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Bechmann, Gotthard and Nico Stehr, "The legacy of Niklas Luhmann," Society 39: 67-75, 2002.

n some of the many and extensive obituaries
published in European newspapers and maga-
zines in 1999, Niklas Luhmann is remembered as
the most important social theorist of the 20th cen-
tury. Yet in much of the Anglo-Saxon world he is
virtually unknown among professional social sci-
entists. Luhmann was born into a middle-class fam-
ily in Lüneburg, Germany on December 8, 1927.
Following early graduation from high school
(Notabitur), he was conscripted briefly in 1944
and taken prisoner of war by the American Forces.
From 1946 to 1949, he studied law in Freiburg,
entered public administration and worked for ten
years as an administrative lawyer in Hanover. In
1962 he received a scholarship to Harvard and
spent a year with Talcott Parsons. In 1968, he was
appointed professor of sociology at the newly
established University of Bielefeld, where he
worked until his retirement. Shortly before his
appointment he was asked on what subject he
wished to work at university. His reply was: “The
theory of modern society. Duration 30 years; no
costs. He consequently realised exactly this theo-
retical program. At the time of his death in De-
cember 1998, at the age of 70, he had published
an oeuvre of over 14,000 printed pages.
Luhmann’s journey toward a theory of mod-
ern society has taken a dual approach: first, in the
form of essays since the end of the 1960s; and
second, in the form of monographs since the
1980s, dealing with the individual function sys-
tems of society, such as law, science and art.
Luhmann’s intellectual evolution culminated in
1997 with the publication of his magnum opus
“The Society of Society. Anyone suspecting redun-
dancy and repetition here might feel at first glance
that their scepticism is confirmed. This two-vol-
ume work contains no new subjects, let alone any
previously unpublished approach. To this extent
it is more a completion, a recapitulation, than an
Gotthard Bechmann and Nico Stehr
advance into new territory. However, a second,
reassuring look reveals much that had not been
said before—or at least not in this way. In contrast
to the essays, which are sometimes experimental
and even playful in tone, and which occasionally
close on a question mark, the book format requires
a more systematic presentation. “The Society of
Society” is the final stone to his theoretical cathe-
dral and provides a map for, and a guide to, the
understanding of modern systems theory.
Around this principal work are clustered ear-
lier, individual analyses: “The Science of Society,
“The Economics of Society, “The Art of Society,
“The Law of Society” and the two posthumously
published books: “The Politics of Society” and “The
Religion of Society. The introduction to this se-
ries of analyses took the form of a 674-page book
bearing the title “Social Systems: The Outline of a
General Theory. This work is still the most con-
centrated, abstract, and—if one takes the trouble
to work through it—also most rewarding presen-
tation of the theoretical core.
We now have a first overall picture at our dis-
posal. If one wishes to do Luhmann justice, one
has to find one’s bearings within the architecture
of his general approach. Apart from these systemic
studies, Luhmann also published a slightly less
voluminous series of sociological and historical-
semantic analyses. They consist of the four vol-
umes of “Societal Structure and Semantics” and
the six volumes of “Sociological Enlightenment.
These studies show Luhmann as a universal
scholar, who locates his theory within the histori-
cal context of enlightenment and European phi-
losophy. Apart from this far-reaching research, he
also produced a range of political and social analy-
ses of modern society, commenting on pressing
public problems. We mention only his books “So-
ciology of Risk, “Ecological Communication, “The
Reality of the Mass Media” and “The Political
Theory of the Welfare State. In all, his work con-
sists of some 700 publications and countless trans-
lations into English, French, Italian, Japanese, Rus-
sian and Chinese.
In almost all of his work, Luhmann makes ref-
erence to the operative logic of George Spencer
Brown and radical constructivism. These are treated
in summary fashion in order to sketch the layout
and the conceptual structure of his super-social sys-
tems theory, endowed with a range of methodologi-
cal instruments won in this way. The theory of
politics, sociology of religion, sociology of art, and
moral sociology are developed subsequently.
In our brief intellectual portrait of Niklas
Luhmann, we first deliberately focus on the sub-
stance of his social theory, especially the ideas
found in his last publication; and we refrain from
advancing a sociology of knowledge perspective
that attempts to come to grips with—for ex-
ample—the reluctance of Anglo-Saxon social sci-
ence to engage Luhmann’s notions as vigorously
and prominently as has been the case not only in
his own country, but also in Italy, France, and many
other non-English-speaking societies. This is a
story, and a challenge, that must be left open at
this time. Second, once we have outlined the ma-
jor features of Luhmann’s novel system-theoreti-
cal approach, we offer various critical observa-
tions and reflections.
The CharThe Char
The CharThe Char
The Char
istics of Moderistics of Moder
istics of Moderistics of Moder
istics of Moder
n Societyn Society
n Societyn Society
n Society
For Luhmann, social differentiation and system
formation are the basic characteristics of modern
society. This also means that systems theory and
the theory of society are mutually dependent. In
these terms, a society is not the sum of all current
interactions, but rather a system of a higher order,
of a different type, determined by the differentia-
tion between system and environment; and it is
exactly this distinction which is the subject of
Luhmann’s two-volume The Society of Society.
