Anthony Morgan: I was hoping you could begin by saying a few things about Foucault specifically as a philosopher, given that he is often seen more as an historian than a philosopher. Some would even argue that he is not a philosopher at all.
Béatrice Han-Pile: One of the key notions in Foucault’s early work is the historical a priori, which is an implicit reference to Kant and Husserl. It was this that started me looking into the relation between Foucault, Kant and Husserl. And the more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me that the notion of the historical a priori remains operative in Foucault’s later work, as ‘conditions of acceptability’, ‘regimes of truth’ or ‘problematisations’. I tried to trace these avatars of the historical a priori through various moments in Foucault’s thought, and realised that the best way to make sense of these concepts was to examine Foucault’s explicit or implicit dialogue with other philosophers, in particular Nietzsche (on whom he wrote directly) and Heidegger (whom he acknowledged in a late interview as the main philosophical influence on his work). So it is Foucault’s interest in the historical a priori, and the ways in which he used Nietzschean and Heideggerian ideas and methods to reinterpret the concept away from Kant and Husserl, which mark him as a philosopher. Even though he is clearly not a Kantian, he belongs to the critical tradition which starts with Kant.
There seem to be many elements of Foucault’s historical a priori that do not satisfy standard Kantian criteria for transcendental philosophy, e.g. it is not universal, not binding across all historical eras, and not even rooted in a transcendental subject. How much can you modify the Kantian framework before you eliminate it completely?
I think the key in this respect is the persistence in Foucault’s work of a particular approach that goes from the post hoc to the a priori: you start with a state of affairs, then you inquire into its conditions of possibility. Of course one could understand such conditions in a causal way: if I was to ask ‘what were the (causal) conditions of possibility on your existence?’, the obvious and most immediate answer would be your parents, their parents and so forth. But this is not Foucault’s approach: in his archaeological work he is not primarily interested in how things come to be, but rather in how they come to be known. He wants to analyse what he calls conditions of ‘acceptability’, conditions which are not causal but epistemic and normative: they are conditions of possibility on what can be legitimately known. So the relevant question for Foucault is not: ‘what are the causal conditions that resulted in the existence of X’ but rather ‘if X counts as knowledge, what are the epistemic conditions required for this to be the case?’
If you were a Kantian and X was experience, you would indeed seek to provide an answer that would be universal and necessary. You would move from the post hoc to a true a priori. Foucault has exactly the same movement from the post hoc to the a priori: he starts from a particular body of knowledge and asks something like, ‘What are the epistemic conditions under which this was considered knowledge at a given time, in a given geographical area?’ But while Kant wants to know the universal and necessary epistemic conditions under which all experience can be known, Foucault wants to know the contingent epistemic conditions under which particular discourses are (or have been) considered items of knowledge.
Please could you give an example of a specific body of knowledge that Foucault addresses?
In the context of The Order of Things, for example, Foucault is puzzled by the fact that the work of the naturalist Aldrovandi, preeminent during the Renaissance, could be summarily dismissed a century or so later by Buffon as ‘legenda’ (things to say), a heteroclite collection of observations, mythical tales, hearsay etc. Foucault holds that the reason for this radical change is a fundamental modification of the historical a priori so that something which was accepted as knowledge at a given time can be later rejected as not ‘in the true’ anymore: not even false, just not knowledge at all. During the Renaissance, to know something meant to spell out the very complex ways in which this thing was connected to other entities in the world (by analogy, resemblance, sympathy, antipathy etc.): and this is what Aldrovandi had done by weaving together all the sources he could find. By contrast, during the Classical age to know a thing meant to analyse it into its simplest elements, to recompose it logically and to find its place in the well-ordered space of the table (‘tableau’): it meant to identify and rank differences. The historical a priori of Sameness, as Foucault puts it, had been replaced that that of Difference. Consequently, building a complex network of resemblances was now seen as confused and confusing – hence Buffon’s rejection of Aldrovandi’s work from the field of knowledge.
The same interest for changes in what counts as knowledge drives Foucault’s early work on madness. He sees the Renaissance understanding of madness as characterised by a reversibility between reason and madness: King Lear is never as lucid and wise as when he is officially mad. And then you get to the Classical Age and madness is not the reverse of reason anymore, a form of inverted wisdom: it is unreason, the opposite of reason, it’s what happens when you lose reason – so you can’t be wise and mad, it’s just not possible anymore. And for us now madness is neither wisdom in disguise nor unreason but a medical category, a mental disorder for which one would seek therapeutic treatment.
