Werner, Micha H. (1997):

Pragmatism - Without Regulative Ideas?

Report of the Symposium in Essen on June 13th and 14th 1997.

Überarbeitete Fassung. Originalversion erschienen in: Ethical Perspectives 4 (1997), S. 133-135.

Karl-Otto Apel, one of the most innovative philosophers in post-war Germany, celebrates his 75. birthday in the current year. To mark the occasion, the Institute for cultural studies in Essen (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut [KWI] im Wissenschaftszentrum Nordrhein-Westfalen) organized a symposium entitled »Pragmatism - Without Regulative Ideas?« on June 13th and 14th.

Apel's name is inextricably linked with the project of a 'transcendental-pragmatic' 'Transformation of Philosophy'1 This project has proved its fertility not only in the field of theoretical philosophy - for example for hermeneutics, philosophy of science, language philosophy and philosophy of mind - but also in the field of practical philosophy, above all in normative ethics. Before Habermas and some members of the 'Erlanger Schule', Apel has made the most important contribution to the development of »discourse ethics«, which is one of the most significant conceptions of ethics at present.

Apel and his followers (the best-known of whom are Dietrich Böhler and Wolfgang Kuhlmann) try to reconstruct the main issues of Immanuel Kant's philosophy by means of a pragmatic-hermeneutic philosophy of language, influenced especially by Peirce, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Gadamer.

The ambitious project of 'Transcendental Pragmatics' (Transzendentalpragmatik) attempts a systematic reconstruction and justification of reason within the modern plurality of rationalities. Apel regards the intersubjective practice of argumentation as the essence of reason. The pragmatic presuppositions of argumentation, which cannot be disputed or doubted without pragmatic inconsistencies, have to be accepted as the fundamental, infallible and unconditionally binding principles of reason.

Since some of this principles are of ethical relevance, the System of Transcendental Pragmatics comprises a normative concept of moral philosophy, the so-called discourse ethics. This conception of ethics is a deontological and procedural one. Its basic moral principle says, that exactly those moral norms are valid which would be accepted by all persons, if they had proved all possible arguments in a free and unlimited discourse - or, as Apel says, if the members of the 'ideal community of communicators' would consent to them.

A number of objections has been raised against this conception. A first group of them is focussed on the basic problems of justification. Among other things they dispute the notion that the transcencental-pragmatic moral principle has to be regarded as absolutely infallible. Critics assert that the phrasing of the moral principle has to be considerd simply as an attempt to reconstruct pragmatic implications of a specific form of practice, which for that reason can never be infallible. (This is also the position of Jürgen Habermas, who is known to hold to a weaker version of discourse ethics.)

A second group of objections refers to problems of application. Apel himself has made the attempt to solve the problem by an additional principle, the so-called 'Ergänzungsprinzip' (supplementary principle). The supplementary principle is supposed to address the Problem that, according to Apel and Habermas, an immediate 'application' of the principle of universalisation (Universalisierungsprinzip)2 (or an immediate application of norms, justified in accordance with this principle) to real situations may sometimes be unreasonable or irresponsible, since in the real world, as things stand at the moment, we can not (and therefore should not) always trust in the morality of others. While Habermas asserts, that this problem cannot be theoretically solved within the framework of moral philosophy, and that it can only be diminished in practice by the sanctioning power of legal state, Apel is searching for another solution. The supplementary principle obliges moral subjects to help to establish institutions - in difficult cases even by means of strategic action - which ensure that an 'immediate application' of the principle of universalization would no longer be irresponsible.3 This conception obviously raises a couple of serious questions concerning the relation between the different principles. In my opinion however, Habermas' conception is no adequate answer to the problem either.

Albrecht Wellmer, professor of hermeneutic philosophy in Berlin, has raised another objection, which is relevant for the justification and for the application of discourse ethics.4 This objection was in the focal point of the symposium in Essen. It is directed at the regulative idea of the 'ideal community of communicators', which Apel has developed following Charles S. Peirces conception of the 'community of interpretation' (and of the 'community of investigators'). Within the framework of Apels philosophy, the regulative idea of the 'ideal community of communicators' has a double function. At first, it serves as a critical concept of a last authority of validity, second it provides an ideal standard of social interaction, towards which moral subjects should orient in difficult cases. According to Wellmer, the idea of 'ideal community of communicators' is nonsensical and absurd, since it implies contrary elements. According to Wellmer, Apel concedes on the one hand, that understanding and communication have to be regarded as a process of interpretation; as an iterative process of application of concepts and acquisition of meaning in variable contexts. On the other hand, Apel conceives the 'ideal community of investigators' as a static entity beyond historical change. The main point of Wellmer's objection is the following observation: The 'ideal community of communicators' is defined by the absence of any 'obstacles of communication'. But the "»obstacles of communication« are of the same origin as the requirements for communication." The condition of an 'ideal community of communicators' therefore are to be considered as a "condition beyond language"5 ergo as a contradictio in adjecto.

In his lecture in Essen, Apel emphasized what is at stake with the concept of regulative ideas. The renunciation of the regulative idea of the ideal community of communicators made it impossible to hold to the sense of philosophy, to reconstruct its progress from Plato via Kant and Peirce to the current time and to defend it against the relativistic 'Zeitgeist', personified by Richard Rorty, for example.

Apel argued that Wellmer's criticism is based upon false suppositions. Wellmer supposed, that the idea of the ideal communitiy of communicators serves as a kind of utopia, which therefore has to be taken as (potentially) realizable in our real world. But since this supposition is false, there is no necessity to think of the ideal community of communicators as something, which could be relized in our world. Apel argued, that it is not even necessary, that we can imagine it as something real or create a picture of it.

