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I am interested in possible connections between autopoiesis and connectivism, e.g., is connectivism an autopoiesis of learning? [1],[2]

What is autopoiesis?[edit]

The first step is to understand the terms. Let's start with autopoiesis. The term refers to the dynamic self-organisation of self-contained biological systems, however its use has become more broad. The origin of the term is discussed by its creator, Maturana (see history of the term). Here are some further descriptions:

Poiesis is a Greek term that means production. Autopoiesis means autoproduction. This word appeared for the first time in the international literature in 1974, in an article published by Varela, Maturana, and Uribe, in which living beings are seen as systems that produce themselves in a ceaseless way. Thus, it can be said that an autopoietic system is at the same time the producer and the product.

In Maturana’s viewpoint, the term "autopoiesis" expresses what he called "the center of the constitutive dynamics of living systems". To live this dynamics in an autonomous way, living systems need to obtain resources from the environment in which they live. In other words, they are simultaneously autonomic and dependent systems. So, this condition is clearly a paradox. This self-contradictory condition cannot be adequately understood by linear thinking, according to which everything must be reduced to the binary model yes/no, or/or. When dealing with living beings, things, and events, linear thinking begins by dividing them. The next step is the analysis of the separate parts. No attempts are made to look for the dynamic relationships that exists between them.

This autonomy-dependency paradox, which is a characteristic feature of living beings, is better understood when one uses a way of thinking that encompasses systems thinking (which examines the dynamic relationships between the parts) and linear thinking. This model has been proposed by French author Edgar Morin, who called it "complex thinking".

Maturana and Varela proposed an instructive metaphor that is worthwhile to recall here. In their viewpoint, living systems are self-producing machines. No other kind of machine is able to do this: their production always consists in something that is different from themselves. Since autopoietic systems are simultaneously producers and products, it could also be said that they are circular systems, that is, they work in terms of productive circularity. Maturana maintains that as long as we are not able to understand the systemic character of living cells, we will not be able to adequately understand living organisms. I reaffirm that this understanding can only be adequately provided by complex thinking. However, we live in a culture that is deeply formatted by linear thinking.

An autopoietic system is a system organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components. At this time, the components have the following characters: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously they regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) they constitute it (the system) 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.

—Maturana and Varela (1980)

Chilean biologists, H.R. Maturana and F.J. Varela (e.g., 1980,1992), whose search of life's definition, have successfully given a clue to the understanding of the most vexing question of life. Autopoiesis, a systematic principle does not reduce life to super-nature like soul and vigor, nor does it aim to explain life physiologically, seeing it as physiological processes, reproductions and movements as something physically grounded as is widely taken for granted in current sciences. Autopoiesis, therefore, is totally new way of seeing life and environment.

Autopoiesis is a compound word: auto meaning oneself and by itself, and poiesis, production, creation, and formation. Hence, the word “autopoiesis” literally is "self-production, and self-creation" ... The theory enables us to see further into life and environment, together with earth-system.

—MORIYAMA Shigeru, What is Life and Environment? : Autopoiesis of Life World

Autopoiesis: A theory of what life is, developed by the Chilean scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. A living organism is understood as a circular, autocatalytic-like process which has its own survival as its main goal. The phenomenon of self-organization is sometimes seen as an autopoeitic phenomenon. This theory with its emphasis on the closure of the living organism has been an appropriate remedy for the overemphasis on openness in open systems theory.
Autopoiesis ... the idea that biological as well as cognitive systems can be understood as ongoing self-creating processes that define their own identity by conserving their structure while exchanging energy and information with the environment, with which they share a structural coupling

—Allan Combs, Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 9(2):83, 2002]

Autopoiesis ... the process whereby an organization produces itself. An autopoietic organization is an autonomous and self-maintaining unity which contains component-producing processes. The components, through their interaction, generate recursively the same network of processes which produced them. An autopoietic system is operationally closed and structurally state determined with no apparent inputs and outputs. A cell, an organism, and perhaps a corporation are examples of autopoietic systems. See allopoiesis.

—F. Varela

Literally, self-production. The property of systems whose components (1) participate recursively in the same network of productions that produced them, and (2) realize the network of productions as a unity in the space in which the components exist (after Varela) (see recursion). Autopoiesis is a process whereby a system produces its own organization and maintains and constitutes itself in a space. E.g., a biological cell, a living organism and to some extend a corporation and a society as a whole.


Autopoiesis is based on the way living systems address and engage with the domains in which they operate. This biologically based theory, introduced here, (originated by Maturana and Varela) defines life as the ability to self-produce, rather than as (conventionally) the ability to reproduce. Like complexity theory it is a systems perspective, and is applicable to brains and societies as well as to biology and artificial life. In its original form it was applied to cognition, and replaces an external objective view of this subject with an internal relativistic understanding, in terms of an embedded observer.

—Chris Lucas, Autopoiesis and Coevolution

If we are to understand a newer and still evolving world; if we are to educate people to live in that world; if we are to legislate for that world; if we are to abandon categories and institutions that belong to a vanished world, as it is well-nigh desparate that we should; then knowledge must be rewritten. Autopoiesis belongs to the new library.

—Stafford Beer, Preface to Autopoiesis, 1980

Autopoiesis checklist[edit]

The question of whether or not something is autopoietic can only be addressed once you have a means for evaluating autopoiesis. Varela, Maturana and Uribe (1974) laid out a six-step procedure for judging whether a composite unity is autopoietic. The Autopoiesis Checklist, adapted from that 1974 paper, is a quick guide to evaluating whether or not an entity is autopoietic.

—Randall Whitaker, [ THE OBSERVER WEB: Autopoiesis and Enaction]

Six criteria are given to determine if a system is autopoietic:
  1. Does the system have identifiable boundaries ?
  2. Does it have constituent elements or components ?
  3. Is it mechanistic (subject to cause and effect) ?
  4. Are the boundaries self-produced ?
  5. Are the components of the boundaries self-produced ?
  6. Are the rest of the components self-produced ?

Under these criteria, not only are biological organisms autopoietic, but so is cognition, society and many institutions within it.

—Stafford Beer, Preface to Autopoiesis, 1980

The concept of autopoiesis has long surpassed the realm of biology. It has been used in areas so diverse as sociology, psychotherapy, management, anthropology, organizational culture, and many others. This circumstance transformed it in a very important and useful instrument for the investigation of reality. Years ago, Chilean scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed the following question: to what extent human social phenomenology could be seen as a biological phenomenology?

—Humberto Mariotti, Autopoiesis, culture, and society

Other system types[edit]

Autopoietic systems are self-sustaining wholes, however where these are fairly loosely defined with vague, open boundaries (e.g. most human systems) the terms sympoietic is sometimes used. These terms can can contrasted with heteropoietic which refers to externally sustained or planned systems (e.g. a person looking after an aquarium) and allopoietic which is an unsustainable, throughput-based, system (e.g. a production line which depletes the environment).

—Stafford Beer, Preface to Autopoiesis, 1980

Enactive cognitive science[edit]

Enactivism or enactive cognitive science has emerged (loosely) from autopoiesis and seems to have several theoretical similiarities with connectivism. However, these two tables seek to distinguish autopoiesis from cognitivism and connectionism (is this the same as connectivism?): See also enactivism. For more, see The Emodied Mind and Autopoiesis and Cognition.

External links[edit]