The Enlightenment: An attitude, an epoch, or the maturity of historical agency? In order to defend Foucault’s conception of the Enlightenment this paper addresses the principal criticisms to which Habermas subjected it. By evaluating the validity of these claims I hope to come to an understanding of the force of Foucault’s response to the question: what is Enlightenment? Abstract The French philosopher Michel Foucault produced some of the most influential critiques of modern Western society.
He characterized himself as a historian of “systems of thought” and probed into conceptions of power, politics, normality and subjectivity that all bore undertones relevant to a consideration of the Enlightenment. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, however, embarked on an acerbic evaluation of Foucault’s work for he perceived it to present a neo-conservative challenge to the “uncompleted project of modernity” and a work of “irrationalism” that contested the emancipating gains of the Enlightenment.
Confronted with this broadside, and as part of a refusal to partake in what he called the “intellectual blackmail” of his opponents (313), Foucault decided to respond to the German writer by mounting a counter-attack that would rectify the misinterpretations of his opinions. The result was Foucault’s 1984 essay, What is Enlightenment? This work reveals Foucault’s attempt both to create the program for a historio-critical method based on Kantian thought that could reflect on a number of material practices, and to develop an attitude of modernity that could add a further perspective to debates of the Enlightenment.
Schools of Thought Foucault and Habermas are representatives of two of the most powerful projects within contemporary political philosophy. It seems impossible to discuss modern social theory without referring to them and their discourses that often differ enormously in both content and form. In order to understand the force of Foucault’s conception of the Enlightenment, however, it is necessary to comprehend the principal arguments and critiques of its opponents, in this instance, those of Habermas. Although these philosophers o not write strictly within their particular national traditions, it is essential to have at least a minimal understanding of the German and French philosophical schools in order to picture the ensemble in which they take their positions. In these intellectual spheres we find one topic that seems universal and unavoidable, one that has been contemplated “in various forms for two centuries now”, that is: the Enlightenment (303). This ambiguous and abstract notion had very different destinies in Germany and France.
In Germany it was invested in dialectical philosophy, sociology and reformation and was presented by such names as Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. It also led to German Critical Theory through Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas. Habermas’ position fits with the Hegelian tradition in the sense that it bears an emphasis on totalities, universalities, and harmony. Nonetheless, Habermas butted against the pessimistic philosophy of his teachers to advise fervently against abandoning the project of the Enlightenment before its potential for emancipation could be fulfilled.
For him, the true philosophical discourse of modernity must take a staunchly critical position based on distinct rational norms and values that have their roots solidly grounded in the contemporary project of Enlightenment. Elsewhere, as in France, the Enlightenment spurred the Descartian cogito and rationalist philosophy, positivism, and epistemology, the philosophy that emphasizes notions of prespectivism. Foucault’s work bears the marks of all of these discourses and due to his emphases on phenomenology and semiotic he has been categorized as a post-structuralist.
Was ist Aufklarung? Foucault begins his discussion of the Enlightenment with a reading of Kant’s essay published in 1784 in the Berlinische Monatsschrift as a response to the question: Was ist Aufklarung? (303). The choice of this particular essay signals Foucault’s break with French theory and an inclination toward the German Enlightenment tradition. In addition, Foucault’s attention to Kant indicates a re-examination of his own theory and its position within the larger tensions of French post-structuralism and Habermas’ critical theory.
For Foucault, this is a fundamental question that has been approached from many different perspectives and taken different forms; it marks the entrance “into the history of thought of a question that modern philosophy has not been capable of answering but has never managed to get rid of either” (303). By declaring that “hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly,” Foucault is positing a continuity of thought and also shifting away from the ‘anti-thinkers’ of French post-structuralists (303).
For Foucault, “What is Enlightenment”, is evidently an attempt to work out his relation to the Enlightenment not just as an historical period or philosophical event, but also as a very present and somewhat irritating academic, cultural, and philosophical lineage. Foucault proceeds by asking the question: “What then is this event that is called Aufklirung? ” This is a question of the maturity of historical agency; Foucault asserts that the Enlightenment has partially established “what we are, what we think, and what we do today” (303).
From his perspective, the task of modern philosophy to answer the “imprudently” raised question: Was ist Aufklarung? ” (303). By turning to Moses Mendelssohn’s response to this problem, Foucault considers the publication of the two texts, the German Aufklarung and Jewish Haskala, as a converging point in history, recognizing that they “belong to the same history; they are seeking to identify the common processes from which they stem” (304).
