Part III: Fanon and Foucault on Humanism and Rejecting the “Blackmail” of the Enlightenment

HumanismBy connecting what I have written in my two previous posts [part I, part II] regarding Foucault’s critique of humanism with his promotion of local rather than global projects for socio-political change, we can highlight additional consonant as well as dissonant places with respect to Foucault’s complex response to humanism vis-à-vis Fanon’s view. As Foucault himself states, 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.[1] Given Foucault’s predilection in his writings to side with the marginalized, we want, as I suggested earlier, to add to his general statements about local transformations examples such prisoners’ or workers’ rights. However, is this a legitimate Foucauldian move, or does it require Foucault to make certain metaphysical commitments that he finds unsavory?

Clearly, Foucault believes in and prefers “these partial transformations” noted in the previous paragraph; 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.”[2] Yet, Foucault, in contrast to Fanon, is reticent to accept the idea of human rights as necessarily linked to some kind of universal, transcultural  human nature.  For Fanon, who presupposes a shared nature common to all humans irrespective of “race,” ethnicity, gender, and so forth, it follows that all humans possess certain rights which should never be violated. For example, because human begins are free agents in a way different from all other animals, they ought not be treated as things. To do so is to violate one of their fundamental rights qua human beings.  Foucault, as I have argued, assumes a minimalist metaphysical position in that his account takes for granted that humans possess rational and volitional capacities. However, as I read Foucault, even if he were to make explicit his minimal metaphysical commitments, he would not want to claim that certain fundamental rights follow naturally or necessarily from these rational and volitional structures. Rather, I imagine that he would claim that whatever rights appear in our archaeological and genealogical analyses of an historical episteme are specific to the particular socio-political institutions and cultural practices of that episteme. If this is correct, then it sounds a significant philosophical dissonance between these two thinkers; interestingly, this dissonance. Rather than ending on a dissonant note (as the two thinkers do have a great deal in common), one might point out that both Foucault and Fanon are critical of “Man,” that is, “Man” as sovereign subject and originator of all meaning.  Given this critical stance, a harmonization of the two thinkers’ position might translate as follows: the particular socio-historical “Man” in needed of de-throning just may turn out to be equivalent to the white, male, European imperialist imposed qua norm.  If so, then that particular subject construction is indeed worth putting to rest.

Returning to Fanon, his vision throughout his works was underwritten by a call to human solidarity, a challenge to both blacks and whites and to all human beings to “move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born.”[3] Uninterested in debates as to which “race” was superior and which inferior, Fanon asks, “[w]hy not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other? Was my freedom not given me to build the world of you, man?”[4] Like Foucault, Fanon refused to accept contingent, historically-formed narratives as universal and necessary truths.  Nor was Fanon content to succumb to the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment. Note, for example, the ambivalence in his largely negative description of Europe’s mixed contributions to human history:

The Third World must start over a new history of man which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man, the pathological dismembering of his functions and the erosion of his unity, and in the context of community, the fracture, the stratification and the bloody tensions fed by class, and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, the racial hatred, slavery, exploitation and, above all, the bloodless genocide whereby one and a half billion men have been written off.[5]

Rather, Fanon sought to transform and re-form a truly universal humanism appreciative of all cultures, embracing the “reciprocal relativism” of each for the purpose of mutual enrichment and genuine fraternité[6]—humanism as a symphony composed of many cultural voices, each of which has a distinctive part contributing to the beauty of the whole (ongoing) composition. Fanon’s historically-sensitive humanism neither turns a deaf ear to the cries of lives lost to the colonial project, nor chases frantically after “European achievements,” “increased productivity,” or a nostalgic return to nature.[7] Fanon’s quest began and concluded with a call to “reexamine the question of man,” “to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.”[8]


[1] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 316.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 206.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 238.  Another passage highlighting this same begrudging acknowledgment of positive aspects of Europe is the following:  “[a]ll the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated them” (ibid., 237). Fanon, of course, continued to draw upon (not uncritically) the insights of Sartre, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, and numerous other European thinkers.  See also, Robert Young, Postcolonialism, 274–83, esp. 276.  Differentiating Fanon from other Anglophone and Francophone Marxists, Young writes: “He [Fanon] always remained intellectually centered in Paris, and never resisted European thought as such, as much as he resisted European domination of the colonial world. A product of the western-educated elite, Fanon used the resources of western thought against itself” (276).

[6] Fanon, Toward the African Revolution, 44.  In the final chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon expresses similar sentiments: “we do not want to catch up with anyone. But what we want is to walk in the company of man, every man, night and day, for all times. It is not a question of stringing the caravan out where groups are spaced so far apart they cannot see the one in front, and men who no longer recognize each other, meet less and less and talk to each other less and less. […] if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers” (238, 239).

[7] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 237, 238.

