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Thesis Eleven Foucault's Lecture On Kant

Juergen Habermas Thesis Eleven 1986; 14; 4 DOI: 10.1177/072551368601400102 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Foucaults Lecture On Kant

Juergen Habermas

Foucaults death came so unexpectedly and suddenly that one can carcely resist thinking that its circumstantiality and brutal contingency locument the life and teachings of the philosopher. Even from a listance, the death of the 57-year old man seems an untimely event affirthe power of facticity, which, ning the merciless power of time vithout sense or triumph, prevails over the painstakingly constructed neaning of each human life. For Foucault, the experience of finiteness )ecame a philosophical incitement. He viewed the power contingency, vhich he ultimately identified with power per se, more from a stoical perspective than from the Christian frame of reference. And yet, in Foucault the stoic attitude of the observer who keeps his precise distance, obsessed with objectivity, was combined with the opposite element of passionate, self-consuming participation in the reality of the historical


I met Foucault only last year, and perhaps I did not understand him can only relate what impressed me: the tension, which resists easy -ategorization, between the almost serene scientific reserve of the scholar thriving for objectivity on the one hand, and, on the other, the political ritality of the vulnerable, subjectively excitable, morally sensitive inellectual. I imagine that Foucault dug through archives with the dogged energy of a detective in hot pursuit of evidence. In March 1983, Foucault ,uggested that we meet with some American colleagues for a private conference in 1984 to discuss Kants 200-year-old essay, &dquo;Answering the ~uestion: What Is Enlightenment?&dquo; At the time I knew nothing of a lecure Foucault was preparing on this very subject. Naturally, I understood iis invitation as a call for a discussion (together with Hubert Dreyfus,

Nell. I

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Paul Rabinow, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor) of various interpretations of modernity - based on a text which, in a sense, initiated modern philosophical discourse. However, this was not exactly Foucaults intention in this proposal, as I only realized in May of this year, when an excerpt from his lecture was published. Here we do not encounter the Kant familiar from Foucaults The Order of Things, the epistemologist whose analysis of finiteness forced open the gateway to the age of anthropological thought and human sciences (Humanwissenschaften). In this lecture one meets a different Kant - Kant as the predecessor of the Young Hegelians, as the first to break seriously with the metaphysical heritage, withdrawing philosophy from the True and Eternal and instead concentrating on what philosophy until then had considered the meaningless and non-existent, the merely accidental and transitory. Foucault discovers in Kant the contemporary who transforms esoteric philosophy into a critique of the present to answer the challenge of the historical moment. Foucault sees in Kants answer to the question &dquo;What is Enlightenment?&dquo; the origin of an &dquo;ontology of actuality&dquo; leading through Hegel, Nietzsche, and Max Weber to Horkheimer and Adorno. Surprisingly, in the last sentence of his lecture, Foucault adds himself to this tradition. Foucault relates the text of 1784 to &dquo;The Dispute of the Faculties&dquo; (published fourteen years later), where Kant reflects on the events of the French Revolution. The dispute between the Faculty of Philosophy and the Faculty of Law deals, of course, with the question of whether the human race is steadily progressing. In his Philosophy of Ethics (Rechtsphilosophie), Kant clarified the endpoint in relation to which such progress could be measured. A republican constitution would guarantee the rule of law (Rechtzustand) internally as well as externally the autonomy of citizens under self-made laws as well as the elimination of war from the arena of international relations. Kant searches for an empirical foothold to ground these postulates of &dquo;pure practical

reason,&dquo; to show that they are actually supported by an historically observable &dquo;moral tendency&dquo; of the human race. He seeks an &dquo;event of our time&dquo; indicating a disposition of human nature toward moral improvement ; and, as is well known, he finds this &dquo;historical indicator&dquo; not in the French Revolution itself, but, rather, in the openly expressed enthusiasm with which a broad public had fearlessly greeted these events as an attempt at a realization of principles of natural law. Such a phenomenon, Kant believes, cannot be forgotten, &dquo;for this event is too great, too interwoven with the interests of mankind not to be remembered by the peoples of the world and not to stimulate renewed at5

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tempts of this kind whenever conditions



Foucault cites the famous sentences not entirely without, on his own part, &dquo;desire for doing moral good.&dquo; In the earlier text on the Enlightenment, Kant emphasized that revolution can never produce that &dquo;true reform in thinking&dquo; which, as he asserts in &dquo;The Dispute of the Faculties,&dquo; emerges precisely in the enthusiasm for the revolution that had since taken place. Foucault relates the two texts in such a way that a synopsis emerges. From this perspective, the question &dquo;What is Enlightenment?&dquo; merges with the question &dquo;What does this revolution mean for us?&dquo; Philosophy is successfully merged with thinking stimulated by contemporary historical actuality. The outlook schooled in eternal truths submerges in the detail of the given moment, which is pregnant with decision and bursting under the pressure of anticipated
as the first philosopher, an archer who aims his arrow at the heart of the most actual features of the present and so opens the discourse of modernity. Kant leaves behind the classical dispute over the exemplary preeminence of the ancients and the comparable stature of the moderns. Instead he involves diagnostic thought in that turbulent process of which acquires for him a new function self-assurance that forms the horizon of a new historical consciousness which has kept modernity in constant motion until the present. A philosophy now engaged with actuality is concerned with the &dquo;rapport sagittal a propre actualite,&dquo; with the relationship of modernity to itself. Holderlin and the young Hegel, Marx and the Young Hegelians, Baudelaire and Nietzsche,, Bataille and the Surrealists, Lukacs, MerleauPonty, the precursors of Western Marxism in general, and, not least of all, Foucault himself all contribute to the honing of that modern consciousness of contemporary which made its appearance in philosophy with the question &dquo;What is Enlightenment?&dquo; The philosopher turns contemporary ; he emerges out of the anonymity of an impersonal endeavour and reveals himself as a flesh-and-blood human being toward whom every clinical investigation of each individual contemporary period that confronts him must be directed. Even in retrospect, the period of Enlightenment is still presented by the description it gave itself: it designates the entry into a kind of modernity which sees itself condemned to creating its self-awareness and its norms out of itself. If this is even a paraphrase of Foucaults own train of thought, the question arises: how does such a singularly affirmative understanding of modern philosophizing, always directed to our own actuality and imprinted in the here-and-now, fit with Foucaults unyielding criticism of

