Charles J. Fazzaro

University of Missouri, St. Louis

System ('sistem, -m). Also systeme, sistem (e. [ad. Late L., systma musical interval. In med. or mod. L., universe, body of the article of faith, a. Gr. ra organized whole, government, constitution, a body of men or animals, musical interval, union of several metres into a whole . . .] Oxford English Dictionary


For many decades American public education has been conceived of as a system and/or part of a system. Education policies and practices, such as the now popular outcomes-based schooling, have been justified by and broadly institutionalized consistent with the notion of system. For the nexus to be legitimate, the fundamental assumptions, if any, upon which the notion of system rest must logically be consistent with the purposes of American public education. This paper is a Critical inquiry into that nexus. In particular, one of the most recent views of social systems, that of Niklas Luhmann, is subjected to a deconstructive reading relative to its claim of being internally coherent, thus beyond deconstruction.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the notion of system in its general sense as:

An organized or connected group of objects, a set or assemblage of things connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complete unity; A whole composed of parts in orderly arrangement according to some scheme or plan; rarely applied to a simple or small assemblage of things.

The OED goes on to describe ten different uses of system. In physics, for example, the notion of system is applied to, "A group of bodies moving about one another in space under some particular dynamical law, as the law of gravitation...." The earliest reported reference cited in physics was in 1690. In biology the notion of system is described as: "A set of organs or parts in an animal body of the same or similar structure, or subserving the same function, as the nervous, muscular, osseous, ... digestive, respiratory, reproductive, etc. systems; also each of the primary groups of tissues in the higher plants" [Italics in the original]. The earliest usage cited in biology was in 1740. Of particular importance for this discussion is the definition given system with reference to business and social organizations and operations or interactions they involve. The OED cites a 1967 use in the Wills and Yearsley Handbook of Management and Technology as a fitting example: "The health of a nation is made possible by a number of systems: doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, chemists, and, of course, patients. These are not isolated systems but interacting parts of a whole."

Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy

No serious discussion of the notion of system and its ultimate application to institutions can be undertaken without reference to the seminal work of Karl Ludwig Bertalanffy (1901-1972). Bertalanffy was the first to apply sophisticated mathematics to the study of the relationship of chemical reactions within biological structures. He subsequently both originated and named General Systems Theory (GST) in "trying to derive, from a general definition of 'system' as a complex of interacting components, concepts characteristics of organized wholes such as interaction, sum, mechanization, centralization, competition, finality, etc., and apply them to concrete phenomena."1 In 1954 Bertalanffy constituted the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory, later known as the Society for General Systems Research. The Society defined "general system" as any theoretical system of interest to more than one discipline. Bertalanffy nonetheless personally believed in pursuing laws that governed systems in general.

Genealogy of Systems Thought

Bertalanffy gave the notion of system its official symbolic character within modern social science, but he is only one of the a line of modern social theorists that contributed in some way to social systems theory. Although one might begin with the Aristotelian premise that social systems are living systems, for the purpose at hand Claude Saint-Simon (1760-1825) would be a good place to begin. Saint-Simon believed that social development could best be achieved through the scientific division of labor. A close associate of Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte (1791-1851), widely recognized as the founder of positivism, believed that social phenomena could best be explained by observation, hypotheses, and experimentation. The little known Belgian astronomer and statistician-turned-social-scientists Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1884) was the first to conceive of the notion of "average man" and is considered to be one of the founders of modern quantitative social science, especially in the application of inferential statistics to large populations. The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) saw social structures as organisms. The political economists Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was first to state that social systems can be analyzed in terms of the interrelated dependencies of their parts. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), heavily influenced by the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), conceived of society as an articulated system independent of individuals which constitute it. A student of Durkheim, Alfred Regenal Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) argued that institutions serve to satisfy the mechanical needs of a social system. Unlike Radcliff-Brown, the anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), believed that institutions serve to satisfy the biological needs of individual humans that function to maintain the system. For Malinowski, culture was the interface between the individuals and their social and economic environment. Max Weber (1864-1920) conceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action. Unlike Spencer and his organismic view, Durkheim and his institutional arrangements view, and Marx and his notion of "class conflict," Weber believed that social structures were dependent on the subjective meanings that inform the actions of individuals toward each other regarding their mutually defined goals. Finally, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) who believed all of the social sciences could be integrated into one grand science of human action based on the application of systems theory.

Talcott Parsons

Like Bertalanffy, Parsons began his career in the study of biology and later turned his interests to the social sciences, particularly economics and sociology. Although he studies in Heidelberg, Germany, from 1931 until his death he spent almost his entire academic teaching career at Harvard, where he established the Department of Social Relations. In his most famous book, The Social System, Parsons argued that societies are like biological systems in that they (1) tend to maintain a stable state (homeostasis) and (2) can be understood only as a whole.2

Starting with the belief that society is a unified totality, Parsons argued that,

The most essential condition of successful dynamic analysis is a continual and systematic reference of every problem to the state of the system as a whole ... Functional significance in this context is inherently teleological. A process or set of conditions either 'contributes' to the maintenance (or development) of the system or it is dysfunctional in that it detracts from the integration, effectiveness, etc., of the system.3

An elaboration of Parsons's view of social structures is essential for the discussion to follow.

Parsons brought elements of both clinical psychology and social anthropology into sociology. Using ideas from Pareto, Durkheim, and Weber, Parsons developed a systematic theory of social action that recognized the importance of only some elements of free choice. In doing so, he moved social theory--explanations of how institutional structures acquire their character--- from the internal subjective-psychological domain of human action (Durkheim, Marx, and others) to external objective-sociological dynamics. This lead to his work in analyzing large-scale systems, such as social order itself. Particularly important for this discussion is that Parsons advocated studying how interrelated and interacting elements of a system contribute to the development and maintenance of that system. The last in this genealogical trace of the notion of system in the social sciences is the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, once a student of Parsons. Luhmann is unique in that he departs from the Aristotelian premise regarding social systems as living systems.

Niklas Luhmann

Born in Germany in 1927, Luhmann came to his career in academe somewhat later in his life. After obtaining a law degree from the University of Freiburg-Breisgau in 1949, he spent six years at the Lüneburg Administrative Court before taking a position in the Culture Ministry of Lower Saxony. During his law career his intellectual interest was, instead, sociology. This lead him to a year-long study with Parsons at Harvard in 1960. Upon his return, Luhmann devoted his career to sociology. Even though he did not hold an official degree in sociology, his publications were accepted in lieu of proper credentials and he was ultimately given a position at the University of Bielefeld, joining his mentor the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky. Luhmann held a chair in sociology at Bielefeld until he retired in 1993.

A dogged critic of Jürgens Habermas, in 1971 Luhmann nonetheless joined with Habermas in a widely read book, Theory of Society or Social Technology: What Does Systems Research Accomplish?4 Here the battle was joined between the Frankfurt and Bielefeld schools of sociology, between the New Left and what has been characterized as the conservative German-born "counter-Enlightenment."5 While Habermas accused Luhmann of espousing nothing more than technocratic functionalism, Luhmann accused Habermas of naively believing that his consensus-community ethics could help resolve any of the highly complex problems of a post-industrial society. Luhmann argued for a self-referential systems approach in that social structures ultimately are legitimated through the interaction of multiple systems.

Luhmann is a positivist. His connection to Comte is illustrated in what he has to say about science and philosophy.

No other authority, not even philosophy, can tell science under what conditions meaning is to be treated as knowledge or as acquisition of knowledge. Science is autonomous in this regard--autonomous vis-à-vis the world and even more so vis-à-vis society. It makes its own laws, not randomly (as has increasingly been feared), but in observance of all the factual knowledge and all the constraints that one must take into consideration if one seeks to put together a self-description.

Specialists in the theory of science still come forward as claiming to lay down the laws for science. But one can take comfort in the fact they are elected and can be recalled if an adequately broad consensus against them develops. Taken at any given moment, the relationship between the theory of science and science appears asymmetrical, but this is because one observes only a short segment. The consequences of the fact that one must develop a theory of science before one can deal with its subject matter are, in general, rejected. And in view of the history of science, the theory of science is a belated product of science-in-operation. Theories of reflection are not just theories that reflect self-reference as the system's identity; they are also an aspect of self-referential autopoiesis. They themselves practice what they describe.6

Luhmann's Theory of Social Systems

Although Luhmann does not go so far as to propose a comprehensive theory of society, he does present a framework for constructing such a theory. His abstract framework rejects the possibility of a subjective reality and instead proposes a reality dependent on the interchange of information between self-referential systems and their "empirically" observable operations (EK: xvii).

