Theories of Distinction

Luhmann, Niklas . Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity . 2002 . Stanford University Press . Stanford California . ISBN 0-8047-4123-9


Luhmann likes to theorize, to ‘think for its own sake ‘ [Preface IX].

Introduction: The Self-Positing Society

(William Rasch)

The goal of Western philosophical tradition is to understand the cosmos and to discover the purpose and meaning of all human life.

Philosophy as a quest for wisdom is a quest for universal knowledge, for knowledge of the whole, .. , the knowledge of the natures of all things: the natures in their totality are the ‘the whole’ (Leo Strauss 1988).

This knowledge may never be achieved but its possibility must be confirmed (p1).

Reason serves as the bond between human nature and the nature of the cosmos and to deny it is to foster incomprehensibility for the individual and the species (p 2).

Modernity is characterized by the loss of faith in this reason linking human nature and the cosmos (p2). The outcome of our reasoning is often unpredictable and infinite: the whole disappears beyond an infinite horizon; in this ‘world picture’ we no longer feel embedded in the whole (p2). The whole remains as a mythical origin or a utopian telos but it remains invisible: the mission has become historical (p2). This modernist philosophy is exhausted in the 20-th century: ‘At any rate, what has dominated in both the philosophical and the social-theoretical projects of the past hundred years has been an intense concentration on the immanence* of the posited** world’ (*quality of remaining within a system …, ** put forward as a fact or basis for an argument) [p 2].

The whole that is modernity is the whole that strains to see itself and thus a whole that forever divides itself with every observation into more and more ‘facts’’ [p 3]. This whole now becomes self-referential, and hence paradoxical; philosophy becomes second-hand: observations of observations. The general idea of the purpose of ‘observations of observations’ is to find latencies and cure the personal respectively correct the social error whence they originate [p3]. Luhmann radicalizes the observation of latencies by locating latencies in all observations ‘that cannot be finally and fundamentally accounted for. What is needed, then, is a theory that can account for this lack of accountability’ [p4]. Some of the themes treated there that were relevant for the twenty-century modernists are: self-reference, paradox and partiality of observation



Self and Not-Self

The paradox involved in self consciousness is that to refer to Self is to distinguish it from itself; in so doing the Self makes of itself something else than itself. To be conscious of itself, it must be conscious of other as Self and hence split itself into two. It must posit itself as the Self (self-positing) and as its negation (reflected object) the not-Self [p4]. This must occur simultaneously, not as an afterthought. But it is logically impossible to posit itself as Self (A) and as its negation not-Self (-A) and so the Self loses its identity. But the Self originally enables the existence of the not-Self and the not-Self annihilates the Self, .., hence a logical paradox. [p 5]. This paradox is resolved through the introduction of the concepts of the finitude of space and quantity. If Self and not-Self are thought of as complementary: they are mutually exclusive, they limit one another and they occupy different parts of space. They become divisible and indeed define that very notion [p 5]. But now a double negation comes into view: reference to Self as the not not-Self, another paradox [p 5]. This is resolved by introducing a quantifiably determinate self stands in opposition to or contradiction from the absolute self.: ‘That self still remains – and must remain – invisible and without predicate if it is to serve as the undivided ground for the unity of the difference between self and not-self. The absolute self is ‘equal to itself’ and ‘posited as indivisible; whereas the self to which the not-self is opposed is posited as divisible. Hence, insofar as there is a not-self opposed to it, the self is itself in opposition to the absolute self’ [pp. 5-6]. Self positing has severed self from not-self in a limited space of mutual determination, and severing the absolute self from that limited space of the (now empirical) self and its partner the not-self. The paradox is of a self that alienates itself from itself in the act of self-positing [p 6].

Stuk overgeslagen, moeilijk door te komen.

Part: Husserl, Science, Modernity

1. The Modern Sciences and Phenomenology


The peasant-artisanal family economy has disappeared from Europe (and the world). Life may take place in families or similar communities, but it depends on markets and ‘organizations of professional work. The ensuing transformations are perceived by the individual as external and intractable. ‘The integration of the individual and society is becoming a matter of market forces [Konjuncturen] and careers [Karrieren] – K.u.K., if you will’[p 34]. Transformation on the macro-level are the developments of the financial markets, relocation of work to cheap labor countries and massive demographic movements. In the political sphere there are relocation to cheap labor countries and migration issues. ‘The fact that ‘regulation’ and ‘intervention’ have become prominent political concepts betrays a new kind of awareness of the problem

[p 35]

. The availability of atomic energy has had a large consequence for warfare and energy production. It is now possible to interfere directly in genetic structures determining life. Ecology now for the major part faces self-induced challenges. With each gain in knowledge, the sciences produce more ignorance. Husserl considers technology a modern phenomenon; it is applied science. He sees modernity in the light of the fall of rationality, namely waiting for the technical realization of science (you cannot blame Newton for the effects on the ‘lifeworld’). But today we believe technology does not depend on the tools and developments of scientific discovery alone: you cannot simply look it up and execute a procedure, you have to mess around experimenting. The humanities have distinguished themselves from the natural sciences by becoming self-reflexive. So fared the natural sciences amongst each other: they observe objects that observe themselves. Objective cognition had to be given up as a fiction since Heisenberg and if an ‘objective reality’ exists it is not available for observation or to refer to it. ‘Geist’ is not required for them, they are projects of cognition in the natural sciences. The métarécit (comprehensive explanation or overarching narrative about historical meaning and knowledge, offering social legitimation) of today: there are no métarécits capable of consensus. But philosophies can be (run the risk to be) inspired by the social issues of their era, without it becoming expressed in their arguments (philosophy involving market capitalism is an example). Husserl pointed at a changed meaning of critique: ‘Critique – that only means, anymore, observing observations, describing descriptions from a standpoint that is itself observable’ [p 37].


Problems with Husserl’s text are: 1. It is focused on Europe only assuming that its traditions would not change or dissolve into others 2. Only when society came to grow on a global scale it became necessary to keep a control over the concepts related to it. Now what was discovered and what existed previously is declared part of culture. Only now existed culture as one could speak about it in conceptual terms. Philosophies of many disciplines are possible, including the philosophy of culture. But what would be the meaning of a culture of philosophy (e.g. a European flavor)? ‘Must philosophy now organize resistance against culture in the name of authenticity, genuineness, originality? .. Culture absorbs even that’[p 39]. But the question is raised what conditions philosophy must satisfy if is to be culture and to be comparable to all other elements in the category. What form must it have such that it reconciles philosophy with its own contingencies. 3. Husserl solves this philosophy-culture problem with an asymmetric distinction: such that one side of the distinction dominates the distinction itself, such that the maker of the distinction is the master of both sides of it (l’englobement du contraire’ [Dumont 1966, 107-8]). In this way the humanities dominate the distinction between the humanities and the natural sciences, because only they can ask in what spirit the natural sciences are conducting research. This is transjunctional: by making the distinction the middle is indeed excluded but the maker of the distinction cannot takes sides and masters the situation securing a place at the side he prefers. 4. The European resolve to not accept any tradition unquestioningly is itself a tradition and legitimated by tradition: anti-traditionalism as a tradition. Philosophy must be expected to reflect on this, not assume it a given. This is an entelechy, an original and still-possible motivator; the original and the goal are the same: ‘.. which derived its demands upon the virtue of those now living from the origin of a state or of a noble family and could therefore treat neither the past as vanished nor the future as open’ [p 41]. Following the tradition of self-critical anti-tradition, the outcome may be very different from the paradigm of that tradition itself; but the alternative is to turn to an uncritical self-critical stance.


Arguments rendering philosophy uninteresting: philosophy as a museum / critique understood as the emphatic rejection of the object of critique / negligence of sociological phenomenology that runs into the trap of objectivism bound to the non-concept of ‘intersubjectivity’ as a non-existing way to negotiate between objectivism and subjectivism for sociologists only. Postwar sociology did not espouse the critique of Husserl (?) on the relation between tech and science. The functional differentiation of society was seen as a concertation of all functional systems to improve individuals’ overall conditions of life. ‘In this description, more wealth, more freedom, more chances for individual self-realization were expected, in part through an evolutionary development, in part through a scientifically informed politics’ [p 42]. In this double faith (evolution / politics) lay the belief that the idea of modernity contained an immanent rationality and that the development of society is an achievement of society itself. The problem sits in the political-ideological differences of opinion between the liberal-democratic and socialist paths. The modernist project has vanished, now the key terms are freedom in the sense of a market economy, in the sense of freedom of expression, of electoral democracy, or freedom of research pursuing its own goals. This concept of a largely successful path to a more modern modernity is detrimental and hardly credible ‘in view of consequences that are already evident’ [p 43].


Husserl insisted on a transcendental foundation of phenomenology: concentration on the transcendental subject and not a theory-free approach to things. He opposed an objectivistic conception of science, void of spirit. Distinction is the discovery of self-reflection, independent of all empirical evidence – as transcendental evidence as it were. Everyone can find it in him- or herself. The theory that describes this, relying on its own evidence, is hence called ‘transcendental phenomenology’ [p 45]. Now phenomena are no longer the thing to penetrate cognition but the thing itself, the ‘realia’ that are part of the operation of consciousness. The difference between noesis (faculty of the mind necessary to determine what is true or real) and noema (object or content of thought, judgment or perception) between presenting and presented that ensures the describability of the world and that constitutes determinable objects. The above can be reformulated as a difference between self-reference and hetero-reference, revealing that the references condition each other: consciousness cannot self-reference if it cannot distinguish itself from something else and there would be no phenomena for consciousness if it cannot distinguish them from self-indications. ‘The operational method of consciousness that steers by means of intentions is possible only on the basis of this distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference’ [p 47]. ‘Consciousness exists as accessible to itself only in its own operations, and hence there can be time only in the form of momentarily present retention or protention’ [p 47]. Note: According to Husserl, perception has three temporal aspects, retention, the immediate present and protention and a flow through which each moment of protention becomes the retention of the next. Retention is the process whereby a phase of a perceptual act is retained in our consciousness. It is a presentation of that which is no longer before us and is distinct from immediate experience. Protention is our anticipation of the next moment. The moment that has yet to be perceived. [wikipedia 18 feb 18, lemma protention]

A link exists between this theory and neuroscience which shows that present, past and future are intertwined, also in memory: “memory is not only about the past, but is also about the future”. While memory serves as the ability to recall previous experiences, the recall itself is not solely directed toward the past, but is guided by the present for the service of the future. Now the concept of time is introduced: the present is an incision between the past and the future. But if consciousness has an inner subjective time, then why is this covered with the concept of an external objective, chronological time in which it has to reconstruct itself as self-moving, as a stream of consciousness [p 47]? But this is beyond the descriptive internal findings of phenomenology; however, to ask for the ontological metaphysical appears to be a dead end. In the European tradition of time as a flow Husserl measures time as a schema of before (retention), during (present) and protention (after). On the one hand this technical approach to time gives a problem with the earlier critique of technology. But on the other hand if time is not a measurable thing then what justifies the image of time as a flow? The difficulty starts already with the fact that we don’t know what time is; but there are two footholds: 1. the operational manner of intending implies the existence of time, at least the condition must be transcended and 2. given that self-reference and hetero-reference exist then one must be allowed the time to reflect on the question of ‘Why does that interest me at all? If one disregards time or if one relies on an ontologically oriented logic that cannot include time, one encounters paradoxes, as technicians of formal calculations know. One must either ‘Gödelize’- that is, transcend the boundaries drawn by the premises of calculus – or ‘temporalize’, that is, endow the calculating system with time. It is then no longer a matter of true / false but rather of flip / flop’ [pp. 48 – 49]. The connection between operation, time, oscillation and bistability (self- and hetero-reference) supports itself and the unity sought can be the oscillation itself. But that implies a kind of a memory to grasp what has been released to be reoccupied: ‘Memory objectivizes, it contracts, it reckons the relation of identity between the designations of observations that, as operations, can be carried out only one after the other’

[p 49]

. Concerning recursive functions, the re-entry of forms into themselves, the system must be equipped with memory and with the ability to oscillate between the distinctions used. These functions can be separated only if one divides them into past (memory) and future (the possibility of oscillation). It appears as though distinguishing time in time is not a measurement nor a processual substratum but it is necessary to endow systems with the possibility to operate in a sensible self-referential way [p 49-50].


That is possible if the distinction consciousness/phenomenon is translated to self-reference/hetero-reference. This opens the way to a cognitive science oriented towards cognitive systems, a so called empirical epistemology. Cognitive systems operate with a distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference. They can calculate (sic) an idea of the environment only through hetero-reference (phenomenologically). But the environment remains operatively inaccessible because a system cannot operate in its environment. Also systems cannot distinguish the environment as they designate it and the environment as it is. But the idea is that the environment must be cognitively accessible lest the distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference would collapse. In that case hetero-reference (consciousness of phenomena) would in the end only be self-reference (consciousness). This must have consequences for rationality and Western reason à la Husserl. But this line of thought is coming close to the idea of a/p systems. It belongs in ELENS or perhaps in ECOG (DPB). If reality is seen as an illusion then one ends up with radical constructivism, the complete (including knowledge) operative inaccessibility of the environment. Self-reference makes an image of the environment based on self chosen distinctions without a correlate in the environment. But this conflicts with the requirements of a systems-rationality because it resolves the distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference into self-reference. But it can be illustrative to work with this paradoxical limit-idea of paradoxicality (sic) and an illusion of reality. The tradition of radical constructivism developed as follows: logical self-correction > latent unconscious projection surrounding the apparatus of knowledge > language dependent view of reality > reflexivity, the application of these theories to themselves. All of these tools for psychological and social self-correction and self-discipline. The suspicion of projection was universalized and made autonomous (as a school of thought I assume DPB) as Radical Constructivism. But how can the illusion of reality be saved if cognition is produced internally through the procedure above? Given also that that illusion depends on the structures of the identification and distinctions of the system and their recursive use?

The function of the illusion of reality lies in the enabling of the transition from one construction to another. In a therapeutic (pathological/normal) scheme ‘normality’ can be defined as a less painful, more bearable construction, and not a better adaptation (this is reminiscent of the idea that organisms optimize towards a reduction of stress, and to express their fitness as such DPB). And even when therapy is not in order then the illusion of reality offers the possibility to make a transition from one construction to another. Modern society is a polycentric and polycontextual system allowing for many different frames. He existence of transjunctional operations is required that make it possible to change from one context to another and in each case to mark which distinctions are accpeted and rejected. A 2-value logic is insufficient to cognize reality and reality would in that case be an object isolated from knowledge and without describable qualities. ‘Suppositions of reality are needed, however, only in order to accept a multiplicity of incommensurable constructions and, when needed, to move from one of them to another. Radical Constructivism can accept exactly that. For reality is then nothing more than the correlate of the paradox of the self-referential unity of self-reference and hetero-reference (or of subject and object, or of consciousness and phenomenon). And this simultaneously implies that one cannot linger with reality in itself. Like a paradox, reality requires ‘unfolding’. It is only an aid for reaching one construction from another. Consequently, the reality that is given as a paradox is the only knowledge that is unconditionally given, that cannot be conditioned in the system – and therefore remains unproductive’[p 52].


How can an extremely formal theoretical configuration help us in the face of the countless problems with which our society presents us and which we increasingly recognize as consequences of its own structures?’ [p 53]. A form of operative constructivism has revealed itself, which goes under various brand names: formal calculus, 2nd order cybernetics, autopoietic systems, radical constructivism. But these constructs are homeless in the sense that they do not belong to any philosophical tradition. ‘Its manner of argumentation sounds rather naive to the ears of trained philosophers (above all in the cases of Maturana and von Glasersfeld) [p 53, Why? DPB]. Autopoiesis as a concept leads to a conceptuality that is not bound to a type of operation, such as chemical, physical, neurological, biological &c., ‘but that can organize, on these different bases, the reproduction of a difference between system and environment and, independently thereof, can organize cognition’[p 54]. This concept, and others, have turned away from the figure of the transcendental subject. ‘Or is a theoretical construction present in transcendental phenomenology that, if one may formulate it so paradoxically, can separate itself from itself, can become independent of itself?’[pp. 54-55]. To establish this issue no longer purely belongs to the realm particular to consciousness, but to the realm of the emergence of order as such. ‘The rigor of this departure from the transcendental can be recognized if one considers the possibility of omitting consciousness as the medium of the formation of forms and, despite this, of maintaining the structure that was discovered by Husserl, namely the insight into the interrelation of the conditions of the capacity for operations , the separation and simultaneous processing of hetero-reference and self-reference as well as temporality from the standpoint of the respective operations. I believe that this is possible if one determines to presuppose meaning as the general medium for the formation of forms and then to distinguish whether systems are constructed on the basis of intentional acts of consciousness or on the basis of communication. .. I think that such a theoretical program, which radically distinguishes between psychic and social systems, is practicable, but this is not the place to demonstrate this. The question is only: How would the landscape of theory look if such a theoretical program would be practicable? .., but rather a theory that keeps the paradoxing and deparadoxing of its principal differences open in the event that the forms it can offer are no longer persuasive. It would be a theory of self-referential, nontrivial, therefore unreliable and unpredictable systems that must separate themselves from an environment in order to gain their own time and their own values, which limit their possibilities. It would be a theory that assigns to cybernetics the task of controlling the indeterminacies that are generated in the system itself. There is no question then that one can construct the good old subject in this way. However, the decisive factor is that social systems, too – society too – can be described with this concept’ [pp. 55-56, this can go to ELENS; PS I like the underlined phraseology!].


