Teoria Crítica dos Sistemas ? | Lucas Fucci Amato, Marco Antonio Loschiavo Leme de Barros (dir.)

Lucas Fucci Amato, Marco Antonio Loschiavo Leme de Barros (dir.), Teoria Crítica dos Sistemas? Crítica, teoria social e direito, Porto Alegre: Fi, 2018.

Compte rendu par Stefan Klein (Universidade de Brasília [SOL/UnB]).

The book Teoria Crítica dos Sistemas? Crítica, teoria social e direito (Critical systems theory? Critique, social theory and law), edited by two young academics, Lucas Fucci Amato and Marco Antonio Loschiavo Leme de Barros, proposes to encompass a variety of perspectives dealing with the limits and possibilities of critical systems theory. Of the fifteen authors assembled in this volume, barring two names, all the others have obtained some law degree. The editors decided to combine established scholars and professors along with post-doctoral and doctoral students, producing an instigating blend of approaches. The book is divided into three parts, associated with its subtitle – critique, social theory and law – each comprising four chapters. It has two clear-cut audiences: law students and professors, especially those interested in sociological and philosophical problems related to law, and systems theory researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds. Some familiarity with the categories and concepts of Luhmann1  is a pre-condition to understand the discussions brought forward throughout the different contributions fully.

In concrete terms the structure of the book puts together several essays that, under different emphasis, gravitate around systems theory, notably represented through Niklas Luhmann’s work. The honorable exception is chapter 10, with André-Jean Arnaud as a source of a systemic approach. On the other side, the dialogue with social and critical theory appears under different names and emphasis, with a certain accent on the contributions of Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, while also delivering stimulating dialogues with the theorizations of Theodor W. Adorno, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault and Robert Kurz as well as a chapter dealing with the approach of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, professor at Harvard Law School. If the main reference is the debate on critical system’s theory2 , the compilation of texts goes well beyond it.

The vast majority of the essays aim at confronting different perspectives and considering the specificity of their contribution3 , drawing upon a plurality of conceptions among social and critical theory, while maintaining different degrees concerning the relevance of the conceptual apparatus brought forward by Luhmann’s theory of society. More importantly, the thematic discussion varies significantly along the book, therefore enabling the engagement of a wide audience, considering the level of complementarity between the fields of expertise of each author.

The first part (critical theory) is by far the most sociologically grounded one. This can be seen through the viewpoints expressed along with the formation of the authors. Here the only two authors who did not gain a formal training in law pitch in their contributions, and one of these is the important exception of Elena Esposito, professor of sociology at Bielefeld and Bologna, whose chapter opens the book. She sets a bold tone while articulating and fine tuning the difference between critical theory and critical sociology alongside the reflection on a critical attitude. Unfortunately, the second chapter of the book – curiously one that proposes itself to discuss the place or type of critique in the luhmannian systems theory – navigates almost exclusively under the guidance of Luhmann, and therefore seems a bit out of place in this opening part, since it lacks the necessary (immanent) critique it presupposes can be found in Luhmann. Overall it twists his approach in order to fit the author’s argument, not taking seriously the distinction between proceeding “reflexively” or analyzing “contingency” and the form/content of “critique”: those certainly are pre-conditions for exercising critique, but should not be considered the same, as is extensively discussed by the excellent chapter three of the book: “In this sense, system’s theory can be understood as a critical theory only in as far as it offers knowledge on the forms of how society produces its own form of internal problematization »4 .

The opening text of the second part (social theory), by João Paulo Bachur, stands out as the start of a turning point in the book – in fact, in order to render the distribution more coherent, it could switch places with the aforementioned second chapter. On the one side, this essay is the only one which simultaneously covers the roots of Luhmann’s system theory while taking up the point of departure of Marx and the ‘first generation’ of critical theory of society, in order to present an equilibrium when it comes to conjugating critical and systems theory. While not leaving legal-juridical questions aside, the author maintains a sober stance concerning the contributions of both side to social theory in a wider sense. The other three texts composing this second part are qualitatively on the same level, dwelling further into specific debates (with Adorno, Foucault and Mangabeira Unger).

The last part (law) combines the sociological approach with a philosophical stance regarding critical theory, something that does not appear in the same way along the first two parts. This echoes the turn taken by the legal-philosophical debates influenced specially by Habermas and more recently through Honneth. The first text somehow transitions from the second part, presenting a widely conceived programmatic reflection, while once again the last three go deeper into regulatory questions inside law taken a a social system, without losing their theoretical background. They still maintain forms of dialogue with sociological or philosophical aspects, but these appear side by side to judicial aspects.

All in all, in line with the roots of critical theory of society and systems theory, the book draws up a relevant interdisciplinary venture, obviously with a particular emphasis on discussions concerning theories and concrete propositions around the law. A feature of the assembled pot-pourri of texts is that they can be read as a wide and manifold overview tackling different attributes of how systems theory relates (or not) to critical approaches. Simultaneously each essay can also be read by itself, thus enabling a broad array regarding the possibilities of reception of this dispute. One is probably hard-pressed to find a reader agreeing with all different perspectives: as shown, some essays do not share the same viewpoints, a fact that definitely stands out as a positive note, since such a blazing discussion among theoretical issues gains versatility and variety, something that shall be taken as a distinguished trait towards guaranteeing theoretical plurality among a quarrel that usually deals with many forms of orthodoxy. As such, it refrains from offering a definitive answer to the question that gives the book its title and rather presents distinct stimuli to take up and plead further debates affiliated to intensifying reflections on criticality and the place of (social) theory.


  1. Foremost, though not exclusively, his often marginalized debate on sociological critique: Niklas Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1997, p. 1115 and others. []
  2. See Marc Amstutz & Andreas Fischer-Lescano (dir.), Kritische Systemtheorie: Zur Evolution einer normativen Theorie, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2013; for critical overviews of Luhmann, critique and system’s theory, cf.João Paulo Bachur, Às portas do labirinto: para uma recepção crítica da teoria social de Niklas Luhmann, Rio de Janeiro: Azougue, 2010 and Stefan Klein, « Sobre a reivindicação sistêmica à criticidade ». Novos Estudos CEBRAP, v. 103, pp. 153-167, 2015. []
  3. Paradoxically, the closing chapter of the book is by far the most dogmatic and less plural one, almost expressing a hard-wired defense of systems theory, therefore diverging from the overall dialogical tone. []
  4. Lucas Fucci Amato, Marco Antonio Loschiavo Leme de Barros (dir.), Teoria Crítica dos Sistemas? Crítica, teoria social e direito, Porto Alegre: Fi, 2018, p. 102. []

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