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Truth, Contingency, and Modernity

Author(s): Albrecht Wellmer


Source: Modern Philology, Vol. 90, Supplement (May, 1993), pp. S109-S124
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Truth,
Contingency,
and
Modernity
ALBRECHT WELLMER
Freie Universitdt Berlin
I
In
talking
with each other, in
lecturing,
or in
writing,
we
constantly
raise truth claims of different sorts
or, to
put
it more
cautiously-
since there
might
be
objections
to
talking
about 'truth' in the case of
moral or aesthetic claims-
validity
claims of different sorts. I
just
did
it
myself.
If I raise a
validity
claim
seriously,
I
expect everybody
else to
have
good
reasons to
agree
with what I
said-provided
he or she un-
derstands what I said and has sufficient
information, competence,
judgment,
and so on. In this sense I
suppose
that
my validity
claim
would be the
right
candidate for an
intersubjective agreement,
based
on
good
reasons. If, however, somebody
with
good arguments objects
to what I am
saying,
I
ought
to withdraw
my validity
claim or at least
admit that some doubt is
justified.
These
things
seem trivial but, as
you know, it is trivialities like these which are at the center of the most
exciting philosophical
controversies. If I
begin
to reflect on what a
good argument
or
compelling
evidence is, or on the basis of which
criteria it
might
be decided what a
good argument
or
compelling
evi-
dence is
(given
the fact that
people
tend to
disagree upon
these mat-
ters),
I
might easily
lose
ground
from under
my
feet. One
might ask,
for instance: If th re is irresolvable
disagreement
about the
possibility
of
justifying
truth
claims, about standards of
argumentation
or evi-
dential
support-for example,
between members of different
linguis-
tic, scientific, or cultural communities-can I still
suppose
that there
are, somewhere, correct standards, right criteria, in short, an
objec-
tive truth of the matter? Or should I rather think that truth is 'rela-
tive' to cultures, languages, communities, or even persons? While
relativism (the second alternative) appears to be inconsistent, absolut-
ism (the first alternative) seems to imply metaphysical assumptions. I
will call this the antinomy of truth.
? 1993 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0026-8232/93/9004-2009$01.00
S109
MODERN PHILOLOGY
Much
important philosophical
work has been done in recent de-
cades to resolve this
antinomy
of truth, either
by trying
to show that
absolutism need not be
metaphysical
or
by trying
to show that the cri-
tique
of absolutism need not lead to relativism.
Important propo-
nents of the first
position
have been
Hilary Putnam, Karl-Otto
Apel,
and
Jurgen Habermas; perhaps
the most
important proponent
of the
second
position
has been Richard
Rorty.
I shall not at this
point
con-
sider the
position
of
Jacques Derrida,
according
to whom truth is a
hopelessly metaphysical notion, but since we cannot do without it,
there is no
straight
route of
escape
from
metaphysics.
The
philoso-
phers
I have first mentioned all
agree
that the idea of truth can be
understood in a
nonmetaphysical
and nonrelativistic
way. However,
while Putnam,
Apel,
and Habermas
charge Rorty
with
being
a relativ-
ist, Rorty charges
them with
remaining metaphysical.
This is a
highly
interesting
constellation which,
I think, once more shows that the an-
tinomy
of truth is not so
easily
resolved.
In what follows I want to
suggest-by questioning
the terms of the
debate between Putnam, Apel,
and Habermas on the one side, and
Rorty on the other-my own solution to the antinomy. Naturally, it is
impossible to place Putnam, Apel, and Habermas in one and the
same camp without ignoring tremendous differences between their
respective philosophical positions. However, all three share a certain
conceptual strategy-the strategy of explicating truth in terms of
some necessary 'idealizations'-which for Rorty is the basic point of
disagreement. My argument in what follows is an attempt to reinter-
pret the disagreement.
Putnam has explained truth as rational acceptability under epis-
temically ideal conditions: Habermas has explained it as the content
of a rational consensus which is achieved under conditions of an ideal
speech situation.1 Putnam's and Habermas's explanations are com-
plementary, as Apel has recognized; for while the idea of "epistemi-
cally ideal conditions" must refer to a linguistic community in order
not to become empty or metaphysical, an ideal structure of communi-
cation cannot suffice alone to guarantee truth: there must be some
1. Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge, 1981), p. 55. Jurgen Haber-
mas, "Wahrheitstheorien," in Wirklichkeit und
Reflexion,
ed. Helmut Fahrenbach (Pful-
lingen, 1973). Reprinted in Jurgen Habermas, Vorstudien und Ergdnzungen zur Theorie des
kommunikativen Handelns (Frankfurt, 1984), esp. pp. 174-83. Below I shall distinguish
between "strong" and "weak" interpretations of the idea of "necessary idealizations."
When Habermas first introduced the idea of an ideal speech situation, he tended toward
a strong interpretation; today I think he would more or less agree with the weak inter-
pretation for which I am arguing. Putnam, in contrast, has emphasized that he has never
advocated a "strong" interpretation (in my sense) of his idealization concept. See, e.g.,
his preface to Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), p. viii.
