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Autopoiesis or autopoiesis ( ancient Greek αὐτός autos , German “self” and ποιεῖν poiein “create, build”) is the process of self-creation and self- maintenance of a system .

In biology, the concept of autopoiesis represents an attempt to define the characteristic organizational feature of living beings or living systems with the means of systems theory . The term coined by the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana was broken up as a result of his publications and modified and made fruitful for various other areas of scientific creativity.

The concept of autopoiesis is a subset of the more generally applicable ontological concept of emergent self-organization.


The concept of autopoiesis characterizes living systems as the process; H. Specifically, the form of the organization that implements it instead of defining it by listing its individual properties, such as: B. Agility or irritability .

Autopoietic systems (e.g. humans and other mammals) are organized recursively , that is, the product of the functional interaction of their components is precisely the organization that produces the components. In this form, one can assume that the components of the particular organization of the regularity of the nervous systems due to the respective mechanistic characteristics of the self-organization play a major role. This special form of organization allows living and non-living systems to be distinguished: namely, “because they are the product of their organization, that is, there is no separation between producer and product. The being and doing of an autopoietic entity are inseparable, and this forms its specific type of organization ”. This is what Maturana and Francisco Varela concluded from their investigations into human color perception. According to these, the nervous system has no direct relation to the outside world, but rather creates its own image of the world around it through recursive operations.


To be an autopoietic system, a unit must meet the following characteristics:

  • It has recognizable limits.
  • It has constitutive elements and consists of components.
  • The relationships between the components determine the properties of the overall system.
  • The components that make up the boundary of unity do so as a result of the relations and interactions between them.
  • The components are produced by components of the unit itself or arise from the transformation of external elements by internal components.
  • All other components of the unit are also produced in this way or are elements that have been created elsewhere, but which are necessary for the production of components (operational cohesion).

With this last point, Maturana and Varela wanted to emphasize the fact that organisms absorb substances from the environment, but immediately convert them into usable building materials. On the other hand, substances which are of no importance for the organism's self-reproduction are, so to speak, ignored by the organism.


With the concept of a molecule-based autopoietic system, Maturana and Varela provide a strict definition of life for the first time . B. clearly delimits individual large molecules such as viruses or the previous artificially man-made machines as non-living beings. While biological cells are considered to be first-order autopoietic systems, multicellular organisms are considered metacellular and second-order autopoietic systems, which can themselves have an autopoietic character.

The concept of autopoiesis is an integral part of the biological theory of cognition , which Maturana and Varela formulated comprehensively in The Tree of Knowledge (Orig. El Árbol del Conocimiento , 1984). This says goodbye to a conception of the world as a collection of observer-independent objects to be recognized and interweaves the processes of autopoiesis and the sensorimotor relationships ( correlations ) of the mobile organism established by the nervous system into a constant act of creating a world in the ongoing process of life. Objects appear as continuously generated constants or regularities of the states of the nervous system of a human organism in its especially linguistic (social) actions in relation to its environment ( "operational closedness of the nervous system" ).

The actions (operations) that every autopoietic system carries out in its environment are understood as effective actions , provided that they allow the system to continue in its environment and thus continue to “produce its world there”. Maturana and Varela understand such systems as cognitive . Maturana rules out an absolute differentiation between reality and illusion on the basis of this cognitive concept, which is inextricably linked to the autopoiesis concept.

Autopoiesis and emergent self-organization

The concept of autopoiesis, according to Varela et al. the question of what are the necessary and sufficient properties of the systems that can be described as "living". The criteria of the autopoietic systems suggest that it is a subset of the systems of emergent self-organization in the area of ​​biological evolution. The first four criteria (see above: identifiable outer boundaries, composed of building blocks that have relationships with one another and also limit the system) are met by all systems that are generated by emergent processes. Two further criteria (see above), which describe the "recursive production", as it is called by Varela, of components indicate that the hierarchy of self-organized processes and systems is not consistently taken into account in the concept of autopoiesis, in contrast to the concept of emergent processes. Further characteristics of autopoietic systems are their spontaneous self-organization and their consumption of matter. The following also play a role in the concept of emergent processes: the consumption of energy, the non-linearity of the processes and the influence of the environment beyond the availability of the starting materials.

According to Varela: "... reproduction and evolution are not (remark: exclusive) features of the living organization ...". An example of this is the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction , an emergent chemical system that the o. G. Criteria of an autopoietic system are met but not alive. In the case of viruses , however, the demarcation is not so clear, they stand on the border between not-yet-living and living: Inside their host cell they are alive, outside there are "only" macromolecules, but with the self-organized ability to come to life. as soon as they meet the appropriate host cells.


Autopoiesis is a key term in the sociological systems theory of Niklas Luhmann , who transferred the term autopoiesis to the consideration of social systems . He refers to the work of Maturana and Varela as well as the broader discussion with Milan Zeleny. His central thesis is that social systems consist exclusively of communication (not of subjects , actors, individuals or the like) and operate in autopoiesis. This means that the systems are created out of themselves in a constant, non-targeted autocatalytic process. The systems therefore produce and reproduce themselves. On the other hand, a watch, although its parts work together, cannot be regarded as such a system, because its set of rules was made by a watchmaker. B. do not repair it yourself.

