Niklas Luhmann introduces the so called Binary Code in his Systems Theory. Any system has its own binary code. For example, in science the code is "the truth vs. not the truth".

Which writers might offer critical readings of Luhmann? I would be especially interested in what might be said about this "binary code theory" within Luhmann's systems theory.

  • The scope of the question seems a bit ambiguous here (perhaps because so many other theorists and writers advance similar critiques of binary-oriented systems/structures/concepts/etc.) Maybe you could clarify whether you are looking for critical readings of Luhmann -- or general critiques/deconstructions of binary systems or "binarisms"?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 4, 2012 at 17:43
  • I'm looking for critical issues in Luhmann's systems theory, with a focus on his Binary Code. So I'm specially interested in critics which also addresses the Binary Code.
    – Bob
    Feb 4, 2012 at 17:46
  • Thanks. Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to tell us a little more about your context and motivations here? What might you be reading or studying that has made this particular argument of Luhmann's interesting or urgent to you? What have you found out so far? Please consider developing the question a bit further to tell us a little more about your use case to help potential answerers frame their responses.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 4, 2012 at 17:52
  • I was reading about Luhmann's systems theory, and the Binary Code came into my attention. On the one hand, I think it's a neat concept to reduce the complexity for the description of social systems. On the other hand, it feels a little to simple to describe reality in an adequate way. However, a real critical point does not come into my mind .Thus, I'm searching for critics on this Binary Code.
    – Bob
    Feb 6, 2012 at 16:45
  • 1
    I have broadened the question somewhat to try to improve the chances of it getting a great answer; let me know if I am miscontruing your intent, and please feel free to rollback or develop further.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 9, 2012 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


My understanding is that Luhmann's binary code applies to a very specific aspect of systems function; that of identifying information from noise inside the reified environment of the system. The binary mechanism is employed to establish the system's reality, which is necessarily different from any other realities. I am not aware that Luhmann extends the binary mechanism further than this. I would therefore expect criticism of this aspect of his theory to be thin on the ground also.

I would love to hear a different opinion on this. Good luck with your search.


Hans-Georg Moeller gives an exegesis of Luhmann in Luhmann Explained. You will definitely find a critical examination there. Be forewarned though, Moeller is an orthodox Luhmannian so he does not diverge from Luhmann in any substantive way.

For what it's worth Law as a Social System uses the legal/illegal distinction. Religion as a Social System uses immanent/transcendent. Education uses pass/fail. And so on for Art, the Mass Media, Politics, the Economy...

The binary code (or opposition) can be most usefully thought as the distinction that grounds (my word) a functionally differentiated social system. I think it may not even have to be a strict binary distinction but mark end-points in a continuum which gives us (in the case of Law as a Social System, for instance) legal, quasi-legal, illegal, and their variants.

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