Foucault and Habermas on Kant, Modernity, and Enlightenment (The Debate that Never Was, Part IV)

The aim of my series of posts on the so-called “Foucault/Habermas Debate” has been to move the focus away from the discussion of the differences in their general approaches and return it to the more modest concerns that lay at its origin: the idea of a meeting between Foucault, Habermas, and a few others to discuss Immanuel Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” on the bicentennial of its publication. What interests me is just what it was that Foucault and Habermas found interesting in Kant’s little essay and what this might tell us about their relationship to that thing that we have come to designate as “the Enlightenment” — a term whose various implications have, and will remain, the main concern of this blog. So, having spent previous posts probing the various ambiguities associated with “The Debate that Never Was,” I want to focus this discussion on how Habermas and Foucault approached the Enlightenment at different points in their career. This sketch will, inevitably, be tentative, questionable, and in need to further refinement, but I hope it helps us to see how they understood the significance of Kant’s essay.

Habermas’ Enlightenments: From One Kant to Another

Habermas’ stance towards Kant’s essay is deceptively simple. We’re accustomed to seeing him as the great modern champion of the Enlightenment (it may suffice to note that the two volumes of his 1992 Festschrift carried the titles Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment and Cultural-Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment). And Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” has come to serve — as Dan Edelstein nicely put it — “as a one-stop shop for defining the Enlightenment.”1 It would seem to follow that Habermas’ role in The Debate that Never Was would have been to defend Kant’s concept of enlightenment from Foucault’s critique. But it has long been apparent that this way of thinking about the positions that Foucault and Habermas were staking out is deeply misguided: Foucault’s discussions of Kant’s essays make it clear that he was not going to play the role of Kant’s enemy.

What has received considerably less attention is the extent to which Habermas himself had moved away from the account of enlightenment offered in Kant’s essay. His understanding of the intentions that animated the Enlightenment was closest to what seems to have been Kant’s own account in the book that has come to be known in the English-speaking world as The Structural Transformation of Publicity (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit). His stance toward the essay underwent a subtle shift as he proceeded to develop the account of “cognitive interests” that was sketched in the book we Anglophones know as Knowledge and Human Interests (Erkenntnis und Interesse) and underwent a significant shift with the development of his theory of communicative action. Let me explain how I understand the differences.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the understanding of enlightenment in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is at one with Kant’s 1784 answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”. Habermas understands both the Enlightenment (the period) and enlightenment (the process) as defined by the free public use of reason. As a result, Habermas’ audacious account of the vicissitudes of the concept of Öffentlichkeit can (and has) been read as his version of the “dialect of enlightenment.” Where he diverges from Kant is in his insistence that while Öffentlichkeit may be something more than ideology (i.e., it carries a utopian promise) it was saddled with various fictional identities (among them, the assumption that the bourgeois was equivalent to the human being in general). As I have argued in earlier posts, the narrative arc of Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere consists of am examination of how these fictions became less and less plausible with the shift from the “blissful moment” of liberal capitalism to monopoly capitalism.

Perhaps the most deservedly neglected part of Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was its concluding discussion of the concept of “public opinion” — or, as it reads in German: Zum Begriff der öffentlichen Meinung. It would probably be forcing things too far to note the way in which the title of Habermas’ closing chapter echoes Horkheimer and Adorno’s opening one: Begriff der Aufklärung. In neither case does the Begriff do what Hegel assumed it would do: namely, open the path that leads to a greater grasp of what we are trying to understand. Dialectic of Enlightenment shuttles back and forth between the two poles of the chiasmus “myth is already enlightenment and enlightenment lapses back into myth” but the sequel that was supposed to explain how enlightenment might be rescued (or, perhaps, how enlightenment is supposed to rescue us — the proposed German title, Rettung der Aufklärung is nicely ambiguous) remained unwritten.2 Habermas made a brief effort at a “sociological clarification” of where things stood (the German — Ein soziologischer Versuch der Klärung — has certain resonances that might be worth pondering), but I have difficulties getting much out of it.

