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Thomas Mavrofides Ph.D.
Instructor, Dpt. of Cultural Technology and Communication, University of the Aegean Sapfous & Arionos Str., Mytilene, Lesvos 81100, Greece email: email@example.com
Abstract Niklas Luhmann's theory is gaining in significance the last twenty years, mostly in the European sociological literature. Admittedly, Luhmann created a complex theoretical framework that tackles quite successfully the problems of social change and evolution, reviews the main aspects of traditional functionalism and offers efficient theoretical tools to deal with the phenomena of a society that becomes more and more complex daily. This article focuses on the main aspects of the criticism on Luhmann's theory, in an endeavor to resolve what initially may seem as paradoxes, contradictions and flaws, that misguided some (albeit only a few) scholars to characterize his theory as anti-humanistic. Introduction Niklas Luhmann was a proliferate author and is considered by many sociologists and systems theorists as one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century. But, as it might be expected in cases like this, his theory has also attracted a lot of criticism, mainly because his work was not fully understood by many scholars and academics; only now, as the studies around his work are proliferating that criticism starts to be replaced by admiration and adaptation of his theories in many fields, including social anthropology, social networks theory, cultural studies, communication theory etc., not to mention of course sociology itself. That criticism can be codified to the following subjects:
1. It is a theory about conservation, thus a conservative theory. Luhmann is charged with using biological and mechanical paradigms into sociological theory, thus overlooking the phenomenon of social change. 2. Furthermore, Luhmann's theory sets the human (in Luhmann's own terms: "psychic system"), explicitly apart from the society, thus reducing the importance of humans as individuals; and therefore, implicitly suggesting a political theory that is anti-human, in the sense that the functions of society do not take under consideration the needs of the humans. 3. The adaptation of the biological theory of autopoiesis to the social context reduces the human to a mere (and even worse: replaceable) component of the society. 4. His theory is over-complicated and highly abstract and therefore difficult to grasp and use it as a social analysis tool. Admittedly, all those arguments could be considered as justified in their basic concept; the only problem is that - as we intend to argue in this paper - all those concepts led to a theory that deconstructs and subsequently reconstructs the importance of the individual, as well as reestablishing the need to preserve otherness as a sine qua of any kind of societal organization. In doing that, Niklas Luhmann elaborated upon the grounds of a very rigor version of systems theory based on a basal and minimal background and leaving "...no place for opinions or beliefs of any kind" (Spencer - Brown G. 2008: xiii), proceeding to construct a theory "...of what we know of what we have defined" (ibid). So, instead of fiddling around the problems of ethics and hopeless efforts to justify scientifically any humanitarian ethical claims, he opted for a "hard" approach, which eventually resulted to a coherent theoretical framework, into which there's no place for anti-humanism; and this is Niklas Luhmann's true legacy. On autopoiesis In order to understand the core of Niklas Luhmann's theory (hereafter referred to simply as "systems theory") one has to gain an insight of the theory of autopoiesis. The latter was introduced in the 1970's, by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. The theory of autopoiesis tries to tackle the problem of the
definition of the living; that is, to define what can legitimately (in a biological sense) be considered as a living machine. According to Maturana and Varela (1980: 78-79) "An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. It follows that an autopoietic machine continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components under conditions of continuous perturbations and compensation of perturbations. Therefore, an autopoietic machine is a homeostatic (or rather relations-static) system which has its own organization (defining network of relations) as the fundamental variable which it maintains constant"1. As the authors emphasize, the unity of autopoietic machines should be understood in terms of continuously reconstituted relations, rather than a property of their components or static relations. This definition has profound consequences, for it outlines the concept of autonomy and self-recreation as the constituting properties of the living machines and leaves no place for hetero-constitution of the living: either a living machine is selfreproduced in every meaning - i.e. in every selection made in each and every aspect of its operations - or it is not classified as living. Therefore, autopoietic machines are operationally closed, and all feedback is internal to them. Their environment provides them with energy and perturbations, but the transformation of energy to action and of perturbation to information takes place inside the autopoietic machine only; this is also to say that, the autopoietic machines are in full control of their components and can destruct them and regenerate them at will. The endeavour to adapt the theory of autopoiesis in a sociological context, faced a basic problem: if social systems are consisted by humans, then the idea of an autopoietic society that creates and destructs humans at will, would be counterintuitive, scientifically unacceptable, not to mention grotesque; such an approach would oppose all of the achievements of Enlightenment and could contingently justify authoritarian and brute regimes.
