Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Karl-Otto Apel


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, edited by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy.  Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1987, 250-89.  Professor Apel revised and added to the original German text for this volume.  The section titles are as given in the text, but I have numbered them and given each one its own page.


The Problem of Philosophical Foundations in Light of a Transcendental Pragmatics of Language

Karl-Otto Apel

  1. The Problem: Critical Rationalism Versus Foundationalism

  2. A Critical Reconstruction of the Münchhausen Trilemma

  3. Does the Principle of Fallibilism Contradict the Presupposition of Indubitable Evidence?

  4. Philosophical Foundations via Transcendental-Pragmatic Reflection on the Conditions of Possibility of the Intersubjective Validity of Philosophical Argumentation

1. The Problem: Critical Rationalism Versus Foundationalism

The argument that it is impossible for philosophy to have foundations has been put forward recently by the “critical rationalism” that developed out of Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery, in particular by W. W. Bartley and Hans Albert.  This claim is made in opposition to both classical modern rationalism and Kant's transcendental critique of knowledge.1   “Critical rationalism” combines this distancing from an uncritical rationalism—that is, from a rationalism that has not reflected critically on the impossibility of self-validating reasons—with the claim that the philosophical program of foundationalism might be superseded by the alternative program of unlimited rational criticism, if the latter were given a satisfactory form.  Following upon Bartley's proclamation of a “pancritical rationalism” in his Retreat from Commitment,2 Hans Albert has attempted to work out this alternative program in his Treatise on Critical Reason.  Through the derivation of what he calls the Münchhausen Trilemma,3 the criticism of any claim to philosophical foundations is given an impressive and, apparently, logically compelling form.

According to Albert, every attempt to make good the claim to provide philosophical foundations in the sense of Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason leads “to a situation with three alternatives, all of which appear unacceptable; that is, it leads to a trilemma.”  The trilemma forces one to choose between the following alternatives:

(1) an infinite regress that appears to be required by the necessity of always going further back in the search for reasons, but that is not practically feasible and therefore yields no solid foundation;

(2) a logical circle in the deduction that results from the fact that in the process of giving reasons one has to resort to statements that have already shown themselves to be in need of justification—a process that, because it is logically faulty, likewise leads to no firm foundation;

(3) breaking off giving reasons at a particular point, which, while in principle feasible, would involve an arbitrary suspension of the principle of sufficient reason.4

Albert knows, of course, that the philosophical tradition since Aristotle—in particular the rationalism begun by Descartes, as well as its opposite number, empiricism—did not want to suspend giving reasons at an arbitrary point by suspending the principle of providing justification through reasons.  Rather, that tradition sought premises that, on the basis of epistemic evidence, would be illuminating or convincing.5  Albert argues, however, that every such premise “can be fundamentally doubted,”6 so that any justification given by means of epistemic “evidence” merely amounts to an arbitrary breaking off of the process of giving reasons in the sense of the third alternative of the trilemma.

We can find many passages that illustrate this interpretation of Albert's position.  According to Albert, the appeal to “evidence” in giving reasons is “entirely analogous to the suspension of the causal principle through the introduction of a causa sui.” “An assertion whose truth is certain and, therefore, not in need of justification” is, according to Albert, “a dogma.” Breaking off giving reasons in the sense of the third alternative is, therefore, “justification by appeal to a dogma.”  Likewise, “going back to extralinguistic stages of the process” changes nothing, since “it is always possible to ask for the justification of these stages themselves.”  “Any conception of self-validating reasons for such fundamental stages, as well as the corresponding claim that there are such propositions, must be viewed as a disguise for the decision to suspend the principle of sufficient reason in this case.”7

Thus Albert not only rejects the Cartesian reduction of the validity of truth claims to epistemic evidence or certainty, but goes so far as to argue that the quest for certainty is entirely worthless; indeed, it is said to be irreconcilable with the search for truth: “All guarantees in knowledge are self-fabricated and thus worthless for comprehending reality.  That is, we can always create certainty by turning this or that element of our convictions into a dogma and thus immunizing it from all possible criticism.  Thus, it becomes impossible for it to fail.”8  Albert sees this criticism as confirmed by Hugo Dingler, who no longer finds the final “certainties” for epistemic justification in philosophy in the givenness of evidence, but rather in a “will” to certainty.  Through the “exhaustion” principle he immunizes theoretical construction from possible failure to grasp reality.  Here, Albert argues, the “will to certainty” triumphs over the “will to knowledge” and thus amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of the principle of philosophical foundations in classical rationalism.  “The development of the classical doctrine has made it clear that the quest for certainty and the search for truth are mutually exclusive, if one does not want to restrict oneself to contentless truths” (in the sense of merely analytic truths).9

In light of this difficulty, Albert, following Popper, proposes that we give up the principle of sufficient reason, or philosophical foundations in general, and replace it by a decision that is not rationally justifiable—but in precisely the opposite sense from Dingler, that is to say, a decision for a method that does not regard any knowledge as certain and exempt from criticism.  This method requires that “reality be given the opportunity to determine” whether or not our theoretical constructions can fail to grasp it.  Such a decision in favor of Popper's principle of “fallibilism” must, according to Albert, “sacrifice the desire for certainty that underlies the classical doctrine and accept permanent uncertainty as to whether our opinions will be confirmed and supported in the future.”10

Albert clearly admits that Popper's adoption of the method of critical testing, no less than Dingler's “will to certainty,” involves a “moral decision”: “it amounts to accepting a methodical practice for social life that has enormous consequences; it is a practice that is not only of great significance for the construction of theories, but also for their application and thus for the role played by knowledge in social life.”  Indeed, “the rational model of criticism is the scheme of a way of life, of a social practice, and has, therefore, ethical as well as political significance.”11  Albert draws these conclusion for ethics in section 12 (“Criticism and Ethics”) of his Treatise.  He also agrees with Popper that a rational philosophical foundation for ethical norms is impossible.  He recommends instead that both existing moral systems and scientific theories be continually reexamined to see if they continue to be confirmed and stand up to alternative systems and theories.12

In what follows, I wish to submit “critical rationalism” to a metacritical examination—that is, an examination that, to begin with, will rely on nothing more than applying the method of critical rationalism to itself.  From what has been said, it should already be apparent that my purpose cannot be to question the principle of “critical testing.”  (Who today, after all, would want to criticize “critical rationalism” in this sense?)  Instead I would like to inquire into the conditions of the possibility of intersubjectively valid criticism—of the “critical testing” of scientific knowledge and moral norms.  This approach, stemming from Kant, will enable me to call into question Albert's view that the denial of the possibility of philosophical foundations is connected to the positive program of “rational criticism.”  More specifically, 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—and if so, in what sense—some type of philosophical foundation is not itself presupposed by the principle of intersubjectively valid criticism.



1. H. Albert, Traktat über kritische Vernunft (Tübingen, 1968, 1969), p. 15. English translation: Treatise on Critical Reason (Princeton, 1985), p. 14. All citations of Albert are according to the English translation.

2. W. W. Bartley, The Retreat from Commitment (Lasalle, 1984).

3. Albert, p. 18.

4. Albert, p. 18.

5. Cf. Albert, p. 12, as well as pp. 13-38.

6. Albert, p. 19.

7. Albert, p. 19.

8. Albert, p. 40.

9. Albert, pp. 44, 46-47.

10. Albert, pp. 46-47.

11. Albert, p. 49ff.

12. Cf. Albert, p. 72ff.

Posted August 29, 2007


2. A Critical Reconstruction of the Münchhausen Trilemma