A short history how the neologism autopoiesis was coined would not be amiss. It appeared some time in the early 1970s when Humberto Maturana and his co-worker Francisco Varela were looking for a term that would aptly capture the circular organization of living organisms which these two scientists discovered. As Maturana himself put it:
We were unhappy with the expression ‘circular organization’, and we wanted a word that would by itself convey the central feature of the
organization of the living, which is autonomy. (Maturana and Varela 1980, xvii)
It so happened that one day Maturana had a conversation with a friend, José Bulnes. They talked about Bulnes’s essay on Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha. In his essay, Bulnes discussed Don Quixote’s dilemma, whether to engage in praxis, that is, to take action and follow the path of arms or to prefer poiesis, which, on the contrary, meant to give himself to creation. Don Quixote preferred the path of praxis, but ironically, his ruminations led Maturana to the other option-poiesis. Maturana realized the power of the term poiesis and, based on it, coined the term autopoiesis, which was assigned the key position in his and Varela’s groundbreaking conceptual approach to the study of the living. This term autopoiesis had no history and, therefore, “could directly mean what takes place in the dynamics of the autonomy proper to living systems” (ibid., xvii).