My last post on the so-called “Foucault/Habermas Debate” focused on the eulogy JürgenHabermas wrote in the wake of Michel Foucault’s death. The main theoretical claim of the eulogy was that Foucault, the one-time critic of the “Enlightenment project” (a project that, for Habermas, is more or less identical with the “project of modernity”) came to realize that his theory of power ultimately undermined the normative foundations on which his critique of power relations rested. Habermas went on to argue that, in the face of this contradiction, Foucault found himself drawn “back into a sphere of influence he had tried to blast open, that of the philosophical discourse of modernity.”1 The result was a rejection of the position that Foucault had once shared with fellow “young conservatives” such as George Bataille and Jacques Derrida who, following the path blazed by Nietzsche, had sought “to appropriate the fundamental experience of aesthetic modernity” in order to “break out of the modern world altogether.”2 As evidence for this shift, Habermas appealed to the article, drawn Foucault’s January 5, 1983 lecture at the Collège de France, that appeared in Magazine littéraire shortly before Foucault’s death.
Two passages in this article may have led Habermas to conclude that Foucault had, indeed, changed his stance:
- Foucault’s concluding statement that he saw his own work as situated within a tradition that stretched “from Hegel to the Frankfurt School, through Nietzsche and Max Weber.”3
- His characterization (and apparent endorsement) of the Kant’s account of philosophy (in his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”) as “a discourse of and about modernity.”4
Finally, I noted that Habermas’ interpretation had the additional appeal of validating the general critique of Foucault’s work that had been developed in his yet unpublished Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. There was nothing in this critique that needed to be modified, aside from noting that Foucault himself had, shortly before his untimely death, come to agree with Habermas on the need for a significant revision of his account of modernity.
In this post I want to look more closely at some of the problems with Habermas’ interpretation of the two points noted above and argue (drawing, in part, on texts that would not have been available to Habermas when he wrote his eulogy) that he overstates the extent to which Foucault was moving towards a position that might have approximated his own.
A Fraternal Rapport with the Frankfurt School?
Foucault saved what, at the time, was the most surprising move in the Magazine littéraire for the close:
It seems to me that the philosophical choice with which we are confronted at present is this: we can opt for a critical philosophy which will present itself as an analytic philosophy of truth in general, or we can opt for a form of critical thought which will be an ontology of ourselves, an ontology of the actuality. It is this form of philosophy that, from Hegel to the Frankfurt School, through Nietzsche and Max Weber, has founded the form of reflection within which I have attempted to work (95).
Foucault’s way of characterizing Foucault’s work must have seemed rather strange to Habermas — and, for that matter, not just to Habermas.
Throughout the 1960s and for much of the early 1970s, Foucault and Habermas inhabited different intellectual universes. Habermas’ earliest mention of Foucault that I have been able to find (I would be grateful to learn if there are earlier ones that I’ve missed) came in a 1977 interview, where he noted that Foucault’s “critique of the forms and norms of bourgeois rationality in medicine, law, and sexuality” had already been “anticipated” by the Dialectic of Enlightenment.5 A year later, he was more critical, arguing that
Foucault imagines that a bourgeois rationality was somehow imposed on all spheres of life in the eighteenth century, which must now be generically done away with. I’m not convinced by his undialectical negation. It is rather necessary to show that what Weber called “rationalization” in which Foucault as well explored in a very different way — in the field of culture, sexual relations, criminality and sanity — is dangerous because it is partial. For it is characterized by its universalization of a single fundamental form of irrationality — instrumental, economic and administrative reason. But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and take flight in a new irrationalism. Foucault visibly falls into that danger.6
He took up this general line of interpretation two years later in his Adorno Prize lecture, which (famously or infamously, depending on the reader), which characterized Foucault as a “young conservative.”7
For his part, Foucault explained, in an interview with Duccio Trombadori conducted at the end of 1978, that he had first come into contact with the work of the Frankfurt School when he read Georg Rusche and Kirchheimer’s Punishment and Social Structures, a work that he discussed in Discipline and Punish (1975).8 He also made a few critical comments on Jos Van Ussel’s Marcuse-inspired Histoire de la répression sexuelle in his 1974-1975 lectures at the Collège de France.9 The same general critique (without mentioning either Marcuse or Van Ussel) would be central to the critique of the “repressive hypothesis” in La Volenté de savoir (1976).
