Publication 2765

Knodt E. (1994) Toward a non-foundationalist epistemology: The Habermas/Luhmann controversy revisited. New German Critique 61: 77–100. Fulltext at
Excerpt: I argue that the theory of communica¬tive action, together with the discursive reality it describes, constitutes an autopoietic system in the sense in which Habermas’s long-time opponent Niklas Luhmann uses the term. My contention is that the universalizing tendency of what Habermas calls discourse is an effect of the “operational closure” of a system that observes itself from within its own perspective and thereby conceals its contingency. If this argument holds, the first three claims above can be reanalyzed as self-descriptions of the system’s recursive operation, whereas the last claim needs to be qualified in view of Luhmann’s contention that sys¬tems are incapable of operating beyond their own boundaries. With regard to Habermas’s discourse theory, this means that, considered as an autopoietic system, it is self-validating and irrefutable on its own grounds. To the extent that the theory of communicative action incor¬porates a principle of falsification in the form of a counterfactual communicative a priori (the ideal speech situation) into its founding postulate, the theory is capable of transforming every act of refutation into an indirect affirmation of itself. The trouble is that once the sys-temic operations of discourse are identified with rationality itself, it becomes virtually impossible to formulate a critique of the former that would not be self-refuting. Critiques of modernity from Nietzsche to Lyotard amply illustrate this dilemma: in order to state their position these critics are forced to appeal to the very principles of discursive rationality they call into question, an inconsistency their opponents are quick to point out.

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