Given the possibility to distinguish operations that constitute meaning concerning social systems and psychic systems in their recursive self-reproduction, respectively it has now become more possible to introduce Husserl’s intuition of a theory into a different ‘lifeworld’. One could imagine that a theory of society could be worked out on the basis of these sketched-out foundations, a theory in which communication would be understood as basic operation, information as hetero-reference, utterance as self-reference, and understanding as a prerequisite of the transferal of communicatively condensed meaning into further communications, with the option of looking for the focal point of the connecting communication either in hetero-reference or in self-reference, an option that perpetually reopens the theory and that is to be perpetually decided anew’ [pp. 56-57; this is a description of a system for (open-ended) cultural evolution; EIMM ELENS ECOG EMEM maar ook ELOG]. Communication cannot operate outside of the system. A system can distinguish between self-reference and hetero-reference and is bilaterally stable and open to the future. ‘It (such a theory-type DPB) could record the moods of the time, such as the fascination with self-referential circles and paradoxes, the necessary incorporation of ignorance into knowledge, and the interaction of construction and deconstruction on the basis of self-limiting system operations’[p 57]. Science like anything does not move by flashes of genius, but instead it must start a journey with some historical and factual state of knowledge that defines and limits its susceptibility to stimulus. ‘It is thus rather an evolutionary process that records certain chance impulses but cannot register others at all. Therein lies the flexibility in the distinctions that can be applied to a given way of formulating knowledge – . One who wishes to opt out of all of these distinctions has hardly a chance of being understood. On the other hand, .. – that one who opts within these frames is compelled to reformulate already already-used-up thoughts, and thereby covers up the already visible theoretical intuition’[p 58, underline originally italic by author].


Concerning the redescribing of existing descriptions (and this is not the same as a critique or an attempt at progress or hermeneutics=interpretation of the meaning): ‘In view of the facility of this kind of textual production, one can redescribe it, too, and thereby surpass the self-understanding of its authors’[p 59]. A redescription of a redescription of a description is an autological process and it does not provide a grounding nor does it need to go on infinitely: ‘It does what it does and in this manner it represents itself. It itself operates autopoietically, without aiming for a palliative conclusive formula’[p 59]. It is possible that this style of thinking requires a different relation to time. In Husserl’s universe consciousness observes time ‘out of the corner of its eye’ [p 60]. Time was conceived in the Western tradition of philosophy, as a river, a movement, a process. Now descriptions of descriptions are the past and prospect of future descriptions are the future. ‘It understands its own present as the difference between its past and its future. It articulates its position no longer in time, but rather with the help of time. ..; rather time is now a definite form of observation, a world-construction with the help of the difference between the infinite horizons of past and present’[p 60].

2. The Modernity of Science


Science represents itself as ‘modern’ and it is widely seen as such, and unlike some other activities its modernity seems to go without saying. Regional and historical contingencies exist, but a regional comparison does not explain what is historically new: novelty is in the final analysis not in comparison to Europe’s own history. Modern society creates its own newness by stigmatizing the old. Society self-describes through degradation of the world of one’s father to ‘ancient history’. This practice burdens self-interpretation and leads to controversy (one is a father’s child). The modrnity of science consisted in the progress of knowledge and in this way science dictated its own modernity, it wás a constant modernity. Then problems arose because new fields of study were opened such that theories were put in their final classical form or enhanced the powers of dissolution of existing knowledge into new forms. But now the connection between science and society is lost, because they could no longer be categorized; some elements of science newly came into existence; others before them had been considered true but were now dissolved into them or replaced by them. Only with the incommensurability theory of Kuhn were theories that apparently addressed some issue in a different paradigm to co-exist in history (their contributions valued). And with that practice science’s claim to modernity went overboard: all theories in some order come to claim their place in history. A particular paradigm’s claim to superiority is only grounded in its own view: the constructivism of modern epistemology is grounded in itself only.

NO. From the analysis presented here the situation is the other way around: a connection exists between functional differentiation of the social system and a constructivist self-understanding of science: ‘Modern society’s form of differentiation makes possible, or even enforces, the autonomy of separate functional areas; this is accomplished by the differentiation of certain operationally closed, autopoietic systems. Functional differentiation thus imposes on systems an obligation to reflect on their own singularity and irreplaceability, but an obligation that must also take into account that there are other functional systems of this kind in society’[p 63]. Knowledge is one form of social ‘potency’ among others: in different arenas its relevance is experienced and valued differently. Communication presupposes knowledge, society requires knowledge to communicate, yet society does not depend on this particular expert scientific knowledge for the autopoiesis of its communication as such [p 63]. Science in specific must make new achievements and not define society, contrary to other forms of communications in society. This state of affairs of a loss of reference (also loss of experience, loss of meaning, loss of belief) is registered by the stances of relativism, conventionalism and constructivism. Their content is negative when historically compared to the prevailing metaphysical ontology including essentialism, religion and categorial approach to nature, supposing a correct order. These must fail and relativity and contingency come into play, namely the provisional and hypothetical character of knowledge.

Truth is not possible without reference to an external world. But not only the designated (referred to) must be real, given that the operation of reference is real. This statement is insufficient because the operation is inaccessible to itself and to the observer it can be referred to only as something he designated: tis is the controversy between realism and constructivism – as if they were incompatible. Modern society must formulate its epistemological problem, namely the problem of reference and the problem of truth, differently (now it is bivalent): true = positive = being = reference (&designating, claiming, recognizing). Untrue is to confirm the act of referring. As a consequence a loss of reference comes as a loss of truth. This logically leads to the paradox of nihilism: only the untruth can be true. Logic is structurally not rich enough to represent more complex situations (DPB: why is this so: Boolean = TM). It is required to separate the problems of truth from the problems of reference. The starting point for these reflections is difference-theoretical: they arise from a conception of reference and of truth as form in the sense ’.. – as a two-sided form, as difference, as the marking of a boundary whose crossing takes time

[p 65]

. DPB: is this similar to the concept of difference of Deleuze as p/ Weaver PhD? With regards to truth: this is a code to mark the (self-referential) difference between truth and untruth. Regarding reference: there is a distinction between self-reference (internal reference) and external reference: as both sides of the distinction they exist only as a pair of opposites. Accepting this formulation of reference the problem plays on two levels. ‘Reference itself is nothing but the achievement of an observational designation’: each reference designates something (it has an object) [p 65]. ‘The opposite concept here is simply operating’, because unlike referring, operating is an objectless enactment (sic) [p 65]. ‘In the observation, the difference between observation and operation can be reformulated in an innovative way as the distinction between self-reference and external reference. Self-reference refers to what the operation ‘observation’ enacts. External reference refers to what is thereby excluded’ [p 65]. (Intuitively internal (self-)reference is the result of having put oneself in a relation to something through an observation and in the case of external reference not having done so, respectively DPB). Now the predicate ‘real’ is no longer attributable to what is designated, but to what is distinguished – the distinction (either a relation exists because it is observed or it is not DPB) [p 65]. ‘And this holds for every distinction – for the distinction between self-reference and external reference as well as for the distinction between true and untrue’ [p 65]. Now the problem bifurcates into a problem of distinctions of {distinctions of self-reference and external reference} and of {distinctions of true / untrue}. These two distinctions are of different dimensions (‘at right angels to each other’): self-referential observations can be both true and untrue &c. There is no (automatic) privilege left for the truth of the observer’s introspection, but self-observation and self-description remains a certainty without criteria; but only the operation of observing (the capability to see) is put beyond doubt. But what is referred to (designated, objectified, recognized) can be designated both as true and untrue, ‘depending on the programs that serve as criteria for a correct classification for these values’ [p 66]. A systems can only construct its environment internally; it has a different access to itself than to its environment. But the interpretation cannot be that the self-reference is easier to achieve than external reference, produces better results, or has a higher probability of truth. The observing operation is a communication that exposes itself in its enactment and not only in its effects (this means that the behavior ís the signal DPB). By the fact that the system is operating the distinction regarding its ‘form’ is enforced. Self-reference and external reference can be coded in the same code (I find this odd, because external reference is about what it is not and that is a lot to be aware of and to code accordingly DPB). ‘.. and this encoding takes place in a different way depending which of its function systems society uses’ [p 66] (I think these functions are Francis´s aspects). This situation repeats itself at the level of function systems, which themselves also distinguish between self-reference and external reference in their operations [p 66]. Modern pattern of the social system is articulated through its function systems; they participate in the structural richness of modern society ‘.. – a society that only they put in this form’ [p 66]. These functions require descriptions that are rich in structure to account for the distinction of distinctions as above. The ensuing semantic forms are modern; but they are historically conditioned by their socio-structural cause and their semantic expression.

Constructivist epistemology can deal with this state of affairs; this has led to a theory that describes cognition in a radical way as a self-produced distance [p 67]. This seems to imply an increased knowledge of knowledge; however, this falls short of explaining the break between radical constructivism and transcendental idealism (where did that come from? DPB). ‘If, on the other hand, one defines modern society structurally in terms of functional differentiation and derives from this principle its semantic requirements through such concepts as polycontexturality (r! DPB), second-order observation, and the distinction of distinctions – especially the distinction between problems of encoding (for example, true/untrue) and problems of reference (self-reference and external reference) – then, in any case, an opportunity for observations and descriptions presents itself that is richer in structures’[pp. 66-67].


The conclusion is that the specificity of modernity is to be found in the differences that are produced when an observer designates something and makes a distinction. Another route to arrive at this conclusion is as follows. Another description of modernity is in its tendency to formalize, idealize, technicalize, account &c. ‘At stake is the fact that science accepts technology as a form of its own (of science ?DPB). .. We are only asking: in what sense is technicalization (we continue to use this word) a form? And what is the other side of this form?’ [p 66]. Husserl distinguishes technicalization from the ‘lifeworld’, namely the always already employed concrete foundation of meaning for subjective intentions. He goes on to make a distinction between the self-realization of reason under the guidance of philosophy; and the other side of that is the actualization of meaningful human life under the guidance of reason. To explain the arbitrariness of the behavior of the state the behavior of individuals had be treated as unreliable. In the same vein individual cognitive experience had to be unreliable to set off against calculable measurements. ‘Once one has made a distinction – and one cannot begin without one – and then continues in one’s action, then an order of increased complexity arises, intelligible to everyone, which leaves only the options of either agreeing or refusing to join in. Consensus can only be achieved by reduction; or, in order to formulate it paradoxically, by relinquishing consensus. .. Nothing else is meant when we speak of differentiation in the terminology of systems theory. In exactly this sense, technicalization (or, to remind the reader, formalization, idealization &c.) can be regarded as a specific element of modern science’ [p 69].

Scientific theory and technology find one another in their simplification in the sense of disregarding other things. But economic and accounting technology and in so doing calculates which behavior is too and which is not profitable. But human individuals are not as material. This leads to a disregard of what a human being is for himself. Modern society has made these abstractions central to its existence and has left it to the individual to distance himself from this dependence and ‘imagine his ownmost being [sein Eigenstes] as the center of the world – in a mode ‘free of technology’, if one may say so’[p 70]. Technology is a simplification. But the world is not a simple place. These are facts that need no discovery: science is not discovery but construction [p 70]. Also the world is not covered by a phenomenal surface that forms an ‘appearance in order to discern a mathematical or categorical framework that carries the world’ [p 70]. No, science tries out simplifications, incorporates them in a given world, and figures out if the isolations required for these experiments are successful. Science must reflect on this; this reflection requires a double formulation. In systems theory differentiation is about the operational closure of a system that is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. Concerning complex systems: ‘.. the construction of complexity can be initiated only by a reduction of complexity

[p 71]

. ‘The modernity of all function systems, including science, consists in the effects of these interrelated conditions. These effects block a description of the world as an object given to (or ‘standing opposed to’) the observer. Correspondingly, the problem of the unity of the difference between cognition and its object loses the classical significance it used too have in guiding reflection’ [p 71]. Science does not represent the world as it is (but a simplification) and hence it cannot present itself as the instructor of others about it. However it explores possible constructions that function as forms and hence produce a difference.


A social theory that intends to take the issues above into account encounters this paradox that is relevant for both society and for the world. On the one hand a ‘comprehensive global social system [Weltgesellschaftssystem] has developed in an evolutionary process’

[p 72]

. In addition: ‘Everything that is communicated is communicated in society. Everything that happens, happens occurs in the world’[p 72]. For that reason they cannot be viewed as a unity: ‘.. the unity of society (of the world) cannot be re-introduced into society (the world). For each observation and description requires a distinction for its own operation. The observation of the One within the One, however, would have to include what it excludes (that against which it distinguishes its designation)’ [p 72]. This re-entry is possible but it requires an imaginary space to replace the classical a priori of transcendental philosophy. The paradox can be solved if it is replaced with a distinction, between operations and observations in this case; all operations are self-observing operations and all observations must be enacted as operations: ‘We can then say: the unity of the system is produced and reproduced operatively. The operation, at the same time, observes itself – yet it does not observe the the unity that includes it, that comes into being, and is being changed, in this enactment. The observation of unity, in contrast, is a special operation in the system (in the world), which must use a special distinction (for example the distinction between system and environment or the distinction between the world and being-in-the-world) and which itself can also be oberved in the process of its distinguishing and designating. The observation and description of unity from within unity is therefore possible, but only as an enactment of precisely this operation, only on the basis of the choice of a distinction whose own unity remains imaginary, and only in such as way that the operation ‘observation’ is itself exposed to observation. We have thus reached the point where the significance of second-order observation becomes evident. .. Instead of appealing to final units, one observes observations, one describes descriptions. At the second-order level, we arrive again at recursive interrelations and begin to search for ‘eigenvalues’, which remain unchanged in the course of the system’s operations. .. Put differently, they are perhaps only functions to be fulfilled while a very limited choice of functional equivalents is available’[p 73]. This is analogue to my quest for invariants concerning the existence of firms DPB. Changing for another research or refraining from it implies changing to other eigenvalues (or another attractor DPB) which implies a catastrophe, namely the re-orientation to another eigenvalue. If one wishes to not move towards another kind of society then the only alternative for scientific research is scientific research. In this way the observation of observations can experience a ‘blind spot’ with regards to what he can see using his distinctions and what he cannot see. With regards to second-order observations, society can operate with the distinction manifest/latent so as to include the second-order observer also.

Paradox and Observation

3. The Paradox of Observing Systems


To submit formal structures to sociological analysis means to find correlations between formal structures and social conditions. The conditions and the structures were to be variables the values of which would have to be contingent. But they are ‘natural’ with regards to society and ‘necessary’, namely dependent on axioms in the case of the formalisms. In order to do that one would have to assert that the natural is artificial (produced by society) and the necessary is contingent (different forms under different conditions).These statements are paradoxical, but we need them to differentiate observers (self- and external) as well as observations (for instance for the self-observer they are natural while for an external-observer they are artificial); but all the while the world remains the same and hence the paradox (but Wolfram suspects a solution: ‘I suspect that CA are in fact the same as systems in nature’ DPB). An observer is supposed to decide which is which; but who can observe the observer making the decision as well as the decision, contingent for that particular observer? Can the observer refuse to observe without taking the decision to, or does he have to withdraw to the position of a nonobserving observer?


Paradox has a logical and a rhetorical use. The logical tradition suppresses paradox making use of the distinction between being and nonbeing; only being exists according to its own distinctions; being is what it is (the observer can make true or false statements or (be) correct(ed) by others). As a consequence being is framed by secondary distinctions and not by its distinction from nonbeing: ‘Being does not need to be distinguished from, or to exclude, nonbeing to be itself. It simply is, by itself (nature) or by way of creation

[p 80]

. The rhetorical tradition introduce paradoxical statements to enlarge the frames of opinions and to prepare the ground for innovation. The two traditions seem to be different and rhetorical paradoxes seem to not show logical contradictions; are they conventionally mere exercises of wit? No, the traditional definition is to go beyond the limits of common sense: to deframe and reframe the frame of normal thinking, namely of common sense. But to deframe means to focus on the frames of common sense, and hence it needs its own frame; it is required to look at the commonsensical paradox from the outside and lead back to common sense [p 81]. Only cancellations explains too little to carry the entire meaning. If paradoxes are teleological operations aimed at a perfect state then that state can be described as enriched common sense. But this is a (Kantian) final cause without a finality and hence paradoxical; in this sense ‘The rhetorical paradox, then, may be an autological (word expressing a property it possesses DPB) operation, infecting itself with whatever is a paradox’[p 81]. In the logical (and since the work of Frege, Russell, Cantor the mathematical) realm paradox is to be avoided. But if frames are considered useful / worthwhile then we may describe the hierarchies devised by he above as frames, not of commonsensical opinions but of logical operations. If observing frames is serious then does the distinction between rhetorical and logical paradoxes make sense at all?


