Niklas Luhmann (/ˈluːmən/; German: [ˈluːman]; December 8, 1927 – November 6, 1998) was a German sociologist, philosopher of social science, and a prominent thinker in systems theory, who is considered one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century.
|Born||December 8, 1927|
|Died||November 6, 1998 (aged 70)|
|Alma mater||Harvard University|
University of Freiburg
|Known for||Theory of autopoietic social systems|
Operational constructivist epistemology
|Institutions||University of Bielefeld|
|Academic advisors||Talcott Parsons|
Luhmann was born in Lüneburg, Free State of Prussia, where his father's family had been running a brewery for several generations. After graduating from the Johanneum school in 1943, he was conscripted as a Luftwaffenhelfer in World War II and served for two years until, at the age of 17, he was taken prisoner of war by American troops in 1945. After the war Luhmann studied law at the University of Freiburg from 1946 to 1949, when he obtained a law degree, and then began a career in Lüneburg's public administration. During a sabbatical in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he met and studied under Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential social systems theorist.
In later years, Luhmann dismissed Parsons' theory, developing a rival approach of his own. Leaving the civil service in 1962, he lectured at the national Deutsche Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften (University for Administrative Sciences) in Speyer, Germany, until 1965, when he was offered a position at the Sozialforschungsstelle (Social Research Centre) of the University of Münster, led by Helmut Schelsky. 1965/66 he studied one semester of sociology at the University of Münster.
Two earlier books were retroactively accepted as a PhD thesis and habilitation at the University of Münster in 1966, qualifying him for a university professorship. In 1968/1969, he briefly served as a lecturer at Theodor Adorno's former chair at the University of Frankfurt and then was appointed full professor of sociology at the newly 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 (literally, "The Society of Society"), which was published in 1997, and translated subsequently in English, under the title "Theory of Society" (volume I in 2012 and volume II in 2013).
Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. While his theories have yet to make a major mark in American sociology, his theory is currently well known and popular 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 translating his work is a difficult task, since his writing presents a challenge even to readers of German, including many sociologists. (p. xxvii Social Systems 1995)
Much of Luhmann's work directly deals with the operations of the legal system and his autopoietic theory of law is regarded as one of the more influential contributions to the sociology of law and socio-legal studies.
Luhmann is probably best known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory. Like his one-time mentor Talcott Parsons, Luhmann is an advocate of "grand theory", although neither in the sense of philosophical foundationalism nor in the sense of "meta-narrative" as often invoked in the critical works of post-modernist writers. Rather, Luhmann's work tracks closer to complexity theory broadly speaking, in that it aims 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 sometimes dismissed as highly abstract and complex, particularly within the Anglophone world, whereas his work has had a more lasting influence on scholars from German-speaking countries, Scandinavia and Italy.
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.
Luhmann's systems theory focuses on three topics, which are interconnected in his entire work.
The core element of Luhmann's theory, pivots around the problem of the contingency of the meaning and thereby it becomes a theory of 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 (colloquially) 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 (in German, Sinn). Both social systems and psychic systems (see below for an explanation of this distinction) operate by processing meaning.
Furthermore, 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 (pronounced "auto-poy-E-sis"; literally: self-creation), using a term coined in cognitive biology by Chilean thinkers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Social systems are operationally closed in that while they use and rely on resources from their environment, those resources do not become part of the systems' operation. Both thought and digestion are important preconditions for communication, but neither appears in communication as such. Note, however, that Maturana argued very vocally that this appropriation of autopoietic theory was conceptually unsound, as it presupposes the autonomy of communications from actual persons. That is, by describing social systems as operationally closed networks of communications, Luhmann (according to Maturana) ignores the fact that communications presuppose human communicators. Autopoiesis only applies to networks of processes that reproduce themselves, but communications are reproduced by humans. For this reason, the analogy from biology to sociology does not, in this case, hold. On the other hand, Luhmann explicitly stressed that he does not refer to a "society without humans", but to the fact that communication is autopoietic. Communication is made possible by human bodies and consciousness, but this does not make communication operationally open. To "participate" in communication, one must be able to render one's thoughts and perceptions into elements of communication. This can only ever occur as a communicative operation (thoughts and perceptions cannot be directly transmitted) and must therefore satisfy internal system conditions that are specific to communication: intelligibility, reaching an addressee and gaining acceptance.
