The Radical Luhmann by Hans-Georg Moeller (review)
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The Radical Luhmann.
By Hans-Georg Moeller. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. xiii + 168 pages. $74.50.

It is no secret that in the Anglophone world Niklas Luhmann has not met with the reception that would correspond to the ambitious range and originality of his sociological systems theory. To a novice, Luhmann’s writings may seem forbidding for two reasons. On the one hand, much of his thinking is rather unconventional and provocative; Luhmann shuns the normative, moralist tendency that is characteristic of much contemporary social thought and academic discourse. On the other hand—and perhaps, as Hans-Georg Moeller argues, as a consequence of this anti-normative stance—Luhmann developed a rather technical, convoluted style of writing that often seems impenetrable to the uninitiated.

The Radical Luhmann begins with a critique of Luhmann’s style, which Moeller considers the main obstacle to a wider reception. Part of the problem appears to have been Luhmann’s reliance on his famous “Zettelkasten,” in which were contained notes on all his readings that were linked by a sophisticated system of cross-references. According to Luhmann, “the theory, with regard to the content of its conceptual frameworks and statements, wrote itself.” What preoccupied him was the actual organization of the argument, with which he often struggled since he was not, by his own admission, a linear thinker. The resulting textual labyrinths are, as Moeller observes, hard to navigate; there is “no beginning or gradual initiation to his books” (12). Moeller sees a further difficulty for the reader in Luhmann’s attempt to develop a “supertheory”—an explanation of everything—that stands in the intellectual tradition of post-Kantian German speculative thought, including the tendency to create novel technical vocabularies that cannot be understood without significant conceptual work.

Although these are valid observations, Moeller’s explanation for Luhmann’s relative lack of success in the English-speaking world seems insufficient. After all, would not the same caveats apply to thinkers such as Lacan or Derrida? There are also some institutional histories and changing academic styles to consider—for instance, the rejection of Talcott Parsons’s systems theory (with which Luhmann’s has many points in common, and the influence of which Moeller consistently downplays) after several decades of dominance in American sociology. Moreover, since Luhmann shared the clunky German jargon as well as the “environment of academically pretentious and soporific authors” (15) with Habermas, his most prominent opponent, one may wonder why the latter is widely read and celebrated in America.

In passing, Moeller makes an intriguing suggestion regarding Luhmann’s style that would deserve a detailed inquiry. Could it not have been the case that Luhmann deliberately relied on the technique of esoteric writing? Did not precisely his dry academic idiom allow him “to actually say a lot of things that he could not have said otherwise without risking being thoroughly ostracized by the post-1968 German academic community” (3)? That is the question. Moeller offers an affirmative answer. In the main part of his book, he tracks the most radical, counterintuitive, and controversial claims that amount, as it turns out, to a useful roadmap through the labyrinth of Luhmann’s writings. [End Page 722]

Moeller is particularly good at bringing out Luhmann’s radical critique of the human qua individual (that is, quite literally, as an indivisible unit) in his social theory. He does not sufficiently recognize, however, that such conceptual anti-humanism actually stands in the service of human beings. By separating the biological from the psychic and social systems and treating all of them as irreducible, Luhmann gives an account of the “human” that runs counter to the entire western tradition. Yet the dissolution of the human at the conceptual level is by no means the anti-human or even misanthropic gambit of a relentless technocrat, as some of Luhmann’s critics would have us believe. Rather, it is a move that radically puts into question the unquestioned humanism on which social theory has hitherto been based. As Luhmann shows convincingly, society has never been “human”—and that is a good thing, too. Human beings or, more precisely, human biological and psychic systems are actually...