[8] Ibid., 237, 236. As Young emphasizes, we must avoid flattening Fanon’s complex, multilayered view of Europe, in particular the European intellectual tradition. Referencing Fanon’s closing remarks in The Wretched of the Earth issuing a call to leave Europe behind, Young reminds us that “Fanon’s own theoretical formulations remain European in orientation, above all towards Sartre,” who “was one of the very few European philosophers and intellectuals who made the issue of colonialism central to his work” (Postcolonialism, 281).

Part II: Fanon and Foucault on Humanism and Rejecting the “Blackmail” of the Enlightenment

HumanismAt this point, it is instructive to engage Foucault’s reflections on his own relationship to the Enlightenment in order to highlight later several commonalities between his and Fanon’s critical yet not dismissive attitude toward this complex socio-political, philosophical movement. In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, Foucault describes how his historical or critical ontology is different from yet indebted to the Enlightenment “event.” 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] This is a concise summary of what I have labeled the “double-construction” of subjects, which Foucault seeks to hold in tension rather than reduce to one side or the other. (We see this same awareness of the “two sides” of subject-construction in Fanon). 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. In other words, he acknowledges that an event from a past episteme (the Classical episteme of the 17th and 18th centuries) can and does shape the subjects of a subsequent episteme (the Modern episteme of the 19th and 20th 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. Fanon wholeheartedly agrees.

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, he adds, “[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 workers’ rights, prisoners’ rights, patients’ 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 or jettisoned. 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.”[7] A few pages later, for example, 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.”[8] 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?”[9]

None of the above is meant to suggest that Foucault embraces openly a traditional 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,”[10]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.

Foucault’s advocacy for a critical ethos via an historical ontology of ourselves takes its 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.”[11] 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].”[12]

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.”[13]

Foucault then highlights his amended archaeology, or what I described previously as his expanded 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.”[14] Here he underscores the historical, contextualized character of his investigations, which is also to admit that knowledge unearthed via his expanded archaeology is partial, historically-restricted, and thus always open to revision. From the many discursive events it analyzes, archaeology proceeds synchronically, extracting historical conditioning rules (historical a prioris), to which genealogy operating diachronically provides a fitting 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.”[15] Once again, we find significant overlaps in Foucault and Fanon, namely, both are concerned with unmasking the historical, contingent, and socio-political character of subject-formation, which is all too often disguised as necessary and universal.


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

[2] Ibid., 312.

[3] Ibid., 313.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 314.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 318.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 314.

[11] Ibid., 315.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 316.

Part I: Fanon and Foucault on Humanism and Rejecting the “Blackmail” of the Enlightenment

HumanismFanon’s affirmation of a common nature uniting all humans motivates (in part) his desire to articulate a new, more inclusive, “race”-conscious humanism, something much different than the Eurocentric humanism(s) promoted by the Enlightenment yet not completely severed from the latter either. Fanon’s experiences as a black other in white, colonial, “Manichean” world, as Ahluwalia points out, “created the conditions that necessitated the new humanism,” which “was not a radical break with Enlightenment humanism, because of the way in which he drew on Marxism and existentialism”; even so, Fanon became increasingly aware of the need to expand, deconstruct, and revise the previous categories “because the issue of race problematized Marxist universalism.”[1] As many scholars have noted, the term “humanism” has many meanings and variants; yet, a common thread in most descriptions of humanism, including those preceding the Enlightenment, is an appeal to some universal, shared human nature, structure, or set of capacities distinguishing humans from other animals and thus granting them a unique dignity and worth. Disagreements ensue, as one can imagine, over which capacities to include, how to define those capacities, and how to define and specify “human nature.” In addition, historically speaking, various humanisms or humanistic strains have been taken up by religious and socio-political movements—from American Christianity in the Antebellum period to the European colonizing project to Stalinism—touting equality and liberty for all while simultaneously exploiting and even exterminating those scripted as inferior, subhuman, or a threat to “progress.”  Given its unsavory historical track record, one can understand the postmodern suspicion of humanistic grand narratives.

Nonetheless, might it be possible and worthwhile to recover certain humanistic themes both ancient and modern, improvising and reharmonizing them in a more historically-attuned multi-key composition whose final movement continues to be written? Once again, it is helpful to bring Fanon and Foucault into conversation. In the closing section of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon underscores the need for the colonized subject to be future-oriented and to actively reject the white mythos while creatively carving out a new present. For Fanon, given his Algerian context, this included promoting physical violence and outright war if need be in order to pave the way for a new humanism in which no man or woman would be subjected to an enslaved or colonized existence.[2] Yet, his advocacy for violence was never glorification of violence;[3] rather, it was understood as analogous to the violence that must be performed in surgery in order to remove or at least halt the spreading of disease so that healing may begin.[4] In other words, because of the entrenched, systemic, oppressive character of colonialism in which the world of the colonized is transformed into a normalized lawless space, Fanon believed the decolonization phase could only be accomplished through violence, that is, through an armed struggle for liberation.[5] Commenting on the instrumental role of violence in Fanon’s thought, Ahluwalia writes, “[c]olonialism forces violence to become a cleansing agent which has the cathartic effect of creating a new identity both at the individual and collective levels.”[6] Even if one ultimately remains committed to non-violent forms of revolution, one must at least make every effort to grasp, or better, to feel in some way the bloody history of Algeria where men, women, and children were massacred en masse repeatedly for the sake of Europe’s “mission.”[7] Fanon, no doubt, felt that the burden of that history, and its carnage convinced him that violence—at least with respect to Algeria’s part in the unfolding drama—was the required passageway through which the colonized must travel in order “[f]or Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, [… to] make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.”[8]


[1] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 62.

