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Here in Oerlinghausen at Bielefeld lives Niklas Luhmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld, 46 years old, a few years ago only an insider tip for professional sociologists, but today (1973) certainly one of the most influential and most discussed sociologists of the Federal Republic. Luhmann intends to transfer the systems theory, which has already been successfully applied, for example, in the field of technology and biology, on society.
In numerous publications he has presented his theory, which wants to understand the society in general and should be applicable to all social sections. In this universal claim it is only comparable with Marxism today. The discussion of the Marxist Jürgen Habermas with Luhmann, which appeared two years ago, opened an already very fruitful discussion, which reflects the current status of possible social theory,
but which is also performed in such an abstract language, that it is barely visible what the dispute is about. Boehm: Professor Luhmann, you have presented in numerous publications very complicated approaches to a comprehensive systems theory of society. If we now try to develop an idea in a short conversation what systems theory in your sense means and what it achieves,
we must obviously restrict to a few general remarks. But could you possibly try to indicate the basic approach once briefly, the basic problems of the theory. Luhmann: Yes, that is possible. Any modern systems theory starts with the difference of system and environment. In the social field there are a variety of such systems. For example, families, schools, political parties, business firms, the judiciary, and so on.
And environment of each of those systems is anything else. The environment is not only the natural environment, but also the variety of actual people with their different personalities and finally each other social system. By using this notion, the difference of system and environment, you can analyze now, how systems change (social system, the same is true for mental system)
in relation to their environment, an environment that constantly changes too. Boehm: Is there not already a difficulty for systems theory when system and environment constantly are changing? Could then there be clearly identified system boundaries? Luhmann: Yes, this is possible, because such boundaries are defined by the systems themselves.
That means, that not science constructs such systems, but each acting people organize themselves to particular social systems. You know, for example, whether you just drive tram or whether you play Skat (german card game), whether you participate in a political choice or whether you are at work in the office or with your family for dinner. And in each case you abide by certain rules of the system and know the system boundaries. You know for sure, what you can not do here in that fashion.
Boehm: And how does it come to boundary changes of such systems? Luhmann: Even that is only possible, because the actors are oriented to a difference of system and environment. The difference of family and school, for example, everyone who is involved is aware about that and that is what allows gradual shifting boundaries and constant adaptation of change.
Here, for example, in the sense that parents will increasingly demand that they have to look up and control the school work of their children, perhaps at the expense of family peace, and to relieve the school system and to enable higher performance and requirements on the part of teachers. Boehm: This leads us to the concept of complexity, which is indeed a basic problem, a basic concept in your theory.
Complexity, so you think, is that the world provides more and more opportunities then separate social systems could pick up. So systems have the function to reduce complexity. What is the meaning of this much-quoted phrase "reduction of complexity" for the systems theory? Luhmann: Yes, reductions are at first simply requirements for experience and action.
You can not experience everything at once or perform any conceivable actions. There must be always something excluded and that is the result of system formation. So that is what I had just described, as I said you know if you drive tram or play Skat. The concept of complexity allows a comparison of system and environment, like a theoretical bridge between the difference.
You can always say, that the environment is more complex than the system itself. And then, after that, you can examine how various sets of systems adjust, under different social conditions, on this gradient of complexity between environment and system. Boehm: This process of adaptation of the system to complexity consequently leads to an increasingly complex society, an increasingly complex system in the whole society, which can provide more and more opportunities of experience and action.
The systems theory does claim now, in today's highly complex society, to provide the only adequate universal explanation. Luhmann: I have to intervene "the only adequate". No scientist can claim to have the only correct theory. It can only matter that the systems theory is universally applicable to all social circumstances.
It is inevitable that the instruments must differentiate themselves on several levels and the concept of system offers this benefit directly. You can assume systems in a very comprehensive sense and you can repeat within comprehensive systems, such as within whole societies, the analysis of systems for subsystems. The general systems theory claims to be applicable to any social circumstance.
For example, even on a Skat game or an interview, like this one here. The application on the comprehensive system of society, that includes all human relationships, is a special case, which requires special analytical instruments. Of course the most important special case and downright the test case of the universal applicability of systems theory. Cause as more complex the circumstances, as more difficult the theoretical analysis.
Boehm: Which are in the context of the systems theory the typical characteristics of modern societies? Luhmann: For modern societies is significant, in contrast to archaic or early high civilizations, that the main principle of differentiation is a functional. That means the subsystems are formed under each different points of view,
not as family besides family and village next to the village, but politics on the one side, the economy on the other side, research, military, education, in each case arranged as a specific subsystem with specific functions. And modern society differs especially in the depth of sharpness, how these functional differentiations occur.
