The A
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Theory of Autopoiesis

The Autopoiesis of Social Systems
and its Criticisms
Hugo Cadenas • University of Chile • hcadenas/at/
Marcelo Arnold • University of Chile • marnold/at/
> Context • Although the theory of autopoietic systems was originally formulated to explain the phenomenon of life

from an operational and temporal perspective, sociologist Niklas Luhmann incorporated it later within his theory of
social systems. Due to this adoption, there have been several discussions regarding the applicability of this concept
beyond its biological origins. > Problem • This article addresses the conception of Luhman’s autopoietic social systems, and confronts this vision with criticism both of the original authors of the concept of autopoiesis and of other
social theorists in order to elucidate the main problems of this debate and its possible solutions. > Method • The objectives of the article are reached by means of a theoretical reconstruction of the main issues of the debate on the
concept of autopoiesis. The main method used for the research is the use of documentary sources to discuss the arguments. > Results • We claim that it is justified to extend the concept of autopoiesis from its biological origin to other
disciplines, and to develop its interdisciplinary character, following the spirit of systems theory and constructivism.
> Implications • Our results are useful for promoting the development of new interdisciplinary research in the field
of systems theory and constructivism. Important changes to practice should be made, namely, the development of
new research methods, new concepts and perspectives. > Constructivist content • The concept of autopoiesis is one
of the fundamental concepts of the constructivist epistemology. The discussion proposes a radical understanding of
this concept in order to realize all its explanatory potential. > Key words • Biological autopoiesis, social autopoiesis,
systems theory, Niklas Luhmann.

« 1 »  Systems theory is characterized by
a broad conceptual openness and, simultaneously, by a constant discussion regarding
the explanatory capacity of its observation
tools (Rodríguez & Arnold 1991). This has
had important consequences for the multidisciplinary character of its research. While
this theory is framed within a research paradigm focused on “systems,” permanent examination of comparison points between
perspectives of various kinds has become
inevitable. Despite their different research
praxes, the theories that deal with biological systems and those dedicated to the study
of social systems have been intertwined on
several occasions.
« 2 »  From a historical perspective, it
can be noticed that is almost impossible to
detach the concept of system from its social
and biological roots. The (proto) systems
theory of Herbert Spencer (1887, 1912) was
a proposal that used the same principles to

explain the evolution of biological and social
systems. Half a century later, Ludwig von
Bertalanffy (1950) insisted on developing
a general systems theory based on the idea
of open systems for biological and social
sciences. Talcott Parsons (1951, 1961; Parsons & Shils 1962) also developed a theory
of open systems focused both on social and
on biological systems, to which he added
the individual personality and the culture as
analog systems.1 Based on these and other
developments, not only sociology but also
the vast field of interest of systems theory
was nurtured. Not surprisingly, therefore,
the concepts used and discussed in systems
theory may have both biological and sociological explanations.
« 3 »  The concept of “autopoiesis” elaborated by Humberto Maturana and Francisco
Varela (1980; Varela, Maturana & Uribe
1974) is an example of this. Designed ini1 |  A broad overview of this tradition is in
Rodríguez & Arnold (1991).

tially under the umbrella of a theory of biological systems in order to explain the phenomenon of life, it was promptly adopted
by the theory of social systems developed
by Niklas Luhmann (1982a) to explain the
self-constitutive character of social systems.
The creators of the concept of autopoiesis insisted, however, on several occasions on the
inadequacy of applying this term to social
systems. This self-imposed restriction has
been a subject of debate and controversy up
to today.
« 4 »  In contrast to other concepts
broadly shared by theories of biological and
social systems, the concept of autopoiesis
has sparked a sterile debate leading interdisciplinary research to an otherwise inexplicable underdevelopment. While systemic sociology has not only continued applying the
concept, but also extended its use to diverse
areas of the social, the biological theory of
autopoiesis has tried, with great difficulty,
to develop a social systems theory without


Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis

this concept. This cleavage has shown to be
« 5 »  In this article, we attempt to refocus the debate on the concept of autopoiesis
for social systems research. We analyze not
only the benefits shown by this concept in
explaining social phenomena, but also the
consequences for social systems theory derived from its restriction to a merely biological level. In the first section, we discuss the
concept of autopoiesis in the theory of social
systems, its relations with other concepts,
and applications. In the second section, we
address both criticism from the creators of
the concept of autopoiesis of its use on social
sciences and their proposal for a theory of
social systems. In the third section, we address some criticisms from social sciences of
the use of the concept of autopoiesis. Finally,
we conclude with a diagnosis of the current
state of the debate and projections for this

From self-reference
to autopoiesis of social
« 6 »  In the 1980s Luhmann adopted
the concept of “autopoiesis” along with the
development of a theory of “communication.” Both are the result of a deepening of
the ideas of “self-reference” and “action,” on
which he had systematically worked since
the sixties. The article “Autopoiesis, action
and communicative understanding” (Luhmann 1982a) is the link between the two
stages of his theory.2 The concept of communication, however, has a longer development within his theory. Until his first major
theoretical synthesis in Social systems (Luhmann 1995), which clearly outlines the centrality of both concepts – communication
and autopoiesis – Luhmann always wavered

2 |  The monograph Soziale Systeme (1995
[1984]) is commonly pointed to as the definitive
threshold of his theoretical development. Nevertheless, previously in 1981 Luhmann referred
briefly to the benefits of the term “autopoiesis” for
a theory of social systems. See Luhmann (1981a:
279f). Also in 1981, he opted for communication
as a central component of social systems. See Luhmann (1981b).

Constructivist Foundations

vol. 10, N°2

between a theory of social systems based on
actions and one based on communications:
We can speak of a ‘social system’ whenever the
actions of several persons are meaningfully interrelated and are thus, in their very interconnectedness, marked off from an environment. As soon
as any communication whatsoever takes place
among individuals, social systems emerge.
(Luhmann 1982c: 70)

« 7 »  The link between both ideas – action and communication – was given by the
concept of “selection.” Since “meaning” is the
unity of the difference between the “actual”
and the “possible” and every social system
is built on meaning, the social system itself
is a “selection” between different possibilities that meaning offers (Luhmann 1982b).
Every social system builds its own borders
of meaning for itself based on processes of
“self-selection” (Luhmann 1982c: 70). Thus,
the difference between “system” and “environment” was seen as a problem for the social system and its different ways of defining
an “inside” from an “outside.” Communication and action constituted, in this theoretical period, two manifestations of the same
process. Since social systems make visible
their own selections as actions – although
they arise as systems by means of communication – they must be treated as action
systems at the “empirical” level (Luhmann
1974: 39). When Luhmann (1981b) finally
opts for “communication” as the constitutive element of social systems, this empirical character of action only represents the
capacity of those systems to communicate
about themselves. The action is definitively
moved into the background: “the elementary unit, from which self-referential social
systems are formed, is not action, but communication.” (Luhmann 1981b: 17). This
shift has important theoretical implications.
« 8 »  Unlike general systems theory and
its concept of open systems (Bertalanffy
1950), Luhmann developed a theory of selfreferential systems, that is to say, “systems
that have the ability to establish relations
with themselves and to differentiate these
relations from relations with their environment” (Luhmann 1995: 13). Self-reference
stems from this dynamic character. Such
systems are not stable units that should
maintain this status, but dynamic units

composed of operations, i.e., systems differentiated from an environment by means of
its own operations. Social systems are selfreferential since their units are constituted
from the difference with the environment,
which can be only obtained through operations of the system itself. Any exchange with
the environment must be based on system
operations and rejecting this conditioning
leads to dissolution of its constitutive difference3.
« 9 »  Luhmann (1995: 443ff) distinguishes three types of self-reference in social
systems. The “basal” self-reference indicates
the difference between element/relation.
This self-reference occurs at the level of the
operations of the system, i.e., communication. The social system can only operate
through communication and uses communication to define its borders with the environment. There are no system operations
that could be imported from the environment (Luhmann 2013b: 77), so the system
must jump-start its own operations and face
its own limits. Other types of self-reference
are “reflexivity,” i.e., the ability of communication to communicate about itself, and “reflection,” which considers the thematization
of the system within the system. The “basal”
self-reference, however, is the condition that
characterizes the autopoiesis of the system
(Luhmann 1982a: 369).
« 10 »  Socio-autopoiesis means in this
context the ability of a self-referential system to produce itself through communication (Luhmann 2012: 42), which implies
not only the differentiation of its elements
and relations, but also that the unit of the
system is obtained by means of its own op3 |  Luhmann early noted the need to consider “self-reference” as a necessary starting point for
interdisciplinary work. In an article published in
1983 as a revised version of a paper he presented
at a US conference in 1981, Luhmann writes: “Biologists with an interest in life, psychologists with
an interest in consciousness, sociologists with an
interest in social order, are at present and will perhaps remain exceptions rather than the rule. But
they at least have to accept, despite many logical
and methodological warnings, types of theory
which imply self-reference. This leads to the construction of self-referential objects and commits
them to seeing reality in terms of self-reference.”
(Luhmann 1983: 995)

Theory of Autopoiesis

The Autopoiesis of Social Systems Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold

erations. A self-referential system is not only
autonomous at the level of its structures,
which means “self-organized” (Luhmann
2013b: 70ff), but it is also autonomous at
the level of its operations – that is, “autopoietic” (Luhmann 2012: 33). Social operations
are communications and they involve three
“selections” of meaning: information, utterance, and understanding (Luhmann 1992).
Therefore, communication is not a transmission of meaning between persons, but an
operation of distinction by a self-referential
system – Maturana and Varela (1987: 196)
agreed on this.
« 11 »  Communication is the exclusive
operation of social systems, which assumes
human consciousness that irritates other
human consciousness by means of language,
human organisms that reproduce through
their own operations, and environmental
physical-chemical conditions that make all
this possible. Nevertheless, the autopoiesis
of society operates the autopoiesis of individuals or the psychic autopoiesis of consciousness at a different level from the organic level. Only communication produces
communication, and this is the determinant
social operation (Luhmann 1986).
« 12 »  This implies significant difficulties
for a direct understanding of the concepts of
communication and of the autopoiesis of
social systems. The common understanding
conceives communication as a tool for persons or animals to verbalize their thoughts
or emotions, i.e., as a process of transmission
(Shannon 1948) that is drivable through actions and intentions. This interpretation
is based on a communication model that
seems to fit well with everyday interactions
in which we deal with neighbors, colleagues
or friends through face-to-face relationships. On this image of a routinized lifeworld stands not only the mathematical
theory of information but also sociological
phenomenology, from Alfred Schutz (1972)
to Jürgen Habermas (1987). Nevertheless, as
constructivism and second-order cybernetics have pointed out, this everyday normality hides complex recursive networks, by
means of which a reality is created (Foerster
1973). There is no direct relation between
consciousness and communication, since
each of these systems create independent realities and are reproduced through different

« 13 »  Whoever wants to influence communication has to leave the recursivity of his
consciousness to inform and give-to-know
(utterance). In doing so, he or she loses the
control of further operations, and forces the
observer to choose a position as alter or as
ego, and attribute experiences or actions.
There is no turning back. In this context we
can understand the controversial phrase of
Luhmann: “only communication can communicate” (Luhmann 1992: 251). Whoever
wants to communicate must submit him/
herself to the selections of an autonomous
system, whose operations involve further
connections as well as other consciousnesses, who in turn may understand or not
understand and inform and give-to-know.
Social systems belong neither to alter nor
ego, they are systems that define positions in
the communication for alter and ego. Communication systems can create memory
structures to resume a conversation in another moment; they can define roles, communicational limits, belongings or major
symbolic generalizations. Communication
does not enter into the consciousness and
cells of persons to reproduce itself by chains
of thoughts or metabolism, but creates its
own autonomous relations network.
« 14 »  Luhmann’s application of autopoeisis moves the problem from the plane of
the physical “space,” where life is constituted
(Maturana & Varela 1980), to the “meaning,”
where social systems emerge (Luhmann
1995: 59ff). Communication is not a spatial
phenomenon but one of meaning: it could
be irritated through sound waves, by characters on blank paper or electronic screens,
or other spatial phenomena, but it emerges
as the unit of information and utterance
within the meaning of communication and
not in space. The silent voice of our thoughts
is a manifestation of this coupling between
communication and consciousness, precisely because it is a voice that has no sound in
an external space, but meaning in the consciousness. A communicated idea acquires
meaning in the communication and one can
keep thinking without interrupting communication. Both realms remain operationally
separated but structurally coupled. Meaning, which is the medium of consciousness
and communication, defines these two autopoietic systems.

Applications of autopoiesis
to social systems
« 15 »  There have been several applications of these ideas in sociological research.
In the sociology of law, for example, an important tradition of studies on legal autopoiesis based on the ideas of Luhmann (2004)
has been established. The jurist Gunther
Teubner (1988) has made major contributions to this field and has developed an
extensive research program on this topic.
Other jurists, such as Marcelo Neves (2001),
Karl-Heinz Ladeur (1999), and recently Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2011),
have followed the same path. They emphasize not only the self-referential character
of law, but also its internal capacity as a
communication system to produce its own
elements: laws, rules, procedures, etc. This
is one of the most developed fields in the
theory of the autopoiesis of social systems
proposed by Luhmann.
« 16 »  Economic sociology has also received inputs from this theory. Luhmann
(1988) argues that the economy is an autopoietic communication system, whose
fundamental operations are payments in
money. This research program has been
systematically followed by other scholars,
such as Dirk Baecker (2006, 2008), who
has researched the role of banks in a modern economy, and by Elena Esposito (2011),
who has observed international financial
markets as autopoietic systems. Many researchers, from both economic sociology
and economics, have used the approach of
the autopoeisis of social systems proposed
by Luhmann.4
« 17 »  Sociology of art has also developed
innovative research based on the concept of
art as an autopoietic communication system
(Luhmann 2000). This research includes literary studies (de Berg 2001), esthetics (Lehmann 2006; Nassehi 2011), painting (Valenzuela 2011), music (Araos 2006), and even
architecture (Schumacher 2011).
« 18 »  Scholars such as Alois Hahn
(1987), Peter Beyer (1985, 1997), and Stefan
Nacke (2010) have also followed Luhmann
in the sociology of religion (see Luhmann
1982d, 2002a), while in the field of the so4 |  For an overview of this matter, see Arnold
& Cadenas (2013).


in terms of his contribution to understanding the social phenomenon. or populations in a space – which are mediated by in-person relationships. For such systems. contemplated the function of “latency” or “pattern maintenance” in a social system. undoubtedly.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 172 ciology of education. and therefore all biological (living). and sociology makes sense only as an explanatory attempt of everyday life. not only in biology but also in sociological discussions. « 20 »  Systemic family therapy has also been influenced by the biological concept of autopoiesis (cf. the question of absence in social systems is problematized. their conception of social systems. their social systems would be composed of individuals and their communicative and linguistic recursions. N°2 concept of autopoiesis to social sciences. totalitarian orders” (ibid: 158). who postulated conversations as autopoietic systems. but it has no application in a broad range of social phenomena that do not fit this condition. Notwithstanding the above. Another reason is. For them. command hierarchies.5 « 19 »  Others scholars have tried to continue the theoretical path indicated by the biological theory of autopoiesis. and with greater sophistication in Parsons (1961). Based on these principles. “All autopoietic. This situation must be addressed in all its complexity. otherwise “the notion of autopoiesis becomes a metaphor and loses its power” (Varela 1981: 38). “concentration camps. « 25 »  If the principles of this approach are followed. Not only Varela. and disciplines. as with. We address this criticism on two fronts. in the context of systems theory. therefore. Constructivist Foundations vol. the inexplicable and express renunciation of sociological knowledge (Maturana 1985: 54). making it an independent-acting unit. Maturana and Varela had already objected to its application to social systems. (2012). but also Maturana (1985: 53) and John Mingers (2002: 291) share the criticism of the use of the term “production. since its applications are of a distinctly particularistic nature. mainly by Raf Vanderstraeten (2001. especially those made by Maturana and Varela. this approach is more a “middle-range theory” (Merton 1949). research. « 28 »  First. there is no qualitative improvement of current sociological knowledge. jails. the social cannot even be distinguished as a system. we argue that the theory of autopoiesis can only expand its horizons beyond the biological model if a theory of social systems based on communication is adopted. we address biological criticisms. With regard to this. but only as a more or less defined set of interactions between organisms integrated by “love”. for example. On the one hand.” This is due to their particular vision of social systems. They even argue. The autopoiesis of social systems has aroused controversies. Such systems are “designed” by others and. 2002. social systems cannot be autopoietic. as they involve regular relationships between their components and thus “communication” between them (ibid: 157). With regard to human beings. Nevertheless. Biological criticisms « 23 »  Before Luhmann adopted the concept of autopoiesis. according to their conclusions. « 24 »  This blockade raised by Maturana and Varela was deepened later by their own theory of social systems. instead of problematizing complex social systems. systems are social systems” (Zeleny & Hufford 1992: 147). they are joined by force. social systems are both a social and biological phenomenon (Maturana 1985. undoubtedly. 1997). At least by Émile Durkheim (1893). His suggestion for the study of social systems was to focus the analysis in terms of self-reference and autonomy. and social systems are mere aggregates of the third order of those systems. whose regular interactions lead to structural couplings. and as a complementary point of view. Maturana & Uribe (1974) to determine autopoietic systems. Maturana (1991: 93) even argues that “the social does not belong to sociology. see Jahraus et al. « 21 »  At this point. They have concluded that human “families” can be considered autopoietic systems defined by membership rules – and not by physical space. the ideas of Luhmann on education (see Luhmann & Schorr 2000) have been further developed. In a way. is based on old and outdated paradigms. 10. Keeney 1983). we discuss sociological objections to the adoption of this concept made by Danilo Zolo and Jürgen Habermas. This is expressed in four main areas. Discussions concerning the applicability of this concept to social sciences have not led to productive results and the debate has stagnated. for example. since they consist of “members of a group of living beings” (Maturana 1985: 58) or of “real persons” (Mingers 2002: 292). this theory focusses on social groups – such as families that communicate through love. it belongs to everyday life. While their ideas concerning biological phenomenon are supported by sophisticated systemic and cybernetic approaches. were inadequate since such systems do not “produce” elements but only “operationalize” relations. « 27 »  From a sociological point of view. 2004). for example. this unit disintegrates (Maturana 1985: 67). it is more a regression. since some systems cannot be reproduced by themselves. Maturana and Varela’s advanced conception of biological systems has a minimum impact on their notion of social systems. Parsons (1961: 30ff). and if this disappears. on the other hand. not only in social systems theory but also in other theories. « 22 »  We refer henceforth to critical positions regarding the application of the 5 |  For an overview of the applications of Luhmann’s sociological theory. Along with these criticisms. This partly explains the fact that most sociological research on social systems has not followed this path. Varela (1981: 38) argued early that intentions such as those of Stafford Beer (1980) of applying the concept to organizations or of Gordon Pask (1978). Another selfimposed blockade of Maturana and Varela’s . it becomes clear that the concept of autopoiesis has broad repercussions. are not spontaneous. such as lan- guage. have used the six-step method designed by Varela. the ancient Aristotelian paradigm of a whole composed of parts seems to be enough. not all social systems can be autopoietic. « 26 »  At this point. Milan Zeleny and Kevin Hufford (1992). We will address some of this criticism in both fields and try to contextualize its depth. derived from their biological explanations of autopoiesis.” However. Maturana and Varela’s arguments exhibit their main weaknesses. The central argument of Maturana and Varela (1987) on this matter is that only biological systems of the first and second order are autopoietic.

