The factual, temporal, and social dimensions

The fact (or factual) dimension is about drawing a distinction that allows an observer to indicate (intend or make a selection from a surplus of possibilities) one thing while ignoring every other possibility. However, the other possibilities remain available for future selection.

According to Luhmann,

One can speak of the fact dimension in relation to all objects of meaningful intentions (in psychic systems) or themes of meaningful communication (in social systems). . . . The fact dimension is thereby constituted in that meaning divides the reference structure of what is meant into “this” and “something else.” Thus the point of departure for a factual articulation of meaning is a primary disjunction, which contrasts something as yet indeterminate with something else as yet indeterminate. (Luhmann, Social Systems, 76)

The “this and something else” is a two-sided form. The famous gestalt image of the vase face demonstrates the two-sided form. When limited to the factual dimension, the observer sees faces or a vase, not both simultaneously.

In other words, there is a conflict, which can be handled with the aid of time. That is to say, one can use the temporal dimension to see first one image and then the other, switching (or crossing) back and forth. Crossing the two-sided form of “this and something else” takes time. It’s like flipping a coin, which of course takes time. Crossing means crossing a distinction, not a horizon. A horizon cannot be reached; so, of course, it cannot be crossed.

The social dimension introduces the difference between consensus and dissension, or consent and dissent. People often speak of getting to or reaching consensus. But consensus in itself is useless. The social dimension features the possibility of crossing from consensus to dissent (or from agreement to disagreement) and back again. Agreement and disagreement are uncrossable horizons. Communication can move toward agreement or disagreement, but it can never reach one or the other in an absolute sense. It must be possible to turn back towards the opposite horizon. This is what operational closure means.

As Luhmann puts it,

A horizon is not a boundary; one cannot step across it. At some point one must turn back, and the opposite horizon indicates the direction “back.” (Social Systems, 77)

The possibility of turning back to the opposite horizon guarantees structural instability.


  1. Really appreciated this article – it helped me better understand what Luhmann meant with his fact dimension. I wonder (without wishing to imply certainty) whether moving from one side of a distinction to another – i.e. inner to outer or vice versa – really implies only moving towards a horizon and not crossing a boundary. (You say “Crossing does not mean crossing a boundary…”)

    I agree that Luhmann, following Husserl, denies the idea that one can transcend a horizon – that one can only approach and turn back from horizons that are posited in distinction. However, my sense is that there is still a crossing of a boundary involved in this process of approaching one horizon and then turning to approach another. Thus, in //Social Systems// we read:

    “[In the fact dimension] exploration is thereby decomposed into internal or external progress, into orientation toward the internal horizon or toward the external horizon. “Form” thereby emerges in the sense of a possibility for crossing boundaries and drawing out the consequences of this. Everything can be handled in this way.” (pp. 76)

    This last sentence is footnoted to Spencer-Brown where the crossing of boundaries is a key concept. Above all, however, the excerpt suggests there //is// a crossing of boundaries.

    What then is this crossing of boundaries? Well we know it can’t be a crossing of horizons since this is explicitly denied. Further, the boundary crossing must take place within the operative terrain of the distinction – i.e. ‘in between’ the horizons (which for the fact dimension = inner/outer; this/something else).

    Perhaps the clue is in the ‘vase face’ which you so usefully reference. When one looks, in the fact dimension, at the vase (which we might label the ‘inner’ horizon) and then switches to look at the faces (which we might label the outer horizon) one crosses a boundary – namely the boundary between inner and outer; between vase and face; between this and something else. And one does so without crossing the //horizons// of inner and outer – that is, one cannot move beyond considering the vase face image as either a vase OR a face.

    The excerpt from Luhmann that I quote above emphasises the importance of crossing boundaries within meaning dimensions for developing a sense of form and “drawing out the consequences” of such operations. The more I think about it the more compelling I find this. The crossing of boundaries within a dimension that has horizons that cannot be crossed is an essential evolutionary achievement granted to meaning-based systems. It allows us to reason and differentiate objects from their environment which under reflexive consideration includes ourselves. That is, it allows us to use our system/environment difference to operate upon an object in our environment (or even in our own system(!) – as in the medical profession), drawing out that object’s form (i.e. its own system/environment difference that includes the observing system within the environment of the observed object) and better our understanding of the observed object and //its// environment. The crossing of boundaries can be experienced when operating within the meaning dimensions and carries meaningful implications that ultimately give our environment //form//. Indeed, crossing boundaries enables us to create distinctions – and for Luhmann distinctions control identity (i.e. what we perceive). As we oscillate from one side of the boundary to another we never transcend the horizons (inner/outer) but begin to map out form – we progress from a situation where the inner and outer simply equal two indeterminate states. We constrain identity by crossing boundaries and making distinctions in the fact dimension.

    So perhaps we do cross boundaries when using meaning dimensions. From this assumption I suggest that our environment acquires //form//. And unlike non-meaning-based systems we can, therefore, think in relation to our environment as opposed to relying solely on ‘natural’/instinctual responses. Accordingly, plants cannot construe form for this reason – they do not use the medium of meaning and cannot therefore oscillate across boundaries in a fact dimension and draw out the implications of such operations for themselves. They do not ‘know’ their environment. They survive instead, because (and only while) they are in natural congruence with their environment. (H. Maturana)

    Either way, thank you very much for the article; Luhmann can be impenetrable and I wouldn’t have had much to say about the fact dimension without your help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark,

      Thanks very much for the helpful comments. I made some revisions to the post in response to your feedback. I love the idea of crossing the vase/face boundary. I need to spend more time with Social Systems.


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