[2] As Fanon puts it, “I was committed to myself and my fellow man, to fight with all my life and all my strength so that never again would people be enslaved on this earth” (Black Skin, White Masks, 202).

[3] Contra claims by critics such as the notable Hannah Arendt that Fanon makes violence an end in itself, David Macey contends that “[t]he violence Fanon evokes is instrumental and he never dwells or gloats on its effects. […] The ALN was fighting a war and armies are not normally called upon to justify their violence” (Frantz Fanon: A Biography, 475). For a similar argument against Arendt’s conclusion, see also, Young, Postcolonialism, 281.

[4] Ahluwalia develops this analogy between colonialism and disease, relating it to Fanon’s medical training and his strategy for decolonization.  See, for example, Out of Africa, 63–6.

[5] As Fanon’s writings attest, the Algerian struggle for liberation was no doubt his concrete working paradigm. See also, Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography, esp. the chapter entitled, “The Wretched of the Earth.” Given the atrocities committed against the Algerian people, Macey draws attention to the appropriateness of Francis Jeason’s book title, L’Algérie hors la loi (ibid., 476).

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Macey catalogues several vivid examples of the long history of violence carried out by the French on the Algerian people. In 1845, for instance, there were three occasions in which civilians (including children) and freedom fighters were driven into caves. The French troops then lit large fires in the entranceways, causing the people inside to die from “asphyxiation and smoke inhalation” (Frantz Fanon: A Biography, 476).

[8] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 239.

Fanon as “Specular Border Intellectual” Par Excellence

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_EarthFrantz Fanon, born on July 20, 1925, and a native of the French colony, Martinique, belonged to a small group of black Martinicans afforded the opportunity to study at the Lycée.[1] As Pal Ahluwalia notes, “[g]rowing up within the French system of education had a profound influence on Fanon,” one designed to impress upon his mind the idea of a natural, even necessary connection between France and liberty “that made every French colonial subject believe that they were linked inextricably to France.”[2] Seeing himself at that time as one to whom the French slogan, liberté, égalité, fraternité, applied, Fanon decided to join the Free French Army in 1944 to fight against Germany. His wartime experiences brought about a crisis in his identity. In Martinique, Fanon had always thought of himself as French. However, when he joined the French Army, he encountered his first bitter taste of racism both from fellow soldiers and from the French population—in spite of the fact that he had been awarded the “Croix de Guerre for bravery.”[3]Frantz Fanon_02

Returning to Martinique and attempting to piece together his fragmented identity, Fanon decided to utilize the scholarships available for war veterans and thus moved to Paris in order to study medicine at the University of Lyons.[4] He defended his medical thesis in 1951 and then began his residency in psychiatry at the Hôpital de Saint-Alban.[5] During this period of study, Fanon found himself in the midst of a community pierced with racial strife; yet, this was also a time when he was exposed to new political ideas. In October 1952 Fanon married Marie-Josèphe Dublé, and in the following year (November 1953), they moved to Algiers where Fanon served as medical director of Blida-Joinville Hospital, Algeria’s largest psychiatric hospital.[6] While serving at this hospital, Fanon “came into close contact with Algerians fighting for independence as well as French police officers, both victims of the colonial experience,” and eventually joined forces with “the Algerian freedom fighters in their struggle for independence from French colonization.”[7] Compelled by his conscience given the atrocities he witnessed in Algeria, in 1956 Fanon resigned from his position as medical director of Blida-Joinville Hospital.[8] That same year Fanon wrote Toward the African Revolution, in which he highlights the complex role Algeria played in the French colonizing project.

“Algeria, a settlement transformed by decree into metropolitan territory, has lived under police and military domination never equaled in a colonial country. This is explained first of all by the fact that Algeria has practically never laid down its arms since 1830. But above all, France is not unaware of Algeria’s importance in its colonial structure, and its obstinacy and its incalculable efforts can only be explained by the certainty that Algeria’s independence would very shortly bring about the crumbling of its empire. Situated at France’s gateway, Algeria reveals to the Western world in detail, as though in slow motion, the contradiction of the colonial situation.”[9]

In light of Fanon’s active involvement with radical political movements, he was expelled from Algeria in 1957. Now known as committed member of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Fanon was subject of several assassination attempts.[10] In 1960, he was diagnosed with leukemia and died the following year while seeking medical treatment in the United States.

