Universität Bonn

Forum Internationale Wissenschaft

On Psychic Systems Freedom in Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
William Ernest Henley, Invictus.


Individual freedom, as seen from Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory, seems unnecessary, or at least reduced to choosing among socially built options, according to also socially built criteria. On the contrary, the closure of a psychic system seems to ensure its freedom, preventing any direct contact with its environment and therefore, any possibility of external control.

Following Luhmann, the consciousness content is not completely communicable, and therefore it is beyond full determination from outside. The portion of it that reaches communications processes is a small, previously ordered, and selected part of a huge amount of thoughts, feelings, and notions we have in our mind. Furthermore, the closure of the autopoiesis of consciousness protects the psychic system from external control.

However, while these protections would safeguard a psychic system’s freedom, there seems to be no point in being free from something that cannot cause any effect. On the other hand, an observation of human behaviour reveals features that could contradict the inescapability of individual freedom: manipulation, cheating, mass movements and statistical management of groups of people are examples of that. Despite the uniqueness and closure of the autopoiesis of consciousness, history witnesses worldwide episodes of individual and social subjugation.

Individuality could also have two faces: one, a social outcome in the form of a person, a personality, which could be likely in the hands of communications networks, and beyond the subject’s control; two, a result of the individual’s differentiation process performed while living in the world. In case that the content of the mind is socially built, and the mind itself is socially produced, it would let room to plant convenient contents in people’s minds to control their behaviour and take advantage of that during a whole lifetime. In case the differentiation prevents a psychic system to become just an unaware reproduction of a socially convenient pattern, it could be unique and free.

Therapists have studied the human mind. One interesting thing they have found is the world where people live and react to. They claim that we build our portrait of the world under biological, biographical, and cultural restrictions, so it is stated that we do not operate in the world, but in our representation of it. The uniqueness of this inner-built world, which is a result of the individual’s experience, hardly identical to any other one, could reinforce a notion of freedom. But again, the representation of the world uses language as the raw material and therefore different kinds of communication techniques can be used to produce a set of desired behaviors in large amounts of people. Therapists have even discovered patterns in the way we cheat ourselves.

So, there seem to be two different conclusions that can be drawn from systems theory about freedom: one, the inescapability of individual freedom; two, the impossibility of individual freedom. The inescapability comes from the notion of the psychic system’s closure. The impossibility comes from the social effect on it. The purpose of this project is to find and describe a notion of a psychic system’s freedom compatible with Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory.

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