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Some Theoretical Aspects

of
Systemic Learning
Max Miller
July 2002

Institut fr Soziologie
Universitt Hamburg
Allende-Platz-1
D-20146 Hamburg

Tel.: +49 (40) 428383638


miller@sozialwiss.uni-hamburg.de
http://www.sozialwiss.uni-hamburg.de/Isoz/isoz/miller/main.html

to be published in:
Sozialer Sinn
Verlag Leske + Budrich
Heft 3/2002

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

Contents

1.

Introduction:
Three Basic Questions Regarding Systemic Learning

2.

Structural Knowledge

3.

How Can Novelty Arise?

4.

Learning Systems

5.

Blocked Processes of Systemic Learning

6.

Organizational Learning

7.

Learning and Evolution

8.

Learning and Rationality

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

Abstract
In the first part of the article, some central components of a theory of systemic learning as the
basic form of supraindividual learning are outlined. Systemic learning relates to a specific form
of knowledge: structural knowledge; it presupposes the exploration of differences as the central
learning mechanism; and its essential agens can be identified as social discourse or systems of
communication. It is not the intentions of individual agents but the logic of discourse systemic
learning essentially depends on. If the continuation of discourse is externally determined by
individual intentions and interests to such an extent that consensus or dissensus pathologies arise,
learning will be blocked, and forms of an authoritarian, defensive, ideological, or regressive
learning will result.
In the second part of the article, the previously developed basic model of systemic learning is
applied to the analysis of some problems of organizational and societal learning. Finally, it is
argued that the overall sociological significance of a theory of systemic learning is also related to
the fact that it enables new insights into the structure of socio-cultural evolution and the relation
between planning and evolution. The article closes with an analysis of the rationality dimension
of systemic learning.
Keywords: Argumentation, difference, discourse, discourse theory, collective learning, social
learning, systemic learning, discourse learning, knowledge, structural knowledge, mutual
knowledge, dissensus, logic of discovery, social systems, systems-theory, organizational learning,
single-loop learning, double-loop learning, deutero-learning, societal learning, planning, sociocultural evolution, rationality

Im Artikel werden im ersten Teil einige zentrale Komponenten einer Theorie des systemischen
Lernens als der Grundform eines supraindividuellen Lernens skizziert. Systemisches Lernen
bezieht sich auf eine bestimmte Form des Wissens: strukturelles Wissen; es setzt die
Explorierung von Differenzen als Lernmechanismus voraus; und es erfordert als eigentliches
Agens des Lernens soziale Diskurse bzw. Kommunikationssysteme. Nicht die Intentionen des
einzelnen Akteurs sondern die Logik des Diskurses ist es, von der systemisches Lernen im
wesentlichen abhngt. Wenn Diskurse in dem Mae extern durch individuelle Intentionen und
Interessen determiniert werden, dass Konsens- bzw. Dissenspathologien entstehen, ergeben sich
bestimmte Lernblockaden bzw. Formen eines autoritren, defensiven, ideologischen oder
regressiven Lernens.
Das im ersten Teil des Artikels entwickelte Modell des systemischen Lernens wird im zweiten
Teil auf einige zentrale Probleme des Lernens von Organisationen und des Lernens von
Gesellschaften angewandt. Vor allem aber zeigt sich die soziologische Bedeutung einer Theorie
des systemischen Lernens schlielich daran, dass sie neue Einsichten im Hinblick auf die
Struktur soziokultureller Evolution und auf das Verhltnis von Planung und Evolution zu
erffnen vermag. Der Aufsatz endet mit einer Analyse der Rationalittskriterien des
systemischen Lernens.
Schlagworte: Argumentation, Differenz, Diskurs, Diskurstheorie, kollektives Lernen, soziales
Lernen, systemisches Lernen, diskursives Lernen, Wissen, strukturelles Wissen, gemeinsames
Wissen, Dissens, Logik der Entdeckung, soziale Systeme, Systemtheorie, Organisationslernen,
gesellschaftliches Lernen, Planung, Steuerung, soziokulturelle Evolution, Rationalitt

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

1.

Introduction: Three Basic Questions Regarding Systemic Learning

Theories of supraindividual learning traditionally imply a radical conception of the social nature
and social construction of human progress and human misery. Sociological and psychological
classics, above all Durkheim, Mead, the early Piaget, and Vygotsky, claimed that not only ontogenetic and evolutionary potentialities but also that destructive and dysfunctional tendencies of
human societies can be described and explained on the basis of a theory of learning which relates
human learning to social processes; and the ideas of this theoretical tradition still continue to be a
source of inspiration for social scientists who either try to follow and to develop the line of
argumentation established by these classics or try to find rather new theoretical implications on
the basis of that classical approach. Moreover, social scientists who are worried about how
modern society can succeed in surviving its own self-endangering seem to be increasingly
attracted by notions of some kind of supraindividual or even societal learning. However, if it is
the explanatory scope and not the explanatory hope that counts then what is needed, first of all, is
a theory that defines supraindividual learning and from which a conceptual framework can be
derived for analysing social processes underlying both learning and learning blockages
In the following I will try to outline some basic elements of such a theory which, in order to stress
its essential features, could also be called a discourse theory of systemic learning. Unfortunately,
there is an inflationary use of the notion discourse in recent sociological literature, which tends to
deprive this notion of any specific meaning. Yet not only the notion of discourse but also other
focal notions such as social learning, collective learning, systemic learning, organizational
learning, societal learning etc. seem to be rather ill-defined up to present day. Frequently their
use only corresponds to a metaphorical meaning entailing that some desirable change is ascribed
to a macro-entity. However, it usually remains rather unclear whether this change is more than a
simple aggregation of individual learning processes; and the inevitable normative connotations of
any concept of (supraindividual) learning suggested so far have proved for the most part to be a
sham these concepts of supraindividual learning are usually withdrawn if further inquiries into
their normative basis are made.
But what does it mean to say that supraindividual entities can learn, and how can the normative
aspects of learning (on a social level) be justified? The following considerations proceed from the
assumption that any progress in understanding these fundamental issues relies heavily on the
possibility of gaining at least some preliminary insight into three basic and interrelated questions
any theory of supraindividual learning is confronted with: Who learns? (1), What is learned? (2),

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

and How can learning come about? or (phrased somewhat differently:) What are the mechanisms and processes underlying supraindividual learning? (3).
It is truly amazing how much the first question Is it individual human subjects or organizations,
agents or systems, that learn? has obscured the fact that it is essentially the last of these three
basic questions, i. e. the question regarding mechanisms and processes, which involves a rigorous
break with the great majority of contemporary theories of learning and development. This
question, above all, seems to open new horizons for developing a theory of supraindividual
learning and for clarifying the normative connotations of concepts of learning. Whereas
behavioristic, nativistic (maturational), cognitive, and computer-based theories, which are
currently predominant in the social sciences, bring into focus the individual as an individual, a
theory of supraindividual learning focusses on social learning processes, or, more specifically:
on communication and discourse. Hence, the assumption that some kind of learning is
supraindividual essentially entails the presupposition that corresponding learning processes are
social by nature1.
For reasons which, I hope, will become clearer in the course of this paper, agency either in
form of individual subjects or, derivatively, of some collective or corporative actors is a necessary prerequisite for any learning processes. There has to be a causa efficiens for any learning
process and there has to be some memory either in the form of human memories and/or of some
kind of media from books to hard disks by means of which the results of learning processes can
be stored. But what is specific about learning processes, what differentiates them from other
human actions and events, even from intentional thought processes of individual agents, is
precisely what systematically transcends the subjectivity and peculiar identity of the agents
involved. Learning processes constitute a reality sui generis in the Durkheimian sense, a social
reality which cannot be adequately described and explained by tracing it back entirely to cognitive
processes in an individual mind. In the language of recent systems-theoretical approaches
(Luhmann 1997) this can be reformulated as we shall see more clearly later on - as follows:
agents are the surroundings, the sine qua non of social systems that learn, but it is only specific
operations of social systems, specific forms of discourse, that make learning possible at least
learning of a certain type: the emergence of novel structural knowledge.
1

In earlier work on language development (Miller 1979) and cognitive and social-cognitive
development (Miller 1986) I have even tried to show that the acquisition of structural
knowledge in individual subjects necessarily presupposes social learning processes although
these social processes do not sufficiently explain the development of structural knowledge (there
are also inborn capacities and monological construction processes).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

In the following I will try to present and to systematically explicate some basic modules of a
theory of systemic learning. Given the very restricted publication space of an article it will,
however, not be possible to deal with even the most central questions and arguments in adequate
detail; emphasis is rather laid on giving a coherent outline of the possible architecture of a theory
of systemic learning.
First of all, an effort will be made to answer the three basic questions mentioned above. I will
begin with an analysis of the kind of knowledge on which a theory of social or systemic learning
is apparently focussed on (structural knowledge). This is followed by the question regarding the
mechanisms and processes of learning. If developmental psychologists tend to view the learning
human subject as a "free standing isolable being who moves through development as a selfcontained and complete individual" (Kessen 1979: 819), is there, nevertheless, convincing theoretical evidence enabling us to argue that the emergence of novel basic knowledge results from
social communication processes? Following this, the question will be raised Who learns?, and I
will try to show that it makes perfect sense to state that systems can learn. Before I take up the
argument that a corresponding theory of systemic learning opens new perspectives for
understanding organizational and societal learning, I will raise another basic question regarding
the concept of discourse learning underlying the theory of systemic learning: Under what
conditions will discourse facilitate and under what conditions will discourse block learning
processes?
The final two sections of the article will be related to questions concerning the overall sociological significance of a theory of systemic learning. The first question refers to the relation
between learning, planning, and evolution; and the second and last question refers to normative
connotations and concepts of rationality implied by a discourse theory of systemic learning.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

2.

Structural Knowledge

In common sense terms learning2 relates to the origin and the increase of very different kinds of
abilities. Human subjects learn to walk, to talk, and, later on at school, to write and read and
calculate. They learn vocabularies, concepts and theories, to feel emotions and to repress them,
and to apply methods for solving problems within different task domains; and, finally, they learn
how to submit much of what has been learned to critical testing. In short, every pattern of
behavior that characterizes a grown-up, biologically mature and socialized exemplar of our
species living under specific historical and socio-cultural conditions has, in common sense terms,
been learned, although the conditions for learning can, at least partially, differ considerably, for
example, in the case of motor, linguistic, conceptual and emotional development. Accordingly, a
theory of systemic learning is not only confronted with the question what the social mechanisms
and processes underlying learning are, but also with the question concerning the domains of
human competence and knowledge to which such a theory of supraindividual learning can be
applied.
Undoubtedly, an individual and monological subject can learn something on the basis of
experience. For example, he or she can learn a poem by heart, learn how to play a musical instrument, learn the vocabulary of a foreign language, or learn strategies for the manipulation of the
magic cube; moreover, he or she can search for information and thus almost limitlessly expand
his/her factual knowledge about the natural and social world. In the following such learning that
can obviously be performed by individual and monological subjects will be labelled cumulative
learning or relative learning.
Cumulative or relative learning already presupposes certain structures of knowledge. For
example, vocabulary learning presupposes the knowledge of lexical, syntactic and semantic
structures; the expansion of factual knowledge about the natural world already presupposes
formal or logical structures of reasoning (e. g., elementary rules of formal logic or more complex
logical operations such as hypothetical thinking) and basic concepts (e. g., the concept of
2

In developmental psychology the terms learning and development possess rather different
theoretical connotations. Usually the term learning is related to empiricistic or behavioristic
approaches, the term development (and acquisition) to rationalistic, maturational or constructivistic approaches (cf. e. g. Chomsky's theory of language development and Piaget's theory of
cognitive development). In the following, however, the terms learning and development are
used simply as stylistic variants for referring to ontogenetic and evolutionary processes of any
kind. The rationale for this is to make it clear, also terminologially, that the theory of social and
systemic learning, presented here, can neither be immediately related to empiricistic or