Wellmer challenged Apel's metacritical arguments in his complex lecture with the provocative title »Pragmatics - Without Regulative Ideals«. Wellmer emphasized, that his former objection has to be regarded as a critics of meaning. He claimd, that the problem was not the impossibility of realizing the ideal community of communicators, but the fact, that we couldn't even understand what this concept means, if we were absolutely unable to imagine it as something real - and a concept we cannot understand cannot serve as a regulative idea.

At this point it would have been very interesting to examine on which level Wellmer's problems really arise. Are there contradictions on the level of conditions of meaning or merely on the level of conditions of realisation of the ideal community of communicators? Are the so-called »obstacles of communication« really constitutive for the proper meaning of the concept 'communication', so that an idea of communication without any obstacles was in a strong sense inconsistent?

Unfortunately, these questions were not answered in the discussion; they were not even formulated in a clear and precise form. The discussion concerned some more general issues: the relation between validity and justification and the differences between some forms of regulative concepts. It was Herbert Schnädelbach, who repeatedly called for precise definitions.

At least one of the distinctions - the one between regulative ideals and regulative principles - was explicated in the lecture of Edward Craig from Cambridge University. He defined regulative principles as normative rules, which bind actors to make another step upon an empirically unlimited line over and over again. Regulative ideas, however, imply a picture of the end of the line. This distinction was pleasingly clear and has also been accepted in the following discussion, but on the other hand it was not that helpful for the specific problems of transcendental pragmatics. Furthermore, Craig took into account only a motivational function of regulative ideas within pragmatic conceptions of philosophy (namely as an psycological incentive to follow the regulative principle), which is certainly not the main function of regulative ideas within the transcendental pragmatics.

The lecture of Helmut Pape (Hannover and Essen) concerned the development of Peirces' philosophical beliefs. Pape challenged Apel's reading of Peirce's late works. He asserted that Peirce had given up the conception of regulative ideas in his last years. Apel answered that this was correct only in respect of the penultimate phase of Peirce's development and that Peirce went back to his earlier conceptions in his last works. No one among the discussants was able to refute this judgement.

The second of the historically oriented lectures, held by Dietmar Köveker (Paris and Frankfurt/M.), covered Kant's understanding of regulative ideas and regulative principles. Köveker maintains, that there was a structural analogy between Immanuel Kants 'Ding an sich' and the regulative idea of the ideal community of communicators. He suggested that both were pictures of something beyond the space of possible experience and therefore were meaningless. While Wellmer agreed to Köveker's thesis, the proponents of transcendental pragmatics protested against his comparison. Hauke Brunkhorst said that it was implausible to claim the absolute absurdity of the concept of the ideal community of communicators, since we know very well to discriminate between improvements and declines in the real community of communicators.

The two final lectures by Sebastian Knell (Frankfurt/M.) and Luís Saez Rueda (Granada) were further removed from the issues discussed before. Knell tried in a very analytical lecture to elucidate the relation between pragmatic idealizations and validity claims. He argued, that this relation was an indirect one, since it has to be seen as an implication of the relation between knowledge claims and pragmatic idealizations. This thesis was not really controversial in the discussion, since it was estimated to be compatible both with transcendental pragmatics as well as with Wellmer's hermeneutical position.

Saez Rueda criticized not the concept of the ideal community of communicators itself, but rather - from a phenomenological point of view - the desirability of a transformation of community, which is oriented towards that idea, since the unlimited de-centring of the minds of bodily subjects would lead to losses of meaning. Apel protested in his enviably energetic way, so that Matthias Kettner, the organizer of the symposium, had to call him to order for reasons of time limitations. The lack of time was a genaral problem of this symposium; perhaps it would have been better to provide more time for the contributions of Apel and Wellmer and for discussion between them.


1 Cf. Karl-Otto APEL; Transformation der Philosophie, 2 Bde, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1973.

2 The newest formulation goes (in my translation): "that a norm is valid, exactly when the expected consequences and side effects which result from its common application for the interests and systems of values of each person, can be mutual freely accepted by all persons affected." ("daß eine Norm genau dann gültig ist, wenn die voraussichtlichen Folgen und Nebenwirkungen, die sich aus ihrer allgemeinen Befolgung für die Interessenlagen und Wertorientierungen eines jeden voraussichtlich ergeben, von allen Betroffenen gemeinsam zwanglos akzeptiert werden können.") Jürgen HABERMAS, 'Eine genealogische Betrachtung zum kognitiven Gehalt der Moral' in Jürgen HABERMAS, Die Einbeziehung des Anderen, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1996, p. 11-64; p. 60.

3 Cf. Karl Otto APEL, Diskurs und Verantwortung, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1988.

4 Cf. Albrecht WELLMER, Ethik und Dialog, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1986, p. 69-113; 'Konsens als Telos der sprachlichen Kommunikation?' in H.-J. GIEGEL (Ed.), Kommunikation und Konsens in modernen Gesellschaften, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp. 1992.

5 "Die »Hindernisse der Verständigung« sind [...] gleichursprünglich mit den Bedingungen der Möglichkeit der Verständigung [...] »Ideal« im Sinne von Apel könnte eine Verständigungssituation daher nur heißen, wenn die sprachlichen Zeichen zu einem vollkommen transparenten Medium der Kommunikation von Bedeutungsintentionen geworden wären, so daß also die Verständigung selbst den Charakter der Unmittelbarkeit angenommen hätte. Dies aber wäre ein Zustand jenseits der Sprache"; WELLMER (1986), op. cit., p. 99.