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Revue internationale de philosophie

2012/1 (n° 259)

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It has been a great pleasure for me to edit this collection of essays addressing the theme: Luhmann and Philosophy. I wish, therefore, to thank the editors of Revue internationale de philosophie for offering me the opportunity to do so.


The reception of Luhmann outside Germany has, to date, been to a large extent concentrated around the sociological periphery of legal academies, and his theory of legal positivization as a process assuming determining importance in the construction of European modernity has become a core paradigm in this sphere of inquiry. Not without reason, therefore, it is in the sociology of law that his influence has been, and is likely to remain, at its most pervasive. However, the essays collected here bear witness, each in a different way, to a rising multi-disciplinary engagement with Luhmann’s work, and they illuminate diverse threads of possible philosophical debate around his theory of society. Luhmann was always clear that he was no philosopher. Indeed, his whole œuvre is centered on the assertion that in the contemporary social sciences, not any perennial aggregate of human endowments or faculties, but rather the variable communicative fabric of society itself, must be observed as the primary unit of analysis. In consequence, a philosophical dialogue with his theory might appear rather difficult to sustain: for those working in more conventional philosophical lineages, his work might easily appear to negate the very status and dignity of philosophy as a primary science of founding human realities or first principles. Nonetheless, Luhmann consciously positioned his mode of analysis in a distinct critical relation to the epistemological preconditions of Western philosophy. His endeavor to construct a theory of society founded in the analysis of communications arising from contingent acts of systemic differentiation clearly owed much to Heideggerian phenomenology and above all to Heidegger’s deconstruction of post-Cartesian ontology. Moreover, his theory of inner-systemic rationalization articulated a strategic reconstruction of the individualistic principles of rationality promoted by the Enlightenment of eighteenth-century Germany, France and Scotland. On these grounds, a philosophical interrogation of the premises of Luhmann’s thought might be observed, not as an example of arcane paradigmatic overreach, but in fact as a debate conducted in the vital self-critical margins of the canon of European philosophy. Indeed, Luhmann’s ambiguous location at once inside and outside the European philosophical tradition comes distinctively and variably into focus throughout all the articles in this volume.


The contributions included here are admirably diverse in their approaches, each illuminating one particular possible purchase on Luhmann’s thought within the philosophical domain. Yet, at the same time, all are connected by their identification (even if conflicting in emphasis) of the central philosophical residues—circling on questions of anti-ontology, the self-critique of epistemology, communication theory, deconstruction, and societal contingency—that provide the framework of systems theory. For example, Jean Clam’s article places Luhmann’s work in relation to the original sociological critique of philosophical foundationalism, and it examines the conceptual fabric of his thought as a dimension in a broader project of de-ontologization, which has formative significance in sociological methodology more generally. Gerhard Wagner also approaches Luhmann in the context of the philosophy of the social sciences, and he elucidates the analytical strengths and weaknesses of his functionalist methodology. Continuing in this vein, my article inquires into the motives for Luhmann’s construction of his social theory as the expression of a sociological Enlightenment, and it positions his theory in the discursive conflict between the normative structure of political philosophy and the interpretive methods of sociology. Unlike other accounts, my article seeks to explain the political dimensions of his thought as articulating an (albeit counter-intuitive) retrieval of the principles of classical-modern European philosophy. The theme of de-ontologization addressed by Clam and myself is taken up in the essay by William Rasch, who, within an implicit post-structuralist paradigm, explores the Luhmannian deconstruction and (covert) reconstruction of ontology. This nexus between Luhmann and (predominantly French-speaking) post-structuralism then assumes a more central position in Urs Stäheli’s contribution, which introduces a highly distinctive method and a broadly drawn interpretive context for appreciating Luhmann’s theory of communicative contingency. The volume is rounded off, accordingly, by Christian Borch’s subtle inquiry into the formative reciprocity between object construction and conceptual architecture in Luhmann’s social theory. The concept of eclecticism, a term widely used to depreciate the sustainability of Luhmann’s interpretive apparatus, is employed by Borch as a device for illuminating the formative complexity of his theoretical method.


A rather different Luhmann emerges from each of the contributions offered here. Notably, some are dedicated simply to elucidating his thought, whereas others outline ways, either critically or more affirmatively, in which elements of his thinking might be made philosophically productive. Each essay, however, if not intent on re-locating Luhmann from the periphery to the centre of European philosophy, highlights his importance in the margins of distinct strands of philosophical research, and each essay clarifies how his thought originally developed through an intense concern with the legacy of classical European thinking.

Pour citer cet article

Thornhill Chris, « Introduction. Luhmann and Philosophy », Revue internationale de philosophie, 1/2012 (n° 259), p. 5-7.


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