[Fis] Niklas Luhmann

Joseph Brenner joe.brenner at bluewin.ch
Sun Oct 18 22:17:33 CEST 2015

Dear Colleagues,

I am sorry but I cannot sit still when I see unqualified references to Niklas Luhmann as some kind of unqualified genius. As far as I am concerned, the situation has not changed since 2009 when I wrote the following in an article "Prolegomenon to a Logic for the Information Society": Luhmann’s functionalist definition of isolated systems took human beings as agents out of his system, and replaced them with abstractions. As Leydesdorff shows, Luhmannian structures can be defined analytically, but that is not sufficient for an informational theory of society.

I note also Sören Brier's statement on p. 402 of his great book, Cybersemiotics, that "Luhmann failed to develop a concept of meaning that relates to the flesh, blood and life conditions of biological systems or to the existential conditions of human consciousness". He refers on the same page to the "impasse of Luhmann's functionalism".

Earlier, Christian Fuchs had stated that  “The function of Luhmann’s theory for society is that it is completely useless”. Luhmann is one of those authors it is possible to get excited about; the above is intended to show that other interpretations of its value are possible.

Best regards,


  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Mark Johnson 
  To: fis 
  Sent: Saturday, October 17, 2015 7:39 PM
  Subject: Re: [Fis] Shannon-Weavers' Levels A, B, C.

  Dear Loet, Joseph and Fis colleagues,

  Some thoughts:

  Pascal: "the heart has its reasons [the constraints of the body] which the reason cannot perceive [because it is abstract]" and yet... we do come to know the reasons of the heart - we know them long before we know reason. In language as Joseph says "Less is more" precisely, in my experience at least, because ambiguities reveal the reasons of the heart. Poetic language lifts the veil of everyday language to expose the raw, embodied, uncodified constraints which underpin it. Music is more powerful still (Alfred Schutz wrote about this wonderfully)

  Can we fashion a description of how this works with existing theory? (I don't believe we should surrender the territory to psychologists!)

  Parsons's idea of 'double-contingency' of communication presents an interaction between ego and alter where communication emerges through selections of meaning and utterance of each party. Schutz, whose theory of intersubjectivity was important for Parsons (they had an significant and difficult correspondence about these matters which is well-documented in Richard Grathoff's "The Theory of Social Action: The Correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Talcott Parsons") found Parsons's model too functionalist. Parsons and Schutz have a different understanding of how people 'tune-in' to one another: I see Parsons's model as effectively 'digital': a set of multi-level interacting selections; Schutz's concept is more 'analogue', involving sharing a sense of 'inner time' between people. I prefer to think of this as a shared constraint.

  Loet's redescription of double-contingency in terms of mutual redundancies loosens the determinism in both Parsons and Luhmann (who followed him). I think this is important, and opens a space for reconsidering Schutz's understanding of how 'tuning-in' might work.

  It's best to start with 'selection' (of utterance, meaning and understanding in Luhmann). Shannon selections are constrained by redundancy as we know, so to turn the spotlight on the redundancies rather than what is selected allows us to differentiate the intersubjective communication between two people talking face-to-face as one of higher mutual constraint/redundancy than the intersubjective situation of writing an email or a listserve post to Fis. Locality makes a difference in increasing mutual constraint. 

  Returning to Pascal, my body constrains my thoughts in ways which cannot be abstractly modelled, and yet I can apprehend my own constraints and those of others, whilst not necessarily being able to articulate them in language. I could however make music, wave my arms around, pull an angry face, or cry. Isn't inference of constraints by observing such behaviour essential to communication? How could double contingency work were we not able to grasp and physically feel what constrains the other? Babies wouldn't survive otherwise!

  Just to extend the speculation a bit further, we should ask about the process of knowledge construction itself in the light of mutual redundancy. Since Hume, many believe that the agreement of scientists in the light of event regularities is a factor in the development of knowledge. What do those scientists 'tune into' when they do this? In what way might an empirical event regularity be a mutual constraint? How are physical constraints separable from personal, biological or psychological constraints? 

  Might apparently 'woolly' (but, IMO, valuable) sociomaterial accounts of science be reframed as analytical accounts of interacting constraints?

  just some thoughts...