instead. this social systems theory is similar to theories and concepts of ecological origin. also includes interaction processes between living beings. « 32 »  Finally. Urrestarazu’s social systems concept seems to go no further than that of Maturana and Varela. but that is not an answer to theoretical questions. the formation of “  large communities and the subsequent overloading of their natural environment increasingly deprives human beings of their free access to those subsistence resources they need. as groups of individuals that are only social when cooperation or love occurs. none of this excuses this approach for its adoption of a diffuse theory of groups and for stepping back towards an Aristotelian systemic thinking – that of systems as units composed of parts. (Maturana 1985: 65): ” « 37 »  If. one cannot disagree with ideas that highlight that death and totalitarianism are a consequence of political subju- gation of individuals to society. Denying this relationship undermines human “  social phenomenon. such as the biocenosis. « 38 »  As we have seen. as a system of coexistence. such passing relations are not themselves social. the concept of society as a group must be abandoned. which is rich in research on passing interactions (cf. the social system is a structural coupling that makes possible the ontogenetic and phylogenetic continuity of human of Autopoiesis The Autopoiesis of Social Systems Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold approach is the exclusion of economic relations from society. Thus for example Maturana says: If living beings composing a social system are “  medical doctors. if we try to apply the theoretical principles of Maturana and Varela to a more complex social systems theory. the identity preserved in those living beings composing this social system during their structural dynamics is that of medical doctors […] For that reason we can cease belonging to one or more social systems without necessarily disintegrating ourselves as human beings. since these would negatively affect cooperation in a social group (Maturana 1985: 66). Goffman 1983). since those refer only to groups that form and disappear through relationships of cooperation and love. (Maturana 1985: 68) ” « 33 »  Since neither Maturana nor Vare- la reject the “spatial” character of autopoiesis and both desist from resorting to any social systems theory – not even the established systems theory of Parsons (1961) or Walter Buckley (1967) – they define social systems on the basis of the same spatial principles used for living beings. society appears as a community of organisms that share a certain space to survive. even if its former members must continue interacting because they cannot be physically separated. « 34 »  These four elements are a direct consequence of subsuming the explanation of the social phenomenon to the biological and of sustaining a vague sociological and anthropological view of social systems. must necessarily take the task (responsibility) of providing them. This has not only left a broad range of social phenomena unattended. « 39 »  Thus. The amount and density of social phenomena that fail to be explained by this theory are so extensive that it becomes necessary to limit these ideas to a very specific set of phenomena. This concept was elaborated in the late nineteenth century by the biologist and ecologist Karl Möbius to account for relations established between organisms within a certain biotope. There is an evident theoretical disconnection between social systems theory and that of biological systems. and society. the objection of Maturana and Varela to applying the concept of autopoiesis to social phenomena is partly due to the lack of an appropriate concept of social http://www. It is not necessary to refer to Karl Marx to discuss this postulate and see how narrow this vision of the economic and the social is. « 29 »  Second.” without deepening. « 35 »  Followers of Maturana and Varela such as Urrestarazu (2014) adopt a similar i. Maturana & Varela (1987) propose a utilitarian concept of social systems that remains subordinated to the maintenance of life. it is enough to remember the results of the well-known Hawthorne experiments of in the 1930s. however. « 31 »  Third. on social factors of cooperation in industrial work (cf.. huge explanatory problems arise. (Maturana 1985: 65f) ” « 30 »  For Maturana. This task (responsibility) is often denied through arguments that put the individual as opposed to the social. From their biological perspective. Maturana seems to follow a similar reasoning: In the history of humanity. Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939). directed by Elton Mayo. either individually or collectively. because it refuses its foundations (love). The social appears as a mere instrument for maintaining human life.e. but also shows a narrow understanding of the phenomenon itself. such as rediscovering many traditional sociological concepts. For this. such as that of “role. unlike the old sociological tradition. from a biological point of view. For this reason. and to understand the place and relevancy of groups. A unity composed of dynamic agents interact“  ing through communication events and constituting a persistent network of related entities that can be circumscribed in a domain in which this particular mode of interaction is observable. and every society that does this disintegrates. This leads to unproductive efforts. as proposed by Maturana. (Urrestarazu 2014: 159) ” « 36 »  Even if we accept that biology. this theory definitively rejects giving a universalistic relevancy to social systems. The reasons for the insistence on subsuming social systems to the needs of their parts (individuals.cadenas 173 . From an ethical point of view. a less pretentious approach is chosen and the application of this theory is restricted to the field of building and maintaining social groups – including its belonging relationships and interactions – a common ground between both system theories can be founded. discussing or problematizing their sociological common sense. Society is understood in certain way as an altruistic biocenosis determined by relations of cooperation and love. the “levels” of differentiation of social systems must be analyzed (Luhmann 1982c). persons) are not theoretically entirely justified and the authors seem to defend them by rather “ethical” principles (Maturana 1985: 70. He insists on the partwhole paradigm and on the “interactional” character of a social system.univie. Maturana & Varela 1987: 198). The existence and continuity of such social systems is subordinated to the goals established by their parts (individuals).

The theoretical diaspora of this criticisms is broad. « 41 »  Zolo tried to deconstruct the theory of autopoeisis of Maturana and Varela from a philosophical point of view. therefore. Wagner 1997). which does not follow the same principles of social systems. Although systems theory replaces and denies the theory of the subject. both have the same concerns. N°2 Zolo certainly has no qualms about labeling Maturana and Varela with various philosophical affiliations. Zolo (1995: 242). meanwhile. Habermas argues that this mistake is not the separation of the biological from the social. Maturana and Varela would be victims of a “metaphysical idealism” or even operate within “gnoseologic realism. since it operates with a biological rather than physical image of the world. as by Wolfgang Schluchter or Dirk Käsler (cf. 10. However. 2013a: 107ff. but the dissociation between psychic and social systems. since it can only by criticized by means of concepts – as Zolo does? If we consider science as a communication system. better said. as well as that of the need for using this distinction scheme. but rather linguistic mechanisms. This opinion is also shared by Jameson (2002: 92). The link between the two is language. unlike them. it cannot avoid being a self-referential criticism: is a “metaphysics” of scientific concepts able to be attacked. and it is not related solely to this concept but to the full theoretical architecture. « 42 »  Criticism of the theory of autopoiesis of Luhmann. it includes a philosophy with historicist accents. the other side is the “lifeworld” (Habermas 1976. unlike Maturana and Varela. Zolo seems to be unacquainted with the practice of concept building for scientific observation and experimentation. the part-whole paradigm is abandoned and a theory of autopoietic social systems is developed in its place. his proposal is stylized as a complaint against any position that denies a postmodern rupture with the modern and. as a result of decades of debate. If. the charge that these authors have the historical “prejudices” of their scientific community (Zolo 1995: 229). although the latter bases his criticism on the ancient – but indefatigable – concept of “ideology. critical Marxist positions (suffice here only to mention Habermas). this criticism is unproductive. especially on political. « 43 »  Jameson decided to choose the easier way. for his part. however. for him. Systems theory would be a current manifestation of the philosophy of the subject that characterizes the entire western philosophical thought. and instead of following a theoretical argumentation. for his part. Zolo proposes following an open systems theory. Zolo’s position involves a rejection of biological or sociological constructivism and a defense of traditional philosophy. According to Zolo (1995: 207f). that is to say. « 44 »  Habermas. Since autopoiesis is only a “concept” describing a reality. that is to say. made a number of criticisms of Luhmann’s approach. de Marinis 2008). On the other hand. Autopoietic social systems operate “narcissistically” (Habermas 1996: 51). Similar to Maturana and Varela. but considers – following David . The fact that social systems do not have clear spatial borders. of course. 1987). especially in the modern monetary economy (Luhmann 1995: 383ff. objects in the world are such only insofar they are represented.” Instead. economic. and other actionalist theories. The main problem with this type of argumentation is that it cannot avoid being judged on its own principles or. which consider inputs and outputs of the environment and suggests abandoning an approach that has not been consolidated. We will try to answer these questions in the following section. Zolo’s arguments against Maturana and Varela finally lead to historicism. Habermas (1998: 384) noted that Luhmann’s biggest mistake consists of separating social and human phenomena. files the same charges against Luhmann that he earlier directed against Maturana and Varela. The question of the theoretical advantages of distinguishing theories as conservative or liberal remains completely open. 174 Sociological criticisms « 40 »  Sociology has reacted to the concept of autopoiesis with some skepticism. and are influenced by their Chilean-Hispanic-Christian cultural tradition. The accusation is certainly old. in contrast to living organisms. His criticism hits the mark in some weak points of this theory. This. and legal deregulation. ignores the multiple problems that Luhmann himself repeatedly noted regarding the disconnected and uncontrolled character of modern society. which makes understanding and consensus among people possible. His criticism of autopoiesis as a scientific concept is an example of this. Habermas considers this sociological theory of autopoietic systems as heir to the philosophical tradition of the “subject. we will focus on those directly related to the concept of autopoiesis. taking into account only their own determinations. postmodern Marxism such as that of Fredric Jameson (2002). partially inspired in the ideas of Luhmann (Knorr-Cetina 1992. as in Danilo Zolo (1990). defends the modern. This supposes that thoughts are propositionally structured and the structure of sentences would allow the structure of thoughts to be read. One of the major criticisms is the “conservative” character that this concept would have. Since a complete analysis of these criticisms exceeds our ambitions. this theory cannot be considered metaphysical but “metabiological” (Habermas 1998: 372). Habermas proposes a theory of society that does not restrict the social to a “lifeworld” based on cooperation and consensus. 1997 passim). a very different set of questions is opened and a new flank of criticism appears.” which tries to discover principles in nature (Zolo 1995: 219f). Neither Zolo nor Jameson seem to delve into the theoretical implications of this observation. this hides “neoconservative” proposals.” in the context of an untidy historical-sociological analysis into which Luhmann’s theory (and sociology in general) is inserted. “As states of affairs expressed in sentences” (Habermas 1996: 11). such as the theory of the autopoiesis and its conservative conse- quences. « 45 »  In addition. various revivals of Max Weber’s culturalism. However. According to his approach. that the autopoeisis of social systems would be mere “realistic metaphysics.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis systems. does not imply that they are more “metaphorical” than other systems for an observer. has a more political accent. for example on the contradiction between a declared constructivism and a notion of autopoiesis based on the idea of “real” spaces (Zolo 1995: 219ff). social systems are only one side of social phenomena. Tyrell 1978. aimed at understanding and consensus.” However. Constructivist Foundations vol.

is Professor at the Anthropology Department at the University of Chile. (Zeleny & Hufford 1992: 146) ” « 50 »  This. while institutions of social integration and culture (I-L) have a non-systemic nature. in the system. sociology of law. but from systems theory’s original purpose of unifying science. as well as in the interdisciplinary field of communication theory. redirecting the theory to its original spirit and avoiding a split into different contents or disciplines. such as machines and living beings. This duality comes from Habermas’s (1976: 5f) peculiar interpretation of Parsons’ AGIL action model ( Our motivation comes not from a sociological whim to subjugate the biological theory of autopoiesis to the social. The first theories of social systems. social and system integration. social anthropology. according to which autopoiesis refers to op- http://www. The cybernetics of Norbert Wiener (1948) also described itself as a science of information of various types of systems. since it is independent of the things. « 46 »  Unlike Maturana and Varela. The autopoietic nature of a system is within the domain of systems science.univie. and to this task. Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Chile. social gerontology. the greatest strides of this approach have been made in the field of political philosophy. involves abandoning the idea that the theory of autopoiesis of social systems can be only used in a “metaphorical” or “analogical” sense. and social anthropology. is Assistant Professor at the Anthropology Department at the University of Chile. social constructivism. of course. Habermas noted that society has two integration principles.Theory of Autopoiesis The Autopoiesis of Social Systems Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold { Hugo Cadenas { Marcelo Arnold Lockwood (1964) – two principles of integration. Instead of this. also considered general models applicable to different phenomena. Following Lockwood (1964). namely. Director of the Academic Journal Revista Mad–Universidad de Chile. see Leydesdorff (2000).cadenas 175 . Society is not only a human lifeworld based on cooperation and consensus. « 51 »  If a formal principle is adopted. Germany and a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology and a master’s degree in the sociology of modernization from the University of Chile. thinghood. This involves. « 48 »  Systems theory. Society is system and lifeworld. « 49 »  The same principles that have guided systems theory from its beginnings can also be applied to the theory of autopoiesis. whereby only the spheres of politics and economics (A-G) are systemic. such as those of Parsons (1951. Habermas postulates a two-level theory of society. Conclusion « 47 »  We began our remarks by highlighting the schism between biological and social theories of autopoiesis. he is the author of various articles on social systems theory.6 6 |  For an overview of this notably in the debates between him and John Rawls (1998). undoubtedly. Germany and a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology and master’s degree in anthropology and development from the University of Chile. he is the author of various books and articles on social systems theory. As noted by Zeleny and Hufford regarding the concept of autopoiesis: Thus it does not matter what the things are “  in the system only that whatever they are they produce themselves. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Bielefeld. systemhood. has used the concept of “system” as a common ground for varied disciplines. but also a system. Parsons & Shils 1962) or Buckley (1967). it seems appropriate to follow the advice of Rudolf Stichweh (1987: 447) of applying this concept through a controlled relation between “generalization” regarding its biological context and “respecification” concerning social systems. 1961. and social anthropology. Bales & Shils 1953). both von Bertalanffy and Wiener devoted all their efforts. While the expansion of this paradigm for social research has proved fruitful. since the “general” programmatic formulation of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1950). The main problem was not the obvious fact that each system is different. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. and we stressed the need to address this concept in a unified way. environmental sciences. but rather the explanatory capacity of the model in each one of them. namely social and system integration.

Empirical research on the field of the organizational studies. whenever two or more living beings participate in a dynamics of recursive interactions. 10. is the recognition of the interdisciplinary nature of systemic research and the overcoming of the obstacle épistémologique placed by Maturana and Varela to their own invention. molecular autopoietic systems and social systems. The communication between disciplines demands new research tools and analytical frameworks. Maturana Escuela Matríztica de Santiago. ƒƒ To accept this first basic biological fact leads me to accept the second basic biological fact: We cannot claim to be able to say anything about anything that we distinguish as if that which we distin- guish had any property or feature independent of what we were doing in the moment that we distinguish it. As such. do not know and cannot know that which we. new questions on systems research emerge. Received: 27 January 2014 Accepted: 28 October 2014 Open Peer Commentaries on Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold’s “The Autopoiesis of Social Systems and its Criticisms” What Is Sociology? Living systems? Humberto R. in what follows I present my reflections standing on a reflective ground defined by three basic unavoidable biological facts: ƒƒ The first basic biological fact is that we. however. especially on methodological issues. has applied the concept of autopoiesis both in the biological and social sense 176 (see Magalhães & Sanchez 2009). It gives rise to ontogenic and phylogenic evolutionary histories of congruent structural and behavioral transformations between the organisms and their ecological niches that arise with them. For these reasons I want to reflect on sociology in detail here. « 3 »  Accordingly. I argue that the theme of sociology should be to understand how is it that we come out of the social manner of living that is the foundation of our origin as languaging and reflecting human beings. Based on these suggestions. This links in particular to the Results and Implications in Cadenas and Arnold’s abstract. nevertheless. calling valid at any particular moment in the experience of what we live. ƒƒ The third basic biological fact is that living beings as molecular entities are structure-determined systems. I find that the article is misleading because it does not represent what I have said in my writings. Constructivist Foundations vol.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis erations in different systems. « 52 »  An interdisciplinary framework seems to be realistic. These histories last until the organisms separate. « 4 »  All this happens spontaneously in the biological domain. important challenges for this purpose can be identified. my purpose has been and is to describe. The social and the biological concepts of autopoiesis appear then as two facets of the same operational phenomenon. shall devalue later as a mistake or illusion or shall confirm as a perception when we compare it with another experience. like all living beings. As a result of this third biological fact. « 1 »  I am writing this commentary because the contents of Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold’s target article and its title evoke a criticism of what I have written about living systems and about social systems. anything that is external to a living system and that impinges upon it cannot specify what happens in it. the validity of which we choose not to doubt. Chile hmr/at/matriztica. for example. The first step. David Eldridge (2002) has explained the empirical functioning of the judicial courtroom. they enter in a process of coherent transformation. which I have called “structural coupling” (Maturana 1978).org > Upshot • I discuss the foundations of what I have said in my work as a biologist on autopoiesis. also following the social and biological concept of autopoiesis. explain and understand biological phenomena as I see them happening in the realization of the living of at least one living being as they appear to me as aspects of my daily living from one morning to the next in whatever domain of doings I may find myself. and all this constitutes the foundation of all that we do in . promising perspectives for interdisciplinary research are opened. N°2 « 2 »  As a biologist. and only triggers in it some structural change determined in its structure according how it is made at that moment.

