Niklas Luhmann (1927 - 1998)

The End of the War

When Germany was defeated in 1945, Luhmann had spent the last month of the war serving as an anti-aircraft auxiliary. When asked later how he experienced the end of the war, he invited the interviewers to imagine the situation as it would have been experienced by a 17-year-old: “Before 1945, the hope was that after the defeat of the compulsory apparatus everything would be right by itself. Yet the first thing I experienced in American captivity was that my watch was taken off my arm and that I was beaten up. So it was not at all as I had thought it would be. Soon you could see that one could not compare political regimes according to a scheme of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, but that you had to judge the figures according to a bounded reality. Of course I don’t want to say that the time of the Nazi-regime and the time after 1945 are to be judged on equal terms. Yet I was simply disappointed in 1945. Yet is that really important? In any case the experience of the Nazi-regime for me has not been a moral one, but an experience of the arbitrary, of power, of the tactics to avoid the regime used by the man of the people.”

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Archimedes und wir: Interviews. Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1987.


Luhmann studied law at Freiburg/Breisgau and had jobs first at the Higher Administrative Court in Lüneburg working on a file-card system to take hold of the decisions of court, then at the Ministry of Education of Lower Saxony, Hannover, dealing with questions of compensation for Nazi injustice.

File-Card System

These jobs gave him a lot of time for reading Hölderlin, Descartes, Husserl, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown and for developing his first file card-system, a prelude to the second one he worked with until the end of his life.


He went to Harvard to study sociology with Talcott Parsons, discussing with him a notion of “function” completely different from that developed by Parsons, who, however, always an-swered that Luhmann’s notion would “fit quite nicely” into his own theory.


Parsons had a notion of function relating to the service a phenomenon fulfilled for a social system, whereas Luhmann had a notion of function that worked as a reference point for a comparison between different solutions to the same problem. Thus, if the function of the economy consists in providing today for possible needs tomorrow, one can at once start to look for different institutions, media, and semantics to fulfill that function.

The System Doing the Comparison

Even more importantly, Luhmann maintained that such a comparison is not only developed by the external observer doing social sciences or politics, for that matter, but might be applied and used by the social system observing itself as well.


Yet the master theme of Luhmann’s thinking soon became the notion of “contingency”. Con-tingency, understood the philosophical way, means that everything can be different as well. Luhmann became famous with his sentence, written in 1969 paper on “Complexity and Democracy”, that “everything could be different; yet almost nothing I can change.” The first ever introduction to Luhmann’s thinking, written by the Protestant theologian and parish priest Frithard Scholz took its point of departure from that sentence which was quite at odds with the general political wishful thinking at that time.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Politische Planung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1971; Frithard Scholz, Freiheit als Indifferenz: Alteuropäische Probleme mit der Systemtheorie Luhmanns. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982.

Sociological Insights

Luhmann never had a problem insisting on some simple sociological insights when everybody else preferred following either revolutionary or technocratic dreams, both of them not very different as soon as you take a closer look. In the middle of the student rebellion in 1968/69 Luhmann held Theodor W. Adorno’s chair at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main and, from all possible issues, offered a seminar on the sociology of love. Few people attended it.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986.

The Parsons Shock

Luhmann became famous and notorious for his use of a notion of “system”, which very few in sociology thought fruitful since sociology had barely recovered from the Parsons shock of doing too complex a theory and forcing too many phenomena into only one general scheme (the AGIL-scheme). The fact that a general public in politics, organizations, and culture still seemed to welcome the notion did not do it any good, since that welcome was related to a technocratic understanding of “system” that most intellectuals and academics thought rather improper at that time.

Habermas’ Suspicion

Jürgen Habermas, the heir of Critical Theory at the University of Frankfurt, shared the suspicion of this intellectual kind. He invited Luhmann to discuss “social technology” and “theory of society” with him, being rather explicit about who belongs to which side of that distinction; he took care not to have the resulting book translated into English when it turned out that the terms could not so easily be allocated.

Reading: Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtech-nologie: Was leistet die Systemforschung? Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971.

Three Ironies

The discussion between Habermas and Luhmann, when looked at in hindsight, exhibits at least three ironies.

The First Irony

The first irony is that today Luhmann is the one to have developed a theory of society, whereas Habermas is read all over the world as a leading thinker about the question of how to do a “consensus” engineering in politics, education, and organization.

The Second Irony

The second irony is that this debate completely drew everybody’s attention from the astonishing fact that, apart from Jürgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson, and Paul Watzlawick, only Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann considered the notion of “communication” to be of central importance for their respective theory building.

Reading: Jurgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson, Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: Norton, 1951; Paul Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. New York: Norton, 1967; Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984; Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, chap. 4, “Communication and Action”.