Unlike Dialectic of Enlightenment, there was a sequel — indeed, a series of sequels — to Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that wrestle with the question of how critique was possible in a world where the socio-economic foundations (a.k.a. “the material base”) that once sustained the hope that publicity might be “more than ideology” had been dramatically transformed. The first of these sequels came in the form of Habermas’ theory of cognitive interests, preliminary sketches of which can be found in some of the essays appear in Theory and Practice. The most emphatic statement of the cognitive interest theory — Habermas’ 1968 Frankfurt inaugural lecture — was unabashedly Kantian:

The human interest in Mündigkeit is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori. What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure, Mündigkeit is posited for us. Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus. Mündigkeit constitutes the only Idea that we possess a priori in the sense of the philosophical tradition.3

One way of understanding this claim might be to see Mündigkeit as the “quasi-transcendental” ground for the possibility of an enlightenment that is defined, as before, in terms of the free public use of reason.

“Dogmatism, Reason, and Decision: On Theory and Praxis in our Scientific Civilization” — the closing essay of the original edition of Theory and Practice — offers a glimpse of how Habermas’ shifted the focus of his appropriation of Kant’s essay from the concept of Öffentlichkeit to the concept of Mündigkeit. His concern in the essay lay less with the sociological conditions that make the public use of reason possible than with the characteristics that define the individuals who came to together to form a public: they possess, he argues, “the capacity for maturity [Talent zur Mündigkeit]” and a “sensitivity to the evils of this world” (Theory and Practice 258).4 And while Marx entered the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as the great critic of the fictitious identity of man, citizen, and bourgeois on which Kant’s account of the public rested, in this discussion he turns up as Kant’s heir. Taking up the insight that “knowledge and commitment are related dialectically,” he recognized that only a social theory committed to the achievement of an “an emancipated society and the realization of Mündigkeit for all human beings” would be capable of gaining insight into the functioning of society” (Theory and Practice 262). The possibility of enlightenment now resides in “the interest in the progress of reflection towards Mündigkeit, which is indestructibly at work in every rational decision” (Theory and Practice 281).

The transition from the theory of cognitive interests to the theory of communicative actions had a number of implications for this understanding of the relationship between enlightenment and Mündigkeit. There is no space to work them out here, but it may be enough to note that Habermas’ claim, in his Frankfurt lecture, that the “intention of universal and unconstrained consensus” was inherent in language itself could — and indeed was — detached from the more general framework of the cognitive interest theory and worked out within the framework of the theory of communicative action. One of the more significant implications of this shift was that it liberated Habermas from the burden of redeeming the German idealist understanding of the relationship between reason, Mündigkeit, and enlightenment. Free of the pitfalls that he now associated with this tradition, he was able to avoid claims about “reflection,” the “will to reason,” and ultimately from “consciousness” itself.

This shift carried with it a significant modification in how he understood the “Enlightenment project.” That new understanding would be laid out, shortly before the publication of the Theory of Communicative Action, in his Adorno prize lecture:

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.5

Since I’ve discussed this passage in an earlier post all I want to note here is that while the distinctions Habermas draws have a recognizably Kantian provenance, they are grounded not in Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” but instead are derived from the general structure of his critical philosophy. I suppose it might be possible, through a strenuous application of interpretative acrobatics, to find the distinction between theoretical, practical, and aesthetic judgements lurking somewhere in the crisp and modest argument of Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” But I’m no acrobat and, in any case, tricks like this get old fast.

To summarize: we find in Habermas three different answers to the question “What is Enlightenment?”

  1. Enlightenment is defined by the extension of public discourse, a project that, grounded as it is in the socio-economic relationships of liberal capitalism, is both ideology and more than ideology.
  2. Enlightenment is defined as a quest for Mündigkeit that is expressed in an emancipatory interest that is one of the ways in which the human species reproduces itself.
  3. Enlightenment is a project that involves the differentiation of value spheres according to their own “immanent logic.”