In the above it was discussed how a sociology of knowledge can include objects such as mathematics and logic. Now we have to ask the question: How is it possible to observe frames? ‘Whatever difficulties may emerge during this investigation, we will certainly need a medium that is the same on both sides of the frame, on its inside and on its outside. I propose to call this medium meaning (emphasis of the author), and thereby exclude two other possibilities – the world and truth. The world, .. , seems tto be too large. Truth, on the other hand, is too narrow because it itself serves as a frame, as the inner side of a form whose outside would be everything that is not true. But what, then, is meaning?’ [p 82]. It was discussed that paradoxes can be observed as deframing and reframing, as deconstructing and reconstructing operations; the adopted concept of meaning should not restrict the range of these operations. Examples are the logical empiricism methods of the Viennese school that enforce the exclusion of metaphysics as meaningless as well as the subjective experience of individuals concerning the meaning of something; these examples are not suitable because they exclude unmarked possibilities and they are only valid in their respective frames: ‘They are, that is, deframable (deconstructible) meanings and do not fulfill the requirements of a medium that gives access to both sides of any (emphasis by the author) frame’[p 83]. A concept of meaning is needed that coextensive (emphasis DPB) with the world; meaning in this sense will have no outside, no negation, no antonym; every possible use of this medium called ‘meaning’ will reproduce meaning and even an attempt to cross the boundary into unmarked space will be a meaningful operation. And hence a concept of meaning (a medium) is needed that can assign meaning to emergent behavior and its products. Meaning can be seen as the simultaneous presentation of actuality and possibility (Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology): ‘The actual is given within a ‘horizon’ of further possibilities. Since operationally closed systems consist of operations only and have to renew them from moment to moment, they can maintain their self-reproduction only by continuously actualizing new meaning. This requires selection from many possibilities and, therefore, will appear as information’ [p 83]. This is the structure and dynamics of monads: meaning is embedded in how the future is molded from the restrictions of actuality: what are the attractors and the repellers embedded in the current instance of the system that shape its future (DPB, monads, EIMM?, ELENS). On the ‘actual’ side of the actual/possible distinction that distinction itself reappears while the system operates: ‘.. it is copied onto itself so that the system may have the sense of being able to continue actual operations in spite of an increasing change of themes, impressions, intentions’ [p 83]. The structure of the actual system attracts to some possible future states and is repelled from others; but the current state shapes the domain of possibilities of future states – and as the distinction is copied onto itself it maintains particular traits (properties, distinctions) such that particular corresponding themes impressions and intentions are maintained in the system’s behavior. Yet in other words: ‘If we observe such a reentry, we see a paradox. The reentering distinction is the same and it is not the same. But the paradox does not prevent the operations of the system. On the contrary, it is the condition of the their possibility because their autopoiesis requires continuing actuality with different operations, actualizing different possibilities (emphasis of the author)’ [p 83-84]. The consequences of the basis of psychic and social systems being in reentry are: 1) an imaginary space is created that includes unmarked space and allows for ‘expressions of ignorance’ 2) the system is indeterminate, and hence nontransparent to itself 3) every operation of the system starts from its own output; and it needs a memory function to distinguish remembering from forgetting 4) the system’s future is a succession of marked and unmarked states, or self-referential and hetero-referential states (it must oscillate between the sides of its distinctions): ‘An oscillating system can preserve the undecidability of whether something is inside or outside a form. It can preserve and reproduce itself as a form, that is, as an entity with a boundary, with an inside and an outside, and it can prevent the two sides from collapsing into each other’[p 84]. ‘To see (and we will say: to observe) possibilities and to use meaning as a medium, the system will use the distinction between medium and form. ‘Medium’ within this distinction means a loose coupling of possibilities without regard to actual happenings, and ‘form’ means tight couplings that construct the form, for example a thing, with an outside. Again, the medium is inside and outside, but the attention of the system has limitations and observes only forms. Forms are actualized in time just for a moment, but since the system has a memory it can reactualize well-tried forms and direct its operations from form to form, thereby reproducing the medium. The distinction medium/form serves as a frame without outside , as an internal frame that includes, via reentry, its own outside

[pp. 84-85]

. DPB: there must be a relation between this interpretation of memory ad the constructal law.


Now a basis exists to observe the observer, and to enter the universe of the Observing Systems. The expression observing/observer must be adapted for use in this theory; it is now not only attentive sensual perception: ‘In more recent literature, initiated by George Spencer Brown, Humberto Maturana, and Heinz von Foerster, the term corresponds to to the autopoietic self-reproduction of systems, to the operation of reentry, and to the oscillation between marked and unmarked states, to the inside and the outside of forms and self-referential and hetero-referential indications. Observing means making a distinction and indicating one side (and not the other side) of the distinction‘ [p 85]. Normally an indication will encompass a number of ‘nested’ categories: Bloomington and no other university (in no other city), implies a double boundary, indicating the city and the university from other cities and universities, and the second from the unmarked spaces of all other things respectively. Asking about fine wines in Bloomington, one is forced to cross the second boundary with the unmarked space (B. from its unmarked state) to go look for restaurants &c. Following this procedure from frame to frame (form to form) will reproduce the unmarked space; ‘It will maintain the world as severed by distinctions, frames and forms, and maintained by its severance. “We may take it”, to quote Spencer Brown, “that the world undoubtedly is itself (i.e. is indistinct from itself), but, in any attempt to see itself as an object, it must, equally undoubtedly, act so as to make itself distinct from, and therefore false to, itself”’ [p 85]. Any such system remains forever elusive to itself; any such theory cannot be holistic: no part can represent the whole:’The miracle of symbolization, the marvelous, that which has been most admired by our tradition, has to be replaced by a difference that, when observed, always regenerates the unobservable. The operation of observing, therefore, includes the exclusion of the unobservable, including, moreover, the unobservable par excellence, observation itself, the observation-in-operation [p 86]. The place of the observer is in the unmarked state; from there it must cross a boundary to make a distinction; as such the observer as a system can only be distinguished (by way of form, frame) from other observers or psychic from social observing. We arrive, then, at the autological conclusion that the observing of observers and even the operation of self-observation is itself simply observation in the usual sense – that is, making a distinction to indicate one side and not the others’[p 86]. And just to be sure: ‘We resist the temptation to call this creation’ [p 86].


To elaborate on its self-description remains one of the possibilities an observer sees and can, if required, actualize. But even then, it will just change its frame, cross the boundary between self-reference and hetero-reference; it will mark itself as a thing among others or as an observer among others. Switching frames, proceeding from form to form, is the normal way of observing operations, and the ‘self’ of the system can appear and disappear as suggested by circumstance’[p 86]. ‘For social systems, the emergence of organizations that can communicate in their own name makes all the difference. No other social system can do that, no society, no societal subsystems, no interaction. If the “estates” of the old European society wanted to have a voice, they formed a corporation (“Standschaft” in Germany), and if the economy wants to have a voice in political affairs, it sends representatives of its organizations. Nations have names, but to be able to participate in communication, they form “states”. .. There is simply no time to include the world or the complete reality of the observing systems (as “subjects”and as “objects”) in the operation’[p 87]. If one looks for an all-inclusive statement one will end up with a paradox: ‘The world is observable because it is unobservable’ [p 87]. Observation requires distinction, but the operation to distinguish is itself indistinguishable; it can be distinguished, but by another operation: ’It crosses the boundary between the unmarked and the marked space, a boundary that does not exist before and comes into being (if “being” is the right word) only by crossing it. .. Obviously this makes no sense. It makes meaning. It makes no common sense; it uses the meaning of “para-doxon” to transgress the boundaries of common sense to reflect what it means to use meaning as a medium’ [pp. 87-88]. But paradox has itself two distinctions: 1) it is the unit of distinction (ceci n’est pas ..) and, but paradox can be unfolded (by making a rule at each scale and forbid ‘strange loops’) such that a distinction can be paradoxified and deparadoxified, depending on conditions of plausibility. But now 2) a distinction exists between the paradox and its unfolding, depending on those conditions. Only the paradox itself is unconditional.


We must distinguish observers, namely society and the encompassing social system: ‘Society produces culture – memory – and its culture will decide whether distinctions and indications may be communicated as natural (not artificial), as normal (not pathological), and as necessary or impossible (not contingent). In periods of semantic uncertainty and structural transition, paradoxes will become fashionable, ..’ [pp. 88-89]. Society in this day and age, now globalized, is in a similar situation of uncertainty and paradox is again fashionable; two interconnected reasons: 1) the establishment of a world society with a plurality of cultural traditions and 2) the structure of modern society is determined by functional differentiation (no unifying principle) and no longer by hierarchical stratification. Society appears the same but its description depends on the functional subsystem describing it (politics, economics &c): ‘The integration of the system can be thought of no longer as a process of applying principles but rather as a reciprocal reduction of te degrees of freedom of its subsystems’[p 89]. This is a central condition of modern society and everything that does not comply with this central idea, namely that adaptation would not be required is not seen as ‘serious’.


Important distinctions in our traditions are 1) between being and non-being (ontology) and 2) between good and bad (ethics). Ontology is about substances (individual beings) and essences (generic entities), visible as ideas; there is no non-being, but there is imperfection and in cognition there are true and false opinions. The essence of cognition is its capacity to distinguish. But: ‘Why don’t we, operating as observers, that is, as systems, start from the distinction between inside and outside (Herbst 1976, 88)? Apparently, being is the strong side, the powerful side of this distinction. It is the “inner side” of the ontological form. You can operate on the side of being but not on the side of nonbeings. Only beings have connecting value. .. That is, what would happen if we permitted the question of what kind of society lends plausibility to these ontological assumptions?’ [p 90]. Similar questions can be asked concerning ethics: What is good and what is bad? But only good actions have connecting capacities, and bad actions are isolated events or habits. This means that being is good: ‘.. it is good to distinguish the good from the bad and that ethics itself is morally good’ [p 91]. The good represents both the positive side of the distinction and the distinction itself; from a linguistic perspective this is due to a confusion of levels; in social communication this presupposes authority; in structural terms this unfolding of the paradox presupposes a society with center / periphery differentiation. What is labeled as “modern” here reacts to the dissolution of all sorts of these premises: ‘Having to digest these social changes (patterns of organizations becoming independent of nobility DPB), the social and political semantics has to change its conceptual frames. But is also – and this is our point – has to provide new patterns for the unfolding of the paradoxes inherent in all distinctions that are used for framing observations and descriptions’[p 91]. ‘The substantial being and the reasonable good take the place of the paradox’ [p 92]. ‘But the so-called “modern” solution could never achieve a similar (to the old-European tradition of resolving paradox with fetishism and disavowal DPB) stability. Its “present time” became “pregnant with future”, that is, with the unknown and with the prospect oscillating within the framework of its distinctions – now described as “ideologies”. There wwere many competing distinctions, such as scoiety and state, society and community, individual and collectivity, freedom and institution, progressive and conservative politics, and, above all, capitalism and socialism, but in none of the cases did the unity of these distinctions, the sameness of the opposites, become a problem (Luhmann 1990a, 123-43). The paradox now becomes resolved as oscillation, that is, as the still-undetermined future. Supported by a universally accepted “open future”, these distinctions (and others as well) stand in for the paradox of any frame used by an observer. If “modernity” relies on its future for its deparadoxification, it is, and will always remain, an “incomplete project” (Habermas 1981). The future never becomes present; it never begins but always moves away when we seem to approach it. But how long are we to run into troubles with our present society?’[p 92].

We need only ask the question “What is the unity of this distinction?” to see the paradox. And what prevents us from doing exactly that? We would have to use the distinction between paradoxification and deparadoxification of distinctions. We would have to admit that all distinctions, including this one, can be reduced to a paradox. In this sense, paradox is an invariant possibility, and all distinctions are of only temporary and contingent validity. We can always ask: Who is the observer? And then, Why do we distinguish him or her? If thre are sufficient plausible reasons in present-day disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, systems theory may offer itself as a way out of the paradox – for the time being’[p 93].

4 Deconstruction as Second-Order Observing

A ‘deconstruction kit’ can be applied to distinguish (make a distinction) between homosexual and heterosexual, namely by deconstructing the distinction. In so doing the presupposition of a hierarchical opposition, namely an inherent or natural primacy of heterosexuality by way of ‘l’englobement du contraire’ is seen, destroyed. But this abolishing of prejudices is for illustrative purposes only: ‘Deconstruction draws attention to the fact that differences are only distinctions and change their use value when we use them at different times and in different contexts’ [p 95]. But what if we asked the question: Who (which system) is the observer? What does she invest in making this distinction? What will she lose in maintaining it? [p 95]. DPB I associate this idea / these questions with the idea that firms can be owned, or rather, that business processes can be owned and that the ownership can be listed on a stock exchange and traded accordingly. Perhaps these questions are also relevant for (from the perspective of) the other systems (people) associated with firms: employee, banker, manager, even customer and supplier: What is their assumption about ownership. And also: What is their distinction? I reckon this association stems from the similarity of questioning: Whois the observer, What does she invest, What might she lose in maintaining this ownership? ‘The illusion to be deconstructed is the assumption that all these systems designate the same object when they use the distinction heterosexuals/homosexuals’[p 95]. And with regards to the ownership and in the same vein: Deconstruction of the assumption that all involved systems designate the same object when they use the distinction owner/nonowner. Observing the individual observers shows that they are not observing the same thing: each operates in its own network and each has a different past and a different future. ‘..,a second-order observer observer observing these observers would only see loose couplings and lack of complete integration’ [p 95]. In the context of the above question the human body is important because it decides to be attracted or not; observing this observer leads to the question if it follows cultural imperatives or if there is a lack of self-control in play ‘.. or whether there is an unavoidable akrasia (lack of self-control), .. , a lack of ‘potestas in se ipsum’ (self-control) in humans and in social systems’ [p 95]. Given akrasia can a soldier know how his body will observe a situation including homosexuals and where privacy is limited? Does the body make the same observation as the mind? And can a potential difference between these observations implicate a male soldier as a homosexual? If so the whole definition of the problem changes: akrasia was originally a distinction made at the discretion of an observer installed by God to oversee His creation using reason (as opposed to passions). ‘Deconstruction destroys this “one observer – one nature – one world” assumption. Identities, then, have to be constructed. But by whom? The problem.. is the problem of how to protect the fragile and eventually self-deceiving constructions of individuals; it is the risk (not untypical for soldiers anyway) of wearing badly fitting garments’ [p 96].


Deconstruction seems to recommend the reading of forms as differences, to look at distinctions without the hope of regaining unity a a higher (or later) level, or without even assuming the position of an “interpretant”in the sense of Peirce’[p 97]. But are there any framings that are not themselves deconstructible: ‘Or would applying deconstruction lead only to reflexivity, recursivity, and self-reference resulting in stable meanings, objects, or what mathematicians call eigenvalues? It seems that there is only différence’ [p 97]. ‘Deconstruction, then, is deconstruction of the “is”and the “is not”. Deconstruction deconstructs the assumption of presence, of any stable relation between presence and absence, or even of the very distinction between presence and absence’[p 97]. ‘It may be sufficient to for maintaining the dance to be aware of the “trace de l’effacement de la trace” (“trace of the erasure of the trace”)’ [p 98]. ‘In other words, any kind of observing system, whatever its material reality (be it biological or neurophysiological or psychological or sociological), can be described as determined by the distinctions it uses. In the case of autopoietic (that is, self-reproducing) systems, this would mean that an observer has to focus on the self-determined and self-determining distinctions a system uses to frame its own observations’ [p 99]. What are the distinctions that guide the observations of an observer and do stable objects appear when these observations are recursively applied to their own results?: ‘Objects are therefore nothing but the eigenbehaviors of observing systems that result from using and reusing their previous distinctions’ [p 99]. Another tool is transjunction: these are neither conjunctions or disjunctions but distinctions at a higher level. If a distinction is found then the corresponding frame can be accepted or rejected. The entire form may be rejected and replaced by another (e.g. a moral code can be replaced by a legal code of good and bad).


