Observations on Modernity 0804732353, 9780804732352

This collection of five essays by Germany’s most prominent and influential social thinker both links Luhmann’s social th

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Table of contents :
1. Modernity in Contemporary Society
2. European Rationality
3. Contingency as Modern Society's Defining Attribute
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 0804732353, 9780804732352

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Niklas Luh1nann TRANsr.ATro BY

Willian1 Whobrey




Stanford University Press, StanforJ, California © 1998 hy the Uoard of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University C IP data appear .1t the end of the book The publication of this work was .tssistt'd by~ subsid) fro1n Inter Nationes, Bonn.

Obscrl!lltions 011 1\fodenrity ·was originally pubhshed in Gennan in c992 a~ Bcobac/,tu,r.(!c1t dcr lvlodemc, © 1992 Westdeuc~cher Verlag G1nbH , Opladen.






Tin1othy Lenoir and Hans Ulrich Gu1nbrecht


The proclamation of the "post1nodern'' has at least one virtue. It has clarified that contemporary society has lost faith in the correctness of its self-description. There are other possibilities, but they, too, have become contingent. As in the hazardous world of the New York .;;ubway systen1, those who want to talk about such things congregate in clearly n1arked places under bnght lights and cameras. We see1n to be dealing with a matter of intellectual survival. But apparently this is all we are dealing with. ln the 1neanti1ne, what happens, happens, and society evolves toward an unknown future, leaving behind its accon1phsh1nents. Perhaps the concept of the poscrnodern pro1nised merely another, n1ore varied description of the modern, which can in1agine its own unity only in the negative terms of a mharecit (1netanarrative). But this vie'-"' ,night, on the other hand, allow for too rnuch, given the 1nany conte111porary exigencies that coine to m_jnd. We \-vould gladly concede that there is no such thjng as a binding representation of a society within that society. But that concession would be not the end hut rather the beginning of a reflection on the form of such J system's own self-observations and self-descriptions. These 111ust be subnutted within the system in a process that must in turn be observed and described. The follow·ing texts are based on the conviction that s01nething can be said about this topic of observing 1nodernity; even that a body



of theory is already available that needs only to be pointed toward the topic. The title Obsen1atio11s 011 "J\Iodemity is deliberately ambiguous. We are concerned with observing conte1nporary society through conte111porary society. There is no metarccit bccaw,e there are no external observers. Whenever we use comn1unication-and how could it be otherwise--we are already operating within o;;ociety. But this situation brings with it unique structures :md consequences th;:it must be clarified. The following inve,tigation is unified by tbe search for such clarification. What follows are revisions of lectures that I irutially pre"ented without a w ritten or fixed text. l spoke on the topic "Modermty in Conten1porary Society" at the Conference of Sociologio;;ts m Frankfort in 1990. The pre"ient version ii;; only slightly d1tferent from that published in the conference proceedings. "European Ilati01ulity" was the theme of a talk I gave at a conterence called "R.eason ,1nd li11agination," held in Melbourne in August 1991 and 1:,ponsored by tbe publishers of the penodical Thesis Elcl'en. l suspect that there wa, no intent to alter world events. At the sa1ne time the Monash University had invited me to participate in a forun1 wi.th Ab111es Heller; my contribution corresponded to the title of this forun1, "Contingency and Modernity."The nnpetus for the lecture ''Describmg the: future" was the founding of a research institute in February 1991 in Leece, which is supposed to examine the corr1plex problenis of southern Ita1y. The final essay, "The Ecology of lgnorance,'' sketches prospective research areas for contributors who have yet to be identified. I have allowed any overlapc; of content to remain. They can ,erve to clarify relationships that do not easily fit into hierarchic or linear representa□ons.






