Law as a Social System (2004)

Modern systems theory provides a new paradigm for the analysis of society. In this volume, Niklas Luhmann, its leading exponent, explores its implications for our understanding of law.
Luhmann argues that current thinking about how law operates within a modern society is seriously deficient. In this volume he lays out the theoretical and methodological tools that, he argues, can advance our understanding of contemporary society and, in particular, of the identity, performance, and function of the legal system within that society. In systems theory, society is its communications: they are its empirical reality; the items that can be observed and studied. Systems theory identifies how communications operate within a physical world and how different sub-systems of communication operate alongside each other.
    In this volume, Luhmann uses systems theory to address a question central to legal theory: what differentiates law from other parts of society? However, unlike conventional legal theory, this volume seeks to provide an answer in terms of a general social theory: a methodology that answers this question in a manner applicable not only to law, but also to all the other complex and highly differentiated systems within modern society, such as politics, the economy, religion, the media, and education. This truly sociological approach offers profound insights into the relationships between law and all of these other social systems.

1: The Location of Legal Theory
2: The Operative Closure of the Legal System
3: The Function of Law
4: Coding and Programming
5: Justice: a Formula for Contingency
6: The Evolution of Law
7: The Position of Courts in the Legal System
8: Legal Argumentation
9: Politics and Law
10: Structural Couplings
11: The Self-description of the Legal System
12: Society and its Law


The Reality of the Mass Media (2000)

In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann extends his theory of social systems—applied in his earlier works to the economy, the political system, art, religion, the sciences, and law—to an examination of the role of mass media in the construction of social reality.
    Luhmann argues that the system of mass media is a set of recursive, self-referential programs of communication, whose functions are not determined by the external values of truthfulness, objectivity, or knowledge, nor by specific social interests or political directives. Rather, he contends that the system of mass media is regulated by the internal code information/noninformation, which enables the system to select its information (news) from its own environment and to communicate this information in accordance with its own reflexive criteria.
Despite its self-referential quality, Luhmann describes the mass media as one of the key cognitive systems of modern society, by means of which society constructs the illusion of its own reality. The reality of mass media, he argues, allows societies to process information without destabilizing social roles or overburdening social actors. It forms a broad reservoir (memory) of options for the future coordination of action, and it provides parameters for the stabilization of political reproduction of society, as it produces a continuous self-description of the world around which modern society can orient itself.
    In his discussion of mass media, Luhmann elaborates a theory of communication in which communication is seen not as the act of a particular consciousness, nor the medium of integrative social norms, but merely the technical codes through which systemic operations arrange and perpetuate themselves.


A Systems Theory of Religion (2013)
A Systems Theory of Religion, still unfinished at Niklas Luhmann’s death in 1998, was first published in German two years later thanks to the editorial work of André Kieserling. One of Luhmann’s most important projects, it exemplifies his later work while redefining the subject matter of the sociology of religion. Religion, for Luhmann, is one of the many functionally differentiated social systems that make up modern society. All such subsystems consist entirely of communications and all are “autopoietic,” which is to say, self-organizing and self-generating. Here, Luhmann explains how religion provides a code for coping with the complexity, opacity, and uncontrollability of our world. Religion functions to make definite the indefinite, to reconcile the immanent and the transcendent.
    Synthesizing approaches as disparate as the philosophy of language, historical linguistics, deconstruction, and formal systems theory/cybernetics, A Systems Theory of Religion takes on important topics that range from religion’s meaning and evolution to secularization, turning decades of sociological assumptions on their head. It provides us with a fresh vocabulary and a fresh philosophical and sociological approach to one of society’s most fundamental phenomena.

“This posthumously published book by Niklas Luhmann is arguably one of the most important works in the sociology and philosophy of religion of the last hundred years. It can only be compared in significance and scope to the works of Rudolf Otto, Mary Douglas, René Girard, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is not just original, but also generative and indispensable: future discussions will have to refer to it, and it will become de rigueur and uncircumventable.”
—Eduardo Mendieta, Stony Brook University

“Don’t be afraid: this book does not preach atheism. This book is not about the existential concerns of one individual. Rather, it approaches religion as a system as vital to society as those of the economy, law, and love. Luhmann shows what makes religion unique to society, its special capacity to guarantee meaning even when meaning defies obvious verification. This book is a further step in Luhmann’s general theory of society, a theory that remains unsurpassed as an approach to our times.”
—Nikolaus Wegmann, Princeton University


