Reconnecting biology, social relations and epistemology – A systemic appreciation of Autopoietic Theory
This paper seeks to tease out the systemic character of a body of work that elsewhere in both the primary and secondary literature tends to be described, discussed and applied in fragmented and reductionist terms. The origins of “autopoietic theory” may be traced back to experimental work in cellular biology and neuro-physiology and to the concept of “autopoiesis” (a theory of living systems) itself. From there, it has extended its coverage into a wide range of diverse areas including cognition, perception, emotion, evolution, language, culture, epistemology, the philosophy of science and ethics. Against this background, the paper seeks to outline a high-level systemic interpretation of autopoietic theory; specifically one that integrates its various biological, social and epistemological components and which shows that it is best evaluated and understood as an explanatory whole and not in a reductionist manner.
In this paper, I have attempted to plug a gap in the existing autopoietic theory literature by articulating and teasing out how its various components and aspects are inextricably interlinked. The overall effect of this is to remind us that fundamentally autopoietic theory is an holistic system of ideas and propositions; it is not a body of work that has aspects or components that can be treated separately from the whole and evaluated independently. Because of its breadth it is inevitable that some will choose to focus on some aspects and jettison others. This is acceptable providing they understand the wider ramifications of this. Over the years, numerous systems thinkers have cogently reminded us that components, when extracted from the system of which they are a part, lose not only their extrinsic value but also their intrinsic value. This is a point that those who take aspects of autopoietic theory into far-flung areas of intellectual debate and practice might want to reflect on.