And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Luhmann Model

Excerpt from above video:
If the political system decides that your country joins the EU, you're in it. The function of the political system is to make such collectively binding decisions.  Functional differentiation hasn't always been there according to Luhmann. It's the basic characteristic of modernity. 

Modern society is functionally differentiated. The transition to functional differentiation happened, according to Luhmann, between the 16th and the 18th century. Before that, Society was characterized by what he calls stratified differentiation. This refers to different strata, roughly comparable to the different hierarchical levels in feudal societies, like the aristocrats, the clerics, the craftspeople, and the farmers. Or if you prefer, it's also roughly comparable to what Marxists call "classes". 

Before modernity, the differences between social strata structured life. What people did, or didn't do, what they could and couldn't do, depended on if they were, let's say, Farmers or Aristocrats. Today, what we do or don't do, what we can or can't do when we study, Vote, or watch YouTube, is conditioned by social systems like education, politics, or media. 

No matter which social system Luhmann analyzes, he's always interested in how it emerged between the 16th and 18th century. This is for him also the period in which modern mass media emerged, at that time in the form of print media like books, the newspapers. Before the 16th century books did exist but who read what, how, why, and when, was conditioned by the strata people were in, and most people didn't read at all. Before the 16th century, books were not mass media because, there was no mass media system. Instead books played an important role in the church, and for clerics, for instance, the different function systems have.  Different functions, that's what distinguishes themBut that's not all. They're also communication systems. That's what defines them. It's what they do. They communicate. And they can be distinguished because they communicate in different ways. 

Well, all systems communicate through language. They also often communicate by other means specific to them. Think of money in the economy, votes in politics, or grades in education. 

For Luhmann however, the most basic communication difference between the different systems is their code. Its code is unique to each system. The legal system, for instance, is built is built around the code "legal:illegal". All its Communications, its institutions, its functions, revolve around this code. 

In the academic system, or the science system, the basic code is "true:not true". When academics publish a paper or present a lecture, they tell others what they find to be true and not true. Others then respond and contradict them, but they must use the same code. 

The purpose of the code is to enable the system to produce more and more communication of the same type. It enables the system to respond to itself, to connect present with future communication, and thereby to reproduce itself basically endlessly. 

By using their codes, systems distinguish themselves from one another and achieve what Luhmann calls "operational closure". The communication of a system can only be continued with more communication of the same system. In academia, you respond to an academic paper with another paper. You cannot effectively respond with a song or a prayer. But if I just read out my academic papers here on this channel, no matter how brilliant they are, this channel would soon be dead. 

Because of operational closure, we normally understand immediately to which system a communication operation belongs. If you give money to the waiter, it's understood it's the payment for your coffee and not a declaration of Love or an encouragement to vote for you in the upcoming elections. Of course misunderstandings, or corruption is possible, and it happens often. But we regard misunderstandings as misunderstandings, or corruption as corruption precisely because they violate the operational closure of systems. System boundaries were crossed, and that's not okay. Yes, systems are operationally closed, but crucially, systems are at the same time also cognitively open to one another.

Every system communicates about all the other systems. Academics write about law, Politics, the media, you name it, the law regulates Academia, the media and politics. Politicians are keenly aware of what the media say, of what is going on in the economy, and sometimes even do politics in response to what academics say is the truth.

Systems need to take note of what's going on in all the systems around them. As Luhmann says, they are constantly irritated by their environment.

What is more, systems often are structurally coupled to one another, somewhat comparable to symbiosis in biology, two or more systems can enter into mutually formative relations.

Almost all systems today are structurally coupled with the economy, for instance. Just one example, in professional sports, the economy and sports are structurally coupled. The teams are at the same time businesses. What a football club does economically has a symbiotic effect on how well it does in sports, and vice versa. And yet operational closure must remain. Players are bought and sold, but not goals or points. If goals or points are bought, that's corruption which can and does happen, but each system can only continue to function if such corruption is regarded as corrupt.
Crucially Luhmann calls himself a radical constructivist. For him, social reality, like money in the economy, or points in sports, is constructed. But constructivism is no anti-realism. Something is real not despite, but because it's constructed, like this video, for instance. Just as economic value is constructed in the economy, or political power in politics, truth is constructed in science or academia. Again, this doesn't mean that it is not valid. To the contrary, for truth to be really valid, it must be constructed in science, and not, as in the past, prior to functional differentiation, for instance, by the pope. Unlike in previous times, there are competing truths in science. And all scientific truths are on principle, falsifiable. What's constructed can also be reconstructed, or even deconstructed. 