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

permanent objects or more complex concepts such as Euclidean and non-Euclidean space) both of
which will guide any search for new information about the natural world; and the expansion of
factual knowledge about the social world already presupposes, besides formal or logical
structures of reasoning, specific hermeneutic procedures (which can essentially be defined as the
total set of knowledge-structures underlying linguistic and communicative competence) and basic
concepts (e. g. the concept of social norms or more complex concepts such as that of the social
system, of justice or of democracy). All of these structural presuppositions will guide any quest
for new information about the social world. In the following, these structural presuppositions of
any kind of knowledge, social or natural, will be labelled structural knowledge and the corresponding type of learning structural learning. Structural knowledge refers to the central component of individual and collective problem-solving behavior.
How is structural knowledge organized? Of course, there are as many answers to this question as
there are models of human thought and memory. But, at least in philosophy and psychology, most
efforts to describe structural knowledge proceed from a distinction made by Ryle (1949) who
emphasizes the difference between knowing how and knowing that. Similarly, Anderson (1976,
1990), for instance, posits two basic kinds of knowledge: procedural and declarative knowledge.
Moreover, it has been suggested that the procedural-declarative distinction should be
supplemented by two further distinctions, the distinction between implicit (or tacit) and explicit
knowledge (cf. e. g. Karmiloff-Smith 1992) and the distinction between accessibility and nonaccessibility of knowledge (cf. Kirsh 1991). To some extent these distinctions seem to form
certain natural clusters; as Dienes & Perner (1999) put it: procedural knowledge tends to be
implicit and, therefore, inaccessible, whereas declarative knowledge involves quite explicit
representation of its content, tends therefore to be conscious and accessible for different uses.
However, there are overlaps regarding these different dimensions of knowledge. For example, as
will be argued in the following, propositional or declarative knowledge also has a partially
implicit, partially explicit form. And most importantly, to the extent that tacit knowledge is
accessible at all, it can be converted into explicit knowledge; i. e., at least some procedural
knowledge can also be converted into declarative or propositional knowledge.
An especially interesting case of knowledge that is a fusion of knowing how and knowing that is
knowledge of rules (understood as norms which either guide or constrain behavior or thought).
As Ryle (1949) has already observed, rule-governed behavior can be characterised by a certain
behavioristic nor to rationalistic, maturational, or constructivistic theories of learning or
development.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

degree of self-reflection in which the agent goes through a kind of self-monitoring process which
may lead to a change of performance while it is happening. Chomsky (1980, 1986) even
introduces the term cognizing to denote the relation persons can have to their implicit knowledge
of rules of language. As Chomsky describes it, cognizing is a matter of knowing that, which is to
say it is propositional and may involve belief (1980: 93-94; 1986: 269). At this point, however, a
last distinction regarding structural knowledge needs to be mentioned. Whereas rules of pure
syntax or grammar do not become objects of a possible change once they have been converted
into knowing that, the case is rather different in the broader domain of communication and
discourse. Rules defining who can say what, in what mode, and under what circumstances can
and often will be changed once they are converted from procedural into declarative or
propositional knowledge; and this also holds true for all kinds of conventions that extend into
non-linguistic realms.
All in all, it appears that it is declarative or propositional knowledge a theory of systemic
learning should focus on. Structural knowledge, in the sense of declarative or propositional
knowledge, can essentially be described as knowledge of arguments and systems of arguments (cf. Klein 1980; Miller 1986: 207-406). Arguments are abstract structures consisting of propositions; a set A of propositions p is an argument, if and only if for all p A, p is either basically
(or immediately) accepted or p follows from other elements of A by certain rules, which can be
called transition rules. As Stephen Toulmin (1958) has shown, these rules of inference can be
subcategorized according to different domains of argumentation, e. g. empirical and normative/moral domains.
If structural knowledge is understood in this way, it has, on principle, a partly implicit and partly
explicit form. Any transition between propositions can be made explicit; or at least one can try to
make it explicit, for example if a transition becomes controversial and therefore has to be explicated and possibly justified. Children sometimes like to play with this possibly infinite structure
of an argument. They continue to repeat their why-questions, forcing you to explain your
transitions or inferences up to a point where you are exhausted and simply give up. Although, on
principle, there may be an infinite hierarchy of transitions or inferences for any argument, human
knowledge is limited (relative of course to persons, times and places). Sooner or later one arrives
at a point where the last (nth) explication presupposes some implicit grounds that cannot be
further explicated: basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are propositions concerning any field of
knowledge, and they are propositions which are taken for granted at least temporarily. They
constitute the explicit or at least explicable knowledge basis of any structural knowledge for any

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

10

given person at a given point of time. They are final reasons that seem to be self-evident and
therefore need not be further disputed; and once they nevertheless are subject to dispute they
simultaneously lose their immediate power of persuasion.3 Apparently, basic beliefs have an
immediate power of persuasion only if, in collective argumentations, they are accepted as
collective beliefs or collectively valid beliefs; and this can be taken as first grounds for the view
that discourse plays a significant role in the reproduction and possible change or development of
collective beliefs upon which any structural knowledge is ultimately founded.
By analogy to the logic of argument one can speak of a logic of argumentation which is concerned with the cognitive and communicative procedures underlying the joint efforts of the
participants in a collective argumentation to develop a joint argument as an answer to a jointly
identified controversial question (primary and possibly contrafactual action goal). One of the
possible answers to the quaestio of an argumentation has to be converted into a collectively
accepted statement on the basis of collectively accepted statements. Let us, first of all, try to
follow the analogy with the logic of argument in order to understand the coordination problems
that have to be solved by the participants in a collective argumentation in order to reach the
primary action goal.
All propositions that are accepted by all members of a social group at some time t are, in this
sense, collectively valid for that group at that time. Accordingly, a set A of propositions p is a
joint argument for a given group, when for every p A, p is either collectively valid from the
outset or follows by collectively valid transitions from other elements of A. Every proposition
advanced and every transition used in a contribution by some participant may be disputed by
another participant; if so it is not collectively valid and has to be traced back to other propositions
which hold for all participants. What is agreed upon doesn't need to be argumentatively decided,
of course, and this accounts for the fact that the arguments arising in real argumentations often
seem so fragmentary or at first glance even incoherent.
However, if one only follows the analogy to the logic of argument in order to understand the logic
of argumentation one misses a fundamental aspect of the logic of argumentation which may
precisely account for the capacity of discourse to function as a social learning process. A logic of
argument takes the basic propositions or premises for granted and is essentially concerned with
rules of inference, which, at least in the case of classical formal logic, always lead from true

Wittgenstein calls the implicit grounds of basic beliefs conventions (cf. 1958: 24). and life forms
(cf. 1960: 23).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

11

premises to true conclusions. A logic of argument is essentially a logic of justification4. But


within the conceptual frame of a logic of justification we cannot understand where collective
beliefs underlying any structural knowledge originate and how they can change in a way that truly
deserves the title of learning. Hence, the question arises whether and in what sense the logic of
argumentation can also be explicated as a logic of discovery, the application of which may result
in a pervasive change of basic beliefs5. It appears that without an empirical reconstruction of that
grammar of discourse, we won't be able to develop a full-fledged discourse theory of social and
systemic learning.
But should we follow that path of reasoning at all? So far it has only been argued that there are
some grounds for developing a theory of supraindividual learning. However, could not the change
and development of structural knowledge at least in the last analysis still be revealed as
essentially a monological construction of individual subjects as, indeed, celebrated minds in 20th
century cognitive psychology have tried to show?

The distinction between a logic of justification and a logic of discovery can be traced back to
Reichenbach (1938) who proposed a sharp distinction between the context of justification and
the context of discovery and argued that a philosophical theory of science should be only
concerned with the context of justification, not with the actual (cognitive and social) processes
by which ideas are developed.
In the philosophy of science the view that processes of innovation and discovery are not
amenable to conceptual analysis still predominates (cf. e. g. Nickles 1980). However, this view
has been challenged e. g. by Hanson (1972), Hintikka (1985), and Sintonen (1996).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

3.

12

How Can Novelty Arise?

There are, basically, two approaches to explain how novel structural knowledge can emerge,
genetic individualism (according to which all learning may be, in the last instance, traced back to
mental activities of individual and monological subjects) and genetic interactionism (according to
which structural learning may be traced back to social discourse processes).6
Undoubtedly, the mentalistic versions of a genetic individualism which were levelled against
empiricist (behaviorist) theories of learning (roughly half a century ago and in the years thereafter) proved to be very productive and inspiring for an empirical study of structural learning.
Never before has there existed such an impressive number of scientific findings in relation to the
following questions: Which judgemental abilities do children and adolescents possess at different
developmental stages with regard to the world of nature and to the world of social relations?
Which mental structures underlie these judgement abilities? And in which sense can this
development be interpreted as a progression to rationally higher forms of judgement? However,
the question concerning the underlying development and, above all, the question concerning the
rise of new structural knowledge and concerning how it can be learned on the grounds of
experience - these questions have remained a complete mystery. But it is legitimate to expect that
a theory of learning or development can give an answer to the question how novelty can arise.
Even more important, this question leads to a decisive test for evaluating the explanatory
adequacy of the competing approaches of genetic individualism and genetic interactionism.
The question how novelty can arise seems to lead directly to the old learning paradox which
Plato already presented in his dialogue Meno (cf. Platon 1968: 21), where Meno asks how it is
possible to engage in a search for knowledge of something entirely new. Novel knowledge cannot
be derived completely from old knowledge, or it would not be new. Yet the transcending part of it
cannot be completely new either, for then it could never be understood. How can a theory of
learning come to grips with that paradox?7
Ryle (1967: 325) paraphrases the paradox in Platos Meno in the following way: "If a man does
not know something, how can his inquiry succeed? For he will not recognize whether what he
arrives at is what he had been looking for. Alternatively, if he had known what he was looking
for, he would not have needed to look for it.". According to Ryle, the puzzle that is created by this
6
7

Cf. the extensive discussion of these two approaches in Miller (1986).


Cf. the exposition and discussion of the Meno Paradox within the theoretical frame of learning
theories in Miller (1986). Although the Meno Paradox sharply exposes the problems of explain-

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

13

paradox is that "the conclusion of this obviously sophistical argument, if accepted, would show
that it is never any use trying to find out anything. Neither thinking nor any other kind of
investigation could possibly achieve its aim". What Ryle suggests is that this paradox of knowledge, learning, and teaching is not a real paradox - a paradox that is grounded in reality - but a
theoretically induced paradox, a theoretical artifact which may derive from the way in which we
represent reality to ourselves, in this case the reality of learning. And, indeed, as we will see in a
moment, individualistic theories of learning tend to create such a theoretical artifact, which gives
structural learning the appearance of an unresolvably paradoxical task.
What is new (new basic knowledge) cannot be identical with what is old (already existing basic
knowledge), neither can it be simply derived from what is old, because then there couldn't be any
new knowledge. "The abstractness of novelty is necessary, it is just as unknown as the most
frightening secret of Poe's pit." writes Adorno in his sthetische Theorie (1973: 37). On the other
hand, what is new cannot be completely unrelated to what is old, because then what is new could
never be understood and would be out of our cognitive reach.
Obviously, the Meno paradox raises the question concerning the role and significance of
experience for the development of knowledge. How can an individual subject attain those
experiences by means of which already existing (old) knowledge and the corresponding limits of
knowledge can be systematically transcended, for otherwise a subject couldn't learn anything that
is basically new in a structural sense. However, the range of possible and interpretable
experiences is determined and restricted by already acquired (old) knowledge and knowledge
structures. Hence, the very puzzling question arises as to how, nevertheless, a dimension of
experience can be constituted for an individual subject within which a transcendence of already
acquired knowledge and knowledge structures becomes possible. Now, the following argument
suggests that this transcendence cannot, on principle, be explained within an individualistic
framework:
If the transition from state (n) of knowledge to state (n + 1) necessarily also presupposes
experiences, these experiences cannot be arbitrary and random, they have to be relevant. However, what is relevant can only be defined from the knowledge perspective at state (n + 1) as a
function of the knowledge at state (n + 1). Consequently there cannot be any learning-relevant
experiences for a subject at the knowledge state (n) and thus there can be no experientially
grounded transition to state (n + 1).
ing how novel knowledge is created using existing knowledge, this has only rarely been noticed
by psychologists cf. as an exception e. g. Bereiter (1985).

