Foucault, the “History of Thought,” and the Question of Enlightenment

My previous post examined how, during the last eighteen months of his life, Foucault repeatedly drew a distinction between the “history of thought” in which he was engaged and more conventional (though, in his view, “entirely legitimate“) approaches employed within the “history of ideas.” This distinction was related to his emphasis on what he called “problematization”: the process by which “a group of obstacles and difficulties” come to be seen as problems that prompt a range of possible responses. As he explained to Paul Rabinow in one of his final interviews,

The work of philosophical and historical reflection is put back into the field of the work of thought only on condition that one clearly grasps problematization not as an arrangement of representations but as a work of thought.1

This post will attempt to draw out some of the implications of Foucault’s distinction by exploring his discussions of a text that has been significant both for work in “history of ideas” and for Foucault’s discussion of the “history of thought”: Immanuel Kant’s 1784 answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”

Enlightenment as Concept and Context

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a long-standing tendency —both among historians of ideas and others — to use Kant’s essay to clarify the aims of the historical period that we call “the Enlightenment.”2 This tendency has been aided and abetted by Kant’s having closed his attempt to answer the question posed by Johann Friedrich Zöllner in the Berlinische Monatsschrift by asking and answering a question about the attributes of his age:

If it is asked: “Do we now live in an enlightened age?” the answer is: “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”

While it is understandable that readers might be tempted to understand Kant’s phrase “Zeitalter der Aufklärung” as referring to what we have learned to call “the Age of the Enlightenment,” it is important (or so I’ve argued) to recognize that Kant and his contemporaries understood “enlightenment” as an activity or process in which one was engaged rather than a period to which one belonged. While they might — at their most optimistic — have argued that theirs was an age that was notable in its vigorous pursuit of this process, they were clear that there had been ages of enlightenment prior to theirs. It also bears remembering that, in the various discussions that led up to the posing of Zöllner’s question, there had been an extended discussion within the Wednesday Society (a secret society of “friends of enlightenment” whose members included, in addition to Zöllner and Moses Mendelssohn, the editors of the Berlinische Monatsschrift) of why, despite the concerted efforts of various enlighteners, enlightenment had made so little progress in Prussia.3

“Enlightenment” occupies a prominent, albeit somewhat peculiar, place in the history of ideas. For the most part, it tends to be used here in much the same way as it is used elsewhere: as a term that refers to a particular historical period. In that sense it functions less as a concept whose history is traced than as a historical context in which certain other ideas (e.g., “progress,” “death”, or “religion”) occur.4 It is, however, a context of a rather peculiar sort. In some cases, it serves simply a way of setting temporal boundaries and, in that usage, is roughly equivalent to “the eighteenth century” or the “long eighteenth century.” But since the eighteenth century (in either its regular or elongated forms) contained much that was not particularly “enlightened”, the term can also be used to denote a particular, temporally bounded, intellectual context. Understood in that way, historians of ideas have gone on to divide their time between explorations of the history of particular ideas within the broader context of “Enlightenment thought” and offering general discussions of the characteristics that define that peculiar entity known as “the Enlightenment.” The last several decades have also seen a variety of attempts to trace the history of the concepts of “enlightenment” and “the Enlightenment.” Much of what I’ve written might be understood as a contribution to that particular effort.

Foucault’s work has had a wide-ranging, but somewhat ambiguous, relationship to the history of ideas in general and to work on the Enlightenment in particular. The ambiguity can, in part, be attributed to the general skepticism with which an earlier generation of dix-huitiémistes received his work (see, for example, G. S. Rousseau’s dismissive review of the translation of Les Mots et le Choses in Eighteenth-Century Studies5) and to misgivings about what was viewed as Foucault’s general antipathy towards the ideals of the Enlightenment. The field of eighteenth-century studies was, as Leo Damrosch aptly put it, “born defensive” and its practitioners sometimes do not take kindly to critiques of the objects of its affection.6 And, finally, Foucault’s work was sometimes regarded as not sufficiently serious: in 1989, one of the readers’ reports I received when I submitted my article on discussions of the question “What is enlightenment?” to the Journal of the History of Ideas (while generally favorable) wondered whether my citation of Foucault’s discussion of Kant’s response might be too “trendy.”7

Times have changed: at this point references to Foucault’s discussion of Kant are hardly unusual. But while his work has had a pervasive influence on the history of ideas, the contrast he drew between his “history of thought” and conventional approaches in the “history of ideas” remains largely unexplored (at least by historians of ideas). In this post I will explore whether his (no longer trendy) discussion of Kant’s response to the question “What is enlightenment?” might be as good a place as any to attempt to remedy that.

