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Page only just started; lots to collect and reflect upon yet. The following is just a pointer. Please contact me if there is an error of if you think of something to add. Thank you. A.B.


First, I want to draw together, in note form, some ways in which Dooyeweerd affirms (i.e. echoes), critiques and enriches Luhmann.

Luhmann Dooyeweerd affirms Dooyeweerd critiques Dooyeweerd enriches
Meaning. Luhmann's theory revolves around the problem of meaning. He casts it as a theory of communication, and posits that social systems are systems of communication and that society as a whole is the sum total of all communications. Systems operate by processing meaning (rather than merely by processes in general); this reduces complexity. Dooyeweerd likewise treats meaning as of central importance, and indeed makes it a starting-point for his philosophy. However, Luhmann presupposes that the environment / world is "chaotic" or "nondescript", i.e. either without meaning or with such an infinity of meanings that we cannot say anything about it. Dooyeweerd would trace this presupposition to the Immanence Standpoint, which divorces meaning from reality. Dooyeweerd holds that all reality, including the external world, is meaningful, and that meaningfulness is manageable. Dooyeweerd delineated fifteen spheres of meaningfulness, which are usually called aspects.
Complexity and its reduction. Luhmann held that the environment is infinitely complex, and that within systems (within their boundary) is a zone of reduced complexity, in which systems select only a limited amount of information available about the environment. The basis for selection is meaning, and systems operate by processing meaning. It is about this that communication within the system occurs. With Dooyeweerd we might see Luhmann dealing with several issues here. 1. The importance of meaning; see above. 2. Selection of what is meaningful is the role of the analytical aspect, the functioning of which is distinction-making. 3. In our analytical functioning we target another aspect about which we make distinctions (e.g. colours, shapes, justice, faiths). 4. In so doing, we focus on one aspect and, in the extreme, ignore others. 5. Dooyeweerd might understand complexity as the actualisation of the interplay of all the aspects (of which he delineated fifteen). 6. Therefore, focusing on one aspect automatically reduces compplexity - but at the price of misunderstanding the whole by ignoring important aspects. 7. The "extreme" form of this occurs in theoretical thought, in which aspects are abstracted away from reality. (Most thinkers (including Luhmann, it seems) tend to see theoretical thought as the truth, whereas in fact it is a lie.) Luhmann seems to be reaching for a diversity of meaningfulness that transcends us (or systems). But, trapped in the Immanence Standpoint, he cannot quite get there to adequately explore it. Instead of exploring this diversity, he seems to say it is either "chaotic" (implying lack of meaningfulness, which is why he uses "meaning" for the result of reducing this complexity) or "infinitely complex" (implying so much that we should not try to explore it since any exploration will never do it justice). Moreover, Luhmann seems to appeal to the analytic aspect to solve too many of his theoretical problems, and ignore other aspects. Complexity is not manageable if we consider the subject-side of reality, i.e. all the systems and other existences that actually occur, but only when we consider the law-side. If Dooyeweerd is correct, this seems to have a manageable number of aspects (around fifteen). The reality of distinction, as the functioning of the analytical aspect, may be recognised and explored, but this should be done within the wider context of its coherence with all other aspects. The aesthetic aspect (harmony) is surely also important in the relationship of systems with their environment.
Communication. Luhmann understands the importance of communication as the rendering of the individual's thoughts and perceptions into elements of communication. This is the role of the lingual aspect, to externalise 'pieces of meaningfulness' as symbols or signs, which are then available for others. We function in the lingual aspect when we do this, in speaking, writing, reading, etc. The 'pieces of meaningfulness' may be of any aspect, which I call a target aspect. e.g. writing the word "red" I function in the lingual aspect and target the psychic aspect. Luhmann focuses on the role of the lingual aspect and thereby maybe tends to elevate it over others. However, he does also recognise implicitly the analytic aspect; see below. Dooyeweerd discusses how the lingual aspect relates to all other aspects, whereas
"... an intervening requirement mediates between language and interaction - a supply of possible themes that is available for quick and readily understandable reception in concrete communicative processes. We would like to call this supply of themes culture, and, if it is reserved specifically for the purposes of communication, semantics" [Luhmann, 2007] "a supply" suggests something already available, beyond subjectivity. "possible themes" suggests ways of being meaningful, i.e. aspects. Luhmann "would like to call this supply of themes culture". However, what enables culture to supply themes in the first place? Social interaction? Biological and psychical challenges? Beliefs? What enables such kinds or modes of functioning? Meaningfulness. Dooyeweerd offers a ready-made suite of aspects, modes of meaningfulness. This can help us understand the supply of possible themes.
Binary codes. Dualities like male-female, select-reject, etc. defines how a system maintains itself by communication. This seems to be Luhmann's attempt to explain how meanings are generated by the social system, and certainly how Luhmann explains what he wants explained, namely that within a social system is a zone of reduced complexity. He recognises that the external world is more complex than binary, but sees binary as reducing complexity. Within any aspect (meaning-sphere) dualities are meaningful. Male-female in the biotic aspect, select-reject in the analytic, etc. Luhmann seems too obsessed with binary codes, perhaps because he wants to maintain the notion of zone of reduced complexity. To Dooyeweerd, the possibilities in most aspects are multiple, not binary. His idea of aspects can help us escape the restriction to binary.
Meaning as the identity of systems. The identity of systems, which distinguish it from others, is constantly maintained or reproduced by communication, and this depends on what is considered meaningful and what is not. "Meaning is the being of all that is created and the nature of our selfhood" [NC,I, 4]. Dooyeweerd believes that meaningfulness is ontically prior of being (and process etc.), i.e. that the Being of anything is constituted in its meaningfulness in various aspects. See Existence. Luhmann, trapped in an Immanence Standpoint, cannot allow himself to conceive of meaningfulness as transcending us, but must try to find a way in which the meaningfulness of "what is considered meaningful" is generated perhaps by process etc. This leads to major problems. By treating meaningfulness as a starting-point, Dooyeweerd was freed to explore which spheres of meaningfulness there are, and derived his suite of aspects, which has proven very useful in many fields.
Social systems autopoiesis. Social systems might depend on things like thought and digestion, but these are not germane to the self-maintaining (autopoietic) operation of social systems. What is germane to self-maintenance is communications. This strongly echoes Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects as (a) mutually irreducible in their meaning (and laws), (b) in which a qualifying aspect is most meaningful for the system, (c) and yet inter-dependent on each other, (d) with the qualifying aspect often primarily dependent on a founding aspect.