While there was no explicit mention of Habermas in his interview with Trombadori, his comments go a long way to clarifying what he saw his own work as sharing with the earlier generation of Frankfurt theorists:
… the philosophers of that school raised problems we’re still laboring over today – in particular, that of the effects of power in their relation to a rationality that was defined historically and geographically, in the West, from the sixteenth century onward. The West wouldn’t have been able to achieve the economic and cultural results that characterize it without the exercise of that particular form of rationality. And, in fact, how can that rationality be separated from the mechanisms, procedures, techniques, and effects of power that accompany it and for which we express our distaste by describing them as the typical form of oppression of capitalist societies — and perhaps socialist societies as well? Couldn’t it be concluded that the Enlightenment’s promise of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason has been turned upside down, resulting in a domination by reason itself, which increasingly usurps the place of freedom? This is a fundamental problem we’re all struggling with, which many people have in common, whether they are communist or not. And as we know, this problem was isolated, pointed out by Horkheimer before all the others; and it was the Frankfurt school that questioned the reference to Marx in terms of that hypothesis. Wasn’t it Horkheimer who maintained that in Marx there was the idea of a classless society that resembled an enormous factory? (273-274)
In a May 1978 lecture to the Société françaisse de Philosophie, which was first published in 1990 under the title “What is Critique?”, he offered an extended discussion of the legacy, both France and in Germany, of the question “What is Enlightenment?” and argued that taking up “the problem of Aufklärung … makes us brothers with the Frankfurt School.”10 Finally, in a 1983 interview with Gérard Raulet, he observed that “When I was a student, I can assure you that I never once heard the name of the Frankfurt School mentioned by any of my professors,” and then went on to offer this assessment of the relationship of the work of the Frankfurt School to his own work,
Now, obviously, if I had been familiar with the Frankfurt school, if I had been aware of it at the time, I would not have said a number of stupid things that I did say and I would have avoided many or the detours which I made while trying to pursue my own humble path — when, meanwhile, avenues had been opened up by the Frankfurt school.11
It is clear, then, that Foucault’s situating of his own work within the broader context of a tradition of inquiry associated with the Frankfurt School was hardly confined to the article that prompted Habermas to suppose that Foucault was ready to make his peace the “philosophical discourse of modernity.”
But, even as he was drawing parallels between his own work and that of the Frankfurt School, Foucault also noted significant differences. For example, he began his 1979 Tanner lectures Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’ by asking “Shall we ‘try’ reason?”
To my mind, nothing would be more sterile. First, because the field has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. Second, because it’s senseless to refer to ‘reason’ as the contrary entity to non-reason. Last, because such a trial would trap us into playing the arbitrary and boring part of either the rationalist or the irrationalist.12
He followed this with a second question: “Shall we investigate this kind of rationalism which seems to be specific to our modern culture and which originates in Enlightenment?” and went on to note,
I think that that was the way of some of the members of the Frankfurter Schule. My purpose is not to begin a discussion of their works – they are most important and valuable. I would suggest another way of investigating the links between rationalisation and power” (226)
The relationship of his work to that of the Frankfurt School came up again in his 1983 interview with Gérard Raulet. Raulet noted that “The prevailing idea in Critical Theory is the dialectical continuity of reason, and of a perversion that completely transformed it at a certain stage-which it now becomes a question of rectifying.” Foucault responded:
Yes, yes. I think the blackmail that has very often been at work in every critique of reason or every critical inquiry into the history of rationality (either you accept rationality or you fall prey to the irrational) operates as though a rational critique of rationality were impossible, or as though a rational history of all the ramifications and all the bifurcations, a contingent history of reason, were impossible.13
The same formulation can be found in his 1983 lecture on the question “What is Enlightenment?”, where — after summarizing what he took to be the implications of Kant’s discussion, he stressed the need to reject what he termed “the ‘blackmail’ of the Enlightenment.”
But that does not mean that one has to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Enlightenment. It even means precisely that one has to refuse everything that might present itself in the form of a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism (this is considered a positive term by some and used by others, on the contrary, as a reproach); or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality (which may be seen once again as good or bad). And we do not break free of this blackmail by introducing ‘dialectical’ nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment.14
The last sentence suggests that Foucault’s identification with the broader aims of the Frankfurt School was not without significant differences. For what it questions is precisely the broader project that Habermas viewed as central to the “philosophical discourse of modernity”: the goal “of enlightening the Enlightenment about its narrow-mindedness.”15 To the extent that this was an effort Foucault was not inclined to join, it would seem that he remained, contra Habermas, outside the “philosophical discourse of modernity.”
Modernity, Time Consciousness, and Self-Assurance
In his discussion of Foucault’s Magazine littéraire article, Habermas maintained that Foucault’s recognition that his theory of power undermined the normative standards that could be used to criticize the functioning of power relations ultimately drew him
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.
