The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt School

In “The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt School,” Thomas McCarthy compares the critical philosophy of Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School thinkers (represented in the essay by Jürgen Habermas) before tracing the evolution of Foucault’s thought. Since our principle aim in reading this essay was to get a sense of a couple of schools of ideology critique, I will focus my summary mainly on those components of the work, leaving McCarthy’s argument unchallenged. Regardless of whether his claims are true, he gives a clear concise, introduction to the goals and methods of two major strains of ideology critique. Further, there are many interesting theoretical points that I will have to leave undeveloped in this paper, in order to focus more fully on the points most pertinent to ideology critique. I invite you to explore those points in your questions and in class discussion, if they interest you.

I. A Comparison of Foucault and the Frankfurt School

 McCarthy’s main goal in this section is to show that the critical philosophy espoused by Foucault actually has a fair amount of its content in common with that of the Frankfurt thinkers. He goes on to argue, essentially, that the points at which Foucault’s critique is inadequate are those at which it diverges from Habermas’.

Both theoretical approaches follow from the Kantian tradition, but they seek to alter and radicalize it. These changes are necessitated by what McCarthy calls the “impurity” of reason—it is sociohistoricaly located, embodied, and sensuous, and cannot, therefore, be adequately assessed through the introspective methods used by Kant (437). These analyses, then, blur the distinction between theory and practice. Since reason is no longer the faculty of a universal, autonomous subject, but rather of people, in the world, it is just as intimately a part of what we do as it is of what we know. Thus, to criticize a manner of thinking is, in part, to criticize a manner of acting (438). Of course, both schools need to get create a certain distance between themselves and the practices that they take as their subjects, which they do through genetic and functional accounts of the birth of practices that we currently take for granted (439). This latter point is the beating heart of an ideology critique. Ideology critique seeks to the flaws and contingencies in the conceptual background against which we think and act. This can, as McCarthy points out, lead us to see ways in which things that we have taken for granted came into being contingently, and are used to prop up existing power structures, a realization which can lead to social change—the goal of the critiques put forth by both Foucault and the Frankfurt theorists (440).

This seems like a good point at which to put forth a question about the point of ideology critique: is the goal of the critique to make societal institutions more reasonable, in the classical sense, or to amend our concept of reason? Both Foucault and Habermas opt for the latter, while certain strains of Marxist thought (so, hardly regressive or conservative theories) have taken the former approach.

We turn now to the two major points of disagreement that McCarthy identifies between Foucault and Habermas.

A) Power

McCarthy’s claim here is that Foucault grants power ontological primacy in his critique. We are all situated, always, everywhere, and forever, in networks of power relations that shape the ways in which we think and determines what is right, as well as the ways in which we determine what is true (445-446). This claim is typical of the early writings of Foucault, and in his later career he grants more explanatory weight to individual action. The view that McCarthy attacks here is insufficient (as we will see at greater length is section II of this paper) in that it abstracts the empirical individual from the picture entirely, turning all actions into undifferentiable exercises of power, when other concepts might serve to explain them better.

B) The Subject

Continuing the theme of the previous subsection, Foucault replaces the idea of the autonomous subject with that of a holistic network of power relations (447-448). We have already, and will again evoke the problems with this line of thinking. A notable problem, that I think can be seen in modern political discourse, is that a holistic system like the one that Foucault described early in his career eliminates the possibility of individual (i.e., as an action of an autonomous subject) resistance (449). This has obvious deleterious effects for those who, like us, are interested in instituting reforms. On the other hand, in his genealogy, Foucault does not want to give an exact account of who has power, what they are thinking, their motivations, etc. Rather, he wants to trace the effects of ideas over time, showing how they calcified into our current way of doing things. This seems like a sensible way to avoid such charlatanism as The Secret Relationship. It would seem sensible, then, to do as Foucault did himself and search for a way to balance the explanatory strengths of the genealogical approach with the need to make room for choice.

(To be clear, the Frankfurt theorists leave more room for resistance by the autonomous subject—which is partly why McCarthy prefers them)

II. From ontology of power to aesthetic life

In the second half of the essay, McCarthy sketches two more moderate theories advanced by Foucault later in his career that offer potential ways out of the ontological quagmire we discussed above.

