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Possibly, There Are No Social Systems

April 25, 2014

The book Soziale Systeme (1984; Engl. transl. 1995) by Niklas Luhmann tried to lead sociology out of its theory crisis. It failed to do so. There are probably several reasons, which explain this fact.

One may be that the book neither with respect to the problems raised by it, viz. operational closure, double contingency, temporalisation of basic elements and dealing with negation, nor with respect to the solutions provided, viz. communication within the medium of second-order observation, emergency of social systems, event-character of all elements and productivity of opposition and conflict, has been received appropriately.

A reason for this might be that sociologists are not used to strong theoretical thinking. They prefer to take concepts as they are introduced by people coming from other disciplines such as economics (Max Weber), philosophy (Georg Simmel), criminology (Gabriel Tarde), education (Emile Durkheim), medicine (Talcott Parsons), ethnology (Pierre Bourdieu), law (Niklas Luhmann) or physics (Harrison C. White) and to apply them to social phenomena without much thinking through of their conceptual architecture.

Another possible  reason for the book failing to solve sociology’s theory crisis might be that Luhmann identified problems of the discipline not shared by the discipline. How, if at all, are problems like operational closure, double contingency, temporalisation of basic elements and dealing with negation linked to class struggle, social inequality, the loss of the sacred, modern rationalisation or the deconstruction of authority?

Yet another reason, however, might be that Luhmann overdid his main thesis that “there are systems” (1995, p. 12) in the very moment when he added the assumption that there are also “social systems” (p. 14) as well. What if we keep the main thesis but drop its corollary?

“(…) every social contact is understood as a system (…)” (p. 15), we read further on. Perhaps we should take this as a starting point, leaving out the difficult notion of a social system, and rather conceive of any social contact like Talcott Parsons did in his AGIL-scheme as a complex event, in which body, brain, consciousness and social environment participate, and contribute to, differently and simultaneously. This contact would be a true complexity since it cannot be reduced to any one of these references and yet is indispensable for the constitution and reproduction of all of them.

Social environments with respects to bodies, brains and minds are structured as society, technology and culture, yet do not gain the character of systems. Only the organism-within-its-environment, like in W. Ross Ashby (Mechanisms of Intelligence, 1981), is to be conceived of as a “system”, differentiated as body, equipped with a brain and behaviorally oriented toward a sociality of double contingency.

This change in its basic assumption could maintain the problems raised by Luhmann as much as the solutions provided for them. His sociology could be rewritten as a sociology of social environments. The theory crisis of sociology cannot be solved by this move either, yet it could be addressed more accurately. This change in basic assumptions would get sociology once again into conversation with biology, neurology and psychology.

Proposal submitted to Sektion Soziologische Theorie at 37th Congress of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie, Trier, Germany, October 6–10, 2014 (link).

5 Comments
  1. P. Bormann permalink

    Hallo Herr Prof. Baecker,

    > Yet another reason, however, might be that Luhmann overdid his main thesis that “there are systems”
    > (1995, p. 12) in the very moment when he added the assumption that there are also “social systems” (p. > 14) as well. What if we keep the main thesis but drop its corollary?
    Hm, das schien mir “nie” eine “Startvoraussetzung” Luhmanns zu sein, sondern nur eine Art Nebenprodukt, das sich aus dem selbstreferentiellen Operieren via Unterscheidungen ergibt (quasi: einfach eine Schlußfolgerung, die dem Descarteschen Cogito-Argument folgt). Kurzum: diese Minimalontologisierung bedient einfach eine Entparadoxierungsfunktion.

    Dabei scheinen mir die Hypothesen:”Selbstreferenz” und “operatives Prozessieren von Differenzen” noch immer ziemlich gut zu sein, zumindest kenne ich derzeit kaum bessere Alternativen (vielleicht ein relationaler Ansatz, wie ihn Nina Ort mit Blick auf Günther und Peirce, präsentiert hat).

    Wie dem auch sei, wenn ich Sie richtig verstehen, sollten wir die “soziale Emergenz”-Hypothese aufgeben? Unjekt- oder katjekt-bezogen würde das dann auch für prozessierende Bewußtseinssysteme
    gelten müssen. Ergo: auch keine “bewußtseinsmäßige” Emergenz (mit Blick auf psychische Wahrnehmungsverarbeitung bzw. eine neuronale Infrastruktur).

    Freilich: Wenn nur der Körper sich als System von seiner Umwelt ausdifferenzieren soll, dann fiele wohl
    auch der systemische Charakter von Psyche (-> prozessierender Wahrnehmungszusammenhang) und
    “Neuronalität” (Nerven”system”) und Cerebralität (Gehirn) weg.

