Part II: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

I ended my previous post with a discussion of Gadamer’s rejection of the notion that knowledge of “all things human” is attainable via a scientific model in which one’s aim is full intellectual control over the object of knowledge. Gadamer’s Hegel-inspired notion of “experience” helps us to get a better grasp both as to his criticism of scientific knowing applied to the human sciences and his own view of “knowledge” as coming to an understanding through a dialogic encounter. According to Gadamer, experience in general is a process which is essentially negative. By “negative,” he means that our expectations of what something is or means are regularly disappointed and disconfirmed.[1] As Gadamer explains, experience “cannot be described simply as the unbroken generation of typical universals. Rather, this generation takes place as false generalizations are continually refuted by experience and what was regarded as typical is shown not to be so.”[2] In other words, it is when we are surprised, see things from a new perspective and come to know them with more clarity that we experience what experience is. “Thus the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.”[3] Here it is not merely that we correct our false beliefs—although that does occur–; rather, we gain a new, improved, and expanded understanding. We do not “have an experience of any object at random, but it must be of such a nature that we gain better knowledge through it, not only of itself, but of what we thought we knew before—i.e., of a universal.”[4]Archeaological Dig

Gadamer is not denying that our experience of history leads to (historical) knowledge. However, as Joel Weinsheimer observes (and Taylor echoes this thought in his essay), Gadamer’s account of experience as ongoing process challenges the typical conception of experience ending in (final) knowledge and thus emphasizing result, closure, and, effectively, the end of experience.[5] The theory of induction is an example of experience conceived as result. For example, I look for patterns in my experience that produce the same results.  When I do x, y results.  From various similar experiences, I abstract a general concept that now applies to all such experiences.  Thus, the need for further experiences of this kind is eliminated.  Weinsheimer puts it nicely,

[i]nductive experience is fulfilled in the knowledge of the concept—which, in both senses, is the end of experience. Thus, in the teleological view, experience finds its fulfillment in its extinction. The theory of induction implies that confirmation is the primary and most important aspect of experience. The process of experience is essentially an experience of repetition and the identity of experiences.[6]

Instead of an exclusive focus on confirmation as the key aspect of experience, Gadamer highlights the disappointments and disconfirmations of experience (which is not to exclude the role of confirmation) in order to foreground how “the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.”[7] Appropriating Hegel’s insight, Gadamer views hermeneutical experience and experience generally speaking as dialectical, consisting of the working out and ongoing harmonization of identity-in-difference. Thus, experience involves an element of the new rather than a mere accumulation of past repetitions. For Hegel, experience is “skepticism in action,” as it has the potential alter “one’s whole knowledge.”[8] To be sure, confirmation is part of the nature of experience; thus, repetition is not disregarded completely. However, paradoxically, once repetition and confirmation occur, the experience is no longer new.[9] “We can now predict what was previously unexpected. The same thing cannot again become a new experience for us; only something different and unexpected can provide someone who has experience with a new one.”[10] Hegel identified this reversal of the experiencing consciousness as a dialectical structure in the nature of experience itself.  As Gadamer explains, when a person becomes “experienced,” he has “become of aware of his experience”; “[h]e has acquired a new horizon within which something can become an experience for him.”[11]

Up to this point, Gadamer agrees with Hegel’s account. However, he rejects emphatically Hegel’s idea that “conscious experience should lead to a self-knowledge that no longer has anything other than or alien to itself.”[12] For Hegel, the goal of experience is knowledge, and “his criterion of experience is self-knowledge.  That is why the dialectic of experience must end in that overcoming of all experience which is attained in absolute knowledge—i.e., in the complete identity of consciousness and object.”[13] In stark contrast, for Gadamer experience does not find its consummation in something that finalizes, overcomes, or annuls it. Consequently, Gadamer parts ways with Hegel’s account of history as a dialectical movement leading inevitably to the “absolute self-consciousness of philosophy,” and concludes that it “does not do justice to hermeneutical consciousness.”[14] Experience and knowledge-as-staticized-finality stand in opposition to one another. “The truth of experience always implies an orientation toward new experience.”[15] For Gadamer, then, the experienced person “has become so not only through experiences,” but because he has acquired the habit of continual openness to new experiences.[16] The perfection of experience, moreover,

does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them.  The dialectic of experience has its proper fulfillment not in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made possible by experience itself.[17]