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14

If relevance of experience is a function of developmental novelty which has not yet emerged,
learning subjects, as conceived by individualistic theories, would be in the situation of any of us
trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Since from a subject-theoretical perspective
information or experiences are always selections or constructions of subjects who process information relative to already existing (old) knowledge, subjects could only acquire new and basic
knowledge if they had a capability for self-transgression or self-transcendence. However, as soon
as this self-transgression or self-transcendence depends on experience, the same paradox as above
arises.
There have been two main currents of thought for interpreting and escaping from the epistemological and developmental dilemma of the Meno Paradox: the philosophical traditions of
rationalism and empiricism and their psychological successors nativism and behaviorism. Let us
confine ourselves to the latter two. Antagonistic as nativism and behaviorism may seem, they
nevertheless share a number of basic assumptions and theoretical strategies. They both conceive
of the difference between oldness and newness as the difference between subject (already existing
knowledge) and object (empirically possible knowledge), and they view processes of learning as
entailing a gradual reduction of this difference. Moreover, nativistic theories (e. g., Chomsky's
theory of language acquisition) and behavioristic theories (e. g., Skinner's theory of learning) both
try to circumvent the Meno Paradox by neutralizing the basic difference between subject and
object, although they do so in opposite ways. Whereas behavioristic theories deny that the subject
(innate and acquired structures of knowledge) plays an essential constitutive role for processes of
learning,

nativistic theories8 deny that the object (empirical experiences that systematically

transcend already existing subjective knowledge) plays such a role. Thus, in both cases it seems
as if there were no basic gap between subject and object or between old and new knowledge. In
other words, there seems to be no basic problem with how developmentally relevant experience
concerning structurally new knowledge can be constituted for the learning subject. However,
this appearance is deceptive, and Bruner (1978) is certainly right when he says (although in a
different context) that these two theoretical antipodes had to pay a price for their solution to that

Plato's attempt to demonstrate with his doctrine of recollection how learning can resolve that
paradox exhibits that he is one of the first advocates of innate ideas and principles. There is
nothing which the many-times-born, immortal soul does not already know; it only has to
remind itself of what it has forgotten in the passage from an earlier to its present life - which, as
Socrates says in Meno (cf. loc. cit., p. 22) - "is called learning by human beings". Yet, this solution is fictitious. How did knowledge ever get into an immortal soul, even in some previous life?
It is the Platonic dialogues as such which, however, point to a rather different form in which
learning takes place. This form is dialogue or argumentation.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

15

fundamental problem of learning; nativism resulted in a "magical" theory and behaviorism in an


empirically "impossible" one.
It has often been said that the outstanding significance of Piaget's genetic epistemology results
from his efforts to overcome the theoretical and empirical deficiencies of nativist and empiricist
theories of learning without abandoning their relevant insights. However, although Piaget did not
accept the nativists' and the behaviorists' one-sided escapes from the paradox of learning, at
least in his later writings he did accept a very decisive methodological assumption of these two
antipodes: the basic assumptions of genetic individualism. This imparts a key position to Piaget's
theory with respect to the question whether the Meno Paradox can be resolved within the framework of genetic individualism without neutralizing and distorting the fundamental problem
underlying that paradox: How can a learning subject's experiences lead him/her from his/her old
knowledge to some new knowledge that is based on his/her old knowledge and nevertheless
transcends it at a structurally higher level?9 Of course, Piagets theory is related to a vast array
of cognitive domains and fields of knowledge; and in the following no effort will be made to
assess the overall plausibility of Piagets theory of cognitive development. The focus of the
subsequent discussion will rather lie on declarative or propositional knowledge and on the
question how novel basic (propositional) beliefs can arise.
When years ago I read Piaget for the first time I was puzzled by the following question: How can
the interplay between accommodation and assimilation or the marvelous spiral of cognitive
development, in which experience determines knowledge and knowledge determines experience,
be more than a dynamics in standstill? In other words, how can the interaction between a subject
and the objects on which knowledge rests explain the subject's self-transcendence beyond already
attained structural knowledge to a higher one?
This puzzle returned when I found, at the center of Piaget's late work (e. g., 1972, 1975, 1980),
his concept of reflexive abstraction. Through this concept Piaget reformulates the psychological
processes of assimilation and accommodation as the logical processes of affirmation and
negation, i. e. as the processes by means of which a subject reflects on his/her already attained
knowledge and either reaffirms or negates some parts of it. Thus, Piaget conceives of cognitive
development as a process of constructing and becoming aware of the contradictions between
affirmations and negations and, moreover, as a process of "dialectically transcending those
contradictions". One could say that Piaget, in his late writings, reconstructs cognitive develop-

For a description and discussion of Piaget's theory cf. Miller (1986: 198-206 and 287-320).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

16

ment as a process of argumentation that is performed by an (isolated or monological) individual


subject.
Piaget explicates the process of reflexive abstraction as a succession of three phases of equilibration which underlie the developmental transition from old to new cognitive structures. The
whole process starts when the subjects experience disturbances of their actions or cognitive
operations, i. e., when they experience an incompatibility or clash between an intended purpose
and its attempted fulfillment. However, for this to function as a developmentally relevant and
decisive experience, the subject has to reconstruct these disturbances as reasoned or substantiated
negations of at least some part of already attained knowledge. It is the subject's construction of
negations, the construction of reasons for the deficiency of already acquired cognitive schemata
(which cannot adequately account for disturbances), which constitutes developmental experience.
The construction of negations thus represents for Piaget the experientially-based mechanism for
ascending from a lower to a higher level knowledge or from old to new cognitive structures.
But how can subjects find substantiated negations of that kind if this is precisely what exceeds
their already existing knowledge and defines its structural limits? How can the subject conceive of
negations which are based on an adequate cognitive representation of disturbances and which
relativize the validity of their affirmations in a way that is comprehensible to them?
If one works one's way through Piaget's complicated descriptions of the three phases of equilibration, there seems to be only one conclusion: in the end Piaget solves the paradox of learning
essentially by assuming a maturational type of developmental theory. Only if subjects already or
at least simultaneously conceive of a structurally higher level of knowledge can they construct
those reasoned negations which they have been looking for in order to overcome the limits of
lower and to ascend to a higher level knowledge: "(...) the use of negation makes progress only
with the gradual construction of whole structures, and does not become systematic until the latter
attain operatory status" (Piaget 1980: 296). "(...) contradictions (...) generally remain
unconscious for so long, since achieving awareness of them presupposes the construction of
negations not given at the start. And when this construction does take place, it then leads simultaneously to both conscious apperception and transcendence of any such contradictions" (Piaget
1980: XVII).
In Piaget's late equilibration model the transcendence of contradictions between affirmations and
negations presupposes the construction of negations, which, in turn, presupposes the transcendence of these contradictions. This circularity is a dynamics in standstill, and it makes it

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

17

incomprehensible how the construction of negations can be an experientially grounded developmental mechanism - in a sense which overcomes the deficiencies of nativist and behaviorist
explanations. Moreover, there is a strong tendency in Piaget's theory to view the construction of
negations as an endogenous process, which essentially relies on autoregulative mechanisms
founded on the biological constitution of human subjects. Now, it is not Piaget's recourse to some
biological foundations of developmental mechanisms which makes me sceptical of his theory.
Any theory will rest on mysteries at some point. However, Piaget has clearly failed to supply a
noncircular and coherent explanation of the transition from old to new cognitive structures which
would show how new cognitive structures can transcend old ones and still be within the reach of a
learning subject, i. e., how experience can bridge the fundamental gap between old and new
knowledge. Piaget dodges this basic difficulty of the paradox of learning in a way which closely
resembles the theoretical strategy of nativism.
Within the framework of genetic individualism there seems to be no way out of this paradox. The
Meno Paradox is a paradox of genetic individualism. Genetic individualism has to distort it in
order to find an escape.
If individual and monological argumentations seem to be incapable of achieving structural selftranscendence how about collective argumentations? Can discourse bridge the fundamental gap
between old and new structural knowledge? Can an objective context of discovery created in
collective argumentations provide a dimension of experience for the discovery of novel structural
knowledge?10
Objective contexts of discovery generated in social discourse share a number of basic properties
of Poppers third world, the world of objective thoughts (cf. Popper 1972). An objective
context of discovery can be defined and delimited as the network of possible meaningful connections that mediate between and eventually reconcile opposing views, thesis and antithesis,
developed in a collective argumentation.11 Moreover, an objective context of discovery although
created in a discourse by individual subjects - gains the autonomy of a self-sufficient domain of
meanings which can be explored and analyzed almost like an autonomous text in order to find
solutions to problems, a possible synthesis of thesis and antithesis. Finally, as long as a collective
argumentation lasts, an objective context of discovery is constantly changing: it may shrink or
expand. The corresponding discourse processes are anything but arbitrary. On the whole they
10

Cf. for the following Miller (1986: 246-341).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

18

depend on how the participants proceed in order to achieve a mutual understanding of what is
controversial in their dispute.
Of course, objective contexts of discovery also exist even if discourse participants hardly or only
partially understand each others point of view. However, if there are differences in observing
differences and this is more or less always the case in human discourse and conflict exploring
the objective context of discovery basically means exploring differences and differences of
differences and so on. Such an exploration may perhaps never lead to a perfect mutual
understanding of all differences, yet any discourse will at least to some extent strive for a clarification of differences, because otherwise discourses might easily lapse into absurdity and end up
with solutions to unknown differences or with answers for which there are no (longer) shared
questions. To explore an objective context of discovery basically means to explore differences in
an effort to create a mutual understanding of differences, i. e. to create a coordinated and, in this
sense, rational dissensus12. A rational dissensus implies that on the basis of what is or has been
collectively accepted the persons involved succeed in understanding what precisely isn't collectively accepted. Even initial attempts to move in that direction may require a change and possibly
a progressive extension or even discovery of (novel) basic beliefs. Hence - and this is of utmost
importance for understanding the basics of discourse learning - argumentations are dissensusdriven mechanisms of learning, and, in order to release structural learning processes, it is not
even necessary to achieve a perfect consensus on dissensus, a substantial agreement on
disagreements. It is only necessary that processes of mutual understanding of differences should
begin; and the more complex and opaque the differences are, the more radical and profound
learning can be.
In conclusion, a discourse theory of learning suggests the following solution to the paradox of
learning dealt with in this section: Objective contexts of discovery provide for an interrelation
between oldness and newness that preserves the abstractness and transcendence of structural
novelty on the one hand and, on the other hand, maintains the possible opening of multiple paths
that may lead from old to new structural knowledge. Novelty doesnt fall from the sky, neither is
it wholly contained in genetic programs as inborn ideas, it manifests itself as an objective context
of discovery that mediates between thesis and antithesis; and as discourse proceeds, novelty can
11

12

Oevermann (1991: 321) has suggested a somewhat similar social context for the emergence of
novelty. Oevermann assumes that in socially generated contexts of a crisis (in einer objektiv
vorliegenden Krisenkonstellation) the scope of possible solutions is already objectively defined.
Cf. also Miller (1992 a,b). Cf. also the last section of this article which deals with problems of
learning, rationality, and normativity.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

19

emerge in the form of a structurally new argument which may strike the persons involved rather
unexpectedly and frequently even leave them in a state of shock.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

4.

20

Learning Systems

If it is basic beliefs and knowledge structures (including structures of discourse) that a theory of
supraindividual learning should focus on, and if structural learning is discursive learning, what
about the third basic question any theory of supraindividual learning is confronted with? Who is
it that learns on higher aggregated social levels? Is it individual agents, groups of agents or social
systems that learn?
Often learning on higher aggregated social levels is conceived of as the learning of social groups,
whose membership may range from a small number of persons present to all members of a
(world)society. The question regarding the agency of supraindividual learning then leads to the
further question how individual and group learning are related to each other. However, if posed in
this way, the question Who learns? can apparently find only one answer: a social group can only
learn if the individuals forming this group can learn. Group learning presupposes individual
learning. A learning process and some outcome of a learning process can only be attributed to a
group of human beings if at least a majority of the individual members constituting that group
can be said to have performed that learning process. From this point of view the supraindividual
property of supraindividual learning consequently shifts from agency to process: individual
persons and social groups only change and develop basic views and approach objective
knowledge if the corresponding processes of learning are an integrative component of a specific
kind of social process, social communication, which is triggered by a dissensus and which is
performed by its participants at least with the intention of jointly identifying and jointly resolving
dissensus (cf. also Miller 1986).
However, in a very basic systems-theoretical sense the preceding sections of this article have
already indicated a systemic dimension of structural learning which goes beyond mere group
learning and which also sheds new light on the question of agency (understood as the possible
source or movens) of supraindividual learning. Traditionally, agents are presumed to be disposed
toward purposive action; and, indeed, individual subjects can intend to learn in a cumulative or
relative sense (cf. the distinction between cumulative/relative learning and structural learning
above). For example, an individual person can intend to learn a poem by heart or to learn the
vocabulary of a foreign language; and, given certain individual predispositions, the intention to
learn will suffice to bring the learning about. This is fundamentally different in the case of
structural learning. Although an individual subject may also intend to develop novel structural
knowledge, e. g. to find a cure for hitherto incurable diseases or to find a pareto-optimal

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

21

distribution of rights and obligations in our society, the intention to learn does not simply suffice
to make this learning happen otherwise we would already have been living in the best of all
possible worlds for quite some time. The discovery of novel knowledge for solving so far
unsolvable problems is not a matter of intentions or decisions, it cannot simply be produced by
fiat. Structural learning is basically an unintentional process. It is a process which only accidentally depends on the purposes of individual agents. Certainly, there have to be human agents
who intend to develop novel structural knowledge and who will try to grasp, to save and to apply
that knowledge once it emerges. However, the real movens of structural learning is neither the
intentions of agents nor their willingness, it is rather a discourse or argumentation which, by itself
alone, may push forward processes of structural learning, using individual agents and their minds
merely as a necessary vehicle or platform. The systemic property of structural learning
apparently entails some kind of double agency. Discourse or (as we shall see in a moment)
systems of communication are necessary conditions for enabling and constraining processes of
structural learning, individual agents are only necessary for materializing these events. This
systemic property of structural learning and its corollary for the agency issue can be stated more
precisley if one follows basic ideas of sociological systems-theory.
Just consider the sense according to which - as Niklas Luhmann (1991/92) aptly pointed out in
one of his last lectures at the University of Bielefeld - Talcott Parsons social theory can be
understood as an endless commentary on a single statement: action is system13. This statement
also summarizes the main thesis in Parsons early major work The Structure of Social Action
(1937) where, subsequent to his critique of utilitarianism, Parsons tries to analyze the
supraindividual conditions of action, which, at the same time, account for the possibility of social
order. Parsons showed that the Weberian distinction between means and ends only provides a
preliminary understanding of action. There are social prerequisites for the choice of any means
and ends. Society, the Durkheimian collective conscience, restricts the freedom of choice
regarding possible combinations of means and ends. Action only takes place if there are
collectively accepted values. What an action essentially is or signifies does not, at least in the
final analysis, essentially depend on who has carried out the action. Human agents are only
necessary in a merely accidental way. Hence it is not the action which must be subordinated to
the agent, it is rather the agent who has to be subordinated to the action; and, in this sense, action
is system.

