Marianna Papastephanou  


Contemporary philosophical debates extend to several different topics and are carried out by so many and miscellaneous philosophical circles that, in order to grasp their main aspects, one cannot avoid some categorizations. The role categorizations often play is not only simplifying but also polemical. They facilitate philosophical descriptions as well as illustrate evaluations. One such categorization is ‘Kantianism’ and, as the title of the present article displays, its pertinence to communicative ethics will be highlighted here. Given the impact of Kant on modern ethics, it is no wonder that the term ‘Kantianism’ does not only represent the trend consolidated in the wake of Kantian insights. It also conveys the axiological connotations assigned by philosophers in their polemical use of it. Hence, whether the origin of a theory is Kantian or non-Kantian, has turned out to be either a tool of defense or a means of attack. In the case of Habermas’s communicative ethics, a cognitivist and formalist theory, ‘Kantianism’ has served as a point of departure for commentators to demarcate its scope and limits. Many critics of Habermas’s communicative ethics charge it with either too much or too little Kantianism.

Therefore, given that ‘Kantianism’ is one such categorization, employed descriptively as well as polemically, the examination of its association with communicative ethics may shed new light on the latter. Moreover, any attempt to define a contemporary cognitivist ethics founders on the problem of its dependence on, or departure from, Kant - a problem that enhances the need to involve an implicit or explicit critical comparison between discourse ethics and Kantian ethics. Now, this need becomes more urgent if one recalls the postmodernist, feminist, communitarian and other objections to the Kantian transcendental subject, to Kantian rigorism and universalism. How amenable is discourse ethics to similar charges? For all these reasons, a study of Habermas’s departure from Kant is a preliminary step in any exploration and critique of discourse ethics.

My approach, however, raises also a particular methodological claim. It presupposes that before moving to a direct critique of both Kantian ethics and communicative ethics, one should first examine them in their temporal relation, i.e. in the differential-relational self-understanding of the latter with regard to its antecedent. By the term ‘differential-relational self-understanding’, I mean Habermas’s own awareness and exploration of his position through his relation of negation (partly as appropriation and partly as rejection) with Kantianism. Hence I take issue with those approaches to both theories that proceed prematurely to a direct comparison, as if the encounter of Habermas’s theory with Kant’s were not one way, i.e. as if they were two contemporary theories. Thus, through this Hegel-inspired method of reading, my concern is more to examine the reception of Kant and the way Kantianism serves as a point of reference and self-definition for the second generation of Critical Theory rather than a comparative study of both ethics, the Kantian and the Habermasian. That also explains the somewhat perfunctory character of a large part of the article and the uneven textual reliance on the sources of both theories. The benefit of this approach is, I believe, in its doing more justice to both sides and being more accurate in its conclusions as it is more step by step analysis than polemical evaluation. Since my attempt is to show what is not Kantian in discourse ethics and why, any appraisal of the departure from Kantianism will remain aside. For it is not the aim of this article to offer a positive or negative critique of Kantian ethics and communicative ethics but rather to outline their relation in an effort to set the record straight. In this way, the article addresses a broad readership not only of analytic or continental liberalist ethical theorists, but also of those of a poststructuralist, postmodernist, and cultural-critical persuasion. 1

Consequently, discourse or communicative ethics, as put forward by Apel and Habermas respectively, will be presented here as an attempt to reformulate and ‘(post)modernize’ Kantian pivotal notions like the Categorical Imperative, autonomy, happiness, publicity, practical reason and maxims of action. And the main argument is that, contra many postmodernist readings of communicative ethics, Habermas defines it in opposition to and not along with Kantian binarisms.

Kant and Communicative Ethics

Being within the framework of the post-Kantian tradition, discourse ethics is a cognitivist, formalist and universalistic theory. As a reformulation of Kantian premises via language, however, it supersedes Kantianism to a large extent, and escapes at least some of the criticisms that have been directed against Kantian ethics or the Kantian-like ethics of some sympathetic critics of Kantianism (Meehan, 1995, 182-3).

Then again, however sharp their critique of Kant may be, Apel and Habermas do not wholly dispense with his theory. It is from his ideas that they set out to construct their own version of ethics. Among their reasons is their disavowal of pre-Kantian metaphysics and post-Enlightenment ethical scepticism. Therefore, the attachment to Kantian theory is evident and indisputable. Discourse ethics is indeed a formalist universalist and cognitivist ethical theory (Habermas, 1992a). That does not justify, nevertheless, an exaggeration of such a commitment to Kant. To do so would only cause a misinterpretation of their theory and conceal the complexity of Habermas’s and Apel’s encounter with certain implicit Kantian assumptions.

