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The Library of Living Philosophers

Karl-Otto Apel

by Anja Steinbauer

Whoever undertakes to defend practical reason – the principles of moral action – in terms of a universal cognitivist ethics, must prepare himself for criticism from most of the philosophical camps of our time: Cognitivist ethics claims to use reason to show the validity of moral norms. However, it is a widely held view that objective facts and the laws of logic and mathematics are intersubjectively valid, but that the situation is different when it comes to values.. No chance for a universal ethics? This would be a great dilemma since the rehabilitation and transformation of practical reason seems particularly urgent today. Ethics can no longer be a matter of face-to-face encounters only but must be rethought on a larger scale: it must take into account ‘globalisation’, the new situation we face in today’s world, whether we like it or not. This includes all issues concerning humanity as a whole, such as ecological problems as well as the continuing threat of weapons of mass destruction on the one hand, but also extensive world trade links and world-wide communication on the other hand.

Apel regards globalisation as “an irreversible fact”, which has taken place “ahead of our reflection”, and “a challenge”. He argues that though “it’s fashionable to be modest as a philosopher”, boldness is what the situation requires: “Philosophy should take the lead” in answering to this challenge.

What is Apel’s philosophy like? Eminent learning and thorough knowledge of a great variety of philosophical literature are characteristic of his work. In his main publication, The Transformation of Philosophy, he takes inspiration from philosophers as diverse as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kant and Pierce. However, he engages with many other thinkers in the course of the book. This makes his work rich in philosophical content, but unfortunately also rather difficult to read, as he is expecting his readers to follow him through a jungle of professional jargon and a extensive maze of footnotes. Apel seems to move with ease in the terminology of these other authors, involving them in the genesis of his thought. He does this not only in order to frame his principal ideas but to act on them. Inspired by Pierce, Apel is convinced that philosophy emerges in a ‘communicationcommunity’ of philosophers, in the ‘argumentative discourse’ between thinkers, it is not the product of a thinker’s solitary quest for truth. He thinks it is important to involve philosophers in this endless discourse, even those who intended their work to be a monologue. It is only through such a ‘transformation of philosophy’ that philosophy acquires its proper form, in which it may do justice to the discursive character of the human context in which we live: As far as our environment discloses itself to us in language, human beings are compelled to use language to try to reach a consensus by argumentation. As practiced within the community of philosophers, philosophy may also serve as a model for political and scientific discourse.

Apel’s transformation of philosophy importantly refers to a transformation of ‘transcendental philosophy’, in other words it deals with the conditions necessary for knowledge to be possible. While Kant related this problem to human consciousness, to Apel it is communication, language in general, which is fundamental and necessary to it. In order to establish the possibility and validity of communication, a ‘transcendental language game’ in an ideal ‘communication community’ beyond all concrete language games has to be assumed. This theory includes the recognition of a principle of ‘communicative ethics’.

Apel’s ‘discourse ethics’ comprises two parts. While the first part deals with an ideal situation, part two is designed to examine the question of “how to act under non-ideal conditions’”. This includes the problems of how to respond to institutions, and how to act in the face of the functional restraints of the legal, political and economic system. Apel distinguishes between three different levels on which we operate when dealing with institutions. The most hopeful is a level ‘outside the institutions’, which empowers individuals to bring about political change. Here we are free to communicate and act as what Kant called ‘the reasoning public’. Today it is a global reasoning public.

© Anja Steinbauer 1999

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