Why Luhmann is so difficult for many! Part 2

A translation of the original German article by Klaus Eidenschink on Luhmann's system theory


Here the 2nd of three parts about theory elements by Luhmann which are difficult to understand. This time it's about causality, observation and logic.

1. Causality - Or About the End of Objectivity

The topic of causality is very charged on the theoretical side, because the scientific understanding of causality is so dominant that all opinions that doubt or even shake the cause-and-effect thinking are quickly regarded as untrustworthy and are deported into the area of esotericism. Luhmann's criticism of this concept of causality is initially relatively simple. His aim is to draw attention to the fact that causality cannot do without the activities of an observer. This sounds astonishing, since everyday minds are of course of the opinion that the apple falls from the tree due to gravity and this process is not dependent on the observer. That is also correct and there is no doubt in system theory that a clear and clearly definable effect can be isolated if the cause is defined. This is generally called the test arrangement, experiment, research design etc. What is hidden from a system-theoretical point of view are the initial and final problems. Traced in the apple-falling-from-tree process: The causes, which are responsible for the apple falling from the tree at this moment, cannot be determined completely: temperature, season, wind force, nutrient quality, gardening activities, sunlight, bird visits, etc. Another example: Why am I writing this article? Can I know all of my motives (causes)? When I explain it to my wife, I choose (arbitrarily?) some of the reasons I am aware of, but are the causes sufficiently clarified? Conny D. gave the impetus, of course! But why did he do it? And why was this cause effective for me? The same applies to the effect. Each experimental setup uses the measuring instrument to isolate the effects that are to be measured. Each research design defines factors that are considered significant for the impact to be investigated. But can you see what effects our apple has on the ground? Which microbes die, which ones benefit? Who spoils the stomach or slips on the apple? Or - can I foresee the effects of this article as an author?


It can be seen that the selection of the accepted causes and the effects examined is necessary and requires an observer. In exactly this sense, causality according to Luhmann is always a construction of an observer, because it requires a decision as to what you pay attention to and what not, what you consider relevant and what is not, which factors you focus on and which you neglect. In the beginning as in the end. If you have this in mind, one and the same process can very well be explained with very different causes and blamed for very different effects. That is everyday life. In the psychological and social context, unlike machines, no clear cause-and-effect chains can be built up. Consequently:


• If two consultants do the same thing, it is not the same thing

• if one does the same thing twice at different times, it is not the same thing

• if two do something different, it can be the same

• if someone does different things in different contexts, it can cause the same.


Everyone knows that - actually. But nevertheless, context-free (i.e. isolated) interventions, change designs and best practice are sought, as if these findings did not exist. Repeatability, unambiguousness, objectivity, independence from persons, reliability, validity count as truth criteria in a scientific world of thought based on Aristotelian logic. Luhmann called this old-european and denied these ways of thinking the ability to deal with complex environments well. This applies to psychotherapy effectiveness research as well as to organizational change theory or ideas for high-performance teams: the same characteristics supposedly lead to the same result. Everyone knows that is not true, and yet the recipe, advice, and social technology books top the sales lists. The "theory-in-use" is mono-causal, sometimes even for authors who are educated in systems theory.


If, however, multi-causal relationships in social and psychological contexts that can never be fully reproduced - because this would exceed the performance of every observer - then uncertainty, unrecognizability and insecurity enter the field. Then - as Luhmann put it - there is no penetration (punch-through) causality. The illusion of controllability and predictability ends, but also the idea of a direct possibility of intervention in psychological and social systems. Then you need a theory (and practice) that can cope with paradoxes, ambivalences, polarities, ambiguities, that can welcome all of them or is even able to map these phenomena in theory design.


Luhmann tried this with his systems theory by reconstructing causality as an achievement of the observer and not as an objective occurrence. It is not surprising that in an organizational and consulting world where goals, plans, control, promises of performance and measurability dominate, many people find it difficult to come up with a theory that promises to be a predilection for uncertainty and uncovers unfavourable simplifications.




2. Observer - Is That a Person or What?

The point at which Luhmann differs from Maturana and v. Forester most clearly is at the same time, the one which is most difficult to open up to for many. It's about the concept of observation. Almost inevitably one thinks first of all of living things and secondly of the visual sense. So Lutterer writes in the article posted by Conny D. "Eyes here, eyes here!" (Page 9). He believes that he is criticizing Luhmann's concept that social systems - i.e. communication processes - can also observe. But this observation concept from Luhmann is not at all about "seeing" but about recognizing!


How is such a statement - communication systems can recognize! - compatible with common sense? Do you have to dismiss this as a quirk of a typically spiritually-minded professor? I don't think at all and I claim that without such a concept of observation / recognition organizations are much worse to understand. So - what could that mean? (Luhmann experts may forgive me in the following for the sake of intelligibility).


For Luhmann, observation is the use of a distinction. In the example: I come to the bakery and want to buy bread. The baker's wife is now watching me as a person and says "Hello Mr. Eidenschink!" because I shop there often. She recognizes me as a person. We chat a little and in the end I get their bread, they get my money. I go out the door and the baker's wife has more money and less bread and I have less money and more bread. There has now been a psychological observation because the baker's wife made a mental distinction with the help of her perception and filtered me out of the many other people she knew and recognized me. Mr. Eidenschink is distinguished from the rest of the people. But this distinction does not lead to earning a living! Interestingly, another observation takes place - but not made possible by me and her.