S110
Albrecht Wellmer o Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
proviso
that all the relevant
arguments
and evidence are available to
the
participants
in such a situation.
Apel consequently
has tried to
combine Putnam's and Habermas's basic intuitions and to
explain
truth as the ultimate consensus of an ideal communication commu-
nity.
In this idea the consensus
principle
of truth is combined with a
Peircean
principle
of
convergence concerning
not
only
scientific
knowledge
but also moral and hermeneutic truth claims.2 What char-
acterizes all three
attempts
to
explain
truth as rational
acceptability
under ideal conditions is this: the idealizations which are
supposed
to
explicate
the idea of truth must be
supposed
to
operate already
as
"necessary presuppositions"
on the level of
ordinary
communication
and discourse.
The idea of
necessary
idealizations involved in the idea of truth is,
of course, meant to secure the difference between rational
accept-
ability (or
rational consensus)
here and now and rational
acceptabil-
ity (or
rational
consensus) simpliciter.
This is the difference between
truth
simpliciter (truth
in an absolute
sense)
and what we think
(or
agree)
to be true on the basis of
arguments, criteria, and evidence at
our
disposal
here and now. I think that,
in
fact, some difference like
this is involved in the
logical grammar
of our notion of truth. For,
on
the one hand, we cannot
justify
truth claims
except
on the basis of
arguments
and evidence available to us and, on the other, our
argu-
ments or evidence may always prove to be insufficient, forcing us to
revise our truth claims. The idea of truth contains a necessary rela-
tionship to possible arguments or evidence on which truth claims
may be based, and it contains a necessary surplus beyond all the par-
ticular arguments and evidence which might be available at any given
time and for any particular community of speakers.
Now it is
precisely
the interpretation of this difference between
truth and rational acceptability by Putnam, Apel, and Habermas to
which Rorty objects.3 In particular, Rorty objects to the idea of "nec-
essary idealizations" involved in the notion of truth, and he objects to
the idea that we necessarily must assume some sort of "convergence"
in our search for truth. As far as the second objection is concerned, I
believe that Rorty is right; however, I think that it is only by restating
his first objection that we can get beyond the bad alternative of 'ob-
jectivism' versus 'relativism' that actually defines what I have called
the "antinomy of truth."
2. See Karl-Otto Apel, "Fallibilismus, Konsenstheorie der Wahrheit und Letztbe-
grundung," in Philosophie und Begrundung, ed. Forum fur Philosophic Bad Homburg
(Frankfurt, 1986), pp. 139-63. See also n. 4 below.
3. Richard Rorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity?" and "Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth,"
both in
Objectivism, Relativism, and Truth, vol. 1, Philosophical Papers (Cambridge, 1991).
SIll
MODERN PHILOLOGY
I want to
argue
that the idea of
"necessary
idealizations" involved in
raising
truth claims
may
be understood in two different
ways:
in a
strong
or
"totalizing"
and in a weak or
"localizing"
sense. If the idea is
understood in its
strong sense, it becomes
"metaphysical" (taking
'metaphysical'
in a Derridean
way).
If the idea is understood in its
weak sense, it becomes innocuous-and, as I shall
argue,
not
only
im-
mune to
Rorty's objections
but also crucial to a solution of the anti-
nomy
that would be
superior
to
Rorty's
"ethnocentric" solution. Let
me take Putnam's idealization as a first
example.
On a
presupposition
of
convergence
in the search for truth, the idea
of
"epistemically
ideal conditions" seems to
signify epistemic
condi-
tions under which the
full truth, the whole truth, would be accessible.
Even if understood
only
as a
regulative idea, this is still the idea of ab-
solute
knowledge-of seeing
the world as it is seen with God's
eyes.
Now I believe that
Apel
is
completely right
when he insists that the
regulative
idea involved in the idea of truth
(if
there is
any)
cannot be
merely
understood in an
epistemic
sense-that is, as
referring merely
to the
progress
of scientific
knowledge.4
If all the different dimen-
sions of truth or
validity
are taken into account, and if it is also taken
into account that truth refers to a
linguistic community
and the
possi-
bility of a rational consensus achieved in such a community, then the
regulative idea involved in the idea of truth must refer to cognitively,
morally, and linguistically ideal conditions all at the same time. The
regulative idea involved in the idea of truth consequently becomes
the idea of an ultimate consensus within an ideal communication
community. Here the idea of full, of 'absolute', truth is combined
with that of a perfect moral order and a fully transparent situation of
communication. It is obvious that this idea of an ideal communica-
tion community is metaphysical precisely in a Derridean sense, for it
is-if spelled out in all its consequences-the idea of a communica-
tion community which would have "escape [d] play and the order of
the sign."5 This would be a state of full transparency, of absolute
knowledge, of moral perfection-in short, a situation of communica-
tion which would transcend the constraints, the opacity, the fragility,
and the corporeality of finite human communication. It is Derrida
who has pointed out that, in such idealizations, the conditions of the
4. See, e.g., Karl-Otto Apel, "Szientismus oder transzendentale Hermeneutik? Zur
Frage nach dem Subjekt der Zeicheninterpretation in der Semiotik des Pragmatismus,"
pp. 215-19, and "Das Apriori der Kommunikationsgemeinschaft," pp. 429-31, both in
Transformation der Philosophie, vol. 2, Das Apriori der Kommunikationsgemeinschaft (Frank-
furt, 1973).
5. Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sci-
ences," in Writing and Difference (Chicago, 1978),
p. 292.
S112
Albrecht Wellmer o
Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
possibility
of what is idealized are
negated.
Ideal communication
would be communication
beyond
the condition of
"differance," to
use Derrida's term
and, therefore, communication outside and be-
yond
the conditions of the
possibility
of communication. Inasmuch as
the idea of an ideal communication
community, however,
implies
a
negation
of the conditions of finite human
communication, it
implies
a
negation
of the natural and historical conditions of human life, of
human finitude. I think that Nietzsche was the first to
point
out that
such ideas in the end become
indistinguishable
from that of
Nirvana;
ideal communication would be the death of communication. Even if
the idea of an ideal communication
community
is
only
a
regulative
idea to which
nothing
can ever
really correspond
on
earth, it remains
paradoxical;
for it is
part
of the force of such
regulative
ideas that
they oblige
us to work for or toward the realization of this idea. The
paradox
is that we should be
obliged
to strive to realize an ideal
whose realization would be the end of human
history.
The telos is the
end; this
paradoxical
structure marks
Apel's explanation
of truth as
still
metaphysical.
It should be noted in
passing
that Derrida
agrees
with
Apel
on the
necessary
idealizations involved in the idea of truth. Unlike
Apel,
how-
ever, he recognizes the metaphysical character of these idealizations.
Where Apel sees an ultimate foundation of our commitment to Truth
(with a capital T), Derrida sees a necessarily metaphysical, logocentric
infection of even our ordinary language, and this has motivated his
turn from transcendental foundationalism to deconstruction. Again
I do not find this alternative compelling; let me therefore come back
to the "antinomy of truth" and suggest an alternative reading of
those "necessary idealizations" which, according to Putnam, Apel,
and Habermas, are involved in the respective ideas of truth and of
truth-oriented communication.
Let me begin again with Putnam. If the idea of "epistemically ideal
conditions" cannot be understood in the totalizing futuristic sense
which I have suggested, the only acceptable reading would be the
following one. Whenever we raise a truth claim on the basis of what
we take to be good arguments or compelling evidence, we take the
epistemic conditions prevailing here and now as ideal in the follow-
ing sense: we presuppose that no arguments or evidence will come up
in the future which would put our truth claim into question. This is
just a different way of saying that we take our truth claim to be well
founded, our arguments to be good arguments, our evidence to be
clear evidence. If we want to call it an idealization, it is, as it were, a
"performative" idealization-an idealization, that is, which consists in
our relying upon our reasons or evidence as good or compelling. And
S113
MODERN PHILOLOGY
relying upon
reasons as
good
or evidence as
compelling
means ex-
cluding
the
possibility
of
being proven wrong
as time
goes
on.
Reflecting upon
our
practice
of truth-oriented communication and
discourse we must, of course, grant
that we can never exclude the
pos-
sibility
that new
arguments
or new
experiences may
force us to revise
our truth claims. This reflective awareness of the
fallibility
of our
truth claims
might
then also be understood as an awareness that what
we take to be
"epistemically
ideal conditions"
might
turn out not to be
ideal conditions after all.
By reflecting upon
the different
ways
in
which our truth claims
may
be
put
into
question,
we
may
now also dis-
tinguish
between different
aspects
of the "idealization" involved in
raising
truth claims. What we
say may,
for
example,
be criticized as
unclear, vague,
or confused; the
corresponding
idealization consists
in our reliance
upon
the
language
we use as
being clear, understand-
able, "transparent."
Or our
vocabulary
as a whole, our
theory,
our lan-
guage game,
some of our basic
conceptual
distinctions
might
be
put
into
question;
the
corresponding
"idealization" would consist in our
reliance
upon
the
language
we
speak
as
being
"in order" as it is.
If we understand the "necessary idealizations" involved in the rais-
ing of truth claims in this performative sense, these idealizations imply
no ideal limit, no totalizing conception of ideal conditions of knowl-
edge or communication to be realized (or approximated) in the fu-
ture. I would argue, rather, that totalizing conceptions of an ideal
limit of knowledge or communication result from an objectivistic mis-
reading of idealizations which are essentially performative. The ques-
tion, then, is whether we should talk about idealizations at all. The
very term seems to suggest an ideal standard or an ideal limit, and it is
precisely here that the confusion arises. I want to discuss the question
I have just raised by turning now to the "pragmatic" idealization fo-
cused upon by Apel and Habermas-that is, an idealization concern-
ing the intersubjective structure of communication and/or discourse.