Problematizing the Enlightenment?

In his Berkeley lecture, Foucault argued that Kant’s 1784 essay in the Berlinische Monatsschrift marked

the discreet entrance into the history of thought [emphasis mine] of a question that modern philosophy has not been capable of answering, but that it has never managed to get rid of, either. … From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly. What, then, is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today?8

At the close of the lecture, he went on to suggest that the question Kant was attempting to answer opened up the possibility of a series of “historico-critical investigations” that

are quite specific in the sense that they always bear upon a material, an epoch, a body of determined practices and discourses. And yet, at least at the level of the Western societies from which we derive, they have their generality, in the sense that they have continued to recur up to our time: for example, the problem of the relationship between sanity and insanity, or sickness and health, or crime and the law; the problem of the role of sexual relations; and so on (49).

He stressed that he was neither imputing a “metahistorical continuity” to these problems nor suggesting that it would be necessary to trace all their variations. But he did stress that

What must be grasped is the extent to which what we know of it, the forms of power that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have in it of ourselves constitute nothing but determined historical figures, through a certain form of problematization that defines objects, rules of action, modes of relation to oneself. The study of modes of problematization [emphasis mine] (that is, of what is neither an anthropological constant nor a chronological variation) is thus the way to analyze questions of general import in their historically unique form (49).

When read in the context of Foucault’s 1983 discussions of the aims of his “history of thought” it is clear that he seemed to have seen a particular affinity between Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and his own work. Kant was regarded as making a contribution to the “history of thought” and one of the implications of his work was a concern with “modes of problematization.” In this light, it may be worth recalling that Foucault had begun his 1983 lectures at the Collège de France by confessing that Kant’s essay on enlightenment was “something of a b1azon, a fetish for me” and that it “bears some relation to what I am talking about.”9

But the relationship between this opening invocation of Kant’s essay and the discussion of the “government of self and others” that followed is far from clear. Kant returns briefly in the February 23 lecture, in the context of a discussion of Diogenes and Plato (292). An echo of this discussion returns in his Berkeley lecture when Foucault suggests that Kant was proposing something along the lines of a parrēsic contract to Frederick the Great (i.e., if you let us argue, we promise to obey).10

We can get a somewhat clearer sense of what Foucault seems to have found appealing in his final discussions of Kant’s essay if we contrast Foucault’s 1983 discussions with his 1978 lecture to the Société française de Philosophie “What is Critique?” There, Foucault associated the emergence of what he termed the “critical attitude” with the question of “how not to be governed” — a question that, as he immediately stressed, was not equivalent the demand not to be governed “at all,” but instead had to be understood in the context of efforts to question

How not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of these principles, in view of such objectives and by the means of such methods, not like that, not for that, not by them ….”11

What we find here reads like a preliminary formulation of what he would later characterize as the work of “problematization”: the attempt to govern in a certain way is met with a response that insists on not being governed in that specific way (while leaving open the prospect of other forms of governance).

In a discussion of Foucault 1983 lectures, Frédéric Gros summarized their relationship to the 1978 lecture this way:

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 I 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 12

While Gros does an excellent job of capturing the main differences between the two discussions, I have a few minor reservations about his account.

