This paper is intended for readers familiar with Humberto Maturana’s theory of autopoietic systems and with the still unresolved debate concerning the existence of non-biological autopoietic systems. Because the seminal work of the Chilean biologist has not yet been fully and correctly understood in other disciplines, I consider that it is necessary to offer a more generalized concept of the autopoietic system, derived by implication from Maturana’s grounding definition.
The above-mentioned debate is rooted in a deficient application of some rigorous distinctions, definitions, and epistemological considerations introduced by Maturana when he coined the term “autopoiesis.” Some researchers think that social or economic organizations could be considered as autopoietic systems of a higher order because they appear to behave autonomously and be self-organized and self-producing. However, in practice some precise distinctions would need to be verified through observation in order to claim properly their autopoietic nature. These distinctions were defined by Varela, Maturana and Uribe in 1974 as a set of six decisional rules (“MV&U rules”) whereby an observer may possibly justify this stand. My aim is to pinpoint clearly the basic cognitive tasks that an observer should perform in order to ascertain such a claim.