A Theory of Society

Luhmann speaks of four “epistemological obstacles . . . to be found in the prevailing understanding of society in the form of four interconnected, mutually reinforcing assumptions:

(1) that society consists of actual people and relations between people

( 2 ) that society is constituted or at least integrated by consensus among human beings, by concordant opinion and complementary purpose

( 3 ) that societies are regional, territorially defined entities, so that Brazil as a society differs from Thailand, and the United States from Russia, as does Uruguay from Paraguay

( 4 ) that societies, like groups of people and like territories, can be observed from outside  (Theory of Society, vol 1.,  6)

I will explore the first obstacle in this post.

The most controversial claim made by Luhmann is that society consists not of “actual people and relations between people,” but rather communication–and only communication. Society is a communication system, and there are a number of distinct subsystems that have evolved; yet they are all “communication systems” (Luhmann, Introduction to Systems Theory, 28).

The first objection is always that there cannot be a human society without human beings. Of course, but they (or we) are only necessary preconditions; they are not society itself. In other words, society is not the aggregate of human beings. As Luhmann puts it, “Society does not weigh exactly as much as all human beings taken together, nor does its weight change with every birth and death” (Theory of Society vol 1, 7). This idea comes from Durkheim, who established sociology as a social science by setting it apart from economics, political science, utilitarian philosophy, biology, and psychology. Society is not formed and held together by voluntary contracts between human beings or between human beings and society–that is, as a Hobbesian or Rousseauian social contract.  

Yet people do matter to human social systems because human social systems are simultaneously dependent on and independent of human beings. In other words, social systems are simultaneously dependent on and independent of psychic systems, while psychic systems are simultaneous depend on and independent of organic systems.

Far from devaluing particular human beings, people gain a degree of freedom by not being participants in the social system. Where communication systems are concerned, people are free to come and go as they wish–and they do so by checking in and out of the communications of that social system. Yes, people are needed to keep communication going, but individual people are easily replaced. If one person walks away, or even dies, there will be someone new to take up the communication where the last person left off.

However, to head off another possible possible misconception, systems theory is not reductionist. Reductionism rests on the old whole/part distinction. For systems theorists, society is not a whole that consists of human beings or social institutions or anything else as parts. Society is a communications system, and it presupposes consciousness; however, communication cannot be reduced to consciousness. Likewise, consciousness cannot be reduced to biology, biology cannot be reduced to chemistry, chemistry cannot be reduced to physics, and so on. Thus, the claim that social systems are autonomous and cannot be reduced to an aggregate of human actors is only a paradox if interpreted from a part/whole paradigm.

All systems are formed through a system/environment distinction, and psychic and biological systems belong to the environment of social systems. For example, human communication depends on adequate cerebral blood flow and properly functioning brains, yet when we talk to each other we don’t exchange brains, and pages of written text are not covered in cerebral blood. Adequate blood flow is a precondition for an author to write a text; however, as Luhmann nicely puts it, “An editor would reject an essay that came in a flood of blood  (Intro 191). Thus, the brain is a necessary precondition of communication, but at the same time the brain is absolutely excluded from communication. As soon an utterance has been made and understood by someone, even if “misunderstood,” the speaker has completely lost control over the information. The information enters into the communication system and is only answerable to further communication; it can only connect to other communication events. Once the utterance is understood or misunderstood (i.e., accepted as meaningful), it can be used as the premise for further communication, thus continuing the communicative system.

System are operationally closed; therefore, a element or event must be completely inside a system or completely outside, and if a speaker makes an utterance and then loses all control over the information, the speaker is not inside the communication system. As Luhmann writes, “If we accept the system/environment distinction, the human being as a living and consciously sentient being must be assigned either to the system or to the environment” (Theory of Society, vol 1, 9). And since we cannot assign ourselves to the communication system–because have no control over our communication after it is uttered and accepted as meaningful–we must remain in the environment of the communication (social) system. 


  1. Couple things. Great to have someone working with Luhmann’s ideas…

    What about Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the division between ‘dividual’ and individual, as well as the introduction of weak and strong AI within coming adaptations? Obviously the divorce between the dividual as the networked systems of references: the encyclopedia of data tags that are part of the vast catalogue of networked information of a individual become more important as time goes on. So that as we more and more externalize both our own and social intelligence, memory, and data as part of the communications systems it will necessarily require an analysis of these domains. I know Luhmann was only at the edge of this, as was D&G just before they died.

    In some ways Luhmann’s notions of communication coincide yet differ in aspect to Lacanian/Zizekian notions of Symbolic Order etc. As well as current thinking within those like Brassier/Negerastani who take the Sellars/Brandom path of negotiation rather than communications.

    Either way much to ponder again… been a while since I read Luhumann. Must revisit… good to have your thoughts published.


    1. Thanks, S.C. I wish I was better read in philosophy. I’m not a philosopher by training. I haven’t made it all the way through D&G’s Thousand Plateaus, though the chapters I read in grad school really shook up, in a good way, and helped me complete my dissertation on hypertext fiction 15 years ago. What I know about Zizek and Lacan comes from listening to Levi talk. But what say about ” externalizing own and social intelligence, memory, and data.” I need to think more on this.


      1. Sure, I understand. Yea, I was thinking more about how we are less learned than our forbears a hundred years ago, or even the men or women of the enlightenment. With the slow demise of ‘book’ culture, knowledge is becoming more continuous and externally located in the hive of the internet – let’s say the Wiki-Syndrome… a sort of universal book or encyclopedic sociality or general intellect (Marx). And yet, as well, one sees weak AI or distributed agents beginning to take over some of the functions of memory and decision that humans used to take for granted. And, in times to come 20-40 years Strong AI that is equal or greater than human intelligence and know-how will even begin to govern and self-organize data, information, and the social brain of the internet in ways we have as yet not imagined. Luhmann’s theories of societies and communication feed into this with his notion of operator and decision, etc. So think through his notions for politics… been rereading Michael King and Chris Thornhill’s Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Politics and Law recently. Is a good refresher… I have his last two volume Theory of Religion and Theory of Society I need to begin again, too.

        Yep, Levi covered him in Democracy of Objects partially as concerning the ontological aspects relating to his own adventure… was good.


  2. I’ve been reading a couple of journal articles by Thornhill, along with Luhmann’s “Political Theory in the Welfare State.”

    The distributed memory issue is interesting. Luhmann talks about how memory is not about storage, but about forming prediction schemata, or something to that effect. There’s also the idea that all memory is social or collective; so the idea that we actually store memories in our brains apart form a social system is an illusion. Sorry if this is incoherent. i just wanted to post some kind of reply before I have take my daughter out to play.


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