Critical Theory is a modern philosophical development that stems, in large part, from a group of twentieth-century philosophers affiliated with the Frankfurt School, who argued that the culture of Enlightenment, which originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, contained subversive elements that threatened its own demise. These philosophers—who included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse—believed that enlightened thought depends on a sophisticated epistemological and moral stance, in which each rational individual determines his core interests in life, and critically evaluates his social, economic and political surroundings to determine whether they advance these.
These philosophers were indebted to the writings of Immanuel Kant, whose critical philosophy centers on the establishment of a priori conditions for knowledge claims. These conditions are foundational epistemological faculties, helping each rational individual to acquire knowledge about and reflect on himself and his place in the world. These philosophers were also indebted to Karl Marx: they were deeply concerned with the impact of social conditions on the ability of each potentially rational individual to make a rational knowledge claim. Their indebtedness to Kant and Marx emerges in their contribution to philosophy—Critical Theory, in which the central mission is to criticize the imposition of false views on individuals within a social setting.
Foucault is part of this philosophical tradition. His concern with the historical conditions governing knowledge claims (the epistemes of the Renaissance, Classical and Modern ages) demonstrates his awareness of the impact of historical circumstances—in particular, the accepted contemporary methods of investigation, which produce the lenses through which people see and understand things—on the individual’s ability to be enlightened as to her inherent, Kantian rationality. I examine the notion of episteme and how it applies to the human sciences. I then argue that Foucault’s Critical Theory comprises a historico-critical investigation of how we come to understand ourselves. In The Order of Things, Foucault commits himself to “describing the transformations themselves,” i.e., the epistemic changes that have taken place since the sixteenth century. Foucault was not oblivious to the important relationship between his investigations into the historical origins of the modern episteme and the Kantian notion of Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment and Kant’s Notion of the Transcendental Self
For many, the Enlightenment is a philosophical outlook that emerges from the critical philosophy of Kant, which established the fundamental conditions of human reason, which justify claims of knowledge. These conditions are available to each human being because reason is a feature of what it is to be human. But not every human being is reconciled to these conditions, a predicament that gives rise to “self-imposed immaturity.” Man is immature when his reliance on others prevents him from using his own rational capacities to think through questions for himself. This immaturity is self-imposed—man has the potential to use reason to reflect upon problems such as the question of what it is to be a moral, hence enlightened, being, but refuses to do so.
A rational being possesses a priori conditions for the possibility of making claims of knowledge because he is a transcendental self. That is, he is the source of his own knowledge and action. For instance, he has a capacity for introspection, through which he comes to understand what constitutes a moral action. He then proceeds to act in accordance with this idea. He is a transcendental self and is thus responsible for acting in accordance with the appropriate moral demand.
The transcendental self is not only enlightened to claims of morality. Man possesses a priori conditions for making claims to other kinds of knowledge, e.g. in mathematics. But philosophers who follow Kant in this tradition are sensitive to the ways in which social conditions undermine the progress of Enlightenment. Foucault is concerned with the historical conditions in which a modern episteme comes into being and how it relates to the Kantian epistemological vision of Enlightenment.
Episteme: the Renaissance, Classical Age and Modern Age
For Foucault, the episteme is the archaeological (i.e. historical, cultural, social) condition that makes knowledge claims possible. In other words, people who live in a particular time period, e.g., the Renaissance, view the world in a way that significantly affects, if not determines, how they conduct investigations into the nature of things. This is the unconscious epistemological foundation of scientific investigation within a particular historical set of circumstances. In the Order of Things, he writes:
What I would like to do, however, is to reveal a positive unconscious of knowledge: a level that eludes the consciousness of the scientist and yet is part of scientific discourse, instead of disputing its validity and seeking to diminish its scientific nature. What was common to the natural history, the economics, and the grammar of the Classical period was certainly not present to the consciousness of the scientist … but, unknown to themselves, the naturalists, economists, and grammarians employed the same rules to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories. It is these rules of formation, which were never formulated in their own right, but are to be found only in widely differing theories, concepts, and objects of study, that I have tried to reveal, by isolating, as their specific locus, a level that I have called, somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, archaeological.
