Autopoietic System

Jan Overwijk

An autopoietic system is a system that produces and reproduces its own elements as well as its own structures (Luhmann, 2012, p. 32). The concept was introduced by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to describe the nature of living systems in general and the organic cell more specifically. In their definition of autopoietic systems, Maturana and Varela stress both the self-production of the system's elements and its boundary in space (Maturana and Varela, 1980, p. 79). The enzymes of the cell's metabolism produce enzymes as well as the boundary or membrane that safeguards the reproduction of this network of enzymes, thus producing a closed loop of self-production and self-organisation. For Maturana and Varela, autopoiesis constitutes the essential characteristic of living beings.

The German sociologists Niklas Luhmann borrows this concept to describe society as a complex autopoietic system. The social system, according to Luhmann, consists of communications which produce subsequent communications on the basis of existing social structures. For instance, social conventions structure how to respond to questions, orders and statements. Such conventions, however, can never exhaustively determine the following communications, so that there is always an element of contingency involved in the system. That is, the system's complexity entails that it must select some communications over others, i.e. the system must necessarily reduce complexity. The first and foremost way in which the social system reduces complexity is by drawing a boundary or distinction between itself and its outside, between system and environment. After that, the system can draw distinctions (i.e. communicate) on the system side of that distinction in order to increase its internal complexity. In this way, the social system is an autopoietic system: it generates its own elements as well as its own boundary.

As described, the system produces itself by distinguishing between system and environment. Since the system itself draws this distinction, the system/environment distinction is, technically speaking, drawn on the system-side of a prior system/environment distinction. This means that, when the system observes its environment, it actually observes itself. The system thus achieves 'operational closure': it operates solely on the basis of its own self-produced structures rather than on input it receives directly from the outside. 'Irritations' from the outside environment can only be handled by the system if they can be translated or coded into order, or information, that is, if they can be systematised into the stream of 'recursive' communications that is the system. In studying the social system, then, we are dealing with second-order observation. We are communicating about communications about communications. This self-referentiality installs a paradox at the heart of the system, since all self-reference must ultimately end in a paradox (e.g. 'This sentence is a lie'). We thus end up with a picture of the system that is essentially contingent, differential and paradoxical due to its self-incurred cuts.

According to Luhmann, such is also the nature of modern society. Modernity is functionally differentiated into a variety of incommensurable function systems, like law, economy and education. These function systems operate autonomously (i.e. autopoietically) on the basis of their own 'code', a vital distinction, like legal/illegal for law or profitable/unprofitable for the economy. Modern society is characterised by difference all the way down. There is no unity over and beyond this differentiation, no meta-narrative which commensurates the various function systems. As such, Luhmann presents a picture of the modern social system which stresses radical difference: an element that flows from the self-referential nature of the autopoietic system itself.

Synonyms: operationally closed system
Antonyms: allopoietic system, heteropoietic system
Hypernyms: system

Luhmann, N. (2012). Theory of Society, Volume 1. Trans. Rhodes Barrett. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Maturana, H. and Varela, F. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht/Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

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