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Luhmann, Niklas


German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) was born in Lüneburg on December 6. In more than seventy books and 450 papers, he developed what is perhaps the most comprehensive theory of modern society, in which ethics plays an important, but secondary, role. Educated in legal science, Luhmann was inspired by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, the systems theory of Talcott Parsons, the theory of autopoiesis of Humberto Maturana, the second order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster, and the form calculus of G. Spencer-Brown. He synthesized these elements into a systems theory of impressive scope and radicalism, representing what he saw as a paradigm shift in the social sciences. He died on November 6 in Bielefeld, Germany.

A Universal Systems Theory

Luhmann distinguished between physical, biological, mental, and social systems, but his main focus was on social systems, which he subdivided into interactions, organizations, and society as a whole. His main theoretical tool was the distinction. In order to observe social systems, the observer must use a guiding distinction. Luhmann chose the distinction between system and environment, but admitted that others were possible.

A radical tenet of Luhmann's systems theory is the thesis that social systems consist only of communication—not of persons, of artifacts, or even of actions. Communication is defined as the unity of three selections: information, utterance, and understanding, to which is added the acceptance or rejection of the receiver to continue the communication. Because communications are transient events, the system must generate linguistic structures and themes to create and combine new communications. Social systems are autopoietic systems, creating their own elements within their network of elements. Even though human beings, as information-processing units, are necessary for communication, they are not part of the communication, but of its environment. The physical world is likewise not part of the communication, but is only its object, and it is not the function of communication to mirror the physical world. By using the theory of autopoiesis, Luhmann made systems theory dynamic, with time and change at its center. Everything in a social system is contingent, meaning that alternatives are always possible.

According to Luhmann, social systems cannot be understood in terms of rationality, norms, or human beings. Change must be seen as evolution, a choice among existing alternatives. There is no one point of view from which society can be correctly observed and described. With the cultural death of God, and the attendant loss of the only ostensibly right worldview, a poly-centered world remains. In his late-twentieth-century analysis, Luhmann claims that the most fruitful way of imagining society is as a world community with no center, no purpose, and no overarching rationality.

Luhmann analyzes society as a unity of functional subsystems, each having is own symbolic generalized medium and its own guiding distinction. Society can be observed from many points of view, economic (where the medium is money), political (power), scientific (truth), intimate (love), and more. The number of functional subsystems is an empirical question. In addition to his two principal works, Soziale Systeme (1984) and Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (1997), Luhmann wrote a series of monographs dealing with the various social subsystems.

Functional subsystems make communication more effective. By using symbolic generalized media, it is possible to communicate on a world scale because the simple binary form allows for simplification, motivation, and measurement of success or failure. An observer can quickly decide whether or not he will take over the point of view inherent in the medium. Symbolic generalized media can differ—in operation mode and time relations, among others—but all share a common structure. Though the most effective communications in modern society are oriented towards functional subsystems, Luhmann acknowledged that what is good for a functional subsystem is not necessarily good for society as a whole because proponents of each subsystem have biased and narrow views.

Technology can also be seen as a functional subsystem, operating in the medium of effectiveness. Its code is functioning or broken, its programs are blueprints, its institutions are organizations and universities, and its contribution to society is maintenance of regular processes. Technology has its own internal dynamics and thus it might clash with or be helpful to other functional subsystems.

Functional subsystems are not action systems. They do nothing, but can be conceived as semantic discourses. The action systems of twenty-first-century society are organizations; specialized organizations define themselves as agents of a particular functional subsystem, such as technology, religion, or law.

Morals and Ethics in Functional Subsystems

In real life, subsystems must cooperate. Because their respective criteria for success and failure are not the same, conflicts arise with no objective solution, thus creating a need for normative or ethical solutions. As a consequence, many functional subsystems develop special professional ethics criteria to deal with the integration of highly specialized products and methods in society.

It should be noted that no functional subsystem uses the moral distinction between right and wrong. One reason for this is empirical: A moral distinction is not precise enough to facilitate communication. It has too many dimensions. A moral evaluation might focus on motives or on consequences, and be dependent on religious or subcultural assumptions. Moralizing creates conflict, not consensus. Instead Luhmann views morality as a tool for distributing esteem, which depends not on professional skills but on the qualities of a person as a whole.

Morals have important social functions and Luhmann wrote extensively on moral issues though he flatly rejected any attempt to understand society in moral or purposive terms. Luhmann conceded that moral distinctions are used with the same spontaneity as empirical distinctions in daily life. Using the distinction between moral and ethics, he argued that ethics is a theoretical reflection of the social phenomenon of morals, and concluded that the most important task of ethics is to warn against morals. He had no illusions as to the effectiveness of ethics to control technological development. Because there is no ethical consensus in modern society, no ethical control is possible or desirable.

Each functional subsystem has its own criteria for success or failure, but it also has a tendency to exaggerate its own importance and blind itself to other criteria. Economy focuses on money, politics on power, and science on truth. When criteria clash, no super rationality can create a rational solution. Luhmann had a lifelong debate with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas regarding this issue. Habermas stresses the possibility of rational consensus, while Luhmann argues that conflict is not only inevitable, but also fruitful. Consensus is only a transient phase in the ongoing communication of social systems.

Luhmann accepted that functional subsystems have evolved as centers for solving specific tasks, however, he argued the need for criteria for criteria or second order criteria. But such criteria, which might be called ethical criteria, are not socially binding. There is no universally accepted viewpoint from which the social and moral implications of technology or pollution, for example, can be observed and judged right or wrong.

Luhmann described each functional subsystem as having its own complexity and society as a whole as a hypercomplex entity composed of many functional subsystems. However Luhmann posited no solutions to the problems he presented. With no rationality, there is only evolution to rely on: Something will happen, perhaps better, perhaps worse, perhaps catastrophic. When nations, organizations and persons try to control technology, they are controlled by the technology they want to control and are unable to control all the other actors trying to control. Technology, like life, will find its way.


SEE ALSO German Perspectives; Habermas, Jürgen.


Luhmann, Niklas. (1984). Soziale Systeme. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Suhrkamp Verlag. English translation, Social Systems. Sanford, CA: Stanford University Press (1995).

Luhmann, Niklas. (1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp Verlag

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