Modernity in Conte111porary 5ociety


European R.ationaJity


J 22

3. Contingency as Modern Sociecy's Defuling Attribute


4. Dt>\cribing thl: Fucure


5- The Ecology of Ignorance



11 5

Work, Citt:d



M o dernity in Conte1nporary Society

I I would like to start my analysis of modernity in conte1nporary society by making a distinction between social structure and semantic'). My preference for such a beginnmg, a preference that cann ot be Justified at the outset, is based on a confusing characteristic of this distinction. namely that 1t is self-contained. 1tis itself a se111antic distinction. just as the di,tinction between operation and observation, fron1 which it comes, is itself the distinction of an observer. I must leave it with the simple statement that this logical fonn is the foundation of productive analyses that can resolve their own paradoxes. 1 In addition, this pomt of departure already contains at its core the entire theory of modernity. This analysis does not begin with the recognition of tried laws of nature, nor with principles of reason, nor with predetermined or incontrover tible facts. [t begins with J paradox that can be ~olved one way or ano ther, provided on e is w illing to reduce infinjte to finite infonnation loads. This analysis th erefor~ claims for itself the characteristics of its object of study: modermty. If we begin with the distinction between social structures and ~emantics, then the \Ociologi'.'>t will re111ark that the discourse o n mo-


MoJernicy in Contemporary Society

dernit'y i-, 1110,t often conducted on a semantic level. 2 Given that the di,cu~s1011 of "cap1talistic society" is in need of clarification..m discounted. And fo1Jlly. there 1s obviously no other 111eans for calculating econornic value if work 1s re,varded with capital or ,vith other economic.1llv i1nportant service\. This assumes that vYorkers li\'e at tht' expen\e of the economy. This i,, then, an e>-.ample of J functionally nece!'>S:lf) ··nonobservance:· We mu,t understand Hus..,erl's critique of the "Galileic" ,tylt· of econon1y lJl the san1e sense. 12 Here, too, we arc concerned ,,·1th disregarding the concrete achieven1e11ts of consciousness, which give meaning to each individual subject, including the discrepancy in perspective between technology Jnd human individuality. The parallels between MJrx and Husserl can he made clear only if ,ve start with an abstract concept of technology. We are not concerned here with niachines with 1nechanical or electronic applic:1rions. We are not even concerned\\ ith effects Ji1ned at si111ple rnanufacturing. Such concepts of c,m\al tt'chnology would run aground. a~ they did once before in Stai nberg's finalization debate 011 tht· cnt1cis1n of ain1s and in the denrnnd for the sub\titution of other ainv;. Thi" in no \\ JY concerns a politic,1lly feasible critique of society in this sense. Tech nology, in its broader -.ense, 1s.Ji111ctio11t1! si111plific,1tio11, that is, a fonn of the reduction of co111plexity that can be con"tructed and realized even though the world ,md the sonet\ where this takes pl,1ce is unknown. It l'.-1 sdf-a-.,se!)s111g. The emupporters of the strong program frmn Edinburgh nor Jean Piaget nor Ernst von Glasersfeld, neither the evolutionary cognition theory of the b iological or nonbiologica] variety nor the second-order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster-would ever deny that constructs 1nust be staged by environmentally sen'\itive, real operations. These operations are pred01ninantly publicatlons, at least in the scientific sy'ite1n. The production of these publications has already been examined and labeled " reference making." 25 As soon as we n1ake the distinction beevveen reference problem..,