Bread buying (or sale) does not take place because two people meet and recognize each other as people. Rather, the seller and the buyer get (in these roles) into a communication pattern - see part 1 of the series - which uses the distinction between payment and non-payment. The buyer assumes that if he has money, he gets bread, and the seller assumes that if she gives bread, she gets money. The fact that both (!), at the same time (!) accept a (!) price (!) and actually exchange worthless paper for bread is due to the fact that they participate in the business communication system. The baker's wife, like me, is the environment of this communication system and is closely linked to it. Of course, I can try to deny the communicative distinction between payment and non-payment and rob the bread (the consequence is the transition to the "Law" communication system), or the baker's wife can give me the bread because it is my birthday - in both cases the "economy" communication system breaks together because there is no longer any purchasing communication. On closer inspection, the simple situation of buying bread is a highly prerequisite communication, which contains many premises - functioning markets, finance, counterfeit-proof money, etc. These can be examined and understood and then changed as a communication system without the baker's wife or me having to be changed. Because the communication "bread for money" is not a process in consciousness, but something "different". Something without a place, without a shape, without a voice - but just and nevertheless quite effective.


In the example, the people involved still play a major role because the communication takes place among those present and only comprises two people. You can quickly put on the actors' glasses and identify acting individuals. But with a little good will you can perhaps understand from the example that this communication has a life of its own and thus uses its own distinction. If one imagines this principle for a larger social system, one gets on the track of Luhmann's thesis that all those present in a courtroom make different notices and that these notifications are understood differently than in parliament when reading laws or in the lecture hall when giving a lecture. In the one case it is about legality, in the other case it is about binding decisions for all, in the latter it is about the question whether a thesis is true. It would be strange if someone in the lecture hall asked for the professor to be convicted because he disagreed. Social communication systems have their own mode of operation. Luhmann has been concerned with this for a lifetime.


Applied to organizations, this understanding enables to examine the intrinsic dynamics of the processes in detail and to detach in the first instance from the behaviour and motives of individual people. Instead, one operates with the insight that different observation patterns guide the respective communication and decision-making processes in different areas and contexts of the organization. Such observation patterns can be for example: career usefulness / harm, customer / product orientation, control / trust, stabilization / change and much more. Also a mixture of different communicative "observers" (please do not think of people now) is everyday life. On the one hand a location closure is decided in order to regain the trust of the investors and on the other hand it is observed whether the board will "survive" this decision for a long time (as board!).


For most consultants, this is, of course, practical everyday life. But with a communicative theory that can abstract from the psychic system, many phenomena can be described more clearly and concisely. In addition, people are not unfavorably overloaded in their possibilities of influence or it is operated hastily by problematic judgments, which accuse the organization or individual representatives (mostly the management).


In sum, Luhmann points out: Observations make both psychological and social systems.


With the help of the distinctions they use, both form schemes that then form identity and ensure stability. This theory is very useful for changing communication patterns, because it can describe such patterns (human-free) and can change these patterns through communications. Luhmann called this 2nd-order observation (more on this can be found in our portal here). This is required when for example systems "consist" of 200,000 people because you cannot change so many people at the same time ....



3. Two-Valuedness - Or the Burden With Right Versus Wrong!

The great misery of our culture can in a way be traced back to Aristotelian logic, which is the basis of scientific discourse to this day. There are right or wrong - a third or even fourth value is not provided. Many prominent attempts to introduce alternative logics have failed. For example, quantum physics cannot be justified without a logic of temporal statements, as well as the paradoxes of knowledge cannot be understood as right and wrong, and Gödel's incompleteness theorem has instructed logic that it cannot justify itself, but it has to start from axiomatic settlements. Neither Hegel, nor Nietzsche, nor Wittgenstein, nor Günther, nor Spencer Brown, nor von Weizsäcker, nor Kähr or Goldhammer - to name but a few - have been able to interfuse so far. Luhmann eluded this difficulty by simply making an axiomatic setting: "The following considerations assume that there are systems," he writes and has been criticized in many ways. What this means is that nobody can justify his own beginning. Nobody can know what something is before it has started. Movement is more fundamental than being there. The reflexiveness (re-integration) that makes systems - cybernetic and biological - takes time. But time is not provided for in classic logic. 2 + 2 = 4 no matter who calculates, when is calculated, where is calculated. But does this also apply to the question of how relationships succeed, how organizations are formed and how teams work well together? Is it the same over time, regardless of location and culture? Everyone knows - no! Nevertheless, science is considered to be true if it provides knowledge that is the same for everyone, repeatable, and applies all over the world. You can see that the classic two-valued logic, in which there is no space for those who calculate or for the time, dominates a lot of dialogues. However, this does not mean that everyone can believe what they want to be true. This would destroy communication and negate the possibility of finding one's way in a common reality.

When logic gets moving, it becomes reflexive. Then there is no longer an organization, but a process of organizing (K.Weick), then there is no longer a team, but it teams, then there is no longer a human being, but a human being becoming (as Lutterer so nicely quotes). And these processes are neither random nor arbitrary.


Luhmann tried to give this way of thinking of the fluid, the flexible, the provisional, the vague, the indefinable a theoretical basis by examining the self-production (autopoiesis) of all systems. Then you cannot circumvent paradoxes and thus a decision theory and an understanding of time. In the concluding third part, I will explore these Luhmann topics.


The link to the original article in German language.

The translation was carried out by means of Google translate, responsible for the translation Jürgen Große-Puppendahl


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