Author Archives: Robert LaCroix

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?