Gadamer is describing experience in general; he is telling us something about the structure of experience qua experience.  In addition, he wants to stress that experience as he has described it is connected intimately to what it means to be a historical, finite being.  None of us are exempt from experience; all of us must acquire experience, which involves necessarily having one’s expectations upset, overturned, unsettled.[18] Gadamer’s negative understanding of experience—as is hopefully clear by now—should not be interpreted as a pessimistic outlook on life; rather, he brings to our attention the fact that experience and growth by way of experience involves an openness to ongoing confrontations, challenges, and a genuine questioning of our own assumptions and beliefs. When confronted with new information about a person or event, or when we are able to genuinely “see” an issue or subject matter from a different perspective, we simultaneously put ourselves at risk.  That is, we allow questions to be put to us, questions that can expose our own false biases and misguided assumptions. Putting ourselves at risk in this way means that we are open to exposure, open to considering what it means, for example, that we characterize certain groups as more dangerous, deviant, or criminally disposed than others. The realization that we have been operating under counterfeit assumptions, and the uprooting and relinquishing of our former beliefs, is, though necessary, often unpleasant and painful.

Gadamer continues his discussion of experience through an interesting connection with Aeschylus. On Gadamer’s reading, with his phrase, pathei mathos (“learning through experience”) Aeschylus also recognized something essential about the structure of experience. Like Gadamer, Aeschylus does not claim merely that through suffering we learn to correct our misguided and false views. Rather, his insight is that through suffering we come to see “the limitations of humanity,” and begin to realize the “barrier that separates man from the divine. It is ultimately a religious insight.”[19] Thus, genuine experience as Gadamer conceives of it is experience of our finitude and historicity. The experienced person comes to see herself for what she is—limited, subject to time, subject to change, subject to uncertainty.  She has come to realize the wisdom in cultivating an attitude of openness to the other, which involves a willingness to listen to the other’s perspective not once but again and again. She also comes to see that being “perfectly experienced” in no way means

that experience has ceased and a higher form of knowledge is reached (Hegel), but that for the first time experience fully and truly is. In it all dogmatism, which proceeds from the soaring desires of the human heart, reaches an absolute barrier. Experience teaches us to acknowledge the real.[20]

For Gadamer, given his embrace of human finitude, the attempt to transcend human experience based on the scientific model of knowledge is simply not possible. Because we are historical, finite beings, we must, as Gadamer maintains, take seriously the role of culture in shaping and influencing human life and thought. Taylor helps us to grasp how Gadamer, who, unlike many modern and postmodern thinkers does not reject premodern views of metaphysics tout court, nor does he simply embrace them uncritically. Rather, he allows the premodern tradition to speak and appropriates those insights that still shine forth as true. Gadamer’s project might be characterized as a critically reharmonized Platonic-inspired metaphysics, whose ontology of the human person and of texts is amenable to cultural, socio-political, and historical concerns. Below I sketch the contours of what such a synthesis looks with respect to human being (identity) in all its diversity and ongoing improvisational manifestations (difference).

A Gadamerian identity-in-difference approach to human ontology affirms that there is some common, unchanging human nature or universally-shared, non-constructed metaphysical structures essential to humans qua humans; nonetheless, this nature or these structures are, as Taylor explains, “always and everywhere mediated in human life through culture, self-understanding, and language. These not only show an extraordinary variety in human history, but they are clearly fields of potentially endless innovation.”[21] In other words, it is possible, on the one hand, to argue for a universally-shared human nature or for common, non-constructed, transcultural, metaphysical structures, and, on the other hand, to affirm that our articulations and grasp of these structures are always mediated by our own cultural biases, discourses, preferred metaphors, and the knowledge “pools” from which we draw. Of course there have been many absurd and misguided philosophical and “scientific” narratives constructed over the course of history, claiming to have identified the essential nature of women, people of African descent, Jews, and homosexuals. Taking into account such narratives and the harm they have caused, one can understand why (post)moderns are by and large skeptical and suspicious of accounts appealing to universal metaphysical structures common to all humans.  However, if we adopt a Gadamerian-hermeneutical approach, we can (and should) acknowledge and reject the errors of these past constructions and yet not give up on the metaphysical project in toto. If we are able to finesse a mediating position (and I believe we can), the potential gains for defending human rights, social justice, and emancipatory struggles of all stripes ought to motivate us to rethink our own (post)modern prejudices and approach “the metaphysics question” anew with the openness of a truly experienced person.


