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« page 1  Reply to Gary Gutting’s review of Foucault's Critical Project: Between the Transcendental and the Historical (the review was ...»

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Reply to Gary Gutting’s review of Foucault's Critical Project: Between the Transcendental and the

Historical (the review was published in May 2003 in the “Notre-Dame Philosophical Reviews”,



Dear Gary,

I think that your review implicitly runs together three different issues :

1. whether Foucault should be read as a philosopher at all (when you say that his works are “primarily works of history, not philosophy in the traditional sense”).

2. assuming that he can be read as a philosopher, whether he can be seen as someone who was concerned with finding his own version of the transcendental in the form of the “historical a priori” and its subsequent avatars (when you accuse me of “simply assuming that he has a transcendental project in mind”).

3. if so, whether he succeeds or fails in this attempt (cf. your more specific analyses of my interpretation of archaeology, genealogy and the later texts on subjectivity and experience).

From what I understand, your answer to these three questions is negative: Foucault is not a philosopher, let alone a transcendental one, and whatever methodology he has is not deficient, or at least not for the reasons I mention. As the three issues are imbricated like a set of Russian dolls, I’ll address each in turn. The gist of my answer is that I think that while 1. and 2. can be defended unequivocally, some of my conclusions in 3. can be nuanced (although perhaps not for the reasons you mention). More generally, your review raises the question of what one should look for in philosophy, something for which I am very grateful as it allows me to question my own assumptions. I’ll offer a few reflections on that point at the end.

1. Should Foucault be read as a philosopher?

Perhaps the easiest way to begin is for me to let Foucault speak for himself:

My whole philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger. But I’ve never written anything on Heidegger and only a very short article on Nietzsche. Yet these are the two authors whom I’ve read the most. I think it’s important to have a small number of authors with whom one thinks, with whom one works, but on whom one doesn’t write. (my italics)1 That Foucault should speak of his “philosophical development” (and mention Heidegger and Nietzsche as his intellectual mentors) is hardly a surprise since he was trained as a philosopher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, did his DEA on Hegel with Jean Hyppolyte, passed the Agrégation de Philosophie, and taught philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Having received the most refined philosophical training possible in France, he wrote extensively on various philosophers, both in his books and in papers  interestingly (re: issue n°2, his interest in the transcendental), I’d say that quantitatively the one he wrote most about is probably Kant2 followed by Nietzsche (his yet

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unpublished 1970 course is on Nietzsche), Descartes, but also Husserl, Sartre, Marx, Plato, Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics in his last books. He also mentions a cohort of other philosophers (Fichte, Schelling, Comte, etc.). Furthermore, beyond his sometimes extensive analyses of individual philosophers, Foucault also offered (in the Order of Things) one of the best interpretations I know of the significance of the Copernican turn and its implications for the development of the various strands of philosophy in the XIXth and XXth centuries (the “Analytic of finitude”).

I suppose that one could write about philosophy without being a philosopher (as an historian of ideas, for example). But Foucault hated the history of ideas, which was one of archaeology’s foils; moreover, the quote above shows that in his own view, his very way of thinking was governed by philosophy.

This is indicated not only by the many conceptual borrowings he made from various authors (Husserl for the “historical a priori”, Nietzsche for genealogy, even the notion of archaeology is also in Kant), but also by the fact that his work, from beginning to end, is full of explicit or implicit dialogues with philosophers : for example, Husserl on the question of the historical a priori in the Archaeology of Knowledge, James on the issue of truth in Discipline and Punish, Aristotle on causality (as the four modes of subjectivation are obviously related to the theory of the four causes in Physics) or Kant on morality (in the Use of Pleasures), just to mention a few.

In consequence, I strongly disagree with your view that his use of philosophical language is merely a “casual employment of various philosophical vocabularies (…) to add suggestive allusions to his characterizations of his historical project”. For me, to read Foucault in this way is tantamount to weakening his position by making him look like a post-modern amateur, who would dabble irresponsibly with philosophical language without having the knowledge or the skills necessary to back up his use of the terminology. Many of his (numerous!) enemies have taken just this option, and denounced Foucault as an opportunist, who allegedly helped himself to the authority and intellectual weight carried by philosophy without being able to account for the concepts he uses, or the assumptions they carry. In my view, reading him as a philosopher is not only taking into account his own characterization of himself, but also a way of giving his work its full weight3.

As to whether his works are “primarily works of history, not philosophy in the traditional sense, I’m not sure what you mean by “traditional sense”  it seems to me that our current situation is characterized by the absence of any agreed upon definition of philosophy, which per se generates some freedom for thought but also difficulties as to the status of the discipline, especially compared to the human sciences (I’ll come back to that at the end). If you mean that he is not a metaphysician, then I agree with you (except for the short 1966-68 period). But it does not follow that he is primarily an historian, nor that there is a mutually exclusive relationship between history and philosophy in his work. That the latter has a strong historical component is obvious, I would never deny it; I also agree with you that among other things, Foucault is “concerned with forging a new approach to historical analysis” (one of the best expressions of which is the “historical nominalism” he defends in ‘L’impossible Prison, perhaps significantly with the help of another philosophical concept). But where we differ on is that for me, this “new approach” is not achieved at the exclusion of philosophy, but from a philosophical point of view, and with philosophical concerns in mind.

