Gypsy reason: Niklas Luhmann’s sociological enlightenment
Baecker D. (1999) Gypsy reason: Niklas Luhmann’s sociological enlightenment. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 6(3): 5–19. Available at http://cepa.info/3131
Table of Contents
A Self-Critical Reason
The Self-Similarity of the Social
In the Society of the Society
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.
A Self-Critical Reason
Edmund Husserl’s project of an empirical and operational description of the self-foundation of reason plays an important role in Luhmann’s thinking right from the beginning. Luhman owes central intuitions to Husserl; see his interest in “operations” instead of in “representations”, his emphasis of the distinction between self-reference and other reference following Husserl’s concept of “intentionality”, or his elaboration of a constitutive role of the time factor in the constitution of mental and social systems stimulated by Husserl’s distinction between “protention” and “retention”. But moreover and perhaps even more importantly he owes to Husserl a first trial run of his most important research and writing tool, or of his alter ego, so to speak: He developed the first version of his famous Zettelkasten or file-card system when reading Husserl (see Luhmann 1992a).
Yet Luhmann raises an objection against Husserl’s way of speaking about “Europe”. Husserl, in his lecture on “Die Philosophie in der Krisis der europäischen Menschheit” in Vienna in 1935 (Husserl 1976), had spoken of a “spirit of Europe” which consisted of rationality, worship of reason, enlightenment, and a socially responsive human being, yet which characteristically only became visible if one excluded the gypsies, among others, because they just “live as vagabonds in Europe” (see Husserl 1976: 319). Luhmann abhors such a vision. He even alludes to a conception of “barbarian” proposed by Friedrich Schiller, who calls a barbarian a person who prefers reason to the multiplicity and individuality of appearances (Luhmann 1995d). In a lecture celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of Husserl’s lecture, Luhmann (1996a) maintains that the project of a “self-critical reason” which he inherited from Husserl and which for both of them opposes the “lazy reason” (Husserl 1976: 14) of the 18th century’s naïve rationalism, aims precisely at an ironical reason, and that means at a reason peculiar to the “gypsies living as vagabonds in Europe” (see Luhmann 1996a: 46). It is the gypsies who are the most sophisticated in accounting for boundaries. They cross them and they “deconstruct” the accounts these boundaries are meant to entertain of the cultural and social limits of human behavior. Watching gypsies, so Luhmann suggests, must tell the observer much more about the actual state of Europe than any digging for its spirit ever could.
Such a gesture of objection, which at first glance seems to be rather marginal, is typical for Luhmann’s writing. He hardly ever goes into any detail or undertakes a “close examination” when commenting on even those authors on whom he relies extensively for the development of his own work, for instance Parsons (Luhmann 1988c), Maturana (Luhmann 1982a), or Spencer-Brown (Luhmann 1988b). It is always his own thinking he is interested in, which of course is not his own personal thinking but a very specific theory construction he alone is interested in. As he once said (Luhmann 1975) with respect to organization theory, he always wanted to construct a theory that is able to take the self-reference of its object seriously. That means also to develop the logic of contingency relations which describes the objects and underpins the theory. From early on he develops a kind of “reflexive sociology” (Platt 1989; Baecker 1999a) which takes on the idea of dialectics which is understood as a theory of selfreferential inferences. It is important to note that he looked for a theory of contingency relations which takes both sides of the relation as dependent on the respective other side, and not just one side, as for instance the organizational contingency theory (à la Lawrence and Lorsch) does. The system he was describing is forced into self-reference (and its historicity) because there is no other way to determine double contingency. Even for organization that means that it thrives on the various possibilities of determining double contingency.
The aim right from the beginning was to set up a theory of the society, already completely fleshed out in insisting on both singulars of one theory and one society. He certainly admired the tremendous scholarship which went into Max Weber’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie (Weber 1972). But he always maintained that the one word which remained undefined in a volume full of definitions was the word “und” in the title. How are you going to develop a verstehende Soziologie if you are not going to understand, in its gemeinte Sinn, the word “und”? Luhmann replaced the “und” by the genetive construction Die Wirtschaft der Gesellschaft (Luhmann 1988a) – and went on a long and sometimes bewildering journey into the heterarchical, supplementary, and polycontextural interdependencies of social systems.