  On Thu, Oct 15, 2015 at 1:38 PM, Loet Leydesdorff <loet en leydesdorff.net> wrote:

    Dear Marcus, Mark, Bob, and colleagues, 

    My ambition was a bit more modest: the paper does not contain a theory of meaning or a theory of everything. It is an attempt to solve a problem in the relation between sociology (i.c. Luhmann) focusing on meaning processing (and autopoiesis) and (Shannon-type) information theory. Luhmann left this problem behind by defining information as a selection, while in my opinion entropy is a measure of diversity and therefore variation. I was very happy to find the clues in Weaver’s contributions; Katherine Hayles has signaled this previously. 

    Another author important in the background is Herbert Simon who specified the model of vertical differentiation (1973), but without having Maturana & Varela’s theory of autopoiesis for specification of the dynamics. I agree with Luhmann that one has to incorporate ideas from Husserl about horizons of meaning and Parsons’ symbolically generalize media as structuring these horizons for understanding the differentia specifica of the social as non-biological.

    Mark more or less answers his own questions, don’t you? The constraints of the body provide the contingency. The options are not given, but constructed and need thus to be perceived, either by individuals or at the organizational (that is, social) level. The contingency also positions (as different from others) with whom we can then entertain “double contingencies” as the basis for generating variation in the communication. How this works and feeds back on the persons involved seems to me the subject of other disciplines like psychology and neurology. The subject of study is then no longer (or no longer exclusively) res cogitans.

    For example, if a deaf person is provided with a cochlear implant, s/he may enter other domains of perception and be able to provide other contributions to the communication. The double contingencies between him/her and others can be expected to change.

    Bob and his colleagues define information (2008; p. 28) as “natural selection assembling the very constraints on the release of energy that then constitutes work and the propagation of organization.” This may have meaning in a biological framework, in which selection is considered “natural” resulting in organization(s). In the cultural domain, organization (of meaning) remains constructed and contingent; selection is never “natural”, but based on codified expectations. The codes steer the system from above. Differently from biological and engineered systems, this next-order level does not have to be slower than the systems level (Simon). Expectations can proliferate intersubjectively at higher speeds than we can follow. For example, we have to catch up with the literature. Stock exchanges operate faster than local markets because of the more sophisticated codes that mediate the financial exchanges.

    Maturana (1978, at p. 56) introduced the biologist as super-observer who does not participate in the biological phenomena under study, but constructs them: “Thus, talking human beings dwell in two non-intersecting phenomenal domains.” (italic added). Systems which operate exclusively in terms of expectations and anticipations of future states cannot be found in nature; they can only be considered reflexively. They allow us to de- and reconstruct in terms of improving the models, and thus sometimes find new options for technological intervention. Paradoxically, biology as a science is itself part of this cultural domain. For example, we have access to our body only in terms of perceptions (that are steered by expectations) and at the other end by knowledge-based interventions.

    This is my second posting for this week. 




    Loet Leydesdorff 

    Professor Emeritus, University of Amsterdam
    Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR)

    loet en leydesdorff.net ; http://www.leydesdorff.net/ 
    Honorary Professor, SPRU, University of Sussex; 

    Guest Professor Zhejiang Univ., Hangzhou; Visiting Professor, ISTIC, Beijing;

    Visiting Professor, Birkbeck, University of London; 


    From: Fis [mailto:fis-bounces en listas.unizar.es] On Behalf Of Marcus Abundis
    Sent: Thursday, October 15, 2015 7:11 AM
    To: fis en listas.unizar.es
    Subject: [Fis] Shannon-Weavers' Levels A, B, C.

    Hey Mark,

        Sorry if I confused things by commenting on Bateson AND THEN Shannon-Weaver. In my mind those were two different matters, and did not merit my calling them out as such.

    In general . . . 

        I too never saw Shanon-Weaver's Levels A, B, C as complete. In fact, I thought that portrayal as barely (oddly) half-hearted, in contrast to the allusion to a needed "theory of meaning." Still, I will dig into the work Loet and Bob reference . . . and see if I can find some personal satisfaction.

        ALSO, I found myself wondering if I should somehow try to tie Steven's sense of locality in with the notion of Levels A, B, C. Perhaps they are not specific enough in order to do so – not sure.


                Marcus Abundis




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  Dr. Mark William Johnson
  Leeds University Business School
  Visiting Professor
  Far Eastern Federal University, Russia
  Phone: 07786 064505
  Email: johnsonmwj1 en gmail.com
  Blog: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com 


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