Liberal thinking in systems theory?

What kind of ideology does systems theory follow? Is there an ideology to be identified in the realm of the systems theory or is the theory exempt from any kind of “ideology”?

These will be our leading questions which are to be answered in this article. As always we need a definition of liberalism to ensure a, more or less, equal access to the topic we want to deal with.

Definition problems

First of all, we are in need of a closer frame for answering our question. What is it we want to call liberalism? Obviously, liberalism can be of a political or non- political kind.  We need to settle the question what kind of liberalism we want to refer to.

In our opinion, to cut a long story short, the question, whether systems theory is following a political liberalism, or not, is not qualified to gain much attention. There does not seem to be any leads of a politically motivated liberal thinking in systems theory. So we are not going to follow this question up. At least any attempt to show this appears volitional and artificial – in sum, not reasonable in our view.

A further consequence is that we have to swap the noun liberalism for the adjective liberal to get rid of the political connotation. So, after this adjustment, we have to ask: are there liberal elements in systems theory?

Henceforward we concentrate our reasoning on liberal ideas. To prove this with respect to the literature, we introduce two definitions.


The first one is taken out of a free internet dictionary placed at disposal by Farlex. We find the following definition of “liberal” in there: “Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas”.

A second one, which ostentatiously refers to a freedom-based definition of “liberalism”, is to be found in the book politics, written by Andrew Heywood: “Individual freedom, or liberty, is the core value of liberalism”. If we disarray this of its political content, which means in our terms: turn it from a noun to adjective, we can see that, in both definitions, “liberal” is defined as an idea which renounces exposed positions for passing judgment. As our concern is a theory of society, we have to add: waives an exposed position in society! How can we prove this by means of systems theory?

Lost unity and second order observation

As Luhmann exposes, systems theory tries to avoid the relapse into what he calls the old-European semantic tradition, which, in fact, means, he tries to reorganize the theory from unity to difference. There is no shortage of possible ways to derive our reasoning from the theory, so we focus on and scrutinize one single way- there are scores of others, for sure, but to keep it short, we just concentrate on the following:

The turn from stratificational differentiation to functional differentiation designates an evolutionary process at the preliminary end of which a society, defined by differentiation of specific function-systems, emerges. There is no primus inter pares any longer. Or in other words: the multiplicity of modern society is its condition sine qua non. No system can claim the leadership over any other systems, that is, no function-system can take an exposed position in a functionally differentiated society. This process parallels a conversion of societal observation forms from first-order-observations to second-order-observations. The Enlightenment, to put it differently, bounces the society out of its inherited forms of observations. Contingency comes into play. In a long, probably morphogenetically process, society’s latencies are turned into contingencies. At the end of this process function-systems emerge which are based on second-order-observation.

As opposed to first-order-observation second-order-observations make contingency visible, which means: it turns contingency form being opaque to being visible. One can see that there are always other opportunities, but there is no exposed position to state what is ontologically right or wrong. This notwithstanding: society, taken as all kinds of communications (including interactions), goes on and on. Another proof for this lies at hand: society does not stop because of obvious paradoxes: what one thinks is right, another can consider wrong.

This, again, seems to be a proof for the inevitable need to found a theory of modern society in a constructivistic way. The world can only be observed by hurting it: one has to harm the world with differences, which become paradoxically, when we ask for the unity of the difference. The reason for this seems to be that the world, whoever observes it, is just accessible via difference from itself to itself. One can read only differences in the world, which are, in fact, no differences of the world at all. Every harming of the unity of the world is punished by an emerging paradox when we ask for the unity of the processing difference whose task is to describe the world- and what else could the world be except from the unity of duality of two distinct sides.

What´s left?

Apart from this – returning to our main goal – nothing but second-order-observations seem appropriate for these conditions of modern society.

What is following from this?

The above described developments matter for the following reasoning: if there is no external reference to ultimately prove what is right or wrong, what is left? In fact, the evidence, which is all too often left unconsidered by normative theories with regard to the societal form of differentiation: there is no point from which it could be ultimately stated, what is right and wrong.

So, what remains? This question can just be answered by one term: second order observation. The observation of observers which means, in fact, nothing else than accepting no external point of view, which provides a chance of legitimacy by referring to a higher power. This can be read as an implicature of tolerance: the only opportunity left is to observe observers. And this is what we can call liberal, or in other words: free of any kind of ideology.


Systems theory flags itself out as a universal theory- which leads to the predication that the world is a “multiversum”- and the theory, which is qua definition obligated to incorporate or at least make plausible very different views on one and the same ‘thing’, makes good on that promise.

In this sense, and only in this sense, (lead by the above explicated example; the reasoning is not valid for any claims of a political liberalism), systems theory, as submitted by Luhmann, is a liberal theory devoid of any kinds of political implications!

denkt, dass Luhmann recht hatte und liest die Soziologie dementsprechend. Schwerpunkte sind Systemtheorie und Epistemologie.

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