This is mainly just a reference question. I seem to recall long ago encountering the term "diabolism" in some social theoretical writings, used not in any theological sense but in its etymological relation to "symbolism," "metabolism," etc. I thought it might have been Luhmann or other systems theorists, but can't seem to find it now in indexes or google.

Any references welcome. I am also somewhat interested in "technical" uses of the term in philosophy with more theological overtones, though not in the general "problem of evil" sense. My specific interest is "symbolic" communications that split apart, so to speak, into some incompatible or destructive dualism, the American flag being a simple everyday example.

  • How can one bevinterested in 'philosophy with theological overtones' but at the same time not be interested in the 'problem of evil'? Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 3:03

2 Answers 2


The etymological sense of dia-bolic (throwing apart, shattering) is largely overshadowed by the Biblical sense. Luhmann did attempt to rehabilitate it, but without much success. Baraldi et al. in Unlocking Luhmann, p. 232 relate the etymological use in systems theory to that of sym-bolic:

"The most important structural characteristic of symbolically generalizedmedia is a central →code based on a binary schematization. The code determines the form of the medium, which is thus not only symbolic, but also “diabolic” because it produces a difference between two values: for instance,between payment and non-payment (money) and true and untrue (truth). By differentiating the two values of the code, a symbolically generalized medium obtains information from every event and from every situation (e.g., some-thing is true or untrue, someone pays or does not pay)".

In Luhmann and epistemology, p. 11 Thyssen traces this sense of "diabolical" to Luhmann's Sthenographie (1990, published in Beobachter. Konvergenz der Erkenntnistheorien?):

"The operations of knowledge have no counterpart in reality since that would mean that the system would continuously dissolve itself in the system and thus be incapable of knowing. This merely provides and operative answer. The cognitive problem remains unanswered and unanswerable. However, this philosophical hitch is not fatal to Luhmann. He suspends it by asserting that “internally defined observations can be characterised as “representation” or as “sign” or as “symbol” so that they are assigned with a function for the observation of the unity of the difference between system and environment” (Luhmann 1990: 128). This unity is always diabolical because it can only be observed as a difference. Logically, this leads to paralysis. Empirically, however, it leads to time, that is, dynamics."

With no apparent connection to Luhmann or systems theory, Lynch plays with the etymological meaning in Symbiotic truth, diabolic deception, when discussing religious education in the spirit of Dewey. But she is also actively invoking the Biblical meaning:

"The metaphors of symbiosis and diabolism were inherited as the core of the human condition, and further, diabolism (to throw apart, to shatter) became associated with all damage and evil rupturing the innate wholeness and goodness of the primordial and risen creation. The created world, the cataphatic (cata: down, phatic: things spoken of — things that may be spoken of from the earth) references positive theology, or the created world which is known and experienced; the concrete reality. The uncreated world, the apophatic (apo: away, apart — things that may be spoken of apart from creation) is negative theology or silent mystery (the dark matter of creation)."

Doel's application of deconstruction to geography in Poststructuralist Geographies: The Diabolical Art of Spatial Science can also be read as alluding to the etymological diabolism, aside from the more traditional association with temptations. As a curiosity, biochemists occasionally use etymological diabolism, along with metabolism and catabolism, as in "diabolism of lipids".

I should mention that "diabolical" in the Biblical sense is sometimes applied to Luhmann himself and his systems theory. Sloterdijk described "Luhmann’s efforts to deculpabilize human life in religious history" as playing advocatus diaboli in anthropology (see Langlitz, Devil’s advocate), and Schwanitz in Systems Theory and the Difference between Communication and Consciousness is even more explicit:

"Luhmann's systems theory thus reinvokes the tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit in the context of contemporary discussions. He takes the frontline position against the cult of inwardness, positing an ethics of principle against the condemnation of the general public as the sphere of inauthenticity and alienation from real life, as well as against the rejection of modernity by Kulturkritik. This explains to a large extent the allergic reactions from the camp of political correctness. Such reactions become particularly violent when confronted with the diabolical air of distance and superiority which mark Luhmann's rebuttals of the reproach of emotional coldness on the one hand, and the demands for moral gestures with reference to sociological enlightenment on the other."

  • This is probably after Neitzsche's advocacy of a position beyond Good and Evil. One would not have envisaged such a position before then. Adorno said he could not see the possibility of poetry aftwr Auschwitz - and hence he reaffirmed the possibility of evil. Commented Sep 25, 2021 at 6:09
  • So it was Luhmann. Exactly what I was after. Thanks for such a comprehensive answer and, I think, a great contribution to this site. Commented Sep 25, 2021 at 19:46

According to an essay in the edited book of essays, Evolutionary and Intelligent Systems:

According to Niklas Luhmann, a currency has bilateral characteristics called 'symbolic' and 'diabolic' that serves opposite effects, linking and separating people. But it is impossible to separate these two characteristics from each other ... the diabolic character of currency relates to the diabolic aspect of symbolic generalisation. For example, diabolic character leads to financial crisis, the supremacy of money and the economic disparity etc. Luhmann argued that yhe most diabolic aspect was the attenuation of reciprocity.

An example would be crypto-currencies. This can be seen as diabolic as it is attempting to privatise the symbolic representation of money from the representatives of the people. And hence remove it from democratic control. Only in capitalism can one even privatise money itself ...

It seems here, that Luhmann is simply amplifying the register within which the Marxist notion of alienation is spoken of. After all, alienation in Marxist thought means to be both alienated from the product of one labours as well as alienated from one co-workers so that a properly human community cannot be established even whilst sold this vision through advertising.

This is indeed diabolic in the ancient, theological term of the word. And it's this symbolic aspect of the word that Luhmann was leveraging. Though in ancient thought, evil can be separated and distinguished from the good, contra Luhmann's thought.

  • I don't think you understand blockchain currencies. There is a public ledger. David Graeber contrasts paper fiat money as debt trading, to intrinsic value currency like gold - & identifies blockchain currencies with the latter, as part of a cycling between the two that's older than recorded history. I found your quote interesting & relevant, & upvoted your post.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 14:09
  • @CriglCragl: I've read about blockchains ledgers. I've also read that Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England in a report by the BBC, warned that cryptocurrencies faciliated illegal activities and threatened the stability of the financial systems. Business papers are still bullish on them though, but then again they were bullish about derivatives until the floor fell from under them just over a decade ago. Where were the warnings about derivatives then from the business papers? ... Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 7:29
  • @CriglCragl: ... None - they were too busy profiteering from stupidly and badly built derivatives instruments that were all but opaque. Likewise here. Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 7:30

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