Niklas Luhmann
Introduction to Systemstheory
Ed. Dirk Baecker
Polity Press 2013

Luhmann Introduction 160
The concept of meaning
psychic systems - consciousness systems
social systems - communication systems
meaning is a sort of background beingness
distinction of
medium and form
invisible medium and a visible “form”.
meaning is not something substantial or phenomenal - that is,
some qualitative unity - but a determined mode of difference
between medium and form.

substrate (medium) - forms - interaction
167 meaning creations (Sinnbildungen)
horizon of different possibilities
169 mutual interpenetration (Ineinander) of the actual and the potential.
the medium of meaning is apparently inevitably and universally
170 world relation (Weltverhältnis) of stones, animals, bats
meaningful transitions or proto-meaning
reduction of complexity - problem of selection
objective, temporal, and social meaning dimensions

162 The concept of meaning
Perhaps it is best to take the everyday understanding of “meaning” as our point of departure. It seems that, in everyday contexts, meaning is understood something that we can lose all that is missing or simply not there. We are permanently suffering from loss of meaning.

When the question of meaning arises, one invokes, for example, religion to give us the meaning that we lack. However, this is rather strange if we look at the history of religion. Religion was the interpretation of the world, and the world had been created by God in exactly this way.

In the historical temporality of sacred history, the world was as it was, and this was no answer to the question of how we could find meaning. It is remarkable that nowadays we understand religion in terms of its meaning function and thus presuppose that

we, as observers, can distinguish between what is “meaningful” and “not meaningful”. But are we really capable of this? Furthermore, is the distinction between “meaningful” and “not meaningful” really meaningful? And, if so, for whom?

If we present these difficulties to philosophy, the discipline that claims to be in charge of such questions, then we receive what is still, I believe the prevalent answer - namely, that meaning is related to the subject. Thus, if one feels compelled and able to pose the question “For whom does something have meaning?”, one has in mind a subject, not in the formal sense of the term, but in the sense of an individual that lives, reflects on itself, and operates with meaning as a form of orientation tout court, or ar least of a satisfactory reorientation.

163 I believe that this difficulty brings us to a turning point, or at least to a point where we can gain clarity about the fact that

we must apply the category of meaning to two different system types. We have psychic systems - consciousness systems that have meaningful experiences - and we have social systems - communication systems that reproduce meaning by using it in communication.

This does not say anything about the question as to what exactly meaning is, how we would like to define meaning, and how we understand the term. At first we merely witness a difficulty that results from having lost the subject, or, to put it differently, having lost an ontological authority to which we can refer the constitution of meaning. This would be the authority in charge of the constitution of meaning, the authority we would consider to be responsible for meaning. One might even have to know this “subject” personally in order to know what meaning is for him.

meaning is a sort of background beingness; perhaps it is no more than some rules for constituting meaning that would be valid a priori for all empirical subjects.

But, if you make the theoretical move of drawing a sharp distinction between consciousness and communication, then the concept of meaning is, in a manner of speaking, deracinated, since we would no longer have any addressee for it, no observer we could observe, but merely two distinct things - namely, on the one hand, consciousness and, on the other, social communication.

The question, then, is whether we can find a concept or an order within which the entity we call “meaning” does not depend on shifting the burden by referring to a subject or another carrier of meaning. The point is not to shift the burden onto some agency that constitutes meaning but to find an order within which it is possible to formulate
a sufficiently formal concept of meaning.

My next attempt to
formulate the concept of meaning without a specific system reference, and thus without the specific ontological reference, relies on putting the distinction of medium and form to use.

But, first, I must say a few things about this distinction, because its relation to systems theory is not without problems and because I would like to exploit this fact in order to speak about meaning in the sense of a relation between medium and form.

164 There is apparently a difference between the invisible medium and a visible “form”. From this follows the possibility of working with the distinction that in the contemporary literature is generally designated with the terms “loose coupling” and “tight coupling”.

In our, as it were pre-systematic distinction of medium and form, it is said that, first of all, elements abound that do not have the status of elements due to specific couplings. These elements nonetheless provide the material for couplings to emerge. It is possible to think of language as a vocabulary and a set of sentences. There is a wealth of words, and there are certain combinatora rules. One can create sentences. The sentences are forms in the medium of language. The words, in turn, are forms in the medium of possible noises or possible optical designs. We have light and air as the media of perception in which one can form words either orally or in writing. The words, in turn, are a medium that allows us to form sentences and make meaningful statements.

What is at stake in all these cases is the opening up of the domain of loose coupling for combinatory possibilities. It is at this level that in the process of the regular operation of all kinds of systems - conscious system is as well as communicative systems - the possibility of creating forms arises. In fact, the underlying domain of loose coupling itself presupposes forms at the basal level of the elements.

166 The concept of meaning: I would like to pose the question of whether it is conceivable that meaning is not something substantial or phenomenal - that is, some qualitative unity - but a determined mode of difference between medium and form.

I am not entirely sure whether these concepts can successfully be made to fit. But, for the moment, I imagine that
meaning is indeed something like a continuous request to create specific forms.

