Karl-Otto Apel

These are the notes from my interview with the philosopher Karl-Otto Apel. Apel is 86, hard of hearing and his English is good, but with some problems. This is why some parts of the interview seem a little less coherent than others, because I had to struggle to both communicate and take notes. Note also that these are notes, not the finished interview (which is sadly only available in Norwegian). I have only edited this by inserting a few explanatory phrases here and there and filling in my own questions in italics.

The philosopher I


- Your talk at the seminar focused on Kant's essay "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View". What prompted you to discuss this essay?

I was fascinated by sentence 7 of the first essay. I have never really gave attention to it, but I suddenly think to myself ”this is a strange sentence”. It's usually overlooked, but what he does here is very new: International law takes priority over the law of the republic. We can’t have internal law without solving problems external first.

Habermas says: the structure of democracy is the same as the structure of universal law. I say no! This cannot be the case. More than one democracy and they don’t have same structure. E.g. law of asylum are all different. US didn’t want to enter the International Criminal Court. Refused it. This is one of the typical deficiencies of international crime and human rights. In many other respects also we have differences between different democracies. They will not quickly have same constitution! I would say against Habermas and Rawls also that it must be possible to intervene in single democracies in the name of human rights. Appealing to human rights.

- You mean militarily?

Maybe even militarily, but usually it will be much more quiet.
Every day news about human rights discussions with for instance Iran or China. I mean in the sense of publicity, media, discussions, also. Habermas does this first book – this is for him the paradigm of Universal law.

This is problem between pragmatic differences go into these constitutions. This is characteristic aspects of lack of cosmopolitan law. Many problems that have to be solved in quite different ways. In Europe now the problems of immigration from Africa, Turkey in Germany, France from Algeria. Spain, these problems of immigration of poor people from Africa. Has to be settled by constitutions. This would be better if we had sensible agreements. European countries come to agreement on how to deal with these people who sometimes die on the ocean heading to [unintelligble]. Just one example to show that this has to be settled. Raison d’etat of the different countries needs to come to agreement.

- A consensus?

Consensus is central issue in my philosophy and Habermas. Consensus theory of truth, not factual, but ideal consensus in the sense of Peirce. Only idea, never be ultimate consensus that disables criticism and objections.

- An idea to work towards?

In my philosophy regulative ideas are important. Alternative: metaphysics, platonics or lack of any idea of progress at all. I don’t want progress in the sense that postmodernists deny as if we could have knowledge of the future, but we could have regulative ideas, for instance that of Kant's world citizen. We will never have the moment where there can never be an improvement. This is the great possibility for the regulative ideas. Richtsmass [sp.?] = Kant = measure for the direction we have to go in search for truth or philosophy or science. We need regulative ideas in all these things. Not metaphysical knowledge. These can be found by practical reason. It is our duty, Kant says. Burden of proof is on us.

Also I would say regulative ideas is not the same as a utopia. That’s more of a alternative picture of the world. More a matter for poets and literature. They are less than a utopia, not so concrete. But on the other hand they are much stronger, because they are more serious.

- In your talk, you described the situation for international law as "aporetic". In what sense do you mean?

Goes back to Kant in a sense! It’s all aporetic. If not everything is lost, we have only the possibility of a negative surrogate. He has the feeling that he is working on an aporia. He writes...

First: We need to leave the state of nature, strong state for all people.

Then: No, it would destroy the autonomous states. They will never accept that.

After the first world war when the league of nations was founded. Woodrow Wilson one of his strong words was autonomy of the nations. He wanted the Kantian situation: a folkeforbund. Kant wanted a federation of republics, not monarchies! But he was not against monarchs as governors, but he should respect the republican constitution. A matter of transition in the 18th century.

Frederik the Great: ”Only greatest servant of the state”, although he was not the ideal man of Kant. First war he started: ”Why did I do that? In order to come into the gazetten [newspapers].”

Approximation was always connected to the idea of regulative ideas. Is a difficult problem to think of approximation. Progress is aterrible problem. From our point of view we can say something was a progress, but in potential infinity? I’m not a follower of Kuhn.

- Kant wanted a federation of republics. What do you want?

I can’t say if it will be the case, or what we should do, but I do think we should continue to do certain things. We should support the UN. Make it stronger. It is not strong enough today. The five world powers in the sec.coun. are not republics. Complete historical accident. Constantly it is discussed. The Brazilians, Nigerans, Germans, all want to become constant members of the sec.coun. Best we can hope for. It is an ambiguity. One of the members of the seminar said he wants a world state. Another said we have so many problems that are global in nature, so we need a world of state.

I wrote a paper on this in Spain whether the US should be the world power. It was too much for me. There were too many arguments against an empire.

The Roman empire had human rights, in a sense. Apostle Paulus was proud. But the Romans did not tolerate others.

- Are empires dangerous in themselves?

I am a historian. I must think of examples. Let me think:
If one looks at the Chinese history: Today China is very powerful, but in history there were times that China was the only real state, and the only superpower. From their point of view in Eastern Asia they were an empire. Never been any example of an uncontested empire.

We have not an empire in our current situation, but now with Iraq we have one. The US has hegemony and superpower and the most powerful technology. I was against [Iraq]. Burned with lie and veto of the other members of the council.

It is ambigious what Kant says. The only idea of reason can be a world state, but no, they will never accept it, it can become a tyranny. A cemetery of freedom. A soulless despotism.
A round planet, he says. All human beings have the same right to visit any place on this planet. A common planet. But what happened in our history. The Europeans in the age of colonization. The Japanese didn’t allow them. They didn’t want to become colonized.
Pope asked for forgiveness.

- You have delved into international law now. Where else is your philosophy going?

My philsophy is declining. In these last years, everything went down. My body and my memory, ach. They don't work. It doesn’t become better as we get older. First I did not even think I would come here now, attend this conference. But I know so many people here I want to see again. It's good, but it is too much.

The philosopher II


[long pause where we just talked]

Arne Næss is still alive?! A fellow once had this idea that [Norwegian philosopher and mountain climber and 96-yr-old] Arne Næss should climb up to the top of a mountain and discuss. But I lost my breath. Did not even get half-way. So then we should discuss over dinner instead, and we both had a glass of red wine and a nice meal and things were good. And so, we should discuss, but Næss grew sleepy and we never got to discuss!


It's very strange how far apart Habermas and I have grown. He is much closer to the view of Richard Rorty now, which I think is unfortunate. Reading his latest book, there is a homage to Rorty, who died. It appears that there are almost no disagreements between them any more.

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