Luhmann and the Body

Francis Halsall published a very interesting article in May 2012 in The New Bioethics titled “Niklas Luhmann and the Body: Irritating Social Systems.” Halsall argues,

In short, the body irritates social systems. In doing so it has the potential to disrupt their operations. Thus my argument rests on the claim that the body has a transcendent status in social systems that is important. That is, the body can irritate social systems by roving between them. In doing so the body can disrupt the apparently impersonal operations of social systems; and herein lies the possibility for a biopolitics of social systems. (5)

In one section of the article, Halsall provides an excellent discussion of Luhmann’s anti-humanism. He quotes Hans-Georg Moeller as follows:

“[Luhmann] characterizes himself as a radical antihumanist because he thinks that the humanist self-description of society has been fundamentally flawed from the start. The world has never been human, and thus there has never been a shift from a human to a post-human world.” (2012: 21)

Hence a comparison can be drawn between his own anti-humanism and other accounts of the contemporary moment such as the post-human condition discussed by Kathernine Hayles, Donna Harraway, Mark Hanson, Bruno Latour, et al. What such accounts propose is that the conditions of consciousness in the 21st century are post-human ones. This means that bodies are fully embedded (and perhaps subordinate to) complex social systems of communication and control; and that individual identity is not reducible to flesh-bags bordered by skin. . . .

For Luhmann the human . . . is, after all, just another system (what he calls a ‘psychic system’) alongside many others and has no priority either conceptually, empirically or transcendentally. Any priority or specialness of the human is rejected out of hand. (12-13)

So Luhmann is not a post-humanist because the concept of humanism was flawed from the beginning. (This reminds me of the title of one of Latour’s books: We Have Never Been Modern. Luhmann also argued against the concept of postmodernism, saying that there has been no real break from the modern). Also, Luhmann, contra some varieties of post-humanism or postmodernism, does not see the body (or mind) as subordinated to/fully conditioned by society. But I disagree with Halsall’s s claim that for Luhmann the human equates to the psychic system. The psychic system is the mind or consciousness, and all animals have psychic systems. The human is first of all a topic of communication, but we can also think of the human as the point or node where biological, psychic, and social systems come together. Luhmann refers to the human body as “a highly complex agglomeration of systems” (1995, p. 251). But whatever we call the human, humans (“meat” and consciousness ) are operationally closed and excluded from the communication system known as society. As Halsall puts it,

Social systems are closed and can only observe (and constitute) their environment in their own system-specific communications. Likewise the psychic system is closed and Luhmann says we must: “reject the assertion that consciousness is the subject. It is the subject only for itself” (1996: 221). The organic system of the body is also closed, and “what the human body is for itself we do not know” (1996: 245).

However, as Halsall rightly points out, humans can and do perturb social systems. The human body belongs to the environment of society, and anything in the environment of society can potentially perturb society. In Social Systems, Luhmann writes,

We are dealing with social, not psychic systems. We assume that social systems are not composed of psychic systems, let alone of bodily human beings. Therefore, psychic systems belong to the environment of social systems. Of course they are part of the environment that is especially relevant for the formation of social systems. (255)

But rather than just summarizing Luhmann, Halsall complicates Luhmann’s argument by arguing that the body migrates between social systems and crosses system boundaries. But I’m not sure I agree with him here. He gives the example of

the simple act of walking into a shop to buy a packet of cigarettes. This requires a complex negotiation of different systems such as: the economic system (in the transaction); the mass media system (in the advertisements for tobacco I may have seen and perhaps use to inform my choice); the legal system (given the legal status of tobacco) and so on. In all of these negotiations my body is not a neutral agent of impersonal communication; it is my body that crosses the road, walks into the shop and addresses the shopkeeper. And it is, after all, my body that the cigarettes will probably damage. Rather, my body engages in, observes, and is observed by, different systems at different times.

Luhmann’s argument is that systems have no grounding beyond communication and that information cannot cross system boundaries. However, the role of irritation that bodies perform in systems in turn irritates this abstract argument by demonstrating that bodies can and do cross these boundaries. (19)

I like the article as  whole very much; however, I have some questions about this aspect of the argument. It is true  that bodies (or organic systems) perturb and structurally couple with social systems and I understand interpenetration, but I don’t find the above example persuasive, and I wish he had offered other examples or arguments. In my view, when a person walks into a shop and purchases a pack of cigarettes the body is of course a necessary condition, but I think the body is still excluded from the communication systems. Halsall states that “it is my body that crosses the road, walks into the shop and addresses the shopkeeper.” Yes, I get the first two parts, but I don’t see how the body addresses the shopkeeper. Words are necessary for that. If the person never says anything, or never engages with society through language, there would have been no interaction/irritation. There also has to be an exchange of money–the symbolically generalized communication medium of the economic system. If I walk into a shop and just stand in front the counter, not much is going to happen other than being asked to purchase something or step aside. My body can be a physical obstacle to other people but not much more. I can then be fined for loitering or physically removed from the premises.

