Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Foucault on Kant on Enlightenment

Foucault’s 1978 lecture “Qu’est-ce que la critique?” discusses, at some length, Kant’s short text answering the question, “Was ist Aufklärung?” Then again, at the very beginning of 1983, Foucault opened the year’s course at the Collège de France (published as Le gouvernement de soi et des autres) with a discussion of the same text.

Frédéric Gros, in his ‘situation’ of the 1983 course points to the differences between Foucault’s approaches to Kant’s short text. I find his differentiation obscure at best. He does say,

Demeure en revance, ici et là, l’opposition entre deux héritages kantien possibles: un héritage transcendental dans lequel Foucault refuse de s’inscrire (établir des règles de vérité universelles afin de prévenir les dévoiements d’une raison dominatrice); un héritage ‘critique’ dans lequel au contraire il entend se reconnaître (provoquer le présent à partir du diagnostique de “ce que nous sommes”) (350).

Certainly, Foucault refuses ‘transcendental’ critique. But it seems to me quite clear that the critique he describes in 1978 is fully historical. The whole point is for it to exist within the various forms of ‘asujettissement’ of contemporary governmentality, in order to perform ‘désasujettissement.’ If Kantian Aufklärung is for Foucault a kind of critique to which he can agree, and is also “l’art de n’être pas tellement gouverné” (38), then I don’t think it can be accused, at any moment, of being transcendental. Foucault says specifically, “Nul recours fondateur, nulle échappée dans une forme pure, c’est là sans doute un des points les plus importants et les plus contestables de cette démarche historico-philosophique...” (50).

There remains what, precisely, Foucault is going to do in the 1983 course. I have so far only read the first lesson, which I think is the main place Foucault treats Kant. Yet it seems to me that Foucault there is less concerned with the politics of truth than with Kant’s insertion of the concepts ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘critique’ into temporality. I have often noticed (how could one fail to notice?) the rhetorical gesture, hardly limited to philosophers, of asserting a ‘we’ who are ‘now’ concerned about such and such a thing, justifying the project undertaken. Foucault says,

Il me semble qu’on voit apparaître avec le texte de Kant la question du présent comme événement philosophique auquel appartient le philosophe qui en parle...[with Kant and Aufklärung]...on voit la philosophie...devenir la surface d’émergence de sa propre actualité discursive, actualité qu’elle interroge comme événement, comme n événement dont elle a à dire le sens, la laveur, la singularité philosophiques, et dans lequel elle a à trouver à la fois sa propre raison d’être et le fondement de ce qu’elle dit...Ce ne sera pas non plus la question de son appartenance à une communauté humaine en général, mais ce sera la question de son appartenance à un présent, si vous voulez son appartenance à un certain ‘nous’, à un ‘nous’ qui se rapporte, selon une étendue plus ou moins large, à un ensemble culturel caractéristique de sa propre actualité.

It seems to me that ‘now’ is indeed a meaningful concept only in terms of a ‘we’ to whom this contemporaneity would apply. This ‘we’ turns out generally to be imagined rather than concrete. Yet it seems clear that for Kant it was not at all imagined. There was a public with an institutional and sociological definition. Foucault mentions this, but doesn’t dwell on it. He has other concerns, and spends more time with the temporality than the social location of the ‘we.’ And no doubt this isn’t quite the meaning he would give to the word. In any case, I will continue reading, and see what he does with this as the course unfolds.

Perhaps two years ago, Judith Butler came to Duke and gave a talk about Foucault, his reading of Kant, and academic freedom. I wish I remember what she said, but at the time I hadn’t read the Foucault, and mostly found the talk to swerve uncomfortably between high theory and the possibility of talking about Israel on American college campuses. Perhaps some version of that material has been published, and I could look at it. With the texts she was discussing fresh before me, I’m sure I would get more out of it than a bad taste in my mouth.

