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)

Controlling opacity

Knowledge is an operation that happens within systems: the distinction between true and false knowledge is a performance of the observer. Luhmann suggests that new epistemological frameworks may be needed to better understand complex and unpredictable phenomena. He proposes to use the theory of cybernetics and the idea of reflexive conditioning, which requires decisions to be made in consideration of the current state of the system and the need for further decisions. 

Knowledge as Construction

Luhmann is writing about how we understand and make sense of knowledge. Luhmann questions the validity of radical constructivism which looks at knowledge as something that we create and construct, rather than discover or learn. Luhmann argues that radical constructivism invites skepticism the more it claims to be radical. Luhmann argues that despite its radical appearance, constructivism is still an empirical theory and its radicalness can only be understood in historical context. He also discusses the connection between this theory and Christian theology, and how both deal with distinguishing and labeling things.

According to Luhmann, the process of gaining knowledge can be seen as a system separating itself from its environment. This separation leads to limitations on what the system can understand and observe. Luhmann explores the difference between recognizing something and understanding it, and argues for a more narrow definition of recognition. Knowledge is an operation that happens within systems and the distinction between true and false knowledge is a performance of the observer.

Luhmann explores how complex systems, such as those involved in conscious thought and communication, can amplify differences and create meaning. He acknowledges that the reality of what is being recognized remains unknown and unrecognizable. He introduces three concepts: world, reality, and meaning. These concepts are abstract and universal in nature, and they can encompass both positive and negative aspects or elements. They can include their own negation because they are not limited to a specific perspective or viewpoint, but rather encompass a wide range of experiences, beliefs, and interpretations.

The Risk of Causality

Luhmann writes about the challenges in understanding causality in organizations. He doesn't believe that innovation and creativity can be easily labeled as good or bad, as they are evaluated based on various criteria. Luhmann advises to use a different approach to understand organizational change, instead of relying on simple good/bad or desired/undesired dichotomies. He emphasizes that the analysis of organizational communication (the essential operation of social systems, according to Luhmann) should not be reduced to simple value judgments. He suggests that a distinction be made between the topics and functions of communication. The topics refer to the motivations behind the communication, while the functions describe the communication's impact on the organization.

Luhmann looked at how society perceives causality, divided into two parts:

  1. the idea of controllable causal chains, and
  2. the idea of human decision-making.

Over time, through trial and error, the understanding of causality has evolved from a belief in magic to a belief in technology and creativity.

Luhmann warned of two risks in using causality to study systems:

  1. the possibility of making incorrect assumptions, and
  2. the difficulty of separating cause and effect.

Luhmann discusses the limitations of the concept of causality, the challenge of observing causeless causes and determining the origin point in the causal schema. He advised against making hasty conclusions and believed that mathematical methods can help in more accurately identifying cause-effect relationships and avoiding errors in assumptions.

Luhmann questions the distinction between technology and creativity and wonders how to determine when one is appropriate and the other is not. He believes that this distinction is important and needs to be justified, but is difficult to define due to the complex nature of causality in organizations and society. He argues that this distinction cannot be reduced to simple value judgments and needs to be considered in the context of institutionalized form and the role of decision and creativity.

Luhmann argues that the concept of freedom must be reinterpreted based on the idea of decision-making and creativity. Historically, freedom was defined in terms of constraints, but Luhmann believes that this understanding needs to be shifted to a cognitive reinterpretation of freedom as recognizing alternatives in a given situation and shaping circumstances and making choices within the constraints and norms that already exist, rather than being limited by these constraints. According to Luhmann, freedom should not be seen as a moral property of individuals, but norms and decisions influence each other and the relationship between them is constantly evolving. This means that freedom is not a fixed state, but it is constantly being redefined and reconstructed based on the norms and decisions of a particular situation.

The Control of Opacity

This article is about the challenge of dealing with complexity and uncertainty in the world, and the role of knowledge and theories in addressing this challenge. Traditional epistemological frameworks, which emphasize the role of the observer in creating knowledge, may not be adequate for understanding complex and unpredictable phenomena. The development of computational tools, has allowed for the creation of dynamic models of complex systems, which can help researchers better understand and predict their behavior. Even these models can be limited in their ability to predict the behavior of real-world systems, which are often subject to unexpected and unpredictable events. New epistemological frameworks may be needed to better understand these phenomena; the choice of such frameworks is an important issue for society as a whole.

The loss of the old, stabilizing function of the world has led to the need for a new foundation for stability, which can be found in the theory of cybernetics. Conditioning distinguishes a system from its environment. Through conditioning, a system can respond to its environment in an organized and self-organized way, creating order from noise. The opaqueness of this process can create difficulties for the system in dealing with information, requiring it to maintain a difference in order to function. This theory is applicable to human and social systems. Talcott Parsons was influenced by these ideas.

What happens when a system takes its own output as input? This “reflexive conditioning” shifts the role of time in operations and requires decisions to be made in consideration of the current state of the system and the need for further decisions. This idea goes beyond the traditional linear system models and requires a new foundation for stability.