and we know that they differ from collaboration. we human beings can also consciously choose to adopt explicitly those manners of relating in our living together that we call democracy. but as spontaneous manners of relating that result from our biological constitution as basically loving beings. social systems. Thus we speak of relations of work. domination. when we first referred to living systems as “autopoietic systems. He replied that he wanted to propose a predictive theory of social phenomena. as is apparent in his proposition that “social systems were autopoietic systems of speak and act in this understanding in 1965. Rather. http://www. In the domains of biology and of our daily life. Theories are systems of logical deductions that we propose in order to follow the consequences that would arise in a particular situation if we transformed everything in it around the conservation of some set of basic premises that we choose to adopt – either because we accept their validity according to some logical argument or. when as a result of my work on color vision (Maturana. and that human beings were unpredictable in their behavior.univie. in the inner feelings that. subordination. equity and ethics (Maturana & Dávila. this is why I have claimed that not all human relations are social relations. parasitism. desiring or reflecting. Social systems? « 9 »  If we attend to the different kinds of manners of coexistence that we may observe in living systems. It seems to me that this was well understood by Niklas Luhmann but that he wished to use the notion of autopoiesis in an operational domain different from the molecular one. I want to ask the question: What do we wish to mean with the word “social”? More precisely. What kinds of things are we distinguishing with such different names? « 7 »  We human beings propose theories as systems of explanation of what we distinguish as happening in what we observe or do in the realization of our living. So I told him that I did not want to propose a sociological theory.” “colonies” and “social systems” are used to distinguish those different classes or forms of nearness. etc. I pointed out to him that the notion of autopoiesis does not apply in the way that he wanted because communications do not interact and thereby produce communications like molecules. Expressions such as “multi-cellular. honesty.” “ commensalism and communities.” “parasitism. as reflective languaging beings we human beings can negate and reject. I begun to think. Rather. which we intentionally adopt for living together. I. 1 |  Ximena Dávila Yáñez and I claim that there are five manners of relating. together with Francisco Varela. emotions and doings that constitute social relations are those of mutual care. and that their nature as different manners of relating and of closeness depends precisely on the inner feelings and emotions that define them. knowing that human beings are the foundation of human social systems and that what we call “communications” occur as a reflective operation of human beings in conversations about what they do. whatever we may be doing. at the same time they are open to the flow of molecules through them. thinking. « 5 »  From this reflective starting point. I want to address the common features that those systems that we call “social” in our daily living have in common – systems that we wish to conserve while everything else is allowed to change around them as we operate with the theory that we are proposing in order to understand the manner of operating that is evoked when we speak about those manners of living in human or in insect communities that we call social systems. define them. we speak of symbiosis.” we were claiming that they existed as networks of molecular productions that were closed in the sense that they produced their own borders determining their extension as discrete entities. alliances. I wanted to understand the spontaneity of the operation of those communities of living beings of any kind that in our daily life in our culture we would call “societies” or “social systems. as I just said. in our daily living we act as if we are aware that not all human relations are of the same kind. For example. especially if the theory would leave out human beings as he proposed. that constitute what we want to be the case when we declare that we want to live in democracy. support and approve our feelings. the inner feelings. authority. equity and ethics. a priori.cadenas 177 . we cannot properly make a theory before having some notion of what characterizes the kind of systems or situations that we may be considering while everything else is changing around the basic premises that we think define the theory and that we have chosen to conserve. emotions and doings. Maturana our living as biological-cultural human beings from one morning to the next. Furthermore. Uribe & Frenk 1968) I came to realize that which I described above as the first biological fact. friendship. we will see that they differ in the nature of the biological processes that keep them near each other in the different degrees of closeness or of distance as they happen to come together.1 Yes. Therefore. Accordingly. in press). And we know also that those different forms of living in nearness or distance entail different inner feelings and different relational doings and emotions.” « 6 »  The word “social” and the expression “social system” were used in daily life to refer to some manner of living together of organisms already long before Varela and I proposed the notion of autopoiesis to speak of the molecular constitution of living systems as discrete entities. referred to a living system as a molecular autopoietic system (Maturana & Varela 1973). « 8 »  Accordingly. Yet. These are: mutual respect. I shall take our daily living as the operational and epistemological grounding of all that we human beings can say and that I shall say as I describe and explain my understanding of living systems and of the operation of what we call “social systems” in our daily living in our cultural present. because we like them. not as declared values. many different words were used and are still used to refer to the distinctions that we make between the different manners of living together that the different kinds of organisms may adopt. collaboration. However. etc. collaboration. The word autopoiesis was proposed to indicate and evoke a closed network of recursive processes of production of the molecular components of a system that specifies its borders in its operation as a discrete entity in the relational space in which it exists as a totality. honesty. Thus.” “symbiosis. Furthermore.” When we talked in 1991. I asked him why he leaves human beings out of his proposition.Theory of Autopoiesis What Is Sociology? Humberto R. being consciously or unconsciously guided by some theory of our choice that we may have adopted according to what we may want or not want to do.

the networks of conversations through which we generate and realize the worlds that we live as human beings coordinate and guide unconsciously the course of the continuously occurring anatomo-physiological transformation of the dynamic architecture of the ecological organism–niche unity of our social and non-social living. blue print. that which we call “social” in our daily living in our cultural present is our spontaneous biological coexistence in relations of mutual care and collaboration that are sustained by inner feelings of love.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 178 « 10 »  As I just said above. In social insects. through a languaging process that we. So. doings and emotions in the creation together of the worlds of daily living that they generate as they live as languaging and reflective beings in networks of conversations. it determines in each of the insects the course followed by the physiological and Constructivist Foundations vol. the same occurs between human beings through language in a process that we have chosen to call logolaxys. But. In the case of those insects that we call social insects. nutrients and many other kinds of molecules that act in the process of growth and cellular differentiation of each insect through an interchange of food. neuropeptides. called The Tree of Living (Maturana & Dávila. That is. operational and relational coherences in a community of social insects through a food interchange that continuously results in the realization of the adequate dynamic architecture of each insect and of the social community at every instant is called tropholaxis. neuropeptides and nutrients. call “logolaxis. In humans. Dávila and I. through caring for the growth of other individuals in the same manner that it was cared for. Nothing that an observer could call a plan. doings and emotions that guide us in all that we do while our living lasts. The following reflections have been developed by Ximena Dávila Yáñez and me during our work together over the last fifteen years in Escuela Matríztica de Santiago. N°2 the anatomical changes that the insect may be undergoing at that instant-circumstance according to its participation in the realization of the dynamic architecture of the social community that it integrates at that instant. « 12 »  We may say that an organism acts as an autonomous individual when we think that it does what it is doing without emotional contradiction in the pleasure of doing what it is doing. as it grows in it as an individual that participates in a recursive fashion in its realization and its conservation. . purpose or aim is involved in this process. This collaborative mutual upbringing and care was established and is sustained by a flow of hormones. Humans can generate an open2 |  In social insects the coherence of their behavior is obtained through the flow of hormones. logolaxis can in principle exhibit unlimited variation. Dávila and I have written about this in a book that is in the process of being published. whatever it may be. At every instant and circumstance. This is why in what follows what I write is the product of us both. the manner of living together occurs in the doings of each member of the community as a spontaneous result of its individual growth in the nurturing circumstances of the care given to it by the older members of the community that it integrates with them as they act themselves as autonomous individuals. it is very different because what happens with social insects is a living in spontaneous collaboration in mutual care sustained as a dynamic loving relation through a network of interchange of hormones. and “we” refers to her and me. nutrients and other molecules transmitted from one insect to the other while they share food – a process that is called tropholaxys.”2 « 14 »  Logolaxis is the flow of the networks of conversations that in us human beings play the same role as tropholaxis in insects for the generation and conservation of the harmony of the acting dynamic architecture of the individual organisms and the social and non-social systems and communities into which they integrate at any moment of their living. yes. what happens with social human beings is not very different from what happens with social insects in the sense that in both cases a “social system or social community” is generated and conserved through relations of collaboration and mutual care that arise in the evolutionary expansion of the mother-offspring love relation. depending on the inner feelings. This particular manner of generating and conserving instant after instant the sensory. we reflective human beings live the networks of our conscious and unconscious coordinations of inner feelings. tropholaxis guides the forms of living that are basically conservative in that they appear to repeat from community to community within each species that we recognize precisely due to such repetition. « 13 »  An insect becomes a member of the social community to which it belongs. and at the same time. Is what occurs with social insects very different from what occurs in the human communities that we call “societies” or “social systems” to which we belong? No. Individuals? « 11 »  The basic statement that love is the emotion that constitutes social relations was made in Maturana (1985). in press). what do we need a sociological theory for? What are our concerns that we feel that we need a special sociological theory to speak of our spontaneous biological living in mutual care and collaboration under the inner feelings of love? Let us reflect. doings and emotions in a logolaxis of mutual care and collaboration that constitutes our body and “soul” as loving social beings. If we accept our understanding that the biological nature of social phenomena is collaboration in mutual care. In other words. peptides. This manner of living is the evolutionary result of a history of conservation of the mother-offspring relation of care prolonged in the ontogeny of each insect and conserved from one generation to the next in their historical coexistence in communities that became extended networks of collaborative mutual upbringing in mutual care. This care relation arises as the continuous result of living in the recursive flow of coordination of feelings. No. « 15 »  We are usually not aware of the extent to which our inner feelings and emotions that guide the nature of our doings in the networks of conversations that constitute the realization of our living guide the course of the continuous transformation of our anatomy and physiology according to the living that we are living. while the mutual care that realizes and conserves us as social human being members of the social community or social system into which we may integrate arises in the expansion of the mother–child relation of loving care for the whole life. 10. every organism member of the community does what it does at every moment according to its structure or dynamic architecture as it is arising according to its present participation in it. yes.

Contrariwise. As such it entails the daily presence of mutual respect. doings and emotioning. Whenever we reflect. all fail. and change them through our reflections in the knowledge that our bodyhood will also change accordingly. not as a political declaration. our manner of living as languaging and reflective human beings that learn the particular form of living together in the loving mutual care of the social community in which they grow in logolaxis may be different in the different kinds of social living that we may generate in our cultural-biological existence. for at least some three million years in the mutual care of sharing food in the loving tenderness of sexual intimacy. and from the new domains that arise in our reflections in a manner that cannot be deduced from what was happening to us before. I also feel as a biologist that if I were to declare myself a sociologist my concern would be to understand how can we contribute as human social beings to overcoming our fundamental addiction to the pleasure of being served and to recovering the pleasure of mutual respect.e. All this makes the behavior of the individual members of any particular insect social community essentially predictable. yet our humanness as persons that exist as totalities operating as social beings interacting with each other happens in the relational space. we must agree on a common project. « 19 »  In other words. as a manner of living. honesty. collaboration. then the theme of sociology cannot be to understand the nature of the social phenomenon. And we claim that if any of these manners of relating fails. one can show that: language as a biological phenomenon occurs as a flow of living together in coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviors. easily replacing each other in their operation in the social community because they are basically similar. which may be changing continuously. we can also always look at our inner feelings. It is because new sensory. an intrinsically new sensory. in Biology from Harvard University. operational and relational domain arises that could not have been deduced from what was before. collaboration honesty. He showed that living beings are molecular autopoietic systems. to some tyranny. whenever some elements form a totality through their interactions. Maturana ended diversity of networks of our con3 |  In Maturana & Dávila (in press) Dávila and I claim that democracy.3 Furthermore. What is sociology? « 18 »  I feel that I do not fully understand what is the actual concern of sociologists as they do their sociological reflections. as a result of our reflections on tropholaxis and logolaxis. equity and ethical social living. This diversity of conversations in our human existence – our social conversations as conversations of mutual care and collaboration under the inner feelings of love – makes our existence possible as the evolutionary result of conserving the conversations through our children’s learning from one generation to the next. We human beings as reflective languaging beings live in a continuous openness to live in different manners our individual lives through reflections in which we can always ask ourselves if we want to do or think what we are doing or thinking. and that if one follows the consequences of the fact that living beings do not distinguish in their experience between perception and illusion..D. from the independent happenings that occur in our ecological niche unity.univie. « 20 »  How was it possible and is it still possible in our human social history that we have repeatedly fallen and we are still repeatedly falling out of our social beingness. If we want predictive behavior in a human domain. What about our molecular autopoiesis? « 17 »  Our human anatomy and physiology occur in the realization of our molecular autopoiesis in the ecological organism-niche unity that we Dávila and I think that if we were to declare ourselves sociologists. and cognition as a biological phenomenon occurs when an organism operates adequately to the circumstances of its living. The theme of sociology should be to understand how is it that we come out of the social manner of living that is the foundation of our origin as languaging and reflecting human beings. operational and relational domains appear in our living from our doings. exist in the relational doings of a reflective conversation as persons that explain the nature of their existence as observers to other persons that listen as observers too. cern as such would be to understand the origin of the rational-emotional contradiction that has interfered with the conservation of the basic harmony of our social existence in the loving relation of collaboration and mutual care that was the ecological organismniche unity in which we arose as languaging and reflecting human beings. we are speaking about sensory. i. equity and ethical living. And we. operational and relational biological communities of organisms that live in collaboration and recursive mutual care. This is because we know that when we speak about social systems. conserving its autopoiesis as a consequence of the operational-relational coherences with its niche that are proper to it in the present of its living as a feature of the history of the evolutionary structural drift to which it belongs Received: 4 January 2015 Accepted: 12 January 2015 http://www. Also. either unwillingly or willingly. Sociology? « 16 »  The different kinds of social insects occur as different manners of living together in mutual care that occur in the same manner in the different communities of each species because the kinds of individuals that compose them repeat through their manner of upbringing and their participation through tropholaxis in the generation of their behavior as individual organisms. as we speak about ourselves. or submit. if we dare to do that. This has been the case since the origin of our living in languaging in a family of bipedal primates. not as principles but as a matter-of-course coexistence in mutual care. that it is intrinsically impossible to create a predictive theory in relation to what will happen in the course of our social living as we operate in it according to our desires. even though we are aware and know that our social beingness is the basic foundation of our humanness? Humberto Maturana Romesín received a Ph. if social beingness appears spontaneously in our biological history as a manner of living together in recursive mutual care as a result the expansion of mother-offspring care. is the human manner of social living.cadenas 179 .Theory of Autopoiesis What Is Sociology? Humberto R.

permanent self-organization (recursive-iterative incidence of “internal” homeostatic mechanisms compensating against “external” perturbations).urrestarazu/at/wanadoo. Cadenas & Arnold qualify as a “self-imposed restriction” (§3) M&V’s objection to considering it appropriate to apply the term “autopoiesis” to social systems.’ where life is constituted (Maturana & Varela). since the . their target article has two shortcomings: (1) it does not provide a deeper understanding of the reasons why Luhmann’s adoption of the autopoiesis concept has proved to be sterile after decades of debate. obstacles. This is not a self-imposed restriction. though. from a logical entailment of M&V’s rigorous definition of the term “autopoietic machine” when applied to entities (“systems”) that do not comply with all the rules that allow observers to qualify a dynamic system as autopoietic. Firstly. my emphasis) – on his own – and at the same time they regret that “the term autopoiesis has sparkled a sterile debate leading interdisciplinary research to an otherwise inexplicable underdevelopment” (§4. This inadequacy stems. I cannot avoid critically commenting on their account of the “adoption” procedure of the concept of autopoiesis by Luhmann and on some omissions in their proposed history of the debate. which would be tantamount to “defining” a quite different type of dynamic system that would require a different name than “autopoietic. my emphasis). it does not provide a deeper understanding of the reasons why Luhmann’s adoption of the autopoiesis concept has proved to be sterile after decades of debate. I consider that it is legitimate to raise two basic questions: Q1 Is the intent of adopting “autopoiesis” genuinely justified for understanding the social in the first place? and Q2 Was the procedure for adopting the “autopoiesis” concept properly conducted in theoretical terms? I shall discuss these questions below in the next section. not the concept itself. as I discuss in section “The underlying general systems theory implicit in Maturana’s 180 > Upshot • Cadenas and Arnold contribute towards a better understanding of what is at stake in the long debate concerning the applicability of Maturana’s autopoiesis concept to social systems. the “autopoiesis” hypothesis overshoots this objective. N°2 theory of ‘communication’” (§5. Their main concern is to propose a path for “promoting the development of new interdisciplinary research in the field of systems theory and constructivism” (Abstract: Implications) by examining the criticisms. without paying attention to the specific constellation of basic concepts of the original theory that make the adopted concept intelligible and applicable in its original domain of validity. and self-reference (recursivereflexive incidence of a dynamic unity’s “external” behaviour impinging on itself) are also ascribable to more general dynamic systems that are not autopoietic in the sense of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (M&V). and (2) their historic account does not integrate recent developments that need to be highlighted to improve interdisciplinary research. to the ‘meaning’ [domain]. one cannot blame a transplanted organ for its malfunction in a patient’s body. « 8 »  For Q2 I argue that the implemented adoption procedure is – at least in the case of Luhmann – methodologically questionable. which I discuss in detail in Urrestarazu (2011a).” « 6 »  Like many other authors. Removing these restrictions would imply changing the VM&U Rules. permanently self-organizing. where social systems emerge (Luhmann)” (§14). Autopoietic systems are a particular kind of dynamic (autonomous) systems. It is this verification procedure that “restricts” the applicability of the “autopoietic” qualification to only some particular dynamic entities that comply with all the rules. 10. Hence. Qualifying a system as autopoietic is the outcome of the application of the six VM&U Rules1 verifica1 |  By “VM&U Rules” I refer to the six “keys” proposed by Varela. However.” “Improper adoption” of a complex concept « 7 »  For Q1 I argue that in order to explain and account for the self-constituting. « 4 »  Their target article has two shortcomings. « 10 »  Metaphorically speaking. « 3 »  Cadenas & Arnold acknowledge that “Luhmann adopted the concept of ‘autopoiesis’ along with the development of a Constructivist Foundations vol. and shortcomings arisen from Luhmann’s intent to apply autopoiesis to his social systems theory through “moving” “[…] the problem from the plane of the physical ‘space. but a matter of theoretical consistency. This is because it is “improper” (or inadequate and incomplete) any theoretician’s manner of borrowing a single complex concept developed within a theory – based on a whole associated conceptual framework – into another theory based on a different conceptual framework. however. tion procedure. I shall mention that at least two proposals for generalizing the conceptual framework used by M&V to build their theory of autopoiesis were not addressed by Cadenas & Arnold. « 9 »  I think that it is rather the methodologically improper adoption of the concept of “autopoiesis” by other disciplines (including Luhmann’s sociology) that is responsible for the situation of sterile debate in interdisciplinary research regretted by the authors. « 5 »  Their second shortcoming is that their account of the debate’s history does not integrate recent developments that need to be highlighted to improve interdisciplinary research. « 2 »  Whilst enthusiastically sharing the above-mentioned concern and agreeing with their methodology of “[…] theoretical reconstruction of the main issues of the debate” (Abstract: Method). This is because features such as self-constitution (spontaneous emergence of long-lived plastic dynamic structures). Introduction « 1 »  Hugo Cadenas and Marcelo Arnold’s paper provides both a succinct historical account of the critical points involved in the above-mentioned debate and a synthetic description of the still unresolved problematic issues.Towards a Consistent Constructivist General Systems Theory Hugo Urrestarazu Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis Independent Scholar hugo. and self-referential features exhibited by social phenomena. Maturana and Uribe (1974).

