Autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo (auto) meaning ‘self’ + ποίησις (poiesis) meaning ‘creation/production’) is term used to describe a given system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. The term was coined in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to describe the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells. Since then the concept has been used in various scientific disciplines (e.g., cognitive psychology, neuroscience, complex systems theory, computer science, sociology, etc.) and also in various artworks.
The original definition can be found in “Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living” (1973):
“An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.” (p.78)
” … the space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system on the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection.” (p.89)
Norbert Wiener - Cybernetics (HTML5 eBook)
Maturana, H., & Varela, F.. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition : The Realization of the Living (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science). Living in Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol 42 D Reidel Dordrecht
“The author defends (what he refers to as) ‘intensional realism’ against sophisticated forms of instrumentalism, first, by elaborating a dispositional ontology for the physical world; second, by determining the necessary and sufficient conditions for the adequacy of scientific explanations; and third, by explicating the conception of scientific knowledge which is supported by this analysis. this work presents an alternative conceptual framework for understanding science which bears important affinites to the views of hacking, popper, and peirce.”
Maturana, H. R.. (2002). Autopoiesis, Structural Coupling and Cognition : A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition. Cybernetics & Human Knowing
“My intent in this essay is to reflect on the history of some biological notions such as autopoiesis, structural coupling, and cognition, that i have developed since the early 1960’s as a result of my work on visual perception and the organization of the living. no doubt i shall repeat things that i have said in other publications (maturana & varela, 1980, 1988), and i shall present notions that once they are said appear as obvious truisms. moreover, i shall refine or expand the meaning of such notions, or even modify them. yet, in any case, the reader is not invited to attend to the truisms, or to what seems to be obvious, rather he or she is invited to attend to the consequences that those notions entail for the understanding of cognition as a biological process. after all, explanations or demonstrations always become self evident once they are understood and accepted, and the purpose of this essay is the expansion of understanding in all dimensions of human existence.”
Beer, R. D.. (2004). Autopoiesis and Cognition in the Game of Life. Artificial Life, 10(3), 309–326.
“Life is defined by maturana and varela as a type of self-organization: autopoiesis in the physical space. this resembles the concept of me- tabolism, which itself is typically included in definitions of life. three senses of metabolism are distinguished. if life depends on either auto- poiesis or metabolism (in the third sense), then strong a-life is impos- sible. the theory of autopoiesis challenges concepts familiar in biology and cognitive science. while its use of informational language is too restrictive, its use of cognitive language is too liberal: life does not im- ply cognition.”
Luisi, P. L.. (2003). Autopoiesis: a review and a reappraisal.. Die Naturwissenschaften, 90(2), 49–59.
“The aim of the paper is to review critically the notion of autopoiesis as presented by maturana and varela. in particular, recognizing that there are difficulties in obtaining a complete and clear picture from the primary literature, an effort is made to present a coherent view-also based on many years of personal contact with francisco varela. the paper begins with a few historical notes to highlight the cultural background from which the notion of autopoiesis arose. the basic principles of autopoiesis as a theory of cellular life are then described, emphasizing also what autopoiesis is not: not an abstract theory, not a concept of artificial life, not a theory about the origin of life-but rather a pragmatic blueprint of life based on cellular life. it shown how this view leads to a conceptually clear definition of minimal life and to a logical link with related notions, such as self-organization, emergence, biological autonomy, auto-referentiality, and interactions with the environment. the perturbations brought about by the environment are seen as changes selected and triggered by the inner organization of the living. these selective coupling interactions impart meaning to the minimal life and are thus defined by maturana and varela with the arguable term of ‘cognition’. this particular view on the mutual interactions between living organism and environment leads these authors to the notion of ‘enaction’, and to the surprising view that autopoiesis and cognition are two complementary, and in a way equivalent, aspects of life. it is then shown how cognition, so defined, permits us to build a bridge between biology and cognitive science. autopoiesis also allows one to conceive chemical models of minimal cellular life that can be implemented experimentally. the corresponding work on ‘chemical autopoiesis’ is then reviewed. the surprising impact of autopoiesis in the social sciences (‘social autopoiesis’) is also briefly discussed. this review also comments on why the theory of autopoiesis had, and still has, a difficult time being accepted into the mainstream of life-science research. finally, it is pointed out that the new interest in system biology and complexity theories may lead to a reappraisal of autopoiesis and related notions, as outlined also by other authors, such as tibor ganti and stuart kauffmann.”