[1] Joel Weinsheimer discusses Gadamer’s account of experience as negative, which he interprets as characterized by alternating cycles of hope and disappointment. As a result, experience should be understood as a process rather than a staticized end. As Weinsheimer explains, if we begin in hermeneutical openness with an expectation, a hope, then hope is always prior to experience and is its condition.  As we move through our hermeneutical disappointments, recover from our false and misguided assumptions, and struggle to understand the person or subject at hand, new expectations and hopes arise.  Thus, hope both precedes and follows disappointment and disconfirmation.  See, Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 354.

[12] Ibid., 355.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 356.

[19] Ibid., 357.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Science,” 129.

Part I: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

The socio-political consequences of embracing absolute incommensurability across historical epochs or what Foucault calls epistemai would be far worse than accepting a partial incommensurability in which we acknowledge our attempts to understand the other through our own conceptual, culturally-shaped grid.[1] Given what Foucault acknowledges in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” regarding our limited point of view and thus always partial rather than complete knowledge, we can—applying the principle of charity—assume that if Foucault did in fact claim that epistemai are incommensurable in toto, he without a doubt abandoned such a view and came to adopt a partial incommensurability position. It simply does not follow, as some critics claim, that adjustments to his earlier views, particularly those of his archaeological period, signal a fundamental rift or irresolvable incongruity with his later genealogical methodology and his emphasis on a more active subject in his ethico-aesthetic period.Archeaological Dig

With absolute incommensurability, the other is completely unintelligible, and consequently, I am forever hermetically sealed and unable to genuinely identify or sympathize with, much less learn from and attempt to understand him or her. Whereas in accepting partial incommensurability, although I must start with my own presuppositions, linguistic and cultural inheritances—or as Gadamer calls these various conditionings, “prejudices”—I am not trapped by the historically formed grid through which I see and engage the world.  Rather, to use Gadamer’s terminology, the horizon I bring to the text (or other) is permeable and mutable; through my engagement with the text, a fusion of horizons can occur, in which the horizon of the text calls me, the interpreter, into question with a possible outcome of reshaping and even fundamentally altering my horizon for the better. I shall take up this topic in more detail below; however, before discussing Gadamer’s notion of horizon-fusing, I want to begin with a brief discussion of several key aspects of his philosophical hermeneutics to prepare the way for my own archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion.

Gadamer finds the Enlightenment’s rejection of authority and tradition both impossible and undesirable. Although many key Enlightenment thinkers speak disparagingly of tradition, claiming it an impediment to the progress of true Enlightenment and riddled with unjustified prejudices,[2] Gadamer argues by way of reverse discourse that the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice is itself held dogmatically. As he explains, the Enlightenment’s foregrounding of the negative aspect of the word, “prejudice,” has resulted in the shrouding of its positive meaning, “pre-judgment” (Vor-urteil). One can in fact—and here Gadamer appropriates insights from Aristotle—through proper upbringing, adopting ancestral and other customs, and embracing the teachings of one’s tradition, hold true “prejudices” and biases. Consequently, for Gadamer, just because one cannot justify or provide a syllogistic argument for one’s beliefs, it does not follow necessarily that these beliefs are false or misguided. Because of his positive view of tradition, some contemporary thinkers (for example, Jacques Derrida and John Caputo) have labeled Gadamer a “dogmatist”; however, others such as Charles Taylor have viewed Gadamer’s position more positively, emphasizing the historical and cultural benefits of his philosophical hermeneutics.