other disciplines could more easily adapt and develop their specific domaindependent applications from such a generalized conceptualization. mechanisms. etc. I think that the absence of such a common. M&V’s constellation of basic concepts has also been successfully used to distinguish. a general systems theory compatible with M&V’s ontoepistemological paradigm. where their applicability was sought. Maturana appealed to distinctions and abstractions related to a partially implicit general theory of dynamic systems that he contributed to refining and making explicit in several pertinent aspects related to biology.e.univie. If the adopting theory does not provide an equivalent operational version of the original constellation of operational distinctions and basic concepts intimately related to the complex concept being adopted. http://www. to make sure that when talking about distinctions. adapted. we are talking about the same kind of distinctions stemming from intersubjectively shared observers’ experiences. whereas “concept” refers to a constellation (or semantic field) of more basic interrelated concepts and notions proposed as constitutive elements for building a more complex object of knowledge (a rigorously defined abstraction). « 15 »  I also think that one cannot properly understand what makes an observed dynamic entity be distinguished as an autopoietic system without espousing the entire constellation of observer-related operations of distinction and derived concept construction methods used by M&V within their onto-epistemological paradigm of objectivity between parentheses. « 22 »  This is not so clear in the case of sociological research when distinguishing “social entities” as “systems” of some kind. structures. a fact that reveals that “autopoiesis” is not the only phenomenon that the M&V’s conceptual paradigm is capable of unveiling and explaining in biology. developed.Theory of Autopoiesis Towards a Consistent Constructivist General Systems Theory Hugo Urrestarazu success of a transplant operation results not only from the quality of the transplanted organ itself but also from the globalism of all external conditions that allow this organ to function exactly as it did in the donor’s body. processes. The apparent general formulation of these conceptual tools revealed themselves to be appealing to many disciplines concerned with other phenomenal domains. namely. rigorous. and accepted general conceptual framework – all along with its epistemology – is at the root of this unfruitful debate. not the term “autopoiesis” itself.. and keeping the basic “system” concept vague and undifferentiated with respect to the constellation of related concepts that participate in its rigorous definition. There is no surprise if – in this state of affairs – “the theories that deal with biological systems and those dedicated to the study of social systems have been intertwined” (§1). my personal regret is that – for so long – interdisciplinary research did not focus primarily on developing a common basic understanding of the whole conceptual framework underlying the theory of autopoiesis.2 whereas the definition of the autopoietic system concept relies on a very precise and rigorous definition of the sys2 |  A “notion” is a detached embracing object of knowledge (a vague abstraction) that we can manipulate in language as a reference. by explicitly applying more basic concepts and related operational distinctions and observations. the dynamic system concept). especially the inspiring novelty of the autopoiesis notion. « 17 »  M&V created. systems. « 11 »  More fundamentally. « 19 »  In the molecular domain. « 13 »  I think that the adoption of a consistent general conceptual framework should be performed prior to attempting some specific conceptual transplants. Why should other disciplines be less rigorous in their own domains? « 20 »  If there is a serious goal for achieving a real interdisciplinarity for studying systemic phenomena.. if necessary. describe. M&V (along with Ricardo Uribe) proposed a remarkably condensed set of verification rules (the six VM&U Rules set) that.” « 16 »  When proposing the autopoiesis concept. the latter risks becoming unintelligible within an inadequate hosting conceptual environment. building a shared understanding of the fundamental concept of system is needed in the first place: in most arguments concerning the debate about social autopoiesis. tem concept itself (more specifically. allow the observer community to agree intersubjectively on any claim concerning a specific distinguished dynamic system as being autopoietic or not. the first step should be to develop a common language. without paying due consideration to the refined specificity of the concept itself.cadenas 181 . « 12 »  If interdisciplinary research rigorously developed a truly domain-free understanding of the whole constellation of operational distinctions and conceptual tools that make autopoiesis intelligible and applicable in biology. « 18 »  It seems to me that instead of rigorously applying the general concepts (used by M&V in biology) to their disciplines and exploring their specific entailments in the corresponding domains. and used the conceptual tools they needed as biologists. The complexity of those specific abstract constructs cannot be circumvented by ignoring the foundational concepts on which those concepts are built. as it is customary in science for building scientific theories. Most efforts in this direction rely mainly on borrowing some aspects of the conceptual framework developed by M&V (including the concept of “autopoietic system”). the term “system” is used broadly as it denotes a simple evident which is just an aspect of the whole paradigm. The underlying general systems theory implicit in Maturana’s work « 21 »  M&V proposed a wide range of interrelated distinctions and concepts that allow us to refine the “broad conceptual openness” (§1) of existing systems theories and distinguish a variety of kinds of “systems” that are useful and explanatory when dealing with living beings and biological phenomena. unities. and that only then could complex concepts such as autopoiesis be “adopted” by other disciplines. I mean by this that the term “autopoiesis” was superficially adopted as a notion. self-reference. Moreover. many researchers imported the name “autopoiesis” as an umbrella term. objects of knowledge – with objects existing in a supposed transcendental external “reality. the situated stance of human observers is central and all conceptual developments are considered as abstractions existing only in the languaging domain where human observers exist as social beings. In this « 14 »  For example. complete. and characterize the dynamics of other nonautopoietic molecular systems. without confusing those abstractions – i. self-organization.

N°2 bert Spencer to Ludwig von Bartalanffy). in order to (metaphorically) refer to. Cadenas & Arnold did not mention that in my response to various OPCs (Urrestarazu 2014: 188). he advances towards the description of hu- . (embracing the theory of autopoiesis. he chose to generalize the entire set of basic and derived concepts used by M&V in their works by rigorously identifying and defining fourteen fundamental concepts – relation. either as compact or spatially distributed composite unities (see Urrestarazu 2012: 188f). I note that the authors neglect to consider that in scientific thinking the concept of “system” has been also employed in physics in a manner that cannot be put aside when dealing with “phenomenal entities” in general. some general concepts have been made more explicit: for example. 2012). first order plastic systems. If “communications” and their conveyed “meanings” were for him the necessary and sufficient basic concepts. and autonomous systems. this is a perfectly legitimate choice. structure. dynamic systems theories). What I did.” Parts 1–3 (Urrestarazu 2011a. 10. « 27 »  Regrettably. « 30 »  On Esteves-Vasconcellos’ side. I explained that my “definition” of social system was meant only as a theoretical exercise where my principal… aim was not to ‘define’ what kind of systems so“  cial systems could be. in my “Autopoietic Systems: A Generalized Explanatory Approach.” nor to their “actions. was to show explicitly that – conceived as inter-agent communication networks – social systems could not be construed as purely mechanistic systems (Urrestarazu 2014: §90). he could not import the concept but only the label. the observed self-referential features that we can loosely ascribe to social systems. 5 |  A Spanish version of this book has been published by the author under the title “La Nueva Teoría General de los Sistemas. autonomous systems theory and other. « 26 »  Although a wealth of generalization is already implicit in M&V’s work. observer. « 25 »  Cadenas & Arnold note that “[it] is almost impossible to detach the concept of system from its social and biological roots” (§2). (Urrestarazu 2014: §5) ” « 28 »  I want to clarify that because I am not a sociologist. 2011b. distinction.4 but they do not mention the fact that since Bartalanffy. This is a historical outcome (from Her- 3 |  Extraneous because it was defined and operationalized in a quite different conceptual framework. Metaphorically speaking. unity (or entity. Luhmann was obviously free to define the abstractions and concepts with which he wanted to develop explanations for phenomena observed in the domain of his research (his theory of social systems composed of communication entities).” §11). recursive systems.5 Alas. and class identity – and logically deriving thereof other concepts such as dynamic systems. circular systems. Explaining those emergent phenomena in mechanistic terms (as required from M&V’s conceptual framework where autopoiesis is defined) would inevitably require delving into both the psychic domain of humans and their domain of behaviours as communicating agents and “producers” of communication events – including their conveyed meanings – something that Luhmann’s conceptual framework formally forbids (“Only communication produces communication. provided these sole concepts sufficed to propose explanations based on distinguishable mechanisms capable of generating all phenomena observed in the social domain. orthogonal interaction. and 2012). The above-mentioned conceptual framework cannot be conceived other than as a new expanded and consistent general systems theory. without the need to refer to the physical entities involved in the generation of “communications” and “meanings. I tried to drag and drop a generalized notion of ‘social system’ into a straitjacket consisting of all the requirements imposed by the most general possible definition of autopoietic system and see if it fitted in it and at what price. where all basic concepts refer to entities existing in some observational domain embedded in physical space. as inferred from the [six 4 |  For the record. and in “Social Autopoiesis?” (Urrestarazu 2014). I do not intend proposing a way of construing a concept for social systems in particular. simple unity. composite unity (or system). more general.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 182 « 23 »  Like any other scientist. Another more systematic contribution is provided by Mateus Esteves-Vasconcello (2013). medium. Constructivist Foundations vol. some efforts have been made to generalize M&V’s conceptual framework underlying their theory of autopoiesis in order to justify its application to other metabiological or non-biological phenomena. but not explain. as a corollary of my proposed methodology for generalizing some key concepts within M&V’s conceptual framework (see Urrestarazu 2011a. « 29 »  I primarily focused on elucidating a generalized explanatory approach for construing a dynamic system concept without explicit reference to the underlying mechanisms that interrelate for us their dynamic components. Consistent with his proposed general systems theory. In my opinion. property.” he could have built his own more complex derived concepts and independently explored ways of explaining features such as the spontaneous emergence and self-reference of such systems. plastic systems. organization. among other domainfree theoretical constructs. adaptation and cognition. systems’ structures are distinguished as causation flows due to interactions affecting the states of generalized dynamic abstract objects giving rise to closed causally related components’ structures evolving in time (see Urrestarazu 2011a). relations between components are distinguished as cause-effect couplings between elementary unities capable of undergoing changes of state [transitions] and triggering state transitions on other dynamic entities. which needs to be developed in more detail. structural coupling. (but) to investigate if they could be tentatively construed as circumscribable composite unities existing in an appropriate space where they could be subject to scrutiny in terms of the requirements needed to ascertain their possible autopoietic nature. « 24 »  So why did Luhmann need to “import” such an extraneous3 concept as “autopoiesis” into his theory? In my opinion. VM&U] rules. component. or totality).” which I am currently translating into English. Cadenas & Arnold seem to classify my contribution superficially as a mere extension of M&V’s work by a follower – “Urrestarazu’s social systems concept seems to go no further than that of Maturana and Varela” (§35) – and they probably ignore Esteves-Vasconcello’s contribution altogether. Thus. second order plastic systems. environment. In my approach. 2011b.

Whatever the case. I stressed the point that they could be construed as possessing different degrees of autonomy. « 34 »  Finally. « 36 »  With regard to their second not only by criticizing Maturana’s and other authors’ visions. according to the observed incidence of “external” allonomous factors. He applied these concepts to describe practical cases of social systemic work in Esteves-Vasconcellos (2014). in which novel ways of addressing the explicit generalization of M&V’s concepts are proposed that constitute steps towards developing a common language for disciplines seeking to explain rigorously the systemic phenomena observed in their specific fields of inquiry. they require an autopoietic conception of social systems. There is still work to be done in order to ascertain that there are no contradictions between both generalization proposals and whether they are equivalent or just complementary in some aspects. an adoption procedure is not theoretically adequate (Q2) if it is not based on the explicit adoption of the whole underlying onto-epistemological paradigm and conceptual framework that could make the concept of autopoiesis intelligible in other meta-biological or non-biological domains. or why the concept of autopoiesis itself should be crucial to this endeavor. http://www.Theory of Autopoiesis Does Social Systems Theory Need Autopoiesis? Robert Drury King man social systems. and sociological research on the matter should not be an exception.cadenas 183 . I showed that this adoption is not justified (Q1) if its sole purpose is to account for the emergent and self-referential features exhibited by social systems – conceived as systems composed of communications within a meaning domain – since these features may be more generally explained for systems that are not autopoietic. but by also proposing the distinction of two human social systems classes: institutions and second-order interconstitution systems. predominately those that have a social character. the validity of the adoption of the autopoiesis concept by Luhmann is not fully addressed in Cadenas & Arnold’s paper. I showed that they could be construed as partially autonomous systems. « 31 »  Esteves-Vasconcellos and I. « 32 »  Whether these two highly coinciding generalization efforts could prove to be useful for tackling the specific domain of social phenomena is still an open theoretical research subject. USA rking/at/sierranevada.univie. Then. This task has not been yet accomplished satisfactorily. and that in this abstract space the process-like entities could become components of an emerging higher order system. provided that. At least two contributions were omitted (Esteves-Vasconcellos’s and mine). as required for autopoietic systems (à la M&V). my emphasis). in general. and I also agree with their remark that “[t]his situation must be addressed in all its complexity” (§21. « 37 »  I conclude by agreeing with Cadenas & Arnold when they “[…] argue that the theory of autopoiesis can only expand its horizons beyond the biological model if a theory of social systems based on communication is > Upshot • The authors claim that it is justified to extend the concept of autopoiesis from its biological origin to other disciplines. However. but that their autonomous features could not be linked to the component production processes. I even proposed that “[…] a possible way to circumvent [the] incompatibility [between Luhmann’s and Maturana’s constructs] would be to conceive communications as process-like dynamic objects” (Urrestarazu 2014: §110). I also showed that. and work with social networks). although independently and through different methodologies. aimed at providing a general conceptual framework that could be applicable to any kind of dynamic entities distinguished or intuited as existing in a given observational domain. Hugo Urrestarazu is a former physicist educated at the University of Chile in Santiago (1969–1974) – where he was Maturana’s student – and at Imperial College of Science and Technology in London (1977–1981). the point comes to elucidate how to develop a communication concept that is compatible with M&V’s onto-epistemological paradigm and conceptual framework. « 1 »  A fundamental question that Hugo Cardenas and Marcelo Arnold fail to address in their target article is why it is that. these diachronically distinguished processes could be considered as more abstract dynamic entities existing in a “space” of interacting systemic family therapy. « 33 »  Even if social systems – conceived as inter-agent communication networks – cannot be construed as purely mechanistic systems. the authors do not lay strong enough conceptual grounds to justify this extension of autopoiesis because it is unclear what concept of autopoiesis it is that would achieve this objective. any effort to talk properly about “autopoiesis” beyond or aside the biological realm needs to refer to some accepted generalization rigorously inspired from the conceptual categories used by M&V when they created the concept. Received: 12 January 2015 Accepted: 16 January 2015 Does Social Systems Theory Need a General Theory of Autopoiesis? Robert Drury King Sierra Nevada College. participate in the production of other process-like entities and constitute a possible autopoietic system in that abstract space. the latter category proposed as a theoretical explanation for “constructivist” systemic social work (systemic mediation. From the conceptual point of view. (ibid: §111) ” Conclusion « 35 »  With regard to their first shortcoming. regardless of their nature. In France he pursued an industrial software engineering career specialized in real time embedded systems design. any claim about its autopoietic nature “would need to be assessed by applying the six VM&U Rules validation test. Since 1990. in their desire to unify systems theory. Cadenas & Arnold missed mentioning recent developments in interdisciplinary research towards making explicit the general systems theory underlying M&V’s conceptual framework.” (§21. I also proposed that by distinguishing processes of communication interactions involving groups of physical agents (processors). he has been involved in independent linguistic and enterprise architecture consulting and in interdisciplinary scientific extension of the theory of autopoiesis. for any specific social system distinguished in this way. my emphasis).