Second-order cybernetics references
Heylighen, F., & Joslyn, C.. (2004). Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics. In Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology
“Nd in the 19th century with ampre, who both saw it as the science of effective government. the concept was revived and elaborated by the mathematician norbert wiener in his seminal 1948 book, whose title defined it as ‘cybernetics, or the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine’. inspired by wartime and pre-war results in mechanical control systems such as servomechanisms and artillery targeting systems, and the contemporaneous development of a mathematical theory of communication (or 3 information) by claude shannon, wiener set out to develop a general theory of organizational and control relations in systems. information theory, control theory and control systems engineering have since developed into independent disciplines. what distinguishes cybernetics is its emphasis on control and communication not only in engineered, artificial systems, but also in evolved, natural systems such as organisms and societies, which set their own goals, rather than being c”
von Foerster, H., & von Foerster, H.. (2006). Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics. In Understanding Understanding
“Ladies and gentlemen! i am touched by the generosity of the organizers of this conference who not only invited me to come to your glorious city of paris, but also gave me the honor of opening the plenary sessions with my presentation. and i am impressed by the ingenuity of our organizers, who suggested to me the title of my presentation. they wanted me to address myself to ‘ethics and second-order cybernetics’. to be honest, i would never have dared to propose such an outrageous title, but i must say that i am delighted that this title was chosen for me. before i left california for paris others asked me, full of envy, ‘what am i going to do in paris? what will i talk about?’ when i answered ‘i shall talk about ethics and second-order cybernetics’ almost all of them looked at me in bewilderment and asked ‘what is second-order cybernetics?’ as if there were no questions about ethics.”
Scott, B.. (2004). Second-order cybernetics: an historical introduction. Kybernetes
“In 1974, heinz von foerster articulated the distinction between a first- and second-order cybernetics, as, respectively, the cybernetics of observed systems and the cybernetics of observing systems. von foerster’s distinction, together with his own work on the epistemology of the observer, has been enormously influential on the work of a later generation of cyberneticians. it has provided an architecture for the discipline of cybernetics, one that, in true cybernetic spirit, provides order where previously there was variety and disorder. it has provided a foundation for the research programme that is second-order cybernetics. however, as von foerster himself makes clear, the distinction he articulated was imminent right from the outset in the thinking of the early cyberneticians, before, even, the name of their discipline had been coined. in this paper, the author gives a brief account of the developments in cybernetics that lead to von foerster’s making his distinction. as is the way of such narratives, it is but one perspective on a complex series of events. not only is this account a personal perspective, it also includes some recollections of events that were observed and participated in at first hand.”
Glanville, R.. (2004). The purpose of second-order cybernetics. Kybernetes
“In this paper, the origins of second-order cybernetics are sketched, and are particularly identified with circularity: a quality that was at the basis of the studies that lead to the creation of the field of cybernetics. the implications of the new analysis that second-order cybernetics (cybernetics treated cybernetically: that is, cybernetics when circularity is taken seriously) gives rise to are considered in terms of the two qualities that wiener gave to cybernetics in his eponymous book – control and communication. finally, the analysis is applied to that other proto-cybernetic concept, purpose. it is shown that (and in consequence how) the notion of goal and purpose must be radically reconsidered in second-order cybernetic systems”
Froese, T.. (2010). From cybernetics to second-order cybernetics: A comparative analysis of their central ideas. Constructivist Foundations
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“Context • the enactive paradigm in the cognitive sciences is establishing itself as a strong and comprehensive alternative to the computationalist mainstream. however, its own particular historical roots have so far been largely ignored in the historical analyses of the cognitive sciences. > problem • in order to properly assess the enactive paradigm’s theoretical foundations in terms of their validity, novelty and potential future directions of development, it is essential for us to know more about the history of ideas that has led to the current state of affairs. > method • the meaning of the disappearance of the field of cybernetics and the rise of second-order cybernetics is analyzed by taking a closer look at the work of representative figures for each of the phases – rosenblueth, wiener and bigelow for the early wave of cybernetics, ashby for its culmination, and von foerster for the development of the second-order approach. > results • it is argued that the disintegration of cybernetics eventually resulted in two distinct scientific traditions, one going from symbolic ai to modern cognitive science on the one hand, and the other leading from second-order cybernetics to the current enactive paradigm. > implications • we can now understand that the extent to which the cognitive sciences have neglected their cybernetic parent is precisely the extent to which cybernetics had already carried the tendencies that would later find fuller expression in second-order cybernetics. [abstract from author]”
Garland, E. L.. (2007). The meaning of mindfulness: A second-order cybernetics of stress, metacognition, and coping. Complementary Health Practice Review
“Stress-related illness presents an ever-increasing burden to society, and thus has become the target of numerous complementary and integrative medicine interventions. one such clinical intervention, mindfulness meditation, has gained eminence for its demonstrated efficacy in reducing stress and improving health outcomes. despite its prominence, little is known about the mechanics through which it exerts its treatment effects. this article details the therapeutic mechanisms of mindfulness with a novel causal model of stress, metacognition, and coping. mindfulness is hypothesized to bolster coping processes by augmenting positive reappraisal, mitigating catastrophizing, and engendering self-transcendence. reviews of stress and mindfulness are then framed by the perspective of second-order cybernetics, a transdisciplinary conceptual framework which builds on extant theory by highlighting the recursion between the individual and their environment.”
