A Blazon and a Fetish: Foucault, Habermas and the Debate that Never Was (Conclusion)

Michel Foucault began the first of his 1983 lectures on The Government of Self and Others with a few comments on the peculiar challenges of lecturing to a public with whom — given the nature of the Collège de France — he could have little direct contact, went on to offer a concise (and elegant) review of the line of research he had been pursuing, and closed with a few comments on the text he had chosen as his point of departure:

This week I would like to start with, how to put it, not exactly an excursus: a little epigraph (exergue). As epigraph, I would like to study a text which may not be situated exactly within the reference points I will choose for most of this year. Nevertheless, it appears to me to be very exactly in line with, and to formulate in rigorous terms, one of the important problems that I would like to talk about, which is precisely this relationship between the government of self and the government of others. And, on the other hand, it seems to me that it not only talks about this subject itself, but it does so in a way with which — without too much (or rather) with a little vanity — I can associate myself. It is a text which is something of a blazon, a fetish for me, which I have I already spoken about several times, and which I would like to examine a bit more closely today. This text, if you like, bears some relation to what I am talking about, and I would really like the way in which I talk about it to have some connection with it. The text is, of course, Kant’s Was ist Aufklärung?1

Of course? Well, yes, I suppose: by 1983, Foucault had already made a number of passing references to Kant’s answer to Zöllner’s question and, five years earlier, had delivered his lecture on the question “What is Critique?” to the Société française de philosophie. But if, at this point, it would be hardly surprising for Foucault to allude to Kant’s article, the presence of it at the start of a series of lectures on Greek texts on parrēsia — “frank speech,” for lack of a better translation — might seem a bit strange.

I’d like to close this series of posts on the so-called Foucault/Habermas Debate by trying to make sense of what Foucault found significant in Kant’s peculiar little article. I hope it’s clear by now that much of the literature on this “debate” — a debate that never was — has tended to be barking up the wrong tree: as I’ve noted in earlier posts, it has become increasingly apparent that the tendency to approach the debate from the standpoint of the critique of Foucault in Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse of Modernity does little to clarify what Foucault seems to have found significant in Kant’s essay. And it bears emphasizing that, as I’ve also noted in previous posts, Habermas himself recognized this. As he explained in the eulogy he wrote shortly after Foucault’s death, he’d assumed that Foucault’s invitation to join him in a discussion of Kant’s essay would be an opportunity to “debate various interpretations of modernity, using as a basis for discussion a text that in a certain sense initiated the philosophical discourse of modernity.” But, upon reading the version of Foucault’s discussion of Kant from his 1983 lectures that was published in Magazine littéraire, he came to realize that “this was not exactly Foucault’s intention.”2

So, what was Foucault’s intention? If, unlike Habermas, Foucault did not see Kant’s essay as having “initiated the philosophical discourse of modernity,” what did he think it was doing and why did this matter to him?

Identifying Friends

One place to start is with his off-hand, perhaps ironic, and somewhat self-effacing confession that he had come to treat Kant’s text as “something of a blazon, a fetish.” Foucault was not the only person to use Kant’s text as a fetish: its opening paragraph has been carefully situated at the entry way of countless studies of the Enlightenment, including the one that Foucault reviewed two decades earlier. His discussion of the French translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Die Philosophie der Aufklärung closed by recalling how, at the moment when forces of nationalism were sweeping through Germany, Cassirer went into exile, leaving behind a book that traced the development of a culture that was European, rather than merely German, and showed the role that German thinkers played in creating that culture. For Foucault the peculiar force of the book Cassirer left behind lay in the way it revealed “the calm, irresistible, enveloping force of the theoretical universe” and, in revealing it, “founded the possibility of a new history of thought.” What made Cassirer’s book essential, Foucault concluded, was that it still offered a place from which we “can take our departure.”3 Perhaps there is one fetish that binds together the scattered members of the cosmopolitan Freemasonry of useless erudition: a belief in the magical power of books.

Foucault had nothing more to say about the fetish character of Kant’s essay, but he did discuss the function of blazons in the second hour of his opening lecture. Working his way through the opening paragraph of Kant’s essay, he noted how the final sentence shifts from a description of what Aufklärung is to an imperative that is directed at the reader.