Habermas and Apel make frequent reference to their coming to grips with Kant’s philosophy and their attempt to shift it from the framework of the philosophy of consciousness to that of the philosophy of language. Time and time again, Kant is discussed via those criticisms of Hegel’s which go beyond ethics to challenge the former’s conceptions of the self, knowledge, and science. This reliance on Hegel’s critique as a point of departure throws light also on Habermas’s idea about the unfulfilled expectations that the Hegelian critique raised for a turn to a linguistic paradigm. Here, I have to limit myself to the points that Habermas and Apel raise in relation to Kantian ethics and presuppose the way they have thread to Kant’s ontology and epistemology via Hegel.

Overall, discourse ethics’s transformation of Kantianism challenges ontologically the tension between the phenomenal and the noumenal realms, rejects its morally-informative role and gives to the Kantian consideration of intersubjectivity practical impact by concretizing it, embedding it in language, and situating it in culture. Thus it promotes the demand of equal participation in public life, claiming at the same time that it does not do so at the expense of, or in opposition to, genuine feelings of care and solidarity.

Central ethical questions like the moral self, morality and law, autonomy and happiness, publicity, and the application of norms are dealt with by Habermas and Apel with Kant and against Kant. A pragmatic philosophy of language such as the Apelian-Habermasian assumes a very different moral agent from the one set by Kantian ethics, and this fact has enormous implications for the content of both theories. This difference has a common denominator with the difference in dealing with morality and legality, namely, the dualisms which, to a certain extent, are said to have trapped Kant. Just as the moral agent is not a citizen of two worlds, the noumenal and the phenomenal, similarly, the tension between the private and the public sphere cannot ground contemporary treatments of law and moral conduct. Furthermore, another crucial difference—intersecting with the previous and informative of the Habermasian departure from Kant’s architectonic—concerns anthropology. Kant shared Hobbes’s disbelief in a good human nature, and understood the human self as involving a side which is by definition egoistic. Kant endorses the Hobbesian idea of people’s unsocial sociability - their supposedly endemic inclination to be self-centered and competitive even in their utmost care to remain within a social configuration (Immanuel Kant, 1992, 44). Thus Kant argues in his Critique of Pure Reason:

As Hobbes maintains, the state of nature is a state of injustice and violence, and we have no option save to abandon it and submit ourselves to the constraint of law (Kant, 1967, A778/B806, emphasis added).

Discourse ethics questions precisely this Kantian assumption of a bad matter to be tamed by the good reason. By doing so, discourse ethics automatically leaves space for a reconciliation of reason and feelings. Thus, not only does recent philosophical thought question the essentialism and the ontotheology underlying this view and has prepared the ground for its rejection by communicative action theory, but so does also the Habermasian deep suspicion of any extra-linguistic Archimedean point of philosophy. For Apel and Habermas, the incompatibility of their theory with Hobbesianism has always been a high point of principle. As a consequence, they enable an outlook of the old binarisms underneath the above mentioned themes that sets them in a radically different perspective. Now let us examine the Habermasian response to each of the above mentioned central questions of Kant’s ethics.

Monological Justification of Norms and the Categorical Imperative

In his Grundlegung (G, IV, p. 421), Kant defines the Categorical Imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’. In other words, for Kant a rational being has to test his or her principles in terms of their capacity to fulfil universalized premises. This was considered as the Achilles heel of Kantian ethics by Hegel and Mead among others. From Hegel’s putting forward of a pragmatic ethics of Sittlichkeit (Friedrich Hegel, 1999, 102-185), down to Mead’s arguments against the Categorical Imperative, the target is always Kantian formalism and abstraction from context-specific action.

Pragmatic philosophers of language share and sharpen the critique of the Kantian version of formalism. The latter stems, they argue, from an attachment to monologism. Despite Kant’s emphasis on the intersubjective approval that norms have to meet, the testing of a norm is something that is carried out foro interno. It is a process that can be realised even by an isolated actor. 2 Even in the form of a sensus communis, the Kantian intersubjectivity achieved in this way is a feat of the transcendental subject. For Kant, the elements that constitute the sensus communis are:

  1. to think for oneself (autonomy);
  2. to think from the standpoint of everyone else (empathy) and
  3. always to think consistently (O'Neill, 1989, 26).

However, to suggest or impose a norm which you have tested for intersubjective acceptability is one thing, and to take part in an actual argumentative discourse on a norm the validity or invalidity of which is debated by all those involved or affected is another thing altogether. Discourse ethics theorists argue for the latter. They reformulate Kant’s ethics ‘by grounding moral norms in communication’ (Habermas, 1992a, 195).

