Note: Moving forward this post due to recent comments.
Note:Read a previous related post here and important comments on the post by Andrew Montin here.
Herbert Schnädelbach masterfully brings out the key difference between Apel and Habermas in the following:
“Irrespective of how one may judge the details of the project Habermas develops, I do not in principle see in what way a reconstructive philosophy with merely hypothetical claims is supposed to be suited to generating the ‘moment of unconditionality’ without which ‘normative foundations’ are simply not to be had. The alternative would be hermeneutics as a practical philosophy free of any claim to unconditionality, and all the relativist consequences this entails. It may indeed be the case that communicative action always involves unconditional claims being made, but this does not qualify it to provide the foundations for Critical Theory. To do so, it would itself have to be open to critical assessment. In other words, the theorist would have unconditionally to provide the unconditional standards for critique from the outset and s/he will never be able to derive these form the subject matter via hypothetical reconstruction. It is no coincidence that Karl Otto Apel staunchly retains his transcendental philosophy. Critical unconditionality, without foundationalism – this is the aim Habermas has set himself; doubts are in order whether he has reached it.” (Herbert Schnädelbach, “The transformation of Critical Theory,” in Communicative action : essays on Jürgen Habermas's The theory of communicative action, 7-22, here 22, italics in the original.).
This is an extremely important passage. Schnädelbach alludes to two important distinctions in the above passage. He differentiates between two different conceptions of ‘unconditionality’: a) One conception of unconditionality refers to the ‘unconditionality’ of the claims as claims (within communicative action or discourse). Such claims are raised within communicative action or discourse and are always (in principle) open to criticism. b) On the other hand we have a conception of unconditionality that is the property of certain ‘rules’ or ‘standards’ themselves and not of the claims about standards or rules. This second sort of unconditionality cannot be situated within discourse for the reasons Schnädelbach mentions and hence cannot be open to criticism and reassessment.
As I argue in the thesis Habermas only adheres to the first conception of unconditionality and deems the second conception of unconditionality incompatible with a thoroughgoing detranscendentalisation and with a postmetaphysical notion of rationality. To defend the conception of unconditionality one would have to exclude these conditions from the all encompassing ambit of detranscendentalisation and this is according to Schnädelbach what Apel does.
Thus it is clear from the above that the real difference between Habermas and Apel is about the extent and status of detranscendentalisation. We can make this more clear and specific by focusing on the concrete problem which Apel highlights in his critique of Habermas, i.e. their different conceptions of what the principle of fallibilism is and what it requires in terms of presuppositions. According to Apel the principle of fallibilism is not liable to empirical testing because it is what makes empirical testing possible in the first place:
“. . . whether it makes sense to expect those philosophical statements spelling out fallibilism and its call for ongoing attempts at falsification will themselves one day will prove fallible. The decisive, meaning-critical argument against this possibility runs as follows: If, or the extent to which, this would occur, one could no longer understand what “fallible” or “falsification” mean at all, since the statement at issue here explicate the principle of fallibilism, that is, the presuppositions necessarily implied by it (which are precisely the necessary presuppositions of argumentation that Habermas himself has explicated in the postulates of discourse and consensus). To be sure, these statements can, as explications of meaning, be corrected under the presupposition that they are true. But they are infallible precisely insofar as they state necessary presuppositions of the principle of fallibilism.” (“Normative grounding of “Critical theory”,” 164 n. 9, italics in the original.)
Habermas’ reply is terse and (in my opinion) devastating:
“We understand the term ‘justify’ when we know the rules for an argumentation game within which validity claims can be redeemed discursively. Now, we can make these rules the object of theory of argumentation or truth – or, if we have to do with special discourse, we can make it the object of a moral theory or a philosophy of science. Yet, justifying these theories – as is the case with justifying a theory per se – must itself fit into the framework of an argumentation game to the same extent as must the justification of harmless, e.g. practical everyday utterances. Certainly, the claims made of justification vary according to the argumentation form and context. Yet, which reason counts as a good or indeed as the better reason for what object in what context has to be assessed in terms of standards which under certain conditions become problematical and in turn require justification. Justifications must always be provided in one and the same place – there are no meta-discourses in the sense that a higher discourse is able to prescribe rules for a subordinate discourse. Argumentation games do not form a hierarchy. Discourses regulate themselves. Discourses are in principle open. And it is impossible to predict the outcome of discourses, that is, except from the perspective of an observer who is not a party to the discourse, yet who has to enter into another discourse in order to be able to justify his/her prognosis.” (Jürgen Habermas, “ A reply,” in Communicative action : essays on Jürgen Habermas's The theory of communicative action; 214-264, here 231.)
Habermas starts his argument against Apel through clarification of his understanding of justification. It clearly excludes any notion of ultimate justification as that would require going back to the conception of “transcendental” that is incompatible with detranscendentalisation. When Habermas says that his understanding of justification is ‘grammatical matter’ it is only so within the context of his understanding of Modernity which includes commitment to a thoroughgoing detranscendentalisation. His understanding of Modernity as committed to a thoroughgoing detranscendentalisation excludes conception of ‘ultimate justification’ to which Apel is still committed. It is this same understanding of Modernity which bars acceptance of any hierarchy among discourses as there is no space outside “this world” where to anchor the ultimate or higher discourse. Reflections and distance are possible but they themselves are in turn situated within “this very same world” in which the discourse which is being reflected upon is situated. In this sense there is in principle no hierarchy possible between discourse of reflection and a discourse which is being reflected upon. To still believe that we can step out would be to still clinging to the notion of subjectivity having anchored in a realm beyond this world and hence in fact that would be not carrying out detranscendentalisation thoroughly enough. In fact this is what has happened with Apel.
That Apel still believes in some such notion is evident form the fact that from his Cartesian conception of reflection (on this more later).