Boehm: In this context, you also require that the language of science needs to be reformulated to meet the needs of this new form of social systems. You demand that concepts like truth and reason, that shaped the self-understanding of the people and their social order, to be newly functionally defined. What does that mean in the context of the systems theory and which consequences follow?
Luhmann: Yes, these concepts are coinages from a time far back in social development. The older social systems had a much more direct relationship to reality, a much more direct relationship to the possibility of human knowledge of social reality in a broader religious cosmos.
That's why it was imaginable there, that the truth is generally the cause of human reason and substantially located in the mind of man that recognizes the reality. For today's very complex society, this approach is... let's say... has become unrealistic. It is carried off as a moral myth or as a basis for defining logical theories too.
But it seems to me, that we have to formulate more abstractly an adequate social theory of truth for complex societies, may in the sense of a code of rules, which transfers reductions of experience from one to others. Boehm: You write at one point of your engagement with Jürgen Habermas, that reasonability is nothing more than the implementation of structural system requirements in the rules of role
that are being monitored and sanctioned in the system. Doesn't this still mean, as your critics have expressed, that the systems theory abstains to specify standards for the reason or unreason of a social order, that it abstains the assessment, if and who benefits from or is harmed by a social system, whether it be democratic or fascistic?
Because the systems theory refers to no ratings and has no clear position for those systems, and if everything will be analyzed in terms of how a system becomes stable and remains functional, then could be also political terror or murder excused from this perspective. Luhmann: I think the criticism, that you reflect accurately, is too general.
You have to distinguish two things. First, it is true that the systems theory does not emanate with given, natural or morally, absolutely predetermined external variables, instances or criteria, but assumes that all scales of the assessment of action are formulated in the society itself and at once written as an abstraction to its heaven, even although it is changing with the development of society.
You can reach greater depth of sharpness and a more nuanced difference to an analysis, if you do not measure only in absolute scales, but examine the consequences, extreme values in the direction to terror, in the direction of a certain political side of the sytem, in relation on other, or about matters of capital collections, in matters of socialization for civilized behavior, in matters of law instruments, and so on.
This means that systems theory would be politically effective in that sense, if it criticizes, uncovers, disscusses the consequences of certain extreme assumptions in the field of politics. Boehm: Is there not an indecision over political issues, which makes it just possible that system theoretical research can be utilized for all political goals,
including the justification and stabilization of existing power relations, as a new ideology of a technocratic society? Luhmann: Yes, the systems theory has no immanent barriers against political usage, against use or abuse. How should such barriers even look like? The control of politics and the question whether the authority has to be stabilized or not, which I think is still a scientific question,
must be achieved in the political system, namely in concrete detail. We (researchers) can not be every day in Bonn (former capital of germany). Boehm: Professor Luhmann, which critics of your systems theory you fear the most? Luhmann: The stupid ones. Philosophy Today (1989) Narrator: Wackersdorf - opponents of nuclear power and the state meet.
From the ecology crisis arise a social crisis. The local climate is hostile. Violence escalates. Luhmann: For our society firstly it seems to be a matter of risk, that is assessed differently and different values. And ultimately the question, how to come to a reasonable solution. A question that can be answered only really political, or which is a requirement for social theory. How we make our own society understandable?
Narrator: It is reasonable to protect the lives of future generations. But it is also reasonable to defend the state of law. So we struggle over the reason. But somehow we have to learn to get along with that society, writes Niklas Luhmann. There is no other in sight. Observer in the crow's nest Niklas Luhmann on ecological debate
Report by Thomas Strauch Narrator: Since 20 years the ecology concers the public opinion. Drastically the environmentalists draw attention to their subject. With flyers, petitions and over again with big events they put a warning finger at the open wound ecology, unforgivingly is their protest, maximum their demand.
Luhmann: On the one hand is certainly important that the social movements draw attention to issues, which otherwise would not, or not as fast and not so drasticly be presented. And for this they need a certain amount of exaggeration, there is a certain distinctness, a certain narrow-gauged topic of their interest, nuclear power and nothing else, peace and nothing else.
That they need to have followers. But on the other hand you have to see, that from there, they are not able to govern the society, and they can not expect that the society cares only for their topic now. There must be a way of mediating the targets of such movement through the press, through political parties, into a more balanced social discussion.
Narrator: Is after Chernobyl a balanced social discussion still possible? Is it not understandable, indeed required to be morally outraged? The civilization was never very considerate with the nature. New is the anxiety-causing understanding that the modern society could ruin itself by destruction of nature. But too fast simple solutions are appearing. What is dangerous, you should avoid. You just need to find the guilty and then bring them to justice.
