On Foucault’s Review of Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment

Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer

It is unfortunate that no one has gotten around to translating Michel Foucault’s 1966 review of the French translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung.1 Granted, it is a short text and – prior to its reprinting in Foucault’s Dits et Ecrits – finding it required some (though not much) digging. But it is a text worth knowing: sensitive to the political context of Cassirer’s study of the Enlightenment and sympathetic to his general approach. Had it been more widely known, it might have complicated certain assumptions about Foucault’s stance towards the Enlightenment. All of this is more than enough to suggest that the editor of What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions was guilty of a significant lapse in judgment when he failed to include it in his collection. The accused is not inclined contest that verdict and will try to make amends in this brief discussion of a text that deserves to be better known.

Foucault, A Counter-Enlightener?

Foucault was (and, in some quarters, still is) viewed as a critic and perhaps an outright enemy of the Enlightenment. In his 1980 Adorno Prize lecture Jürgen Habermas infamously classified him, along with Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida, as a “young conservative.”2 The political implications of the term, which initially puzzled Anglophone readers, would not have been lost on Habermas’ Frankfurt audience: it had been used to designate those Weimar “conservative revolutionaries” (including Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Ludwig Klages, Ernst Niekisch, Oswald Spenger, Othmar Spann, and Carl Schmitt) who, drawing on an unstable mixture of cultural pessimism and biologistic vitalism, mounted an attack on liberalism that valorized myth, violence, and actionism and provided intellectual support for National Socialism. 3

Once Habermas had the opportunity to meet Foucault, he tempered his rhetoric. But though he no longer implied that Foucault was a proto-Fascist, he continued to have reservations about what he saw as Foucault’s Nietzschean-inspired tendency to reduce all moral valuations to questions of aesthetic taste. Hewing closely to Habermas’ general argument, Richard Wolin placed Foucault among the latter-day members of the “Counter-Enlightenment.”4 Foucault also figures in Graeme Garrard’s Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth-Century to the Present (despite my general reservations about Berlin’s misguided notion, Garrard’s use of the plural is encouraging: if, as J. G. A. Pocock has emphasized, there are a variety of enlightenments, then it follows that there ought to be a diversity of counter-enlightenments).5 Finally, Foucault puts in a brief appearance in Vincent Descombes’ Barometer of Modern Reason – though Descombes’ charge that Foucault’s political positions demonstrate the same hypocrisy that Reinhart Koselleck sees as fundamental to the Enlightenment would appear to make Foucault a disciple of the Enlightenment, rather than a critic.6 The list could easily be extended, but without much profit.

Foucault, A Kantian?

Matters became much more confusing when, shortly before his death, Foucault began to invoke Kant’s essay on the question “What is Enlightenment?” and eventually went so far as to suggest that he thought what he was doing had something in common both with the work of the Frankfurt School and with Kant.7 This left Habermas to wonder how “Foucault’s self-understanding as a thinker in the tradition of the Enlightenment can be compatible with his unmistakable critique of precisely this form of knowledge, which is that of modernity?”8

He conjectured that Foucault, having recognized that he was caught in a contradiction (a contradiction that Habermas had himself diagnosed in his lectures on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity), had been driven to reassess his position.

Only complex thought produces instructive contradictions. Kant became entangled in an instructive contradiction of this kind when he explained revolutionary enthusiasm as a historical sign that allow an intelligible disposition in the human race to appear within the phenomenal world. Equally instructive is the contradiction in which Foucault becomes entangled when he opposes his critique of power, disabled by the relevance of the contemporary moment, to the analytic of the true in such a way that the former is deprived of the normative standard it would have to derive from the latter. Perhaps it is the force or this contradiction that drew Foucault, in this last of his texts, back into a sphere of influence he had tried to blast open, that of the philosophical discourse of modernity.9

This conjecture, as John Rajchman argued, is premised on Foucault’s actually attempting to do what Habermas claimed he was attempting to do and failing to do it.  This overlooks the possibility that Foucault was simply doing something else.10 Rajchman’s complaint has its merits: at a minimum, it might make sense to consider whether Habermas and Foucault might have been engaged in two different projects. That one project might seem more promising than the other hardly counts as evidence that the less promising project was attempting to do what the more promising one was doing, but failing.