So the key question for the early Foucault is something like: ‘Why did something count as knowledge at one point and not at another?’ And actually rather than ‘why’, which seems to invite the kind of causal answer which Foucault always tried to avoid, it’s more a question of how, of the epistemic conditions that need to be in place for something to be counted as knowledge at a particular time and place. That’s the transcendental inheritance in Foucault’s work.
What locates Foucault’s work within the post-Kantian transcendental inheritance is the thought that rather than explaining why things come into being causally, one must ask how it is possible for something to count as knowledge. This type of enquiry is a constant throughout Foucault’s work: he asks ‘how possible’ questions in relation to madness, in relation to what he calls ‘the medical gaze’ (he talks in the Birth of the Clinic of the a priori of medicine), about various bodies of discourse such as natural history or economics, about specific practices such as imprisonment, and in the late work about such concepts as sexuality or the self. The same questions persist: how was this or that understood? What conditions must be in place for it to be understood in that way? And how do we analyse these conditions without reading back into them (inasmuch as we can avoid it) our current understanding of the ‘same’ things? For example, how do you recover previous understandings of madness without reading back all you think you know about psychoanalysis, mental disorders, and so forth?
I THINK THAT WHAT DRIVES FOUCAULT'S ENQUIRIES IS A CONCERN FOR FREEDOM: IF YOU CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THE WAY YOU THINK, THEN YOU ARE IN A BETTER POSITION TO TRY TO DISENGAGE FROM YOUR OWN CONDITIONS OF INTELLIGIBILITY SO AS TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.
So where is the strong break with the Kantian framework?
It’s not so much on necessity, because Foucault does claim in The Order of Things that each historical a priori is necessarily binding when and where it holds sway. It is rather a question of scope: the historical a priori is only binding for a certain time and in a certain geographical area. What counts as knowledge is subject to historical change. That’s obviously a huge difference with Kant. Another huge difference with Kant is that for Foucault historical a priori themselves change, an idea which for Kant would have no meaning as by definition the a priori is immune to empirical change.
So a universal a-historical grounding for knowledge was seen by Foucault as impossible?
Yes, and not just impossible but also a pernicious thing to look for because it makes one blind to the contingency of history. By contrast, Foucault did believe that it is important to investigate historical epistemic conditions because otherwise we would be blind to the fact that what looks like the same concept, say madness, comes with very different understandings depending on the historical a priori considered. When he describes himself as a nominalist, Foucault goes so far as to deny that there are any fixed referents for concepts: for him madness is not something like a natural kind waiting to be picked out and given different conceptual understandings, some of which will be true and others, false. Rather, he is a constructivist: he thinks that at least some referents (such as ‘madness’ or ‘sexuality’) are constituted by the practices and concepts that are attached to it.
So, necessity in Foucault’s work – yes, but limited in scope; a-historicity – no; foundations in the Kantian sense – no, but still the Kantian inheritance of looking for epistemic conditions. Ultimately, I think that what drives Foucault’s enquiries is a concern for freedom: if you can understand what makes you think the way you think, then you are in a better position to try to disengage from your own conditions of intelligibility so as to think differently. That’s actually one of the things that drew me to Foucault in the first place – the preface to The Use of Pleasure where he describes his own project as trying to be ‘at the vertical of oneself’ (‘à la verticale de soi-même’), as learning how one thinks so that one can learn to think otherwise. Although you can never escape your historical a priori you can nonetheless borrow the eyes of another time or place, so to speak, through this archeo-genealogical work of tracing concepts back to the practices that gave rise to them: then you begin to acquire some emancipatory distance from your own concepts and practices.
I was hoping we could now turn to one of the most compelling aspects of Foucault’s work, and one which you have written about extensively, namely the transition from the Copernican revolution to the anthropological sleep. Foucault referred to the peril of an anthropology lurking within Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the peril of the birth of Man. Please can clarify what he means by this?
Perhaps the first thing worth clarifying is that in Foucault’s lingo ‘Man’ does not mean ‘human being’, a member of the species homo sapiens. That’s the mistake that Sartre made when he attacked the early Foucault as an anti-humanist. Conversely when Foucault speaks of the ‘death of Man’ at the end of The Order of Things he is not heralding some kind of mass extinction. For him ‘Man’ is a term of art: it means a particular configuration of the historical a priori which he calls the empirico-transcendental double. The way this configuration ties into the Copernican turn is this: the Copernican turn stemmed from a key idea which was (crudely put) that if you want to account for the possibility of knowledge you might have a better chance starting from the subject of knowledge rather than from its object(s). This key insight led Kant to investigate the conditions under which any empirical thing could be known, and he gave an answer in terms of the transcendental analysis of the faculties.