This difference of discourse ethics and Kantian ethics is also a crucial difference between discourse ethics and current defenders of Kantianism - even the more communication-based ones like Onora O’Neill and Alan Gewirth. As Seyla Benhabib points out,

O. O’Neill and A. Gewirth have refused to jettison the pure Kantian program, and have attempted to expand the principle of the noncontradiction of maxims by looking more closely at the formal features of rational action. But discourse ethics reformulates the Kantian project in such a way that ‘instead of thinking of universalizability as a test of noncontradiction, we think of universalizability as a test of communicative agreement’ (Benhabib & Dallmayr, 1990, 336).

The aforementioned remark refers to the reformulation of the Categorical Imperative in a Discourse Ethics principle. The Categorical Imperative is replaced with a procedure of moral argumentation, the principle of which postulates, ‘only those norms may claim to be valid that would meet with the consent of all affected in their role as participants in a practical discourse’(Habermas, 1992a, 197). As Habermas writes,

the Categorical Imperative needs to be reformulated as follows: «Rather than ascribing as valid to all others any maxim that I can will to be a universal law, I must submit my maxim to all others for purposes of discursively testing its claim to universality. The emphasis shifts from what each can will without contradiction to be a general law, to what all can will in agreement to be a universal norm» (Habermas, 1992a, 67).

Once again the influence of the Hegelian critique is obvious, since Hegel was the first to expose the formalism of Kantian ethics by showing that the mere principle of universalisability cannot generate determinate moral norms, and is dependent for its content on the actual practices of a society (Habermas, 1992b, 18-9).

Apel argues that in discourse ethics advocated by himself and Habermas Kant’s Categorical Imperative is

interpreted anew and, indeed, in such a way that the content of whichever universal law one happens to have in mind must be capable of being assented to by everyone who is affected by it (Apel, 1987, 15).

To state this shift more concisely, the Categorical Imperative – ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ - is transformed into a principle of discourse ethics that holds that ‘only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse’ (Habermas, 1992a, 66).

It is indeed a reformulation that may prove exceptionally important for radicalizing and remoralizing world politics, and the relevance of which extends to several domains of research, international law included. Like Kant, Apel sees that, so far, there are two ways to embody in an ethics concerns of a universalistic character: either by resorting to a ‘quasi-ontological’ moral principle of a pre-Kantian sort, or to a formal-rational universalization principle of a Kantian type. Once again, Apel appears faithful to Kantian ideals and his intention to renew them through a different way of philosophizing, hoping at the same time that the linguistic paradigm will purge Kantian ethics of its weaknesses. Thus, unlike Kant, he sees in discourse principle a yardstick of actual dialogue. Apparently, what went wrong with Kant’s ethics, for Apel, was its incapacity to break with a metaphysics of consciousness that hindered a conception of language (external) as something more than a medium of expressing thoughts (internal). It thus forced Kant to subordinate the outer to the inner nature, i.e. to give to the Categorical Imperative a foro interno setting. In the same vein, Habermas finds in the linguistic paradigm the means for overcoming the Cartesian mentalism that trapped Kant and to a lesser extent Hegel and blocked their efforts to justify objectivity intersubjectively (Habermas, 1999).

Therefore, this departure from the Categorical Imperative allows Apel and Habermas, as they see it, to promote more successfully than their predecessor, among other things, three basic ideas: that a moral scepticism claiming that norms do not have any sort of objective validity can be refuted; that any monological understanding of ethics is incompatible with the basic demand that ‘all affected’ approve the norm in question; and that a consensus on the validity or invalidity of a norm is in principle possible. As a result, all these entail that the validity of an argument is not exhausted in its propositions being true or false according to states of affairs and that the analogical status of claims to truth and claims to rightness can be demonstrated and argued for (Habermas, 1992a, 65-77).

In its reformulation of the Categorical Imperative, communicative ethics privileges ‘real talks’ and the institutionalization of democratic and differentiated public fora. Our postmodern era and some postmodernist trends celebrate the ways by which globalization with its remote but multiple networks of communication facilitate such ‘voice-giving’ tendencies. But, in my opinion, here lies also a potential for defending Kantianism against two salient weaknesses of discourse ethics (and the globalized and globalizing culture matching it). First, communicative ethics presupposes and requires a communicability that is free of power relations as well as discursive incommensurability to a larger extent than its Kantian counterpart does (precisely by being monological!). And second, it loses sight of that aspect of morality that is existential as it does not involve directly the agreement of others on binding norms but is no less moral since it involves the way our actions affect other beings. Such is the character of some cases of responsibility to otherness which do not avail themselves to public regulation but nevertheless present themselves as moral issues. 3 These can be tackled better individually and gain any universalist significance only monologically and indirectly. Be that as it may, communicative ethics does define its main moral principle in a differential relation to its antecedent theory rather than in conformity to it as it has been wrongly accused of doing.

