Is language a system?

Whether we understand language as a system has implications for our understanding of reality and representation.

Being a writer, I’m certainly interested in language. It’s the primary tool of my work, alongside hardware like a MacBook, a decent monitor and a keyboard. As a craftsman of language, I try to keep my tools sharp. If language were a system, I’d be glad to hug it. But is it?

It depends on whom you ask.

David Mattin, our well-established keynoter, clearly thinks so. He defines language as a system of representation, referring to the philosopher and linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who understood language as a system of differences. Broadly speaking, this is in line with contemporary semiotics, the science of signs and meaning. Perhaps the most popular semiotician was Umberto Eco, who gained his popularity by writing best-selling novels.

But let’s get back to David.

It seemed to me that our systems of representation – films, novels, maybe even language itself – tended to become, in some powerful sense, more real to us than the experiences those representations were intended to describe. And that this fuelled a strange inversion. Instead of looking at our representations and saying, ‘this is just like a real experience’, we look at our real experiences and say ‘this is just like our representations’.

Underlying this is the perennial philosophical problem of reality. It has gained relevance through the advent of technologies like virtual reality and the metaverse. But it applies to language as well. Language shapes our reality. So what is the relationship between language and being (to paraphrase a book by Kübra Gümüşay, who will speak at NEXT22 on September 22/23)?

Collapsing the subject/object framework

David reminds us that language is associated with the metaphysical stance of subject/object. And this poses the problem of reality.

That’s because our belief that we are subjects looking to a ‘world out there’ makes the true nature of the world a problem for us. What is the underlying fabric of this world, the really real? How can we distinguish it from mere appearance?

He then refers to Martin Heidegger, who collapsed the subject/object framework and rather insisted that our human existence is inescapably one with the world.

We exist as an event, or process of action, that encompasses both self and world in a unified whole.

This, of course, has interesting implications for language. It doesn’t need to struggle with the relationship between subject and object, or with signifier and signified (in semiotic terms). Language uses symbols which are themselves what they perform. Heidegger meets Luhmann.

What does that mean?

I always like to turn to Niklas Luhmann for my personal needs in systems theory. His theory of social systems doesn’t leave room for language as a system. Quite the contrary, he sees language as a non-system

that makes system formation in the area of consciousness and communication possible in the first place by enabling the structural coupling of the two types of system.

Niklas Luhmann (1994): Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft, 51

In Luhmann’s terms, social systems are systems of communication, while cognitive systems are systems of consciousness. Both are necessary environments for each other. Language is the medium for the structural coupling of these systems. It has its place in the autopoiesis of both systems, i.e. in their self-reproduction.

Reality and virtuality

According to Luhmann, language

allows the construction of a world, which, however, as a construction has its basis in reality only in the operations themselves.

Niklas Luhmann (1994): Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft, 52

This brings us to a topic we’ve discussed on this blog for years: the difference between reality and virtuality. Following a long tradition of describing the physical world as real and the digital world as virtual, we could expect a tipping point in the near future. At this point, the digital world, or the metaverse, would become our default understanding of reality.

In a way, it’s the old reality problem in a new form. Only that the difference of subject/object – which both Heidegger and Luhmann deemed obsolete – or signifier/signified is replaced by digital/physical. Are virtual, digital systems representing the real, physical world?

Luhmann’s theory suggests an elegant solution to this problem. If we – as mental or social systems – use language to construct our world, the operations are the basis of reality. We can observe their use. The reality is given with the execution of the operation. No need to mess with the difference between physical/real and digital/virtual worlds.

The problem of representation

There’s no reason to view a system as less real or unreal just because it’s digital or physical. Reality isn’t bound to attributes like physical/digital, but to the operations of the system.

Now, let’s be fair. Luhmann refers to social systems, as systems of communication, and their operations, while Heidegger thinks about human beings. In Luhmann’s systems theory, human beings only appear as cognitive systems, or systems of consciousness.

But apart from reasons of theory, there are other, more practical reasons to do away with physical/digital dualism. George Dyson touted hybrid analogue/digital systems back in 2019. It’s becoming increasingly hard to draw a line between analogue and digital. We’ve seen this phenomenon in the retail industry, where most retailers are somewhere on a continuum between online and offline.

This is exactly what we expected to happen when we first discussed the post-digital world a decade ago.

When reality is defined by the operations of autopoietic systems, the problem of representation becomes less virulent, or even obsolete. Language is only a medium, a non-system, and doesn’t need to represent a different reality. In Luhmann’s theory, a system doesn’t copy features of its environment.

The way out is clear: one can only call reality that which refers to this very difference. In systems theory terminology, this means: Reality is the difference between system and environment, i.e. environment in difference to system and system in difference to environment.

Niklas Luhmann (1994): Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft, 318

All this doesn’t mean that language is not important, that we don’t need to care about it or that it will not or should not change. Language is a powerful tool, or medium in Luhmann’s terms.

However, it makes sense not to consider it as a system.