Why Luhmann is so difficult for many! Part 3

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


In the third part, the points are particularly important because the consequences are so significant when you open up the interrelations. Enjoy.


I am starting with the topic of decisions, coming then to the understanding of time and ending with the popular difference between theory and practice.


Decisions Decide and not the Decision Maker

Another apparently completely nonsensical statement by Luhmann is that in organizations it is "decisions that decide". Everyday mind first assumes that it is people, i.e. decision-makers, who decide.

How does Luhmann come to such a counter-intuitive thesis?


Deciding should be understood here as a process in which one is selected from at least two equivalent alternatives in order to pursue purposes with it. Example: Version A or B of a new product is to be implemented and the managing director decides on variant B because he believes it will be more successful on the market. And so he believes, just like his surroundings, that he would have decided. Luhmann takes a closer look here and examines the past, present and future.


Let us first look at the past. What has been included in the choice of the alternative? It is obvious that there were tons of decisions in the organization, which played a significant role in the preparation of the managing director's decision to come up with the alternative. Many alternatives of possible product variants were sorted out and not presented to the managing director at all. Everyone knows that this is exactly how decisions are predisposed in organizations! The arguments that are given for or against the two variants are always incomplete and are also shaped by the interests of people and teams. For Luhmann, these processes must be seen as an aspect of the decision-making process and it is therefore clear that the managing director makes decisions based on a past that is unknown to him and therefore does not really know what he is deciding.


What about the present? The managing director cannot know what is being decided elsewhere and in other respects at the same time, but this has a major influence on the decision. Here, too, his knowledge is incomplete and he therefore does not know what to decide.


The future is by definition unknown. You can neither know anything in it nor act in it. It is always the present future that is used for the decision. However, it is the future itself that decides which of the many possible present will be real in the future. So for the third time: The managing director does not know what he decides because he cannot know the effects and "side effects" of his decision. He cannot know how his decision is understood by others, which follow-up decisions are made, etc.


Perhaps one could say that at least at the moment of the decision, he knows why he is choosing this or that alternative. But here, too, this would imply the thesis that our managing director knows his own unconscious and therefore unknown interests and fears that influence his decision (for example because a product team unconsciously trusts him more).


In my view, Luhmann's thesis is extremely useful and essential for coaching and consulting. It does relieve the organizations of the grandiose idea that someone can know the future and that someone can know the effects that it has what he does. All of them are in a complex, retrospective conglomerate of interdependencies and surf in an unknown time. Hence the decision. The attribution of decisions to (supposed) decision-makers has completely different - communicative - reasons in organizational theory. In addition, occasionally in more detail elsewhere.


Time - Or the End of Controllability

Word has actually got around that complexity with the usual linear understanding of time - a point moves on the time axis - is neither understandable nor manageable. In my opinion, what this farewell to linearity means is incredibly underestimated. Then in the end there are again chain of effects, causal loops, flow diagrams, confusion of correlations with causalities and much more what determines and dominates the concepts. Luhmann was more radical than he liked himself. He was aware that complexity and temporality are closely linked and that this leads to the dark terrain of paradoxes: the simultaneity of the incompatible, the finality of the provisional, the successive of the same, the truth of the error, the lies of all truths, the visibility of the the invisible, the disagreement in the consensus and the connection in the conflict - a book could be written for each of these strange couples (with regard to financial products E. Esposito "declined" this once: On the future of futures).


It is extremely difficult for us to grasp paradoxes at all in our culture due to the unambiguousness of thinking. You end up all too quickly with the little sisters and brothers such as polarities, ambiguities, ambivalences, dualities, both-and etc. In doing so, you underestimate how fundamentally an understanding of time that breaks with linearity whirls everything around. Then the future is both fixed and unknown, then the past is both terminating and changeable, then the essential performance of memory becomes oblivion (see H. v. Förster), then "Worlds Without Ground" arise (W. Vogt ). Nietzsche long ago speaks of the true error and was not understood with that.


