A summary by Maureen Flynn-Burhoe of Hornung (1998 ) on Luhmann: Complexity: non-intervention and observation

In Fuchs discussion of the work of Niklas Luhmann, an impassioned theorist. Luhmann argued that the role of sociology was to develop a theory that would provide a better and more complex understanding of the world. This could be done by developing a description and analysis of modern society through observation of society in its minute details. However, in its role as a science, sociology should not try to provide recipes to improve the world. The functional differentiation between sociology and politics should be respected.

In this way ethics should not determine sociological theory rather ethics depends on sociological theory.

Professor Hornung, the President of the University of Marburg, acknowledged that Luhmann’s restriction to observation and non-intervention may seem to be an unaffordable luxury in crisis-ridden times. Hornung admits that sociologists “are in fact under daily pressure in our jobs to “produce” both scientific results and students to the precise profiles requested by the economy and the “market”. But he cautions against ignoring Luhmann’s lesson that

“complexity can be handled only by complexity (Hornung 1998).”

Shifting Words, Shifting Worlds

In the address written at the time of Niklas Luhmann death in 1998, Dr. Bernd R. Hornung, , described Luhmann as the “most important contemporary intellectual leader and representative of systems science in sociology.” The influence of his new challenges and new perspectives extended far beyond sociology. Empassioned by theory, Luhmann provided new and influential perspectives which challenge the “army of “regular scientists.” Luhmann combined the theory of the organization of the living of Maturana and Varela with his own complex reasoning and “transferred it to sociology, where it became soon a cornerstone of his own monumental construction of theory.” In this theory the observer plays a key role by observing minute differences which impact on shifting terms, words and worlds (Hornung 1998).

“A considerable part of his life work consists in applying his abstract, complex frame of theoretical reference to virtually all areas of society, from the internal workings of administration to global ecological problems, from politics and economy to arts, love, and religion. Aiming at a universal theory of society no sector of society was left out in his attempt to apply, test, and further develop his theory.” In order to expand his theory Luhmann entered into a scholarly confrontation with Habermas’ theory (1971). See Hornung (1998).

Luhmann, a student of Talcott Parsons at Harvard in 1960-1, is a successor to but not a follower of, Parsons. They both attempted to develop a grand sociological theory that was universal and all encompassing (Hornung 1998).

In 1968, as Professor of Sociology at the newly founded Reform University of Bielefeld he devoted his full energy to his theory of modern society. He was inspired somewhat by Husserl’s phenomenology but primarily by systems theory and cybernetics in his own efforts to develop a description of society (Hornung 1998).

Luhmann’s Methodology: History, Legal Theory not Empirical Measurement

Informed by his love for history and using the tools of legal theory which involved library research and case studies Luhmann’s project was to study society as a whole and develop a theory of modern society. His methods were not those of a natural scientist. He did not use an ethnological style of participant observation nor empirical measurement, data collection, and statistical hypothesis testing as a way to construct theory (Hornung 1998).

More reading

Hornung, Bernd R. 1998. Obituary Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998) written for The Research Committee 51 (RC51) on Sociocybernetics of the International Sociological Association (ISA).

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2008-06-18 “Luhmann: Complexity can be Handled only by Complexity.” First uploaded.

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