Luhmann was probably one of the best experts on the lazy rationalism of the 18th century, a rationalism which up to the present day prevails in much of politics and economy. That is a rationalism which believes in certain asymmetries of reason and order:
in the fact that “interests will not lie” (Gunn 1968), at least that they cannot lie to the observer observing them (since you rarely know your own interests…);in the power of the convincing argument, i.e. in its irresistibility in social interaction;in the possibility of creating a “transparent” society, supposedly by observing it and acting according to the observations;and in the virtue of the discovery of the contingency of the society which was translated into the possibility for man to create his own society, and which got secured by the invention of “culture” and “tradition” which took care of “identities” and “authenticities” to beware of.
In a way Luhmann even participated in this kind of lazy rationalism when holding on to the project of “enlightenment”. He insisted on the possibility of observing society and of “enlightening” it by introducing perspectives of observation which are “incongruent” (Burke 1984) to the perspectives used by the object itself. That means that the object does not necessarily understand how it is described nor does it necessarily profit from these descriptions. There is no way of gaining behavioral criteria or maxims of successful communication from sociological descriptions. So the “enlightenment” to be expected is a very sociological one. Luhmann sharpened his own way of observing social phenomena by delving into that tradition of French “moralism” (for instance, the Marquis de Vauvenargues, see Luhmann 1979a, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Marquis de Sade, Jean-Fréderic Bernard and many others, see Luhmann 1980-1995) which in no way was determined to trust enlightenment even one inch since it always deemed an assumed transparency of a rather peculiar and selective kind. The transparency of society quickly got resolved into the motives, interests, precautions, and biases of certain observers who were able to see what they saw but who did not see that they did not see what they did not see.
That is why Luhmann gave his work the title of a “sociological enlightenment” (see Luhmann 1970-1995; Luhmann 1982a; and Luhmann 1990). He invented the distinction between “operation” and “observation” just in order to be able to show that, even when an observation already is an operation, there are still operations going on which go unobserved. We do not know how society is reproducing itself. Yet we invent the notion of “reproduction” and go on to try to observe what we get to see if we start with such a notion. Luhmann at any time, perhaps like Ranulph Glanville (1988), is faithful not so much to enlightenment and “German idealism” but to Jean Paul’s ironical comments on enlightenment and to the great tradition of English and German romanticism (Lawrence Sterne, Jean Paul, Thomas Carlyle, Novalis, the Schlegels) which critically re-introduces Kant’s transcendental into the empirical of social situations. It might be a worthy attempt, by the way, to compare Professor Teufelsdröckh’s notion of “clothes”, in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (Carlyle 1988), with Luhmann’s notion of “society”. We have to assume operations are already going on when entertaining our observations. We are operating inside “unwritten crosses” (Spencer-Brown 1972), and there is no way but to re-dress our dresses when we set out to understand ourselves “a little more considerately” (Luhmann 1997a: back cover).
Sociology is enlightenment, Luhmann (1967) explains, (a) when it observes society in a manner different from the way society in its different milieux observes itself. Of course, sociology is nothing but a milieu of its own. Luhmann had plenty of occasions to observe just that when working for thirty years at “Europe’s biggest faculty for sociology” at Bielefeld University, Germany. Yet sociology is the milieu which, acting for society on this behalf, cherishes the notion that all milieus are constituted by distinction. The most interesting question then is not the “identity” of each milieu but the role the distinction is playing in bringing such an identity forth. Sociology is not alone in entertaining that notion (see, for instance, Lacan 1966); yet, with the possible exception of social anthropology (Leach 1976), it is alone in using it for a description of society.
Sociology (b) is enlightenment by being able to raise the problem of latency. Sociology observes that people in society observe each other, using literary, critical, and psychoanalytical techniques to reveal the hidden reasons for action – and that, by observing in this way, people obtain social and mental effects:
“Literary” techniques are techniques used by individuals – and it is women who are the readers of novels (and who constitute Hegel’s “ewige Ironie des Gemeinwesens”; see Hegel 1973: 352) – to begin to observe that actors always have motives different from the motives they either explicitly claim for or get ascribed by others.“Critique” unfortunately loses its Kantian meaning of a search for the limits of the selfconstitution of phenomena and assumes the meaning of an observation of the interests of others as “ideological” interests.And “psychoanalytical” techniques are techniques which refer to the “subconscious” of individuals just in order to be able to show them that observers may be able to know more about them than they can possibly know themselves.