At the time of the planned debate with Foucault, Habermas had competed the move to the third answer, which helps to explain why it would have been natural for him to assume that a conference on Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” would involve a discussion of differing interpretations of the “project of modernity.” I hope that, by now, readers will agree that this assumption is by no means obvious. There are many interesting things about Kant’s essay on the question “What is Enlightenment?” There are also many interesting things to be said about contenting interpretations of the notion of modernity. But, at least without further argument, it may not be safe to assume that these two sets of interesting questions have much to do with each other.

Foucault’s Enlightenments Revisited

michel_foucaultBack in 1994 Tom Wartenberg and I wrote an article that, prior to writing this post, I’d assumed was entitled “Foucault’s Enlightenments: Critique, Revolution, and the Fashioning of the Self.”6 It turns out that the title was “Foucault’s Enlightenment.” Our use of the singular (which I’m inclined to attribute to my not having fully absorbed the implications of what J. G. A. Pocock had been up to) is not the only problem with the essay. Working with what we had available to us at the time, we organized the article around what we regarded as Foucault’s three most important discussions of Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”:

  1. “What is Critique?”, his 1978 lecture to the Sociéte française de philosophie,
  2. “Un cours inédit,” the version of the opening lecture of his 1983 Collège de France course published in Magazine littéraire in May 1984 and translated into English as “What is Revolution,” “The Art of Telling the Truth,” and various other titles.
  3. “What is Enlightenment?”, his 1983 lecture at Berkeley lecture, which was first published in Paul Rabinow’s Foucault Reader.

The three terms in our subtitle were an attempt to capture what we saw as the differing ways in which Foucault approached Kant’s text in these three discussions.

I’d now be inclined to make some adjustments in how we approach these texts. Since the publication (in French in 2008, in English in 2010) of Foucault’s 1983 lectures on The Government of Self and Others we know that both the Magazine littéraire article and the Berkeley lecture have a common origin: the Magazine littéraire article was a reworking of the first hour of the January 5, 1983 lecture while the Berkeley lecture was somewhat more loosely drawn from the discussions of the second hour. As a result, I am less inclined now than I was two decades ago to try to draw too sharp a demarcation between items 2 and 3 on the list above.

Further, by restricting ourselves to Foucault’s analyses of Kant’s essay on the question of enlightenment, Tom and I dodged the issue of how Foucault dealt with “the Enlightenment” in his earlier work. We were content to invoke Habermas’ contrast between Foucault’s use of Kant in Les mots et les choses and his treatment of him in his later discussions and then go on to question Habermas’ interpretation of what was taking place. There are two problems with this: 1) it led some readers to think that we agreed with Habermas’ interpretation and 2) it prevented us from addressing the assumption that, prior to the last decade of his life, Foucault was firmly in the camp of the counter-Enlightenment. My previous posts in this series have done a bit to address the first shortcoming. This one will take a stab at doing something about the second by drawing out some of the implications of my discussion, earlier this summer, of Foucault’s review of Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment.

We might want to see Foucault’s stance towards the Enlightenment as falling into three stages:7

  1. Prior to his various discussions of Kant’s essay on the question “What is Enlightenment?”, the Enlightenment, to the extent that it appears in Foucault’s work at all, tended to be denoted (as Graeme Garrard has pointed out) by such circumlocutions as “l’âge classique” and, much less frequently, “l’âge des Lumières.”8 The latter, of course, is the closest thing the French have to “the Enlightenment,” the term that we Anglophones constructed on the foundation provided by the German die Aufklärung. But, as John Lough noted, the French term avoids reducing all the “lights” of that shined during the eighteenth century to a single one.9 In contrast, “l’âge classique” is largely Foucault’s own creation and its boundaries, as G. S. Rousseau noted, tend to be rather flexible.10
  2. The 1978 lecture to the Sociéte française de philosophie provides one of the earliest discussions of how Foucault understands what Kant understood as Aufklärung — a term that, as I noted in the “marginal note” that preceded this post, Foucault left untranslated. Here, enlightenment is defined as the acquisition of what Foucault characterizes as the “critical attitude,” “the art of voluntary inservitude,” or a desire “not to be governed” in particular ways.
  3. Finally, 1983 Collège de France lectures traced the origins of this attitude back into Greek antiquity, briefly drawing connections Kant’s discussion and the Greek notion of parrēsia.11 There are some minor modifications of this account in the reworking of the lectures that would appear in Magazine littéraire and in the Foucault Reader.