A) Power v. Domination

Under the first of these conceptions, Foucault makes a distinction between power and domination. The latter of these concepts is (somewhat confusingly) what we would ordinarily call “power;” that is, asymmetrical, irreversible societal advantages given to certain people. The former he defines as “’…strategic games between liberties’ in which ‘some people try to determine the conduct of others’” (455). The role of ideology critique is to dismantle and eliminate dominance relations—power relationships are simply a fact of social life. Our goal as critical theorists is to guarantee a level playing field. I was pretty astonished by this particular passage, not on the basis of the above distinction but because I couldn’t believe that Michel Foucault would be using game theory. Maybe that says more about my stereotypes of French critical philosophy than it does about Foucault. Of course, not all of our relations are strategic—as Habermas writes, through “communicative action,” cooperation, rather than competition, can guide our actions (456). I am with Foucault on this one—can we actually achieve this sort of mutual understanding, and, if so, who’s to say that it isn’t merely a tactic in a larger strategy? Indeed, cooperation itself can be a strategic goal.

B) The Aesthetic Life

In the final stage of his development, Foucault turned to what he calls ethics: the proper relationship with oneself (“care of the self”), which is in turn an indispensible condition for caring for others or, what is the same thing, governing (458). Foucault places this system of ethics in opposition with what he saw as the quasi-juridical form of modern morality. In this way, the care of the self is a technique for escaping from externally imposed constraints. More than that, it is a technique for living a life that is beautiful, a work of art in itself (463). It is hard to say if we are still in the confines of an ideology critique at this point. There does seem to be a work of demystification and emancipation involved in the care of the self, but it is completely individualistic—each of us, in our autonomy, finds a way to live well in our given sociohistorical context. This self-construction is limited, nevertheless, by concerns of justice. In caring for ourselves, we cannot prevent others from doing the same. It does not seem like this needs to reach the same level of formality as Kant’s categorical imperative—a virtue ethical notion would be sufficient.

(I have not had time to really develop Habermas’ points in this paper, so I would encourage you to ask questions about it, if you have them.)

In following the course of Foucault’s development, I was reminded of a passage of “Self-Reliance,” in which Emerson writes, “All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves” (82 in the Houghton, Mifflin edition of Essays: First Series). Most pertinently to the discussion at hand, what good are just institutions and concepts if the people using them are immoral? What is the role of self-improvement in societal reform? Or, from the other side, can one live an aesthetic life without an understanding of the sociohistorical moment? Is an ideology critique an essential stage on the road to self-actualization?

9 thoughts on “The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt School

  1. Jeremy Read

    I guess I’m a bit confused about power and dominance. If relationships of power are a necessary and fundamental feature of social reality, then I accept that “power” is not the best target for social justice intervention. However, I’m not sure that dominance can be cleanly distinguished from power. What are the criteria for dominance? Vast inequities in power distribution, enduring power relationships, and the centering of power in certain individuals all seem to be good markers of dominance. But where then is the line between dominance and power? Is it a matter of the duration of the power relationship? Is it a matter of the degree of inequity in power distribution? Is it a matter of the number and sort of individuals on which power is centered? Why aren’t all power relations also relations of dominance?

  2. Gioia Pappalardo

    I apologize for the late post. I had a question -probably a clarifying question- about Foucault’s account of power. “Power produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (446). He accepts that power relationships are inescapable, and prioritizes the power dynamics of a system over individual action. But when “power produces reality,” do the effects rely on the mere existence of power, or on some fact about that power (ie. how many people in a relation, what type)? I would imagine it to not be the second option, because he wanted to refrain from asking questions like “who has power and what has that person in mind” (448). Without giving some sort of explanatory reference to the individual (or power relations between individuals?) wouldn’t power be universal and indescribable in some sense? Wouldn’t it then give rise to a single account of ‘reality,’ which would be problematic for him? If he want to go with the second option, but somehow leave out reference to individuals, is there really one objective way to describe a power system? Can’t power relationships, especially given his broad use of the word, be credibly interpreted in different ways? Is this indeterminacy problematic given power’s creation of reality?

  3. Jingyi Wu

    While I am very sympathetic to Foucault’s view of “power” (dominance) complex, I do feel that the more we see the society as a complex web of “power”, the more we as individuals would feel powerless to any substantial change. And then, Foucault’s idea of the Aesthetic Life makes sense: when we don’t know how to conduct societal change, what we can do remains self care. However, I think there would/has to be a more subtle relationship between individuals and the society. Do the society change if a significant number of individuals change? Do individuals change if the society changes a tiny bit?
    Also, I am interested in the “right” strategy to approach problem of “power”, especially given the current events at Missouri and Yale. I sometimes feel that we are only tackling the symptoms of “power” complex rather than the root cause. Is tackling the symptoms of power complex conducive to eradicating dominance? Or, how shall we proceed?