Let me focus on Habermas's notion of an ideal speech situation,
which I take to be familiar. The idea of truth, according to Haber-
mas, cannot be separated from the idea of rational agreement, and a
rational agreement would be one that is brought about under the
conditions of an ideal speech situation.6 I have already mentioned
Apel's argument that rational agreement in Habermas's sense is not
sufficient to guarantee truth, so I shall discuss Habermas's idea only
as signifying a necessary idealization involved in any situation of
(serious) argumentation. Now, I think that what I said about Put-
nam's idealization can be applied to Habermas's idealization as well.
6. See, however, n. 1 above.
S114
Albrecht Wellmer o
Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
Suppose
we reach an
agreement
which we think is based on
good
reasons. Then we take for
granted
that no
arguments
have been
sup-
pressed
and that none of the
participants
in the discourse have been
prevented
from
putting
forward their
good counterarguments. This,
again,
is a
performative
idealization which
may always
turn out to be
wrong,
since
retrospectively
we
might
discover some external or in-
ternal constraints which
prevented
some
(or all)
of the
speakers
from
saying
what otherwise
they
could have said. And
again
we would mis-
understand this idealization if we understood it as
anticipating
an
ideal situation of communication
(Apel's misreading)
or if we under-
stood it as an ideal standard of rational
argumentation
which could
be used to 'measure' the
rationality
of
agreements.
There
is, however, one
important
difference between Putnam's
and Habermas's idealizations: to
suppress arguments
in situations of
discourse is to
suppress people. Accordingly,
the idealization which,
according
to Habermas, is involved in the
practice
of
argumentation
forms a kind of
bridge
between the demands of
rationality
and the
demands of
morality.
It carries a normative
potential
which shows it-
self in the interconnection between the modern idea of
democracy
and that of a
public space
of
political
and moral discourse. Even if
there is, contrary to what Habermas has always assumed, no direct
link between universal-pragmatic structures of communication and a
universalist idea of democracy and human rights, there is most cer-
tainly a series of links by which the interconnection between truth
and rational argumentation is linked with the democratic and liberal
ideas of modernity.
However, it is precisely at this point that it can be shown why the very
term 'idealization' is misleading. The term as applied to structures of
communication or argumentation almost unavoidably signifies an
ideal structure which we might use as a norm for evaluating real struc-
tures of communication and which we might hope to (at least approx-
imately) realize in the world at some future point in history. However,
the idea of such an ideal structure of intersubjectivity does not make
sense. This, I think, is what gives real weight to Nietzsche's, Derrida's,
and Rorty's objections to the idealizing constructions of philosophy.
It is, however, in interpreting the performative presuppositions of
speech and argumentation in terms of "necessary idealizations" that
the apparently innocuous step toward an objectification of those pre-
suppositions is taken. Even Derrida still takes this step-only to de-
clare that the idealizations are as necessary as they are impossible.
Against Derrida, Apel, Putnam, and Habermas I would argue, perhaps
somewhat paradoxically, that those idealizations are in fact
necessary
but that they are, strictly speaking, no idealizations.
S115
MODERN PHILOLOGY
II
Having
defended a weak
interpretation
of
attempts
to
explain
a non-
relativist
concept
of truth in terms of
"necessary idealizations,"
I now
want to reconsider some of
Rorty's
"ethnocentric" tenets in the
light
of
my
weak defense of what I want to call the
"strategy
of idealizations."
Obviously, my
weak and, as it were, contextualist defense of this strat-
egy brings
me, at least in some
respects,
close to
Rorty's
ethnocentrism.
Still, I believe that
contingency
is less dramatic than
Rorty
wants us to
believe. I want to show this
by reflecting upon
what
Rorty
has called the
"contingency
of a liberal
community,"
in
particular,
and
upon
the re-
lationship
between
contingency
and
modernity
in
general.
Earlier I
distinguished
those
performative presuppositions
that cor-
respond
to what some
philosophers
have called
"necessary
idealiza-
tions" from our reflective awareness that all our
validity
claims as well
as all our
performative presuppositions might
be called into
question
at some
point.
Now,
I think that
Rorty
would not
disagree
that this
reflective awareness let me call it a "fallibilistic consciousness" is
part
of what he describes as a modern liberal culture. This fallibilistic
consciousness relates closely to what Rorty describes as the "recogni-
tion of contingency"-the contingency of our language, our value
orientations, our culture, our institutions. It seems obvious that such
a recognition of contingency will affect our way of dealing with valid-
ity claims of all sorts; in particular, it will "infect" the performative
sphere of speech and argumentation itself.
