Autopoiesis: The organizational closure of social systems
Bednarz J. Jr. (1988) Autopoiesis: The organizational closure of social systems. Systems Research 5(1): 57–64. Available at http://cepa.info/2807
Table of Contents
The organization and structure of systems: Simultaneity of openness and closure
Problems in the extension of autopoiesis to social systems in Maturana and Varela 
Conclusion: Extension of autopoiesis to social systems through communicative action
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.
Key words: Autopoiesis, communication, meaning, organization, social systems, structure.
The organization and structure of systems: Simultaneity of openness and closure
The identification of living things has never really seemed to present man with an insuperable obstacle. Whenever he has found himself faced with some phenomenon for the first time – something completely new – he normally has been able to decide one way or the other. Usually he could appeal to a list of characteristics (this is a commonplace in the first few pages of many general biology texts) deemed to be distinctive of living things and see whether the phenomenon in question exhibited any or all of them. But just as little as the enumeration of symptoms divulges the nature of the disease so the production of a list of characteristics – no matter how seemingly complete – for the purpose of identifying living things is quite distinct from knowing what a living thing itself is, ‘…which was’, as one biologist put it, ‘in fact the question that I wanted to answer in the first place by producing such a list’ ( p. xiii). In trying to provide an answer to this question Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela found that they could indeed discuss living systems in terms of adaption, evolution, development and differentiation and then account for all this in terms of natural selection. But in their own words, ‘What was the invariant feature of living systems around which natural selection operated?, remained unanswered’ (, p. xiii). Unsuccessful attempts to discover this invariant feature ultimately led them to revise their thinking. Consequently they thought that they, had to stop looking at living systems as open systems defined in their environment …’ ( p. xiii), because to do so is to understand them as, in their own words, ‘intrinsically referential’, i.e. to be understood essentially in terms of something other than themselves. (The phrase ‘intrinsically referential’ means, in this context, ‘to point towards’, ‘to allude to’, ‘to direct attention (from itself) to’ (something else). Of course when this is intrinsic it cannot be conceived otherwise, i.e. it is a constitutive property. This necessary transcendance, believes Maturana, is at the bottom of the misunderstanding of what is invariant about living systems.)
In order to understand what Maturana and Varela have in mind here let us consider another characteristic of living systems. Of all the different kinds of systems – some even sharing characteristics with living systems – those which are living are unique insofar as they alone maintain their identity through their own operations of the renewal of components. They themselves replace their own components (elements) as the very operations of maintaining their identity . The uniqueness of this characteristic of living systems means then, according to Maturana and Varela, that they must no longer be understood in terms of environmental dependence but rather essentially in terms of their autonomy and unity. The concept of autonomy is necessary because only under this condition can the replacement (renewal) of components (elements) of living systems be effected as the very operations of the systems themselves , and unity because in this way these operations, at the same time, preserve the (class) identity of the system. (It is important to note that the processes which specify a unity may be either conceptual or physical, according to Maturana. And it also should be noted that these processes (operations) may and do accomplish more than the replacement of system components. But whatever else they accomplish, e.g. reproduction, is not essential for the system’s autonomy.) For this reason, any ‘… notions of purpose, goal, or function had to be rejected’ ( p. xiii) as defining features of living systems. The reason should also be clear. To define to try to capture the ‘invariant feature’ of living systems in terms of any of these concepts would negate the system’s autonomy because all of them refer beyond the system itself. They all disregard the essential self-renewal of the system. To neglect this means to fall back upon openness and environmental dependence.
The combination of autonomy and unity has decisive consequences for the understanding of living systems. One of these has already been indicated as the singular capacity of living systems to establish and maintain their unity by means of their own autonomous processes (autonomy). Whatever contributes to the establishment of the unity of a system – and this includes any system at all – is referred to by Maturana and Varela as its organization, so that the concepts of autonomy and unity are united in the concept of the living system’s organization. This combination is distinctive of them because all other types of systems are organized differently, i.e. other types of systems do not have their unity established and maintained through their own autonomous processes. Indeed, other types of systems may not have their unity established by autonomous processes or even processes at all. Their organization may not be autonomous or it may not be a set of processes but rather a set of (static) relations among components (elements). Nonetheless, the concept of organization, as used by Maturana and Varela, is constitutive of the unity of any (complex) system.