The authors claim that autopoiesis is one of the fundamental concepts of the constructivist epistemology. social) cases of autopoiesis (which may not be autopoiesis after all. sociology of art. « 2 »  While the authors give a stellar review of the scholarly research on this topic. But are these various applications to social systems really deploying properly autopoietic concepts? Have the arguments of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela – i. The authors claim that they will analyze the “benefits shown by this concept [autopoiesis]” as it applies to social systems research and applications. the authors claim that Maturana and Varela’s account of social systems is “a middle-range theory” (§27). there is nonetheless no argument put forward by these authors that would decide the issue either way. is it sociological knowledge he renounces or does he renounce the notion that sociological knowledge is of the same methodological or paradigm-type as autopoietic systems theoretical knowledge? More curiously. is utilitarian (§31).e.” or his other concepts of the social. “we attempt to refocus the debate on the concept of autopoiesis for social systems research” (§5). they do not in fact show. just what is it that. But. Only an argument that defeats Maturana and Varela. Still... quite oddly. « 4 »  In relation to the above. the authors’ desire to promote the development of new interdisciplinary research in systems theory. though. and one wished to do so by incorporating social systems and the theory of autopoiesis (as our authors wish to do). there is no qualitative improvement of current sociological knowledge. what is inexplicable about this renunciation? This is left unstated and seems unfair to Maturana’s explanatory framework of “everyday life. These applications are theories of. absolutely none of these points demonstrates that Maturana and Varela are wrong about the way in which they wish to limit the concept of autopoiesis. economic sociology. “[t]his partly explains the fact that most sociological research on social systems has not followed this path” (§26). So it is arguable that Cadenas and Arnold have failed to show how these traits are problematic from the conceptual point of view – for instance. Could this act not be performed by dropping the autopoietic concept from the realm of social systems? Must the unified framework of systems theory. But this sort of argumentation says nothing about the accuracy or inaccuracy of Maturana and Varela’s conceptual claim(s). that Maturana in particular offers “the inexplicable and express renunciation of sociological knowledge” (§26). thus a-priori foreclosing the possibility that such frameworks might not be autopoietic. it is unclear just why it is that the authors seem to require a theory that confirms that social systems are autopoietic in the first place. their protest concerning the extension of autopoiesis to social systems – been defeated conceptually. as they wish to. mainly. This point needs to be addressed more directly since it is possible that these applications qualify only as Constructivist Foundations vol. Cadenas and Arnold do attempt to point out the main weaknesses of Maturana and Varela’s position on the non-extension of the autopoietic to the social. or might the authors’ examples of applications be based on a false (or simply metaphorical) understanding of what constitutes autopoietic systems proper? « 3 »  It is far from obvious that the applications in the sociology of law. must it be autopoietic? Why? Is the logic merely that more researchers have found productive research paths when accepting that social systems are autopoietic and that those who keep to the notion that social systems are not autopoietic have found less productive research paths? Yet even if this is the case it does not support the assertion that the former researchers are actually doing research on properly autopoietic systems. be so Luhmannian-Maturanian-Varelian. Not a few of these applications listed in the target article. then this would appear to be a significant point. etc. « 7 »  Similarly. Instead readers are merely told. « 6 »  Cadenas and Arnold also note. On this point. it should be mentioned. social systems researchers and are thus already well within the Luhmannian understanding of autopoietic systems theory. Are they? Despite the authors’ suggestion that the debate concerning whether social systems are autopoietic (and on what grounds they are) has become stale. and is similar to the theory of biocenosis (§32). are in fact conceptually grounded in a theory of autopoietic systems. the more evidence there is that social systems are in fact autopoietic. « 5 »  To their credit. Maturana and Varela’s “advanced” conception of biological systems “has a minimum impact on their notion of social systems” (§26). it is more a regression” (§26). this changes nothing in whether social systems are autopoietic. Without this. by showing that social systems are in fact autopoietic could support this position. Even granting such a regression or minimal impact. how might Maturana and Varela’s advanced conception of biological systems actually augment the concepts the authors would wish to see put in place within their (perhaps curious desire for an) autopoietic social systems theory – and not simply from the . “focuses on social groups” (§28) rather than complex social systems (are social groups not complex social systems?). the benefits of applying the concept of autopoiesis to social systems because they do not justify the essential claim that social systems are in fact autopoietic. but I fail to see how this insight necessarily assists the authors in their desire to unify systems theoretical research. on conceptual grounds. but none of the “weaknesses” they point out actually concern conceptual aspects of this position. First. N°2 Luhmannian (that is. Instead the authors tell us their ideas are based on “old and outdated paradigms” (§26). And? Of course if one’s goal were to unify systems theory. Cadenas and Arnold then argue that “in terms of [Maturana’s] contribution to understanding the social phenomenon.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 184 why not leave autopoietic systems theory within the confines of a theory of biological or living systems? The authors state. makes Maturana and Varela wrong? Nothing on this is said. In a way. “definitively rejects giving a universalistic relevancy to social systems” (§29) (but whose goal is this anyway?). “but also the consequences for social systems theory derived from restriction to a merely biological level” (§5). if Maturana and Varela are correct). end up borrowing Niklas Luhmann’s notion of autopoiesis rather than Maturana and Varela’s. owing to this outdatedness. the authors are left to rely on a somewhat curious strategy of listing some of the applications of autopoiesis to social systems research (in the sociology of law and art and economic sociology) as if the more the concept of autopoiesis has been applied to the separate researches and research fields. at the level of argumentation. 10.

lacking a clear statement regarding which (whose) autopoietic system ought to be adopted. if it can. and lacking conceptual clarification about what the nature of a social systems theoretical autopoiesis might look like (perhaps some less regressive concept of social autopoiesis than is given in Maturana and Varela’s discourses on society). However. it does not necessitate that it means this. Still. but more could have been said on this. non-“outdated” social systems theories do not have these traits. Yes. This is the dimension of politics. why do the authors require an autopoietic theory of social systems to unify systems theory? « 9 »  Certainly the target article’s extensive. John Mingers expresses similar doubts regarding the extension of autopoiesis to the social: of their abstract. This is particularly visible in the “Results” section of their abstract. France js4a271/at/gmail. incidentally. (Mingers 1995: 149f) ” It seems very plausible that the dynamics Maturana and Varela assigned to social systems just do not carry over to social systems in the ways that Luhmann or any other social systems theorist may have wished them to. this target article cannot yet state that important changes to practice should be made – in contrast to what the authors claim in the “Implications” section Robert King is an associate professor at Sierra Nevada College and a research fellow with the Centre Leo Apostel at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Missing: The SocioPolitical Dimension John Stewart Université de Technologie de Compiègne. « 8 »  Again. Moreover. might help to do the job. « 1 »  A key feature of human societies is that their organization and functioning are open to variation. following the spirit of systems theory and constructivism. Cadenas and Arnold do none of the heavy-explanatory lifting where these conceptual issues are concerned. The amount and density of social phenomena that fail to be explained by this theory are so extensive that it becomes necessary to limit these ideas to a very specific set of phenomena. it can be argued that Maturana and Varela do maintain a “vague sociological and anthropological view of social it can be argued that this explains Maturana and Varela’s hesitation in this regard and their reasons for moving on to theories of social groups and. The development of new methods or concepts capable of unifying systems theory or constructivist epistemology requires fleshing out the notion of the “formal principle” (§51) the authors propose and a stronger conceptual clarification capable of filling in the lack or gaps that remain in lieu of the authors’ own conceptual clarifications. but opera- Received: 2 February 2015 Accepted: 6 February 2015 tionally they require people to undertake specific actions and make specific choices…One communication may stimulate another. in which they declare: “  [w]e claim that it is justified to extend the concept of autopoiesis from its biological origin to other disciplines. lacking the conceptual argumentation for why an autopoietic system ought to be adopted toward the cause of a unification of the field.cadenas 185 . damage the concept of autopoiesis. in Maturana’s case. This OPC makes a case for the opposition: autopoiesis is not an appropriate tool for studying human > Upshot • Cadenas and Arnold argue in favour of deploying the concept of autopoiesis to study human societies. ” But there is insufficient argumentation for this supposed “justification. The major weakness of “social autopoiesis” is that it completely fails to get to grips with this dimension. but surely it does not produce or generate it.” What is sorely lacking are arguments that state just what the correct concept of autopoiesis is that would justify such a unification or would justify why the concept of autopoiesis itself should be so crucial to this endeavor. It is one thing to say analytically that commu“  nications generate communications. and to develop its interdisciplinary character. Hugo Cadenas and Marcelo Arnold do briefly mention this criticism. in the full and noble sense of the term. of productively using autopoietic systems theory within a more unified systems theory (as the authors wish to use it). Maturana and Varela might just have been correct that social systems are not autopoietic because social systems are not bounded in the same ways. excellent review of the scholarly literature on the debate on the concept of autopoiesis and its limits should help with the development of new perspectives on the debate. huge explanatory problems arise.univie. ecological.Theory of Autopoiesis Missing: The Socio-Political Dimension John Stewart point of view that presumably preferable. as the authors’ claim: if we try to apply the theoretical principles of “  Maturana and Varela to a more complex social systems theory. and social In §40 of their target article. So while it appears possible that such a statement ought to mean that Maturana and Varela should have extended their concept of autopoiesis more progressively toward an autopoietic theory of social systems. and he publishes in the fields of systems theory. This last point reflects the nub of my earlier criticisms as well. the members of human societies can and do engage in value-laden discussions of the choices involved. (§38) ” Notwithstanding the irony that this is partially why Maturana and Varela were leery of extending autopoietic systems theory to social systems theory (including Luhman- nian) in the first place. Again. and attempts to do so both miss out key aspects of human societies and. they im- http://www. and German Idealism. political economy. appropriately integrated within social systems theory. “everyday life” (but this is hardly the issue where the target article is concerned). The authors do state that these traits “are a direct consequence of subsuming the explanation of the social phenomenon to the biological” (§34) and this might go some way toward a conceptual clarification of the flaws of Maturana and Varela.” (§34) but this does not indicate how their conception of autopoietic systems theory (indeed of any conception of autopoietic systems theory). His work revolves around using systems concepts to think through interdisciplinary problems pertaining to economic. especially considering that.

etc. They probably would not call me their follower since I have ignored their aversion toward social systems. This has induced the noted biologist François Jacob to declare openly: “Life does not exist” (see Stewart 2004). individual or social.” In spite of that “even. A Prince Of Sinners. Perpetuating the network of such interactions can be referred to as a social system. bees. Contemporary biology is focused on molecular biology. he is (unfortunately) quite correct: at present.. I still consider Francisco and Humberto as my teachers since the time of their first working paper. Thus. systems are social systems’. 1903) « 1 »  It is an unexpected pleasure to encounter two Chilean authors from the University of Chile addressing the issues of social autopoiesis – decades after their famous predecessors. degrading and remaking of such patterns is the very foundation of life – cellular. This was addressed at an early multiauthor symposium involving Maturana (Zeleny 1980). Vague speculation about “social autopoiesis” is. Such repeated action brings forth the rules of behavioral patterns and is itself affected by the same rules it has generated. Maturana & Uribe 1974). societies of insects (ants. It is in this context that the concept of “autopoiesis” does have a key role to play. such components must communicate. motivated by meeting with Ricardo Uribe (Varela. In order to interact. multicellular organs and organisms. Components must act. Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. It is in this sense that the concept of autopoiesis is. and therefore all biological (living).e. termites. and that science should not get mixed up in politics. Some examples of real-life applications of social autopoiesis are also given. And this issue – the sort of biology that our society will construct and put in place – is actually.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 186 mediately evade the issue by saying that “analysis of these criticisms exceeds our ambitions. Communication is not just the passive exchange of information. because to date the record of social autopoiesis is not good). our disagreement would be clear and complete. sharply or fuzzily delineated or separable from their environment. depending on the reliability (rules) and repeatability (components renewal) of their interactions. a thought. respond in direct or chained reciprocity and mutual cohesiveness of their action. his current centre of interest is cognitive science. an action. interrelated. These societies can be small or huge. Among the examples.). sociology (in particular the sociology of science) and epistemology. « 2 »  The authors devote a whole section (§§23–39) to criticism of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s own attempts to develop a theory of social systems. Future generations of scientists might even find the qualifier “social” redundant because there is no other autopoiesis than “social. Personally. Its components are not separate or randomly interacting entities – they form a society. both as a biologist and as a citizen. delivered into my hands when I was starting at Columbia University in the early seventies. N°2 John Stewart was born in 1941 in England. The key to my departure was computer simulation of autopoiesis. All self-producing biological organisms are essentially societies of interacting components and therefore notions of autopoiesis and social systems are fundamentally. a highly political issue. in which they explicitly decline to use the concept of autopoiesis. 10. and say that in their view politics is not important. already. and it is openly genecentred (witness the lamentable current fashion for DNA-sequencing. in its way. he has lived for the last 40 years in Paris. ‘All autopoietic. « 3 »  Such societies can persist autonomously – either for fleeting moments or for millennia. physiology.” This will not do. > Upshot • I reaffirm and extend the notion of social autopoiesis away from mere labels and descriptions to acting physical components of social systems and societies. He has worked in the areas of genetics. Basic concepts « 2 »  There can be no autopoiesis without actively interacting components. After 10 years at Cambridge University and 3 years in the USA. Likewise is the question as to whether social systems can or cannot properly be considered as “autopoietic. a highly-charged political issue. USA mzeleny/at/fordham. or else (ii) come clean. ranging from subcellular to biological and human. societies of . (Edward Phillips Oppenheim. if not definitionally.” and to gain acceptance for this concept in the relevant scientific community. unfortunately. In this. but mutual stimulation and induction to real action. a mindless endeavour if ever there was one). we can list societies of cells (and intracellular interactions). The authors should either (i) argue that “social autopoiesis” can engage the political dimension (although they will have a hard time of it. an untimely distraction from what is at stake. “life” does indeed not exist as an epistemologically well-constructed object of biological science. in time and space. There is a genuine challenge here: both to construct an epistemologically well-founded concept of “life. In this case. I consider this is a scandal. this whole section is unfortunately somewhat beside the point. The point of my departure here is the statement by Hugo Cadenas and Marcelo Arnold (§19 in their target article): “[Zeleny & Hufford 1992] even [sic] argue. Received: 16 January 2015 Accepted: 16 January 2015 Autopoiesis Applies to Social Systems Only Milan Zeleny Fordham University. Maturana and Varela’s social theory is undeniably poor. The continuous making. predictable and autonomous under the influence of repetition. autonomous or semiautonomous.” So we are continually making and marring our own lives and the lives of other people by a word.” « 3 »  Finally. Such engendered action connects the components into networks. Constructivist Foundations vol. Only through computer simulation was I able to grasp the more general potential of autopoiesis while avoiding purely scholastic reasoning as well as mechanistic simplification. Such networks become stronger. but it does not follow at all that if they had used the concept of autopoiesis in their endeavours they would have fared any better. there is the question of biology.” my thesis remains very simple: only social systems can exhibit autopoiesis (see also §49 for affirmation).

Even the smallest deviations in constitutive processes have to be compensated and the equilibrium restored. Circular (holistic) organization of systems (components and the whole) is necessary for autopoiesis. not by itself). but the other way around: strong and sustainable autopoiesis generates its own protective organs (such as membranes. autopoietic processes in inorganic milieus (synthetic biology in the sense of Stéphane Leduc 1912). such as dissolution or death. even its sustainability. Autopoiesis of individuals is naturally interconnected with the autopoiesis of their social system (Zeleny & Hufford 1991). The circularity of this influence is the foundation of autopoiesis. were unclassified and not divided into hierarchies. herds. Unfortunately. Nature. Self-production of systems had been taking place before being unraveled. and their process of becoming. vantage points and points of view. skins or physical enclosures) internally and naturally. not just being. Physical.e. development.) and of course. living organisms and their collective and social interdependencies emerged through self-production. groups. tribes. wall. by determined action. « 4 »  It should be quite obvious that individual autopoietic entities (cells. Therefore. I prefer the interpretation of Jan Christiaan Smuts (1926). Nature and natural processes. separate. is yet to be addressed. Zeleny 1981). ecological and similar distinctions did not exist. maintained and repaired/restored has not yet been sufficiently addressed. there are no components without the whole as well as no whole without the components.Theory of Autopoiesis Autopoiesis Applies to Social Systems Only Milan Zeleny animals (swarms. There are at least fifty shades of assorted autopoietic precursors. etc. Circularity of social systems « 10 »  Figure 1 shows the minimal cycle of processes necessary for autopoiesis: Production → Bonding → Degradation → Production. There is not a single living organism that exists outside its requisite social system. The circularity is crucial in many 1 |  All man-made interventions are heteropoietic (produced by another. http://www. Autopoiesis as emergent « 8 »  Simplistic equalizing of autopoi- esis with life is misleading. societies of humans (families. Pre-autopoietic systems have to attain self-sustainability (not just sustainability) of their autopoietic processes in order to be recognized as “living. Autopoiesis of an entity (or component) cannot be separated from the autopoiesis of the entire sustaining network/system. domains.” « 9 »  In addition to self-sustainability. post-autopoietic (or allopoietic) fade-outs and systems too fast. This scheme is the fundamental key to autopoiesis. etc. Autopoiesis cannot be an all-or-nothing proposition. societies. divide. it weakens.). is arrested or fades out. is holistic. the system lapses into one of the fade-outs. They can be heteropoietically sustained. disciplines. biological. Whatever in nature is so organized could become autopoietic and whatever is autopoietic could become alive. How such equilibrium is attained.e. but not all autopoietic systems have to be alive. label. specialties. constructed and labeled by man. natural institutions such as markets. The circularity of concatenated processes is not sufficient for autopoiesis. Autopoietic systems emerge. organic and social domains. Yet.e. i.cadenas 187 . (to) language or draw distinctions. as our computer simulation showed. repetitiveness and density of its network of interactions. chemical. self-government.. while behavior of the whole determines the behavior of components. biophysical. divisions. An autopoietic system is not defined through its enclosure. between components and system. allopoietic arrest or heteropoietic maintenance of sustainability. By “holism” we understand that behavior of components determines the behavior of the whole. and thus deceive an uninformed observer. Otherwise. pointing to the autopoiesis of individuals cannot be fully comprehended and completed while denying the autopoiesis of their interacting networks. There were no atomic. schools. including living organisms (and humans). but they are not autopoietically self-sustainable.. the result of autopoiesis. not its causation. interacting populations. and. too slow or too vast for humans (being components themselves) to be perceived (or established) as autopoietic. communities. There are also partial degradation bonding production Figure 1 • The three necessary processes of autopoiesis. social. because nobody needed them (Boden 2000. It emerges from non-autopoietic precursors. In other words: all living systems must be autopoietic. man-made) enclosures of man such as camps or prisons. It is therefore pointless to insist that autopoiesis can take place only in certain domains or levels of natural hierarchy. collectivities. Once the natural social system loses its autopoiesis and breaks down.univie. organisms) can only be sustained if their interacting networks (groups. the simulation models in Zeleny & Pierre (1976) and Zeleny (1977) have been neglected and thus useful insights weakened. adaptation and « 5 »  A society’s cohesiveness and autonomy is determined by the internal intensity. A system’s autonomy comes from activity within rather than separation or isolation without. cellular. its individuals cannot survive – except in heteropoietic (i. etc. Autopoiesis is fundamentally about equilibrium. « 7 »  “Holism” is the most misused and exploited cliché-label in current human intellectual discourse. not by an enclosure. societies) are equally self-sustainable and autopoietic (even before heteropoietic interventions of humans). there has to be a requisite equilibrium (or balancing) among all constitutive processes of autopoiesis. emphasizing the circularity of mutual effects and influences between micro and macro. That is. Holism « 6 »  Autopoiesis certainly existed way before the emergence of man and his specific ability to perceive. life. Any such intervention in autopoiesis could curtail its manifestations or appearance. Protective or filtering membranes are system components that interact with their environment – i.e. boundary or membrane. or constrained autopoiesis (heteropoietic interventions1). as well as autopoiesis. from without. classify. i. those can be strengthened or weakened artificially.. organs.