Luhmann likens the operation of autopoiesis (the filtering and processing of information from the environment) to a program, making a series of logical distinctions (in German, 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. This binary code is not to be confused with the computers operation: Luhmann (following Spencer-Brown and Gregory Bateson) assumes that auto-referential systems are continuously confronted with the dilemma of disintegration/continuation. This dilemma is framed with an ever-changing set of available choices; every one of those potential choices can be the system's selection or not (a binary state, selected/rejected). The influence of Spencer-Brown's book, Laws of Form, on Luhmann can hardly be overestimated.
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 framed systems as forms of action, in accordance with the AGIL paradigm. Parsons' systems theory treats systems as operationally open, and interactive through an input and output schema. Influenced by second-order cybernetics, Luhmann instead treats systems as autopoietic and operationally closed. Systems must continually construct themselves and their perspective of reality through processing the distinction between system and environment, and self-reproduce themselves as the product of their own elements. Social systems are defined by Luhmann not as action but as recursive communication. Modern society is defined as a world system consisting of the sum total of all communication happening at once, and individual function systems (such as the economy, politics, science, love, art, the media, etc.) are described as social subsystems which have "outdifferentiated" from the social system and achieved their own operational closure and autopoiesis.
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. While he does observe how certain systems fulfill functions that contribute to "society" as a whole, he dispenses with the assumption of a priori cultural or normative consensus or "complimentary purpose" which was common to Durkheim and Parsons' conceptualization of a social function. For Luhmann, functional differentiation is a consequence of selective pressure under temporalized complexity, and it occurs as function systems independently establish their own ecological niches by performing a function. Functions are therefore not the coordinated components of the organic social whole, but rather contingent and selective responses to reference problems which obey no higher principle of order and could have been responded to in other ways.
Finally, the systems' autopoietic closure is another fundamental difference from Parsons' concept. Each system works strictly according to its very own code and can observe other systems only by applying its code to their operations. For example, the code of the economy involves the application of the distinction between payment and non-payment. Other system operations appear within the economic field of references only insofar as this economic code can be applied to them. Hence, a political decision becomes an economic operation when it is observed as a government spending money or not. Likewise, a legal judgement may also be an economic operation when settlement of a contractual dispute obliges one party to pay for the goods or services they had acquired. The codes of the economy, politics and law operate autonomously, but their "interpenetration" is evident when observing "events" which simultaneously involve the participation of more than one system.
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, initially developed by Parsons. Consisting of "pure communicative actions" (a reference to Jürgen Habermas) 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 as they are not part of a conversation. Luhmann himself once said concisely that he was "not interested in people". That is not to say that people were not a matter for Luhmann, but rather, the communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society, and society is constituted (but not defined) by the communicative actions of people: society is people's environment, and people are society's environment. Thus, sociology can explain how persons can change society; the influence of the environment (the people) on the system (the society), the so-called "structural coupling". In fact Luhmann himself replied to the relevant criticism by stating that "In fact the theory of autopoietic systems could bear the title Taking Individuals Seriously, certainly more seriously than our humanistic tradition" (Niklas Luhmann, Operational Closure and Structural Coupling: The Differentiation of the Legal System, Cardozo Law Review, vol. 13: 1422). This approach has attracted criticism from those who argue that Luhmann has at no point demonstrated the operational closure of social systems, or in fact that autopoietic social systems actually exist. He has instead taken this as a premise or presupposition, resulting in the logical need to exclude humans from social systems, which prevents the social systems view from accounting for the individual behavior, action, motives, or indeed existence of any individual person.
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 sociology has widely attracted criticism from various intellectuals, including Jürgen Habermas.
Luhmann's systems theory is not without its critics; his definitions of "autopoietic" and "social system" differ from others. At the same time his theory is being applied or used worldwide by sociologists and other scholars. It is often used in analyses dealing with corporate social responsibility, organisational legitimacy, governance structures as well as with sociology of law and of course general sociology. His systems theory has also been used to study media discourse of various energy technologies throughout the US, including smart grids, carbon capture and storage, and wind energy.
Luhmann owned a pub ("Pons") in his parents' house in his native town of Lüneburg. The house, which also contained his father's brewery, had been in his family's hands since 1857.
A certain number of original books and articles are available for download (see below: External Links).
Events in the year 1998 in Germany.Affect logic
Affect-logic is a notion, introduced in 1988 by Luc Ciompi, relating to Soteria, which sheds light on the interaction between thinking and feeling. It holds that affect and cognition, or feeling and thinking, are continually interacting with the other activity in the cortical network. Ciompi developed this theoretical account for the purpose of understanding the psychological disorder known as Schizophrenia.