All these techniques are techniques which use the distinction of the manifest from the latent and thus “double” the world into two versions, a visible one and a hidden one. They bring forth the possibility of a choice between these two worlds when selecting the next action or communication. These three techniques together with other comparable ones add up to constitute the “modern” operation of an introduction of contingency – i.e., the possibility (as distinguished from impossibility and necessity) that everything just is, what it is, yet could as well be otherwise – into the social. Of course, that as well is the reason why “social constructivism” became the prevailing epistemology in sociology (Berger/Luckmann 1966).
Sociology (c) is enlightenment when it succeeds in passing from “factor” theories which track back behavior to certain causes (body fluids, climate, interests, needs, political economy, and so on) to “system” theories which proceed from complexity and track back observable systems to the effectiveness of constraints they themselves bring forth. This point has proven to be somewhat difficult since sociologists are rarely able or willing to go into sophisticated theoretical discussion. You either do systems theory, or you don’t. You either do that kind of systems theory (Bühl 1990; Bailey 1994), or you do another kind (Barel 1989; Luhmann 1995a). You don’t discuss, you just present your option. That is also a reason why sociological systems theory is learnt by doing it. You are confused, you are bewildered, but for some reason you do it, and suddenly you begin to understand what you are doing and how you are doing it, and possibly even why you are doing it. And then you spend some of your time attempting to find out just exactly what happened when you “suddenly” switched over to an understanding of systems theory (Baecker 1999b). It is easy to say that you must have become able to adopt a “second order position” concerning your questions, your problems, and possibly even yourself (Bateson/Bateson 1988). But just how is this to be done? And what happens when it is done?
And (d) sociology is enlightenment when it has its “peculiar difficulties in functional method,” as Luhmann calls them. It explains phenomena in a functional way yet keeps an eye on the fact that it is it which explains functionally, and that other observers possibly observe other functions or make observations in a different, perhaps “essential” or even “existential” way. The notion of “function” is one of the more difficult ones in Luhmann’s thinking (Luhmann 1962; Luhmann 1964). It is the notion which separates him from Talcott Parsons who insisted that analytically distinguished sub-systems of social action are to be distinguished with respect to the “function” these subsystems actually have with regard to the super-system. Luhmann replies that “functions” are ways to constitute the unity of a system inside the system. They are somehow negotiated upon with society in general, i.e. they take part in the process of differentiation and re-differentiation itself. They participate in disembedding the system (since it is only the system which can fulfill the function) and in reembedding it (since the system fulfills it with respect to some overall unity of the society). But the most important function is that they open up a domain of “functional equivalences”: There are always different ways to fulfill a function. So the system becomes able to compare different “solutions” with each other, to invent new ones, to remember older ones, and so on. It becomes flexible in its way of ordering, or identifying and thereby reproducing its operations. Moreover, one has to take into account that any function a system fulfills “for” the society in which it is differentiated is a function depending on itself, since it is the very same society that constitutes the system. That means that a function is a way of self-description of a social system and in no way defines its ontological status or determines its “technological” role. There is no “social technology” inherent in the systems theory as Jürgen Habermas ventured in a debate which was shaped to favor Habermas (the notion of the “Theorie der Gesellschaft” in the title was supposed to be his) but eventually established Luhmann as a sociologist to be taken seriously as the one who actually practiced the theory of society (Habermas/Luhmann 1971).
