Frames /sing


Luhmann’s Notion of Interpenetration and a “Lebensform”

Niklas Luhmann, in his systems approach to human interaction, proposes the concept of “Interpentration” to describe the inter-relationship between human thoughts and social practices:

First, interpenetration is not a general relation between system and environment but an intersystem relation between systems that are environments for each other. In the domain of intersystem relations, the concept of interpenetration indicates a very specific situation, which must be distinguished above all from input/output relations (performances). We speak of “penetration” if a system makes its own complexity (and with it indeterminancy, contingency, and the pressure to select) available for constructing another system. Precisely in this sense social systems presuppose “life.” Accordingly, interprenetration exists when this occurs reciprically, that is, when both systems enable each other by introducing their own already-constituted complexity into each other. In penetration, one can observe how the behavior of the penetrating system is co-determined by the receiving system (and eventually proceeds aimlessly and erratically outside this system, just like ants that have lost their ant hill). In interpenetration, the receiving system also reacts to the structural formation of the penetrating system, and it does so in a twofold way, internally and externally. This means that greater degrees of freedom are possible in spite (better: because!) of increase dependencies. This also means that, in the course of evolution, interprenetration individualizes behavior more than penetration does. This is strikingly true in the relationship of human beings to social systems…

…A central feature of this conception cannot be emphasized enough: the interpenetrating systems remain environments for each other. This means that the complexity each system makes available is an incomprehensible complexity–that is, disorder–for the receiving system. Thus one could say that psychic systems [conscious re-productions of thoughts] supply social systems with adequate disorder and vice versa. The system’s eigen-selection and its autonomy is not called into question by interpenetration. Even if one imagined systems to be completely determined, interpenetration would infect them with disorder and would expose the unpredictability in how their elemental events come into being. All reproduction and structure formation thus presuppose a combination of order and disorder: a system’s own structured and an incomprehensible foreign complexity, a regulated and a free complexity. The construction of social systems (and thus the construction of psychic systems) follows the “order from noise” principle (von Foerster). Social systems come into being on the basis of noise that psychic systems create in their attempts to communicate.

Social Systems, “Interpenetration” (213-214)

Most interesting about this view is the manner in which “freedom” is expressed in terms of dependence (first paragraph), and the way in which even in completely determined systems, disorder in inserted (I like how he says “infected”), as the contigent. In this way the bio-logic autonomies of social systems and consciousness, even if completely logical in description, would produces “noise” in each system. Such noise would be a productive noise.

Further, Luhmann seems to expand and complicate such vague things as Wittgenstein’s Lebensform. Because he is sociologist, he analyses the structure of actual social practices, and comes to a certain structural incommensurability between “thoughts” and “practices”. This of course is homologous to Wittgenstein’s refrain from using “mental objects” as the one-to-one meaning establishing referents for language use, but is more particular in examining the kinds of relations that exist between communication and thoughts.

[written December 10, 2006]


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