Niklas Luhmann

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Drawing of Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann (December 8, 1927November 6, 1998) was a German sociologist, and a prominent thinker in sociological systems theory.


  • Humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate.
    • Luhmann (1988) "How can the mind participate in communication" In: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht et all. (Ed.) Materialities of Communication. p. 371 (link).
  • Does knowledge rest on construction in the sense that it only functions because the knowing system is operatively closed, therefore: because it can maintain no operative contact with the outside world; and because it therefore remains dependent, for everything that it constructs, on its own distinction between self-reference and allo-reference?
  • No matter how abstractly formulated are a general theory of systems, a general theory of evolution and a general theory of communication, all three theoretical components are necessary for the specifically sociological theory of society. They are mutually interdependent.
  • It had always been clear to me that a thoroughly constructed conceptual theory of society would be much more radical and much more discomforting in its effects than narrowly focused criticisms—criticisms of capitalism for instance— could ever imagine.
    • Protest. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp,1996. p. 200

Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (1999)

  • Die folgenden Untersuchungen wagen diesen Übergang zu einem radikal antihumanistischen, einem radikal antiregionalistischen und einem radikal konstruktivistischen Gesellschaftsbegriff.
    • The following investigations attempt this transition to a radically anti-humanist, a radically anti-regionalist and a radically constructivist concept of society.
    • p. 35

Art As a Social System (2000)

Source: Niklas Luhmann, Eva M. Knodt (trans.) (2000) Art As a Social System Stanford University Press.
  • We are still spellbound by a tradition that arranged psychological faculties hierarchically, relegating ‘sensuousness’ — that is, perception — to a lower position in comparison to higher, reflective functions of reason and understanding. The most advanced versions of ‘conceptual art’ still follow this tradition. By refusing to base themselves in sensuously perceptible distinctions between works of art and other objects, these works seek to avoid reducing art to the realm of sense perception.
    • p. 5 as cited by Andrew E. McNamara (2010) "Visual acuity is not what it seems : on Ian Burn's 'Late' reflections". In: Ann Stephen (Ed.) Mirror Mirror.
  • The activity of observing establishes a distinction in a space that remains unmarked, the space from which the observer executes the distinction. The observer must employ a distinction in order to generate the difference between unmarked and marked space, and between himself and what he indicates. The whole point of this distinction (its intention) is to mark something as distinct from something else. At the same time, the observer — in drawing a distinction - makes himself visable to others. He betrays his presence - even if a further distinction is required to distinguish him.
    • p. 54 as cited in: Pamela M. Lee (2004) Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960's. p. 66.
  • The art system operates on its own terms, but an observer of art can choose many different distinctions to indicate what he observes.
    • p. 102.
  • In the twentieth century, one encounters artworks that seek to cancel the difference between a real and an imagined reality by presenting themselves in ways that make them indistinguishable from real objects. Should we take this trend as an internal reaction of art against itself?
    • p. 145.
  • Unlike philosophy, art does not search for islands of security from which other experiences can be expelled as fantastic or imaginary, or rejected as a world of secondary qualities or enjoyment, of pleasure or common sense. Art radicalizes the difference between the real and the merely possible in order to show through works of its own that even in the realm of possibility there is order after all. Art opposes, to use a Hegelian formulation, “the prose of the world,” but for precisely this reason it needs this contrast.

The reality of the Mass Media (2000)

Source: Niklas Luhmann, Kathleen Cross (trans.) (2000) The Reality of the Mass Media. Stanford University Press.
  • Whatever we know about society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media. This is true not only of our knowledge of society but also of our knowledge of nature.
    • p. 1.
  • The effect if not the function of the mass media seems to lie, therefore, in the reproduction of non- transparency through transparency, in the reproduction of non-transparency of effects through transparency of knowledge.
    • p. 103.
  • By representing themselves as a system [the mass media ] generates boundaries with an inside and an outside that is inaccessible to them. They too reflect [or represent] their outside as public life, so long as specific external relationships, such as to politics or to the advertisers, are not in question.
    • p. 106 as cited in: John Downin (2004) The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies. p. 234.
  • The second-order cybernetics worked out by Heinz von Foerster is rightly held to be a constructivist theory, if not an a manifesto for operational constructivism. The reverse doesn't apply, however. Constructivist epistemologies do not necessarily have the rigor of a cybernetics of cybernetics. One can observe cognitions as constructions of an observer, without linking with this the theory that the observing observer observes himself or herself as an observer.
    • p. 117.

Quotes about Niklas Luhmann

  • Niklas Luhmann is remembered as the most important social theorist of the 20th century. Yet in much of the Anglo-Saxon world he is virtually unknown among professional social scientists.
  • On, a reader of my book Luhmann Explained wrote "... if your teenager is bad, don’t ground him; make him write an essay on the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann.” I sympathize with this reader’s point of view. Having read texts by Luhmann for about twenty years, I have increasingly asked myself why, even though I find the theory very appealing, its inventor did not manage to express it in a reasonably enjoyable manner. Sometimes, particularly in his later works, Luhmann’s irony and humor interrupt his otherwise extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing texts.
    • Hans-Goerg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (2011), Chapter 2: Why he wrote such bad books.
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