Autopoiesis of a social system lasts longer than that of its components. Varela had developed divergent thoughts. in spite of the ceaseless turnover of individual members (Zeleny 1996. Individual rosettes multiply vegetatively and form a tightly packed community on a rock. they form communities. 1997). knowledge and wisdom). Stafford Beer wrote the preface to Autopoietic Systems (Maturana & Varela 1975). but had not recognized ubiquitous spontaneous social orders. in multitudes of forms. bees. Adam Smith’s invisible hand. ƒƒ Before human observers emerge: “Nature is not about codes: we observers invent the codes in order to codify what nature is about” (ibid: 11). heteropoietic interventions. To his astonishment. « 13 »  When the scholastic debate about social autopoiesis reached its intellectual nadir.. Therefore. Social systems of autopoietic components must themselves be autopoietic – they are necessary for autopoiesis in the sense of holism because autopoiesis itself is the necessary condition for adaptation. Organisms and their components are themselves social systems ad infinitum. Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek – he called it “relatively recent (and stunning!)” (Varela 1999: 52) – that even simple social systems “give rise to … a purposeful and integrated whole. vol. Why autopoiesis only applies to social systems « 14 »  Maturana and Varela drove an unsustainably mechanical wedge between social systems and their components by contradicting holism. please allow me to discuss this is in the remainder of my commentary. the structure is a temporary allopoietic “snapshot” of underlying autopoiesis. as long as all three constitutive processes of autopoiesis remain viable. where he presents a number of insights into social systems. amoebas. « 15 »  By the end of the 1990s. Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction. in pool maintance out EP production Precursors of autopoiesis M dissolution linkage customers suppliers Figure 3 • Model of an autopoietic internal market (amoeba system). with animals. across all domains. as well as organs such as brains. such as termites. domains. mentoring and coaching. After older Constructivist Foundations rosettes flower. I devoted myself to corporate consulting. Complex and sophisticated simulations (including cell division. The community is thus being continually renewed. Some readers may find it unusual to call plants social (yet. bonding and degradation) can lead to fadeout (dissipation).” Varela appeared to be puzzled and genuinely surprised by his “discovery” of social autopoiesis: “…its separate components are individuals and it has no center or localized ‘self ’” (ibid: 53). This could be . without the need for central supervision” (ibid) – even citing “the most compelling of these examples is the social insect colony. « 11 »  The houseleek or Sempervivum (also known as liveforever or hens and chickens) is a good example of an autopoietic cycle. ants. which are relevant to our argument. In Figure  3 an internal market of the Kyocera “amoeba system” of continuous building and rebuilding of an intracompany market is depicted. They confounded social autopoiesis with dictatorship (“system of tyranny”).e. and ignored the obvious social nature of both multicellular and unicellular organisms. M refers to management. because it is a natural (by)product of autopoiesis. Similar social networks would be large and tightly packed communities of penguins or sparse and vastly loose communities of wolverines – all surviving for hundreds or thousands of years. They excluded a most remarkable autopoiesis of natural social systems.e. Notice that no a priori introduction of “membrane” is needed. ƒƒ The necessity of physical components: “The notion of coding is a cognitive notion which represents the interactions of the observer.” they referred to human political systems. Examples abound. While the organization is persistant.) can be constructed based on this simple scheme. “[t]he import of this model of how complex systems exhibit emergent properties through the coordinated activity of simple elements is. in my eyes. regardless of the labels. Giambattista Vico’s corso e ricorso. circular and autopoietic.customer operate add value production understand implement finance invest Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis innovation 188 Figure 2 • Model of a self-sustaining corporate organization. not a phenomenon operative in the physical domain” (ibid: 10). quite profound…” (ibid). etc. etc.g. multicellularity. I had opted out from the discussion of its descriptions of action (information) in favor of coordination of action itself (i. e. N°2 « 12 »  It is then not surprising that the first ideas of self-production emerged in social systems rather than in biology. Exclusion (or weakening) of any one of the three constitutive processes (i.. maintaining its self-production for decades. Figure 2 shows the underlying model of circular organization of a business corporation. By “social systems. He recognized the age-old observation of John Amos Comenius. « 16 »  In 1975. with Luhmann’s humans-free (non-physical) virtual networks of symbolic communications (Zeleny 1995). neural systems.. two-state pulsation or allopoiesis. production. communicate across large distances and are parts of complex physical networks. using social autopoiesis as the underlying guide to action. roof or patch of soil. Examples of some very successful constructs are outlined in Figures 2 and 3. insects and humans). 10. they die and provide a new space for the new plantlets to enter. or even worse. development and evolution.

Theory of Autopoiesis Explaining Social Systems without Humans Peter M. ƒƒ Finally. in the excellent book from 2004. as well as his own descriptions and understandings of autopoiesis. I also argue against the author’s critique of an “utilitarian” approach and for maintaining the individual and social level in systems theory. Roth & Schwegler 1981). through autopoiesis. I claim that research on human (near-) universals contributes to solving the constructivist problem of how understanding among individuals is possible.milanzeleny. following Heinz von Foerster’s recommendation. Together with Gerhard Roth and Wolfram K..2 The rest of Beer’s argument I paraphrase because. Despite numerous discussions. I had started working on my doctoral thesis following an invitation by Niklas Luhmann. the reader got the message about his stand on social autopoiesis. Hejl applied to the target paper on Luhmann’s conception of “social system. It also explains why the current author has since 1975 devoted all his efforts to the development of social autopoiesis. In the “…any cohesive social institution is an autopoietic system…” (ibid: 13). especially when taking place with inorganic components. later “removed” from the original troika. not suddenly. The origins of life emerge from the non-living. Again. He is the author of over 600 publications and has the highest Hirsch Citation Index among Czech economists. The fact is that if a social institution is autopoietic. Hejl University of Siegen. In August 1975 I sent our Maturana translation to Luhmann. construction and reconstruction. « 19 »  Their insistence on a visible and physical membrane as a constitutive attribute of the autopoietic process ignores the fact that the membrane is only one of the produced components.” ƒƒ Without doubts: “Yes. But it is our economic. Köck. we discussed Maturana’s papers and finally translated his “Biology of Cognition” (1970) into Received: 21 January 2015 Accepted: 6 February 2015 Explaining Social Systems without Humans Peter M. « 17 »  Beer concludes: “It seems to me that the authors are holding at arms length their own tremendously important discovery” (ibid: 15). Instead. What is puzzling is why do Maturana & Varela not follow this line of development themselves? Why do they not write about the nature and adaptation of social institutions and the evolution of society itself? In this commentary I have tried to provide some answers. he was previously at Columbia University. gradually. Membranes are often invisible (detectable only through behavior). treating autopoietic social systems as self-produced organisms rather than man-made mechanisms. and is now also at Tomas Bata University. it is necessarily alive. « 21 »  We are currently all suffering from ineffective applications of the mechanistic machine-like paradigm in addressing the long-term effects of secular stagnation and upheavals. There he discloses the reasons for Beer’s remarks: “I was not prepared to accept all the consequences of my own theory” (Maturana &  Poerksen 2004: 106). who initially was quite skeptical about the aspects linked to Maturana’s concept of “circularity” of the processes in living systems. But some discussions later in March 1976 he changed his mind with respect to what was to be called the theory of autopoiesis. « 1 »  In the early 1970s. 2012). had existed before humans emerged with their labeling. As Cadenas and Arnold’s target article demonstrates. Self-production. This was well understood by their computer expert Ricardo Uribe. Zeleny 1977). there are different developmental stages.g. human societies are biological systems” (ibid: 12). organism-like paradigm of adaptive and learning social systems – towards evolutionary economics (Zeleny 2010. for sure. Luhmann did not attend any of them. even though he had begun to embrace autopoiesis. Benseler. Based on defining communication in the constructivist-mechanist tradition. During the following years I co-organized a number of conferences (Hejl. Simulation models of autopoiesis show that autopoiesis is a systems property acquired only gradually – it is incorrect to claim that autopoiesis either is or is not. Köck & Roth 1978. multiple criteria decision making and autopoiesis. social autopoiesis must be about physical entities (e. social and political systems that are now undergoing historical transformation and I became familiar with the writings of Humberto Maturana. « 20 »  Many decades have been spent on scholastic discourse about the essential inapplicability of autopoiesis to social systems. fleeting to be observed. we could have applied autopoiesis as an excellent tool and necessary ingredient for shifting towards a more biological. not just human concepts or > Upshot • I argue in favor of not eliminating humans from social theory. only differentially compatible with life. humans). some computer simulation is indispensable for understanding physical autopoiesis (Boden 2000. then according to the authors’ own argument (autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems). Zeleny’s research areas include human systems management. without actually proving the latter. ƒƒ On Maturana: “…presumably at least one of the originators of autopoietic theory disagrees…” (ibid: 12). For 34 years he has been the editor-in-Chief of Human Systems Management. undoubtedly. Milan Zeleny is Professor of Management Systems at Fordham University. However.” They did not. The autopoiesis stage can be too 2 |  Maturana’s views of social systems. « 18 »  Another poorly defended claim was their belief that all living systems are autopoietic and all autopoietic systems are living.cadenas 189 . are engagingly explained. or too sparse and distributed to be detected. Germany hejl/at/mefo. I address the observer-problem in Luhmann’s theory. in his own words. Luhmann’s and my views differed with respect to the central question Hugo Cadenas and Marcelo Arnold address in their target article: Should social systems be modeled as autopoietic (Luhmann) or should social systems be constructed as resulting from a http://www. One simple logical step and they could claim a “tremendously important discovery.uni-siegen. My argumentation is based on the “mechanistic” perspective that emerged in the interdisciplinary context of systems theory but that is lacking in Luhmann’s work. Finally. His website is at http://www. Hejl & Köck 1980.

The basic idea 1 |  Cf.” « 7 »  Communicator 1 “selects” (decides) what he wants to communicate (the “information”?). a verbal. biologists. N°2 was that theories should allow to analyze and even construct physical mechanisms that would produce the behavioral or cognitive properties one was interested in. The meaning is the desired behavior of Communicator 2 that Communicator 1 intends to bring about. (however defined) interaction of autopoietic individuals (Maturana. It is also shared by Ernst von Glasersfeld. « 3 »  Coming from this tradition. This can be a description of an observation about something observed in the social or “natural” environment. In addition. is taken as a problem to be explained. had to establish a general vocabulary and general concepts to discuss communalities of otherwise incompatible phenomenal domains. At that time. In my commentary I will discuss the difference between Luhmann’s and my view based on this mechanical understanding of radical constructivism. henceforth. etc..e. Figure 1 shows the most important aspects of communication in a strict sense from a constructivist position.htm Constructivist Foundations vol. So. (Maturana 1978: 28f) ” « 4 »  It is this mechanistic understanding that I adopted – among other ideas – from Maturana. mathematicians. pictorial. psychologists.Assumptions about the communication partner and remembered feedback of past communication Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis Transformation (production. « 6 »  There are three distinguishable processes that can be described as “selections. physiologists. (c) proposition of a computed state or process in the system specified by the hypothesis as a predicted phenomenon to be observed. or other physical entity. Anthropologists. I find myself confronted with more or less the same questions and doubts I have been aware of for years. It is clearly stated in his often repeated explanation of what he sees as the core of “the scientific method”: This method can be described as involving the “  following operations: (a) observation of a phenomenon that. Varela. a statement about emotions. who understood Maturana and Francisco Varela’s work as a biological basis for the radical constructivism he developed – although Maturana and Varela have kept a certain distance from this epistemological position. « 5 »  Let me start with the concept of communication and what happens in communication as example. and new concepts of information and communication. selection) of a meaning into a message according to the autopoietic dynamics of the communicator 190 Innate ontogenetically developed nonverbal media Communicator 1 as autopoietic system Available techniques of transmission Learned verbal and non-verbal means of communication Various interactions in different social and nonsocial environments Message Innate ontogenetically developed nonverbal media Transformation (production. But this is not the “meaning” of what he wants to communicate. « 8 »  To achieve this goal. and (d) observation of the predicted phenomenon. social scientists. systems theory. cognitive science. many of the participants shared a “mechanistic” understanding of “scientific explanations” (Heims 1985). or process that seems adequate . artificial i. http://www.asc-cybernetics. (b) proposition of an explanatory hypothesis in the form of a deterministic system that can generate a phenomenon isomorphic with the one observed. non-verbal. etc. a decision. selection) of a message into a meaning according to the autopoietic dynamics of the communicator Communicator 2 as autopoietic system Available techniques of transmission Learned verbal and non-verbal means of communication Various interactions in different social and nonsocial environments Figure 1 • Human communication and media from a constructivist position. when transdisciplinary discussions lead to cybernetics. the Macy conferences (Dupuy 1985)1 played a stimulating role. 10. « 2 »  The history of systems theory relevant for the concept of autopoiesis goes back to the late 1940s and 1950s. Communicator 1 has to transform the meaning he has in mind into a message (“utterance”). etc. biophysicists. Hejl)? The conflict was clear from the early 1980s on and has never been resolved. Talking of “systems” was helpful in that context. after reading the target article. Maturana also shares this mechanistic conception. a request. electrical engineers.

Maturana and Varela agree with a modeling of communication based on the interaction of (actors as) autopoietic systems that concludes that “communication is not a transmission of meaning. if a self-referential system functions like me – or if I know how it functions – I am able to choose or to produce the message that has the effect that I desire. the states they are in at a given point in time. Patel. In order to make this happen. my position looks quite traditional. perhaps he has known his partner for some time and generated a “theory of mind. etc. Fortunately. the mechanistic perspective also provides an answer to the problem of reducing differences between processes of construction: the more constructors (or their constructing mechanisms) function in a comparable way (the importance of the constructs of environments are not discussed here). are” i. (But perhaps the authors did not look carefully enough at what Maturana & Varela agreed with).” This activity is actually best explained by the model of autopoietic and hence selfreferential systems.). More or less consciously and based on his experience in various social and nonsocial environments. With respect to the question of communication or cooperation. with the difference that – although belonging perhaps to the same class of interactions – they might have differed and are experienced differently due to the selfreference of the receiver and the unavoidable differences between individuals. as Cadenas and Arnold emphasize. Hejl to make the intended communication successful. (Hejl 2011). meaning. one has a  |  to describe the phenomenon one is interested in – here: communication between actors seen as autopoietic systems. if “distinction” means “selection” out of a set of alternatives. etc.cadenas 191 . (near-)universals). Antweiler 2009). As many of them evolved a long time ago. preferences. It is more astonishing to call communication “an operation of distinction by a self-referential system” (§10). From a mechanistic (and socio-evolutionary) perspective. Brown 1991. In fact. being historical systems. the just-outlined highly complex process takes place again – but in the opposite direction and with an important difference. his choice depends as well on the repertoire of means of communication he has inherited (e. Finally.” the transmission-concept of communication comes in again through the backdoor. From the very few explanations presented here. « 13 »  With respect to the question of how to use the theory of autopoiesis in systems-theoretical modeling of phenomena central to the social sciences. Of course. behaviors. Then one should c  |  make predictions or identify problems or consequences resulting from the functioning of the model (How is successful communication possible between autopoietically functioning individuals?) and d  |  try to observe the predictions (geneculture coevolution. « 11 »  However. Finally. he has to choose among the media available in his actual situation. when Maturana published his “Biology of cognition” (1970). Normally. Independent of its degree of autonomy. such near-universals reduce differences between actors and facilitate successful interactions of various kinds. as well as on his learned verbal and non-verbal means of communication (choice of words. As a consequence. and that is what characterizes radical constructivism. he has some expectations about his partner. Fleming & Kilner 2012). the partner might be dressed or talk in a way that suggests to Communicator 1 how the other might react etc. as a radical constructivist I do not speak of an “operation of distinction” when talking about the activities of a receiver of a message: she constructs (produces) what she takes (too often) as “the meaning. If one uses a mechanistic approach. 2006) and then developed ontogenetically. the likelihood of failures of communication must have been a crucial condition throughout biological and cultural evolution for the growth of communication and the advantages that go with it. broadly taken.e.univie.. Let me mention just one of the questions that follows from the logic of the model used: How can we explain understanding if meaning is constructed? « 12 »  Constructivists often underline that the autonomy of individuals who construct their realities.. The receiver’s reading is conditioned by all the aspects that influenced the producer of the message. it is necessary that there is a transmission of what to choose from. Peleg et al. he has to decide which verbal and/or non-verbal media he should use to be successful. “distinction” means that there is a choice and that one or several of the offered entities/meanings. Moreover. the receiver’s final goal is not to reconstruct the meaning Communicator 1 had in mind. Alternatively.” But this is just the state of the art at least since the early 1970s. he decides how to address the other. This has to be done b  |  through the proposition of a model that allows identification of different processes and their relations involved in producing the phenomenon to be explained (Figure 1 plus discussion). etc. in many cases they are problematic in the context of modern conditions of living and hence in need of regulation – food preferences and the male tendency to violence are just two examples. And if communication is about “distinction by a self-referential system.g. emotions that are basically the same even in cultures that have had no or very little contact with each other over long periods of time (Murdock 1945.. If one takes this seriously. What characterizes communicating actors who are successfully able to coordinate their behavior through communication (Maturana & Varela 1987: 210ff)? Breakdowns of communication do happen and it can be argued that there are probably many problems that result from it. is a result of the dynamics of their own cognitive mechanisms and. He is interested in what the message means for him: What does he wants me to do? Why is she telling me that? Is this chunk of knowledge interesting to me? « 10 »  It is not astonishing that. it should be clear that such an approach http://www. the smaller are the differences between their constructs.” which in fact is a kind of mechanistic model of the cognitive functioning of Communicator 2 and used to construct (select?) the most promising communicative offer (Byrne & Whiten 1988. In addition. such nearuniversal human properties are present in all societies as evolved dispositions. Communicator 1 might remember his experiences during earlier communications. then the agreement of Maturana & Varela is a surprise. « 9 »  When Communicator 2 receives and reads or hears (“processes”) the message. one has to explain how “understanding” or “successful communication” is There is an increasing number of research results on biological and cultural heritage that – among other effects – produce what might be called “human (near-)universals. rules of behavior.Theory of Autopoiesis Explaining Social Systems without Humans Peter M.