Reason and Complexity

Both Habermas and Luhmann go back to “communication” with some idea of social therapy in mind, with Habermas looking for possible reasons hidden in language and Luhmann trying to teach an understanding of complexity by pointing to the differential eigen-dynamics of social systems. Both authors are to be considered as the theoretical lead figures of the Germany of the 1980's and 1990's, following, in that matter, Heidegger and Adorno, the leading figures of the 1960's and 1970's. One may conclude that what was lacking most in that country at that time was exactly reason and an understanding of complexity.

The Third Irony

The third irony is that this debate never lived up to the notion of system presented by Luhmann. As early as in 1966, in his paper on “Reflexive Mechanismen”, he described the “system” as a go-between as soon as an act tries to reflect on itself. An act, taken for itself, can only intend its object. If it intends itself, it does so by reflecting on a something that intercedes between the act and its object. That is the take-off of the system. By reflecting “itself”, an act mirrors reasons, intentions, a free will, a consciousness, a knowledge, a love, a belief, a power, or whatever, and by that very reflection permits the emergence of a “system” relating back and forward to different, yet similar, sometimes supportive, sometimes obstructive acts.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, “Reflexive Mechanismen”, in: Soziale Welt 17 (1966), pp. 1-23.

A System

If a system consists of communication, as Luhmann was only later to realize to its full extent, that system can only emerge if the reflection on the act proposed is taken on by the different observers as well, or at least by the same observer at later points in time. A system is a reflection on acts to be maintained by further acts. If there are no further acts that try to reflect “themselves” in a similar way, the system vanishes.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, “Autopoiesis, Handlung, und kommunikative Verständigung”, in: Zeitschrift für Soziologie 11 (1982), pp. 366-379.

Teaching Sociology

Luhmann did both his dissertation and habilitation in 1966 at the University of Münster and in 1968 became the first professor of the University of Bielefeld, which just had been founded by Helmut Schelsky. He continued teaching sociology there until he was given emeritus status in 1993. Luhmann was offered several chairs at universities abroad yet always declined them because, as he said, he was not prepared to take the risk of losing his file-card system by a car, train, or plane accident when moving somewhere else.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Universität als Milieu. Bielefeld: Haux, 1992.

Five Strands

He engaged himself with five different strands of sociological work, all of them being just of preparatory value, as he said, for his one and only endeavor to write, as Parsons was the last to have undertaken, a sociological theory of society.

Strand One

A series of papers on sociological systems theory and its application on a wide range of social phenomena, e.g., interaction, organization, society, media, economy, politics, religion, science, and epistemology, many of these papers being collected in the six volumes of Soziologische Aufklärung. These papers document Luhmann’s path from structural functionalism to operational constructivism.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Soziologische Aufklärung. 6 vols. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1970, 1975, 1981, 1987, 1990, and 1995; The Differentiation of Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982; Essays on Self-Reference. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Strand Two

A series of meticulous essays on the change of social semantics in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in order to check on his hypothesis of a structural change of the society from stratificatory to functional differentiation; see these essays in the four volumes of Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, of Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik. 4 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980, 1981, 1989, and 1995.

Sociology of Knowledge

The idea here is to show that a certain kind of a sociology of knowledge is helpful in demon-strating how a slow change in semantics is both witness to a structural change and necessary in supporting it. Incidentally, Luhmann discovers this change in semantics not in prime texts of grand philosophers, but in everyday texts of a whole range of different writers mainly in Spain, Italy, France, Great Britain, and Germany.

Semantics is Structure

Indeed, semantics is already structure if you think about its importance in linking, for example, one communication about self-esteem to another about love, for instance.

Strand Three

A series of interventions into the political debate showed Luhmann’s attempt to develop a type of sociological theory that is attuned to contemporary issues without trying to respond to questions no theory can answer.

Considering Choices

The first one, Political Theory in the Welfare State, was an attempt to lure Christian-Democratic politicians into facing the necessary choices of modern society. Yet he was discouraged by politicians who told him that they needed to be able to tell the voter which is the good guy, and which one the bad.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Political Theory in the Welfare State. New York: de Gruyter, 1990.

Listening to the Greens

In his Ecological Communication Luhmann, for the first time, let the reader take a glimpse at the theory of society in the making. Here, his starting point was that the Greens indeed had it all right, yet that – given the functional differentiation of society - it was impossible to listen to them.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communication. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.

No Decisions on Decisions

His book on Risk takes the almost alarming perspective that in modern society everything is to be decided upon by organizations, yet there is no place, even not in these very organizations, where these decisions are reflected according to their societal relevance. Remember his notion of system? There is no “system” that goes in between organized decisions and their consequences. Organizations produce danger, while they handle risk.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Risk: A Sociological Theory. New York: de Gruyter, 1993.