As I suggested in my last post, there was one particular passage in Foucault’s article that may have led Habermas to see Foucault as having altered his stance towards the “project of modernity,” a project that, for Habermas, had been “formulated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.”16
The passage comes at the close of a discussion of what Foucault sees as the novel relationship between philosophy and the present implied in Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”
If one agrees to envision philosophy as a form of discursive practice which has its own history, it seems to me that with this text on the Aufklärung … one sees philosophy problematize its own discursive actuality: an actuality that it questions as an event, as an event whose meaning, value, and philosophical singularity it has to express and in which it has to find both its own reason for being and the foundation for what it says. And in this way, one sees that for the philosopher to ask the question of how he belongs to this present is to no longer ask the question of how he belongs to a doctrine or a tradition. It will also no longer simply be a question of his belonging to a larger human community in general, but rather it will be a question of his belonging to a certain us, to an us that relates to a characteristic cultural ensemble of his own actuality.
No philosopher can go without examining his own participation in this us precisely because it is this us which is becoming the object of the philosopher’s own reflection. 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)
Let us, for the moment, set aside the question of whether this is a plausible interpretation of Kant’s essay and focus, instead, on the relationship between what Habermas calls “the philosophical discourse of modernity” and the way in which Foucault characterizes Kant’s notion of “philosophy as a discourse of and about modernity.”
It not difficult to see why Habermas, when he read this extract from Foucault’s 1983 lecture in the pages of the Magazine littéraire in the summer of 1984, might well have sensed an affinity between this passage and the argument that he had himself developed in the four lectures he had given at the Collège de France in March 1983. In his eulogy, he summarized Foucault’s interpretation of Kant as follows:
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).
Habermas gloss would seem to capture Foucault’s general point. But there are also a few differences worth noting.
The first involves the relationship of Kant to the “philosophical discourse of modernity.” Foucault saw Kant as inaugurating a new stance towards the present, a stance turned philosophy into a “discourse of and about modernity.” Kant does not, however, play quite the same role in Habermas’ narrative. Much depends on just how we understand the concerns of “the philosophical discourse of modernity.”
In the opening chapter of Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (and, presumably, in the first of his four lectures at the Collège de France), Habermas argued that the “discourse of modernity” was concerned, above all else, with the question of “self-reassurance” (Selbstvergewisserung), the same term that he used in his gloss of Foucault. But Philosophical Discourse of Modernity credits Hegel, rather than Kant, with having been “the first to raise to the level of a philosophical problem the process of detaching modernity from the suggestion of norms lying outside of itself in the past” (16)17 To the extent that Kant figures in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity it is via Hegel’s interpretation of his philosophy. The difference may appear trivial, but there are good reasons for insisting on it.
As Habermas noted in his Preface, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity picks up where his 1980 Adorno lecture left off.18 In the Adorno lecture, he argued that
The project of modernity as it was formulated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century consists in the relentless development of the objectivating sciences, of the universalistic foundations of morality and law, and of autonomous art, all in accord with their own immanent logic.19
This same interpretation is offered as a characterization of Kant’s project early in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, with the addition of a nod to Weber’s younger colleague (and Georg Lukács’ teacher) Emil Lask (18-19). But it is only with Hegel’s appropriation of Kant that the “philosophical discourse of modernity” commences in earnest:
Hegel can understand Kant’s philosophy as the standard (or authoritative) self-interpretation of modernity; he thinks he sees what also remains unconceptualized in this most highly reflective expression of the age: Kant does not perceive as diremptions the differentiations within reason, the formal divisions within culture, and in general the fissures among all those spheres, Hence he ignores the need for unification that emerges with the separations evoked by the principle of subjectivity (19).
Hegel’s insistence that Kant’s differentiation of reason into theoretical, practical, and aesthetic standpoints is a fragmentation that must be overcome philosophically provides the paradigm for what Habermas characterizes as “the philosophical discourse of modernity.” As he argued in the published version of what would have been the third of the four lectures that he gave at the Collège de France.
In the discourse of modernity, the accusers raise an objection that has not substantially changed from Hegel and Marx down to Nietzsche and Heidegger, from Bataille and Lacan to Foucault and Derrida. The accusation is aimed against a reason grounded in the principle of subjectivity. And it states that this reason denounces and undermines all unconcealed forms of suppression and exploitation, degradation and alienation, only to set up in their place the unassailable domination of rationality. Because this regime of a subjectivity puffed up into a false absolute transforms the means of consciousness-raising and emancipation into just so many instruments of objectification and control, it fashions for itself an uncanny immunity in the form of a thoroughly concealed domination (55-56)
As readers of Philosophical Discourse of Modernity are no doubt aware, Habermas goes on to argue that “taking leave of modernity” exacts “a high price” that can be avoided only by replacing the “subject-centered” conception of reason with his proposed conception of “communicative reason.” Such a conception confirms the “normative content” of the “project of modernity” by showing that the differentiation of reason into empirical, normative, and aesthetic spheres — a differentiation that Hegel regarded as a “fragmentation” in need of overcoming — could, instead, be understood as grounded in the validity claims that are inherent in communicative interaction. In that sense, the “philosophical discourse of modernity” might be understood as a long series of poorly formulated solutions to a what, ultimately, turns out not have been a problem. Kant got it more or less right (but without giving an adequate explanation of why) and Hegel set philosophy off on a path that, while not uninteresting, has not been particularly productive.
