Niklas Luhmann
Born(1927-12-08)December 8, 1927
DiedNovember 6, 1998(1998-11-06) (aged 70)
Alma materUniversity of Freiburg
University of Münster
Known forTheory of autopoietic social systems
Functional differentiation
Operational constructivist epistemology
Double contingency[1]
Scientific career
FieldsSocial theory
Systems theory
Communication theory
InstitutionsUniversity of Bielefeld
Academic advisorsTalcott Parsons
Notable students

Niklas Luhmann (/ˈlmən/; German: [ˈluːman]; December 8, 1927 – November 6, 1998) was a German sociologist, philosopher of social science, and a prominent thinker in systems theory, who is considered one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century.[4]


Luhmann was born in Lüneburg, Free State of Prussia, where his father's family had been running a brewery for several generations. He entered the Gymnasium Johanneum at Luneburg in 1937.[5] In 1943, he was conscripted as a Luftwaffenhelfer in World War II and served for two years until, at the age of 17, he was taken prisoner of war by American troops in 1945.[6] After the war Luhmann studied law at the University of Freiburg from 1946 to 1949, when he obtained a law degree, and then began a career in Lüneburg's public administration. During a sabbatical in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he met and studied under Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential social systems theorist.

In later years, Luhmann dismissed Parsons' theory, developing a rival approach of his own. Leaving the civil service in 1962, he lectured at the national Deutsche Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften (University for Administrative Sciences) in Speyer, Germany.[7] In 1965, he was offered a position at the Sozialforschungsstelle (Social Research Centre) of the University of Münster, led by Helmut Schelsky. 1965/66 he studied one semester of sociology at the University of Münster.

Two earlier books were retroactively accepted as a PhD thesis and habilitation at the University of Münster in 1966, qualifying him for a university professorship. In 1968/1969, he briefly served as a lecturer at Theodor Adorno's former chair at the University of Frankfurt and then was appointed full professor of sociology at the newly founded University of Bielefeld, Germany (until 1993). He continued to publish after his retirement, when he finally found the time to complete his magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (literally, "The Society of Society"), which was published in 1997, and translated subsequently in English, under the title "Theory of Society" (volume I in 2012 and volume II in 2013). This work described segmented societies where territory is a dividing line.[8]


Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. While his theories have yet to make a major mark in American sociology, his theory is currently well known and popular in German sociology,[9] and has also been rather intensively received in Japan and Eastern Europe, including Russia. His relatively low profile elsewhere is partly due to the fact that translating his work is a difficult task, since his writing presents a challenge even to readers of German, including many sociologists. (p. xxvii Social Systems 1995)

Much of Luhmann's work directly deals with the operations of the legal system and his autopoietic theory of law is regarded as one of the more influential contributions to the sociology of law and socio-legal studies.[10]

Luhmann is probably best known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory. Like his erstwhile mentor Talcott Parsons, Luhmann is an advocate of "grand theory", although neither in the sense of philosophical foundationalism nor in the sense of "meta-narrative" as often invoked in the critical works of post-modernist writers. Rather, Luhmann's work tracks closer to complexity theory broadly speaking, in that it aims to address any aspect of social life within a universal theoretical framework — as the diversity of subjects he wrote on indicates. Luhmann's theory is sometimes dismissed as highly abstract and complex, particularly within the Anglophone world, whereas his work has had a more lasting influence on scholars from German-speaking countries, Scandinavia and Italy.[9]

Luhmann himself described his theory as "labyrinthine" or "non-linear" and claimed he was deliberately keeping his prose enigmatic to prevent it from being understood "too quickly", which would only produce simplistic misunderstandings.[11]

Systems theory

Luhmann's systems theory focuses on three topics, which are interconnected in his entire work.[12]

  1. Systems theory as societal theory
  2. Communication theory and
  3. Evolution theory

The core element of Luhmann's theory pivots around the problem of the contingency of meaning and thereby it becomes a theory of communication. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. Being the social system that comprises all (and only) communication, today's society is a world society.[13] A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or (colloquially) chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called "reduction of complexity". The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning (in German, Sinn). Both social systems and psychic systems (see below for an explanation of this distinction) operate by processing meaning.

