Monday, March 20, 2017

Karl-Otto Apel 95 years: A personal homage

Karl-Otto Apel

Last Wednesday, March 15, one of the greatest German philosophers celebrated his 95th birthday: Karl-Otto Apel. Only this fact would be a sufficient reason to devote a blog to this outstanding philosopher. But there is also another reason: Apel is one of those philosophers who has much influenced my philosophical career, not in person but by his writings. I have all his works here in my library, with the exception of the latest ones. For it’s true, through the years I lost contact with his philosophy and it’s already ages ago that I have read a text written by Apel. However, without his work my philosophical interests wouldn’t have developed the way it did. In this blog it’s impossible to do justice to Apel and his ideas, so I’ll keep it personal and write a bit about what he meant to me.
I came into touch with Apel via his friend the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was very popular among students when I studied sociology at the university, and Habermas and Apel developed a part of their early theories together. So it was impossible then to read Habermas’s works and not to stumble upon Apel. Gradually Apel became more important to me than Habermas. One of the theses that Apel defended was that knowledge and our body are inseparably related. Corporality and consciousness are in a complementary relationship, he says. This statement was an attack on Descartes’s mind-body dualism – a theme that is much discussed in the analytical philosophy of mind these days. Both Apel and later – independently – most analytical philosophers who discuss the problem reached the same conclusion: There is no mind-body divide and mind and body are intrinsically related. How this relation is, is still a much debated issue, but, influenced by Apel, I developed the idea that mind and body are aspects of the same substance.
Apel defended also the idea that our argumentations must stop somewhere. Our reasoning must have an end, a point beyond which we say it’s impossible to argue, for otherwise we would get into an interminable relativism. It was an attack on Popper’s critical rationalism. It made me develop the idea that finally we have to act, anyhow, even if it is “only” the “banal” thing that we have to eat and work in order to survive.
What was and still is unusual for a philosopher with a background in the continental philosophy is that Apel paid much attention to themes from analytical philosophy. He wrote on language and action in an analytical way. By doing so he succeeded to bridge the two seemingly unbridgeable approaches of continental and analytical philosophy and especially he succeeded to combine and weave together the ideas of Heidegger and Wittgenstein.
All this had a big influence on my ideas and philosophical development, but most important for me were Apel’s discussions on the question whether there are two basic research methods, namely one for the natural sciences, called “explanation”, and one for the humanities, called “understanding”, or whether there is only one unitary explanatory method both for the sciences and the humanities. Themes from this “Explanation-Understanding Controversy” became central in my Ph.D. thesis. Moreover it’s not difficult to find there ideas that directly or indirectly go back to Apel. However, as it turned out, my thesis led me away from Apel. This happened not because I came to disagree with the his ideas, but my thesis brought me on new paths in philosophy and stimulated me to develop new ideas in new philosophical fields – at least, these fields were new to me.
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I want to end this homage to Apel with a little anecdote which I told here before in my blogs and that illustrates Apel’s influence on my philosophy:
Once I was in a bookshop in Amsterdam and my eye was caught by a new book by Apel: Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht (“The controversy between explanation and understanding from a transcendental-pragmatic perspective”). It was a methodological discussion on explaining and understanding in the humanities and social sciences, a theme that appealed a lot to me then. I found the book very interesting and what I found especially interesting was Apel’s analysis of a book by the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, a philosopher whom I didn’t know yet. I got the feeling that I had to read von Wright’s book Explanation and Understanding anyhow. It took me much effort to get it and in fact it was too expensive, but it came out that it was worth its money. Von Wright discussed here his solution of the explanation-understanding controversy and presented his methodological model for the social sciences. Basically I agreed with his approach, but in my view his model could be improved in several respects. Doing this became the leading theme of my Ph.D. thesis and it made that since then I devote much time to philosophy till the day of today.
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And actually my meeting with Apel and von Wright in a bookshop in Amsterdam is also the reason why I write my blogs today, already ten years long.

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