  4. Kyle Kysela

    I find Foucalt’s division of moralities into “code oriented” and “ethics oriented” to be very fertile ground for discussion. Foucalt writes:

    “Nevertheless, some moralities are more “code oriented ” and others more “ethics oriented.” In theformer, the accent is on code, authority, and punishment, and “subjective action occurs basically in a quasi-juridical form, where the ethical subject refers his conduct to a law, or set of laws, to which he must submit”; in the latter, the main emphasis is on self-formative processes that enable individuals to escape enslavement to their appetites and passions and to achieve a desired mode of being.” (458)

    I wonder, along with Robbie and the others, whether Foucalt’s “ethics oriented” morality is akin to modern (or Ancient) virtue ethics. His criticism of “juridical” morality reminds me of Elizabeth Anscombe’s arguments against rule-based ethics and in favor, rather, of a virtue-oriented morality. Anscombe accuses modern, secular rule-based moralities of cribbing from theological morality (the idea of a “divine law” or “divine command”) but without the theological content to back up their commands, leaving Kantian and other rule-based, secular moralities without weight. I wonder what Foucalt has in mind for this “ethics oriented” morality, and if it relies on one singular, universal conception of the good life.

  5. Mohamed Houtti

    I’m a little confused by Foucault’s discussion of power and domination. While I understand the distinction he is trying to make, it seems to me that one of the goals of the “strategic games between liberties” is to situate oneself (and perhaps one’s descendants) in an irreversible position of dominance. Thus, if power relationships are always present, then wouldn’t the same necessarily be true for states of domination? Are these states of domination okay when they result from “relationships of power as strategic games between liberties” or should we seek to prevent asymmetrical power relations from occurring in all cases?

  6. Leo DesBois

    The ideology critique of both Foucault and the Frankfurt school seems in danger of self-refutation. For example, Foucault asserts that “truth is not the reward of free spirits” but “a thing of this world” that is “produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint” (442). If this statement is true, then Foucault’s own philosophy must reflect the dynamics of power and constraint within his society. If this is the case, how can we be sure that Foucault’s conception of reason and truth isn’t merely reinforcing current power structures?

    Furthermore, Foucault seems to be making a universal assertion about truth – that truth is always “a thing of this world.” Therefore, if he is to stand by his philosophy, he must admit that some truths transcend the sociohistorical context within which they arise. But the concept of universal truth contradicts a basic tenet of his critique, which holds that all truth is relative to social forces!

    Another contradiction arises when the social critic claims both that all knowledge is a product of social forces, and that the critic is able to achieve an “objectivating ‘outsider’s’ perspective” that allows him or her to uncover these forces. How is the critic able to adopt this “outsider’s perspective” and why should we trust that the critic is in a position to reveal to us the hidden power dynamics in society?

    1. Daniel Ramirez

      I don’t think Foucault thinks that an outside perspective is possible and he concedes that all socio historical literature is ultimately infused with contemporary bias.
      What do you mean Foucault has to concede that some “truths” transcend their sociohistorical context? I’m not sure in what sense you’re using the word truth.
      Foucault’s own philosophy does reflect the dynamics of power and is constrained to his sociohistorical reality. What do you mean by reinforcing? According to Foucault’s account anything we do contributes to the flow of power. There isn’t much “reinforcing” going on as much as constant transformation. Just because Foucault’s philosophy can be applied to his philosophy itself doesn’t mean that it is reinforcing oppressive power structures. Not all instances of power are oppressive and stopping the flow of power altogether is impossible.

  7. Jack George

    “His conceptualization of social interaction privilege strategic over consensual modes.” 454 Herein lies perhaps a central question to conceptions of power. Do they all have to be codeable in a game theory sense, with a winner and a loser, or can the best outcomes arise through collaboration, through consensual joint modes of social action? The use of the term ‘strategic’ along with Foucault’s seeming obsession with one side of an interaction determining the conduct of another would suggest so. And if the only move towards progressive is through the aesthetic ideal of self-love, Foucault morality seems self-centered and wholly removed from the altruist aims of social justice.

  8. Max Riddle

    Given Foucault’s understanding of power as coextensive with all social relationships, how is aesthetic individualism possible? What meaningful actions constitute aesthetic individualism’s emphasis on operations of the self on the self? In other words, what sorts of meaningful self discovery and growth take place in a non-social relationship?

    Foucault claims that code oriented moralities are “catastrophic.” McCarthy, however, argues that Foucault misinterprets the purpose of procedural models in universal morality and in fact presupposes “universalistic morality” in aesthetic individualism. Can we explain this presupposition in the form of virtue ethics as robbie suggests or is Foucault in fact subscribing to a type of Kantian “universalistic morality?”

    What Habermas is really advocating through “communicative action” is “communication free from domination, in which claims to validity are decided on the basis of the force of the better argument (456).” He does not want to argue for communication that is free from the effects of power in the sense that it does not influence the behavior of others. Additionally, Habermas might not want to make that claim that his idea of communication free from domination is fully realizable, but realizable in degrees.

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