If we have no access to ultimate foundations and no hope for an ul-
timate reconciliation-and this is what Rorty correctly claims to be
implied in the recognition of contingency-then all forms of dogma-
tism or foundationalism lose their support. Moreover, the recognition
of contingency implies that in matters which remain doubtful or con-
troversial because no compelling arguments or evidence is at hand
(think of moral conflicts, court decisions, the Gulf War, historical ex-
planations, etc.) we can no longer take it for granted that there neces-
sarily is an absolute truth to the matter-somewhere, at the end of
history, in God's eyes, in the ultimate consensus-even if we cannot
be sure about it yet. But if this is true, the recognition of contingency
must have consequences for our way of dealing with such doubtful or
controversial issues: for example, by increasing tolerance and readi-
ness to revise judgments, to live with pluralities, to look for new de-
scriptions or new interpretations of old problems, or to listen to what
other people have to say. If, finally, the recognition of contingency
7. Richard
Rorty,
"The
Contingency
of a Liberal
Community," chap.
3 in
Contingency,
Irony,
and
Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), pp.
44-69.
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Albrecht Wellmer o
Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
implies
the
recognition
that "finite, mortal, contingently existing
human
beings"
cannot "derive the
meanings
of their lives from
any-
thing except
other finite, mortal, contingently existing
human be-
ings,"8
then
any attempt
to
impose
a
theologically, metaphysically,
or
scientifically
determined
meaning
of life or
history
on human
beings
must
appear deeply
discredited. But if the
recognition
of contin-
gency-that
is, the destruction of
metaphysics, including
the meta-
physical
residues of some modern forms of
rationalism-implies
the
destruction of the intellectual bases of
dogmatism, fundamentalism,
intolerance, and fanaticism, then there is a
deep
and
interesting
rela-
tionship
between the
arguments
for
contingency
and the
arguments
for a liberal culture. This
relationship
I want to
explore.
First of all, it is obvious that the
critique
of foundationalism and
metaphysics
that leads to the
recognition
of
contingency
must affect
our
understanding
of the democratic and liberal
principles
of moder-
nity
as well. For we can no
longer
assume that there is some
Archimedean
point-for example,
an idea of reason-in which these
principles might
be
grounded.
Thus far one
might agree
with
Rorty
that the
only possibility
of
'justifying'
the
principles, practices,
and
institutions of a liberal society consists in coherently reconstructing
our deepest value attachments, moral orientations, and conceptual
distinctions. This kind of 'justification' will always be circular in some
sense, since it will not take us out of the political and moral 'gram-
mar' of our own culture; in this sense it will remain an "ethnocentric"
justification. What Rorty wants to emphasize is that the language, the
political and moral grammar, the practices and institutions of a cul-
ture cannot be justified as a whole (and from the outside, as it were),
since the "justification game" has a clear sense only within a particular
language game but not with respect to language games as a whole.
While this thesis seems to be obviously true in some sense-obviously
true, that is, if we acknowledge that there is no Archimedean point
outside our own language and culture-it is not so clear what its im-
plications really are. First, it seems to be obvious that we cannot 'jus-
tify' a language game, a set of practices, institutions, principles, and
conceptual distinctions except by clarifying, reconstructing, trying to
make them coherent from within. This is true even for mathematics,
since nobody who has not been 'socialized' into this practice could
possibly understand the point of it-the meaning of mathematical
concepts or the force of certain arguments and demonstrations.
Something similar is obviously true about justifying a set of political
principles, practices,
and institutions like those of a democratic and
8. Ibid., p.
45.
S117
MODERN PHILOLOGY
liberal tradition. In this case the
problem
of 'socialization' is even
more dramatic than in the case of
mathematics, since the
practical
knowledge
that
goes
into
understanding
the
point
of the
principles,
institutions, and
practices
of a liberal culture involves "habits of the
heart"-that is, moral
judgments,
emotional
responses,
and an inter-
twining
of moral
judgment
with emotional reactions and
patterns
of
interpretation. Again
the internal clarification or reconstruction of
the
political 'grammar'
of a liberal culture cannot
possibly provide
a
justification
of its
principles
and
practices
for
somebody
who has not
in some sense been socialized into its
practices.
The
question
remains whether all this
implies
that democratic and
liberal
principles
define
just
one
possible political language game
among others,
perhaps
with the difference that our moral
principles
would commit us to
respecting
the otherness of other
cultures, while
this
may
not be true the other
way
around. This
question
is
deeply
perplexing,
and I think that no
unqualified yes
or no can be de-
fended. I
believe, however, that a
qualified
no can be
justified-and by
justification
I now mean not
justification for
us but
justification, period.
I want to show this
by gradually enriching the picture I have sketched.
First of
all,
it should be clear that the internal "reconstructions,"
"clarifications,"
or
"justifications" of which I have talked may be
rather different from one another. Internal reconstructions of lib-
eral and democratic
principles may be conservative or radical, and
between a "radical"
(i.e.,
a
critical) reconstruction of liberal princi-
ples
and their communitarian critique there may not be a clear-cut
boundary.
What this shows is that the kind of culture to which we are
referring
is not a closed language game but one which, on the basis
of its own
principles,
can relate to itself in a critical and revisionist
way.
