Issue 143, December 2017

Heller Habermas

Contemporary Perspectives on Critical Theory and Social Systems Theory

Guest Editors: Hans-Georg Moeller and Mario Wenning 

IntroductionMario Wenning


On Habermas: Old times – Ágnes Heller

Response to Ágnes Heller – Jürgen Habermas


Critique without crisis: Systems theory as a critical sociology – Elena Esposito

This paper proposes an extended idea of critique, bypassing the paradox of a critique of critique. It reconstructs the semantics of critique from ancient commentary to autonomous interpretation, identifying the blindness of critical theory in the claim to detect crises and to indicate how to overcome them. The critique of critique is achieved not by rejecting critique but by moving to second-order observation. In this understanding, critique does not refuse what is normal but observes it as improbable. Critical observation is understood as reflection on normality, its opposite, and its alternatives. The debate on risk society is presented and commented on as an example.

On second-order observation and genuine pretending: Coming to terms with society – Hans-Georg Moeller

This paper discusses the meaning of the concept of ‘second-order observation’ used by Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998). Luhmann identifies second-order observation as a defining characteristic of modern world society. According to Luhmann, all social systems construct a social reality on the basis of the observation of observations. Rating agencies in the economy or the peer-review process in the academic system are examples of social mechanisms manifesting second-order observation. Social media also represent organized second-order observation. The paper suggests that in a society based on second-order observation, ‘genuine pretending’ is an adequate mode of existence. This notion is derived from the Daoist text Zhuangzi. It indicates a disassociation from social roles which allows their performers to exercise these roles with ease and, at the same time, maintain a state of sanity.

Legitimating reason or self-created uncertainty? Public opinion as an observer of modern politics – Giancarlo Corsi

Theoretical approaches to public opinion are hard to find in the sociological literature, with the exception of the seminal work of Jürgen Habermas. One important alternative, although almost unknown in the English-speaking world, is offered in a few contributions by the systems theoretician Niklas Luhmann. Both critical theory and systems theory start from a historical analysis of the conditions that led to the rise of a public sphere and understand its function as the limitation and control of the arbitrariness of power. Critical theory considers the public sphere as a social space where citizens can (or should) participate and discuss freely and without constraints. Thus, it legitimizes political power. Systems theory presents a completely different concept of the public sphere and conceives of it in terms of second-order observation. Through public opinion the modern political system observes itself and stimulates as well as limits its decision-making processes. This paper argues that both approaches share the idea that the political system, like every other social subsystem, must generate a system-specific uncertainty (i.e. specific conditions that it cannot control) in order to limit its own arbitrariness and to be able to develop its decision-making potential. Both approaches locate this uncertainty in the sphere of public opinion. But they radically differ in the way they conceptualize public opinion’s effects on modern politics. Such differences between critical theory and systems theory are illustrated by an analysis of recent political events.

Notes on Luhmann, Adorno, and the critique of neoliberalism – Laurindo Dias Minhoto

This article discusses some possibilities for a critical interpretation of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. On the one hand, this theory could provide a sophisticated new sociological account of well-known modern social pathologies, such as alienation and reification; on the other, it could be considered a crypto-normative model for the reciprocal mediation between system and environment in which neither blind tautologies nor colonizations would take place. I argue that as a normative model this theoretical matrix seems to resonate with aspects of Adorno’s negative dialectics between subject and object and that the involuntary promise it contains could be fully realized only under other social conditions. The article also presents a preliminary critique of neoliberalism reconceptualized in systems theoretical terms as a dedifferentiation machinery that aims at establishing the primacy of economic rationality and the formation of ‘industries’ in different social spheres.

Functional differentiation as ideology of the (neo)colonial society – Guilherme Leite Gonçalves

This article discusses the ideological character of the notion of functional differentiation. According to Luhmann, the development of worldwide social differentiation (that is, the rise of the world society) leads to different regional developments and generates, through the inclusion/exclusion code, a division of the world between places where the functional differentiation operates appropriately and inappropriately. This paper argues, however, that functional differentiation is only readable as an ensemble of relations of power and ideological discourses. This subject is developed in light of theoretical approaches from the Marxist tradition and from postcolonial studies. Regarding the first, the functional differentiation is reread as an abstract and generic equality, which permits the material reproduction of regional inequality. This idea provides a background for discussing the ideological features of the functional differentiation which serves the dominant position of Western countries in the international arena since it enables the maintenance of a ruling ideology, according to which the world is differentiated between the ‘civilized’ West (where democracy performs positively) and the ‘uncivilized’ non-West (where democracy performs negatively).

On gambling: The provocation of Lady Fortune – Mario Wenning

The gambler’s probing of luck in games of chance cannot be reduced to rational calculation. The art of gambling flourishes at the margins of societies and undermines the correlation of effort and entitlement. This paper interprets the peculiar thrill of gambling in modern times by drawing on social systems theory and critical theory. It argues that gambling is a specific mode of agency that consists in a playful engagement with risk and contingency. The gambler reveals a highly aroused and yet passive consciousness. Success in gambling depends on the art of proper timing as well as a preconscious awareness of fortune.

Can social systems theory be used for immanent critique? – Alexei Procyshyn

Two trends have emerged in recent work from the Frankfurt School: the first involves a reconsideration of immanent critique’s basic commitments and viability for critical social theory, while the second involves an effort to introduce temporal considerations for social interaction into critical theorizing to help make sense of the phenomenon of social acceleration. This article contributes to these ongoing discussions by investigating whether social systems theory, in which temporal relations play a primary role, can be integrated with immanent critique. If such a synthesis were successful, it would promise to unify two distinct forms of social theorizing that have often been taken to be orthogonal or incommensurate since the debate between Luhmann and Habermas in the 1970s. The investigation proceeds in three parts: first, the article delineates immanent critique’s conditions of success; second, using these conditions, it identifies potential points of contact between social systems theorizing and immanent critical forms of analysis, while exemplifying these commonalities via a case study; finally, the article argues that, although immanent critique is not a strict method of analysis or investigation, its success conditions preclude social systems theory on the grounds that the latter approach cannot anchor itself within the context of analysis in the way ‘immanent critique’ requires.

Brazil’s movement of the landless at the cutting edge of conflicted modernity – Rowan Ireland

Brazil’s Movement of the Landless (MST) emerges from this collection as one of the great social movements of modernity. In historical chapters we see its evolution from confrontations with landowners and police in land invasions in the South of Brazil in the 1970s to become a multi-faceted movement with a presence throughout Brazil. More than a pressure group for Land Reform, it turned to mount a comprehensive challenge, on linked legal, cultural, political and economic fronts to Brazil’s dominant model of development. Its ‘social movement approach’, conjoining challenge to Brazil’s massive inequalities with the formation of active citizens among the marginalised rural poor, has become a model for movements in the urban scene. We see this not just through the rich descriptive accounts of MST actions, but because the contributing editor, Miguel Carter, has pointed the action portraits with theoretical acumen, and, with other contributors, placed them in historical context.

Book reviews:

The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal – Volker M Heins

Agamben and Radical Politics – Francis Russell

A Critical Theory of Creativity: Utopia, Aesthetics, Atheism and Design – Chamsy el-Ojeili

German Cosmopolitan Social Thought and the Idea of the West: Voices from Weimar – David Roberts

Containing Community – Mattia Di Pierro

Asia, Modernity, and the Pursuit of the Sacred: Gnostics, Scholars, Mystics and Reformers -Fernando Rosa


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