In the swampy terrain of the ecological problem the moral should demonstrate the saving way. But are its fundaments reliable at all? Luhmann: So if you introduce moral into a communicative relationship, then you judge not only good and the bad stay off, but you make a difference, a distinction. That is good and this is bad. So that you always have to ask: When is it appropriate to make such a distinction? When is it appropriate to sort people into the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats?
And my point is, that in modern society, it is increasingly rare, that situations are really promoted, developed or can be handled, if you moralize. That means we have to extract a lot of questions and many distinctions out of the thematic field of morale, and that is related to the structure of modern society, with its complexity, with the variety of guiding distinctions in business, in law, in politics, in religion, in sports, healthcare and so on.
These guiding distinctions, like healthy / sick, government / reigned or government / opposition, can not always be pressed into a moral scheme, so that real moralizing is only an auxiliary technique, which is at the same time a feverish immune response of the society for problems they can not solve otherwise. And as physicians know, fever is not undangerous.
Narrator: The dangers of moral has been not really worked out by academic ethics. In reality, so Luhmann provocative, moral is in any event something different than the philosophers think. Luhmann: This type of ethics has a considerable distance to what you can observe in daily life as a moral or moralizing.
There it is simply about, that people express their respect and disrespect, and always so, that if they disrespect someone, that they set standards, which should be observed by the other, but this should also apply to the speaker itself. If you say so, life is our highest value and disregard all who disagree, then is that moralizing.
In this sense, it is easy to see that moralizing is not a completely harmless case. And it does not ever proceed consistent rules and interpretations and reasonable, peaceful discourse, but it is a fierce and quarrelsome matter. Because when I say I respect you only if you are of this opinion, which i think is right, and otherwise I do not respect you.
Then of course, once a dissent occurred, the conflict is near. How can you get your respect expressed unless through stronger means? Narrator: Luhmann do not criticize the exemplary people. He doubts only that there are equal binding moral values in modern society. Luhmann: To the typical problems, where you can hardly find moral or ethical regulated consensus, belong risk problems.
These are problems in which consists uncertainty about future damages and the uncertainty is attributed to the decision makers. If I did not build a certain industrial plant, it would not come to that problem. If I did not take a particular drug, it would not come to the side-effects. And so on, you can say this in all situations. If I did not drive a car, I would not be exposed to the danger of an accident.
All over this type of risk issues inceases, while in the old world everything was more determined by dangers, that came quite from the outside and which you concerned, whether you wanted it or not and whether you did something or not. So that modern society is designated with good reason as a risk society. Narrator: For sports fans water ski jumping is not a big risk. The unsportsmanlike sees it differently.
Smoking and driving is statistically more lethal than previously ascertainable environmental changes. And still for millions is the reach for a cigarette or the road traffic a acceptable risk. During water skiing, smoking and at the steering wheel, people have the feeling to have everything under control. A feeling that, if it comes to drinking water, only chemist of big industry have, but not the citizens, who cook their coffee with this water every day.
About limit values and reasonability decide the experts, the people concerned are not initially asked. The powerlessness of the citizens seeks vainly in the moral outrage a valve. Luhmann: Given this risk problem, you have to wonder, what ethic or the moral communication can contribute to solve such problems.
I would say first of all, nothing. At least, I see no possibility to communicate effectively about cases, where great damages are very improbable, and the corresponding actions are useful, even if not very much, but it brings ongoing advantages, nuclear power or some chemical stuff. Obviously there are no ethical rules, as far as we have previously discussed.
And similar other problems in ethics are hardly addressed, in the academic ethics anyway, and unresolved. For example, the problem is, that we can cause with good will serious consequences, as politician, like French Revolution. Or conversely, that you can create welfare with pure selfishness and market economy. Prosperity for all, creating jobs, and that made by the interest of profit.
Well this contrariness of good intentions and bad consequences or selfish intentions and good consequences exceed the canon of the traditional ethics. The risk problem is another case. And finally, the quarrelsome of morale, the overheated moral communication leads to fight, like Wackersdorf (nuclear reprocessing plant).
Also questions, that are not addressed in ethics, so that ethics should actually make a decision about when a moralization is expedient, appropriate, useful or socially fit and when not. So ethics should learn to advise against moral. Narrator: Niklas Luhmann the observer of society in the lookout of science,
is since 1968 professor at the Univerity of Bielefeld. For the fully qualified lawyer, sociology was a career rebirth. Unusually, the switch into science. In 1966 he earned his doctorate in social sciences and habilitated in the same year in sociology. Become known is the lateral thinker by his enhancements of systems theory.