Luhmann’s key message is this: sociology is ulti-
mately a theory of society, or it is not a science. If
we look back at the history of sociology, this is by
no means self-evident. On the contrary, at the start
of the last century—and particularly after 1945
in Germany and elsewhere—sociology derived its
identity by concealing its relationship with society.
It was mainly a theory of social entities, with such
categories as roles, interaction, intention and social
action forming the basic conceptual framework for
a sociology which was increasingly empirical and
theoretically inclined to follow the model of the
natural sciences, with their emphasis on causality
and the discovery of laws.
The concept of society, however, retained its
holistic claim; emphatically defended, for example,
by critical theory and developed by Jürgen
Habermas into a theory of communicative reason.
This claim clashed with the understanding of so-
ciology as a universal and independent theory of
social entities. Would the mainstream perspective
within sociology turn society into a social system
like any other, but at the same time an all-embrac-
ing and fundamental system? Sociology has been
unable to escape from this paradox, which it has
countered by repression and historicisation: Social
theory, and particularly critical social theory, has
largely been left to the disciplinary concerns of
philosophy, which is believed to have the special-
ists in holistic claims for the ultimate, fundamen-
tal structures of thought and relationships with the
world. If social scientists dealt with the theory of
society, then they did so typically through exegesis
of the classics, as if the history of their own disci-
pline had the ability to preserve and recall claims.
Today the exclusion of society from sociology
seems to be exacting its revenge. Like Max Weber’s
repressed world of the gods who celebrate their
return to the modern world in the form of inces-
sant conflicts of values, the concept of society is
returning today in a wide diversity of terms, such
as “post-industrial society” (Bell), “society of risk”
(Beck), “society of knowledge” (Stehr), and “post-
modern society” (Lyotard); as if one aspect of so-
ciety is capable of standing in for the whole. Such
ad hoc fabrication of terminology reveals what is
being suppressed: namely, the claim to compre-
hend society in its totality.
So what exactly does this mean for sociology,
Luhmann asks, if we wish to avoid the trap of naïve
objectivism, which views society as a given ob-
ject that effectively precedes all scientific obser-
vation? The implication of the objective point of
view would be that we have to observe society
from a point outside of society. There is no such
point. Science and society are both an expression
of social reality. This is precisely the point where
classical sociology of knowledge, for example, has
broken down. It was forced to delegate the ob-
servation of knowledge to a hypothetical, free-
floating intelligence that was not subject to any
distortion of perception due to interests or ide-
ologies. More recently, a number of perspectives
have come to accept the idea that the act of cog-
nition is always itself a moment in the totality of
cognition. Luhmann shares this approach—and at
the same time pushes beyond it by arguing that
there cannot be an object “society” accessible to
independent observation.
As soon as we cease to regard society as merely
another sociological object of research and in-
stead focus on its operational significance as a
condition for the possibility of sociological cog-
nition itself, then sociology becomes a subject
dealing with itself in exactly the sense in which
the subject matter of philosophy speaks of reflec-
tion. Luhmann transfers the structure of the self-
referential mode of operation by the subject to
the theory of social systems. At the same time, he
answers the question: How it is possible to prac-
tice sociology as a theory of society that does not
prematurely screen out the connection between
theory and subject? This, according to Luhmann,
requires a radical rejection of epistemological
positions based on the dichotomy of the subject-
object paradigm. Sociology is confronted with
society as a subject. Luhmann therefore argues
that this requires research into characteristics that
it has always generated itself. Luhmann consis-
tently posits a radically anti-humanist, non-onto-
logical and radical-constructivist idea of society.
The most radical assumption of Luhmann’s
mature theoretical approach is his emphasis on
differences, more precisely on distinctions that
are no longer seen as objective differences but as
constructions. The substitution of the subject con-
cept and the transfer of the subject/object differ-
entiation into the distinction between system and
environment take Luhmann to a post-ontological
theory of society, developed on a naturalistic and
empirical basis as a theory of observation. This fun-
damental questioning of the modern philosophy of
the subject and the resulting distinction between
the natural sciences and the humanities (together
with the associated rejection of a humanistic-an-
thropocentric concept for defining society) have
attracted a great deal of criticism, and even more
incomprehension, of Luhmann’s approach.
The GenealogThe Genealog
The GenealogThe Genealog
The Genealog
y of Luhmann’y of Luhmann’
y of Luhmann’y of Luhmann’
y of Luhmann’
s System s System
s System s System
s System
The concept of the system is Luhmann’s essen-
tial starting point. In this respect he is exceptional
in German sociology, which at least since Max
Weber has mainly been action theory. Luhmann’s
proposal to describe social phenomena like in-
teractions, organizations or societies as “systems,
possibly marks this categorical break most em-
phatically. To think in terms of systems first im-
plies “that we are no longer speaking of objects,
but of differences and furthermore that differ-
ences are not conceived as existing facts (distinc-
tions), going back instead to an imperative to ex-
ecute them, since one could otherwise give
nothing a name, thus having nothing to observe
and would thus also not be able to continue any-
thing” (Luhmann, 1997:60).
