Upshot: In our response we focus on how different types of systems are related from a constructivist perspective, and specifically on the relation between communicational social systems and embodied agency.
Context: Society is faced with “wicked” problems of environmental sustainability, which are inherently multiperspectival, and there is a need for explicitly constructivist and perspectivist theories to address them. Problem: However, different constructivist theories construe the environment in different ways. The aim of this paper is to clarify the conceptions of environment in constructivist approaches, and thereby to assist the sciences of complex systems and complex environmental problems. Method: We describe the terms used for “the environment” in von Uexküll, Maturana & Varela, and Luhmann, and analyse how their conceptions of environment are connected to differences of perspective and observation. Results: We show the need to distinguish between inside and outside perspectives on the environment, and identify two very different and complementary logics of observation, the logic of distinction and the logic of representation, in the three constructivist theories. Implications: Luhmann’s theory of social systems can be a helpful perspective on the wicked environmental problems of society if we consider carefully the theory’s own blind spots: that it confines itself to systems of communication, and that it is based fully on the conception of observation as indication by means of distinction.
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.
Context: The problems that are most in need of interdisciplinary collaboration are “wicked problems,” such as food crises, climate change mitigation, and sustainable development, with many relevant aspects, disagreement on what the problem is, and contradicting solutions. Such complex problems both require and challenge interdisciplinarity. Problem: The conventional methods of interdisciplinary research fall short in the case of wicked problems because they remain first-order science. Our aim is to present workable methods and research designs for doing second-order science in domains where there are many different scientific knowledges on any complex problem. Method: We synthesize and elaborate a framework for second-order science in interdisciplinary research based on a number of earlier publications, experiences from large interdisciplinary research projects, and a perspectivist theory of science. Results: The second-order polyocular framework for interdisciplinary research is characterized by five principles. Second-order science of interdisciplinary research must: 1. draw on the observations of first-order perspectives, 2. address a shared dynamical object, 3. establish a shared problem, 4. rely on first-order perspectives to see themselves as perspectives, and 5. be based on other rules than first-order research. Implications: The perspectivist insights of second-order science provide a new way of understanding interdisciplinary research that leads to new polyocular methods and research designs. It also points to more reflexive ways of dealing with scientific expertise in democratic processes. The main challenge is that this is a paradigmatic shift, which demands that the involved disciplines, at least to some degree, subscribe to a perspectivist view. Constructivist content: Our perspectivist approach to science is based on the second-order cybernetics and systems theories of von Foerster, Maruyama, Maturana & Varela, and Luhmann, coupled with embodied theories of cognition and semiotics as a general theory of meaning from von Uexküll and Peirce.
The paper compares social systems theory and social network theory in terms of what it is they respectively seek to elucidate. Whereas systems theory focuses on problems of difference and reproduction, network theory deals with problems of identity and control, the former privileging communication and the latter action. To understand their different foci, it may help to keep in mind that systems theory is a child of computing’s formative years, whereas the more recent success of network theory, despite its roots in a far older tradition, accompanies the advent of the Internet. The paper goes on to compare the two theories with respect to questions of mathematical modeling, culture, and self-reference, which interestingly are closely related. It proposes a mathematical modeling of culture, which uses Spencer-Brown’s notion of form to combine variables of communication, consciousness, and life into one network relying on three systems capable of reproducing themselves. The paper is relevant for constructivist approaches because it shows how systems are constructed relying on networks within their own interpretation as culture.
Upshot: Are narratives systems on their own, or rather structures supporting and, if need be, subverting the reproduction of systems? Bruce Clarke inquires into the ability of social systems theory to help understand narratives - and comes across some “mysteries of cognition” concerning the questions of how systems emerge and which of them might be considered self-referential and autopoietic.
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.