Taylor opens his essay, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” by highlighting the presumption that has characterized the West in its engagement with other cultures.  “The great challenge of the coming century, […] is that of understanding the other. The days are long gone when Europeans and other ‘Westerners’ could consider their experience and culture as the norm toward which the whole of humanity was headed.”[3] As the seeds of the (rationalistic) Enlightenment-model of knowledge were planted and continued to spread their roots and extend their branches, it became axiomatic that knowledge of science be characterized by “pure” objectivity and that it produce certainty in its possessors.  Yet, the twentieth century’s recognition of a “necessary modesty” in relation to its knowledge claims of the other seemed to land us in a no-win dilemma: either we accept ethnocentrism and remain cut off from the other, or we accept relativism and forfeit all objectivity.[4] Gadamer’s model, however, takes us through this seeming impasse and calls into question many of the Enlightenment-inspired notions that have shaped the epistemology of natural science and its attempt to colonize the social or human sciences.

In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, “Gadamer shows how understanding a text or event, which comes to us through our own history or horizon, ought to be construed, not on the model of the ‘scientific’ grasp of an object, but rather on that of speech-partners who come to an understanding (Verständigung).”[5] In light of Gadamer’s influence and the potential for further development of his project, Taylor devotes most of his article to explicating Gadamer’s model, which he describes as “coming to an understanding with an interlocutor,” vis-à-vis the scientific model of “knowing an object.”[6] In contrast with the latter method, Gadamer argues for coming to an understanding through a dialogic encounter where the modus operandi is question and answer (here Gadamer draws explicitly from Plato). As Taylor explains, Gadamer’s approach is characterized by three features: (1) bilateralism, (2) party-dependence, and (3) an openness to goal-revision.

First, the text or other is not a silent “object” to be mastered; hence, it is characterized by bilateralism as opposed to unilateralism. For example, in knowing a tree as object, I do not have to consider its view of me. The knowledge encounter is unilateral.  I dictate the rules of the knowing activity, and there is little to challenge me by way of a genuine other as to whether or not my understanding of it is distortive. Whereas in a bilateral exchange, both the text and other are given a voice; here the text “talks” back and can put the interpreter into question, thus challenging her prejudices and horizon and allowing for potential self-transformation.

Second, Gadamer’s view of coming to an understanding is party-dependent. Grasping this aspect of his model also helps us to see the different goals connected with the two approaches to knowing.  For example, in knowing an object, “I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object, and will exclude all future surprises.”[7] In other words, the goal is to “attain full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer ‘talk back’ and surprise me.”[8] In contrast, when I come to an understanding of some text or some individual, this kind of supposed finality is not possible. For instance, when I understand something about Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or Russian culture, these understandings are achieved through specific dialogue partners—as mentioned above, for Gadamer, texts are a kind of dialogue partner.  However, when I discuss Dr. King’s letter or enter a conversation about Russian culture with another dialogue partner or with different interpretative communities, new understandings surface given the fusion of my horizon with theirs. In addition, both my understandings and those of my various dialogue partners are in motion, ever-changing and expanding with each new dialogical engagement.  By entering these mutually reciprocal hermeneutical conversations, we allow our own understandings to be questioned and our most cherished beliefs to be challenged.[9]

Third, a key feature of Gadamer’s model is openness to goal-revision.  Because one’s prejudices and biases can be altered by a dialogic encounter with the text, one must be willing to modify, update, or even in certain cases relinquish his or her original objectives. In stark contrast with scientific knowing and its attendant goal of “attain[ing] full intellectual control over the object,” the goal of coming to an understanding is decidedly not control.[10] Rather, “[t]he end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at.”[11]

Gadamer’s dialogical model of understanding, of course, has been challenged by philosophers and those wanting to preserve the scientific model and its supposed “pure” objectivity. More specifically, the critics claim that the three features outlined above cannot be aspects of genuine science or knowledge.  If, for example, party-dependence and openness to goal-revision characterize our understandings, then “they represent something distinct from knowledge.”[12] As Taylor explains, Gadamer responds to his critics by rejecting the claim that knowledge of things human can be attained on the scientific model where the goal is full intellectual control over the object.


[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor argue for a variant of partial incommensurability.

