Dustin Kidd
Contemporary Sociological Theory
Professor Fuchs
21st March, 1999

How do I Love Thee? No Really, How?
Theory, Literary History, and Theory in Luhmann's Love as Passion

A few weeks ago a young woman walked up to me and asked me if I'd be interested in going out for coffee sometime. Impressed by her assertiveness, I arranged to meet her two days later. As I prepared for our date, the 'maybe' that haunts every dating relationship crept in-maybe she's the one. That in mind, I carefully selected my clothing and planned a few topics for conversation, all with the hope that, if she was the one, she might recognize that I was the one for her. Unfortunately, the coffee-date quickly revealed to me that she was not the one. The problem is that I was successful in my attempt to convince her that I was the one. So now that I'm not interested, she is even more than before.

Little did I realize that I was dealing with the old and powerful force of 'double contingency.' I was essentially acting on that first date. I was letting her see the man that I believed she wanted to see. I was marketing myself until I could decide whether or not I wanted to make an investment. But she thought she was seeing my inherent characteristics, and she liked what she saw. It was a silly mistake on her part, since she was certainly marketing herself as much I was (not well, but much).

I have a better idea of the forces involved now that I have read Niklas Luhmann's Love as Passion; The Codification of Intimacy (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982). Luhmann applies his complicated theory of social systems, labeled by some as 'contingency functionalism', to the case of intimate relationships. The book is an exercise in literary criticism and history, couched in Luhmann's theory. The German sociologist explores the history of the literary coding of love, beginning in the seventeenth century. Never far from his theoretical foundation, Luhmann revisits his trademark subjects of contingency, reflexive complexity, communication, and codifying schema. He brings the reader to an understanding of the evolution of contemporary intimate relationships and makes a few proposals and predictions for the future.


Understanding Love as Passion came more easily for me than it might have because I had already read Luhmann's most theoretical book Social Systems. A definition of morality offered in Social Systems sums up, I believe, the key facets of Luhmann's functionalism. "Morality is the symbolic generalization that reduces the full reflexive complexity of doubly contingent ego/alter relations to expressions of esteem," (Social Systems 236). He goes on to explain that morality is coded by a binary schematism of esteem/disdain. I repeat this definition as a means of getting into Luhmann's theoretical perspective; not because morality is central to Luhmann's work, but because the definition reveals the core issues of Luhmann's theory.

Morality is a symbolic generalization. Love is another. While morality can be applied to any social relationship, love applies only to intimate relations. For the purposes of this paper, love is a symbolic generalization that reduces the full reflexive complexity of doubly contingent ego/alter intimate relations to one of a few possible expressions, thus rendering a simplified, but not binary, schematism. Love as a symbolic generalization is the result of an evolutionary process that is as old as human relations. But the application of this process to intimate relations took root in the seventeenth century.

I should pause here to point out something very basic in Luhmann's thought. Intimacy is a social system, and as such it is subject to the same processes as other social systems. The unique characteristic of intimate relations is the personal element. As intimate relations progress, every element and characteristic of each participant becomes a crucial part of the relationship.

Like all social relations, intimate relations are improbable due to the problems of contingency and complexity. This improbability is overcome, and the complexity reduced, through the symbolic generalization. As stated before, love is one of many such generalizations. Indeed, love is not the only symbolic generalization that is applied to intimate relationships. Plaisir (pleasure) is another. Historically, marriage offered a third generalization for intimate relations, but is now combined with love in modern society.

Symbolic generalizations can only successfully function if they embody codes. Every social relationship must be codified to overcome improbability. The codification of love has evolved since the seventeenth century, but has typically been programmed by either passion or frivolity. Passion, though it has been understood differently in various periods, has consistently been more dominant than frivolity, as social order demands.

Though most symbolic generalizations are binary coded, this is not the case for love. Morality is coded by esteem/disdain; law by legal/illegal. But, Luhmann warns us, "One would scan the code of empassioned love in vain for an exact analogy to this," (85). Perhaps this is because love, more than any other social system, is characterized by contingency and fluidity. Any possible binary codification is only briefly functional, given certain qualifications.

This is the briefest possible summary of Luhmann's theory. After grounding the reader in this theory, he then challenges us to detect the presence of these paradigms in the activity of the past four centuries of love's codification. The title of the next section places us in the setting of that activity.

Literary Criticism and Literary History

Certain attempts to codify love in Antiquity should not be overlooked. Luhmann points us to Classical and Arabian love poetry, as well as the Medieval Minnesang, as the earliest of such codes. However, the need for these codes was not yet established because intimate relations were not yet doubly contingent. During this time, love was more of an 'ideal' of poetry and drama than a symbolic generalization.

The seventeenth century man did not immediately abandon that ideal, but he did recognize the appearance of double contingency and the emerging codification of love. "At least one important aspect changed during the seventeenth century: the unattainability of the woman worshipped was shifted by virtue of being transformed into a decision made by the woman herself," (49). When intimacy was dependent only on the man's decisions and actions, improbability was not a concern. The sudden significance of the woman's decisions and actions, and their co-existence with those of the man, created the improbability that accompanies double contingency.