    Generell bliebe also von “Emergenz” nichs übrig, oder?
    Statt dessen ein “Komplexereignis”, bezugnehmend auf diverse (irreduzible) “Referenzen”?

    > This contact would be a true complexity since it cannot be reduced to any one of these references and
    > yet is indispensable for the constitution and reproduction of all of them.
    Offen gestanden macht das für mich “keinen” Sinn. So sind bspw. meine körperlichen Prozesse, Wahrnehmungen und Gedanken nicht zu jedem Zeitpunkt auf soziales Prozessieren angewiesen.

    Umgekehrt kann ich auch nicht erkennen, daß die volle körperliche, psychische oder bewußtseinsmäßige
    Komplexität beim sozialen Prozessieren (wie bei der vorliegenden Internetkommunikation) zum Tragen kommen kann. Mit anderen Worten: ich kann vieles körperlich empfinden, wahrnehmen und denken, was im kommunikativen Prozessieren des vorliegenden Textes gar keine Rolle spielt. Würde die volle Komplexitätslast hierbei durchschlagen, wäre es mit dem Sozialen wohl schnell vorbei – oder nicht?

    > The theory crisis of sociology cannot be solved by this move either, yet it could be addressed more
    > accurately.
    Auch das ist nicht klar. Was würde sich an der “Theoriekrise” ändern, wenn man statt der abstrakten
    Theorielage von Form- oder Systemtheorie eine wohl nicht minder abstrakte Parsons 2.0-Theorie verwenden würde?

    > This change in basic assumptions would get sociology once again into conversation with biology,
    > neurology and psychology.
    Liefe die Soziologie mit ihrem Vorschlag nicht in Gefahr sowohl soziologisch als auch biologisch, neurowissenschaftlich und psychologisch argumentieren zu wollen? Quasi eine “SozioPsychoNeuroBiologie” werden zu wollen? Das klingt für mich nach einem ziemlich abenteuerlichen “interdisciplinary mess”, der wohl noch auf weitaus mehr “Ablehnung” stoßen dürfte, als das bei formen- und systemmäßigen Hochabstraktionen soundso bereits der Fall ist.

    Wie dem auch sei: “Anything goes” – zumindest solange, bis man sieht, daß es doch nicht geht🙂
    Eine etwas detaillierteres “Fallbeispiel” wäre übrigens schön, daß Ihre Thesen zu plausibilisieren bzw.
    zu konkretisieren vermag.

    Beste Grüße
    Peter Bormann

  2. Soziale Systeme sind, so Maturana, nichts ohne – auf Basis der Emotion gegenseitiger Annahme – handelnde Individuen. Luhmann verfehle den Kern des Sozialen, so die (m. E. berechtigte) Kritik von Maturana an Luhmann. Luhmanns Ansatz kann Beobachter nicht dafür sensibilisieren, ob bzw. wie sie durch ihr eigenes Handeln ihre Lebensgrundlagen entweder bewahren oder zerstören. Wenn wir den sich heute abzeichnenden Krisen der „nächsten Gesellschaft“ auf Augenhöhe begegnen wollen, dann müssen wir aber genau das von einer Gesellschaftstheorie fordern.

    Leider gilt nun aber auch das Gegenteil: Individuen sind Individuen nur im Kontext „autopoietischer“ sozialer Systeme, d. h. von Systemen, die (im Kantischen Sinn) A PRIORI existieren, d. h. unabhängig von handelnden Individuen. Wie sollte sonst spontanes, auf freiem Willen basierendes Handeln von Beobachtern denkbar und möglich sein? Also hat Luhmann wiederum Recht gegenüber Maturana.

    Die beiden Ansätze gegenwärtiger Systemtheorie betrachten den Beobachter (wenn man so will: menschlichen Geist – oder allgemeiner: „das Lebendige“) – aus zwei sich gegenseitig ausschließenden Perspektiven: der eine (Maturana) von seiner individuell-körperlichen, der andere (Luhmann) von seiner Beziehungs-Seite her. Beide Ansätze setzen sich wechselseitig voraus, haben dabei aber keine beobachtbaren Berührungspunkte; jede verortet sich im blinden Fleck der jeweils anderen.

    Es wäre schon viel gewonnen, wenn sich herumspräche, dass zwei – sich gegenseitig ergänzende – Perspektiven denkbar sind. Ein zweiter Schritt wäre es, zu sehen, dass die Suche nach dem Muster, das beide miteinander verbindet, auch sinnvoll ist (weil wir erst dann nämlich den Krisen der sich globalisierenden Welt auf angemessene Weise begegnen können).