Ignoring the ominous suggestion that Foucault inserts about “the drama that was about to lead,” this point suggests that despite their differences, both authors shared a common intent: to define the project of the Enlightenment and not necessarily to distinguish their particular historical epoch from other ages. Of course, Kant does reference the characteristics of the common age, but this is not the principal concern. Foucault then returns to Kant’s text to highlight the innovation in his response that addressed the question of modernity in an “almost entirely negative way”; as an “exit” (Ausgang) (305).
While previous reflections of the Enlightenment had taken one of three forms: a world era, an event whose signs are perceived, or as the dawning of an accomplishment, Foucault is faithful to Kant’s “way out” (305), characterized as “a phenomenon, an ongoing process… but also…as a task and an obligation” (305). Kant is not seeking a global or causal explanation for the enlightenment. Like a genealogical historian he is concerned with “the question of contemporary reality alone,” and more specifically Kant is concerned with: “What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday? (). For Foucault, the appeal of Kant’s text consists of his attention to “today as a difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task. ” Instead of proceeding with an analysis of Kant’s text as though it were indicative of “what we are today,” however, Foucault problematizes Kant’s answer to the question, actively emphasizing and picking apart “features” of Kant’s work that point to a problematization of the present that does not resemble the Kantian conception.
Rather than thinking of the Enlightenment, as an epoch or period in history which inevitably requires that one assume a “premodernity” and “postmodernity,” and requires that one situate oneself within a given tradition or trajectory, Foucault utilizes the Baudelairean concept of modernity as an “attitude,” characterized in terms of a consciousness of the discontinuity of time, that is, “a mode of relating to contemporary reality”(309).
This approach attempts to extricate the identification of oneself from history in order to rupture any identification of one’s own constitution as dictated by parasitical inventions of contemporary culture or power, language, institutions, or norms. Accordingly, rather than distinguishing the “modern” era from the “premodern” and “postmodern”, Foucault suggests that we envisage the attitude of modernity as one in conflict with attitudes of “countermodernity” (310).
Foucault uses the Baudelairean concept in the hopes of identifying fault lines that characterize the problematic of the Enlightenment’s obsession with doctrinal remedies, and thereby obtaining a “permanent critique of our historical era” (312). It is here that Foucault’s propinquity to the German school becomes most evident, for with this definition of the Enlightenment, Foucault adopts the German conception of Aufklarung, and provides a modern procedure that examines the relation between the Enlightenment as a historical period and as a permanent critique of our contemporary reality in positive and negative terms.
Thus, Foucault directs our attention to the fact that he is seeking a new method of philosophical interrogation for us that will be geared toward the desire of realizing our own critique, consistent with our constitution as autonomous subjects. These new inquiries must be created without dilapidating the question of Aukflarung, the problematization of man’s relation to the present (318). Negatively In Foucault’s appropriation of the question, the critical attitude to modernity is termed a philosophical ethos (312). This ethos implies a refusal to engage in what he calls the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment.
This is a rejection of any notion of Enlightenment which produces the authoritarian logic according to which one must be either “for” or “against” it (313). Foucault extricates himself from this simplistic framework whereby one is categorized as either endorsing the Enlightenment and remaining “within the tradition of its rationalism,” or criticizing it and trying “to escape from its principles of rationality” (313). Rather, Foucault argues that “we must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment” (313).
Here Foucault aims at the “contemporary limits of the necessary” not so that they may be described or articulated, but because they should be critically reconsidered (313). The other negative aspect Foucault raises is the confusion between humanism and Enlightenment that often arises in critique of ourselves. Foucault distinguishes Enlightenment from the conception of humanism that he criticizes as recurring set of themes intrinsically tied to value judgments that no period or movement has managed to live up to- Foucault names Christianity, Marxism, Stalinism and even National Socialism as examples of this claim.
For Foucault “humanism serves to color and to justify the conceptions of man” and it is far too supple and inconsistent a notion to serve any critical purpose. As an alternative, Foucault prefers to see “Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity”(314). This is supported by historical fact, and furthermore it enables one to escape from the “historical and moral confusionism” that accompanies the assimilation of humanism with the question of Enlightenment (315).