Another important consequence of the unification of the concepts of autonomy and unity in the concept of the living system’s organization is its invariance. Since the living system is unified through its autonomous processes (organization) anything to change this would result in its destruction. Thus the (processual, dynamic) organization of living systems must be, ‘… continually recovered as “the same” …’ ( p. 5). This can occur, however, only with the specific cooperation of the components that it produces. The components (elements) must, through their own interaction, production, transformation, destruction et al., reproduce the same complex of processes – organization – which produced them. Otherwise the system’s unity is negated and the system is thereby destroyed. (This statement is made to dispel the apparent tautology of the one preceding it. For the latter ‘seems’ to say that ‘the same’ complex of unity-characterizing processes is recovered only under the condition that it is. Even among living systems all that occurs within them does not contribute to the recovery of the complex of unity- characterizing processes. In the case of non-living systems this never happens.) We can now see that the organization of living systems is distinctive insofar as it is, in Zeleny’s words, ‘… “self-contained,” “self-perpetuating,” “self-sustaining,” or simply “closed”’ . Closure is revealed in the way components and complexes of component producing processes alternately reproduce themselves. (The necessary organizational closure of living systems is at the bottom of Maturana and Varela’s rejection of characterizing them in terms of goal, purpose or function. It also indicates a more general level of analysis than occurs in the case of ‘organizational theory’ where organizations are presented as social and goal-oriented (cf. e.g. Parsons ( p. 17), and Etzioni (, p. 3)). This list could be extended considerably. As can be seen, the way in which Maturana and Varela understand organization – rather than organizations – differs on both points.) Another way of saying this is that living systems are ‘intrinsically self-referential’. (This is intended to contrast with the already mentioned objection by Maturana and Varela that living systems are ‘intrinsically referential’. Their specific mode of operation (organization) is not meant to be understood in terms of referring to something beyond itself – which would be the case with the introduction of the concepts of purpose, goal or function. Rather it is closed, referring constantly to itself through the alternate (re)production of components and complex of component-producing processes.) Whatever takes place within them as living systems – whatever is accomplished by their organization – does so, ‘… as necessarily and constitutively determined in relation to themselves because their being defined as unities through self‑reference (is) their manner of autonomy …’ (, p. xiii). Organizational closure also means that whatever functions as a component (element) of the living system is entirely determined by the system’s specific mode of operation (organization). Since this is closed, only components (elements) of the same type are reproduced because these are the ones necessary to reproduce – through their own processes of interaction, etc. the same complex of component producing processes that produced them.
In order to capture the uniqueness of the specific mode of operation of living systems, viz. their organizational closure, Maturana and Varela introduced the term ‘autopoiesis’. They believe that this term enjoys the advantage of being entirely new and not relying upon a tradition in whose language nothing essentially new can be said. In this way they think that they can ‘… orient [themselves] differently and, perhaps, from the new perspective generate a new tradition’ ( p. xvii).
The emphasis placed by Maturana and Varela on the autonomy and unity of living systems and, hence, the difference between system-organization and system-structure clearly distinguishes their approach [paradigm] from that of others who have addressed the problem of living systems and related matters , , . But since the present theme has to do with the clarification of the concept of autopoiesis and its application to social systems it has been intentionally restricted to those authors who have directly concerned themselves with the connection of both of these concepts.