During the Renaissance, the predominant view of the world was that an object of knowledge had meaning because it resembled something:
The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing themselves reflected in the stars, and plants holding within their stems the secrets that were of use to man. Painting imitated space. And representation … was posited as a form of repetition: the theater of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, its manner of declaring its existence and of formulating its right of speech.
This provided the lens through which people in the Renaissance investigated the nature of things and thus made claims of knowledge, though they were perhaps unaware of the underlying epistemology of their investigations:
Convenientia, aemulation, analogy, and sympathy tell us how the world must fold in upon itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another. They tell us what the paths of similitude are and the directions they take; but not where it is, how one sees it, or by what mark it may be recognized. Now there is a possibility that we might make our way through all this marvelous teeming abundance of resemblances without even suspecting that it has long been prepared by the order of the world, for our greater benefit.
One of the human sciences affected by the episteme of resemblance was economics. During the Renaissance, wealth was perceived as things with intrinsic value—precious metals. These metals served as the medium of exchange. They could be bartered for commodities. They were also the measure of value of these commodities. Things could be priced in terms of these metals. These metals could serve these purposes because they were intrinsically valuable. Their value was a function of their intrinsic worth. The value of the coins made up of these metals was determined by the volume and weight of the metal they contained:
the nominal values stamped on the coins had to be in conformity with the quantity of metal chosen as a standard and incorporated into each coin; money would then signify nothing more than its measuring value.
The same framework applied to the claims of knowledge about language and living beings. The signs (words, images, etc.) and ideas meant to denote things were perceived as bearing a precise resemblance to the things they signified:
the metal appeared only as a sign, and as a sign for measuring wealth, in so far as it was itself wealth. It possessed the power to signify because it was itself a real mark. And just as words had the same reality as what they said, just as the marks of living beings were inscribed upon their bodies in the manner of visible and positive marks, similarly, the signs that indicated wealth and measured it were bound to carry the real mark in themselves. In order to represent prices, they themselves had to be precious. They had to be rare, useful, desirable.
The Renaissance lasted until approximately 1650. At this juncture, an epistemic shift gradually took place, in which representation became the primary function of signs. Language, living beings and wealth were analysed in terms of identities and differences in the nature of things. The signs drew distinctions between things so as to establish their identities. Things had meaning based on how like or unlike they were to other things, not based on their resemblance to other things. Money, for example served as a medium of exchange, but only because it represents—not resembles—things that have value. Money has value only because it represents value:
Whereas the Renaissance based the two functions of coinage (measure and substitution) on the double nature of its intrinsic character (the fact that it was precious), the seventeenth century turns the analysis upside down: it is the exchanging function that serves as a foundation for the other two characters (its ability to measure and its capacity to receive a price thus appearing as qualities deriving from that function).
This idea that a sign has value only because it represents something else also applies to the knowledge claims of the other human sciences:
All wealth is coinable; and it is by this means that it enters into circulation—in the same way that any natural being was characterizable, and could thereby find its place in a taxonomy; that any individual was nameable and could find its place in an articulated language; that any representation was signifiable and could find its place, in order to be known, in a system of identities and differences.
Resemblance and representation were, respectively, the epistemes of the Renaissance and the Classical Age. In the Renaissance, the world was thought of as a system of resemblances; i.e., things in the world resembled each other, and derived their meaning from their resemblance to other things. Resemblance was the archaeological condition for the possibility of making knowledge claims (the episteme); someone making a claim about the nature of something usually does so based on an epistemological approach; in the Renaissance, this approach was characterized by the perception that things resemble other things in the world. Resemblance was the accepted condition for a claim of knowledge. Similarly, representation was the accepted condition for a knowledge claim during the Classical Age.
