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Friday, July 27, 2007


There is a multi-session program on Niklas Luhmann taking place here in Berlin during the Law & Society meeting.  Yesterday afternoon I attended a roundtable that was one of the later segments.   Glancing around the room, surreptitiously checking out name tags, and listening to accents during the Q&A, it was pretty clear I was one of the few Americans, if not the only one, in the room.

Here's some half-assed speculation on intellectual history.  Over the last hundred years, Dewey, Holmes, pragmatism, legal realism, critical legal studies, and law and economics sucked all the air out of the room, so to speak, when it came to reacting to a rationalist or quasi-rationalist foundationalism on our side of the Atlantic.  Luhmann is also a reaction to rationalism, but with a distinctly European acceptance of paradox.  Which raises the question:  if you are an American and somewhat obsessed by paradox in all its forms, are you homeless?

More below the fold.

First, a plug for the presenters, Hans-Georg Moeller, author of Luhmann Explained:  From Soul to Systems, and Michael King and Chris Thornhill, co-authors of Niklas Luhmann's Theory of Politics and Law.

Michael's contribution to the roundtable was subtitled "Why Academic Lawyers Shouldn't Read Luhmann," which was understandable after Hans-Georg's discussion of Luhmann's take on the fundamental paradox of justice.  Justice is a "contingency formula."  What that means is that within a system like law, justice serves as a foundational value, even though justice is incapable of directing a particular legal result in any particular case.  From outside the system, an observer would say that justice is in fact highly contingent, but the internal system would collapse if the actors came to believe that it was not.  This is in fact another way of looking at the antinomy of formalism and instrumentalism Larry Solum highlighted in an earlier session on Brian Tamanaha's Law as Means to an End.  Or, as I suggested in a comment at the end of the Luhmann session, the paradox in real world litigation is that each party invokes justice as argument in service of instrumental goals, as though God could really be on each side in a football game (or a war).  Within the autopoietic (or closed or self-referential) system of law, justice appears as consistency among like cases, not necessarily congruence with fundamental human, moral, or religious values.

So, says Michael, Luhmann is anathema to academic lawyers of all stripes.  To those focusing purely on doctrine, Luhmann would be saying:  "Your search for consistency within the system is ultimately futile.  You believe you can operate within the system to improve it, but that is merely an illusion required to allow your system to continue qua system.  All you are really doing is restating the foundational principle of justice (or whatever) in another way."  To the "morality police" concerned with assuring that legal justice equates with moral justice, the connection (in the traditional of legal positivism) does not exist.  What you see are fundamental is a contingency formula by which what you think is fixed is really contingent.  And to "law and..." scholars who believe they stand outside the system and assess it objectively, you may not recognize the paradoxical nature of your own position.

To return to Larry's articulation of the formalism-instrumentalism antinomy, were I a Luhmannite (and perhaps I am), I would interpret this last in the following way.  We encounter the paradox as an empirical matter.  As legal philosophers who have become conscious of the paradox, we have three choices.  One, we can engage the paradox even if it is incapable of resolution.  (This is what I think Luhmann does.  And that appeals to my Kantian proclivities).  Two, we can make the conscious decision to ignore the metaphysics of the paradox.  That means we are either pragmatists or virtue theorists.  Or three, we can try to resolve the paradox by adopting some form of normative or theoretical foundation with which law must accord (and here, ironically, we can place Charles Fried on contract as promise, law and economics generally, and Dworkin).  Or we can take some combination of the three (for example, Richard Posner, who combines choices two and three).

But, I wonder, is someone operating in the American intellectual tradition, but who opts for choice one, homeless?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 27, 2007 at 10:22 AM in Deliberation and voices, Legal Theory, Lipshaw | Permalink


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I don't see how justice can be foundational in an autopoietic system. To take an analogy, consider applying justice to evolution: "it's unjust for the whale not to have arms and legs, it's unjust for females to have to bear children, it's unjust for intelligence to be partly inherited," and so on.

Perhaps Luhmann would have been better off without the word "paradox," though if that word were banned you'd probably have to close down half the coffee-houses in France and Germany. The Continentalists make a living off of paradox. Maybe that's why Popper seemed to them to be such a spoil-sport; for him a paradox was merely half a falsified theory. (I just made up this last point, but it has a certain ring to it maybe.)

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | Jul 28, 2007 2:20:06 AM

It seems Nicholas Rescher aims to put a few Continentalists out of work. See his Paradoxes: Their Roots, Range, and Resolution (2001).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 28, 2007 2:39:01 AM

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