Per Caritatem

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.

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