Where I
speak
about liberal and democratic principles in what
follows,
I
always
refer to this critical potential which is built into the
corresponding
institutions and
practices as a tension between what is
and what
ought
to be. Since I have given a more systematic account
of
my
own
understanding
of liberal and democratic principles else-
where,9
at this
point
it should be sufficient to emphasize that I un-
derstand these
principles, taken as a whole, to be directed against
social
injustice, discrimination against minorities, sexism, cultural
imperialism (or "hegemonism"), manipulation of the public, or so-
cial violence-that
is,
like
Rorty
I do not take these principles as jus-
tifying
the status
quo
in our societies. In so doing I suppose that
there are
good arguments, arguments internal to our culture, for un-
derstanding
those
principles
in a critical way.
9. Albrecht Wellmer, "Models of Freedom in the Modern World," PhilosophicalForum
21 (Fall, Winter 1989/90): 227-52.
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Albrecht Wellmer o Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
The second
step
I wish to take-a
step
which has been
already pre-
pared by my
short reflections on different
ways
of
reconstructing
the
political grammar
of a liberal culture-concerns the abstraction in-
volved in
distinguishing
between our
language (or culture)
and their
language (or culture).
This abstraction has a
suggestive
force
which, at
the same time, makes it
highly misleading.
Of
course, it is true that I
cannot
justify my language
vis-a-vis
somebody
who
'plays'
an
entirely
different
language game:
there are no
'metastandards', there is no
metalanguage by
reference to which either of us could
possibly
con-
vince the other. This is as obvious as it is trivial.
However, the interest-
ing
cases are
obviously
not those where
somebody
would
try
to
justify
the use of a
particular language
vis-a-vis
somebody
else who
speaks
an
entirely
different
language (a
rather artificial, not to
say absurd, con-
struction),
but those cases where different, partly overlapping
vo-
cabularies confront each other and, in
particular,
cases where new
vocabularies are
emerging
in confrontation with old
problems
(and
with the
language
in which these
problems
had
previously
been
formulated).
Now I would claim that
any interesting ordinary
situation of
argu-
mentation contains elements of such a constellation. For, even in our
own
language, arguments
do not come
piece by piece;
and the more
interesting
and
significant they are, the less the
practice
of
argumen-
tation conforms to a formal conception of rationality, according to
which rational argument would correspond to something like a
model of deductive proof. More particularly, there is an element of
holism, an element of innovation, and an element of "difference" in-
volved even in our ordinary practice of argumentation. While argu-
ing, we often have to make up the contextual setting through which
arguments alone can win the force they may have; argumentation of-
ten involves the attempt to set an old problem or a familiar situation
in a new light. Consequently, a holistic element of redescription and
innovation is part of most interesting forms of ordinary argumenta-
tion. Moreover, the speaking of a 'common language'-if by this we
do not merely mean the most elementary forms of linguistic agree-
ment-often is not the starting point of argumentation but only, if
things go well, its end point. This might be called the element of
"difference" involved in our ordinary practice of argumentation.
We would miss, therefore, the point of this practice if we interpreted
it in terms of a shared system of fixed rules and criteria which is seman-
tically closed. Only if we interpreted the scope of rational argument in
terms of this limiting case could the distinction between justification
within a language and justification of a language become equivalent to
a distinction between a sphere of possible arguments and a sphere
where no arguments are possible anymore. Most interesting cases,
Sll9
MODERN PHILOLOGY
however, fall in
between, as it were. That this is
possible
at all is, obvi-
ously,
due to the fact that we can
always try
to see
things
from the
point
of view of the other, that we can
try
to
get
inside a new
vocabulary,
speaking
two
languages
at the same time and
trying
to find out
whether the new
vocabulary
or the new
description might
illuminate
our old
experience
or solve our old
problems.
This
'trying
out'
might
take time; argumentation always
refers back to a context of
experi-
ence, practice,
and reflection; new
arguments may
lead to new
expe-
riences, as new
experiences may
make us accessible to new
arguments
or affect our
understanding
of old
arguments.
If all this is, approximately, true, rationality
in
any
relevant sense of
the word cannot end at the borderline of closed
language games
(since
there is no such
thing);
but then the ethnocentric
contextuality
of all
argumentation proves quite compatible
with the
raising
of truth
claims which transcend the local or cultural context in which
they
are
raised and in which
they
can be
justified.
That is, it does in fact make
sense to
suppose,
as I did in the first
part
of this
paper,
that the
per-
formative
presuppositions
involved in the
raising
of truth claims do
not
merely
refer to the local context within which these truth claims
are raised and that truth claims transcend
any particular
context. Pre-
cisely in this sense I would defend Habermas's thesis concerning the
dialectics of context-immanence and context-transcendence involved
in the practice of truth-oriented speech and argumentation.10 I think
it is this dialectics which, if correctly understood, gives us the truth
content of those "strategies of idealization" which I discussed in the
first part of this paper.