Human Social constructivism is, at the same time, the theory of social Evolution. Darwin proposed that biological reality is not the result of intelligent design by a Constructor named God, but an effect of complex system environment Dynamics. Biological reality evolves, it's not created. Similarly Luhmann proposes that social reality too is not created by individual human agents like kings or some philosophical geniuses, but evolves.

The law, science, and politics were not invented from scratch by some intelligent designers, they evolved historically. This is why Luhmann adopts the concept "autopoiesis" from biology. Just as biological reality evolves on its own, social reality too emerges by itself through communication.
Accordingly human agency is limited. You can eat more healthily, or exercise, or take medication, but the body reacts to this in unpredictable ways. Despite all progress in Medicine, we are not complete masters of our bodies, and much less of biological evolution.

In society too, we make decisions in politics, or the economy, for instance, but every decision, take the decision to marry for instance, produces innumerable effects. Among them many more non-intended and incalculable, than intended and calculable. And importantly every decision generates the need for more decisions. First you need to decide if to marry or not, then if you want children or not, and later, who gets the custody of the kids.

Luhmann's social theory resembles chaos theory in science, and the famous notion of the butterfly effect. Given the sheer multitude of what goes on simultaneously in the systems and the environment and the multiple effects everything has on everything else, we're not in control. The Enlightenment idea was that: social progress leads to more and more self-control. Tt enhances agency, rationality, and sovereignty. That's the modernist dream. But systems theory suggests quite to the contrary, the more Society evolves, the more complex it becomes, and the less control is possible. But no worries, the good news is if there is less control, you're also less being controlled.

In hyper-complex post-modernity, we are out of control. This is the biggest difference between social systems theory and mainstream social and political theories. Most of these theories, in Academia and media alike, celebrate the sovereign individual. Both Jordan Peterson on the right, and social justice theories, on the left, do this as well.

Luhmann labels himself not just a radical constructivist, but also a radical anti-humanist. This sounds terribly negative, and pessimistic. And it probably prevented Luhmann's Theory from becoming popular in North America, with its insistence on individual human agency and free will, however Luhmann is not a pessimist at all. Just as there's nothing wrong with biological evolution, there's nothing wrong with an auto poetic Society out of human control either. That humans are not ultimately "in charge" doesn't mean, for instance, that things cannot get better. Things can, and do, get better, but only in each respective system. Science constructs better truth, the economy creates more value, and the legal system can make better laws. But how this is better, and for whom, is always relative to the system. What's better in the economy is not necessarily better from a legal perspective. There is no chance of universal consensus on what is best for all.

In a highly differentiated Society, there is no view from the top or from above, or from the outside, but I, for one, am happy to accept this. I need no system to tell me what's best for all.

This finally brings me to a crucial notion. In Luhmann's theory, already mentioned in passing. Social systems are not just communication and function systems, they're also observing systems. Luhmanns theory is philosophically rooted in Kant's theory of Reason. Kant's basic point was that how the world appears to us is conditioned by how Reason, or the mind, works.

Luhmann uses the same idea and applies it not to reason or the mind, but to society. In society, reality is conditioned by how systems observe or communicate. The idea is quite simple. The economy observes a house in terms of "value" and thereby it constructs the value of the house. The legal system observes it in "legal" terms, and in this way some people own houses while others illegally occupy them. 

Conditioned by different modes of observation, different social realities emerge simultaneously, depending on what is observed by which system, in which way. The same piece of cheese is a different kind of reality, for a bacteria who lives in it, or the person who eats it. But none of the two observations is more real than the other.

To make things more complicated for Luhmann, a specific feature of modern society is that we've adopted a complex form of observation. Today, we typically observe the observations of others. Luhmann calls this "second order observation". In the economy for instance user exchange value has been replaced with "market value". If you want to know how much you need to pay for a house, you can't just look at the house, and at the value of each Stone, and then count the hours it took to put them on top of each other. You need to look at the housing market, instead. There, you can see how houses are economically observed by others, and by observing the market, you find out the value of the house.

Everywhere today, in all social systems, second order observation is on the rise. Everything is rated and ranked. No one simply goes to a restaurant or watches a YouTube video. Everyone also observes the reviews, the comments, and the numbers of subscribers. In modern society we're constantly in the mode of second order observation. And this is especially obvious in mass media. Here we are always already in the sphere of second order observation. Here, you only see something as it is being seen by someone else. You observe, for instance, my observation of Luhmann's observations, as observed and edited by Phi.

Luhmann says categorically the reality of the mass media. This is the reality of second order observation.

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