Short accounts of Luhmann’s work and life:

by Gotthard Bechmann and Nico Stehr

In some of the many and extensive obituaries published in European newspapers and magazines in 1999, Niklas Luhmann is remembered as the most important social theorist of the 20th century. Yet in much of the Anglo-Saxon world he is virtually unknown among professional social scientists. Luhmann was born into a middle-class family in Lüneburg, Germany on December 8, 1927.Following early graduation from high school (Notabitur), he was conscripted briefly in 1944 and taken prisoner of war by the American Forces. From 1946 to 1949, he studied law in Freiburg, entered public administration and worked for ten years as an administrative lawyer in Hanover. In 1962 he received a scholarship to Harvard and spent a year with Talcott Parsons. In 1968, he was appointed professor of sociology at the newly established University of Bielefeld, where he worked until his retirement. Shortly before his appointment he was asked on what subject he wished to work at university. His reply was: “The theory of modern society. Duration 30 years; no costs.” He consequently realised exactly this theoretical program. At the time of his death in December 1998, at the age of 70, he had published an oeuvre of over 14,000 printed pages.

Luhmann’s journey toward a theory of modern society has taken a dual approach: first, in the form of essays since the end of the 1960s; and second, in the form of monographs since the 1980s, dealing with the individual function systems of society, such as law, science and art. Luhmann’s intellectual evolution culminated in 1997 with the publication of his magnum opus “The Society of Society.” Anyone suspecting redundancy and repetition here might feel at first glance that their scepticism is confirmed. This two-volume work contains no new subjects, let alone any previously unpublished approach. To this extent it is more a completion, a recapitulation, than an advance into new territory. However, a second, reassuring look reveals much that had not been said before—or at least not in this way. In contrast to the essays, which are sometimes experimental and even playful in tone, and which occasionally close on a question mark, the book format requires a more systematic presentation. “The Society of Society” is the final stone to his theoretical cathedral and provides a map for, and a guide to, the understanding of modern systems theory.

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by Rudolf Stichweh

Niklas Luhmann was born on December 8, 1927, in Lüneburg, as the son of a brewer (Wilhelm Luhmann). His mother (Dora Gurtner) came from the Swiss hotel industry. From 1937 he attended a well‐known humanist Gymnasium at Lüneburg, the Johanneum. This Gymnasium was pervaded by national socialist thinking, but Luhmann’s family cultivated its distance towards the regime. Niklas Luhmann spent his summer holidays in Switzerland which had an influence on the opinions and attitudes he acquired. Luhmann was an assiduous student and one of his classmates remembered his “forbidding reading mania”. In spring 1943, being only 15, Luhmann was already obliged, as was his whole class, to become a helper of the German flak at airports nearby. School hours continued irregularly at the location of the German air force. In autumn 1944 he had to leave school, received a short military training and became a regular soldier in South Germany. In spring 1945 the American army took him as a prisoner of war and transported him first to Ludwigshafen and then to a labour camp near Marseille. The treatment was bad and he later remembered beatings.
As Luhmann still was not yet 18, he was released from the camp in autumn 1945. His secondary school degree was not accepted. Therefore Luhmann went back to the Johanneum in Lüneburg and took a special class which led to the ‘Abitur’ at Easter 1946. He decided to study law which was obviously motivated by his supposition that law is the kind of knowledge system that can help with the breakdowns of order he had experienced. From 1946 to 1949 he was a law student at Freiburg who had a strong interest in Roman law and in historical and comparative aspects of law. Luhmann went back to Lüneburg, became a trainee lawyer with a legal practitioner in the city, and prepared a legal dissertation which was never finalized. He only finished his second state examination in 1953 and had his first job in 1954. We do not know much about the years from 1949 to 1954. But because he probably started his famous file‐card box at the end of his studies at Freiburg it will some day be possible to reconstruct his intellectual agenda during these years using this source.

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