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).

The observer is produced through the system/environment distinction, which is a kind of inside/outside distinction. The observing system can observe its environment, and through re-entry, it can observe itself, as the self becomes something other than the observer. The system/environment distinction is repeated within the system to produce self-observation or self-reference. The distinction between system and environment and the re-entry that produces self-reference and other–reference must precede the observation of being and non-being. A self observing itself is a paradox when we look at both side of the distinction at once. If we want to actually think about a self observing itself, we have to pick one side of the distinction, and this takes time. It takes time to cross over the border being of the distinction. A different is created between the observing self and the observed self–two different selves.

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)

We must be careful not to equate this usage of the term observer with the subject of the discredited subject/object worldview. Instead, we must think in terms of observing systems, which are not subjects. The observer is a system, not a subject.

Luhmann is arguing that the system/environment distinction precedes or allows 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” because everything cannot be observed at the same time.

If we try to observer both sides of a distinction simultaneously, we see a paradox, which is a logical dead-end because we must choose one side of the distinction in order to think. A paradox, such as “It is forbidden to forbid,” is a logical dead-end; therefore, classical logicians outlawed paradoxes.

In order to prevent paradoxes, metaphysics privileges one side of each opposition, meaning that one side comes first as the origin of the other side. Thus, being precedes non-being; something must first exist before it ceases to exist. It doesn’t go from non-being to being, but rather from being to nonbeing. And in the Garden of Eden story, Adam is created before Eve, who comes from one of Adam’s ribs. Something must be present before it can be absent. Also, the full reality, not just a version of it, is supposed to be accessible to an observing subject. We can also know what someone is thinking based on what they say; their thoughts are accessible to us. This is the “metaphysics of presence” targeted by Derrida. In order to conceive of presence we must first have the concept of absence; however, this doesn’t mean absence precedes presence. Rather, the two concepts arise together. Even if we read or hear something and don’t care what the speaker or writer was actually thinking, language relies on network of signifiers that is inaccessible to us, and the meaning we construct is based on differences within those signifiers.

Furthermore, classical ontology portrays the world as a whole that consists of parts–and the only thing indivisible is being. Systems theory, in contrast, takes difference as its point of departure.  


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