If we apply what I have said to Rorty's thesis concerning the contin-
gency of a liberal community, this contingency, I think, will appear in
a new light; it will not appear quite so dramatic as Rorty wants us to
believe, since a liberal culture (even less than other cultures) is not a
closed language game. First of all, in terms of temporal verticality, this
culture has a history; and in terms of temporal horizontality, it has an
outside. With respect to both dimensions of otherness-which are
both in some sense accessible to us-there are quite a number of
good and interesting arguments for democratic and liberal principles
and institutions: think of the history of modern revolutions; the works
of Locke, Kant, Tocqueville, Mill, or Paine; the Federalist Papers; the
experiences of totalitarianism,
nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism,
or
religious and political fundamentalism. Additional arguments may
come from an internal critical reconstruction of the deepest value at-
tachments, principles, and self-interpretations of present liberal so-
10. Jiirgen Habermas, "Die Einheit der Vernunft in der Vielfalt ihrer Stimmen," in
his Nachmetaphysisches Denken (Frankfurt, 1988), esp. pp. 174-79.
S120
Albrecht Wellmer o Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
cieties. If we
give up
the idea of an ultimate foundation of democratic
and liberal
principles
that would not in some sense
already
make use
of the
grammar
of democratic and liberal
politics,
and if we allow ex-
perience-historical
and other-to enter into
argumentation,
then
there seems to be a rich network of
arguments
for
supporting
and
critically developing
democratic-liberal
principles
and institutions.
These
arguments may
not convince the fanatic nationalist or the re-
ligious fundamentalist, but the mere fact that
my arguments
do not
convince
everybody
does not
imply
that
they
are not
good argu-
ments. This
triviality,
I
think, should not be
forgotten,
even
though
it makes a tremendous difference whether it is invoked in a fallibilis-
tic
spirit
or not.
Now, it is a characteristic feature of democratic-liberal
societies, as
long
as their
political
culture is still
alive, that an
ongoing public
de-
bate about the
interpretation
of constitutional
principles-for
ex-
ample,
about civil
liberties, civil
disobedience, or the
relationship
between individual liberties and social
justice-is
an
important part
of the
political
culture itself. Democratic and liberal
principles
and
institutions seem to have the
peculiarity
that
they
can be
kept
alive
only by being constantly reinterpreted
and redefined in a medium of
public discourse and political struggle. Thus a liberal culture appears
as one in which principles and institutions of public discourse have
assumed a constitutive role with respect to the political process itself.
In this sense, liberal principles are self-reflexive: in granting equal
rights and liberties they grant, at the same time, equal rights and lib-
erties with respect to participating in the public process of determin-
ing what the content of these equal rights and liberties should be.
Now it seems to me rather obvious that there is a noncontingent link
between this self-reflexivity of liberal principles-that is, the consti-
tutive role of public discourse for democratic-liberal societies-on
the one hand, and the "recognition of contingency" in Rorty's sense,
on the other.
Rorty himself points to this link when he makes the interesting and,
I think, valid point that the "destructive" consequences of the
progress of enlightenment-in particular those which have led to the
"recognition of contingency"-should not be seen as undermining
but as strengthening the case for liberal institutions.1' His claim is, in
particular, that the collapse of all attempts to find ultimate founda-
tions-including those for a liberal community-makes the case for
liberal institutions stronger than weaker. I think this implies the rec-
ognition that there are arguments for democratic and liberal princi-
ples and institutions which are not ethnocentric in any interesting
11.
Rorty, Contingency, Irony,
and
Solidarity, pp.
56-57.
S121
MODERN PHILOLOGY
sense of the word. For
obviously
the thesis of
contingency
cannot be
understood as
applying only
to a modern liberal culture; it is, rather,
a
philosophical
thesis
concerning
the conditions of the
possibility
of
raising
and
defending
truth claims in
general.12 However, while the
recognition
of
contingency
must have a
deeply
subversive effect on
any
culture that is built
upon religious
foundations or centered
around a
mythological
or even a "scientific"
worldview, its subversive
effect on
any attempt
at ultimate or total
grounding
instead
provides
additional
arguments
for the democratic and liberal
principles
of mo-
dernity. Perhaps
one
might speak
of a
negative justification
of those
principles.
This
negative justification
will not be an ultimate
justifica-
tion either. It will be a
negative justification, rather,
in the sense that
it
destroys
the intellectual bases of
dogmatism, foundationalism, au-
thoritarianism, and moral and
legal inequality. Yet, by
the same to-
ken, it
singles
out democratic and liberal institutions as the
only
ones
which could
possibly
coexist with the
recognition
of
contingency
and
still
reproduce
their own
legitimacy. Why
should this be so?
I think there is a whole
complex
of reasons for this, from which I
shall single out three important ones. First, democratic and liberal
principles, if understood in a universalist sense (as they should be, pace
Rorty) are the only ones compatible with the recognition of irreducible
otherness with respect to basic convictions, life forms, forms of identity,
and the like, and which therefore allow (at least conceptually) equal
rights to be combined with a respect for otherness, for difference. Thus
even a "politics of difference" presupposes the moral universalism
which is implicit in the democratic and liberal principles of modernity.