These forms caracteristically are created in the medium of meaning, but they do not represent meaning as a category in general - except perhaps in the word “meaning” itself. One can hear this word when it is spoken and one can read it if it has been written down. Yet, the world “meaning” is not the only thing that has meaning. It merely occurs here than there in sentences.

If one wants to distinguish the medium of meaning from the forms of meaning, it must be possible to reflect and pass judgement on what the medium-like side of meaning actually is.

Perhaps it helps to adopt the term “
medial substrate” in this case. After all, if the respective medium always amounts to the possibility of creating forms in a medium, we are in need of a threefold terminology.

Boe: substrate (medium) - forms - interaction

First, we have the substrate, the elements that are loosely coupled and can be tightly coupled; however, in the latter case, one must always proceed selectively.
In the second place, we have the forms, and,
in the third place, the interaction in relation to which the entire apparatus of medium and form has meaning only when it is being used.

If one decided to work with the conceptual crutch “medial substrate”, one might say that every experience of meaning always happens in two parts and assumes the
form of a distinction. If one prefers to express this state of affairs in Spencer Brown’s terminology, one may say that, on the inner side of the distinction, one always has a kind of form at one's disposal with which one can work.

Meaning in its specific configurations, its specific shapes, and its specific forms is merely the inner side of the medium.
There is always also the outer side of all other possibilities of use.
And, in the case of perceptible objects, we have an outer side that indicates where they end. To this outer side belong the “and-so-forth” of space as well as the relative persistence of things.

As you can see, I'm jumping back and forth between entirely different theoretical resources, and what I have just offered is merely one approach. My reflection can be described a bit more clearly with the help of Husserl's phenomenological analyses.

The basic thought, always conceived as relative to the subject, is that
the subject or consciousness works intentionally, which is to say, in the form of acts. The actualisation of the intentional activity of consciousness is directed to something specific. One identifies, among other things, objects, human beings, or symbols, but always within a horizon of reference to other possibilities.

One never ends up in an ontological trap in such a way that one thinks of something and is so taken by it that one is no longer able to detach oneself and always thinks merely of “this”. One does not always think of "living room" or, to give the most relevant example, "systems theory" and can no longer think of anything else but "systems theoretical things". On the contrary, if one is involved in this mode of thinking, one always has the thought as to why exactly all this is in fact "theory" or what exactly is named by the term "system".
That is to say, everything whether the symbolism or the things, refer to other possibilities within a horizon of possible determinations.

One never ends up in an unmarked space in Spencer Brown's sense or in an entirely indefinable situation from which one can never extricate oneself. One always works on the inner side of the distinctions and always with other possibilities that are close at hand. Thus we know, when we exit this building today, we will have to take certain paths in order to leave the university, get to our cars, and start the engines. We have the necessary keys in our pockets. There are always clusters of meaning creations (Sinnbildungen).

Boe: meaning creations - stories, frames, expectations.

Meaning, however, is not merely this reference to other possibilities, but also the localisation of such references in everything that we can concretely imagine as an object of our actuality or our actual experience.

Similarly, when we switch from consciousness to communication everything that can be said, all information, has a corresponding range of selection. What did I expect, and what is actually happening? What surprises me in relation to all that which would also be possible?
Every item that is operationally actualised lives and has meaning merely in so far as it is placed within a horizon of different possibilities.

168 I think that the distinction of medium and form provides one possibility of showing that meaning always requires an "appresentation" or making-present of other possibilities in the concrete act.

The real and the possible are thus not separate spheres. One would again be dealing with an ontology, if one arranged things in such a manner that one placed the possible here and the real over there, and stated that the real is not possible and the possible not real. This is certainly not the way to go.

Instead the
space of potentialities, the totality of references, and the horizon-like quality of all meaning form an enlivening or meaning-producing moment in everything that is specific, in every identity, in everything that is communicatively enunciated as information, and also in everything to which one can attend consciously and which one can thematize.

169 It is not a matter of regionally arranging different spheres of being that exist side-by-side. Rather, what is at stake is a mutual interpenetration (Ineinander) of the actual and the potential, to use the terminology that I currently prefer.

Boe: mutual interpenetration - conditioned coproduction!

If one insisted on a definition, one might say that
meaning is the medium that works within the difference between the actual and the potential.

This difference is to be taken in the sense that the unity of the difference always also plays along, which is to say that everything one can actually see also contains perspectives of possibilities, and that, vice versa, one cannot thematize, conceive, or communicatively use possibilities if this is not done as something actual.

One has to be capable of talking or thinking about possibilities, be it in the manner of a modal logic or in some other way. But, if this is not made into something actual, it is not a possibility either.

169 The next point concerns the thesis that the medium of meaning is apparently inevitably and universally valid. This means, in the first place that we also have to use it when we use negations. In other words meaning is a non-negative category. After all, if we say that something makes no sense (keinen Sinn), this statement itself makes a claim to meaning (Sinn). By the way, this argument has a certain philosophical tradition: “If I think that I cannot think, I have at least to think this and thus refute myself”. This is the figure of an operational self-refutation or, a performative (self)-contradiction.

