Over at Jon Coburn’s blog, we have been having an interesting and productive discussion about normativity that has, I believe, clarified (at least for me) a number of issues and helped to define some basic differences. Apart from some brief moments of ugliness that led to an unexpected and very welcome burying of the hatchet between Mikhail and I, the comments accompanying this post are, I think, a good read. I had been working under the impression that normativity was synymous with deontological ethics (no doubt because it’s only ever people deeply influenced by Kant that I hear raising issues about normativity as a cornerstone to theory), but I’ve been disabused of this notion and assured that it refers to something far broader. I outline some of my own problems with Kantian deontological approaches to ethical questions, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Pete Wolfendale has promised to write a post about this, which I very much look forward to as I’ve found myself perplexed for years as to just what all the ruckus is about and why it’s considered so important to those coming primarily out of the Frankfurt School (here it’s important to qualify that Pete tackles these issues not so much from the Frankfurt School perspective, but from the Brandomian perspective).

Over the course of discussion, one of the claims that was made by “anonymous” is that discussions of normativity are primarily about the metaphysics of meaning. As anonymous puts it,

The problem, so far as I see it, is that this very discussion — the one you want to have about normativity — can’t even get off the ground until we all realize that normative ethics isn’t a metaethics, that a metaethics is not coextensive with normativity, and normativity is largely an issue concerning the METAPHYSICS OF MEANING, the basic nature of rationality, and a structuring feature of our shared world. It is, as Jon pointed out precisely Humes problem concerning the medium of imperceptible necessary connections.

Pete very quickly followed this up, qualifying anonymous’ suggestion, emphasizing that it is about “the metaphysics of meaning or lack thereof” and that normativity pertain to discussions about correctness and incorrectness.

Now, it seems to me, coming at these issues from my Luhmannian perspective, that the concept of meaning is necessarily more basic and primordial than either notions of correctness and incorrectness, or issues of rationality. From an object-oriented standpoint, one of the reasons I’m attracted to Luhmann’s systems theory is that it emphasizes the autonomy and independence of systems, along with their closure. While systems do enter into relations with other systems, these relations are external and systems are independent entities.

read on!

In his discussions of psychic systems (i.e., minds like yours and mine) and social systems, Luhmann argues that both of these systems are meaning systems (Luhmann suggests that other organisms might be structured in this way as well). Now I cannot develop all of the details of Luhmann’s exceedingly complex theory of meaning here (especially since it’s somewhat tangental to the issues I’m working on now in The Democracy of Objects). For those who are interested, you can check out chapter 2 of Luhmann’s Social Systems or his essay “Meaning as Sociology’s Basic Concept” in Essays in Self-Reference. Hopefully I’ll be forgiven if I give something of a thumbnail sketch of Luhmann’s account of meaning.

Luhmann’s theory of meaning is deeply indebted to Husserlian phenomenology. Luhmann argues that meaning is a structure in which each actuality points beyond itself to other potentialities or possibilities. As a consequence, meaning is the unity of a difference such that every actuality points to other potentialities. For example, I make a cup of coffee (actuality) but could have had an orange fanta or a glass of water. What is specific to meaning events is that each actuality is haunted by a penumbra of other possibilities from which certain actualities are selected. As a consequence, we cannot, as Pete suggests, talk about an absence or lack of meaning for cognitive or social systems. We are irrevocably situated in meaning such that even nonsense produces effects of meaning in the sense that nonsense refers beyond itself to other possibilities. What is peculiar to this unity of difference between actuality and possibility is that while each actualization involves an exclusion or a negation, the alternative possibilities that have been excluded remain within the cognitive system or psychic system such that communication (social systems) or thought (psychic systems) can return to them and actualize them. In other words, meaning perpetually complexifies itself.

Insofar as the phenomenon of meaning always entails selection among a plethora of possibilities that are excluded, it necessarily a selective dimension. Actualizing this involves a negation of that. In this connection, Luhmann is keen to emphasize the contingency of meaning and the manner in which it involves risk. Not only is meaning contingent in the sense that other actualizations were always possible, but every selection or actualization comes to have a penumbra of contingency to it precisely because the alternative possibilities are simultaneously referred to with each selection (“Did I make the right choice?”). If meaning always involves risk, then this is because while meanings always refer to other meanings, nonetheless these meanings relate us to a world that is related to in terms of meaning.

