Response to a Critique


At the risk of coming off as a dogmatic disciple who rushes to the defense any time someone dares to criticizes his “master,” I wanted to respond to an article that probably represents a fairly common view of Luhmann’s work.

In “Autopoiesis and Knowledge in Self-Sustaining Organizational Systems,” Hall and Nousala (2015) argue,

Luhmann fundamentally misunderstood Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis by thinking that the self-observation necessary for self-maintenance formed a paradoxically vicious circle. Luhmann tried to resolve this apparent paradox by placing the communication networks on an imaginary plane orthogonal to the networked people. However, Karl Popper’s evolutionary epistemology and the theory of hierarchically complex systems turns what Luhmann thought was a vicious circle into a virtuous spiral of organizational learning and knowledge. There is no closed circle that needs to be explained via Luhmann’s extraordinarily paradoxical linguistic contortions.

And later, speaking of Popper’s work, they write,

This biophysically based approach to understanding organizational knowledge and cognition competes directly with Nicklas [sic] Luhmann’s esoteric use of autopoiesis in the development of his social systems.

But to call Luhmann works “esoteric” doesn’t get us very far. Is Luhmann’s work difficult? Of course. But I wouldn’t call it esoteric. They proceed to present long, context-free examples of Luhmann’s “vacuous” language. OK, it’s fine if you don’t like his prose style, but that’s not a reason to casually dismiss three of decades of meticulous, highly regarded work. Luhmann’s work is abstract, but it must be abstract in order to be generalizable to every kind of social system. Moreover, the misspelling of Luhmann’s first name suggests that the authors haven’t bothered to read Luhmann very closely.

They go on to confess that they

make no claim to fully understand Luhmann’s paradoxically convoluted expression. To us his style of recursive self-negation seems semantically vacuous.

It appears that Hall and Nousa either do not understand Luhmann’s work or have dismissed it entirely without reading much of it, when they assert that

organizations and other social systems [are] comprised of people and the tools and machines that extend the physical and cognitive capacities of people and organizations.

Luhmann argued over and over that social systems do not consist of people, but communication and only communication. As I’ve said in other blog posts, in systems theory all systems are formed through a system/environment distinction, and psychic (consciousness, attention) systems and biological systems belong to the environment of social systems.

While these statements might seem like “extraordinarily paradoxical linguistic contortions,” these claims are fairly easy to support.

For example, communication depends on adequate cerebral blood flow, yet when we talk to each other we don’t exchange brains, and pages of written text are not covered in cerebral blood. Adequate cerebral blood flow is a precondition for an author to sit upright at a desk and write something; however, as Luhmann nicely puts it, “An editor would reject an essay that came in a flood of blood”  (Intro 191). This means that a functioning brain is a necessary precondition for communication, but at the same time the brain and its blood are absolutely excluded from communication. To put this another way, as soon as an utterance has been made and understood by someone, even if “misunderstood,” the speaker has completely lost control over the information. The information enters into the communication system and is only answerable to further communication. That is to say, sentences spoken or written can remain in a communication system long after the  speaker or writer leaves the scene, as long as they are repeated or recur in further utterances–that is, as long as they are reproduced.

It’s true that some human consciousness has to be around to keep the sentence in communicative circulation; however, human consciousness (waking, attentive minds) are plentiful and easily replaced.

A further issue is that by mentioning “people” so many times, Hall and Nousa betray their anthropocentric worldview, which is inconsistent with modern systems theory as well as with important contemporary philosophical projects (e.g.,  object-oriented ontology).

But a perhaps more serious problem is that Hall and Nousa base their critique of Luhmann’s work on an ancient whole/part distinction by which society is treated as a whole with people as the parts, much like a trivial machine that operates according to a simple input-output model. And this whole/part distinction is entirely consistent the authors’ stratified, hierarchical worldview, as revealed by their statement on “Karl Popper’s evolutionary epistemology and the theory of hierarchically complex systems.” But there is nothing hierarchical about evolution. There is no top or bottom or great chain of being; moreover, I don’t know how “complex,” autopoietic systems can be hierarchical.

According to Hall and Nousala,

Autopoiesis defines life as “circularly organized” or “operationally closed” complex dissipative entities with the autonomous capacity to self-produce components they need for life and able to observe themselves to apply self-regulating feedback in the face of perturbations that might otherwise cause them to disintegrate.

And later,

Maturana and Varela recognized that living things (i.e., autopoietic systems) are thermodynamically driven assemblies of components that have within them the autonomous capacity to produce all the components they require to continue their

The problem with these statement is that they don’t at all apply to Luhmann’s theory of society. His work is not limited to living, organic systems, as in Maturana’s biological conception of autopoiesis. Luhmann’s theory is not primarily about organic systems, or systems that have a “need for life.” Nor do social systems consist of “assemblies of components”–that is, parts. Luhmann’s work goes far beyond “living things.” Luhmann took Maturna’s work in biology, particular his concept of autopoiesis, and extended it into sociology; he wasn’t just interpreting or commenting on Maturana’s theories (as I seem to be doing with Luhmann!). Luhmann found that he couldn’t account for modern social systems with a biologically based theory; nor was the systems theory from the 1950s-60s, such as the work of Luhmann’s mentor Talcott Parsons, sufficient. Thus, in addition to the work of Maturana, he leaned very heavily George Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form.  As stated above in the remarks on brains and blood, it is true that social systems do depend on life, or organic systems; however, society is not a biological system; it’s a communication system.

The dependence of society on life or consciousness has to do with the concept of structural coupling. Social systems are structurally coupled with consciousness, and consciousness is structurally coupled with organic, living bodies; that is to say, consciousness is the precondition of communication and organic life is the precondition of consciousness, yet communication/social systems remain autonomous from both. Social systems are dependent on consciousness but also independent of consciousness; that is to say, any autonomous system that couples with something else must also decouple, and communication decouples from consciousness. Autopoietic systems evolve through structural coupling, among other operations.

In other words, structural coupling is characterized by simultaneous dependence and exclusion. For instance, in the realm of communication, the meaning attributed to a sentence cannot depend on what the speaker was thinking or intending when she spoke the sentence. Nor can the meaning depend on the blood pressure or cholesterol numbers of the speaker (or any other conditions of the organic body). A communication system simply cannot be concerned with all that. As Luhmann puts it, “After all, it is completely unthinkable that communication would have to consider everything that happens physically, chemically, or biologically within all the participants of communication” (Intro 199). In other words, communication decouples from communicators and their private thought and intentions. And if it did not decouple, it could never function as a communication system.

Thus, to argue, following Hall and Nousa, that society consists of people with their brains and cerebral blood and beating hearts (and their tools and machines) would be to reduce society to biology (and technology). But if we go this far, we need to go ahead and reduce biology to chemistry and chemistry to physics, and so on, till we arrive at some fundamental reality, or mythic origin without an origin.




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