A famous dictum of Humberto Maturana (in the context of his biological theory of cognition) says: Everything that is said (including this proposition) is said by the observer’. The Derridan interpretation of Joseph Margolis leads to a very similar result: “Everything we say … is and cannot but be desconstructive and deconstructible.” For language use itself is the choice of a system that leaves something unsaid. Or, as Spencer Brown would say, drawing a distinction severs an unmarked space to construct a form with a marked and unmarked side. It may go too far to say that language use as such is deconstructive. But observing and observer uses language certainly is. .. At the level of second-order observing, everything becomes contingent, including the second-order observing itself’ [p 100]. But what is gained by the transition from deconstruction to second-order observing? 1) Observations break symmetry: distinctions are forms>forms are boundaries>boundaries separate inside and outside> the inner side is the marked side (the indicated, having a connective value)>next operation. In the inner side lies the problem of finding a next suitable operation. Observations have to presuppose both sides of the form they use as a distinction or frame; they can only operate within the world: ‘This means that something always has to be left unsaid, thereby providing a position from which to deconstruct what has been said

[p 101]

. 2) If one tries to see two sides of the distinction at the same time then one sees a paradox, an entity without connective value: ‘The different is the same, the same is different. So what? First of all, this means that all knowledge and all action have to be founded on paradoxes and not on principles; on the self-referential unity of the positive and the negative – that is, on an ontologically unqualifiable world. And if one splits the world into two marked and unmarked parts to be able to observe something, its unity becomes unobservable. The paradox is the visible indicator of invisibility. And since it represents the unity of the distinction required for the operation called observation, the operation itself remains invisible – for itself and for the time being

[p 101]

. DPB: this reminds me of the different properties of systems at their component level and on the level of the whole; it reminds also of the nestedness of a/p system, although I am not sure why it reminds me of it (could it be the domains of interactions eigher at the level of the components or of the domain of the interactions of the whole, but not both domains at the same time); lastly it reminds me of the narrative of the hubbub and respective chanting USA! in a football stadium. To unfold a paradox is to replace it with stable identities by way of finding distinctions that protect from identifying what cannot be identified. But distinctions become visible when one tries to observe their unity: ‘Unfoldments, then, are the result of unasking this question. This means that one has to observe the observer to see when and why he takes the risk of an unfoldment – of a deconstructible unfoldment’[p 102]. 3) The distinction between a paradox and its unfoldment is itself a paradox: ‘Given this dead end, only time can help. Time can teach us that there is no end; everything goes on, and systems continue to operate as long as they are not destroyed

[p 102]

. 4) With regards to empirical systems, problems of identity and stability are “temporalized” and theories of structural stability are replaced with theories of dynamical stability. ‘But contrary to a hidden assumption of structuralism, the only component of a system that can change is its structure. So if we focus on the form (=distinction), what is the other side of this form? On the other side we find events or the operations of the system. Events (and this includes operations) cannot change because they have no time for change: they disappear as soon as they appear, they vanish in the very process of emerging. So again, one of these cheerful paradoxes: the only unchangeable components of systems are inherently unstable’ [p 103]. And as a consequence systems have to use their operations in order to be able to use their operations &c; this is roughly what is called autopoiesis; a/p systems are the products of their operations; they are unreliable machines, distinguished from trivial machines that use fixed programs to transform inputs to outputs. 5) ‘A system that can observe may have the capacity to observe itself. To observe itself it has to distinguish itself from everything else, that is, from its environment. The recursively interconnected operations of the system draw a boundary and thereby differentiate system and environment. The operation of self-observation requires a reentry (in Spencer Brown’s sense) of this difference into itself, namely the operation of distinguishing system and environment within the system. .. But a reentry is a paradoxical operation. The distinction between “before”and “after”the reentry is the same and not the same. This shows that time (that is the temporal distinction of an observer is used to dissolve the paradox

[pp. 103-4]

. Theories of the mind and theories of society must be based on this paradox unfolded.


Who is the observer? Using second-level observation, the question becomes: Who is to be observed by whom and for what reasons? ‘This means: an observer has to declare (or even justify) his preferences for choosing and indicating a specific observer to be observed – that one and not another one’[p 104]. If the second-level observer rejects the choice of the observed observer, then he makes a transjunctional operation to use third-level observation to describe the second-level observer with specific preferences for selecting specific observers (e.g. a family therapist observing the mutual observations of the family members). ‘There is, in other words, no logical, ontological, or even natural primacy involved in using the distinction being/nonbeing

[p 105]

. This selection of observing systems is doable for sociologists, the societal system being the most important observer to observe. For conscious systems it is less doable because the selection of one over another (of 5bn) is difficult. Other societal systems such as science are mere societal subsystems. Most important is how modern society observes and describes itself and its environment. Some theoretical preparations: 1) ‘Observation is nothing but making a distinction to indicate one side and not the other, regardless of the material basis of the operation that does the job, and regardless of the boundaries that close the system( brain, mind, social system) so that it becomes an autopoietic system, reproduced by the network of its own operations, and eventually irritated but never determined by its environment’[p 105] 2) The concept of society: ‘Conceived as an observing system, society cannot be described as a collection of different, somehow interrelated items, .. . We can think of society as the all-encompassing system of communication with clear, self-drawn boundaries that includes all connectable communication and exclude everything else. Hence, the society is a self-reproducing system, based on one, and only one, highly specific type operation, namely communication. It excludes other types of operationally closed systems – cells, neurons, brains, minds

[p 106]

. This is presupposed in the processes of communication. It is presupposed in the sense of a necessary environment; the form of a system is the difference of that system and environment. Living systems produce only their own reproduction; in so doing they replace states of awareness for other. But they can never communicate: ‘For communication requires the production of an emergent unity that has the capacity to integrate and disintegrate the internal states of more than one operationally closed system

[p 106]

. Without operational closure systems would continually mix up its operations with those of its environment, internal states with external states and words with things: ‘It could not make the (reentering) distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference

[p 106]

. It could not match internal and external states, it could not separate observer from observed: ‘The lack of an operational access to the environment is a necessary condition for cognition (emphasis by the author)’ [p 106].


The system of society (global as it is) seems to be unable to produce one and only one self-description. And this leads to the question of how it can describe itself and its environment: ‘This observing and describing is done by the mass media

[p 107]

. This gives one the impression to be first-order observing, but in fact it is second-order. Mass media cooperate in producing a coherent image of the world: ‘We know this is preselected information, but we do not and we cannot in everyday life reflect upon and control the selectivity of this selection’ [p 108]. The selection and presentation by mass media is not a distortion but a construction of reality. There is no distinct reality out there – for who would make the distinctions? – all the distinctions are made by the observer. And there is no privileged observer. And there is no transcendental subject. For lack of a powerful alternative we have to accept these presentations. But we can deconstruct the observations of the mass media; and in order to do so, we replace deconstruction with making second-order observations, observe their observing. Mass media prefer: discontinuity over continuity (because they have to produce information) / conflict over peace / dissensus over consensus / drama over normal life / local interest over global issues / elements of that need no further explanation because they are distinctions themselves / bad over good news / good over bad adverstisement / clear moral distinctions (and a practical hero) / morality and action. ‘What has become visible after some centuries of impact of the printing press and after a hundred and more years of mass media is a much more complicated, some say hypercomplex, description of complexity – hypercomplex in the sense that within the complex system of society there are many competing descriptions of this complexity. The unity of the complexity becomes unobservable. Intellectuals occupy themselves and others with describing description, philosophers become experts on philosophical texts – and literary criticism takes over, nicknaming “theory” something that we suppose has been done elsewhere

[p 109]



Describing history presents the unity of the past as a guarantee for the unity of the present. The past had to be presented as a coherent sequence of events, ‘a unity of diversity’ [p 110]. There can be said to be a focus on the past to create unity within the present [p 110]. To return to history means to return to diversity: ‘The common heritage, the canonical texts, the “classics” all require a new reading’ [p 110]. Deconstruction of the metaphysical system by philosophers attempts to loosen the binding forces of tradition and replace unity with diversity; this uproots historical semantics radically; the transform from one form of stability to another is a catastrophe. Marx used the concept of class structures as a correlate between social structures and semantics; he constructed a typology of changing modes of production that generated historical ideologies. We can enlarge this framework by substituting forms of differentiation for class. Now the classical sociology is opened for structural complexity and we can use systems theory to elaborate on forms of differentiation: ‘Differentiation becomes system differentiation; system differentiation becomes a reentry of system-building within systems, new boundaries within already bounded systems, forms within forms, observers within observers’ [p 110].

This is “the world we have lost”, the world of ontological metaphysics, the world of “being or not being”, the world of the two-value logic that presupposed one (and only one) observer who could make up his mind simply by looking at what is the case. Cognition, but also passion such as love, was a passive reaction to a reality out there, a “being impressed”, and errors in cognition or passion could be corrected by reason

[p 111]


5. Identity – What or How?


It should also be recalled that, at this time, the modern novel began to give readers the ability to observe what the heroes and heroines of the novel could not themselves observe, above all, in a pre-Freudian way, their sexual interests’ [p 113]. DPB: today this element is relevant to investigate what the characters of the book would have could have should have done, in other words what their domain of possible interactions is in an autopoietic sense . This statement above also reminds of the use of research or investigative journalism as a function of the mass media. This occurs at a time when modern society begins to see its break with its predecessors as irreversible: ‘This demands a distance from immediately fact-related observations and descriptions, demands a second level, on which one can observe and describe observations and description themselves’ [p 113]. Von Foerster calls this phenomenon second-order cybernetics (understood as a circular network of knowledge operations), and others have pointed at it concomitantly. The distinction between the “what” and the “how” questions points at these different levels of observation. The character of these levels is not linguistic or logic – to solve a problem of paradoxality – but empirical: ‘Every observation designates something and distinguishes it therewith from other things. What it designates can be another observer. When an observation observes another observer, it uses a more complex, two-tracked process of distinction. It must first of all distinguish the observer from what he observes, and at the same time, it must be able to distinguish the operation of observing from other operations, for instance from the mere generation of a difference. How can an observation do that. Note that we ask, “How?”

[p 114]

. The answer is that this can be done: 1) by the second-order observation as a first-order observation in the shape of a simply executed operation. This operation is not to be understood as an activity of a subject (‘of a carrier founded upon itself’): ‘Its particularity lies only in the autological (in the case of an autological word: it has the property it describes, e.g. the word ‘short’ is a short word DPB) components of its observing, that is, in its drawing conclusions about itself on the basis of the activity of its object. To this extent, it itself is that from which it distinguishes itself’ [p 114]. DPB: the observing operation is not an activity but a procedure executed based on the shape of the observer, in that sense it is an autological procedure. Because the observation is now now immanent to the shape of the observer and because the observer distinguishes herself from something else, and hence the observation distinguishes itself from itself. The observation cannot know everything that it is not but it is what it is not: ‘It itself, as a second-order observation, is a first order observation. And “autology” then means nothing more than the dissolution of this paradox through the recursive calculation upon itself of its own establishment’ [p 114]. Second-order observation is less than first-order observation because it only observes observers. It is also more because over and above the observer it is observing, it sees what its object sees. In that sense it sees what it does not see, and it sees that it does not see what it does not see &c: ‘On the level of second-order observation, one can thus see everything: what the observed observer sees, and what the observed observer does not see. Second-order observation conveys a universal access to the world. The world thus becomes the imaginary metaworld of all worlds that form themselves when systems distinguish system from environment’ [p 115]. But: ‘Only one thing is necessarily excluded: the observation that is actualized in the very moment of observing, its functioning as a first-order observation. For the distinction necessary for every observation cannot distinguish itself in the very moment of its use (for then another distinction would be necessary. .. For every observer, the unity of the distinction he uses for the designation of the one (and not the other) side serves as a blind spot, for the first-order observer as well as for the second-order observer. For is is exactly the meaning of this drawing of distinctions that it is foundational as difference and not as unity’[ p115]. An observer because of how she is shaped has a blind spot produced by how she designates as a consequence of her distinguishing of the one (and not the other).


Ontology is further to be the form of observing and describing to distinguish between being and nonbeing, and hence not a metaphysical understanding of it nor one that cannot be transcended, but used in a meta-ontological sense: ‘general .. rules of the use of form apply to the ontological manner of observation. .. Rather form is the marking of a difference [Differenz] with the help of a distinction that compels one to designate one or the other side, in our case, either the being or the nonbeing of something’ [p 115]. According to Spencer Brown the concept of form does not presuppose a negative; it has an inside and an outside: ‘That from which being distinguishes itself is the outside of the form, namely that which is left over from the “unmarked state” when the caesura of the form is posited. The inside of the form, that is, being or the positive value, designates the possibility of attaching further observation and description. The outside is the side from which the form is reflected, the contingency of he other side is perceived, and the conditions of connectability can be established

[p 116]

. The concept of form designates a border that must be crossed to get from one side of the distinction to the other; to be able to cross one must give a designation to the other side of the distinction, and thereby the “unmarked state” becomes “nonbeing”: ‘But, thereby, the distinction being/nonbeing becomes itself specifiable. Being becomes applicable as a concept. Out of being(hooked upperline intended designating inside and outside) arises being.nonbeing (hooked upperline intended idem). .. Crossing the border implies an operation. An operation requires time, for, even though both sides are simultaneously given, one cannot operate on both sides at the same time, for that would mean not using the distinction as a distinction. The form thus represents a paradoxical (and in exactly this sense realistic) temporal relation, namely the simultaneity of the before and after in a time that anticipates further befores and afters’ [p 116]. This conception of form leads to a more fundamental (and less artificial) position for time in logic: ‘Interpreted as an instrument of observation, this concept of form leads to a theory into which time (and by way of time, system formation) is built in foundationally and does not have to be added retroactively (as in our tradition through the form of motion in contrast to the unmoved’ [p 117]. DPB: this explains at a more fundamental level how time is not a driving force, but a result from the dynamical nature of systems interacting, namely in the sense of observing one another. ‘ .. the form is settled .. on both sides. On the case of ontology, it is not a form of being, but a form being/nonbeing. Thus it does not vanish when one crosses the border (for one can always return). It would disappear only if we were to erase the marking of the border, but that would reproduce the “unmarked state” in which one can observe nothing’[p 117].


The question addressed in this lecture is sociological, namely how modern society can observe and describe itself; one answer is that it can not be an ontology, a special kind of thing. The root of the problem is in the observing of the observers and not in the plurality of the subjects that can be aggregated into a unit. ‘However, when one observer observes what another observer establishes as identical, he can take the liberty of identifying otherwise; of using other distinctions; of interpreting based on other, contrary concepts; in other words, of treating the same as not the same. .. The problem is rather that one can observe an observer only when one allows what the other sees to be given to one by the other. Otherwise, two different first-order observers would simply be looking into the world side by side

[p 119]

. DPB I really like this above statement: it paints the picture of observing observers and what they are observing very clearly. And in addition it seems to be a foundational choice for a society where people are required to understand other people: ‘Society as a whole then operates as a system that can see that it cannot see what it cannot see

[p 119]



Identity (what is identical=expressing an identity) is not presupposed and the question can be asked how identity is produced and what the consequences are of this manner of production: ‘This question aims at a genetic theory of the constitution of meaning. If it can be answered, one will gain access thereby to the phenomenal complexity of the world. .. The genetic perspective is marked by the form in which the question is posed. We do not ask what something identical is, but how something is generated that, as identical, grounds observation. With this, the concept of identity shifts in the direction that is today designated as “constructivist”

[p 119]

. Not the form in which it exists is the crux, but the design of its production as a result of the synthesis of externally originated impressions that – for exactly that reason – cannot be identified. DPB: this reminds of the way monads exist as an identity. ‘Finally, in the context of a theory of autopoietic systems, the concept of identity designates only the form that secures the continuing of the sequence of operations in a system; to be exact, it secures them through the distinction identical/nonidentical

[p 120]

. DPB: identity is a property of thát organization that maintains autopoiesis, and not another. Observation is designating of one side of a distinction, but this does not (yet) make clear what it is that is supposed to be identical: ‘An identification is first required when the operation is to be repeated, hence when a system is formed that reproduces itself in the linkage of operation to operation

[p 120]

. DPB: this reminds of the concept of individuation of Deleuze, see thesis Weaver. There is a lengthy example of someone greeting twice in a row, a repetition and hence an identity. This can be narrated for instance as a greeting unnoticed and performed again, but also as the second greeting to be a confirmation of the first: ‘It is not simply another, a further greeting. It is a second greeting as second to the first greeting, a first and second greeting. An identity is formed that is compatible with different situations and that therefore designates a certain playing field of possibilities

[p 120]

. This explains the genesis of meaning: a core of meaning arises and ‘a horizon of reference to other possibilities

[p 120]

. A difference now has come into existence between actuality and possibility, ‘.., which we see as the constitutive difference of the medium that is meaning’ [p 120]. ‘The observation of the generation of meaning, the observation of repeating, condensing, and confirming, is always a second-order observation, even when it is for its part repetitively condensed and confirmed and concomitantly forms autological concepts adequate to its end

[p 121]

. DPB as per Luhmann: observe only its own condition. ‘If one grasps meaning in this manner as the unity of distinction, whether it is the distinction between condensation and confirmation or the distinction between actuality and non-actuality (virtuality), it makes no sense to designate meaningfully in turn that from which these distinctions are distinguished. The reference for this goes missing. To that extent, meaning is a concept without difference

[p 121]



Nonbeing is the title given to the unmarked state left over when being is distinguished. Ontologically with this distinction the impression is given that something distinguishable is on the other side: ‘However, this cannot be presupposed if one wounds the world with a first distinction

[p 122]

. This would imply the use of the principle of the excluded middle, an item of classical logic, and one can no longer be capable of distinguishing the distinction of ontology, ‘.. and one explicates, without seeing other possibilities, an ontological metaphysics

[p 122]

. Now it is demanded that there be a distinction between “unmarked state” and “nothing”; we can address this problem with a further distinction: ‘When one starts with being and crosses the border and returns, it is a though one had never dome so. One stands again at the starting point. Spencer Brown names this axiom “the law of crossing” and the corresponding form “cancellation”. .. But what happens when one (temporarily! – everything is temporary) does not return but rather remains on the other side and wishes to operate from there? In this case, the other side becomes “nonbeing”, and from there one can observe the contingencies of being’ [p 123].


