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)

Differentiation, Self-Reference and Operational Closure

In a 1991 lecture, Niklas Luhmann discussed his theoretical framework of difference within systems theory. Systems and their environments are related; systems depend on dynamic interactions to avoid entropy and maintain continuity. Luhmann challenged traditional definitions of systems based on essential structures and focuses on maintaining the difference between system and environment, even as structural elements change.

Notions of difference have been integral to various fields. Linguistic theories posit that language is fundamentally about differences between words rather than their referents. Sociological theories, notably the theories of Gabriel Tarde and his students, emphasize imitation and social differentiation. Contemporary information theory conceptualizes information as a difference that makes a difference; it impacts the system that perceives it. Luhmann sees systems as networks of differences.

Luhmann references the work of George Spencer-Brown, whose operational calculus represents a radical form of differential thinking. Spencer Brown used a calculus involving the transformation of symbols; it aims to link arithmetic with a two-value system, utilizing a single symbol, represented by a checkmark. The essence of the statement lies in the sequence of steps where symbols gradually become more complex. The idea is that symbols gain a peculiar independence when placed on paper, with one symbol being derived from another. A symbol (an arrow) represents itself through self-reference (Louis Kauffman). This notion suggests, according to Luhmann, that any observer must distinguish themselves from what they observe, requiring a form of self-relation. The process begins with a distinction, indicated by a mark, leading to increasingly complex operations. The distinction involves two components:
1. the act of distinguishing (vertical line)
2. the designation (horizontal line).

So, the act of distinguishing is inherent in the distinction itself. Luhmann connects this to the distinction between a system and its environment.

The distinction marks a boundary, defining the system on one side and the environment on the other. This boundary is not merely a form but a principle with two sides, reflecting the dual nature of distinctions in both theoretical and practical applications.

When the system is seen as a form, a system is defined by the distinction between the system and its environment. Understanding systems through the lens of operations and their interconnectedness could lead to a synthesis of different approaches, which facilitates the inclusion of diverse theoretical elements into one comprehensive framework. A single type of operation can be identified that sustains a system, similar to how biological life is sustained by continuous biochemical processes. For social systems, this operation is communication, which evolves from itself and sustains social structures. Luhmann talks about re-entry, where a distinction is made within the system itself. The complexity of communication within social systems allows for such self-referential distinctions to be more comprehensible and practical.

Systems generate differences through operations, which leads to a sequence of actions and communications. Each operation is linked to the next, creating a continuous process within the system. For a system to control its operations, it needs self-observation. This involves recognizing what fits within the system's communication and what does not. Systems must distinguish between self-reference (internal operations) and external reference (environmental interactions). This differentiation is vital for systems to function and maintain coherence. Systems re-enter themselves through communication, meaning that communication is an internal operation that stays within the system. So, systems self-reproduce and maintain their processes.

These principles apply not only to social systems but also to psychological ones (individual people). Both types of systems operate through a coupling of self-reference and external reference, reflecting on themselves while interacting with their environment. Consciousness deals with phenomena and reflects on itself. Every operation in a system involves a temporal aspect, linking past actions to future ones. Long-term memory operates in the present and distinguishes between self and external preferences. Descriptive behavior towards objects is justified by phenomenology.

Consciousness introduces the differentiation between self and external references. The brain's neurophysiological processes don’t inherently support it. Consciousness, operating as a closed system, maintains this distinction, preventing others from accessing an individual's thoughts or perceptions. Operational closure within a system and the self-referential and external-referential functions are crucial. Through consciousness, we form a perception of an external world, even though this is internally generated. Each distinction inherently includes itself, leading to a form of logical recursion. Reentry, where a distinction re-enters itself, shows how systems differentiate between self and environment. This reentry allows for a distinction that is both the same and different, a paradox that systems theory seeks to resolve through logical frameworks.

Societal systems communicate and differentiate themselves; they often simplify complex environmental and ecological issues into communicative phenomena. The importance lies in understanding how society's self-description influences communication and the perception of issues.

Luhmann, N. (1991), System als Differenz (Formanalyse) – Allgemeine Systemtheorie, Vorlesungsmitschnitt aus dem Wintersemester 1991/1992, Bielefeld: Universität Bielefeld.