Habermas’ Foucault — The Debate that Never Was (Part II)

As I discussed in my previous post, what has come to known as the “Foucault/Habermas Debate” has largely been the creation of parties other than Foucault and Habermas. They met only once, in March 1983, when Habermas visited Paris to deliver the lectures at the Collège de France that would later become the first four chapters of the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. They both gave subsequent accounts of their meeting: Foucault in an April 1983 interview; Habermas in a 1984 eulogy for Foucault. Foucault recalled Habermas’ discussion of the shock and disappointment he experienced upon discovering the Nazi past of one of his professors.1 Habermas recalled being struck by the tension “between the almost serene scientific reserve of the scholar striving for objectivity” and the “political vitality of the vulnerable, subjectively excitable, morally sensitive intellectual ….”2 We have a few other secondhand accounts of their conversation, but they cast little light on what Foucault and Habermas might have discussed.3 Maybe someone should call David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s agent and tell him to put the boys on the case.

The Debate that Wasn’t and the One That Was

This sets “Foucault/Habermas Debate” apart from Habermas’ previous engagements with Karl Popper, Hans Albert, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Niklas Luhmann, and John Rawls. Since there was no actual exchange between Foucault and Habermas, all that we have is a debate between “Habermasians” and “Foucaultians” (or, if you prefer, “Foucauldians” — my spell checker doesn’t like either one). The “Foucault/Habermas Debate” took its point of departure from a single text: the critique of Foucault’s work that Habermas offered in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. For this reason, the terms on which it has been conducted have been viewed by Foucault’s defenders as seriously flawed: hence the continued attempts at “recasting” it. I’m interested, not with the “debate” that we have wound up with, but with the one we didn’t get: the joint colloquium on Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” that, according to Habermas, Foucault proposed for the autumn of 1984.

In many ways, the Debate that Never Was is every bit as problematic as the one that was: Foucault and Habermas offered conflicting accounts of what they thought they were going to be doing. To summarize from last time:

  • Habermas stated that the colloquium was (1) proposed by Foucault, (2) would focus on Kant’s essay, and (3) would also include Hubert Dreyfus, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor.
  • Foucault stated that it was (1) organized by some “Americans,” (2) would focus on “modernism,” and (3) would involve “Habermas and myself.”

But, fortunately, it may be possible to remedy at least some of these confusions. I’ve pestered various people who were in a position to know something about what was being planned and a few of them have been kind enough to help clarify matters (one of the pleasant things about dealing with historical questions, rather than philosophical ones, is that they can sometimes be resolved by turning up evidence). Further, since the three participants mentioned by Habermas all went on to publish articles that, in one way or another, dealt with Kant’s essay, it might be possible to get some sense of what they might have been thinking about the question they were supposed to be discussing (more on this, perhaps, in a later post).4 Finally, we have a few texts by Foucault and Habermas on Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and they provide some clues as to what they may have found significant about this famous little essay. Resolving the first and the third of these discrepancies requires finding something that would have to clarify what the people at Berkeley who were organizing the event might have had in mind (perhaps certain people might be interested in taking at look in their files?). On the other hand, resolving the second requires trying to make sense of what is going on in the pile of texts sitting on my desk. So I will focus on the second and hope that, someday, someone will help me out with the first and the third.

Habermas as Reagan, Foucault as Gorbachev

Here is how Habermas characterized his reaction to Foucault’s invitation to join him at Berkeley, in the autumn of 1984, for a discussion of Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”:

I had understood his invitation as a call to a discussion in which we, along with Hubert Dreyfus, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor, would debate various interpretations of modernity, using as a basis for discussion a text that in a certain sense initiated the philosophical discourse of modernity (150).

He went on to explain that, a year later, upon reading the article in Magazine littéraire that had been extracted Foucault’s January 5, 1983 lecture at the Collège de France, he realized that “this was not exactly Foucault’s intention in his proposal.”

