A highly influential idea first introduced by systems biologists Fancisco J Varela and Humberto Maturana. In some ways the idea is simple, but in others it is complicated (arguably, over-complicated to the point of mysticism). In simple terms, it describes systems which are “self generating” and “self-sustaining”.
The term “auto” comes from the Greek for “self” (“automatic” - operates by itself, “autonomous” - makes decisions for itself/self-legislating, etc). The term poiesis is also Greek and will be highly familiar to any philosophy students. It’s one of those Greek terms like logos, which can be difficult to translate directly. Broadly, it means “production”. So, an autopoietic system is one which produces itself.
The notion of poeisis is key here. After all, it is quite easy to thing of something like a ‘self-contained’ system. For example, a pendulum swinging. However, with each iteration of the pendulum swing, nothing new is added to the system. An autopoietic system, by contrast, is able to generate novelty from within itself.
The philosopher Wolfgang Iser has discussed this concept in relation to the act of reading and the hermeneutic circle. Before arriving at autopoeisis, Iser discusses cybernetics, which could, in some ways, be considered an antecedent of this theory. Both theories are founded on the notion of recursion. Recursion, among other things, is a way that a system communicates with itself.
Through the mechanism of recursion, a system is able to produce new elements for itself.
The main problem with the theory, as far as I can tell, is in the idea that the system produces novelty from iteself. Even in the act of reading, which Iser discusses as autopoietic, there is a self-other relation. A fully self-generating system is hard to imagine. It is hard to imaging anything, in any form, which isn’t affected in some way by bumping up against other things from time to time.