Universität Bielefeld

© Universität Bielefeld

Research Project "Niklas Luhmann - "A Passion for Theory"

Niklas Luhmann

(© Alexander Kluge/ Bielefeld University)*


"Niklas Luhmann - A Passion for Theory
Publishing His Literary Estate and Making It Accessible for Research"

by the Faculty of Sociology in collaboration with the Archive and University Library of the University of Bielefeld and the Digital Humanities Department, University of Wuppertal (BUW).

Access the digital contents of the Niklas Luhmann-Archives here.


The Literary Estate of Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) was a researcher and teacher at the University of Bielefeld from 1968 to 1993 and, apart from Max Weber, the most famous and influential German sociologist of the twentieth century. His internationally distinguished social theory and theory of society, continuously developed over a period of thirty years, compares only to the social scientific theories of Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu, or Michel Foucault, although it is distinct from these in terms of its unique theoretical and conceptual architecture, its claim to universality, and its ability to connect with other disciplines. Drawing on the tradition of philosophy and adopting highly diverse concepts of modern science, Luhmann´s functionalist systems theory represents the most rigorous attempt of our time to expand the boundaries of sociology and enable an appropriate description of modern society. This research program is documented in an unprecedented output of nearly 600 publications, among them more than 40 books addressing all spheres of modern society.

The extensive body of Luhmann´s literary estate, which the University of Bielefeld was able to acquire in 2010 with the support of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung and the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, sheds light on the author and the edifice of his theory beyond what is known from his published works. In terms of its richness in information, it is perhaps only surpassed in the modern history of ideas by the estate of Edmund Husserl. Valuable insights are to be gained particularly from Luhmann´s index card file comprising about 90,000 index cards, which was at the heart of his theory-building work. These notes, produced between 1951 and 1996, are a unique documentation of the evolution of Luhmann´s thinking, so that this compilation can be viewed as his intellectual autobiography. Moreover, his card index displays a specific system of organization that not only served Luhmann as an indispensable machine for theory development and publications but also makes it interesting for the history of science. In addition, Luhmann´s estate consists of nearly 200 unpublished manuscripts some of which are of substantial size. Particularly his early work in the 1950s and ?60s on issues in the fields of political science and administrative studies as well as on phenomenological sociology provides insight into the intellectual roots of Luhmann´s theory that have frequently remained concealed in his published works. Of extraordinary interest are furthermore the four voluminous versions of Luhmann´s theory of society that he wrote between 1965 and 1990 and that exemplify the evolution of his cosmos of theoretical and conceptual thought leading up to the version that was actually published in 1997. The substantial body of lecture notes on a range of topics not only reflects Luhmann´s qualities as a teacher but also illustrates his way of approaching new areas of research. Among Luhmann´s literary estate are also his library as well as his correspondence.


The research project

The objective of the project is to preserve Niklas Luhmann´s literary estate and make it accessible for research as well as to study the genesis of his work and publish a critical edition of unpublished writings. To achieve this, the first step is archiving those parts of the estate worthy of preservation (manuscripts, card index, correspondence, library etc.) and digitizing and preparing for further use those materials that are to be made accessible for research. The resulting critical edition intends to make Luhmann´s unpublished works - as documents in the history of thought - accessible to academic research and the interested public.

Preparing such an edition is conceived as sociological research on the structure and genesis of one of the last "grand theories" of sociology. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for developing a science-based infrastructure service that interdisciplinary and, to an increasing degree, international research studying or applying Luhmann´s theory can draw on in the future. For this purpose, an open-access information portal is being established where all parts of Luhmann´s estate of scientific relevance will be provided to the public in a user-friendly format. The portal will moreover offer additional information about Luhmann´s works and the author himself in the form of audio and video documents as well as a comprehensive bibliography.

In terms of complementarity between a materials stock largely organized in network form and its implementation as a technical hypertext system, Luhmann´s literary estate is a model that is extraordinarily well-suited to exemplify how complex fields of information can be organized for use in this way. This applies particularly to his card index, which will be transcribed, inventoried, and converted into an edited, user-friendly database and interlinked with his other unpublished works, which will be published and made accessible in an edition documenting the history of Luhmann´s work. The project will furthermore issue a multi-volume edition of his unpublished writings with foci on theory of society, phenomenological sociology, political science and administrative/organizational studies, the sociology of education, and his lectures.



Niklas Luhmann




*The pixel portrait of Niklas Luhmann has been produced by Sebastian Zimmer (CCeH) using the software AndreaMosaic. It consists of 1271 cards out of the Luhmann´s card index.