Morality and Legality: The Underlying Connection with the Binarism of Private vs Public

The departure from the monologism of the Categorical Imperative ties with the revision of the relation between the private and the public in that both moves rely on an intersubjective understanding of the moral self, which facilitates mediation between binarisms supposed to have been treated by Kant as rigid. Concerning morality and law, while communicative ethics emphasizes the autonomy and mutual independence of these two spheres, it undoes the antagonistic character that they have in Kant due to their correspondence to the binary opposition of internal versus external (private vs public) space. As Habermas puts it,

in Kant, the ethical conduct of the individual who is free only inwardly is clearly distinguished from the legality of his external actions. And just as morality is separated from legality, so the two in turn are separated from politics... (Habermas, 1988, 42, emphasis added).

The issue revolves around the question as to how to get public benefit from the private vices, or, in Kant’s own words, as Habermas quotes them, how to

organize a group of rational beings who together require universal laws for their survival, but of whom each separate individual is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them; the constitution must be so designed that although the citizens are opposed to one another in their private attitudes these opposing views may inhibit one another in such a way that the public conduct of the citizens will be the same as if they did not have such evil attitudes (Habermas, 1988, 76, emphasis mine).

Discourse ethics does not subscribe to this antagonistic relation of private and public interests for several salient reasons, and for some less obvious reasons which I will attempt to clarify here. Firstly, Apel and Habermas have moved away from the philosophy of consciousness that is based on the subject-object relation and posits the human in an antagonistic relation to the world of objects, where the category ‘object’ often includes the one of ‘co-subjects’. Individuals understand and relate to the world through language, while they form themselves through language. Second, and as a consequence, Apel and Habermas do not employ the traditional binary opposition between spirit and matter or mind and body. Apel objects to doctrines that treat the human as a ‘citizen of two worlds’ (Apel, 1993, 520), and Habermas asserts that ‘discourse ethics gives up Kant’s dichotomy between an intelligible realm [...] and a phenomenal realm’ (Habermas, 1992a, 203). Without this metaphysical grounding, the conflict between the private and the public, expressed in the Hobbesian-Kantian idea of the ‘unsocial sociability of men’, cannot preserve its Manichean ontological relevance and is reduced to its proper space, i.e. the socio-historical transience.

However, from a communicative ethics point of view, an assimilation of law and morality would be equally misleading. Let us examine how one may arrive at this idea. When Kant appears inconsistent in his account of the relation between morality and law, Habermas attributes it to Kant’s philosophy of history which, in Habermas’s view, presupposed an already existing natural basis for a juridical condition, and therefore led Kant to separate the welfare of the state from the welfare of the citizens (Habermas, 1992c, 113). But such an assumption of a morality separate from legality creates an ambivalence in Kant’s theory:

in Kant and in early liberalism, there is a conception of the rule of law which suggests that the legal order itself is exclusively moral in character, or at least, is a form of implementation of morality. This assimilation of law and morality is misleading. The political element of law [i.e. its function as a medium of state power] brings completely different aspects into play (Habermas, 1992b, 252).

Hence, Habermas diagnoses an inconsistency on the part of Kant with regard to whether morality is separated from or assimilated to legality and opts neither for the former nor for the latter.

Discourse ethics accepts a morality distinct from, but compatible with and complementary to, positive law. As a postmetaphysical theory (that is, as a theory that has come to terms with the secularization of worldviews in modern societies and has not sought to ground morality on something ahistorical, natural or spiritual in origin) discourse ethics does not confront the dilemma of a supposed temporal or logical priority of either politics or morality. This dilemma, which might be rephrased as ‘public versus private’, is a challenge for theories that assume some sort of prelinguistic experience as an Archimedean point and more likely tend to attribute to morality a status that precedes and transcends society. Its reverse side, namely the priority of legality over morality, seems to me to be stressed by a particularistic ethics that more or less presupposes an unmitigated incommensurability of language games that does not allow for any universalistic normative claims, thus reducing morality to a contingent and private affair. Discourse ethics keeps its distance from both extremes. I consider the way in which discourse ethics deals with morality and legality as a very significant departure from Kant’s worldview, and I believe that this departure can be better understood via Apel’s and Habermas’s attempt to undo the public-private or external-internal (to society) oppositional couples as has been sketched above.

Happiness and Duty

Questions of law and politics are directly and self-evidently relevant to the question of public weal and happiness. Here again, an ethics based on communication as linguistically mediated interaction appears more promising than Kantian ethics to those who have subscribed to the paradigmatic shift from the philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of intersubjectivity.

