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Exam Preparation – Foucault “What is Enlightenment?”

Let us look at the study questions for Michel Foucault:

Qu 1: Discuss Foucault’s claim that modern man is compelled ‘ to face the task of producing himself’.

This question comes from a look at Kant, and Foucault pondering what is contained within the concept of ‘modernity’ in which he sees it as an attitude rather than a period in history – in this he means “a mode of connecting to contemporary reality” (p. 309) it is a way of thinking and behaving. In fact he explains modernity using Baudelaire’s terms who presented them in such a  way as to emphasize the subject:

Modernity is often characterized in terms of consciousness of the discontinuity of time: a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, a vertigo in the face of the passing moment. (Foucault, p. 310, The Foucault Reader 1984)

Foucault states that Baudelaire’s view is of the “heroization” of the moment in modernity, which is ironic in that moderns do not actually treat each passing moment as sacred in order to “maintain or perpetuate it.” (p. 310) The modern man is a spectator, content to build memories of “curiosities” (p. 311) This creates a desire to imagine the modern world otherwise, the modern man is forming a relationship with the present as well as himself:

Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets, and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. (Foucault, p. 311, The Foucault Reader 1984)

This leads us to our topic question in that this “modernity does not liberate man in his own being”; it compels him to face the task of producing himself” (p. 312) To Baudelaire these aesthetic tastes, the ironic heroization of the present, do not have a place in the body politic or in society as a whole, they are produced in other places, which he calls “art”.

Qu. 2  What is ‘the philosophical ethos of the Enlightenment’?

To Foucault there is a philosophical ethos, which is using as a critique of the Enlightenment:

I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation – one that simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject – is rooted in the Enlightenment. (Foucault, p. 312, The Foucault Reader 1984)

Foucault states that on the other hand he has been discussing another thread, which may help us understand the Enlightenment is “not faithfulness to doctrinal elements” but rather the adoption of another attitude, one of a permanent critique of our “historical era”- he does this both negatively and positively. Negatively Foucault’s ethos is broken up into tow parts, (1): the refusal of what he likes to call ‘the blackmail of the Enlightenment” (p. 312) in which he means that it is a privileged set of political, economic, institutional, social and cultural domains that we rely on and analyze. He thinks that linking the history of liberty and the progress for truth has formed a philosophical problem we need to consider, while also defining for us, a specific type of philosophizing (rationalism). Having said this however Foucault notes that one need not be “for”, or “against” the Enlightenment, he is seeking to follow critique where it leads and not give up to dualistic ideals (in that you must accept  Enlightenment rationalism or find a way around it) – Foucault asks that we simply be aware of the historical determinism of the Enlightenment. This would mean an analysis that would not necessarily follow the rationalism of the Enlightenment, especially in its historical inquiries, which would only be preserved if “what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects” (p. 313)  was found. (2) We must avoid consuing the Enlightenment with Humanism: the Enlightenment was a series of events and complex historical processes found in a certain point of development in Europe – which involved aspects of “social transformation, types of political institution, forms of knowledge, projects of rationalization of knowledge and practices, technological mutations” (p. 313) etc while humanism is quite different, in which it is a theme that have appeared and reappeared on several occasions in Europe tied to value judgements – this has meant a great deal of variety in the values cherished within Humanism (as seen in Christian, Marxist personalism and existentialist Humanism). As such Foucault actually believes Humanism and Enlightenment to be in a state of tension.

Positively Foucault’s ethos is broken up into three parts, (1): he thinks his ethos can be characterized as a “limit-attitude”, but is careful to note that he wants to move beyond the “outside-inside” alternative (that you accept the Enlightenment or not), he wants to to turn critique into a positive, and he does that by focusng on what is given to us as “universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular contingent and the product of arbitrary constraints…” (p. 315) Foucault wants to move the criticism away from the search of formal structures with universal value, such as those given to us by the Enlightenment, instead he wants to do a historical investigation into what has led us to”constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.” (p. 315) This critique is not transcendental, and is not focused on metaphysics, it follows Nietzsche in that it is genealogical in design and archaeological in method. Foucault wishes to turn away from universals, and moral action, to focus instead on instances of discourse that “articulate what we think, say, and do, as so many historical events.{]” (p. 315), this will represent the archaeological sense. Genealogically:

… it will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do or think. It is not seeking to make possible a metaphysics that has finally become a science; it is seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom. (Foucault, p. 315-316, The Foucault Reader 1984)

(2) If the historico-critical attitude is to succeed, Foucault thinks it must be an experimental one, in which we open up a realm of historical inquiry and put it to the test of reality, to determine where change is possible, and the form it should take. This means we must turn away from global and radical projects, as these have been, historically, the ones that lead to the most dangerous traditions – what Foucault would prefer are specific transformations in areas that concern our being and thinking, relations to authority and relations between the sexes, the way we view and deal with insanity and illness.

i shall thus characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits we may go beyond, and thus work as carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings. (Foucault, p. 316, The Foucault Reader 1984)

(3) Upon reflection Foucault asks if this way o thinking wouldn’t simply lead to another set of  privileged structures, to this he says that it is true that we have to give up on a point of view which states we will be able to come to complete, absolute knowledge, and recognize our historical limits. He states however that this does not leave us with “disorder and contingency” but rather that we have to focus on generalities, systematicity, homogeneity and its stakes.


Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” Trans. Catherine Porter. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New Tork: Pantheon Books, 1984, Pp. 310, 311, 312, 313, 315-316, 316.

Categories: Book Review
  1. Fr
    January 20, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Hmz i just ended up here by accident, but the thing about Baudelaire you’re stating: The modern man is a spectator, content to build memories of “curiosities”. He acually said the opposite.

    ‘it certainly does not involve harvesting it as a fleeting and interesting curiosity. That wout be what Baudelaire would call the spectator’s posture.’ is what it says.

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