Foucault on “Horkheimer” and “Aufklärung” (Marginal Notes on the Foucault/Habermas Debate)

One of the dangers of focusing as intently as I have on matters such as the so-called “Foucault/Habermas Debate” is the that one runs the risk of turning into something approximating the character played by Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory or one of those people who approach texts in search of  coded messages and, of course, always find them.

While I’ve been spending much too much time thinking about “The Debate that Never Was,” I haven’t reached the point where I’ve started to count lines and hunt for secret codes.  But I have become curious about two words that Foucault uses in odd ways: “Horkheimer” and “Aufklärung.” Perhaps it would be a good idea to work off this mania quickly and, freed from it,  get back to finishing off the discussion. This strategy has the added advantage of allowing me to write something that — in contrast to the Behemoths I’ve been posting lately — will be somewhat shorter.

Michel et Max

I first began to think that there was something odd about the way in which Foucault talked about the Frankfurt School when, shortly after the publication of Foucault Reader, I read his Berkeley lecture on the question “What is Enlightenment?”1 In the third paragraph, where Foucault stresses the importance of the question that Kant was trying to answer, there was a sentence caught my eye:

From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly.

When something I am reading catches my eye, my pencil usually follows and, looking at the page in question, I see that at some point I drew little arrows connecting the names. Here’s one way of representing how I tried to make sense of the relationship Foucault seemed to be suggesting:2


On the other hand, I suppose it is possible that what he had in mind may have been more like this:


However, I find it  hard to understand what possible line of influence could run from Hegel through Nietzsche to Habermas. On the other hand, something like this might make sense (especially for those who think that the contrast between “formal” and “substantive” rationality at the start of Eclipse of Reason was inspired by Weber:

Modified Complex

In any case, however we parse this, it would appear that Foucault presents Horkheimer and Habermas as two — possibly contrasting? — end points in a sequence of thinkers that runs either through Nietzsche or through Max Weber.

Still, the idea of alternative paths running through Nietzsche and Weber doesn’t make much sense: if any of these thinkers was influenced by Nietzsche, it would have to be Max Weber. So, if we could move things around again, we wind up with something  like this:

Via Nietzsche

But, in the end, no matter how many different ways we want to scramble (or is it “scapple”?) things, the one possibility that Foucault seems to rule out  is a straightforward line of historical influence that goes like this:


If we read Foucault as viewing  Habermas and Horkheimer as alternative endpoints in a line of influence that stretches back to Hegel, what implications might this have for his claim that his own work should be viewed as belonging somehow within this line of inquiry?

There might be something to be learned about this question by looking at another place where Foucault discusses the relationship of his work to that of the Frankfurt School.  In a passage that can be found at the close of the Magazine littéraire article that has been variously translated as “What is Revolution?” (in The Politics of Truth) or “The Art of Telling the Truth” (in Critique and Power) he states:

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.

Note that here there are no alternative lines of influence:  “or” is absent (there’s only “and”) and “Horkheimer” and “Habermas” have been submerged into the collective entity known as the Frankfurt School.

What are we to make of this?

Probably nothing (i.e.,  I need to tell myself to calm down, take deep breaths, and — above all — lay off the coffee for a while): one would have to be bonkers to think that Foucault was carefully crafting every word in order to send out signals that would be decoded, decades later, by those who had learned how to read him properly.  But still: the differences between the two texts might prompt us to think a bit more about how Foucault saw his relationship to the various thinkers who make up what we, somewhat hastily and carelessly, dub “the Frankfurt School.”

And, by the way, why is it that Foucault never seems to mention Adorno? I don’t think I’ve found a reference to him in the texts I’ve been looking at, even as part of the duo “Horkheimer and Adorno.” Am I missing something or is there something going on here?

Why “Aufklärung“?

The other thing that has caught my eye is the way that Foucault aways leaves Aufklärung untranslated. My uncaffeinated brain tells me that the explanation is simple enough: in the essays that I’ve been focusing on, he is dealing with Kant’s response to a question that, first and foremost, is a question about the meaning of a German word: just what is it that we mean by the word Aufklärung. But, at the same time, Foucault also sees Kant’s discussion of the meaning of an activity in which various Prussian writers, clergy, jurists, and philosophers were engaged as an attempt to say something their relationship to “the present.”

