Observations on Modernity (1998)

This collection of five essays by Germany’s most prominent and influential social thinker both links Luhmann’s social theory to the question “What is modern about modernity?” and shows the origins and context of his theory.
    In the introductory essay, “Modernity in Contemporary Society,” Luhmann develops the thesis that the modern epistemological situation can be seen as the consequence of a radical change in social macrostructures that he calls “social differentiation,” thereby designating the juxtaposition of and interaction between a growing number of social subsystems without any hierarchical structure. “European Rationality” defines rationality as the capacity to see the difference between systems and their environment as a unity. Luhmann argues that, in a world characterized by contingency, rationality tends to become coextensive with imagination, a view that challenges their classical binary opposition and opens up the possibility of seeing modern rationality as a paradox.
    In the third essay, “Contingency as Modern Society’s Defining Attribute,” Luhmann develops a further and probably even more important paradox: that the generalization of contingency or cognitive uncertainty is precisely what provides stability within modern societies. In the process, he argues that medieval and early modern theology can be seen as a “preadaptive advance” through which Western thinking prepared itself for the modern epistemological situation. In “Describing the Future,” Luhmann claims that neither the traditional hope of learning from history nor the complementary hope of cognitively anticipating the future can be maintained, and that the classical concept of the future should be replaced by the notion of risk, defined as juxtaposing the expectation of realizing certain projects and the awareness that such projects might fail. The book concludes with “The Ecology of Ignorance,” in which Luhmann outlines prospective research areas “for sponsors who have yet to be identified.”


Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity (2002)

The essays in this volume by Germany’s leading social theorist of the late twentieth century formulate what he considered to be the preconditions for an adequate theory of modern society.
The first two essays deal with the modern European philosophical and scientific tradition, notably the ogy of Edmund Husserl. The next four essays concern the crucial notion of observation as defined by Luhmann. They examine the history of paradox as a logical problem and as a historically conditioned feature of rhetoric; deconstruct the thinking of Jacques Derrida, especially his language-centered allegiances; discuss the usefulness of Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form; and assess the consequences of observation and paradox for epistemology.
    The following essays present Luhmann’s theory of communication and his articulation of the difference between thought and communication, a difference that makes clear one of Luhmann’s most radical and controversial theses, that the individual not only does not form the basic element of society but is excluded from it altogether, situated instead in the environment of the social system. The book concludes with a polemic against the critical thought of the Frankfurt School of postwar German social thought.

“Luhmann’s thought has become more and more influential internationally as one of the very rare examples of the ability of social theory to enlarge its theoretical resources and thereby gain a new grasp of significant empirical phenomena. This book presents Luhmann as a thinker who advances existing difference theories by combining them with systems theory.”—Dirk Baecker, University of Witten/Herdecke


Essays on Self-Reference (1990)

1. The Autopoiesis of Social Systems
2. Meaning as Sociology’s Basic Concept
3. Complexity and Meaning
4. The Improbability of Communication
5. Modes of Communication and Society
6. The Individuality of the Individual: Historical Meanings and Contemporary Problems
7. Tautology and Paradox in the Self-Descriptions of Modern Society
8. Society, Meaning, and Religions – Based on Self-Reference
9. The State of the Political System
10. The World Society as a Social System
11. The Work of Art and the Self-Reproduction of Art
12. The Medium of Art
13. The Self-Reproduction of Law and its Limits