System, Lifeworld, and Habermas’s
“Communication Theory of Society”
In the previous chapter, I considered Habermas’s attempt to “test” the “discourse concept of law and democracy” by immersing it into leading discussions of legal theory. That was the occupation of Chapters Five and Six in Between Facts and Norms. In the succeeding chapters of that work, Habermas takes up another test, this time against social theory. His aim, he has said later, was to develop a “reconstructive social theory which employs a ‘dual perspective’“—the perspective, first explored in his 1981 monumental work Theory of Communication Action, of “system” and “lifeworld.” The purpose of developing what he now calls a “communication theory of society” is “to make it plausible that the reconstructed normative self-understanding of modern legal orders does not hang in mid-air.” Instead, Habermas says, his proposed model “should explain how this [normative] self-understanding connects with the social reality of highly complex societies.”1 The idea is to ensure that the normative theory is not “utopian” in a pejorative sense.
While in Theory of Communicative Action Habermas meticulously developed the concepts of system and lifeworld and the model of “interchange” between the two, Between Facts and Norms does not so much explain the basic concepts of his earlier theory as invoke them. But as I explain in section 4.1, such conceptual explication as he provides of “system” and “lifeworld” is generally consistent with the analysis provided in Theory of Communicative Action.
Still, in developing the “communication theory of society” in which his “discourse theory of law” is to be situated, Habermas departs from his