The first has to do with the question of which of “Kant’s texts” is actually central to this account. Though Foucault somewhat coyly delays invoking the title of Kant’s little essay until the close of his 1978 lecture, for the most part this earlier discussion attempts to work out the parallels between the various contexts in which objections to governance emerge and the concerns of Kant’s three critiques. In contrast, his 1983 discussions of Kant emphasize the difference between Kant’s critical philosophy and more historical focus of Kant’s essay on enlightenment. My second reservation concerns Gros’ characterization of “modernity” as a “meta-historical attitude.” How can we to reconcile this with Foucault’s stress, in his 1983 Berkeley lecture, that the inquiries prompted by Kant’s essay need not be concerned with tracing a “metahistorical continuity over time,” but instead should focus on particular “modes of problematization”? My final question has to do with what, exactly, is supposed to be “problematized” by the question “What is enlightenment?”

For my immediate purposes, this final question is of greater import than the first two reservations, since it may help to clarify the differences between analyses of Kant’s essay that take their bearings from conventional approaches in the history of ideas and the approach of Foucault’s proposed “history of thought.” But we still have one earlier text to talk about in which Foucault distinguished the “history of thought” from the “history of ideas.”

Foucault on Cassirer and Hazard

As I noted in an earlier post, one of Foucault’s more interesting discussions of the Enlightenment has been routinely ignored: his 1966 review of the French translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung. Contrasting Cassirer’s approach to Paul Hazard’s Crise de la conscience européenne, Foucault argues that Hazard tended to assume that “an ‘age’ (siècle) has, like everything else, consciousness, opinions, anxieties, aspirations ….” Cassirer, in contrast, dispensed with the discussion of individual motivations, biographical accidents, and minor thinkers and also avoided the analysis of economic and social determinants. Instead, he concentrated on the “inextricable web of discourse and thought, of concepts and words, of énoncés and affirmations,” which he proceeded to analyze “in its own configuration.” The result, Foucault argued, was a study that explored an “autonomous universe of ‘discours-pensée‘” that “isolates from all other histories the autonomous space of ‘the theoretical’.”

My earlier discussion had been content to note the parallel between Foucault’s description of what he saw Cassirer as doing and his own procedure in the Archaeology of Knowledge, but overlooked a few lines near the end, whose significance should now be a good deal clearer. Here Foucault noted that Cassirer’s account was not without its shortcomings: it gave philosophy in general and “reflection” in particular an unwarranted primacy. Foucault went on to argue,

Without a doubt it will be necessary — it will be our task — to free ourselves from these limits which are still disturbingly reminiscent of the traditional history of ideas.

But, reversing course, he ended by praising Cassirer for not limiting the Enlightenment, as had been customary, to England and France and for refusing to “play the game of looking for missing pieces and warning signs for the future.” He argued that, at the very moment when National Socialism were reviving a virulent form of German nationalism, Cassirer revealed “the calm, irresistible, enveloping force of the theoretical universe.” The result was a book that “founded the possibility of a new history of thought[emphasis mine]” — a possibility that Foucault viewed as a point from which “we others can take our departure.”

At the risk of reading too much into what might, after all, simply be a turn of phrase, the appearance, at this early date, of “history of thought” is worth noting, especially since Foucault contrasts it with approaches (both in Hazard and in Cassirer’s weaker moments) that remain tied to the conventions of the history of ideas. And, of courses, it is also significant that this contrast occurs in the context of a study of the Enlightenment.

What is most striking here are the differences between Foucault’s 1966 and his 1983 accounts of the “history of thought”. In 1966 he countered approaches like those of Hazard with an approach that would explore an “autonomous universe of ‘discourse-thought” [discours-pensée].” But in 1983, the aim of the “history of thought” was to explore those moments when individuals

step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and to question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals.13

The contrast becomes a bit clearer if we note that there remains, despite these changes, a continued emphasis on emphasis on the function of “archaeology.”

In my last post, I noted that one of occasions on which Foucault invoked the idea of “history of thought” was a discussion with members of the Berkeley history department. In response to the suggestion that “archaeology” might be seen as emphasizing “discontinuities” while genealogy stressed continuities, he responded:

No: the general theme of my research is the history of thought. How could we make the history of thought? I think that thought cannot be disassociated from discourses and we can’t have any access to thought, either to our own present thought, or our contemporaries’ thought, or of course thought of people of previous periods, but through discourses. And that is the necessity of the archeological consideration. And that has nothing to do with continuity or discontinuity. You can find either continuity or discontinuity in those discourses.