A transition from an ontological construction of the world to a constructivist one implies a transition from a strictly bivalent logic to a calculus of processing distinctions (forms); but the transition cannot be called progress or superior

[p 123]

. One of the structural characteristics of modern society is functional differentiation. Binary codes allow operations using them to be ascribed to such systems ‘as a procedure of recognition [Erkenningsverfahren], as a condition of self-identification, as a condition of the autopoietic operation of he relevant systems themselves

[p 124]

. Some examples are: good grades/bad grades, loved/not loved, dominant/subject &c. These codes cannot be made to be congruent in the sense that one side is always the positive one (the sick are powerless, poor, losing &c.). ‘The differentiation of functional systems instead presupposes that these codes, independently of one another, fulfill functions that direct operations, and that it is also impossible to integrate them through a supercode, for instance through the code of morality

[p 124]

. DPB: this reminds me of the model for the coherence of memeplexes. Morality functions as one code among many, and, equal to the other codes, it cannot be coupled to the other codes as a moral qualification. ‘If one wishes to describe a society that describes its world and itself according to these conditions, one must choose polycontextural forms. What that specifically means has not yet been clarified, despite efforts of Gotthard Günther. In any case, one can quickly see that the individual values of the codes neither join together nor allow themselves to be expanded into multivalent codes. One is aware that all efforts toward a transitive, or otherwise ordered, architecture of values have failed. It is conceivable that, for the purposes of an analysis of the whole of society, one could assign transjunctive operations to every code, operations with which the code accepts itself and rejects all others

[p 125]

. DPB: this reminds a lot of the connotations that ‘glue together’ the memes into memeplexes, especially in relation toe the recognition mentioned above. ‘Society is an operationally closed, autonomous system of communication. Consequently everything it observes and describes (everything that is communicated about) is self-referentially observed and described. That holds for the description of the societal system itself, and it holds with the same necessity for the description of the environment of the societal system. The self-descriptions and the hetero-descriptions are self-referential descriptions. Consequently, every description of the world made in the autonomous system designates self-reference as the point of convergence between self-reference and hetero-reference – and remains unsayable

[p 125]

. ‘However, modern society reproduces this problem in many ways, namely for each of its operatively closed functional systems .. In this situation, the paradox of drawing a distinction takes the place of the conclusive thought that testifies to unity. One gains thereby not a “solution to the problem” but rather a more precise understanding of the fact that the solution to the paradox can employ various distinctions and thus diversify the problem

[p 126]



For all system operations, as undisputed research into the logic of self-organization has shown, are possible always only as conditioned operations. And human beings are socialized though participation in social communication to such a degree that they can choose only from within the framework of possibilities that have been made accessible for this choice. If one looks at individuals, any notion of choosing at will disappears. The rule of second-order observation then runs: observe the conditionings by which they distinguish and designate. And if one is not satisfied with observing these individuals – which from among five billion? – and instead wishes to observe modern society, this rule again holds: observe the conditionings by which it distinguishes and designates

[p 127]


6 The Cognitive Program of Constructivism and the Reality That Remains Unknown


Epistemological questions involve cognition concerning empirical research. Cognitive instruments are acquired via the researched object by means of those same instruments. Brains are not able to maintain contact with the outer world, but instead operate closed in upon themselves: ‘How does one come, then, from one brain to another?

[p 128]

. The classical view was that all knowledge was founded on convention or that it was the result of negotiation, but that attempt points at the problem of the unity of knowledge and reality and hence this approach does not solve the problem. This approach is (radical) constructivism (Constructivism: a philosophy maintaining that science consists of mental constructs created as the result of measuring the natural world. Social constructivism: knowledge is constructed in social interactions, human development is socially situated DPB) But Plato already refers to everyday experience as opinion and asks what the reality behind it is. Arriving in the modern times, modern science led to ‘the conclusion that this “underlying” reality was knowledge itself’[ p129]. This concept of the subject is constructivism. ‘There is an external world – which results from the fact that cognition, as a self-operated operation, can be carried out at all – but we have no direct contact with it. Cognition could not reach the external world without cognition. In other words, cognition is a self-referential process. Knowledge can know only itself, although it can – as if out of the corner of its eye – determine that this is possible only if there is more than mere cognition. Cognition deals with an external world that remains unknown and, as a result, has to come to see that it cannot see what it cannot see

[p 129]

. DPB: the big surprise is that this is such a surprise; all people (or organisms in general) are capable of is to utter noises. And then these noises can be recognized by others. But the subject, that incited the generating of the noises, remains largely in the dark for both the noises utterer and the utteree. Happily NL continues with ‘So far there is nothing new here ..’; nothing much new if constructivism is only about the unknowability of reality.


Concerning the knowability of reality, the question can be asked: ‘By means of what distinction is the problem articulated?

[p 130]

; to recognize knowing it is necessary to distinguish it from what is not knowing (the concept of distinction is in this way radicalized). Now the search has transformed into an operation for making distinctions, and: ‘It is, further, easy to recognize that circularity and paradoxes can no longer be rejected but will come to play a role

[p 130]

. DB: this appears to be an important plus, but why concretely? Is it a crucial connection with complex systems / behavior, systems theory in general, a likely property of reality, a new kind of logic? The question above reformulated is: ‘By means of what distinction is the problem of knowledge articulated?’

[p 130]

. It is not fruitful to approach constructivism starting from the controversy whether the system is a subject or an object: 1) the subjectivist approach was “intersubjectivity”, namely to view the world of others through a process of introspection 2) the objectivist approach was to describe knowledge as a condition or process in an object (often an organism). Neither solves the problem: 1) is just a word, 2) it is impossible to describe an object completely: ‘In order to avoid these problems, which arise from the point of departure taken, both subjectivist and objectivist theories of knowledge have to be replaced by the system/environment distinction, which then makes the distinction subject/object irrelevant. With this we have the distinction central to constructivism: it replaces the the distinction transcendental/empirical by the distinction system/environment

[p 131]

. DPB: I understand this to mean that the distinction that is central to constructivism is the same distinction as the one that is the pivot of the problem of knowledge as per above. ‘What we call “environment” today had to be conceived of as the state of being contained and carried (periechon), and what we call “system” had to be thought of as order according to a principle. Both of these were already objects of knowledge

[p 131]

. Kant developed the transcendental/empirical distinction to avoid a self-referring loop, because the system/environment concepts were not available when he did. Systems theory including the above systems/environment distinction is relevant for all knowledge theory; the relevance often emerging as a side-effect of other research. ‘It has been known for some time already that the brain has absolutely no qualitative and only very slight quantitative contact with the external world. All stimuli coming from without are coded purely quantitatively (principle of undifferentiated coding (DPB: the incoming signal is a ‘wall of sound’, an undifferentiated multitude of signals for the system to allow through for further processing, or not, and for whatever reasons); furthermore, their quantity, as compared with purely internal processing events, plays but a marginal role. (DPB: how does this relate to the system 1 and system 2 idea of Kahneman?). Incoming stimuli are also erased in fractions of a second if they are not stored in internal storage areas with somewhat larger retention times (short-term memory) – an event that is more the exception than the rule. With this, even time is made to serve the internal economy of complex processes. (DPB: spot-on ouwe!, there is no doubt about this in my mind). Apparently it is fundamental for the functioning of the brain that selected information is enclosed and not that it is let through. As if it were already information (or data) before it motivates the brain to form a representation. Such knowledge as this was not used by theoretical epistemology and it is only a formulation in terms of systems theory that leads to an insight that must seem surprising to epistemologists: only closed systems can know. The sociology of science has arrived at similar conclusions (which are still, for the most part, rejected as being too shocking


. The paradox is that only non-knowing systems an know, only who cannot see can see. If a knowing system has no access to the external world it can be denied that this world exists, but it can also be claimed that the external world is what it is; this calls into question the distinction being/nonbeing: ‘Systems theory suggests instead the distinction between system and environment

[p 133]



Starting there, then an answer to: How is knowledge possible? begins with: As the operation of a system separated from its environment. If the system is also assumed to be operationally closed then assumptions are added concerning self-reference and recursivity. This kind of operations are only possible within the context of a network of operations of the same system: ‘There is no single operation that can emerge without this recursive network. At the same time the network is not an operation. “Multiplicity does not act as a relay” (Serres 1984, 238). The whole cannot as a whole itself become active. Every operation reproduces the unity of the system as well as its limits. Every operation reproduces closure and containment. There is nothing without an operation – no cognition, either. And every operation has to fulfill the condition of being one operation among many, since it cannot exist in any other form, cannot otherwise possibly be an operation. As a result, for an observer the system is a paradox (DPB: U-S-A), a unity that is a unity only as a multiplicity, a unitas multiplex. Even when the system observes itself, one has what is true for every observation (?). If a system wants to know what makes it possible that it can know, it encounters this paradox

[p 133]

. Systems cannot perform operations outside of their limits and if new operations are integrated then the limits of the system were extended: ‘Consequently, the system cannot use its own operations to connect itself with its environment since this would require that the system operate half within and half without the system. The function of the boundaries is not to pave the way out of the system but to secure discontinuity. Whatever one wants to call cognition, if it is supposed to be an operation then the operation necessarily has to be one incapable of contact with the external world, one that, in this sense, acts blindly

[p 134]

. Can what becomes perceptible here be called “knowledge” at all? Let’s introduce a distinction (the second) between operation and observation: ‘An operation that uses distinctions in order to designate something we will call “observation”. We are caught once again, therefore, in a circle: the distinction between operation and observation appears itself as an elemtn of observation. On the one hand, an observation is itself an operation; on the other hand, it is the employment of a distinction

[p 134]

. A corresponding logic must accommodate for the reentering of the distinction into what is has distinguished (in Spencer Brown’s “drawing a distinction”, time is employed to resolve self-referring circles and paradoxes). DPB: this is very common: from the logistics of parallel interactions in a grid to the way information travels in a group. ‘An observation leads to knowledge only insofar as it leads to reusable results in the system. One can also say: Observation is cognition insofar as it uses and produces redundancies – with “redundancy” here meaning limitations of observation that are internal to the system

[p 134]

. From this a passage to constructivism is possible with the insight that: ‘it is not only for negations that there are no correlates in the environment of the system but even for distinctions and designations (therefore for observations)

[pp. 134-5, emphasis of the author]

. The reality of the outside world, that an observer can observe that, how a system is influenced by its environment, how it acts upon the environment, are beyond doubt. But all distinctions and designations are internal recursive operations of the system: all achievements are internal achievements; ‘There is no information that moves from without to within the system

[p 135]

. ‘There can be no doubt, therefore, that the external world exists or that true contact with it is possible as a necessary condition of the reality of the operations of the system itself. It is the differentiation of what exists that is contributed by the observer’s imagination, since, with the support of the specification of distinctions, an immensely rich structure of combinations can be obtained, which then serves the system for decisions about its own operations

[p 135]

. And hence are we getting closer to the idea of associations that store patterns for later use (and here also introduced the imagination, I take it to be the “drawing of associations”): ‘Cognition is neither the copying nor the mapping nor the representation of an external world in a system. Cognition is the realization of combinatorial gains on the basis of he differentiation of a system that is closed off from its environment (but nonetheless contained in that environment)

[p 136]

. Knowing systems are real systems in a real world (real=empirical, observable).


Cognitive systems (at least the brain, consciousness, and the systems of communications called societies) operate on the basis of events that have only a momentary presence and that already begin to disappear at the moment of their emergence. Furthermore, these systems operate on the basis of events that cannot be repeated but that must be replaced by other events. Their structures must, therefore, provide for the passage from event to event – something for which there are no equivalents in the environment


. Neither does the environment change with the same tempo and rhythm nor are the autopoietic structures of systems in the environment somehow translateable into one another: ‘How then is the time relation between the system and the environment to be understood? The answer can only be: as simultaneity

[p 137]

. DPB: time is associated with the counting of events, then it is a comparison of the number of events in the system and the number of events in the environment. ‘The foundation for the reality of the system – whatever the contours of its meaningful observations might be – is the simultaneity of its operation with the conditions of reality that sustain it

[p 137]

. Systems’s distinction between a nonpresent past and a nonpresent future contributes to a present that is simultaneous with the environment. But their presents are simultaneous, and hence they cannot influence each other causally, and so they are not sychronized, and yet they are a precondition for the application of distinctions in time: ‘The system can place itself in relation to time between future and past, or as a moment in relation to duration or to eternity. Whatever might emerge from this, the system constructs time in relation to itself. What one does not have control over is the simultaneity that reemerges from moment to moment in all the operations of the system

[p 137]

. ‘It is out of the unavoidable certainty of the simultaneity of the system and the environment that current time projections can arise

[p 137]

. DPB: this reminds of my Frivolity on Time and also it reminds of the remark of Weaver of the ‘counting of events’ , that I have now come to think of as counting differences in states as compared to states of the in their simultaneity. Systems can now based on the patterns in some element of the behavior of their environments make projection concerning some of its future behavior; this is not the same as perceiving future present times; in the case of highly cognitive systems they can now even make prognoses. DPB: on their various levels of sophistication these systems can anticipate (draw anticipations of) their futures. ‘Presumably, prognosis has to be understood as a product of our imagination that can be evaluated by the memory, that is, as the creation of an excess of individual possibilities that is then offered up for selection according to self-constructed criteria of “suitability”. In other words, systems that make prognoses can prepare themselves for risks that they themselves have created and derive benefits from this

[p 138]

. DPB: I find this interesting and possibly even important in the light of the discussion in my manuscript, EFRE, concerning the belief, expectations, predictions &c. This sheds some light also on the freedom of will: the thoughts thought are limited to the ideas that the thinker has available. Within the range of the combinatorial production (what word uses NL?) of these thoughts she can make a selection (the hurdle of which is also driven by ideas imprinted in social processes). ‘Cognitive systems, therefore, have only a momentary existence, as a result of the burden of simultaneity that keeps them on the ground’[p 138]. And then on, with a bang: ‘This existence must reproduce itself autopietically in order to attain stability, even if it is only a dynamic (why the only..?) one. They experience the world, therefore, with future and past – that is, as duration – only in the form of nonpresentness. These systems can, therefore, consider their history to be finished insofar as they do not makee present – as if in a dream – retrospective preferences. In the same way their future is full of enticing and threatening possibilities (although in reality there is no possibility at all, since everything is as it is)

[p 138]

. And this is why bureaucracies exist and records and accounting systems and banks: ‘It is possible to keep the nonpresent constant, which yields in turn the fascinating possibility of cognition’s representing changes in the external world by terminological constants instead of by changes in the system itself). As a result, such systems need records, which can, however, be accessed only currently; subsequently these systems help themselves with a kind of “vicarious learning”, with observing observations of others that have the same limitation. The vast unfolding of he world materially, temporally, and socially is a construct anchored in the simultaneity of the world, a world that, in this regard, never changes but is nonetheless inseparable from every realization

[p 138]

. On the other hand, the contemporaneous is reduced to an instant nearly without meaning; this explodes the number of possible futures; cognition has to find its way in this vastness.


This theory of constructivism dissolves the continuum of being and thinking. It also rejects the theoretical transcendental position assumed as a reaction towards this dissolution. And it rejects the possibility of a subjective faculty of consciousness that guarantees the conditions for cognition. But does not suffice to replace this idea with distinction between a perturbation​ from outside vis a vis a self-determination from inside: ‘What remains (and has to replace those assumptions) is the recursivity (emphasis author) of observation and cognition. A process is called “recursive” when it uses the results of its own operations as the basis for further operations – that is, what is undertaken is determined in part by what has occurred in earlier operations

[p 139]

. In systems theory such a process would be said to use it own outputs as inputs. Recursivity requires continuous testing of consistency; in processes of perception and memory of the human brain this requires a binary representation at the neurological level (Von Foerster 1969), to cater for rejection and readiness. The states that have been produced so far by system operations form the criteria for the acceptation and rejection for further operations; stimuli from the environment play a part also; decisive, however, is the continuous self-evaluation of the system by means of a code to permit acceptance and rejection of future states. DPB: this whole section reminds a lot of the Oudemans section on the workings of monads (where I had put it originally); it is in fact rather similar to the way that I envisioned how recursive systems get from state to state. I had also connected this idea with the existence of attractors and repellers, such that seeming intentions are not required. ‘The brain functions in this way. And the same will be true for psychic and social systems. The codification true/false gives this schematization only its final finish and a form that is used only under very special circumstances’ [p 139]. DPB: I would say at any one cycle after an external (or internal indirect, self-inflicted) perturbation has occurred: now the systems has to sort itself out, and of all the possibilities on its domain, it must find which will be its next state; this seems to be a sequence of not this one, not this one not this one but this one: ‘One can, therefore, think of binarily schematized recursivity as a continuous calculation of operations on the basis of the current states of the system. The pleasure/pain mechanism also seems to function in this manner. With regard to observations, this structure makes possible the observation of observations. This can mean, first of all, that one repeats the same operation in order to see whether its results are confirmed or not confirmed. This leads to a “condensation” of units of meaning whose verification can no longer be obtained by a single operation. More or less clear deviations can be built into such a replication. One observes the same thing at different times in different situations, under different aspects, which leads to a further enrichment of the condensed meaning and finally to the abstraction of denotation for what seems identical in the different observations. Thus it can safely be assumed that the meaningful construction of the world comes about, gaining thereby a power no single operation can possibly dispose of. One speaks here, in the language of mathematics, of the “eigenvalues” of a system’[ p 139-40]. DPB: many things come together here: first there is the subject of the restricting of the possible future states, then the subject of computation (calculation) is touched upon and lastly the individuation of the variations of instances that can come to be seen denotatively as an abstraction (e.g. a species from the variety of individuals). The sequence of operations has an element that is invariable such that it consistently brings about a pattern and hence is invariable and is hence likened to mathematical eigenvalues. This explains how distance is bridged by knowledge (Donald Campbell, Egon Brunswik: distal knowledge): ‘If one takes into consideration the dependence of all observation on distinction, other possibilities of recursive observation emerge. .. The usual understanding of the observations of observation focuses above all on what an observer observes (distinguishing thereby between subject and object, but concentrating above all on the object). Constructivism describes an observation of observation that concentrates on how the observed observer observes. .., by this means one can also observe what and how an observer is unable to observe. In this case one is interested in his blind spot, that is, the means by which things become visible or nonvisible. One observes (distinguishes) the distinction used by the primary observer in his observing. .. In terms of sociology one could also say that observation is directed now to the observed observer’s latent structures and functions’ [p 140]. To what invariants will a system converge when it extends the recursivity of its observations towards things that other observers cannot observe.