More recently, Amy Allen has argued that those who, like Habermas, see Foucault’s final discussions of Kant as amounting to a repudiation of his earlier, more critical stance, have misinterpreted Foucault’s treatment of Kant in Les mots et les choses.11 She sees Tom Wartenberg and me as having fallen into the same error in our contribution in Michael Kelly’s collection Critique and Power.12 Her argument rests, in part, on an analysis of Foucault’s account of Kant in the unpublished introduction to his 1964 secondary thesis (a translation of Kant’s Anthropology), a work that helps to clarify the discussion of Kant in Les mots et les choses.13 Foucault’s review of Cassirer (which Allen does not discuss) would also seem to lend support to what I take to be the general thrust of her argument.

Foucault’s Cassirer

Foucault’s discussion begins by noting that, though Cassirer’s study of the Enlightenment dates from the 1930s, it is very much a work of our own time, provided we learn how to hear its message through the “background noise” that it sought to oppose, but which quickly engulfed it. He goes on to clarify this enigmatic claim by discussing the particular historical circumstances in which the book was published – “the Nazis stood at the gates of the Chancellery” – and to note Cassirer’s subsequent flight to Sweden (where Foucault also spent some time in the 1950s). Fleeing Germany, Cassirer left behind a “vast scholarly work” that, in reality, was a “manifesto.” Lest readers underestimate the significance of Cassirer’s gesture, Foucault goes on to stress the importance of the German university system in shaping the “moral conscience” of the nation: 1933 marks what he sees as an “irreparable defeat” in this effort and Cassirer’s study played an honorable role in the “final combat.”

At this point, the review shifts its focus in a way that makes the relevance of Cassirer’s study for Foucault’s own work abundantly clear. What is at stake is the implication of the almost hackneyed characterization of Cassirer as a “neo-Kantian.” For Foucault, this familiar term amounts to something more than the name of a school of thought. Instead it signifies

the inability of Western thought to overcome the break (coupure) effected by Kant; neo-Kantianism (in this sense, we are all neo-Kantians) is the ever-repeated injunction to reiterate this break – both to recover its necessity and to take its measure.

Cassirer’s study of the Enlightenment matters for Foucault, then, because in contrast to his other works it grapples with historical, rather than epistemological, questions, with those “fatalities of reflection and of knowledge” that Kant made possible and which have gone on to become fundamental for the constitution of modern thought.

Interrogation doubles back on itself: Kant asked how science could be possible, Cassirer asked how this Kantianism to which we appear to belong was possible.

This is, in many respects, a familiar, and not always charitable, way of reading Cassirer’s study: as Quentin Skinner once quipped, the book reads as if the entire Enlightenment had been struggling to make Kant possible. But, for Foucault, the proleptic character of Philosophy of the Enlightenment is not a weakness: it is the source of the book’s importance.

Medusa, Nietzsche, and Other Monstrosities

Kantianism, Foucault argues, stands as “the Medusa of western thought”: the modern medusa_10701_mdworld was born at the close of the eighteenth-century with the release of what he characterizes as a “double nostalgia”. The eighteenth-century closes with both a renewed nostalgia for the Greek world and a nostalgia for the certainties of the eighteenth century itself. The former gave rise to a series of reflections on the Hellenic legacy that runs from Hölderlin to Heidegger. The latter spawned the regime of the modern Aufklärer (a word that, like Aufklärung itself, Foucault consistently left in German), which runs “from Marx to Levi-Strauss.” Nietzsche – a “monstrosity” (in the sense in which the term was used in eighteenth-century natural philosophy) – belongs to both camps. This means that what Habermas would later dub the “philosophical discourse of modernity” was, for Foucault, defined by a fundamental dilemma:

Being Greek or Aufklärer, on the side of tragedy or the Encyclopédie, on the side of poetry or the well-made language, the side of the morning of being or the noon of representation, that is the dilemma that modern thought … could never escape.