In “sociological enlightenment” naïve rationalism finds itself replaced by self-critical reason. Self-critical reason also cannot avoid taking into account that it is a “European” brand (see also Luhmann 1992b). It cannot avoid believing in a distinguished way of thinking and arguing. It is a way of thinking and arguing by the aid of distinctions. Self-critical reason believes that it is possible and necessary to think and argue clare et distincte. Other traditions, for instance the Buddhist one, start by rejecting distinctions and end with completely different forms of thinking, with forms, that is, which Europeans evidently have difficulties in distinguishing as forms at all. That is why Luhmann was very much interested in the mathematical calculus developed by George Spencer-Brown (1972). This calculus developes a notion of “form” which consists of the two sides of the distinction taken together and separated by the dividing line between them (see Baecker 1999e). The dividing line is “identical” with the observer drawing it. It has no real status other than the observer realizing it and himself. The calculus proves how it is possible to (re-)introduce into the distinction not only the doubt about distinctions as such but also the oscillation between the two sides of the distinction and the impossible observation of its third value, the dividing line between the two sides of the distinction – a third value which in a related way of thinking is called the ever retreating forme mediale (Derrida 1968).
The sociological systems theory allows one to entertain the idea that Spencer-Brown’s (1972) calculus might be a tool for thinking and re-thinking the different endeavors of “constructivism” and “deconstruction” as two different branches of the same epistemological project, going back to Husserl, Heidegger, and Bateson. Perhaps it is most clearly expressed in Claude Shannon’s (Shannon/Weaver 1963: 31) idea that you can only read a message if you are able to read both its “content” and the set of possible messages it is selected from (see Baecker 1994; Baecker 1999c). You are not looking at the “content” of the message, you are sensing the distinction being drawn between the content and everything which is excluded from it. And you are responding not to the content but to the distinction, either accepting it or rejecting it, either enhancing on it or showing that is it misplaced. If you don’t sense the distinction you will not comprehend what is being communicated. That is, you not only “react” to information and the noise surrounding it, but you communicate about the communication of it. And that means that we are always operating on a second order level, always looking not just at the communication but at the selection of the communication as well (Ruesch/Bateson 1987).
Of course, in social situations the “set” of possible messages Shannon is talking about is not technically determined but is subject to a “structural determination” of a “historically dependent non-trivial machine” of “meaning reproduction” (von Foerster 1984; Maturana/Varela 1980; Luhmann 1971). Yet the important point remains that it is always by selection, by exclusion, and by re-entering the excluded into the selected (i.e. included) that creation of meaning, be it in communication or in thinking, be it in reading texts or in passing a judgement in court, be it in deciding upon an investment project or in entertaining a candlelight dinner, is done. Meaning is always a parasite on possible other meanings (Serres 1980); and it depends exclusively (!) on your optics whether you look at the construction on the inside of any distinction being done or at the deconstruction of the inside with respect to an outside which is excluded yet nevertheless is “present” in a way always more or less deferred (Derrida 1967).
The three values of a two-sided form of a distinction – inside, outside, and separating line between the two – is the figure of thought which enables Luhmann to pass the European tradition of thinking, to which he put up an impressive memorial in the chapter “SelfDescription” (of the society!) of his chef d’œuvre “Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft” (Luhmann 1997a: 866 ss.).
The Self-Similarity of the Social
Together with Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann is renowned as one of the two leading figures of the sociological systems theory. And this is not without reason, even if it did rather impede the reception of his work. Almost nobody can completely avoid the impression that “system” has something to do with “systematics” and that Luhmann was somebody who got tangled up in a gigantic project to bring the complexity of the society into an open and clear order as accurately as possible. And indeed one is reminded of Hegel when one reads in an interview with Luhmann that he intends “to prove the unity of the society out of the unity of the notions which prove themselves with the most different phenomena” (see Luhmann 1992c: 55-56; and Luhmann 1993c: 7-8).
Yet Luhmann’s unity does not refer to the Hegelian unity of a concluding and allencompassing notion which then is only to be translated into morality (“Sittlichkeit”) and the state. The unity Luhmann has in mind refers to the unity of “self-similar” structures or mechanisms which is described by the mathematical theory of recursion (von Foerster 1993), by the chaos theory and the theory of fractals (Turner 1997). These are structures or mechanisms which pop up again and again on any level of analysis and with any phenomenon under scrutiny, no matter whether the optics are focussed crudely or sophisticatedly.