The discourse is no longer descriptive, but prescriptive. Kant no longer describes what is happening but says: “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding. That is the motto of Enlightenment.” … I said that this is a prescription, but it is a bit more complicated than that. Kant employs the word “Wahlspruch,” which is motto, blazon. The Wahlspruch is actually a maxim, precept, or order given to others and to oneself, but at the same time — and this is what makes the precept of the Wahlspruch a motto, a blazon — it is something by which one identifies oneself and enables one to distinguish oneself from others. The use of a maxim as a precept is therefore at once an order and a distinctive mark (28).

cropped-minervahead3.jpgThis explanation, which was carried over into the lecture he gave at Berkeley later that year, goes to the heart of what Kant may have been doing when he made Horace’s maxim his own. It is unclear whether Foucault was familiar with Franco Venturi’s history of Horace’s phrase prior to Kant’s use of it, but it would have helped to confirm the extent to which it had, by the time Kant used it, already become a blazon.4 For what is the medal struck by the Society of the Friends of Truth, which places Horace’s words above an image of Minerva, if not a blazon? And, in adopting their medal as my Gravatar and placing it on this blog, what am I doing if not deploying a heraldic device that identifies me, and allows me to be recognized by others?

Foucault, of course, lived before the days of Gravatars and blogs, but his repeated invocations of Kant’s essay had much the same effect. Against the widespread perception that he was, in one way or another, an “enemy of the Enlightenment,” it was a way of insisting that he, too, was in fact its friend. It was, after all, in these same essays that he insisted that his work belonged in that line of descent that led, through various pathways, from Kant through Hegel and Nietzsche and onward to the Frankfurt School. That his particular understanding of what enlightenment involved might differ from the way in which others might understand him hardly makes him a part of “the counter-Enlightenment” (assuming, for the moment, that there is such a thing). After all, friends of enlightenment have been disagreeing about what exactly enlightenment is at least since the days when the “Friends of Enlightenment” began discussing the question back in 1783.5

Enlightenment as “Singular Event” or “Permanent Process”

In addition to the (shall we say?) performative aspect of Foucault’s invocation of Kant’s essay, he also had significant points to make about its theoretical implications. In his postscript to Foucault’s lectures on The Government of Self and Others, Frédéric Gros has provided a concise summary of the differences between the way in which Foucault approached Kant’s text in his 1978 lecture to the Société française de philosophie and his treatment of it in the first of his 1983 lectures.

Despite surface repetitions, the difference between the commentaries is nonetheless clear. In 1978 Kant’s text was situated in the perspective of a “critical attitude” that Foucault dates from the beginning of the modern age and in opposition to the requirements of a pastoral governmentality (directing individuals’ conduct by the truth). Posing the question of Enlightenment involved rediscovering the question: how not to be governed in that way? The problem posed was that of a “desubjectification” in the framework of a “politics of truth.” Modernity was then defined as a privileged historical period for studying the subjecting/subjectifying forms of knowledge-power. In 1983 the question of Enlightenment will be thought of as the reinvestment of a requirement of truth-telling, of a courageous speaking the truth that appeared in the Greeks, and as giving rise to a different question: What government of self should be posited as both the foundation and limit of the government of others? The meaning of “modernity” also changes: it becomes a meta-historical attitude of thought itself (378-379).

Gros’ discussion goes a long way towards clarifying the differences between Foucault’s 1978 account of Kant’s essay — which would be echoed the next year at the start of his Tanner lectures6 — and his 1983 discussion. But, not surprisingly, the differences may not be quite as sharp as Gros suggests, especially if we, unlike Gros, focus on those “surface repetitions.” The difficulties (again not surprisingly) have to do with the relationship between “enlightenment”, “the Enlightenment,” and “modernity.”

As Gros notes, in the 1978 lecture and, more generally, in the account of “governmentality” in which it is situated, one way of understanding what was distinctive about “modern states” was that they rested on a “demonic” combination of two different conceptions of governance.