13

As Niklas Luhmann (1991/92) has also pointed out, this statement has never been written down
by Parsons. It has only been passed on by word of mouth.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

22

In exactly the same sense, learning appears to be an emergent property of social reality and
social discourse. What is specific about (structural) learning processes is precisely what systematically transcends the subjectivity and peculiar identity or idiosyncrasy of any agents
involved. Hence, what has been said about actions in general also holds true for learning processes: it is not learning processes that must be subordinated to individual agents, it is rather the
agents who have to be subordinated to learning processes, if structural learning processes are to
happen at all. Precisely the individual and particular interests of agents - if emphasized at the
expense of the primary and supraindividual action goal of an argumentation - cause learning processes to fail (cf. the following section).
These basic systemic aspects of structural learning processes can be further illuminated if elementary insights of Niklas Luhmanns systems-theoretical approach (cf. Luhmann 1984, 1997)
are also taken into account. If the Parsonian approach can be summarized by the statement
action is system, in Luhmanns case the corresponding statement would presumably be:
system is difference. Luhmann is mainly interested in the questions how a difference between
systems and their environment comes about, how such a difference can be created, how it can be
reproduced and how it can evolve.
There is one crucial aspect of Luhmanns approach which I think clearly illuminates the distinction between agents and systems. This is Luhmanns basic concept of operative closure
(which in Luhmanns systems-theory has a meaning far beyond the distinction between agents
and systems). Operative closure (cf. Luhmann 1997: 92-119) means that systems create or construct themselves. Systems are fully autonomous regarding their operations. On the other hand
this means that they can never import any operations from their environment. Someone elses
thoughts will never be able to penetrate my mind; and thoughts as elements and operations of
psychic systems will never be able to penetrate social systems and to determine directly the
continuation of communication. And communications, as elements and operations of social
systems, will never be able to completely control the thoughts of individual subjects as long as
autopoiesis14 is preserved - if they do control the brains of individual subjects this is tantamount
to saying that the corresponding psychic systems have essentially been destroyed. System

14

Autopoiesis in Luhmanns approach means rather simply that social systems create, reproduce
and change themselves as long as communication can be chained and be locked into (systemspecific) communication in a meaningful way - otherwise systems will dissolve.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

23

environments can15 only irritate systems and thus cause them to continue their structural selfdetermination.
Accordingly, in Luhmanns theory of social systems, social agents (individual and corporate
actors) are dispersed into the environment of social systems. However strange this conception of
humans as an environment of social systems may sound, it only expresses in clearer terms what
we have already been taught by Parsons, namely that agents are only necessary for social
systems in a merely accidental way. As has been made clear by Luhmann over and over again,
systems can only exist in a corresponding environment; they depend in many respects on their
environment, there is no causal independence or isolation from the environment (cf. e. g.
Luhmann 1997: 68). Social systems understood as systems of communication necessarily
presuppose an environment where there are human beings - otherwise there would not be any
communication. However, in a very profound systems-theoretical sense Luhmann (1996: 261) is
also right when he states somewhat provocatively that only communication can communicate.
Whether there can be a meaningful continuation of communication does not essentially (but only
accidentally) depend on individual subjects; it essentially depends on supraindividual social
presuppositions, i. e. systemic conditions. But does it also make sense to say that social systems
or systems of communication or even simply discourse can learn?
If the systemic aspects of supraindividual learning entail that supraindividual learning is nonintentional and that it is discourse itself which fundamentally enables and constrains learning
processes, this certainly explains in what sense structural learning processes systematically
transcend the subjectivity of individual agents involved. Still, the objection could be raised that it
is only individual subjects who change their structural knowledge (systems of thoughts) as a
possible consequence of corresponding systemic learning processes. In order to make full sense of
the phrase that systems can learn, yet another condition would have to be fulfilled by learning
processes. Agency, in the case of learning, does not only require that some entity function as a
source or conditioning factor of learning processes, but that it also changes its own structures as

15

Actually Luhmann should not have said can but rather should or are expected to because
curiously enough - if one considers Luhmanns invective, usually directed against normative
and so-called critical theories - Luhmanns systems-theory entails a basic moral postulate at this
point (cf. also Luhmann 1997: 752).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

24

a consequence of these learning processes. If social systems learn, what are the structures that
change?16
Systemic learning may not only lead to novel structural knowledge that may change the
individual mind of persons (of course, in the sense of a structural self-determination), it may also
change or even create new rules or norms of discourse that define who may say what, to whom,
in what mode, and in what contextual setting (including time and place). But if discourse and
norms of discourse can become a subject matter of learning processes, this opens a totally new
dimension of supraindividual learning. It constitutes a third fundamental type of learning besides
cumulative and structural learning, namely self-referential discourse learning. In this case,
systemic or discourse learning is related to norms enabling and constraining possible forms of
discourse learning. Moreover, this self-reflexive type of learning or learning of learning entails
a change of structures that is related to the level of social systems or systems of communication
and not to the level of individual minds and systems of knowledge confined to individual minds.
Norms of discourse cannot simply be changed by individual subjects, they can only be changed
or developed by means of a social discourse itself; and as supraindividual entities par excellence
rules or norms of discourse clearly involve a system reference to social communication and not to
the minds of individual subjects.17
In conclusion, it really makes perfect sense to assume that social systems can learn. They can
provide for self-referential discourse learning, in the course of which new norms of discourse
may be developed that create new systemic learning conditions for developing novel basic beliefs
that can be related to different domains of knowledge - and, later on, it will be shown that this
concept of systemic learning also has considerable significance for understanding systemic
learning on highly aggregated social levels, namely organizational and societal learning. Of
16

17

In Luhmanns systems-theoretical approach structures of social systems are conceived as


expectations and expectations of expectations (Erwartungserwartungen) that may crystallize
to social norms.
Of course, also structural (propositional) knowledge involves a system reference to social systems because it places semantic constraints on possible continuations of social communication.
However, there still seems to be a basic difference between structural knowledge (including procedural knowledge that has been converted into declarative knowledge) and self-referential discourse knowledge regarding their possible system references. There is still propositional knowledge in the full sense of the term (arguments and systems of arguments) if structural
knowledge is developed on the level of individual minds (psychic systems), even if that
necessarily presupposes discourse experiences. However, no rules or structures of discourse (in
the full sense of the term) have been developed if an individual person changes his/her
communicative behavior or invents new rules or structures of discourse. Rules and structures of
discourse are exclusively properties of systems of communication, i. e. social systems. Cf. also

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

25

course, one always has to keep in mind that learning systems can only exist in an environment
containing individual subjects or agents and, moreover, that learning systems can only operate
successfully if there are structural couplings to psychic systems which presuppose language as a
medium of interchange.
Luhmann has never seriously been interested in developing a theory of systemic learning. In fact,
he had a rather strong aversion to the general notion learning, which for him symbolized the
emancipation-conservative school of thought in sociology (1987: 309). Luhmann even
expressed severe doubts that a social theory should have any preference at all for learning and
against non-learning. Why should learning be better than non-learning (cf. Luhmann 1987: 309)?
Obviously Luhmann was clearly aware of the normative connotations of any notion of learning,
and his scepticism was even aggravated when concepts of learning were applied to aspects of
social change and referred to planning and possible progress.
Of course, this dismissive attitude manifested by the unquestioned mastermind of recent sociological systems-theory towards sociologial learning theories is certainly worth considering; and
later on, I will even try to turn the tables and to argue that there are strategically important points
in the architecture of Luhmanns theory where, in my view, a theory of systemic learning is
urgently called for. Sociological systems-theory (as it has been developed by Luhmann) certainly
provides a vast array of basic insights that are at least worth discussing. However, as the
preceding and especially some still following discussions also suggest, it is reasonable to deviate
considerably from many arguments and basic premises that constitute Luhmanns specific brand
of systems-theory (cf. also Miller 1987a, 1994, 2002). This may open new horizons for
considering anew phenomena such as learning, systemic learning, organizational learning, and
societal learning without dropping those essential systems-theoretical insights which are mainly
related to concepts of a differentiation and an interrelation between action and structure, agents
and systems, or the psychic and the social domains of reality.
However, before I come back to some of these systems-theoretical issues especially related to
possible concepts of organizational learning, the relation between learning and evolution, and,
above all, the relation between learning and rationality, I will raise a last basic question concerning the concept of discourse learning. Frequently, people tend to believe that differences are
a potential for change, and in fact this is the central idea of a discourse theory of learning. However, in order to count as a theory, beliefs of such a kind have to fulfill at least the following
Wittgensteins (1960: 202) arguments against the possibility of a private language and the
discussions around that private language argument in Kripke (1982).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

26

minimal requirement: it must be possible to derive from the concepts developed in an empirically
testable way the conditions under which discourse may engender, and the conditions under which
discourse will block learning processes.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

5.

27

Blocked Processes of Systemic Learning

Unfortunately, as everybody knows, conflict and discourse do not always enable learning processes; they may also block all kinds of learning and, even worse, they may even be performed
with the goal of preventing any progress of knowledge. Hence, it is imperative for a theory of discourse learning that a clear-cut distinction be made between forms and structures of discourse
which can enable processes of structural learning (including self-referential discourse learning)
and those forms and structures of discourse which lead those efforts to fail, because otherwise
(without the possibility of such a distinction) the mere illusion of a theory has been created.
However, are there forms of discourse that systematically impede social learning processes? How
can the potential of differences or, more broadly, of conflicts be converted into a blockage of all
progress?
In general, social conflicts can be subdivided into three classes. The first class contains all those
conflicts in which the participants don't manage to agree even upon the nature of the conflict
itself. There are no common points of controversy; nor can these points be developed. Certain
domestic quarrels, riots between religious groups, scientific disputes and feuds between political
parties may undoubtedly serve as possible illustrations. In conflicts of such a kind social
communication is powerless, the persons involved might just as well stop talking, because
obviously they could talk to each other endlessly and still would not come to terms regarding a
joint definition of their conflict. In these cases resolution depends on whether the potentially
endless or infinite conflict can be transformed into a limited or finite conflict (cf. also Coser
1967) - in the latter case we arrive at the second class of social conflicts. Here the persons
involved at least succeed in jointly identifying a point or points of controversy, that is to say: they
generate at least to some extent - a coordinated and, in this sense, a rational dissensus; and, as
we have seen before, the corresponding processes of exploring differences can be of crucial
importance for processes of systemic learning. If, in addition, the persons involved (or rather:
their discourse) also succeed(s) in transforming some dissensus into a final consensus, we have
an example for the third class of social conflicts - a form of conflict which obviously does not
occur very often in social communication.
This classification of social conflicts suggests a high saliency to the category of infinite conflicts
for understanding how conflicts can be converted into forms of a systematically distorted

