Paradox

A selection of Niklas Luhmann’s articles published in English and loosely arranged into categories. Where no abstract is provided the first paragraph is given instead.

 

The Code of the Moral
Luhmann, N. 14 Cardozo Law Review (1992-1993) 995

In the rhetorical tradition of the late Renaissance, in the Sixteenth Century, the custom spread of attracting attention and shocking through paradoxical assertions. Not only playful artistry and entertainment were at stake. The aim of shock was to stimulate reflection. The concept of paradox was still meant literally as something that lies beyond the sphere of correct opinion, an offense against the commun parere. This vogue for fashioning paradoxes may be associated with the decline of the medieval technique of disputation – posing a problem (quaestio), then referring to contrasting opinions, and finally giving the right answer on the basis of a claimed authority. However, after religious strife and printing dissolved the certainty of authoritative solutions, all that remained was the bare difference of opinion, which was presented in the form of paradox in order to suggest that one should not conveniently follow tradition, but should instead be on the lookout for new and reflective solutions to problems. Even today, one occasionally finds formulations that recall this largely forgotten tradition. According to its form, paradox is a self- referential oscillation in itself, hence a formally closed mode of operation. According to its function, it is but an allusion to itself, suggesting the conclusion that one must somehow escape this trap. In this double sense of a self-referential allusion to the absence of escape hatches from this form of self-reference, a paradox is simultaneously an invitation to the unfolding of paradox and to resolution of its circle by means of a distinction of stable identities.
    The consequences of enjoying the fruit are, and remain, veiled. All one knows is that bifurcations or binary schemes are at play. The leap from paradise to paradox is broad and risky. Hence, preferring a comfortable middle position, one settles down with the moral so as to obtain a position of tranquillity that is itself good and permits one to distinguish all other things as good or bad.

 

The Paradoxy of Observing Systems
Luhmann, N. 31 Cultural Critique (Part II, Autumn 1995) 37

In spite of several attempts, it is still difficult to submit formal sciences such as logic or mathematics to a sociological analysis. Such an analysis would entail discovering empirical correlations between specific social conditions and specific formal structures. Both the conditions and the structures would then have to be treated as variables whose “values” would appear as contingent, despite their claims to be “natural” (as society) or necessary (as the principles, axioms, and rules of logic). One would have to assert that the natural is artificial because it is produced by society and that the necessary is contingent because under different conditions it may have to accept different forms. These are paradoxical statements, but we need them when we have to distinguish different observers from each other or when we have to distinguish self-observations from external observation, because for the self-observer things may appear as natural and necessary, whereas when seen from the outside they may appear artificial and contingent (see L6fgren, “Towards System”). The world thus variously observed remains, nevertheless, the same world, and therefore we have a paradox. An observer, then, is supposed to decide whether something is natural or artificial, necessary or contingent. But who can observe the observer (as necessary for this decision) and the decision (as contingent for the observer)? The observer may refuse to make this decision, but can the observer observe without making this decision or would the observer have to withdraw, when refusing this decision, to the position of a non-observing observer?

 

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