As Ahluwalia underscores, “Fanon’s Algerian locatedness is critical.”[11] Employing Abdul JanMohamed’s distinction between a “specular” and a “syncretic border intellectual,” Ahluwalia categories Fanon as a specular border intellectual par excellence. According to JanMohamed, while both types are border intellectuals in that “they find themselves located between (two or more) groups or cultures, with which they are more or less familiar, one can draw a distinction between them based on the intentionality of their intellectual orientation” with respect to a particular culture.[12] In contrast with the specular type, the “syncretic border intellectual” is more “’at home’ in both cultures,” and “is able to combine elements of the two cultures in order to articulate new syncretic forms and experiences.”[13] While equally acquainted with and knowledgeable of both cultures, “the specular border intellectual” is not able to find a “home” in either cultures and operates in a liminal existence. Straddling multiple communities, “the specular intellectual subjects the cultures to analytic scrutiny rather than combining them; he or she utilizes his or her interstitial space as a vantage point from which to define, implicitly or explicitly, other utopian possibilities of group formation.”[14] Fanon, operating in his own “interstitial space” having experienced the contradictions of the colonial system, is compelled to challenge the Enlightenment’s proclamation of “the triumph of reason and the promises of the French empire that, at least theoretically, accorded to its colonial subjects the same rights as in the metropole.”[15] Fanon’s suspicions about the universal application of the French appropriation of Enlightenment-inspired narratives of progress and freedom for all eventually grew into discontent and disillusionment. As Fanon grappled with the “absurdity of the colonial world” and its “dehumanizing effects on the Algerian population,” he began “to consider the possibility of a new society in which both the coloniser and the colonised are transformed through a new humanism, one that is by no means the humanism of the Enlightenment.”[16]

Stay tuned for additional future posts on Fanon’s “historically attuned humanism.”


[1] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 56. Ahluwalia’s text, Out of Africa, stresses the significance of understanding not only Fanon, but Sartre, Camus, Derrida, Cixous, and a host of other “border intellectuals” in relation to their Algerian ties, both literal and metaphorical.

[8] Fanon published his letter of resignation in his work, Toward the African Revolution. Here are a few relevant excerpts: “Madness is one of the means man has of losing his freedom. And I can say, on the basis of what I have been able to observe from this point of vantage, that the degree of alienation of the inhabitants of this country appears to me frightening. If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization. What is the status of Algeria? A systematized de-humanization. It was an absurd gamble to undertake at whatever cost, to bring into existence a certain number of values, when the lawlessness, the inequality, the multi-daily murder of man were raised to the status of legislative principles. The social structure existing in Algeria was hostile to any attempt to put the individual back where he belonged” (ibid., 65).

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 56. As Robert Young points out, although Fanon “took no part in the FLN military campaigns, apart from organizing a new supply route through Mali in 1960,” he did “play a significant part in the international political campaigns which the FLN, more than the French themselves, realized was of almost equal significance to the physical struggle” (Postcolonialism, 277).

[11] Ibid., 57.

[12] JanMohamed, ““Worldliness-without-World,” 97.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. JanMohamed lists W.E.B. du Bois, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston as examples of specular intellectuals and playwright Wole Soyinka and novelists Salman Rushdie and Anton Shammas as examples of syncretic intellectuals (ibid.).

[15] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 41.

[16] Ibid., 54.

Part IV: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

Like Foucault, Gadamer has developed his philosophy in critical conversation with the Western philosophical tradition. Among the many significant dialogue partners Gadamer has engaged, Plato stands out as one having captured Gadamer’s attention in a special way. For example, with respect to his corpus as a whole, Gadamer’s writings on Plato outnumber his writings on any other thinker in the tradition. Although his interpretations of Plato are controversial in some scholarly circles, his discussions of the later Plato have earned him respect among political philosophers and classicists alike. Below I provide a sketch of one aspect of Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s theory of the forms. Then I highlight certain overlaps between Gadamer’s view of mutable forms and Foucault’s notion of historical a prioris and argue for an archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion, using a few musical analogies along the way.Archeaological Dig

Gadamer approaches Plato’s corpus by first looking at his later works (for example, the Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, and so forth) and then reading these as the fulfillments of what was presented in shadow-form in his early and middle dialogues. Not only does Gadamer find a great deal of continuity in Plato’s oeuvre, but his interpretation of a non-dualistic theory of the forms or ideas likewise makes Gadamer’s Plato resemble Aristotle in significant ways.  The ideas are not, according to Gadamer, the central focus of Plato’s philosophy.  Rather, the theory of forms or ideas is a presupposition Plato believes is required in our strivings for truth, understanding, and living well.  In a sense, the ideas or forms function in a way similar to Kant’s regulative ideas—as ideals toward which we must aim but never quite attain. However, as Brice R. Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer’s view goes beyond Kant’s regulative ideas and involves a metaphysical “thickness.” Gadamer holds that Platonic ideas “refer to the most basic structures or patterns of intelligible meaning that lend reality whatever intelligibility it has.”[1] In addition, he claims—both as an interpretation of Plato and as his own view—that we share a common world, although we no doubt interpret, decipher, linguistically approach, experience, and navigate that world differently and often in opposing and conflicting ways.

