Varieties of Enlightenment Optimism: Discourse Ethics and Wittgensteinian Particularism in Conversation

  • Thomas Wallgren
Part of the Swansea Studies in Philosophy book series (SWSP)


D. Ross once wrote that ‘in all the main theories in ethics… there is much that is true, and… even when theories are in broad opposition to each other, each is probably erring onlyl by overstatement or misstatement of something that is profoundly true’.1 Ross’s dictum can be seen as a reason for conversation between different traditions in moral philosophy, as what is weak and what valuable in them might be most readily discernible through comparison and dialogue. To date, such dialogue between discourse ethics and particularism has been almost non-existent.2 My essay presents an effort to recover some of the opportunities for learning about moral philosophy and the present moral predicament, which may thereby have been lost.


Public Sphere Moral Philosophy Moral Theory Moral Norm Discourse Ethic 
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  1. 1.
    D. Ross, Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 2 as quoted by S. Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 251.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Key works in discourse ethics are (1) K.-O. Apel, ‘Das Apriori der Kommunikationsgemeinschaft und die Grundlagen der Ethik’ in Apel Transformation der Philosophie; (2) K.-O. Apel, Diskurs und Verantwortung; (3) J. Habermas, ‘Diskursethik — Notizen zu einer Begründungsprogramm’ in his Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln. (When quoting this essay I will give references also to the translation in J. Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Polity Press, (1992a), and (4) the title essay in J. Habermas, Erläuteringen zur Diskursethik. My choice of the term ‘particularism’ is inspired by the volume D. Z Phillips and P. Winch (eds), Wittgenstein: Attention to Particular.Google Scholar
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    See MacIntyre, After Virtue (1985). R. Rorty calls himself a liberal. Yet, his arguments for liberal values and social institutions are communitarian in the aforementioned sense. See R. Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Google Scholar
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    In addition to the works by Habermas mentioned in note 2 above his article ‘Wahrheitstheorien’ first published in H. Fahrenbach (ed.), Wirklichkeit und Reflexion, Pfüllingen, 1973, is a cornerstone of discourse ethics. The article is reprinted in J. Habermas, Vorstudien und Ergänzungen zur Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. My references will be to the latter.Google Scholar
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    Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 54, (1992a) 44.Google Scholar
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    The Procedural and formal character of discourse ethics makes it quite suitable to take care of this dimension of moral life. Cf. J. Habermas, Erlauterung zur Diskursethik, K. Günther, Der Sinn fü Angemessenheit (Ffm: Suhrkamp, 1988), and A. Honneth, ‘Das Andere der Gerechtigkeit: Habermas und die ethische Herausforderung der Postmoderne’, 195–220.Google Scholar
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    Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 108, (1992a) 98. (Transl. slightly altered.)Google Scholar
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    See e.g. Habermas, ‘A Reply to my Critics’ in J. B. Thompson and D. Held (eds.), Habermas Critical Debates (London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press, 1982) esp. 228f and 250–263, and C. Diamond, ‘Losing Your Concepts’, 255–277. For Kant’s definition of the enlightenment see his ‘Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?’ originally in Berlinische Monatsschrift, December 1784.Google Scholar
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    This is, in a way, a strange thing to say, as Wittgenstein could hardly be called an enlightenment philosopher. Particularly it seems doubtful that (1) Wittgenstein would have agreed on the Socratic point that the harmful influence of some moral philosophy can be checked by more moral philosophy, or (2) that Wittgenstein would have subscribed to the Kantian point that philosophical articulation of moral perspectives is desirable. Cf. Section 10 below and H. Kannisto, ‘Miksi Wittgenstein (lähes)vaikeni etiikasta?’ (Why did Wittgenstein remain (almost) silent on ethics?), Tiede & edistys 3, (1989), 213–218.Google Scholar
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    Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 104 (1992a, 94 transl. slightly altered).Google Scholar
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    Habermas sometimes appears to admit the paradoxical nature of his theory. Thus he says that although he claims universal validity for his theory, it is relevant only when people have already entered the arena of moral argumentation. Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, 135 and 179f, note 58. See also A. Honneth, ‘Diskursethik und implizites Gerechtigkeitskonzept Eine Diskussionsbemerkung’, in W. Kuhlmann (ed.), Moralität und Sittlichkeit, Das Problem Hegels und die Diskursethik (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1986).Google Scholar
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    Habermas, Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, 194. The controversy over the philosophical status of Habermas’s theory is a recurring one. The status of the debate seems to me to be essentially the same now as it was more than two decades ago when the first round of discussion appeared concerning what Habermas then called ‘quasi-transcendental’, not ‘weak transcendental’ arguments. (Cf. Erkenntnis und Interesse, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1968 and the post-script to it in the 1973 edition, as well as the discussion in e.g. W. Dallmayr (ed.), Materialien zu Habermas’ ‘Erkenntnis und Interesse’;, Frankurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1974.) Habermas has remained committed to the difficult task of defending a position which is fallibilistic and nevertheless can support strong claims to universal validity.Google Scholar
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    Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 54, (1992a, p. 44).Google Scholar
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    For the first point cf. Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 104f (1992a, p. 94f), for the second cf. Habermas, Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, 132f and 154.Google Scholar
  16. 53.
    Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 96 (1992a, pp. 85f). Cf also ibid., 104. (1992a, p. 94) and Habermas, Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, 135.Google Scholar
  17. 54.
    See K. H. Ilting, ‘Der Geltungsgrund moralischer Normen’, in W. Kuhlmann, D. Böhler (eds.), Kommunikation und Reflexion (Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 1982) and H. Aragaki, Communicative Ethics and the Morality of Discourse — Praxis International 13:2, July 1993, pp. 154–171. I have discussed this topic and the other issues of this paragraph in some detail in ‘Den knutna näven som upplysningens gräns’, forthcoming in Järki, T. Airaksinen, I. Halonen, I. Niiniluoto (eds.), Suomen Filosofinen Yhdistys, Helsinki. Cf. Habermas’s response to Ilting in Habermas Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik. Google Scholar
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    Ernst Tugendhat’s densely argued book Vorlesungen über Ethik (pb. edition) goes a long way towards establishing this case. (See esp. p. 24 and chs. 4–8.) Cf. E. Tugendhat, Probleme der Ethik (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984).Google Scholar
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    Similarly there are limits to the depth of understanding laypersons may have for skill in dance or football, for mathematical proof or scientific theory, etc. Cf. R. Rhees, Without Answers (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969).Google Scholar
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    Cf. J. Habermas, ‘The New Obscurity’, in his The New Conservatism (Cambridge, Ma.,: The MIT Press, 1989), and Chs. XI—XII in Habermas Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne. Google Scholar
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    Cf. Habermas, Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, Faktizität und Geltung and his ‘Können komplexe Gesellschaften eine vernünftige Identität ausbilden?’ in J. Habermas and D. Henrich, Zwei Reden aus Anlass des Hegel-Preises (Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 1974). The thesis is not new, but Habermas’s articulation of it is origiral.Google Scholar
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    E. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, originally in Philosophy 33, 1958, reprinted in her Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. III and MacIntyre, After Virtue (1985) .Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Thomas Wallgren

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