In this reckoning Cassirer, of course, belongs to the party of the Aufklärer and there is an understandable tendency to assume that Foucault belongs with the Greeks. After all, he prefaced Folie et Déraison with the announcement that this massive and complex study would be:

only the first, and probably the easiest, in this long line of enquiry which, beneath the sun of the great Nietzschean quest, would confront the dialectics of history with the immobile structures of the tragic.

But it might be better to see Foucault, like Nietzsche, as a “monstrosity” with feet in both camps. Or, to dispense with the metaphors and speak more plainly (a skill that, as his lectures at the Collège de France demonstrate, Foucault would later master), confronting the “dialectics of history” with “the immobile structure of the tragic” is not necessarily the same thing as opting for the one instead of the other. The value of such confrontations may lie in their helping us to understand those things that escape the necessarily limited perspectives of the contestants.

With Cassirer, Contra Hazard, and Perhaps Alongside Habermas

Paul Hazard

Paul Hazard

For Foucault, then, what Cassirer was offering represented a useful corrective to the French tendency to accord too much prestige to psychology. Their approach to cultures and systems of thought was captive to the metaphor of “the individual,” with the result that epochs and civilizations were assumed to be individual subjects writ large:

an ‘age’ (siècle) has, like everything else, consciousness, opinions, anxieties, aspirations; Paul Hazard, in Cassirer’s time, described the crisis of the European consciousness.

Cassirer, in constrast, worked according to what Foucault characterized as a “fundamental abstraction.” He dispensed with any discussion of individual motivations, biographical accidents, and minor thinkers and, at the same time, suspended any discussion of economic and social determinants. This left him with “an inextricable web of discourse and thought, of concepts and words, of énoncés and affirmations,” which he then proceeded to analyze “in its own configuration.” His object of study was an “autonomous universe of ‘discours-pensée‘” that “isolates from all other histories the autonomous space of ‘the theoretical’.” In this way, Cassirer uncovered “a history that had remained silent.”

In studying the texts of the eighteenth century, Cassirer grasped, in the unity of its historical forms, the organization of the “discours-pensé” that characterizes a culture, defining the forms of its knowledge.

In short, the author of Les mots et les choses appears to have felt that the author of Die Philosophie der Aufklärung was very much a kindred spirit:  both were attempting to understand how cultures were shaped by an a priori that was historical, rather than transcendental.

While granting that Cassirer’s approach — particularly in the emphasis that it placed on philosophy — still betrayed the lingering influence of the “traditional history of ideas” (a problem that Foucault would attempt to remedy in his Archaeology of Knowledge), Foucault nevertheless saw it as an approach that might serve as a model for current work, and not just because it avoided the use of concepts such as “the concrete,” “lived experience,” and “totality” — all of which belonged, in Foucault’s view, to “the realm of not-knowing.” What he saw Cassirer as providing was an account of the Enlightenment that did not limit it, as had been the tradition, to England and France and which steadfastly refused to play the game of looking “for missing pieces and warning signs of the future.” The great achievement of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was to have

restored the simultaneity and generality of all that was contemporary in the eighteenth century: atheism and deism, materialism and metaphysics, conception of morality and of beauty, multiple theories of morality and of the state, and shows how they belong together.

In the work of Cassirer, that great Kantian, Foucault found an understanding of the Enlightenment that might profitably have been brought into confrontation with the account of the “Project of Enlightenment” that Jürgen Habermas, marrying Kant and Max Weber, would sketch in the same lecture in which he misidentified Foucault as a “young conservative.” Fortunately, they would later discover that they had a good deal in common, including an interest in Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Sadly their discussion of this question would never take place.

