Foundations of Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Social Systems

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 29 (4):481-516 (1999)
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Abstract

Of all contemporary social theorists, Luhmann has best understood the centrality of the concept of meaning to social theory and has most extensively worked out the notion's implications. However, despite the power of his theory, the theory suffers from difficulties impeding its reception. This article attempts to remedy this situation with some critical arguments and proposals for revision. First, the theory Luhmann adopted from biology as the basis of his own theory was a poor choice since that theory has no explanatory power, being purely descriptive; furthermore, that theory is fundamentally flawed since it implies that viruses are impossible. Second, Luhmann's theory of meaning cannot coherently make the social domain autonomous as he desires since Luhmann does not take into account the distinction between syntax and semantics. By introducing this distinction, making clear that social systems consist of rules, not just communications, and raising the rule concept to the same prominence in social theory as those of actor and system, autonomy can be maintained while avoiding the counterintuitive aspects of Luhmann's theory.

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