Mingers, J. (1995) Self-Reproducing Systems. New York: Plenum Press.
In recent years Maturana's and Varela's concept of autopoiesis, originally a biological concept, has made a remarkable impact not just on a single area, but across widely differing disciplines such as sociology, policy science, psychotherapy, cognitive science, and law. Put very briefly, the term autopoiesis connotes the idea that certain types of systems exist in a particular manner--they are self-producing systems. In their operations they continuously produce their own constituents, their own components, which then participate in these same production processes. Such an autopoietic system has a circular organization, which closes in on itself, its outputs becoming its own inputs. This gives it an important degree of independence or autonomy from its environment since its own operations ensure, within limits, its future continuation. Maturana and Varela contend that all living systems are autopoietic and that autopoiesis explains their particular characteristics.
It is interesting, however, that autopoiesis has had more impact elsewhere than in its own original domains--biology and neurophysiology--where interest is only just beginning. It is fascinating that a single concept can be so stimulating in such diverse fields. However, this also poses a problem: disciplines tend to be self-referring and insulated from one another, so the appropriation of autopoiesis in different domains has often been strikingly different. It has also sometimes been based on very partial, if not unsound, readings of the original ideas. So far, there has been no single work that presents both the ideas in themselves and their applications across the spectrum of subjects. That is the intention of this book.
The book should be seen not as a summation and evaluation of autopoiesis--it is much too early for that. Rather, it is intended as an opening-up of autopoiesis, as a facilitation of even more productive and well-founded work. Autopoiesis requires opening-up in a number of ways:
The original language of autopoiesis is opaque and convoluted and in a sense closed. It is hard to penetrate without much effort. I therefore try to re-export the ideas in more transparent language.
The theoretical work is also closed in that it makes almost no contact or reference with other bodies of ideas. Maturana, especially, may claim that it is radically new, but on examination it is considering some of the age-old questions. I therefore try whenever possible to point out possible connections and resonances with other areas.
The work has been taken up in many different disciplines, but each has its own interpretations, its own concerns, and its own applications. I think it is useful to bring each of these to the attention of those working in the others.
The book is, therefore, largely expository rather than evaluative or critical. However, I have adopted a more critical stance in certain sections, such as those on philosophy and social theory, and I have indicated areas of debate in the final chapter.
The book is intended for a transdisciplinary audience, an audience either of people who are interested in autopoiesis but have found it unrewardingly difficult to get into or of those who may consider themselves very knowledgeable about autopoiesis in their own disciplines but are interested in finding out about other areas of application. My primary intention has always been to be as clear as possible about the underlying ideas and to explicate the rather bare, neologistic language. I have, however, used the original terminology because it is, once understood, very precise, and to provide a gateway into the original texts, which I would strongly recommend. I have tried to keep the chapters on particular disciplines fairly self-contained, but, clearly, I have not repeated the background ideas each time, and an initial study of the early chapters is important. I have also tried to be as thorough as I can in detailing the wide range of references to autopoiesis, regarding this as a resource for the reader. This does mean that the most recent works, which appeared during the writing of the book, have been mentioned but not fully assimilated. There is a brief guide to the primary literature in the bibliography.