Autopoiesis and Autonomy

That autonomy is a biological function may sound astonishing and novel in the ears of psychologists, but systems research has clearly brought to daylight that autonomy is built into the very structure of living systems. It’s thus not just an add-on to a modern education that prevents parent-child emotional entanglement, which was one of the flaws of authoritarian education with its unhealthy codependence between caretaker and child.

In order to explain the why and how, I need first elucidate what autopoiesis is. Fritjof Capra, in his book The Web of Life (1976) calls it ‘the pattern of life.’ According to system researchers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, the key characteristic of a living network is that it continually produces itself.

Autopoiesis, or ‘self-making,’ is a network pattern in which the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network. In this way the network continually makes itself. It is produced by its components and in turn produces those components.
—Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (1996), 162

The Plant Cell
The Plant Cell

Autopoiesis can best be explained with the functional unit of a plant cell. In this illustration which is taken from the book, we see the basic components, the membrane, the nutrient fluid, the nucleus and several specialized parts called ‘organelles,’ which are analogous to our body organs. Capra writes that the most important of those organelles are the storage sacs, recycling centers, powerhouses, and solar stations. Like the cell as a whole, the nucleus and the organelles are surrounded by semipermeable membranes that select what comes in and what goes out. The cell membrane, in particular, takes in food and dissipates waste.

I will now skip all further explanations about the functionality of the living cell, and jump ahead to page 167 of the book, where Fritjof Capra writes:

Since all components of an autopoietic network are produced by other components of the network, the entire system is organizationally closed, even though it is open with regard to the flow of energy and matter. This organizational closure implies that a living system is self-organizing in the sense that its order and behavior are not imposed by the environment but are established by the system itself. In other words, living systems are autonomous. This does not mean that they are isolated from their environment. On the contrary, they interact with the environment through a continual exchange of energy and matter. But this interaction does not determine their organization—they are self-organizing. Autopoiesis, then, is seen as the pattern underlying the phenomenon of self-organization, or autonomy, that is so characteristic of all living systems.
—Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (1996), 167-168

What is true inside the cell is true in outward life. This is so because there is only one life, and one law of life, which unites all phenomena that we can observe about life. The growth of a cell can be mirrored in the growth of a human baby. And as living systems need autonomy for healthy growth, so do children. This is something not readily understood in modern consumer culture, which is why I have set out to write about it.

The French child therapist and psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto (1908-1988) has stressed how important it is to grant children autonomy, from early on, over their whole period of growing up, virtually from infancy over adolescence into adulthood. The scars of lacking autonomy in childhood are real and difficult to heal. Our behavior is strongly conditioned by our feeling of freedom, and in this sense, autonomy means freedom, while the contrary, codependence with our caretakers means bondage and emotional manipulation.

In my upcoming book about Dolto I shall reiterate her pathway to the psychoanalysis of children and her public teaching for parents and educators about the importance of granting children autonomy virtually from infancy. In another publication I shall further outline the astounding parallels between autopoiesis and autonomy, through a systemic analysis of systems research applied to education. I have coined this kind of lens applied to social sciences Systemliteracy. It is a term that doesn’t duplicate or wrongly appropriate Capra’s notion of Ecoliteracy, as the latter term applies to ecology, while systemliteracy applies to social science, particularly education and our psychosexual growth.


Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, New York: Anchor Books, 1996

Françoise Dolto, La Cause des Enfants, Paris: Laffont, 1985, Psychanalyse et Pédiatrie, Paris: Seuil, 1971


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s