In closing, Halsall envisions further research and speculates that the human body may have

a transcendent (or quasi-transcendent) status in social systems that is more significant than it being a mere, what Husserl called, ‘little tag end of the world’ . . . left over after the operation of systems. That is, the body is not only the environment for social system but can also migrate between them and irritate them as it does so. When it does this the body can disrupt the hygiene of the apparently impersonal operations of social systems with a joyful, messy corporality with both aesthetic and political implications. (19)

I tend to resist the idea that the body has any transcendent status in social systems. I don’t think the body has any status at all in social systems other than as a necessary precondition for communication (or as a topic of communication). Yes, there is structurally coupling and perturbation, but the body can’t produce any direct causal effect in society. Whatever the body does is processed according to the codes and selectivity of the other system. This is where double contingency comes into play. I think there is something to Halsall’s argument. I just wish he had provided more support for the argument.  Then I may have been persuaded.  

When I think of bodies perturbing social systems, I think about the current controversy (in the U.S.) over access to restrooms that match gender identity rather than biological sex or birth-certificate gender assignment. The transgender issue is the latest battle in the civil rights movement. Now that the same-sex marriage issue has been legally resolved, transgender issues have come to the fore. I’m sure there is something here that applies to Halsall’s argument, but I can’t put my finger on it yet.


On further reflection, Halsall may be talking about reentry without using this term. As Reichal observes, biological systems reenter psychic and social systems. Biological systems reenter psychic system as emotion, and social systems as signs.


  1. I feel that your discussions on Halsall makes sense. I would, for example, also not assign a position transcendent to social systems to the body. Using the word transcendent in this way I feel is usually an attempt by writers to seek freedom. Pure freedom of the body would then be complete absence from personhood, in Luhmann’s sense. Of course, this is never true for any body for a period exceeding 20 seconds or so, unless dreamless sleeping are counted in. At the same time, the insight that indeed the body could be free if not engaged in one of the eight, as I suggest, basic social systems, could form the starting point for a thorough freedom-seeking life style. The body behind the counter is fine and without stress as long as it is aware of possessing the knowledge to act if a police officer is called in to remove the body. The body would always get away with a warning if he plays his cards wisely. Even if the officer is called in this should not lead to stress because the body that on top of being a body also is socially functional (i.e. makes sense, is resourceful, speaks clearly about his motives and alibis (“i was testing how free my body is -it wont happen again)”, maintains posture and reliably contributes to society’s friendly cooperation, will be respected by any authority under the humanism norm. Just a thought. Keep up the interesting postings here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter,

      Thanks for the feedback and encouragement. I always say that I’m not a Luhmann expert, so I appreciate constructive comments.

      But I’m not sure I’m clear on what you mean by “The body would always get away with a warning if he plays his cards wisely . . .” I see the body is just a amalgamation of biological system–immune system, limbic system, circulatory system, cellular systems, etc. I don’t think a body can intend anything, such as walking into a shop or speak to anyone. It can do things like digest food and pump blood and have knee-jerk reflexes, etc. But as soon as language or intention enters the picture, we are talking about a mind-society structural coupling.


      1. The way I see it is that the system you are observing, social, psychic or body, since you are always kind of in the psychic/social, while not in the body system. The psychic just differentiates social from body, as the body relates the social to the psyche. Whatever distinction is next must make itself known as distinction or there is no way of knowing where communication is headed. I agree that the body is immune system, limbic system, circulatory system, cellular systems, etc. But these are still all communicated words. It is a different thing to feel all these systems of the body inside the body while the words pass one by one. Since we’re not able to do so (for most such systems except perhaps when they are malfunctioning) we are tied to our psyche of observation and the sense-making structures of the system of communication while we write words back and forth. When we find ourselves (our body) in a store we are also tied to social and psychic. However, we might feel free to be one with our bodily systems, observing nothing and (attempting to) communicating nothing. This being one for extended perioids is of course an impossibility but still may be the only way to approach freedom (from psyche/social). Thats just my two cents though.


      2. “However, we might feel free to be one with our bodily systems, observing nothing and (attempting to) communicating nothing. This being one for extended periods is of course an impossibility but still may be the only way to approach freedom (from psyche/social.”

        This make sense. Thanks.

        I was also thinking about how the central nervous system, which as you say is a concept that is constructed through observation, limits the operations of the psychic system and, by extension, social systems. If, for example, my prefrontal cortex is damaged or impaired, the distinctions made by the psychic system will be perturbed. Also, the average lifespan a humans limits how much society can learn. If people lived 200 years, we might gain more understanding and society might be communicate better. Just speculation, of course.

        One more “also.” The image of the body standing in a shop and not saying anything or paying attention to anything brings to mind the sit-in movement of the early 1960s. Having a few people (who happened to have darker skin) sit at a lunch counter not saying anything other than maybe to ask for cup of coffee, seriously irritated society. Or consider the person standing in front the tank in Tienanmen Square.


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