Apel, Karl-Otto (1922–)

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Karl-Otto Apel (born in Düsseldorf) is an influential post-World War II German philosopher responsible for creatively introducing analytic linguistic philosophy to the German philosophical tradition. He fought in the German army on the eastern front and, in fact, began his university studies while a prisoner-of-war in France. He completed his doctoral dissertation on Martin Heidegger in Bonn in 1950, wrote his Habilitation ("The Idea of Language in the Tradition from Dante to Vico") in Mainz in 1960, and, after several years teaching at the Universities of Kiel and Saarbrücken, spent the rest of his academic career at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main (where Jürgen Habermas, whom he had known since his student years in Bonn, was his colleague). He is best known for his development of transcendental semiotics that, as a first philosophy distinct from both traditional metaphysics and a modern (e.g., Cartesian, Kantian, or Husserlian) philosophy of the subject, provides an ultimate foundation (Letzbegründung ) for knowledge (1998, chapter 2).

His so-called transformation of philosophy represents an ambitious attempt to bring together in a systematic form analytic philosophy of language, American pragmatism (especially Charles Sanders Peirce), and philosophical hermeneutics (Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer). According to Apel, in light of these innovative traditions, the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant must be fundamentally reconceived. In particular, the conditions for intersubjectively valid knowledge cannot be explicated in terms of the structure of consciousness or the cognitive capacities of the individual knowing subject but only through a systematic investigation of language as the medium of symbolically mediated knowledge. The pragmatic turn, initiated by Peirce and Charles W. Morris (19011979) and continued in the early twenty-first century in speech act theory, further implies that an adequate explanation of how meaningful communication is possible cannot be achieved by a semantic theory alone. Rather, it must be supplemented by a pragmatic study of the relation between linguistic signs and the conditions of their use by speakers. Apel's strong thesis is that his transcendental semiotics yields a set of normative conditions and validity claims presupposed in any critical discussion or rational argumentation. Central among these is the presupposition that a participant in a genuine argument is at the same time a member of a counterfactual, ideal communication community that is in principle equally open to all speakers and that excludes all force except the force of the better argument. Any claim to intersubjectively valid knowledge (scientific or moral-practical) implicitly acknowledges this ideal communication community as a metainstitution of rational argumentation, to be its ultimate source of justification (1980).

Drawing on the Continental tradition, Apel argues that the most important contribution of philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer's in particular, has been to show that interpretation is not another method of investigation in addition to the methods used within the hard sciences, but an unavoidable dimension of all understanding. Every empirical investigation of a domain of objects implies at the same time a relation to other subjects, to a community of interpreters. Thus, the attempt to study language from an exclusively objectivistic or naturalistic perspective involves an abstraction from the inquirer's own membership in a linguistic community. The inquirer's verbal behavior must also be interpreted by the community of investigators and this interpretive moment can never itself be displaced by objectivistic investigation. In fact, such investigation itself presupposes a communication community. But Apel's transcendental hermeneutics departs from Gadamer's historicism in that successive interpretations not only purport to understand differently but also raise an implicit claim to truth or correctness that can be clarified, once again, with reference to the ideal communication community. Furthermore, like Habermas, Apel does not exclude the possibility of introducing causal or functional explanations to clarify systematic distortions to communication, so long as they are "considered to be capable of conversion into a reflexively heightened self-understanding of the communicating parties" (1980, p. 125). In a response to externalist approaches (such as the strong program in the sociology of knowledge) Apel proposes a principle of self-appropriation that further develops this internalist (or rationalist) theme (see Kettner 1996).

In an important critique of the critical rationalism of Karl Raimund Popper and his followers, Apel further clarifies the status of transcendental pragmatics. He suggests that their skepticism with regard to the possibility of ultimate philosophical grounding is based on an abstractive fallacy in which sentences are viewed in isolation from the pragmatic contexts of argumentation. The so-called Münchhausen trilemmathat is, that all attempts to discover ultimate foundations result in either logical circularity, infinite regress, or an arbitrary end to the process of justificationcan be overcome by moving from the level of semantic analysis to the level of pragmatics and recognizing that some presuppositions are necessary for the very possibility of intersubjectively valid criticism and argumentation. Similarly, he argues, even the "principle of fallibilism" (which holds that any claim can, in principle, be doubted) is only meaningful within an "institution of argumentation," where some pragmatic rules and norms are not open to question. Thus, contrary to the claim of critical rationalism, the principle of fallibilism does not exclude the notion of philosophical foundations and, Apel argues, certainly could not replace it as the basic principle of rational discourse (1998, chapter 4).

In a series of essays and in Diskurs und Verantwortung (1988) Apel argues that transcendental pragmatics can be used to develop an ethics of communication or Diskursethik that closely parallels the moral theory of Habermas. Like other cognitivist approaches, this ethics rejects the claim that moral judgments are ultimately the expressions of subjective preferences or an arbitrary will and hence beyond the reach of rational justification. By elucidating its basic principle in relation to the pragmatic presuppositions of argumentation in general, Apel seeks a more secure foundation than Kant's appeal to a fact of reason or John Rawls's reflective equilibrium. According to the basic principle of his ethics of communication, only those norms are justified that could meet with the agreement of all concerned as participants in a practical discourse. However, in contrast to Habermas, to avoid an abstract utopianism, Apel (1988) maintains that this basic principle must be supplemented by a further principle of responsibility. Taken together, however, these two basic principles offer a secular foundation for a new global ethics.

See also Critical Theory.


works by apel

Towards a Transformation of Philosophy. Translated Glyn Adey and David Frisby. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Diskurs und Verantwortung: Das Problem des Übergangs zur postkonventionellen Moral. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1988.

From a Transcendental-Semiotic Point of View, edited by Marianna Papastephanou. New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.

works about apel

Kettner, Matthias. "Karl-Otto Apel's Contribution to Critical Theory." In The Handbook of Critical Theory, edited by David M. Rasmussen. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

Mendieta, Eduardo. The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy: Karl-Otto Apel's Semiotics and Discourse Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Kenneth Baynes (2005)