This account prompts two questions:

  1. Why did Habermas assume that Foucault’s invitation to discuss Kant’s essay on enlightenment was equivalent to debating different interpretations of modernity?
  2. What was it about Foucault’s article that made him recognize that he had misunderstood what Foucault was proposing?

The first question would appear to have a rather simple answer. The second is a bit trickier.

That Habermas would understand the invitation as an opportunity to “debate various interpretations of modernity” is hardly surprising. He was, after all, in Paris to deliver a series of lectures addressing that question and he seems to have assumed that Kant’s essay on enlightenment could serve as the point of departure for a consideration of philosophical accounts of “modernity.” Whether it is — or ought to be — natural for us to agree with this interpretation of the essay is something that, at some point, we will need to consider.

Because Habermas said little in the eulogy about how he understood Foucault’s proposal or what he thought Foucault’s intentions were in proposing it, it is unclear what it was that he subsequently realized he had misunderstood. All that we have to go on is his discussion of Foucault’s interpretation of Kant’s essay itself and the problems he had in reconciling it with Foucault’s discussion of Kant in Les mots et les choses:

In Foucault’s lecture we do not meet the Kant familiar from the Order of Things, the epistemologist who thrust open the door to the age of anthropological thought and the human sciences with his analysis of finiteness. Instead we encounter a different Kant — the precursor of the Young Hegelians, the Kant who was the first to make a serious break with the metaphysical heritage, who turned philosophy away from the Eternal Verities and concentrated on what philosophers had until then considered to be without concept and nonexistent, merely contingent and transitory. In Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault sees the origin of an “ontology of contemporary reality” that leads through Hegel, Nietzsche, and Max Weber to Horkheimer and Adorno. Surprisingly, in the last sentence of his lecture Foucault includes himself in this tradition (150).

There is nothing here that speaks directly to what Habermas took Foucault’s intentions to have been or to what he misunderstood about them, but it does suggest what might have perplexed him (along with others) about Foucault’s article in the Magazine littéraire.

It is likely that he assumed, on the basis of Foucault’s account of Kant in Les mots et les choses that Foucault was a critic of Kant (one way of reading the book’s discussion of “Man and His Doubles” in was that it held Kant responsible for various dichotomies that have plagued the human sciences since the close of the eighteenth century century) and, more broadly, a critic of the Enlightenment. From here it would have been a short step to assuming that the point of the Berkeley colloquium would have been to stage a disputation between Habermas, the champion of the Enlightenment project, and Foucault, its critic. It is worth remembering that, just four years earlier, Habermas included him — along with Batialle and Derrida — in the ranks of those “young conservative” critics of the Enlightenment project who sought to

appropriate the fundamental experience of aesthetic modernity, namely the revelation of a decentred subjectivity liberated from all the constraints of cognition and purposive action, from all the imperatives of labour and use value, and … break out of the modern world altogether.5

He did not intended this as a complement.

Despite the generally positive impression of Foucault that Habermas appears to have taken from their discussions, it is conceivable that when he left Paris still assumed that Foucault was a critic of the Enlightenment project and, hence, may have supposed that, at their planned meeting in Berkeley, they would debate its merits and, more generally, clarify their stances on the (to him related) question of “modernity.”

gorbachev-and-reaganAlthough The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (a book whose argument, as Habermas explained in the Preface, was initially developed in seminars at Frankfurt in the summer of 1983 and during the winter of 1983-1984 and the lectures that he gave in the United States in 1984) no longer charged that Foucault was a “young conservative,” it still saw him as a post-modern critic of the Enlightenment project who, while perhpas prefereable to Heidegger or Derrida, was still no friend of the Enlightenment. But this was a characterization that would have been difficult to sustain in the face of Foucault’s discussion of Kant in Magazine littéraire, a discussion that concluded with Foucault’s declaration that he regarded himself as part of a tradition that stretched “from Hegel to the Frankfurt School, through Nietzsche and Max Weber.”6 Habermas could well have wondered what, if anything, he and Foucault were going to “debate” at Berkeley. It was as if Foucault had decided to do the same thing vis a vis Habermas that Gorbachev was in the process of doing vis a vis Reagan: denying him an enemy.