Here, I think, is one of the marks of the superiority of Luhmann’s autopoietic theory in contrast to structuralism and post-structuralist thought. In structuralist thought you only have structure and the immanence of structure to itself. By contrast, Luhmann’s systems theory is always grounded in a distinction between system and environment. In other words, unlike a structure, systems don’t totalize the world, but always have to grapple with an environment that is 1) more complex than the system itself, and that therefore 2) involves risk insofar as the contingent selections the system makes in trying to navigate its environment can be violated. As Luhmann remarks,

All meaning points to this world in its entirety and all meaning provides access to it [in terms of meaning]. This meaningful construction of the world as the reference horizon of consciousness [and social systems] involves high risks, for man lives on the basis of a physical and organic system under real conditions which he interprets as a world but cannot change at will– which he constitutes as meaningful-identifiable but does not create. He accepts, in other words, the risk of negation. His meaning structures remain susceptible to disappointment, to nonfulfillment. His world is contingent; it could be otherwise. This means that there is not only the programmable problem of selection out of an excess of other possibilities to be considered, but also the risks that selection involves… (“Meaning as Sociology’s Basic Concept, p. 44)

It is here that we get some insight into Luhmann’s concept of information. It occurred to me this afternoon that others might have a very different concept of information than the one I’m always talking about. Information is often understood as something that is transmitted from one person to another in communication. Luhmann is very careful to distinguish between information and meaning, and vigorously rejects the idea that information is something that is exchanged between systems (27). Indeed, one of the most mind-bending claims that Luhmann, following autopoietic theory, makes is that systems only ever communicate with themselves and never with their environment. This amounts to the claim that there’s no communication between systems. I’ve written about this elsewhere, in my post on Depression and Capitalism, so I won’t repeat those points here.

Information for Luhmann is not something that is exchanged between a system and an environment, nor something that is exchanged between systems, but is rather 1) constituted by systems themselves, and 2) an event that selects a system state. For meaning systems such as psychic systems and social systems, meaning precedes the possibility of information. In other words, meaning pre-delineates the field of possibilities. If it is said that information is always system-specific and that systems themselves constitute information, then this is because information isn’t something that is already out there in the world waiting to be registered or received, but rather because the organization of a system transforms perturbations or irritations from an environment or another system into information according to the system’s own organization. As a consequence, whenever we discuss information we have to specify what system we’re referring to.

Information differs fundamentally from meaning because where meaning is always the unity of a difference between actuality and possibility, information is an event that selects a system state, narrowing the field of possibilities: “Oh, it was this!” Luhmann emphasizes that information therefore always carries an element of surprise, that it has the capacity to restructure networks of meaning, that it cannot be repeated (once I have heard that Descartes was in the military, this statement no longer functions as information when I read it in another book), and that even disappointments or absences can function as information for meaning systems like psychic systems or social systems (think about Sartre’s famous example of not finding Pierre in the cafe). Thus, while information that is repeated retains its status as meaningful, it no longer selects new system states. At any rate, insofar as the meaning system predelineates possibilities and insofar as this predelineation involves selection, we can see how it also involves risk because we can’t make the world at will, but always open ourselves up, in the contingency of our selections to disappointments that range from the banal to the lethal.

Now why is meaning a more primordial phenomenon than normativity and why can’t it be equated with rationality or correct and incorrect judgment? If it is true that meaning is the unity of a distinction between actuality and possibility, meaning doesn’t first proceed based on a set of criteria determining which set of actualities are to proceed following an actuality. The field of possibilities is literally limitless. To illustrate this point I refer to a game my three year old daughter and I like to play. Lately we’ve been playing the game “When I Grow Up, I want to be…” Now generally when this game is played, the participants give answers like “astronaut”, “microbiologist”, “fireman”, “president”, etc. Our little twist on the game is to choose something that humans can’t become. “When I grow up, I want to be a flower!” “When I grow up I want to be a ceiling fan!” “When I grow up, I want to be a cookie!”, etc. The pleasure of the game is two-fold: On the one hand, we’re playfully violating norms (the rules of the game) and therefore bringing them into relief. On the other hand, we’re playing with how current actualities are capable of linking up to other, completely unexpected, possibilities or how meaning systems can link anything to anything.

This brings me around, at long last, to the issue of just why normativity is derivative of meaning, not the reverse. One of Luhmann’s key concepts is that of “double contingency”. Whenever Luhmann speaks of double contingency, he treats it as a problem to be solved within social systems. Put in non-technical terms, double contingency is what takes place when an ego and an alter enter into a relation of communication within a framework of meaning. Recalling that meaning is the unity of a difference between actuality and possibility where every actuality retains the field of possibilities, the problem of double contingency refers to how mutual expectations can emerge between ego and alter and alter and ego. Because meaning is the unity of a difference between actuality and possibility, the problem is that any potentiality can link up to a possibility. For example, Graham asks me to go get a cup of coffee and I respond with outrage that he’s responsible for the bubonic plague.