The text of “the social” (like all other texts) is
neither self-explanatory nor is it deposited in dis-
crete writing. And it does not possess any consis-
tent meaning which is identical with itself, and
which one could trace back to any specific in-
stance of its creation. Sociology has to labor with-
out conceiving its domain of objects as a conglom-
erate of things, analogous to facts possessing a
fixed shape—whose inter-relationship, moreover,
is ensured in an uniform principle (be it nature,
divine will, morals or a transcendental subject).
Under the metaphysical conditions of the mod-
ern, a meta-perspective that permits the recogni-
tion of something resembling the natural as the
invariable essence or the totality of society is no
longer available to the observer.
According to Luhmann’s system-theory ap-
proach, the world (as the horizon of possible de-
scriptions) is expressed by means of a network
of contingent distinctions and labels that always
have to be understood in context. That an observer
may label this as this (and not as that) is due to a
distinction in which both moments, separated
from each other, can only be understood in rela-
tion to each other; the distinctive units only pos-
sessing their own identity in the difference to the
other. To be able to characterise something as
something, one has to have already distinguished
it from its distinctive other: what deserves to be
called true, for example, is measured by the dif-
ference from appearance; and to speak of the past
makes sense only with reference to a present that
can be distinguished (constitutively) from it. Even
if it is not explicitly raised as an issue, this other
side of something termed as this or that is always
present in every determination of speech or ges-
ture we make. It is a permanent horizon. It is pos-
sible to change sides at any time and to bring the
distinguished moment of form (appearance for
truth, or the present for the past) into the focus
of attention, making it the point of departure for
further deliberations. In the interest of a deliber-
ate treatment of self and world, it is inevitable
that we distinguish and label. Such operations are
the start of all perception and recognition.
Why distinctions and labels in different con-
texts are made in a certain way and not in others
is impossible to determine from the perspective
of systems theory. Distinguishing always takes
place in a medium of lack of forethought and pre-
vious indeterminacy, endowing each form with
the seal of indelible contingency: in principle one
could have made completely different distinctions.
To speak of systems thus means to establish a dif-
ference: that between system and environment.
By system, Luhmann means a chain of events
related to each other, or of operations. In the case
of living creatures, for instance, these are physiologi-
cal processes; for psychic systems, ideas; and in rela-
tion to social relationships, communications. Systems
are formed by distinguishing themselves from an
environment of such events and operations that
cannot be integrated into their internal structures.
In contrast to his early mentor Talcott Parsons,
who defined systems by means of the presence
of collectively shared norms and value patterns,
Luhmann proceeds from a system concept shaped
in a strictly relational manner. His notion relies
on the idea of a constitutive boundary that per-
mits the distinction between inside and outside.
Each operation of a system (in the case of social
systems: each communication) (re)produces this
boundary by embedding itself in a network of
further operations, in which it at the same time
gains its own unity/identity. Therefore, such a con-
cept of boundary—above all in relation to psy-
chic and social systems—is not to be understood
spatially, but rather operatively: “The boundary of
the system is nothing but the type and concre-
tion of its operations which individualise the sys-
tem. It is the form of the system whose other side
thus becomes the environment” (Luhmann,
1997:76-77.). This operative understanding re-
quires the insight that systems are unable to tran-
scend their own boundaries.
Such a research strategy is due to an elemen-
tary conviction of the improbability of the emer-
gence of social order. Everything could in prin-
ciple be different. From Luhmann’s perspective,
social structures have nothing self-evident to
them: they require permanent new social con-
struction from the view of their existence and of
their determined shape. In contrast to the func-
tionalism of the Parsonian persuasion, Luhmann
is not committed to the preservation of social
systems. On the contrary, the contingency and
complexity of the social is the starting point of
all of his theoretical efforts.
The complexity of the design of Luhmann’s
theory expresses itself not only through the di-
versity of the sociological issues which he is able
to tackle with the help of the system-theory ap-
proach, but also in the way that the perspectives
vary in their emphasis whenever he presents his
general theoretical approach. His Social Systems
is written primarily from the point of view of the
distinction between system and environment,
while The Science of Society takes the theory of
observable systems as its starting point, leading
to more epistemological debates about observing
observation. If one had to choose such a central
point of view for The Society of Society, the focus
would clearly be on the social system, in contrast
to all social subsystems formed through social
operations within society.
The DifThe Dif
The DifThe Dif
The Dif
ence of Difence of Dif
ence of Difence of Dif
ence of Dif
Luhmann distances himself from what he calls
the “old European” ontological theoretical tradi-
tion, hopelessly outmoded in its potential for cap-
turing modern society in all its complexity. In
doing so, he is trying to overcome two thousand
years of tradition that, in his view, have been tran-
scended by the process of functional differentia-
tion. He describes the old European style of
thought as concerned with the identification of
the unity underlying diversity. Society, in the clas-
sical view, consists of subjects of action whose
fundamental unity is based on sharing a common
understanding. Ontology refers to a world exist-
ing objectively in separation from the subjects
aware of it, capable of unambiguous linguistic
Against this, Luhmann sets a view of a world
that temporalizes, differentiates and decentralizes
all identities. Identities are products of past events.