Furthermore, each system has a distinctive identity that is constantly reproduced in its communication and depends on what is considered meaningful and what is not. If a system fails to maintain that identity, it ceases to exist as a system and dissolves back into the environment it emerged from. Luhmann called this process of reproduction from elements previously filtered from an over-complex environment autopoiesis (pronounced "auto-poy-E-sis"; literally: self-creation), using a term coined in cognitive biology by Chilean thinkers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Social systems are operationally closed in that while they use and rely on resources from their environment, those resources do not become part of the systems' operation. Both thought and digestion are important preconditions for communication, but neither appears in communication as such.[14]

Maturana, however, argued very vocally that this appropriation of autopoietic theory was conceptually unsound, as it presupposes the autonomy of communications from actual persons. That is, by describing social systems as operationally closed networks of communications, Luhmann (according to Maturana) ignores the fact that communications presuppose human communicators. Autopoiesis only applies to networks of processes that reproduce themselves,[15] but communications are reproduced by humans. For this reason, the analogy from biology to sociology does not, in this case, hold.[16] On the other hand, Luhmann explicitly stressed that he does not refer to a "society without humans", but to the fact that communication is autopoietic. Communication is made possible by human bodies and consciousness,[17] but this does not make communication operationally open. To "participate" in communication, one must be able to render one's thoughts and perceptions into elements of communication. This can only ever occur as a communicative operation (thoughts and perceptions cannot be directly transmitted) and must therefore satisfy internal system conditions that are specific to communication: intelligibility, reaching an addressee and gaining acceptance.[18]

Luhmann likens the operation of autopoiesis (the filtering and processing of information from the environment) to a program, making a series of logical distinctions (in German, Unterscheidungen). Here, Luhmann refers to the British mathematician G. Spencer-Brown's logic of distinctions that Maturana and Varela had earlier identified as a model for the functioning of any cognitive process. The supreme criterion guiding the "self-creation" of any given system is a defining binary code. This binary code is not to be confused with the computers operation: Luhmann (following Spencer-Brown and Gregory Bateson) assumes that auto-referential systems are continuously confronted with the dilemma of disintegration/continuation. This dilemma is framed with an ever-changing set of available choices; every one of those potential choices can be the system's selection or not (a binary state, selected/rejected). The influence of Spencer-Brown's book, Laws of Form, on Luhmann can hardly be overestimated.

Although Luhmann first developed his understanding of social systems theory under Parsons' influence, he soon moved away from the Parsonian concept. The most important difference is that Parsons framed systems as forms of action, in accordance with the AGIL paradigm. Parsons' systems theory treats systems as operationally open, and interactive through an input and output schema. Influenced by second-order cybernetics, Luhmann instead treats systems as autopoietic and operationally closed.[19][20] Systems must continually construct themselves and their perspective of reality through processing the distinction between system and environment, and self-reproduce themselves as the product of their own elements. Social systems are defined by Luhmann not as action but as recursive communication. Modern society is defined as a world system consisting of the sum total of all communication happening at once,[21] and individual function systems (such as the economy, politics, science, love, art, the media, etc.) are described as social subsystems which have "outdifferentiated" from the social system and achieved their own operational closure and autopoiesis.[22]

Another difference is that Parsons asks how certain subsystems contribute to the functioning of overall society. Luhmann starts with the differentiation of the systems themselves out of a nondescript environment. While he does observe how certain systems fulfill functions that contribute to "society" as a whole, he dispenses with the assumption of a priori cultural or normative consensus or "complimentary purpose" which was common to Durkheim and Parsons' conceptualization of a social function.[23] For Luhmann, functional differentiation is a consequence of selective pressure under temporalized complexity, and it occurs as function systems independently establish their own ecological niches by performing a function.[24] Functions are therefore not the coordinated components of the organic social whole, but rather contingent and selective responses to reference problems which obey no higher principle of order and could have been responded to in other ways.

