Foucault Contra Habermas: Enlightenment, Power, and Critique

By Wong, Day | Philosophy Today, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Foucault Contra Habermas: Enlightenment, Power, and Critique


Wong, Day, Philosophy Today


In a critique of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, Habermas (1982) comments that enlightened thinking has been understood as an opposing force to myth, and yet Horkheimer and Adorno proclaim that "myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology." In Habermas's view, the critique of enlightenment provided by Horkheimer and Adorno is one-sided and totalizing. What it sees about enlightenment is a domination of an objectified external nature and a repressed inner nature; what it sees is: enlightenment is domination. Habermas criticizes this view of enlightenment as one-sided since it fails to affirm the achievements of the Enlightenment which manifest elements of reason. Moreover, he contends that their critique is totalizing since it turns against reason and deprives itself of the ground of critique.

In Habermas's view, Foucault's critique has made the same mistake.1 He comments that Foucault's totalizing critique turns against truth and deprives itself of the ground of critique. For him, Foucault's last essays on Enlightenment demonstrate that he has come to recognize the mistake he made and seeks to have a notion of reason to ground his critique. Habermas says, Foucault

contrasts his critique of power with the "analysis of truth" in such a fashion that the former becomes deprived of the normative yardsticks that it would have to borrow from the latter. Perhaps the force of this contradiction caught up with Foucault in this last of his texts, drawing him again into the circle of the philosophical discourse of modernity which he thought he could explode. (Habermas, 1986:108)

For Habermas, Foucault's later writings, which identify the connection of his project with the Enlightenment, represent a pro-Enlightenment stance which contradicts his anti-Enlightenment position in the earlier work. Some critics, arguing in line with Habermas, view Foucault's later essays as an indication of Foucault's moving away from his earlier position, and toward a convergence with Habermas's position. For example, Norris (1995) contends that Foucault was moving to embrace a Kantian position and to reject the ultra-relativist orthodoxy of his Nietzschean skepticism displayed in the earlier work. Ingram (1995) and McCarthy (1990) suggest that, after taking Foucault's later works into account, Foucault's studies should be understood as a continuation and enrichment of the critical-theoretical tradition of Habermas rather than a break from or an antithesis of it.

No one can deny that Foucault has, indeed, come to identify Enlightenment as a certain attitude, a certain philosophizing ethos, which has affinities with his project. But does it mean that Foucault is now identifying with the Enlightenment and seeking to remain within its tradition? Does it mean that Foucault is now, as Habermas does, affirming the achievements of the Enlightenment and treating them as elements of reason that have to be preserved? Has Foucault adopted, as Habermas and some critics see it, contradictory positions in his earlier and later discussions of Enlightenment?

This essay will answer the above questions by examining Foucault's works on Enlightenment. In discussing Foucault's views of Enlightenment, I do not only intend to clarify the differences between Foucault and Habermas on the subject of Enlightenment, power and critique, but also to elaborate Foucault's insights for Habermas's theory. I understand this article as an attempt to recast the Habermas/ Foucault debate.2 For insofar as the debate did take place, the amount of discussion by each philosopher about the other was unintentionally lopsided in Habermas's favor. Habermas (1987a) devoted two chapters of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity to criticizing Foucault, but as the book was published after Foucault's death, it received no reply. This article can be seen as providing a certain reply to Habermas's criticism. More importantly, the debate has often been construed in Habermas's terms and hence results in a failure to appreciate the extent and nature of Foucault's insights. …

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