    Diese Suche muss nicht notwendig, so behaupte ich (und belege es auch gerne), in das von Peter Bormann befürchtete „abenteuerliche interdisziplinäre Mischmasch“ führen.

  3. PBormann permalink

    Hallo Herr Friczewski,

    leider erst jetzt eine verspätete Reaktion, weil ich die letzte Zeit so viel zu tun hatte:

    Wenn ich Dirk Baecker nicht völlig falsch verstehe, dann wäre sein neuer Ansatz eine Art “Dritter Weg”, also weder reduktionistisch (-> die Spielarten des methodologischen Individualismus) noch emergentistisch (-> die Durkheim-Linie bis hin zu Luhmann) – und wohl auch nicht irgendwie “komplementär” dazu.

    Versuchen sollte man das “definitiv”! Aber eigentlich nur aus einem einzigen Grund: “Weil es
    wissenschaftlich interessant sein könnte”.

    Freilich: So ein Dritter. Weg” muß sowohl konkretisiert als auch plausibilisiert werden. Erst wenn das einmal an einem konkreten Fallbeispiel durchgespielt wurde, dann läßt sichgenauer über diese Herangehensweise urteilen.

    Derzeit wünsche ich einfach nur: Viel Erfolg bei diesem Theorie-Experiment!

    Beste Grüße
    Peter Bormann

  4. Is the “environment” possible?

    Leonid Zhukov
    13-06-14

    According to my understanding theoretical sociology does not experience a crisis nowadays. Perhaps, it is because I only take a detached view though. Sphere of my interests involves psychotherapeutic theory and practice, organization consulting and philosophy. And for these spheres a theoretical approach of Luhmann is to my mind to be rather promising.
    However whether to try to embrace view of sociology one will ask the question what is the very core of the crisis?
    – There are no new concepts. Just on the contrary new concepts present, and as to Luhmann theory it demands further development and concretization applying to ‘cases’ of contemporary society living. New successful communities of sociologists exist and arise.
    – Theoretical sociology is not utilized in practice, is it? – It is utilized. All consulting industry in business and politics is supported by one or another theoretical representation. Whether I am not mistaken Anthony Giddens was Tony Blair’s consultant which points to the fact of sufficiently high status of professional necessitating of theoretic sociology.
    – Sociology does not give precise forecasts not being that effective as theoretical physics. – Anyway it is not in need for it is humane discipline. The aim of it is to create descriptions and to develop a semantic field. Its forecasts are successful whether they are given in a form of ideology.
    – Is not experimental sociology in need of theoretical one, is it? It is when being within a framework of advanced practices similar to social inquiries which work according to tough technologic schemes. Technology itself may be comprehended and developed while being in focus of the theory attention.
    If I speak of sociology crisis I would mention impression of crisis only.
    – Theoretical sociology is not popular to that extend of popularity which referred some time ago to Marx theory. Wide-scale society of twenty first century in general is hardly interested in theories in comparison with secular society of nineteenth century.

    – Practice is a sociology factor of necessitating namely practice of consulting or practice of social agencies’ work in everyday experience does not require a theory though. Connection of theoretical sociology with application discourses is not evident.

    – An impression is given that sociologists are called for sociologists only. The theory development is enclosed in narrow groups of professionals which are slightly interested in each other.

    – Introducing semantic category within framework of the general theory of systems Luhmann told of new inspiring horizons of natural and humane sciences unifying. Probably it might be confirmed that such unifying does not happen. Cybernetics included the one of second order or for instance Spencer Brown forms calculus do not appear to be math of society similarly to mathematical physics. Humane meanings are the same insignificant in natural sciences. However it does not mean that humane theory does not work.

