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Alex Viskovatoff - Foundations's of Luhmann's Theory of Social Systems - Notes

Alex Viskovatoff - Foundations's of Luhmann's Theory of Social Systems - Notes

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Published by Klara Benda
These are my reading notes for the following paper:
Viskovatoff, A., 1999. Foundations's of Luhmann's theory of social systems. Philosophy of Social Sciences 29, 481-516.

I cite passages which I found interesting for the argumentation, using quotation marks and page number references, and I make short summaries.

This is a very nice critique of Luhmann's theory of social system. The main point of the critique is that Luhmann does not give empirical reference for the term social system, his theory remains at an abstract level.
Viskovatoff says: “even though [Luhmann] “respecifies” system theory to deal with social systems, he does not do so in a way that enables him to deal with concrete social systems but remains immersed in the ontological/explanatory structure of the theory of autopoietic systems."
Later, he suggests a rethinking of Luhmann, called action theory, where he looks at how social system is created from the collections of individuals. He distinguishes intentionality and social aspects within individual consciousness, as well as meanings and social rules, or the semantic and syntactic aspects of consciousness. It is suggested that the social system follows rules like a computer program, mechanically, and works with semantic meanings. It has access to meanings, but cannot process meanings itself, so the social system can have no understanding of what it is doing - the point in Searle's Chinese room thought experiment.
These are my reading notes for the following paper:
Viskovatoff, A., 1999. Foundations's of Luhmann's theory of social systems. Philosophy of Social Sciences 29, 481-516.

I cite passages which I found interesting for the argumentation, using quotation marks and page number references, and I make short summaries.

This is a very nice critique of Luhmann's theory of social system. The main point of the critique is that Luhmann does not give empirical reference for the term social system, his theory remains at an abstract level.
Viskovatoff says: “even though [Luhmann] “respecifies” system theory to deal with social systems, he does not do so in a way that enables him to deal with concrete social systems but remains immersed in the ontological/explanatory structure of the theory of autopoietic systems."
Later, he suggests a rethinking of Luhmann, called action theory, where he looks at how social system is created from the collections of individuals. He distinguishes intentionality and social aspects within individual consciousness, as well as meanings and social rules, or the semantic and syntactic aspects of consciousness. It is suggested that the social system follows rules like a computer program, mechanically, and works with semantic meanings. It has access to meanings, but cannot process meanings itself, so the social system can have no understanding of what it is doing - the point in Searle's Chinese room thought experiment.

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Published by: Klara Benda on Jan 31, 2009
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05/10/2014

 
Alex Viskovatoff - Foundations's of Luhmann's theory of social systems.
 Reading notes
Viskovatoff, A., 1999. Foundations's of Luhmann's theory of social systems. Philosophy of Social Sciences 29, 481-516.Summary of critique about Luhmann:“First, it is not clear what the status of Luhmann’s theory is: Luhmann himself takes ironic or indeed paradoxical positions on this question and declines to say that the theory is “true”(Luhmann 1987b).” p. 483.“Second, since the theory operates in its own hermetic conceptual world, it is not clear how itsconcepts relate to clearly identifiable empirical entities, and hence it is not clear how histheory can be linked up with “neighboring” empirical sciences such as psychology, social psychology, or biology (not to mention how it can be related to actors’ own self-understanding).” p. 483.“Both these problems are a direct consequence of Luhmann’s strategy of “unrestrainedexploration. “” p. 483.Luhmann used
conceptual exploration
. This was right at the time he started his work, because systems theory was itself not mature yet. Now, however, it has been consolidated, andthe time for conceptual exploration is over, sociology „must shift to a phase of consolidationof concepts.” P. 483.Background of Luhmann’s work:0. “It was only in the early 1980s, however, that his theory took on what he considered to be amore or less finished form, and he published his central work,
Soziale Systeme
(1984). Thiswas when Luhmann adopted
a new version of system theory— the theory of autopoieticsystems
 —whose principal originators were the Chilean neuroscientists Humberto Maturanaand Francisco Varela. In contrast to
the preceding system-theoretic paradigm
, which first
distinguishes a system from its environment
and then proceeds to describe system processes by relating them to
functions
that the researcher attributes to them, the new theoryradically dismisses all such talk on the grounds that the
old theory employs an observerrelative viewpoint
that need not at all correspond to the “phenomenology” of the system,taken as a unified entity “for itself.””p. 484.Maturana-Varela: Study living systems as they are for themselves. Self-production and self-organization1. “Luhmann had already made the first step some time before adopting Maturana’s theory inhis 1971 work, with the introduction of his concept of meaning (Sinn). The concept is derived phenomenologically but without reference to a specific system type as the representation by asystem of aspects of the current state of its environment that are of interest to it, together witha simultaneous reference to other possible states that are not currently instantiated. As ithappens, two types of systems operate over the medium of meaning: psychic systems
 