Luhmann has wrestled a thinker life with these questions and I personally do not have the impression that he has coped with it as he wished. But he never closed his eyes to the difficulties in thinking and acting when it says goodbye to Aristotle's understanding of time and scholasticism. In his books and texts there are very different attempts to grasp the paradoxes of time in their effects on communication, science, planning and society. One effect, however, was clear to him: Knowledge blinds in favor of stability! If you want to recognize something, you will always be blind to truths which would also be important to you. The time is built in such a way that an overall knowledge of the world is impossible. It has a life of its own that can only be fragmentarily mastered, controlled and pacified. This has enormous "practical" consequences. One of the most unpopular is that there can be no consensus in the world that you can't and have to disagree with. For organizations, this means that they have to deal with conflicts permanently and endlessly.


The idea of an organization without conflict is as sensible as the idea of an organism without metabolism.


Luhmann has therefore emphasized that an understanding of disintegration and conflict is as important as that of integration and agreement. But that's just one of the many consequences when you start to think differently ...


Theory and Practice - More than Questionable Glasses

In conclusion, this leads us to a distinction, which is also pretended to be God-given: theory and practice. Luhmann also treated this difference as a distinction that has consequences which can be described. Theory, practice (and at that time still Poesis) are terms of the Greek philosophers. They are essentially based on two assumptions:

1. Man becomes man through his mind, with which he shares in the divine Logos, which the world invented and then made. You can already see at that time: first theory, then practice! Here man is able to recognize timeless truths and for this he has to use his mind. This assumption makes the ability to recognize truth an exclusive achievement of the mind. Feelings, sensory perception etc. become subordinate and dubious sources of information. This - and not only the thereby often denigrated Christianity - was the reason why a hostility to the body could spread in the West. The body, the senses, the emotions cannot think (= recognize) in this understanding and are rather harmful for finding the truth, mostly irrelevant. If you read Luhmann's art theory, you will find a brilliant analysis of the meaning of perception for cognition.


2. In Greek philosophy, man is seen at the same time as being infected and committed to the idea of the good. The distinction between good and bad is the guideline for action, the practice. This is how practice comes under the guillotine of the judgment of good / bad or right / wrong. Action can be found in the field of the unambiguous, the determinable: Either something is good or bad, right or wrong. The scholars argue about this and torment the poor sinners who do not really know what is right now. They must therefore be instructed by those who know (today scientists and other experts, formerly the clergy). Then there is a correct practice and this must be generalized as much as possible. Even Kant with his categorical imperative (!) still thought: The individual action must be such that it can be generalized, i.e. applicable to everyone. This is the thinking basis for recipes, best practice and how-to-do-it-right expert advice. But does one really want today (!) to take the unchecked assumptions of Greek philosophy the basis of action? This is a decision for the inability to handle the ambiguities outlined above. Instead, a culture of know-it-all and bossiness. All serve their own (Knowledge-) God and wage wars.


3. The distinction between theory and practice therefore blinds us to the fact that every action is based on knowledge and that every (theoretical) thought represents an action. The usual question in the consulting scene "What does this mean for practice?" overlooks the fact that theoretical considerations can only become practice-relevant if it is not someone else's theory, but your own! You think you can import knowledge. That will not do. When I listen to a lecture, I have to think (learn) the content myself, otherwise it is not relevant in practice. If I just look at the action derivations of another person's theory, then I become a recipe cooker and instruction manual user. But I have neither my own theory nor my own practice. I don't know what I'm doing, nor am I doing what I understand. This is why supposedly easy to understand theory is so extremely dangerous! It creates the illusion of having understood something without actually having to think. You just have to "remember" something. But memory does not generate your own thoughts. This leads to an unconscious, i.e. theory-free practice, which is content with doing something that is effective, but cannot explain what the real light and dark sides of the chosen approach are.


I have now reached the end of this third part. I am happy if it also encourages thinking and doing and has helped to raise awareness that everything important is not so easy to have. In any case, for myself Luhmann has made a significant contribution to this. These articles are also thank you for that.


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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