    More interesting is consideration straight about theory of Niklas Luhmann rather than about social status of theoretical sociology towards which obliviousness does not menace. One of the fundamental criticisms was articulated by Jurgen Habermas: ‘Unavoidable for system functionalism answer to the question why it (system functionalism) can not be certain about its status; it safely occupies its place in system of scientific knowledge and pretends to rank of ‘specified and universal’ theory’ (J.HAbermas, Philosophic discourse about Yugendstil, page 365). Actually frontier between scientific theory and philosophic speculation is untouchable fragile. Luhmann himself was afraid of insensible transition of that frontier when writing about how unrespectable ‘a general theory of systems may turn to a theory of overall system’. Meanwhile namely that transition takes place when it postulates general natural foundations of the world – the world from which it was derived the system created at that its own foundations as non-divided elements. Essentially universality of the theory becoming its own subject is constructed according to the same plan. Criteria of the truth turns to be schemes’ similarity which shows functional analysis in different systems. It would be criteria from the Luhmann’s theory of systems point of view while from the point of view of old European ontology what is involved is logic natural parallelism which stays under fire of its criticism. Luhmann’s ‘universality’ of the theory in such a manner holds no brief for traditional philosophic speculative nature although it is interesting as an arrangement which we noticed during the theory constructing and which is similar to natural self-organization arrangement as well as opening ways at that to new productive intentions in learning. Impression that ‘theory was not developed properly’ is possibly given from combination of theory and naturalist philosophy.

    The impression that ‘sociologists did not evolve their own strong theoretical thinking and prefer to take notions which were introduced by individuals of others disciplines’. Though being comparable to physical ‘theory of all’ sociology does not let itself to make forms’ reduction and to bring them to one point of view as natural sciences try to do. Whether it may be done within framework of one theory, it could not be performed for whole package of possible sociological approaches ever certainly. Statement of Luhmann on the fact that theory firstly appeared as description then turned to communication and turned out to be a society manifests here. It may be said in a sense that understood by the theory of society sociological theory is not possible because it is always a society itself. However – what a paradox! – exactly because of this reason it is meaningful to be engaged in creation of independent social theory with own language and own notions which pretended to be universal. Luhmann’s system theory just deals with it. The reminder is business of competition.
    Luhmann language works being refined and theoretical. Although it seems to be separated from life realias of ‘class fight, social inequality’ an others. So the theory of double contingency is presented as rather productive for explanation of these realias. How otherwise may the revolutionary situation arise in a society whether it does not get to the point of bifurcation mechanics of which vision of double contingency just shows? Yes, it is non- ideological visualization, nevertheless whether it is desirable one may construct ideological mythologema what to great extend is a representations of so called ‘life realias’. Street language just should not be a language of a science whether a science is not in a mood to talk to a street.

    Statement, that Luhmann overachieves towards his general thesis about the fact that ‘the systems exist’ (1995, p.12) in the moment of the supposition on presence of ‘social systems’ (page 14) adding, carries conviction however the contrary statement would appear as more logically correct. ‘Social systems’ are more special thing than systems in general. This is a question of typological species i.e of actuality of a type compared to actuality of species; whether the latter is evident the former is imaginative and analytical. Statement on actuality ‘systems in general’ was required for Luhmann to keep a distance from analytical position of Parsons. He in such a manner appears to get to the territory of ‘old European’ representation about a nature and ontology resulted from it. An idea of society singularity as of Luhmann becomes a naturalistic restrictor here, as far as I can see, which does not give general theory an opportunity to turn to general philosophy. Contemporary society and in a sense ‘society’ as it is appears to be is a social system which exists singularly, on the contrary to other systems like interaction, organization and ‘society systems’.

    One line of his polemics with Habermas who compares Luhmann’s system with old European subject: ‘If you desire to substitute at unreduced level of [reflexion] a notion of subject of knowledge developed in philosophy for notion of a system in a manner as it developed in cybernetics and biology context concepts ‘inner – exterior’ substitute relation of ‘system – the outside world’ ’lies here. (Habermas, p.377) However the problem is more sophisticated than simple comparison. Habermas certainly has a right to compare ‘a system’ with ‘a subject’, in spite of him Luhmann has the same right to disagree with him. There are rules of the game which are given by singularity of society. Comparison does not bring us either substitution or mixing one with the other. Each system continues to exist independently while developing its own axiomatics. There are ‘systems’ and ‘subjects’ both are essentially descriptions of society, since first was given according to meaning perspective and the second one was given relatively nature perspective. First eventually is supported by multiplying of social estimation the second is supported by holism of substantive.

    Statement about existence of social systems does not a little impede an idea of ‘social environments’ existence to my mind. Social systems simply consist of a one of specific elements of these environments. There is no necessity to avoid them. Proposition ‘to rewrite social system sociology in form of social environment sociology’ read biologically as ‘to rewrite species classification in form of ecology of populations’. However this and that are alike necessary. We need either representation of the species (might be understood – about a system in general) as well as institutionalization of this general representation in definitions of certain species (might be understood – certain ‘social systems’) or dwelling of species in form of population (might be understood – ‘social environments’) by which species actually presented. Toward the direction as far as I can see development of an idea of Luhmann proceeds in his working-out of representation of media.