Living systems are therefore autopoietic systems in accordance with the way in which Maturana and Varela present the term. One may very well ask then whether the converse is the case too. Here, I believe, the answer must be negative, i.e. autopoietic systems are not all or necessarily living systems – and again in accordance with the way in which Maturana and Varela themselves present the term. This results from the fact that autopoiesis is concerned with the system’s organization alone. To be sure, all systems that are autopoietic have the same organization. But this is only a formal principle of their mode of unification, of the relation between components and complex of component producing processes. It in no way determines the nature of the components themselves and consequently the concrete ways in which they interact, etc. , . Therefore, when Maturana and Varela say that organization is the relations, ‘… that define a system as a unity, and determine the dynamics of interaction and transformation which it may undergo as such a unity …’ (, p. 137), they provide only the formal context (limits) within which components, of whatever kind, can interact and still maintain the system’s unity, still be systems of a certain type, e.g. autopoietic. Formality permits the use of the concept of autopoiesis to extend beyond- the one made by Maturana and Varela. But no actual system is mere form. Every one contains concrete components with definite properties which permit them to enter into a limited – even if it is large – number of particular relations. The particular disposition of these components at any given time is what is meant by the system’s structure.
It is very important for an understanding of autopoiesis that the concepts of organization and structure are kept separate. Autopoiesis is a kind of (system) organization which can be manifested by an, in principle, indefinite number of different (system) structures but cannot be identified with any one of them. (This, I believe, is at the bottom of the difficulties with an initial understanding of autopoiesis. It is always manifested by a given structure but separate from it. It is too easy to view organization as an arrangement of system components which it is not, at least not as it is being used here.) An actual system requires the unification of both . While organization is necessary to establish system unity which is, according to Maturana and Varela, ‘… the sole condition necessary for existence in a given domain’ ( p. 138), structure is necessary because different domains place different demands upon system components. (For example, in the physical domain the components must satisfy the laws of thermodynamics which govern system structure, more precisely structural change.) In the case of autopoietic systems, then, structure constantly changes while organization remains the same. Indeed, since in this case organization is nothing more than the mode of operation of maintaining system-unity organization is the very change of these structures itself. In this sense, but in this sense alone, ‘… the relations among components that constitute the organization of a composite unity [system J.B.] represent a subset of the relations in describing its structure’ ( p. 48). The subset here consists of those relations among components which constitute the system’s organization as autopoietic.
Organization, as already mentioned, specifies the formal limits within which structural changes may occur – in the case of autopoietic systems – while system unity is preserved. The actual, concrete structural changes, however, are a consequence of the nature of the components themselves because the properties of system components determine the kind of interactions, etc. into which they can enter . In this way structure, ‘… determines at every instant the way in which it [the autopoietic system J.B.] realizes its autopoiesis through the path of structural changes’ ( p. 70). This path and the resultant structural changes themselves are simply In’ the system’s autopoiesis or they are not. In other words, the process of transition of structures and the structures themselves are all manifestations of autopoietic organization or they are not. In the latter case the system disintegrates.
Although an autopoietic system is structure- determined in the above sense, structural changes themselves result from one of two factors : internal dynamics or interaction with the system’s environment . In order for structural changes to be brought about through interaction with the system’s environment, however, the system must be structurally coupled with it. Another way of saying this is that the system is open (structurally) to its environment. The environment then selectively triggers structural changes in the system even though the system remains structurally determined in itself. Therefore in the case of autopoiesis systems are open and closed at the same time, open with respect to structural interaction with the environment – which is an unavoidable consequence of the fact that system elements must always satisfy the particular requirements of the concrete domains in which they occur and closed with respect to organization. The recognition of the simultaneous openness and closure of autopoietic systems is in opposition to the tradition for which a system is one or the other but not both . Of course, this interpretation is possible only on the basis of a clear distinction between organization and structure.
Problems in the extension of autopoiesis to social systems in Maturana and Varela 
The essentially formal nature of organization has important implications for the concept of autopoiesis too. The properties of the components of autopoietic systems are in no way specified by their organization except, of course, insofar as they meet the requirements of autopoiesis. For this reason the equation of living systems and autopoietic systems has to be rejected.
All living systems may very well be autopoietic but not vice versa because, according to Maturana and Varela, the components of any system must satisfy the particular requirements of the domain in which they occur. In the case of living systems the thermodynamic requirements of the physical domain must be satisfied. In other words, an autopoietic system which exists in the physical domain (space) is called a living system by Maturana and Varela. But since organization – even autopoietic organization – does not specify in any way the nature of the components of composite unities (systems) as such there is no justification on this basis for the restriction of autopoietic organization to the physical space alone. So, living systems do not have to be the only kind of system which meets the requirements of autopoietic organization.