The happiness of the members of a society is a problem that can be dealt with by both materialistic and idealistic means. Kant, as a good Enlightenment thinker, would not be at ease with the Leibnizian idea of our world as the best possible. He shared with the Enlightenment philosophers the confidence and optimism that goes along with the belief in the progress (Papastephanou, 1998, 180) 4 of humankind via rationality and promoted a diagnosis of social crises that is regulatively guided by an emancipatory ideal. Given the re-evaluation of nature that resulted from the uncoupling of physics and religion (the treatment of nature and its laws as an object of scientific research independent from philosophy or theology), the rationality of that time departed from the Cartesian primacy of the intellectus and demanded the fulfilment of expectations of an empirical-materialistic kind as well. Hence happiness acquired a strong materialist dimension that Kant could neither sidestep nor endorse whole-heartedly. As he subordinated pure reason to practical, similarly he transcendentalized happiness by arguing that it is not an end in itself, independently of nature’s plan to rationalization through universal human history. This is most evident, I believe, in Kant’s critique of Herder’s anti-rationalist account of happiness (Kant, 1992, 219-220).

Consequently, although in principle happiness could become an ultimate end of Kant`s philosophy, that did not actually happen, however, because it would have been a big concession to empiricism and would have made Kant’s ethics vulnerable to scepticism (Panayotis Kondylis, 1981). Thus, Kant had to purify his idea of happiness by identifying it with a rational happiness - a stable, fixed, compulsory happiness, not far from the idea of duty. Habermas is very much aware of this predicament of an ethics that wishes to mediate between dogmatism and scepticism. He remarks that Kant’s ethics cannot dispense with the question of happiness: ‘the public’s universal end is happiness’. And he sees that on the other hand ‘political maxims must not be derived from welfare or happiness... but rather from the pure concept of the duty of right... regardless of what the physical consequences may be’ (Habermas, 1992c, 112-3).

Two factors absolve discourse ethics from favouring either a concrete and substantive account of happiness or an abstract theory of duty. One is the realistic tack Habermas’s views have taken as concerns the possibility of the utopia of an absolute Hegelian 'reconciliation' and happiness, a realism inherited from the first generation of Frankfurt school (Habermas, 1992a, 211). The other is the introduction of those questions of the good life that Kantian theory left untouched:

Going beyond Kant, discourse ethics extends the deontological concept of justice by including in it those structural aspects of the good life that can be distinguished from the concrete totality of specific forms of life (Habermas, 1992a, 203).

Joel Whitebook has interpreted this Habermasian (and Apelian) venture of bridging the gap between happiness and duty as follows:

[Habermas] tries to do justice to the psychoanalytically informed eudaemonism and hedonism of early Critical Theory within a rationalistic framework (Bernstein, 1985, 152).

In my opinion, this venture can be seen not only as a reconciliation of the Freudian pleasure principle with the reality principle, but equally or even more, as a dismantling of the underlying binary opposition between reason and feelings or mind and body, an opposition that has been sharpened by polemics within the western philosophical tradition often relying on Manichean metaphysics and translates also in the ‘happiness vs duty’ dualism.

Implications: (1) Autonomy and Praxis, and (2) Publicity

(1) The implications of the aforementioned differentiation between discourse ethics and Kantian ethics is also of pivotal importance. Discourse ethics generates its own conception of autonomy (along Kantian lines), thus avoiding the determinism of a subordination of the subject either to universalistic quasi-naturalistic laws or to a supposedly inescapable linguistic and cultural construction. But it does not invoke an empty morality that abstracts from experience as Hegel alleged in relation to Kant’s ethics while advancing his own Moralität-Sittlichkeit distinction. As a consequence, it does not encounter the same problems that Kantian rigorism does when dealing with concrete cases and the application of norms. In other words, it does not ‘lack a practical impact’.

The question of autonomy is connected to the question of an abstract morality and so is also the issue of the moral self, which in turn is connected to the acknowledgement of claims related to the subjective world as analogous to claims to truth and rightness about the objective and social world respectively. Autonomous is not a non-situated self but one that is rooted in all dimensions of reality in a reflective and critical way. The merits of this account are clarified by Apel and Habermas in their analyses of language. Their theory aims to restore the inner world in its full complexity, a complexity that has been neglected by positivistic or behaviouristic theories on the one hand, and by holistic theories on the other. The latter characteristically take the form of reductive arguments about an absolute Spirit which absorbs uniqueness or about a critical and transparent self-knowledge that renders the subject a static and fixed structure. In discourse ethics, the idea of autonomy is intersubjective, whereas ‘in Kant, autonomy was conceived as freedom under self-given laws which involves an element of coercive subordination of subjective nature’ (Habermas, 1992a, 207).