The way the Copernican turn worked was by distinguishing between two perspectives: empirical and transcendental. The empirical perspective yields the world as we know it, entities such as this chair here, or the objects that surround us in this office. By contrast, shifting to the transcendental perspective allows you to investigate the conditions under which such entities can be known: in the case of the chair, perceptual conditions (such as my perceiving the chair as being in time and space) and conceptual conditions (such as my perceiving this chair as a single extended object). For Kant you would also need to take into account the role of the imagination in relating perceptual to conceptual conditions but the upshot is that unless you distinguish between the two perspectives you can’t give empirical cognition a secure foundation.
In The Order of Things Foucault holds that the introduction of the empirico-transcendental distinction is at the heart of the Copernican turn. Per se this is not a particularly original claim. Now, that’s all very well, Foucault thinks, when it comes to objects like chairs, but there is one particular being that is problematic: the knowing subject, because it can occupy both perspectives. This is where ‘Man’ comes into play: contrary to the chair, Man is both an object in experience and a locus for transcendental conditions to instantiate themselves so that experience can be known. It is the only being that has this peculiar, dual structure. And because of the Copernican turn, Man, and not objects in the world, is now the necessary starting point for accounting for the possibility of knowledge.
Presumably Kant must have been aware of this and integrated this anomaly into his framework?
Yes, absolutely. He was keen to keep the two dimensions of Man separate. That’s why he distinguished between the noumenal self and the empirical ego: the empirical ego is a person’s character as given in experience, as an object for psychology, while the noumenal self is that same person considered from a transcendental perspective and therefore as a noumenal agent bound by the moral law. Kant distinguishes the two carefully. For Foucault, however, things go wrong both in Kant’s work and in the post-Kantian tradition. He thinks that in Kant the place where things go wrong is the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, which he points out was developed over thirty years, and so overlaps with the critical works.
Foucault claims that in fact the Anthropology undermines the Critique. Whereas the Critique of Pure Reason was written from a synchronic standpoint (or perhaps more aptly, from an a priori and thus non-chronological standpoint), the Anthropology is diachronic: it introduces a genetic perspective, asking for example about the emergence of the ‘spoken I’ in experience. Foucault holds that because of this genetic angle the two dimensions of Man as a transcendental subject and as an empirical object start to overlap and to merge. The newly appeared knowing subject is disclosed to itself as ‘already there’, pre-existing itself as an empirical object. And yet without the emergence of the knowing subject the very concept of an empirical object cannot make sense.
We can see the paradox here: as an empirical object, the subject pre-exists the transcendental framework; and yet without this transcendental framework the very idea of an empirical object is not intelligible. This circular movement is what Foucault starts analysing in his commentary to the Anthropology, and what he calls ‘the analytic of finitude’ in The Order of Things.
Can you explain more about the ‘analytic of finitude’?
Well, you have to look at it from both aspects of Man, transcendental and empirical: it’s not a one way ticket. If you look at the analytic of finitude from the transcendental perspective, the Kantian conditions of possibility of knowledge are (as we have seen) reinterpreted as a historical a priori. In chapter 9 of The Order of Things Foucault explains that since the end of the 18th century these conditions have formed a tripartite set: language, life, and labour, all instantiated in Man as the relevant historical a priori.
So it is only through language that you can know anything about anything because knowledge is discursive; it is only through life (understood broadly), through the fact that you have a perceiving body that you can get acquainted with the world, so the body is your interface with the world and the condition of possibility of your knowing the world; and it is only through labour in the sense of the economic conditions that shape your various understandings of things that you can know anything. So Man as a speaking, living and working being is in the post-Kantian historical a priori the condition of possibility of anything being given as an object of knowledge. From this ‘quasi-transcendental’ perspective, as Foucault puts it, Man’s finitude is not an obstacle to the possibility of knowing the world: it is reinterpreted as an epistemic condition of possibility on knowing the world. It is both limiting (because knowledge has to conform to it in order to count as knowledge) and enabling (because so long as it conforms to it knowledge is secure).
But now you’ve got to look at the other side of the analytic of finitude, the empirical side. Man is also an object within the very field that is opened up by the quasi-transcendental analysis of language, life and labour. So the body is not just your interface with the world, it is an empirical object that can be analysed through disciplines like biology, medicine and so forth; language does not provide an a-temporal conceptual framework so that you can get to grips with the world – it has a history, you’ve got different languages the evolution of which can be analysed and you can see how much a particular historical linguistic form will influence the way in which you think; and the same with labour – socio-historical conditions have their history, their laws, etc. From this empirical perspective, Man’s finitude appears as a set of contingent historical determinants which render any claims to universal and necessary knowledge vacuous.
