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.

Digitage on Barbara Kruger's Nature/Culture Barbara Krueger’s (1983) “We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture” somehow comes to mind when reading Žižek on nature/culture.

During breaks I would walk through empty rooms to discover changes curators had made in their spaces. I was a teenager when I began to feel at home in the silent, often light-filled buildings that held public art collections. I was annoyed by, resented, then was intrigued by, read about, studied, spent time with pieces that came to be my favourites. Visual artists were deeply informed about and experimenting with emerging, complex theories, cultural studies, political philosophy . . . academics did their best to avoid them until it became impossible to do so.

Reading Slavoj Žižek’s Organs without Bodies is a lot like my non-linear NGC meanderings in the 1990s. His writing provokes me but there is enough brilliance there that makes me keep his book in the reading stand beside my monitor, opened at different pages on different days. He is not a lazy thinker. Each page is like a hypertext reader indexing a myriad of artists, philosophers, scientists and entrepreneurs. He discusses Hawkins, Hegel, Heidegger and Hitchcock with equal comfort because he has actually ‘read’ and analysed’ their work.

I was drawn to his chapter section on hyphen-ethics more because of the probing, unsettling questions it raises than because of his conclusions. It will be one of those recurring themes that will be part of my own lifelong teaching, learning and research.

“What is false with todays discussion concerning the ethical consequences of biogenetics is that it is rapidly turning into what Germans call Bindenstrich-Ethik, the ethics of the hyphen – technology-ethics, environment-ethics, and so on. This ethics does have a role to play, a role homologous to that of the provisional ethic Descartes mentions at the beginning of his Discourse on Method: when we engage on a new path, full of dangers and shattering new insights, we need to stick to old established rules as a practical guide for our daily lives, although we are well aware that the new insights will compel us to provide a fresh foundation for our entire ethical edifice (in Descartes case, this new foundation was provided by Kant, in his ethics of subjective autonomy). Today, we are in the same predicament: the provisional ethics cannot replace the need for a thorough reflection of the emerging New (Žižek 2004:123).”

“In short, what gets lost here, in this hyphen-ethics, is simply ethics as such. The problem is not that universal ethics gets dissolved in particular topics but, on the contrary, that particular scientific breakthroughs are directly confronted with the old humanist “values” (say, how biogenetics affects our sense of dignity and autonomy). This, then, is the choice we are confronting today: either we choose the typically postmodern stance of reticence (let’s not go to the end, let’s keep a proper distance toward the scientific Thing so that this Thing will not draw us into a black hole, destroying all our moral and human notions), or we dare to “tarry with the negative (das Verweilen beim Negativen),” that is, we dare to fully examine the consequences of scientific modernity with the wager that “our Mind is a genome” will also function as an infinite judgment (Žižek 2004:123-4).”

“The main consequence of the scientific breakthrough in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of its construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus “desubstantialized,” deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called “earth.” Biogenetics, with its reduction of the human psyche itself to an object of technological manipulation, is therefore effectively a kind of empirical instantiation of what Heidegger perceived as the “danger” inherent to modern technology. Crucial here is the interdepedence of man and nature: by reducing man to just another object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right. Humanity itself relies on some notion of “human nature” as what we inherited and was simply given to us, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is thus that there is man only insofar as there is inhuman nature (Heidegger’s “earth”). (Žižek 2004:124).”

Slavoj Žižek is a dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst. He also co-directs the International Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck College. The Parallax View appeared last year.

Webliography and Bibliography

Žižek, Slavoj. 2004. “Against hyphen-ethics.” Organs without Bodies: on Deleuze and Consequences. New York/London: Routledge. pp. 123-132.

Titles >> Subtitles: Organs without Bodies >> on Deleuze and Consequences >> Consequences >> Science >> Cognitivism with Freud, Autopoiesis, Memes, Memes Everywhere, Against Hyphen-Ethics, Cognitive Closure?, “Little Jolts of Enjoyment”,

folksonomy: cultural studies, theory, philosophy, Deleuze, globalization, democracy, democratization, war on terror, Joan Copjec, biogenetics, hyphen-ethics, capitalism, Richard Dawkins, Jacques Derrida, Daniel Dennett, ethics, Ethical turn, Habermas, Kant, Laclau, Levinas, Lacan, Varela, religion, Pascal, Spinoza, The Quite American, Hegel, Heidegger, Massumi, Fukuyama, liberal democracy, Self, personhood, ethics, mind/brain, mind body, psychoanalysis, nature/culture, technology, mind and consciousness,

More by Slavoj Žižek:

Žižek, Slavoj. 2003. “Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket: Slavoj Žižek welcomes the prospect of biogenetic intervention.” London Review of Books. 25:10. May.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. “Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism.” Review of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane.” London Review of Books. 21:21. October 28.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. ‘You May!’ London Review of Books. 21:6. 18 March.


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