Drawing on the work of neurobiologists Maturana and Varela, Luhmann discusses the role of cognitive processes in the construction of knowledge. Cognition must occur in the brain and be produced from within the system. A constructivist epistemology sees knowledge not as a representation of external reality, but as an "inbehaviour" of the system. Reality is no longer the differential resistance of the environment to attempts at cognition, but the result of the consistent operations of a self-referential system. George Spencer Brown's calculus of indications is used to mark off units for calculation; stable units must be prepared or excluded from the system before they can be used for calculation. Spencer Brown's introduction of self-reference leads to an explosion of possibilities and the emergence of self-generated uncertainty, which is an essential condition for meaningful operations in consciousness and social systems. This self-generated uncertainty cannot be overcome through improved cognition, but can only be dealt with through the system's own operations. The resulting opacity is the cognitive result of self-reference, and the system must rely on its own operations to deal with this uncertainty.

The solution of the problem of self-generated indeterminacy involves creating a temporal difference between past and future to enable the system to orient itself towards the future. Transparency and opacity are key to this solution; the use of time differences is critical. Time is created through a purely temporal provision of the present with two infinite horizons of the past and the future that meet and bind together in the present. Time is not simply a difference between motion and rest, as this would not lead to a universal concept of time. The introduction of time involves a memory function and an oscillator function. These functions need to be interpreted in terms of their temporal reference to provide a way out of self-generated indeterminacy. The separation of memory and oscillation is important to create a double awareness of the present.

Distinctions are used in understanding the present, past, and future. Distinctions may include self-reference and external reference, good and evil, and normal and pathological. When making distinctions, it is essential to keep the distinction itself hidden and use it to gain a new perspective. Although it is possible to make distinctions between distinctions and create cross-tables, the theory behind the distinctions should remain obscure. The distinction between past and future, as well as between memory and oscillation, is also open to oscillation. The system is bistable when it comes to observing time. The re-entry of the time distinction into itself guarantees the universality of the time schema. The future cannot exist without opening the possibility for oscillations, just as the past cannot exist without unchangeability. This creates many opportunities for the future to oscillate. It is possible to manipulate the oscillation of the future by choosing different distinctions, such as ethical distinctions or technical distinctions. Communicating advice or rules for future behavior also concentrates the oscillation frame on the distinction of obeying or not obeying, obscuring its underlying opaqueness.

Controlling and steering complex systems is challenging, specifically in the context of system theory. Complex systems may exhibit autopoietic behavior and constantly create their own history through selective operations. They therefore cannot be fully understood or controlled by an external observer. Traditional methods of control, such as a model of the system, cannot account for the unpredictable emergence of new behaviors. Instead of trying to control a system based on a model, the concept of control should be redefined as an intention to change certain differences in the system. Purpose can be seen as a dual temporal and substantive distinction that arises from a system's memory of the past and anticipation of the future.

The relationship between control and steering

Control is the self-observation of a system after steering attempts. It can involve discovering errors, but it is not limited to that. Control can also involve the attempt to avert or neutralize external or top-down steering attempts. The relationship between steering and control is always associated with a "redescription" of the steering, which exposes the system to ongoing self-correction. Cognitive closure is something that all closed operational systems experience, and this requires them to differentiate between self-reference and external reference. If we want to describe the relationship between steering and control from the perspective of possible system rationality, it can be seen as a special case of the integration of the system, which is related to the addition of past and future. The relationship between steering and control has theoretical and ethical consequences.

Nachwort – Dirk Baecker

In his final word, Baecker writes about observation. Observers make designations, and designations imply distinctions. Something is named in contrast to something else. Second-order observers observe designations in the context of distinctions and call "form" the unit of difference between designation and distinction in the resulting space of possibility. Baecker writes that the compiled essays from the last years of Niklas Luhmann's life are to be read in the context of his suspicion that system theory is a case of a more general mathematical theory that George Spencer-Brown presented with his form calculus.

The distinction between system and environment is only one form among other possible forms. With these other possible forms, it can also be compared. Many of these theories, such as evolution theory, semiotics, media theory, information theory, economic theory, deconstruction theory, discourse theory, and others, work with operational distinctions that can be reintroduced into the form of the distinction on one side but not on both sides.

Luhmann’s interest in developing a theory of social systems using the concepts of autopoiesis by Humberto R. Maturana and second-order cybernetics by Heinz von Foerster initially displaced further work on the form calculus. The theory of social systems had to be developed to the point where Luhmann not only described the reproduction of these systems from their collapse but also made visible the mode of linking with other systems in the environment of social systems.

A theory of society had to be elaborated in parallel that can describe how society is to be understood as a polycontextural system in difference to the environment, namely as a relation of the inclusion and exclusion of meaningful communication, which is repeatedly and crossly repeated. Luhmann uses Spencer-Brown's form calculus whenever he explains the distinctions of an observer as self-referential operations.

The self-reference was understood paradoxically as an assumption of every operation that differentiates and reproduces a system and as the opacity of this assumption. Self-referential systems are black boxes for themselves. They gain transparency momentarily from their interaction with their environment and other systems in this environment, but this transparency can only be traced back to systems that are opaque and remain so.

Luhmann also used the concept of the form of a distinction for sociological studies, especially for the semantics of modernity and for investigating the question of which of these semantics can be reintroduced and thus reflect their own presuppositions and which cannot. The form calculus occupies an increasingly important place in Luhmann's work, as it becomes clear that it provides a means of identifying the most fundamental units of distinction that permit the self-reference of systems.


Luhmann, N. (2017), Die Kontrolle von Intransparenz, Berlin: Suhrkamp.