Autopoiesis as a Sociological Concept

The book discussed in the preceding contributions [in: *Sinn, Kommunikation und soziale Differenzierung* (Meaning, Communication and Social Differentiation)] makes the proposal to sociology to adopt the concept of Autopoiesis and thus to gain a more profound theory of self-referential systems that also includes elementary operations.

It is neither about an analogy, because the concept of autopoiesis bursts the ontological tradition of thought, which alone could carry such an analogy; it gives up, radically and carried through to physics, this assumption of a world being, which connects being and thinking, and it leaves the logical tradition, which in relation to given being only allowed right and wrong judgments to the exclusion of third possibilities. It is still about a merely metaphorical use of language, that is: about a merely linguistic emergency solution. If it is to be a scientific theory, then it must be asserted that the facts are as the theory describes them, even if it is immediately conceded that this assertion is only a scientific (and not, for example, an economic, political, legal, health-promoting) assertion. But this already puts us in the middle of the problems.

At the moment, it is certainly too early to pass judgment on the acceptability of this proposal, and the proposal itself, more than its printing indicates, is plagued by uncertainties, doubts, and already emerging learning needs. It is above all a matter of trying out: "what it would be like if ...". [⇒ try out]

That the theoretical concept of autopoiesis of social systems, more than expected, finds attention, is not least due to these uncertainties and to the many possibilities of further work, but above all probably due to the fact that at present there are hardly any competing theory offers in this claim situation. And other disciplines (and not only scientific disciplines) feel affected as well.

A kind of "Sömmerring" effect, then? Lively spiritual exchange? Another "principle of vitality," a new soul organ perhaps? In any case, the discussion reminds me of what Hölderlin thought of the naturalist of his time: "Gladly they peruse with him the glorious body building, But up to the pinnacle the stairs are too steep."

The pinnacle - that is the self-reference, the conditionality of the full by the void, of the positive by the negative. Everyone sees the massive pinnacles rising up. The sociologist sees through the pinnacle, he sees the holes between the jags, and they point downwards. This is how the sociologist's typical tendency to look downward, to oppositionalism, to a critique of alienation pursued with alienation zeal, comes about. What good would it do if one could now also find and climb the stairs to examine the pinnacle from close up? The distant view allows weak conceptual precision and (in a positive sense) "speculation". One can work with "incongruent perspectives" (Kenneth Burke), cherish generalized motives (*Motivverdacht*), drive ideology critique, make latent structures and functions visible, in short: claim to see through the conditions. One might then hope for empirical research. Another way (which neither rejects nor excludes empirical research) is to increase the demand for conceptual resolution and theoretical precision.

If one wants to pursue this goal, one cannot avoid the topic of Self-Reference, at least for theories with a claim to universal competence for their subject area. Today it is at the center of a logical, cybernetic and epistemological discussion and begins to affect various empirical disciplines. If one pays attention to the extent and radicalness of the theoretical rearrangements, one cannot help but suspect a "paradigm shift." But it is not a scientific "revolution", if this means that a novel basic insight suddenly, i.e. quickly, takes hold. On the contrary: The development of my own thinking as well as the observation of the theory discussion on a general and on a sociological level show me again and again that the innovation lying in the principle of self-reference can be formulated easily, elegantly and equipped with beautiful paradoxes, but that the thinking through of the consequences needs time and will probably still cause some surprises.

Thus, there is currently a peculiar disproportion between the attention that the theory of autopoiesis receives, and the completion of the theoretical shifts that it, taken seriously, must demand. This makes it difficult for critics to mark their position, and makes it seem largely open to what extent traditional theoretical good of sociology must be adopted, reformulated, or abandoned, and what may be lost in the process.

Of course, the subject and all that what is expected or imputed to the "human being" when it is demanded that one should pay attention to him as a "subject". Of course, every transcendental-theoretical position; because in relation to it one has to ask whether the distinction between transcendental and empirical is itself transcendental or empirical, which in both cases leads into a paradox. Furthermore, also the idea that man is – be it as body, be it as person – an observation-independent given entity. And finally, for sociology probably most painful, every categorial (that is: starting at the primary decomposition of being) use of the concept of action, which according to the usual understanding inevitably refers to a meaning-giving subject.

Whether adequate substitutes can be created for these and other renunciations, and whether the emancipation-conservative direction in sociology defends what is indispensable or merely holds on to habits of thought, cannot be determined with certainty at present. In part, it does not make the slightest difficulty in overcoming the objections of critics. This is true, for example, of the problem of collective learning, for it is precisely the concept of autopoiesis that dynamizes the structural problem as no stock theory has done before. It is also not difficult to distinguish between a formal and an emphatic concept of meaning (linguistically, for example, sinn- haft/sinnvoll or, with Alois Hahn, Sinn-Sein/Sinn-Haben), although the emphatic concept of meaning, because it allows for negation, must then be used system-relatively. However, it is hardly worthwhile to present such "refutations" in detail here. The difficulties for the continuation of the discussion lie rather in the fact that the theory of self-referential systems for its part struggles with unsolved or only unclearly formulable problems and that here lie reasons for the fact that its answers turn out unsatisfactory, unclear and often too abstract.

