Lecture on Michel Foucault  (1926-1984)

Dr. Ronald Jeremiah Schindler


In his What is Enlightenment?, Foucault states that


Criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but  rather as an historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying. In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental…. Its is genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method.


Professor Foucault was influenced by the writings of Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. He attempted to integrate knowing, willing, and judging, the different aspects of reason, into the unity of praxis. He emphasized the Greek concept of care for self, particularly in its carnal aspects and in the mentoring of Greek male youth; hence, was highly andocentric in his world view. He was much concerned that the Enlightenment ideal of progress He thought that modernity isolated the individual and subjugated him to the oppression of reason in its institutional and cultural forms. By aestheticizing the self, he gave priority of feelings and its intensification over reason. He believed in the ideal of beauty that gave rise to the sublime that could not be put into words.


Foucault was concerned with the problematique of the universal abstract versus the particularity of lived content, giving epistemological preference to the latter since it could be directly apprehended. The universal encompassed reason and hence was too abstract to be other than visionary and even oppressive in favoring the status quo. Reason partook of Auschwitz in which reason finds its ultimate home in technology and the mass manufacture of death (genocide) in the authentic mode of a Heidegger. Society was carceral and disciplined its citizens to severe constraints that led to repression of life’s basic instincts. To discipline was to punish. He believed in S and M practices, sexually, to develop an ethics of danger. For him that was parrhesia to live your truth. He was also the prophet of destiny in which you had a lifestyle to which you should adhere; even it put you beyond the law. He believed that philosophers should be sages who embodies wisdom and could serve as moral exemplars in the heroic mode to youth. As for academia, he though of professors as practitioners of techne and hence they really did not have a calling any more noble than that of a plumber. His model really went back to Virgil and the poets, emphasizing the spoken word rather than the written word that reifies reality.


The attitude of care led to horizontal emancipation in society where there could be a semblance of equality, as opposed to the vertical integration of a modern society that atomized people into a pseudo equality in which they were powerless and administered to by punitive agencies of the bureaucracies of state and society. He equated madness and civilization, advocating strategic communicate action to overcome it. Ethos and Eros became vehicles for personal expression and freedom.


The writer is to engage in permanent critique as a form of praxis. He thought of the beauty fashion complex as having given rise to feminism to fight the subjugation of women who were the victims of strategic oppression, much like homosexuals. His view was that of counterdiscourse in which there would be a resituating of life worlds by marginalized groups in society to create new foci of power to resist oppression. He felt that discourse in society was male dominated. . He had an emancipatory antiestablishment view of countering strategic power with moral reason through an ethics of care. Practical reason would be mediated by a dialectics of reason in which there would be ages of successive overcomings of instruments and agencies of oppression with no guarantee of any ultimate victory or finality in form by a historicized freedom. The ethics was in doing battle to the death.



Michel Foucault and Juergen Habermas: A Comparison


Michel Foucault denigrated dialogical ethics and the whole Enlightenment project of Reason. He thought that art and feelings, expressed through sexuality, embodied the highest feelings of man. He resembles Nietzsche in this respect. Reason had been captivated by the institutions of modern society and was instrumental in disciplining the body to augment the power of the society and state in order to colonize its various domains. Hence, modern society was oppressive. He disagreed with the universal claims of reason; he saw human interest only in their particularities; truth could only be partial.


His ideological antagonist was Habermas who believed that humans were perfectible and knowledge infinite. Foucault rejected such claims of a dialogical ethics in a counterdiscourse. Foucault thought that power had to be deconstructed to show how human interests had a power motivation, even with the universities. He thought that professors served the interests of the powers that be and not truth for its own sake. Habermas had no such idea. He thought that the unforced force of the better ideas prevails in an open market place of competing paradigms of knowledge. Habermas was all inclusive in his speech acts—open to the world. Foucault thought that was idealistic and not useful, in other words utopian. Habermas admired the classical natural rights advocated by Kant and his emphasis on both pure and practical reason in tandem with the the civic republicanism of Rousseau. Ultimately, Habermas thought that there could be a democratic state of a global nature. Foucault contrarily believed that there could be only islets of liberation, in the individual body, even accentuated by the infliction of pain to intensify the experience of living. Sexual minority groups too found a champion in Foucault. In other words, Foucault championed the wretched of the earth by political praxis. Habermas distances himself from political engagement as the incarnation of the German Mandarin philosopher. Nonetheless, his encyclopedic knowledge has no equal in the moral and social sciences. The study of morals cold be empirical but not in the way of studying the natural sciences. Foucault thought of morality as a slave mentality in which the masters lorded over the slaves, the strong over the weak. Habermas thought there had to be an emancipatory thrust to science if the Enlightenment ideals were to be obtained. That entailed a philosophical scheme free of grand theory. He worked with limited hypotheses to achieve small gains on which to build a more human and tolerant future society. Habermas wanted a complete makeover of man, in contrast.


Nietzschean in nature is the theme of Foucault who thought that reason degenerated human beings by denying the needs of the natural man, as opposed to the socialized man who has to conform to the monetarization and bureaucratization of society, as Habermas put it. The latter said evil is the commodity to commodity relationship between human beings. Foucault found evil in reason in that it attached itself to totalitarian goals such as the communist man of the former Soviet Union and the homo oeconomicus of American consumer society, where false status accrues by spending moneys that you do not have through credit cards in the often false expectation that your earnings in the future will be much greater. Pure reason enunciates prophetic hopes that seldom can be achieved, especially in its totalizing sense. The flip side of reason is false consciousness, in which a person entertains a delusional representation of reality that cannot be realized. It is the equivalent of neurosis in the sense of Freud, and madness for Foucault. If you lose your job, then you are no longer considered a man in our society that measures worth by current productivity. Foucault lived by the deed rather than by the prescriptions of a civilized capitalist economy, which necessarily itself had to be barbaric in its consequences of systematizing and structuring society to serve the profit motive.


He wrote several key books on the above topics.


            The Order of Things

            Madness and Civilization

            Discipline and Punish

            The History of Sexuality