Foucault himself said as much explicitly :

“If someone wanted to be a philosopher but didn’t ask himself the question, ‘what is knowledge?’, or, ‘what is truth?’, in what sense could one say he was a philosopher? And for all that I may like to say I’m not a philosopher, nonetheless if my concern is with truth then I am still a philosopher” (PK, 66; my italics).

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So the last word, in Foucault’s own characterization of his approach, goes to philosophy. The reason he gives is particularly interesting for me. Indeed, that Foucault should emphasise so strongly his interest in knowledge and in truth, and link the philosophical character of his work to this concern is particularly relevant to my own reading of his work. As you know (and criticize me for), I have focused my interpretation on two claims : firstly, the idea that Foucault’s main project is an inquiry into the conditions of possibility of knowledge (what he calls first the “historical a priori” or episteme, then “acceptability”, then “problematisations”), in other words an investigation of what (depending on the epoch) is required for a discourse to be “in the true”, to take up his expression in the Order of Discourse (which he uses in a different way from Canguilhem’s). Correlatively, I have read the transition from archaeology to genealogy, and then to the analysis of problematisations as a series of methodological refinements whereby the question of the conditions of possibility of truth claims is refined further and further, from the decontextualised archaeological perspective to the analysis of the non discursive practices in which the space of acceptability is rooted. Since I have taken his concern for truth so seriously (like he himself does), perhaps it is not surprising that I should have read him primarily as a philosopher… but at any rate, I hope to have shown here that it was not without good cause.

One more word before I shift to the question of whether Foucault tries to renew the traditional understanding of the transcendental, which is my second claim. I do not mean to go overboard in the other direction and suggest that he should not be read as a historian at all. For all the reasons given above, my view is that he is primarily a philosopher, but he was obviously very concerned both with history and with historiography (but so were many philosophers). Interestingly, he was strongly criticized as a historian by many “traditional” historians (whatever that is!): a typical piece would be “La poussière et le nuage”, for ex. Conversely, P. Veyne is one of the few “acknowledged” historians to have defended him vigorously. Perhaps what makes him most interesting is that he has tried to renew both disciplines. As far as history is concerned, I don’t think that the methodology defined in the Archaeology of Knowledge is his strongest contribution (it takes too much from the Ecole des Annales). But he has introduced new concepts (such as that of “discipline”, “objectivation”, “apparatus”, “problematisation”, etc.) and thus disclosed the past in a sometimes amazingly different and fruitful manner (cf. his analysis of the examination, of normalization, etc). His insistence on adopting a nominalist approach and doing away with the referent has also helped to avoid the “mirages of retrospection”, as Bergson would say. As far as philosophy is concerned, he tried to historicise the transcendental, and thus to bring a non traditional answer to one of the most traditional questions of all, that of the conditions of possibility of knowledge. But this takes me back to the issue of transcendental philosophy.

2. Can Foucault be read as a philosopher with a transcendental project (in a modified sense)?

Perhaps I should clarify one thing immediately: I never meant to suggest that my reading of Foucault as a “transcendental” philosopher is the only possible, or that he would be nothing but such a philosopher. My perspective is clearly an interpretative one, which is meant to shed some light on his work, but not to encompass it fully (for example I have left out the pre-archaeological works, such as Madness and Civilisation, his commentary on Binswangler, etc). However, with these qualifications in mind I do think that a good case can be made for such an interpretation.

That Foucault always had a strong interest in transcendental philosophy is, I think, undeniable. It is clearly shown by the 128p of his commentary on the Anthropology4, chapters VII and IX of the Order

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of Things, his later texts on Kant, his redefinition of subjectivity in his final interviews. He even wrote his first piece, his DEA, on “The constitution of a historical transcendental in Hegel”, which shows an early and strong interest in the idea of the historical a priori. That he is critical of transcendental philosophy is also true, although it is a more difficult question : while he is critical of the postKantians, and in particular of Husserlian phenomenology, Kant’s status retains, as I have shown, the same ambiguity as that of the Copernican turn (which ended the age of representation and opened up a new field of investigation, but may also have in itself fallen prey to anthropology). However, regardless of whether his conclusions are positive or negative, the fact remains that Foucault devoted an important part of his work to discussing transcendental philosophy.

The real issue is that of determining how much his interest for transcendental philosophy has leaked into his own work, in other words whether he has something like a transcendental project. Apart from all the arguments given in the book (especially in the introduction), the most obvious answer to this query is Foucault’s continued interest for what he called the “historical a priori”. Not only was the notion dominant during the archaeological period; it was extensively used by Foucault himself at the end of his life to reconstruct his whole philosophical itinerary. Thus, in his own words his entire research bears on the way in which “the apparition of games of truth has constituted, for given times, areas and individuals, the historical a priori of possible experience” 5. Of course, if one considers his use of the notion of an historical a priori a decorative allusion, then the case for a transcendental project seems absurd; however I hope to have established above that such is not the case, and that Foucault’s use of philosophical concepts is neither amateurish nor merely suggestive; if so, then one has to take seriously the idea that the quest for historical a priori is an attempt to renew transcendental philosophy.

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