So on the one hand, Man’s finitude is (in line with the Copernican turn) understood quasi- transcendentally, as a set of enabling epistemic conditions whereby the determinants of empirical finitude (life, language and labour) can be known; yet on the other hand these very determinants, now taken as the main forms of empirical finitude that bear on Man as an empirical object, puts causal constraints on transcendental finitude and so invalidate its foundational ambitions. Man’s duality turns against itself. This is why Foucault says (in very condensed form) that in the analytic of finitude, the (quasi-transcendental) forms under which Man learns that he is finite turn out to be (empirically) finite themselves. Consequently the analytic of finitude gives rises to futher paradoxes: On the one hand, it is through life, language and labour that Man can know the world, and without these forms knowledge would be impossible. Yet ‘as soon as’ Man starts knowing the world, the very conditions that allow him to know the world are disclosed as pre-dating him chronologically: life, language and labour are ‘already’ there, bearing upon him as an empirical entity. This is something which would have been radically impossible for the Kant of the Critique but which (according to Foucault) is introduced by the genetic perspective of the Anthropology and carries through most post-Kantian movements, in particular phenomenology.
So for Foucault 19th and 20th century thought is characterised by this circle whereby Man is both the epistemic condition of possibility of knowledge on the one hand, and a causally determined object within the epistemic field thus opened on the other. Without Man nothing can be known, but as soon as there is knowledge Man appears to itself as empirically pre-existing the very opening of the epistemic field, in a sort of paradoxical prehistory. Foucault thinks that this is a very pernicious structure. He remains agnostic on the question of whether the analytic of finitude was a necessary development of the Copernican revolution but he thinks that contingently this is the way that both Kant’s and then post-Kantian thought have unfolded. And because the analytic of finitude is inextricably linked to the figure of Man as both a giver of experience and given in experience, Foucault’s view is that you’ve got the slice through the Gordian knot – you’re not going to purify the figure of Man, you have to find another starting point.
And Foucault felt that this was a dominant structure in modern philosophy?
Yes, he felt that the historical a priori of Man is so dominant that its influence can’t even be seen, so reason stops being vigilant. Kant said that Hume woke him up from his dogmatic sleep, and this dogmatic sleep was basically that of rationalism spinning in the void. Along the same lines, I think that what Foucault means by the ‘anthropological sleep’ is that phenomenology in particular, which was at his time and remains one of the dominant movements on the continent, was put to sleep by the dominance of Man as a structure. The phenomenologists (Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in particular, perhaps with the exception of Heidegger) still carry on working in their anthropological sleep obviously, and refining both sides of the empirico-transcendental double more and more, but they are unable to gain – to go back to what we talked about earlier – this ‘vertical of oneself’ which gives you a chance to see what it is you are doing, and to start doing something else.
Could we say that Foucault’s later turn to the Greeks and the divorce of philosophy from spirituality – what he called ‘Cartesian moment’ in philosophy – were attempts to free himself from Man, the Analytic of finitude, Kant, the transcendental framework, and so on?
I wouldn’t say that. There are connections between the turn to spirituality and Foucault’s critique of Kant, of course, if only because the transcendental subject is a thoroughly de-spiritualised subject, but I don’t think that the turn to spirituality was directly motivated by Foucault’s critique of Kant. I also think that Foucault’s commitment to the critical tradition remained firm throughout his work. The main figure Foucault is opposing in his later work on spirituality is not Kant but Descartes, and what is now at stake is the relation between self-transformation and the ability to know the truth.
What Foucault calls ‘spirituality’ is a particular understanding of the relation between knowledge and the knowing subject according to which in order to be capable of knowing the truth, one has to transform oneself through ascetic practices. Truth is not given to you just by virtue of your being a human being with a mind: you have to make yourself worthy of it (for example by practicing meditation and the kind of exercises described by Xenophon in relation to Socrates, and later by the Stoa). You can’t be an appropriate subject of knowledge without undergoing a long and difficult ethical transformation.
By contrast, the reason why Descartes is painted by Foucault (somewhat unfairly in my view) as the villain of that particular story is that at the beginning of the Discourse on Method Descartes claims that anyone can be a subject of knowledge so long as they follow the appropriate method: ‘le bon sens est la chose du monde la mieux partagée’ (common sense is the most spread out thing in the world). You don’t need to transform yourself, you’re already equipped for knowledge: you just have to adopt the right heuristic tool. Foucault thinks that with Descartes spirituality begins to be ruled out as a pre-condition of knowledge while philosophy begins to be modelled on science, and something of great value is lost in this process: the idea of an intimate connection between who you are and what you write about, and the thought that unless you seek to understand the first then your comprehension of the second will remain superficial.