The core of Luhmann's social systems theory is self-referential autopoiesis. He borrows the definition of autopoietic systems from Humberto Maturana as:

systems that are defined as unities as networks of productions of components that recursively, through their interactions, generate and realize the network that produces them and constitute, in the space in which they exist, the boundaries of the network as components that participate in the realization of the network.7

In short, autopoietic systems are: (1) self-organizing systems that both produce and change their own structures, and (2) their self-reference produces other components as well. Luhmann notes this last aspect as "the decisive conceptual innovation" in that "Even elements, that is, last components (in-dividuals) which are, at least for the system itself, undecomposable, are produced by the system itself" (ES-R: 3). Significant here is that in both identities and differences elements cannot be imported into autopoietic systems. They must be determined within and by the system itself. Autopoiesis comes about through systems of communications regarding human actions.

In building his case for communications, Luhmann first recognizes, on the one hand, Weber's belief that social action is a product of socially determined intentions and, on the other hand, Parsons's belief that the formation of social systems is a product of social actions. Luhmann then recognizes the significance of the subject relative to action in that, "social systems are based on either a type of action or on an aspect of action, and through action, so to speak, the subject comes into the system" (SS: 137). He then concludes that, "Sociality is not a special case of action [Weber and Parsons]; instead, action is constituted in social systems by means of communication and attribution as a reduction of complexity, as an indispensable self-simplification of the system" (SS: 137). For Luhmann, system communication is not simply the transmission of information. Communication is a selection of occurrences relative to meaning because meaning allows no other choice; therefore, "Communication grasps something out of the actual referential horizon that it itself constitutes and leaves other things aside. (Emphasis in the original)" (SS: 140).

In demonstrating his view of the importance of communication in social systems Luhmann applies it to science itself. He begins by briefly reviewing the history of epistemology from Descartes as going from a ". . . rejection of religious and metaphysico-cosmological institution of knowledge ... [to] projecting into consciousness whatever assumes the function of an external foundation" (SS: 480). Luhmann argues that this was accomplished by conceiving of ". . . consciousness as 'transcendental,' extending beyond what is empirical, as the 'subject' of the world. ... anyone who advocates the transcendental position ... justifies this historically with theoretical knowledge, with Kant" (SS:480). But, Luhmann argues, the tremendous accumulation of knowledge through science has change all of this. He concludes that:

What holds for the physical world and physicists holds even more, and with greater intensity of connection, for communication. A theory of communications is nothing more than an instruction for communication, and as an instruction it must be capable of being communicated. It must watch out for itself, or at least be circumspect: it cannot assert anything about its object that it is not prepared to accept as a statement of itself (SS: 481).

Language and Meaning

The central issue for what Luhmann proposes, and all attempts to justify transcendentals, is hermeneutics--and it has been so generally for most of human history. Through the senses, primarily by way of aural and written signs ("texts" in the broadest sense), persons attempt to tell one another their thoughts. The history of modern hermeneutics can be traced from the 1660 publication of Port Royal Grammar, Rousseau and his Essay on the Origin of Languages, Ferdinand de Saussure and the 1916 publication of his Course in General Linguistics where he recognizes the significance of the unbridgeable gap between a signifier and its intended signified, Heidegger and his notion that language is a natural expression of experience, and Chmonsky and his notion of an innate and universal grammar. What emerged since, and sometime parallel to, modern attempts to explain the relationship of meaning to texts is what has become known as postmodern inquiry.

Since at least the moment that Michel Foucault first came onto the intellectual scene in the 1960s the notion that reality is constructed through discourse as "text" took root as a serious challenge to modern thought. Preceding the revolution sparked by Foucault was Nietzsche and his skepticism about "truth" and "fact" expressed through his belief that all discourse has been politicized. In this regard, Foucault argued that social structures are products of and represent power relations. In short, knowledge becomes power through the appropriation of discourse.