In short, Gadamer’s Plato is more like Aristotle in that both place the forms or metaphysical structures of things squarely in this world and not in some Platonic other-worldly world. These structures are logically distinct and can be distinguished mentally; however, they exist as an “a web of ideal relations, which are internally connected to each other in inseparable ways and at many different levels.”[2] Consequently, the ideas implicate one another and come as a “unified package”; for example, questions of justice will lead to questions of the good, truth, virtue, and so on. In order to attain a proper understanding of one notion, we must enter into the web as a whole.  However, our finitude, which as we have seen Gadamer wholeheartedly embraces, makes it such that we can only grasp (and partially at that), one strand or node at a time. We simply cannot know the web of ideas in its totality and all at once. To claim that we can is to claim that we know, as medieval thinkers put it, as God knows, namely, in uno intuitu. Moreover, when we focus on one strand or section of the web, we necessarily suppress or choose not to focus upon the other strands. Here Gadamer employs Heidegger’s notion of aletheia or truth as characterized by a dialectical movement between concealment and unconcealment.

If we connect Gadamer’s Platonic web of ideas and his more Aristotelian Plato, we can begin to see how a kind of movement (for us) in the structures or forms is possible.  Aristotle, of course, via his act/potency distinction was able to account for a teleological movement in plants, animals, humans and so forth.  According to Gadamer, Plato presented this same movement albeit mythically and literarily in his dialogues. Since the things of the world are themselves in motion given their movement from potency to act, could it be that metaphysical structures themselves are to some degree dynamic rather than rigidly static?  This is not to suggest a dynamism with no boundaries; instead, the notion is more of a structure that can flex, show itself differently in different historical periods, and yet retain a basic identity. In other words, if reality itself is constituted by a complex set of interconnected metaphysical structures capable of manifesting a flexible-multifaceted identity, then we ought to expect a multiplicity of subject constructions and textual interpretations across historical epochs (or in Foucauldian terms, across epistemai).

Wachterhauser refers to this flexible ontology as Gadamer’s “ontological perspectivism,” which claims that both things and texts “contain within themselves different ‘faces’ or ‘looks’ that present themselves in different historically mediated contexts in such a way that we can say that it is possible for one and the same reality to show itself in many ways.”[3] This brings us to what Gadamer sees as the crux of Plato’s philosophy—the relation of the one and the many. Gadamer states this explicitly in his essay, “Dialectic and Sophism in Plato’s Seventh Letter,”

[t]he assumption that there are ideas remains for Plato an inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the nature of discussion and the process of reaching an understanding of something. […] Far from being Plato’s philosophy itself, the assumption occasions his real philosophical endeavor.  As the Parmenides shows, a single idea by itself is not knowable at all, and here is the source of error which the young Socrates makes. In any insight an entire nexus or web of ideas is involved.[4]

Because each idea—justice, reason, virtue, and so forth—has its own distinct contours or unity (its oneness) and yet simultaneously is multiple as a result of its interrelation to other nodes in the web such as truth, equity, and decency, the notion of grasping an idea in isolation is a fiction. Thus, whenever we encounter the one, we also encounter the many, and with the presence of the (unveiled but in no way fully transparent) one there is also present even if absent the (hidden) many.[5]

Much more could be said with respect to Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato; however, from what I have sketched above, it is clear that the former’s recognition of our finitude, historical embeddedness, and epistemological limitations, in conjunction with his understanding of the metaphysical structures of reality as dynamic, function in a sense as correlates to his dialogical hermeneutics. That is, given our knowledge constraints and the dynamic-range built in to the ontology of things, subjects, texts, and works of art, we ought to expect multiple interpretations saturated with polysemous meanings— meanings whose flexible identity make possible a surplus of new meanings through interaction with diverse dialogue partners.

At this point, I want to turn to Foucault and his account of epistemai and historical a prioris.  For Foucault, each epistemai or distinct historical epoch has its own peculiar set of historically-formed and hence contingent conditioning principles, that is, his “historical a prioris.” These conditioning structures are dynamic, as are Gadamer’s structures; however, the former are dynamic in a much stronger sense than the latter. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Foucault’s historical a prioris are equivalent to Gadamer’s structures; however, given the shared interests of the two thinkers, a successful synthesis or fusion of their accounts would, I contend, produce a compelling philosophy yielding significant socio-political import.