Once again, I see Habermas’s comment on Kant’s account of autonomy as freedom under self-given laws as an implicit protest against the lurking segregation, behind Kant’s statements, between a phenomenal and an intelligible world or the mind and the body. How else can we understand this Kantian identification of freedom and autonomy under self-given laws if not as a taming of the rampant and chaotic subjective dimension of Being by the controllable and disciplined properties of apperception? From a communicative-theoretical point of view, Kant was right to define freedom negatively, as an absence of determination by alien causes, but he was wrong to connect freedom with an exclusively self-embedded reason. ‘Only autonomous, self-disciplining beings can act on principles that we have grounds to call principles of reason’ (O'Neill, 1989, 57, emphasis mine). In my opinion, Kant’s dualism is more ontological than epistemological, given the unity of reason that is achieved through the subjugation of pure to practical reason.

When Hegel contrasted Sittlichkeit to Moralität and criticized Kantian ethics for favoring the latter, he was concerned not only with questions of the situatedness of the self but also with problems of social action, to use Weber’s terminology. The crucial matter is how one bridges the gap between theoria and praxis as well as the relation between the ‘Is’ and the ‘Ought’. Kantian ethics in its original form faces problems when dealing with concrete forms of life. And it has been criticized about its difficulties to cope with applied ethics (ethical issues about children, handicapped people, insanity and so forth), if the assumption that will is ‘a kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational’ (O'Neill, 1989, 57) is to be taken at face value, that is, in virtue of what reason meant within the paradigm of a philosophy of consciousness. Discourse ethics does not follow in Kant’s steps so long as it does not conceive reason as the other of experience but justifies reason by considering it as a transhistorical linguistic-pragmatic event.

Concerning praxis, Kantian theory assumes a morality that resembles purposive activity, which in this case is determined by pure maxims and disregards the degree to which the moral actors are embedded in their lifeworld and are intersubjectively co-ordinated in their actions (Habermas, 1988, 155). Similarly, culture is also ‘purposive according to technical rules which abstract in the same manner from the subject’s involvement in the labour process’ (Habermas, 1988, 156). The Habermasian and Apelian affinity with Marxism, developmental psychology, Mead’s social anthropology, and Peirce’s pragmatism, hence all the developments of thought since Kant, serves as a basis for a critique of the implications of some Kantian conjectures:

without the capacity for judgment and motivation, the psychological conditions for translating morality into ethical life are missing; without the corresponding patterns of socialization and institutions, i.e., without «fitting» forms of life to embodied moral principles, the social conditions for their concrete existence are missing (Bernstein, 1985, 214).

Within discourse ethics, two resolutions of this difficulty have been developed. Apel distinguishes a part A of discourse ethics that accounts for the formal and abstract ethical dimension and a part B that is more relevant to application. Habermas follows a different path: he suggests a division of labour in practical reason where the domains of decision making, ethical-existential problems of self-realisation, and normativity have an analogous status and thus are not absorbed by morality. Habermas limits the province of ethics to the intersubjective justification of norms. With regard to the application of the already justified norms, he proposes a principle of appropriateness (Angemessenheit) that helps us choose which of the valid norms is the appropriate one for a concrete case. Evidently, both directions endeavor to remedy what is considered to be a lacuna in Kantian theory stemming from the rigourism of his dualisms, i.e. the smooth and consistent transition from theory to practice.

(2) Another direct implication of the abandonment of Kant’s qualitative and hierarchical differentiation of morality and legality in discourse ethics is the revision of the role of publicity (Öffentlichkeit) in a theory of emancipation. Given the increased complexity and differentiation that the systems of economy and state have undergone, the need for a public tribunal has taken the form of a need for ‘the expertise of highly specialized experts’ to be removed ‘from supervision by rationally debating bodies’ (Habermas, 1992c, 233). The effectiveness of publicity will then be measured according to its capacity to minimize bureaucratic or mass media control in a concrete and vigorous way, and to enhance the acknowledgement of general-universal interests. 5 The critical force of such a publicity is sharper than that of a bourgeois public sphere. Moreover, as a regulative idea (Kant), it is counterfactual, an open possibility that cannot be easily denounced as utopian-ideological.

The success of goals regarding publicity such as the above, set by Apel and Habermas, are jeopardized in their view by the Kantian retention of the tension between morality and law. 6 An ambivalence in Kant’s work (perhaps a manifestation of the one regarding morality and legality) is borne out by the contradictory conclusions he draws about politics and which Habermas had pointed out as early as 1962. One Kantian conclusion suggests that ‘a cosmopolitan order emerges from natural necessity alone’:

the rule of law is guaranteed by publicity, namely, by a public sphere whose ability to function was posited by implication together with the posited natural basis of the juridical condition. (Habermas, 1992c, 115).

