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, based on phenomenology, constructivism, and the sociological systems theory of 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 was influenced by George Spencer Brown's "Laws of Form" and used it as a foundation for his social systems theory. The central idea of the "Laws of Form" is that all forms can be understood as the result of a process of distinction, in which something is identified as different from its surroundings or context. According to Spencer Brown, this process of distinction is fundamental to the way we understand and perceive the world, and it is the basis for all logical and mathematical reasoning.

According to Luhmann, social systems are self-organizing systems that are characterized by the ability to communicate and make distinctions. He argued that the process of distinction is central to the way social systems operate and that it is the basis for the creation and maintenance of social order.

Luhmann's organizational system science

Luhmann writes that organization, from an evolutionary perspective, is a way to deal with the unpredictable nature of the world. Organizations create decision-making options that are not based on personal interpretations of meaning, and they can even override traditional forms of legitimation (Luhmann, 1975). In modern society, organizations are the functional equivalent of moral integration, because they create a separation between the personal and social systems.

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)

Criticism by Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas has criticized Luhmann's use of the concept of autopoiesis, which refers to the self-organization of biological systems, as a metaphor for social systems. Habermas argued that while social systems do exhibit some features of self-organization, they are also shaped by the communicative competences of their members, which can be understood from the perspective of communication theory.

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. (1975), Legitimation durch Verfahren, 2. Auflage, Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand.

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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