The Autopoietic Turn

Maturana and Varela (Maturana, H. R. and Varela, F. J., 31 augustus 1991) asked the fundamental question: what distinguishes the living from the non-living? The answer is, as already discussed, a living system reproduces itself using its own elements. An autopoietic system is operatively closed, that is, no operation form the outside enter the system, and the other way round. This does not mean that living systems operate solely on their own. They have contact with their environment to exchange, for instance, energy, matter and ideas. Thus, a living system is said to be operationally closed (i.e., operating autonomously) and structurally open (i.e., vitalized by its environment). Because of the operationally closeness, Maturana and Varela argue that living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. Living and cognition are equated in this view, and therefore, cognition is a self-referential, autonomous process.

A living system continuously adapts itself to changing circumstances in the environment in order to sustain. However, a living system is also dependent on and interacts with its environment, which is populated with all kind of systems including other living systems. These interactions with systems in the environment are irritations (perturbations) that might trigger a system, but ultimately, the system decides what to do, and that includes ignoring the trigger altogether.

Luhmann took this concept of living systems and cognition and extended it to a general, trans-disciplinary theory of autopoietic systems to include Maturana’s and Varela’s narrower, biological interpretation of living systems. Autopoietic systems are classified according to the type hierarchy shown below.

Figure: Autopoietic systems.

Living systems reproduce themselves using their own biological elements. According to Luhmann, other type of systems can be found that reproduce on the basis of different elements. Psychic systems have conscious and their reproducing element is thought, i.e., one thought leads to another. Social systems do not reproduce themselves in a physical sense, instead social systems communicate. One communication is followed by another in a social system. And as long communications continue, the system is alive. Remarkably, and difficult to grasp and adopt initially, human beings are not part of a social system. This is not to say that social systems can exist without human beings, which is obviously not the case, but communication is the constituent element of a social system. Human beings are part of the social system’s environment in the form of psychic systems. Social systems and psychic systems operate autonomously, that is, they irritate each other. So, a thought in a psychic system might lead to a communication in a social system, and vice versa. This interaction between systems that are part of each other environment is called interpenetration. The systems overlap but they still operate autonomously on the basis of different autopoietic elements.

Statement: Humans and social systems operate autonomously and my react when irritated.

Statement page Aspect Statement
Exploring Change Reflexive Domain The constant factor in life is movement.
Self-Reference in a Three-Valued System Reflexive Domain Embrace the paradox, i.e., a difference in what was previously stated and therefore contradicting what was said before. Differences keep setting things in motion. Without differences we cease to exist. Therefore, change is inevitable, in fact, it is a necessity for living.
The Autopoietic Turn Reflexive Domain Humans and social systems operate autonomously and my react when irritated.

Luhmann’s notion of communication differs from more conventional ideas about communication as an asymmetrical process of sending information or meaning from a sender to a receiver. A communication is conceived as a symmetrical process comprised of three components: information, utterance and understanding.

  • Information – a selection from a set of possibilities of what is being communicated;
  • Utterance – a selection of the form and reason (the how and the why, respectively) from all forms and reasons;
  • Understanding – a selection of a particular distinction between information and utterance.

The receiver has to understand what is being conveyed with respect to how and why it is uttered in a particular way. For instance, the question “Are you coming?” can be interpreted indeed as a question but also as a command. After a communication has been understood, the process decides whether the communication is accepted or rejected and continues with a new communication, provided the social system still has a reason of being.

Social systems are functionally divided according to the role they play in society. Each social system carries a binary code. For instance, the binary code for a legal system is justice/injustice, and for an economic system the binary code is payment/non-payment. The systems are strictly divided, legal communications only take place in the legal system and likewise an economic system deals with economic communications only. A binary code of a system does not detail how a system operates. In the course of a system’s life, it develops a program, to behave according to the binary code, for instance, the particular ways we conduct business in an economic system. The binary code and its associated program reduce complexity in a social system by restricting the number of selections that can be made in communications.

Social systems thus conceived provides the theoretical framework to analyze subsystems in detail, including more specific social systems of type Society, Organization and Interaction (see figure above). However, this is beyond the scope of this writing.

Lees hiervoor: Social Theory of Luhmann
Lees hierna: The Observation Turn