Emphasis in the original.
The autopoiesis of social systems Niklas Luhmann was aware of that problem. And he defined the social systems as unities consisting (and reconstituted) by communications rather than humans. For Luhmann, an aggregation of humans is not a social system: only a network of interdependent communicative actions, that are connected to each other with meaning and regulated (the network) by rules set and transformed continuously by the network itself, is a social system. The social system then, produces communicative actions, catalyzes them, connects them together with its own means (i.e. producing meaning by communication), and pushes communication onward, thus reproducing itself. This is not to say that a social system could exist without humans (i.e. psychic systems), for the same reasons a nervous system could not exist without nervous cells. But it is the continuously reconstructed regulative system that guarantees communication, without which communication (as meaning production) would be improbable. Let's try to elaborate on this. The psychic system, is one among three selfreferential autopoietic systems according to Luhmann (1986: 172), with the other two been living systems (that is: alive systems) and social systems. Self-referential systems are categorized according to their selection criterion: living systems select their next state with survival as their main goal, while psychic and social systems select on the basis of meaning reconstruction; they are "[…] sovereign with respect to the constitution of identities and differences" (ibid: 174). To be sure, psychic systems operate through consciousness while social systems operate through communication. Obviously at this point, one could logically assume that psychic systems operate through communication too; but according to Luhmann (1995), Maturana (2005) and von Foerster (1984; 2003) this would be a quite crude assumption. The psychic system is in fact a constellation of purely internal functions and processes, based upon the nervous system (Maturana H. R., Varela F. J., 1992) of the human: if some of those are not communicated in any way, then they are irrelevant for communication and therefore for any social system. This is to say that, humans can communicate only through communicative actions. The nervous systems of the living are operationally closed and there cannot be direct interaction between two distinct nervous systems: the only possibility for interaction is communication, and the only manifestation of
communication is communication itself. Admittedly now, the theoretical distinction between psychic and social systems does not seem so strange. Furthermore, communication is a select-or-stop process; any communicative action paves the way for the next one. To be sure, communication at every moment realizes a horizon of contingent selections, that is which the next communicative action will be, and if communication will continue or stop. Even to stop the communication is a communicative selection, although a final one. So, communicative actions recreate continuously communication, and - as events - are fading away as soon as they are manifested: a certain communicative event cannot repeat itself circularly and still remain a component of communication. To understand why this is, we have to take under consideration Gregory Bateson's famous definition of information: "Of this infinitude [of differences], we select a very limited number, which become information. In fact, what we mean by information the elementary unit of information - is a difference which makes a difference, and it is able to make a difference because the neural pathways along which it travels and it is continually transformed are themselves provided with energy. The pathways are ready to be triggered. We may even say that the question is already implicit in them." (Bateson G., 2000: 459). This definition, which influenced profoundly the contemporary systems thinking, lies into the core of Luhmann's theory. For now, we will only note that a difference is emerging only if a signal (or an event, a phrase, a gesture etc.) is not repeated continuously: if it results to a repetitive pattern then it is not informative anymore, and therefore it does not contribute to communication - it becomes irrelevant. Consequently, any communicative action should fade away2, or else communication becomes impossible. Additionally, communication happens if (and only if) there's a degree of unpredictability inherent in its process: if I know exactly what you are going to say then there's no meaning in communicating; it is precisely the reduction of improbability that triggers communication and continuously leads it from simpler to more complex forms, that is evolution. And that evolution is inherently social, since the management of complex communicative actions results to more complex meaning-producing structures i.e. social structures. This is to say that, communication destructs communicational structures and replaces them with new of the same type, although more complex.
2 That is, the component of the system should be destructed and replaced by a fresh one, exactly as the original definition of autopoiesis conjectures.