The point here is that how to proceed is not given in advance but is something that needs to develop. As Luhmann puts it,

Social structures do not take the form of expectations about behavior…, but rather take the form of expectations about expectations. In any case, it is only on this level of reflexive expectation that they can be integrated and maintained. The sociality of meaning, for example, the social aspect of the meaning of some act, is not exhausted by referring to the fact that another person (of a certain general type, with particular individual characteristics, a personal history, etc.) exists; it lies instead in the fact that the intended meaning can be recognized, and this recognizability has structured relevance, for it tells us something about what the other expects. (45)

Lacanians will note just how close Luhmann is here to the Lacanian concept of fantasy and the subject supposed to believe. The point here is that a system of expectations about what others expect has to emerge for the problem of double contingency to be solved and if communication is to begin being coordinated between ego and alter. And here it is important to note that this development of expectations about expectations precedes any difference between conflict and cooperation, consensus and dissensus. Both conflict and coordination, consensus and dissensus presuppose the formation of expectations about expectations. Even in the case of the unjust torturer and his victims, some field of expectations about expectations has already emerged regulating their relationship to one another. This is one of the reasons that Luhmann takes meaning and the resolution of the problem of double contingency as being more primordial or basic than things such as rationality or correctness and incorrectness. The whole problem here is “…how it is possible, without actually partaking of an other’s consciousness, to successfully expect others’ expectations” (46).

Luhmann argues that “[m]eaning becomes normative to the extent that what is provided for in cases of disappointment or non-fulfillment of expectations is a continued maintenance of these same expectations, i.e., to the extent that learning is excluded. Norms are contrafactually stabilized expectations which are protected– at both the level of behavioral expectations and expectation-expectations– against the symbolic, discrediting implications of nonfulfillment” (46). Luhmann’s point here is that an “is” does not undermine an “ought”. When Luhmann remarks that normativity involves the exclusion of learning, what he means is that the system does not modify its system of meaning in the face of disappointment, e.g. someone murders someone but we don’t abandon the norm prohibiting murder or the expectation that others expect us not to murder.

One way of thinking about norms is in terms of another key Luhmannian concept, that of programs. Normative systems are programs selecting and therefore limiting the range of admissible linkages between actualities. For example, my friend asks me to pass the salt and I don’t jump up and start dancing naked on the table. There are two crucial points to keep in mind here: First, Luhmann perpetually emphasizes the improbability of any particular system of norms. Norms are not foundational but are emergent. In claiming that any particular system of norms is improbable, Luhmann means that it’s always something of a surprise that any particular systems of norms emerges. Why do we sit around the table and eat rather than, as Zizek suggested, going to a private space to eat and sitting in a circle of toilets with others to complete our digestion? Like the evolution of a species, different norms could have always come into existence. Second, Luhmann likewise emphasizes the contingency of norms. They could have always been drawn otherwise, possibility could have been constrained differently, and very different systems could have (and no doubt will) emerge.

It is for these reasons, among others, that I think it is misguided to treat normativity as foundational in philosophy and to treat meaning as derivative of normativity rather than the reverse. The point isn’t that we should eradicate norms or get rid of them, that we shouldn’t fight and struggle on behalf of certain norms, etc. The point is that we must recognize the contingency and improbability of any particular set of norms, up to and including the law of non-contradiction and the law of identity. Meaning systems can function just fine without being subordinated to these particular principles, though they might not function in a way that we would like. However, that’s quite secondary to whether or not a meaning system is operative.

Rather than asking which set of norms are the true set of norms, we should instead approach systems of normativity in the way that a biologist approaches different species. The biologist doesn’t ask which species is the best, most correct, or truest species (though we all know the answer to this question: the octopus), but rather approaches different species as different functional solutions to the problem of the environment. The problem of the environment is not a single problem, but is a multiplicity of problems that can be solved in a variety of different ways. Now, no doubt, I will be accused of arguing that “anything goes”. I believe a lot goes, but certainly not anything goes. However, more fundamentally, the worry that anything goes is implicitly premised on the idea that when we talk about issues of normativity we’re talking about individuals rather than social systems. In other words, it’s premised on the thesis of an implicit humanism. But norms are not propositional attitude of individuals (remember that for Luhmann society is not composed of persons but of communications and that persons are in the environment— i.e., outside –social systems). And these normativity systems are improbable and contingent formations that societies produce over time. Returning to the analogy to biology, we can evaluate norm violations in much the same way we evaluate ecosystems. Just as the rise of the cane toad in the north Australian continent has posed significant problems for that eco-system, we can identify problems within social system that tend to undermine the whole system… And we can debate about these things through communication, generating either new improbable norms or excluding the possibility of learning in response to the norm violation. What we have to avoid, though, is anthropocentricism’s and humanism’s covert friend: ethnocentricism and the ideology of the ruling class, treating norms as ahistorical and a priori, while covertly affirming the primacy of one particular set of contingent and improbable norms arising as a particular way of resolving the problem of double contingency.