17) Such a decomposition does not sum up (as a collection of allopoietic submachines) to an appropriate description of autopoietic machines, because it “…does not reveal the nature of the domain of interactions that … [autopoietic machines] … define as concrete entities operating in the physical universe.” (Varela, 1979, p. 17)

Cf. : autonomy autopoiesis autonomous machine (system), machine


autopoietic network

A term used by Varela (1979, p. 13) to denote that “…particular network of processes (relations) of production of components …” which characterizes an autopoietic machine / system.


autopoietic organization

The generic term denoting the organization characterizing autopoietic machines / systems. The term “…simply means processes interlaced in the specific form of a network of productions of components which realizing the network that produced them constitute it as a unity.” (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 80)

Cf. : living organizationorganization organization of the living


autopoietic space

“An autopoietic organization constitutes a closed domain of relations specified only with respect to the autopoietic organization that these relations constitute, and thus it defines a space in which it can be realized as a concrete system, a space whose dimensions are the relations of production of the components that realize it.”(Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 135)

Note that this “autopoietic space” is not isomorphic with the general physical space which is the context for realization of the composite unity . Perhaps the best interpretation is to consider an autopoietic space to be analogous to a state space (a depictive construct for a system’s attributes). Maturana and Varela (1980, pp. 90 ff.) ascribe three dimensions to the autopoietic space, corresponding to the three classes of relations of production.

Cf. : domainrelations of productionspace