Foucault’s conditioning rules are contingently formed rules or requirements stipulating what can appear as objects of knowledge, valid practices, and so forth. By contrast, Gadamer’s metaphysical structures are similar to Aristotlean forms;[6] however, Gadamer’s Platonic version of these forms allow for a kind of limited movement because the forms themselves are structured to allow the things they in-form to have diverse manifestations and appearances as they develop.  In addition, forms are not isolated but are part of a larger interconnected web, which, for finite historical beings like ourselves, cannot be known exhaustively or all at once. We know some aspects of some things discursively, and the movement and ongoing change in the things and in ourselves ought to compel us to a more humble epistemological ethos.

These differences notwithstanding, Gadamer’s web of ideas, particularly, his notion of transcendental ideas, play a more fundamental yet similar role to Foucault’s historical a prioris, which make possible the appearance and intelligibility of objects. As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer distinguishes ontological differences among the ideas. That is, he recognizes ideas functioning like genera and species and those functioning as transcendentals. The latter, which, in Gadamer’s formulation, include being and non-being, one and many, identity and difference, goodness, truth, beauty, and even motion and rest, cut across or transcend the categories of genera and species. The transcendentals make it possible for identity, unity, differentiation, and the like to “show up” at all. Analogous to the way that vowels when properly combined with consonants allow us to recognize words as such, “the transcendental ‘elements’ of discourse make it possible for us to both group together things in terms of various unities and differentiate them by recognition of difference. In this sense, […] they make all speech possible.”[7]

Likewise, the transcendentals are syncategorematic, as they are always present with the other ideas. “Whenever we grasp a determinate something we have an understanding of its being, of what and how it is, as well as what it is not: we grasp it as a unity of properties and a ‘true’ instance of its kind” and similarly with the other transcendentals.[8] In addition, we do not know the transcendentals by way of genera or species, nor in some kind of direct vision; “rather, they are always already there whenever we become aware of our own thinking.”[9] They are grasped as present with or in combination with other ideas. Again, this is similar to the way that vowels are understood not in isolation but “in their function of combining letters.”[10] As simples or primitives always present in complexes, transcendentals are grasped intuitively and cannot be further divided (logically speaking). Lastly, to claim that we have an intuitive understanding of transcendentals is not to claim that we have complete transparent knowledge of them. Gadamer stresses this point with his recognition of the crucial role of non-being or negation in our thinking. As Wachterhauer explains, we come to understand something not only by what it is but by what it is not. Not only positive but negative predicates play a constitutive role in understanding whom or what a person or thing is. Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from “nearly inexhaustible viewpoints.”[11] This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings, whose accounts include both positive and negative descriptions of what things are and are not. Such an ontological vision is both hermeneutically rich and yet retains an epistemological humility, which both Gadamer and Foucault value.

Acknowledging these differences, might it be possible to harmonize Foucault’s episteme-specific conditioning principles and Gadamer’s metaphysical structures into a coherent and valuable socio-political philosophy furthering Foucault’s (and Gadamer’s for that matter) critical project? By incorporating Gadamer’s metaphysics and ontology into his account of epistemai and mutable historical a prioris, Foucault would have access to non-constructed shared structures, which because of their web-like interconnections and flexible boundaries, would be both amenable to his episteme-specific conditioning rules and would provide the present-yet-absent background “space” needed to fill the gaps between epistemai. In other words, these interconnected metaphysical structures, given their identity-range and ongoing concealment-unconcealment dialectic, would give Foucault a way to explain the transitional movements between epistemai and how elements from past epistemai can be taken up in subsequent historical periods, be reconfigured and yet still recognizable as echoes of something else, and come to play a completely different role in the new episteme. These common structural yet non-identical overlaps across epistemai, in which former discursive elements, concepts, and practices are reharmonized in a new episteme and inhabit an organization “place” along a continuum of central and peripheral roles, support and strengthen a view of epistemai with porous and permeable rather than rigidly fixed boundaries and internal rules.

Just as Foucault is reticent to speak of historical a prioris as metaphysical principles, he is also reticent to make explicit claims regarding transcultural structures or capacities possessed by all human beings—even though his account presupposes such structures. We have also seen that Foucault’s expansion of his methodology to an archaeology-plus-genealogy and his affirmation in later writings of our inability to step outside of the conditioning of our own episteme allow him to overcome deficiencies of his earlier formulations. Foucault’s methodological amendment and the accompanying implication that the archaeologist too is historically conditioned share family resemblances with Gadamer’s notion of our socio-cultural and linguistically shaped hermeneutical horizons. Because they both affirm the contingency of these socially-formed conditioning factors, neither thinker advocates a social determinism locking us into a particular horizon or prohibiting us access to other historical periods.

Like Foucault, Gadamer, as Taylor points out in his essay, presupposes some kind of common human nature or shared transhistorical metaphysical structures.[12] Unlike Foucault, Gadamer acknowledges and makes explicit his appropriations and reharmonizations of ancient metaphysics to support a historically-friendly view of shared human structures.  In light of the fact that Foucault’s notion of power relations, resistance possibilities, and his analyses of active subjects and self-transformative technologies presuppose common volitional and rational capacities among humans, he has much to gain from joining hands with Gadamer and making these metaphysical assumptions explicit. Given Foucault’s expanded archaeology and his affirmation of our finitude and interpretative constraints, my proposed archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion would, if my account is correct, allow him to retain his innovative insights and philosophical contributions in a fortified form. Not only would his account become more coherent, but the emancipatory aspects of his analyses would be redoubled and their viability amplified and available for application to current socio-political issues.


