Open peer commentary on the article “Social Autopoiesis?” by Hugo Urrestarazu. Upshot: We agree on the need to explore a concept of social autopoiesis that goes beyond a strictly human-centered concept of social systems as autopoietic communicative systems. But both Hugo Urrestarazu and Niklas Luhmann neglect the importance of semiosis in understanding communication, and this has important implications for the question of a more general approach to social systems.
Niklas Luhmann died in November 1998. He had been elaborating his theory of the society for more than thirty years which has been well received in many quarters of society in the modern world. Yet somehow we are only now beginning to read him when he is no longer there to be asked. And we are beginning to discuss his work although we cannot invite him to lecture us anymore. The following article takes up Luhmann’s very recent small and comprehensive book on Husserl and places him, as he did himself, in a tradition of “enlightenment” which aims for a self-critical constitution of reason.
Niklas Luhmann is not exactly known for his thinking about a possible change of the society due to the introduction of the computer. His society is the modern society, based on the overall importance of the communication medium of the printing press. Yet, his double volume book on Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft is so rich in remarks about the possible influence of the introduction of the computer on the society, equal only to the introduction of, first, writing and, then, the printing press, that one might be tempted to consider this book his way to bid farewell to the modern culture of the society based on the printing press. Let us look at what modern society has achieved relying on a notion of order stemming, with only slight exaggeration, from the library, and then let us try to watch how this very same society has to find equally wide-ranging solutions to a society relying, for a dominant part of its communication, on an order adapted to the computing machine, or so he seems to tell us. This paper looks at Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft in terms of a theory of the emerging computer culture of a society we cannot any more call the modern one. And it proposes to call for a competition to complete one of the most speculative chapters of this book in which Luhmann attributes the central cultural notion, or theory form, of the literal society, telos, to Aristotle, of the printing press society, self-referential restlessness, to Descartes, and leaves the slot open for the one possibly defining the culture of the computer society, which is the theory form of the form.
The paper looks at how a society having to deal with the introduction of the computer and its derivatives may differ from earlier societies which dealt with the introduction of language, writing, and the printing press. Each one of the introduction of these media of the dissemination of communication is regarded as a ‘catastrophe ’ forcing the society into new ways to selectively deal with new kinds of surplus meaning. The paper presents a sociological theory having to incorporate aspects of heterogeneous networks and of self-referential action in order to watch how the transformation of modern society into a next society may enfold. It draws a distinction between the structure of a society, ensuring the dissemination of communication, and the culture of the society, enabling it to condense the meaning of disseminated and distributed communication into a form which allows actors to focus on selections of it while taking account of the unmarked state as the other side of any one selection. Niklas Luhmann proposed to consider Aristotelian telos the ancient literal society’s culture form, and Cartesian self-referential restlessness or equilibrium as modern printing press society’s culture form. We add the culture form of boundaries for primitive oral society, and Spencer-Brownian form for the emerging next computer society. The paper will be
The book uses the method and categories of systems theory (inspired by Niklas Luhmann) in a scrutiny of the evolution of the main semantic trends of modern society and its influence in the formation of the systemic boundaries of the social systems of society. The book is an investigation of the meaning of the functional differentiation according to its semantic symptoms and evolution. In order to reconstruct the semantic evolution of basic modern socio-economic categories the book is divided according to the three classic branches of the political philosophy of the classic tradition, the Aristotelian division also conserved in Hegel’s own distribution of the themes of his “Sittlichkeit” – family, civil society and the state. Thus, in “The Individuation of Modern Society” the author explores the classic notion of oikós and its opposition to the pólis, the evolution of the concept of utility in modern times and its importance to the formation of the modern political economy and the economic system as an autonomous functional system, the idea of “civil society,” its meaning in the Hegelian description of the social modernity, the fragmentation of XVIIIth century civil society according to the use of the term “Entzweiung” in the Hegelian philosophical vocabulary, and the formation of the concept of the nation as a self-referential condition of the political system. The book finishes with a discussion of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of functional differentiation and his concept of the political system. Relevance: The book applies second-order cybernetics to the analysis of the evolution of modern social systems, especially in the case of the formation of self-referential conditions for the observation and reproduction of the systems.