    Supposition that there are although ‘social systems’ of Luhmann is given simultaneously with the fact that there are as well psychic systems, organic and mechanical ones. This is a typology in a whole appeared nobody knows where from – as phenomenology of the world straightforwardly detected. At that I would like to add that named systems’ types exist not in airless space, They do at consistent type of actuality – mechanic (being), organic (life) and meaningful (psyche and social medium). These type of actuality one may consider as ‘’media or as ‘environments’. Their inner arrangement is explained by theory of double contingency. So in semantic field social system appears from interaction of psychic systems. Quantum mechanics is connected to classical physics equal relations may be found out in biology. How are types of actuality interconnected? Why does psyche appear out of life? ( I mean meaningful actuality)? Why does organism appear from mechanism (in a sense of life)? Luhman founds on representation of symbioses and structural coupling, stipulation and interpenetration . I would add also synergy effects.
    A question about ‘environment’ appears just in conjunction of different types since new actuality arise ‘at once and lots of’ similarly to how the universe arises from singularity. This vision prods to pursuit own singularity for meaningfulness which is situated evidently in the sphere of life. To what extent the theory of double contingency might work here is a question. Study of medias thus is inseparable from a problem of their origin. Perhaps one may talk about of phase transitions’ theory.

    Lastly I would like to add that the sketch does not belong to me entirely. It appeared in context of my discussions of the subjects with Vladimir Arshinov. Therefore he might be considered a co-author of the text.

    * * *
    • Leonid Zhukov, Russia Moscow associate of practicing psychologist Gestalt approach society (OPP GP), director of International institution of genelogical researches; http://geno.ru, Lbg@mail.ru

    • Vladimir Arshinov, Russia Moscow, PhD, principal of ‘Philosophy of science and technology of new tendencies of scientific and technological development ‘scientific field in Institution of philosophy of Russian Academy of Sciensies; http://iph.ras.ru/arshinov.htm, varshinov@mail.ru

  5. Hallo Herr Bormann,

    ich will noch einmal nachhaken und die Frage, um die es geht, reformulieren in:
    „Wie ist die Ko-Produktion von biologischem, psychischem und sozialem System denkbar und möglich? Was ist das Medium dafür?“

    Mich beschäftigt diese Frage nicht nur, weil sie „wissenschaftlich interessant“ ist. Sie wird aus meiner Sicht auch immer dann bedeutsam, wenn wir Krisen auf Augenhöhe begegnen wollen, d. h. so, dass wir mit unserem Lösungshandeln nicht unversehens selber zu dem Problem werden, das wir lösen wollen.

    Mein Vorschlag: Sprach-handeln (i. S. Maturanas) als das Medium für die Ko-Produktion von Systemen zu sehen. Als das Medium, in dem Beobachter gemeinsam eine kohärente Welt hervorbringen.

    Luhmann sieht Systeme mit den Augen eines körperlosen Beobachters; Handeln bleibt aus dieser Sicht (aus guten Gründen) in der Umwelt des Systems. Luhmann muss daher postulieren „Es gibt Systeme“. Damit ist aber m. E. der Weg verbaut, Sprach-Handeln als Medium für die Ko-Produktion von Systemen zu sehen.

    Man kommt daher erst einmal nicht umhin, mit Maturana auf die andere Seite zu wechseln und den Beobachter zu beobachten, und zwar den Beobachter, der mit Sinnen (Sehen, Hören, Empfinden,…) und einem sich bewegenden Körper ausgestattet ist; der Beides rekursiv-zirkulär verknüpft; der so – qua Selbst-Berührung – nicht nur potentiell verlässliche, kohärente innere Bilder seines Körpers generiert, sondern auch solche einer Außenwelt, insbesondere anderer Beobachter, die er als seinesgleichen (an)erkennt.

    Eine gemeinsame kohärente Welt (ein „atomarer sozialer Kontext“, H. v. Foerster) bildet sich dann in dem Maße, wie Beobachter in einer Dyade ihre inneren Bilder rekursiv gegenseitig vor- und nachahmen und so eine gemeinsame Geschichte kreieren.

    Soweit mein Vorschlag in aller Kürze. Wenn Sie (oder Andere) sich genauer damit auseinandersetzen wollen:
    http://www.das-muster-das-verbindet.de/kybernetik-zweiter-ordnung/digitalisierung-im-spannungsfeld-von-technik-und-mimesis/

    Über Kritik welcher Art auch immer freue ich mich natürlich.

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