[2] See, for example, Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

[3] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 126.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In light of his claim that understandings are party-relative, some scholars have charged Gadamer with relativism and have classified him indiscriminately with philosophers such as Richard Rorty. Taylor, however, highlights the inaccuracies of such a move and addresses this issue in detail in his essay, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences.”

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Ibid., 128.

[12] Ibid.

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2011: On War as an Enemy of the Poor

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I have decided to comment briefly on excerpts from his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.” King had recently joined voices with others in the community both religious and secular opposing the Vietnam War. The excerpts below are from his speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, New York.  King begins by acknowledging that he can no longer remain silent about the Vietnam War but must criticize it openly, joining with like-minded voices in a common cause.

“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”-

King calls for humility in recognition of our human condition; yet, he also calls for action, for a “firm dissent” grounded in convictions that will “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism”—the latter of which we hear ad nauseam today.

King then turns to those questioning him for speaking against the war, those wondering why he has partnered with these dissenting voices and who worried that King’s critique of the war would hinder his efforts in the civil rights struggle for blacks in America.  Such people, King laments, have not understood him or his calling. Consequently, he mounts a case for his anti-war position, showing how it is perfectly consonant with his civil rights activism.  Although he enumerates seven reasons why he must oppose ethically the Vietnam War, I shall comment upon only the first three.  (I do recommend reading the entire speech, as it is packed with metaphors, images, moral interrogations, socio-political confrontations, and oratory delights that have come to bear a distinctively Martin Luther King Jr. mark).

First of all, King explains that the war functions to distract the nation and its leaders from concerns at home, especially concerns for the poor.

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

There’s nothing new under the sun here, right? While our current unemployment rates skyrocket and our healthcare system self-destructs, we continue to spend millions upon millions on our present war and anti-terrorism efforts.  It is worth contemplating whether we’ve become a violent nation or whether, our wars both domestic and foreign have actually been the norm and times of peace the exception.

Next, King highlights the cruel irony and manipulation of the poor, particularly black males of the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum shipped thousands of miles away to risk their lives in a fight for “freedom” when their own freedom at home is denied.

“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

Third, King describes how his longtime commitment to non-violent protests as a means for social change and his growing anti-war convictions were brought together through interacting with oppressed youth in the Northern ghettos.

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

As King made clear on several occasions, his concerns were not only for black Americans but also included all people no matter what “race”, ethnicity, nationality, or political allegiance; his ultimate loyalty pressed him to move beyond nationalism by interrogating and deconstructing narratives co-opted for nationalistic aims in conflict with his faith.  As a Christian who also happened to be an American, King felt that he must address his own country’s soul, which he believed had become infused with bellicosity, warning that if her “soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’” I wonder how our nation’s medical report, if perchance we could get an accurate diagnosis, might read today.

As a follower of Christ, King was compelled to follow the way of peace and love, and to promote publicly the just treatment of all human beings.  He saw his Christian missive as transcending (yet not abandoning) “the calling of race or nation or creed” and sought every opportunity possible to speak for “suffering and helpless and outcast children.” For King this was both the “privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters].”

In light of the current trend to script enemy “others” (Muslims, immigrants, etc.), King’s words have much to say to us today.  As we celebrate Dr. King’s life and deeds, may we have ears to hear and hearts to receive his words of peaceful dissent so that we might translate them into action in our own spheres of influence.

Part II: A Shout-Out for Foucault’s Amended Archaeology or How to Bake an (Anti)Humanist and Eat It Too

Eating-Cake-225x300Foucault’s advocacy for a critical ethos via a historical ontology of ourselves takes it cue from Kant and the latter’s interest in exploring our limits; however, Foucault’s concern is not with discerning what epistemological limits we must take care not to exceed. Rather, his concern with limits has to do with analyzing—and hence adopting an on-going, permanent ethos of interrogation—what “is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory” to see whether these alleged immovable and transhistorical givens (i.e. limitations) are perhaps “singular, contingent, and the products of arbitrary constraints.”[1] In sum, Foucault seeks “to transform the [Kantian] critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over [franchissement].”[2]