Finally, the systems' autopoietic closure is another fundamental difference from Parsons' concept. Each system works strictly according to its very own code and can observe other systems only by applying its code to their operations. For example, the code of the economy involves the application of the distinction between payment and non-payment. Other system operations appear within the economic field of references only insofar as this economic code can be applied to them. Hence, a political decision becomes an economic operation when it is observed as a government spending money or not. Likewise, a legal judgement may also be an economic operation when settlement of a contractual dispute obliges one party to pay for the goods or services they had acquired. The codes of the economy, politics and law operate autonomously, but their "interpenetration"[25] is evident when observing "events"[26] which simultaneously involve the participation of more than one system.

One seemingly peculiar, but within the overall framework strictly logical, axiom of Luhmann's theory is the human being's position outside any social system, initially developed by Parsons. Consisting of "pure communicative actions" (a reference to Jürgen Habermas) any social system requires human consciousnesses (personal or psychical systems) as an obviously necessary, but nevertheless environmental resource. In Luhmann's terms, human beings are neither part of society nor of any specific systems, just as they are not part of a conversation. Luhmann himself once said concisely that he was "not interested in people". That is not to say that people were not a matter for Luhmann, but rather, the communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society, and society is constituted (but not defined) by the communicative actions of people: society is people's environment, and people are society's environment.

Thus, sociology can explain how persons can change society; the influence of the environment (the people) on the system (the society), the so-called "structural coupling". In fact Luhmann himself replied to the relevant criticism by stating that "In fact the theory of autopoietic systems could bear the title Taking Individuals Seriously, certainly more seriously than our humanistic tradition" (Niklas Luhmann, Operational Closure and Structural Coupling: The Differentiation of the Legal System, Cardozo Law Review, vol. 13: 1422). This approach has attracted criticism from those who argue that Luhmann has at no point demonstrated the operational closure of social systems, or in fact that autopoietic social systems actually exist. He has instead taken this as a premise or presupposition, resulting in the logical need to exclude humans from social systems, which prevents the social systems view from accounting for the individual behavior, action, motives, or indeed existence of any individual person.[27]

Luhmann was devoted to the ideal of non-normative science introduced to sociology in the early 20th century by Max Weber and later re-defined and defended against its critics by Karl Popper. However, in an academic environment that never strictly separated descriptive and normative theories of society, Luhmann's sociology has widely attracted criticism from various intellectuals, including Jürgen Habermas.[citation needed]

Luhmann's reception

Luhmann's systems theory is not without its critics; his definitions of "autopoietic" and "social system" differ from others. At the same time his theory is being applied or used worldwide by sociologists and other scholars. It is often used in analyses dealing with corporate social responsibility, organisational legitimacy, governance structures as well as with sociology of law and of course general sociology. His systems theory has also been used to study media discourse of various energy technologies throughout the US, including smart grids, carbon capture and storage, and wind energy.[citation needed]

Note-taking system (Zettelkasten)

Luhmann was famous for his extensive use of the "slip box" or Zettelkasten note-taking method. He built up a zettelkasten of some 90,000 index cards for his research, and credited it with making his extraordinarily prolific writing possible. It was digitized and made available online in 2019.[28] Luhmann described the zettelkasten as part of his research into systems theory in the essay Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen.[29]


Luhmann also appears as a character in Paul Wühr's work of literature Das falsche Buch, along with Ulrich Sonnemann, Johann Georg Hamann, Richard Buckminster Fuller and others.

Luhmann owned a pub called "Pons" in his parents' house in his native town of Lüneburg. The house, which also contained his father's brewery, had been in his family since 1857.




