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. If systems were combinable into larger systems or super-systems, then we would be dealing with a whole/part distinction, which is part of a spatial observation schemata. Systems do engage in structural coupling with systems in their environments, and this facilitates system evolution. But structural coupling is not combination.
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, functional systems have evolved in modern society–e.g., law, economy, politics, mass media, science, art, etc.
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 that we can point to and describe; rather, a system is “the difference between a system and the environment” (Luhmann, Intro 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 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.
The observation of time is produced by a particular distinction. 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, not eternity. 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.”
While the traditional construction of time was based on a eternity/time distinction, the “modern” temporal schema rests on two schemes: present/past and present/future. In both cases, the present is a difference. Narratives as we know them today presuppose the present/past and present/future codes. An optimistic will focus on progress and improvement, while a pessimist will focus on decline, degeneration, and nostalgia. We are drawn into a fictional narrative because we want to know how it will end. In contrast, pre-modern narratives functioned more pedagogically–there was supposed to be moral to every story–and the important stories could, or should, be told or read over and over.
If all or any of this is true, we can ask the question, Why did social systems switch from the time/eternity temporal schema to the present/past and present/future schemes? It likely had to with increased social complexity. As social complexity increases, society constructs schemata to handle or try to control/reduce that complexity. And social systems employ functional differentiation to structure complexity. Evidently, the old schema of eternity/time proved inadequate to account for rapidly increasing social change, or social acceleration. And if a system cannot handle its increasing complexity, it breaks down–it dissolves into its undifferentiated environment.