Foucault’s critical project, as he himself explains, is not transcendental in the Kantian sense but thoroughly historical, genealogical, and archaeological. Elaborating how his methodological approaches, as well as how his aims differ from Kant’s, Foucault states that his version of criticism does not seek to make “metaphysics possible” or to make metaphysics a science; rather, it involves an historical analysis of “the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.”[3]

We should also note that even in this late-phase essay Foucault affirms his continued use of an archaeological methodology. However, on my reading, it is an amended archaeology, which, as he explains, does “not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge [connaissance] or of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events.”[4] Here he outlines what his archaeology aims to unearth, namely historical principles or a priori rules.  Given this historicization of the a prioris, knowledge claims are partial, historically-restricted, and thus always open to revision. From the many discursive events it analyzes, archaeology extracts historical a prioris, and this synchronic investigation fits nicely with its diachronic-genealogical counterpart. Genealogy’s task—at least one of them—is to retrace the various contingencies that have shaped us in order to open up a new space for self-(re)formation or constituting ourselves anew. In sum, Foucault’s critical philosophical ethos “[seeks] to give a new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.”[5]

If we take what I have said above about Foucault’s critique of humanism and interpret it in conjunction with his promotion of local rather than global projects for socio-political change, then we have a way to make sense of Foucault’s yes-and-no response to humanism. He is for local transformations “which concern our ways of being and thinking, relations to authority, relations between the sexes, the way we perceive insanity or illness” and so forth.[6] With this list, we could also include the rights-based issues mentioned previously (workers’ rights etc.). Foucault indeed believes in and prefers “these partial transformations”; however, he is suspicious of global “programs for a new man,” which have been used by various groups to exploit, manipulate, and even attempt to eradicate those portrayed as foreign, other, or enemy. In light of these statements, we may conclude that it is humanism as an ideology, as a grand over-arching metanarrative that Foucault disavows passionately.  His comments do not suggest a complete rejection of the concerns for the marginalized and oppressed with which humanism is commonly associated. Nor does his critical philosophical attitude downplay the importance of freedom.  His project, in fact, requires free beings with rational capacities. “I shall characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.”[7]

Toward the end of his essay, we read perhaps the most explicit passage evidencing Foucault’s recognition and acceptance of our finitude, historically-conditioned knowledge, and our need to be open to future interrogations that may fundamentally reconfigure our present convictions, knowledge-claims, and ways of being. Foucault poses a hypothetical question asking how, given our acceptance of partial and local analyses, we can be sure that we are not still being shaped and controlled in significant ways by larger, more general structures.  To this question he responds,

It is true that we have to give up hope of ever acceding to a point of view that could give us access to any complete and definitive knowledge [connaissance] of what may constitute our historical limits. And from this point of view, the theoretical and practical experience we have of our limits, and of the possibility of moving beyond them, is always, limited and determined; thus, we are always in the position of beginning again.[8]

Here Foucault denies explicitly that we can somehow stand outside of our own historical context and “see” from a neutral, ahistorical point of view. Our perspective and knowledge claims are limited and shaped by the episteme we inhabit, which is not to say that we must relinquish all knowledge claims or even the possibility of knowledge or truth.  It does, however, require a more humble approach to the pursuit of knowledge, realizing that we do in fact have biases, limitations, and perspectives that may need to be challenged, dismantled, corrected, or broadened.

Commenting on the same passage cited above, Amy Allen observes that “Foucault now recognizes that the genealogist stands within the power/knowledge regime that she analyzes; thus, Foucault himself and, by extension, his thought are conditioned by the very conditions of possibility for subjectivity that he is trying to elucidate.”[9] Allen also agrees that Foucault has amended his methodological stance, in particular the idea that the archaeologist can somehow escape the influence of her own episteme in her theoretical investigations. But does this expanded methodology render ineffective or undercut Foucault’s ability to achieve the critical distance necessary to reflect upon and discover the historical a prioris of one’s own episteme? According to Allen—and I concur—it does not.  Rather, perhaps it signals that epistemai are more porous than “Foucault’s rhetoric” at times inclines one to believe.  “If this is the case, then it is a mistake to think that the only available options are being either wholly inside or wholly outside the episteme in question.”[10]