In the Modern Age, man finally develops conditions that make it possible to make knowledge claims about himself. The modern episteme is characterized by a search for internal organizing principles. Things are conceived as having an identity rooted in some core layer of being, which confers structure and organization. New fields of knowledge arise. Economics studies labor as the common denominator in all commodities—i.e., the source of value of all commodities (at least according to Marx’s labor theory of value). Biology studies function as the common denominator in the organs of animate beings—i.e., its function gives meaning to an organ. Philology studies grammar as the common denominator of all elements of language—i.e., that which provides the linguistic architecture, or syntax, that gives words a linguistic context and thus a meaning:
what gives value to the objects of desire is not solely the other objects that desire can represent to itself, but an element that cannot be reduced to that representation: labour; what makes it possible to characterize a natural being is no longer the elements that we can analyze in the representations we make for ourselves of it and other beings, it is a certain relation within this being, which we call its organic structure; what makes it possible to define a language is not the way in which it represents representations, but a certain internal architecture, a certain manner of modifying the words themselves in accordance with the grammatical position they take up in relation to one another; in other words, its inflectional system.
The epistemic shift at the turn of the nineteenth century led to the transcendence of representation and the movement toward an investigation into the internal nature, the organizing principles of things. The internal structure of things—their architecture—is the recognized condition for thinking about things and thus making claims of knowledge about them. Representation—i.e., the perception that things, such as money, represent other things, such as the value of products sold on the market (hence, the analysis of how things relate to other things)—is no longer the recognized, i.e., accepted, condition for generating a claim of knowledge:
representation has lost the power to provide a foundation … for the links that can join its various elements together. No composition, no decomposition, no analysis into identities and differences can now justify the connection of representations one to another … The condition of these links resides henceforth outside representation, beyond its immediate visibility, in a sort of behind-the-scenes world even deeper and more dense than representation itself … Withdrawn into their own essence, taking up their place at last within the force that animates them, within the organic structure that maintains them, within the genesis that has never ceased to produce them, things, in their fundamental truth, have now escaped from the space of the table … they turn in upon themselves, posit their own volumes, and define for themselves an internal space which, to our representation, is on the exterior. It is from the starting-point of the architecture they conceal, of the cohesion, that maintains its sovereign and secret sway over each one of their parts, it is from the depths of the force that brought them into being and that remains in them, as though motionless yet still quivering, that things—in fragments, outlines, pieces, shards—offer themselves, though very partially, to representation.
In the modern episteme, value is grounded in the overall understanding of the denominating factor that gives something value. Human beings no longer designate a thing as having value in order to represent other things as having value. The function of representation is no longer the condition for understanding the notion of value. Instead, value is understood in terms of that which underlies, denominates value:
all value is determined, not according to the instruments that permit its analysis, but according to the conditions of production that have brought it into being; and, even prior to that, the conditions in question are determined by the quantities of labour applied in producing them.
Similarly, in the new field of biology, classification is grounded in the understanding of organic beings as having some denominating principle at their core. Organs have meaning insofar as they have a function. Their functions make it possible to classify them. The idea that characters serve to represent the beings of which they are a part becomes obsolete:
function, defined according to its non-perceptible form as an effect to be attained, is to serve as a constant middle term (emphasis mine) and to make it possible to relate together totalities of elements without the slightest visible identity. What to Classical eyes were merely differences juxtaposed with identities must now be ordered and conceived on the basis of a functional homogeneity (emphasis mine) which is their hidden foundation (emphasis mine).
Finally, philology emerges as the study of language as an object of knowledge. Words are no longer a part of the prose of the world, nor do they serve the nominal role of representing that which they were designed to denote. In the modern episteme, language itself becomes an object of knowledge, rather than an instrument of resemblance or representation:
From the nineteenth century, language began to fold in upon itself, to acquire its own particular density, to deploy a history, an objectivity, and laws of its own. It became one object of knowledge among others, on the same level as living beings, wealth and value, and the history of events and men.
The upshot of this is a modern episteme that sees man as an object of study. The search for the internal organizing principles of things is the search for the nature of things themselves, not their instrumental roles in the epistemes of resemblance and representation. Things in nature, not their roles as resemblance or representation, make knowledge claims possible:
the conditions of possibility of experience are being sought in the conditions of possibility of the object and its existence, whereas in transcendental reflection the conditions of possibility of the objects of experience are identified with the conditions of possibility of experience itself. The new positivity of the sciences of life, language, and economics is in correspondence with the founding of a transcendental philosophy. Labour, life, and language appear as so many ‘transcendentals’ which make possible the objective knowledge of living beings, of the laws of production, and of the forms of language. In their being, they are outside knowledge, but by that very fact they are conditions of knowledge.