However, in order to extend the scope of autopoiesis we must transcend the physical space of living systems into other domains which can also meet its requirements. Maturana himself believes in the possible extension of this concept but met with serious conceptual obstacles whose solution he unfortunately does not provide. I should like to investigate these problems here and try to understand why they are insuperable for Maturana. Then I would like to provide some indications towards their solution.
At the conclusion of the introduction of Autopoiesis and Cognition Maturana remarks that the concluding appendix was supposed to have been added at the end of the book. But since he and Varela could not reach an agreement concerning the contents of this appendix, he would use the occasion offered by the book’s introduction to present his own thoughts. (These differences are not trivial because they focus upon the decisive issue.) The disagreement that divided Maturana and Varela involved the ‘social and ethical implications’ of the extension of the concept of autopoiesis, i.e. the extension of the concept of autopoiesis beyond the physical domain into that of the social. Varela is quite clear in his rejection of this possibility . His argument is based upon the fact that autopoiesis is not only the production of the types of interrelations that system components must observe but also of the components themselves. And while the paradigm works very well in the biological (physical) domain, as in the case of the cell and its metabolic net, Varela says that he does ‘… not see how the definition of autopoiesis can be directly transposed to a variety of other situations, social systems for example’ ( p. 38). The components of a cell, i.e. molecules (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids) constantly create new components through the succession of their chemical interactions, etc., i.e. breakdown and reassembly. This very process is the autopoiesis of the cell. Because the same types of molecules (components) are (re)produced the same types of chemical interactions follow and so on. Hence the closure of the organization. The openness of the system (cell) is found in the exchange of matter which is necessary for the continued existence of living systems. (‘Matter’ is understood here, a la Schroedinger , to represent the negative entropy found in the ‘more or less complicated compounds’ that living systems feed upon. And since negative entropy is also found in sunlight, living systems are open not only to exchange of matter but also of energy.) Maturana remarks that the
substances that come from the medium penetrate the boundaries of a living system (say a cell) and participate in its autopoietic network (become its components), and the substances produced through the autopoietic network which do not recursively participate in it, leave it and do not become its components. In this latter case the substances either pass into the medium, or remain trapped in the mesh of the autopoietic network as inclusions without participating it. ( p. 54)
This openness to the exchange of matter and energy is not in conflict with the organizational closure of the system as long as this matter and energy are used by the components of the system to create further components of the same kind which ultimately replace the former. Varela finds fault with Maturana’s extension of the concept of autopoiesis beyond the physical (biological) domain precisely because autopoiesis requires the (re)production of elements of the same type.
A serious problem – which I believe Varela sees quite clearly – surfaces here if social systems are regarded as composed of human beings, i.e. biological components . Among other things, social systems must then be accepted as living, i.e. as biological systems . If one is not ready with Beer to do this then he must demonstrate, as Varela says, that ‘… the production of components in some space has to be exhibited; further, the term production has to make sense in some domain of discourse’ ( p. 38). Varela has, I believe, touched the very core of the problem with this assertion because if human beings (biological units) are the actual components of social systems what sense can be made of the concept of (re)production in this social context? When autopoiesis is extended to this concept of social systems the autonomy and unity of systems has to be exhibited by means of the recursive production of processes and components itself. Social processes must produce social components. This is impossible to demonstrate even in the case of simple, informal social systems, not to mention large, formal ones like large industries, the military, schools and universities, hospitals et al.
The insuperability of this problem results, I believe, from a confusion of domains. Autopoietic systems as such operate only within one domain. (Closure requires this.) If this domain is the biological one, for instance, then all aspects of autopoiesis are biological. The example of the cell is a good illustration of this. The attempt to extend autopoiesis to the social domain has failed so far precisely because it has one foot in each camp. The processes of an autopoietic system cannot belong to one domain while its components belong to another. But this is what occurs when social systems are regarded as being composed of human beings (biological units). Just as the biological processes of (living) autopoietic systems produce biological components, social processes must correspondingly produce social components if the concept of autopoiesis is to be extended to the social domain with any validity. For this reason human beings – no matter how they are understood, e.g. as persons, individuals, actors, subjects, etc. – cannot constitute the components of social systems. Furthermore, and perhaps even more portentous, social systems themselves, if they are to meet the requirements of autopoiesis, can no longer be regarded in terms of interrelations among human beings because the latter cannot operate as the components of social systems when these are understood autopoietically.
