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.