A brief revisit of the Habermas/Luhmann debate

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve gotten into some arguments with friends recently about the philosophy of science. I’m also finding myself working these days, yet again, at a disciplinary problem. By which I mean, the primary difficulty of the research questions I’m asking at the moment is that there is no discipline that in its primary self-understanding asks those questions.

This and the coronavirus emergency have got me thinking, “What ever happened to the Habermas/Luhmann debate?” It is a good time to consider this problem because it’s one that’s likely to minimize my interactions with other people at a time when this one’s civic duty.

I refer to Rasch (1991) for an account of it. Here is a good paragraph summarizing some of the substance of the debate.

It is perhaps in this way that Luhmann can best be distinguished from Habermas. The whole movement of Habermas’s thought tends to some final resting place, prescriptively in the form of consensus as the legitimate basis for social order, and methodologically in the form of a normative underlying simple structure which is said to dictate the proper shape of surface complexity. But for Luhmann, complexity does not register the limits of human knowledge as if those limits could be overcome or compensated for by the reconstruction of some universal rule-making process. Rather, complexity, defined as the paradoxical task of solving a solved problem that cannot be solved, or only provisionally solved, or only solved by creating new problems, is the necessary ingredient for human intellectual endeavors. Complexity always remains complex and serves as a self-replenishing reservoir of possibilities (1981, 203-4). Simply put, complexity is limited understanding. It is the missing information which makes it impossible to comprehend a system fully (1985, 50-51; 1990, 81), but the absence of that information is absolutely unavoidable and paradoxically essential for the further evolution of complexity.

Rasch, 1991

In other words, Habermas believes that it’s possible, in principle, to reach a consensus around social order that is self-legitimizing and has at its core a simple, even empty, observer’s stance. This is accomplished through rational communicative action. Luhmann, on the other hand, sees the fun-house of perspectivalist warped mirrors and no such fixed point or epistemological attractor state.

But there’s another side to this debate which is not discussed so much in the same context. Habermas, by positing a communicative rationality capable of legitimization, is able to identify the obstacles to it: the “steering media”, money and power (Habermas, 1987). Whereas Luhmann understands a “social system” to be constituted by the communication within it. A social system is defined as the sum total of its speech, writing, and so on.

This has political implications. Rasch concludes:

With that in mind, one final paradox needs to be mentioned. Although Habermas is the self-identified leftist and social critic, and although Habermas sees in Luhmann and in systems theory a form of functionalist conservatism, it may very well be to Luhmann that future radical theorists will have to turn. Social and political theorists who are socially and politically committed need not continue to take theoretical concern with complexity as a sign of apathy, resignation, or conformism.’9 As Harlan Wilson notes, the “invocation of ‘complexity’ for the purpose of devaluing general political and social theory and of creating suspicion of all varieties of general political theory in contemporary political studies is to be resisted.” It is true that the increased consciousness of complexity brings along with it the realization that “total comprehension” and “absence of distortion” are unattainable, but, Wilson continues, “when that has been admitted, it remains that only general theoretical reflection, together with a sense of history, enables us to think through the meaning of our complex social world in a systematic way” (1975, 331). The only caveat is that such “thinking through” will have to be done on the level of complexity itself and will have to recognize that theories of social complexity are part of the social complexity they investigate. It is in this way that the ability to respond to social complexity in a complex manner will continue to evolve along with the social complexity that theory tries to understand

Rasch, 1991

One reason that Habermas is able to make a left-wing critique, whereas Luhmann can correctly be accused of being a functionalist conservative, is that Habermas’s normative stance has an irrational materialist order (perhaps what is “right wing” today) as its counterpoint. Whereas Luhmann, in asserting that social systems exist only as functional stability, does not seem to have money, power, or ultimately the violence they depend on in his ontology. It is a conservative view not because his theory lacks normativity, but because his descriptive stance is, at the end of the day, incomplete. Luhmann has no way of reckoning with the ways infrastructural power (Mann, 2008) exerts a passive external force on social systems. In other words, social systems evolve, but in an environment created by the material consequences of prior social systems, which reveal themselves as distributions of capital. This is what it means to be in the Anthropocene.

During an infrastructural crisis, such as a global pandemic in which the violence of nature threatens objectified human labor and the material supply chains that depend on it, society, which often in times of “peace” happy to defer to “cultural” experts whose responsibility is the maintenance of ideology, defers to different experts: the epidemiologists, the operations research experts, the financial analysts. These are the occupational “social scientists” who have no need of the defensiveness of the historian, the sociologist, the anthropologist, or the political scientist. They are deployed, sometimes in the public interest, to act on their operationally valid scientific consensus. And precisely because the systems that concern them are invisible to the naked eye (microbes, social structure, probabilities) the uncompromising, atheoretical empiricism that has come to be the proud last stand of the social sciences cannot suffice. Here, theory–an accomplishment of rationality, its response to materialist power–must shine.

The question, as always, is not whether there can be progress based on a rational simplification, but to what extent and economy supports the institutions that create and sustain such a perspective, expertise, and enterprise.


Habermas, Jürgen. “The theory of communicative action, Volume 2: Lifeworld and system.” Polity, Cambridge (1987).

Mann, Michael. “Infrastructural power revisited.” Studies in comparative international development 43.3-4 (2008): 355.

Rasch, William. “Theories of complexity, complexities of theory: Habermas, Luhmann, and the study of social systems.” German Studies Review 14.1 (1991): 65-83.