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

28

discourse18 which block any learning. Indeed, infinite conflicts seem to be blocked processes of
social learning par excellence. Sometimes they are even staged in order to prevent any public
learning processes. Ample evidence for that is provided by recent ethno-nationalistic conflicts for
example in the Balkans (cf. also Senghaas 1992). The transformation of a potentially infinite
conflict into a finite and negotiable conflict of interests is prevented on purpose and the conflict is
deliberately escalated up to a point where open aggression and violence can break out and thus
eventually provide an opportunity for pushing through ones interests by military means as ultima
ratio. Infinite conflicts (which, of course, can also occur within small groups) can be
instrumentalized by the parties involved for a politics of power and conquest. They illustrate
precisely what K. W. Deutsch (1969) had in mind when he defined power as the capacity to resist
learning.
Infinite conflicts can be categorized and differentiated into at least four global forms of a systematically distorted discourse which correspond to four ideal types of blocked processes of
learning: authoritarian learning, defensive learning, ideological learning and regressive learning
(cf. also Miller 1986, 1990). In all four cases processes of transforming a potentially infinite
conflict into a finite conflict are severely impaired; processes of acquiring a mutual understanding
of differences and thus processes of exploring an objective context of discovery for arriving at
possibly novel beliefs and problem solutions are inhibited from the very beginning. The basic
cause for these learning blockages is the same in all four cases: it is individual subjects or groups
of subjects who succeed in rigidly determining the continuation of a discourse according to their
power and individual purposes and interests. Subjective influences of such a kind will, if they are
strong enough, systematically distort and overrule the autonomous logic of discourse and hence
suspend processes of systemic learning.
In principle, there seem to be two basically different ways to distort a discourse and to overrule
the autonomous logic of discourse: either it is consensus or it is dissensus that is heavily enforced
from the outside, from the surroundings of a discourse. If this decisively determines the
continuation of a discourse learning pathologies will arise: consensus pathologies in the case of
authoritarian and defensive learning, and dissensus pathologies in the case of ideological and
regressive learning. Moreover, in the case of authoritarian and regressive learning it is
individual agents and certain individual interests and intentions that are the source of learning
18

The notion of a systematically distorted discourse was invented by Jrgen Habermas who used
this notion in seminars I attended as a philosophy student at Frankfurt University at the end of
the 1960s. Cf. also the distinction between communicative power and social power in Theorie
des kommunikativen Handelns (1981) und Faktizitt und Geltung (1992).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

29

blockages; in the case of defensive and ideological learning it is social groups or majorities and
certain group interests and intentions that are primary causes of learning blockages.
In the case of authoritarian learning some external factor will determine what belongs to the
realm of collectively accepted beliefs. Differing opinions, if they can arise at all, will not be
respected or approached in terms of their own line of reasoning. Authoritarian persons or
institutions tend to speak ex cathedra, and they will only accept learning processes that do not
challenge a predefined consensus, which is imposed on those who are affected by that authoritarian sphere of influence. An authoritarian learning system is based on imposition, coercion and
toughness. However, in modern times, authoritarian learning is not any longer and not so much
enforced by burning witches at the stake but rather by simply banishing certain kinds of conflicts
or dissensus from public discourse.
In the case of defensive learning19 power is exerted to enforce a predefined consensus in a much
more subtle and abstract way, as it can no longer be traced back to specific sources (as for
example personalized authorities). Defensive learning is based on a collective pattern of
defensive avoidance of dissensus. Not only will a possible dissensus be censured as it crystallizes; if a defensive discourse is confronted with a contradiction from the outside, this contradiction will immediately fall victim to some strategies of immunization. A striking example of such
dissensus-averse patterns of communication is provided in Reasons (1987) and Drners (1989)
analysis of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Both analyses show that there was a suppression of critical awareness of risks among the team of operators responsible for reactor 4. The operators were
members of a high-prestige occupational group, well-intentioned and highly motivated, and they
had recently even won an award for efficiency of production. Nevertheless their behavior showed
some of the pathologies of small, cohesive, elite groups that Janis (1972) and Janis & Mann
(1977) termed groupthink: a strong tendency to assure themselves of being right and to suppress
any self-criticism by means of a more or less implicit pressure to conform. This collective pattern
of defensive avoidance of dissensus prevented any ongoing critical learning processes among the
Chernobyl operators - "they had forgotten to be afraid of the dangerous beast they were driving"
(Reason 1987: 203). On the other hand, the group's over-confidence and collectively shared
"mixture of ignorance and complacency: something that is by no means a Russian monopoly in
those who control complex, hazardous systems" (Reason 1987: 203) seem themselves to be the

19

Defensive learning is a notion that has also been used by Holzkamp (1993), although in a different sense. In Holzkamps case this notion refers to individual learning processes which are
externally controlled and not properly related to relevant contents or tasks.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

30

result of some superordinate kind of maladaptive defensive learning process. The Chernobyl
operators' groupthink to a great extent only mirrors a specific kind of groupthink on the level of
society as a whole: the illusion of invulnerability and the belief in the impossibility of accidents
held by a society that is committed to the generation of energy through large-scale nuclear power
plants. However, if there is no dissensus, only catastrophes can engender learning processes - but
then, it may already be too late.
Ideological learning mirrors defensive learning in some ways. Ideological learning20 roughly
means that whatever can be learned must not place certain antagonisms in question. There is
dissensus that is rigidly believed to be insoluble. In a Kulturkampf, as the conflict between the
German government under Bismarck and the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s was called
for the first time, the adversaries no longer try to convince each other, they rather try to force the
opponents to their knees. Similarly, Huntington (1996) envisages a coming era in which a clash
of civilizations determines global world politics in such a way that conflicts will be of a religious
nature, deep-seated and endemic and likely to prove intractable. Huntingtons apocalyptic vision
certainly gives rise to many criticisms (cf. e. g. Skidmore 1998), yet obviously certain conflicts,
by their very form, serve the causes of intolerance, racism, and xenophobia. Of course,
ideological learning is not always an expression of that dark side of human nature, it can also
occur in less dramatic and less threatening ways when, for example, in sociology departments
there is a schism between adherents of quantitative versus qualitative methods or a dogmatic
controversy between advocates of different theoretical paradigms. However, in all cases there is a
dissensus between certain beliefs or systems of belief, which from the outset is not just presumed
to be irrevocable, but really is irrevocable because there is more interest in achieving a victory
than in listening to the other side.
As the expression regressive learning is an oxymoron that states and simultaneously revokes the
essential property of learning, this may already indicate the potentially pervasive nature of this
type of learning blockage. Regressive learning is based on a mode of argumentation which, since
ancient rhetoric and dialectic, has been regarded as a classical fallacy: argumentum ad hominem.

20

In Die Deutsche Ideologie Karl Marx (1846/1953) sets forth a theory of political ideology
which focusses on the relation between the special interests of a given class and the general
interests of society. Marx argues that class members or representatives falsely believe or come to
believe in the identity of their special interests and the general interests, and that ideologies of
such a kind are shaped by societal forces that help them survive criticism and refutation for a
long time. The concept of ideology used in the notion of ideological learning is somewhat
broader but still contains important elements of Marxs notion, namely the element of selfdeception and the element of the social formation of (false) beliefs.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

31

An argumentum ad hominem is any kind of argument that criticizes an opinion by pointing


something out about the people who accept that view rather than directly addressing the merits of
the ideas expressed; or an argument is simply rejected because the person stating it is rejected. In
such a discourse dissensus is, on principle, insurmountable. There is certainly no need to
illustrate this most common and often very emotional form of distorting a discourse from the
outset and of destroying any potential of differences as a means of enabling learning processes.
Indeed, the destructive potential of that learning pathology seems to exceed by far the
effectiveness of the other types mentioned above. A discourse which is systematically distorted by
applying that method can no longer transform and repair itself, because any communication is
rejected immediately once the opponent opens his/her mouth. Discourse truly regresses under
these conditions. Common grounds and a sense of community, if they existed before, erode since
they are no longer affirmed.
There is another respect in which regressive learning deserves special attention within the frame
of a theory of systemic learning. As already stated above, systemic learning only accidentally
depends on individual subjects and their willingness and intention to learn. To repeat: it is rather
the discourse or argumentation alone which may enhance processes of structural learning using
individual agents and their brains merely as a necessary vehicle or platform. This relation
between discourse and individual agents is turned upside down in blocked processes of learning.
Here it is really the individual intentions and purposes of agents that fully determine the
continuation or rather stagnation of discourse. Discourse becomes a vehicle for imposing ones
interests. In the sense of Heinz von Foersters (2000) distinction between trivial and non-trivial
machines21 one could also say that in the case of a systematically distorted discourse learning
systems are converted into trivial machines which, when given the same input, always produce
the same output. This causal determination and destruction of learning systems by means of
subjective interventions and intrusions upon the autonomous logic of discourse is most clearly
discernible in the case of regressive learning. Here relevance and acceptance of communication
regarding a coherent and proper continuation of discourse may even become totally dependent on
the individual and particular person who communicates. A learning system then, in Luhmanns
terminology, can no longer differentiate itself from its surroundings, its autopoiesis simply
dissolves.22

21
22

Cf. also Luhmann (2000, p. 73).


It is really amazing to realize the extent to which the concepts of communication developed by
Jrgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann in spite of many differences, of course nevertheless

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

32

To summarize, blocked processes of learning depend on certain relations between power and
communication that may lead to specific forms of systematically distorted discourse. Of course,
as most sociological approaches in understanding power (cf. e. g. Lukes 1986) emphasize, power
is neither inherently good nor evil but rather a basic resource for action in all human societies.
Power will only block learning processes if it systematically prevents the exploration of
differences and thus also prevents a potentially infinite conflict from being transformed into a
limited conflict that is mutually acknowledged and so could possibly be resolved. In its capacity
to reflect on rules and structures of discourse self-referential discourse learning represents the
only method for possibly breaking learning blockages. However, if there is a struggle between, as
Habermas (1992) would say, communicative power and social power the effectiveness of
systemic learning will possibly be very low at least, if looked at in the short term; and in the
long run, even if learning succeeded it could be too late.

converge in an essential feature that is also basic for the discourse theory of systemic learning
outlined in this article. The unforced force of the better argument - to take up a famous phrase
in the discourse ethics of Habermas - closely corresponds to Luhmanns notion of autopoiesis
(cf. Luhmann 1997, p. 67) which can only continue as long as a system is autonomous
regarding its structures and operations (communication) which in both cases excludes, in
terms of the discourse theory of learning, that individual agents, their interests, and their
authorship of communication play a decisive role in discourse and override the inherent
dynamics and autonomous logic of discourse.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

6.

33

Organizational Learning

In the preceding sections some assumptions and concepts basic to developing a theory of systemic
learning have been outlined. Of course, most of what has been written so far needs further
elaboration and explication. Nevertheless, the question arises as to whether and to what extent
this outline of a theory of systemic learning opens new perspectives for understanding
organizational and societal learning.
If there is anything that defines the central problem of an organization, it is the inescapable and
enduring human struggle of coping with uncertainty23. To organize means to reduce ambiguity
and uncertainty. But if there cannot be an ultimate solution to problems of uncertainty, if the
reduction of uncertainty at some point always involves the proliferation of uncertainty at a different point, how can organizations come to grips with the dilemma that purposive social action will
inevitably have unanticipated consequences (cf. Merton 1936)?
It is basically this problem which in the recent past has considerably changed organization theory.
Institutional theory and various kinds of neo-institutionalism have burst onto the organization
scene. Whereas previously organizations had been conceived almost exclusively as forms of
rational and economic decision-making, now something else came to the fore: the social
embeddedness of all organizational structures and processes or, as some have been saying (cf. e.
g. Ortmann et al. 1997), the return of society into our images of organizations. Social institutions
(understood as patterns of orientation and regulation24) can contribute to the absorption of uncertainty.
Of course, in organization theory there have been other basic attempts to deal with the problems
of uncertainty before the wave of neo-institutionalism spilled over us. Concepts like the garbagecan of decision-making, organizational anarchy, incremental decision making and muddling
through try to make it conceivable how rational decision-makers adapt to uncertainty. But the
underlying concept of bounded rationality can delimit uncertainty only in an arbitrary way.25

23

24

25

As Herbert A. Simon (1979: 501) formulates it: elaborate organizations can only be
understood as machinery for coping with the limits of mans abilities to comprehend and
compute in the face of complexity and uncertainty; cf. also Weick (1979).
This has been Arnold Gehlens (1983) definition of institutions. Following Gehlens insights
North (1990) has developed a rather clear and convincing distinction between institutions and
organizations.
In Luhmanns (1988a: 298) view this kind of rationality is practised in the dark like singing and
whistling in order to banish uncertainty and anxiety.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