Unity is no longer the ultimate point of reference
of the theory. By relativizing even the ontological
scheme of existence/non-existence as but one of
many observational schemata, Luhmann attacks
the foundations of powerful traditions of thought.
The paradox, according to Luhmann, is that the
old European tradition emerged in a society that
no longer exists today, either in terms of the sys-
tem of communication or in terms of forms of
differentiation. Even so, this tradition remains part
and parcel of our historical heritage, and in this
sense a part of the culture that is relevant for ori-
entation. It cannot disappear because it no longer
fits; it is constantly negated, and has to be avail-
able for this purpose.
Another fundamental distinction emerges here,
which Luhmann uses to structure his theory of
society: namely, the distinction between social struc-
ture and semantics. It is characteristic that this dis-
tinction includes itself, is itself a semantic distinc-
tion, and the problem is precisely to disentangle this
paradox in a fruitful way. The theory of society is
located at two levels: on the semantic level it is dis-
tinguished from the old European tradition, while
on the social structural level reference is made to
evolution, differentiation and media development.
Societies without PeopleSocieties without People
Societies without PeopleSocieties without People
Societies without People
Luhmann introduces three premises into his
analysis of society that have produced not only
vigorous criticism but also extensive misunder-
standing, to the point that accusations of anti-
humanist and cynical reasoning have been raised
against him: (1) Society does not consist of people.
Persons belong to the environment of society. (2)
Society is an autopoietic system consisting of
communication and nothing else. (3) Society can
only be adequately understood as world society.
Banishing people to the environment of soci-
ety completes the decentralization of the human-
ist cosmology. Having been evicted from the cen-
ter of the universe in the Renaissance, deprived
of its unique origin by being placed in the con-
text of evolution by Darwin, and stripped of au-
tonomy and self-control by Freud, that humanity
should now be freed from the bonds of society
by Luhmann appears to be a consistent extension
of this trend. Whereas the classical European tra-
dition, with its distinction between humans and
animals, ascribed sense, reason, will, conscious-
ness and feelings to humans, the inexorable sepa-
ration of mental and social systems that Luhmann
substitutes for homo socialis makes it clear that
society is a distinct emerging order sui generis,
which cannot be described in anthropological
terms. Society does not have the character of a
subject—even in the emphatic transcendental
sense, as a condition of the possibility of ultimate
underlying ideas or mechanisms of human quali-
ties. It is not an address for human appeals for
action, and certainly not a venue for claiming
equality and justice in the name of an autonomous
subject. Society is the ultimately attainable com-
municative reduction that divides the indetermi-
nate from what is determinable, or processable
from unprocessable complexity.
In a detailed analysis Luhmann traces the in-
creasing distinction between the individual and
society. Only after a clear separation has been
made between society and humanity is it possible
to see what belongs to society and what has to
be allocated to humanity. This opens up the pos-
sibility of research into humanity, human con-
sciousness and the functioning of the human mind
on the basis of empirical-natural measurement.
The thesis of the separation of social systems (or
systems of society) and physical systems makes
it possible to understand clearly the relationships
between society and humanity and follow them
over their historical course. Both are in this sense
autopoietic systems, one operating on the basis
of consciousness and the other on the basis of
communication. But what is society?
Society, in an initial approximation, is the com-
prehensive social system, including everything
that is social, and aware of nothing social outside
itself. However, everything that is social is identi-
fied as communication. Communication “is a genu-
inely social (and the only jointly social) operation.
It is genuinely social in that it presupposes a major-
ity of collaborating systems of consciousness while
(for this very reason) it cannot be assigned as a unity
to any individual consciousness. Conversely, it is also
true that anything practising communication is a
society. This involves far-reaching definitions.
Society as CommSociety as Comm
Society as CommSociety as Comm
Society as Comm
First, communication is a reality sui generis
that can no longer be attributed to something else.
Second, communication is the mechanism that
constitutes society as an autopoietic system and
processes it in these terms. The negation of com-
munication is itself communication, and hence the
expression of society. Third, if communication
means autopoietic reproduction, this means that
society is a self-substitutive order that can only
change in itself and through itself. Communica-
tion becomes the basic structure of society, where
the relationship between communication and
society is circular: no communication without
society, no society without communication. But
what is communication? Or is it no longer pos-
sible to pose such questions in a post-ontological
The simplest answer is that communication is
an operation in precisely the sense that a distinc-
tion is made. Communicative acts say nothing
about the world, and communication reflects
nothing about the world, which is not reflected
by communication but rather classified by it. The
purpose of communication is to create differences
that can then be attached to further communica-
tion, forming and stabilising system boundaries.
But even communication itself is not original, no
ultimate element, but a synthesis of processing
selections which Luhmann designates informa-
tion, transmission and comprehension. These three
discriminatory operations are binary in structure.
