The Politics of Social Complexity in 20th-Century German Science: Theoretical Biology, Social Form, and the Origins of Systems Theory

Prof. Greg Moynahan
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'Systems theory' is widely regarded as the most influential and controversial intellectual movement in contemporary Germany. It attempts to uncover the logic and paradoxes of how complex 'systems' of any sort — biological, institutional, economic — interact. Already by the early 1970s, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas raised strong objections to the politics of systems theory in a series of debates with its principle proponent, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Habermas argued that systems theory undermined the possibility of social critique, ethics, and discursive rationality. Despite these attacks, Luhmann's version of systems theory took on an ever-greater prominence in German thought across the political spectrum from the early 1980s to the present. This success was largely due to system theory's ability to integrate newer theories from biology, particular autopoetic or self-organizing theory, and literary theory, particularly deconstruction. Although often appearing to social scientists as an esoteric and peculiarly German concern, post-war systems theory has been enormously influential world-wide in fields ranging from biology and computer theory to business management and military planning. The German debate, I will argue, becomes meaningful only in light of these wider non-academic uses of systems theory, while the debate itself proves prescient in illuminating critical dimensions of the politics of modern society. As a means of providing a synopsis of systems theory in its applications and implications, this talk will trace one aspect of its history from turn-of-the century German biology, particularly the 'theoretical biology' of Jacob von Uexküll and Adolf Meyer-Abich, through the Nazi era to the time of the debate.

Keywords: Systems theory, Social complexity, Autopoesis, Habermas, Luhmann
Stream: Knowledge and Technology
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Prof. Greg Moynahan

Assistant Professor of History Co-Directory of the History and Philosophy of Science Program, History Department

Ref: T05P0191