(Luhmann’s term for what philosophers and others ordinarily call minds) and social systems.” p. 486.2. “The second step was to posit that while psychic systems produce themselves by producingthoughts, social systems do so by producing communications; both thoughts andcommunications have meaning in exactly the same way.” p. 486-87“an
autonomous domain of the social
does indeed open up before one, with
human actors
 being situated, as Luhmann stresses
, in the environment of social systems
instead of composing them” p. 487.Comment Viskovatoff:“Thus, while social systems certainly need psychic systems as a “substrate” to function, it isnevertheless true that since the medium in which they operate—meaning—is as much the product of social systems as it is of psychic systems, it is no more improper to speak of communications without regard to the lower-level processes that “enable” them than it is tospeak, as philosophers commonly do, of mental events or processes without regard to theunderlying neural events and processes.” p. 487.
Critique of Maturana and Varela
Maturana and Varela dismiss the theory of the genetic code in their work, the widely accepted“conception of what distinguishes living from nonliving systems—the possession by theformer of a genetic program that allows cells to conduct in a controlled manner sequences of operations that have evolved through the process of natural selection” p. 488.“Indeed, it is hard to see how a cell would be able to exist without dying, much less “maintainits identity,” if it did not maintain in a fairly stable form a description of how to do so.” p.489.“Maturana and Varela’s (1980) rejection of the genetic explanation seems to be based on twoerrors.”:“First, they make a circular argument by rejecting the characterization of life in terms of teleonomy (directed but not teleological behavior guided by a program) on the grounds that by using concepts such as the genetic code, teleonomy uses observer-dependent descriptions,while a living system must be described in terms of its own internal organization.”confusing ultimate and proximate causation:“The authors argue that because the cell does not really decode the genetic information in itsDNA but merely carries on chemical reactions that make up its circular organization(proximate causation),” pp. 489-90.Viruses help show why autopoiesis in itself cannot explain life.
 
Critique about Luhmann:
Luhmann does not give the empirical reference for the term social system.“Might there not be a component missing at the fundamental level of description fromLuhmann’s theory—a component that not merely declares that systems produce themselves but actually explains how social autopoiesis takes place—that isolates mechanisms analogousto the mechanisms of gene transcription and protein synthesis of the cell?” p. 492.“System theory departs from a very abstract characterization of its object domain [...]and askswhat of a general nature can be said about such entities without paying attention to thespecific qualities of these unities and parts but only to the relations between them. Empiricalscience, on the other hand, does pay attention to specific qualities of the entities with which itdeals, and the way it does so is by looking at different kinds of entities separately.[...]It is not too hard to determine the “separation of labor” between the empirical sciences andmore abstract disciplines such as system theory. Only the former can provide valid andcomplete scientific explanations.” pp. 492-93.“Accordingly, it makes no more sense to say, as Luhmann (1995, 12; 1984, 30) does, that“there are systems” without specifying what kind of systems—chemical, biological, or whatever—than it does to say that “there are Euclidean planes”: both concepts areabstractions with no empirical referent.” p. 493.“even though [Luhmann] “respecifies” system theory to deal with social systems, he does notdo so in a way that enables him to deal with concrete social systems but remains immersed inthe ontological/explanatory structure of the theory of autopoietic systems. p. 494.“in order for the theory of social systems to be an adequate scientific theory (and that meansan empirical and explanatory theory), it must be able not only to describe the social domain by saying that it consists of communications but also to explain (or at least point to anexplanation) how communications come about. All that it is able to do, however, is to refer tothe definition of autopoietic systems, which is that they produce themselves by producingtheir elements. Thus, communications are produced because it is in the “nature” of socialsystems to produce them.” p. 494.

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