In “Was ist Aufklärung,” Kant distinguishes between the private and public use of reason. The distinction famously appears ‘backwards’ (indeed, in the publication of Foucault’s 1978 lecture, there is a transcription of the Q&A in which he excitedly corrects the unfortunate M. Sylvian Zac, who mixes the two up). For Kant, it is one’s ‘private’ use of reason that can be curtailed, and the ‘public’ one that must be protected. I use reason in my private capacity when I pay my taxes, when I am ordered to, for instance, disperse, by a policeman. Foucault explains this by saying that here, the individual is a particular subject, a cog in the machine of state (the image of the machine is emphatically Kant’s). One is a universal subject using one’s reason in a ‘public’ capacity, when one is, as it were, on one’s own time. When one speaks as a scholar to the public of other scholars—this use of reason ought never be curtailed.

The reason that I wish I could remember what Judith Butler had to say about this is that—and although I have read this Kant essay before, I never remarked on this—for Kant, the professor is a functionary of the state, his lectures fulfill a social function and are therefore a private use of reason. Some of the relevant passages:

Der öffentliche Gebrauch seiner Vernunft muß jederzeit frei sein, und der allein kann Aufklärung unter Menschen zu Stande bringen ; der Privatgebrauch derselben aber darf öfters sehr enge eingeschränkt sein, ohne doch darum den Fortschritt der Aufklärung sonderlich zu hindern. Ich verstehe aber unter dem öffentlichen Gebrauche seiner eigenen Vernunft denjenigen, den jemand als Gelehrter von ihr vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt macht. Den Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen, den er in einem gewissen ihm anvertrauten bürgerlichen Posten, oder Amte von seiner Vernunft machen darf.

And then, from the end of the same paragraph:

Der Gebrauch also, den ein angestellter Lehrer von seiner Vernunft vor seiner Gemeinde macht, ist bloß ein Privatgebrauch ; weil diese immer nur eine häusliche, obzwar noch so große, Versammlung ist ; und in Ansehung dessen ist er, als Priester, nicht frei, und darf es auch nicht sein, weil er einen fremden Auftrag ausrichtet. Dagegen als Gelehrter, der durch Schriften zum eigentlichen Publikum, nämlich der Welt, spricht, mithin der Geistliche im öffentlichen Gebrauche seiner Vernunft, genießt einer uneingeschränkten Freiheit, sich seiner eigenen Vernunft zu bedienen und in seiner eigenen Person zu sprechen. Denn daß die Vormünder des Volks (in geistlichen Dingen) selbst wieder unmündig sein sollen, ist eine Ungereimtheit, die auf Verewigung der Ungereimtheiten hinausläuft.

I find this interesting in the context of discussions about teaching and research, and the various ways in which it is supposed to be ideologically or intellectually good or bad to try to hold the two together. These issues are sharpened by current discussions about the potential for radical restructuring of academic institutions. Kant is, I think, unambiguous here. The professor at the lectern is fulfilling a social function (we’ll leave aside the contextual issue, crucial though it is, that Kant was actually an employee of the government, which is not always the case in the contemporary world of higher education), and therefore is not unconstrained in the exercise of their critical faculties. It is only when publishing as a scholar that a person (now it doesn’t matter, for Kant, if they are a professor or not) is able to dispose of their reason as they will. Interesting that, from a Kantian perspective, it may, now, for ‘us’ academics, matter. A professor’s publications are a major part of their qualifications for teaching (leave aside the rationale for that). I think the issue here is really that the ‘public,’ as Kant beheld it, no longer exists. A very different (late 19th century, rather than late 18th century) conception of the university is in place. Of course there is much to say about why this is, what benefits it has, and so forth. The ‘we’ for whom the academic writes is indeed often (though it should be insisted, not always) either quite restrained or entirely virtual (not to say imaginary). With only a few exceptions, academics do not publish for a public. It seems to me that this difference does not so much render the Kantian perspective meaningless as sharpen it, make it seem more alien and threatening.

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