What is meant when we talk about action?

[W]hat is meant when we talk about action? You will recall that I always develop concepts from the standpoint of the observer who has to decide what distinction he wants to use to define action, if “action” is supposed to mean something specific. (Luhmann. Introduction to Systems Theory, 183)

There is a lot packed into this short quote. First of all, we begin with meaning–What is meant . . . ? So we are not dealing with what something is, but what is meant we an observer indicates something. The question is not what is action, but what is meant when we talk about action.  We are dealing with communication, not ontology. We don’t care what an action is, or what a rock is, or what a book is. We care about what is meant when we we talk about action, rocks, and books. We are also talking about observation and observing systems. A system can observe rocks, books, etc. And in order to operate socially, the system would need to communicate something about that observation. So we can what is observing and what distinction is being used to observe.

That is to say, as a second-order observer, we can ask what distinction is being used. What is marked in the two-sided form? For now we don’t care what is relegated to the unmarked side.

So why do we care more about communication than action? Because we are talking about a theory of society, not a theory of human beings or actions. Actions can be carried out independently of society. One person alone can perform an action. I can hammer a nail or scramble an egg. But communication can only happen in a social system. Communication is not simply an utterance, nor is it a transference of information; it is the synthesis of utterance, information, and understanding. Understanding is a selection from a surplus of possible meanings.

Communication, of course, is not limited to communication by language. Offering money for a service or a grade for school work counts as communication.

Another reason for focusing on communication rather than action is that action is very hard to pin down. We don’t know where to separate an action from its effects, nor do we know exactly when or why an action begins. Luhmann refers to the problem with the external limitation and the problem with the internal limitation of action.

As far as external limitation is concerned, it is not clear to me which consequences are part of the action and which are not. Where exactly does the chain of consequences break off, so that one can actually say that up to this point everything is action and beyond it everything is effect and no longer belongs to the action itself. (184)

If I put a car in neutral and let it roll down a steep hill and crash into a parked police car, have I caused the damage to the police car, or did the force of the car rolling down the hill cause the damage? I’m not strong enough to damage that police car.

The internal limit has to do with the question of motivation. Normally one talks of action only if one can find a motivation, or . . . only if the intention of the actor can be fixed and this the action can be attributed to an intention. For this reason, there is the tendency to formulate “action”in terms of a theory of attribution. . . . In this case, one must ask the question of what these motives consist. (185)

Causality is a scheme of observation. Did I put the car in neutral and allow it roll down the hill because I wanted to wreck the police car? Did I do it because my brain lacks the necessary neurotransmitters to inhibit certain impulses? Did I do it because I wanted to test one of Newton’s laws of motion? To offer an answer is to make an attribution. If that attribution (information) is offered as a meaningful utterance and understood, then communication has happened.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.