Defense of Foucault on the Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment: An attitude, an epoch, or the maturity of historical agency?

In order to defend Foucault’s conception of the Enlightenment this paper addresses the principal criticisms to which Habermas subjected it. By evaluating the validity of these claims I hope to come to an understanding of the force of Foucault’s response to the question: what is Enlightenment? Abstract

The French philosopher Michel Foucault produced some of the most influential critiques of modern Western society. He characterized himself as a historian of “systems of thought” and probed into conceptions of power, politics, normality and subjectivity that all bore undertones relevant to a consideration of the Enlightenment. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, however, embarked on an acerbic evaluation of Foucault’s work for he perceived it to present a neo-conservative challenge to the “uncompleted project of modernity” and a work of “irrationalism” that contested the emancipating gains of the Enlightenment. Confronted with this broadside, and as part of a refusal to partake in what he called the “intellectual blackmail” of his opponents (313), Foucault decided to respond to the German writer by mounting a counter-attack that would rectify the misinterpretations of his opinions. The result was Foucault’s 1984 essay, What is Enlightenment? This work reveals Foucault’s attempt both to create the program for a historio-critical method based on Kantian thought that could reflect on a number of material practices, and to develop an attitude of modernity that could add a further perspective to debates of the Enlightenment. Schools of Thought

Foucault and Habermas are representatives of two of the most powerful projects within contemporary political philosophy. It seems impossible to discuss modern social theory without referring to them and their discourses that often differ enormously in both content and form. In order to understand the force of Foucault’s conception of the Enlightenment, however, it is necessary to comprehend the principal arguments and critiques of its opponents, in this instance, those of Habermas. Although these philosophers do not write strictly within their particular national traditions, it is essential to have at least a minimal understanding of the German and French philosophical schools in order to picture the ensemble in which they take their positions. In these intellectual spheres we find one topic that seems universal and unavoidable, one that has been contemplated “in various forms for two centuries now”, that is: the Enlightenment (303). This ambiguous and abstract notion had very different destinies in Germany and France. In Germany it was invested in dialectical philosophy, sociology and reformation and was presented by such names as Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. It also led to German Critical Theory through Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas. Habermas’ position fits with the Hegelian tradition in the sense that it bears an emphasis on totalities, universalities, and harmony. Nonetheless, Habermas butted against the pessimistic philosophy of his teachers to advise fervently against abandoning the project of the Enlightenment before its potential for emancipation could be fulfilled. For him, the true philosophical discourse of modernity must take a staunchly critical position based on distinct rational norms and values that have their roots solidly grounded in the contemporary project of Enlightenment. Elsewhere, as in France, the Enlightenment spurred the Descartian cogito and rationalist philosophy, positivism, and epistemology, the philosophy that emphasizes notions of prespectivism. Foucault’s work bears the marks of all of these discourses and due to his emphases on phenomenology and semiotic he has been categorized as a post-structuralist. Was ist Aufklarung?

Foucault begins his discussion of the Enlightenment with a reading of Kant’s essay published in 1784 in the Berlinische Monatsschrift as a...
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