Comments on systems theory: The distinction of operation and observation

Facing the void

Our concern in this article will be the distinction between operation and observation as systems theory according to Luhmann proposes it. We want to ask in which way the distinction is used and which consequences arise from this particular use of a specific distinction. Furthermore, the question is why Luhmann ascribes such importance to this particular distinction. What is its value?

The answer to this question – as we will see – lies in the realm of constructivism. We do not want to ask for any general importance of this distinction, for this would extend the form of a blog- article. Another constraint is the focus on social systems. We, again, need this shortening to abbreviate the reasoning to an acceptable extent.

We will start by defining both terms- operation and observation. An operation designates a current operation- whether this is simply referring to an object or an observation itself (we are not dealing with this obvious autology yet). As is well known, an observation is defined as distinguishing and indicating.

Now we will change the field of research and talk about the more general foundations of constructivism. Luhmann uses the calculus of George- Spencer Brown to validate the systems theoretical theory of observation. Constitutive is the form. Form refers to a two-side distinction – for there can be no indicating without distinction (thus: two side form). Hence, self-reference as well as external- reference come into the play. As said before, there can be no indicating devoid of distinction- no matter if we distinguish between something/ unmarked space (first-order-observation) or between something and its (idiosyncratic fixed) contrary. Furthermore, it is obvious that every distinction is rooted in an operating system (which is why we are talking about operative constructivism), because without system can be no operating. In fact, we speak of meaning-processing social systems- without the oscillation between actuality and potentiality there is no meaning, hence no distinguishing. But, as the term oscillation implies, we need time.

Up to now we did not even mention society as the overall system and we did not need to. But we are now in need of some general assumptions on modern society. In order not to get sidetracked from our subject, the distinction of operation and observation, we will shorten the required assumptions to the following: modern society is defined by contingency as its “Eigenwert”. We take as given (not the idea of distinction in this case but, instead, the idea…) of contingency, which means there is no external reference which allows us to deconstruct contingency. As Luhmann puts it: We don´t know where we are but can know how to move (through distinctions, we have to add; Luhmann, 2001: 252).

We can now conclude that society operates without defining an overwhelming horizon of meaning which gives advice on how to deconstruct contingency.

We now will relate this assumption to the idea of distinction. As we said above, observation means distinguishing and indicating. But if we take the absence of any legitimating external reference (like god, nature, magic, and so on) which can tell us what is wrong and what is right, into account, we also have to reject the idea of any kind of an ontologically given world. In fact, one has to decide on one’s own, which side of the distinction one wants to indicate and thus: how one wants to move.

Every form, as said above, distinguishes two sides- and the observer, or more precisely: the operator of this form cannot know where he is. Instead, he has to copy the distinction of distinction and indication into the form. Taken structurally, every form is a paradox, because it is given without time. Time has to be copied into the form by processing the distinction of distinction and indication. Without this, every distinction is pure self-reference. And exactly this is where the distinction of operation and observation takes its place in systems theory.

On the one side, this distinction allows us to state that every form relies on a structural paradox, the non-decisiveness of a two side distinction. On the other side, it reveals why, given this paradoxical point of departure, the world does not stop- as even talking about paradoxical communication is communication and hence generates references for further communication. Put differently: communication takes place and goes on- what proves the distinction of observation and operation right in its theoretical usefulness. The distinction of observation and operation hence is self-evident. One can cognize paradoxes, but the world goes on because every single operation asymmetrizes (whether it does so temporarily, socially, or factually) the form it relies on. Otherwise communication would be impossible due to the fact that there would be no way to indicate one side of the form against the other.

We see another important respect of this distinction in the following: If a theory has to pass on any ontological assumptions, it has to deal, self- implicative, with paradoxes. But obviously can communication handle this problem. Why is the question, the separation of operation and observation answers to.

What consequences arise from this? First of all, the theory has to reflect (upon) itself. It has to become autological in the sense that it identifies itself just as one observer (in fact: one among others).

To comply with the claim of being a theory of modern, polycontextural (taken from the term contexture), society, the theory itself has to take notice of the fact that -as a matter of fact- it has to operate this way, as well. The distinction of observation and operation is not the way out of this: we can now see why communication does not immediately stop. Or the other way around: we can explain that communication, under the conditions of modern society, has to rely on a basal paradox- but does not stop for this reason. The distinction of operation and observation hence proves not just the modernity of the theory but leads also to a constructivist epistemology which is not our concern at this point, tough.

Finally, we can – with Luhmann – succinctly state that the world comes to order via repulsion and attraction of forms- and there are no corresponding constructions in the world (whatever this may mean; see: Luhman, ebd: 248)

To grant the sincerity of a theory of modern society, the distinction of operation and observation has to be incorporated in the theory to show its modernity in respect to a void (blinder Fleck) put in place of a (normatively) unifying mechanism in modernity. The descriptions operated by the theory have to parallel its own theoretical mode of operation.

Seen from this angle, the distinction reifies the use of systems theory as a theory which matches the challenges of modern society.


Luhmann, Niklas, 2001: Die Paradoxie der Form. In: Aufsätze und Reden, Jahraus, Oliver, (Hg.), Stuttgart: Reclam. S. 243 – 261

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