The statements that human beings are not the components of social systems and that social systems themselves are not constituted on the basis of interrelations among these seem in need of justification because there is a very long tradition which says quite the opposite. (This is certainly clear in the case of Aristotle (cf. ) where he opposes the priority of the polis (the social domain) to the family or the individual. Admittedly, ‘society’ is viewed by Aristotle in terms of the political order. But the persistence of this interpretation can be appreciated only when one realizes that the term societe civile was still a working concept and not just a historico-analytical instrument for Rousseau. Even in the case of the establishment of a separate science of sociology in the last quarter of the 19th Century, where clear distinctions are finally drawn between the political and the social, society is still regarded as composed of individuals (cf., for instance, Georg Simmel ). The problem for this long tradition of social thought has never been the identification of the components of society but rather which has priority. For Aristotle and Hegel it is society, for Hobbes and Rousseau it is the individual.) Indeed, only quite recently have things changed in this regard, even if the change did not occur all at once and without some equivocation. This fact is most clearly visible in the work of Talcott Parsons. Very early in The Social System he writes, ‘… a social system consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation...’ [21, pp. 5f.]. Of course, there is nothing new in this statement. Social systems are still composed here of human beings (actors) and their interrelations. But later in the same work Parsons characterizes social systems in a significantly different way. He says then, that, ‘… a social system is a mode of organization of action elements relative to the persistence or ordered processes of change of the interactive pattern of a plurality of individual actors’ ( p. 24). This change is not trivial because it affects the status of social systems as such, the nature of their component elements, the mode of their (the elements’) interrelations and ultimately the applicability of the concept of autopoiesis as an analytic instrument to the social domain. The change itself resides in the very composition of social systems. In the second reference above Parsons no longer presents actors as the components of social systems but rather ‘action elements’. The importance of this difference which is not clear in The Social System (otherwise there would be no confusion with the first reference) finds systematic development only, so far as I know, in the work of one of Parsons’ students : Niklas Luhmann.
Conclusion: Extension of autopoiesis to social systems through communicative action
One of the basic and most consistently emphasized and developed aspects of Luhmann’s thought is the principle that, social systems arise out of concrete actions …’ (‘Soziale Systeme bestehen aus faktischen Handlungen ….’ This work is one of Luhmann’s earliest and his position has subsequently undergone revision and development (cf. Luhmann  Ch. 4).) This principle expresses the conscious rejection of the long held belief in the individual’s role as a societal (political) element. (cf. Luhmann ( p. 68), kann aus einer Mehrheit von Menschen kein System gebildet werden.”No system can be formed out of a plurality of individuals.’ Also (, p. 45), ‘Soziale Systeme bestehen aus erwartungsgesteuerten Handlungen, nicht aus Menschen.’ ‘Social systems arise out of actions that are guided by expectations, not out of individuals.’) Since Luhmann’s whole program can be viewed as the elaboration of the consequences of this particular principle it would be impossible to say all that could be said about its implications here. But for the present purposes it is necessary only to address those of its aspects which have reference to the applicability of the concept of autopoiesis to social systems.
In attempting to extend the concept of autopoiesis to the social domain Maturana, despite the other conceptual difficulties he encounters, admits that, ‘The central feature of human existence is the occurrence in a linguistic cognitive domain’ [14, p. xxiv]. He then specifies this statement further by adding that, ‘This domain is constitutively social’ [14, p. xxiv]. If by ‘linguistic cognitive domain’ he means a system of communicative acts (and I would like to suggest that this would not be a completely erroneous interpretation) then there is nothing in these two statements of Maturana’s with which Luhmann would disagree. On the contrary, Luhmann attempts to show that an adequate theory of the social domain can be presented only in terms of autopoietically constituted systems of communicative acts (communications).