From humans to persons But how can communication be possible at all? Usually, communication is taken as a given as if it were a sui generis ability of the humans. But recent research shows that this is not the case (Maturana H. R., Varela F. J., 1992; Bateson G., 2000); we do have now confirmed reports of humans than were raised without the usual interaction with other human beings e.g. in the jungle of Midnapore, India in the 1930's (ibid), known as feral girls, or of infants raised in solicitude in some orphanages in the USA during the 1950's. At those cases the humans examined were not considered as humans at all, due to a total inability to realize a stable communicational framework with them. The case of the infants raised in orphanages was tragic: the researchers encountered a lag in the development of their nervous system - and as a consequence a behavioural retardation. In addition at this point we'd like to include another example, namely the one of the total sensory deprivation i.e. of experiments where the subjects were totally cut-off from any kind of stimuli for a prolonged period of time. As Walter Buckley (2001: 52) notes, "Usually the subject was enclosed in an isolation booth or tube with breathing apparatus, sometimes submerged under water such as that all of the senses, including touch, were shut off from any inputs. Mental behaviour was about all the subjects could engage in, and this very likely reduced the seriousness of the consequences for them. It provided a substitute kind of interaction with an environment, in this case internal. In a matter of hours or even minutes the subject typically began to experience disturbance of cognition and consciousness that build up rapidly, such as hallucinations, mental confusion, panic, and loss of consciousness". All those examples lead to the conclusion that there cannot be such thing as a disembodied mind - this is the most obvious inference; but there's more to it. The important aspect for our inquiry is that of the construction and reconstruction of persons. That is, humans are not necessarily persons. We are born with an apparatus that offers the grounds upon which a person can emerge - but unless the newborn child is in interaction with persons (and not just humans) this is not possible. Furthermore, if eventually a person emerges through a human body, its own existence as such is not guaranteed: the person needs to continuously reconstruct itself, and the example of the isolation chamber points out that a person cannot proceed with that
operation unless stimulated by an environment. In the context of contemporary systems theory, the preferred term for stimulation is perturbation (Maturana H. R., Varela F. J., 1980); that is the autopoietic system of a biological, or psychic or social system is considered to be perturbed by its environment and this triggers the cycle of autopoiesis anew. Put differently, a lack of perturbation results to a halt of autopoiesis and a disintegration of the system. The whole phenomenon of personality is based upon those premises. According to Humberto Maturana (2005), the emergence of persons, is due to coordinations of coordinations ad infinitum. Let's try to exemplify that. A human is a biological apparatus as is; no personality is inherent in its structure no matter how complicated that structure may be. But, as soon as the nervous system starts to function, and it does that in operational closure (ibid), the human finds out that repetitive actions could (contingently) lead to repetitive results: that is, coordinations of the nervous and muscular system, as the infant learns to control hers or his limbs, starts to trivialize certain perceptions. This creates the infrastructure for learning and therefore cognition. To be sure, the child learns that through its own internal coordinations can achieve certain goals, but there are other entities that cannot be control by him or her, no matter however hard she or he tries. The totality of the direct-controlled entities becomes a whole, known as self. So, a universe of controllable/uncontrollable, or perhaps put in a better way, predictable/unpredictable entities emerges. From that point on, the idea of distinction is taken as given. Concurrently, the child finds out that certain coordinations he or she selects, can trigger corresponding coordinations (which are perceived as inputs) from certain (but not any) entities in his or hers environment. This is to say that the child starts to communicate with persons in hers or his environment, and a second conception emerges, namely that of communication as a contingent state of affairs. To be sure, communication emerges as coordinations of coordinations, that is coordinations between two (or more) autonomous entities that each one coordinates itself. And, concurrently again, the distinction between living/non-living, humans/nonhumans emerges as well. Eventually, we find ourselves to live (that is: operate) in a world that is consisted of entities we have the ability to communicate with - and we conceive of them as similar to us, other animals (with a reduced ability of communication as we conceive of it), and "things". "If one observes the mother child relation in early childhood, one can see that the growing baby