possibilities. Thus, Foucault discovers Kant

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modernity? How can Foucaults self-understanding as a thinker in the tradition of the Enlightenment be compatible with his unmistakable criticism of this very form of knowledge of modernity? Kants philosophy of history, the speculation about a state of freedom, about world-citizenship and eternal peace, the interpretation of revolutionary enthusiasm as a sign of historical &dquo;progress toward betterment&dquo; - must not each line provoke the scorn of Foucault, the theoretician of power? Hasnt history, under the stoic gaze of the archaeologist Foucault, frozen into an iceberg covered with the crystals of arbitrary formations of discourse? (This, at least, is the view of his friend Paul Veyne.) Doesnt this iceberg, under what appears as the cynical gaze of the genealogist Foucault, have a much different dynamic than the actualizing thinking of modernity cares to acknowledge - namely, a senseless back-and-forth of anonymous processes of subjugation in which power and nothing but power appears in ever-changing guises? Using Kant as an example, didnt Foucault reveal in The Order of Things the peculiar dynamic of that will to truth which is stimulated anew by each frustration to an increased and in turn failed production of knowledge? The form of knowledge of modernity is characterized by the following aporia: the cognitive subject, having become self-referential, rises out of the ruins of metaphysics in order to take on, in full awareness of its finite powers, a project that would demand unlimited power. As Foucault demonstrates, Kant transforms this aporia into the structural principle of his epistemology; he reinterprets the limits of our finite apparatus of cognition into the transcendental conditions for infinitely progressing knowledge. A subject, thus structurally strained to the limits, is enmeshed in an anthropocentric mode of knowledge. And this whole field is now occupied by the &dquo;sciences of man,&dquo; which Foucault


as an

insidiously operating disciplinary

power. In any case,

what it has achieved with its pretentious, in no way resolved, claims is a dangerous facade of universally valid knowledge behind which in reality is hidden the facticity of domination of knowledge rooted in the will to power. Only in the wake of this boundless will to knowledge arise the subjectivity and self-consciousness with which Kant begins. If we return to the text of Foucaults lecture with these considerations in mind, we note certain precautionary measures against all-toostriking contradictions. To be sure, the Enlightenment, which inaugurates modernity, does not imply for us just an arbitrary period in the history of ideas. However, Foucault explicitly warns against the pious attitude of those who are out merely to preserve the remains of the Enlightenment. Foucault explicitly (if only parenthetically) establishes

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the connection to earlier analyses. Today, he notes, it can no longer be task to maintain Enlightenment and revolution as ideal models. Much more important is an investigation into the particular historical motivating forces which have simultaneously prevailed and concealed themselves in universalistic thought since the late eighteenth century. Foucault rejects those thinkers who, in pursuit of an abstract order, proceed from Kants epistemological question, still in search of the universal conditions by which propositions can be really true or false, they are captives of an &dquo;analysis (A nalytik) of truth.&dquo; Despite these precautions, one is surprised that Foucault presents those subversive thinkers who try to interpret their own contermporaneity as the legitimate heirs of Kantian critique. They repeat that fundamental diagnostic question, first posed by Kant, of a modernity in search of self-assurance, under the altered conditions of their own time. Foucault sees himself as carrying on this tradition. For Foucault, the challenge of the Kant texts he has chosen is to decode that will once contained in the enthusiasm for the French Revolution, namely; the will to knowledge, which the &dquo;analysis of truth&dquo; was unwilling to concede. Up to now, Foucault traced this will to knowledge in modern power-formations only to denounce it. Now, however, he presents it in a completely different light, as the critical impulse worthy of preservation and in need of renewal. Ths connects his

thinking to the beginnings of modernity. Within the circle of the philosophers of my generation who diagnose our times, Foucault has most lastingly influenced the Zeitgeist, not least of all because of the seriousness with which he perseveres under productive contradictions. Only a complex thinking produces instructive contradictions. Kant entangled himself in an instructive contradiction when he declared revolutionary enthusiasm to be an historical indicator that reveals an intelligible arrangement of mankind in the world of phenomena. Equally instructive is another contradiction in which Foucault becomes enmeshed. He contrasts his critique of power with the &dquo;analysis of truth&dquo; in such a fashion that the former becomes deprived of the normative yardsticks that it would have to borrow from the latter. Perhaps the force of this contradiction caught up with Foucault in this last of his texts, drawing him again into the circle of the philosophical discourse of modernity which he thought he could explode.

Translated by Sigrid Brauner & Robert Brown, assisted by David Levin.


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