Modernity in Contemporary Society


and code problen1s, we see these relationships in a new light. The di . . tinct1on between analyac and synthetic truths must, as Quine has already ~uggested. be discarded. 26 It can easily be replaced by the distinction between self-reference (= analytic) and external reference (= synthetic). Then the distinction between reference and coding can take effect, and we see that the positive/negative values of the code true/ false can be applied to both extra-referentially and selfreferentially defined circun1stances. The truths that are only analytically rneaningful are not only the result of an instrun1ental orientation, not only a k1nd of practice action, 1nodel construction, or the like, used before the application of real, chat is to say, e111pirical research. They are rather the area in which the systen1's self-reflect1011 recognize~ its paradoxical foundations and solves them with the help of the c1sy1n1netry of systen1 and environment in the sense of selfreference and external reference. In the context of self-reference, we can consider the distinction between self-reference and external reference a'\ still a sy5tems-internal distinction that can be seen as a consequence of the differentiation and operative closure of the systen1. Logically this leads to a familiar problen1, fa1niliar at least since Kurt GodeL na1nely the itnpossibility of an internal guarantee against noncontradiction. Seen systen1s-theoretically, this leads to W Ross Ashby\ proof that self-organization is impos-,ible without envfronment. ~7 In rnathematics this has given rise to considerations of relating all 111athematical torn1s back to an original unity of seJf-reference and distinction (that is, to the stipulation of the possibility of observation) .28 But even without such argumentation, it is tentatively clear that self-reference as a fonn is only possible if son1ething else exists fron1 which it can be distinguished, that is, external reference. These considerations dislodge the binary code of truth fro1n its n1oorings in preconstructivist certainties, be they assun1ptions about nature or about the nature of humankind (ideas) or be they successive linguistic, rationalistic, or consensualistic theories. 2 '-;I Truth is nothing more than the positive value, the designated vaJue of a code, vvhose negative vaJue (reflection value) is untruth. The uniqueness of scientific knowledge lies in its subjecting of all observations that claim to transn1it knowledge to a second observation with the help


Modernity in Contemporary c:;ocic!ty

of this sa1ne binary code. the results being then integrated into the sy)ten1 as well as possible. This 1s simply to say that snentific kno\vledge subjugates reciprocal li1nitations. Everything that can be true and that can be untrue j,; thereby transported to the level of the observing of observation and reformulated at thi,; level. Further surety is unnecessary,just as the econo1ny has learned not to fix the value of money in s01ne external reference but only in a central bank's control of money supplies, \.Vhich is in turn the rnonetary interference in currency value. If we turn our attention to other functions sy,;tems, snnilar proble1ns become evident. The contradiction bet\.veen conceptu.11 jurisprudence and interest jurispn1dence has been discussed in the legal system since the turn of the century, as 1f legal theory had to choose between the one or the other version. Meanwhile thi, picture has been revised several times. We kno,v thcH this contr~ht and the thec.;is of a histoncaJ turning point do not do the cnt1c1zed conceptual jurist justice. 30 We know that a legally spenfic conception is absolutely necessary in legal practice in order to actualize abstractions. case con1parisons, rules, and legally relevant distinction\. It is equally dear today that an interest-oriented Jurisprudence. left to it, own devices, in no way protects all interests equJ.lly but only chose interests dee1ned \.VOrth protectmg. An mterest-oriented practice i\ thus left ,, ith the tautology that only those interests \Yorthy of legal protection actually enjoy legal protection.-' 1 Correspondingly, the usual fo rrnula for ·w eighing different interests is left without J legal process capable of reachmg a verdict. It is easy for us no\.v to recognize that we are looking at the leg;al sy"terns-specific version of the distinction of seli:.reference and external reference. 32 The orientation toward concept" repre\ent, ,elfrefrrenre: the onentacion to\vard the t'ffect') of legal concept~ repre-;ents juridical constructs; and the decision of cases on intere\tS represents the system ·s external reference. This division. like the division of anaJycic and synthetic concepts of truth, cannot endure, ho\vever, as if it were possible si1nply to choose betvveen one ,ide or the other. Rather, both sides ren1ain constantly in play, and the code

Modernity in Contemporary Society


justice/injustice is apphcable in both an extra-referential and a selfreferential context. We have already seen that there are legal and nonlegal interests. More co1nplicated are the relationships in the context of the system's Und out that they had prep.1rcd their own fates. Wl' no\.v know it beforehand.


