Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Foucault on Kantian Enlightenment

© Mukesh Williams 2010

Foucault understands Kantian enlightenment as blackmail. For Kant enlightenment is an “exit” and a “way out.” It is a “difference” that the present introduces with respect to the past. Therefore Kant’s Enlightenment is located “at the crossroads of critical reflection and reflection on history.”

Foucault believes that certain discursive systems—the ways in which objects, concepts, and enumerative modalities are organized—generate specific strategies that are finally embodied in themes and theories. He talks about a diffraction in discourse when two incompatible objects or concepts emerge under similar conditions and occupy the same discursive space (either/or). However, the conditions that become a part of the discourse exist outside the discourse as a kind of discursive constellation. Discourses are also shaped by authority which decides who can say and who can spend. The field of authority is in turn governed to some extent by the field of desire—fantasy, forbidden and satisfaction.

Kant introduced a new kind of philosophical inquiry in western thought that reflects upon man’s relationship to the present, his historical mode of being and his individual self as an autonomous subject. Kant according to Foucault introduced a permanent critique of our history and changed the philosophical environment we inherit. According to Foucault we should not get trapped in either accepting or denying the project of Enlightenment. Instead we should see it as an ongoing critique of our historical practices.

Foucault points out that we should differentiate between the concept of Enlightenment and humanism. The notion of humanism comes from religions, science and politics. The concept of humanism enters religion and ideology—whether it is Christian humanism or Nazi humanism—and creates a conception of man. Enlightenment forces us to reinvent ourselves, while humanism gives us an unexamined conception of man. Enlightenment does not seek “formal structures with universal values” but investigates into the nature of events—as to how we think and what we do with our thinking. It functions as archeology, design and method not as metaphysics or moral action which is the domain of humanism.

Foucault argues that there is no “complete or definitive knowledge” of our historical limitations. However in spite of knowing this we still wish to go beyond it. And this is seen as a contradiction in Foucault’s epistemology and thought. Foucault wants us to believe that though we do not have a definitive knowledge of our historical condition we always want to begin anew. We always wish to critique the present.

Foucault has been criticized by Jurgen Habermas for his lack of normative standards in his philosophical inquiry. How can we have a permanent critique of power without an analysis of truth inquires Habermas. Charles Taylor talks about rescuing freedom and truth from a discourse of discursive practices and power. The claims to power, Taylor argues, belongs to a linguistic field from which categories of truth and freedom cannot be excluded. How can we understand Foucault if he does not deal with our liberation from dominating forms of power? If we talk of illusion, mask or disguise that control us, then we should also talk about a standard of truth that can be used in unmasking them. A Foucauldian irony which does not take sides is not enough to resolve our dilemma. There should be one standard to critique the present otherwise it becomes a totalitizing exercise of philosophy. If there is no single standard we would lack a position from which to judge. A panoptical gaze is not enough.

The argument against the objections to Foucault is that such criticism forces him into a binary opposition. Foucault himself considers these objections a kind of Enlightenment blackmail. He interrogates the multiple uses of language by interrupting the epistemological, normative and rhetorical narrative through different claims on the subject. He asks questions to show how social practices shape us, bind us and limit our understanding of self, truth and rationality. His style of disruption follows earlier iconoclastic philosophers such as Socrates and Nietzsche. He is not anti-self. We can see in his writings that on the one hand he ridicules and dismisses the self that has come about as a result of power-knowledge regime, but on the other hand allows the self to establish a relationship with itself in an act of reconstitution. There are some pro-Foucauldian scholars who see Foucault’s language and lack of a single standard as exciting us into action rather than limiting us into inaction.

We can understand Foucault better if we see his understanding of modernity as an attitude, an ethos—“a mode of relating to contemporary reality.” Modern man therefore constantly tires to “invent himself” and produce himself; he does not possess an essence. So producing and inventing ourselves is what ethics means.

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