We can say that Christian pastorship has introduced a game that neither the Greeks nor the Hebrews imagined. A strange game whose elements are life, death, truth, obedience, individuals, self-identity; a game which seems to have nothing to do with the game of the city surviving through the sacrifice of the citizens. Our societies proved to be really demonic since they happened to combine those two games – the city-citizen game and the shepherd-flock game – what we call the modern state (Omnes et Singulatim 239)

In the Tanner lectures, Foucault opted not to engage in the “sterile” exercise of “trying reason,” arguing that such attempts presupposed a juxtaposition of “reason” and “non-reason” that he characterized as “senseless” (presumably because the framing of this distinction already decides the outcome of the “trial”) and because it “would trap us into playing the arbitrary and boring part of either the rationalist or the irrationalist” (226). Likewise, he rejected the idea of conducting an inquiry into “this kind of rationalism which seems to be specific to our modern culture and which originates in Enlightenment” — a line of inquiry he associated with the Frankfurt School — arguing that

Even if the Enlightenment has been a very important phase in our history, and in the development of political technology, I think we have to refer to much more remote processes (226).

It is not entirely clear how we can reconcile what he has to say about the Enlightenment in the Tanner lectures with his treatment of Kant’s essay the year before. In the lecture to the Société française de philosophie, “enlightenment” was presented as Kant’s way of summing up various attempts not to be governed (e.g., biblical criticism, natural law theories, critiques of dogmatism or ecclesiastical forms of rule, etc.). A year later, “the Enlightenment” was viewed as having played an “important role” in developing the “political technology” that would be the offspring of the “demonic” combination of the “shepherd-sheep game” with the “citizen-state game.” This ambivalence may have been intentional: as he argued in Discipline and Punish, “The ‘Enlightenment,’ which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciples.”7 But (at the risk of belaboring my particular hobby-horse) it also may have something to do with the tension between the particular period we call “the Enlightenment” and “enlightenment,” a name for a process that is not necessarily confined to “the Enlightenment” or to those thinkers we now associate with it.

This confusion surfaces with particular force at the one place in Foucault’s late discussions of  Kant’s essay that strikes me as most clearly misguided. In the first hour of his January 5, 1983 lecture, Foucault observes,

an interesting line to pursue in the study of the eighteenth century in general, but more precisely of what is called the Aufklärung, would seem to me to be the fact that the Aufklärung names itself the Aufklärung. That is to say we are dealing with an undoubtedly very singular cultural process which very quickly became aware of itself in a certain fashion, by naming itself and situating itself in relation to its past, future, and present, by giving the name of Aufklärung to the process, or rather to the operations that this movement itself must effectuate within its own present. After all, is not the Aufklärung the first epoch to name itself and which, instead of simply following the old custom or tradition of describing itself as a period of decadence, prosperity, or splendor, etcetera, gives itself the name of a particular event, the Aufklärung, which arises from a general history of thought, reason, and knowledge, and within which precisely the Aufklärung has its role to play? The Aufklärung is a period, it is a period which designates itself, formulates its own motto, its own precept, and says what it has to do, as much in relation to the general history of thought, reason, and knowledge as in relation to its own present and to the bodies and forms of knowledge, ignorance, illusion, and institutions, etcetera in which it can recognize its historical situation. Aufklärung is a name, a precept, and a motto. And this is precisely what we see in this text “What is Aufklärung?” (14)

What is misguided here is the notion that Kant was attempting to come up with a name — or even a definition — for the period in which he was living. He was answering a question about how to define a process, not how to define a period. Troubled by an article in the Berlinische Monatsschrift that suggested that “enlightened citizens” didn’t need to have clergy officiating a wedding ceremonies, Johann Friedrich Zöllner had written an article that (1) insisted that clergy were needed at weddings and (2) suggested that those who were tossing around the term Aufklärung really ought to define it. What followed were a series of articles trying to explain what the process of enlightenment involved. While Kant did, at the end of the essay, characterize his age as an “age of enlightenment” (as opposed to an “enlightened age”) it is hard to see this as evidence that “the Aufklärung names itself the Aufklärung.” First, like other friends of enlightenment, Kant was quite clear that there were “ages of enlightenment” prior to his and he hoped for even more enlightened ages in the future. The use of the term “die Aufklärung” as a designation for a specific historical period was a product of the nineteenth, rather than the eighteenth century.