In brief, having conceded that Foucault altered his earlier post-structuralist, quasi-positivist methodological stance, I see no difficulty in affirming, on the one hand, that he has relinquished his earlier claims to methodological neutrality, while, on the other hand, maintaining that he still employs an archaeological methodology—albeit a modified version acknowledging our constraints as episteme-conditioned interpreters. Such a change goes hand in hand with Foucault’s expanded archaeology-plus-genealogy, which one need not view as a mere repetition of Nietzsche’s genealogy.[11]

But if Foucault has moved away from his earlier claims of methodological neutrality, then what real work does his notion of epistemai do? That is, if he admits that epistemai actually have a significant amount of conceptual overlap, then why should we think that our ability to understand some practice or concept in a previous episteme would be significantly different from, for example, how we attempt to understand a contemporary group’s seemingly unintelligible practice? Foucault’s response might be something along these lines:  archaeology’s synchronic focus enables us to see how in each episteme order is experienced differently because archaeology is concerned with conditioning rules (i.e., historical a prioris) specific to each historical epoch and with the arrangement of concepts and discourses within that episteme. For example, twenty-first century postmoderns, understand the concept “representation”; however, in our postmodern episteme, the concept “representation” does not have the same privileged epistemological function or status as was the case in the Classical episteme. Likewise, postmodern thinkers, though understanding the general concepts involved, do not approach the world by breaking down simple elements, mapping out their combinations, and then presenting them in table as a systematic representation of our current knowledge. In other words, this way of ordering the world systematically, taxonomically, mathematically, and so forth was peculiar to the classical period for a host of historical and other reasons because the conditioning rules for the appearance of what counts as knowledge and scientific discourse required certain concepts (i.e. representation) to function as essential or primary notions.  By contrast, in our current period, such concepts have a peripheral rather than a central role in our experience of the order of things.

Nonetheless, as Foucault himself realized, we need to complement our synchronic investigation with a diachronic analysis, which is precisely the function of genealogy. Here we have no choice but to start with our own culturally conditioned framework (which similar, I contend, to Gadamer’s notion of a “horizon”; more on this, perhaps in a future post) and retrace historically how concepts and practices have evolved and have been produced in relation to institutions and other socio-political apparatuses. Foucault’s conditioning principles are, of course, porous rather than rigidly fixed.  Historical a prioris are stable enough to be detected yet flexible enough for us to “move through” so that we can discern their meaning and function as situated and reconfigured in a different episteme.

And that my friends is how one can bake an (anti)humanist cake and eat it too!


[1] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 315.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 316.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 316–17.

[9] Allen, The Politics of Our Selves, 43.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See, for example, Foucault’s essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” One way to read this essay is to interpret is as a largely positive commentary on Nietzsche; however, one must take care to attend to where Foucault’s own voice emerges and where he merely explicates Nietzsche’s approach.  As with every other thinker Foucault appropriates, he never engages in a mere repetition of that person’s insights, nor does he think such is possible.

Part I: A Shout-Out for Foucault’s Amended Archaeology or How to Bake an (Anti)Humanistic Cake and Eat It Too

Several commentators of Foucault’s work have argued that his earlier archaeological methodology with its anti-humanist commitments cannot be harmonized with his later writings and their so-called embrace of the subject. Against this position, I argue that Foucault modified his methodology without completely abandoning it. Although one can find texts to make a case for Foucault the anti-humanist, quasi-positivist archaeologist, his move to an archaeology-plus-genealogy coupled with his explicit statements in later writings affirming our limited episteme-conditioned point of view, suggest that he himself recognized the shortcomings of his earlier work and adapted his position accordingly.Eating Cake

Undoubtedly, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault makes statements that put him at odds with, for example, a Gadamerian analytic affirming our hermeneutical horizons and non-neutrality. That is, in his early post-structuralist mode Foucault claims that the archaeologist must somehow divest himself of his own historically conditioned framework and step outside of the “positive unconscious” shaping him in order to unearth the conditioning rules or historical a priori particular to a historical period or what he calls an episteme. However, a huge gap in critiques along these lines is the failure to engage other texts such as, “What is Enlightenment?”, where Foucault makes clear that he no longer holds his former view.