Luhmann observed that communication in social systems is analogous to the self-reproduction of living organisms. Similar to how these only absorb substances from the environment that are relevant for their self-reproduction, communication systems only perceive in their environment that which fits their "topic", which is " compatible " with the meaning of the previous communication . For Luhmann, “ sense ” is a mechanism for reducing complexity : in the infinitely complex environment, only a small part is filtered out according to certain criteria; the boundary of a social system thus marks a difference in complexity from outside to inside. Instead of an “autopoietic system” with a “border”, Luhmann occasionally also speaks of a “form” with an “inside” and an “outside”. In doing so, he also draws on the universal " calculation of form" of the logician George Spencer-Brown .

The basic autopoietic operation is always the same: the systems operate constantly, otherwise they would not exist. They operate in such a way that further operations can follow ("connectivity" of the system). This also applies to the mass media, which work as a continuation apparatus: They send, print and report in such a way that such operations must continue to follow and thus ensure their connectivity.

“This is how the mass media system works, assuming that your own communications will continue for the next hour or the next. Each shipment promises another shipment. It is never about representing the world as it is at the moment. "

- Luhmann : The Reality of the Mass Media, 2009

To ensure connectivity, all autopoietic systems control their operations in relation to the results. You have the ability of "reflexivity". This means that the systems have a kind of memory that stores “before” and “after” and knows how to differentiate.

“Autopoietic systems cannot obtain their structures as finished products from their environment. They have to build them up through their own operations and remember - or forget. "

- Luhmann : Sociological Enlightenment 6. The Sociology and Man, Wiesbaden 3. A. 2008, p. 13

The communication only apparently relates directly to the environment. In fact, it only relates to the inner mapping of the environment perceived by it according to its own laws, i.e. ultimately to itself. Luhmann regards this self-referentiality , also known as self-referentiality or autoreferentiality, as typical for all communication and analogous to the phenomenon of autopoiesis in the Biology. The terms self-referential system and autopoietic system are therefore interchangeable in most cases.

Since the transfer of the term autopoiesis to his theory in the early 1980s (also viewed as Luhmann's "autopoietic turn"), Luhmann no longer defines social systems as "open" (i.e. in direct exchange with the environment), but as "autopoietic closed" or "operationally closed". According to Luhmann, the perception of the environment through a system is therefore always selective. A system cannot change its specific way of perceiving the environment without losing its specific identity.

In the closeness and exclusive self-interest of the systems, Luhmann's systems theory differs fundamentally from Talcott Parsons ' structural-functionalist systems theory , according to which there are four systems in every society that are in intensive exchange with one another at all times, and one of their own make an important contribution to the integration and the continued existence of an overarching society (see AGIL scheme ).

“A social system comes into being whenever an autopoietic communication context arises and delimits itself from an environment by restricting suitable communication. Social systems therefore do not consist of people, nor of actions, but of communication. "

- Luhmann : Ecological Communication, 1986: 269

According to Luhmann, it is typical of every autopoietic system that it delimits itself from its environment using a two-valued (binary) code and thus maintains its identity in the process of self-reproduction. Luhmann suggests the following binary codes of some large social systems: Economy - pay / not pay; Politics - Power / Impotence; Morality - good / bad; Religion (to be distinguished from morality!) - immanence / transcendence ; and others.

Since these systems each work according to their own principles, Luhmann considers attempts to intervene or control one system in another to be fundamentally problematic: The economy, for example, can only be controlled to a very limited extent by politics; morality can only control politics to a limited extent, etc. According to Luhmann, the law of autopoiesis places narrow limits on efforts to shape social relationships in a rational , ethical and fair manner.

Journalism and literary studies

In journalism and in more recent media theory, autopoietization is a series of phenomena and observations that suggest an increasing self-referentiality of journalism: Due to the complexity of reality, journalism would never be able to observe and examine all environmental events and information . It therefore refers more and more to journalism itself, that is to say to endogenous sources, and less to the environment outside the media.

In literary studies , autopoiesis is used in the context of autobiography , in the sense of self-reflection within the game of memory and reality.

Autopoiesis is considered here in close connection with autofiction . The French contemporary writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) combined in his Nouveau Roman (or his Nouvelle Autobiography) the genres of novel and autobiography, which were previously considered incompatible. The result is a connection between autobiographical memory and romanesque "poésie du souvenir", a kind of inventive memory, i.e. auto-fiction. The entire work of the author, which includes novels, short stories and films, thus represents a unique form of memory work, which in its entirety presents itself as the author's self-construction. The author is constantly on the lookout for self-positioning in a world that is becoming more and more complicated and obscure. However, he only achieves his self-discovery for a short time, it cannot last and therefore always begins again at the starting point. This is how the principle of repetition arises. By constantly resuming his search, Robbe-Grillet succeeds with his oeuvre as a unity of person, author and work through diversity, through repetition and variation, through his recurring motifs, through reinterpretation of his own work and through ever new forms of Self construction. The author lets himself and his work emerge again and again from within, he practices autopoiesis.