Parallel to Foucault, Jacques Derrida developed his critique of philosophy itself beginning with his 1962 translation of Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry and, as demonstrated in his massive oeuvre, just about everything else claiming the path to "Truth." Derrida's form of critical analysis is deconstruction, at the core of which is his unique notion of différance, that which occupies the abyss that separates signifiers from their signifieds. Deconstruction challenges texts claiming to represent reality, that is, texts contingent on a metadiscourse ("metanarrative"). For Derrida, an appeal to a metanarrative is creditable if and only if the text representing the appeal maintains its promised integrity after a deconstructive reading. From a series of interviews with Derrida at Villanova in 1994, John Caputo abstracted the following definition of deconstruction.

The purpose of deconstruction is to show that linguistic texts, insertions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices whatever size and sort you need-do not have definable meanings, determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently copy. What is really going on in things, what's really happening, is to come. Every time you try to stabilize the meaning of a thing, put it in its missionary position, the thing itself, if there is anything to it, slips away.8

As a form of analysis, deconstruction sets out to find if texts---including everything definable such as institutions and their practices---have meanings or missions that can be adequately defined within or outside of the boundaries they claim to occupy. A text ultimately deconstructs when it is revealed that the author of the text could not successfully establish either inside or outside the text a fixed point which serves to stabilize it.

Deconstructing Luhmann's Social Systems Theory

Regarding social structuration, it is Habermas and his "communicative interaction"---leading to what amounts to a group consciousness---that has acquired popularity within Critical sociology. Luhmann, on the other hand, attempts to separates social (group) consciousness from systems consciousness. As Knodt describes it, "For Luhmann, the intransparancy of consciousness from the viewpoint of the social is no longer an obstacle to be removed but the very condition that makes communication possible" (EK: xxv). The question here is: If systems consciousness is separate from social (human) consciousness, then what ultimately constitutes systems consciousness? If not human/subjective, then it must be non-human/objective. Here Luhmann attempts to take his discourse relative to social systems outside the very texts he used to describe it. Luhmann's promise that there is something beyond the borders of his text is not realized by his attempts to locate meaning within systems consciousness operating (existing?) through communications.

Luhmann challenges the traditional modern view of a social order as made up of individual, autonomous subjects interacting through various means of communications in order to satisfy their individual needs, wants, and desires. In Luhmann's social systems view needs, wants, and desires are met through a range of self-regulating systems such as economic, political, and legal systems interacting through a supra-system that constantly observes communications between systems and functions to stabilize the social system. In this regard, Knodt notes that Luhmann sees

The observation (emphasis added) of communication as one type of system among others must discriminate between observation and language---that is, between the selection that produces information and the linguistic encoding---a distinction that turns paradoxical the moment it is applied to itself and re-enters what it distinguishes (EK: xxxii-iii).

This notion of communication as observation of communications between systems fails to bridge the boundaries of the social system itself. It deconstructs itself.

For Luhmann, the notion of system is itself a metanarrative transcending all subjectivity. Here his logic is telling.

Systems research is itself a system; it cannot formulate its basic concept so that it would not itself come under this concept. ... The theory of evolution is itself a product of evolution, action theory could not develop without action ... Theories must, as a minimal requirement, always be formulated so that their object is subject to comparison. As their own objects, they must continue to function under the pressure of comparison (SS: 482).

Luhmann's social systems theory is merely another failed attempt by those who promote modern thought as the last word in epistemology. Luhmann could not overcome the abyss that divides the two knowledge divisions of the Enlightenment--modern thought, with scientific reasoning as the means to understanding a purely objective, bounded nature transcending all subjectivity, and the humanities, open to all forms of understanding in recognition of the possibility of an unbounded, infinite world of possibilities.

Implications For American Education Policy and Practices

The philosophical and historically grounded purpose of American public education is to prepare youth to assume the fundamental political office of citizen. As citizens they are to actively join together as a community in a continuous, dynamic political process to insure that all would be able to fully exercises those rights guaranteed under the Founding documents. These rights are expressed through the ideal of free speech, explicated by the Supreme Court of the United States as freedom of conscience.9 Given this to be the case, then schooling structures and technologies should complement education policies and practices consistent with open-ended inquiry. With the notion of system so ubiquitous, so institutionalized within the discourse of American education policy and practice, how can the ideal of free speech--freedom of thought--be protected, and just as importantly, fostered? In short, what should count as legitimate knowledge in American education? Much has been written about what constitutes legitimate knowledge regarding social order. Luhmann's view of what constitutes legitimate knowledge can be contrasted to a few of the more popular views including those of Habermas, Richard Rorty, and Lyotard.