« 2 »  Without questioning the validity of those sections of the target article where Luhmann’s vision of autopoiesis in social systems is confronted with criticism both from the original authors of the concept and from other social theorists. Received: 9 February 2014 Accepted: 11 February 2015 Communication is Meaningbased Autopoiesis Diane Laflamme Université du Québec à Montréal. and communicate as components in various social systems. namely “that it is justified to extend the concept of autopoiesis from its biological origin to other disciplines. In many of his writings Niklas Luhmann explains how and why he chose to include autopoiesis in his theory of meaning-constituting systems. it seems evident to me as an observer that without individuals who cooperate hoping to serve (directly or indirectly. He invariably concludes with declarations such as: “In principle. I do not see a decisive difference between his theory and mine” (Luhmann 2013b: 77). The sentence that introduces and the one that concludes §14 both allude to the distinction between life-based autopoiesis and meaning-based autopoiesis. Parallel to this theoretical work. communication. “communication within (the higher instances of) the system” will decide/select the meaning that is viable for the time being (Hejl 1997). Hejl contributed to the integration of the theory of autopoiesis (Maturana) and the development of a radical constructivist approach to knowledge. Hejl is adjunct professor at the University of Siegen. « 4 »  Sadly. It would be a pity to reduce it to a few general statements on self-reference in social systems.” Meaning . and social systems. he designed and conducted empirical studies on the use of media. decide to propose a theory in which communication is the central activity? If we look at the judicial system. As I see the problematic relation between individuals and social > Upshot • Autopoiesis based on mean- ing is a rich conceptual tool. especially sociology of communication and media. the theory of social systems has to integrate these highly complex biological systems. one could say that there is a missed opportunity in the section entitled “From self-reference to autopoiesis of social systems” (§§6–14). if there are conflicts. 1987). For example. « 14 »  To conclude. it is important to design carefully how individuals participate in social systems and to distinguish different levels of interactions and their properties. At the same time it is evident for all participants that. it is clear that their main activity is communication and selecting meanings from texts. where they criticize Maturana and Varela’s proposition of “a utilitarian concept of social systems.diane/at/uqam. it might be helpful to point at the rather strange remark in §31. « 15 »  Keeping individuals within social theory does not at all imply a reductionist position. « 1 »  The “Results” presented in Hugo Cadenas and Marcelo Arnold’s target article are announced from the very beginning as a claim. To explain the behaviour of social systems one has (a) to look at individuals who. Canada laflamme.” Although I do not share their view of social systems in all details. It would gain in convincing power if more effort was invested in describing how social systems operate as meaning-constituting systems (Luhmann 1995: Chapter 2. we know that the old utilitarian conviction is wrong: it saw humans primarily as rational actors seeking to maximize their individual benefits. an understanding of scientific explanations at least compatible with the mechanistic orientation of the natural sciences. N°2 rather opaque adoption of terms and concepts. At the same time one has (b) to observe the organization of the social systems one is interested in as systemic properties that explain large parts of the behaviour of the systems that are independent of many of the particular components (Hejl 1995. a jurist with experience in administrative law. 10. especially of judges and courts in the Roman-law tradition. the authors take many short cuts.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 192 not only allows but necessitates interdisciplinary cooperation and an appropriate terminology as well as at least openness to empirical work. The very last question then is: Why is access to these higher instances often a matter of political debate and struggle? Peter M. they propose that “the social system itself is a ‘selection’ between different possibilities that meaning offers. 1990: Chapter 2. They are not meant to undermine the contribution made by the authors to refocusing the debate on the concept of autopoiesis and promoting a much needed development of interdisciplinary research using this concept. immediately or with some postponement) their interests (and this means very basically surviving and reproducing).” As envisioned by the authors in their conclusion. « 3 »  The following comments are limited to that one section of the target article. This requires overstepping the borders and traditions of sociology as part of the humanities. « 16 »  I would like to end with a question some readers may have been puzzled by all along: Why did Luhmann.” Such a declaration gives little weight to the extended analysis provided in Luhmann (1982b) – which is the reference quoted – where the framework is clearly identified from the beginning as a “general theory of meaning-generating systems. Since humans and their individual and social behaviours are to be constructed as much more complex. where until 2010 he taught sociology. with different parts of their capacities. it is necessary to give up the dualism between holism (the level of systems) and reductionism (the level of individuals). act. these results will most certainly open promising perspectives for interdisciplinary research and contribute to overcoming the many hesitations inspired by Humberto Maturana’s public position against such developments. building on what he calls Maturana’s innovation (Luhmann 1985b: 6). Little more is offered. there would be no sociality and hence nothing like the enormous variety of social activities that we construct as social systems. Of course. when introducing the notion of meaning in §7. and with respect to management Hejl & Stahl 2000). and the readiness to interdisciplinarity beyond a Constructivist Foundations vol. On the contrary. interact. Meaning is briefly mentioned in §7. §10 and §14.

Indeed. as process or as system – is capable or not of referring to itself as a self. meaning-based autopoiesis in social systems and life-based autopoiesis are introduced side by side. 1990: 23f).” Luhmann comes up. In Luhmann (1982c: 70). according to him. He also explains that he chose the term “constitution” to describe the “be- ing-possible-only-together” of order (the system) and the full complexity of the world: meaning always appears within some delim“  itable context and yet at the same time always points beyond this context and lets us see other possibilities. forces the system to make a selection since a choice has to be made “among the totality of possibilities for relationship or references to other things indicated in the meaning actually given” (Luhmann 1995: 134). “selfselection” is discussed. (Luhmann 2012: 18) ” « 8 »  When better equipped to appreci- ate the central place occupied in Luhmann’s theory by meaning and its constitution.” this being done “at a different level from the organic level. Furthermore. Such an approach to meaning is developed by Luhmann with explicit references to Edmund Husserl and. the reader might grasp more quickly. though: meaning exists only as meaning of the opera“  tion using it. in §14. when proceeding to §8 and 9 of the targeted article. one at the end. What I want to understand and to describe with the term constitution is this relationship between a selectively restricted order and the openness of other possibilities. for using the word “constitution” as “a central category that remains ambivalent” (Luhmann 1990: 69). utterance (self-reference) and understanding Connectivity Relations among elements hold out a prospect of connectivity Successful relational connections recursively produce a network of communications Understanding is the precondition for connection onto further communication Autopoiesis No autopoiesis without basal self-reference No autopoiesis in social systems without communications connected to further communications No autopoiesis in communication without differentiating the connecting position (selfor hetero-reference) for the next communication Table 1 • Securing connectivity through basal self-reference. a self includes self-reference “within itself ” (Luhmann 1995: 446). one at the beginning of the paragraph. of being-possibleonly-together. One can read instead that social systems “constitute themselves through processes of self-selection. Luhmann considers that his contribution to the theory of self-referential systems requires nothing less than “a new paradigm” (Luhmann 1995: 10). Here again. Luhmann’s introduction of meaning-constituting systems is omitted.” In §7. but not limited to. a relationship of mutual interdependence. « 5 »  Viewed as the operation of a social system. the reader will be told swiftly about these two levels of system formation in two sentences. neither beforehand nor afterward.” To complete this sentence. why it matters so much whether a self – as element.Theory of Autopoiesis Communication is Meaning-based Autopoiesis Diane Laflamme Basal self-reference Basal self-reference in a social system Basal self-reference in communication Self The self that refers itself is also an element The element/self is a communication Communication (self) coordinates three selections in each of its elements: information (hetero-reference).cadenas 193 . the history of a social system can be seen as a history of what selections were made. What happens is worth noting: meaning is “constituted. « 9 »  What is missing in §8 is a clear statement that self-reference allows a self to switch from self-reference to hetero-ref- http://www. He criticizes Husserl. living systems (Luhmann 1986: 172).” Here. Luhmann (1982c: 70) is the reference offered at the end of the third sentence. with a definition of meaning as the unity of the difference between the actual and the it could be somewhat unsettling for some to realize that in Luhmann’s theory. At the very end of the section of the target article under scrutiny. In Luhmann’s theory. Luhmann then adds: “just as living creatures constitute themselves through processes of autocatalysis. which is about self-selection and boundaryformation. But to go further than that and insist that a system “is” a selection could lead the reader astray in the context of this target article. and hence only at the moment in which it is determined by operations. the best way to examine the constitution of meaning is the phenomenological method (Luhmann 1990: 83). Luhmann’s major conceptual innovation is presented in §14 as moving the problem of autopoiesis “from the plane of the physical space” to the realm of meaning. (Luhmann 1990: 25) ” Meaning remains internal to the system. « 6 »  Luhmann – and this will prove to be a powerful conceptual insight – defines autopoiesis “as a general form of systembuilding using self-referential closure” that can be observed in systems including. He notes that Talcott Parsons uses the word without defining it. We also find in §11 a puzzling sentence indicating that “the autopoiesis of society operates the autopoiesis of individuals. but not in relation to boundary-formation (which appears rather on page 71).” « 7 »  Once it has been established that life and meaning are to be distinguished as two different kinds of autopoietic organization. a selection is an event.univie. psychic systems – constituted on the basis of a closed self-referential nexus of conscious states – and social systems – constituted on the basis of a closed self-referential nexus of communications – are interpenetrating meaning-constituting systems (Luhmann 1995: 59. attention can turn to the fact that meaning is “constituted. as the authors rightly point out in §7.

” Luhmann does use the two words together in the following sentence: “The unity of a communication is due to the system that reproduces itself by producing units of this kind through a network of units of this kind” (Luhmann 1996: 261). The system cannot operate in the environment. At the same time. and thus as the domain from which followup selections or further choices are made. since meaning does not exist in the environment. As we know.” says Luhmann. then the reader has been offered a bumpy ride. the reader is then abruptly told that basal self-reference is “the condition that characterizes the autopoiesis of the system. with an emphasis on “the meaning of communication” and “meaning in the consciousness” and “in the communication. defining social systems on the basis of individuals always raises the problem of what is meant by this concept of an individual – its body? Its consciousness? But to describe or even explain how the law. At the end of §9. 10. Her current research on Luhmann’s theory focuses on the constitution of meaning and moralized communications. utterance is self-reference and understanding requires distinguishing the two internally. « 10 »  Self-reference not being introduced along those lines in §8. however. starting with the idea of a set of individuals seems to be challenging. The unity of the three selections is co-created inside the system. He clearly states in this paper. She is a member of Research Committee 51 on Sociocybernetics of the International Sociological Association. In both cases. Italy • giancarlo. reflexivity (the self is a process) and reflection (the self is a system). and also to all that can condition them.” « 11 »  Table 1 is an attempt to fill in the blanks and to show how concepts taken from the section under scrutiny.corsi/at/unimore.” there is no mention that information is hetero-reference. defining social systems as systems recursively reproducing their own elements through their own elements re-opened the old question of what the elements of social systems are.” (Luhmann 1987: 177) « 14 »  If the intended purpose of §§6–14 was to start with the notion of self-reference and to move from there into a closer examination of the autopoiesis of social systems. families or formal organizations work. “The world is not reduced to only what is actually being attended to each time a selection is made.” we are not told the whole story. « 12 »  When the authors write in §14 that “communication emerges as the unit of information and utterance. it neutralizes and sometimes negates the possibilities that are not actualized in that selection. « 2 »  First of all. quoted by the authors: §50) involving two disciplines very distant from each other: biology and sociology. connections (§13) and communication (§10) fit with Luhmann’s statement that “basal self-reference is a constitutive requirement” for autopoiesis (Luhmann 1995: 443). This concept is important not so much because it “explains” something that has remained unclear so far. §9 has been inserted in between. The gap observed here goes deeper than a choice of vocabulary between “unit” and “unity. that his intention is to relate the concept of communication to a self-referential domain.” Luhmann’s warnings about the fact that meaning is constituted and that there are no bits of meaning waiting to be picked up by a system in the environment do not seem to have been really heard. the concept of action has never been defined satisfactorily either. and the reader is hastily introduced to the three forms of self-reference: basal self-reference (the self is an element). such as the idea of unintended consequences of action (Merton 1936) or evolutionary theory. Canada. Luhmann explains that self-reference “includes the capacity to determine itself internally through a combination of ‘self-identity’ and ‘self-diversity’ and at the same time to leave room for external co-determination” (Luhmann 1995: 290). nothing of what is social can be explained in terms of someone’s intention or will. as pointed out a bit late in §9. as the horizon of further possibilities. and does not exist anywhere else. « 1 »  The concept of autopoiesis is indeed a successful case of abstraction. Meaningful internal references as well as external ones are constituted inside the system. Diane Laflamme teaches ethics at Université du Québec à Montréal. But it does not eliminate them as possibilities. What we read in Luhmann is rather that information and utterance “are forced into unity” (Luhmann 1990: 12) and that communication requires the production of an Constructivist Foundations > Upshot • I discuss two aspects of Ca- denas & Arnold’s target article. recursive networks (§12). To make things more difficult. . “It still remains as the horizon of references. Action refers to the actor and to its intentions. generalization and respecification (in the sense of Stichweh 1987: 447. but rather because it obliges the social sciences to rethink their tradition and to exclude many of the concepts that are still taken for granted today. The first concerns some clarifications of the sociological importance of the concept of autopoiesis and the second the criticisms of this concept and its applications in the social sciences. Received: 6 February 2015 Accepted: 9 February 2015 The Concept of Autopoiesis: Its Relevance and Consequences for Sociology Giancarlo Corsi University of Modena-Reggio Emilia. Therefore additional concepts became necessary. two paragraphs before the sentence quoted here. such as basal self-reference (§9). To study the workings of meaningbased autopoietic processes may not be an easier path. When a meaning-constituting system makes one selection. the word “meaning” is repeated six times. there have always been problems. On the other hand. traditionally there have been two answers two answers: individuals or actions – social actions. When the reader is told in §10 that communications “involve three selections. N°2 emergent unity” (Luhmann 1993: 774). Something is missing. On the one hand.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 194 erences by means of internal operations in search of connectivity. but it is worth undertaking since it could very well be the condition of possibility for interdisciplinarity. it is more difficult for the reader to realize that Luhmann makes use of the very same conceptual apparatus when describing the self-referential operation of communication in a social system. « 13 »  In the last paragraph (§14) of the section under scrutiny. and the distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference (or other-reference) has to remain a system-internal difference.