It is far from clear, however, what any of this has to do with the particular focus of Foucault’s article: Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?”. Habermas’ account of modernity would appear to rest on two distinct claims:
- Modernity is marked by a particular consciousness of time that (a) detaches it from “norms lying outside of itself in the past” and hence (b) stands in need of normative “self-assurance” — i.e., it needs to generate its own normative foundation.20
- The project of modernity (which was “formulated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment”) “consists in the relentless development of the objectivating sciences, of the universalistic foundations of morality and law, and of autonomous art, all in accord with their own immanent logic.”21
While the second of these claims is, as I have argued elsewhere, hardly typical of the Enlightenment as a whole, it is, of course, Kantian in its provenance. But it is emphatically not how Kant himself went about answering the question “what is enlightenment?” The only thing approximating the “differentiation” invoked in the second feature Habermas associates with “modernity” that can be found in Kant’s article on that question is his distinction between “public” and “private” uses of reason.
Kant’s article of enlightenment does, however, have something to say about the first of these points: it is possible to read the famous opening paragraph as imploring individuals to (a) think for themselves (i.e., don’t rely on norms that are imposed from “outside”) and (b) don’t be so timid about thinking for yourself (i.e., overcome your “self-imposed immaturity.”) Taken together, this might pass for a reformulation of the two parts of Habermas’ first point. And this, in fact, seems to be all Foucault was inclined to claim for Kant’s essay.
It 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?
In the answer that Kant attempts to give to this line of questioning, he 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).
So, while Foucault sees Kant as inaugurating a new way of talking about the relationship of philosophy to its present, there would appear to be scant evidence here — and, for that matter, in any of Foucault’s other discussions of the essay — that he regards Kant as concerned either with what Habermas sees as the “Enlightenment Project/Project of Modernity” (i.e., the differentiation of value spheres) or with the “philosophical discourse of modernity” (i.e., the critique of the misfortunes that this differentiation of value spheres allegedly introduces into society). What Habermas thought he found in Foucault simply isn’t there to be found.
- Jürgen Habermas, “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present: On Foucault’s Lecture on Kant’s ‘What Is Enlightenment?’,” in Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate, ed. Michael Kelly, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge [Mass.]: MIT Press, 1994), 154.
- 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) 53. ↩
- Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter (New York: Semiotexte, 1997) 95. ↩
- Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth 85. ↩
- Jürgen Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews (London: Verso, 1986). 53. This is the earliest mention of Foucault in any of Habermas’ texts or interviews that I have been able to track down. I’d be grateful if anyone could point out an earlier one. ↩
- Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity 74. ↩
- Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” 38–55. ↩
- Interview with Duccio Trombadori, in Michel Foucault, Power, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley (New Press, 1997) 273; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) 24-25, 54-57. For now, we can ignore the question of whether an affiliation with the Institute for Search Research is equivalent to membership in “the Frankfurt School,” but it is worth stressing that these terms do not designate the same thing.
- Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975 (New York: Picador, 2004) 236-237. ↩
- I quote from Kevin Paul Geiman’s translation in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 391. See also the translation in Foucault, The Politics of Truth, which renders the phrase as “shows out fellowship with the Frankfurt School (55).” The original French reads, “Je voudrais tout de suite, en abordant ce problème qui nous rend fraternels par rapport à l’École de Francfort ….” Foucault’s 1978 lecture is rather tough going and it is good to have a couple of translations of it available, especially since the translation in The Politics of Truth includes the brief question and answer period that followed the lecture. ↩
- Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (The New Press, 1998) 440 ↩
- Michel Foucault, “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’,” in Tanner Lectures on Human Values, ed. Sterling McMurrin, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1982), 226. ↩
- Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (The New Press, 1998) 441. ↩
- Foucault, The Politics of Truth 109-110. ↩
- Habermas, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 57. See also his comments on “enlightenment about the Enlightenment” in “The New Intimacy between Politics and Culture: Theses on Enlightenment in Germany,” in Habermas, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989) 200-201. ↩
- Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” 45. ↩
- The original German is the sort of thing that reduces translators to tears: “Hegel is der erste, der den Prozess der Ablösung der Moderne von den ausserhalb ihrer liegenden Normsuggestionen der Vergangenheit zum philosophischen Problem erhebt.” The meaning is clear enough, but how to put it into readable English isn’t. ↩
- See Philosophical Discourse of Modernity xix. ↩
- Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project” 45 ↩
- Habermas, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity 1-22. ↩
- Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” 45 ↩