Brocklesby J. & Mingers J. (2002) Autopoiesis and the theory of viable systems. In: Ragsdell G., West D. & Wilby J. (eds.) Systems theory and practice in the knowledge age. Springer, Boston MA: 257–264. https://cepa.info/5714
This paper examines the application and usage of the idea of autopoiesis – a theory of living systems – within the context of viable systems theory. The paper is part of a broader consideration of how, at the social and organisational level, the relationship between these two sets of ideas about might be rethought and reconfigured to produce more comprehensive insight into the nature of the relationship between systems and the environments in which they are embedded (see, for example, Brocklesby, 2001).
This paper examines the application and usage of the idea of autopoiesis – a theory of living systems – within the context of viable systems theory. In recent years the term autopoiesis has extended beyond the domain of cellular biology where it originated and is now used extensively across a range of different disciplines, fields of enquiry, and professional practice. The paper seeks to provide clarification of a distinction between viable and autopoietic systems that appears to have become somewhat clouded as a result of the transfer of ideas and terminology from one domain to another.
Maturana and Varela have developed a theory to explain the particular character of living systems. Such systems, they claim, have an “autopoietic, ” or self-produc¬ing, organization. This term is now used widely, although often without a proper understanding of the detail of the theory. Moreover, the concept has been applied to other systems, such as societies and institutions, in a rather naïve manner. It is a very important theory, with far-reaching consequences both for science and for social intervention, but it must be correctly appreciated and applied. The aim of this paper is to aid that process by, first, elucidating the theoretical ideas and, second, critically evaluating its implications and applications.
Maturana and Varela have developed important theories about living systems (autopoiesis) and also about the brain/nervous system and cognition. These theories have strongly subjectivist implications leading to the view that our explanations and descriptions reflect the structure of the subject, rather than that of an objective world, and that we therefore construct the world which we experi¬ence. This paper analyzes Maturana’s ideas in terms of the main philosophical traditions – empiricism, idealism, and realism – showing that they are a blend of both realist and antirealist positions. It then provides a critique of Maturana’s radical subjectivism and argues that his theory is best seen as compatible with critical realism.
Maturana and Varela developed the concept of autopoiesis to explain the phenomena of living organisms. They went further and postulated theories concerning the nervous system and the development of cognition. These theories have radical conclusions concerning human thought, language, and social activity. This paper aims to introduce these ideas and to explore the main implications. It also discusses the application of these cognitive theories in three separate domains – computer systems design, family therapy, and the Law.
There has been, and still is, an important debate between critical systems and soft (interpretive) systems concerning epistemology and ontology. Flood and Ulrich argued for a position they termed “critical idealism,” but this has been contested by Fuenmayor, who proposed that critical systems was unnecessary since phenomenology provided the necessary and sufficient form of critique. This paper, in turn, argues for critical systems, providing a critique of phenomenology which shows that at least three of its own presuppositions are invalid. It is further suggested that an adequate philosophy for critical systems has not yet emerged and that the cognitive autopoietic theories of Maturana and the critical realism of Bhaskar will be important strands in its development.
Mingers J. (1992) Reply to Zelený and Hufford. International Journal of General Systems 21(2): 271–271. https://cepa.info/7630
Zelený and Hufford apply the concept of autopoiesis to three different classes of systems – biological. chemical. and social. My response is concerned with the latter and in particular with Zelený and Hufford’s claims that social systems are autopoietic and that autopoietic systems arc inherently social. I argue that these claims are quite ill-founded. There are a number of general weaknesses with Zelený and Hufford’s paper, but, most importantly, the authors fail to see major problems in the ascription of autopoiesis to social systems. These problems are outlined, and the responses of other writers such as Maturana, Varela. and Luhmann are explored. Finally, the importance of and problems with Maturana’s and Varela’s work is assessed.