“A discourse of, and about, modernity”

If, like Reagan, Habermas was inclined to “trust but verify,” two passages in Foucault’s article could provide support for the idea that the old enemy was making amends. First, and most emphatically, there was the peculiar declaration of loyalties with which it closed. But Habermas also seems to have fastened onto a passage in the article that can be found at the conclusion of Foucault’s discussion of the way in which Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” conceived of the relationship of philosophy to the present. Foucault argued that the question Kant was attempting to answer

is not simply: what in the present situation can determine this or that philosophical decision? The question is about the present and is, at first, concerned with the determination of a certain element of the present that needs to be recognized, distinguished, deciphered among all others. What is it in the present that now makes sense for philosophical reflection?7

He went on to note that, in answering this question, Kant

attempts to show how this element of the present turns out to be the carrier and the sign of a process concerning thought, bodies of knowledge, and philosophy. Yet here it is a matter of showing specifically and in what ways the one who speaks as a thinker, a scientist, and a philosopher is himself a part of this process and (more than that) how he has a certain role to play in this process where he will therefore find himself both element and actor. (84-85)

From this, he concludes,

All this, philosophy as the problematization of an actuality and the philosopher’s questioning of this actuality to which he belongs and in relation to which he has to position himself, may very well characterize philosophy as a discourse of and about modernity. (85)

It would have been impossible for Habermas to have overlooked Foucault’s claim that, in Kant’s essay, philosophy had become “a discourse of and about modernity.”8 And, in fact, Habermas’ summary of Foucault’s argument in his eulogy highlighted this passage:

Foucault discovers in Kant the first philosopher to take aim like an archer at the heart of a present that is concentrated in the significance of the contemporary moment, and thereby to inaugurate the discourse of modernity. Kant drops the classical dispute over the exemplary status of the ancients and the equal stature of the moderns; transforming thought into a diagnostic instrument, he entangles it in the restless process of self-reassurance that to this day has kept modernity in ceaseless motion within the horizon of a new historical consciousness (151-152).

From here, the eulogy went on to make the case that, Foucault’s situating of his work within the tradition inaugurated by Kant amounted to a fundamental change in his stance towards the “philosophical discourse of modernity.”

Habermas begins by summarizing, once again, what he understands Foucault to be arguing in the text in Magazine littéraire

For a philosophy claimed by the significance of the contemporary moment, the issue is the relationship of modernity to itself. the “rapport ‘sagital’ á sa propre actualité.” Hölderlin and the young Hegel, Marx and the Young Hegelians, Baudelaire and Nietzsche, Bataille and the surrealists, Lukàcs, Merleau-Ponty, the precursors of Western Marxism in general, and not least, Foucault himself — all of them contribute to the sharpening of the modern time consciousness that made its entry into philosophy with the question “What is Enlightenment?” The philosopher becomes a contemporary; he steps out of the anonymity of an impersonal enterprise and identifies himself as a person of flesh and blood to whom every clinical investigation of a contemporary period confronting him must be directed. Even in retrospect, the period of the Enlightenment fits the description it gave of itself: it marks the entrance into a modernity that sees itself condemned to draw on itself for its consciousness of self and its norm.

For now, it may be enough to note how Habermas’ summary rocks back and forth between a faithful (and, at times, almost verbatim) summary of the argument of Foucault’s article (in the first and third sentences) and elaborations of this argument (in the second and fourth sentences) that go well beyond anything Foucault actually said in the article but do match up quite well with a few of Habermas’ long-standing concerns. The list of names in the second sentence merges thinkers who do figure in Foucault’s work (most obviously, Nietzsche and Bataille and, less obviously, Hölderlin) with ones who don’t, but did matter to Habermas (e.g., Lukács and Merleau-Ponty. In much the same way, the fourth sentence describes what Foucault takes to be the thrust of Kant’s essay in precisely the way that Habermas had framed the point of departure for the “philosophical discourse of modernity”: as modernity’s attempt “to create its normativity out of itself,” without borrowing its criteria from the models supplied by earier epochs (7).