Foucault is not so much concerned with discovering the subjective conditions for the possibility of acquiring representations of objects as he is with discovering the historical set of circumstances which make it possible to make claims to knowledge about man. He is less concerned with critical than with historical ontology. Foucault has a critical intent, to the extent that he emphasizes historico-critical investigations into how human beings study and come to understand themselves. In his essay What is Enlightenment?, he writes:
the historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series of questions; it has to make an indefinite number of inquiries which may be multiplied and specified as much as we like, but which will all address the questions systematized as follows: How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are constituted as moral subjects of our own actions.
Kant investigated and determined the conditions for an a priori synthesis of experience. His focus was on the transcendental self, i.e. the rational nature of man, capable of formulating representations of objects of experience and of positing his own moral laws as categorical imperatives. Knowledge about the nature of man and his moral actions was based in the transcendental self, i.e. the a priori conditions for the possibility of experience. Foucault, however, determines the archaeological conditions for the possibility of making claims of knowledge. He is concerned with the historically based sociocultural arrangements of knowledge—i.e. the ways of seeing and interpreting things in the world and how these affect claims of knowledge. He is concerned with the episteme that constitutes the historical set of circumstances in which a claim of knowledge is made:
they (labor, life, language) are outside knowledge, but by that very fact they are conditions of knowledge; they correspond to Kant’s discovery of a transcendental field and yet they differ from it in two essential points: they are situated with the object, and, in a way, beyond it; like the Idea in the transcendental Dialectic, they totalize phenomena and express the a priori coherence of empirical multiplicities; but they provide them with a foundation in the form of a being whose enigmatic reality constitutes, prior to all knowledge, the order and the connection of what it has to know; moreover, they concern the domain of a posteriori truths and the principles of their synthesis—and not the a priori synthesis of all possible experience. The first difference (the fact that the transcendentals are situated with the object) explains the origin of those metaphysical doctrines that, despite their post-Kantian chronology, appear as ‘pre-critical’ … The second difference (the fact that these transcendentals concern a posteriori syntheses) explains the appearance of a ‘positivism’ … [and] a fundamental correlation is established: on the one hand there are metaphysics of the object, or, more exactly, metaphysics of that never objectifiable depth from which objects rise up towards our superficial knowledge; and, on the other hand, there are philosophies that set themselves no other task than the observation of precisely that which is given to positive knowledge … [and] it is in the division between the unknowable depths and the rationality of the knowable that the positivisms will find their justification.
Man emerges from this general argument as an empirico-transcendental doublet, i.e., he conceives of himself as an object of knowledge and as a subject who can make claims of knowledge based on their possibility. This picture of man as a doublet comes from a historical investigation into the episteme of the modern age. This episteme makes man an object of study, and corresponds to Kant’s efforts to establish the subjective conditions of experience. Foucault’s historico-critical task (as he states in What is Enlightenment?) is to “give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, through a historical ontology of ourselves.” This has now been accomplished:
This entails an obvious consequence: that criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.
Like the members of the Frankfurt School, Foucault is concerned with historical and social realities that affect our view of the world. Like Kant, he is concerned with the limits of knowledge: “This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude.” Unlike Kant, however, Foucault finds the limits of knowledge in a set of historical circumstances, namely, the epistemic conditions for the possibility of making a claim of knowledge, and not in the limits of reason itself. Foucault’s place in the Enlightenment tradition, then, is based on his conception of philosophy as an investigation into the ways in which people see the world and thus make claims of knowledge within a specific historical period.
“The critical ontology of ourselves is not a theory, a doctrine or even a permanent body of gradually accumulating knowledge—it is an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life, in which the critique of what we are is also the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment in going beyond them.”
It is plausible to conclude that enlightenment in general, and moral action in particular, are possible not only through introspection and the cultivation of the transcendental self, but also through analysing epistemic conditions to see if they are in accord with enlightened thought and moral action.