Luhmanns "Systemtheorie" and his understanding of the environment at the example of Goethes "Faust II, act 5"

Essay, 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 68 %



The public discussions about the ecological conditions of the social cohabit and of its relation to the social system and its environment did grow during the last 30 years. The community is affected by what they coursed in the environment. “I write out of a sense of alarm”[1] is what already was said and that is what describes the situation. The consumption of natural resources, the increasing dependence from self created substitutes, the reduction of the diversity of species / biodiversity as a requirement for evolution, pollution, the overpopulation of the earth is an always present subject of matter.

But what could Luhmanns Systemtheorie in this context do for or against it? With the help of this theory this essay will evaluate that the environment always takes part and nothing happens without it; this is self-evident.[2] Furthermore it will analyse that an “absolute environment” does not exist. The view of what environment is depends on the system that is observing the environment. The environment is always changing and a main part of every evolution a system is doing.

This will be illustrated on Geothes Faust II, act 5. In this peace Faust is a unsatisfied investigator who is desperate of his situation. Because of this he promises the devil Mephisto (or Mephistopheles) his soul if he could manage to take him out of his unsatisfied situation. In part II, act 5 Faust´s helpers burn down an old married couple house and a church. The couple, Philemon and Baucis, and their guest, a wanderer, died in the fire. Faust is not pleased but not angry about it as well. There old house and the church disturbed his plan to build up a new modern complex. To get land out of the sea he violates nature by building up a bank for unpropertied people. The dwellers from now on live in danger. Faust is satisfied and he died while Mephisto saying that nothing in the whole world would make any sense. Because Luhmanns Systemtheorie demands to have a universal validity[3], it must be possible to illustrate his understanding of the environment at the example of this peace of literature.


Luhmanns Systemtheorie is universal valid; this means that it must work every time anywhere in any situation, which includes the whole world as such because social systems[4] operate in limitation to world and their surrounding and that is the environment. The whole world is therefore unavoidable part of the surrounding of social systems. The world is a social construction. And this is as well valid for the environment.

Environment, as we know it, is a social construction because everything we define as being environment is the result of observance and description. Because Luhmann is a constructivist he thinks that reality is only a construction. He does not denial the world or the environment but he questions the correspondence between the world and the cognition. Findings are only observance of the reality and therefore constructions. An observer is a psychological system, a human being, which is operating. To get statements from the reality there has to be made a comparison between one information form one observer with the second one from another observer, but not with the reality itself. In the end we never deal with a reality itself then with a reality that is constructed by an observer. In the first moment this sounds weird. How could something (the environment) really existent and then be constructed at the same time? This is because all descriptions are based on the ground that an observer did them. We don’t have to ask the question if there is a construction; we have to ask how the construction is made. For this reason we have to analyse and have a critical look at the way someone observes. If we say that there is an observer that says the world is constructed like this and this, this has enormous consequences. The old idea that the world is like this and this has no general validity anymore.[5] For Faust the world is an unsatisfied place, which needs to be brought under control and be effective. For Philemon by contrast the sun, the birds, the sea and the whole nature is a enjoyment.

As we see the environment is described in two different ways from two different systems. So we can see, that a system is something else than its environment. A system is different from its environment. Generally environment is not a strict defined factor like we speak in such a way from “environmental problems”. Environment is something that exists as a matter of a specific system, more precisely made by the system itself.

This doesn’t mean that there is no real existing environment; there is one, existing and requiring a real world. A real environment is a requirement for a system. But the world is not accessible from an objective point. The world is only accessible form the environment which comes from an observers view. The world itself needs systems to create information about itself. The world is not not existent, it is not only in our imagination, but it is unreachable. The world could only be really the real world without an observer who exists in it. If there is an observer observing, the world is going to change into environment immediately. Cognition of the world could be only found by cognition of the environments system. The system/environment-difference is therefore the main-difference of the Systemtheorie. The theory begins with the difference between system and environment.[6] This idea from Luhmann replaces the old thinking that a system is a integrated whole, made up of particles and elements. This old idea was focused on the inner side of a system and not of its borders. For Habermas there exists systems in the community and theses systems are the contradict notion to life-world, and often occupied in a negative way.[7] Not so here with Luhmann, with whom the community is a neutral system. The object of the Systemtheorie is the difference between the system and the environment. Both of them are equal in the way that they are more or less two sides of the same coin, they belong together. It would be wrong to think that the environment is existing and the system assimilates to it. So if we want to say something about a system we have always to think about its environment as well. Both factors depend on each other. Environment is there because of the system, because the environment is outside of a system and also relative to its system. Human beings – psychical systems, like Luhmann calls them – make all they notice to their environment.


[1] Passmore, John, Man´s Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Tradition, New York 1974, p. IX.

[2] Luhmann, Niklas, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Erster und zweiter Teilband, Frankfurt am Main 1997, p. 96.

[3] Luhmann, Niklas, Archimedes und wir, Berlin 1987, p. 163.

[4] Social in this context is not meant in a moral way. It has a neutral meaning.

[5] Luhmann, Niklas, Einführung in die Systemtheorie, Heidelberg 2002, p. 139.

[6] Luhmann, Niklas, Einführung in die Systemtheorie, Heidelberg 2002, p. 67.

[7] Habermas, Jürgen, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne, Zwölf Vorlesungen, 1985 Frankfurt am Main.

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Luhmanns "Systemtheorie" and his understanding of the environment at the example of Goethes "Faust II, act 5"
University of Westminster  (University of Westminster, London)
68 %
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ISBN (Book)
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English Master Essay, that illuminates Luhmann´s Systemtheorie in the light of Goethes Faust.
German, Niklas, Luhmann, Case, Goethes, Faust
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Stephanie Thanheiser (Author), 2007, Luhmanns "Systemtheorie" and his understanding of the environment at the example of Goethes "Faust II, act 5", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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