Self-Descriptions

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. Self-description refers to the self-reflection and self-thematization of society.

 

‘What is the Case?’ and ‘What Lies Behind It?’ The Two Sociologies and The Theory of Society
Luhmann, N. 12(2) Sociological Theory (July 1994) 126
Free: available here

Ever since the inception of its academic career, sociology has approached its subject-matter in two different ways; one positivist, the other critical. Important theories, such as those of Karl Marx or Emile Durkheim, have always emphasized either one of these perspectives, but could never completely ignore the other one. The result was that as an empirical science, sociology has been interested in latent structures, while as critical theory, it has pointed out that social reality is not what it seems to be. Therefore, all attempts at building a unified theory of society on the basis of the critical/positivist distinction had to lead into the paradox of treating appearance and reality, or latent and manifest structures, as one and the same thing. This situation is now changing in radical ways which sociology has yet to appreciate. I am referring to recent interdisciplinary discussions about theories of self-referential systems, autopoietic system closure, the second-order cybernetics of observing systems, and constructivist epistemology and information processing. We can draw upon these recent discussions in order to understand society as a self-observing system that defines its own identity while, at the same time, leaving an ‘unmarked space’ for the possibilities to describe society in quite different ways.

 

Tautology and Paradox in the Self-Descriptions of Modern Society
Luhmann, N. 6(1) Sociological Theory (1988) 21
Free: available here

Self-referential systems are able to observe themselves. By using a fundamental distinction schema to delineate their self identities, they can direct their own operations toward their self identities. This may occur for different reasons and involve very different distinctions. As soon as the need arises to direct self-observations through structural predispositions instead of entirely leaving them to particular situations, we may speak of ‘self-descriptions’. Descriptions fix a structure or a ‘text’ for possible observations which can now be made more systematically, remembered and handed down more easily, and which can now be connected better to each other. Independent and occasional self-observations are not excluded thereby but become less important. Occasional observations now form a ‘variety pool’ for the selection of self-descriptions that can be tested during the evolution of ideas and may be stabilised as tradition. As a result, societies might adhere to traditions of self-descriptions that have lost their adequacy with respect to the structural complexity of the system but that cannot be abandoned since self-descriptions perform important systemic functions.

 

The Self-Description of Society: Crisis Fashion and Sociological Theory
Luhmann, N. 25 International Journal of Comparative Sociology (1984) 59

Crisis is an alarming notion, alarming because it is used in science and in everyday life as well. The word is taken as a shoot from so-called theory to so-called praxis. The word may be used to establish the thing, it may be used as “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Catastrophe is another example. One may wonder what Rene Thom thinks by himself when he looks at the catastrophe of catastrophe theory, namely, its sudden switching to a second point of stability in everyday language. Both crisis and catastrophe suggest urgency and speed. We have not much time, approaching an either/or situation. But this is also a self-protective device. We have not enough time, then, for theory-building and reflection.

 

The Modernity of Science
Luhmann, N. 61 New German Critique (Winter 1994) 9

So far as one can see, science has never had any trouble representing itself as “modern,” nor has it ever stood in need of doing so. The modern states – that has been a topic. The modernity of modern society is being discussed at length in sociology. And today, one still asks what modern art is. Yet as regards the field of science, its modernity does not even seem worth questioning, let alone an argument. Its modernity seems to go without saying.

 

Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?
Luhmann, N. 30 Cultural Critique (Part I, Spring 1995) 171

The discussion about modern or postmodern society operates on the semantic level. In it, we find many references to itself, many descriptions of descriptions, but hardly any attempt to take realities into account on the operational and structural level of social communications. Were we to care for realities, we would not see any sharp break between a modern and a postmodern society. For centuries we have had a monetary economy, and we still have it. Perhaps there are signs that indicate a new centrality of financial markets, of banks and of portfolio strategies, that marginalize money spent for investment and consumption. We certainly can observe worldwide dissolution of the family economies of the past in agriculture and handicraft production. But it is and remains an economic system differentiated by transactions that use money. We have also had, for centuries now, a state-oriented political system, and we still have it. We face undeniable difficulties in establishing a state everywhere as a local address for political communications, but there is no alternative visible. We have positivistic legal systems, unified by constitutions. There are in many countries many doubts whether or not the law will be applied. We find many cases in which the distinction between legally right and legally wrong is disregarded and does not matter at all. But there is no other type of law in view. We do scientific research as before, although now we are more conscious of risks or other unpleasant consequences. And we send, wherever possible, our children to schools, using up the best years of their lives to prepare them for an unknown future. Our whole life depends upon technologies, today more so than ever, and again, we see more problems, but no clear break with the past, no transition from a modern to a postmodern society. Hence, the first question may be: Why do we indulge in a semantic discussion that does not burden itself with realities?

 

Insistence on Systems Theory: Perspectives from Germany – An Essay
Luhmann, N. 61(4) Social Forces (June 1983) 987

Germany is not an isolated country, nor is social research in Germany a self-insulating process. Especially after World War II, there has been a strong influx of Western thought, Western methods, Western outlooks. What is fashionable world-wide becomes fashionable in Germany as well. This densely woven net of interchanges makes it difficult to portray German sociology as such. An attempt to do so would result in an artificial abstraction.
Germany, too, has adapted to the post-Parsonsian and post-neo-Marxist world by underemphasizing grand theory. Given German traditions, however, this attitude cannot result in simple neglect. Without universalistic theories or general frameworks, sociology will never be fully accepted. Instead it is found to be in a deplorable state. “Pluralism” is the sole formula which integrates. It does not unify the discipline, but at least it pacifies University departments. It remains a white lie.
This general situation makes it difficult to report on German sociology. In fact, Germans realize that the distinct cultural traditions of European nations are on the wane (Tenbruck, a). However, a report from Germany is still possible. Given the widespread feeling that general theory is both essential and unattainable, I shall focus my report, as well as my suggestions, on general theory.

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