This may help to clarify the differences between the treatment of the “history of thought” in Foucault’s review of Cassirer and the way in which he presented it at the close of his life. What remains constant is the role of discourses, which serve as the sole access we have to “thought.” It is this that renders the consideration of “archeology” necessary. What changes is the emphasis in his later work on the particular ways in which systems of thought become problematic.

Against the tendency to assume that systems of discourse were some inherently “discontinuous”, he stressed the way in which it was possible to trace the emergence, at certain particular sites of contestation, of problems that persist for shorter or longer periods of time. Understood in that way, the “history of thought” might be understood as

the history of the way people begin to take care of something, of the way they became anxious about this or that – for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.14

Would it, perhaps, be possible to add one further term to the list of things that, at particular historical moments, people begin to care about: namely, “enlightenment”?

What Was — and What Still Might Be — Problematic About Enlightenment?

One of the things that initially puzzled me about Foucault’s discussion of Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” was his lack of interest in either the context in which the question arose or the answers that others offered (he mentions Mendelssohn’s response briefly in his Berkeley lecture, but has little to say about it). Granted, he had other concerns and it is possible that, had he been granted more time, he might have had more to say about an essay that clearly mattered a good deal to him. Then again, it may be that my problems with Foucault’s treatment of Kant’s answer are the result of expecting a “historian of thought” to do the sort of work that is normally done by “historians of ideas.”

As a historian of ideas who (I hope) has learned something from Foucault’s “history of thought,” what interests me about the question Kant was answering (and it is worth noting that this not the same thing as being particularly interested in Kant’s answer) was how — in the space of a year — a question about the advisability of clerical participation in marriage ceremonies turned into a wide-ranging discussion of the limits of civil and ecclesiastical power, the relationship of writing and thought, the obligations of citizens to their rulers, and so on. Could we see this, perhaps, as an example of “problematization” with a vengeance?

Foucault’s approach to these matters was, in one sense, quite traditional: he privileged Kant’s response and took little notice of the various lesser thinkers who sought to answer Zöllner’s question. Further, his exclusive focus on Kant’s answer prevented him from seeing that, at the origins of these arguments, there lay a set of concerns that ought to have interested him: the role of ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the administration of marriage, the potentially corrosive effects of discourse on obedience, and (particularly in the case of Mendelssohn’s response) the conflict between different regimes of knowledge. Finally, in his influential little footnote Zöllner had suggested that the question “what is enlightenment?” was “almost as important” as the question “what is truth?” — a suggestion that might have been of considerable interest for a thinker who was skilled in the art of exploring the complex rules that govern games of truth and power.

Foucault, however, regarded Kant’s essay as a “blazon, a sort of fetish,” which may explain why he was reluctant to subject it to the cold, merciless, and endlessly provocative analysis that characterized the best of his work.


  1. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997) 119.
  2. See James Schmidt, “Misunderstanding the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 (2011): 43–52 and “Enlightenment as Concept and Concept,” forthcoming in Journal of the History of Ideas — until publication, a preprint is available at 
  3. I’ve discussed these points at length in my introduction to James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). 
  4. For example, Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason; the Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1948),  John McManners, Death and the Enlightenment : Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon Press ; New York, 1981), and Peter Harrison, “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 
  5. G. S. Rousseau, “Whose Enlightenment? Not Man’s: The Case of Michel Foucault,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 6:2 (1972): 238–56.
  6. This view of Foucault continues to turn up from time to time: for example, see Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (Oxford, 2011) 23-24. 
  7. James Schmidt, “The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:2 (1989): 269–91.
  8. Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 32.
  9. 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.
  10. I’ve discussed this point in “Misunderstanding the Question” 50-51.
  11. Foucault, “What is Critique?” in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 384.
  12. 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) 378-379.
  13. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” 117.
  14. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Semiotext(e), 2001) 74.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Foucault, the “History of Thought,” and the Question of Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 3 | Whewell's Ghost

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