Strand Four

A series of books on organization and law shows Luhmann at his best with his experiences of both public administration and juridical argumentation.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Funktionen und Folgen formaler Organisation. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1964; Grundrechte als Institution. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1965; Zweckbegriff und Systemrationalität. Tübingen: Mohr, 1968; Legitimation durch Verfahren. Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1969; A Sociological Theory of Law. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985; Ausdifferenzierung des Rechts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981; Organisation und Entscheidung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2000.

Strand Five

A series of books on core questions of sociology exemplifying Luhmann’s ambition to both test a theory by “applying” it to a selected phenomenon and giving a new perspective on that phenomenon. His essays on trust, power, and love may serve until today as some of the best introductions to his thinking.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Trust and Power. Chichester: Wiley, 1979; Love as Passion. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986; Observations on Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

The Theory of Society

Yet, these many books and a host of papers somehow only paved the way for the theory of society Luhmann worked on all his life. When Social Systems appeared in its German original in 1984, he considered it his first real book, the previous ones being part of his “zero series”. Social Systems was considered to be the “introduction” to his theory of society which appeared in several volumes and culminated in Luhmann’s two-volume chef d’œuvre Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995; Die Wirtschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988; Die Wissenschaft der Ge-sellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990; Art as a Social System. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000; The Reality of Mass Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000; Die Religion der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000; Die Politik der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000; Das Erziehungssystem der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002; Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997.

The Value of Theory

It may surprise anybody looking at this breathtaking list of titles that Luhmann did not primarily target a systematic catalogue that contained everything of any importance inside society. His aim was different. Obviously, he wanted to show that sociology was able to cover everything being social. Yet, his most important objective was to show the value of theoretical work in sociology. He was deeply convinced of the observation that Old-European thinking, as he called it, and the society going with it came to an end without anybody being able to grasp what was coming then.

The Computer

He indeed attributed the computer with a leading role in exercising the pressure suffered by the society to change itself the same way it had to change after the introduction of first language, then writing, and later print. He left the meditation on broadcasting, movies, and television to the likes of Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, and Vilém Flusser, yet insisted on the question how society would ever be able to adapt to its use of computers.

Forms of Culture

In Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, he expounded on a few, yet intriguing, pages the hypothesis, that as the notion of telos was invented by Aristotle to manage the surplus meaning introduced by writing, and as the notion of restless and empty self-reference was invented by Descartes to manage the surplus meaning introduced by printing, so somebody would have to live up to the invention of a notion able to manage the surplus meaning introduced by the computer.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997, pp. 409-412.

Proposal for a Competitive Survey

Perhaps we should do a competitive survey on the following comparison: while Claude E. Shannon’s notion of information, Gregory Bateson’s notion of “difference”, Marshall McLu-han’s notion of “media” and George Spencer-Brown’s notion of “form” are among the first candidates to be considered, Luhmann’s very notion of “system” should not be ruled out too early.

Reading: Dirk Baecker, „Niklas Luhmann in der Gesellschaft der Computer“, in: Merkur 55, Heft 7 (Juli 2001), pp. 597-609.

Old Europe

It is typical of Luhmann’s sociology that his theory and description of society (his last big chapter on the self-description of society in Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft may be consid-ered the most impressive memorial to “Old-European” society and its semantics) that it is open-ended. The one thing he would never have wanted to do, despite (or because of) his training as a lawyer, was to close a case. He invested his tremendous work in the description of a society he considered to be gone. Yet the reason he did this was that this was the only possible school of sociological thinking, theorizing, and describing he could think of, because we know exactly nothing about our new, contemporaneous society since it is both contemporary as well as constitutive to our observations.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997, chap. 5.

Inclusion and Exclusion

This did not stop Luhmann from venturing into far reaching hypotheses, the most important of which perhaps being his warning that our society might be heading for a new lead code, super-coding the functional differentiation, distinguishing the included people from the excluded people. The domain of the included is highly disintegrated, managing itself by the principles of heterarchy, loose coupling, and contingency, whereas the domain of the excluded is highly integrated, managing itself by the daily necessity to fight for survival.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, “Jenseits der Barbarei”, in: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik, vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995; “Inklusion und Exklusion”, in: Soziologische Aufklärung, vol. 6, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1995.

Wishing for Readers

Niklas Luhmann’s œuvre indeed is a heterarchy of its own. One may enter it at any point and discover it in many different ways. He always wished that his work would find readers wanting to recombine the very elements of systems theory and its descriptions of social phenomena in order to end up with some completely different theory. He wanted to teach sociology, not his version of society. He perhaps even wanted to present his notion of “system” as one of the very few able to deal with the danger of “systematic” thinking, collecting, and ordering.

Reading: Stephan Fuchs, Against Essentialism: A Theory of Culture and Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2001.