The appearance of double contingency shifted love from an ideal to a paradox. This paradox is grounded in the fact that the man's esteem for the woman is contingent upon her appearance of not wanting intimacy with him. The 'wanton' woman, who makes her esteem for the man apparent, risks being deemed unworthy by the man. And so, the man wants only what is improbable. This improbability renders the need for a codified love that "provides forms to be used to glorify one's own emotions, but is also designed to regulate communication between two partners," (50). If both male and female simply followed the codes that were disseminated both in the salons of France and in many books, then they might be able to overcome the improbability of love.

This system can only be successful briefly, and the logical end to the love story is marriage. If the man and woman continue to hold each other in high esteem, they will conclude their love affair by marrying each other. If they do not hold each other in high esteem, they will marry someone else. In any case, we must recognize that marriage is not a continuance of love, but an alternative to it.

Enter passion. Etymologically speaking, passion refers to a passive experience. One is so overcome with passion that he must succumb to it and follow where it leads. For instance, the passion of Christ led him to his death on the cross. When first applied to intimate relations, passion was still understood to be passive. A man impassioned for his beloved makes certain wild gestures in an attempt to woo. He cannot help it. It is passion. Increasingly, however, passion became an excuse for activity, but remained hidden in the passive guise of the word.

Passion had to overcome frivolity as the chief program for the codification of love, or rather, it had to envelop frivolity. As the eighteenth century increasingly attempted to incorporate sexuality into love's code (where before sex and love had been handled separately), non-sensual relations became an alternative symbolic generalization of intimacy-friendship. Friendship and love then competed to be the reigning generalizations. Friendship, as such a generalization, fails to perform the necessary functions of intimacy, which includes the reproduction of the family system. But a codified love that incorporates sexuality must also incorporate marriage. In time, marriage ceased to be an alternative symbolic generalization, and became a part of love, which became the symbolic generalization.

We are now in the realm of romantic love. The ideal of love is finally abandoned. What counts instead is "to bring the subject down to the level of everyday operations and to test its viability" (134), the subject being love. Every love story, if it is to be successful, must now include the marriage story. Until the twentieth century. In this century, the feminist movement and the sexual revolution changed everything. Neither the procreative nor the recreational aspects of sex need be confined to marriage. All programs for the codification of love have been rejected as patriarchal and archaic, and have yet to be replaced. The title of Luhmann's fifteenth chapter evokes a common sentiment-What Now?

Theory Revisited

Wherever it exists, the symbolic generalization is a medium of communication. The codification of love is one of semantics. While many critics decry the twentieth century as the end of history due to a loss of functional communication, Luhmann actually offers some direction to the programming that might help us overcome the present difficulties. He summarizes his recommendations in three postulates:
1. the incorporation of the environment and environmental relationships of an observed system into the observation, so that simultaneously one can become acquainted with the observed person's source of inner experience and the aim of his actions
2. the incorporation of information and information processing, i.e. the incorporation of the contingencies and comparative schemes, with reference to which messages in the observed system are then experienced and treated as selections
3. the incorporation of the necessities for self-portrayal, and the internal facilities used for such a purpose, into what goes to make up the object of understanding (168)

Essentially, Luhmann is calling for a 'contingency functionalism'-systems-theory- sociological-understanding of the codification of love, in order that love might be more successful at performing its function for the larger social system.

These postulates amount to what Luhmann calls interpersonal interpenetration, and are based on a coding program of 'understanding.' This understanding is a result of the increasing communication of the code to those who practice it. Therapists, self-help gurus, psychologists, and sociologists have told us how we think and act, thus creating the possibility of an arbitrary reconstruction of our programming. Luhmann is attempting to point us back to sincerity as the basis of intimacy, while also rooting us in the structure of the social system.

Before concluding, I want to point out that Luhmann is anticipating a continued increase in the importance of sociology and its influence on culture. Unless he is hoping that contemporary romance authors will read his a book, a dubious proposition, the only way his suggestions for the future can become reality is if sociologists become the authors of love's code.


So does this help me determine my next move in the dating scenario I outlined at the start of this paper? Not at all. The true success of Love as Passion is not a revision of the rules of love, but a demonstration of the empirical support of Luhmann's theories. If 'contingency functionalism' can be tested in the affairs of love, the possibility is then created that it can also be tested in other forms of social relations. I have no plans to engage in interpersonal interpenetration with my recent acquaintance, but I do have a new appreciation for Luhmann's systems theories, and more largely for the notion that social systems define every aspect of human existence


In his upcoming book The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Frank Fukayama posits that both intimate relations and social order are founded in the "innate" "nature" of man-intimacy in the innate characteristics of each sex, social order in the nature of human beings. He further suggests that birth control and de-industrialization have allowed us to break from our natures in ways that we will soon regret, as social order is lost. Fukayama's work is underlined by a distrust of the sociological perspective. I think he would benefit from a read of Luhmann's work that not only reveals a socially constructed paradigm of human relations and social order, but also underscores the constant re-construction of social systems. Perhaps, we are not at the end of history after all.

Primary Work:
Luhmann, Niklas. Love as Passion; The Codification of Intimacy. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Originally published in 1982 by Suhrkamp Verlag as Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimitat).