Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

Liberation Theology Reading List

With the generous help of several of my theology friends and other academic colleagues, I have put together a list of classic, contemporary, and secondary texts on Liberation Theology. The numeric list does not indicate ranking, prominence, or suggest an order in which the books should be read. However, the books marked “classic texts” were recommended multiple times by my colleagues and are seminal texts in the tradition. Lastly, I encourage you to leave comments suggesting other key works on Liberation Theology (or related liberating/emancipatory texts) that you have read and found valuable. Enjoy!Oscar Romero

[N.b. The book descriptions below are copied directly from and Goodreads unless otherwise noted.]

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own: The Spiritual Journey of a People. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “After twenty years, We Drink from Our Own Wells remains a classic expression of Latin American spirituality by a pioneer of liberation theology. Starting from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s counsel to root spirituality in one’s own experience, Gustavo Gutierrez outlines the contours of a spirituality rooted in the experience of the poor and their struggle for life. His aim is to reflect on the contemporary “road to holiness” — the passage of a people “through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.”

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent.

Brief Description: “On Job asks a direct and profound question: How, in the face of so much suffering among the human innocent, can we talk about God? Theodicy is, of course, the business most central, intellectually, to liberation and theology, and Gutierrez is first and foremost a liberationist Christian. While On Job does not unravel the mysteries of evil (nor should it, Gutierrez observes), it does follow clearly mid with integrity Job’s progress toward God-talk and understmiding. In doing so, the author, by analogy, states movingly and potently the spirituality of Latin American Christians today. In his conclusion, Gutierrez offers us an explicit summary of his ministry and of the volume’s: “…for us Latin Americans the question is not precisely ‘How are we to do theology after Auschwitzt …In Latin America we are still experiencing … the torture we find so blameworthy in the Jewish holocaust But Christianity everywhere, Gutierrez continues, will be matured and perhaps even “…scandalized at hearing a frank avowal of the human and religious experience of the poor, and at seeing their clumsy attempts to relate their lives to the God in whom they have such deep faith.” All in all, not a shocking book; not an exciting book, not an easy book. Just an instructive, compassionate, graceful book, and one lacking in all politics save that of our shared humanity.”

  1. Oscar Romero. The Violence of Love. [Selections from Romero’s sermons]

Brief Description: “These selections from the sermons and writings of Archbishop Oscar Romero share the message of a great holy prophet of modern times. Three short years transformed Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, from a conservative defender of the status quo into one of the church’s most outspoken voices of the oppressed. Though silenced by an assassin’s bullet, his spirit and the challenge of his life lives on.”

  1. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Twenty years ago, when the civil rights and “Black Power” movements were at their peak, James Cone introduced a revolutionary theology based on the African-American experience of oppression and the quest for liberation. The book brought a new perspective to theology in the United States. Cone contends that theology grows out of the experience of the community; the community itself defines what God means. Western European theology serves the oppressors; therefore theology for African-Americans should validate their struggle for liberation and justice. In seven brief chapters, he argues passionately that God must be on the side of oppressed black people and develops the concept of a black God, noting: “To say God is Creator means … I am black because God is black!” The anniversary edition recognizes Cone’s contribution to U.S. theology with a 50-page section of critical reflections by six leading theologians including Gayraud Wilmore, Robert McAfee Brown and Rosemary Radford Reuther. Cone responds to these commentaries in an afterword. The foreword points out Cone’s influence on Latin American liberation theology. The interplay among text, commentaries, afterword and preface provides a lively discussion and analysis of developments in black liberation theology over the past two decades. The book should be read for the clarity with which it demonstrates the relationship between theology, oppression and liberation, and for its historic importance in raising the consciousness of its readers about the possibility of viewing God from a black perspective. Anyone concerned about U.S. social history, liberation theology and racism will find the book of interest. It is particularly suitable for university and seminary libraries.”

  1. James Cone. God of the Oppressed. [Classic text]

Brief Description:God of the Oppressed remains a landmark in the development of Black Theology—the first effort to present a systematic theology drawing fully on the resources of African-American religion and culture. Responding to the criticism that his previous books drew too heavily on Euro-American definitions of theology, James Cone went back to his experience of the black church in Bearden, Arkansas, the tradition of the Spirituals and black folklore, and the black history of struggle and survival, to construct a new approach to the gospel. In his reflections on God, Jesus, suffering, and liberation, Cone relates the gospel message to the experience of the black community. But a wider theme of the book is the role that social and historical context plays in framing the questions we address to God, as well as the mode of the answers provided. Revised, including a new introduction by Cone, God of the Oppressed remains invaluable for scholars, students, clergy, and everyone concerned with vital, contemporary God-Talk.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator: A View From the Victims. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Jon Sobrino continues the magisterial christology begun in Jesus the Liberator. In that book Sobrino examined the identity of Jesus in relation to his message, his interlocutors, and the conflict that led to his death. In this second volume he takes up the Resurrection of Christ, the Christology of the New Testament, and finally the christological formulae of the early church councils. Throughout Christ the Liberator Sobrino writes from the reality of faith, as set in motion by the event of Jesus Christ, and from the situation of the victims — the “Crucified People” of history — particularly the poor of El Salvador, with whom he works. With Christ the Liberator Sobrino’s christology takes its place among the most significant contributions of Latin America to the church and theology today.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays [Classic Text]

Brief Description: The provocative title of these essays plays on a traditional Catholic slogan: “No salvation outside the church.” Insofar as it implies God’s response to a world marked by suffering and injustice, then the poor represent an indispensible test, a key to the healing of a sick society.”

  1. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary source].

Brief Description: This book features a series of essays focusing on the history and key concepts of liberation theology. Part I deals with history, method, and distinctive features of liberation theology. Part II deals with the systematic contents of liberation theology.

9.  Leonardo Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “This work deals with the basic questions that are tackled by liberation theology – oppression, violence, domination and marginalization. It then goes on to show how the Christian faith can be used as an agent in promoting social and individual liberation, and how faith and politics relate.”

10. Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Wikipedia]: “A primary reality to which Juan Luis Segundo responds is the fact that liberation theology, like any theological movement in its developmental stages, performs theological work in traditional ways: by looking to the biblical and dogmatic traditions. Segundo explains that liberation theology performed its theologizing while “feeling a responsibility towards both the problems of real life and the canons of worldwide theology”. However, it did theology in the only way it knew how, with the “means at its disposal”. While liberation theology did not adopt the learned style of academic theology and conform to its standards of detail and form in presentation, it also did not theologize in an aggressive, abrupt, way in order “to meet some inescapable pragmatic necessity”. In other words, Segundo sees a need for a critical evaluation of theological methodology and seeks to aggressively attack all the inconsistencies and contradictions that fill the myriad sociological and theological understandings of the world. Segundo is not interested in the content of liberation theology as much as he is trying to think about “the method used to theologize in the face of our real-life situation”. Segundo is primarily concerned with the liberation of the theological process, and notices a problem with the way theology is done that constricts liberation theology from flourishing in Latin America.”

11. Christopher Rowland (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is widely referred to in discussions of politics and religion but not always adequately understood. The 2007 edition of this Companion brings the story of the movement’s continuing importance and impact up to date. Additional essays, which complement those in the original edition, expand upon the issues by dealing with gender and sexuality and the important matter of epistemology. In the light of a more conservative ethos in Roman Catholicism, and in theology generally, liberation theology is often said to have been an intellectual movement tied to a particular period of ecumenical and political theology. These essays indicate its continuing importance in different contexts and enable readers to locate its distinctive intellectual ethos within the evolving contextual and cultural concerns of theology and religious studies. This book will be of interest to students of theology as well as to sociologists, political theorists and historians.”

12. Ivan Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Beyond Liberation Theology sets the stage for future liberation theology. Within, Ivan Petrella provides a bold new interpretation of liberation theology’s present state and future possibilities. In so doing, he challenges a number of established pieties: Instead of staying within the accepted norm of examining liberation theologies individually as if they were closed worlds, he dares develop a framework that tackles Latin American, Black, Womanist, and Hispanic/Latino(a) theologies together; instead of succumbing to the fashionable identity politics that rules liberationist discourse, he places poverty at the forefront of concern; instead of seeking to carve out a small space for theology in a secular world, he shows that only an expansive understanding of liberation theology can deal with contemporary challenges. The end result is a wake up call for liberation theologians everywhere and a radical new direction for liberation theology itself.”

13. Robert McAfee Brown. Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “In a manner that is vivid and lively, Robert McAfee Brown explains and illuminates liberation theology for North American readers who may have no previous knowledge of this dynamic Christian movement. Growing out of the experience of oppressed people in Latin America, liberation theology lends a transforming power to both the study of the Bible and the Christian duty to work for justice for all God’s people. With heartwarming, terrifying, and humorous stories, Brown shows the strength and significance of one of the outstanding developments in religious faith today and for the future.”

14. John J. Markey, Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North America. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “North Americans are enslaved by a false sense that self-centered idealism is morally good and necessary for achieving the common good. Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North Americans explores how those living inside the oppressive structures of the First World can be freed from false ideologies to achieve personal and socio-political conversion. Using the story of Moses and the Exodus, the book presents a spirituality of conversion for the privileged and develops a connection between the liberation of the oppressed and conversion of the privileged.”

15. Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. [Secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is a school of Roman Catholic thought which teaches that a primary duty of the church must be to promote social and economic justice. In this book, Christian Smith explains how and why the liberation theology movement emerged and succeeded when and where it did.”

16. Ivone Gebara. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Gebara’s succinct yet moving statements of the principles of ecofeminism shows how intertwined are the tarnished environment around her and the poverty that afflicts her neighbors. From her experiences with the Brazilian poor women’s movement she develops a gritty urban ecofeminism and indeed articulates a whole worldview. She shows how the connections between Western thought, patriarchal Christianity, and environmental destruction necessitate personal conversion to ‘a new relationship with the earth and with the entire cosmos.’”

17. Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Google Books]: “In this text, Mary Daly examines religion as a major cause of women’s repression over the last 3,000 years. From Genesis to the writings of contemporary theologians, she exposes the misogyny which still continues to flourish in Christianity.”

18. William R. Jones. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Published originally as part of C. Eric Lincoln’s series on the black religious experience, Is God a White Racist? is a landmark critique of the black church’s treatment of evil and the nature of suffering. In this powerful examination of the early liberation methodology of James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Joseph Washington, among others, Jones questions whether their foundation for black Christian theism—the belief in an omnibenevolent God who has dominion over human history—can provide an adequate theological foundation to effectively dismantle the economic, social, and political framework of oppression. Seeing divine benevolence as part of oppression’s mechanism of disguise, Jones argues that black liberation theologians must adopt a new theism that is informed by humanism and its principle of the functional ultimacy of wo/man, where human choice and action determine whether our condition is slavery or freedom.”

19. Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta (eds.), Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latino/a Theology and Philosophy. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Decolonizing Epistemologies builds upon the contributions of liberation and postcolonial theories in both philosophy and theology. Gathering the work of three generations of Latina/o theologians and philosophers who have taken up the task of transforming their respective disciplines, it seeks to facilitate the emergence of new knowledge by reflecting on the Latina/o reality in the United States as an epistemic locus: a place from which to start as well as the source of what is known and how it is known. The task of elaborating a liberation and decolonial epistemology emerges from the questions and concerns of Latina/os as a minoritized and marginalized group. Refusing to be rendered invisible by the dominant discourse, the contributors to this volume show the unexpected and original ways in which U.S. Latina/o social and historical loci are generative places for the creation of new matrices of knowledge. Because the Latina/o reality is intrinsically connected with that of other oppressed groups, the volume articulates a new point of departure for the self-understanding not only of Latina/os but also possibly for other marginalized and oppressed groups, and for all those seeking to engage in the move beyond coloniality as it is present in this age of globalization.”

20. William T. Cavanaugh. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. [Contemporary, secondary text]

Brief Description [from back book cover]: “In this engrossing analysis, Cavanaugh contends that the Eucharist is the Church’s response to the use of torture as a social discipline. The author develops a theology of the political, which presents torture as one instance of a larger confrontation of powers over bodies, both individual and social. He argues that a Christian practice of the political is embodied in Jesus’ own torture at the hands of the powers of this world. The analysis of torture therefore is situated within wider discussions in the fields of ecclesiology and the state, social ethics and human rights, and sacramental theology. The book focuses on the experience of Chile and the Catholic Church there, before and during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1973-1990. Cavanaugh has first-hand experience of working with the Church in Chile, and his interviews with ecclesiastical officials and grassroots Church workers speak directly to the reader. The book uses this example to examine the theoretical bases of twentieth-century ‘social catholicism’ and its inability to resist the disciplines of the state, in contrast to a truer Christian practice of the political in the Eucharist. The book as a whole ties eucharistic theology to concrete eucharistic practice, showing that the Eucharist is not a ‘symbol’ but a real cathartic summary of the practices by which God forms people into the Body of Christ, producing a sense of communion stronger than that of any nation-state.”

Gregory on the Compatibility of Augustinian Liberalism and a Feminist Ethic of Care

I have been reading Eric Gregory’s excellent book, Politics & the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship.  Although I do not have time to give a full review of the book, I want to summarize and highlight some of the themes that I have found intriguing and noteworthy. First, besides chapters devoted to Augustine and modern liberalism, Arendt’s Augustine, and Augustine’s relation to the Platonists and the Stoics, Gregory devotes an entire chapter to Augustine and feminist political theory (chapter 3). Augustine, of course, was not a feminist, and his views on women have been criticized on multiple occasions.  Nonetheless, Gregory shows how his variant of Augustinian liberalism and certain emphases in feminist theory are compatible and how bringing the two into conversation offers significant advances to current socio-political theory. In particular, Gregory believes that a feminist “ethic of care” provides needed correctives to deficiencies in liberal political theory, especially those social contract theories which tend reduce politics to mere (self-serving) interests.

Gregory engages several feminist theorists; however, I shall focus on his treatment of Joan C. Tronto. Rather than dismiss liberalism as yet another failed modern project, Tronto seeks to complete and correct its shortcomings. While Tronto advocates for care as a moral ideal for citizens, she does not argue for some naïve, overly sentimentalist notion of care blind to the evils and injustices of our concrete existence. As a feminist theorist, Tronto is acutely aware of the various asymmetrical power relations constituting the body politic and how dominant groups employ “race,” class, and “gender” for oppressive purposes. Her awareness of an ongoing interplay between, as Gregory would put it, love and sin is “relevant  for Augustinian civic liberals who draw upon Christian love and keep realist observations about power and sin in full view” (167). Unlike antiliberal critics, Tronto does not disparage rights-talk and the importance of political equality, nor does she promote a political theory that flattens all diversity and otherness. Rather, her ethic of care “emphasizes the values of attachment, community, and social responsibility,” while condemning the fictive main character of liberal theories, namely, man as autonomous, detached, and (purely) rational.  Like other feminists, Tronto criticizes

this fiction in terms of a hypermasculine understanding of autonomy linked to an abstract account of freedom as sheer power to initiate action. But, for Tronto, this fiction already is premised on a false choice between autonomy and dependence within the liberal imagination. The need for care does not fit into liberal models that see only autonomy or dependence. In reality, she claims “since people are sometimes autonomous, sometimes dependent, sometimes providing care for those who are dependent, humans are best described as interdependent” (Moral Boundaries, 162).[1]

In short, Tronto brings to the fore failures in the liberal imagination, yet her solution is not to give up on liberalism as a viable political theory or condemn it as somehow inherently flawed and destined to produce nihilism. Rather, she unmasks the false dichotomies and choices liberalism creates—either pure self-interest or social responsibility—and argues for a non-naïve political theory that values cooperation, solidarity, and interdependence. In other words, she argues for an ethic of care with the potential to transform liberal thought and praxis; a care that “can help change the way we see the political world” (171). Even so, like many Augustinians, Tronto recognizes that an ethic of care can be abused, misused, and employed for unjust purposes. This should come as no surprise to Augustinian liberals, who, following the lead of the North African saint, hold no utopian views regarding political regimes, democratic or otherwise. That a rhetoric of care can be used for exploitative purposes “should not mean that liberal democracies can proceed as if care is not necessary for a political practice responsive to injustice, persons in need, and the social conditions that frustrate human flourishing” (171).

Tronto’s focus on care and creating new values for democratic citizens is consonant with Gregory’s larger project of promoting “an Augustinian ethic of citizenship for the morally ambivalent conditions of liberal democracy”(13)—an ethic which takes seriously the need to cultivate virtuous citizens whose various loves respect the dignity and difference of others.

I hope to blog more on Gregory’s insightful book in the months to come, as it has given me much food for thought.


[1] Politics and the Order of Love, 167.

Feminist Perspectives on Music as Performative and Political

Related to my previous post on the philosophy of music, I want to say a few words about feminist perspectives of music, which like Adorno’s and Attali’s accounts are also attuned to the social and political dimensions of music. In particular, feminist musicologists such as Susan McClary and Ruth A. Solie seek to unearth the various ways that patriarchal narratives and practices have shaped our views of music. Keeping with certain shared feminist philosophical and political concerns, feminist theorists promote a diverse, multiple, inclusive view of music and are suspicious of theories limiting what counts as “genuine” music. Highlighting that such narrowly defined accounts have tended to portray Western, male-dominated, European (classical) music as the norm or ideal form of music, feminist theorists show how female composers and performers have been systematically excluded from making significant contributions to this musical “canon.” Rather than stress static, homogeneous, ideal musical forms, feminist musicologists emphasize diverse musical styles and dynamic musical practices—practices arising from particular historical periods and addressing specific socio-political concerns. As with other cultural practices, music too informs our views of “gender.” As a social force, music can help both to solidify and to subvert “gender” stereotypes.

Although unified with respect to their common goal of liberating women from all forms of patriarchal oppression, feminist music theorists employ diverse and, at times, conflicting philosophies and strategies. For example, some feminists appeal to an alleged “feminine essence” rooted in biological differences between the sexes. Consequently, those working in this vein of feminist thought argue for a distinctly female or matriarchal art, characterized by “natural” feminine traits—traits or characteristics often set in opposition to “natural” male traits. Perceiving dangers in the gender essentialism underlying the concept of matriarchal art, other feminist theorists articulate a social constructivist account of “gender,” applying constructivist theoretical principles to their analysis of music. That is, just as “gender” is constructed via socio-political practices, institutions, cultural narratives, and the like, so too our understanding of what “true” music is, who counts as a “master,” and what counts as an ideal musical work or performance is shaped by our views of “gender.” Thus, music, like “gender,” is performative and political, taking shape through embodied practices and emancipatory struggles.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., 330.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 326–27.

[7] Ibid., 326.

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

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

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