[1] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.  Wachterhauser adds that Plato himself employs the metaphor of a “woven fabric” in the Sophist, 260a (ibid.).

[3] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 7.

[4] Gadamer, “Dialectic and Sophism,” 119.

[5] See, for example, Gadamer, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic,” 136–37.

[6] Foucault, of course, in no way depicts the historical a prioris as metaphysical structures immanent in-forming the changing things of the world.

[7] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 85.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 86.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] See, Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 140.

Part III: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

In light of the kind of openness I have detailed in the previous two posts [part I, part II] with respect to Gadamer’s approach to texts, works of art, and coming to an understand with the other, I want to encourage contemporary thinkers to reconsider the fruitfulness of Gadamer’s historically-friendly hermeneutics. In particular, his notion of a fusion of horizons, his acknowledgment of our finitude and knowledge constraints, and his emphasis on our need to be always open to new ways of seeing the other have much to offer philosophers, theologians, cultural critics, as well as theorists of “race,” ethnicity, gender, and sexuality (and this list is by no means exhaustive).Archeaological Dig

Although, as Gadamer acknowledges, I can only go through my horizon to reach the other, I am neither imprisoned by my horizon nor must I imprison the other by forcing her to conform to my horizon. Because horizons are historically contingent, culturally constructed, they are always revisable so long as I am willing and receptive to such revisionary activity. As Taylor observes, “[t]he road to understanding others passes through the patient identification and undoing of those facets of our implicit understanding that distort the reality of the other.”[1] But in order for this to happen, I have take risks and allow the other to genuinely challenge me; I must be willing to be “interpellated by what is different in their lives.”[2] When this risk-taking is fruitful and I come to see the other by way of an expanded horizon, two related changes take place:  (1) I recognize that a facet of my former way of thinking is particular to me, my culture or group and is not a universalizable feature of the human condition as such; (2) I perceive the equivalent aspect of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of that in which the topic at hand should consist.[3]

Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation in need of no further future revisions? Absolutely not. However, my understanding has been improved, and my horizon has been enriched or better “fused” as a result of listening to and being interpellated by the other’s horizon.  Undoubtedly, we will continually bump up against interpretative problems and places of, at least seeming if not actual, (partial) incommensurability; thus, there is always room for more horizon-fusing. “But we will have made a step toward a true understanding, and further progress along this road will consist of such painfully achieved particular steps.  There is no leap to a disengaged standpoint which can spare us this long march.”[4]

Thus far I have described the fusing of horizons as an expansion or enrichment of one’s former horizon. This is an accurate description; however, I want to offer a new descriptive metaphor, the improvisational attitude, to try and capture the permeability, as well as the semi-solid-(temporal)-stability characteristic of horizons. When a jazz small group—for example, a trio or a quartet—performs, each musician has an assigned part which contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole.  The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a wide range of chordal textures and colorings, as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what “connects” most easily with the audience.  When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results.  Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group.  If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression—both of which perhaps worked quite well the first and second times through the piece—while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies by adjusting her solo accordingly. That is, she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original, unaltered harmonic progression; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, “way of understanding” the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. A genuine understanding has been achieved through a re-harmonization of horizons. The example speaks to the fluidity of horizons, but we should also recognize the ability of horizons to solidify through shared practices and customs. For example, the pianist’s harmonic superimposition may catch on and become a regular practice associated with a certain style of jazz. This temporary solidifying-ability in no way translates into a permanent immutability, and the same is true for horizons. Gadamer sums this up nicely,

“Just as the individual is never simply an individual because he is always in understanding with others, so too the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstraction. The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion.”[5]

As contingently formed ways of seeing and engaging the world and others, horizons are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of re-harmonization—that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed by the other.

Another aspect of Gadamer’s hermeneutics that speaks against commonly held beliefs required for interpretative “objectivity” is his observation that our own pre-judgments and biases are made explicit in and through our hermeneutical struggles.  Our unreflective prejudices, in other words, often show up as such when they, recalling our musical example above, cannot be harmonized with the choral progressions (i.e., horizon) of the other. Stated slightly differently, we are not able hear our own assumptions and biases as dissonant until we risk “playing” them over the other’s harmony. So rather than abstract ourselves from the hermeneutical performance, we must remain engaged with prejudices, as it were, in full force. Rather than “disregard ourselves” as “historical objectivism” demands, we bring our pre-judgments to the hermeneutic table.[6] In so doing, we put our own prejudices and thus ourselves at risk. By allowing our prejudices “full play,” we are “able to experience the other’s claim to truth and make it possible for him to have full play himself.”[7]