This is my first point. We cannot get outside the medium. As soon as we operate consciously or communicatively we are always already forced to use the medium of meaning. At this level, it is our language that confuses us, since it suggests that we could say that something is not meaningful (nicht sinnvoll).

It might be useful to draw yet another distinction between “meaningful” (sinnhaft), or “related to meaning” (sinnbezogen) in a general sense, and the idea, which can be negated, that something is or is not meaningful. I believe that we ought to state in the first place that
all negations require a sort of world presence that, for its part, has the form of meaning and thus constitute a form.

The reason for this is that negations do not operate within an undefined frame of reference. Rather, as determinate negations, the always refer to something determinate. And, vice versa, every determination implies the negation of other possible determinations. If one states that something is not the case or says that something does not make sense (macht keinen Sinn) in a particular situation, one has a determinate intention - one would like to exclude something determinate and thus would like to process meaning.

170 This is the reason why we cannot conceive of, and situate ourselves in a world in which there are no meaning-processing systems.

Perhaps I ought to formulate this more carefully. Of course we can conceive of a world in which all human beings and all computers have been destroyed and only rocks and perhaps insects, desert conditions, and remainders of radiation exist. We can imagine a world in which no meaning is operationally produced or reproduced any longer. But we can arrive at this conception only in terms of meaning. We depend on imagining what could be left over as the remainder of nature, and we think of all that used to be and has been destroyed.

Also, we cannot imagine the world relation (Weltverhältnis) of stones, or what a stone fields and perceives, or how “stony” it is. This is an imaginary conception that we can construct but not realise. We are capable of negation and we can say that the world is not at a stone’s disposal in a meaningful way. But
this statement makes sense for us only because we can contrast it with all that has meaning for human beings and with the function that meaning has in the human space of orientation.

It gets difficult when one considers animals. Whether the category of meaning can be applied to animals is an issue that we have discussed on occasion and which I consider to be irresolvable.

The reason for this is that, when we observe animals, we observe them always in a meaningful world and therefore have difficulty imagining the world from the viewpoint of a bat, or a cow and to contemplate how such animals order the space they see outside themselves, the perceptual environment that they are undoubtedly able to recognise.

In fact much speaks in favour of seeing this process as related to meaningful transitions or proto-meaning, especially if one takes note of the fluidity and elegance with which animals move from one situation to the next. One has the impression that it is apparently not just some sporadic or ad hoc affair. We tend to imagine that the animals perceive space is meaningful, as a relation between what came before to what will come after. But I do not know whether we can know this, precisely because we rely on the support of meaning at all times. This, however, is a special problem that points to the form of universality and inevitability of the medium of meaning for specific systems, namely, consciousness and communication systems.

It is a trait of this universality that its own negation is built into the medium and that it still is meaningful to imagine that the medium of meaning may not be available for other points of departure and other kinds of systems. This is yet another statement that is at our disposal only as a meaningful statement.

I believe that this may be enough for the moment on the topic of which distinction is actualised via meaning - namely, the distinction between actuality and potentiality - and on the question concerning the system reference, according to which there are meaning-constituting systems whose modes of operation in inevitably include the use of meaning.

173 The formula stating that meaning is a potent form of the reduction of complexity, and thus a potent solution for the problem of selection that is forced upon us, does not give us very much information yet.

One may also ask the question why something like the medium of meaning came about in the process of evolution. That is to say, one may ask
why it turned out to be advantageous to establish this difference between actuality and potentiality as a structural law or articulatory medium of certain systems and thereby force them to make selections continuously or, to put it differently, to adapt temporarily to a temporary situations all the time.

If we use evolutionary theory as our frame of reference, why does this have evolutionary advantages in a world that has in any case become extremely complex through evolution.

It is possible to have theories about this and to conceive of the evolutionary advantages of such developments as consciousness or communication. But all this does not change the fact that we are stating our arguments always in the medium of meaning. Nevertheless, formulas such as “complexity”, “selectivity”, “reduction of complexity”, and “evolution” are part of theories within the landscape of science that has come into being only recently, and which can be situated precisely, can be put into a specific context in the meaningful world, and can be understood only if one actually does precisely that.

Yet, this also means that the attempts to present meaning as a functionally equivalent “technology of power” - that is, as something extremely effective that is in a certain sense superior to everything produced by less well-equipped animals or plants - is still just a theory.

As such, it represents a standpoint that must autologically claim for itself and apply to itself that which it analyses. We therefore arrive at the conclusion that the insight that this medium provides us with evolutionary advantages must itself be formulated within this same medium. We cannot escape. Now, one might say that this is an argument pro domo: since we are subject to meaning, we even justify this fact in terms of evolutionary theory!

173 The content of the domain of meaning and the medium of meaning: distinguish between the objective, temporal, and social meaning dimensions.

Luhmann Introduction to Systemstheory