Ciompi's notion of affect-logic was criticized in some subsequent reviews for being untestable and, as a result, atheoretical.In sociology, the concept is used for understanding extremist mentalities and for a critique of the sociological systems theory of Niklas Luhmann.Alberto Febbrajo
Alberto V. Febbrajo (born 19 July 1944, Vittorio Veneto) is an Italian legal scholar and sociologist.
Febbrajo studied under the political philosopher Bruno Leoni at the University of Pavia and graduated in Law with a thesis on Max Weber’s sociology of law. He continued his studies at the Universities of Berlin and Freiburg im Breisgau and at the German University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer. He is Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Macerata, Italy.
Febbrajo has also been Head of the Law Department (1986-1990) and Rector (1991-2003) at the same University.
Heis co-director of the journal “Sociologia del diritto” and editor of the Studies in the Sociology of Law Series (Ashgate). In 2009, he established the Fermo Summer School on legal and sociological aspects of European Governance. At present Febbrajo is coordinator of the "Sociology of Law” section of the Italian Sociological Association.He is well known for introducing in Italy socio-legal authors such as Eugen Ehrlich, Theodor Geiger and Niklas Luhmann.Anthony Wilden
Anthony Wilden (14 December 1935, London, England) is a writer, social theorist, college lecturer, and consultant. Wilden has published numerous books and articles which intersect a number of fields, including systems theory, film theory, structuralism, cybernetics, psychiatry, anthropological theory, water control projects, urban ecosystems, resource conservation, and communications and social relations.Wilden is credited with one of the first significant introductions to the work of Jacques Lacan in the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly in his role as one of Lacan's early English translators. Today Wilden's work (and consequent reputation) is arguably more influential in the fields of communication theory, ecology and social interaction. These fields of study evolved out of a long scholarly tradition of "interactional semiotics" that originated with Plato's Cratylus. Along with such figures as Gregory Bateson (i.e., Steps to an Ecology of Mind), R. D. Laing (i.e., Sanity, Madness and the Family), and Walker Percy (i.e., Lost in the Cosmos), Wilden is considered one of this tradition's contemporary (modern and postmodern) pioneers.With the appearance of System and Structure (1972), Wilden sought "to establish the necessity of an ecosystemic or ecological approach to communication and exchange in open systems of all types", to use his own words. In hindsight it is recognized that System and Structure was an early contribution to a "theory of self-referential systems". According to Niklas Luhmann, this "theory of self-referential systems" is the second paradigm change in a "General System Theory" (the first change being the "open-systems" or "systems/environment" shift, a step that initially separated "systems theory" from the traditional "whole-parts" paradigm). Through his teaching and writings, Wilden has provided "a contribution to our 'knowledge about knowledge' at an abstract level, as well as supplying ammunition in the struggle with the concrete reality that information is power and that scientific discourse is a hidden weapon in the arsenal of social control." Wilden is also recognized today for his significant contributions to Context theory and Second-order cybernetics.
Wilden was a professor in the Communications Department at Simon Fraser University from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. He has attended the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, 1960–1961, 1963–1965; and Johns Hopkins University, earning his PhD in 1968.Anti-foundationalism
Anti-foundationalism (also called nonfoundationalism) is any philosophy which rejects a foundationalist approach. An anti-foundationalist is one who does not believe that there is some fundamental belief or principle which is the basic ground or foundation of inquiry and knowledge.Differentiation (sociology)
"Differentiation" is a term in system theory. From the viewpoint of this theory, the principal feature of modern society is the increased process of system differentiation as a way of dealing with the complexity of its environment. This is accomplished through the creation of subsystems in an effort to copy within a system the difference between it and the environment. The differentiation process is a means of increasing the complexity of a system, since each subsystem can make different connections with other subsystems. It allows for more variation within the system in order to respond to variation in the environment. Increased variation facilitated by differentiation not only allows for better responses to the environment, but also allows for faster evolution (or perhaps sociocultural evolution), which is defined sociologically as a process of selection from variation; the more differentiation (and thus variation) that is available, the better the selection.Elena Esposito
Elena Esposito (Milan 1960) is an Italian sociologist who works in social systems theory. She teaches general sociology at the Bielefeld University (Germany) and sociology of communication at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy). Her research is embedded in Luhmannian social systems theory.Jean Clam
Jean Clam (born 1958), philosopher, sociologist and psychologist, Research Fellow at the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique, Paris (CNRS), presently affiliated to EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) in Paris.