But Kant also held that ‘politics had first to push for the actualization of the juridical condition’ (ibid.). In the first case, morality is restricted to the role of a ‘law-giver’, a ‘legal conduct out of the duty under positive laws’ (Habermas, 1992b, 250-1; Habermas, 1992c, 115). But in the second case, a peculiar affinity between politics, law, and morality stems from ‘a cosmopolitan order issued from both natural necessity and moral politics’. Publicity becomes the sphere ‘where an intelligible unity of the empirical ends of everyone was to be brought about, where legality was to issue from morality’ (Habermas, 1992c, 115). In other words, in the first case the juridical condition is pre-given in the sense that it is natural, in contrast with the second case where the juridical condition is posited and actualized by moral politics in alliance with natural necessity.

As the implications stemming from both possibilities are conflicting, the public sphere and its role on this point become mystified in Kantianism. Apel and Habermas respond via a postmetaphysical denaturalization qua linguistification of politics and detranscendentalization of morality in its relation to law. I find this move significant because it sets communicative ethics automatically in the family of those postmodernist theories that strive to free philosophy from those residues of onto-theology (Heidegger) that projected in human history some entrenched Occidental metaphysical beliefs. As many misinterpretations of Habermas derive from isolating his insistence on the promotion of the ‘incomplete project of Enlightenment’ and classify him as a ‘modern’ philosopher, highlighting his ‘postmodernizing’ of publicity and its relation to politics and law contributes to counterbalancing the general tendency for such a one-sided classification.


Discourse ethics draws from Kantianism but breaks with it or even defines itself in opposition to it with regard to many crucial aspects. Those examined here have not been selected randomly but in virtue of their relevance to binarisms that have been viewed as constitutive of Kantianism by critics of Kant and Habermas alike. The charge of monologism Habermas directs against the Categorical Imperative and his criticisms of the Kantian treatment of issues of autonomy, happiness, and publicity have been shown to derive from the Habermasian dismantling of the binary opposition of morality versus legality. That opposition is redolent further of the dualisms of the private versus the public and reason versus feelings that communicative action theory has undermined painstakingly. Therefore, both the divergence from Kant and the debt to him are at least of equal significance and any attempt at exaggerating the latter while obscuring the former is one-sided and misleads research. A first ramification of my account, then, is that those postmodernists categorizing communicative ethics in Kantianism and dismiss it in one blow on the grounds that, supposedly, it does not share any of their concerns, are blatantly wrong. And a second ramification is that Habermas’s and Apel’s jettisoning of the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness for the sake of the linguistic turn makes more sense in the light of their dispensing with Kantian binarisms. As the first ramification needs no further discussion, I will conclude with a brief exposition of the second.

Discourse ethics keeps the Kantian distinction between what is practically expedient, ethically prudent, and morally right (Habermas, 1995). However, by regarding reason as deeply rooted in language, it escapes the ‘form vs content’ predicament that ensnares those philosophies which privilege either the just or the good. We have seen how discourse ethics relates to Kantianism. It maintains the universalistic, formalist, and cognitivist concerns without their metaphysical-dualist presuppositions about identity, reason, and autonomy. Meanwhile, it develops its own assumptions substituting for the Kantian ones. Communicative ethics, as a reconstruction of the moral point of view, assumes in the first place that the moral point of view can be better interpreted by a theory based on the normative presuppositions of argumentation. The distinction of modes of practical reason is Kantian in origin but bereft of the polemical overtones (moral scepticism versus dogmatic Wolffianism) that compelled Kant to posit them in an asymmetrical relation to each other. What is seen as undesirable in Kant’s dualism is the emphasis in their supposedly antagonistic and asymmetrical character transforming the pairs of reason and feelings, the private and the public, etc., into binarisms. Communicative ethics opts for more pluralistic and symmetrical distinctions that are grounded not in hierarchizations of each one’s ontological and epistemological status but in linguistically mediated interaction. In fact, Habermas’s conjecture of a symmetry of different but analogous spheres of practical reason is very similar to his distinction of linguistic modes. As with practical reason, the philosophical tradition and its proponents have at times favoured, one-dimensionally, either an account of intended meaning, or of utterance meaning, or literal meaning. An analogy can be drawn between neglecting some dimensions of linguistic meaning and neglecting some dimensions of reasoning and acting. Just as in the case of literal meaning the implicit ontology was a crude-empirical one, similarly, in the case of favouring a decisionism (like Carl Schmitt’s, for instance), morality is absorbed by a functional-purposive model of world-understanding. And as the utterance meaning stresses the importance of particular and situated uses of speech, so a communitarian ethics emphasizes the significance of particular life forms and contexts. Finally, a primacy of intended meaning corresponds to a reduction of morality to sequences of subjective opinions and private episodes. In all six cases of an abstract priority of the one over the other, the marginalization of one element or another and its exclusion from the foreground has created severe aporias. It has been argued that morality itself is aporetic as a phenomenon, and this seems true enough as long as it corresponds to a perpetually changing social world—but it is quite wrong when used to legitimize our misconceptions of its very nature.

