Fusing Luhmann with Habermas in the hunt for deliberative democracy

And what should they know of England who only England know?

Rudyard Kipling

Por Kim Andersen, Magíster en Ciencia Política y Politólogo, ambos por la Aarhus Universitet – Dinamarca.

Democracy is perhaps the most contested form of government both empirically as well as theoretically and so the definition of democracy varies depending on the scholar. In 1942 Joseph A. Schumpeter, defined democracy as “[…] the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” Other scholars, such as Robert A. Dahl and Guillermo O’Donnell, created more encompassing definitions of democracy. However, neither of these definitions altered the fundamental principle of numerical majorities.

The German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas questions the existing definitions as he goes one step further in his understanding of democracy. While the aforementioned ideal types of democracy are based on legitimacy derived from legislative majorities,  is complemented or even substituted with the better argument, which Habermas calls communicative rationality. It is on this basis, his deliberative democracy is built.

For Habermas the public debate or reasoning is intrinsic to the legitimacy of any policy. Hence, a decision maker needs to be able to not only gather a majority for his policy, he or she also needs to be able to defend it intellectually and ultimately create a consensus for it. Such public debate in turn needs to be devoid of any manipulation. This is echoed by David Held, who argues that. Being impartial means being open to, reasoning from, and assessing all points of view before deciding what is right or just; it does not mean simply following the precepts of self-straitness, whereto based on class, gender, ethnicity or nationality. (Held, 2006:239)


In other words, the discussion needs to be open and free as well as most importantly honest. Such debates, Habermas recognizes, are rare. Hence, actual cases or examples of Habermas’ deliberative democracy are few (this also follows the inverse relationship between the defining attributes), i.e. the aforementioned rationality, and empirical referents as depicted in the Ogden-Richards triangle. The question is thus not if it is possible to locate actual examples of Habermas’ deliberative democracy. Rather, the interesting research agenda should try to realise the number of democracies that come close to Habermas’ understanding. There are a plethora of ways in which this can be done. One way, which is quite compelling and interesting, is to utilize Niklas Luhmann’s social system theory.

While it is possible to object to the fusion of two radically different theorists, it is also premature. Within this research agenda, there is also another research agenda that boldly uses both Habermas’ and Luhmann’s insights. Before elaborating on the primary research agenda of this post, it is necessary first to understand the Habermas-Luhmann research agenda.

Briefly, Habermas’ theoretical insights are as mentioned not that easily compatible with Luhmann’s. This is in particular true if each theory is mashed together. Hence, instead the alternative research agenda suggests that Habermas’ theory should lead and thus provide a frame for the investigation. Luhmann’s theoretical insights in turn fills the frame. In this particular case, the frame is deliberative democracy. Thus Habermas’ theory leads the Luhmann investigation towards an understanding of how much “reality” differs Habermas ideal type.

To realize how to approach Habermas’ theory with Luhmann, it is necessary first to conceptualize what is intrinsic to an informed yet not manipulated public debate. First of all, it is necessary that the participants are educated not only on the matter at hand, but also on the more broad perspective. Hence, it is necessary to look at the educational function system as well as its ability to be inclusive. It is also necessary to investigate the mass media as well as their relationship with the economic function system, because a strong relationship might indicate a form of manipulation of the former by the latter. Such manipulative relationships can also be found between the political function system and for example the science function system. The former can abuse scientific results by dealing only with the positive or truth side of the binary code and neglect the negative or reflective side, which is the one that questions the results. These few examples elucidate the questions that need to be probed vis-à-vis the public debate and should thus not be seen as exhaustive.

Before discussing potential empirical cases, it is necessary to sum up the preliminary theoretical insights. As mentioned above, Habermas believes that a decision needs more than simply just a majority. It needs a communicative rationale. Such a rationale in turn requires a certain foundation, which is only crudely exemplified depicted above. First of all, it requires an inclusive education function system. Secondly, it requires a mass media function system that are free of the economic function system’s potential manipulation. Finally, it requires that the political function system does not abuse the results of the scientific counterpart. To put it differently, the various function systems need to respect the principal function of each system.

The last part of this this short entry revolves around the question of methodology vis-à-vis education, mass media, science, and politics. As mentioned above, the inclusiveness of the educational system is important. First of all there is the question of financing the education. Does the government provide cheap loans, partly or full scholarships. Are they universal or do they come with requirements. This in turn either increases or reduces the base of applicants and thus affects the ability of some groups to partake in the public debate. Secondly, as mentioned above, the economic function system must not interfere with that of the mass media. In other words, the latter must be professional vis-à-vis its dealings with its environment. One way to realize such  is observe the existence of norms and professional principles

One Comment on “Fusing Luhmann with Habermas in the hunt for deliberative democracy

  1.  by  Escoliosis

    Excellent site. Plenty of helpful information here.
    I’m sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious.
    And of course, thanks to your sweat!

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