With the repudiation of individuals (biological units) as the elements of social systems attention is focused by Luhmann on communicative acts (communications). How are these constituted as autopoietic systems? As in the case of all autopoietic systems a distinction must be made between elements and (re)productive processes. Luhmann does this by distinguishing act and communication . ‘… [W]e were compelled’, he says, ‘to distinguish communication (as constituting and reproducing autopoiesis) and act (as constituted element of social systems).’ ‘… wir genötigt waren, Kommunikation (als konstituierende und reproduzierende Autopoiesis) und Handlung (als konstituiertes Element sozialer Systeme) zu unterscheiden’ ( p. 325). The compulsion here is exercised by the demand for an adequate theory.) Furthermore he must also show how these – act and communication – mutually (re)produce each other. (Otherwise the autopoietic requirement of organizational closure would not be met.) But in the case of systems whose elements are acts or events (for Luhmann act and event are equivalent) the concept of reproduction itself must be explained because its meaning here differs significantly from the one it possesses in other cases. In this context reproduction is understood in terms of conjoinability (Anschlussfähigkeit). For a theory of autopoietic systems’, says Luhmann, ‘the preeminent question however becomes, how one passes from one elementary event to the next. Here the basic problem resides […] in conjoinability (Anschlussfähigkeit)’ ( p. 62). ‘Für eine Theorie autopoietischer Systeme stellt sich dagegen vorrangig die Frage, wie man überhaupt von einem Elementarereignis zum nächsten kommt ; das Grundproblem liegt hier […] in der Anschlussfähigkeit.’ To be even more specific, Luhmann emphasizes that autopoietic reproduction is more than just the repetition of a similar act or even the expectation of a similar experience but rather the actual production of new acts. This distinguishes it, according to him, from a purely structuralist interpretation, cf. ( p. 62).) Reproduction occurs through the adding on of, through the conjoining of acts onto other acts. But as the term ‘conjoinability’ (Anschlussfähigkeit) indicates, the adding on of or the conjoining of further elements requires some kind of a basis for the conjunction. Elements must be capable of conjoining with one another. The basis for this connection is what Luhmann refers to as meaning.
Meaning is, for Luhmann, the basis upon which, or rather the vehicle by which, certain kinds of systems are organized. (In this respect it is the counterpart of life in the physical domain.) Seen from the autopoietic point of view it is the basis upon which system unity is established. The reason for this is that meaning is essentially a relation, according to Luhmann . Any system which is organized this way has its elements connected together through meaning. In order to show how this is accomplished, however, Luhmann must have recourse to phenomenological analyses because, according to him, only in this way is the function of meaning revealed. (I owe this to a personal communication from Prof. Luhmann.)
In Husserl’s later work, especially Erfahrung und Urteil, the intentionality of meaning is more fully developed in terms of the concept of horizon. Husserl explains how any directly experienced meaning never discloses itself in isolation. It is always accompanied by other meanings. These further meanings group themselves together into horizons, as Husserl calls them, which are as much a part of a whole, concrete experience as what is directly or immediately experienced. These further meanings, always co-intended (co-meant) with every actually (directly) experienced meaning, are understood as further possibilities of direct experience. Thus every (directly experienced) meaning essentially refers to other possible meanings. In addition, and equally constitutive of any directly experienced meaning, is the essential reference of these other possible meanings back to it (cf. Husserl , Sec. 8) :
Thus every experience of a particular thing has its internal horizon, and by “horizon” is meant here the induction which belongs essentially to every experience and is inseparable from it, being in the experience itself. The term “induction” is useful because it suggests (vordeutet) (itself an “induction”) induction in the ordinary sense of a mode of inference and also because it implies that the latter, for its elucidation to be completely intelligible, must refer back to the original, basic anticipation. [emphasis LB])
Meaning is therefore constituted not only referentially, according to Husserl, but rather reflexively, i.e. self-referentially.