The extreme version of the Cartesian de-spiritualised subject, who sees knowledge as a readymade set of concepts and theories that anyone can assimilate without the need for self-knowledge and self-transformation, would be what Nietzsche calls ‘the scholar’: a disembodied researcher who endeavours to have no personal views, to achieve a third-person perspective on everything, who is obsessed with objectivity, and so forth – that’s the caricature.
Foucault opposes this Cartesian tradition which he feels has become both dominant and deleterious in philosophy, even though there are exceptions (he mentions Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard would be another good example). In his own writings he tries to revive spirituality as a requirement for philosophy, and to put into practice an understanding of what it means to be a philosopher that departs from the dominant scientific model: not to seek a disembodied, third person point of view on what there is to understand, but to express one’s character through one’s writings while seeking at the same time to be as self-aware of this expressive process as possible, through the movement of self-distance and critique we talked about earlier (striving to be ‘at the vertical’ of oneself). Foucault sees this return to spirituality as a return to an older tradition in which the connection between the thinker and their thought was a vital aspect of such thought (think of Augustine and the Confessions, for example): unless you do this transformative work on yourself you can’t see deep enough into what you are investigating.
CRITIQUE IS ABOUT UNDERSTANDING THE LIMITS OF WHAT YOU THINK, AND OF WHAT MAKES YOU THINK WHAT YOU THINK.
So is it fair to say that in his later work Foucault just threw out the critical tradition and felt that our best bet was to look back to the Ancient Greeks?
No, I think it’s completely the opposite actually. This is because there is a great emphasis in the later work on the notion of critique as a condition of possibility on an appropriately spiritual understanding of the knowing self, and more generally on freedom. In his later work Foucault brings together the emphasis on spirituality central to Ancient philosophy on the one hand, and the Kantian critical tradition on the other. He thinks that in order of to be a good philosopher you don’t just need to acquire a deeper understanding of the subject matter; you also need to acquire a deeper, reflective understanding of yourself as a subject of knowledge, and this is a matter of establishing a critical relation to both the historical conditions under which you write on the one hand, and to yourself and your own writing processes on the other.
Critique, both of the historical tradition and of the self that belongs to the latter, is the tool whereby the self-awareness central to spiritual practices can be developed. It is a powerful tool of self-transformation. This is where the later Foucault’s work links back to his early interest in the critical tradition and conditions of possibility of knowledge: for him critique is the reflective movement which allows you to be inasmuch as possible at the vertical of yourself by becoming aware both of your own thought processes and of the historical tradition you are immersed in, and of how the second shapes the first. It is what allows you, by looking at the difference between how you think and how people of the past thought, between how you think now and how you thought before, to acquire the self-knowledge and self-distance that are central to the practice of spirituality.
So is this a de-transcendentalized critique? A critique separated from the transcendental tradition?
No, because the interest in epistemic conditions, non-causal conditions of possibility of knowledge, remains. Foucault’s final trajectory is a movement that takes critique from a purely epistemic context and emphasises its ethical dimension and implications, both for the writer and for the reader of philosophy. Inquiring into the conditions of possibility of one’s own thought so as to learn how to think otherwise, to paraphrase Foucault, is not just something that a person who writes philosophy has to do in order to write better philosophy: it is also required from us all as readers if we are to understand the work of the writer appropriately, not just what is said but how and why it is said, and sometimes the discrepancies between the two. Like Nietzsche, Foucault seeks readers who ‘ruminate’, who are capable of using his writings to initiate the transformative work of critique on themselves in the process of trying to understand what he writes about.
So, Foucault’s understanding of critique in the later work is de-transcendentalized in the sense that it is not about conditions of possibility of knowledge in general, nor about securing a foundation for knowledge nor about universality. But he still takes critique to be about non-causal conditions of possibility on what you think and who you take yourself to be. Critique is about understanding the limits of what you think, and of what makes you think what you think. And even though you can never step out of your own skin and see what you think from the outside, focusing on the limits of your own thinking means focusing on the bits where you begin to feel that there might be something else you could say, or that there might actually be something else you are saying but you can’t see it clearly yet – this is what the patient work of critical self-distance is meant to enable you to do. For Foucault, that is the defining characteristic of freedom as the ability to see and disclose new life possibilities.
Béatrice Han-Pile is professor of philosophy at the University of Essex, specializing in the work of Foucault, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. She is the author of the highly influential Michel Foucault’s Critical Project: Between the Transcendental and the Historical.
This interview was originally published in The Kantian Catastophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, edited by Anthony Morgan, published by Bigg Books in 2017, and available for purchase here.