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A Selective Affinity: Niklas Luhmann's Systems Theory and the Sense of Contingency, 1958-1973


A Selective Affinity presents an intellectual history of what I call Kontingenzsinn—a “sense of contingency”—in postwar West Germany, using the early development of Niklas Luhmann’s (1927-1998) sociological systems theory as a case study for examining its significance and dynamics. Before 1945 the term Kontingenz virtually never appeared in German, even in academic discourse. Between 1960 and 2008, however, the frequency with which it appeared in published books increased roughly six-fold. Kontingenz, a concept from modal logic meaning roughly “that which can be otherwise,” or “that which is neither necessary nor impossible, became one of the most vital concepts of modern German intellectual life. Although the specific word Kontingenz was of particular symbolic significance, I emphasize not only its explicit appearance, but also the more diffuse field of meaning that it invokes—hence my use of the neologism “Kontingenzsinn.”

The individual most responsible for this development, I argue, was the philosopher Hans Blumenberg, (1920-1996), the other major protagonist of A Selective Affinity. Blumenberg’s argument concerning the role of the Christian theological concept of the “contingency of the world” in the origins of the modern world became one of the most influential narratives of modernity among German intellectuals of Luhmann’s generation. A central axis of the dissertation describes and explains the substance of this affinity between Blumenberg and Luhmann, which centered on their shared understanding of Kontingenzsinn.

A Selective Affinity also argues that Kontingenzsinn in West Germany drew on the “selective affinity” of a wide range of elements dispersed across disciplines, intellectual traditions and continents, from cybernetics to scholastic theology. By giving attention to the specific affinity and historical trajectory of these elements, I aim to reveal the “work” the concept did for Luhmann and others intellectuals of his generation. To this end, I distinguish two different “dimensions” of Kontingenzsinn, namely, a “vertical” dimension that refers to the problem of the “grounds of existence” and the “horizontal” dimension of “other possibilities.” Whereas the former belongs to the history of “ontotheological metaphysics,” embodied in the question “why is there something rather than nothing?,” the latter expresses the idea that something could be “otherwise.” The horizontal dimension has closer affinities to the technical concepts of possibility, complexity, and selectivity that found expression within cybernetics and information theory.

The keystone of Luhmann’s theory of society as a self-organizing social system, the “horizontal” dimension of Kontingenzsinn helped him eliminate the traces of the “vertical” dimension from the concept of rationality. Instead of the “old European metaphysics” of reason, which demanded explanations and justifications, Luhmann redefined rationality as a systems concept. Far from antithetical to contingency, as reason had been for most of the European tradition, this concept of rationality embraced contingency.

My contention, however, is that Luhmann employed the specific term “Kontingenz” precisely because it also evoked the semantics, history, and pathos of the “vertical” dimension. The selective affinity of modern Kontingenzsinn was rooted in a fundamental ambivalence. Both of its dimensions, I argue, had been originally entwined in the metaphysical system of seventeenth century philosopher and polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), above all in his Theodicy of 1710, which famously argued that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, despite the appearance of evil and suffering. But his argument ultimately rested upon a proto-cybernetic and theory of complexity that first brought to light the “horizontal” dimension of Kontingenzsinn. I use Leibniz’s Theodicy as a symbolic anchor to help explain not only the “selective affinity” of the various elements of Kontingenzsinn, from cybernetics and decision theory to legal science and phenomenology, but also the rhetorical appeal of Kontingenz to Luhmann and his generation. Kontingenzsinn both engaged and tamed the existential absurdity, guilt, and responsibility they encountered while coming of age against the backdrop of Nazism and the Holocaust. Although occasionally mobilized to reject demands to master the past, it simultaneously condensed into a symbol for reckoning with German history and identity as a species of a more universal modernity.

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