Foucault’s Critique Not of the Subject Per Se But of A Modern Construction of the (Sovereign) Subject

A-King-Deposed-300x298In this post, I want to spend some time elaborating Foucault’s critique of the modern subject. Foucault’ interests lie to a large degree in the interplay between socio-historical context and subject-making. With this emphasis, he participates in the de-thronement of the (sovereign) subject; however, and especially in light of his later reflections, his contribution to the subject’s death is a matter of debate. With Amy Allen and other recent commentators and against a rather entrenched reading of Foucault the subject-killer, I conclude that most if not all of Foucault’s condemnatory remarks concerning the subject are not intended as a death sentence for the subject per se; rather, his objective is to lay to rest a particular socio-historical construction of the subject and subjectivity. That is, Foucault’s critique is directed expressly at the modern construction of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, one untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context. If we consider Foucault’s own historical, philosophical milieu and the analytic he employs, we can begin to understand that his deconstructive blows are not meant for the subject qua subject; rather, his hammer seeks to shatter a particular modern construction of subjectivity in order to make room for the building of new subjectivities. Below, I shall elaborate in more detail the specifics of Foucault’s critique as found in his book, The Order of Things. Foucault highlights a fundamental tension characterizing the modern episteme’s construction of “man,” and he explains this unstable subject in reference to three binary oppositions: (1) an empirico-transcendental doublet, (2) the cogito and the unthought, and (3) the retreat and return of the origin.

“Man” as empirico-transcendental doublet is “a being such that knowledge will be attained in him of what renders all knowledge possible.” On the one hand, as Kant argues, human beings are the lawmakers of reality in that they impose universally-shared categories (for example, causality and substance) and forms of intuition (for example, time and space) onto an extramental unknown, thereby constituting the chaotic flux as intelligible objects of experience. However, the active “I” constituting these extramental objects—the new light replacing God as the Light which makes all things visible and hence intelligible—cannot itself be known. Put somewhat provocatively, in order to make the objects of experience appear, it—the transcendental ego—must disappear. Yet, in the modern episteme humans are simultaneously recognized as historically conditioned, shaped by preexisting cultural and linguistic practices. This is what Foucault has in mind with the third double, the retreat and return of the origin.  “It is always against a background of the already begun that man is able to reflect on what may serve for him as origin.”We develop new products to promote meaningful and beneficial ways of living in community; we create new metaphors, introduce neologisms, and develop slang discourses. Yet, none of this activity and the limited knowledge it produces takes place in a historical vacuum but arises out of already existing complex networks of practices and meanings.

Lastly, in the cogito and the unthought, a murky realm, a “landscape of shadow” accompanying the cogito emerges.  This “unthought” which thought has now discovered

[b]oth in itself and outside itself, at its borders yet also in its very warp and woof, an element of darkness, an apparently inert density in which it is embedded, an unthought which it contains entirely, yet in which it is also caught. The unthought […] is not lodged in man like a shrivelled-up nature or a stratified history; it is, in relation to man, the Other: the Other that is not only a brother but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality. […] it is both exterior to him and indispensable to him: in one sense, the shadow cast by man as he emerged in the field of knowledge; in another, the blind stain by which it is possible to know him. In any case, the unthought has accompanied man, mutely and uninterruptedly, since the nineteenth century.

Like the other tension-ridden doubles, the subject pole of the cogito/unthought doublet—at least as it appears and develops within the modern episteme—tends toward conquering, overcoming, and even eradicating the object pole. In other words, once “man” is placed in the position that God used to occupy—the transcendent ground, the sovereign originator of meaning and truth—his shadow side, “the Other that is not only a brother but a twin” becomes the object of mastery and domination.Because, on Foucault’s estimation, humans are not autonomous, not originators of their history but are more accurately described as “enslaved sovereigns” constructing themselves and their world and constructed by themselves and others, the humanist project—or at least a certain kind of humanist project—with its unduly exalted view of human beings is doomed to failure. But this failure involves more than mere logical incoherence; it involves, paradoxically, a movement toward domination or oppression of the other to varying degrees.

In her explanation of what she calls the “philosophical rejectionist” reading of Foucault, Nancy Fraser sums up how this group interprets Foucault’s rejection of humanism. The quandary of the “humanist project” is to solve the “Man problem. It is the project of making the subject pole triumph over the object pole, of achieving autonomy by mastering the other in history, in society, in oneself, of making substance into subject.” In other words, rather than accept the equal status and hence the mystery and indefinable character of the other—whether the other is an aspect of oneself (for example, the “unthought”) or a person or group from another culture, ethnicity, or religion—the modern humanist project with its penchant to place “man” in the God position tends “towards that region where man’s Other must become the Same as himself.”[9] Along these same lines, Bernauer, commenting on Foucault’s critique of the modern sovereign subject, concludes that Foucault’s project can be interpreted as “a modern form of negative theology” attempting “to overcome that figure of man whom modernity fashioned as a substitute for the Absolute.”


[1] See, for example, Amy Allen, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), esp. chapter 2.

[2] See, for example, Foucault’s dialogue with a hypothetical interlocutor in The Archaeology of Knowledge, which I discuss briefly in the following chapter (209).  Here Foucault’s critique is clearly directed towards a particular view of the subject, namely the modern, sovereign, ahistorical subject.

[3] Foucault, The Order of Things, 318.

[4] Ibid., 330.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 326–27.

[7] Ibid., 326.

[8] Fraser, “Michel Foucault: A ‘Young Conservative’?”, 170.

[9] Foucault, The Order of Things, 328. Although I am referencing humanism as if there were only one kind of humanism—a hardly defensible claim—, as Fraser observes in her essay, there are different expressions of humanism and perhaps not all of them are implicated by Foucault’s critique. For example, certain versions of Christian humanism propounding a high view of humans because of Christ’s deification of humanity could escape the charge of making humans the ground of all meaning.

[10] Bernauer, “Michel Foucault’s Philosophy of Religion,” in Michel Foucault and Theology, 88.

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