Information is selected from shared meaning,
a reservoir from which things are selected as rel-
evant for transmission or forgetting. Completing
the act of communication is a matter of deciding
what is represented or accepted or rejected, not
understood. Transferred to the social system, it
could be said that information can be seen as ex-
ternal reference, transmission as self-reference and
comprehension as a condition for the transfer of
the meaning in further communication. The syn-
thesis of these three selections is a self-referen-
tial, closed event. This enables Luhmann to make
clear the self-constitution of what is social. If what
is social is nothing more than communication, this
also implies that it consists of this autopoietic
process which has its own inherent dynamic. The
environment is then only a stimulus, not a real
source of information. Comprehension accord-
ingly means a not arbitrary networking of com-
municative events by the self-referential commu-
nication process. Repeated discussion forms
identities that constitute boundaries.
Society, or what had previously been under-
stood as society in sociology, is now liberated from
all substantial determinations. It is not a moral
unity, not based on consensus or any rational in-
tegration (of whatever kind); it is formed solely
by ongoing communication. Accordingly it makes
no sense to talk of such distinctions as economy/
society or science/society, since politics, econom-
ics, and law cannot be regarded as something
outside and separate from society, but are acts of
society in their communicative operations. For
Luhmann, society therefore consists of the total-
ity of those operations, which do not make a dis-
tinction by virtue of the fact that they make a
distinction. This relegates to secondary theoreti-
cal status all assumptions about understanding,
progress, rationality and other goals.
Society as Society as
Society as Society as
Society as
orld Societyorld Society
orld Societyorld Society
orld Society
In his third determination of society—namely,
the definition of society as world society—
Luhmann again deliberately places himself in con-
trast to the old European tradition. He avoids a
territorial definition of society that identifies the
boundaries of society with the frontiers of nation
states. Global interdependencies, and the dissolu-
tion of temporal and spatial constraints by mod-
ern information and transport technologies, are
steadily depriving a territorially limited definition
of society of its plausibility. The alternative con-
cepts of an international system or a transnational
society fail, because for all the cultural differen-
tiation they stress, they do not arrive at a unity of
the resulting differentiation and hence are unable
to explain the “inter” or “trans. Instead of being a
successor to the tradition of the societas civilis
findet they merely describe the growing diver-
sity, the complexity and the growth in available
options. If the world is no longer understood as
the collection of all visible and direct objects, as
the aggregatio corporum, what is left of the com-
mon sense that makes it possible to speak of a
world society?
Luhmann bases his conception on an essen-
tially commonplace observation. The final explo-
ration of the earth, and perhaps the exploration
of space, has made it evident that the world is a
closed, communicative complex. In principle, any
point on the globe is accessible to communica-
tion, despite all the technical, political or geo-
graphical obstacles. World society is the self-
eventuation of the world in communication.
This definition acquires plausibility if we in-
clude the vital future focus of modern society
within our view. Historically, there may be a
distinction between the individual territories,
but one thing they all share now is that the
future can only be regarded as a unity. “World”
then means exactly this reference in the com-
munication structure of the fully differentiated
functional systems, so that “world” as the total
horizon of sensory experience is not an aggre-
gate, but rather a correlate, of the communicative
operations occurring in it.
Epistemologically speaking, this shift has far-
reaching implications. Society is only observable
within itself, and can be regarded as a unity in
different ways without being able, through decom-
position, to arrive at a “genuine” jointly observ-
able world. We will always end up with new dis-
tinctions, with constructions. For Luhmann the
social-structural location of the theory of obser-
vation is secondary. Second-order observation
means locating an observer in the world who
observes others and generating the various ver-
sions of the world (including our observer)—al-
though we can only do so in one world.
ies of ies of
ies of ies of
ies of
But how can society document itself without
coming into contradiction with itself, and particu-
larly without recourse to transcendental refer-
ences outside itself? In the last chapter of The
Society of Society, under the title “Self-descrip-
tions, Luhmann deals with the intricate relation-
ship between theory and subject. Can theory ex-
plain its own location within the process of
society? And if it can, does it not regard society to
a certain extent from without, although this is
possible within society in the capacity of com-
munication? Here, we are reminded (not entirely
inappropriately) of Escher’s hand drawing itself,
generating itself and its own image in the course
of its own operation. Luhmann follows a similar
line: “Just like self-observations, self-descriptions
(generation of texts) are individual operations of
the system. In fact, descriptions and what is de-
scribed are not two separate objects which are
only externally linked—with a self-description,
what is described is always part of what it is de-
scribing and it changes it simply by the fact that
it appears and subjects itself to observation.
