More thoughts on complexity

I found this comment posted on the Niklas Luhmann Group to be very helpful:

A system can only be less complex than the environment otherwise it couldn’t make a difference between itself and the environment. But by reducing complexity the system can also increases complexity (like the alphabet reduces our vocal complexity to some letters but it offers also nearly unlimited options to combine those letters to build new words)–Bjarne Schreiber

The complexity issue is about media and form. The letters in the alphabet are medial substratum and words are forms. Letters are used to create one word, then decomposed (unlinked, uncoupled) and reused in different sequences to create other words. The media must be reusable; letters, obviously, can’t just be used to make one word and trapped there forever. In this sense, the letters are not “parts” of the word; they aren’t like machine parts. They are a media, like the iron or metal that machine parts might be made of. The machine could be broken down and the parts melted down (returned to material substratum) and new parts could be made for some other machine.

In spoken language, we have phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and other elements that are combined into meaningful language.

Morpheme: any of the minimal grammatical units of a language, each constituting a word or meaningful part of a word, that cannot be divided into smaller independent grammatical parts, as the, write, or the -ed of waited.

Phoneme: any of a small set of units, usually about 20 to 60 in number, and different for each language, considered to be the basic distinctive units of speech sound by which morphemes, words, and sentences are represented. They are arrived at for any given language by determining which differences in sound function to indicate a difference in meaning, so that in English the difference in sound and meaning between pit and bit is taken to indicate the existence of different labial phonemes, while the difference in sound between the unaspirated p of spun and the aspirated p of pun, since it is never the only distinguishing feature between two different words, is not taken as ground for setting up two different p phonemes in English.

Lexeme: a minimal meaningful unit of language, the meaning of which cannot be understood from the meaning of its component morphemes. Take off (in the senses to mimic, to become airborne, etc) is a lexeme, as well as the independent morphemes take and off.

In meaning-based systems (psychic and social systems) the element can also be called a communication event. It consists of three selections–information, utterance, and understanding. The system makes the selections. The synthesis of these three selections produces meaning; it is a non-decomposable unit of meaning, and it vanishes in the same moment that is emerges. As an element, it has no temporal duration. The meaning event (element) must be replaced by a subsequent meaning event in order for the system to reproduce itself.

For psychic systems, the element is a thought. Thought are only meaningful when there are preceding thoughts to link to and the expectation of subsequent thoughts. But the thought itself has no duration. It’s an event. Structure is the linking of the event to a before and after. The meaning event must refer to previous meanings and expected meanings; this is self-referentiality. The systems refers to its own elements, and it makes new elements out of “old” elements. This also is described in terms of redundancy. As King and Thornhill write,

The redundant aspect of communication becomes structure, providing the means for a communication to be recognized as belonging to the system. The event relies on this recognition for its inclusion as communication belonging to the system.

Temporality allows the formation of structure. The temporal dimension allows for before and after. A unit of meaning is only meaningful within this temporal dimension. The element only exists because there was a preceding meaning unit and there is an expectation of subsequent meaning units.

Expectation and memory are structures. Memory is not a storehouse of images or facts; it is a structure that allows meaning to happen–it is the before of the before/after distinction. The after is the expectation.

Structure is established through a re-entry of the system/environment distinction into the prior distinction. That is to say, the distinction of before/after re-enters the system, which allows meaning to be assigned to either before or after–these are the only two options. Since a meaning unit, or elements of communication, vanishes in the same moment that it appears, the system can only observe before and after. As Luhmann writes,

[The] concept of of autopoietic closure makes it possible to understand the function of enforced binary choices. The system can continue its autopoiesis or it can stop it. It can can continue to live, to produce conscious states, to communicate with the alternative to come to an end. There are, with respect to autopoiesis, no third states. (Autopoiesis of Social Systems,” in Essays on Self-Reflection, p. 13)

For a system to increase its complexity it must specialize, or develop an inclusion/exclusion scheme. “The system invents a choice, which did not exist without it.”

For example, through the invention of property, the economic system created a forced choice between ownership and non-ownership. The economy is about having and not-having. Following the law of the excluded middle, or tertium non datur, there is no third option. The having/not-having form can only be crossed by a payment, which is a communication event. This event, like a meaning unit, has no duration. The economy reproduces itself by linking one payment-event to another payment-event. A payment is the non-decomposable unit of the economic system. Is is also called the symbolically generalized communication medium of the economy.

The economy specializes in monetary payments. If the economy observes something as a monetary payment, the system includes it, or treats it as meaningful (the economy, being a social system, is meaning-based). For the economy, complexity is the linkage or payments in all sorts of ways. There are nearly unlimited possibilities for linking payment to payment. So by excluding everything else, such a morality, religion, politics, and love, the economy has been able to establish great complexity. The economy makes itself less complex that its environment (creates a complexity differential) by observing everything as either a payment or not-a-payment. If it’s not a payment, it must remain in the economy’s environment. It’s a strict either/or without a third possibility. This simplicity then allows the economy to create its own complexity through reentry.

The advantage of money over a barter economy is that monetary payments may be very quickly circulated. The money can be immediately reused. But if you give me a chicken in payment for eight hours of work, I cannot easily trade that chicken for fuel to heat my house. Another advantage is that monetary payments have no memory. This means that the economy doesn’t know how I obtain the money I spend. Only the law takes notice of that. By excluding moral considerations, the economy enhances its efficient circulation of payments.

However, there are limits to a system’s complexity, as described in the complexity-sustainability trade-off.


  1. Hiya I’ve just joined the group and unsure if this is an accepted way to communicate – please let me know.
    You say above that ego selects both information and utterance and I’m unsure how you reconcile this with what Luhmann says :-
    Luhmann SSp139 “…this metaphor {transmission} exaggerates the identity of what is ‘transmitted’. If one uses it, he is misled to believe that the information transmitted is the same for the sender and the receiver. There might be some truth in this. But this sameness is not guaranteed by the content of the information; instead, it is constituted only in the communication process. The identity of an information must be conceived in a way that is compatible with the fact that it means something very different for the sender and the receiver…. ”
    I understand him to be saying that ego (although he uses ‘alter’ first) makes an utterance, that utterance is noticed, or not, and at that point becomes information which, if noticed, may become understanding, including (particularly amongst psychic systems: people) misunderstandings.
    Maybe an example from a different System (capital to indicate specific usage) may be useful. Flowers make an utterance when the flower producing both attractor (smell or display) which may be noticed by something which (bee, bird etc.) is clearly not of that System but which is made into part of the System when it responds (takes the information) to the attractor and takes/gives the pollen. The understanding of flower and bee are very different but during that event are created as elements of the System by the System itself.
    Sorry if I have wandered into the composition of the System and Elements (which you may not agree with) as well but I think we have to stay within Luhmanns Theory where things have specific meanings.


    1. Thanks very much for the clarification. I completely agree. I will revise this post. I’m constantly revising, and reader comments help a lot. I also like your flower example very much. It shows the universality of the theory.


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