Niklas Luhmann

Luhmann’s radically ‘anti-humanist’ answer to the mind–society problem is one of the most controversial elements of his theory: Operationally speaking, minds and society are not connected.

- Unlocking Luhmann – Baraldi, Claudio, Giancarlo Corsi, and Elena Esposito. Unlocking Luhmann; Luhmann in Glossario. I Concetti Fondamentali Della Teoria : A Keyword Introduction to Systems Theory. transcript Verlag, 2021.


Here Dirk Baecker, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Alexander Kluge, Maren Lehmann and Rudolf Stichweh remember him and explore the topicality of his thinking. page

Niklas Luhmann (8. Dezember 1927 - 6. November 1998) Quelle: SZ Photo

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

For intellectuals of the younger generations, it is hard to imagine the intensity with which Niklas Luhmann's publications, but also Luhmann as a figure, provoked enthusiastic approval or indignant rejection over the last quarter of the twentieth century. This attention began with the famous lecture given by the lateral entrant to university life – Luhmann came from a family of brewers in Lüneburg and was initially an administrative lawyer – who questioned three central premises of the Frankfurt neo-Marxism that dominated the discipline at the 1968 Sociology Conference.

In place of the seemingly unavoidable Concept of Society as a group of individuals, he introduced a universal concept of the "system", which encompassed societies as well as individuals and was defined by the processing of challenges in the respective system environment; the structures of the systems were not to emerge from actions, but from their "self-organization" reacting to the environment; and the goal of system analysis was a "higher complexity" of the description provided instead of political change.

What activated both indignation and agreement in this position was the alienation effect of a philosophical design that dispensed with a concept of the human being as a starting point. The effect converged with Luhmann's forms of self-presentation, which were perhaps meant ironically but were taken quite seriously by antagonists and supporters alike, who referred, for example, to the possible combinations of a Zettelkasten and not to his own consciousness as the energy center of his intellectual productivity.

As Luhmann consistently pursued these elementary intuitions in the direction of a philosophical system of all systems with the vanishing point of a coherent and all-encompassing explanation of the world, the controversies dwindled. Intellectual Germany followed his essays and books like the chapters of a serialized novel and developed sympathy for the serene author of their elegant prose. Luhmann's death brought the process to an abrupt end. The predicted international reception failed to materialize. It goes without saying that the productivity of the Zettelkasten, which had risen to mythical status, did not outlive its owner. And even the Wikipedia reference to Luhmann as a "classic of sociology" now seems like an echo from the distant academic past.

Whether sociology and philosophy would have been well advised to continue to focus on his work is a question for specialist histories. It has little to do with Luhmann's legacy. Rather, a look back at the time of his singular fascination shows what power the beauty of thought can unfold, beauty according to Immanuel Kant as the impression of "purposefulness without purpose." It was precisely in this sense that Luhmann's thinking triggered hopes of practical relevance, which he himself had little interest in. From the perspective of aesthetic appreciation, he is certainly one of the great thinkers of the German tradition – like Hegel or Marx, without whose counter-impulses he might have remained an administrative lawyer.

Maren Lehmann

In his efforts to keep his distance, it is perhaps impossible to think of a more outmoded author. Luhmann needs distance, and Luhmann also creates distance. In both, he proves himself to be a sociologist par excellence – a science without distance would be condemned to first-order observations, to simple statements, it would stick to its subject, it would never have questions, would never be worried, never critical. It would be know-it-all and dogmatic, but it would not be sociology.

There are no signs in Luhmann's work, and certainly no preference for such authoritarian stickiness. From his earliest texts, presented as intellectual provocations in a joking style, he has known how to play on the freedoms of the outsider. This reveals a style of observation and expectation with a downright affinity for disappointment, which he himself called "cognitive" and honed throughout his life: adaptive, almost studious thinking.

Luhmann's style is both fearless and conciliatory, never confidential, never presumptuous, always open – with a precision that cannot be discouraged by anything. There is not the slightest hint of a need for affirmation or affiliation, nor any speculation of sympathy or closeness. Luhmann even warns against any hope of warming aspects of sociality, because it could serve as a pretext for confidences and discourage their rejection – and because it could lead to an ideologization of the internal view, to alienation aversion and xenophobia, to anxious vanity of habitual inferiority.

These warnings accumulate and intensify in his later texts. The anachronistic drama of the "restriction of degrees of freedom" fixated on belonging and origin seems to attract an ever wider audience, while the "symphony of intransparency" is perceived and discredited as unpalatable noise. On this crucial issue, Luhmann teaches aural education, through a single unspectacular instrument, a single elegant stylistic device: through abstraction, the objective sister of social distance. It is associated with the horror of incomprehensibility and is reviled as a gesture of arrogance; but it dissolves all narrowness. What, if not that, is contemporary?

Rudolf Stichweh

In one of Luhmann's seminars that I attended, the slightly provocative question arose as to what he thought about genetic engineering. Luhmann pondered, as so often with a hint of theatricality, and then said "If the ability to learn is preserved ...!". In this exchange, the whole of Luhmann was present in nuce: the suspicion of technology, the morally exaggerated alternative, a Luhmannian evasive maneuver, ironic distance in an unanticipated answer.

But it was meant seriously. Luhmann was deeply convinced of the ability to learn. It was a human characteristic that could not be improved. It was a condition for coping with double contingency. It was the only way to master the complexity "that comes into the world with the existence of a free alter ego". The ability to learn is the preferred side in one of Luhmann's most original distinctions, that of normative and cognitive expectations, which Luhmann read in the meaning of a primacy of cognitive, learning expectations in world-social modernity.