Sociology, then, is always the construction of
the unity of the system within the system itself,
never reaching an end to this process. This insight
prompts Luhmann to avoid any conclusions for
his own theory. Although there is a particularly
close relationship here with Hegel, who also gave
the absolute a self-referential character by regard-
ing the system as entirely self-referential—where
nothing can be external because everything ex-
ternal has become an aspect of its self-differen-
tial—Luhmann leaves this tradition exactly at this
point by translating it into a cybernetic vocabu-
lary and hence overcoming it. Nor is society a
subject in the anthropological-interactive sense,
as Adorno still viewed it despite all his criticism
of philosophy: Society is “a coagulated relation-
ship between people. Humanity is not the ulti-
mate element in society, nor can society still be
described within the classical cognitive model of
subject-object; because the self-referentiality of
society itself causes this duality to collapse, since
cognition seeks intersubjective certainty on the
part of the subject and presupposes stable objects.
Society is in any case not such a stable object.
itical Refitical Ref
itical Refitical Ref
itical Ref
According to Luhmann’s approach, only radi-
cal constructive semantics provide sufficient dis-
tance to prevent succumbing to the suggestions
inherent in traditional terminology. Luhmann’s
terminology in the theoretically most demanding
part of this works is devoid of classical associa-
tions and connotations. If the reading of
Luhmann’s studies is not be abandoned due to
sheer resignation, frustration or even anger, then
his terminology requires considerable tolerance
from readers not familiar with the terminology
of systems theory.
Luhmann’s strict, austere artificial language is
not due to any affectation but rather to the strin-
gency of his theoretical program—and this pro-
gram has to keep its distance from the implica-
tions of the semantics of traditional European
social theory. In this respect one should take seri-
ously the penultimate sentence of the “Society of
Societies, according to which an adequate mod-
ern theory of society requires the sacrifice of the
mere pleasure of recognition and the judging of
theory construction on its own merits.
This does not imply that reading Luhmann’s
theory is simply a struggle with nominal construc-
tions and cascades of abstract terms; in between
one finds analyses of traditional European seman-
tics, in which Luhmann attempts to clarify why
they are no longer adequate for the structural facts
of modern society. Again and again there are
pointed and paradoxical formulations, in which
the fruits of the switch in theory formation from
first-order observation to second-order observa-
tion are bundled as under a magnifying glass. An
example of this would be when Luhmann says of
memory that its true function for society consists
not of storage, but rather of forgetting; or when
he conceives of information as a product of de-
cay that disappears by being updated.
Such paradoxes are more than skilful plays on
words: they provide entry points to the
constructivist core of Luhmann’s societal theory,
which consists of the fact that all observation is
based on paradox to the extent that it relies on
distinctions upon which it cannot reflect as a
uniform whole. The unity of the world as the unity
of society, according to Luhmann, cannot be as-
serted as a principle but simply as a paradox—
this too is a consequence of the loss of meaning
of traditional semantics.
But is the loss of meaning of old European se-
mantics truly compelling in the face of the four
volumes by Luhmann on the subject of “structure
of society and semantics”? Or, is it at least rein-
forced well by methodology? One can doubt that
this is so, since Luhmann is forced to fall back on
socio-structural developments to be able to es-
tablish the loss of significance of socio-political
semantics. This circularity is probably the weak
point in Luhmann’s theory of society. Of course,
this did not escape Luhmann, but the solutions
he suggested were not particularly consistent.
They stretch from the admittance of circularity as
an inevitable pre-requisite of theory formation—
which traditional European semantics were only
able to avoid by recourse to metaphysical construc-
tions, such as God, nature or reason—to the claim
that semantic changes were subject to structural
change at considerable distance, as a result of
which semantics are suddenly again in the posi-
tion of verbally depicting facts. But is it really true
that social change precedes cognitive change, or
are there also cases where the opposite is true?
Luhmann analysed the change from traditional
European society to modern society by using
three dimensions, to each of which he dedicates
three main chapters of his societal theory (“The
Society of Society”): first, the social dimension,
which Luhmann conceives as that of communi-
cation and media, constituted only by the distinc-
tion between Ego and Alter (deliberately avoid-
ing the traditional European semantics of person
and subject); second, the temporal dimension, in
which past and future are separated, and which
Luhmann terms evolution—definitely not
progress, since there is no guiding medium among
the various media and the functional differentia-
tion of society has no guiding system; and third
and finally, the factual dimension, which Luhmann
comprehends as functional differentiation, and in
which we are concerned with determining the
system and the environment. These are not, how-
ever, stable distinctions, that which constitutes
environment depending instead on the compo-
nent system concerned, on science or the
economy, law or education. And this also changes
during the evolution of the component systems.
Decisive for Luhmann’s theory of society is the
assertion that there is no dominance of any com-
ponent system in the dimension of functional dif-
ferentiation, for instance of politics; that in the di-
mension of communication, no dominant medium
may be recognised; and furthermore, that the lack
of guiding systems and dominant media is the de-
finitive characteristic of modern society. This is also
the reason why traditional European semantics can
no longer adequately describe a modern society.
But is the loss of measure due to the conver-
sion of norms and values into forms of societal
communication, as described by Luhmann, really
plausible? Unfortunately, Luhmann at no point
makes reference to Michael Walzer’s concept of
spheres of justice: Within this concept, what
Luhmann has described as the appropriate self-
description of modern societies is described as
their permanently-to-be-achieved norm, as the
measure of justness that is permanently threat-
ened by the domination of—to use Luhmann’s
term—component systems.