So, for social systems, (a) the description of system functioning in one aspect is 'invisible' to those in others, except for statements of dependency. (b) The qualifying aspect of social systems is the social. (c) Yet social functioning is foundationally dependent on that in all earlier aspects, including the lingual (communications), sensitive-psychical (thought) and biotic (digestion). (d) The founding aspect of social systems, to Luhmann, is the lingual. So Luhmann's account of social systems involves concepts meaningful in the social and lingual aspects, but not the psychic nor biotic. This is why Luhmann can see that social systems are operationally closed and yet exchange with their environment: from the perspective of the two main aspects (social, lingual), social systems are operationally closed (what is meaningful under them is part of the system), whereas from that of the psychical or biotic aspects the functioning of the social systems is not closed, and the psychical and biotic environments are not part of social systems.

- Thus Dooyeweerd offers a critically grounded understanding of the relationships between aspects, as dependency in two directions and analogy, and also what I call "non-conflict" in that the norms of one aspect never undermine those of others. This understanding might bring clarity to Luhmannian discourses.
Maturana's disagreement with Luhmann. Maturana argued that this appropriation of autopoietic theory is unsound because it ignores actual persons, and focusing only on the abstraction of communications. Luhmann disagrees, saying that social systems involve humans. The disagreement may be understood via Dooyeweerd's understanding that subjects and laws presuppose each other. To be a subject (agent, human being) implies being subject to law (of aspects). But law presupposes something to be subject to it. Perhaps Maturana is focusing on the what Dooyeweerd calls the subject-side; Luhmann is focusing on the law-side; a full account requires both sides. Both Maturana and Luhmann, perhaps, make the mistake of viewing things from only one side of reality. To Dooyeweerd, the law-subject distinction and division takes a different from in each aspect. Maturana gives attention to the biotic aspect, Luhmann to the lingual and social. Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects invites us to consider yet other aspects.
Distinction. Distinction is important, to Luhmann, in reducing complexity (see above), but also in the system knowing its difference from the environment, i.e. the boundary between them. Luhmann's penchant for distinction has perhaps led him to over-emphasise binary coding. See also the older notes on distinction below. Awareness of the distinction between system and environment (the boundary between them) is made possible by the analytical aspect. The ontic distinction between system and environment is not analytical. Rather, it is made meaningful by the biotic aspect, which is the first aspect to have fundamental laws about entities that are distinct from all else. Luhmann tends to over-emphasise distinction and blur ontic distinction with awareness of distinction. The issue of system boundary has been widely criticised, especially in social arenas, and reveals perhaps a confusion of the ontic with analytical awareness. In the biological / ecological sciences, the boundary is ontic and fairly clear (though understandably fuzzy from the perspective of the physical and spatial aspects); it involves a functioning in the biotic aspect. In the social sciences, where the boundary lies depends on one's Weltanschauung or perspective (as Checkland [1981] argues in Soft Systems Methodology). This involves functioning in the analytical aspect, and the Weltanschauung ("that which makes the systems meaningful" Checkland) is meaningful by reference to an aspect, which is the target of the analytical functioning. The distinction between two kinds of distinction and boundary - as the functioning in the biotic and analytic aspect.

Luhmann's Theory of Distinction

To Dooyeweerd, distinction is the kernel meaning of the analytical aspect. Luhmann explored the nature of distinction, and developed a theory about it. This suggests mutual benefit, that Luhmann might contribute specific insights to Dooyeweerd's treatment while Dooyeweerd enables Luhmann's work to be situated.

Luhmann's issue Similar to Dooyeweerd > Different from Dooyeweerd
Differentiation analysis: what is observable? To observe something reflectively involves analytic functioning, in that we distinguish a thing from its environment, and another, and then each from the other. Either way, we make the distinction on the basis of some aspect thereof. -
Differentiation analysis: what is the similarity? This seems to be a direct question about "In which aspect are we making the differentiation?" For example, to differentiate a sports club from a business, we must first recognise they are both social institutions. -
Form analysis: the unity of the difference. Aim is to identify the 'guiding' distinction. This sounds very like Dooyeweerd's notion of qualifying aspect: all things function in all aspects, but there is one aspect that is most important in defining its meaning. Dooyeweerd differentiated several important roles of aspects of a thing: qualifying, leading, founding, etc. Could Luhmann benefit from this?


Checkland P. 1981. Systems Thinking; Systems Practice.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2009 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga and Protext in the style of classic html.

Created: 12 June 2009 Last updated: 7 September 2017 rid counter. 8 June 2019 Added major table that discusses much of Luhmann's theory of social systems. 11 June 2019 complexity moved to after meaning, and edited. 5 May 2022 Supply of themes.