In German criminal law doctrine, the concept of real corporate guilt is largely rejected. In the opposite direction, however, there are tendencies in the European Union, where the idea of ​​corporate criminal liability is gaining ground. According to Carlos Gómez-Jara Díez, the basis of a constructivist corporate guilt concept is the theory of autopoietic social systems.

Theater studies

In her Aesthetics of the Performative (2004), Erika Fischer-Lichte describes the performance as a feedback loop and specifies it “as a self-referential, autopoietic system with a principally open, unpredictable outcome that cannot actually be interrupted or specifically controlled by staging strategies” (p. 61 ). In this work, the concept of performance is placed at the center of the analysis. With the model of an autopoietic system that runs like a red thread through the aesthetics of the performative , Fischer-Lichte does not refer to Luhmann, but to the original form presented by Maturana and Varela in the publication Der Baum der Wissens (1984).

The following individual phenomena are distinguished:

See also


Cognitive biology


  • Niklas Luhmann (1984): Social Systems. Outline of a general theory . Suhrkamp , Frankfurt am Main ISBN 3-518-28266-2
  • Niklas Luhmann (1986): Ecological Communication. Can modern society adapt to ecological threats? VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften; Edition: 4th A. (January 2004), ISBN 3-531-51775-9
  • Klaus Bendel (1993): Self-reference, coordination and social control. On the theory of the autopoiesis of social systems in Niklas Luhmann , Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus ISBN 3-89085-804-X
  • Gábor Kiss (1990): Basics and development of Luhmann's system theory. Stuttgart: F. Enke ISBN 3-432-96092-1
  • Niklas Luhmann (2008): Sociological Enlightenment 6. The Sociology and the Human. Vs Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften; 3. Edition. ISBN 3-531-15847-3
  • Niklas Luhmann (2009): The Reality of the Mass Media. Vs Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften; 3. Edition. ISBN 3-531-16666-2
  • Margot Berghaus (2004): Luhmann made easy UTB Verlag; 2nd Edition. ISBN 3-8252-2360-4


  • Carlos Gómez-Jara Díez: Basics of the constructivist concept of corporate debt , in: ZStW 119 (2007), Issue 2, pp. 290 ff., ISSN  0084-5310
  • Gunther Teubner : Law as an autopoietic system . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1989, 2nd edition 1996, ISBN 3-518-57982-7


  • Werner Kirsch: Communicative action, autopoiesis, rationality . Verlag Barbara Kirsch, ISBN 3-88232-066-4
  • Schilling, Julia: Autopoietic Systems. For explanatory power for change processes in companies. GRIN, Munich 2018, ISBN 978-3-668-85149-8

Theater studies

  • Erika Fischer-Lichte : Aesthetics of the Performative . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 978-3-518-12373-7
  • Birgit Fritz: From revolution to auto-poise. On the trail of Augusto Boal into the 21st century. The theater of the oppressed in the context of peace work and an aesthetic of perception . Ibidem, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-8382-0553-3

Literary studies

  • Nathalie Groß: Autopoiesis. Theory and practice of autobiographical writing with Alain Robbe-Grillet , Berlin 2008. ISBN 978-3-503-09844-6


  • Hans Raimund Aurer: Education of Change: References and Levels of Sympoietischen Teaching and Learning , Berlin 2013. ISBN 978-3-8325-3351-9


  • Wallich, Matthias: Autopoiesis and Pistis: On the theological relevance of the dialogue theories of radical constructivism (Saarbrücker Hochschulschriften), Röhrig Universitätsverlag, 1999

Web links

Wiktionary: Autopoiesis  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Humberto R. Maturana , Francisco J. Varela : The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of knowledge. Goldmann, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 , p. 83ff, in particular p. 9.
  2. Humberto R. Maturana , Francisco J. Varela : The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of knowledge. Goldmann, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 , p. 56.
  3. Humberto R. Maturana , Francisco J. Varela : The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of knowledge. Goldmann, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 , p. 83ff, in particular p. 98.
  4. Humberto R. Maturana , Francisco J. Varela : The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of knowledge. Goldmann, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 , p. 31.
  5. Humberto R. Maturana , Francisco J. Varela : The tree of knowledge. The biological roots of knowledge. Goldmann, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-11460-8 , p. 36.
  6. a b c Francisco J. Varela, Humberto R. Maturana, and R. Uribe: Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. In: Biosystems. 5, 1974, pp. 187-196
  7. a b Günter Dedié: The power of natural laws - emergence and collective abilities from elementary particles to human society, 2nd edition, tredition 2015
  8. ^ Niklas Luhmann: Social Systems: Outline of a General Theory. Frankfurt 1984.
  9. Milan Zeleny, (Ed.): Autopoiesis: A Theory of the Living Organizations. New York 1981.
  10. C. Gómez-Jara Díez: Foundations of the constructivist concept of corporate debt. In: Journal for the entire criminal law science 119 (2), January 2007, DOI: 10.1515 / ZSTW.2007.012.