How must paradoxes be treated in a constructivist theory? ‘By a paradox is meant a permissible and meaningful statement that leads nontheless to antinomies or undecidability (or, more strictly, a demonstrablee proposition that has such consequences)’ [p 142]. ‘We suggest instead a view from the side, the observing of observation’ [p 143]. This enables one to observe how other render their paradoxes invisible: ‘To see what other cannot see (and to accept that they cannot see what they cannot see) is, in a way, the systematic keystone of epistemology – taking the place of its a priori foundation. It is, therefore, of importance that every observer involves himself in a paradox because he has to found his observing on a distinction’ [p 143]. As a consequence the observer cannot see the beginning nor the end of this observation’– unless it be by means of another distinction that he has already begun to make or by continuing with a new distinction after having ended. This is why every projection, every goal, every formation of an episode necessitates recursive observation and why, furthermore, recursive observation makes possible not so much the elimination of paradoxes as their temporal and social distribution onto different operations’ [p 143]. This remedy can be realized in the theory of autopoietic systems, where a network of operations generates a network of operations as per the conditions of its generation and where there is no operation that has no reference to other operations. And: ‘A consensual integration of systems of communication is, given such conditions, something that should sooner be feared than sought. For such integration can only result in the paradoxes becoming invisible to all and remaining that way for an indefinite future. ’ [p 143].


What is the understanding of reality that constructivism has? Objectivists claim that reality is manifold and no observation can be made from a single point: what is not observed is hidden behind what is observed. Subjectivists claim a multiplicity of perspectives each of which gives a conditional seeing, but disabling the chosen perspective. ‘Constructivism goes beyond these positions by radicalizing the relationship between cognition and reality. It is no longer a question of the difficulties that arise from a multiplicity of sides or perspectives, and the problem is no longer how one arrives, given this situation, at unity. This multiplicity, regardless of whether it is a multiplicity of sides or of perspectives is itself a product of cognition, resulting from certain types of distinctions, which, as distinctions, are instruments of cognition. It is precisely by means of distinguishing that cognition separates itself from everything that is not cognition. Nonetheless, one is always dealing with concretely determined operations – even in the case of knowledge’ [p 144]. All reality must be constructed (by cognition) and consequently all reality is constructed, and hence is the constructed reality not the same as the reality referred to. ‘The source of a distinction’s ability to guarantee reality lies in its own operative unity. It is, however, precisely as this unity that the distinction cannot be observed – except by means of another distinction that then assumes the function of a guarantor of reality’ [p 145]. ‘Another way of expressing this is to say that the operation emerges simultaneously with the world, which as a result remains cognitively unapproachable to the operation’ [p 145].


One has to postulate instead: Everything issuing from this process of transformation of limitations into conditions for the increase of complexity is, for the system in question, knowledge

[p 146]

. In contrast with idealism constructivism is not fixed on a ground.


With observing, distinguishing, designating, we always mean an empirical operation that changes the system executing it – which means an operation that, in its own turn, is observable. No observer can avoid being observed, not even in its quality as “subject”

[p 147]

. This is as opposed to a transcendental position. The concept of observation allows for use in the “cognitive sciences”, such as the disciplines biology, psychology and sociology (including their differentiation). ‘Observation takes place when living systems (cells, immune systems, brain, etc.) discriminate and react to their own discrimination’. Observation occurs when thoughts that have been processed through consciousness fix and distinguish something‘ [p 147]. Now cognition is no longer a specific property of “man”: ‘.. “constructivism” is a completely new theory of knowledge, a posthumanistic one. .. the concept “man” (in the singular!), as a designation for the bearer and guarantor of the unity of knowledge, must be renounced. The reality of cognition is to be found in the current operations of the various autopoietic systems. The unity of a structure of cognition (or the “system” in the sense of transcendental theory) can lie only in the unity of an autopoietic system that reproduces itself with its boundaries, its structures, and its elements’ [p 147]. Luhmann refers to people as psychological systems (of which there are at the time of writing about 5bn). There is also a communication system called society. ‘What we know as cognition is the product of the system of communication called society, where consciousness plays a permanent but always only fractional role. It is only in extreme exceptions that one has to know individual persons in order to know what is known – and these are typical instances (for example, statements by witnesses in court) in which direct perception plays a central role’ [p 148]. Knowledge is an artifact of communication and it is amazing that it is still possible to pursue communication; this cannot be explained by some faculty of consciousness, but by the possibilities of storage of data in print and then digitally. ‘It is, finally, only in a sociological context that the ideas about recursive observation and second-order observation (i.e., the observation of observation) acquire their full significance. But why would an observer observe another observer as observer, as another psychical system. Why isn’t the other system seen simply as a normal object in the external world, that is, why iitn’t it simply observed directly instead of as a pathway for the observing of its observing?’ [p 149]. Classical and autopoietic explanations fail to explain the emergence of the observation of observations, namely how observers construct the objects they have constructed as other observers. ‘A third theoretical suggestion (which draws on sociology, since psychology and biology have not sufficed DPB as per the above arguments)) can begin with the assumption that the construction of the other observer is a necessary consequence of communication. For communication is possible only when an observer is able, in his sphere of perception, to distinguish between the act of communication and information, that is, to understand communicative acts as the conveying of information (and not simply as behavior). Out of this distinction – which remains stable only evolutionarily and reproduces itself as a communication system only when it is able to maintain itself – there emerges then a second one: that of subject and object. That communication can be continued requires no more than a kind of black-box concept for the subject and for the object, as far as the distinction operates’ [pp. 149-50]. For communication there is no need to know what goes on inside the subject nor is it required to know the essence of things. Systems of communication grow more sophisticated and differentiated and complex, other concepts for subjects and objects are required. In the course of this, the observer learns to observe others as observers, whether they are communicating or not, and ‘.. and finally even to observe that others do not observe what they do not observe when they are observing. Society, finally makes even latent observations of latent structures possible’ [p 150]. ‘The answer (to the question why communication together with its resulting achievement progresses) can only be that evolutionary force of a particular distinction – that between communication and information – has proven itself. This can, of course, be claimed of everything that exists, and it is still not an explanation. Important, however, In the constructivist context outlined above, is that this claim has been made for a distinction. With this, another distinction has been added to those already used – system/environment and operation/observation: that of communication/information, which is of special importance for the analysis for social systems’ [p 150].


It is perhaps not the least important function of constructivist epistemology to make society irritatingly aware of the fact that it produces science’ [p 152].

7 What is communication?

We no longer have a knowledge of psychological and social systems that can be integrated

After hundred years of differentiated research knowledge of psychology and of sociology can no longer be integrated. Both are complex and structured systems with nontransparent and nonregulable internal dynamics. This is not clearly represented in every theory concerned: in sociology action and communication are not: they presuppose an author designated as an individual or a subject to whom action or communication can be attributed: ‘But the concepts of subject or individual function therein only as empty formulas for a state of affairs that is in itself highly complex, one that falls under the domain for which psychology is responsible and does not further interest sociologists’ [p 155].

Only communication can communicate

If one calls this conceptual disposition into question, as I want to do, one usually hears the following: in the end, it is always people, individuals, subjects who act or communicate. I would like to assert in the face of this that only communication can communicate and that what we understand as “action” can be generated only in such a network of communication’ [p 156]. This is my landscape of Jobs, but what is presented here in a very strong way is that actions can ONLY come from this network. The second element is that there are interesting developments in the field of general systems theory concerning self-organization, namely autopoiesis. But this bears consequences for the organization of scientific research and levels and their distinctions.

Self-reference is not a special property of thought

Self-reference is the same as “reflection”. It is not specific for thought or consciousness, but it is a general principle of system formation, with consequences for evolution and the construction of complexity. ‘The consequence that there are many ways of observing the world, according to which system-reference each is based on, should then be inevitable’ [p 156]. Evolution has lead up to a world that has many different possibilities to observe itself, and without any of these observations being better than another. A theory with the ambition to deal with this must concern the observation of observations, à la Von Foerster, begging the question: What does a sociological theory that meets these requirements look like? The answer starts with the concept of communication, because that is an unavoidable social operation, not action. DPB: this reminds me of the Spinoza remark that people would be better off if they could steer their propensity to talk, but they can’t refrain from it. ‘In the main part of my lecture, therefore, would like to attempt to present a corresponding concept of communication, namely a concept that strictly avoids any reference to consciousness or to life, that is, to other levels of the realization of autopoietic systems’ [p 157] (underline DPB). Not that these are not required for communication to occur, so as are other conditions like bonding of atoms and the earth’s magnetic field, but to include them over generalizes the theory.

Communication comes about through a synthesis of three different selections

Life, consciousness and communication are emergent (self-generated) realities: ‘It comes about through a synthesis of three different selections, namely the selection of information , the selection of the utterance [Mitteilung] of this information, and selective understanding or misunderstanding of this utterance and its information’ [157]. DPB: this reminds me of my model concerning the exchange of signals. I had processed the utterance in an operator (E=expression) and the (mis)understanding in an operator (B=begrip/perception). I find it difficult to distinguish data from information and I had not included a separate operator for the selection itself of the information. To establish communication they have to appear together; this I had, only if signaling and reception ‘connect’ can the emergent ‘thing’ be called an utterance, or a communication. ‘Only together: that means, only when their selectivity can be brought to congruence (DPB: a signal is issued and recognized as a signal?). Communication therefore takes place only when a difference of utterance and information is first understood’ This distinguishes it from a mere perception of others’ behavior. By understanding, communication grasps a difference between the information value of its content and the reasons for which the content is being uttered. It can thereby accentuate one side or the other and thus pay more attention to the information itself or to the expressive behavior’ [p 157]. DPB: This accentuates more the actual attempt of the communicator to communicate as an operation per sé. I have integrated communication as a ‘kind of behavior’ that can have an effect on others, whether it is uttered or rather shown (attitude, body language) and can therefore be conscious to a larger or to a smaller extent. Selection depends on the experience of both sides, ‘.. thereby distinguishing them. .. we must presuppose that the information does not understand itself and that a particular decision is necessary in order for its utterance

[pp. 157-8]


It is of paramount significance to maintain the distinction between perception and communication

To maintain this distinction is important because communication offers ‘rich possibilities for an accompanying perception

[p 158]

. But perception is a psychological event without communicative existence: ‘Inside the communicative occurrence it is not connectable as it is. One can neither confirm nor refute, neither interrogate nor respond to what another has perceived. .. It can naturally become an external reason for a subsequent communication. Participants can bring to into communication their own perceptions and the interpretations of the situation that are bound up with them, but only according to the autonomous laws of the system of communication, for instance, only in the form of language, only by claiming speaking time, only through imposing oneself, making oneself visible, exposing oneself – thus only under discouragingly difficult conditions.’ [p 158]. DPB: here is an important difference with my view: I do not agree with the idea that communication can only occur through language. What is important however, is the idea that there are strong selective forces at play, namely to inject one’s ideas into the conversation, bringing them forward, not too far off the mark, within intellectual reach of all present (or not to look stupid) &c. In an autopoietic system this is how the discours (my choice of words) orients the new incumbent arguments (just-so stories).

Even understanding is itself a selection

Understanding is never a mere duplication of the utterance in another consciousness but is, rather, in the system of communication itself, a precondition for connection onto further communication, thus a condition of the autopoiesis of the social system’ [p 158]. DPB: this is an element of what I attempt to formalize in the Logistical Model. It goes on to separate the ‘bubble’ of the communication from the experience of the individuals participating in the conversation: ‘Whatever the participants in their own respective, self-referential, closed consciousnesses may think, the communication system works out its own understanding and creates processes of self-observation and self-inspection for this purpose’ [p 158] (emphasis DPB: thhis is the first time the communication is a referred to as a system).

The participants cannot communicate as simply as they would like about understanding and misunderstanding

It is possible to communicate about understanding and misunderstanding or lack of understanding – though again only under the highly specific conditions of the autopoiesis of the system of communication and not as easily as the participants would like. The utterance “You don’t understand me” therefore remains ambivalent and, at the same time, communicates this ambivalence

[p 159]

. It means: 1) You are not ready for what I am trying to tell you, 2) communication cannot be continued with this lack of understanding and 3) it is the continuation of the communication. DPB: the autopoiesis of the communication system requires that the interaction remains on the domain of interactions of the system. If a participant goes outside of the domain of possible interactions of the communication system then its integrity is at stake and the system can refuse to ‘goe there’ or perish. The technique to deal with these situations is a sequence of questions and answers to clarify the communication.

What is new about this concept of communication?

1) the distinction into three components

2) ‘In light of this, a systems-theoretical approach emphasizes the emergence of communication itself. Nothing is transferred. Redundancy is produced in the sense that communication generates a memory to which many people can lay claim in many different ways. (DPB: haha! My point of view exactly!) If A utters something to B, the subsequent communication can be addressed to A or B. The system pulsates, so to speak, with the constant generation of excess and selection’ [p 160]. And the connection with stigmergy: ‘With the emergence of writing and printing, this process of system formation is once more immensely heightened, with consequences for social structure, semantics, indeed for language itself, consequences that are only now gradually entering the view of researchers’ [p 160].

With these three components, it is a matter of different selections

These three components of information, utterance and understanding are not functions or acts, or building blocks, but rather different selections, ‘.. whose selectivity and field of selection (DPB: what is this?) can be constituted only through communication. There is no information outside communication; there is no utterance outside of communication; there is no understanding outside of communication. This is so .. in the circular sense of mutual presupposition’ [p 160].

A system of communication is a completely closed system

A system of communication is therefore a fully closed system that generates the components of which it consists though communication itself. In this sense, a system of communication is an autopoietic system that produces and reproduces through the system everything that functions for the system as a unit. .. Formulated more concretely, this means that the system of communication itself specifies not only its own elements – what in each case is a unit of communication that cannot be further dividedbut also is structures. What is not communicated cannot contribute to this’ [p 160-1]. And communication is interrupted when: ‘Sometime, and rather quickly, the useful limit of communication is reached or patience – that, the load-bearing capacity of the psychological environment – is exhausted, or the interest in other themes or other partners prevails’ [p 161].

Communication has no goal

‘Communication has no goal [Zweck], no immanent entelechy. It happens, or not, and that is all that one can say on that point’ [p 161]. DPB: this reminds me of the just-so stories. Luhmann refers to the ‘theoretical style of Spinoza’. Goal-oriented episodes can be formed in systems of communication, but to reach those goals is not their goal.

The theory of the rationality of communicative action is simply false on empirical grounds alone

Often, it is more or less implicitly supposed that communication aims at consensus, that it seeks agreement’ [p 162]. DPB: But this is an element in a widespread misunderstanding that systems should find some kind of equilibrium (to have an equilibrium is good), but: the fact that the body hangs still does not imply that the man is alright. ‘What it necessarily requires is one’s being able to leave aside the question of consensus or dissent in relation to themes that are not present at the moment

[p 162]


All communication is risky

Instead of an equilibrium oriented entelechy, systems theory states the thesis that: ‘Communication leads to the precise formulation of the question of whether the uttered and understood information should be accepted or rejected. One believes a piece of news or not. Communication creates at first only this alternative and thereby creates the risk of rejection. It forces a situation of decision that would not exist at all without communication. To this extent, all communication is risky. This risk is one of the most important morphogenetic (my emphasis) factors. It leads to the building of institutions that secure a disposition of acceptance even toward improbable communications’ [p 162]. DPB: the morphogenesis points at the process of unfolding following some design to arrive at some final shape. What this says is that the risk one experiences in communication (the information being true or false) is a source for morphogenesis: it shapes the process of becoming of the communication system. In addition, or perhaps rather, this risk leads to te development of institutions that are inclusive for communications, even when the risk that they are untrue is high. This reminds me of the question of reputation: people showing a very emotional reaction if their reputation is called into doubt and hence they are perceived as very reliable. Can this risk also be secured by institutions insetad of the reputations of people?

Communication duplicates reality

It creates two versions: a yes-version and a no-version., and thereby compels selection. .. The precise formulation of the alternatives of acceptance or rejection is thus nothing but the autopoiesis of communication itself’ [p 163]. Each statement in this way is a connecting element in the communication: either it attains consensus or dissent, or else it can pursue to conceal the problem and to try and avoid it.

The value-reference of communications

What one can observe empirically is, at first glance, that values are brought into communication by implication. One presupposes them already. One alludes to them’ [p 163].

