Ontology as a schema of observation

The distinction between being and nonbeing is now replaced as primary distinction, completely implausible from an ontological point of view, by the distinction between inside and outside or that between self-reference and other-reference. For according to the new version, an observer has first to be produced before he can apply the being/nonbeing distinction. (Luhmann, Theory of Society, vol 2, 195).

Image result for difference

The distinction system and environment and the re-entry that produces self-reference and other–reference must precede the observation of being. For present purposes, let’s think of observing systems. How is an observing system produced? By drawing a system/environment distinction. This distinction allows the differentiation between self-reference and other-reference, which, then, allows for observation.

Back to Luhmann:

The prevailing view of the world in old Europe can be described as ontology. . . . [The] predominance of the ontological mode of observation is demonstrated alone by the fact that paradox was invented to defend Eleatic ontology and thus treated from the outset as a disturbance if not error in reasoning to be avoided; and, moreover, that bivalent logic, which ontology had relied on to block reflection, was unquestionable accepted until very recently.

By ontology, I mean the result of a mode of observation that operates on the basis of a distinction between being and nonbeing and that subordinates all other distinctions to this one. This distinction finds its inimitable plausibility in the assumption that only being is, and that nonbeing is not. This is then taken over in logic as the law of the excluded middle [tertium non datur]. . .  

For present purposes, ontology is defined as an observation schema that orients itself on the distinction between being and nonbeing, and thus independently of the very different ways in which philosophy has treated the concept. This means above all that the distinction between being and nonbeing is and remains dependent on a primary operational separation, namely, of observation (or observer) from what is observed. (Theory of Society, vol 2, 185)

What wait! Is Luhmann talking about subjects and objects? Definitely not. We must be careful not to equate this usage of term observer with the subject of the discredited subject/object worldview. This is why I want to think in terms of observing systems, which are not subjects.

Luhmann is arguing that the system/environment distinction precedes the being/nonbeing distinction because the observing system must first be produced (by itself!) before any observation can happen. A system produces and reproduces itself by marking a border between itself and its environment–which is everything else. Observation cannot happen without a distinction because “everything” cannot be observed at once, which means that an inclusion/exclusion schema is needed.  

Observation relies on a “blind spot” according to which the observation (and observer) cannot be observed, or the seeing than cannot be seen. A system can observe itself (autopoietic systems are self-observing systems); however, it cannot observe itself while it is observing something else. In systems theory (following George Spencer-Brown’s calculus of forms), distinction creates a two-sided form, a form with an inside and an outside. If this is true, then in order to observe being (the inside of the form), there must be something on the outside of the form, which is nonbeing.

Clearly, systems theory speaks of borders between system and environments. But classical ontology, with its exclusion of the middle, erases all borders. Anything in the middle, or whatever cannot be placed in one “natural” place or in one “natural” category or species, cannot exist–and if it does exist, it’s a monster. And anyone who steps out of his natural place be must be mad.

This line of thinking relates to the observation of time–and time can be observed in different ways. A system can draw a distinction between time and eternity or, alternatively, between past and future, which has a present in the middle. But if classical ontology, with its bivalent logic, excludes all middles, there can be no present. The present cannot exist in classical ontology; there is only time and eternity. But if a system, such as a society, draws a distinction between past and future and calls the present the difference between past and future, it observes time differently. And for systems theory, observation, as well as autopoiesis, happens only in the present.  There is no one right way to observe time; there are only differences that follow from different kinds of distinctions.

Classical ontology portrays the world as a whole that consists of parts–and the only indivisible “thing” is being. Moreover, each part has a designated place–and only one place. This is about the essence of things. Systems theory, in contrast, takes difference as its point of departure.  



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