A Distinctive Respect for Thinkers

Luhmann was able to let himself be intrigued with very few central notions (central in decentralizing, to be sure!) advanced by other thinkers and to admire those thinkers who had the luck and the courage to find and develop such notions. That goes for Husserl and his notion of “intention” based on the distinction between self-reference and other-reference, for Parsons and his notion of “action” as a system, for Heinz von Foerster and Humberto R. Maturana and their notions of “observing systems” and “autopoiesis”, respectively, and, last not least, for George Spencer-Brown and his notion of “form”. Luhmann loved to sit in a corner of the seminar room when he had Humberto Maturana as his guest for a whole semester at the University of Bielefeld in 1986/87. Maturana took the whole floor, and Luhmann could concentrate on watching an original thinker.

Reading: Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenol-ogical Philosophy. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1980; Talcott Parsons, Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory. New York: Free Pr., 1977; Talcott Parsons, Action Theory and the Human Condition. New York: Free Pr., 1978; Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems. San Francisco: Intersystems Publ., 1981; Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980; George Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form. London: Allen & Unwin, 1969.

Self-Reference and Systems

Luhmann started his work with taking the ideas of self-reference and system seriously. Relating these two ideas to each other made it impossible for him to believe in the foresight, planning, or simple complete description of social systems. Instead, they not only became intransparent and paradoxical (you never know whether your self-reference hits on your system or your environment, and that’s the only way to reproduce yourself as a system non-identical with yourself), but reproduced themselves by producing and maintaining the in-transparence and paradoxicality.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, “The Control of Intransparency”, in: System Research and Behav-ioral Science 14 (1997), pp. 359-371.


Luhmann then went on to take the idea of function and communication seriously. He therefore had to introduce the observer into the social system, no longer being able to describe the system “objectively”, but having to acknowledge that sociological descriptions as well are done by specific observers, reproducing their kind of social system, and being in no way exempt from having to accept the same “laws” of social systems they describe with respect to their domain of observation.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990.


Luhmann finished his work by taking the ideas of autopoiesis and form seriously. To date, hardly anyone outside sociology (and inside the picture is not much brighter) has taken notice of his proposal to consider Maturana’s “components” of autopoietic systems as “events”, thus temporalizing the whole systems notion. I think that this may one day be considered one of Luhmann’s most important contributions to general systems theory. Of course, the idea owes much to both Husserl and Heidegger. But then again, Luhmann always took philosophical thinking of a certain kind to be a companion of sociology.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, “The Modern Sciences and Phenomenology” in: Theories of Dis-tinction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

The Form of Transition

In chap. 2 of his book on Organisation und Entscheidung, Luhmann took great care to elabo-rate in detail the use of the notion of “autopoiesis” for sociological systems theory. One of the questions he asks in that book relates to how systems theory might be able to answer the question of transition between one moment and the next. Luhmann relates this question back to Hegel who answered it by developing his dialectics of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. Whatever a system actually does or communicates, any of its acts and communications have a form consisting of two sides, an inside and an outside. The inside, for Luhmann, goes by the name of “information”, the outside by the name of “connectivity”. Whatever you do, it relates to something else. Thus, the question might not be, how to go from one moment to the next, but how to go to this one and not to another one. The shift from the former question to the latter one entails the whole switch from philosophy to sociology, and from dialectics to constructivism. Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Organisation und Entscheidung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2000, chap. 2.

The Form

In Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft the architecture of the theory appears to be completely based on George Spencer-Brown’ notion of “form” as a distinction consisting of two sides and their dividing line, i.e. a three-valued distinction of two sides. In his “ preliminary meth-odological remarks” Luhmann asks for a notion of communication that entails both information and connectivity, or both knowledge and ignorance. There is no methodology of empirical research that is able to handle the fact that communication starts with ignorance. How do you account for what you are ignorant of?

Reading: George Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form. London: Allen & Unwin, 1969; Niklas Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997, pp. 36-44.

The Social

In Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Luhmann’s theory at its peak and very fulfillment seems to take a fresh start at the very point where it started in the early 1960s. He relates communication theory, differentiation theory, and evolution theory back to the one question how communication is able to deal with and in ignorance. The question in itself is not new. It is the question which has been answered by social encounter during many thousands of years. Luhmann’s sociology tries to teach us how to observe the answer being given not by the sociologist but by the social phenomena themselves, even if we can only manage to watch the answer being given by the phenomena after having invested quite a deal of work into the learning of sociological theory.

Reading: Niklas Luhmann, Einführung in die Systemtheorie. Heidelberg: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, 2002.

Dirk Baecker Zeppelin University

main_niklasluhmannbydirkbaecker.txt · Last modified: 2008/10/11 19:12 by Dirk Baecker