One discusses not values but only preferences

Consequently, values are supposed to be valid because they are presupposed to be valid. He person who communicates with reference to values lays claim to a sort of values bonus. The other has to announce him- or herself if he or she does not agree. .. He or she has the burden of the argumentation. He or she runs the risk of thinking innovatively and having to isolate him- or herself. And since more and more values are implied than can be thematized in the nextstep, picking out, rejecting, or modifying is an almost hopeless task. One does not discuss values, only preferences, interests, prescriptions, programs’ [p 164]. This is not the same thing as a value system and it does not imply that there is a stable psychologically stable structure, quite the contrary in fact, because values have a labile existence: ‘Their stability, as I would like to formulate it provocatively, is an exclusively communicative artifact, and the autopoietic system of consciousness uses this artifact as it pleases’ [p 164]. DPB: I think this means that the values are a product of the communication system that has the shape of an autopoietic, and a complex system. The patterns produced by the system are perceived by its participants: ‘Exactly because structures of the autopoiesis of the social system are at play here, the semantics of values is suitable for the representation of the foundations of the social system for one’s own use. Their stability rests on a recursive supposition of the act of supposing and on a testing of the semantics with which it this either functions or does not function. The “foundation of validity” is recursivity, hardened through the communicative disadvantaging of contradiction’ [p 164]. DPB: 1) the individual (psychological) and the system (social) are made of the same stuff! 2) these selective processes (hardening) are the engine for the individuation of the social system (and I guess also for the ideas ‘ripening’ in the brain of the individual associated with the system).

There is no self-realization of values

What consciousness thinks of this is a completely different question. If it is well-versed, it will know that value consensus is as inevitable as it is harmful (DPB: sic! (parasitic)). For there is no self-realization of values, and one can allow everything that they seem to demand to go astray in their realization – in the name of values, naturally’ [p 164].

Consequences for the field of the diagnosis and therapy of system relations

1) Psychological systems operate with consciousness, social systems with communication; both are circularly closed each applying its autopoietic reproduction. A social system cannot think (what about computation, individuation, thinking?) and a psychological system cannot communicate. Closure means not that they are not causal, and not that their relations cannot be observed; the systems are opaque to each other and cannot steer each other. 2) ‘.. consciousness contributes only noise, interference, and disturbance to communication. and vice versa’ [p 165]. When you observe a process of communication you must know what went before to understand it, but in general terms you do not need the structure of the participants’ consciousnesses.

One’s own consciousness dances about upon the words like a will-o’-the-wisp

Social and psychological systems are interdependent. Psychological selectivity differs from social selectivity in the sense that one can or does usually not say exactly what one thinks for serious and frivolous reasons: hence the dancing about &c. Consciousness is superior to communication, because it deals not only with words and sentences, ‘.. but additionally and often more importantly with perception and with the imaginative constructions and dismantlings of images’ [p 166]. The capability to balance between observation and concentration on what has to be spoken while one speaks varies from person to person.

It is inevitable to adapt communication to the will-o’the-wisp of consciousness

Changing the system-reference and coming back to the social system of communication, all of this makes it inevitable that communication will be adapted to the will-o’the-wisp of consciousness. Of course, communication cannot transport bits of consciousness. Rather, consciousness, no matter what it thinks to itself, is maneuvered by communication into a situation of forced choice – or so it appears at least from the point of view of communication. Communication can be accepted or rejected in a way that is communicatively comprehensible..’ [p 167].

Communication can be interfered with by consciousness

8 How can the mind participate in communication?


‘Within the communication system we call society, it is conventional to assume that humans can communicate’ [p 169]. DPB: it is the societal systems that leads us to conventionally believe that, or, the societal system allows people to think that and does not oppose the thought. It is false and it functions only as a convention and in communication: ‘The convention is necessary because communication necessarily addresses its operations to those who are required to continue communication’ [p 169]. DPB: this reminds me of the statement of Spinoza that people have an urge to talk and they would be better off keeping silent sometimes. They have to believe that they can communicate and then they believe they have to do it incessantly, but: ‘Only communication can communicate

[p 169]

. It is unknown at this point how the mind can effect physical behavior or even communication): ‘We have to start any clarification with the observer’[p 169]; the questions to ask are: Whether and how does the mind participate in communication? It does participate, because without it there could be no communication just as without a molecular organization of matter there could be no life, but how? Humans are built of operationally closed (autopoietically organized) subsystems, such as cells. ‘The brain can be stimulated by an extremely small amount of external impulses, but only internal changes are available for its own operations, and it cannot initiate any contacts with its environment through nerve impulses, whether as input or output. .. Countless independent systems are at work within humans that determine, through their own structures, what operations will be carried out. They are, however, independent’ [p 170]. DPB: I like this as a very explicit explanation of why it is not possible for an organism to be open to its environment. In addition it states how this functions in an autopoietic system built of other independent systems. ‘In the same way, what we experience as out own mind operates as an isolated autopoietic system. There is no conscious link between one mind and another. There is no operational unity of more than one mind as a system, and whatever appears as a “consensus” is the construct of the observer, that is, his own achievement’ [p 170]. And in ultimo this means that the mind is fully isolated: ‘The mind cannot consciously communicate. It can imagine that it is communicating, but this remains an imagination of its own system, an internal operation that allows the continuation of its own thought process. This is not communication’ [p 170]. It is necessary to distinguish systems of the mind (e.g. conversation management and planning) and communication (social) systems: both are autopoietic and orienting their operations towards maintenance of their own operational organization.


What do mind and communication have in common? A system of consciousness can come into being and be active without communication. Communication cannot come into being without participation of the mind [p 171]. Assuming that there are some forms of signaling without conscious involvement of the mind (attitude, gestures &c.): ‘There is no communication without the mind; but: can there be communication without the mind’s communicating? We are faced with the following question: How is communication possible if it has such a fluid, constantly changing foundation?

[p 171]

. DPB: namely the volatile human mind. ‘The initial answer is a postulate: The continuation of communication obviously requires the maintenance of an organization that can cope with this material’ [p 171-2]. It might be possible to describe everything that is communicated on the level of mental states with the exception of the autopoiesis of the emerging system, what is the same as the description of what communication (or life) is [p 172]. DPB: autopoietic systems cannot be WIP. As a consequence Maturana’s autopoietic concept of “the conservation of adaptation” can be transferred from biology to sociology [p 172]. ‘Only when a system, in its autopoietic reproduction, adapts itself to the field in which it operates can it determine itself through its own structures. And only when it is in contact with its environment through its own structure can it continue its own operations. Reproduction either does or does not take place. Communication either is or is not continued. Whenever it does continue, it remains adapted, no matter how self-dynamically it proceeds. It is not the goal of communication to adapt itself to the respective mind. On the contrary, communication fascinates and occupies the mind whenever, and as long as, it continues. This is not its purpose, not its meaning, not its function. Only, if it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen’[p 172]. DPB: more Spinoza, memetics. This quote explains very well how mind and communication are entangled and separate. It is hence possible to build a stable social system on a multitude of volatile human brains that are not hooked up directly. And once humans began to make utterances, they have never stopped: ‘In saying certain things, each communication therefore reduces the possibilities of linkage, but still leaves open, by means of meanings, a wide spectrum of connected communication, including the possibility of negating or reinterpreting the received information or declaring it untrue or unwelcome. The autopoiesis of social systems is nothing more than this constant process of reduction and opening of connective possibilities. It can be continued only if it is already in progress’ [p 172]. DPB: This reminds of the restrictions of Oudemans with regards to the monads: each state leads to an attractor or a repeller such that the number of possible future states can change. Episodes have a contemplated ending; they serve as a transition to another possibility of communication; they can be determined by purposes. ‘Society is purposeless and must be treated in communication as untreatable through communication. It is possible to say: Stop! But the end of society can only be brought about by the and of its nonsocial conditions’ [pp. 172-3]. Autopoietic systems such as society and consciousness end when their operations are no longer continued. ‘Only an observer can talk about a beginning and an end’ [ p 173]. DPB: this reminds of Maturana’s explication that the only one talking is the observer. This also reminds me of the part of the theory concerning the starting of a firm; in connection it reminds me of the concept of a Job: there will be processes running on brains always, but they sometimes coagulate into some pattern at this location and then the coagulation dissolves (there) but the Jobs continue to exist and might form a pattern elsewhere in some different configuration of them. It is only the observer of the coagulation (the pattern) that strikes it as noteworthy that this patter of Jobs dissolves and another one emerges, through replacement or transposition or pure disappearance of one and emergence of another: ‘The observer observes through the use of a distinction. In this case, he distinguishes beginning and non-beginning, or ending and non-ending. A system that observes itself can proceed only in this way. .. In observation, the end of observation remains a paradox – a reentry of a distinction into itself. It is all the more important that, on the basis of its own operations, a system is able to observe when another begins or ends, free of paradox’ [p 173]. A system’s observation of its own demise remains a paradox, but for an observing system to observe the demise of another system should not be. ‘The evolution of social communication is possible only in a constantly operative link with states of consciousness’ [p 173]. First speech then writing then printing, but: ‘Decisive in this process is not the symbolic character so often claimed in for these developments but rather the differentiation of special experiential objects that are either extraordinary or fascinating’ [p 173]. DPB: I wonder what these objects can be with regards to the concept of a firm; I assume they must have some connection with the belief systems of capitalism. In this sense language and script guarantee the conservation of adaptation (concerning autopoietic systems) in the communication system: ‘.. the constant accommodation of communication to the mind. They define the free space of autopoiesis within the social communication system’ [p 173]. DPB: should this be seen as a buffer and a cache required by the communication system to be able to remain on its domain of interactions and hence this represents its free space. The conservative view, common opinion, mass media and market prices do not change this process, but they enable a more effective recursivity in the observation of the observation of others.


The mind thinks what it thinks and nothing else. From the perspective of an observer – either an another mind or a communication system that communicates about the observed mind – the mind can be seen as a medium that could accept and transmit a myriad of conditions. The observer can imagine the mind (doing what it does) as freedom, above all the freedom to allow itself to be influenced’ [p 174]. The observing one way or the other is done by an observer (and nobody else). But the mind itself does the changing of its states and structures and nothing else (and the observer might abstract from this to some extent). ‘Just as visual and auditory perception use light and air precisely because these cannot be seen or heard as media, so communication uses the mind as a medium precisely because communication does not thematize the mind in question. Metaphorically speaking, the mind in question remains invisible to communication’ [p 175]. DPB: spot on: the mind is a ‘tabula rasa’, I have raised ample evidence of this. Now this is more evidence but from a different angle: that the mind should not be thematized because it must evolutionary remain free to be inscribed with different themes: ‘When it becomes visible, it becomes disruptive, just as the strong whoosh and whistle of the air inside a car traveling at high speed disrupt words of communication. The mind functions as a medium when it is assumed that it can take in everything that is said’ [p 175]. But how can the mind be a structurally determined system and a medium at the same time? ‘Mind is no more a medium “in itself” than are light and air. It only allows for the evolution of language ( .. ), just as language is again a medium in which the mind can imprint concrete expressions by putting together words into sentences and eventually producing a corresponding communication in a way that does not use up the medium

[p 175]

. This last argument is great, the formulation is not so great. ‘The law of medium and form (Luhmann 1986b) states that the the more rigid form prevails over the softer medium. .. This requires a temporalization of the elements. Sentences that are thought and spoken are only parts of a process that disappear at the moment of their generation. .. Just imagine the noise that would result if spoken words did not fade away but remained audible!

[p 176]



Communication is possible only as an autopoietic system. With the help of language, it reproduces communication from communication while using this structural requisite of its own reproduction to employ the mind as a medium. The mind therefore participates in communication as a structurally determined system and as a medium. This is possible only because the mind and communication, psychic systems and social systems, never fuse or even partially overlap but are completely separate, self-referentially closed, autopoietic-reproductive systems. As I said: humans cannot communicate’ [p176]. DPB: this perfectly explains the threesome relation between the mind, the communication social system and language. But isn’t language itself also an autopoietic system of the social class? ‘Perceptions remain locked up in the activated mind and cannot be communicated. .. Reports of perception are not perceptions themselves; thus communication operates blindly ..

[p 177]

. What is the relation of independence between these systems? ‘Systems of communication can be stimulated only by systems of the mind, and these in turn are extremely attracted to what is conspicuously communicated by language. My argument is as follows: the independence of each closed system is a requirement for structural complementarity, that is, for the reciprocal initiation (but not determination) of the actualized choice of structure

[p 177]

. DPB: this reminds of the mechanisms of co-evolution (or perhaps rather coadaptation). Communications systems can exist in very complex environments; but that environment can only stimulate and influence a small part of the system’s possibilities: ‘Apparently, then, no system could observe its environment (or more generally, develop cognition) if it had to ward off every event in its environment with an internal state. The lack of connectability between operations assumes a distinct limitation of sensibility toward outside events (Roth 1986)’ [p 177]. ‘Their (of autopoietic systems) sensibility is limited to a narrow spectrum of possible stimuli, and it is precisely in this area that their own operations are organized in a manner that is unspecific as to stimuli. Communication operates with an unspecific reference to the participating state of mind; it is specially unspecific as to perception. It cannot copy states of mind, cannot imitate them, cannot represent them. This is the basis for the possibility of communication’s building up a complexity of its own and refining itself to such an extreme that it would be highly unlikely to reproduce itself without being adapted to an environment it cannot know’ [p 178]. DPB: the system has a chance to become cognitive and then to become more sophisticated just because its range of possible sensibilities is limited. Only there is it organized such that it is unspecific to perceptions. This reminds me of a unit of computation and more specifically, one that has become complexified to the point that it can exhibit complex behavior and in addition that it can perform universal computations.


The interaction between systems of the mind and systems of communication is not integrated into a supersystem: ’Instead, systems of the mind are capable of observing communicative systems, and communicative systems are able to observe systems of the mind

[p 179]

. A concept of observation is therefore needed such that it is not attributable to either kind of system: ‘Observation is introduced here as a theoretical concept of difference. Observation is making a distinction. An operative foundation, whether of the mind or of communication, is not crucial for this definition, but it does assume that observation can be accomplished as an operation and as such is itself an operation (that is, it can observe itself only with the help of another operation. Operations of the mind and of communication proceed blindly. They do what they do. They reproduce the system. Meaning comes into play only on the level of observation, with all the provisions demonstrated by logic and hermeneutics: ..

[p 179]

. DPB: this is the earlier definition but it also reminds of individuation!


How can it (a mind) arrive at the idea that there are similar phenomena outside itself?’ [p 180]. The Kantian solution is that one recognizes a similarity of some thing with one’s mind and so on; and this solution has been assumed by radical constructivism: ‘But how can a mind arrive at such an idea except by perceiving an analog to itself by itself?‘ [pp. 180-1]. In other words: how can the mind arrive at the idea that an interior exists within the other similar to one’s own interior but different to other systems? ‘The mind does not arrive at an analogy through another, similar case. It can take part in communication only if it can distinguish between utterance and information. An utterance is chosen from various behaviors; information is chosen from various facts; and communication combines the two into one event (Luhmann 1995b, 137ff.)’ [p 181]. DPB: this reminds me of the logistical model and how people construct expressions from memes and perceived ideas based on memes: the information is the core idea and the utterance is the way it is expressed. But I cannot discern here how the ideas are connected as per my connotations. I find it interesting however that communication is an amalgamate of information and utterance. But to know this is relevant for participation in a communication.


The idea that people can communicate between them or even with the system is widespread in the social communication system; neither is the case: no system can effect operations outside of its own boundaries. This means that every expanse of the range of operative possibilities, and every increase of its complexity means an expansion of the system: no system is able to use its own operations to establish contact with the environment, because that would necessitate one end of the operations at least to take place at then end of the environment, and hence outside of the system [p 182]. For the “individual and society” theme, a concept with curious title ‘interpenetration’ was chosen: ‘”Interpenetration” can only mean: the unity and complexity (as opposed to specific conditions and operations) of the one is given a function within the system of the other’ [p 182]. The form that interprenetration takes can only be demonstrated in the structures and operations of the individual systems, and therefore it takes a different form in systems of the mind than in those of communication. Systems of the mind are socialized with systems of communication by processes of interpenetration. Communication systems experience interpenetration by the personal encounters of people in their physical and mental environment. ‘I call this (again with reference to Parsons) “inclusion”’ [p 183]. ‘Everyone knows, of course, that the word “human being” is not a human being. We must also learn that there is nothing in the unity of an object that corresponds to the word. Words such as “human being”, “soul”, “person”, “subject΅, and “individual” are nothing more than what they effect in communication. They are cognitive operators insofar as they enable the calculation of continued communication’ [p 183]. DPB: this belongs to monads also: the section where the name is explained and the position of essentialism.

