Self-reference is closely connected to ideas of self-organisation and autopoiesis. The concept is detached from notions of consciousness or the subject. Self-reference is a multi-faceted concept but in a brief introduction we can note that for modern functions systems – law, politics, science – understood as autopoietic and operationally closed systems, there is no recourse to ‘an all-embracing world system, no ultimate world guarantee of rationality’. Accordingly, the system must operate in a self referential way, returning recursively to its own previous operations in the process of producing new operations:
‘The system itself produces and observes the difference between system and environment. It produces it by operating. It observes it in that this operation in the context of the system’s autopoiesis requires a distinction to be drawn between self-reference and other-reference, which can then be ‘objectivized’ to a distinction between system and environment. The system can as always connect its own operations only to its own operations, but it can obtain directive information either from itself or its environment. There can be no doubt that this is actually possible, even, indeed especially, in operationally closed systems.’
Self referential systems are closed systems. They operate only by self-contact and without any direct access to their environment.
Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, vol. 1 (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012) p. 106.