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The Ambitious Modesty of Niklas Luhmann

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[14]The Ambitious Modesty of Niklas LuhmannMICHAEL KING AND ANTON SCHDTZ .....,Ii,ll"'i,IiIlIt'~There are 110 solutions for the most urgent problems but only restatements withoutpromising perspectives . . . success seems highly improbable. On the other hand. we cansee fascinating possibilities of arriving at a higher level 0/ intelligibility. It requires atpresent a kind 0/ stoic attitude to stay on the job and 'do the formulations'.Niklas Luhmann, The World Society as a Social System (1985)'INTRODUCTIONNothing is more in keeping with the spirit of Niklas Luhmann's work than. to entitle this article with an apparent paradox: the simultaneous presenceof ambition and modesty. What Luhmann offers is a theory of society, a'grand theory' in the European tradition, but one which runs directlycontrary to the claims for universal competence and exhaustive accounts ofreality associated with 'grand theories'. It is a theory which acknowledgesmodestly that it cannot answer many of the important questions that facemodem societies.In his introduction to a glossary of his theoretical terminology.sLuhmann places his theory in an historical context. He writes:At the end of this century we find ourselves facing new kinds of tasks. The society thatwe observe today is no longer that of Marx, Weber or Durlcheim. And even more so,it is not that of the Enlightenment or the French revolution. More than ever before, thepast has lost its binding force an

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