Not Quite Paul

Having completed this peculiar mix of summary and redescription, Habermas posed the question of what would have moved Foucault, the former enemy of the Enlightenment, to defect to the ranks of its friends:

If this is even a paraphrase of Foucault’s own train of thought, the question arises how such an affirmative understanding of modern philosophizing, a philosophizing that is inscribed in our present and always directed to the relevance of our contemporary reality, fits with Foucault’s unyielding critique of modernity. How can Foucault’s self understanding as a thinker in the tradition of the Enlightenment be compatible with his unmistakable critique of precisely this form of knowledge, which is that of modernity?

The answer is that Foucault must have changed.

Whereas, however, Foucault had previously traced this will to knowledge in modern power formations only to denounce it, he now displays it in a completely different light: as the critical impulse that links his own thought with the beginnings of modernity, an impulse worthy of preservation and in need of renewal.

And, the reason for this change, Habermas proposes, was that Foucault must have found himself caught in “an instructive contradiction” that

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.

This amounts to a summary of one of the prongs of the critique that Habermas himself had made of Foucault’s work in the lectures he gave in the United States after his departure from Paris. But the central thrust of the eulogy is that it is not just Habermas who was aware of this contradiction. Foucault had recognized it as well, and it was

the force of 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.

Not least among the appeals this interpretation might have had for Habermas was that it left intact the critique of Foucault’s work that was about to appear in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, while at the same time holding out the prospect that, had he not died — at the very moment when he had broken with the “young conservative” attempt to “blast open” the “philosophical discourse of modernity” — he would have returned to its “sphere of influence.” It was as if Saul, nearing Damascus, saw the light, was thrown from his horse, and died of a broken neck without ever becoming Paul.

Habermas, however, was well aware that what he was arguing hinges on a conditional: “If this is even a paraphrase of Foucault’s own train of thought ….” In my next post, I’d like to examine some of the problems with Habermas’ “paraphrase” and suggest that Foucault was not quite as close to Habermas’ position as the “paraphrase” would have us believe.St.-Paul-Damascus

  1. Foucault, “Politics and Ethics: An Interview,” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 373-4.
  2. Habermas, “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present,” in Michael Kelly, Critique and Power : Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994) 149-50.
  3. For one of the more extended discussions, see James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) 334-339, which draws on a 1991 interview with Habermas.
  4. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, “What Is Maturity? Habermas and Foucault on ‘What Is Enlightenment?’,” in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Couzens Hoy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 109–123, Richard Rorty, “The Continuity Between the Enlightenment and ‘Postmodernism’.” in Keith Michael Baker and Peter Hanns Reill, What’s Left of Enlightenment? : a Postmodern Question (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001) 19-36, and Charles Taylor, “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment,” in Canadian Political Philosophy: Contemporary Reflections, ed. Ronald Beiner and W. J. Norman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 583–603. Taylor has informed me that he does not recall this paper as having anything to do with the proposed 1984 discussions.
  5. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” trans. Nicholas Walker in Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, ed. Maurizio Passerin d’ Entreves and Seyla Benhabib, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), 53
  6. Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter (New York: Semiotexte, 1997) 95.
  7. I am quoting from the translation in Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter (New York: Semiotexte, 1997) 84.
  8. It may be worth noting that this passage is present in the transcript of the lecture of January 5, 1983. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). 13.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to Habermas’ Foucault — The Debate that Never Was (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Misunderstanding Foucault — Foucault. Habermas, and the Debate that Never Was (Part III) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: Misunderstanding Foucault — Foucault. Habermas, and the Debate that Never Was (Part III) | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. Pingback: Foucault, Habermas, and the Debate That Never Was | Persistent Enlightenment

  4. Pingback: The Foucault/Habermas debate that never was | Progressive Geographies

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