I’m much less confident about this way of carving up Foucault’s discussions of the Enlightenment than I am with my discussion of Habermas (I’d welcome suggestions for refining it) — among other things, the distinction between the second and third stances may amount to very little. But it can serve as a basis for posing some questions and drawing some contrast.

Is there an “Enlightenment Episteme”?

The first question has to do with what I have characterized as the first of Foucault’s stances towards the Enlightenment. The temptation to play Foucault’s account of l’âge classique off against the conception of enlightenment at work in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is almost irresistible. I know that I have not able to resist the temptation: in various courses I have juxtaposed Habermas’ vision of the eighteenth century to Foucault’s. In the former, we meet the heroic bourgeoisie, moving out into the light of the public sphere, fighting the first battles in a struggle that continues into the present. In the latter, we have the Great Confinement, the rounding up and incarceration of troublesome individuals, a project that reaches its apex in the Panopticon, which perfected the trick of using light to bind individuals ever more securely than any previous technology. The juxtaposition is arresting, effective, and seriously misleading.

One of the problems is that, because it presents Habermas as defending a notion of enlightenment that is recognizably Kantian, it tends to cast Foucault in the role of a latter-day “counter-enlightenment” critic of Kant (e.g., a sort of follicly challenged Hamann). But it is clear that Foucault saw his own work as owing much to Kant. The biographical note on “Michel Foucault” that Foucault, writing under the nom de plume “Maurice Florence” produced for the Dictionnarie des philosophes begins (in italics):

To the extent that Foucault fits into the philosophical tradition, it is the critical tradition of Kant, and his project could be called a Critical History of Thought12


There is, of course, a great deal of hedging here (note the two conditionals — “to the extent that” and “could be called”), but now that Foucault’s secondary thesis has finally been freed from the confines of the Bilbliothèque de las Sorbonne, it has become clearer that much of the discussion of Kant in Les mots et les choses was already present, in this peculiar text, at the very start of Foucault’s career. And, as Amy Allen has noted, it must count for something that Foucault saw Kant as having exposed the fault lines that defined modern thought.13

Much, however, still remains unclear about what we are to make of Foucault’s stance towards the Enlightenment in those works that can all too easily be read as “post-modernist” or “post-structuralist” critique of “the Enlightenment Project” (a phrase that, like “the Counter-Enlightenment” has proven remarkably effective at fostering misunderstandings). Among the more pressing questions (at least for me) is what we are to make of Foucault’s invocation, near the close of Les mots et les choses of something called the “modern episteme.” The passage is worth quoting at length.

For the entire modern episteme — that which was formed towards the end of the eighteenth century and still serves as the positive ground of our knowledge, that which constituted man’s particular mode of being and the possibility of knowing him empirically — that entire episteme was bound up with the disappearance of Discourse and its featureless reign, with the shift of language towards objectivity, and with its reappearance in multiple form. If this same language is now emerging with greater and greater insistence in a unity that we ought to think but cannot as yet do so, is this not the sign the whole of this configuration is now about to topple, and that man is in the process of perishing as the being of language continues to shine ever brighter upon our horizon? And if that were true, would it not be an error — a profound error, since it could hide from us what should now be thought — to interpret our actual experience as an applications of the forms of language to the human order? Ought we not to admit that, since language is here once more, man will return to that serene non-existence in which he was formerly maintained by the imperious unity of Discourse? Man had been a figure occurring between two modes of language; or, rather, he was constituted only when language, having been situated within representation and, as it were, dissolved in it, freed itself from that situation at the cost of its own fragmentation: man composed his own figure in the interstices of that fragmented language (The Order of Things 385-386).

After another sentence we are on to the breathless conclusion, with its infamous images of the washing away of man “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

The passage I’ve quoted contains almost everything that those allergic to Foucault dislike about him: statements framed as questions, conjectures couched as conditionals, the stutter-step of an assertion that is immediately reformulated differently (couldn’t Foucault have simply crossed out “Man had been a figure occurring between two modes of language” instead of continuing “or, rather” and simply say what he should have said in the first place?). My problem is more specific: what does it mean to talk about a “modern episteme“?