The self-referentiality of meaning is at the very core of the autopoiesis of social systems, according to Luhmann. In distinction to Weber, for whom meaning is still a property of actions(and indeed a property conferred from outside!!) , Luhmann recognizes that meaning is rather a (selective) relation among actions. Communicative action is meaningful because it presents (refers to) other communicative actions which, in turn, refer back to it and thereby confer identity and unity upon it. Meaning is this reference and self-reference which is a necessary and unavoidable part of action because even, ‘All meaninglessness (Unsinn) [. 1 has meaning again through its strangeness’ (, p. 32) (‘jeder Unsinn […] hat in seiner Befremdlichkeit wieder Sinn’). Reproduction occurs in this case through the actual conjoining (Anschließen) of communicative actions with other (past) actual communicative actions. Of course, this must occur as a temporal process of selection because the referring function of meaning presents complex horizons of further conjoinable possibilities. (And not only in the future. These complex horizons include not only what could be but also what might have been.) Each selection therefore shifts the temporal horizons and presents new possibilities and eliminates others. (The elimination of possibilities is exclusively a function of time for Luhmann. Even after a selection has been made those which are negated (rejected, not selected) are not immediately eliminated. But some may still be valid for some time and retrievable (cf. Luhmann , , ). A separate analysis is necessary to reveal the full import of the temporal dimension of meaning. Luhmann addresses just this issue in the works mentioned above. I have tried to submit the same topic to a philosophical analysis in a work entitled ‘System and Time : The Function of Time in Meaning-Constituting Systems’.) Through the shifting of the temporal horizons – which occurs every time a selection is made – new meanings are produced as further possibilities which refer back to what is actual : the present. That this is closed, i.e. self-referential, is guaranteed by the fact that, ‘Meaning always refers to meaning and never beyond the meaningful to something else’ (, p. 96). (‘Sinn verweist immer wieder auf Sinn, nie aus Sinnhaften hinaus auf etwas anderes’.) The particular way in which this is accomplished in the case of social systems is called communication by Luhmann. Communication is singularly suited to this task because of its function of actualizing the same meaning for more than one person. (For related views from the side of information science, cf. the collection of essays by Donald McKay .) In this sense it is no longer understood in terms of a ‘transfer’ of information. (And consequently not susceptible of criticism along these lines, cf. McHoul .) ‘Communication is’, as Luhmann says, ‘in no way a process of “transference” of meaning or information as is mostly thought in its ordinary, everyday understanding and even many times in the case of a heedless scientific use of the concept. It is the common actualization of meaning which informs at least one of the participants’ (, p. 42) (‘Kommunikation ist keineswegs, wie man in Alltagsverständnis und oft such auch bei unbedachter wissenschaftlicher Verwendung des Bergriffs zumeist meint, ein Vorgang der “Übertragung” von Sin bzw. Information ; sie ist gemeinsame Aktualisierung von Sinn, die mindestens einen der Teilnehmer informiert’). Only on this’ basis can the double contingency involved in all social action be overcome. (The notion of double contingency is introduced by Parsons and Shils [22, cf. the Introduction, especially p. 16].) The identity involved in communication is rather the identity of meaning.
With the establishment of communication as the common actualization of meaning what is required to demonstrate the closure of the organization of social systems is essentially provided. (This is in no way intended to mean that this is all that is involved in social systems. The question of system openness, for instance, has not been addressed. This is a vitally important part of a complete understanding of them. The concern of the present paper, however, was to demonstrate autopoiesis through investigating organizational closure alone.) Communicative actions--the components of social systems-are not merely structured by communication but actually self-referentially created by it. (Only in this way is an autopoietic theory applicable to social systems at all. Autopoiesis is not simply a theory of self-organization. The components of the system must actually be produced-and not merely organized-by the very operation of the system itself.) The closure of this process is guaranteed by the underlying meaningfulness selectively guiding it in a way in which (system) unity is confirmed at all times. As long as communicative action-and only communicative action-produces communicative action, the theory to account for this cannot make an appeal to anything outside the unity thereby produced. To do so is to lose sight of that which is distinctive of unities which are established in this way : their autonomy. Autopoiesis, as a theory focusing its analytic energies in this direction, is in a position to make unique theoretical contributions to the understanding of this phenomenon which would not otherwise be possible.
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