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Between Realism and Constructivism? Luhmann’s Ambivalent Epistemological Standpoint

Armin Scholl

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Problem: Is Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems based on a constructivist or on a realist epistemology? Luhmann’s own elaborations seem to oscillate between both standpoints. Method: The argumentation provided in this article starts with a detailed reconstruction of Luhmann’s epistemology and of Luhmann’s criticism towards radical constructivism and then examines the consequences for a comparison of systems theory and (radical) constructivism. Results: Although Luhmann’s operative constructivism can be distinguished from radical constructivism, the differences are not considered fundamental. Luhmann’s epistemology is clearly nearer to constructivism than to realism and it shares most of constructivism’s key concepts, such as self-referential logic, a strict relation between observer and observed, and the relativism of reality construction. Implications: Luhmann’s criticism of radical constructivism must be understood in the context of his sociological background. Most of his arguments against radical constructivism can be considered apprehensions of misleading interpretations of radical constructivism rather than of substantial criticism. They may help to clarify a radical constructivist epistemology. Constructivist content: The paper attempts to check whether Luhmann’s theory of social theory is based on (radical) constructivist epistemology.

Key words: Systems theory, epistemology, radical constructivism, social systems


Scholl A. (2012) Between realism and constructivism? Luhmann’s ambivalent epistemological standpoint. Constructivist Foundations 8(1): 5–12. http://constructivist.info/8/1/005

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