Publication 3361

la Cour A. (2006) The Concept of Environment in Systems Theory. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 13(2): 41–55. Fulltext at
The concept of environment in the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann has been much discussed. First of all, the environment exists as a constitutive entity for every individual system, each representing its own unique unity of the distinction system/environment. This, however, means that the environment remains undefined. Secondly, the environment exists as something defined, that is, as a result of the observations of a given system. In this sense, the environment is merely a product of the internal operations of the system. However, the very same system’s relations with its environment can be construed differently by a different system’s observations of the relations of precisely this system to its environment. This article argues that such second-order observation entails several possibilities for constructing another system’s relations to its environment. In his writings, Luhmann makes a distinction between two fundamental ways in which systems can internally construct the relations to their environment: either as a question of information or as a question of resource (Luhmann, 1984, pp. 252–253). This article contends that this insight allows not only for an understanding of the way that systems, in their reflection, are able to distinguish between themselves and their environment in two essentially different ways, but also that this distinction can be seen as forming the basis of second-order strategies for how to construct the relations of other systems to their environments. The possibility of thematizing the relations of other systems to their environments as a question of information or resource respectively depends on the ability of systems theory to cogently develop second-order concepts, which may specify this observation and give it meaning within the general theory of social systems. To this end, the article will present two well-known concepts from systems theory, that is, penetration and structural coupling. The article will seek to uncover a pattern in Luhmann’s writings in which the concept of penetration makes it possible to precisely thematize the relations of systems to their environments as a question of resources whereas the concept of structural coupling makes it possible to thematize the same relations as a question of information. Based on the identification of such a pattern, the article argues in favor of reserving the concepts of penetration and structural coupling for each their analytical strategy for how a second-order observer may construct the relation of other systems to their environment.

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