Monday, February 18, 2008

From Wittgenstein to Luhmann?

February 20, 2008

Graduate School of Education, Hiroshima University

Symposium: What may happen on the corner of Wittgenstein Avenue and Luhmann Street in Education district?

Deconstructive Destruction and

Deconstructive Construction

― From Wittgenstein to Luhmann? ―

Yosuke YANASE, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

of Applied Linguistics and TEFL,

Hiroshima University

-1 My personal background

I was once fascinated by the rigor of psycholinguistics in my first few years of the graduate school, until I began to see it as an interesting intellectual game of designing experiments to researchers’ self-interest, thus failing to find its relevance to the real world issues. That epistemological change was partly (but significantly) caused by my encounter with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, which made it impossible for me to write any paper for a year and a half. I gradually began to write papers by contrasting Wittgenstein and Chomsky in their approaches to language and language use, but was unable to develop my research interest very much. In the meantime, my interest shifted to the issues of complexity, a popular topic of science in the late 80’s and the early 90’s, and I encountered Hayek and expanded my intellectual horizons to some extent. My Wittgensteinian orientation emerged again when I used Davidson’s philosophy along with Relevance Theory to augment theories of communicative language ability in applied linguistics for my PhD dissertation. After the dissertation, I needed a breakthrough from the individualistic orientation of theories of communicative language ability in applied linguistics to a social dimension. Philosophy of Arendt helped me a lot for that direction, but it was my second encounter with Luhmann quite recently that significantly developed my understanding in social dimension of various issues. A great philosopher teaches you not only his or her own thought, but also how to think (thinking). In this regard, Wittgenstein and Luhmann are my greatest philosophers and I suspect I may become a Luhmannian rather than a Wittgensteinian in the future.

0 Abstract of today’s presentation

Both Wittgenstein and Luhmann successfully deconstructed many simplistic philosophical assumptions of the past. Take communication for example, both rejected the idea of communication as mere transmission of information from one mind to another (the Code Model view). Communication, as they correctly argued, involves more than the transmission, and one cannot understand the emergent property of communication without realizing that. However, Wittgenstein and Luhmann differ significantly in their orientation toward theorizing. Although Wittgenstein’s flat refusal of any theory seems almost irresistibly appealing to some (including myself about 10-15 years ago), I now argue that Wittgenstein might be, from hindsight, too radical in his deconstruction (whether this is related to his personality or not is another issue.) Theories of communication, or for today’s perspective, of education are possible, as Luhmann demonstrates in his self-referential system theory. Luhmann of course does not return to pre-Wittgensteinian simplistic philosophical assumptions. In Luhmann’s system theory, a system deconstructs itself (by being exposed to its environment) to (re)construct itself (by operating within itself). A theory of an educational system is quite possible, not as the classical teleological theory of the end and means, but as a theory of a special type of communication, in which participants manage double-contingency with little prospect of preordained success. We may regard Wittgenstein as a deconstructive destructionist, a necessary precursor for philosophical sophistication, and start working on constructing theories in a deconstructive manner with Luhmann. Or is Luhmann still a Wittgensteinian in the sense that his theory does not explain for prediction but only describe to ‘command a clear view?’

1 Wittgenstein and Luhmann on communication

Wittgenstein and Luhmann are quite similar in their rejection of treating communication as a simple act of copying a mental representation in one mind onto another mind. There certainly are some mental representations in each mind in communication, but the identity of the representations should not be assumed. The explanation of communication in terms of identity of mental representations in different minds is far from reality, and it cannot account for the aspect of implicature, as Relevance Theory clearly demonstrates now. Mental representations, or what happens in consciousness, are less than a secondary issue to communication. Wittgenstein was keen on rejecting this simple mental view, while Luhmann deconstructed the mental view by (re)introducing (after Austin) the aspects of utterance/announcement (illocutionary act) and understanding (perlocutionary act).

1.1 Wittgenstein on communication

Below is Wittgenstein’s self-dialogue, in which one insists on the mental view of communication and the other counter-argues that the view fails to explain its central notion of mental content and entirely neglects what communication does to participants. (As always, Wittgenstein’s analogy (in this text, analogy of mental processes to time itself, is fascinating.)

"But when I imagine something, something certainly happens!" Well, something happens ---- and then I make a noise. What for? Presumably in order to tell what happens. ---- But how is telling done? When are we said to tell anything? What is the language-game of telling?

I should like to say: you regard it much too much as a matter of course that one can tell anything to anyone. That is to say: we are so much accustomed to communication through language, in conversation, that it looks to us as if the whole point of communication lay in this: someone else grasps the sense of my words ---- which is something mental: he as it were takes it into his own mind. If he then does something further with it as well, that is no part of the immediate purpose of language.

One would like to say "Telling brings it about that he knows that I am in pain; it produces this mental phenomenon; everything else is inessential to the telling." As for what this queer phenomenon of knowledge is ---- there is time enough for that. Mental processes just are queer. (It is as if one said: "The clock tells us the time. What time is, is not yet settled. And as for what one tells the time for ---- that doesn't come in here.") (Wittgenstein, 1953, S. 363)

1.2 Luhmann on communication

Luhmann seems to (re)construct the theory of communication after the deconstruction of the mental theory by Wittgenstein (The direct influence of Wittgenstein to Luhmann is unverified.) Luhmann emphasizes the difference between information (locutionary act, or what the mental theorists believe to be the mental representation) and its utterance/announcement (illocutionary act, or what the speaker intends the information to mean (what the listener regards as what the speaker intends the information to mean). The difference between information and utterance/announcement is never settled in communicative double contingency. Yet, participants must (or do) show their understanding (perlocutionary act, or their own reaction to the difference of information and utterance/announcement). Communication is regarded by Luhmann as unity of the three different aspects of information, utterance/announcement and understanding. It is not a matter of having a definite intention and encoding/decoding it by linguistic means.

