Love as Passion

These a few notes and reflections on the early chapters of Luhmann’s Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (English translation, 1986).

Marriage based on love, or the love marriage, evolved to solve a particular social problem. It isn’t just a natural given. The love marriage is characteristic of post-17th-century functionally differentiated society. Cultures today that still practice arranged marriage are not functionally differentiated. These are cultures in which everyone’s life is tightly bound to the family. Families remain together in the same place, if possible, and live the same kind of life, if possible, for generation after generation. Family cohesion take precedence over individual happiness or self-determination. The family, as an autopoietic system, must survive generation after generation.


But the great love stories of literatures (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde) are based on passion, and this passion has no regard for family ties or conventional moral norms. Love as passion can tear families apart, as parents disown children who have fallen in love with the wrong person or when a person cares more for their romantic partner than for their family of origin.

In functionally differentiated society, the individual (at least upon reaching adulthood) is cut loose from the family. She/he must make their own way in the world. The more functionally differentiated the society, the more the individual is on her/his own. A major factor is the complex economy of functionally differentiated society, which puts pressure on the traditional, multigenerational family (grown children move away to take jobs). The modern educational system also explicitly comes between parents and children.

For Luhmann, love as passion is a communication medium, and this passion is not really associated with marriage. Passionate love is supposed to happen outside of marriage, or is supposed to lead up to marriage but not last longer thereafter. That’s why most fairy tale romances end at the wedding. Love as passion is a feature of the extramarital affair. Think of Prince Charles and Camilla. Passion is not bound to a moral code, and it has no regard for political, religious, economic norms, or for any other communication system. Passion as a communication medium reproduces itself until it can no longer do so. Passion is excessive and unreasonable.

Love, though not necessarily passion, has evolved to solve the problem of the operative closure of the psychic system. No one can know what another person is thinking or feeling, or how another psychic system processes information. But love is characterized by a willingness or effort to understand what another person is thinking and feeling. In order to truly understand another person, according to Luhmann,

One would have to participate in the other person’s self-referential information processing or at least be able to adequately reconstruct it, in order to be able to ‘understand’ how input works in him as information and how the person in turn reconnects output (what is said, for example) and information processing.

The communicative medium of love functions to make this seemingly improbable step possible. This is what is called ‘understanding’ in everyday parlance, and finds expression as the wish to be understood and–in the form of the complaint one is not sufficiently understood–is pushed beyond the bounds of the technically possible. (Love as Passion, p. 24.)

Love makes unrealistic or unreasonable demands on the other person’s capacity to understand. But love is not about reason.

The understanding issue also applies to close friendship, which is all about being understood and accepted by another person. Deep friendship is not so different than love; it just lacks the sexual aspect. Friendship, if we think of it as communication medium, may have evolved to deal with (not actually solve) the problem of psychic closure, or the sense of aloneness. Communication in general, or society, evolved to solve that problem. Passion is only one kind of love. In addition to intimate friendship, there is,  of course parental love, etc. Each kind of love has its own semantics.

In love, a great deal is left unspoken. Luhmann argues that

love solves its own attendant communicative problems in a completely unique manner. To put it paradoxically, love is able to enhance communication by largely doing without communication. It makes use primarily of indirect communication, relies on anticipation and on having already understood. And love can thus be damaged by explicit communication, by discreet questions and answers, because such openness would indicate that something has not been understood as a matter of course. (25)

Every social system or structure has its own semantics. So there is a semantics of love that we are supposed to learn. These aren’t just internal, subjective experiences. We learn how to recognize the signs of “true love,” and we come to know what is expected.

Although passion breaks all the rules of morality and common sense, it is “nevertheless tolerated as a sort of disease and honored by being assigned a special role” (26).


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Duties & Rights

This post attempts to continue the global brain research.

Under stratified social order, duties are far more important than rights. In stratified society, duties come along with social strata, as the nobility were obligated to protect the peasants, among other duties. Noblesse oblige, “nobility obligates,” is supposed to balance privilege with responsibility.

Human rights did not become a topic of communication until the 17th century, and the topic did not really take hold until the 18th century. Rights come into play with the functional differentiation of the legal system. Rights gradually increased in importance from the 1840-60s. This English-language Google ngram shows that the rights overtook duties in 1875.


This is also the time when human rights and humanitarianism emerged, thanks to people such as Henry (or Henri) Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross.

If we look at three words (duty, duties, obligation) in comparison with the rights, we get this graph:


The comparison with duties and rights is less clear in other languages. But for German, if just enter two terms for duty (Pflicht+Schuldigkeit), we get


But in French, if we enter devoir+obligation+responsabilité, we don’t get much of a trend:


It terms of international law or the global legal system, it might interesting to compare civil rights and human rights, first in English:

Human rights surpasses civil rights in about 1978. Civil rights are associated with the nation-state, but human rights are global.