Foucault is on much firmer ground when, in the second sentence in the passage quoted above, he notes that the period that we call “the Enlightenment” (and that he preferred to call “the Aufklärung”) had an intense interest in trying to clarify what processes, practices, and institutions might foster the activity that was denoted by the term Aufklärung. But what he failed to note (and as I’ve discussed in several earlier posts) was that there was considerable disagreement over which of these processes, practices, and institutions could properly be described as “enlightened” or, at least, “enlightening.” Hence the battles over the what constituted “true enlightenment” that would rage into the nineteenth century.

Foucault’s confusion on this point matters because it gets in the way of what (at least as I read him) he was trying to do. This becomes clearer if we look at how the discussion from his lectures was carried over into his article in Magazine littéraire. First, more or less word for word (unfortunately, I do not have the French texts with me at the moment to confirm this) we find the dubious claim about the Enlightenment naming itself:

Is 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 misery, 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? (The Politics of Truth 86-87)

And then, towards the close of the article, a somewhat more subtle formulation, taken from the close of the Collège de France lecture:

it very much seems to me that the Aufklärung, both as a singular event inaugurating European modernity and as the permanent process which manifests itself in the history of reason, in the development and the establishment of forms of rationality and techniques, the autonomy and the authority of knowledge, is not for us a mere episode in the history of ideas. It is a philosophical question, inscribed since the 18th century, in our thinking (93).

Much hangs on this tension between the Enlightenment as an “event” marking the beginning of “modernity” and enlightenment as a “permanent process” spanning the history of reason.

Foucault v. Habermas: Closing Arguments

For one thing, it may help us to understand where Habermas and Foucault diverged in their understanding of what was at stake in Kant’s essay. Recall Habermas’ characterization of it in his eulogy for Foucault: for him it was the “text that in a certain sense initiated the philosophical discourse of modernity.” It marks the place where modernity begins. There is much in Foucault’s discussions of Kant that agrees with this way of understanding the essay. The misguided assumption that “the Enlightenment” was the first period to name itself is bound with more general claims that Kant’s focus on what was happening at the moment marked a fundamental reorientation in how philosophy conceives of its task. One of the many reasons for regretting that the planned discussion between Foucault and Habermas never took place was that perhaps their discussion of just what it was that they saw this essay as inaugurating might have led to some interesting disagreements. But, I suppose, it might merely have led to an entrenching of the assumption that the close of the eighteenth century marked a sort of historical rupture, which separates we moderns from whatever it was that came before us.

My reason for putting “merely” in the previous sentence is that it seems to me that Foucault’s last works suggest a rather different way of thinking about the Enlightenment in general and Kant’s essay in particular. There is a striking moment in Foucault’s interview with Gérard Raulet when, in response to a question about the relationship between “modernity” and “post-modernity”, Foucault observed,

Here, I think, we are touching on one of the forms — perhaps we should call them habits — one of the most harmful habits in contemporary thought, in modern thought even; at any rate, in post-Hegelian thought: the analysis of the present as being precisely, in history, a present of rupture, or of high point, or of completion or of a returning dawn, etc. The solemnity with which everyone who engages in philosophical discourse reflects on his own time strikes me as a flaw. I can say so all the more firmly since it is something I have done myself; and since, in someone like Nietzsche, we find this incessantly – or, at least, insistently enough. I think we should have the modesty to say to ourselves that, on the one hand, the time we live in is not the unique or fundamental or irruptive point in history where everything is completed and begun again. We must also have the modesty to say, on the other hand, that – even without the solemnity – the time we live in is very interesting; it needs to be analyzed and broken down, and that we would do well to ask ourselves, “What is today?” I wonder if one of the great roles of philosophical thought since the Kantian ”Was ist Aufklärung?” might not be characterized by saying that the task of philosophy is to describe the nature of the present, and of “ourselves in the present.” With the proviso that we do not allow ourselves the facile, rather theatrical declaration that this moment in which we exist is one of total perdition, is the abyss or darkness, or a triumphant daybreak, etc. It is a time like any other, or rather, a time which is never quite like any other.8