T he Ecology of Ignorance

Uy now one thing is ckar: evolution has always been to a great e,tent self-destructive. both in the shore ..1nd the long tenn. Little remains of ,,·hat it has created. This 1s true of most life fonns that existed at one ti1ne or another. Similarly, J.hnost all cultures that have affected hmnan life have disappeared. The ,neaning they h eld tc)r those who lived with then1 is barely recognizable-despite all the ~1rchcological, cultural-.mthropological. historical-scientific tools we now po. . sess. The once-conrempor;tr)' mentalities are no longer sdt:. e,·ident or ren1ain hi~hly artificial fictions at best. We relate to these past cultures ahnost .1s tourists. Cultural forn1s th.1t are sdf-e, id~nt todav ind the "world" of todav's ,ocietv will meet .1 ,imibr fate. No one ran ~eriouc.;lv doubt this. It is not i1npossible but rather probable that hum:rnk.md d"i ,t lite: form will someday di-;appear. Perhaps it will replace 1tself \\·ith gelll'ticall) superior hum,moid life fo r ms. Perhaps ir will deci1nate or eradic1te itself through hmnan-rn,1de c.1tastrophc". ()r maybe it\,\ ill destro~ the co1nmon technological device to force other~ to agree. We .1re concerned w1th proce,sing crnnmunicanon on the basis of the 11101nentary state of information and prognoses that enable us co see additional information that would require n:•vi,ion. It might fi.trther under-;tanding to ~woid moralizations, that is. not co include in comn1unication condition, of self-esteen1 and t'Xternal esteem. 53 ··Esteem" is alwavs an ind1cator of the moral inclus1on of persons in society and thereby also of their exdus1on, if t'Stl'L'-'111 is negated. This presun1es that individual attitudes or actions could actuaJ1y h:n e the value of -;uch an 1ndicacor. This should not be fund;unentally ruled out in the case of mockrn society, but we can assmne that making thi-. generally understood has becon1e increasingly difficult. Conuuunicatjon is all the 111ore Jdvised to proceed with an abstinence from morals and to include moral consideradons only when the desired result is the breakdo\\ n of com n1unication. The schema inclusion/ exclusion is :ictualized w 1th moral




The Ecology of Ignorance

communication. As long as understanding is the goal. or as long ,1s vve bdieve it po-;-..ibk, we must proceed from inclusion. Then lt 1, useful, ho,vever, to not burden co1nmmucation with this alternative to begin with. These boundaries are at present not clearly delineated. Cognitive and 1noral quesnonc; often blend. and opinions on probable verc;uc; improbable are dealt \vith as moral oblig.itions. We irnmunizt' ourselves ,vith 1norals against the evidence of ignorance, because the morally better opmion can be confinned with its o,vn ~lrf,ttlments. Jndustnal complexes are affirn1ed by some to be "safo" and described by others as unsafe, even though we know that we do not know whether and ,,v hen a -;eriouc; event w1ll take place and what 1ts effects w11l be. Discontinuing the use of nuclear po\\'t'r as an enerbry source is s.ud co be a "111orally obvious" choice-which signals that the author of the pronounce1nent is not able to 1nake hiin"elf understood m this que,tion. ::. 4 Mora.bty u1 comrnunic.anon force, exaggeration, and exaggeration quickly h.1s begun co hecomL" aware of i~ O\vn improbability. Uut if this is to be relevant to decisi011 making, ... then it can, of course, only be formulated within sociery and, of necessity, within its own o rganizations. Today n1ore than evt'r, it 1s unrealistfr to expect that nature ,vill help physically or thJt being \\ iU help nu.·tJphysically. Society can only help it"elf with its o,vn operations, that is, \\rith con11nunication. Every cnt1que con1es up en1pty-h,111ded 1f it proceeds all too hastily with the assun1ption that we could if we only wanted to, and so it reache.., for the rod of moral admomtion. It might therefore be wise to begin con11nunicc1tion with the communication of ignorance instead of linking comrnunicacion b()th inside and outside of organizations to the maintenance of an "illusion of controJ."7 ff. 2.. I t·mphasize dissolution. The new formaaon of conceptr111: von Foustcr. 0/lsc,vin(! .".lystt'111s: .rnd Gi.inther. Bcitr,{\!l z m Cnmdh:cu11.~.

Note-; to Pages 28-33 2.2.


Compare Howard, Paradoxes