Art as a Social System (2000)
This is the definitive analysis of art as a social and perceptual system by Germany’s leading social theorist of the late twentieth century. It not only represents an important intellectual step in discussions of art—in its rigor and in its having refreshingly set itself the task of creating a set of distinctions for determining what counts as art that could be valid for those creating as well as those receiving art works—but it also represents an important advance in systems theory.
    Returning to the eighteenth-century notion of aesthetics as pertaining to the “knowledge of the senses,” Luhmann begins with the idea that all art, including literature, is rooted in perception. He insists on the radical incommensurability between psychic systems (perception) and social systems (communication). Art is a special kind of communication that uses perceptions instead of language. It operates at the boundary between the social system and consciousness in ways that profoundly irritate communication while remaining strictly internal to the social.
    In seven densely argued chapters, Luhmann develops this basic premise in great historical and empirical detail. Framed by the general problem of art’s status as a social system, each chapter elaborates, in both its synchronic and diachronic dimensions, a particular aspect of this problem. The consideration of art within the context of a theory of second-order observation leads to a reconceptualization of aesthetic form. The remaining chapters explore the question of the system’s code, its function, and its evolution, concluding with an analysis of “self-description.”
    Art as a Social System draws on a vast body of scholarship, combining the results of three decades of research in the social sciences, phenomenology, evolutionary biology, cybernetics, and information theory with an intimate knowledge of art history, literature, aesthetics, and contemporary literary theory. The book also engages virtually every major theorist of art and aesthetics from Baumgarten to Derrida.

Art as a Social System deserves to be read as a brilliant synthesis of every major philosophy of art, from Baumgarten to Kristeva, and as an ambitious attempt to understand art history in its entirety. . . . It seems inevitable that North American academics in the humanities will soon confront this challenging work.” —Literary Research / Recherche Litteraire

“Thus, what is most interesting about Luhmann’s view of art is also what is most interesting about his general theory: its sophisticated and elaborate explorations in the evolutionary development of the media of communication, which are perhaps unparalleled in contemporary theory.” —American Journal of Sociology

“This book is a pleasure to read. It is literate, informed, unpretentious, and patient…The book is a spectacular example of one anthropologist’s selection of the technical world as an object of study after generations of sociocultural anthropologists’ bias against the same.” —ISIS


Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (1998)
“I believe that Luhmann is the only true genius in the social sciences alive today. By this, I mean that not only is he smart, extremely productive, and amazingly erudite, though all this is true enough, but also that he has, in the course of an improbable career, elaborated a theory of the social that completely reinvents sociology and destroys its most cherished dogmas.” So wrote Stephen Fuchs in his Contemporary Sociology review of Luhmann’s major theoretical work, Social Systems (Stanford, 1995). In this volume, Luhmann analyzes the evolution of love in Western Europe from the seventeenth century to the present.

“Luhmann’s unique, monumental, theory-building effort is best described as a consistent attempt to deploy the tools and the inspirations of three strategies: modern information theory, structuralism, and evolutionary theory. … Perhaps nothing conveys more poignantly Luhmann’s unusual blend of scientific precision with artistic sensibility than his replacement of Parson’s ‘reciprocity of perspective’ with his own ‘interpersonal interpenetration.’ The first is cool, calculating, cognitive, and dispassionate; the second connotes a richness of relationship that leaves no human faculty unmoved. … Luhmann’s work is important because, arguably, it comes closer than all other sociological strategies to restoring the lost link between academically reputable social theorizing and the subjective experience of life.” —American Journal of Sociology

“There is a dearth of analytical writing about the emotions and sentiments that seem to motivate most human action, at least in everyday discussion, although some researchers are making some efforts to remedy this situation. Luhmann’s Love as Passion is an outstanding contribution to this emerging trend . . . full of novel information and fascinating ideas.” —Contemporary Sociology


Political Theory in the Welfare State (1990)

1. The Representation of Society within Society
2. Political Theory in the Welfare State
3. State and Politics: Towards a Semantics of the Self-Description of Political Systems
4. Societal Foundations of Power: Increase and Distribution
5. The Theory of Political Opposition
6. Two Sides of the State Founded on Law
7. Societal Complexity and Public Opinion
8. Participation and Legitimation: The Ideas and the Experiences
9. The Future of Democaracy


A Sociological Theory of Law (1985)

1. Classical Beginnings of the Sociology of Law
2. The Development of Law: Foundation of a Sociological Theory
3. Law as Structure of Society
4. Positive Law
5. Social Change through Positive Law


Problems of Reflection in the System of Education (2000)
with Karl-Eberhard Schorr

1. Contingency and Autonomy
2. Pedagogy between Technique and Reflection
3. Equality and Social Selection
4. Reflection in the Establishment