August 23, 2009

· Sociology

I was rereading him a bit over the weekend, though. Ian Craib once remarked that Talcott Parsons’ approach to social theory put him in mind of an office clerk who was too intelligent for his job, and so passed the time by devising ever more complicated ways to file the very dull paperwork he was assigned. Luhmann, of course, felt that Parsons was not nearly abstract enough. I was struck by Luhmann’s opening remarks, “Instead of Preface to the English Edition”, of Social Systems:

This is not an easy book. It does not accommodate those who prefer a quick and easy read, yet do not want to die without a taste of systems theory. This holds for the German text, too. If one seriously undertakes to work out a comprehensive theory of the social and strives for sufficient conceptual precision, abstraction and complexity in the conceptual architecture are unavoidable. Among the classical authors, Parsons included, one finds a regrettable carelessness in conceptual questions—as if ordinary language were all that is needed to create ideas or even texts. … Translating the book into English multiplies the difficulties, because English, unlike German, does not permit one to transform unclarities into clarities by combining them in a single word. Instead, they must be spread out into phrases. From the perspective of English, German appears unclear, ambiguous, and confusing. But when the highest imperative is rigor and precision, it makes good sense to allow ambiguities to stand, even deliberately to create them, in order to indicate that in the present context further distinctions or specifications are not important.

Where have I heard this sort of attitude before? Here is the “Preface to the English-Language Edition” of Distinction∗:

In its form, too, this book is “very French”. This will be understood if the reader accepts that, as I try to show, the mode of expression characteristic of a cultural production always depends on the laws of the market in which it is offered … [T]he style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend—constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in rigorous perspective—stems partly from the endeavour to mobilize all the resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical, or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic.

If you are like me, this sort of thing makes you want to find the nearest Grand Theorist and beat them to death with a copy of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Confessing such irritation, of course, forces one to play the role either of positivist philistine or plain-speaking old blowhard — an unpleasant choice of critical positions which, I daresay, was just what Bourdieu had in mind when he had the barefaced cheek to type the passage above. Luhmann plays the same game. But I wonder whether an unwillingness to accommodate the simple-minded is a wise strategy for someone who cares have his work remembered at all. Even Hume took the trouble to condense and then rewrite his Treatise after it fell dead-born from the press.


  • Which did make it onto the syllabus. Draw your own conclusions.
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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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