Second, democratic and liberal principles, self-reflexive as they are in
the sense mentioned above, demand the institutionalization of a public
12. This claim seems to have some affinity to Apel's thesis that a general principle of
fallibilism cannot be understood as self-applying (see his "Fallibilismus, Konsenstheorie
der Wahrheit und Letztbegrundung" [n. 2 above] pp. 174-84). I do not believe, how-
ever, that either a principle of fallibilism or the "recognition of contingency" belongs to
the necessary presuppositions of argumentation as such. My claim, i.e., is more modest
than Apel's: what I want to say is that a thesis of contingency, if seriously entertained,
can only be meant to apply to all possible language games and therefore is bound to
come into conflict not only with foundationalist self-interpretations of our own culture
but with those of other cultures as well. If this is true, however, there obviously exist
some arguments whose use does not make sense without raising a universal validity
claim, whose scope of applicability cannot be at will "ethnocentrically" restricted. It
then follows that if the "recognition of contingency" provides arguments for a liberal
culture, there are arguments for a liberal culture which are not ethnocentric-in any
interesting sense of the word-even if one may still claim that it is a matter of contin-
gency which arguments are available or understandable at any given point in time. If all
this is true, however, liberal and democratic principles appear much less contingent
than Rorty would assume.
S122
Albrecht Wellmer o
Truth, Contingency,
and
Modernity
space-or
a
space
of
public spaces-where
the
very
content of these
principles,
their
application
and
institutionalization, can be deter-
mined and redetermined in the medium of
political
and cultural dis-
course and
struggle,
and
thereby
can also become a matter of common
concern. Such a
space
of 'communal'
public freedom, moreover,
seems to be the
only possible
substitute for those forms of
substantively
grounded
social
solidarity
which were characteristic of traditional so-
cieties-the
only possible
substitute, that is, once the traditional bases
of social
solidarity
were
destroyed by
an
Enlightenment
that
finally
led
to the
"recognition
of
contingency."
Finally,
these democratic and liberal
principles are, in some
sense,
metaprinciples.
After the
evaporation
of substantive common "con-
tents" as bases of social
solidarity,
these
principles
do not
simply
define a new substantive consensus to
replace,
for
example,
a reli-
gious one; rather, they design
a
way
of nonviolent
dealing
with irrec-
oncilable dissent in substantive matters and thus restore consensus
and
solidarity
on a more abstract level, demanding "procedural"
rather than substantive consensus. The
distinction,
I admit, is a rela-
tive and
misleading one, since the
"procedure"
of
dialogue
is not a
procedure
in
any proper
sense of the word, and since the
"proce-
dural" value of
dialogue
is related to the substantive values of free-
dom, solidarity,
and
justice.
What I have in mind, then, is a
dynamic
interlocking of formal procedures and institutions, on the one hand,
and informal political and cultural discourse and praxis, on the
other-an interlocking through which those substantive values can
become public concerns as well as public projects. So what I have
called a 'procedural'-in contrast to a 'substantive'-consensus is
characteristic of a society that can reproduce its own legitimacy only
by constantly transforming and reforming itself in the medium of
political and cultural discourse.
While the recognition of contingency provides, as I have tried to
show, new arguments for democratic and liberal principles and the
institutions built around them, it still remains a recognition of con-
tingency. However, the contingency which cannot be eliminated does
not indicate a lack of good arguments for democratic and liberal
principles but, rather, the contingency of their being successfully
institutionalized, kept alive, and translated into a form of ethical
life.13 Moreover, democratic and liberal societies might collapse or
disintegrate under the onslaught of social or ecological devastation,
racial or ethnic tension, the growth of violence, economic decline,
13. The term "ethical life" is, of course, meant as a translation of
Hegel's concept
of
Sittlichkeit. I think there is
nothing inherently paradoxical
if we take the formal
principles
S123
MODERN PHILOLOGY
or the
consequences
of economic
imperialism.
If this
happened,
the
moral substance of democratic and liberal
practices
and institutions
would
disintegrate
as well. This is where the force of
arguments
ends; arguments
can
only
show us
why
we should not want this to
happen.
and
procedural
values I have mentioned above (in the sense I have
explained them)
as
the "substance" of a
truly
modern form of "substantielle Sittlichkeit."
Although specific
traditions, histories, and
projects
will
always
be
important
for
making
an individual and
communal
identity possible,
these
particular
bases of
identity
cannot form the substan-
tial core of a democratic and liberal form of ethical life. Inasmuch as such a form of
ethical life demands a
recognition
of difference, of "otherness," it demands, at the
same time, a reflexive distance from
any particular tradition, history,
and
project-i.e.,
a
recognition
of
contingency.
See Wellmer (n. 9 above).
S124