This closes the circle for a major train of
thought, so that what initially appeared a para-
dox—namely, that the self is at the same time what
is different—emerges as a complete theory of
society that also includes reflection on its own
location in society, and regards society in this
sense as a unity capable of self-modification. If
we take this strictly intra-social perspective seri-
ously, accepting that any communication about
society can only take place within society, then
there is no location for critical reflection on soci-
ety external to society, where society can be re-
garded as an object. This description of society in
society is no longer based on the concept of the
subject or seen from the standpoint of transcen-
dental rationality. It is the tautological operation
of communication itself. Society is society’s for-
mula for the self-description of social unity. An
emphatic definition of sociology would here seek
the unity of this difference in order to distinguish
what is actual, what is essential. The unity of soci-
ety would then be a society that has arrived at
itself, corresponding to its ideal. Tradition has re-
served the label “enlightenment” for this, and
measured existing society against this claim. So-
ciological explanation of enlightenment must
abandon these claims, since this position can still
be observed, even if only from the point of view
of second-order observation. The contingency of
the world cannot be reversed in this sense, be-
cause sociological theory belongs to the very
thing that it is analysing, namely society.
The true meaning of sociology would hence
be that it is set free to engage in this type of self-
description in order to modify the semantic lega-
cies of tradition to the changed social structural
relationships in the process of “re-description.
This bridges the second major distinction be-
tween semantics and social structure. Modern
society, through functional differentiation, gener-
ates the compulsion to self-observation and so
changes all the thematic elements. This brings
postmodernism to the point where the past be-
comes material for present descriptions that cre-
ate new forms through re-description and thus
become self-perpetuating constructions. However,
it is not a question of looking back nostalgically
on what has passed, but rather of awareness of
semantics, which is permanently renewing itself.
The decisive thing is the difference, and not the
unity of an all-seeing observer. In this sense
Luhmann’s theory is a post-ontological theory that
proceeds in an empirical and operational manner,
and is still facing its practical test.
At the same time, the question remains: How
far does the merciless deconstruction of the con-
cept of the subject and its replacement by the
concept of the self-referential, closed, autopoietic
system—which is no longer a special object but
instead perceived as the difference between sys-
tem and environment—create a distance from the
old European tradition and its contradictions? Does
the emphasis on the category of difference as the
key sociological concept constitute a suitable reac-
tion to the antinomies of an ultimately still anthro-
pological configuration of sociology, based on the
fundamental notion of an unresolved subject and
using humanity, its subjectivity and freedom as
the ultimate decisive principles of orientation?
Further discussion will show how far the radi-
cal shift in theory from identity to difference con-
stitutes a replacement for the tradition of think-
ing in terms of unity or totality. In its place
Luhmann sets the theory of second-order obser-
vation, which is intended to eliminate all transcen-
dental premises and leaves as the ultimate refer-
ences descriptions of descriptions and
observations of observations, which abolish privi-
leged standpoints and conclusions. In this sense
sociology organises itself as research. The fertil-
ity of the present theoretical design will have to
prove itself in terms of how far it helps us to trans-
form the traditional legacies into contingencies,
so that they can be reused “as a medium for shap-
ing new forms gained through reconstruction”
(Luhmann, 1998:1148). At this point Luhmann
remains linked to the old European tradition—
only the degree of distance is still in dispute.
Luhmann returns an issue to sociology that it
has almost forgotten: scientific and reflected dis-
cussion of society. Just as biology and physics do
not depend on their basic concepts alone, so so-
ciology is not just social theory. However, if it
wants to provide information on its foundations
and its position in society, it can hardly avoid so-
cial theoretical reflections; if only because it is
able, by virtue of its function within society, to
observe all previous forms of reflection, such as
religion, philosophy and science.
Luhmann’s theory of society, it could be argued,
offers a way that leads, through the latest scien-
tific methods and on a strictly theoretical basis,
to a rich theory of modern society. Luhmann
opens up links for sociology with other sciences,
and this enables him to integrate a flow of new
research into his theory. Two groups of problems
might be examined in further pursuit of a theory
of society. First, we can ask if we share Luhmann’s
description of the problem of proceeding consis-
tently from an intra-social constitution of theory.
This will already settle a great deal. Second, we
need to review his solution of regarding a theory
of society as a theory of social systems, or replace
it by a reasonable alternative. As we are in any event
no longer required to reach final conclusions, it is
now a matter of finding usable continuations, since
it is clear that even after Luhmann there will still be
sociological and other descriptions of society. The
question is merely whether they will reach the
level and degree of complexity displayed in
Luhmann’s work, especially in his last monograph.
As Adorno said: “Only a mature theory of society
can say what society is. Perhaps Luhmann’s ap-
proach has taken us a step closer to this.
Luhmann, Niklas Observations on Modernity. Stanford,
California: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Luhmann, Niklas Social Systems. Stanford, California:
Stanford University Press, 1995.