Taylor’s essay also helps us to understand key aspects of Gadamer’s notion of a fusion of horizons. Though prior to the “fusion,” my horizon and that of the other are distinct ways of “understanding the human condition,” once the “fusion” occurs and “one (or both) undergo a shift; the horizon is extended so as to make room for the object that before did not fit within it.”[8] But as Taylor emphasizes, what has taken place is more than a mere extension of previous conceptual limits; it is better described as a “fusion” creating something new. For this reason, I have opted for the analogy of an improvisational attitude in which melodic lines and harmonies are constantly being re-harmonized in order to describe the act of ongoing horizon-fusing. It is not that the other’s melodic fragment or harmonic progression is completely foreign or unintelligible to me—otherwise, neither would show up as problems or puzzles.  Rather, they do not fit well within my present harmonic and melodic schema (i.e., my unchanged horizon). However, when a genuine fusion takes place, something has happened allowing me to, as Taylor puts it, “find a language” in which my understanding of the other has come about through an in-fusion of something of the other’s world in me. Mixing metaphors, my horizon has been reharmonized by the melodic lines of the other such that the other’s melody is heard undistortively in the new harmony. This is not to say that the other’s “melody” is heard exactly the same in my horizon as in her horizon. It is to say that the other’s voice has been preserved, neither muted nor silenced but continues to sound its melody within the new harmony.

On a related note, Taylor explains how Gadamer’s fusion of horizons avoids the “ethnocentric temptation.”[9] That is, because I attempt to interpret the other in the language we have created together (that is, my new horizon) rather than my prior un-fused language, I can avoid distorting the other by making him “intelligible” only if he passes through my Procrustean mold (my un-fused horizon). “[T]he problem is that the standing ethnocentric temptation is to make too quick sense of the stranger, i.e., sense in one’s own terms.”[10] An example of ethnocentric distortion would be to conclude that a people group with no written language and hence no written constitution must be, first of all, inferior intellectually to my group possessing both of the above, and, second, less able to transfer their traditions and to implement their laws. Here I have “made sense” of the other, but only by holding up my group’s practices as the standard. With this approach, whatever does not conform to my group’s way of doing things is a deviation. No fusion, expansion, or, using my metaphor, reharmonization of horizons has occurred. However, precisely what we need in order to avoid distorting the other, as Taylor puts it, is a “richer language,” a reharmonized horizon.[11]

As we move from our initial encounter wherein the other is strange and puzzling toward a fusion of horizons, we strive to locate “that facet of our lives that their strange customs interpellate, challenge, and offer a notional alternative to.”[12] To illustrate, Taylor gives an example of how a Gadamerian-reading of Aztec practices of human sacrifice might correspond to one’s own ritualistic practices such as the Catholic mass. Perhaps we will not be able to name what this common element between the two cultures is. We might be tempted to call it “religion,” as both practices involve a sacrifice of some sort and are ways of coming to terms with our common human condition.[13] However, here we must take care not to import unnecessary conceptual and other baggage from our horizon into the meaning of the term, lest we fall prey to the ethnocentric temptation. So we must “beware of labels”; yet, that the two sacrificial practices offer competing interpretations of some aspect “of the human condition for which we have no stable, culture-transcendent name, is a thought we cannot let go of, unless we want to relegate these people to the kind of unintelligibility that members of another species would have for us.”[14] Clearly, for Gadamer (and myself) the latter is not a viable option.

We have seen how our interpretation of the other’s practice and the other’s interpretation of her practice is not the same.  This is true even after a fusion of horizons has occurred because we both come to understand the practice under consideration through our original horizons, each of which involve different questions, struggles, cultural and institutional conditioning, and many other factors too numerous to list.  This non-identity of our common “object” of knowledge speaks to the party-dependence feature of Gadamer’s model of coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner. Our understandings of the other can and do improve, but their accuracy and correctness do not translate into an identical understanding that we now both possess. A corollary of coming to understand the other through a fusion of horizons is, of course, that we are changed. Genuine understanding of the other requires an “identity shift in us.”[15]

Then, by way of negation, Taylor spells out what Gadamer’s dialogical approach to understanding the other is not. First of all, it is not “[t]he kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered,” which assumes that the terms for understanding the other are already present in the rulers’ vocabulary.[16] Moreover, the “perks” that come with ruling—the stolen goods, the exploitation and instrumentalization of the other, and the like “includes the reaffirmation of one’s identity that comes from being able to live this fiction without meeting brutal refutation. Real understanding always has an identity cost—something that the ruled have often painfully experienced.”[17]


[1] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 304.

[6] Ibid., 299.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 133.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 139.

[13] Ibid., 140.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The full sentence (and then some) reads, “[r]eally taking in the other will involve an identity shift in us.  That is why it is so often resisted and rejected. We have a deep identity investment in the distorted images we cherish of others” (ibid., 140–41).

[16] Ibid., 141.

[17] Ibid., 141.