  1. Foucault, “Une histoire restée muette,” La Quinzaine littéraire n° 8, 1er-15 juillet, 1966, pp. 3- 4.
  2. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity:  An Unfinished Project,” in Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, ed. Maurizio Passerin d’ Entreves and Seyla Benhabib, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), 38–55.
  3. For discussions of the concept, see Hans-Jurgen Puhle, “Conservatism in Modern German History,” Journal of Contemporary History 13, no. 4 (October 1978): 709-10 and Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) 154-5.
  4. Wolin’s most extensive account of Foucault is in his The Terms of Cultural Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). He also figures, in passing, in Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, which is launched by an Introduction that carries the title, “Answer to the Question: What is Counter-Enlightenment?” – as far as I can see, it doesn’t appear to give an answer.
  5. Graeme Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).
  6. Vincent Descombes, The Barometer of Modern Reason (New York: Oxford, 1993) 37-40.
  7. The relevant texts have been collected in Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997).
  8. Habermas, “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present,” in Michael Kelly, ed.. Critique and Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 152.
  9. Habermas, “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present” 154 .
  10. John Rajchman, “Habermas’s Complaint.” New German Critique, no. 45 (1988): 163-191. I’ve attempted to elaborate this general argument in “Habermas on Foucault” in Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves, editor, Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996).
  11. Amy Allen, The Politics of Our Selves : Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
  12. I’m inclined to think that Tom and I weren’t quite as guilty as she suggests: the opening two paragraphs expressing skepticism about Foucault’s “Kantianism,” like the third paragraph, which discusses Foucault’s reputation as a critic of the Enlightenment, were intended as premises that we would be criticizing. Perhaps that could have been made clearer. I should mention, though, that thanks to discussions with Manfred Kuehn I now realize that what I said about Kant and maxims on p. 306 is just wrong (this idiocy was my doing, not Tom’s).
  13. Robert Louden has written a detailed critique of Foucault’s account of the Anthropology, which helps to clarify some of its misinterpretations (perhaps inevitable, given the time when it was written). It will be appearing in a Spanish translation in the journal Estudos Kantianos. One can only hope that it will be made available in English as well.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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12 Responses to On Foucault’s Review of Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment

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  7. Michael Jimenez says:

    Thanks for the citation. This is a really good piece. I’m finishing up some work on the so-called crisis theologians and their view of the Enlightenment. Safe to say (like Nietzsche, Foucault, etc.) the views are diverse and complicated. I’ve tried to limit the amount of Foucault in my work but the monstrosity line I think hits the nail on the head.

    • I’d love to hear more about this (feel free to email me at my BU address if you’d prefer). I’m not well-versed in matters theological, but at one point I spent some time working in the Paul Tillich archives trying to make sense of some exchanges he had with Horkheimer around the time that Adorno and Horkheimer were trying to write the “second half” of Dialectic of Enlightenment. There’s quite a bit of theological language cropping up in Horkheimer and Adorno during the 1940s and, somewhat unexpectedly (at least to me) much of the imagery is explicitly Christian (the word become flesh, “I am the Truth,” etc.).

  8. Michael Jimenez says:

    I’m curious on the source for Skinner’s comment about Cassirer’s work being about making Kant possible. I recently read Gordon’s book on Davos and the use of Kant was at the heart of the debate.

    • The Skinner quote can be found in the original version of “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8, no. 1 (1969), footnote 41 on page 11 I’m not sure whether Skinner preserved this in the version of the article that appears in Visions of Politics; as he explains in the introduction, he made some modifications.

      The Davos exchanges were very much concerned with Kant’s Anthropology, and there have been quite a few attempts to see Foucault’s reading secondary thesis on the Anthropology as influenced by Heidegger’s reading. That would make sense, but Hans Sluga offers some criticisms of this line of interpretation in “Foucault’s Encounter with Heidegger and Nietzsche,” in Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 210–239.

      I’m not quite sure where I come down on this issue, which (of course) has implications for Habermas’ reading of Foucault as following in the tracks of Heidegger’s “history of Being,” a line of interpretation that he takes up from Dreyfus and Rabinow’s book on Foucault.

  9. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    A discussion of Foucault and Cassirer on the Enlightenment, and of Foucault’s review of Cassirer on this topic. Thanks to Foucault News for the link.

  10. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

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