The condition of a system able to regenerate itself by self-reproduction of its own elements and of the network of their characteristic interactions.
This notion has been introduced by H. MATURANA, who writes: "… there are systems that are defined as unities as networks of production of components that 1) recursively, through their interactions, generate and realize the network that produces them; and 2) constitute, in the space in which they exist, the boundaries of this network as components that participate in the realization of the network" (1981, p.21).
The main characteristic of autopoietic systems is organizational closure.
Autopoiesis has very important bearings on the theories of perception and of cognition. As stated by W.R. WINBURN: "The perspective of autopoiesis, in which organisms are described "from the inside out", proposes a basic shift in the observer-object relationship behind traditional scientific observation. Living systems are explained only by reference to features within the possible domain of interactions specified by their organization" (1991, p.565).
One wonders however what WINBURN really means when he writes: "But autopoiesis defines biological autonomy in terms of self referential organization of living systems. From this vantage point, organisms are necessarily input-less and closed" (Ibid). This seems to be unfortunate semantics (more than once to be found in autopoietic literature): any living system depends on inputs, a lot of them. That these inputs be assimilated by organisms in a way non-contradictory to their internal self referential organization is a different point related to that kind of systemic stabilized identity obtained through autopoiesis.
R. ROSEN's formulation seems better: "… a non-empty environment can only affect autonomous system behavior, never its autonomous dynamics or identity" (1993, p.27). Even so, any system can be destroyed by its environment.
From another viewpoint, autopoiesis seems to be constructed in a hierarchical way. Biological and even possibly biochemical autopoiesis in individuals and species alike, must have preceeded physiological, psychological, mental and social autopoiesis. Each of these successive levels is a kind of stepping-stone for the next emergent more complex one. This could be the connection between higher level order, emergence by dissipative structuration and, most importantly, nucleation from one side, and successive levels of organizational closure, from the other.
F. CAPRA gives the following wide embracing significance of autopoiesis:"… the pattern of life (that is the pattern of organization of living systems, dissipative structure, as defined by Prigogine, as the structure of living systems; and cognition as defined initially by G. BATESON (1904-1980) and more fully by MATURANA and VARELA (1946-2001), as the process of life (1977, p. 160)
→ Autogenesis; Epigenesis; Equipotentiality; Santiago theory; Zero-system