This paper is a discussion of the sustainability of a concept of “world” compatible with the “operative constructivism” and the operative conception of observation of systems theory of according to Niklas Luhmann. The paper scrutinizes the concepts of observation of H. von Foerster, H. Maturana, G. Günther and N. Luhmann, providing the general framework of “operative constructivism.” Particularly, the paper will focus on N. Luhmann’s understanding of the role of observation in the constitution of the self-reference of the social systems of the modern society. The case of the “systems of art” will be briefly inspected. What place shall we concede to the idea of an “objective” world, according to the systems theory? Are systems “objective”? According to N. Luhmann, for the description of systems only operations are “objective.” However, an operation is not an entity, which means that we need to depict a new kind of “objects,” very different from the ’thing-objectivity” of the ancient metaphysics and different from the Cartesian concept of “res.” What does objectivity mean according to systems theory? This question was at stake in the formulation of N. Luhmann’s Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft: Society is “weder Subjekt noch Objekt.” This paper attempts to address this formula. Relevance: The paper deals with the epistemological explanation of second-order observations in social systems according to Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. It clarifies the world vision of the constructivism movement.
The paper presents a social system’s perspective on the Internet, based mostly upon a radical constructivist approach. It summarizes the contributions of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and outlines the theoretical boundaries between the theory of social systems and that of media studies. The paper highlights the self-referential nature of the Internet, which is depicted as both a system and an environment by means of a network of serialized selections and passing on of data. Therefore, whereas media theory pictures the Internet as a medium, this paper describes it as a system in regard to its self-referential dynamic, and as an environment in regard to the non-organized complexity of data within the medium. Even though the Internet is hereby depicted as an autopoietic system from a social system’s perspective, the paper does not resort to all the concepts of Luhmann’s theory.
The attempt to define living systems in terms of goal, purpose, function, etc. runs into serious conceptual difficulties. The theoretical biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela realized that any such attempt cannot capture what is distinctive about them: their autonomy and unity. Goal, purpose, etc. always define the system in terms of something extrinsic, whereas living systems are unique because they maintain their unitary continuity of pattern despite the ceaseless turnover of their components. So, system-closure is a prerequisite of their adequate conceptual comprehension. Maturana and Varela themselves found that system-closure pertains exclusively to their organization, i.e. the set of relations among system-components which unify them. For living systems this comprises the relation between the system-components and the processes which they undergo. This relation is self-referential because it is closed, i.e. it essentially (re)produces itself. \\While this model worked very well in the biological domain, attempts to extend it to the social domain met with serious conceptual obstacles. The reason for this is that Maturana did not make a consistent enough application of it. He understood the components of social systems biologically (individuals, persons, etc.) and the relations between them socially (language). This inconsistency ruptured the system’s organizational closure. Consequently organizational closure (autopoiesis) can be maintained only when both the components of social systems and their processes are of the same type: social. This interpretation can be found in the work of Niklas Luhmann who recognizes that the components of social systems are not persons, individuals, actors or subjects but communicative actions themselves. This preserves the organizational closure of the system and permits the concept of autopoiesis to be used as a powerful instrument of social analysis.
Open peer commentary on the article “Social Autopoiesis?” by Hugo Urrestarazu. Upshot: Hugo Urrestarazu’s social theoretical concept is reduced to the material reality. These suggestions exclude the essential constructivist character of the social and thereby important social phenomena by definition. The systems theoretical approach by Niklas Luhmann offers an adequate alternative.
Context: Both Luhmann and Pask have developed detailed theories of social systems that include accounts of the role of learning. Problem: Rather than see the theories as competing, we believe it is worthwhile to seek ways in which a useful synthesis of the two approaches may be developed. Method: We compare the two approaches by identifying key similarities and differences. Results: We show it is possible to make useful mappings between key concepts in the two theories. Implications: We believe it is worthwhile for social scientists to be familiar with the two theories and that it is not a case of “either/or,” rather, it is a case of “both/and.”