NIKLAS LUHMANN 1927-1998
Bernd R. Hornung
Originally published in the ISA Bulletin no. 78-79, 1999, pp. 24-26
The death of Niklas Luhmann on November 6, 1998 was a great loss. He was a most important contemporary intellectual leader and representative of systems science in sociology. Indeed, his influence extended far beyond sociology.
We owe a great debt to Niklas Luhmann for numerous important findings, breakthroughs, and intellectual challenges. Again and again he opened surprising views and new perspectives to sociology, systems science, and numerous other disciplines. He was one of the very few contemporary sociologists who indeed changed paradigms: from structural-functionalism to functional-structural and problem-functionalist theory, from the society of action to the society of communication and semantics, from the social “machine” to autopoiesis. Some of these changes may seem only to be playing with words, and yet this shifting of terms changed worlds.
He was a sharp observer of minute differences. No wonder he embraced the theory of the organization of the living of Maturana and Varela, in which the concept of the observer plays a key role. Combined with his precise and complex reasoning trained in legal science he further developed this theory and transferred it to sociology, where it became soon a cornerstone of his own monumental construction of theory.
Theory was his passion. But beyond being a great theorist, he was a great person. He had a lot of patience, towards his topics of study as well as towards his students and friends. Many friends and colleagues appreciated and enjoyed his sense of humor and his contagious smile. Scientific dispute and conflict he could keep separate from personal relations, as demonstrated brilliantly in the controversy with Habermas.
A considerable part of his life work consists in applying his abstract, complex frame of theoretical reference to virtually all areas of society, from the internal workings of administration to global ecological problems, from politics and economy to arts, love, and religion. Aiming at a universal theory of society no sector of society was left out in his attempt to apply, test, and further develop his theory. He used his incredible encyclopedic knowledge, accumulated from the tremendous amount of reading he did.
Luhmann spent most of his life in the plains of Northern Germany, not on the coast, but at Lüneburg, Hannover, Münster, and Bielefeld, where the sea is beyond the horizon, sending the winds to sweep up the skies, blue and grey. Horizons, after all, become one of the key concepts in his theory. It seems they were a key concept in his life too, as again and again he moved towards new challenges.