Corpus mysticum, Stefan Rossbach essay

Stefan Rossbach has a wonderful chapter in Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics, edited by Mathias Albert & Lena Hilkermeir, 2004. The essay is titled “‘Corpus mysticum’: Niklas Luhmann’s Evocation of World Society.”

Rossbach, in discussing Luhmann’s links to early mystics and Gnosticism, has helped me realize why (despite the difficult, often dry reading) I felt an immediate affinity for Luhmannian theory. Back in the early 1980s, I was reading things like the Meister EckhartThe Cloud of Unknowing, and St John of the Cross, as well as Zen Buddhism and other Eastern mysticisms.  As a 20-year-old, I found St. John of the Cross’s negative theology, or via negativa, particularly fascinating.

Rossbach links Luhmann to mystics such as Jakob Boehme and Nicholas of Cusa. Here is one passage from Rossbach’s essay:

Contemplating the history of Western philosophy, Luhmann noted that 2,000 years of searching for “essence” had led to universal problematization of identity, unity, stability or of being in general. From now on, identity had to be understood as a system, i.e., as a structured openness to other possibilities. It is important  to appreciate that Luhmann’s understanding of “system” drew on a cluster of concepts that included . . . “being,” “identity,” and “problem.” A system was not, therefore, a preconditional or unconditional entity; it did not stand for a first or ultimate cause but instead represented a problematic invariance which required stabilization. And this stabilization, as a process, always occurred in an unstable environment and could proceed along various possible paths.

By implication, a universal systems theory based on these assumptions turns everything that appears self-evident into problems and all “essences” into functions. Understood as a methodological prescription, such a theory demands that one finds for every “thing” that is, i.e., for every identity, a reference point from which it can be questioned with regard to its replaceability. For Luhmann, this change of perspective entailed an advance in rationality because it was not based on the conviction that being (das Seiende), in some of its qualities, would remain as it was. The new perspective, in contrast, found reassurance in the conviction that being, under certain circumstances, did not have to remain itself. . . .

Thus Luhmann positioned himself at the very end of an unsuccessful 2,000-year search for “essence.” From now on, contingency had to be understood as the very center of being. (45-46).

The via negativa, or apophatic theology, proceeds by contemplating what God is not. In systems theoretical terms, God has to remain in the blind spot. He cannot be observed. In the Hindu Vedanta tradition, there is the formula “Neti neti“–Not this, not this. The idea is to negate every possible conception or image of the Absolute. Whatever image or metaphor of idea of God that enters one’s mind must be answered with “Not this, not this.” God exists but cannot be observed or described. It is always “not this.” It is a being beyond all distinction.

Of course, systems theory is not a religion or philosophy of unity, but a theory of difference, or differentiation. It is not an ontology because any being or Being is subject to a further re-entry of the initial system/environment distinction. There are no non-contingent absolutes–no “ground of all being.”

Observation is a distinction that creates a blind spot, or unmarked space. Every act of seeing is also an act of not seeing. Observation distinguishes a marked space from an unmarked, undifferentiated, unobservable space. Any distinction can be re-entered, which means there are no unitary essences or entities. Any stable-seeming entity, or anything marked, may be split into marked and unmarked spaces. There is no limit to re-entry. 

Anytime we posit a God or end point to distinctions, we are engaging in self-deception. God has to be contingent–a something that could be something else.  God’s can always be negated.

According to Rossbach,

Luhmann was tired of 2,000 years of searching for essence, and he drew, for us, the final conclusion: there is none. Hence everything that is considered “normal,” everything that is taken for granted, has to be considered “unlikely.” The “normal,” “self-evident” grounds of everyday existence have to be dissolved and their unlikelihood and contingency exposed . . . (51)

Whatever exists could have been something else and can become something else. This is contingency. Nothing is settled. No one can ever have the last word. Any apparent stability represents resistance to being something else. Is was unlikely that anything ever became what it is when there were no many other possibilities.

In the last section of this essay, Rossbach argues that Luhmann made a mistake when he positing a world society as an all-encompassing social entity. He writes,

Luhmann’s vision of world society is breathtaking. It assumes that in spite of differences in language and culture, there is continuity and uniformity beneath the mumbles and stumbles produced daily all over the globe. Such a vision is particularly problematic for a theory that claims to begin theorizing with difference and with distinctions rather than identity. Moreover, Luhmann’s “argument” in Soziale Systeme is not an argument at all; it is a claim based on flawed reasoning. (53-54)

Rossbach may be correct here. I don’t know. But if there is a world society, this would have to be a marked space, the inner side of a distinction.


  1. You wrote: “if there is a world society, this would have to be a marked space.” I believe Urs Stahili addresses this issues in his article “The Outside of the Global:”

    Perhaps my own article on Luhmann and globalization would be of interest too:

    Thanks for your blog by the way. It’s great to read more about Luhmann. Please continue.


  2. Great post, I find it extremely interesting since I fell for Luhmannian theory just like You did. Same thing happened with Kenneth Gergens work on social constructionism. Luhmann is a difficult read but it certainly does its job reducing the complexity of society for us interested to study it.


    1. Thanks very much. I’ve noticed that a lot of “Luhmannians,” such as Hans-Georg Moeller, also write on subjects like Taoism. It’s an interesting linkage between East and West.


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