Amy Allen on Foucault’s Alleged Role in the “End of Man”

Politics-of-Our-Selves_Amy-AllenI recently came across Amy Allen’s excellent book, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory, and have found her discussion of Foucault in chapters two and three particularly helpful and insightful.  In chapter two, Allen offers a careful reading of Foucault’s relationship to Kant and concludes that Foucault does not reject, cancel, or write off the subject per se but rather a particular historical understanding of the (transcendental) subject as the source of all meaning. Of course, skeptical commentators will immediately begin reciting statements from The Order of Things, as well as other works in Foucault seems to rather clearly sign the death certificate of the subject.  Allen, however, engages a number of these “problem” passages, and in my view, offers a convincing counter-interpretation emphasizing the way in which Foucault works within the Kantian tradition utilizing Kant’s own vocabulary to transform the tradition.  Stated otherwise, Foucault performs an act of philosophical resistance via a reverse discourse of sorts.

So what does Foucault mean in the closing pages of The Order of Things when he speaks of hoping for a new opening for thought, a new episteme that will take us beyond “man,” which he claims is “an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (The Order of Things, 386, 387). According to Allen’s reading, “the call for the ‘end of man’ at the end of The Order of Things echoes Foucault’s call for a ‘true critique’ of the ‘anthropological illusion’ in the closing pages of his these complémentaire [Introduction à l’anthropologie de Kant, 127].  Critique, for Foucault, has both Nietzschean and Kantian roots; however, the former is often emphasized, while the latter is either unacknowledged, rejected, or so downplayed that it has little consequence in Foucauldian discussions of the subject and subjectivity. On Allen’s interpretation,

[w]hat Foucault is calling for is a critique of critique, which means not only a criticism of Kant’s project for the way in which it closes off the very opening for thought that it had created but also a critique in the Kantian sense of the term—that is, an interrogation of the limits and conditions of possibility of that which Kant himself took as his own starting point, namely, the transcendental subject. Such a critique is, in a sense, “transcendental” inasmuch as the historical a priori sets the necessary conditions of possibility that are constitutive for being a thinking subject in a particular episteme and, as such, are indirectly the conditions of possibility for all of that subject’s experiences. However, such an account is obviously not transcendental in the same sense in which Kant uses that term, inasmuch as our understanding of those “necessary” conditions is grounded empirically in an analysis of the contingent historical conditions that give rise to them and in which they remain embedded.[1]

Clearly, Foucault, as Allen points out, has transformed the sense in which Kant employed the term “a priori conditions.”  For Foucault, the conditions are neither necessary in modality nor universal in scope; they are historical conditions; yet, they, like Kantian a priori conditions, make possible intelligible objects, practices, discourses, concepts and so forth; however, for Foucault, these objects, concepts, etc. are intelligible within a particular episteme which is structured by (historical) rules themselves subject to change over time.

Continuing her discussion of how we ought to understand Foucault’s participation in the so-called “death of man,” Allen writes,

The end of man thus amounts to the revelation that human subjects are always constituted by and embedded in contingently evolved (and thus transformable) linguistic, historical, and cultural conditions. As Foucault himself put the point in a 1978 interview: “Men are perpetually engaged in a process that, in constituting objects, at the same time displaces man, deforms, transforms, and transfigures him as subject. In speaking of the death of man [in The Order of Things], in a confused, simplifying way, that is what I meant to say” [“Interview with Michel Foucault.” In Power, vol. 3 of The Essential Works of Foucault, edited by James Faubion. (New York: The New Press, 2000), 276].

As such, the call for the end of man is not a rejection of the concept of the subject per se, if by that we mean the notion of consciousness or the “I think.” Instead, it is a call for a critical interrogation and transformation of the particular notion of transcendental subjectivity first formulated by Kant and later taken up by phenomenology. The paradoxes and instabilities to which the modern age of man gives rise emerge only if man is taken to be both a finite object and a transcendental subject that serves as the condition of possibility of all experience. Thus, the claim that Foucault argues for the death of the subject appears plausible only if we conflate this transcendental conception of subjectivity with the concept of subjectivity itself.[2]

In short, Foucault’s comments advocating the subject’s demise must be taken not as a complete rejection of subjectivity or the subject itself; rather, Foucault’s criticism are aimed specifically at the notion of a subject shielded from all socio-historical and cultural influences—the ahistorical subject as sovereign originator of all meaning.  For Foucault, it is undeniable that the subject is socially constituted; however, the subject as a free being is also capable of (re)constituting him/herself because all the converging, intersecting, socio-historical lines which shaped the subject in the first place are contingent, not necessary.  In addition, Allen adds that Foucault himself “argues that Kant’s own writings on anthropology point beyond this transcendental conception and pave the way for the fully historicized conception of the subject that Foucault later develops. On this interpretation, Foucault’s call for the end of man is perfectly consistent with the project of reconceptualizing subjectivity carried out in Foucault’s later work.”[3]

Pointing toward an argument that she develops in chapter three, Allen ends chapter two with a foreshadowing of her conclusion.  “[A]lthough Foucault does rely in his late work on notions of subjectivity and autonomy, he radically reformulates these concepts; thus, they are not the same as the strictly Kantian and phenomenological notions that are taken up and transformed in his early work.”[4] Like myself, Allen does not see Foucault’s ethico-aesthetic turn as a significant rupture with or cancellation of his early work, nor (as we’ve seen) does she hold that Foucault has done away with the concept of the subject per se. Rather than, as Habermas would have it, a “total critique of modernity,” Foucault engages in an immanent “critique of critique”; he does not give us “an abstract negation of the self-referential subject,” but instead “interrogates its conditions of possibility. That interrogation is designed to show the historical and cultural specificity and, thus contingency of this conception of subjectivity, which in turn makes possible new modes of subjectification.”[5] In essence, Foucault performs an act of philosophical resistance via reverse discourse by simultaneously taking up and transforming Kantian categories and structures.  Or applying a jazz analogy, Foucault improvises on a Kantian lead sheet quoting Kantian melodies reharmonized in a postmodern key.


[1] The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory(New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 35.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Ibid.