Of course, it is the unity of one’s own observations which is revealed by that kind of selfsimilarity. But the decisive question is what these observations reveal. We are dependent anyway on the observation of observations if we are to find out anything about the world at all. Just looking at anything we see nothing, as we can find out in any museum, in any theatre, at the stock market, in church, in psychotherapy, or in a class room we venture to enter unprepared. We have to prepare ourselves. We have to engage with the observations of the art connoisseur, of the spectator, of the speculator, of the believer, of the therapist, or the teacher if we are to see anything at all; and even then we have the choice of relying on the other side of the role set instead, on the artists, the actors, the tea pickers, the priests, the patients or the pupils, if we want to find out what is happening in their respective situations. All actors certainly entertain a different perspective on their situation, a difference, however, which participates in the asymmetrical symmetry of the constitution of the social situation.
The American sociologist Harrison C. White, who in contemporary sociology is perhaps the only other player who matches Luhmann in power of description and theoretical imagination also looks for self-similar structures of the social. He developed the formula that any social order, as diverse as it may be in all other respects, nevertheless at any time is a pecking order that pretends not to be one (see White 1992). With Luhmann one would rather go back to one of his early perceptions which maintains that the solution of the problem of human behavior consists not in the coordination of this behavior (by rule, norm, or even complexity; see Luhmann 1981a) but in the coordination of the expectation of the expectations of behavior (see Luhmann 1970). Social phenomena, therefore, are stable when all people implied know which expectations they have to expect of all others who participate (in presence or absence) – independent of the question whether these expectations are then going to be fulfilled or not.
That is the moment when people’s consciences, intentions and actions are overcharged and social systems step in (Luhman 1966). Social systems consist of offering expectations to be expected. That is why we cannot do without them.
For Luhmann, the self-similarity of social phenomena consists of the fact that they coordinate expectations of expectations. A teacher entering a class room depends on the pupils expecting from him or her that he or she expects from them that they expect from him or her that he or she assumes an authority – which then tends not to be necessary any more, since it is already firmly established by this kind of mutual expectation, but can be refuted in subtle ways. These expectations of expectations, as long as their “culture” prevails (Becker 1982), make social situations as robust as they are. Rather chancey co-ordinations of behavior would be incapable of doing so.
In the Society of the Society
The question then is what one gets out of an attempt to place oneself behind Luhmann’s back and to try to observe his observations of expectations of expectations. That is not easy, by the way, since by doing so one comprehends as little as of one was listening for the first time to a piece of music composed in twelve-tone music. One has to learn to observe, i.e. to draw distinctions, whichever sense is involved. That is why to begin with Luhmann presents more difficulties than enlightenings. The relatively easy theorem of the expectation of expectations in the course of his work gets enfolded into concepts which stem from the systems theory, the evolution theory and the communication theory and which feature words like “self-reference”, “other-reference”, “operational closure”, “autopoiesis”, “function”, “binary coding”, “structural coupling”, and so on and so forth, which seem to be rather contrary to concepts which run smoothly with the subtleties of a description of social meaning.
Whether these notions do achieve something, and what they achieve, has to be found out by using them. Luhmann tried them out for thirty years, and one has to realize that the results of his descriptions of, say, “love as passion” (Luhmann 1986), “the scarcity paradox of money” (Luhmann 1988a), “the communication of non-knowledge” (Luhmann 1992d), “the paradox of incommunicatibility” (Luhmann 1995a: 150), or “the improbable evidence of art” (Luhmann 1995b) are subtle enough that observers watching him for a long time did not understand either the phenomena or the notions.
Luhmann therefore made special offers to lessen his notional demands (demands which, by the way, are brought forward by the “autological” involvement of the theory of society into the object it is describing, since by describing the society the theory makes use of that very society, communication, print, science, which it is describing) and to prove their worth with respect to the problematics of the welfare state (Luhmann 1981b), to the self-endangering of society by ecological problems (Luhmann 1989), to the phenomena of risk-taking decisions in the organizations of modern society (Luhmann 1993a), or to the influence of mass media (Luhmann 1996b). When applying his theory to certain phenomena of actual relevance he has always attempted to invite observers to do likewise and to not only sharpen their regard for difficult phenomena of society but at the same time to try out the notions which are capable of handling the complexity of these phenomena (Baecker 1999f). Yet almost nobody was able to play this game with him. Nobody proved to have his wit in reducing theoretical options to very simple, almost trivial ones, and then drawing a wealth of complex descriptions out of them. Almost no economical sociologist, for instance, is able to take the scarcity paradox seriously: It states that you can only take part in the economical system when paying: that is, when paying for the goods or the service on one hand, thereby reducing your scarcity with respect to these goods or the service, and giving away the payment on the other hand, thereby increasing your relative scarcity with respect to the money you are still able to spend. That indeed is difficult to comprehend. But without it you will not be able to understand Luhmann’s (and Parsons’) “double circle of the economy” and the complex architecture of clients, firms, banks, central banks, and capital markets which ensues from it.