  1. ^ Raf Vanderstraeten, "Parsons, Luhmann and the Theorem of Double Contingency," Journal of Classical Sociology 2(1), 2002.
  2. ^ Journal of Sociocybernetics 4, 2 - Universidad de Zaragoza
  3. ^ Ziemann, Benjamin (2007). "The Theory of Functional Differentiation and the History of Modern Society. Reflections on the Reception of Systems Theory in Recent Historiography". Soziale System, 13 (1+2). pp. 220–229.
  4. ^ Bechmann and Stehr, 'The Legacy of Niklas Luhmann' Society (2002).
  5. ^ Jahraus, Oliver; Nassehi, Armin; Grizelj, Mario; Saake, Irmhild; Kirchmeier, Christian; Müller, Julian (2012). Luhmann-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. p. 441. ISBN 9783476052711.
  6. ^ In an interview Luhmann once said: "... die Behandlung war – gelinde gesagt – nicht nach den Regeln der internationalen Konventionen". Source: Detlef Horster (1997), Niklas Luhmann, München, p.28.
  7. ^ Allan, Kenneth (2006). The Social Lens: An Invitation to Social and Sociological Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. p. 453. ISBN 9781412914109.
  8. ^ Luhmann, Niklas (2013). A Sociological Theory of Law. Oxon: Routledge. pp. xxxii. ISBN 9781135142551.
  9. ^ a b Roth, S. (2011) Les deux angleterres et le continent. Anglophone sociology as the guardian of Old European semantics, Journal of Sociocybernetics, Vol. 9, No. 1-2, available for download at SSRN
  10. ^ Luhmann, N, A Sociological Theory of Law (1985) and Law As a Social System, translated by Klaus A. Ziegert (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  11. ^ "Niklas Luhmann: Unverständliche Wissenschaft: Probleme einer theorieeigenen Sprache, in: Luhmann, Soziologische Aufklärung 3: Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, 4th. ed. 2005, pp. 193-205, quote on p. 199.
  12. ^ Niklas Luhmann (1975), "Systemtheorie, Evolutionstheorie und Kommunikationstheorie", in: Soziologische Gids 22 3. pp.154–168
  13. ^ Niklas Luhmann. (1982). The World Society as a Social System. International Journal of General Systems, 8:3, 131-138.
  14. ^ Luhmann, Niklas. 1982. The world society as a social system. doi:
  15. ^ Varela, F., Maturana, H., & Uribe, R. (1974). "Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model". Biosystems. 5 (4): 187–196. doi:10.1016/0303-2647(74)90031-8. PMID 4407425.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Maturana, H., & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Carl Auer International. pp. 105–108. ISBN 3896704486.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, pp.56.
  18. ^ Luhmann, N. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 158.
  19. ^ Luhmann, N. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995.
  20. ^ Luhmann, N. Introduction to Systems Theory. Polity, 2012.
  21. ^ Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, pp. 83-99.
  22. ^ Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 2. Stanford University Press, 2013, pp. 65ff.
  23. ^ Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, p. 6.
  24. ^ Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, esp. pp. 336-343.
  25. ^ Luhmann, N. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995, Chapter 6.
  26. ^ Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 2. Stanford University Press, 2013, p. 93.
  27. ^ Fuchs, C., & Hofkirchner, W. (2009). "Autopoiesis and Critical Social Systems Theory. In Magalhães, R., Sanchez, R., (Eds.)". Autopoiesis in Organization: Theory and Practice. Bingley, UK: Emerald. pp. 111–129.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Noack, Pit. "Missing Link: Luhmanns Denkmaschine endlich im Netz". heise online (in German). Retrieved 2020-05-31.
  29. ^ Niklas Luhmann: Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen. Ein Erfahrungsbericht, in: André Kieserling (ed.), Universität als Milieu. Kleine Schriften, Haux, Bielefeld 1992, ISBN 3-925471-13-8, p. 53–61; translated in: "Communicating with Slip Boxes". Retrieved 2020-05-31.

Further reading

Media related to Niklas Luhmann at Wikimedia Commons

Quotations related to Niklas Luhmann at Wikiquote