Luhmann, Niklas Risk: A Sociological Theory. N e w Yo r k :
Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.
Luhmann, Niklas Essays on Self Reference. N e w Yo r k :
Columbia University Press, 1990.
Luhmann, Niklas Ecological Communication. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Gotthard Bechmann is senior research associate
in the Institute for Technology Assessment and Sys-
tems Analysis in the Karlsruhe Research Center, Ger-
many. Among his recent publications are Risiko und
Gesellschaft and Interdisziplinäre Risikoforschung
(with Gerhard Banse). Nico Stehr is professor emeri-
tus of sociology, University of Alberta, Canada and
a fellow in the Center for Advanced Cultural Studies
in Essen, Germany. Among his recent book publica-
tions are The Fragility of Modern Societies: Knowl-
edge and Risk in the Information Age and Knowl-
edge and Economic Conduct: The Social Foundations
of the Modern Economy.
... Luhmann desarrolló la teoría general de los sistemas, que establece cómo el orden social moderno se rige a través de sistemas funcionales como son la ciencia, la política, el arte o la religión, con base en la comunicación como un elemento de estos sistemas (Espinosa-Luna, 2013;Bechmann y Stehr, 2002). ...
... Luhmann e o caso da "caixa de fichas" Niklas Luhmann (Lüneburg, Alemanha, 1927-1998 foi um dos últimos autores do século XX a se dedicar à produção de uma grande teoria social. Luhmann estudou Direito entre 1946 e 1949 e trabalhou na administração pública por cerca de dez anos (Bechmann & Stehr, 2002). Nesse período, antes mesmo de qualquer vinculação institucional como docente universitário, praticava a escrita por notas, tendo certa ciência de que aquela atividade seria útil não apenas para a escrita de algum projeto pontual, mas para um programa de pesquisa de longo prazo (Schmidt, 2018). ...
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... Luhmann and the case of the "slip boxes" Niklas Luhmann (Lüneburg, Alemanha, 1927-1998 was one of the last authors of the 20th century dedicated to producing a grand social theory. Luhmann studied Law between 1946 and 1949 and worked in public administration for around ten years (Bechmann & Stehr, 2002). ...
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Despite numerous indications that academic writing is a means toward intellectual discovery and not just a representation of thought, in Brazil, it is seen more as a product of studies and subjects than an integral part of university education. This article presents note-taking, an apparently simple and supposedly archaic activity, as a way through which academic writing is eminently oriented towards constructing an authorial thought. To this end, we discuss recent findings in the historiography of writing that show note-taking as an essential practice in the development of modern intellectuality. We also present an emblematic case, in the 20th century, of the fruitful use of a note-taking system created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Finally, we point out that the value of note-taking goes beyond mere historical curiosity, constituting an additional tool for a daily life in which satisfaction and a sense of intellectual development are at the center of academic life.
... Si bien Luhmann puede incorporarse al denominado «nuevo movimiento teórico» de las décadas de 1970 a 1990, en el que figuran autores como Bourdieu, Giddens o Habermas, las particularidades de su obra, conceptualmente densa y sumamente prolífica, lo convierten en un miembro especial de esa generación. Tras su estancia en la Universidad de Harvard, se propuso seguir la línea sistémica de Parsons (Bechmann y Stehr, 2002), lo que lo encuadró de modo inicial como un continuador de su mirada (Alexander, 1988, p. 301). Asimismo, a partir de su formación en jurisprudencia y administración pública, su recorrido intelectual y las heterodoxas tradiciones en las que abreva supusieron una aceptación más tardía, aunque consagratoria, de sus propuestas dentro de la teoría sociológica, en la cual él siempre se incluyó (Luhmann, 1973). ...
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The link between liberty and knowledge is neither static nor simple. Until recently the mutual support between knowledge, science, democracy and emancipation was presupposed. Recently, however, the close relationship between democracy and knowledge has been viewed with skepticism. The growing societal reliance on specialized knowledge often appears to actually undermine democracy. Is it that we do not know enough, but that we know too much? What are the implications for the freedom of societies and their citizens? Does knowledge help or heed them in unraveling the complexity of new challenges? This book systematically explores the shifting dynamics of knowledge production and the implications for the conditions and practices of freedom. It considers the growth of knowledge about knowledge and the impact of an evolving media. It argues for a revised understanding of the societal role of knowledge and presents the concept of 'knowledge societies' as a major resource for liberty.
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Paradigmatic frameworks are central to philosophical and theoretical discussions of mixed methods research. This article argues that in mixed methods research, systems theory provides a paradigmatic stance that in some cases may be regarded as more suitable than other prominent paradigmatic stances, such as pragmatism. This article develops this argument by discussing the key terms within a distinguished understanding of pragmatism, from which a systems‐theoretical alternative to mixed methods educational research is derived, comprising three main themes: (a) second‐order observation as an alternative to abductive reasoning, (b) the distinction between system and environment as an alternative to intersubjectivity and (c) structural coupling as an alternative to the transferability of mixed methods research results. Throughout this article, the main arguments are elaborated with perspectives from educational research.