Yet even when getting to the issues of contemporary debate Luhmann made no compromises. He could not avoid producing glimpses of his theory in any sentence he uttered. And as soon as the reader begins to realize the rather provocative content of Luhmann’s observations he begins to suspect the working of the theory in the background and begins to collect reasons for trying out other theories. You can smell sulphur when reading Luhmann’s articles on religion, a theologian once said just before he renounced reading them anymore and recommending other theologians to do likewise. And that is how pedagogues fare who find themselves caught as “meaning it well” (Luhmann 1996c); politicians who will not desist from attempting to place themselves on the better side of morality or to communicate just that (Luhmann 1993b); jurists who do not find an answer to the question whether the distinction between right and wrong is right or wrong (Luhmann 1993c); economists who refuse to consider the possible irrationality of rational scarcity prices (Luhmann 1988a); gender students who had to discover that when looking for “femininity” one ends up with “a woman without characteristics” (remember Musil 1978?) if one is to avoid running the risk of a peculiar “male” way of distinguishing matters and persons (Luhmann 1988b); cultural theorists who begin to realize that there is a very sophisticated theoretical maneuver hidden inside a notion of culture which they hold to be attractive because they think it free of theory (Luhmann 1995c); or management science, which finds out, that the only way to control operative systems is to accept, and even foster, their intransparency (Luhmann 1997b).
Luhmann was very generous in having his articles and books translated into many different languages. He did not even think twice about it when more and more people from abroad came to Bielefeld in order to learn German and to understand by studying with him what they could not understand when reading the translations. All books and articles were just steps to the next ones, most of the chosen words and formulations were ready to be changed for more fitting ones. Even when writing he stuck to one of his most favorite phrases describing social behavior as a “passing adaptation to passing circumstances.”
Yet this did not mean that he could do just anything. On the contrary he tried to be as explicit about his circumstances as one possibly could be. He searched descriptions of modern society in literally all European languages save Russian. But he knew that circumstances in Slovenia, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, and Denmark must be quite different from those he was referring to when working on his theory. So he did not venture to find out why researchers from all over the world developed an interest in his theory. He was curious to watch what they would see if they used his theory. But he did not insist on their using his theory correctly or even at all. That means as well that he was not interested in finding out why certain cultures, among them the French one and the American ones proved to be somewhat immune towards his thinking. He had his ideas about the selective power politics of publishers and their consultants. And he certainly regretted that Habermas did not agree to have their “Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie” translated into the American language. Yet all this belonged only peripherally to the passing circumstances he referred to.
He denied his theory any purpose besides that of “changing sociology”. Yet I think that there was purpose in denying purpose as there was purpose in doing his kind of theory. His “project” was to develop a social thinking which was able to resist any seduction to attribute observations to “persons” (understood as addresses of communication). He was up for “communication” instead, and if there is sometimes a rather “theologian” touch about that, it is not surprising, since “God” was one of the first terms invented to describe a “society” able to select among the actions, meanings, and effects of its people without people being able to watch how this is done. Yet in order to show what it means to watch “communication” instead of “persons”, he had to surpass the “old-European” thinking with its insistence on humans, on regional societies, on consensual integration, and on the possibility to observe society (like a group of men) from outside. He looked for a language that was able to sustain such a switch from personal to social contribution. And he only found it in a second-order cybernetics (von Foerster 1981; Glanville 1988) that knew how to talk about self-reference, circular constitution, and recursivity, and that knew how to underpin such a language by an epistemology of black boxes that exactly matched an utterly German experience of society.
