System Operations and Human Motives

When we say that social systems have their own cognitive capacity that is qualitatively different from the cognition of human beings, we mean social systems carry out operations that do not arise directly from human motives. For instance, the legal system’s only function is to draw and keep re-drawing the distinction between the legal and the illegal. A law firm, in contrast, is an organization with a particular purpose, which may be to make a money for the partners or to make the world a more just place or something else. Similarly, an attorney may have motives such as promoting justice, getting rich, becoming famous, advancing civil rights, getting to know criminals in order to write novels about crime, or something else. But the motives or the law firm and the attorney are not the motives of the legal system.

To take another example, the mass media’s only function is to distinguish between new information and what is already known (or non-information). A journalist working for a mass media organization might have motives similar to the attorney, but those aren’t the motives of the mass media system. A newspaper, television network, website, or movie studio will also have motives for existing; typically it is to make money. A person can be expelled (fired, excommunicated, kicked out, etc.) from an organization if she doesn’t contribute to the organization’s purpose. But the motives of organizations and people do not drive a social system’s operations. In other words, a social system is not the extension or product of human or organizational goals.

Social systems do not have purposes other than to reproduce themselves. The legal system creates and maintains the difference between the legal and the illegal, and in this way reproduces itself from moment to moment. The mass media system creates and maintains the difference between information and non-information, and in this way reproduces itself.

The very concept of purpose or telos, according to Dirk Baecker, derives from early literate society–that is, the social form between oral society and printing press society. This is when ontology was invented. The idea was to find the true nature or substance of a thing, or whatever is durable beneath changing qualities. These days, when most people don’t believe that humans were created by God to fulfill some special purpose or place in the cosmos, telos has been taken up by organizations. Companies, schools, political parties, professional organizations, sports teams, etc., have purposes; they may even have have mission statements. And people often find their purpose by joining some organization–something larger than themselves.


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