although without saying whether he considers them to be elements of the system. « 7 »  Although I generally agree with the arguments of the authors. If the different types of autopoiesis are not clearly distinguished. could be something different from communication remains unexplained. companies. as one of the texts cited by the authors in §52 shows: Eldridge (2002) speaks actually of behavior rather than of communication as objects of his analysis. while autopoiesis takes place or not. divination. stock markets. diffuse corruption and economic and political pressures) that the system cannot control at all. etc.” Teubner 1988: 222). constitutions. on its ability to build structures and to be irritated by the environment it is dealing with: “The condition of connectivity [Anschlussfähigkeit] does not suffice in order to produce the next state” (Luhmann 2002b: 117f. medieval guilds. however. quoted in Luhmann 2002b: 116). then it is autopoietic. But how this happens cannot be explained by the concept of autopoiesis. But it is not clear what this means. But in what sense an organized “behaviour. But neither can he act as a Lebenswelt because for most of his readers he is only a sociologist or a philosopher. ancient judicial procedures. mass media. tackles both problems. Should we assume that society is made up of social systems. see Teubner 1988). Luhmann defines communication as understanding the difference between information and utterance (§10): communication then takes place only if and when it is understood and this means that its consequences depend on who understands and not on the intentions of the participants. It indicates the mere fact that each operation is followed by another operation. Modern society’s structures are the law (courts. even consciousness is an autopoietic system: Luhmann 1985a) and vice versa. autopoiesis as an either/ or-concept is the condition of existence of a system. http://www. although with questionable interpretations of this concept. Gunther Teubner refers to autopoiesis as a “gradualized concept” (Teubner 1988: 222 and 1989: 38) and distinguishes between autonomy and circularity: while circularity exists or does not exist (“there is no such thing as half circularity. structures may vary considerably depending on the evolution of the (living or social) system. Above all. the question arises of where one places oneself.” aiming to make judicial decisions. in any case refusing to consider institutions such as a court as “an abstract system of communication” (Eldridge 2002: 302). On which side of his distinction should Habermas be placed? He certainly cannot be a social system. the economy (banks. if one distinguishes between social systems and “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). norms. in a completely different context.1 If we define as autopoietic a system able to reproduce its own operations through its own operations. as well as in the various social forms of the past (tribes. For example.). Autopoiesis is not a “creatio ex nihilo. not to structures. etc. etc. Legal studies (sociology and theory of law) especially have discussed “autopoietic law” in depth (among the many publications. I want to add that the problem is always the observer’s position.cadenas 195 . poses a clear distinction between different types of systems: an organic system cannot connect its operations with social or psychological operations (in fact. see also Febbrajo & Harste 2013). « 8 »  Finally. In other words. does not always agree with this point. This implies that autopoiesis refers only to operations. There is no middle way: a system cannot be “a little” autopoietic. the problem is if and how a distinction re-enters into itself. This can be observed in the diversity of life forms. other conditions are needed. etc. depending on inputs from other systems. For « 4 »  The literature. In this sense. see Neves 1992 and 2001). « 5 »  Luhmann’s objection to the concept of gradual autopoiesis is rather abstract and sophisticated (Luhmann 2002b: 116f).” Therefore. For example. « 6 »  The possibility to connect operations with further operations depends on the relationship of the system to its environment. just as a women cannot be a little pregnant (Maturana’s example. Luhmann distinguishes between autopoi- esis and causal relationships.). I think it shows an interesting feature: a system is either autopoietic or not. Is the distinction between a lifeworld and a social system drawn by the lifeworld or by the social system? Or does the distinction between “real reality” and interpretation belong to the reality or to interpretations? I think that in neither case can the questions be answered without ending up in an absurd situation. in fact we have not yet said anything about its structures. which can be described by concepts such as structural coupling (Luhmann 2002b: 118–141.) and of the present (functional differentiation as a primary societal and observing the evolution of a differentiated system means also observing its becoming more and more autonomous. for applications of structural coupling to the observation of law as a social system. I agree with the authors regarding the philosophical and ideological criticism of the concept of autopoiesis when they quote Danilo Zolo and Jürgen Habermas (§§40–46). Autopoiesis does not indicate certain causes that allow the reproduction of a system’s operations. otherwise his theory collapses. I think it deserves to be elaborated. doubts arise when they write: “The social and the biological concepts of autopoiesis appear then as two facets of the same operational phenomenon” (§51) and take this suggestion as a point of departure for interdisciplinary research (§51f). autonomy could be seen as a “gradualized” concept. formal organizations. as Habermas does. an author of books. « 3 »  If we take the concept of autopoiesis to the extreme. a certain confusion can arise.Theory of Autopoiesis The Concept of Autopoiesis Giancarlo Corsi Luhmann’s solution. To this. Or. one may have doubts that a system can really be or remain autopoietic if society imposes local conditions (such as family relationships. Still. lifeworlds and Habermas? The same problem arises in the discussion on “the new realism” against constructivism (Ferraris 2014): how can an observer distinguish between reality and construction or interpretation without being God? In the highly sophisticated language of George Spencer Brown (1969). my translation).). individual careers and so on. this implies that communication is an exclusively social operation. The concept of autopoiesis presup1 |  By structures I mean everything that allows the system to operate. some scholars speak of allopoiesis of law in certain territories (for the case of Brazil.univie. conscious and social systems: if there is a system. considering communication as the basic operation of social systems (Luhmann 1992). at least for living.

he espouses a defensive position similar to that of Maturana. « 10 »  Observing the state of the art in social systems research.” « 4 »  Maturana’s arguments about the social are a good example of this. In this sense. In Urrestarazu’s perspective. albeit from a slightly different angle. we nevertheless believe that it is fruitful to respond to the doubts Maturana has regarding our understanding of his ideas. §35). « 8 »  Although Urrestarazu agrees with our proposal of a “common language” for systems research (§20). sociology take them into account only to a limited extent. the proponents of this concept and their followers frown upon the application of autopoiesis beyond their self-imposed biological boundaries. including sociology. After all. emotions and doings […] of mutual care. as opposed to structural functionalism. This is the keystone of every theoretical development. one could argue in favor of certain “ethical” imperatives for life in a good society – similarly to the “discourse ethics” of Jürgen Habermas (1987) – but based on these principles.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis « 9 »  There is no doubt that one of the most important theoretical problems of all scientific disciplines. i. . On the contrary. Urrestarazu would be right.e. unfortunately. we discuss the main criticisms of our arguments. constructivism and cognitive sciences. Constructivist Foundations vol. we can resume this useful debate for the development of systems theory and constructivist thought. is the position of the observers and therefore the quality of the distinction they make (Kauffman 2014). His research interests are in sociological systems theory. honesty. Maturana and Uribe (1974) (§8. equity and ethics” (§9. emphasis in the original). we would like to emphasize that we do not believe that our reading of his ideas is profoundly misleading. His commentary on our criticism is yet another symptom of this. Even though Maturana presents mainly a reaffirmation of his own position rather than direct discussion of our article. This is largely due to the fact that scientific research – especially systems research – grows in a heterodox way. as fascinating these developments are. §9. Thanks to their contributions. Based on Maturana’s definition. « 6 »  Although Maturana is a biologist and professedly explains the social phenomenon from the biological perspective. Maturana and Uribe (1974) either. forthcoming) and Reform und Innovation in einer unstabilen Gesellschaft (edited with Elena Esposito. He writes that social relations are exclusively “the inner feelings. his canonical reading of the instructions of the creators of the concept is the only legitimate way to read them. he emphasizes the inconvenience of adopting the concept of autopoiesis by social systems theory. sociology of law and politics. But we have to admit that. « 7 »  In contrast to Maturana’s text focusing on the defense of his concept of the “social. 2005). In his text. whom we consider one of the greatest contemporary contributors to the development of systems theory. « 5 »  It does not require any training in sociology to be aware that Maturana’s concept of the social is too narrow. Among his publications are Constitutions and Paradoxical Perspectives (edited with Alberto Febbrajo. and leave things as they are. 196 Giancarlo Corsi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Modena-Reggio Emilia (Italy). Its original concept of social system is based on Talcott Parsons’s ideas but was transformed by means of an equivalence functionalism. Secondly.. It is there where. §35) because it disregards important aspects of the original theoretical proposal of Varela. and the use that we defend would neither be “justified” (§35) nor “theoretically adequate” (§35) since it does not follow the definition of Varela.” « 11 »  From its beginnings. and Maturana’s commentary serves well to reinforce our claims with regard to his concept of the “social. Maturana not only restates his original arguments about the social phenomenon but also introduces new ideas and concepts resulting from his recent work with Ximena Dávila. Niklas Luhmann’s theory was such an unorthodox exercise in conceptual construction. would any unauthorized use of a concept appear as “unjustified” or “theoretically inadequate. « 9 »  One might well abandon any attempts to discuss the notion of autopoiesis of social systems. N°2 Defending the biological theory of autopoiesis « 3 »  We would like to start with the commentary of Humberto Maturana. we have read the commentaries on our article and we are grateful to all the commentators for their perusal of our target article. Only if an orthodox stance was adopted. it is impossible to establish a theory of society with a sufficient level of generality. precisely because of the lack of dialogue with social sciences. Introduction « 1 »  With very much pleasure. he tries to discuss basic concepts of social sciences. « 2 »  In this response we address their criticisms that we consider relevant for the debate and discuss their main points as well as additional issues to clarify our position and to amend our arguments. He points out that our article misses its target since the extension of the concept of autopoiesis to social systems is not justified (§24. Maturana considers all other “human relations” as non-social. If one wishes to reduce the task of understanding the social phenomenon by focusing only on such a “communitarian” conception of the social – as he clearly does in §13 – one would have to leave out many of the current and past topics of the social sciences. 10. His main criticism is that our article “does not represent what I have said in my writings” (§1). we address the comments and observations on some parts of our article. Received: 6 February 2015 Accepted: 9 February 2015 Authors’ Response On the Criticisms against the Autopoiesis of Social Systems Hugo Cadenas & Marcelo Arnold > Upshot • Firstly. one can see an entire field of studies dedicated to the autopoiesis of social systems that takes little notice of the restrictions imposed by Maturana and his followers. Maturana’s ideas do not represent significant progress. collaboration. We conclude with some reflections about the perspectives of the discussion on the autopoiesis concept.” Hugo Urrestarazu aims at a more specific defense of the biological concept of autopoiesis.

We understand that this is his main criticism. and the system itself provides the means for this continuity. most of which we think we have already answered in our target article. as an operation of observation. eliminating any reference to the concept of autopoiesis in the writings of Luhmann would not result in any significant loss. 2013a-or-b). « 15 »  As for the second question. as Hejl does. and overcomes thus its own difficulties. It is better not to have a consensus because a consensus would perhaps have less informative value. The system constantly renews through its own operations what it uses as a unit. i. any expression of autopoiesis implies a social component.e. applying the concept of autopoiesis to social systems can be very useful. any communication system can be autopoietic. better yet.Theory of Autopoiesis Authors’ Response Hugo Cadenas& Marcelo Arnold Luhmann’s concept of meaning was inspired by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology but understood in the context of the theory of society. This means that communication. « 12 »  Robert King’s criticism is very straightforward and full of questions. John Stewart argues in favor of an analysis of the political use the autopoiesis concept. Nevertheless. « 17 »  Based on this claim we can continue as follows. but not all autopoietic systems have to be alive” (§7).ac. to a limited set of sounds. religion. as well as the work of others systems theorists in social sciences. it is not the only one. it has been possible to apply a number of concepts coined in these interdisciplinary fields to diverse disciplines. If one accepts. thanks to symbolically generalized communication media. he rightfully claims that the concept of “distinction” requires further deepening. law. His theory of sociocultural evolution follows the ideas of Charles Darwin and Donald Campbell but is embedded in George Spencer Brown’s theory of differentiation. « 13 »  The answer to the first question is simple: It is not needed. is in need of distinguishing and indicating. We are not required to cooperate for a better society or even have the same understanding. it becomes possible to accept highly improbable offers. The question we believe deserves most attention is: “Why do the authors require an autopoietic theory of social systems to unify systems theory?” (§7. etc. Further aspects « 21 »  Milan Zeleny defends the application of the concept of “social autopoiesis. Firstly. as Hejl points out. such as Talcott Parsons. emphasis in original). « 20 »  The last criticism we address here can be answered briefly. Thanks to the developments of general systems theory and cybernetics. science. again. All this shows that Luhmann’s theoretical construction did not stop at the possible objection of any of the original authors or their followers. « 22 »  Peter Hejl’s commentary points at some unclear issues in our target article. However. So while the path suggested by Urrestarazu is certainly a possible alternative. we fail to understand the background of his criticism. We have already addressed this matter in the target article (especially in §§40–46). Thoughts. the conceptual clarification requested by King was already given in the target article – especially in §§10–14 – but this may not have been specific enough. For Zeleny. Only by means of communication can more communication occur. « 18 »  The autopoiesis of social systems reflects this constant renewal of elements of a system in the operations of the system itself. this does not oblige scientific communication to adopt each of these perspectives or. communication can cross geographical boundaries (Luhmann 2012. we do not see why this communication concept would imply a “transmission” (§6). Similarly. The conviction that seems to move Stewart is the political nature of scientific activity. that cooperation is indispensable for social http://www. to qualify some of them as more relevant. and thanks to mass media. However. So let us elaborate on this a little further. When we refer to this concept. and many of his ideas can be well understood without any reference to autopoiesis. are examples of this. is among the earlier proponents of an extension of the autopoiesis to social phenomena. « 23 »  The second relevant point Hejl makes has to do with the concept of “cooperation” (§§9f). as was Stafford Beer. After all. In social systems operating in the medium meaning.cadenas 197 . Political communication can relate to the world. Luhmann’s work. the interests of which – according to Norbert Wiener (1948) – include systems from machines up to living beings – a formulation later adopted by Maturana & Varela (1980).. Luhmann introduced this concept at the end of his theoretical work.univie. such elimination does not seem to be the solution. However. emotions and environmental states only have meaning in the system when they adopt a communicable form. we are concerned by his idea of excluding social systems such as prisons from the scope of autopoiesis. we follow the nomenclature and explanations of Luhmann. A communicative event can only have connection capacity if a system is capable of operating based on these events and ensure their own continuity (Luhmann 1986). A communication system only needs communication. since the system needs only the continuity of communication. Thanks to language. « 16 »  In many social fields such as the closed communication system of the world economy and scientific communication. Autopoiesis requires that the elements of the system have to be produced by the system itself. “all living systems must be autopoietic. it could be argued that the concept of autopoiesis seems to describe properly the functioning of any communication system. From our perspective. Gregory Bateson and Walter Buckey. this implies a constant renewal of events that disappear as soon as they appear. He arrived at a broader understanding of the concept on the basis of computer While we agree with his claim. Furthermore. In general. A communication system can continue without coming to a consensus or a unification of criteria. whether authoritarian or not. it is possible to create an infinite world of understandable meaning. « 19 »  The fact there are critical voices in response to our target article is a clear example of the autopoiesis of scientific communication. as well as to economy. while it is not necessary to include the concept of autopoiesis in the broad conceptual reservoir of systems theory. He also criticizes the lack of a “conceptual” clarification (§5) of the reasons for adopting the concept of autopoiesis. « 14 »  Systems theory has proven fruitful for the consolidation of a common language for social science. it is fruitful for the development of systems theory itself. So Zeleny would need to present more arguments in support of his thesis. Here.” Zeleny.

The autopoiesis of biological systems and that of social systems are not “two-sided” phenomena. Felix Alcan Editeur.) (1980) Autopoiesis. Soziale Systeme 3(2): 219–235. apes. (2013) Imágenes de la complejidad: La sociopoiesis de la economía moderna [Images of complexity: The sociopoiesis of the modern economy]. residual problems. Our position is certainly sociological but it can be amended by other developments inspired by systems theory and constructivism in order to contribute to an interdisciplinary debate. Corsi critically remarks. & Ossandón J. & Varela F. Cahier Nr. Dordrecht: 63–72. (eds. (2009) Was ist den Menschen gemeinsam? Über Kultur und Kulturen [What have humans in common? On culture and cultures]. of the original authors of the concept. Revista Mad 29: i–xiii. Frankfurt am Main. Paris: 7–139. Bielefeld. Suhrkamp. However. Laflamme’s excellent explanation on this subject is of great help for a better understanding of the text. de Berg H. We agree that a “minimum” concept of cooperation could be of substantial help. what happens if they do not cooperate and still communicate? « 24 »  With regard to Diane Laflamme’s commentary. and humans. [English . (1997) Religion. K. of course.) (1988) Machiavellian intelligence. communication. However. E. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. R. §18). that our wording is confusing when we write “The social and the biological concepts of autopoiesis appear then as two facets of the same operational phenomenon” (§51) because the expression seems to indicate that this is the same operation viewed from two different perspectives.” In: Maturana H. it is mainly in the context of family structures opposing other families. (2001) Luhmanns systems theory and its applications in literary studies: A bibliography. as is the table she provides that allows very detailed analysis of the concepts we use. The theory of autopoietic systems in the social sciences. M. Beyer P. W. Interviews with Wolfgang Schluchter and Dirk Käsler]. Campus. & Köck W. von (1950) An outline of general system theory.R. Received 25 February 2015 Accepted: 3 March 2015 Buckley W. So it is not surprising that the defense of the biological concept of autopoiesis comes mainly from Maturana and his followers. (2008) Max Weber: La disputada herencia de un clásico de la sociología. (eds. In §7. we cannot help but agree with it. Baecker D. (eds.E. for example when explaining the behavior of partners who communicate their understanding. Durkheim E. (2000) Autopoiesis and life.” In: Farías I. Hejl P. A.) Observando sistemas: Nuevas apropiaciones y usos de la teoría de Niklas Luhmann. Second edition. de Marinis P. Autopoiesis and cognition:. for the most part. who have taken the time to peruse our article. but rather two operations in different domains. we must say. Araos C. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1(2): 134–165. Byrne R. which – as Laflamme points out (§4) – is used in many diverse occasions. New York: McGraw-Hill. Clarendon Press. such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas. one should be at least prepared to accept the possibility of conflict as well. Boden M. Reis 121: 169–204. & Whiten A. showed that whenever cooperation between primitive societies exists. Giancarlo Corsi’s article supports our claim of using the autopoiesis concept in a broader context. only Maturana seems to hold a firm opposition to the application of autopoiesis in social sciences.-P. 7. N°2 ing the criticisms of the autopoiesis of social systems.A. Transcript Verlag. Paris. Entrevistas a Wolfgang Schluchter y Dirk Käsler [Max Weber: The disputed legacy of a classical sociologist. 10. Many anthropologists in the twentieth century. École Polytechnique. RIL Editores.Sociological Concepts in the Theory of Autopoiesis 198 life. Bertalanffy L. Oxford. (1991) Human universals. Englewood Cliffs NJ. (1980) Preface to “autopoiesis. « 25 »  Finally. (2006) The musical work as a point of view. Beer S. Cognitive Science Quarterly 1: 117–145.. Prentice-Hall. we provided arguments in favor of its application beyond biology. Frankfurt am Main. though. (1985) L’essor de la première cybernétique (1943–1953) Histoires de cybernétique. so we are pleased to have contributed to it. (1967) Sociology and modern systems theory. Dupuy J. does not constitute the final word in the controversies initiated here. Arnold M. Baecker D. It was not a deliberate omission. This is as much social as cooperation. and functional differentiation: An ambiguous relationship. Our response to their criticism der Wirtschaft [What do banks trade in? A study on risk management in the economy]. C. Benseler F. Systemic analysis of “contemporary music. (1985) The mission of Quebec ultramontanism: A Luhmannian perspective. « 28 »  For those who do not feel restricted by the canonical use of the concept. & Cadenas H. but our arguments pointed to other directions. Santiago de Chile: 119–148. Sociological Analysis 46(1): 37–48. Brown D. (2006) Wirtschaftssoziologie [Economic sociology]. Our article does not delve into the concept of “meaning” of social systems theory. (1893) De la division du travail social. Beyer P. « 27 »  As Zeleny noted (§15. (2008) Womit handeln Banken? Eine Untersuchung zur Risikoverarbeitung in Constructivist Foundations vol. The autopoiesis of social systems will certainly continue to be much discussed. J. so we do not have to delve into the concept of meaning but can instead focus on discuss- Combined References Antweiler C. Darmstadt. European Journal of English Studies 5(3): 385–436. Social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys.. and society. many questions remain unanswered when one appeals to the argument of cooperation. This was not our intention. Originally published in 2007. Reidel. Conclusion « 26 »  We are grateful to have shared our thoughts with such a great group of scholars.

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