Krippendorff, K.. (2007). The cybernetics of design and the design of cybernetics. Kybernetes
“In the spirit of second-order cybernetics, human communication is reconceptualized by including in the process not only its theorists but also their observed others without whom social reality is inconceivable. this essay examines several versions of otherness, how the voices of others survive social scientific inquiries, the dialogical spaces made available for people to build their home, and the kinds of citizenship encouraged. the essay draws attention to the epistemological limits of different inquiring practices and seeks to expand the range of possibilities for humans to see each other.”
Heylighen, F.. (2001). Cybernetics and second order cybernetics. In Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology
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“Cybernetics is the science that studies the abstract principles of organization in complex systems. it is concerned not so much with what systems consist of, but how they function. cybernetics focuses on how systems use information, models, and control actions to steer towards and maintain their goals, while counteracting various disturbances. being inherently transdisciplinary, cybernetic reasoning can be applied to understand, model and design systems of any kind: physical, technological, biological, ecological, psychological, social, or any combination of those. second-order cybernetics in particular studies the role of the (human) observer in the construction of models of systems and other observers.”
Bishop, J. M., & Nasuto, J. S.. (2005). Second-order cybernetics and enactive perception. Kybernetes
Sweeting, B.. (2016). Design research as a variety of second-order Cybernetic practice. Constructivist Foundations
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“Context: the relationship between design and science has shifted over recent decades. one bridge between the two is cybernetics, which offers perspectives on both in terms of their practice. from around 1980 onwards, drawing on ideas from cybernetics, glanville has suggested that rather than apply science to design, it makes more sense to understand science as a form of design activity, reversing the more usual hierarchy between the two. i return to review this argument here, in the context of recent discussions in this journal regarding second-order science (sos). problem: despite numerous connections to practice, second-order cybernetics (soc) has tended to be associated with theory. as a result, soc is perceived as separate to the more tangible aspects of earlier cybernetics in a way that obscures both the continuity between the two and also current opportunities for developing the field. method: i review glanville’s understanding of design, and particularly his account of scientific research as a designlike activity, placing this within the context of the shifting relation between science and design during the development of soc, with reference to the work of rittel and feyerabend. through this, i summarise significant parallels and overlaps between soc and the contemporary concerns of design research. results: i suggest that we can see design research not just as a field influenced by cybernetics but as a form of soc practice even where cybernetics is not explicitly referenced. implications: given this, design research offers much to cybernetics as an important example of soc that is both outward looking and practice based. as such, it bridges the gap between soc and the more tangible legacy of earlier cybernetics, while also suggesting connections to contemporary concerns in this journal with sos in terms of researching research. constructivist content: by suggesting that we see design research as an example of soc, i develop connections between constructivism and practice.”
Froese, T.. (2011). From second-order cybernetics to enactive cognitive science: Varela’s turn from epistemology to phenomenology. Systems Research and Behavioral Science
“Varela is well known in the systems sciences for his work on second-order cybernetics, biology of cognition and especially autopoietic theory. his concern during this period was to find an appropriate epistemological foundation for the self-reference inherent in life and mind. in his later years, varela began to develop the so-called ‘enactive’ approach to cognitive science, which sets itself apart from other sciences by promoting a careful consideration of concrete experiential insights. his final efforts were thus dedicated to finding a pragmatic phenomenological foundation for life and mind. it is argued that varela’s experiential turn—from epistemology to phenomenology—can be seen as a natural progression that builds on many ideas that were already implicit in second-order cybernetics and biology of cognition. it is also suggested that the rigorous study of conscious experience may enable us to refine our theories and systemic concepts of life, mind and sociality. copyright”
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