34

There is an additional and not necessarily competing possibility for organizations to reduce
uncertainty, and that is learning. It may even be a superordinate possibility because organizational learning will certainly also involve issues regarding rational decision-making and the
institutional embeddedness of decisions. It doesnt come as a surprise therefore that there is a
strong demand for explanations of what it means to say that an organization learns. However, in
spite of the huge amount of literature (mostly in economics and business management) devoted to
this topic26, it doesnt seem to be outrageous to say that so far notions of organizational learning
have remained rather obscure.
It is often stressed that organizational learning must be distinguished from individual learning
(Pawlowsky 2001: 75); and sometimes one can find illuminating statements even where one
would have expected them least for example, when the doyen of behavioral decision theory
(which all in all is certainly committed to methodological individualism) once noted in an article
that there could be learning phenomena at the organizational level that go beyond anything we
could infer simply by observing learning processes in isolated individuals (Simon 1996).
However, even when there is talk about learning systems and different system levels27 of
learning, collective entities or macro entities are usually treated only metaphorically as superagents in a macro format. If one gets to the bottom of this figurative way of talking about
organizational learning it ordinarily turns out that, at the deepest level of analysis,
organizational learning appears to be nothing more than individual learning and the aggregation
and summing up of individual learning processes. There is admittedly abundant discussion of the
relations between agents and structures28: individual agents are supposed to change and develop
institutions, organizational systems or even organizational cultures on the basis of their individual
learning processes which, in turn, are influenced by the social or organizational contexts

26

27

28

Within the frame of this article it is not even possible to adequately discuss the work of the
founding fathers most frequently cited regarding a scientific approach to the field of organizational learning: Argyris & Schn (1978), Cyert & March (1963), and March & Olsen (1975).
Nor is it possible even to mention all the interesting and important work that has been done in
this field during the last years and decades. A comprehensive survey can be found in the
recently published Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge edited by Dierkes,
Antal, Child & Nonaka (2001). Cf. also The Annotated Bibliography of Organizational
Learning edited by Dierkes et al. (1999).
E. g. Pawlowsky (2001: 76), in his summary of recent work on organizational learning, distinguishes four analytical levels of learning systems: individual learning, group or interpersonal
learning, organizational or intraorganizational learning, and network, or interorganizational
learning.
This seems to be the focal point of most chapters in the Handbook of Organizational Learning
and Knowledge mentioned above.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

35

developed so far. Still, in this theoretical perspective the individual remains the key agent of
learning.
Of course, in science identical problems are often treated rather differently within the frame of
different theoretical paradigms or universes of discourse. So why shouldnt some, or even a
majority of scholars just keep on talking about organizational learning in the sense of essentially
reducing the learning of organizations to the learning of individual agents in organizations? The
answer suggested here is that there are some basic issues of organizational learning (as
conceived even by adherents to methodological individualism) that seem to be insoluble within
that theoretical framework. One of these issues is related to the distinction of different learning
types.
Probably the most frequently recurring feature in the literature on organizational learning is the
distinction between different learning types that is based on Batesons (1972) three learning
levels29 and which Argyris & Schn (1978: 3-4) redefined as single-loop learning, double-loop
learning, and deutero-learning. All three types are assumed to occur in organizational learning
and are supposed to enhance the survival and success of organizations; it is, however, above all
the second and the third learning types which are usually assumed to be of critical importance in
understanding the peculiarities of organizational learning or, as Argyris & Schn (1996: 28)
express it, the organizations learning system.
Single-loop learning is based on a process of error detection and correction according to the
already existing structures or norms of an organization. Sometimes this learning type is also
called adjustment learning (cf. Hedberg 1981: 9) or incremental learning (cf. e. g. Miner &
Mezias 1996: 89) - labels that emphasize that, in this learning type, some changes may occur
without altering the underlying norms or world-view of an organization. Obviously single-loop
learning can precisely be reconstructed as that type of learning which, earlier in this article, has
been called cumulative or relative learning, a learning type which presupposes already existing
structural knowledge.
Double-loop learning occurs when error detection and correction also involve a change of an
organizations underlying norms, policies, and objectives. It has also been called turnover
learning (Hedberg 1981: 10) or radical learning (Miner & Mezias 1996: 89) in order to stress
that this learning type involves modifications of an organizations interpretative system, its theory

29

Bateson distinguishes between Learning I (proto-learning), Learning II (deutero-learning), and


Learning III (changes in the deutero process of learning).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

36

of action or its action/decision program. In organizational research double-loop learning has


been considered particularly important for explaining major organizational changes associated
with management concepts like renewal, transformation, and reengineering (cf. also BerthoinAntal et al. 2001: 924).
Within the frame of the discourse theory of systemic learning, outlined in this article, this kind of
knowledge arising in double-loop learning has been called structural knowledge - a type of
knowledge that is organized according to different dimensions: declarative/procedural,
explicit/implicit, and accessible/non-accessible; and it was pointed out that declarative or propositional knowledge (including procedural knowledge that has been converted into declarative
knowledge) can essentially be described as a knowledge of arguments and systems of arguments.
Moreover, it has been argued that it is social discourse that provides necessary (though, of
course, not sufficient) conditions for the emergence of novel structural knowledge.
The tendency in the literature on organizational learning to consider higher-order types of
learning as more important, e. g. to consider double-loop learning to be more significant and
valuable than single-loop learning, even intensifies when it comes to deutero-learning. Deuterolearning means that organizations reflect on and inquire into previous episodes of organizational
learning (Argyris & Schn 1978: 4) and thus may enhance the learning process itself. It is, to
take up the central point of Batesons Type III learning, a learning of learning. In organizational
deutero-learning the members of an organization may discover and modify the learning system
that conditions prevailing patterns of organizational inquiry (Argyris & Schn 1996: 29).
However, although at this point we seem to be entering the most pervasive and comprehensive
level of organizational learning only very little research has been done on the concept of
deutero-learning.30 Fiol & Lyles (1985: 809) even suspect that the phenomenon of deuterolearning may hardly be observable in reality or that, if it exists at all, it may not be observable
because adequate theoretical or methodological categories are lacking. Others, e. g. Wiesenthal
(1995: 144 ) and Wilkesmann (1999: 26), have criticized the tripartite classification of
organizational learning, because in their view the level of reflexivity that is arrived at when the
learning process itself is examined and learned anew, can only be attained by individual agents
and not by organizations as a whole. Indeed, this seems also to be the latest conclusion of Argyris
& Schn (1996: 29), when they state that organizational deuterolearning is critically dependent
on individual deuterolearning. However, to the extent that deuterolearning (in the sense of

30

This is also the opinion of Berthoin-Antal et al. (2001, p. 924).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

37

Argyris & Schn) approximates to that type of self-reflexive or self-referential learning Bateson
called Learning III, another difficulty arises: as Bateson (1972; German transl. 1985: 390)
pointed out, Learning III is only rarely possible even for individuals because it seems to occur
only in religious and spiritual experiences or in psychotherapy.
There seems to be a rather straightforward explanation why the concept of deutero-learning in
organizational research was doomed from the start to remain so mysterious, incoherent, and
simply disappointing. Understood as some kind of critical self-reflection of double-loop learning, the meaning of deutero-learning also crucially depends on the way double-loop learning is
conceived. However, double-loop learning is itself a critical self-reflection of single-loop
learning - it involves a self-reflection of those theories-in-use, interpretation systems, and frames
of reference that guide and determine organizational behavior and the detection and correction of
errors in organizational behavior. Hence, deutero-learning is essentially a critical self-reflection
of critical self-reflection; and if the whole hierarchically ordered learning process is confined to
the cognitive processes of individual agents, as it is mostly the case in research on organizational
learning, it becomes conceivable why at least the second-order spiral of reflection (deuterolearning) appears to be rather vacuous and artificial.
However, the intuition behind much work in organizational research, namely that organizations
do learn and that it is above all the transition from single- and double-loop learning to deuterolearning that fully captures the specific learning potentialities of organizations (and not individuals)31, can be rigorously transformed into a theory of organizational learning if one proceeds
from the tripartite distinction of learning types suggested in this article, i. e. the distinction
between cumulative (relative) learning, structural (discursive) learning, and self-referential
discourse learning. In this theoretical context deutero-learning (Argyris & Schn) or Learning
III (Bateson) means that systemic learning (which, in general, may lead to structurally novel
beliefs) is (on the level of self-referential discourse learning) related to rules and norms enabling
and constraining possible forms of discourse learning.
As stated previously, the rules and norms of discourse which are specificly tuned to processes of
systemic learning and which can become possible targets of a self-referential discourse learning,
in general, are rules that define who may - or is expected to - say what, to whom, in what mode
and in what contextual settings (linguistic and non-linguistic contexts, including time and place

31

So, for instance, Dierkes, Marz & Teele (2001), who discuss organizational visions as powerful
instruments in guiding and triggering organizational learning (single-loop and double-loop
learning) and which are themselves a result of deutero-learning.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

38

)32. The acceptance of different rules of discourse within different discourse communities, e. g.
members of an organization, may lead to rather different patterns of discourse and
communication in essence, different organizational cultures which may enhance or hinder
organizational learning (on all levels). These patterns of discourse and communication can be
reflected in discourse itself. Frequently this may require, first of all, that they are converted from
tacit and procedural into explicit and propositional knowledge33 before they are eventually
changed through processes of self-referential discourse learning. What is more important,
however, is that this self-reflexive type of learning or learning of learning may entail a change of
structures that is related to the level of social systems or systems of communication and not to the
level of individual minds and systems of knowledge confined to individual minds (although rules
and norms of discourse and corresponding conversational and institutional/cultural patterns can,
of course, be referred to by the thoughts of an individual mind).
Perhaps the previous discussion has given the impression that theories of organizational
learning, although they may be in need of clarification, nevertheless do refer to a significant
social phenomenon. However, this view changes radically if recent sociological systems-theory is
also taken into account, because at least Luhmann denies that empirical significance can be
attached to any concept of social or systemic learning whatsoever. Yet, apparently there are some
basic problems in the way that organizational structures and possible change in organizational
structures are treated in recent sociological systems-theory; and, in the following, it will briefly be
argued that these basic problems apparently arise from the fact that a substantial notion of
systemic learning is lacking in Luhmanns systems-theory.
In his later publications Luhmann (1988b, 1993, 1997, 2000) has worked out in detail the
structures and filters that enable and constrain organizational communication. Organizational
structures are essentially conceptualized as three types of decision premises which are related to
programs, networks of communication, and persons (competences) (cf. e. g. Luhmann 2000:
222-329) and which determine an autopoietic continuation of organizational decision making. Of
32

33

Obviously, these rules can vary between two extremes: on the one end there is a possible world
of discourse in which everybody can say anything in any mode under any circumstances at any
time and at any place; on the other end there is a rigidly institutionalized possible world of
discourse approaching a world of machines in which all aspects of communication are
determined in a calculable way.
Similarly, in Nonakas & Takeuchis (1995) famous and influential model of the knowledgecreating company, tacit knowledge, that is assumed to be the basic source of innovation, must
be explicated in order to become useful knowledge at a group level and to the whole
organization. However, as usual in literature on organizational learning, there is no clear
distinction between individual and organizational learning.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

39

course, one would think that decision premises of that kind can become an object of change or
even learning (in the sense of double-loop learning or structural (discursive) learning, as
outlined above). However, as Luhmann, first of all, rightly points out, in organizations new
decision premises can only be arrived at by means of decisions on decision premises; and this
inevitably leads to the the further question as to what the higher-order premises of those reflexive
decisions are (cf. also Luhmann 1988b: 179). How is a premise control34 (Luhmann 2000: 239)
possible? There are two strategies which Luhmann employs for answering this question. He
distinguishes between decidable and non-decidable decision premises (cf. Luhmann 2000: 240),
and accordingly postulates two different procedures for the formation of decision premises.
In the case of decidable decision premises he assumes that there are decisions on decisions,
which he calls parasitic decisions (Luhmann 1988b: 179)35: they already presuppose alternatives
for making a decision, and they are a decision on those alternatives premises. Yet, there is,
strangely enough, not the slightest indication in Luhmanns writings that it is precisely the
construction of (new) alternatives and an evaluation of the premises of these alternatives which
already presupposes an exploration of differences and corresponding processes of learning.
Instead Luhmann (1988b) only emphasizes again and again the drawbacks of a potentially
exuberant and irrelevant discussion of last premises without realizing that this description
precisely presupposes standards of adequacy he cannot provide. Undoubtedly, there can be
discourses on decision premises which do not add any new substantial alternatives regarding
options to decide to a social system36; however, this seems to be more an instance of a systematically distorted discourse and learning blockage as of anything else.
Undecidable decision premises (cf. Luhmann 2000: 240) are simply decision premises which,
although produced in organizations, cannot be attributed to certain decisions. They are valid
because they have always been valid. They are social institutions37 or, as Luhmann prefers to say,
elements of an organizational culture, and if they are reduced to their last components one finds
values underpinned and supported by the systems history. Usually they are only implicitly
referred to in organizational communication and, as Luhmann (2000: 247) emphasizes, they tend
to produce certain effects of inertia or lethargy especially in phases of far-reaching organizational
changes; for instance, when state-bureaucratic enterprises are privatized or when there is a
34
35
36

Luhmann refers at this point to Perrow (1987: 129).