And this applies to all functional systems: they must adapt to normative foundations that offer space for the free play of cognitive learning. Positive law and the hypothetical truth claims of science are apt examples of this. At one point, Luhmann speaks of the "supreme commandment of all sciences" in a style that is unusual for him: "Accept no restriction on the ability to learn!" He adhered to this.

Criticism was received with curiosity. The self-assured attitude of the great thinker was completely alien to him. The famous, "You can change everything, even if not everything at once", which programmatically introduced his version of sociological enlightenment, also applied to his own theory. And interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, the most important guarantors of modern science's ability to learn, were daily practice for him, while at the same time being aware and insisting that these learning processes were always about variations in sociology.

Schlechter Rat ist teuer. woz

Dirk Baecker

25 years after the death of Niklas Luhmann, one would not only like to know how his theory would have developed, but also how he would have commented on the world situation. During the war in Yugoslavia, he dismissed the audience of his lecture with the wish that they would find a quiet place from which to observe events in the world. Shortly after reunification, he recommended in a feature article that Bebra, as a railroad hub (freight transport) in the middle of Germany, should become the new capital. Who knows what hubris the politicians and the city of Berlin would have been spared!

Luhmann was able to complete his thirty-year project of developing a theory of society with the publication of The Society of Society a year before his death. But he did not finish. His last book is the prelude to a further phase in the development of a theory that we urgently need today. It began in the 1960s with Edmund Husserl's interest in reducing complexity through self-reference, a self-reference, incidentally, that did not imply withdrawal but responsibility. This was followed in the 1970s by Talcott Parsons' interest in the functional equivalence, i.e. interchangeability, of structures, and in the 1980s by Humberto Maturana and Heinz von Foerster's interest in the limited structural coupling of closed systems to their environment.

Finally, the book on the society of societies is the preliminary culmination of the reception of George Spencer-Brown's formal calculus in the 1990s. Now the two-sided form of differentiation moves to the center of the theoretical architecture. How does the control of an intransparency that self-referential systems generate work in order to be able to control them? Paradox is still the most reliable guide. Society does not consist of self-contained elements, be they people, actions or communication. It is restless, incomplete and unreliable.

What would the formal calculus of a society look like that not only has to deal with the climate catastrophe, with wars, with migration, with algorithms, with its patriarchal and colonial past and present, but is itself responsible for each of these phenomena? How dysfunctional are their functions, how functional are their dysfunctions? Are we experiencing the obsolescence of a modernity differentiated into functional systems? What comes next? Luhmann would presumably have held on to his card index, which works analogously with multivalent distinctions. Will we one day have an intelligence that can hold a candle to Luhmann's work with and in his card index?

Alexander Kluge

In the winter semester of 1988, Luhmann stood in for Th. W. Adorno, who had a semester off, in his seminar. One evening, Th. W. Adorno and Niklas Luhmann met off duty in a pub.

They agreed to have dinner together in the Rheingold wine bar opposite the entrance to the opera house. Luhmann thought the invitation was a gesture of courtesy on Adorno's part; if he was already representing him this semester, it would be hard to avoid seeing each other. But it turned out that Luhmann was wrong. Adorno had not sought this contact out of courtesy, but in a situation of vital necessity.

Luhmann ordered Rhenish sauerbraten. Adorno, who had asked to pay the bill, chose a bottle of Palatinate wine and a rump steak à la Voltaire. Luhmann considered ordering this dish to be philosophical and not based on appetite. He later examined the wine list and saw that Adorno's choice of wine had also been guided by his thoughts and not his tongue. He had ordered the most expensive wine to emphasize the value of the encounter. This is how Luhmann later described his impression.

His lover had left him. Adorno related his experience to anyone who was willing to listen. He had the intention, he explained to Luhmann, to write a GENEALOGY OF FIDELITY IN LOVE SITUATIONS before completing his AESTHETIC THEORY, before beginning preparations for the seminar (promised to Horkheimer and the students) on the cultural industry chapter of the "Dialectic of Enlightenment" in the winter semester of 1969 and also before putting down his notes on the DIALEKTIK VON SUBJEKT UND OBJEKT BEI HEGEL. He could do this in parallel with Luhmann's SOCIOLOGY OF LOVE. Luhmann objected that the seminar was now called LOVE AS PASSION. AN EXERCISE. All the better, Adorno replied, then his and Luhmann's work could be published together and thus - in a counter-movement to the student zeitgeist, namely concentrating on the essentials, as an example of GREAT COOPERATION, so to speak - present a double semester result, set a public example.

But Luhmann said that you can't tell your personal love stories in public. How should he behave in practice, Adorno asked back. He would not be able to endure life without his lover. The restoration (restitutio in integrum) of the relationship was also necessary in order to alleviate the horrible thought that he was over, whether physically or mentally. Luhmann had the situation described to him.

It was obvious that the lover, who lived in another city, was in financial difficulties. She had made extremely offensive remarks because she must have found the separation from Adorno difficult. Or else she was a person who was not familiar with decisions and separations and therefore tended to take the wrong tone in this situation. Luhmann advised the offer of an apanage, a generous financial endowment for the friend. Then, after a period of friendship, the former intimacy could be sought again. The apanage should not be presented in a relationship of performance and consideration, but as an expression of loyalty that sets generosity against insult and also demands loyalty from the other side.

Luhmann's dark, quick eyes moved "empathetically", protected behind the narrow horn-rimmed glasses, a type of eyewear that had emerged in the early 1940s and had since been brought into a modern façon; it gave the scholar's narrow "Roman" face a "reserved" expression. Adorno's eyes were without such protection. They gazed calmly and intently at his counterpart with surprisingly few movements.


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