Sunday, April 23, 2006

Did Luhmann Write over Maturana's Dead Body?

I read an interesting factoid in the Wikipedia the other day: that ”Maturana has explicitly refused to be cited by Luhmann as a supporting theorist” (in the entry on Niklas Luhmann). This is remarkable, to put it mildly, in light of the fact that Luhmann’s entire mature oeuvre, twenty years of work and almost as many books, is built on Maturana’s concept of autopoiesis.

Maybe Luhmann connoisseurs know why Maturana would do such a heartless thing. I can only guess. When I stopped following Maturana’s work in the mid-1980’s he was saying that autopoiesis does not apply to social systems. It was created for biological systems, and it works with cognitive/perceptual systems, too, but social systems, no.

I forget why, but it’s probably because a social system has neither a clear boundary nor a distinct identity. A biological cell has a membrane and stays the same. A dog has skin and only changes in ways that make it easily recognizable as the same dog. Autopoiesis is what goes on inside this membrane and regulates the transactions across it. Where is the membrane that bounds a political system or a market? I don’t see it, maybe Maturana didn’t, either.

Apparently, Luhmann didn’t mind or know Maturana’s objections and so imported the concept into sociology. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Luhmann obviously saw a potential Maturana didn’t.

Every scholar is motivated by legitimate intellectual interest—and other things. What they might be I can only guess. Maybe Luhmann realized at some point in the 1970’s that the kind of systems thinking he picked up from his previous source of inspiration, Talcott Parsons, was dead as a dodo. Not going anywhere, not trendy at all. And Habermas got all the groupie attention from the student movement in Germany, looking like the really cool guy. What could he do?

Along comes some sort of systems thinking that is very different and attractive-sounding, with complicated terminology to boot. It seems to do wonders in biology and with perceptual systems. Why shouldn’t it work in social systems? Maybe this is the key to a general theory of society? The theory that Parsons failed to create, but which Luhmann had declared his goal when he accepted the chair in sociology at Bielefeld in 1968?

Luhmann set to work, beginning his ”autopoietic turn.” He translated Maturana’s concepts into sociology--autopoiesis, self-reference, the works—and created a theory of society and its many subsystems, political, economic, scientific, arts, etc. He reputation grew and he became world-famous, at least in Germany and Denmark, despite (or because of?) writing with that peculiar German indifference to clarity of expression.

At some point early on, Maturana hears about it and says he wants no truck with it. Maybe that’s why Luhmann cites Maturana only three times in his Magnum Opus, Soziale Systeme from 1984, a fact that always puzzled me. Autopoiesis is the most referred-to term in the subject index of that 600-page book (a subject index having been added only in the Danish translation).

In my scattered reading of Maturana, I have never heard him mention Luhmann at all. Not that Maturana was averse to flatter or application; he set out to revolutionize biology, was completely ignored by biologists (still is, as far as I know), but picked up a major audience in family therapy, from where his fame spread. He appeared extensively in these circles up through the 1990’s (I published an interview with him in Danish in about 1992 ("Kærlighedens biologi"), taken at one of those occasions).

However, I have never known Maturana to associate with sociologists. I wonder what his critique of Luhmann would be today. Anyone knows, please leave a comment.

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The Omnist said...

I believe in the introduction to Varela et al. (1993)"The Embodied Mind" there is a comment to the effect that Maturana's avoidance of application to social systems had to do with the military rulers of Chile and his desire to not come in conflict - so he restricted his areas of 'interest', although he clearly had those interests, as indicated in his own introduction to Maturana & Varela (1980) "Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living" where he explicitly discusses 'society'. His original fears at the time of his earlier writing were entirely justified - based on the experience of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who spent 5 years in Chile, but had earlier been jailed in Brazil.

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