Here’s what he has to say about this in the Magazine littéraire article  (it would be useful to know just how much coffee he had been drinking when he wrote this):

No doubt one of the more interesting perspectives for the study of the 18th century, in general, and of the Aufklärung in particular would be to examine the fact that the Aufklärung named itself Aufklärung, that it is a very unique cultural process which became aware of itself by naming itself, by situating itself in terms of its past and its future, and by indicating how it had to operate within its own present.

Is it not the Aufklärung, after all, the first epoch to name itself and, instead of simply characterizing itself, according to an old habit, as a period of decadence or prosperity, of splendor or miserly, to name itself after a certain event that comes out of a general history of thought, reason, and knowledge, and within which the epoch itself has to play its part? (Politics of Truth 86-87).

I’m of two minds about this. First, and most simply, I think there’s a serious problem here: the historical period that, in German, is known as die Aufklärung did not name itself die Aufklärung. I’m inclined to blame Hegel for this. The debate in which Kant was engaged was an attempt to define the characteristics of a process that was known, in German, as Aufklärung. The distinction is much clearer in English, thanks to the post-eighteenth century conventions around capitalizing nouns: enlightenment isn’t the same thing as the Enlightenment. I’ve written a lot about this (most recently in a conference paper that can be gotten here) and won’t belabor the point again.

But, on the other hand, there is a relationship between the debates of the 1780s and the later emergence of the idea that something notable was taking place in the eighteenth century. I hope to sort out how Foucault seems to understand what is unique about this in a later post. For now, I’d only like to note the curious parallel between Foucault and another thinker who insisted on leaving Aufklärung untranslated: the English Hegelian James Hutchison Sterling. I’ve written a lot about him as well, so I’ll simply let Stirling speak for himself. Discussing how nineteenth-century English readers understood what the word “philosophy” meant during the eighteenth century, here’s what he had to say (warning: I’m not even going to try to summarize this!):

Now, to most of us, that one word is suggestive only of infidelity, free-thinking, deism, atheism, of scepticism in religion, of sensualism in philosophy, and of republicanism in politics. Still to apply any of these terms to the philosophy of the eighteenth century would be to name it badly, for, though the doctrines and opinions implied in such expressions are certainly concomitants and attendants of that philosophy, they are, in reality, only phenomenal and temporary forms. English thinkers, whichever side they have taken, have been content to remain with a very indistinct, obscure, and confused consciousness on these points; and the consequence is, that at this moment we know of no single really intelligent and fully enlightened discussion of this subject in the English language. The Germans, on the contrary, have coolly turned upon it, lifted it, looked at it, and examined it piecemeal, till now, having at length fairly filled and satisfied themselves with what of instruction, negative or positive, they could extract from it, they have long since packed it up, and laid it on the shelf, labeled Aufklärung ….”

It is unlikely that Foucault and Stirling had much else in common, but they both seemed to think that the German word Aufklärung captured something unique: hence their decision to leave it untranslated.

OK, now that I’ve gotten all this off my chest I can go back to wondering whether all the rabbits that have turned up in my back yard might be some new sort of fur-covered drone that the NSA is using to spy on us.


Mel, looking worried, in Conspiracy Theory.

  1. I still have the copy I bought shortly after it appeared, which stops at p. 389. As a result, I never got around to reading the last two sentences of the final interview (which continues onto p. 390) until a few years ago, when I picked up the first volume of Foucault’s “Essential Works” (i.e., Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth.) I was relieved to see that I hadn’t missed anything.
  2. I slapped this together using Scapple, a program developed by the people who make Scrivener, the word processor that freed me from the clutches of Microsoft Word (after thirty years of using Word and still not understanding why it does the things it does it occurred to me that this must be what bad marriages are like). I’ve yet to find much use for Scapple, but it’s fun to play around with it and Scrivener offers a very generous trial period for their software (thirty days of actual use, as opposed to thirty days on the calendar).

