Humanism and Anti-Humanism: Operationalizing (with) Luhmann

Thursday, 19 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Jean-Sebastien GUY, Dalhousie University, Canada
In developing his systems theory, Niklas Luhmann intuited that sociology was standing at a crossroad between humanism and anti-humanism. He advocated the latter as the way forward. He argued that social phenomena cannot be accounted for in terms of human attributes like actions, beliefs and interests. The autopoiesis of social systems occurs through communication, not action, while individuals are relegated in the environment of these social systems. At the same time though, Luhmann’s theory provides us with the conceptual resources for operationalizing the dichotomy humanism/anti-humanism. As a result of this, we do not have to choose between a sociological description of social reality that would be completely humanistic or entirely anti-humanistic. Instead we can envision social reality as compartmentalized into multiple pockets (like a patchwork) where local conditions are alternatively humanistic and anti-humanistic. The operator allowing us to travel from one pocket to the next is Luhmann’s concept of self-description: we can move from humanism to anti-humanism and back again if we allow for social systems to be described and re-described anew from within themselves. Thus, both humanism and anti-humanism can be understood as enacted through two separated yet similar processes. Each process extracts different forms out of a crowd of individuals functioning as a medium of communication. Social reality takes on a humanistic aspect when a distinction between human and non-human is applied so as to arrange the many individuals into different categories, thus dividing the entire crowd into different groups. However, rather than making a difference between individuals or groups, the crowd can also be organized by exploiting the difference between activities as with the functional systems of modern society analyzed by Luhmann: politics, science, law, etc. Social reality then takes on an anti-humanistic aspect simply because the difference human/non-human is suspended and made irrelevant.