becomes a languaging being in the flow of its living in the intimate relation of care and play with his or her mother in the consensual co-ordinations of emotions and doings that such relation entails. One can see that the flow of doings that an observer may recognise as languaging begins to appear when there are consensual coordinations of doings that become recursive in the play of the mother and child much earlier than the appearance of vocal sounds. As an observer sees that the mother/child interactions of co-ordinations of doings become recursive consensual co-ordinations of doings, he or she sees language arising as a domain of living together in consensual distinction of objects that soon becomes an expanding domain of recursive coordination of consensual distinctions of objects and relations between objects. When this happens, the observer sees that the child begins to live with his or her mother and other people around him or her, in an ever growing domain of inter-objectivity in which parts of his or her body, and eventually him or herself as a relational totality and identity appear as distinguishable operational centres of the realisation of his or her living" (Maturana H. R., 2005: 14). The point is that the very moment the child learned that there can be mutual coordinations, and coordinations of coordinations, the society achieved its own reproduction once more. As Niklas Luhmann (1995: 127) puts it in a somewhat more sociological manner, "Through the connection between selections and further selections in the course of communication, a domain of what is to be accepted and expected condenses, and its boundaries cut across the world of meaning. Psychic systems thereby become persons, namely, collages of expectations, functioning as points of reference [the expectations] for further selections within the system [of communication]". A spectacular distinction, namely I/Thou is emerging, it's assimilated by the person (Piaget J., 1977; Spencer-Brown G., 2008), and thereafter functions as the basic operation of the person and of any social system. Despite the fact that psychic systems operate on the basis of self-consciousness, persons are communicative entities, and - as the isolation booth proves - only through communication can they continue to be as such. The environment as otherness
At this point it would be useful to recall Bateson's definition of information as "the difference which makes a difference". That is, not any difference makes a difference and therefore not every event counts as a stimulus. Everything referred hereto, implies something important: the environment is the sine qua non for any self-referential system. Again, this is not to say that the environment controls the system. The system selects its own states calculated upon its own autopoietic operation and preserving its operational closure. Social systems for example develop their own lingo which is not something to overlook: it is a manifestation of the system's internal cohesion, a realization of its identity as an idiosyncratic system of perception. Each and every social system (and this is also the case with any self-referential system, including psychic ones), develops its own identity. But we need to clarify that that is not a constant: what is viable for the system is to preserve the ability to reconstruct its identity as a clear distinction through the wholeness of the environment. Put simpler, only the ability to reconstruct an identity is crucial, and not the preservation of a certain stable identity, whichever that may be. Of course, through the recursive reconstruction of identity, some variables tend to stabilize so to speak, although in a dynamic equilibrium: this is to say that they too change, but in longer time periods than others. No matter what happens out there, the system primarily reinvents itself and through that operation (and only through that) reinvents its own environment (Foerster von, H., 1984; 2002; 2003). The system thematizes itself in correlation to an environment that is (perceived to be) different than itself. That is, as the system encounters events to whatever it conceives as its environment, it rearranges its own functions, so to avoid disintegration: therefore the system changes so to avoid a profound (and final) change. But Bateson's definition points out that a trivial environment is a nonenvironment. Since communication cannot continue on repetitive patterns, it follows that identity reconstruction cannot be triggered by the most probable events.3 Therefore, a self-referential system is in a continuous loop through which it tries to defeat complexity by trivialization of its environment. The system is always striving
Interestingly enough, Claude Shannon in his famous technical paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" (1948), which is the theoretical basis of the recent technological communication networks, arrives to the same exact conclusion, through his formula for the entropy of transmission of information in discrete channels; but the mathematical proof of the importance of the difference, is beyond the scope of this paper.