Luhmann never offered an “understanding” or “explication” of Hitler and Auschwitz. In this respect he watched Parsons perhaps as Habermas watched perhaps Adorno and Horkheimer. Neither of them tried to develop theories or judgements on fascism and national socialism. Instead, I dare to say, they both developed their understanding of communication which implicitly took up Shannon’s idea that you can only understand (that is, comply with) what you think possible depending on the set of possibilities that you are expected to bring with you into the situation. Habermas and Luhmann share their interest and perhaps even their strategy of developing a set of possibilities for modern society where Hitler just has no place any more because he is no possible selection out of that set of possibilities. Habermas insists on “reason”, and Luhmann on “complexity”, in order to demonstrate their nonunderstanding of Hitler.
Viewed the other way round that of course means that Hitler and Auschwitz were possibilities out of an existing set of possibilities which was the German society. There is no way to deny their possible understanding with respect to former Germany. And indeed we begin to venture into such an understanding (see Herbert 1996, for instance). Yet passing circumstances in Germany demand that we do both: developing an understanding of the society where Hitlerism is no longer a possibility and developing an understanding of the Germany where it was. “Communication theory” thus means to inverse the post war German way which involved morally not understanding and politically blocking that possibility. The problems with this are that you can still do what you morally do not want to be done (Marquis de Sade) and that blocking the possibility politically just marks and remembers it. With Habermas’s reason and Luhmann’s complexity we started to develop a different option. By concentrating on German questions they invested in their respective understanding of “Northern Atlantic value community” or “World Society”, the first trying to strengthen normative responses to undesirable social orders, the second looking into the chances for modern society becoming able to cognitively handle the society’s own expectations and their disappointments.
Luhmann’s (1971) idea of a “Weltgesellschaft” consisted in the observation of a society that gives its learning social systems and media, i.e. economy, science, mass media and technology, an evolutionary lead before its normative systems, above all politics and, to a lesser extent, law. And who knows whether the renewed impression that this society is not able to learn (Konrád 1999) is not just the consequence of normative systems still being all-too powerful.
Luhmann’s systems theory is not a theory of orderly systems, but a theory of unreliable systems, and above all a theory of the precarious distinction between system and environment which at all times has to be newly proven. It accounts for systems which reduce their own complexity and the complexity of their environments in a way as subtle as it is negligent, and as sophisticated as it is blind. Its sociological maneuver consists of describing social systems and thereby presenting the systems with themselves, showing them that their environment is observed by them selectively and may be observed by other observers differently (yet equally selectively). The re-entering of these observations was the project of his sociological enlightenment, knowing perfectly well that the only thing he may be able to change is sociology itself. Only because he was interested in society did he insist on writing an observer theory. When he eventually did not focus on observing gypsies but on observing the communication of power, trust (Luhmann 1979b), love, law, knowledge or decisions (Luhmann 1997a), he did so because for him any of these communications – like the gypsies – did not rely on a hierarchical and representative, but on a rhizomatic and operative structure.
Luhmann distinguished between three levels of social differentiation: interaction among people present, organization among members of an organization, and the society as the overall system of undetermined, yet determinable communication (Luhmann 1982c). Following that distinction he once made the comment that people in our society tend to make themselves comfortable (“gemütlich”) and go easy on themselves in interaction, to give up their ideas in organizations, and to keep society away from them by criticizing it (see Luhmann 1981c: 350). He meant this. It was never possible, except when meeting him somewhere in Italy, to make oneself comfortable with him. In organizations he had to deal with – for instance, he remained faithful to the faculty for sociology at the University of Bielefeld to up to his receiving his emeritus status – he never accepted any resignation; but he equally refrained from committing himself after he discovered during the first years of working in this faculty that the “reform” of the faculty (doing away with the old idea of “chair professorship”) blocked any mutual researching by professors and assistants. And of course he had no understanding for the gestures of social criticism as long as the critics were not at least well enough informed for it to prove worthwhile to observe them criticizing.
Niklas Luhmann is said to be a systems theorist. That is why many people believe they can be successful in other disciplines too, just by using his systems notions. But there they are mistaken. In fact, he was above all a sociologist. He reacted to society like few others did. He did not feel at ease in the society of the society. But he never held this against society. He could not take the society amiss, because nothing defied his acumen and his wit as it did.
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