In an article that tried to make sense of why Germans had such problems understanding what Foucault was doing, Robert C. Holub observed,

As most attentive readers of Foucault already know, “episteme” enjoyed a rather brief period of favor in Foucault’s arsenal of concepts. Absent in his earliest works, it emerged as a central term for describing certain discursive regularities in The Order of Things (1966). Three years later, in the Archaeology of Knowledge, it already plays a minimal role.14

In support of this claim, he notes Foucault’s own emphasis, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, that

The relations that I have described are valid in order to define a particular configuration: they are not signs to describe the face of a culture in its totality. It is the friends of Weltanschauung who will be disappointed; I insist that the description that I have undertaken is quite different from theirs.15

This would clearly rule out reading the invocation of “the modern episteme” we find at the close of the Les mots et les choses as an attempt at describing “the face of a culture in its totality.” The “modern episteme” would have to refer to a particular corpus of sciences and (presumably) the various practices and institutions that are associated with them. What are the implications of this for our ability to talk about an episteme that governed “l’âge classique“? Or, for that matter, to speak of an “Enlightenment episteme”?

Here is where Foucault’s review of Ernst Cassirer’s Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, which I discussed in an earlier post, enters the picture. Let me summarize the relevant points of that discussion. What Foucault found significant about Cassirer’s study was that it avoided treating l’âge des Lumières as the sort of entity that could be seen as having a “consciousness.” This made Die Philosophie der Aufklärung the great corrective to Paul Hazard CriseHazard’s La Crise de la conscience européenne. It broke with the (in Foucault’s view, French) habit of assuming that “an ‘age’ (siècle) has, like everything else, consciousness, opinions, anxieties, aspirations ….” Instead, Cassirer 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 what Foucault described (in terms that echo the language of the Archaeology of Knowledge) “an inextricable web of discourse and thought, of concepts and words, of énoncés and affirmations,” that he 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 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 other words, Foucault would appear to suggesting that what Cassirer (the “neo-Kantian”) was doing was similar to what Foucault himself was attempting to do, provided we note that the “culture” in questions is not “the eighteenth century” as a whole, but rather that more specific mode of thought that — in one way or another — we associate with “the Enlightenment.”

There may well be serious problems about the approach that Foucault is proposing, but we should be clear where they are. They center not on whether Foucault thinks that “the Enlightenment” was a bad thing (in contrast, for instance, to Cassirer, who — of course — thought the Enlightenment was a very good thing) but instead have to do with the problem of whether an approach such as the one that Foucault sees Cassirer as taking errs in treating “the Enlightenment” as one thing, which is presented — as Cassirer put it in the Preface to his study — “in the light of the unity of its conceptual origin and of its underlying principle, rather than … the totality of its historical manifestations and results” (The Philosophy of the Enlightenment v). If the analogy that I am proposing holds up (which, of course, it might not), Foucault would associate the forms of thought that define “the Enlightenment” with its “episteme.” Both approaches will be forced to employ selection criteria that dispense with certain “minor” thinkers and privilege more significant ones (Foucault, it would seem, is less guilty of this than Cassirer), that decide who is (and who is not) a proper representative of “the Enlightenment” (e.g., Kant is in, Herder, Jacobi, and Hamann are out), and that, in the end, tend to define “the Enlightenment” as a corpus of philosophical texts, as opposed to a set of practices and institutions (once again, Foucault is much less guilty of this than Cassirer). In short, the interesting objections to Foucault’s studies of madness, medicine, the human sciences, etc. would be much like the objections that have long been made about Cassirer’s approach: they turn on whether he got the Enlightenment right, rather than whether he was its friend or its enemy.

Diverging Paths (or, Which Kant? What Enlightenment?)