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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7 Responses to Foucault on “Horkheimer” and “Aufklärung” (Marginal Notes on the Foucault/Habermas Debate)

  1. GIago says:

    Hello James, sorry for being so late to the party on this: A question if I may,
    In reading Foucault’s essays on his relation with the Frankfurt School, I think it becomes rather clear that he prefers Horkheimer’s works over any of the other members. For instance, in the Italian 1978 interview, we find this passage:
    “And as we know, this problem [roughly the problem of Aufklarung, as described in “What is Critique] 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?”

    My knowledge of Horkheimer is poor, so I’m not entirely sure what he’s referring to.
    All I could turn up was a mention by Martin Jay in the Dialectical Imagination of a conversation with Adorno:
    “Adorno, when I spoke to him in Frankfurt in March, 1969, said that Marx wanted to turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”

    Has Foucault read the Dialectical imagination and misremembered perhaps? Would you possibly have a better idea of what Foucault thinks he’s referencing? Perhaps it’s also time for less coffee on my end also!


    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve been away from this material for a while (but am hoping to do more with it later in the summer), but for now don’t have a lot to add. I’m sure I’ve read (and may even have quoted) the 1978 interview that you mention, but the damned thing has appeared under so many different titles that I’m afraid I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment. Regarding Foucault’s possible reading of Dialectical Imagination, it makes sense that he might have been familiar with it, given his interaction with faculty and students at UC Berkeley towards the end of his life. Sorry not to be of more help on this.

      • GIago says:

        Thanks for the answer, very interesting.
        If you would like to get your hands on it, it has been translated as “remarks on Marx”, and this is republished as “Interview with Michel Foucault” in volume 3, pg. 239-297 of the Penguin Essential Works, (Power).
        Thanks again,

  2. Thanks for the comment and the suggestion about Foucault’s 1978 essay (I think I’ll pass on the suggestion about laying off coffee, though). I’ve said more about that essay in the immediate sequel to this post, which tries to make sense of the differences between Foucault’s 1978 treatment of Kant and the discussion in his 1983 Berkeley lecture (which was published the next year in the Foucault reader). I think you’re right to suggest that part of Foucault’s attraction to the German term may simply have been that, unlike siècle de lumière, it is not tied to a particular period, a point that comes through quite clearly in the passage you quote. There are also may be echoes of Foucault’s review of Ernst Cassirer (which I’ve discussed here) in the 1978 text.

  3. Another interesting and helpful piece, James, and I hope you won’t mind my entering the conversation from several different directions, since it’s the Enlightenment I’m working on myself at the moment. I wondered whether Foucault’s ‘What is Critique?’ (1978) wouldn’t help calm the nerves even more than laying off the coffee, since it spells out how different was Auklaerung to the French siecle des lumieres because of different intellectual and cultural conditions among the Germans and the French; points out how much the French needed ‘the Frankfurt School’, having been complacent about Kant’s requirement to be knowledgeable about knowledge; argues that Kant opened up a gap between Aufklaerung and critique because of this need. Here’s a taster: ‘Even if it is relatively and necessarily vague, the Enlightenment period is certainly designated as a formative stage for modern humanity. This is the Aufklärung in the wide sense of the term to which Kant, Weber etc referred, a period without fixed limits, with multiple points of entry since one can also define it by the formation of capitalism, the constitution of the bourgeois world, the establishment of state systems, the foundation of modern science with all its correlative techniques, the organization of a confrontation between the art of being governed and that of being quite so governed. Consequently this is a privileged period for historical-philosophical work, since these relationships between power, truth and the subject appear live on the surface of visible transformations.’ What is Critique? (1978) in Foucault The Politics of Truth (1997) pp.41-82 (57)

  4. Pingback: Foucault and Habermas on Kant, Modernity, and Enlightenment (The Debate that Never Was, Part IV) | Persistent Enlightenment

  5. Utisz says:

    Just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog. This was another very interesting post.

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