Per Caritatem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 316.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 316–17.

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

[10] Ibid.

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


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.


Politics-of-Our-Selves_Amy-AllenI recently came across Amy Allen’s excellent book, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory, and have found her discussion of Foucault in chapters two and three particularly helpful and insightful.  In chapter two, Allen offers a careful reading of Foucault’s relationship to Kant and concludes that Foucault does not reject, cancel, or write off the subject per se but rather a particular historical understanding of the (transcendental) subject as the source of all meaning. Of course, skeptical commentators will immediately begin reciting statements from The Order of Things, as well as other works in Foucault seems to rather clearly sign the death certificate of the subject.  Allen, however, engages a number of these “problem” passages, and in my view, offers a convincing counter-interpretation emphasizing the way in which Foucault works within the Kantian tradition utilizing Kant’s own vocabulary to transform the tradition.  Stated otherwise, Foucault performs an act of philosophical resistance via a reverse discourse of sorts.

So what does Foucault mean in the closing pages of The Order of Things when he speaks of hoping for a new opening for thought, a new episteme that will take us beyond “man,” which he claims is “an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (The Order of Things, 386, 387). According to Allen’s reading, “the call for the ‘end of man’ at the end of The Order of Things echoes Foucault’s call for a ‘true critique’ of the ‘anthropological illusion’ in the closing pages of his these complémentaire [Introduction à l’anthropologie de Kant, 127].  Critique, for Foucault, has both Nietzschean and Kantian roots; however, the former is often emphasized, while the latter is either unacknowledged, rejected, or so downplayed that it has little consequence in Foucauldian discussions of the subject and subjectivity. On Allen’s interpretation,

[w]hat Foucault is calling for is a critique of critique, which means not only a criticism of Kant’s project for the way in which it closes off the very opening for thought that it had created but also a critique in the Kantian sense of the term—that is, an interrogation of the limits and conditions of possibility of that which Kant himself took as his own starting point, namely, the transcendental subject. Such a critique is, in a sense, “transcendental” inasmuch as the historical a priori sets the necessary conditions of possibility that are constitutive for being a thinking subject in a particular episteme and, as such, are indirectly the conditions of possibility for all of that subject’s experiences. However, such an account is obviously not transcendental in the same sense in which Kant uses that term, inasmuch as our understanding of those “necessary” conditions is grounded empirically in an analysis of the contingent historical conditions that give rise to them and in which they remain embedded.[1]

Clearly, Foucault, as Allen points out, has transformed the sense in which Kant employed the term “a priori conditions.”  For Foucault, the conditions are neither necessary in modality nor universal in scope; they are historical conditions; yet, they, like Kantian a priori conditions, make possible intelligible objects, practices, discourses, concepts and so forth; however, for Foucault, these objects, concepts, etc. are intelligible within a particular episteme which is structured by (historical) rules themselves subject to change over time.

Continuing her discussion of how we ought to understand Foucault’s participation in the so-called “death of man,” Allen writes,

The end of man thus amounts to the revelation that human subjects are always constituted by and embedded in contingently evolved (and thus transformable) linguistic, historical, and cultural conditions. As Foucault himself put the point in a 1978 interview: “Men are perpetually engaged in a process that, in constituting objects, at the same time displaces man, deforms, transforms, and transfigures him as subject. In speaking of the death of man [in The Order of Things], in a confused, simplifying way, that is what I meant to say” [“Interview with Michel Foucault.” In Power, vol. 3 of The Essential Works of Foucault, edited by James Faubion. (New York: The New Press, 2000), 276].

As such, the call for the end of man is not a rejection of the concept of the subject per se, if by that we mean the notion of consciousness or the “I think.” Instead, it is a call for a critical interrogation and transformation of the particular notion of transcendental subjectivity first formulated by Kant and later taken up by phenomenology. The paradoxes and instabilities to which the modern age of man gives rise emerge only if man is taken to be both a finite object and a transcendental subject that serves as the condition of possibility of all experience. Thus, the claim that Foucault argues for the death of the subject appears plausible only if we conflate this transcendental conception of subjectivity with the concept of subjectivity itself.[2]

In short, Foucault’s comments advocating the subject’s demise must be taken not as a complete rejection of subjectivity or the subject itself; rather, Foucault’s criticism are aimed specifically at the notion of a subject shielded from all socio-historical and cultural influences—the ahistorical subject as sovereign originator of all meaning.  For Foucault, it is undeniable that the subject is socially constituted; however, the subject as a free being is also capable of (re)constituting him/herself because all the converging, intersecting, socio-historical lines which shaped the subject in the first place are contingent, not necessary.  In addition, Allen adds that Foucault himself “argues that Kant’s own writings on anthropology point beyond this transcendental conception and pave the way for the fully historicized conception of the subject that Foucault later develops. On this interpretation, Foucault’s call for the end of man is perfectly consistent with the project of reconceptualizing subjectivity carried out in Foucault’s later work.”[3]

Pointing toward an argument that she develops in chapter three, Allen ends chapter two with a foreshadowing of her conclusion.  “[A]lthough Foucault does rely in his late work on notions of subjectivity and autonomy, he radically reformulates these concepts; thus, they are not the same as the strictly Kantian and phenomenological notions that are taken up and transformed in his early work.”[4] Like myself, Allen does not see Foucault’s ethico-aesthetic turn as a significant rupture with or cancellation of his early work, nor (as we’ve seen) does she hold that Foucault has done away with the concept of the subject per se. Rather than, as Habermas would have it, a “total critique of modernity,” Foucault engages in an immanent “critique of critique”; he does not give us “an abstract negation of the self-referential subject,” but instead “interrogates its conditions of possibility. That interrogation is designed to show the historical and cultural specificity and, thus contingency of this conception of subjectivity, which in turn makes possible new modes of subjectification.”[5] In essence, Foucault performs an act of philosophical resistance via reverse discourse by simultaneously taking up and transforming Kantian categories and structures.  Or applying a jazz analogy, Foucault improvises on a Kantian lead sheet quoting Kantian melodies reharmonized in a postmodern key.


[1] The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory(New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 35.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Ibid.