Foucault’s Kantian critique

In the latest issue of Philosophy & Social Criticism, 34(4), Christina Hendricks provides an important look back at a major influence on Michel Foucault’s historico-critical oeuvre.

In several lectures, interviews and essays from the early 1980s,Michel Foucault startlingly argues that he is engaged in a kindof critical work that is similar to that of Immanuel Kant. GivenFoucault’s criticisms of Kantian and Enlightenment emphaseson universal truths and values, his declaration that his workis Kantian seems paradoxical. I agree with some commentatorswho argue that this is a way for Foucault to publicly acknowledgeto his critics that he is not, as some of them charge, attemptinga total critique of Enlightenment beliefs and values, but isinstead attempting to transform them from within. I argue furtherthat Foucault’s self-professed Kantianism can also productivelybe read as a means of encouraging change in his intellectualaudience, a call to courage to take up the thread of Enlightenmentthought that Foucault finds in Kant’s essay, What is Enlightenment?:that of directing one’s philosophical efforts towards questioningand transforming one’s own present in its historical specificity,for the sake of promoting the values of freedom and autonomytherein. Though much of Kant’s philosophical work is focusedon that which lies outside of history, Foucault locates in someof it a concern for what is happening here and now that, I argue,he encourages his audience to take up for themselves throughtracing his own intellectual lineage to Kant. In so doing, heencourages contemporary philosophers to consider the value andeffects of their work on the present social and political contextsin which they live.

An additional reference that puts the subject of this commentary into its own proper historical context is Foucault’s 1961 doctoral dissertation—an introduction to Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Until recently, this has only been available (in French) at the Foucault Archives and through the University of Paris library. But, despite Foucault’s wish that none of his work would be published posthumously, its translation into English is expected presently. The original translator for the forthcoming Semiotext(e) edition, Arianna Bove, has provided a draft. (And the shocking story of why she is only “the original translator” can be found here.)

See also:

  • Fimiani, M. (1999). Foucault: Rewriting Kant. Philosophical Inquiry, 21(1), 99-120. It is known that the later Foucault rethinks some of Kant’s central notions (such as Kritik) at the light of the problem of an ontology of ourselves. But this is not the only moment in which Foucault ‘rewrites’ Kant. His unpublished Introduction à l’anthropologie de Kant (1961) let see a primeval emergence of the topics which constitute the framework of his later “aesthetic of existence” and of his ethics of “the care of the Self.” A concealed dialogue with just that philosopher indicated by Les mots et les choses as source of our ‘anthropological sleep’ lies under the later developments of Foucault’s thought.