For Habermas, legitimate knowledge is that knowledge derived from universal consensus of ends and means through what he refers to as Diskurs--a ongoing communal discussion where undistorted communication obtains. New ideas which challenge the existing social order must be accepted by all for the good of the community. In this sense, the community acts as a collective subject, the individual necessarily becomes secondary to community needs.

For Richard Rorty legitimate knowledge is " derived from following and contributing to established rules and norms accepted by society in order to be able to function as citizens. ... Objectivity should be seen as conformity to the norms of justification (for assertions and for actions) we find about us."10 In short, for Rorty, the primary purpose of K-12 schooling would be socialization, not necessarily individual freedom.

For Lyotard, legitimate knowledge is that knowledge which is derived from and contributes to paralogy--the constant introduction of dissensus into consensus, "a particular state of discussion, not its end."11 Paralogy is distinguished from innovation in that innovation "is under the control of the system, or at least used by it to improve efficiency ["performativity"]; [paralogy] is a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge" (PC: 61). For Lyotard, the legitimacy of knowledge resides in the subject, not the system.

And for Luhmann legitimate knowledge is that knowledge which allows the system to perform efficiently in maintaining the status quo. Knodt rather succinctly describes Luhmann's project in her substantive and extensive forward to Luhmann's pivotal work Social Systems where he attempts to explain his views.

Across more than six hundred pages, Luhmann lays out a theoretical groundwork which subsequently provides a frame for a description of modern society as a complex system of communications that has differentiated itself horizontally into networks of interconnected systems. Each of these systems reproduces itself recursively on the basis of its own, system-specific operations. Each of them observes itself and its environment, but whatever they observe is marked by their unique perspective, by the selectivity of the particular distinctions they use for their observations. There is no longer an Archimedian point from which this network could be contained in an all-embracing vision (EK: xii).

Unlike Luhmann's ideal social system, American public education has an all-embracing view, a set of ideals to guide it. Those ideals are explicitly and implicitly embedded in the founding documents. The primary ideal is that of free speech, freedom of conscience in its most fundamental sense. But how can public schools help children both acquire appropriate behaviors for and promote a democratic political culture unless the hegemony of the notion of system is fractured? Presently, the state of American public education is such that individual, subjective thought is ultimately bounded within a system of instruction increasingly characterized a system of accountability (e.g., "outcomes-based"), nested within a system of schooling which "systematically" sorts and constructs (disciplines) students, subjected to the massive pressures of the economic system, and operating through a political system severely distorted along class divisions defined by wealth.

Before any progress can be made in developing schools for the kind of democracy that characterize our founding documents, the tightly integrated vertical system of systems that presently characterize American public education must be challenged. The communications links between policy elites at each level of this increasingly integrated education hierarchy must be severed. This seamless hierarchy of consensus extends from federal educrats, to state level educrats, to district level educrats, and even building level educrats. Enforcement at the classroom level is through what Lyotard describes as nothing less than terror.

By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent someone from playing). The decision makers' arrogance, which in principle has no equivalent in the sciences, consists in the exercise of terror. It says: "Adapt your aspirations to our ends-or else" (PMC: 63-64).

1. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 91.
2. Talcott Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1951).
3.Talcott Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory Pure and Applied, rev. ed.(Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954), 216-218.
4.Jürgens Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie. Was leistet die Systemforschung? (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971).
5. Eva M. Knodt, "Forward," to Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), xiv; Considerable credit is owed Knodt relative to some aspects of Luhmann's work. Hereafter in the text as EK in parentheses.
6. Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, trans., John Bednarz, Jr., with Dirk Baecker (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); 478-79. Hereafter in the text as SS in parentheses.
7. Humberto R. Maturana, "Autopoiesis," in Milan Zeleny ed., Autopoiesis: A Theory of Living Organization (New York: North Holland, 1981), 21; cited in Niklas Luhmann, Essays on Self-Reference (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); 3. Hereafter in the text as ES-R in parentheses.
8. John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 31. Caputo cites the following as the source: Jacques Derrida, La voix et le phénomène (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), 117/SP 104.
9. "That they [the States] are educating the youth for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes. ... If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Supreme court of the United States, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 1943.
10.Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 361.
11.Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 65. Hereafter in the text as PMC in parentheses.


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