A rejoinder to Karl-Otto Apel, a supporter of Habermas

Habermas is probably the last high-profile member of the Frankfurt School of German Marxists. Google up Frankfurt School for more information, other key players were Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. These were big names in decades past but the world has moved on, although I think Habermas still has a following.  He bought into the so- called “Positivism Debate” between Popper and Adorno in 1961 when he argued that Popper was a positivist (among other deficiencies).  This is Popper’s account of that strange episode and the strange book that came out of it.

Karl-Otto Apel was an important supporter of Habermas due to his criticism of Popper and critical rationalism. Some years ago one of my colleagues at work showed me a book with one of Apel’s articles in it, and I wrote a rejoinder for an email list. The text turned up by accident when I was looking through old folders in My Documents so here it is. On of the features is the way he drew on Peirce (Charles Sanders) and Wittgenstein. I subcribe to a Peirce email list that is devoted to close readings of works of the Master without any reference to contemporary problems that I can see.

To give the flavour of the article:

He sets out to subject critical rationalism to a ‘metacritical examination’, “I shall investigate whether – and if so, in what sense – the principle of foundations or justifying reasons can be replaced by the principle of criticism, or whether some kind of philosophical foundation is not itself presupposed by the principle of intersubjectively valid criticism”.

He isprepared to concede the principle of fallibilism, in some sense, to logic and mathematics [this is weird, logic and maths can be regarded as tautologous systems where the question of fallibilism in the empirical senses does not apply]. BUT he goes on “I would like to claim – in a sense to be described later, that evidence in the sense of indubitable certainty is methodologically indispensable for the empirical sciences”. 

He refers to Wittgenstein “On Certainty” and quotes “The game of doubt itself presupposes certainty”.  He writes “In other words, doubt – and thereby criticism in Popper’s and Albert’s sense – is not explicable as a meaningful language game without in principle presupposing at the same time indubitable certainty”… with further attributions to Wittgenstein.

Finally Apel wraps up with a restatement of his basic point – “any choice that could be understood as meaningful already presupposes the transcendental language game as a condition of possibility”.  The key to all this seems to be the notion of transcendence. Does this mean “beyond criticism” or simply “not yet subjected to criticism” (and so unconsciously assumed)?  

The notion of transcendence seems to work as a kind of block to further investigation or criticism. How can this be sustained?  We may accept that a language of some kind is a precondition of any kind of communication, or indeed for discursive thinking. Further we may accept that at any moment we are making unconscious assumptions, conscious assumptions that we have not yet subjected to criticism, assumptions that we know are false (but have no better ones to work with), and even assumptions that we do not have time to criticise (because it is way past our bedtime). These considerations may work as pragmatic limits to criticism, however they do not represent logical limits to criticism. And that is the point of critical rationalism, or Bartley’s twist on it.

I don’t know how much of Apel’s kind of talk that you can stand, but have a look and see what you think.

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5 Responses to A rejoinder to Karl-Otto Apel, a supporter of Habermas

  1. Z says:

    I’d like to reformulate the question. Can anyone tell me why people think that doubting doubt equals certainty? Or in which way do they think the “game of doubt” presupposes certainty?

    Let’s suppose the weather forecast says that it’s 30 degrees Celsius in Moscow today. I doubt that. But that doesn’t mean that I’m CERTAIN that is not 30 degrees in Moscow.

  2. Rafe says:

    This guy is a professional truth seeker (philosopher) and part of his job description is to make simple things complex and another is to protect the idea of “justified true belief” against the menace of critical rationalism.

    One of the recent lines is to recruit Peirce (a genuine deep thinker) and Wittgenstein (something else) in a mixture of pragmatism and language games.

  3. Andrew Crawshaw says:

    I have heard a lot about pierce and know a little (too little I suppose). But he is becoming quite a pronouned and often seen name during my research, anychance someone could recomend a good but not too technical introduction into his thought?

  4. Rafe says:

    That is a good question but I don’t have an answer. There must be helpful material on the net. I was on the Peirce list for a long time but it was a very disappointing experience, there was very little activity, no sign of really interesting work proceeding and no interest in exploring parallels with Popper and John Dewey.

    The Dewey list was just also unrewarding, with talk about issues like the influence of Hegel in his thought and how he related to religion.

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