Niklas Luhmann

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Niklas Luhmann (December 8, 1927 - November 6, 1998) was a German sociologist, administration expert, and social systems theorist, as well as the founder of the sociological systems theory.

Luhmann was born in Lneburg, Germany. He studied law at the University of Freiburg from 1946 to 1949, when he obtained a Dr. jur. degree, and then began a career in the public administration. During a sabbatical in 1961, he went to Harvard to study the sociology of Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential theorist. In later years, Luhmann dismissed Parsons' systems theory, developing a rivaling approach of his own. Leaving the civil service in 1962, he lectured at the renowned Hochschule fr Verwaltungswissenschaften (University for Administrative Sciences) in Speyer, Germany, until 1965, when he was offered a position at the Sozialforschungsstelle of the University of Mnster, led by Helmut Schelsky. Two earlier books were retroactively accepted as a PhD thesis and "second book" (habilitation) at the University of Mnster in 1966, entitling him to bear the title of Professor. In 1968/1969, he briefly served as a lecturer at the former chair of Theodor Adorno at the University of Frankfurt, being appointed full professor of sociology at the then new-founded University of Bielefeld, Germany (until 1993). He continued to publish after his retirement, when he finally found the time to complete his magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft ("The Society of Society"), which appeared in 1997.

Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than three dozen books published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. While his theories have yet to make much of a mark in American sociology, his theory is currently regnant in German sociology, and has also been rather intensively received in Japan and Eastern Europe, including Russia. His relatively low profile elsewhere is partly due to the fact that his style makes translations a difficult task, being a challenge even to readers of German, including many sociologists.

Luhmann is probably best-known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theorist Jrgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory. Like his one-time mentor Parsons, Luhmann is an advocate of the "grand theory", aiming to address any aspect of social life within a universal theoretical framework - of which the diversity of subjects he wrote about is an indication. Luhmann's theory is generally considered highly abstract and presented in a difficult style. This, the somewhat elitist behaviour of some of his disciples, and the supposed political conservatism implicit in his theory has made Luhmann a controversial figure in sociology. Luhmann himself described his theory as "labyrinth-like" or "non-linear", and claimed he was deliberately keeping his prose enigmatic to prevent it from being understood "too quickly", which would only produce simplistic misunderstandings.

The core element of Luhmann's theory is communication. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. Being the social system that comprises all (and only) communication, today's society is a world society. A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called reduction of complexity. The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning (Sinn); both social systems and psychical or personal systems (see below for an explanation of this distinction) operate by processing meaning.

Further, each system has a distinctive identity that is constantly reproduced in its communication and depends on what is considered meaningful and what is not; if a system fails to maintain that identity, it ceases to exist as a system and dissolves back into the environment it emerged from. Luhmann called this process of reproduction from elements previously filtered from an over-complex environment autopoiesis (literally: self-creation), using a term coined in cognitive biology by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Social systems are autopoietically closed in that they use and rely on resources from their environment; yet those resource do not become part of the systems' operation. Both thought and digestion are important preconditions for communication, but neither appears in communication as such.

Luhmann likens the operation of autopoiesis (the filtering and processing of information from the environment) to a program, making a series of logical distinctions (Unterscheidungen). Here, Luhmann refers to the British mathematician G. Spencer-Brown's logic of distinctions that Maturana and Varela had earlier identified as a model for the functioning of any cognitive process. The supreme criterion guiding the "self-creation" of any given system is a defining binary code.

The influence of Spencer-Brown on Luhmann cannot be overestimated. Spencer-Brown's book "Laws of Form" pretends to do away with logic as it had been known until then altogether. Accordingly, Spencer-Brown praises himself in the preface of this book as the author of the "most intelligent book in the universe". Yet, Maturana applies pre-Spencer-Brown logic. Therefore, Luhmann's claim to truth rests entirely on Spencer-Brown being what he pretends to be. Maturana cannot be reconciled with Spencer-Brown in the issue of autopoiesis, as Maturana has explicitly refused to be cited by Luhmann as a supporting theorist.

Although Luhmann first developed his understanding of social systems theory under Parsons' influence, he soon moved away from the Parsonian concept. The most important difference is that Parsons used systems as a merely analytic tool to understand certain processes going on in society; Luhmann, in contrast, treats his vision of systems ontologically, saying that "systems exist". Another difference is that Parsons asks how certain subsystems contribute to the functioning of overall society; Luhmann starts with the differentiation of the systems themselves out of a nondescript environment. He does observe how certain systems fulfil functions that contribute to "society" as a whole, but this is happening more or less by chance, without an overarching vision of society. Finally, the systems' autopoietic closure is another fundamental difference from Parsons' concept. Each system works strictly according to its very own code and has no understanding at all for the way other systems perceive their environment. E.g., the economy is all about money; morals etc. have no independent role here.

One seemingly peculiar, but within the overall framework strictly logical, axiom of Luhmann's theory is the human being's position outside any social system. Consisting of "pure communication", any social system requires human consciousnesses (personal or psychical systems) as an obviously necessary, but nevertheless environmental resource. In Luhmann's terms, human beings are neither part of society nor of any specific systems; just like they are not part of a conversation. Luhmann himself once said concisely he was "not interested in people".

Luhmann was devoted to the ideal of non-normative science introduced to sociology in the early 20th century by Max Weber and later re-defined and defended against its critics by Karl Popper. However, in an academic environment that never strictly separated descriptive and normative theories of society, Luhmann's "anti-humanistic" sociology has widely attracted criticism from "emancipatory" scientists, including, most famously, Jrgen Habermas.

Luhmann also appears as a character in Paul Whr's work of literature Das falsche Buch (ISBN 3446138463), together with - among others - Ulrich Sonnemann, Johann Georg Hamann and Richard Buckminster Fuller.

Main works

  • 1982: Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimitt (Trans. 1984 Love as Passion)
  • 1984: Soziale Systeme / Social Systems
  • 1988 - 1997: A book series: Die ... der Gesellschaft (The ... of Society, e.g. Politics, Religion, Science, ...)
  • 1997: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (The Society of Society)

External links

  • soziale-systeme.de (http://www.soziale-systeme.de): German webpage with texts, events and bibliographies concerning Niklas Luhmann's systems theory.
  • system-thinking.de (http://www.systems-thinking.de/luhmann.html): A mindmap presenting selected links on Luhmannda:Niklas Luhmann

de:Niklas Luhmann es:Niklas Luhmann ja:ニクラス・ルーマン [[sk:Niklas Luhmann] zh-cn:尼克拉斯·卢曼

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