Language in the Constitution of Social Systems

Klaus Krippendorff
Gregory Bateson Term Professor for Cybernetics, Language, and Culture

University of Pennsylvania


Traditional theories of social systems are saturated with biological metaphors that lead social theorists to conceptualize such systems from their outside, as observers, seeking to explain as would be appropriate for biological systems their organization in relation to their (presumably knowable) environment.  Entering the biology of observers in the description of such systems does not allow one to escape biological determinisms either.   

The key to this escape and the starting point of my conception of second-order cybernetics is the recognition that theories, metaphors, and descriptive accounts, including of autopoiesis, occur in the domain of language.  Social systems do not exist the way biological systems do.  They are constructed in language, constituted by enacting their constructions, justified in local accounting practices among their stakeholders, and essentially hide themselves from detached observers.  While acknowledging the bodily participation of language users, I am suggesting that social systems need to be understood from what languaging does, not from what biology has theorized and detached observers can observe.  This presentation will develop and illustrate second-order cybernetic concepts of social phenomena and take a critical or emancipatory perspective.