to rearrange its environment, so to assure an optimal lifeworld around it (Popper K., 2003), that is to construct an environment that favours its own autopoiesis. This is a hopeless strive though: its environment is consisted by other self-referential systems that are reacting exactly the same way in order to preserve their own autopoiesis. So the cycle is triggered anew. Hopefully at this point, it should come as no surprise to note that selfreferential systems are problem-solvers: and that's exactly what they are. Due to their own self-thematization they push other psychic or social systems to do the same: and people become individuals and social systems emerge on the basis of common constructions be those languages, values, goals, interests etc. It is deduced then that society advances through internal differentiation that's attributed to the individuality of humans as persons and social systems as discrete structures. It is also obvious that any finality (if for the sake of discussion we assume that there could be such a thing) introduces a profound danger for the autopoietic operation of any kind of selfreferential system for it would reduce the contingency of the environment and therefore would deprive the system from its raison d' êtres: the system would not be able anymore to distinguish itself from the other, so it would have either to invent an other or collapse. Otherness then and its importance, is the key aspect to grasp Niklas Luhmann's theory. As he notes "We could take the route of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida or George-Spencer Brown, and follow the injunction to always start with difference and not identity, with distinction and not unity" (Luhmann N., 1992a: 1421), and also, "In fact, the theory of autopoietic systems could bear the title Taking Individuals Seriously, certainly more seriously than our humanistic tradition"4 (ibid: 1422). Conclusions Finally, now that we made clear the main aspects of Luhmann's theory let's try to review the criticism we presented initially: 1. It is a theory about conservation, thus a conservative theory. Yes it is a theory about the endeavor of self-referential systems to maintain their selfreference. Through this continuous effort, the systems are changing and so
Emphasis in the original.
does their environment. So, it is a theory about change through conservation. 2. Luhmann's theory sets the human explicitly apart from the society and reduces its importance. The answer is that Luhmann does not deal with humans - he deals with persons as individuals. Placing the persons at the environment of social systems, he offers plausible explanations on how the persons can dramatically influence communication and therefore social systems. 3. The adaptation of the biological theory of autopoiesis is problematic. On the contrary, autopoiesis offers a coherent and fruitful scientific paradigm, to understand social systems as complex communicational systems, rather than aggregations of individuals. 4. His theory is over-complicated and highly abstract and therefore difficult to grasp and use it as a social analysis tool. True partially, and there's nothing we can do about it: Luhmann's theory is indeed very complex since it tackles each and every manifestation of the social phenomena. But systemic social analysis always starts with some simple questions, namely: "Who says it, who is the observer? What environment does that observer conceive of? Why he selects that certain conception? How does that relate with whatever he reckons to be his identity? What communicational patterns does he select to stabilize and why?". "Je suis né plusieurs, et je suis mort, un seul. L'enfant qui vient est une foule innombrable, que la vie réduit assez tôt à un seul individu, celui qui se manifeste et meurt" (Born as several, I die as one. The child who comes is an innumerable crowd, which the life rather early reduces to only one individual, that which appears and dies) (Paul Valéry as cited in Luhmann N., 1990: 116).
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Buckley Walter, 2001, Mind and Brain: A Dynamic System Model in Sociocybernetics: complexity, autopoiesis, and observation of Social Systems, Geyer Felix, Johannes van der Zouwen, (ed.), Greenwood Press: 41-57. Foerster von, Heinz, 1984, Observing Systems, Seaside California, Intersystems Publications. Foerster von, Heinz, Poerksen Bernhard,, 2002, Understanding systems Conversation on Epistemology and Ethics, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag. Foerster von, Heinz, 2003, Understanding understanding - Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, Springer. Luhmann Niklas, 1986, The Autopoiesis of Social Systems in Sociocybernetic Paradoxes, F. Geyer, J. van der Zouwen, (ed.), London, Sage: 172-192. Luhmann Niklas, 1990, Essays on Self-Reference, Columbia University Press. Luhmann Niklas, 1992a, Operational Closure and Structural Coupling: The differentiation of the legal system, Cardozo Law Review, vol. 13: 1419-1441. Luhmann Niklas, 1995, Social Systems, Stanford University Press. Maturana H.R., Varela F. J., 1980, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Reidel Publishing Company. Maturana H. R., Varela F. J., 1992, Tree of Knowledge (greek translation), Katoptro. Maturana H. R., 2005, The Origin and Conservation of Self-consciousness, Reflections on four questions by Heinz von Foerster, Kybernetes, vol. 34 (1/2): 54-88. Piaget Jean, 1977, The Principles of Genetic Epistemology, Routledge & Kegan Paul. Popper Karl, 2003(2002), Alle Menschen sind Philosophen (Greek edition), Athens, Melani editions. Μιχάλης Παπανικολάου, (Trans). Spencer Brown George, 2008, Laws of Form, Bohmeier Verlag.
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