Draw a Distinction!

Luhmannian systems theory, as distinguished from the systems theory of the 1950s-60s, begins with the injunction to “draw a distinction.” Luhmann, following George Spencer-Brown, takes this injunction as his point of departure.

In systems theory, the first distinction drawn is between system and environment. Luhmann’s theory of society does not begin with unitary systems that are combinable into larger systems, but rather with difference--specifically, the system/environment difference. We don’t begin with small systems (e.g., family units or social “building blocks”) and then build larger, more comprehensive systems. If systems were combinable into larger systems or super-systems, then we would be dealing with a whole/part distinction, rather the system/environment distinction.

Luhmann distinguishes between three broad classes of system: biological systems (also called living or organic systems), psychic systems (also called consciousness systems), and social systems. Luhmann, as a sociologist, focuses on social systems, and his magnum opus is his two volume Theory of Society. For Luhmann, society in general is a social system; however, many distinct, function (sometimes called functional) systems have evolved in modern (post-17th century) global society–e.g., Roth & Schütz (2015) list ten systems in contemporary global society–law, economy, politics, mass media, science, art, healthcare, education, religion, sport. for a list of ten systems.

Systems are known as autopoietic because they “make themselves,” or more specifically, they produce and reproduce themselves out of themselves; they produce their own elements out of their own elements. Social systems produce communication; psychic systems produce sensory perceptions, or consciousness; and biological systems (e.g., living cells and everything made of living cells) produce and reproduce themselves. We can think as a single human being (or any sentient, socialized being) as a synthesis (but not a combination) of organic systems (living systems of the body), consciousness (attention, awareness), and social communication. Humans communicate through complex language, while ants, for instance, communicate through chemical signals.

A system is not like an ordinary entity, or thing located in space that we can point to and describe; rather, a system is “the difference between a system and the environment” (Luhmann, Intro, p. 187) or “the form of the difference between system and environment” (Theory of Society, 73). All systems form themselves by drawing their own boundaries between system and environment. Moreover, a system, in order to perpetuate its own existence in time, or to reproduce itself in an evolutionary sense (i.e., achieve autopoiesis), must continually reproduce its system/environment distinction.

In terms of autopoiesis, systems engage in a threefold evolutionary process: variation, selection, and reestablishment of stability. Moreover, systems differentiate between self-observation and other-observation. Self-reference and other-reference are produced by the reentry of the system/environment distinction back into the system. Admittedly, this is all very abstract; however, the theory has to be abstract in order to be generalizable to all types of systems.

Social Systems theory puts a lot of emphasizes the temporal dimension. Systems produce and reproduce themselves in time, or we can speak of a system as observing time through its own distinctions. Time is not a given. Time is an observation produced by a distinction–the distinction between before and after.

A concept a time isn’t just founded on a metaphor, such as a circle or a line. A distinction must be made (Risk: A Sociological Theory, p. 33).  For social systems, the traditional, “old fashioned” temporal schema rested on a distinction between eternity and time (aeternus and tempus). From this perspective, a person’s lifetime is carved out of eternity. Finite beings live in time (immanence), not eternity (transcendence). In this distinction, the past is not meaningfully distinguished from the present. Thus, the “sins of the fathers”  or “original sin” live on in what we moderns would call the present. The future is not a source of anxiety or concern because time simply unfolds and current decisions and plans cannot alter this unfolding. With this old time/eternity schema, time was an unfolding or revealing, a revelation, of something that already exists, like an acorn growing into an oak tree. Prophesy was persuasive because it simply described what lies waiting for us in time. Fate could not be altered, but on the other hand, because the past is not actually in the past–it never goes away–the past can be changed through acts such as confession and forgiveness (Luhmann ). In another example, a marriage can be annulled, meaning it never actually happened in the eyes of the Church. 

It’s not accurate to say that “pre-modern” societies conceived of time as cyclical while modern societies perceive time as linear. The truth is that the pre-modern and modern senses of time are both linear, but in different ways. The difference is that for the older schema the past remains with us in the present, which is why the past can be changed by confession and forgiveness; our sins can be absolved or washed away. In contrast, for us moderns, the present is continually receding into the past, and we constantly search for the new. We no longer believe that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

For a society that believes there is nothing new under the sun, creativity or novelty not relevant. Modern communication, which is another way of saying modern society, is future-oriented. We want to know what’s coming next. As listeners or readers, we are drawn into a narrative because we want to know how it will end. In contrast, for pre-modern narratives the endings would be known. The story might function pedagogically–that is, there might be moral to the story–and the important stories could, or should, be told over and over. Before widespread literacy, that was the only way to keep the stories alive. 

For modern society, or the society created by the printing press, the present is the difference from the past, and the past and present are created by the same distinction. It’s not something that can be measured because any unit of time can be further divided. Nanoseconds can be divided into far smaller units, but the process is endless. The present is a just a difference. The future is an imagined present. It can also be an imagined past as we imaginatively leap forward past one future present.

Modern society invented “the twin horizons of the past and the future” (Risk, p.35).

So, we can ask, Why did society switch from the time/eternity temporal distinction to past/future distinction? It likely had to with increased social complexity, which came with the invention of the printing press and the rapid spread of literacy. 

In a less complex society, the distinction between past and future wasn’t needed because society didn’t change much. And memory, insofar as it extended beyond one person’s lifetime, could only be held in stories that had to be retold. As social complexity increases, society makes new distinction to try to control or reduce that complexity. And modern society employ functional differentiation (and lots of other distinctions) to reduce complexity. Evidently, the old distinction of eternity/time proved inadequate to account for rapidly increasing social change, or social acceleration. And if a society cannot handle its increasing complexity, it breaks down–it dissolves into its undifferentiated environment. 


  1. Hey there.
    Is there a particular text Luhmann discusses the pre-modern understanding of time you outline here or does that come from elsewhere? I’d appreciate having a source to reference for uni if you could offer some direction.
    Great work on the blog by the way, I’m really happy to have found this if only for knowing someone (rightly) considers it a worthwhile effort.
    All the best.


    1. Thanks for the comment–and thanks especially for reading! I’m pretty sure the reference to time and eternity, or different ways of constructing time, comes from the book “Risk: A Sociological Theory.” Yes, I see that it’s discussed in chapter 2 of that book.


      1. Mate, the readings a thrill, thanks for writing – the articles and the reply! I was chuffed to see you’ve kept up the posts here since this entry. Sorry for not checking back sooner, I assumed there’d be an email notification with your reply.

        Risk is one of the Luhmann translations I’m yet to get hold of. I was jumping between the indexes of the volumes on the shelf hoping for a source, but there we go. Is there any chance I could contact you by email for a copy of that passage and front matter to cite? A big ask from the blog comment section, I know, but there’s not a lot of Luhmann’s work in my uni libraries’ catalogue unfortunately. I make do with buying the books when I can; they’re worth it but still elusive on the student budget.


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