According to Luhmann the society is divided into innumerable social systems. With this theory of society he claims to capture the social reality deeply sharp. A central key to the world of ideas of the systems theory is the idea, that systems are always defined in relation to their environment. Luhmann: I just want to start from a point of view, that it's all about the difference of system and environment.
So not about a technical object, where are many other things besides, but always about the question of how a unit responds to everything else, which boundaries are formed and how boundaries filtering information from the environment, which are then processed and experienced as information in the system.
You look with any system at the whole world, but always divided by the difference of system and environment. If you apply that to a society and especially on modern society, then you have the question: What actually constitutes the boundary of the society? How the society bounded to anything else? And here is the decisive step, to take the society no longer as an entirety of people into society, with their many organical, psychological, chemical and physical properties,
but to say the society is just communication. It consists only of communication, and if the communication continues, continues the society. And from there, you can see now, how by differentiation in society, more new autonomous communicative units were formed. So, for example the economy, as soon as you communicate via money, is all, what is connected with this, economical.
And society had trouble to learn, that you can not buy salvation, can not buy friends, can not buy political offices. The communication isolates money for specific economic purposes. But then unfold enormous complexity, enormous fertility by markets, production companies, market-oriented production techniques, market-based manpower, and so on.
The whole thing is always constructed on a system-environment difference and always with a clear designation of the operation that draws these boundaries, strengthens, reproduced, and then within these boundaries it builds systems. It has a very strong historical perspective that thinking. You can see then, how systems differentiated, how the pattern of differentiation changes.
So from city / country or aristocracy / people to here business, there law, there policy, medicine there, that means functional differentiation. Narrator: The history of man begins, even in the theory of Luhmann, with primitive societies. Families and clans live in manageable areas. Only a few people need to be fed. One reason for the stable balance of nature and man.
With the early advanced civilizations the societies evolved into hierarchical order. A few aristocrats and priests at the top ruling the great language and cult units. The Seven Wonders of the World have been created so. Intervening in nature has been even at that time, karst formation in the Mediterranean made in ancient times prove this man-made environmental changes.
Even the european middle age is one of this class of hierarchical societies. Since modern times, researchers and philosophers focused mostly the view on the economy, when they want to explain our modern world. Out of manufactories emerged the industry. The bourgeois capitalist economic activity is the cause of social change. Luhmann extends the analysis to all other sectors of society.
He sees not only the industrial revolution, even the science, the politics, the law, education, religion and the healthcare develop into major independent and autonomous parts of the system, which Luhmann calls subsystems. Sample politics: politics moves the world, so the public opinion. Out of the ranks of alternative movements emerged the Green Party.
For several years the Greens are gaining parliamentary influence. Government participation is not excluded. What they can effect in the government? Luhmann: Yes, a green government, for example, can change the political data for the economy, for the law, for family life. They can make political acts, that prohibit certain production technologies, but they can not reach, that this is well economically.
They can not reach, that capital remains still in the country, that the economy flourish, nevertheless that the workers are employed in anyway. So all other effects in the economy are once again economic effects. Narrator: The bourse is the barometer of the economy. Polical decisions are incorporated sensitive here. What in politics appears as economically sensible, can trigger a landslide here.
Are the sales revenues of companies consumed by environmental requirements, the companies go bust. So unemployment is a consequence of the ecological crisis. This risk has to be included by politics, when it tries to take influence on the economic. The economy, as all subsystems, is even a closed system, that has only a few environmental sensors. In the system the rules are inexorable.
A central regulation that coordinates the subsystems of society, does not exist. Even the morale will not achieve this task. Luhmann advertises instead for a better understanding of the real circumstances. The politicians not to keep for charlatans, the judges not to keep as accomplices and the bosses of business in their financial palaces not to isolate like the environmental enemy Nummero one.
Niklas Luhmann travels the world in matters of systemtheory. In Rome he speaks to Italian socialists. In Italy, he sets up a research institute for risk. That same day, he teaches in the University of Vienna on risk and danger. Again, the appeal to consider without moral attitude the social consequences of the ecological threat.
There is no indication, that our society finds a quick fix. Maybe people need to give up their romantic ideal of an intact nature and say farewell. Back to an earlier stage of society, the trail did not lead. Which other society than the Modern could feed the countless people? Even in the third world will only the expansion of the subsystems satisfy the hunger and even there are the consequences for the environment to be almost inevitable.