While there are claims here that are worth questioning (aren’t there always?) this way of thinking about what Kant was doing helps clarify why Foucault might have wanted to open a series of lecture on ancient Greek philosophy with a discussion of an essay from the close of the eighteenth century. Once he realized that Kant was not trying to define a “singular event” but, instead, was making an intervention in a process that had a rather long history, it might have struck Foucault that it made sense to explore the ways in which the questions he was attempting to answer have a history that stretches back into Greek antiquity.

Max Horkheimer once observed that the process of enlightenment began with the first human thought — which suggests that every age is, and isn’t, an “age of enlightenment.” It may be useful to argue about the proportions of each and to consider what might be done to make ours more enlightened than it seems to be, but there would seem to be nothing gained by postulating fundamental breaks. Quoting Hegel, Horkheimer characterized enlightenment as “irresistible.” I’m inclined to call it “persistent.”




  1. 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) 6-7.
  2. 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), 149–150.
  3. Une histoire restée muette, La Quinzaine littéraire, n° 8, 1er-15 juillet, 1966, pp. 3-4.
  4. See Venturi’s discussions in Europe Des Lumières. Recherches Sur Le 18e Siècle, Civilisations et Sociétés 23 (Paris: Mouton, 1971) and, more briefly, at the start of Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment (Cambridge \[Eng.]: University Press, 1971).
  5. Any confusion this sentence might cause can be clearer up by having a look at the first few essays translated in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  6. 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), 223–254
  7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) 222. This sentence deserves a good deal more attention than I am able to give it right now.
  8. 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). 449.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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5 Responses to A Blazon and a Fetish: Foucault, Habermas and the Debate that Never Was (Conclusion)

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

  2. Mark Lindner says:

    Thank you so very much for this extremely interesting series. I was unable to follow everything–primarily due to my own lack of (or little, as it may be) exposure to Foucault, Horkheimer and a few other the other parties brought in to the conversation–but I also learned a great deal.

  3. Robert Callahan says:

    That Kant intended to discuss a perceived process rather than a period in which people indeed took themselves to be building a practice valuing that process of thinking and and way of describing the world it remains the case that Kant discusses a name for both – one that he felt it important to clarify precisely by way of the kind of process he found, along with many others across the span of time that was then and is now described by reference to the privileging of reason, science, rationality, law, and other aspects of what we and they sometimes call “enlightenment”. Foucault does not miss any nuance of Kant’s intent here (and it is not clear what “mistake” would be made were he to have ignored Kant’s intent – he reads a text in this lecture to discuss ideas in a broad context) so much as he rereads the concepts at hand in historicized terms and in the light, as one says, of much work that has been done since.

    This too-quick attribution of a misreading to Foucault comes, oddly, after patient work throughout. It reads a bit like someone looking for something on which to draw the work to an ending. As I must do myself here. Thanks for the read.

    • Thanks for the comment, which deserves a more considered response than I can give at the moment.

      What I characterized as Foucault’s “mistake” was his repeating of the old saw “the Enlightenment named itself Enlightenment,” which, at one point, was regularly invoked in general histories of the period, but which most of us who work on the eighteenth century have outgrown. Suffice it to say that, by now, there is a rather heavy burden on anyone who wants to claim that what we call “the Enlightenment” thought of itself in more or less the same way as we think of the period (assuming, for the moment, that “we” all share a single conception of the period) and I doubt we do) and possessed a name (e.g., “die Aufklärung”) that it used to designate itself.

      It’s a small mistake and (unless I’m missing something) not much else in his discussion of Kant hangs on it.

      I’ve had more to say about his in my piece a couple of years ago in History of European Ideas on “Misunderstanding the Question ‘What is Enlightenment?'”.

  4. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    The last of the series of excellent posts on Foucault, Habermas and the Enlightenment.

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