KantBMKant’s role in what I’ve characterized as Foucault’s second and third accounts of the Enlightenment is much clearer, if only because we are doing with texts that are more focused on Kant’s own discussion of the Enlightenment. What is striking here is the way in which Foucault would appear to be moving in the opposite direction from Habermas in his sense of which of Kant’s works were most relevant. The 1978 lecture to the Sociéte française de philosophie was careful not to draw too sharp a contrast between “Kant’s analysis of the Aufklärung and his critical project.”16 This is hardly surprising: after all, Foucault began the lecture with a discussion of the question “What is Critique?” and, only at the close, confessed that he had would have liked, but dared not, give it the title “Was is the Aufklärung?” (67). In contrast, the discussions from 1983 presented themselves, without apology, as attempts take up the question that Kant was attempting to answer.

In the 1978 lecture Foucault began by noting three “historical anchoring points” from which the emergence of a “critical attitude” proceeded: (1) in opposition to attempts a governance in the domain of religion, (2) in opposition to the claims of “a monarch, a magistrate, an educator, or a pater familias”, and (3) in opposition to the idea that truth is determined by what an authority stipulates as true. Summarizing rapidly, he explained:

The Bible, jurisprudence, science, writing, nature, the relationship to oneself; the sovereign, the law, the authority of dogmatism. One sees how the interplay of governmentalization and critique has brought about phenomena that are, I believe, of capital importance in the history of Western culture whether in the development of philological sciences, philosophical thought, legal analysis or methodological reflections. However, above all, one sees that the core of critique is basically made of the bundle of relationships that are tied to one another, or one and two others, power, truth, and the subject (47).

At this point, Kant enters the orbit of Foucault’s account, and he notes that “it is characteristic that” Kant’s article on enlightenment “precisely gives religion, law, and knowledge as examples of maintaining humanity in a minority condition.” This claim would seem to be an uneasy mashup of Kant’s invocation of the clergyman, the doctor, and the book at the start of the essay (which gives us religion, medical authority, and textual authority — but not law) and the essay’s later discussion of the soldier, the taxpayer, and the clergyman (which gives us law and religion, but not “knowledge”).

From here, Foucault went on to trace the history of the question Kant was attempting to answer across the nineteenth century, suggesting that the discussion took different forms in France (where it would inform work in the philosophy of science) and Germany (where its political and social ramifications moved to the fore). It is hard not see this as, at least in part, a reflection on Foucault’s own intellectual trajectory: for what was his exploration of governmentality if not the consummation of a move from questions that had been the concern of the tradition represented by Bachelard and Canguilhem to those that stood at the center of the tradition represented by Weber, Horkheimer, and Adorno?

In the 1983 discussions the focus lies squarely on Kant’s essay, save for the brief baudelairediscussion of Baudelaire in the Berkeley lecture — a discussion that (perhaps significantly) was not in the second hour of the January 5 lecture, which otherwise served as a sort of initial draft. It is likely that Baudelaire’s presence in the Berkeley lecture had something to do with his presence in the lectures that Habermas gave at the Collège de France immediately after Foucault had completed his.17 And it also may have had something to do with Foucault’s interest in connecting Kant’s discussion of Aufklärung to the question of “modernity,” a concept that Foucault purported, in his 1983 interview with Gérard Raulet, to find rather puzzling.

I’ve never clearly understood what was meant in France by the word “modernity.” In the case of Baudelaire, yes, but thereafter I think the sense begins to get lost. I do not know what Germans mean by modernity. The Americans were planning a kind of seminar with Habermas and myself. Habermas had suggested the theme of modernity for the seminar. I feel troubled here because I do not grasp clearly what that might mean, though the word itself is unimportant; we can always use any arbitrary label. But neither do I grasp the kind of problems intended by this term – or how they would be common to people thought of as being “postmodern.” While I see clearly that behind what was known as structuralism, there was a certain problem – broadly speaking, that of the subject and the recasting of the subject – I do not understand what kind of problem is common to the people we call postmodern or poststructuralist. 18