To make matters worse, these problems have no point-by-point relationship to the heart of the tradition, so that advances in theory in the area of self-referential systems theory cannot be immediately translated into the elimination of concerns. In order to clarify this state of affairs, I will not stop in the following with showing that in my book "Social Systems" sufficient clues are given for answering inquiries; but what should be of primary interest is which unsolved or unclearly posed problems currently determine the state of research.

1) We get a good start with a problem which seems to be a marginal question: with the difficulties Helmut Spinner (oral contribution to the discussion) had with the thesis of the improbability of the probable. An empty formula? A paradox!

The classical logic, based on an ontological understanding of being, had finally seen itself compelled to supplement its three-sentence systematics (theorem of identity, prohibition of contradictions, theorem of the excluded third) by a theorem of the ground. It concluded the systematics, in which identity is only one moment among others, by a unity point of view. But what if one would then feel compelled to distinguish this point of view from something else, i.e. to formulate unity as difference? Can one "ground" everything that is on a difference?

Here one would have to discuss with Heidegger. Instead, we present the offer of evolutionary theory: to seek the reason that something is and is not in the improbability of its being and to assume the burden of explaining it. That is: an observer of evolution sees it as a paradox, as an improbability of the probable, and then formulates his relation to the object with the question how it is nevertheless possible and whether it continues to be as it is.

It is then a second question (and this was Helmut Spinner's question), how to formulate this improbability theorem in a meaningful way, i.e. how to escape the paradox. The best known possibility lies in the concept of entropy.


Entropy is a measure ol disorder or of the decay of order. Work., such as is accomplished by heat energy, causes a change to occur which in turn depends on a distinction between the one state and the other- In an analogous process a message involves a choice and the distinction of one particular message.


One could also start from the assumption that no current event would say anything about the probability of another event. For sociological analyses, it would be a good idea to take the theorem of double contingency as a basis and to see the improbability in the formation of complementary expectations, which are then made nevertheless expectable by evolution. Another offer attractive for action theorists would be: to assume a surplus of possibilities of linking actions and thus of possibilities of interaction. Thus, there is no lack of possibilities, but it is unmistakable that their articulation requires further theoretical steps, must be justified by connectivity, and cannot be deduced from the evolutionary paradox.

Behind this is ultimately the question of the "habitus" of a scientific interest. How does one gain the better observation possibilities: if one postulates correctness and then is interested in a deviating reality or if one first postulates improbability and then is interested, as it were in the countercurrent principle, in **how Form nevertheless becomes possible and how one can still discover traces of its improbability, dangers, consequential burdens etc. in what is now probable?**

2) Where epistemology is concerned, we already find ourselves in the area of the application of this theory decision, since, after all, cognition itself is a real possible (thus improbable) behavior. The theory of autopoietic systems leads inevitably to epistemological positions, which are discussed today under the title "constructivism" [⇒Constructivism (Konstruktivismus)]. This certainly does not mean a return to solipsistic or idealistic epistemologies, since a difference between system and environment is always assumed. Also, the concept of cognition is greatly expanded compared to the classical true/false coding. It can best be explained by a definitional series observation – description – cognition. Observation is the use of a Distinction to denote one side (i.e.: not the other). Description is the making of a "text" (an artifact, a "script" etc.) based on observations.

Cognition is the change of a system state on the basis of observations (or descriptions). Thus, the claim for a new kind of empirical epistemology can be made, which starts from difference (not from unity) and aims at difference (not at unity), i.e. deals with the generation of differences by differences. So far, so good. But the level of articulation of this theory is nowhere near the level of elaboration of classical epistemologies (such as those of transcendental provenance), and when one asks about the construction of constructivism, instead of an answer, often only stories and examples are told. Almost all points discussed in the following are related to this deficit, although they are also directly relevant to theory independently of epistemological questions.

3) The stability of cognitions, but also the stability of the reproduction of system operations in general, can neither be traced back to an essence (in the sense of a being that explains what the being is) nor to a fact of reason (Kant), neither to a ground nor to an a priori. Instead, the theory of self-referential systems (and in this it is related to other concepts of "proceduralization") offers the idea of recursivity. Operations are applied to the results of operations, and with sufficiently long repetition will then, one supposes, filter out the form that can be stable under these conditions. Theory gives no guarantee that any system can evolve such forms. Ultimately, evolution will take care of the selection.

So far, however, there is only mathematical and biological research for this thought and thus for what Heinz von Foerster calls "Eigenbehaviours" or "Eigenvalues". One profits thereby from the above mentioned extension of the concept of cognition. The principle is generalized to the assumption that every system controls its reality assumptions in this sense recursively by observation of its observations (second order observation, second order cybernetics). But how? With the same distinction or with varied distinctions, and if the latter: how are possibilities of variation limited? Moreover, there is still a lack of research that tries out how far one can get with this principle of recursivity if one transfers it to the area of meaningfully operating conscious or social systems. Thus, one can only assume that reality is constantly tested also by recursivity of mental and communicative operations, and this with success, because the environment of the systems is unknown and remains unknown, but in any case shows non-random, discontinuous distributions.