Parasitic in the sense of Serres (1980) Le Parasite.
Committee activities at the German universities are one of Luhmanns favorite examples; cf. e.
g. the article Wabuwabu in der Universitt in Luhmann (1992).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

40

takeover of firms or an international merger of companies with vastly different local cultures.
Still, Luhmann (2000: 245) admits that even historically stabilized organizational cultures may
change; and he is right in assuming that change cannot simply be decreed. Usually it is only a
clash of interests and conflicts which may, first of all, lead to an explication of decision premises
so far only tacitly practised.
But how can organizational innovations arise subsequently?38 At this point Luhmann retreats to
some kind of myth creation following Max Webers (1922) idea and vision of a charismatic
leader. If the time is ripe, so Luhmann (2000: 247), there may be innovations accompanied by
(spectacular) violations of cultural rules hitherto (implicitly) accepted. This breaking of traditions
and taboos relies heavily on great personalities who indicate traditions by breaking them and who
mark the start of a new era and may succeed in transforming an organization. However, although
Luhmann points out that cultural disjunctures and great personalities presuppose each other he
simply gives too much weight to great personalities as determinants of radical organizational
change - and in so doing, by the way, clearly violates basic systems-theoretical assumptions
regarding the self-organization of autopoietic social systems. But, even more importantly, what
does it mean to say that the time has become ripe for innovations? The formulation is actually a
striking description of the supraindividual and non-intentional aspects of systemic learning; and
this reference to systemic learning is also supported by Luhmanns observation that these
cultural disjunctures presuppose that traditions and taboos have become controversial.
Leaving behind Luhmannian restrictions on conceptualizing organizational learning we may
finally ask in which respect organizational learning represents a specific form of systemic
learning. Of course, there are as many characteristic traits as there are defining features of
organizational systems. Within the frame of this article only one specific and significant feature
of organizational learning can be shortly characterized:
If cultural patterns of organizational communication are related to basic values, there are certain
values that seem to be especially important; above all, organizational decisions are bound to be
efficient, they are supposed to be legitimate (i. e. acceptable by anyone affected), and they are
expected to be creative (i. e. to widen the range of possible options for decision-making) and to
enhance solidarity among the members of an organization. Accordingly, underlying all organizational decision making there is a continuous stream of discourse related to these value
37
38

Cf. footnote 24. Luhmann, however, tries to avoid the term institution because he thinks this
term doesnt have enough selectivity (cf. e. g. Luhmann 2000: 245, 413).
Cf. also the following section which deals with Luhmanns concept of social evolution.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

41

orientations; and it appears that the most radical and pervasive form of organizational learning
(self-referential discourse learning) is related to these discourse patterns of communicating
organizational values. At the same time this sheds light on another very basic property of
organizational learning (which, however, is typical for any type of systemic learning): its nonteleological character (although any learning means an increase in problem-solving capacities).
Since at least in many specific contexts the values mentioned above exclude each other, learning
with regard to one value (e. g. efficiency) can entail an intensification of problems and
deficiencies regarding other values (e. g. legitimacy or creativity). A corresponding shift in value
orientation and related learning processes can, of course, also be stimulated by changes in
organizational enviroments.39 Hence, in the long run, organizational learning resembles the
squaring of a circle, possibly leading to a never-ending succession of structural innovations. Of
course, if one of these basic value orientations has been severely violated by an effort to learn,
then learning (in the critical sense in which this term is applied here) has not taken place; at least,
if it can be shown that the violation of values has been caused by systematically distorted
processes of exploring differences.40
Saying that organizational learning resembles the squaring of a circle is just another way of
describing the so-called reform-paradox. Even if reformers succeed in changing behavior, it may
not necessarily be (only) in the way they intended (Brunsson & Olsen 1993: 6). However, this
well-known reform paradox does not of course preclude that systemic learning might entail an
increase in problem-solving capacity (at least regarding particular domains of knowledge); it
rather elucidates the fact that the social world is not simply an arrangement of learning processes,
an emanation of a Hegelian spirit. At best, learning refers to a possible factor or dimension of
social change. There are other factors or dimensions which may severely relativize and weaken
the potentialities of learning; and the relevance of these other factors will be multiplied if one
passes over from organizations to societies as a whole. Societies learn and yet the world is hard
to change concludes Klaus Eder (1999).
At this point the inescapable and enduring human struggle to cope with uncertainty has caught up
with us again - not only on the level of organizations but, even more, on the level of societies as a
39

40

Similarly Luhmann (1988b: 182) argues that the more organizations have to operate in dynamic
and turbulent environments the more they are continuously confronted with the problem of
changing from aspects of hierarchical control to aspects of adhocracy and the other way around.
In this sense he distinguishes between redundancy and variety as two even more abstract and
basic variables of organizational structure and, as it is assumed here, of organizational learning
than the value orientations mentioned above.
Cf. also footnote 42.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

42

whole. Doesnt this seriously question the overall sociological significance of a theory of systemic
learning? Is learning a concept that is relevant at all for understanding social change and for
evaluating alternatives and potentialities of social change on higher aggregated social levels? Or
should one rather turn to alternative concepts, and in particular to concepts of social evolution,
which eschew any normative evaluations and the explanatory power of which is usually supposed
to pertain to anything that simply happens in society?

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

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43

Learning and Evolution

Usually it is not the opposition between evolution and learning but the opposition between
evolution and planning that is focussed on by theories of social change and development, especially by social science theories on managerial control and political governance (policy development and implementation)41. However, planning and learning closely relate to one another.
Planning requires knowledge and corresponding learning processes; and the more planning
intends to radically change something the more powerful the presupposed learning processes have
to be. Moreover, learning processes frequently occur in attempts to reduce uncertainty by means
of planned interventions into reality. Finally, learning processes are called for if planning fails, or
even if it succeeds but in doing so leads to some non-intended and undesirable consequences. This
suggests that planning crucially depends on learning and that any scepticism regarding planning
is basically directed towards the power and potentialities of learning.42
However, if recent sociological systems-theory is sound, it is not to be expected that there is much
power and potentiality arising from learning and planning regarding the shaping of the future.
Luhmann (cf. 1997: 430) doesnt deny that planning or, more generally, intentional anticipations
of the future play a role in social change. But the future - as he cogently points out - does not go
along with anybodys intentions but takes intentionally produced facts simply as a starting point
for ongoing evolution. Planning cannot determine the state a system arrives at as a consequence
of planning, because even the intentions of planners change the systems course in nonforeseeable ways. Hence, Luhmanns theory of evolution comes to the conclusion that the
structures that will emerge are determined by evolution. Learning and planning appear to be only
aspects of evolution. It is not planning or decisions but evolution that decides the future (cf.
Luhmann 1997: 1093).
What gives Luhmanns argumentation such an inexorable cogency is the rigorous application of
Mertons (1936) theorem of the unanticipated consequences of any purposive action. But
Luhmann is claiming too much when his argumentation also suggests that it is based on a clearcut and convincing theory of socio-cultural evolution. In fact, not only Luhmanns approach but
41
42

Cf. the survey on recent developments regarding theories of governance in Mayntz (1998).
Especially if planning occurs as a component of organizational behavior the underlying
learning processes may relate to different basic value orientations (cf. the previous section of
this article). However, if one of these value orientations has been severely violated (e. g.
legitimacy), then e. g. efficient planning cannot be traced back to processes of systemic
learning. The efficient planning and implementation of criminal projects thus cannot be traced

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

44

any approach which tries to explain social and cultural change on the basis of Darwinian principles and mechanisms of genetic evolution faces a real dilemma:
Either one stays very close to Darwinian concepts and postulates a strong analogy between
biology and culture with regard to the evolutionary mechanisms variation, heredity or replication, and environmental fitness (cf. Darwin 1859). But then these analogies43 will break down
because social and cultural change seems to operate according to different mechanisms (cf.
Miller 2000). For that reason Luhmann (cf. 1997: 446) significantly deviates from Darwins
concept of natural selection and substitutes the concept of a structural self-determination or
self-adaptation for Darwins concept of an external determination of structures.
In contrast, if the analogies between biology and culture are increasingly relaxed until perhaps
only the principle of underlying mindlessness is left, the clear meaning of the Darwinian paradigm44 more or less dissolves.45 But even this principle of underlying mindlessness (which, on
principle, excludes learning and planning as decisive factors) begins to waver when the territory
of socio-cultural change is entered. In fact, the problems that arise at this point clearly suggest
as will be briefly argued in the following46 - that learning and planning are not just an aspect but
rather a decisive factor in socio-cultural evolution.
In biological evolution the principle of underlying mindlessness goes hand in hand with the
principle of chance or randomness, which, incidentally, also explains why Darwin discarded any
notion of progress or teleology for explaining evolution. More precisely, it is a decisive condition
in Darwins concept of genetic evolution that variations or mutations occur at random, and this
necessarily implies that variation and selection (differential fitness) operate completely
independently from each other. At this juncture a fundamental difference between biological and
socio-cultural evolution comes into sight.

43
44
45

46

back to an overall process of learning. The efficient planning of concentration camps cannot be
related to a societal learning process.
Stephen Jay Gould (1997) calls this kind of theories ultradarwinism; in his view cultural
change even exposes a direct antithesis to Darwinian principles and mechanisms.
Cf. also the precise reconstruction of Darwins concept of genetic evolution by Dennett (1995).
Luhmann maintains the Darwinian distinction between variation (mutation) and selection;
however, in Luhmanns model variation refers to communication, especially negations, and
selection refers to system structures (norms, symbolically generalized media) as an evolutionary
mechanism. Luhmann adds a third mechanism, stabilization which refers to achievements of
functional system differentiation.
Cf. also the more comprehensive argumentation and the critical comments on Luhmanns
theory of socio-cultural evolution in Miller (2002).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

45

Whatever socio-cultural analogues may be adduced for the evolutionary mechanisms of variation
and selection, a crucial problem will always be whether and to what extent they can operate
independently from each other. For example, Stephen Toulmin (1972; German transl. 1983: 259,
394) has cogently argued that at least in the case of the evolution of ideas, variation and social
selection do not vary independently from each other. The same has been brought forward by v. d.
Belt & Rip (1987: 141) with regard to technological development: the assumption of a selection
environment that is truly independent of a particular technological trajectory could not be
justified. For Luhmann, however, it is precisely the independent operation (cf. Luhmann 1997:
426), or at least a loose coupling (cf. Luhmann 2000: 354) of the evolutionary mechanisms that
makes social evolution possible.
However, whereas Toulmin and v. d. Belt & Rip give a factual description, Luhmann formulates
a necessary condition for the evolution of novel system structures. This condition is not fulfilled
if, for example, structures of discourse (in, say, an authoritarian communication system) control
from the outset whether communications entailing potential innovations are positively or negatively selected. Could it be blind evolution operating on the principle of randomness which - in the
sense of an evolution of evolution - determines whether basic evolutionary conditions for social
innovations will be fulfilled? In that case, any innovation that has happened so far was just about
as probable as an asteroid hitting our planet. Obviously it rather depends on learning processes
(above all, self-referential discourse learning) whether institutional rules and norms of discourse
on different system levels or levels of social aggregation can be developed which provide as much
as possible for an independent operation of variation in communication and of selection
regarding novel ideas.47
Learning as problem-solving discourses (possibly leading to planned structural changes), and
evolution as an emergence of unplanned structural changes, may presuppose each other as sociocultural change continues. Unintended and unplanned effects of evolution can trigger learning
processes which, especially in conjunction with planning, may in their turn lead to other
unintended effects.48 Of course, in this theoretical perspective, socio-cultural change still refers to

47

48

In this sense, one could see the main significance of politics in a modern, functionally differentiated society in its capacity for a management of dissensus which presupposes processes of systemic learning and which is always in danger of being transformed into infinite conflicts and
corresponding forms of learning blockages. At this point it would be rather interesting to
discuss whether and to what extent a theory of systemic learning can be linked to new concepts
of political governance (cf. e. g. Willke 1997, Kohler-Koch & Eising 1999, Eder 2000).
In a similar way Schimank (2001: 124) assumes an interdependence and interplay of intentionality and transintentionality in explaining the dynamics of societal change. However, as long as

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

46

the totality of non-predictable future events. Even if learning was more powerful, it could not
change that condition humaine because, as stated before, at least systemic learning is not a
teleological process. There are no fixed overall goals or final destinations that have to be reached
- with one exception: the only goal of systemic learning on a societal level is to develop social
institutions that secure a loose coupling of variation and selection. In other words, the only goal
of systemic learning on a societal level is to keep the discovery processes of a society open for
the normalization of the improbable, i. e. to keep socio-cultural evolution going on. It seems as if
systemic learning on a societal level and the social evolution of ideas (though not social
evolution in totality) were just one and the same.
Returning to social evolution in general there is a certain respect in which one can even ascertain
a preponderance of learning over evolution. In order to survive their own self-endangering,
modern societies cannot just wait for evolution to happen, they are also dependent on learning and
planning. It could even depend on planning and corresponding learning processes whether the
evolution of societies continues at all. In this sense, it is not evolution but learning that decides the
future.

it is planning and not learning (and planning) that is related to evolution, one could still argue
as Luhmann does that planning (intentionality) is simply a subordinate aspect of social
evolution (transintentionality).

