The theme of this year’s conference pertains to affinities and complementarities between systems theory and critical theory for purposes of analyzing modern societies in the twenty-first century as social systems whose stability, functioning and future increasingly is in doubt.  Conventionally, critical theory and systems theory have been regarded and treated as mutually exclusive treatments and modes of analyzing of societies undergoing transitions from premodern to postmodern conditions.  Yet, as suggested – for instance – by Adorno’s extensive reliance on the concept of “system” in many of his writings, by the well-known Habermas-Luhmann controversy of the early 1970s, or by undeniable parallels between the modes of theorizing pursued by Niklas Luhmann (in terms of his critique of sociology as the social science of modern society) and by Moishe Postone (in terms of his critique of traditionally Marxist critiques of capitalism), there is an affinity between systems theory and critical theory that deserves to be explored, not least as it is undeniable that modern societies resemble “non-human”, heteronomous systems to a growing extent, as opposed to forms of social organization that emanate from and reflect modes of interaction, sociality and (non-regressive) forms of solidarity between humans as social beings.  This affinity is evidenced in an expanding related literature, especially in Germany, but also in research agendas that are being pursued by scholars in other countries, such as Australia and Brazil.*

By contrast, in the U.S., despite the erstwhile influence and prominence of Talcott Parsons, and the growing recognition of the contributions of Niklas Luhmann, systems theory has remained marginal in recent decades.  Critical theory, as it took shape as “critical theory” in the United States during the 1930s (despite its origins in Germany during the 1920s), and in the aftermath of Habermas’s reconfiguration of this tradition’s research program, has been more prominent than systems theory, but still is far from penetrating and influencing mainstream approaches to research in the social sciences and humanities in a discernible fashion.  In fact, the latter have become increasingly ahistorical, as well as oblivious to distinctive features of American society among modern industrialized societies, and thus more or less complicit in the accelerating erosion of modernity (as exemplified in material democratic values and principles, an emphasis on progressive education, constructive perspectives in the future as qualitatively superior to the past and present, etc.), in favor of promoting formal processes of modernization according under the aegis of neoliberalism.  Meanwhile, in the UK, both critical theory and systems theory have been tolerated, but also regarded as of minor (or no) use for illuminating the condition of modern societies in the early twenty-first century.  The result has been an ability to acknowledge and confront what has been called the dark (or darker) side of modernity in ways that would translate into sociological practice and theory.

Read more