No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) came from a civilian environment and had a liberal attitude: "I want to be able to do what I want to do and within the legal framework (...), and [defend myself] against political interference in private life." (Hagen, 2004)

Luhmann experienced the Second World War between age 12 and 17:
"I had to go to the Hitler Youth, all those unpleasant things like marching and salutes, and (...) found the self-portrayal of the regime simply disgusting." (Ibidem)

Luhmann was beaten during interrogations in 1945 while he was a prisoner of war. After the war, he studied Roman law, because he desired to create order, having experienced the disorder of war. In Roman law he clearly saw the skill of construction, a consistent assignment of cases to terms. Roman civil law was based on an edict of a magistrate, with positions and orders that were then to decide court cases.

Luhmann was, for German sociology, the founder of the theory of social systems, the sociological branch of general systems theory. Luhmann's social theory is based on the general systems theory, phenomenology, constructivism, and the sociological systems theory of the American Talcott Parsons. Luhmann saw modern society as functionally differentiated into subsystems: politics, law, religion, science, the family/private sphere, education and the economy. Each of these subsystems communicates with the psychological system (individual humans) in its own way. The political system speaks in the binary code power/impotence (government/opposition). The legal system spreaks in the binary code right/wrong. The economic system speaks in the binary code pay/don't pay. Finally, the science system speaks in the binary code true/false.

Luhmann's organizational system science

Luhmann's work is of value for organizational science. For example, in 1964 he wrote that goals are only well-chosen if they mean something specific in choice situations. Every organization is committed to a selection of values that it cannot simply deny or ignore without causing problems in environmental relations. Consequences of actions not covered by the goal are either externalized, i.e. attributed to the environment, or they appear as costs of the chosen resources in the system, but are then accepted for the sake of the goal.

One of the problems with a goal like zero accidents is its bold one-sidedness. It may fit in with the low complexity of individual actions, but it does not do justice to the much higher complexity of the system and its environmental relationships.

Luhmann's organizational structures include decision-making programs, fixed communication channels and people who make their body and mind, their reputation and their personal contacts available for decision-making, partly expanding and partly limiting what can be decided. Luhmann saw systems, including organizations, as consisting of actions, which he later called communication. In his view, people belong to the environment of organizations; people themselves are psychological systems. Therefore, they have a certain autonomy with regard to the organization (Ortmann, 2022).

“If one adopts these abstract system-theoretical considerations for the reconstruction of the relationship between personal and social systems, one must view personal systems as interpenetrating systems, while social systems, on the other hand, are systems constituted by interpenetration. It then becomes immediately evident that social systems do not consist of persons and that one must distinguish their subsystems from the interpenetrating systems. A decomposition of social systems into subsystems, partial subsystems or ultimately into functional elements and relations never leads to persons, it decomposes, so to speak, past the persons. Depending on analytical or practical needs, it ends with companies or organizational departments or with roles or communicative acts, but never with concrete people or parts of people (teeth, tongues, etc.)." (Luhmann, 1981, p. 157)

Hagen, W. (ed., 2004), Warum haben Sie keinen Fernseher, Herr Luhmann? Letzte Gespräche mit Niklas Luhmann, Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos.
Luhmann, N. (1964), Funktionen und Folgen formeler Organisation, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Luhmann, N. (1981), Soziologische Aufklärung 3 - Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

Ortmann, G. (2022), Luhmann und die Menschen, ihre Zähne und Zungen, in: Versus, Magazin für kritische Organisationspraxis.

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