In French, if we compare droits civiques and droits de l’homme, we see that droits de l’homme takes off in about 1973. So this is similar to the English graph in terms of the rise of human rights, although droits civiques stays flat.

droits civiques

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Coding/programming & form/content

Levi at Larval Subjects wrote:

I once knew a person who had been raised as a rightwing Christian fundamentalist, a real true believer, and that then became a Marxist atheist in college. The curious thing was that while the content of his beliefs had changed radically, the form seemed to remain the same. He still had a very binary way of thinking organized around the friend/enemy distinction, privileged group allegiance against a “them”, and was incredibly self-righteous and moralistic, filled with a passion to denounce and judge. He just now had a different framework for doing so.  This is why real change, I think, can’t simply be a change in content, but must also be a change in form or structure. The pattern itself must change.  If the form of thinking and practice remains the same, it matters little how we’ve changed the content. . . .

This passage made me think of the systems-theoretical distinction between coding and programming.  In the above example, friend/enemy is a binary code; it forces a decision as the other people one deals with must be classified as friend or enemy. It’s a way of simplifying or reducing the complexity of one’s social relationships. I suppose you can also consider some people neither friends or enemy, but in this case we would likely just ignore those people, sort of like the way the economy ignores morality.

The binary code, in itself, has no content. Programmes are needed to fill in the content. If the code stays the same (is invariant), it doesn’t matter how we changes the programmes; we still end up with friends and enemies–a friend cannot be an enemy, and an enemy cannot be a friend. If a person, or a consciousness system, considers conservative friends and liberal enemies, it can easily switch to considering conservatives enemies and liberals friends. Programmes are changeable, but a system’s code stays the same.; it is invariant. If the code changes, then it’s not the same system anymore. A conditional (If . . . then) programme can be used, such as “If X supports abortion rights, X is an enemy (not  a friend).”

In the Introduction of Luhmann’s Law as as Social System, Nobles and Schiff write,

Law develops structures (conditional programmes) for application of the code. This involves second-order observation. Secondary observation here is the operation of observing coding. The code can be applied to itself, to say whether a previous coding was valid or invalid. As an operation of coding this has no greater meaning, in itself, than the original coding (so all the elements of paradox, tautology, and contradiction remain within this observation). But the observation offers rationality. Why was the earlier coding appropriate (valid or invalid)? Answers to this question create conditional programmes” ‘In the presence of fact X, code Y is legal. In the presence of fact Z, code Y is illegal.’ The programmes also constitute norms: those facts that comply with the system’s norms are labeled legal; those facts that violate the system’s norms are labelled illegal.

These second-order observations cannot answer the question: what is the distinction between legal and illegal. They cannot address the question of whether the distinction between legal and illegal is itself legal. They can only produce relatively stable applications of the code, allowing law to carry out its function of maintaining stable expectations. (18-19)

Legal norms, or laws, are the content of the legal code lawful/not-lawful (or legal/illegal). Laws are clearly changeable, but only through legal means. The political system, for instance, cannot declare a law to be unlawful.

A system that changes its programmes (normative, expectational structure), is to said to have learned. The legal system can change its norms when these norms are deemed inadequate to handle to environmental irritations. Structural coupling, in other words, can lead to changed norms.  But, of course, the system can also refuse to change its normative structure, or not learn.

Since the system alone determines whether to change or not to change its normative structure, or programmes, the relationship of system to environment is asymmetrical. But within the system, the coding or lawful/unlawful is symmetrical, as both are used to continue the system’s autopoiesis. The difference is a unity because both sides of the code are need to produce information. Actually, according to Nobles and Schiff, “the two sides of the code are always applied simultaneously to the same situation” (18). In a dispute between two parties, for example,

The state of affairs which gives rise to a dispute is a single state. If we decide that one party wins the dispute (acted legally) and another party loses (acted illegally) we are not applying the code to two different situations but to one.” (18)

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Unintended Consequences, continued

Here is an interesting case of unintended consequences. In the US, illegal immigrants may file federal tax returns. Apparently about 4.5 million undocumented immigrants do so.

There is an obvious incentive to file: a chance to get a refund. Johnson says another reason is that if a person winds up in immigration court, a record of having filed taxes is considered evidence of “good moral character.”

But now with the fear of deportation, there has been a decline in such tax returns. In a complex society, when the political system tries to solve one problem, or what it defines as a problem, it creates new problems. Here is the story.

We end with a decrease in the moral values (e.g., personal and civic responsibility) and patriotism that the political system was allegedly trying to enhance or protect. Plus the government might end up with lower tax revenue. I say “might” because the IRS can keep the refunds that would have been issued.

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Politics, War, and Law

This research thread is related to the recently published article on “Futures of a distributed memory: A global brain wave measurement (1800–2000)“.

Consider these two Google Books ngrams, which represent the top words associated with the political system and the legal system in English and German:


If these ngrams mean anything, war tends to raise the importance/urgency of politics (the political system) over law (the legal system). Law resolves conflict through legal means, while politics uses the medium of power–the power to make collectively binding decisions. Politics creates the difference between obedience and disobedience, while law creates the difference between legal and illegal. War reflects instability of the political system or environmental irritation of the political system. Because the system is unstable, it receives more attention.

