October 30, 2009

The basic idea of Autopoietic Systems

In this post, I shall explain the autopoietic systems theory. Note that the following explanation based on my interpretation of the formulation by Niklas Luhmann, who generalized the concept from biological systems theory to general systems theory for building a new social system theory.

Autopoiesis means self-production, and autopoietic system means the system that produce itself. The concept of "autopoiesis" was originally proposed by biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and the term "autopoiesis" is invented from Greek words: "auto" for self- and "poiesis" for creation or production (Maturana & Varela 1972, Varela et. al. 1974, Maturana & Varela 1980; 1987).

"An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of process of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the 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 the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. It follows that an autopoietic machine 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 under conditions of continuous perturbations and compensation of perturbations." (Maturana & Varela 1980; p.79)

In short, an autopoietic system is a unity whose organization is defined by a particular network of production processes of elements, not by the components themselves or their static relations. Summarizing the concept of autopoiesis, it turns out that the system has three fundamental features; (1) element as momentary event, (2) boundary reproduction of the system, (3) element constitution based on the system.

The crucial point of autopoiesis in systems theory is the shift of viewpoint of element from substances to momentary events. Element of the system conventionally considered to keep existing, for example cell in living system or actor in social system. In the autopoietic system theory, however, the elements are the momentary event that has no duration. It means that elements disappear as soon as they are realized. Consequently, system must produce the elements in order to keep itself existing. Thus, the boundary of system is determined circularly by the production of elements, and it is called autopoietic system.

In this sense, autopoietic system is not emerged from so-called "bottom-up", just because the concept of bottom-up is assumed to given elements before emerging the whole. Autopoietic system intrinsically implies circular relation between the system and its elements. Luhmann pointed out as follows:

"Whether the unity of an element should be explained as emergence `from below' or as constitution `from above' seems to be a matter of theoretical dispute. We opt decisively for the latter. Elements are elements only for the system that employs them as units and they are such only through this system. This is formulated in the concept of autopoiesis."(Luhmann 1984; p.22)

In the next post, I will explain more detail about element constitution in autopoietic systems.


Luhmann, N. (1984). Soziale Systeme: GrundriƟ einer allgemeinen Theorie, Suhrkamp. (English translation: Social Systems, John Bednarz Jr., Dirk Baecker (translator), Stanford University Press, 1995)

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1972). De Maquinas y Seres Vivos. Editorial Universitaria S.A.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The realization of The Living, D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Shambhala Publications.

Varela, F.J., Maturana, H.R. & Uribe, R. (1974). "Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model", Biosystems, Vol.5, No.4, pp.187-196.


  1. Could anybody explain to me what is before an autopoietic system(an organism for example or something else)which becomes finally an autopoietic system?I think this is a crucial question for determining the process towards the emergence of an autopoietic system.
    Angelos Diamantopoulos

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  2. I think Autopoietic System is a continued, and nested system including all reality, universe still. Autopoiesis means re-creation, jumping life over the classical limitation from believing in A creator, and A statical reality, created by Him. Autopoiesis thinking allows us thinking in both directions, all elements in the system are only one, and not to look for origin, all is composed by cycles! Thanks for your interesting question!

  3. 17th Nov. 2012.

    Before autopoeisis were two broad sort of things, addressing the same kind of perspectives, namely, considerations about systems as a complete entity in some sense. There was a 3rd thing which we can't address in this forum, the works of Lesniewsky, mereology, the logic of wholes and parts, a topic in Philosophy of Logic.

    Speaking of systems-as-systems is the domain of Cybernetics and Systems Theory, the two things mentioned above were: 1. Theory of self-reporductive autamata, and self-reproduction generally. The monumental works of John Von Neuman in this and many other fields, not so unrelated to this is in his Collected Works. 2. Systems Theory of Systems that address themselves, that is self-referential Systems. In a sense Von Neuman had provided the general theory, but he wasn't a systems theorist in the Cyb/Sys sense.

    2.1 I would say, ideas about systems boundaries, structure, stability ultra stability and so on were aleady in an advanced stage when Autopoiesis appeared, so that the sophistication level was already very much there.

    2.2 the impetus for Varela was in the work of George Spencer-Brown, calculus of indication( this is the most cryptic work in the ontological history of logic and arithmetic). R. D. Laing said to me the Spencer-Brown was one of the handful of most intelligent men in 20th C. intellectual history. Talking to Spencer-Brown, I thought that was a mild way of putting it!

    2.3 systems theory and cybernetics interacted with sociology very strongly and openly in conferences world-wide which gave entry point to enquiring, multi-disciplinary minds, such as Niklas Luhman.

    Luhman's work, is however, more Spencer-Brownian at the outset.

    Farogh Dovlatshahi
    Venice, Calif.