Luhmannian Theory is Holistic?

Poe Yu-ze Wan (2010), in “Systems Theory: Irredeemably Holistic and Antithetical to Planning?” mistakenly describes Luhmannian theory as holistic, or has having “holistic leanings.” As he argues,

The holistic leanings of Luhmann’s theory and its pessimistic attitude towards any form of human intervention into social systems have therefore inclined radical social theorists to distance themselves from systems thinking tout court.

Critical Sociology 37(3). 351–374

I wouldn’t call Luhmannian theory pessimistic or optimistic because these are moral evaluations, not scientific statements. He is talking about good and bad, not true and false. He implies that, when it comes to theory, what is good for human beings matters. Sure, it human welfare does matter, but not for science. Science only knows true and false.

In the abstract, Wan states,

I argue for a systems approach that is ontologically sound (that is to say, transcending both holism and individualism), with due consideration given to the role of human actors in designing, maintaining, improving, repairing or dismantling social systems.

But the main problem with Wan’s argument seems to be that he is thinking in terms of wholes and parts rather than systems and environments.  Wan suggests that Luhmann argued that people were parts of society and, for Luhmann, as parts or components human beings have no agency. According to Wan,

The defining feature of holism is the view that ‘the whole precedes and dominates the part, as a consequence of which the former is more valuable than the latter’ (Bunge, 2003a: 101; see also Bunge, 2000a: 399). Therefore a holist typically ‘tackles every system as a whole, and refuses to analyze it into its composition, environment, structure, and mechanism’ (Bunge, 2001: 43),3 and is reluctant to explain emergent properties of a system (at least in part) as the interaction of its component parts. Manifest in Luhmann’s construal of ‘emergence’ is accordingly a strictly holistic approach. (352)

For Luhmannian theory, there are no component parts because all such “parts” would be have to understood as unified entities. But for Luhmann, there are only differences (system/environment differences), not unified entities that persist in time and space. Anything that looks like an unified entity is a dynamic system that is reproducing itself from moment to moment. Luhmannian theory is anti-ontological.

There is also nothing about domination of whole over parts in Luhmannian theory.

Wan seems to conflate structural coupling with holism, along with stating that that a family consists of individual people as parts.

Structural coupling, in Luhmann’s usage, is ‘a state in which two systems shape the environment of the other in such a way that both depend on the other for continuing their autopoiesis and increasing their structural complexity’ (Moeller, 2006: 19). In my view, such a concept makes sense only in so far as the two systems in question are not in a part-whole relationship. For instance, my family and my best friend’s family may, under some circumstances (that is, contingently), be construed as structurally coupled. But the relation between myself and my family, of which I am a part, can by no means be described in this manner, because, at the ontological level, I am not the environment but an integral part of my family: the ways in which the members of a family interact with each other are responsible for the emergent properties of the family as a system, rendering it cohesive and united in varying degrees. (354)

First of all, two families cannot be structurally coupled. That’s not what structural coupling means. And secondly, the “I” of which Wan speaks is a system/environment difference, not an entity. When we think in terms of whole and parts, then thinking in terms of relations between parts follows. But that is not what Luhmann is saying.

Wan argues that if we go along with Luhmann we will see people as “passive pawns of social forces”–in other words, component parts that are dominated by a whole. As he writes,

The idea that systems or complex thinking entails or underpins laissez-faire policies, the myth of self-regulating markets, and a view of human beings as passive pawns of social forces, is not merely ungrounded but detrimental both to human welfare and to the credibility of systems thinking. (364)

Wan is making a moral argument here, not a scientific argument. He is saying Luhmannian systems theory will makes life worse for human beings.


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