In the above German-language ngram, the Cold War years show a continual ascendency over politics, more so than in the English ngram. This may reflect the partition of Germany after WWII. In the German graph, politics falls steeply after the end of the Cold War and German reunification.

Some people have argued that the war (or perhaps the military) is a function system in its own right. But it seems more reasonable to classify war as a programme of politics, just as laws, regulations, and contracts are programmes of the legal system. Martial law, insofar as it entails the stripping of constitutional rights, would represent the ascendency of politics over law. War, if we call it a programme of politics, is a way of making collectively binding decisions. It is like legislative debate, etc.


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Futures of a distributed memory. A global brain wave measurement (1800–2000)

As Steffen Roth, the lead author, noted on Facebook, the final version of this article with full bibliographic details is now available online and for free on ScienceDirect: (official link expires May 27, 2017; see thereafter).

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Some tentative, half-formed thoughts . . .

As Hans-Georg Moeller writes in The Radical Luhmann, Luhmann addressed the ancient mind/body problem by posing a triad–social system-psychic system-biological system (or society-mind-body). These are different kinds of autopoietic systems, and each is the environment of the other. A fourth system might be the climate, but Luhmann didn’t explore this. He did suggest that if artificial intelligence ever become self-steering or autonomous, it could emerge as an system.

As for the triad of society-mind-body (or body-mind-society), none holds a privileged or fundamental position. All three exist together, and none can be said to have come first. The media of the biology, mind, and society are cellular life, thoughts/emotions/affects (e.g., desires, fears), and communication, respectively.

Each type of system has emerged to solve a particular problem. Biology, we might say, evolved to solve the problem of death. By learning to reproduce itself, cellular life solved the problem of death. DNA carries the instructions for new life. The psychic system emerged to solve the problem of the operational closure of biology, and society emerged to solve the problem of the psychic system’s operational closure.

Organisms that move around, unlike plants, fungi, etc, under their own power need some kind of perceptual system to orient in space. Such perceptual systems can be called a psychic system or mind. Society emerges because of the limitations associated with the operational closure of the psychic systems. That is to say, one psychic system cannot know the contents of another psychic system; so evolution hit on communication as the solution. Communication allows animal species (including humans) to coordinate social life.

These three kinds of systems co-evolve because they irritate one another. We should not think of them developing first, second, and third. A biological system that is irritated by (or structurally coupled with) a mind is different than a biological system that is not irritated by a mind, and a mind that is irritated by society/communication is different than a mind that is not irritated by society. In other words, biological systems that existed before the existence of minds were different than biological systems that must deal with minds. And minds that existed before the existence of society/communication were different than minds that must deal with society.

The psychic system emerges as a reentry of a biological system into itself. Biology distinguishes between itself and its nonbiological environment, and the reentry into the biological system into itself establishes the psychic system. The psychic system allows biology to observe itself through the medium of affects/feelings.

Society emerges as a reentry of the psychic system into itself. The psychic system can then observes itself through the medium of language. The mind can then use thoughts are well as feelings. Unconscious affect, conscious feeling, and thought probably exist on a continuum anyway; it’s hard to separate them. Thought emerges as the reentry of society (communication) into the psychic system–that is to say, the language spoken by people is copied back into the mind as thoughts. Until that happens, an infant’s mind only has only affects or emotions.

Andre Reichel wrote,

The crucial term in Stenner’s argument appears to be ‘completely’. This would imply that he does not see emotions as neither/nor in one system or the other but as-well-as: emotions can be observed on both sides of the distinction. This works if we understand the relation of e.g. the mind and emotions as one of re-entry: emotions are observed from the perspective of the mind as a re-entry of the distinction between mind and body within the mind. Emotions are then the re-entry operation itself i.e. emotions relate mind and body to each other. As such they are neither exclusively here nor there but constitute the binding together of here and there.

The social system can observe the psychic system via the re-entry of language. And in this relation, the re-entry of emotion between mind and body can indirectly be observed, but only according to the three selections: first, the selection of the mind what to regard as emotions; second, the selection of the mind what to utter in language; third, the selection of the social system what of these utterances to process as communication.

Given the idea of cybersemiotics and that the body gives signs, there is an interpenetration of the body with the social system that can be understood as a re-entry from body to social system i.e. an observation of the social system of the difference between itself and (a) body. This re-entry could then be a sign, some form of body language or facial movements. The body would select what signs to evoke and the social system would select what of these evocations to process as communication. With the form of re-entry, both sides of the distinction are not only tied together but the difference shows up on both sides.

Here’s a drawing you might enjoy. It makes clear that the problem of psychic systems is to somehow balance what they feel with what they say… knowing that social systems observe what they say and relate that with the signs biological systems are giving them. (c) AR 2017

Reichel Drawing

(Andre Reichel, 2017)

To summarize the drawing,

Psychic system reenters biological system as emotion.
Psychic system reenters social system as language.

Social system reenters biological system as signs.
Social system reenters psychic system as language.

Biological system reenters psychic system as emotion.
Biological system reenters social system as signs.

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