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

8.

47

Learning and Rationality

Learning refers to all kinds of social changes which are socially constructed solutions to collective problems. Learning implies that social change means improvement or progress. Even if the
expansion of knowledge resembles the Lernaen Hydra, which grew two heads where only one
had been cut off before, even if the expansion of enlightenment only widens the border to darkness, even if more knowledge means a simultaneous increase of new uncertainties, even if in the
end learning only opens the horizon for the possible emergence of innovations, still obviously
nobody can deny that an increase in knowledge and thus an improvement of problem-solving
capacity are possible at least in specific domains of knowledge. Learning systems will
potentially gain a successively more comprehensive problem-solving power and will potentially
be able to avoid earlier (basic) mistakes. This has been amply and convincingly argued by Piaget
regarding the ontogenesis of cognition in individual subjects (psychic systems), and it has been
convincingly put forward by Parsons regarding the evolution of basic institutions and societal
inventions (cf. Parsons 1966, 1967).
Accordingly, any notion of learning implies a normative evaluation. However, on what kind of
normative principles, on what kind of social rationality, could a normative evaluation rely? In
what sense can the emergence of novel beliefs be qualified as an instance of learning? What
rationality criterion could be referred to, if the attribution of learning becomes controversial?
Obviously, such a criterion of rationality cannot simply be attached to learning processes from
the outside. Either rationality is a dimension or point of orientation to learning itself or there is
no criterion of rationality regarding learning. But if there is one, how can it be described?
In the social sciences the main theoretical strategy for dealing with problems of social rationality
has been to talk about procedural as opposed to substantive rationality and to identify standards
of procedural rationality as a higher perspective or as an observers perspective regarding
ego/alter differences. However, since the way in which an observer perceives the differences
between different perspectives may itself be egocentric, the observer's perspective had to be
idealized. Accordingly, for example Adam Smith postulated that the observer's perspective should
be the perspective of an impartially sympathetic observer, and George Herbert Mead postulated
that it should be the perspective of a generalized other.
Yet an idealized observer's perspective is nothing but a grand sociological metaphor which
doesn't solve anything; it only circumscribes a fundamental coordination problem which, if it can
be solved at all, can only be solved in discourse. This is the basic idea underlying the concept of

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48

communicative rationality49 in the work of Jrgen Habermas. However, since communicative


rationality, as conceived by Habermas, again requires ideal role taking (and, moreover, power
neutrality) it can certainly be questioned whether that rationality criterion could ever tell us
whether factually raised validity claims (for instance the claim that a certain action is morally
justified) are rational. Habermas (1996/1992: 31) has suggested to operationalize the criterion of
a rational consensus as an open-ended but determined process of interpretation which follows
the regulative idea of an ideal community of interpretation in the sense in which this ideal has
been explicated by Charles S. Peirce50. If, so Habermas (1996/1992: 31), an argumentation
praxis can be qualified as a spatially/temporally localizable element of that unavoidably
presupposed discourse of an unlimited community of interpretation, then the criterion of
communicative rationality has sufficiently been met. However, how can something be an element
or component of something else, if the whole (of which the part is supposed to be a part) cannot
be defined and delimited? In this sense almost any argumentation praxis could qualify as an
element of that ideal discourse.
But does this basic weakness of Habermass project of explaining communicative rationality not
also apply to the project of explaining the rationality of discursive learning? As has been stated
before, systemic learning requires the exploration of an objective context of discovery which
basically means exploring differences and differences of differences and so on in an effort to
create a coordinated and, in this sense, rational dissensus. But doesnt this also require an ideal
process of interpretation? Hence, the objection could be raised that a rational dissensus is as
fictitious as a rational consensus, and that therefore systemic learning since it cannot be shown
to entail a decisive rationality standard just by itself is fictitious as well.
Fortunately, systemic learning does not require that a rational dissensus, a consensus on dissensus, is established in discourse. In the case of learning, the concept of a rational dissensus
does not even refer to a regulative idea (as is required by the concept of communicative rationality), but only to a regulative principle.51 What is required by systemic learning is an explora49

50

51

Habermas defines communicative rationality as follows: The communicative rationality recalls


older ideas of logos, inasmuch as it brings along with it the connotations of a noncoercively unifying, consensus-building force of a discourse in which the participants overcome their at first
subjectively based views in favor of a rationally motivated agreement. (Habermas 1987: 315).
For Peirce even the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the
notion of a community, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase in knowledge
(Peirce 1960, Vol. 5: 311). Cf. also Apel (1975).
The distinction between regulative ideas and regulative principles has been elucidated by
Edward Craig (Cambridge University) on a symposium entitled Pragmatism Without Regulative Ideas? in the following way: As Werner (1997) reports, Craig defined regulative principles

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

49

tion of differences that step by step increases an understanding of them possibly along an
empirically unlimited, open-ended series of steps; and this may require, over and over again, a
change and possibly a progressive extension or even discovery of (novel) basic beliefs.
Accordingly, as already stated earlier, the more complex and opaque differences are, the more
radical and profound learning can be; and, as can now be added, the more comprehensive and farreaching processes of generating a mutual understanding of differences have to be and here you
have the criterion of rationality needed for assessing processes of learning. Empirically occurring
instances of systemic learning are rational to the extent in which they are based on a mutual
understanding of differences. If a mutual understanding of differences goes so far that
differences can even be transformed into a consensus regarding the central question(s) at issue,
this will certainly underscore to the greatest possible extent the rational dimension of learning.
However, this is only a borderline case of learning. A final consensus is not required by systemic
learning.
Moreover, what is most important here is that this criterion of rationality is definitely a criterion
of social rationality (as postulated above) because whether and to what extent this rationality
criterion is met, i. e. whether and to what extent a mutual knowledge of differences has been
developed, cannot simply be assessed by individual (monological) subjects - it requires discourse
or even systems of discourse.
But can we agree to disagree?52 Is it reasonable to expect that systemic learning involves a
dimension of rationality inasmuch as it requires processes of creating a mutual knowledge of
differences, and of differences of differences, and so on, as discourse continues? Isnt mutual
knowledge too demanding, and is it attainable at all?
Scepticism as to whether mutual knowledge can be attained at all may appear to be rather strange
given the observation that mutual or common knowledge is, as David Hume already pointed out
in A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), a necessary condition for coordinated social activity and,
obviously, underwrites much of social life. In Max Webers (1968: 195) characterization of types
of collective action, massenhaft gleichartiges Handeln (similar actions of the members of a

52

as normative rules which bind actors to make another step upon an empirically unlimited line
over and over again. In contrast, regulative ideas imply a picture of the end of the line.
Indeed, this has been denied by Aumann (1976) in a celebrated article on game-theoretic modelling of economic behavior.

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

50

mass of people) simply requires a shared knowledge53; however, Gemeinschaftshandeln (joint


actions of the members of a group) requires a mutual knowledge, i. e. a shared knowledge that is
mutually known to be shared.54 Otherwise it would not be understandable how joint actions, e. g.
a one-to-two score in a football game, a family excursion, a route description, or consultations
between the members of an executive board are possible. In these cases the agents must already
have or must develop relevant mutual knowledge; at least at certain points joint actions and
successful communications require that everyone knows that everyone knows that p.
However, when philosophers and game-theoreticians attempted to analyze the concept of mutual
or common knowledge and related multi-agent knowledge concepts, they realized that these
concepts raise a number of intricate questions. If I know that you know that I know that , and
if you know that I know that you know that , we may continue this chain of reasoning but still
never arrive at any mutual knowledge. A proposition p is said to be common knowledge for you
and me when I know that p, you know that p, I know that you know that p, you know that I know
that p, I know that you know that I know that p, and so on ad infinitum55. But since human
agents obviously cannot reason their way through such an infinite hierarchy, it seems as if mutual
knowledge cannot, on principle, be attained.
Yet, an impressive number of philosophical56 and linguistic57 analyses have convincingly shown
that mutual knowledge can, in fact, be identified by a finite inductive procedure. In discourse
there is usually overwhelming evidence for at least some common grounds58 for inferring the
infinity of conditions regarding mutual knowledge all at once. Of course, common ground isnt
just there, it has to be established whenever persons interact or communicate with each other59;
53

54

55
56
57
58
59

For example, if people in the street react to a shower of rain by opening their umbrellas they
perform a massenhaft gleichartiges Handeln which simply presupposes that they share the
knowledge about the functions of umbrellas.
Parsons (cf. Parsons et al. 1951: 14), in his discussion of a double contingency inherent in
social interaction, was very much in accordance with Max Webers concept of Gemeinschaftshandeln when he concluded that only a shared symbolic system with its mutuality of
normative orientations (Parsons et al. 1951: 16) can explain how joint social actions and
social systems are possible.
Such an account of mutual or common knowledge can be found in Lewis (1969).
E. g. Lewis (1969), Schiffer (1972), Aumann (1976), Gilbert (1989), Tuomela (1984, 1995)
E. g. Bach & Harnish (1979), Clark & Marshall (1981), Clark & Carlson (1982), Clark (1996),
and Chwe (2001).
As Clark (1996) has shown, common grounds can be classified according to their possible
sources: physical co-presence, linguistic co-presence, and community membership.
In this sense, Luhmann is certainly right when he considers Parsons solution to the problems
of double contingency (cf. footnote 54) as lacking a full-fledged explanation (cf. Luhmann
1984: 149). However, the solution Luhmann suggests seems to be even more problematic.
Luhmann (1984: 156) conceives double contingency basically as a situation in which two black

Max Miller - Some Theoretical Aspects of Systemic Learning

51

however, discourse is a powerful mechanism for establishing and for changing and possibly
extending those common grounds.
In summary, mutual knowledge may be as fallible as any other kind of knowledge, but it can be
attained. Hence, there is a rationality criterion for the exploration of differences an exploration
which basically constitutes systemic learning. An increase in mutually understanding differences
increasingly approaches that higher or objective perspective which, in the classical view, defines
rationality; moreover, an increase in mutual knowledge regarding differences progressively
narrows down the objective context of discovery where innovations can arise.
As long as there are differences there is an unlimited potential for learning. Of course, we can
create institutions and build organizations in such a way that learning will, nevertheless, be
systematically restricted or even suppressed. But, on principle, there are no boundaries to the
rational power of discourse to release processes of systemic learning.

boxes observe each other and try to get along with each other simply by drawing conclusions
from whatever they observe as reactions to reactions to reactions and so on. The reason why
they do not run through a myriad of iterated loop-beliefs and still fail to get along with each
other in some orderly way is that, as Luhmann assumes, social order just inevitably emerges in
a sense, as it has been suggested by von Foersters order from noise principle. But, obviously,
not any random behavior, impulse or even error can just by itself become productive in a
situation of double contingency as Luhmann (1984: 165) erroneously believes. At least
sometimes noise just remains noise. Hence, that celebrated principle seems to be explanatorily
almost vacuous, and so there is nothing that can prevent Luhmannian systems from falling into
the philosophical nightmare of a mutual knowledge paradox.
It is the fundamental concept of operative closure of autopoietic systems which, in Luhmanns
systems-theoretical account of communication, systematically excludes the possibility of mutual
knowledge among different psychic or different social systems. Proceeding from his concept of
operative closure, Luhmann treated system differences in the same way no matter whether he
analysed differences between e. g. biological, psychic, and social systems, or whether he
analysed differences on the same level of systems, e. g. systems of communication (social
systems). But, for example, are two communication systems - let us say: two organizations or
two teams in the same organization -, on principle, as strange and opaque to each other as, for
instance, someones body and mind or K.s thoughts and the social system Das Schlo in
Kafkas famous novel? Luhmanns overdrawn concept of operative closure basically explains
why there is no substantial notion of social rationality in Luhmanns writings, and it basically
explains why Luhmann rejects any substantial notion of systemic learning. When a system
applies system rationality, which, interestingly enough, also in Luhmanns case (cf. Luhmann
1988b: 181) involves a coordination of different perspectives (self-observation and external
observation), any internalization of external observations is, admittedly, always a systems own
construction; however, the concept of operative closure forces Luhmann to assume that an
internalization of an external observation necessarily entails an insurmountable non-identity of
external and internal knowledge (regarding that observation). Luhmannian systems are really
bizarre. They can never take the perspective of another system; they cannot really communicate
with each other; and they cannot learn.

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