Related Readings

  • Allen, A. (2003). Foucault and Enlightenment: A Critical Reappraisal. Constellations, 10(2), 180-198. Habermas argued that Foucault’s late embrace of the Kantian philosophical project is indicative of a fundamental contradiction in his thought. Contra Habermas, I argue that a careful reading of Foucault’s early work demonstrates that his stance toward Kant was never as rejectionist as has been supposed. Indeed, when Foucault’s later work is viewed from the perspective of his early work on Kant, a striking continuity emerges. This interpretation not only offers a more coherent account of Foucault’s oeuvre, it also reveals his project as a rich, subtle, and defensible alternative to Habermas’s continuation through transformation of the Kantian critical project.
  • Ophir, A. (2001). How to Take Aim at the Heart of the Present and Remain Analytic. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 9(3), 401-415. In his famous lecture on Kant’s essay “An Answer to the Question What Is Enlightenment” Foucault distinguished between two traditions in modern philosophy coming out of Kant’s work: ‘an analytic of truth’ and ‘an ontology of present reality (actualité)’ or ‘a genealogy of ourselves’. The paper presents this distinction as a fruitful displacement of the distinction between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy, which gives the latter precise cultural and philosophical meaning. The paper clarifies the distinction and argues that almost without exception, analytic philosophers are not interested–in their capacity as philosophers–in interpreting and understanding their historical present.
  • Parsons, S. (1988). Foucault and the Problem of Kant. Praxis International, 8, 317-328. In his ‘archaeological’ investigations, Foucault attempts to distance himself from Kant’s ‘age’. To this end, ‘archaeology’ seeks to discover rules governing the existence of statements within specific ‘ages’–constitutive rules. However, When Foucault does account for historical change, We find the same statements can exist within different rules of formation–rules are now regulative. This ambivalence in the status of rules allows for the possibility of archaeology itself through introducing two distinct–and unrelated–temporal series. This leaves Foucault open to criticism from the perspective of Kant, Who acknowledged the problems encountered by Foucault. These problems occur throughout Foucault’s work.
  • Passerin d’Entrèves, M. (1999). Between Nietzsche and Kant: Michel Foucault’s Reading of ‘What is Enlightenment?’ History of Political Thought, 20(2), 337-356. This essay examines Foucault’s stance towards the Enlightenment as formulated in three works he published in the last decade of his life. These works represent a partial modification of Foucault’s attitude to the Enlightenment, rather than the dramatic shift claimed by some commentators. In order to substantiate this claim, the essay provides a reconstruction and critical assessment of three articles Foucault devoted to Kant and the Enlightenment, namely, ‘Qu’est-ce que la critique?‘ (1978), ‘Kant on Enlightenment and Revolution’ (1983), and ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1984). It argues that Foucault’s reformulation of Enlightenment ideals in terms of an ethos of transgression and an aesthetic of self-fashioning is much closer to Nietzsche’s vision of a transvaluation of values than to Kant’s notion of maturity and responsibility.
  • Pryor, B. S. (1998). Counter-Remembering the Enlightenment. Philosophy Today, 42(suppl), 147-159. Foucault’s engagement with the Enlightenment is addressed from two related perspectives. The first concerns how to understand Foucault’s repeated identification with the Enlightenment, and concludes that he remembers the Enlightenment as both formative of his thought and vulnerable to transformations that the Enlightenment, represented by Kant, cannot recognize. The second front treats Foucault’s reading of Kant after Heidegger as emblematic of this counter-remembering of the Enlightenment. Foucault’s identification with the Enlightenment produces “images and discourses that provide alternatives to those that preoccupy us,” and that give us “resources with which to frustrate the ‘blackmailers’ of modernity.”
  • Rivas, V. A. (2005). Kant, Foucault, and the Enlightenment. Philosophia, 34(2), 126-134. Since Immanuel Kant’s celebrated essay “What Is Enlightenment?” raises the problematization of Aukflarung, on the possibility of a historical critique and the transcending of the progressive ideals that the Enlightenment has instigated against the influences of the ancien regime, the idea of the Enlightenment has evolved into an ambivalent framework for progressive and conservative projects that unhinge history from its tenacious balance. Meanwhile, Michael Foucault’s interrogations of the ambivalence of the Enlightenment influence on the work of a historical critique locate this critique within the context of modernity’s exhortation to grand narratives, which is at variance with its identity as a progressive framework for reform. Foucault, therefore, recommends that “we have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers.”
  • Seppä, A. (2004). Foucault, Enlightenment and the Aesthetics of the Self. Contemporary Aesthetics, 2, 1-23. In his late writings, Michel Foucault submits Enlightenment rationality to critical reappropriation. As my analysis will point out, Foucault finds support for his reinterpretation of Kant’s Enlightenment thinking in the “low modernity” of Charles Baudelaire, notably in his writings on dandyism and modernity. Although it is a question of one more history, Foucault’s interest is not restricted to the past. Rather, his analysis opens up the question of the limitations of personal freedom in the present, too, inviting those disadvantaged by it to develop critical aesthetic strategies to effect changes in their existential condition. This critical inquiry, as I will point out, parallels in many respects the current feminist debate on gender, sexuality, aesthetics of the self, and freedom.
  • Singh, R. P. (1997). Michel Foucault: A Critique of Immanuel Kant. Indian Philosophical Quarterly, 24(1), 95-104. The objective of this paper is to put forth and discuss critically the criticism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) by Michel Foucault (1926-84). As a matter of fact, Foucault wrote little about philosophy in terms of epistemology, ontology and so on. The subjects with which Foucault dealt with are such as madness, hospitals, prisons, infamy, sexuality, etc. But he is philosophically preoccupied with conversation on reason, language, knowledge, power, along with the structure of classical epistome including that of Kant besides being greatly under the influence of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. I regard Foucault, a postmodernist, in as much as Kant is a modernist. Since postmodernity, as Jean-Francois Lyotard says, is a ‘rewriting modernity’, Foucault retains many aspects of Kantian modernity, yet rejects the norms of strict logic and rationality which characterize the latter.
  • Touey, D. (1998). Foucault’s Apology. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 28(1), 83-106. I read Foucault’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” as his apology. Responding perhaps, to those who claim his work undermines Enlightenment thinking, Foucault sketches a way to continue that liberatory tradition, offering his own genealogical critique as an heir to Kant in the promotion of human freedom. This recovery is questionable. In commenting on Kant’s version of the Enlightenment, Foucault fails to examine the archaeology of the key notion of public reason. I attempt a Foucauldian reading of Kant’s essay as an assertion of power rather than of the freedom of thought from power, Foucault’s silence here makes conspicuous the relations of critique. This silence is not fatal, but his apology must be depended for a recovery of critique. The emerging aporia that in order to criticize power we must first be invested by and implicated in it is a profound, but not unanswerable challenge to any contemporary attempt to retain the liberatory promise of Enlightenment thinking.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

4 thoughts on “Foucault’s Kantian critique

  1. Hendricks’ article can be purchased here for $15. The others ought to be available via your local university library.

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