In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, Foucault describes how his historical or critical ontology is different from yet indebted to the event called the Enlightenment. As he explains, his project “rooted in the Enlightenment” is a “type of philosophical interrogation” which “simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as autonomous subject.”[1] Foucault goes on to state that his connection with the Enlightenment tradition is not in terms of “faithfulness to doctrinal elements but, rather, the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.”[2] Rather than accept the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment—an either/or false dichotomy stating that one must either remain within Enlightenment rationalism or become a critic of the Enlightenment and “its principles of rationality,”[3] Foucault rejects this dichotomy and opts for a different path.

We must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment. Such an analysis implies a series of historical inquiries that are as precise as possible; […] they will be oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.[4]

Here Foucault admits that those living post-Enlightenment are nonetheless shaped by the effects of that socio-political, cultural, philosophical, and institutional event. Thus, he acknowledges that an event from a past episteme (the Classical episteme of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) can and does shape the subjects of a subsequent episteme (the Modern episteme of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).  The “determinism” he mentions is of course historical, contingent, and thus mutable. Our task as free (and I would add, rational) beings then becomes to investigate, analyze, and expose those limits that have been presented and accepted as necessary.

Foucault then criticizes what he views as a conflation of the (European) Enlightenment-event and (European versions of) humanism. The latter, humanism, he characterizes as a “set of themes” emerging periodically, “over time, in European societies” and “always tied to value judgments.”[5] Foucault observes that humanism as a concept is too vague, having multiple contents in different periods and having been employed and claimed by a wide range of groups—for example, Christians, Marxists, and Stalinists alike have carried programs of social “reform” under the banner of humanism. Yet, “[f]rom this, we must not conclude that everything which has ever been linked with humanism is to be rejected, but that the humanistic thematic is in itself too supple, too diverse, too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection.”[6] Though the first part of Foucault’s statement is itself vague, we may plausibly interpret it to mean that not everything characteristically or commonly associated with humanism—fighting for worker’s rights, prisoner’s rights, patient’s rights, upholding the dignity of human beings, speaking out against various forms of socio-political and economic exploitation of humans, and so forth—ought to be neglected. Such an interpretation coincides with Foucault’s own leanings as manifest in his writings on the prison and medical industries.

For Foucault to criticize the term “humanism” simply because its meaning changes over time seems completely inconsistent with his general theoretical commitments. Is it not the case that “madness,” “criminal,” and countless other concepts change in relation to their historical context (episteme), institutional “affiliation,” and function within differing discursive communities? Assuming an affirmative answer, I contend that what Foucault takes issue with is the ever-changing notion of humanism functioning “as an axis for reflection.” A few pages later, he enumerates specifically the three axes “whose specificity and whose interconnections have to be analyzed: the axis of knowledge, the axis of power, the axis of ethics.”[7] No doubt, knowledge, power, and ethics are also context-specific and manifest different meanings in different discursive disciplines and epistemai. Yet, there is something more basic about these concepts structurally speaking. That is, whatever they mean in a particular historical period, they occupy a fundamental place in each episteme and exert a wide-reaching influence over the body politic, shaping who we are individually and collectively. These three axes play a central role in Foucault’s “historical ontology of ourselves,” which, as he maintains, must answer the following questions: “How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?”[8]

None of the above is meant to suggest that Foucault embraces openly a traditional substantive humanism entailing the acceptance of some shared, transhistorical, transcultural quality, qualities, or essence. Because Foucault holds that the Enlightenment-event brought with it—even as it simultaneously failed in some ways to take advantage and develop this insight—an awareness of its own “historical consciousness,”[9] he is suspicious of humanisms that staticize some (preferred) quality or qualities of human beings and then refuse any philosophical (or other) interrogation of those petrified, alleged essences.  However, the issue is whether Foucault’s emphases on resistance tactics, reciprocal power relations, and emancipatory possibilities involves an implicit acceptance of some kind of substantive humanism.

Stay tuned for Part II…


[1] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 312.

[2] Ibid., 312.

[3] Ibid., 313.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 314.

[7] Ibid., 318.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 314.