Faced with the prospect of a seminar on a concept — “modernity” — that struck him as, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, failed to isolate any problem worth discussing, Foucault would seem to have focused on the one moment in Habermas’ lectures at the Collège de France that dealt with a discussion of modernity that made sense to him: Baudelaire’s. And, having characterized “modernity” as an “attitude,” Foucault went on to draw an analogy to the Greek notion of ethos, which allowed him to incorporate the discussion of Kant’s essay on enlightenment from the second hour of Foucault’s own Collège de France into the lecture he presented at Berkeley in the autumn of 1983 and which would appear (as it turned out, posthumously) in The Foucault Reader. It was in this way that Foucault seems to have attempted to frame his discussion of the Kant essay (and essay that he had long viewed, as he wryly put it at the start of his 1983 Collège de France lectures, as “something of a blazon, a fetish”) in a way that would facilitate the discussion of “modernity” that he assumed would be the principal issue in the conference with Habermas that would be held the following fall. But I wonder if that gesture, however collegial, hasn’t done a disservice to Foucault’s own treatment of the question that he, following in Kant’s footsteps, was attempting to answer.

Once the question of enlightenment becomes a question about “modernity” we are already far down the path that forces us to see both “the Enlightenment” and “Modernity” as projects that, somehow or other, define a particular epoch. For Habermas, the Enightenment Project is the Project of Modernity and it is defined along the lines of Kant’s three critiques. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity traced what he saw as the vicissitudes of that project and of Foucault’s place in it. This discussion, inevitably, would go on to frame later considerations of the Debate that Never Was. But, if we excise Foucault’s discussion of Baudelaire from his Kant lecture, the question of “modernity” fades into the background and the focus returns to Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” And once we make that adjustment, the Kant who begins to matter is not the author of the three critiques — the Kant who looms so large in Habermas’ discussion — but, instead, the Kant who, at a time when the full implications of his critical philosophy had yet to be worked out, wrote an article in response to the question “Was is Aufklärung?”

My final post in this series will discuss how Foucault understood that Kant.

  1. Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (University Of Chicago Press, 2010) 117.
  2. I’ve discussed the planned sequel in my article “Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment,Social Research 65:4 (Winter 1998) 807-838.
  3. Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans; Jeremy Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971 ) 314 (translation modified).
  4. In the interest of keeping the focus on the German terms Habermas is using, I’ve had to make some minor modifications in the passages I’m quoting from Theory and Practice.
  5. Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project” 45
  6. James Schmidt and Thomas E. Wartenberg, “Foucault’s Enlightenment: Critique, Revolution, and the Fashioning of the Self,” in Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate, ed. Michael Kelly (Cambridge : MIT Press, 1994), 283–314.
  7. I should note that I’d prefer not have wound up carving Habermas and Foucault’s positions into three parts, but I’m not inventive enough to find a way of escaping Hegel … or is it the Trinity?
  8. Graeme Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) 96.
  9. John Lough, “Reflections on Enlightenment and Lumières,” British Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies 8: 1–15.
  10. G. S. Rousseau, “Whose Enlightenment? Not Man’s: The Case of Michel Foucault,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 238–256.
  11. I’ve touched on this connection in my article, “Misunderstanding the Question `What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 (2011): 43–52. There’s an open source version here.
  12. Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (The New Press, 1998) 459.
  13. Amy Allen, “Foucault and Enlightenment: A Critical Reappraisal,” Constellations 10:2 (2003): 180–198.
  14. Robert C. Holub, “Remembering Foucault,” The German Quarterly 58,:2 (1985) 243.
  15. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge., (New York, Pantheon Books, 1972) 159.
  16. Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter (New York: Semiotexte, 1997) 49.
  17. My argument assumes that the discussion of Baudelaire in Philosophical Discourse of Modernity pp. 8-10 was already present when Habermas gave the lectures in Paris. This would be worth confirming.
  18. Foucault, “Structuralism and Post-Structuralism” (1983 interview with Gérard Raulet), in Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (The New Press, 1998). 448.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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3 Responses to Foucault and Habermas on Kant, Modernity, and Enlightenment (The Debate that Never Was, Part IV)

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

  2. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

  3. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Another interesting post from James Schmidt on Foucault, Habermas and Kant.

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