Overall, a discussion of the points where discourse ethics departs from Kantian ethics does not aim at questioning the influence of Kant on Habermas and Apel, nor the cognitivist, formal and universalistic character of communicative or discourse ethics, which is deeply Kantian. I hope to have offered a more nuanced, accurate, and fair understanding of the Kantian influence on communicative ethics and a critically expounded outline of its departure from the Kantian framework. My approach aims also at showing that the linguistic paradigm facilitates a transformation of some basic Kantian insights and, consequently, is not susceptible to the charges directed—fairly or not—against some contentious Kantian arguments. To this extent, accusations against Apel and Habermas of too much Kantianism, let alone attempts to exhaust the meaning of discourse ethics via Kantian interpretations, are rather disorienting.


1. Consider for instance the following remark by Jane Braaten: 'Though Habermas departs from Kantian "philosophy of consciousness", these concepts of autonomy, relationship, and community are essentially Kantian. I raise the question of whether this Kantian conceptual development is appropriate for feminist epistemology' (Johanna Meehan, 1995, 141).

2. Even theorists who (rightly I believe) stress the intersubjective element in Kant's theory, describe a maxim as a 'subjective principle of action' (O'Neill, 1989, 83, emphasis added).

3. Both these weaknesses that communicative ethics shares with postmodernity and some postmodernist theoretical positions can be spotted and criticized not only by defenders of Kantianism but also by Lyotard's postmodernist trend (regarding the first weakness) and Levinas's face-to-face ethics (with respect to the second weakness).

4.  Concerning Kant's idea of progress, Apel diagnoses a misunderstanding on Lyotard's part. On Apel's account, the Kantian idea of progress was very different from the causal or teleological Hegelian or Marxian counterpart and Lyotard is wrong when he argues that the core of the Hegelian/Marxian conception of progress was already present in Kant's work. On this point, see 'Apel, Regulative Ideas or Sense-Events? An Attempt to Determine the Logos of Hermeneutics' (Papastephanou, 1998).

5. This means that the privatization of the press and the media in general has to be questioned if we want an objectivity that throws light to different conflicts and problems instead of covering them up in an effort to establish a supposed impartiality, evasive and indifferent, and thus inoffensive. An inclusive and democratic public life means in the first place challenging the control of publicity by certain groups that so far maintain the privilege of giving voice and distributing space in accordance to their own private interests. As Dryzek writes, 'private ownership means that the media is shaped by market forces (though not necessarily market ideology), in which advertisers demand "objective" or "nonpartisan" news coverage for fear of offending consumers identified with particular ideological groups' (White, 1995, 105).

6. For instance, discourse ethics grants all persons 'capable of speech and interaction' and affected by norms the capacity to make good use of public reason. Kant was rather ambivalent on this, thinking that philosophers, as they are—allegedly—disinterested and impartial, are more capable than others of transcending private reason and serving in the public sphere. On Simone Chambers's account, discourse ethics democratizes the Kantian public sphere and 'suggests procedural guidelines to secure the public use of reason' (White, 1995, 237).


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Apel, Karl-Otto, (1993): 'L' Éthique du Discours comme Éthique de la Responsabilité: une Transformation Postmétaphysique de l' Éthique Kantienne' Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale 98: 505-537.

Benhabib, Seyla & Dallmayr, Fred, eds., (1990): The Communicative Ethics Controversy. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.

Bernstein, Richard J., ed, (1985): Habermas and Modernity. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.

Habermas, Juergen, (1988): Theory and Practice. Cambridge. Polity Press.

Habermas, Juergen (1992a): Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge. Polity Press.

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Habermas, Juergen (1999): ‘From Kant to Hegel and Back Again – The Move Towards Detranscendentalization’, European Journal of Philosophy 7, 2: 129-157.

Hegel, Friedrich, (1999): H. B. Nisbet & Lawrence Dickey, eds. Hegel: Political Writings. Cambridge. CambridgeUniversity Press.

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Kondylis, Panayotis, (1981): Die Aufklaerung Im Rahmen des Neuzeitlichen Rationalismus. Stuttgart. Klett-Cotta Verlag.

Meehan, Johanna, ed., (1995): Feminists Reading Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse. N. York & London. Routledge.

O'Neill, Onora, (1989): Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Papastephanou, Marianna, ed., (1998): Apel: From a Transcendental-Semiotic Point of View. Manchester. Manchester University Press.

White, Stephen, ed. (1995): The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

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Dr. Marianna Papastephanou teaches Philosophy in the Department of Education at the University of Cyprus.

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