9 I See Something You Don’t See

The relevance of the Frankfurt School is the subject. Start with a critique on the ontological presuppositions of knowledge. Ontology is understood to indicate that an observer operates with the distinction being/nonbeing; and with the help of this distinction the observer designates what he deems relevant. He needs one value to designate and one more value to control his observation, to reflect. In this way the values designate and control, but the negative has no correlate in reality (bivalent logic is specific for an observer; the operations run whether they render true or false results). ‘As long as there is one such observer, several observers are in the same situation. They can point out errors to each other; that is to say, they can break through the operative indistinguishability of recognition and error. They can learn with one another because they have only one value at their disposal to designate reality, and they stand, as it were, under compulsion to agree. Accordingly, ontology limits the observation of observers to two functions: critique and learning. There is only one world for observers, even if they observe one another – and hence there is perpetual conflict among them’ [p 188]. ‘Knowledge is objective is all observers agree about it. One can hence ignore the differences among the observers. One need observe not the observers but rather only reality itself, in order to recognize what the observers are observing. This does not hold for subjective knowledge. Here, one must observe the observer to recognize what he can and cannot observe. .. The neocybernetics of the theory of observing systems solves the problem in another way, namely by transferring all knowledge onto the level of the observation of observers’ [p 188]. Postmetaphysical thought has proceduralized these premises: the observers develop procedures to come to an agreement; the conflict of opinion is reduced to argumentation; they subordinate themselves to the norm of joint insight; that defines rational communication for them (and if they don’t reach it they at least have to want it, lest they are not rational: ‘They act, I would now say, under the assumption that they live in one and the same world and that it is a matter of reporting in accord about this world. Thereby, however, they are nothing but victims of the bivalence of their apparatus, the ontological structure of their primary distinction. Only for this reason is nonconflictual agreement a condition of rationality for them’ [p 189]. Francois Lyotard critiques that there is no unified account, but each account produces a difference. ‘Reality is only what is observed. But in contrast to the subjective deviation of idealism, the empirical observation of empirical observers is essential for what is ultimately accepted as reality. In this context, an abstraction of the concept of observation is first presupposed. Observation is the use of a distinction to designate one and not the other side. To draw a distinction is to mark a border, with the consequence that one can reach one side from the other only by crossing the border. Spencer Brown calls this “form”’ [p 190]. The use of distinctions is presupposed in every observation, and hence it is itself not distinguishable in its use as an operation, but: ’The distinction that is operatively used in observation but not observable is the observer’s blind spot. Formulated in logical terms, the observer is the excluded middle of this observation; he is not the “subject” but rather the parasite (Serres) of his observation. One can accordingly see what he cannot see if one merely asks about which distinction he is using – hence, for the ontologist, the distinction between being and nonbeing; for the moralist, the distinction between good and bad; or for Habermas, the distinction between technology and interaction, system and lifeworld, and so on’ [p 190]. These distinctions lead to a blind spot in the knowledge built on them and the question is if that is a sustainable situation, namely insight into its own blindness. Epistemology takes account of one simple observer, and hence the world is ‘a condensate of experiences that can be repeated’. Ontology is capable of exposing errors: ‘appearance and deception are consequently aspects of an ontologically conceived world’, and that includes the observation of other observers, but only to detect errors; they are treated normatively and asked to correct their erroneous opinions. ‘Second-order cybernetics, the cybernetics of observing observers, leads to a thorough shiting of this disposition. It grasps all observation, even its own, as being dependent upon distinction. It must withhold forcing its own distinctions upon the observed observer. .. It (instead) reckons with the fact that, in a society that continually enables an observation of observations, ultimately stable “eigenvalues” (David Hilbert, Heinz von Foerster) arise that are no longer varied with further observation’ [p 191]. Now it is also clearer how the difference between subject and object comes to be, namely ‘by sheer virtue of the fact that operations of “subjects” are often best understood if one takes them to be induced by observation, that is, unleashed by the observed object itself functioning as an observer

[p 191]

. The distinction subject/object comes proves itself in an operational stance, the observational praxis; his is a distinction that can be applied to biological systems, to psychological systems as well as to social systems, and perhaps even to electronic machines: ‘.. if the complicated, two-termed operation of observing observers succeeds’ [p 192]. ‘First, it is simply necessary to contest that they (Frankfurt School and Habermas’s theory of communicative action) represent the philosophical discourse of modernity at all. This contestation does not rely on the absurd thesis of a postmodern age. Disputes of this sort are the product of literary inbreeding. One need only cast a glance at the structural continuities of modern society, at the dependence of the economy upon money, at the intensity of scientific research, at the positive law that remains indispensable, at the differentiation of intimate relations, at the state-related politics, at the so-called mass media, to see that there can be no talk of a transition to a postmodern society’ [p 192]. What appears to be happening is the introduction of a transitional semantics related to the wish to do away with the aristocratic forms of society but not quit ready for modern society. This transitional semantics is now exhausted. ‘The distinction, above all, between affirmative and critical, a distinction so beloved in Frankfurt, misses the connection to what offers itself to observation. It is a specific case of blindness, for it excludes the possibility that what has become realized as society gives cause for the worst fears, but cannot be rejected. This holds if one considers the evolutionary improbability of supporting structures – to name but a few: the autonomy and reciprocal dependence (carried to an extreme) of function systems; grave ecological problems; the short-term nature of tenable perspectives in the economy and in politics. Finally, one will be allowed to inquire as to the foundations of the emphasis that, if no longer subject-theoretical, is at least humanist. Apparently one requires this engagement in order to make normative claims plausible. The theory sides with the human to join the latter in battle against enemy forces. But isn’t this human merely an invention of this theory, merely a veiling of this theory’s self-reference? ~ If he or she were meant as an empirical object (with the name of subject), the theory would have to declare who at the same time are living and acting, on a discursive search for good grounds’ [p 193]. This would imply a lengthy process, especially because of the bounded rationality of the involved people and the required simultaneity: ‘One cannot idealize society without taking account of time’ [p 193].

SemioSphere and Cognition

Lenartowicz, M. . Creatures of the Semiosphere – A problematic third party in the ‘humans plus technology’ cognitive architecture of the future global superintelligence . Technological Forecasting and Social Change . January 2017


Human beings can exert selective pressure on emerging new life-forms. The theory of the Global Brain argues that the foreseen collective and distributed super-intelligence will include humans as its key beneficiaries. The collective architecture will include both humans and such new technologies. DPB: the selective pressure is on signals, the basic unity of communication: namely on the ‘utterances’ &c., information and understanding. According to Luhmann a social system is autonomous and this includes AGI development and GB. Humans can attempt to nudge and irritate these systems to change course, but the outcome of the evolutionary process cannot be known in advance and is therefore uncertain. This article serves to offers a new combination of existing theories: theory of adjacent possible (Kauffmann), semiosphere (Lotman), social systems (Luhmann), Theory of Intelligence (Heylighen). The history of the human species can be re-interpreted such that it is not the individual human being but the social systems that are the more advanced human intelligence currently operating on Earth.

Locating the Crown of Creation

To assume that the human being is the final feat of evolution, is, given its other accomplishments, indefensible. Only our feeling of self-importance makes us believe that we should (and will) remain around forever. Exposing that and theorizing about what comes next is therefore justified. ‘It seems now that we are starting to abandon yet another undue anthropocentric belief that the Artificial (DPB: including AGI), which is passing through our hands, is in simple opposition to the Natural and, as such, is excluded from the workings of evolution’ [p 2]. Because why is the passing through human hands be fundamentally different from the passing through a chemical or a physical process? There is no design condition with regards to size: ‘While the idea does appear fantastic when applied to human beings, for nature such shifts between scales – called meta-system transitions – Turchin 1977, Heylighen 1995) are nothing new’ [p 3]. This is extensively formulated in the theory of the global brain. The crux is an ever thickening and complicating network of communication that humans contribute to and process. According to the global brain the next stage in the evolution of intelligence ‘belongs to a complex, adaptive, cognizing network of interconnected agents: humans and technological systems (Heylighen 2015). A thinking, computing, analysing and strategizing, problem-spotting and problem-solving organ of the planet Earth herself’ [p 3]. DPB: it appears that there is no environment for an evolutionary stage where the entire (surface of) the Earth is occupied with the same; who performs the three selecting processes? An additional question is whether the passed-on crown will still be in our hands. Anthropomorphism is a constrain when thinking about these long term questions. Hence an alternative hypothesis: the social systems are the most intelligent systems on Earth at this point.

An Empty Niche in Hunter-Gatherer’s Eden

Genetically we belong to Eden’ [p 4]. Heylighen assumes that the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (a kind of a reference for the direction and level of adaptedness of human beings, the environment for which we are fit) is based on the hunter-gatherers era. Their fitness was supported by the development of language and other symbolic means of communication. These came about as a variation of the means for ‘exchanging useful information with others’ (Heylighen): ‘Thus, language has become a functional adaptation of the species and, by proving remarkably useful, it got selected to stay’ [p 5]. DPB: In this way language is a feat of biological evolution, adding to the fitness of people, namely through its usefulness. Luhmann’s view on language is that it serves a specific role in between the mind and the communication; that surely being one of his more foggy moments, language, from the moment the first ‘mbwa’ was repeated, came to be autonomous, and hence it was initially selected to stay because it added to the hunter-gatherer’s fitness, or, at least it was of some use and did not harm her enough to be selected away. But that provides sufficient space for language to develop itself in its particular evolutionary process (and not as per Luhmann’s special trajectory). The evolution of the swim bladder has had advantages for the fish and in addition it has created an ‘adjacent possible’, namely a new niche for particular bacteria. In the same vein, the development of symbolic means of communication have provided humans with a new feature, and has created an adjacent possible, ‘within which new designs of evolution could appear. And, what is most spectacular: this niche was created outside the biosphere, giving rise to what Yuri Lotman (2001, 2005) called the semiosphere’ (emphasis by the author) [p 6]. First, this proved to be a pragmatic form of signaling and coordinating of actions. Second it provided an increase of the representational capacity. Third, language enabled the building of relations between occurrences of communication, the semiosphere;’They could refer to, describe, interpret, and evaluate other occurrences of symbolic communication, which have happened before’ [p 6]. In that environment these components of communication, new evolutionary forms could assemble (DeLanda), individuate (Simondon 1992, Weinbaum&Veitas 2016), self-organize (Heylighen 1989, 2002) and evolve. And their evolution again created additional adjacent possibles to be occupied by yet other symbolic forms.

Individuation of the Semiospecies

Therefore, if we consider the development of language as giving rise to the (as yet) empty niche of the semiosphere, it would be the Luhmannian social systems what should be considered the newcomers – the novel forms of life, enabled to emerge and evolve by the adjacent possible’ [p 8]. DPB: I annoted here ‘sunfall’: sounds great but I forgot why. Otherwise it is a good quote to sum up what is explained in the previous paragraph. When it was empty, the semiosphere contained only individual instances of communication for single use, unentangled with other. ‘.. the ‘already not-empty’ semiosphere included also complex, lifelike entanglements of such instances, capable of the prolonged perpetuation of their own patterns and of exerting influence onto their own respective environments (Lenartowicz, Weinbaum & Braathen 2016)’ [p 8]. These entanglements take place as per the three selections of information, utterance and understanding (Luhmann 2002). When these selections are made then three distinctions are added to the semiosphere: the information making boundary between marked (the information that was selected to be included in the signal) and unmarked space (what could have been chosen but wasn’t; and remain available as an ‘adjacent possible’ for a next state), the semiotic boundary between the signified and the signifier (carrier of the information, the form or utterance) and the sense-making boundary between the created sign (and the context (the situation against which the understanding was selected, and harnessed because it was selected at the expense of other ways to understand it). DPB: whatever the signal is made of, once it is a sign (information uttered and understood) the next state of the communication is different from its previous state, but not so different that the communication stops. And hence it is individuating to ever more crystallize the communication monadically! The point Marta makes (and told me she introduced in the NASA article where I can’t find it back in) is that the concept of memes connects with this model: they are what it is that hooks the sequences of signals together to become a communication. I am trying to find a suitable example to illustrate this. ‘.. each of such couplings between two occurrences of communication may be seen as one occurrence ‘passing judgment’ – or projecting its own constitution – upon another. The combinatorial possibilities of how any single occurrence may be related to by a following one are multiple’ [p 10]. DPB: this reminds me of the idea that intention consists in fact of processes of attraction and repulsion. At every state the configuration of properties of the elements / parts is such that its relations seem to favor some and shy away from other possible future states, namely by causing an attraction to some and a repulsion from others. ‘In time, the interacting occurrences of communication form ever-complicating streams, in which each occurrence adheres to many others in multiple ways. Gaining in length, ‘mass’, and coherence, these strings form ‘metastable entities in the course of individuation whose defining characteristics change over time but without losing their long term intrinsic coherence and distinctiveness from their milieu’ (Lenartowicz, Weinbau & Braathen 2016)’ (emphasis by the authors) [p 11]. DPB: the remark about coherence reminds me firstly of the idea of connotations: loose, associative relations between signs. The semiosphere is the universe of all the occurrences of all the symbolic communication. It emerged at the first intentionally issued and understood symbol. DPB: can it be that this occurred at the first instance of 2nd order observation: the issuer of the signal observed and understood that her production of (what was turning out to be) a signal, brought about something in another person in the shape of a kind of behavior (or the lack of it: use your knife and fork!), remembered how to produce the signal, and hence deemed useful to do it again whenever that effect, namely the reaction in the other was desired by the issuer. Conversely now the perceiver understands that the issuer has a particular kind of behavioral reaction in mind whenever she issues that signal and so she remembers it also and when it it is perceived and understood in the future that kind of behavior can be produced (eat with knife and fork, but now very noisy). ‘But a semiosphere understood as a simple aggregate of all communicative occurrences happening in the world was bound to be ‘empty’, as a niche, as long as these communicative occurrences did not relate to one another. If they did not relate, they could not be conserved, and thus had to dissolve momentarily’ [p 11]. DPB: I interpret this as to mean that the the semiosphere could be filled only after it was possible to repeat the use of the signals, and I assume it also means that then it is required to start using them in each other’s context, such that they can be constructed by framing/deframing/reframing them (Luhmann 2002). The repetition allowed for individuation of language and communication to take place; stigmergy provided a memory for the objects and places of interest for the hunter-gatherers’ communities. ‘As a result, the boundaries of social systems were practically equal to the topological boundaries delineating the groups of people who were trained in their processing: if anyone was going to reinforce a certain communication by referring to it within the close circle of its eye and ear witnesses’ [p 13]. DPB: this is how we do things around here and if you act like this you surely can be only one of them. When the use of symbols occurred is uncertain, but at least prior to the earliest cave paintings 40ky ago.

A superintelligence which goes unnoticed

The above can be summarized in the statement that assemblages of symbols can self-organize and individuate into creatures of the semiosphere. Now the next step is the statement that these creatures behave intelligently, given that: ‘The thought experiment proposed here is different (to considering the preponderance of the intelligence of a group of people over that of a number of individuals, DPB). It is to consider the intelligence of the self-organizing streams communication delineated in such a way, which treats the human species as their environment’ [p 14]. DPB: I have referred to this condition of people in regards to their relation to communication or memeplexes as a substrate. Should I replace the more unfriendly substrate for environment? The definition of intelligence of Heylighen is used: ‘.. not abstract reasoning (agree DPB), thinking (this is Weaver’s approach, DPB), or computing (this is my approach, but meant in the sense of information processing). It is rather directing and coordinating the actions of an organism within its environment’ [p 14]. DPB: I am not sure of the relevance of the concept of intelligence for my research subject. As it is defined here it is similar to the capacity to anticipate, namely reduce the uncertainties from the environment. In the same vein it can be stated that intelligence is the processing of information from outside so as to steer the operations of a system so as to maintain its autopoiesis intact. The article refers to Heylighen 2014, who points at fitness, but I am not so sure about that concept: it is a constant: a level of performance of the internal operations which is required to have the smallest possible advantage in the real over the entities in the environment. I don’t know. The concept of environmental fitness might be explained by this model of three layers: 1. the environment which is referred to by the communication, 2. other occurrences of symbolic communication, and 3. substrate needed for the operating of the system, namely through uttering, memory, selection making, &c. ‘Once a communication is immortalized through writing, print, digitalization, or another for of recording, it may as well wait decades or centuries for its follower’ [p 16]. DPB: my annotations says stigmergy, but I don’t think that is intended with that concept. It reminds me of the way people can interact in my Logistical Model: there is no reason this should be ‘live’, or at the same location or even at the same time. In other words: to read a book is logically a way to interact with the author of the book. This admittedly feels asymmetrical, because it a one-way thing because you cannot talk back at the author to let her know your response. It is a signal that damages the reader but the not the other way around. And there is also no 2nd order observation in place. But: it is a signal, a meme changes state and so at least it is a bubble. ‘Symbols, narratives, context, and operational consequences can be always restored. This suggests that while, in the most general sense, the environmental fitness of any ‘semiocreature’ hinges on the ability to attract and tie successive occurrences of communication, this process does not have to be continuous nor instant’ [p 16]. DPB: I am curious about the ‘tying’: that is represented by my connotations. ‘What is less frequently realised is that the (re-)presentations are potentially stoppable at any time through a simple withdrawal of all reinforcing communication-making activity on the human side. But this seems to be about the only possible way of dismantling them, as occurrences of communication do reinforce the (re-)presentations of social systems even if they aim to criticize, challenge, or modify them. ‘Semiocreatures’ which are being spoken of are never dead’ [p 17]. DPB: this reminds of the saying that any publicity is good publicity. Also this is why some politicians remain popular for an unimaginable long time. Lastly this refers to the idea of familiarization: when referred to more often, an idea stays on top of mind, but if referred to less often it becomes less and less ‘readily available’ (paraat). Perhaps the idea is not realised so often (as per above) because according to Spinoza people can’t help themselves and they must talk. (With a reference to the ability to deal out stuff to people that are to the advantage of the dealer and not the person) ‘If intelligence is measured by the ability to safeguard and increase one’s own environmental fitness, when confronted with a ‘semiocreature’, we are quite fast to give it up’ [p 18].