His numerous researches deal mainly with the following topics:
sociology et psychology of intimacy
legal theory (in particular that of Niklas Luhmann)
general theory of the human and social sciencesList of German scientists
This is a list of notable German scientists.List of epistemologists
This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.Lühmann
Lühmann is a surname. Notable people with the name include:
Heinrich Luhmann (1890–1978), German author who wrote about the Kirchhundem region
Jörg Lühmann, German Green Party politician
Kirsten Lühmann (born 1964), German politician
Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998), German sociologist
Wendy Luhmann, one of the 1982 doubles champions in the NCAA Women's Division II Tennis ChampionshipMichael Welker
Michael Welker (born 20 November 1947 in Erlangen, Germany) is a German Protestant theologian and professor of Systematic theology (Dogmatics).
Biblical Theology and “general theory” are the main focus of his research. He reached a wider audience with publications about the Spirit of God, creation (especially in dialog with the sciences), the role of the church in pluralistic societies, resurrection and the Protestant view of the Lord’s Supper, but also his work related to Alfred North Whitehead and process theology, to Niklas Luhmann and systems theory.Polity (publisher)
Polity is a publisher in the social sciences and humanities. Established in 1984, its editorial offices are located in Cambridge in the UK; it also has offices in Oxford, UK, and in Boston, USA. Polity has developed into one of the leading publishing houses in the social sciences and the arts. It is especially strong in the areas of sociology, politics and social theory. The many celebrated authors published by Polity include Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Norbert Elias, Ulrich Beck, Niklas Luhmann, Norberto Bobbio, Gianni Vattimo, Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Georges Duby and Roger Chartier.Social system
In sociology, a social system is the patterned network of relationships constituting a coherent whole that exist between individuals, groups, and institutions. It is the formal structure of role and status that can form in a small, stable group. An individual may belong to multiple social systems at once; examples of social systems include nuclear family units, communities, cities, nations, college campuses, corporations, and industries. The organization and definition of groups within a social system depend on various shared characteristics such as location, socioeconomic status, race, religion, societal function, or other distinguishable features.Sociocybernetics
Sociocybernetics is an independent chapter of science in sociology based upon the general systems theory and cybernetics.
It also has a basis in organizational development (OD) consultancy practice and in theories of communication, theories of psychotherapies and computer sciences. The International Sociological Association has a specialist research committee in the area – RC51 – which publishes the (electronic) Journal of Sociocybernetics.
The term "socio" in the name of sociocybernetics refers to any social system (as defined, among others, by Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann).
The idea to study society as a system can be traced back to the origin of sociology when the emergent idea of functional differentiation has been applied for the first time to society by Auguste Comte.
The basic goal for which sociocybernetics was created, is the production of a theoretical framework as well as information technology tools for responding to the basic challenges individuals, couples, families, groups, companies, organizations, countries, international affairs are facing today.Susanne Holmström
Susanne Holmström (born 1947) is a Danish sociologist, best known for her writings on organizational legitimacy based on the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann.
For her dissertation Perspectives & Paradigms: An Intersubjective and a Social Systemic Public Relations Paradigm she was awarded the 1998 EUPRERA award for best European dissertation in public relations. In 2004 she became a full Ph.D. for her thesis The Sensitive Organisation of the Reflective Society.
She has formerly been a board member of EUPRERA and of the steering group of LOKE, a Nordic network for research within organisational legitimisation and communication. She is best known for having developed the so-called reflective business paradigm (Holmström 2004).
In recent years she has been an external lecturer at Roskilde University and in 2011 was appointed Honorary Professor.Systemics
In the context of systems science and systems philosophy, systemics is an initiative to study systems. It is an attempt at developing logical, mathematical, engineering and philosophical paradigms and frameworks in which physical, technological, biological, social, cognitive and metaphysical systems can be studied and modeled.The term "systemics" was coined in the 1970s by Mario Bunge and others, as an alternative paradigm for research related to general systems theory and systems science.Systems theory in political science
Systems theory in political science is a highly abstract, partly holistic view of politics, influenced by cybernetics. The adaptation of system theory to political science was first conceived by David Easton in 1953.The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (German: Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne: Zwölf Vorlesungen) is a 1985 book by Jürgen Habermas, in which the author reconstructs and deals in depth with a number of philosophical approaches to the critique of modern reason and the Enlightenment "project" since Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, including the work of 20th century philosophers Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Cornelius Castoriadis and Niklas Luhmann. The work is regarded as an important contribution to Frankfurt School critical theory. It has been characterized as a critical (largely negative) evaluation of the concept of world disclosure in modern philosophy.An English translation by Frederick G. Lawrence was published in 1987. A French translation by Christian Bouchindhomme and Rainer Rochlitz was published in 1988.
Subfields of and cyberneticians involved in cybernetics