A vicious cycle, the growth of the economy, the academic freedom, the right of education, the power of the state. These are the engines of the boundless claims of the subsystems. Faced with an uncertain future emotions arise. Fear dominates then the thinking of many people. But who is in the swamp, should not pedaling. Headless moralizing increases the danger.
Only with distance, using the tools of the theories will be opportunities for corrections. Theories themselfs are not the solution, but they point on ways and warn against dangers. Absolute certainty remains an impossible dream for theorists too. Luhmann: As thus risk society, I'm first of all assume that risks are inevitable.
That means whenever decisions may have negative consequences, emerge a risk for the decision maker. And so forth with the fact, that others are affected by decisions, which they have not co-decided. So that the risk is experienced as coming from outside and as dangerous. Deciding is necessary and at the same time dangerous to others.
And that's the point as I do not see how to solve the discrepancy between unavoidable risky decisions and consternation by means of an ethical rule. It seems to me, that it demands on especially politics, at least in the this situation, and even on the law. For example, the law has to prohibit or permit certain activities, without knowing whether it will be ultimately harmful or not.
The final decision is the harmful will be prohibited, the useful will be permited. Because you do not know it yet, you have to decide now, in anyway. And therefor it must develop law figures. The law must learn from the problem and evolve or redefine specific categories, such as intent or negligence. For example, this is a case, that you will hardly allocate to the legislation, it must be juridical craftsmanship.
And so in all functional systems. In which functional system you look, the problems of risk just take on a different coloration. But ultimately all goes back to, that we can choose a lot more, can effect a lot more, and thus can generate a lot of uncertain future. And I imagine, that in the current situation, the question always runs towards politics and that we
put the liberal constitutional state, as well as the social welfare state, under new political demands, when we say, you have to balance between the necessary risks and consternation and accept the risk of a political decision to hurt some or another. But not simultaneously to increasing the people's welfare and raise a total of something good for all.
That's a different situation than the concepts of freedom of the liberal constitutional state, which always emanate from that, that you you could act freely without harming other. This case does not exist. The whole premise of the liberal constitutional state is gone, this does not exist under a risk perspective. A behavior always harms other potentially. And even the welfare state, in which it was simply about distribution of good things, has been coming unrealistic in reference to this risk situation.
This does not mean, that these establishments could be abolished, but there are coming new problems for politics. This is a test for democracy in a way, if we can accomplish that. Narrator: In Oerlinghausen near Bielefeld lives Niklas Luhmann. Here he wrote most of his more than 30 books. One of the most advanced social theories created without expensive modern technology, does not need a computer.
The old-fashioned Zettelkasten (notebox) holds the secret of the imensen productivity. On tens of thousands of notes Luhmann has been collecting for over 35 years every important idea. Luhmann: So here I have made a note in the University while reading essays.
On one side are the biographical details, on the other are notes about the occasion of this review. Now I'm going to incorporate the notes into the Zettelkasten. Not only the quotes or passages, that I would have to copy me otherwise, but which thoughts comes to my mind and in what context.
The consideration here, for example, is about artificial intelligence, about problem schema, about a decision-theoretic analysis, which will be applied to the theory of science. I have identify the notes, which are elements of the theory of science, which is always the number 7,25. Then I have seen here, what I had written down, so I have noted this here and now I bring it back in the Zettelkasten.
I always have to be careful with the right place, if they are once lost, then their rediscovering needs luck. So I got here. No, that's another location. Here's the place. Then I check always, if it is at the correct location, because that is the big problem here.
And this comes back again too, which I had initially sought out first, because I wanted to place it somewhere else. That comes here. Narrator: The theories of Niklas Luhmann be heavily criticized by experts in part. To conservative his worldview. It lacks of a goal, of a social utopia. Other count his work already to the modern classics.
What can the individual, the theorist effect? Luhmann: Theories are indeed primarily intended to control the science itself, to redirect, to instruct, to encouraging or to cancel the research. It is therefore an internal scientific institution and it would be absurd to imagine, that the whole society can be brought onto a level of theoretical intelligibility and to solve the problems then much better.
Other hand, there are emanate effects beyond words, via clichés, even via empirical data, quantitative data, for example, changes over stratosphere-debate, such as the ozone hole, and so on. The scientific measurements plays a role, not even the theory behind these measurements, but their measurement results. And so I can imagine, that sociology has a task to give an idea, how complex the modern society is and what you all must have in mind, before you finally and above all do a hard and critical judgment.
Narrator: How an observer in the lookout of a sailing vessel, also called crow's nest, the theorist sees more than the people in real life. More theory instead moral, is no ready recipe, but a warning.
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