Communication emerges only if this last difference [=difference between information and utterance] is observed, expected, understood, and used as the basis for connecting with further behaviors. Thus understanding normally includes more or less extensive misunderstandings; but these are always, as we shall see, misunderstandings that can be controlled and corrected.
From now on we will treat communication as a three-part unity. We will begin from the fact that these three selections must be synthesized in order for communication to appear as an emergent occurrence. (Luhmann, 1995, pp. 141-2)

Thus we cannot use intentionality and linguisticality to define the concept of communication. (Luhmann, 1995, p. 151)

2 Wittgenstein and Luhmann on theory

When it comes to theorizing, Wittgenstein and Luhmann are quite contrastive: the former tries to negate the entire efforts of theorizing, while the latter tries to reinvigorate the efforts of theorizing by introducing self-reference to theorizing.

2.1 Wittgenstein on theory

The concept of “family resemblance,” introduced by Wittgenstein immediately after the passage below, is a reasonable concept that sets us free from the rigid framework of set theory. The concept was in part a reaction to his early work, Tractatus, yet in his denial of his early self, Wittgenstein may have made an error (or exaggeration) that there cannot be any essence (or any essence is an arbitrary one, hence of no theoretical importance.)

Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations. ---- For someone might object against me: "You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: What is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language."

And this is true. ---- Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, ---- but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all "language". (Wittgenstein, 1953, S65)

Wittgenstein goes so far as to declare that any explanation is a bewitchment of intelligence by means of language.

It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically 'that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to think such-and-such' ---- whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (Wittgenstein, 1953, S109)

Wittgenstein may have successfully destroyed too simplistic philosophical views (“houses of cards”), but can’t we clear the ground of “bits of stone and rubble” to make a new and better building?

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand. (Wittgenstein, 1953, S118)

2.2 Luhmann on theory

Luhmann rejects the simple notions of whole/part and end/means. He introduces a self-referential system theory and argues that a system uses its difference from its environment to reproduce itself. The structure and the end of the system are now changeable and this flexibility makes the system sustainable in and adaptable to its changing environment.

The theory of self-referential systems maintains that systems can differentiate only by self-reference, which is to say, only insofar as systems refer to themselves (be this to elements of the same system, to operations of the same system, or to the unity of the same system) in constituting their elements and their elemental operations. To make this possible, system must create and employ a description of themselves; they must at least be able to use the difference between system and environment within themselves, for orientation and as a principle for creating information. Therefore self-referential closure is possible only in an environment, only under ecological conditions. The environment is a necessary correlate of self-referential operations because these out of all operations cannot operate under the premise of solipsism (one could even say because everything that is seen as playing a role in the environment must be introduced by means of distinction). The (subsequently classical) distinction between "closed" and "open" systems is replaced by the question of how self-referential closure can create openness. (Luhmann, 1953, p. 9)

3 Theory of education as a special type of communication

In Luhmann’s self-referential system theory, no theory can predict or guarantee a success in education. But this is reality. Reality is not as simple as old theorists wished it to be. We cannot explain the causalities of education in advance. We may only be able to describe the changing structures and processes of events. Does this view make a Luhmannian a Wittgensteinian?

All socialization occurs as social interpenetration; all social interpenetration, as communication. Communication succeeds and is experienced as successful when three selections (information/utterance/understanding) form a unity to which further communication can connect. Participation in this occurrence - whether as a source of information, as an utterer, or as someone who understands the utterance in relation to information - is the basis of all socialization. This unity that is is communication can never be entirely reduced to the meaning of an intended and attributable action, not even if the action itself wishes to be communication or contains communicative aspects. The communicative occurrence first socializes itself – not by sanctioning correct or incorrect behavior, but by succeeding as communication.

The consequences for a theory of education can only be indicated here. Education is (and here it differs from socialization) action that is intentionalized and attributable to intentions. It can attain its goal (we would like to omit for the time being the possibility of indirect and unnoticed manipulation) only by communication. Thus, being communication, education cannot help but socialize, yet it does so with other effects than those intended. Instead, when this intention is communicated, the person who is expected to become educated acquires the freedom to travel some distance or to seek and find “other possibilities.” Above all, the concretizations of pedagogical behavior are laden with difference. They indicate lines of success and thereby establish the possibility of failure. Learning and retention involve forgetting, and competence is experienced within its boundaries, that is, as incompetence. Moreover, with all concretizations it becomes more probable that educator and pupil will operat4e with dissimilar difference schemata, dissimilar attributions, and dissimilar attitudes about preferences within the difference schemata. If one takes all of this into consideration, then it is no longer possible to conceive of education as successfully effective action. Instead, one must see that actions pedagogically intentionalized and understood differentiate a special kind of function system, which produces socialization effects of its own kind. In this system, pedagogical action and the corresponding communication must be continually re-introduced as a contribution to the system’s self-observation and as the continual correction of a self-created reality. (pp. 243-4).


Luhmann, N. translated by Bednarz, J and Baecker, D. (1995). Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. translated by Anscombe, G. E. M. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

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