By taking this more critical approach to humanism, Foucault aims to subvert the suspect claim of a humanitarian identity that has led to complacency and the betrayal of humanism and the Enlightenment in history. Positively Foucault attaches a “limit attitude” to his practice of critical reflection, he rephrases Kant’s question about the necessary limitations of knowledge in terms of a “possible crossing-over” of these boundaries (315). Such a transgression is possible in a form of historical inquiry that is “genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method” (315 ).
Here, Foucault is returning to the historical methodology developed in his earlier works in order to describe the limitations of the transgression he imagines. Firstly, the investigation “will not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge [connaissance] or of all possible moral action” (315), so this is not a Kantian transcendence. Secondly, it will not be metaphysical in the terms laid out by Kant, for “it will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know” (315).
Foucault’s critical ethos is to give “a new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom” (315). Thus, the critique of modernity is “at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (315). In tow with Habermas’ own perception of the unfinished project, this attitude clearly rejects utopian solutions to the problem of the Enlightenment.
Foucault is advocating a trying approach to test contemporary reality, “to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take” (315). Therefore Foucault offers an answer as to how he can proceed despite his absence of faith in anything, including the Enlightenment. All one needs to know is that some limits are vulnerable, they can be transgressed, so even what appears to be dispensible or indispensible for ourselves as moral, rational, or merely as contemplative beings can change.
This mode of reflection portrays the Enlightenment as the critical ethos of modernity: the reactivation of this crucial attitude. The task of criticism does not adhere to what is given in history as the “kernel of rationality” (313); it cannot stand within the elaboration of normative limits in the context of a historically constructed present. As such, normative judgments, values, and prescriptions do not exist to supplement that which has been critiqued. Foucault is addressing the possibilities of transformation that arise through an examination of the difference between the past and present that are exposed in critique.
This realm of historical ontology must “put itself to the test of reality” (316), as Foucault says this requires a rejection of “all projects that claim to be global or radical” (316). Informed by the errors of history, Foucault rejects all propositions that claim “to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking… another vision of the world,” as these claims have led, in his opinion, “only to the return of the most dangerous traditions” (316).
Nevertheless, Foucault voices his appreciation for the transformations that occurred over his last twenty years in a variety of areas that relate to “our ways of being and thinking, relations to authority, relations between sexes,” and the manner in which insanity or illness are perceived (316). Despite the problems of incarceration and political use of psychiatry in unjust and totalitarian states, Foucault admits to preferring “even these partial transformations” that have occurred, “to the programs for a new man that the worst political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century” (316).
Still, Foucault does not yield any ground as far as the archaeological and genealogical methodologies of his historical studies are concerned. His ontology of man and his historico-critical reflection are grounded in his commitment to their theoretical and practical utility. The Task Returning to Kant’s essay of 1784, Foucault finishes his text with one of many disavowals that characterize his work on the Enlightenment: “ I do not know whether we will ever reach mature adulthood. ” Foucault declares that Enlightenment and its intellectual developments have not yet brought us to this stage.
Foucault credits Kant for the meaning which he brought “to that critical interrogation on the present and ourselves” (319). It is through Kant’s innovative reformulation, which endured a legacy of importance and influence for the last two hundred years, that Foucault was able to derive the legitimacy of his own critical enterprise. As Foucault says: The critical ontology of ourselves must be considered . . . as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them (319).
Foucault does not hesitate to declare his faith in the project of the Enlightenment, concluding with the line, “I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty”( 319). Conclusion Although Habermas acknowledges that Foucault’s reformulation of Kant’s, Was ist Aufklarung? , is connected to his own notions of modernity, it seems that Habermas cannot reconcile Foucault’s previous critique of modernity with his later works on Kant and his appreciation of the problem of the Enlightenment.
It is unfortunate that Habermas finds these works incompatible, for Foucault successfully produced a work that was both true to his fervor for genealogical inquiry and addressed a question that had been central to the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental reason. Furthermore, one could argue that Foucault’s shift in focus from considerations of systems of representation to the critical studies of the implications of such systems, often thought of as a departure from “archaeology” to “genealogy,” moved Foucault from the ‘French’ realm of concerns to those questions that were largely considered to be associated with the ‘German’ side.
Accordingly, with a little latitude one could claim that the two European schools of thought meet at a juncture of interest in Foucault’s text, for both had been concerned with the question that Kant addressed for the first time in 1784, What is Enlightenment? , and both could be seen as continuing the interrogation of reason initiated by Kant.